In the decadent 21st century, the summer movie season now sprawls from March through December. (Star Wars: Episode VII is due to awaken the Force December 18; every prior Star Wars picture has come out Memorial Day weekend.) But I'll stick to tradition and call Memorial Day the start of summer, when the movies are optimized to lure vacationing schoolkids and Chinese ticket-buyers back for repeat exposures and no block is safe from potential bustage. The Age of Ultron, it's traditionally called.
Herewith, a dozen films arriving between now and Labor Day that we hope might offer something more than just reliable air conditioning. (The dates are for the films' national release, not necessarily when they'll show up in Dallas.)
Tomorrowland (May 22) — The plot particulars of this PG-rated retro-future fantasy remain opaque, thank goodness. It's got something to do with a teenage girl (Under the Dome's Britt Robertson, 23 when the film was shot) who discovers a key to a secret intradimensional city or some such created by George Clooney's reclusive scientist. But director Brad Bird made The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, so attention must be paid. Bird shares screenplay credit with Damon Lindelof, the Lost veteran who engaged in serial nerd-baiting with Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, all of which could've been worse but should've been better. Still, Bird is the word, as someone said. Probably André Bazin. Confidence: 70 percent.
Slow West (May 24) — This debut feature from writer-director John Maclean took the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which matters less than that it's a Western that stars Michael Fassbender as a gunslinger hired for protection by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is crossing 1870s North America looking for his unrequited love (Caren Pistorius). Maclean previously made two shorts with Fassbender, Pitch Black Heist and Man on a Motorcycle. With Ben Mendelsohn and Rory McCann in the cast, that's at least three actors who appear incapable of dull performances. Early reviews have noted the sparse dialogue and flourishes of absurdity, and it runs a lean 84 minutes. Sounds like an ideal tonic for pixel fatigue and building-smashing bloat. Confidence: 80 percent.
Love & Mercy (June 5) — On the heels of last summer's overlooked James Brown portrait Get On Up, here's a study of a musical genius of the same era more dysfunctional than Soul Brother No. 1 ever was: Beach Boy Brian Wilson. He's played by Paul Dano in the 1960s, while toiling on his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and John Cusack in the 1980s, when he was under the sway of manager, collaborator, alleged ghostwriter and predatory psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy eventually had his license revoked and was legally barred from any contact with Wilson. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, the woman who helped drag Wilson out from under Landy's thumb. Screenwriter Oren Moverman penned the experimental Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, so we know he doesn't revere the boomer music gods too much to do anything interesting with them. Many who caught this at last year's Toronto International Film Festival found it to be another successful evasion of the clichés that often sink movies about popular musicians. Confidence: 65 percent.
Inside Out (June 19) — Betting against a Pixar joint is like telling Han Solo the odds. This one, from Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, is about the five anthropomorphized emotions that live inside a young girl, each with its own voice — Amy Poehler as Joy, Lewis Black as Anger, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Seth Rogen as Sloth, and so on. (OK, I made that last one up.) Real talk: The first trailer was painful — hacky, sexist stuff about how men just want women to shut up about the trash and the toilet seat and let them watch sports. But if trailers were movies, Zack Snyder would be Stanley Kubrick. Docter and Pixar have earned our faith. Confidence: 70 percent.
Terminator: Genisys (July 1) — his other post-office comeback efforts having tanked, the 67-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger turns again to the time-travel-and-malignant-A.I. franchise that provided his most enduring catchphrase. Director Alan Taylor made Thor: The Dark World and a half-dozen Game of Thrones episodes. Emilia Clarke is the second GoT alumna to step into waitress-turned-soldier Sarah Connor's BDUs, while Jason Clarke (no relation) is the fourth guy to play resistance general John Connor in the last four films. The trailers have already given away that this installment will reshape the events of the series' sainted James Cameron-helmed entries — and spoiled other seemingly huge plot points, too. (Not why the Bible and the band both spelled "genisys" wrong, though.) I want to see The Terminator restored to the fullness of its Cameron-era tech-panic glory more than anyone, but this has more than a whiff of desperation about it. Confidence: 40 percent.
Magic Mike XXL (July 1) — Magic Mike's $114 million domestic haul in 2012 represented a little more than 16 times the male-stripper drama's thrifty budget, so to abjure a follow-up would be to spit in the face of mathematics. You don't leave money on the table in this economy, a subject the original movie addressed with admirable finesse. (Just to be clear, XXL is the second entry in the MMCU, not the 30th, but greasy abs are a growth industry.) Original director Steven Soderbergh insists he's done making features; his replacement, Gregory Jacobs, has worked as an assistant director on almost every production in Soderbergh's mile-long filmography. Then again, Channing Tatum's Magic Mike said he was retiring, too. The follow-up, wherein the bronzed, waxed Kings of Tampa reunite for a strip-off in Myrtle Beach, has reconvened the original cast (save for Matthew McConaughey) while adding Jada Pinkett Smith, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover and Andie MacDowell to the supporting cast. Confidence: 50 percent.
Trainwreck (July 17) — Judd Apatow directed, but star Amy Schumer wrote the script for this rom-com, wherein Schumer's hard-partying anti-monogamist falls for sports doc Bill Hader. Colin Quinn plays her dad and LeBron James plays himself. It absolutely killed at South by Southwest; here's hoping it radiates the same sexism-detonating sensibility that makes Schumer's Comedy Central show so uproariously refreshing. Confidence: 70 percent.
Mr. Holmes (July 17) — Sir Ian McKellen re-teams with Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon for this adaptation of Mitch Cullin's mystery novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, about a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes feeling his incomparable mind wither in the years after World War II. The always-welcome Laura Linney is on hand as his housekeeper. At the tender age of 75, McKellen is almost a generation younger than the famed "consulting detective" he's playing, but it's a good bet the six-time Laurence Olivier Award winner can make up the difference via whatchacallit. Acting. Confidence: 75 percent.
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Southpaw (July 24) — Jake Gyllenhaal's bug-eyed performance in Nightcrawler anointed him as one of our most volatile leading men. Here he plays a boxer who loses his family — it's Rocky AND Kramer vs. Kramer! — in a melodrama written by Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy. None of director Antoine Fuqua's other pictures have made good on the promise of Training Day, but they always look terrific, and Gyllenhaal will have put in the hard work to make himself credible as a fighter, like Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis before him. How can it be that the serene, pug-nosed Forest Whitaker has never played a grizzled fight trainer before now? The boxing melodrama is a sturdy genre, and it's been too long since the last. Confidence: 60 percent.
The End of the Tour (July 31) — Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies adapts David Lipsky's 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about the five-day road trip Lipsky took with David Foster Wallace while profiling the Infinite Jest author for Rolling Stone. Jessie Eisenberg plays Lipsky while Jason Segel sheds his gangly goofball persona to embody Wallace, with The Spectacular Now's James Ponsoldt behind the camera. If that all sounds a little highfalutin, so be it. No one is stopping you from buying a ticket for Ted 2. Confidence: 75 percent.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (July 31) — Nineteen years into his joyfully acrobatic spy series, will Ethan Hunt — producer/star Tom Cruise's cliff-hanging, Burj Khalifa-scaling, Airbus A400M-clinging alter ego — get bit by a radioactive character actor and develop a personality? I sure hope not. Each Mission has come from a different, distinct director; this time it's Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, wrote and directed Cruise's underperforming-but-great Christmas 2012 counter-programmer Jack Reacher, and script-doctored last summer's underperforming-but-great Edge of Tomorrow. The series has never suffered a lack of smart quips or jaw-dropping, CGI-unassisted stunts — a Cruise hallmark — and this one adds the great Alec Baldwin as some kind of politico scheming to shut down the Impossible Mission Force. You already know that's really 52-year-old Cruise on the side of that real airplane 5,000 feet off the real ground, so what else can I tell you? Only that Simon Pegg is much funnier than Tyrese Gibson. Prediction: the fastest, furiousest, least-pixelated studio action picture of 2015. Confidence: 85 percent.
Straight Outta Compton (August 14) — F. Gary Gray, who in the '90s collaborated with Ice Cube on the classic "It Was a Good Day" music video and the beloved Friday, brings us The Ballad of N.W.A., with Cube's own son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., starring as his dad, and Corey Hawkins — who played Tybalt in the 2013-14 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet — as Dr. Dre. Plus you get Short Term 12's Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg. The trailer certainly paints this as the more conventional-looking of the two music biopics on this list, but it's also the more necessary. Fingers crossed. Confidence: 55 percent.