By STEVE PERSALL | Times Movie Critic
Hollywood shapes summer blockbusters like sand castles, with imagination, care and good intentions. Then a wave of public indifference and critical heat can wash it to ruin. Just ask The Lone Ranger. Showing little regard for calendars, Hollywood jumped the big guns of summer with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 recently and Godzilla this week. That's okay, because there are plenty of coming attractions to lure moviegoers out of the free sunlight and into the $12 dark. We're highlighting 20 summer movies that will clamor loudest for your attention. Half are solid bets to end up among the season's highest grossers. The other half, not so fast. They may be great entertainment but something in their makeup is amiss. As always, release dates are subject to change, although summer is traditionally locked in. Choose your movies as wisely as your sunscreen, and don't forget to hydrate.
Made in the shade
Some movies are money in the bank. They could be modestly budgeted comedies or mega-financed fantasies, but turning big profits is a foregone conclusion. These 10 can't-miss projects will show a high rate of return, on the ledger sheet and in theater seats.
May 23 Marvel superheroes, no matter what studio's universe, sell tickets. Even a recent lawsuit accusing director Bryan Singer of sexual misconduct with a minor isn't hurting box office projections. An intriguing time-flip plot allows first-trilogy mutants (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen) to mix with their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender) with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine snarling on the side. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is cobalt blue icing on the cake.
June 6 Groomed as the next great movie romance, this adaptation of John Green's bestselling YA novel concerns lovestruck teenagers also stricken with cancer. Not exactly summer escapism, but devoted readers can't wait to weep for Hazel (Divergent's Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), facing uncertain futures with unconventional wit. The Notebook, with little heart doodles.
June 13 Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill's first shift as undercover cops was refreshingly aware of why it shouldn't work, which is why it did. Now they've graduated from busting high school crime to college crime. Hill's a better bet to gain the "freshman 15." Tatum doesn't need to be concerned with that pesky age of consent.
June 13 Why did it take four years for a Toothless sequel? Because nobody figured the original would top $217 million in ticket sales. Worth the wait for Universal since HTTYD2 is practically unchallenged in the animation game this summer. (Sorry, Planes: Fire & Rescue, but you're no competition.) Eat up, kids.
June 20 See what they did there? Using "Too" instead of "2" since this is a sequel playing by its own book, written by Steve Harvey. Comedy firebrand Kevin Hart gets top billing this time around, after his meteoric rise since the original. Expect more romantic misunderstandings, produced by St. Petersburg's own Will Packer, one of Hollywood's hottest producers.
June 27 Michael Bay makes things go boom. Add Mark Wahlberg to the combustion. Cash registers overflow. Wahlberg plays a mechanic shocked when an 18-wheeler he's restoring turns into a giant Autobot, setting government agents and Decepticons on their trail. Reportedly darker in tone than previous episodes, and dumping Shia LaBeouf doesn't hurt.
July 2 Regardless of Cameron Diaz's success (see Sex Tape), the funniest woman in movie comedies these days is Melissa McCarthy, whose take-no-prisoners persona regularly lifts so-so material. This road trip comedy co-starring Susan Sarandon and co-written by McCarthy and her husband, director Ben Falcone, should be up to her level.
July 11 Continuing the saga of Caesar, hyper-smart leader of a genetically evolved simian society. The virus wiping out humans missed Gary Oldman's crew, so that means trouble down the line. As Caesar, Andy Serkis offers more evidence that motion capture performances should be eligible for Oscars.
July 25 Coolest single moment in a summer movie trailer? When that snarling CGI lion takes a slo-mo leap off a rock toward the Rock, or Dwayne Johnson as he prefers to be called when acting in movies. This is perfect pectoral casting, and a chance for Johnson to finally put that Scorpion King folly behind him.
July 25 Who's the most bankable woman in movies these days? The answer may be Cameron Diaz, last year's flop The Counselor notwithstanding. The Internet Movie Database lists Diaz at No. 13 all time in total box office receipts — mostly from Shrek flicks — making her the highest-ranked woman on the list. Her name and this title are enough to make this a hit.
Sweating it out
Several big stars, studios and brands have uphill economic battles this summer, bucking downward trends, huge budgets and/or suspect appeal. These 10 are the likeliest to fall short of box office expectations, at a time of year when breaking even isn't good enough.
May 23 Adam Sandler misses the good old days when his name alone guaranteed box office success. So, he's last-ditching with also-past-her-prime Drew Barrymore, a decade after 50 First Dates and longer since The Wedding Singer. They play single parents and blind date casualties meeting again on an African safari vacation with their kids. The trailer looks excruciatingly stupid, and faintly insulting to African culture and moviegoers in general.
May 30 Seth MacFarlane resurrects the wild west spoofery of Blazing Saddles, after making a plush toy talk dirty in Ted. That hit had Mark Wahlberg going for it. This one boasts a cast appearing ready to offend, including Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris and Sarah Silverman. The red band trailer shows outrageous promise but this feels like a cult, not crossover, success.
May 30 Disney's summertime bread and butter is vacationing children, some of whom will be frightened away by the dark vibe of this Sleeping Beauty spinoff. Angelina Jolie, despite her noble causes and tabloid celebrity, simply isn't all that bankable. Jolie plays the stone-hearted fairy cursing a princess (Elle Fanning) into eternal sleep. With a reported budget of $200 million, and millions more spent on marketing, this may be the summer's signature misfire.
June 6 Over the past decade, carrying a blockbuster has been Tom Cruise's impossible mission except for Mission: Impossible movies. This one is another futuristic action flick, like last year's Oblivion, which is where that sci-fi misfire ended up. Cruise plays a soldier forced to relive the same fatal day over and over, making Edge of Tomorrow the brutal Groundhog Day sequel nobody needs.
June 20 Talk about risky scheduling. Clint Eastwood's version of the Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is everything summer blockbusters typically aren't. A nostalgic story, doo-wop ditties and an R rating chase away the youth market. The cast is largely unknown except for Christopher Walken, who, cool as he is, won't sell tickets. Jersey Boys seems tailored for end-of-year awards but apparently isn't good enough for that positioning.
July 18 The creative team that wasted our time with Cloud Atlas returns with Channing Tatum sporting Spock ears as the genetically engineered protector of a budding space princess (Mila Kunis). Writers-directors Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski are visionaries considered too strange for mainstream appeal. Frenetic trailers for Jupiter Ascending don't dispel that impression.
Aug. 1 Marvel spins its superheroes galaxy in a perilous direction, featuring some of the comic book empire's oddest, least-known characters. Chris Pratt (The Lego Movie) leads a motley space crew including a sharpshooter raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and a tree sounding like Vin Diesel. There's a link to the Avengers saga through an end credits tease in Thor: The Dark World. Not enough to make this a must-see.
Aug. 8 The '80s icons get the Michael Bay treatment, all CGI mayhem and mindless collateral damage. Online opinions about their return is decidedly mixed, and there's a fantasy glut by mid August, anyway. Megan Fox made nice with Bay, whom she once compared to Adolf Hitler, stepping in as TV news reporter April O'Neil. The turtles' 21-year absence from the screen won't make hearts grow fonder.
Aug. 15 Aging action heroes creakily kicking butt was fun the first time around. Then the gimmick wore thin, and now it seems downright pathetic. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger call in younger studs for backup but the movie's plot hinges on appearances by Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. Not exactly magnets for moviegoers these days.
Aug. 22 The hyper-stylized underworld of 2005's Sin City ranks among modern cinema's most striking visual achievements. Yet the story's lurid nature, laced with torture, sadism and pedophilia, turned off some viewers. The sequel co-directed by Robert Rodriguez isn't likely to go soft on audiences, and disturbing works of art are tough sells in the summertime.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.