This month is still surprisingly full of low-budget, independent releases. July, on the other hand, is full of the block-busting digital fantasies we’ve come to expect over the summer. Let’s take a look at them, shall we? I’ll promise to be on my best behavior … most of the time.
The Amazing Spider-Man
The lowdown: This latest addition to the Spider-Man movie franchise finds an all-new Peter Parker tracking down his father, grappling with his superhuman identity and vying against the Lizard, while engaging in all manner of airborne theatrics.
Why see it: Comic-books reboots are always interesting. It’s fascinating to see a different riff on the familiar character, and in the case of the “Batman” franchise, Christopher Nolan resurrected a horse beaten to death by the insipid Joel Schumacher. Also, there’s no topping a cast that includes Martin Sheen, Emma Stone, Denis Leary and Campbell Scott, with Andrew Garfield landing the plum role of Spidey.
Why skip it: The first three Spider-Man movies by genre auteur Sam Raimi are well recognized as perhaps the classiest and most artistic comic-book trilogy of all-time. There may be nowhere to go but down. “Amazing Spider-Man” director Marc Webb created a cult classic three years ago with “(500) Days of Summer,” but can he handle an action blockbuster?
Katy Perry: Part of Me in 3D
The lowdown: This documentary explores the music and off-stage life of pop singer and tabloid target Katy Perry.
Why see it: I can think of two reasons: If someone paid you a lot of money—I’m thinking at least three digits—to see this film, it might be worth it. Or if the world was going to end, and the apocalypse could only be prevented by viewing “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” than you might consider it after some hesitation. Then again, doesn’t the very presence of this “documentary” indicate that the apocalypse is already upon us?
Why skip it: There has never been a longer two minutes and six seconds of my life than sitting through the trailer of this pandering hagiography. It’s bad enough we had Justin Bieber’s life foisted on us in three dimensions—oh, the hardships of being a multimillionaire music sensation!—but his movie looks like a paragon of verisimilitude next to this stunningly superficial fan pic.
The lowdown: Two marijuana dealers live the high life until their shared girlfriend is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel—kind of an occupational hazard, wouldn’t you say?—which leads to grisly warfare on the West Coast.
Why see it: Oliver Stone directed “Savages,” which is enough validation for most, and the powerful cast includes Benicio del Toro, John Travolta and Salma Hayek. With issues like the Mexican drug war and the legalization of pot on many Americans’ lips, it looks like Stone has touched on important issues once again.
Why skip it: Because, quite simply, I watched the trailer. In addition to giving too much away (including the critical stabbing of a central character), the trailer suggests that “Savages” is Stone at his loudest and most bombastic, a film that wouldn’t know the word “subtlety” if it were smoked from a joint or blasted from a gun.
To Rome With Love
The lowdown: Woody Allen’s latest foray into Europe follows the romantic misadventures of an interlocking ensemble of characters, both Italian and American, young and old, around Rome.
Why see it: Woody Allen’s name is usually enough to convince me, and he’s still riding high after the staggering success of “Midnight in Paris.” “To Rome With Love” is an independently produced, R-rated movie for adults, and it’s stocked with a mouthwatering cast, from Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig to Penelope Cruz, Robert Benigni, Alec Baldwin and Allen himself.
Why skip it: I should be clear: Woody Allen’s name used to be enough to convince me all the time, but since the dawn of the new millennium, he’s rotated minor gems with indefensible clunkers. Statistically speaking, the pattern might indicate a bomb around now.
The Dark Knight Rises
The lowdown: Here we have it, the granddaddy of all the 2012 summer movies. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy concludes with the Dark Knight emerging as shadowed antihero to battle Bane, a gruesome terrorist leader.
Why see it: If you want to be able to have a conversation with any of your friends and family the weekend of July 20, you’d better see this film, or else you’ll have absolutely nothing to add to any exchange of chitchat. This film looks positively stunning—a pitch-black, operatic blockbuster about our modern world, whose demolition of a football field is only the beginning. And the cast includes everybody who’s anybody.
Why skip it: Don’t. This doesn’t look like the kind of flick you should wait for home video to see. Yes, it’s missing Heath Ledger, of course, but it’s about time Bane, one of Batman’s toughest adversaries from the comic book series, finally received full credit on-screen.
Take This Waltz
The lowdown: In this independent drama, Michelle Williams plays a 28-year-old woman, married to Seth Rogen’s affable cookbook writer, who considers cheating with her new rickshaw-driving neighbor (Luke Kirby).
Why see it: “Take This Waltz” marks the second feature written and directed by accomplished actress Sarah Polley, who has a wonderful gift for working with actors and ferreting out the truth in a given scene. It looks like Rogen and Sarah Silverman, who plays Williams’ friend, have stepped out of their comedic comfort zones for some genuine Acting.
Why skip it: The simple will-she or won’t-she premise has more than a dollop of familiarity to it. This seemingly shopworn plunge into the affairs of the heart may come as a disappointment following Polley’s “Away From Her,” which featured a love triangle of a far more groundbreaking kind.
The lowdown: A group of four bone-headed guys form a suburban organization to combat extraterrestrial life in their neighborhood; high jinks ensue.
Why see it: It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the gifted voices who gave us “Pineapple Express” and “The Green Hornet,” both of whose merits can be debated but which were pretty terrific in my book. The mixed-bag cast includes Jonah Hill and Billy Crudup (nice!) and Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn (meh).
Why skip it: Needless to say, the term “neighborhood watch” has received something of a bad name in light of the George Zimmerman case, so it’s an inopportune time for a movie about one to hit theaters. But on a more substantive note, the trailer is screechingly unfunny, and the filmmaker, “SNL” director Akiva Schaffer, has only given us one feature: the uber-lame “Hot Rod.”
Step Up Revolution
The lowdown: In the fourth installment of the “Step Up” dance movie franchise, a flash mob takes Miami by storm, transforming from entertainers to protestors to battle a malicious real-estate developer.
Why see it: I’ve never seen any of the other “Step Up” movies, but damn if this film doesn’t look like one of the most fun summer entrees. It doesn’t hurt that it was shot entirely in South Florida, and that it stars “So You Think You Can Dance!” alum Kathryn McCorkmick, who looks absolutely smokin’.
Why skip it: In the end, revolutionary zeitgeist aside, this is still another “Step Up” movie, a dance spectacle that undoubtedly ranks choreographic finesse well above story or dialogue. But hey – guilty pleasures are still pleasures.
The lowdown: British director Michael Winterbottom helmed this revisionist take on Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles,” recasting the author’s sexually adventurous thriller in modern India, where a man and a women from different social classes begin a whirlwind romance.
Why see it: Winterbottom is a director of startling breadth and versatility, managing to make lemonade from the sourest of lemons. And the source material here is certainly no lemon.
Why skip it: It could just be the trailer bombarding us with clichés, but there’s a possibility that “Trishna” pulls more punches than it should, pandering occasionally to lowest-common-denominator instincts. But I would recommend catching this decidedly anti-summer movie.