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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

predicting the summer’s sleeper hits

The calendar may think it’s still spring, but the summer movie season got underway with Spider-Man 3 a few weeks ago, and it revs up this weekend with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And no one needs a crystal ball to predict that those two flicks — as well as Harry Potter 5, The Simpsons, Big Dumb Movie About 80s Toys Every Nostalgic Xer Will See Twice, The Return of John McClane, and every other franchise, sequel, prequel, and flick otherwise presold on name recognition alone — will make more money than God has in his Orange account.

Harder is predicting which films that don’t come presold will break out and strike a cord with audiences to the tune of hundreds of millions of bucks… and sometimes only tens of millions is enough to qualify as a smash for a little film that cost only $1.98 to produce.

Of course, by definition the hits that one no one saw coming are the ones we don’t see coming, but here are my guesses for the little-films-that-could that we’ll be looking back on come September with a mix of surprise and awe.

First, the easy ones. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry [opens wide July 20], Superbad [opens wide August 17], and Balls of Fury [opens wide August 31] are almost guaranteed to earn back at least double their budgets, because stupid movies foul with toilet humor and stinking with the juvenile male fear of Teh Gay cannot miss. So I’ll just start holding my nose now and prepare myself for the onslaught.

Second, the almost-as-easy ones. Ratatouille [opens wide June 29], the latest — and quite charming looking — animated flick from the can’t-miss Pixar folks, and Mr. Bean’s Holiday [opens wide August 24], more sweet adventures from the very funny Rowan Atkinson’s manchild, will have wide, wide appeal. Kids will love ’em because they’re silly, families will love them because they’ll be something everyone can enjoy, and movie geeks will love them because, well, it’s Pixar and it’s Rowan “Blackadder” Atkinson. The Pixar flick should break $150 million without a sweat, and if it’s good enough, it could break $200 million.

Now for the far less certain films. Waitress [now playing in limited release, expands May 25] is utterly wonderful, and if it doesn’t crest early and then get lost in the rest of the summer onslaught, we could be talking not just major box office but major watercooler appeal and even an Oscar nom or two. (Murdered writer/director Adrienne Shelly is sure to get a posthumous nod for Best Original Screenplay, not just because the film is so lovely but also out of sympathy.) Nice soft sweet girlie flicks are a good general bet for counterprogramming superhero/blockbuster/geek madness, so other potential gals-outta-nowhere are the soccer-playing Gracie [opens wide June 1], the mystery-solving Nancy Drew [opens wide June 15], and the novel-writing Becoming Jane [opens in limited release August 3, expands August 10]. If I were a bet-placing gal, I’d put money on Jane as the most likely breakout after Waitress for its star, Anne Hathaway, who’s finally growing out of kid stuff to become an engaging screen presence; its subject, Jane Austen, and find me a gal who doesn’t love Jane Austen; and its indie-style costume-romance appeal.

Black comedy, with its quirky, smart-alecky charm, is also a good way to counteract slick big-studio blandness. Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral [opens in limited release June 29, expands July 4] looks like Four Weddings and a Funeral without the weddings and with a healthy dose of British-flavored snark, and the cast includes cult faves Peter Dinklage, Matthew Macfadyen, and Alan Tudyk. Fido [opens in limited release June 15, expansion unknown] is a zombie satire on conformity and paranoia, and it’s fun stuff. Black Sheep [opens in limited release June 22, expansion unknown] is kinda Evil Dead in New Zealand. Penelope [opens wide August 17] is about a pig-nosed girl played by Christina Ricci; the flick looks to have a Tim Burton sheen to it. Funeral is likely to have the widest release, so that’s probably the best bet in this category to break out.

The straight-up horror Joshua [opens in limited release July 6, expansion unknown] will probably scare up decent business with its Littlest Serial Killer tale of a murderous gradeschooler. But I’m guessing the most likely sleeper hit of them all this summer will be a real-life horror story: Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko [opens wide June 29], about the appalling state of health care in the United States. If even half of the 47 million people without health insurance in this country show up for this one, it’ll earn something like $175 million. And that’s nothing to sneeze at …

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  • MBI

    I’m not so certain about Ratatouille. I mean, granted, it’s Pixar, and it’s the biggest kid’s movie of the summer, yes… but something about that trailer doesn’t exactly scream broad appeal to me. Plus, it’s called Ratatouille.

  • I agree with MBI. Ratatouille looks like it could be fun, and Pixar is still the best of the computer animation studios because I think they put the most effort into coming up with good stories… but I’m just not sensing the buzz around this movie that we had for Cars or The Incredibles or Finding Nemo or the first two Shrek films (I know, different studio).

    I really should ask my sister if my 5-year-old nephew knows anything about Ratatouille… for a while there, his vocabulary consisted mostly of the words “Buzz!”, “Nemo!”, and “Shrek!”

  • MaryAnn

    I’m just not sensing the buzz around this movie

    That’s what’ll make it a sleeper… maybe. :->

  • Does that count, though? It’s a Pixar film, so by definition it’s expected to do huge business.

    For me, a sleeper would be a movie like Little Miss Sunshine or Memento, a movie that had little or no advance buzz and no real expectation of doing big business and yet did really well. If Ratatouille succeeds, to me it’s just living up to expectations; if it fails, then it’s a dud.

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, it’s Pixar, but it’s an original story — it’s not a sequel or based on a kids book or anything like that. So it’s somewhere in between.

    I do say in the original posting that it’s an easy call to say the film will do well.

  • Gloria

    But the title is French. Try convincing millions of American parents to tell the ticket office they want four for “ra … ta … tooooo … ill …. lee?”

  • MaryAnn

    There’s a pronunciation guide to the word right under the title on the posters for the film. I don’t think the title is going to be a problem.

  • MaryAnn,

    I know you’re dreading it (according to your front page at least), but I think ‘Knocked Up’ stands a chance of being a really big hit. It’s going to come with a certain amount of hype, considering the success of ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin etc’, and I know it’s not exactly a small budget thing. But I can see it sitting in the charts for a very long time and earning a considerable amount of money.

    And I also have a sneaking suspicion that ‘Die Hard 4’ might be a critical and commercial disappointment. I’m a huge fan of the original films, but this really doesn’t look like it’s cut from the same mould.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, yes, *Knocked Up* is certain be a huge hit, because even most grownups are not grown up and anything having to do with sex and pregnancy must therefore be a source of terror and humiliation comedy.

  • JoshDM

    Don’t let her get to you, David. I’m all prepped to watch “Knocked Up”; even “knocked up” one of my own to prep for it! =-)

  • >>even “knocked up” one of my own to prep for it! =-)

  • MaryAnn

    even “knocked up” one of my own to prep for it! =-)

    *sigh*

    When I review the movie, I shall complain about how pop culture infantilizes men, but I guess Hollywood’s depiction of men is not too far from reality.

    *sigh*

    This is why I’m not married.

  • Whatever.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not looking forward to seeing “Knocked Up” either. And last time I checked, I was a heterosexual male.

    There are probably some good movies to be made on this subject but this doesn’t seem like one of them. Indeed, this seems like little more than a very immature male wish-fulfullment fantasy. Guy who is not particularly handsome, clever or rich manages to talk a beautiful woman into not only having sex with him but raising his kid to boot. I know I sound like a traitor to my gender in saying this, but who exactly are we supposed to root for in this scenario? Stupid clueless guy who knows nothing about dealing with kids or women or silly clueless woman who apparently knows nothing about liquor or birth control?

    As much as I’d like to see another member of the “Freaks and Geeks” cast become successful, I’d just as soon not see it happen with this film.

    As for “Ratatouille”:

    Two words: “Flushed Away.”

    Okay, more words: if a bright clever movie like “Flushed Away” can flunk out at the box office despite being distributed by a major studio (Dreamworks) and despite being funnier than almost any other animated film I saw last year, then there’s no way that “Ratatouille” can be that certain a success.

    It would be nice to think otherwise though.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m not looking forward to seeing “Knocked Up” either. And last time I checked, I was a heterosexual male.

    Hoorah!

    There are probably some good movies to be made on this subject but this doesn’t seem like one of them.

    Exactly. There’s a good movie to be made out of almost *any* idea — unfortunately, Hollywood hardly ever actually makes that good movie.

    Indeed, this seems like little more than a very immature male wish-fulfullment fantasy. Guy who is not particularly handsome, clever or rich manages to talk a beautiful woman into not only having sex with him but raising his kid to boot.

    I wouldn’t call the film a male-wish-fulfillment. He doesn’t talk her into anything. She’s just a stupid bint, and he’s just an overgrown child who needs a stupid bint to make him “grow up.” Which makes me want to throw up.

    I know I sound like a traitor to my gender in saying this

    No, you’re not being a traitor to your gender at all, no more than I am being a traitor to my gender in wondering what the fuck is wrong with women. There’s nothing traitorous in wanting people to act like the grownups they supposed are. And there’s nothing traitorous in wondering what the hell is wrong with American culture that we don’t expect people to grow the fuck up.

    but who exactly are we supposed to root for in this scenario? Stupid clueless guy who knows nothing about dealing with kids or women or silly clueless woman who apparently knows nothing about liquor or birth control?

    You make my point, sir!

    As much as I’d like to see another member of the “Freaks and Geeks” cast become successful, I’d just as soon not see it happen with this film.

    Yes. Seth Rogen has an undeniable charm, but this movie does not show it off as best it might.

    As for “Ratatouille”:

    Two words: “Flushed Away.”

    Oooo. Yes, I loved that film too, and it was mostly ignored. *sigh*

  • Ah, just remembered what film I really think will be this summer’s sleeper… as in, virtually no one has heard of it, but I think it will do pretty well:

    Sunshine

    Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Alex Garland, and starring Cillian Murphy… they worked well together on 28 Days Later, and from what I’ve heard, Sunshine is some actual intelligent “hard” SF. I’m looking forward to it.

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