Skip the Blockbusters: Your Alternative Summer Movie Viewing Guide

Summer movie season kicks off Friday with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, opening the floodgates for four months of lame dialogue, overdone CGI and eardrum-shattering explosions. There are plenty of aspiring tent-poles out there, but in case they turn out to be terrible, it would be nice to have a backup plan for all the summer's biggest event movies. That's where this preview comes in: For each major summer release, I'm going to propose a satisfying alternative you'll be glad to have paid money for. Skip the blockbusters—see these instead.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)
Why you'll probably see it: Because you saw the last one. Because you like Andrew Garfield as the angst-ridden Peter Parker.

What you should see instead: The 2007 British drama Boy A was Garfield's coming-out party, a career-launching film about a twentysomething released from prison after killing a classmate when he was only a kid. The movie perfectly encapsulates Garfield's sensitive intensity, which he's used to such great effect in Never Let Me Go, The Social Network and the Spider-Man movies.

Godzilla (May 16)
Why you'll probably see it: Dude, it's a monster laying waste to civilization.

What you should see instead: The Godzilla remake might be amazing, but it's unlikely it'll be as scary and smart as The Host, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's brilliant 2006 monster movie in which a horrifying creature terrorizes the citizens of Seoul. Beyond delivering the expected levels of mayhem, Bong also manages to weave a family drama, political commentary and a pro-environment message into the mix. Few recent disaster films have been this intense while at the same time subtly spoofing the conventions of the monster movie. (And if you have seen The Host, you're probably excited that Bong's latest film, the trippy post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, will be out June 27.)

Blended (May 23)
Why you'll probably see it: Because it's the big family movie with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore opening Memorial Day weekend.

What you should see instead: Despite his rep as America's zany imbecile, Sandler has been best when he's playing the hapless would-be boyfriend. Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson pushed him to unimagined heights with the idiosyncratic romantic drama Punch-Drunk Love, but in mainstream mode, Sandler's never been better than in The Wedding Singer, the 1998 romantic comedy in which he plays the titular goofball who strikes up a friendship with a waitress (Barrymore) while mourning the end of his long-term relationship. When The Wedding Singer came out, it was viewed as Sandler's attempt to change his juvenile Billy Madison/Happy Gilmore persona in order to prove himself as a viable date-night attraction. The strategy succeeded, but only up to a point: The film demonstrated Sandler's sweetness and broadened his appeal, but too often since he's stuck to lowest-common-denominator crap.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)
Why you'll probably see it: You love the X-Men. Or, you love any of the myriad stars in this edition: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart.

What you should see instead: Comic book movies are our future for years to come—Marvel has releases planned through 2028—but that doesn't mean we have to exist on a staple of Batman/Superman/Wolverine/Iron Man. 1990's Darkman remains one of the best, in part because it was an original idea, not based on some decades-old mythology. Long before he became Hollywood's ass-kicker du jour, Liam Neeson played the titular antihero: a mild-mannered scientist who becomes a Phantom of the Opera-esque vigilante after being horribly burned during a break-in at his lab. Director Sam Raimi subverted the comic-book film the same way that he previously skewered horror conventions with his Evil Dead series. A few years later, Raimi went mainstream with the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, but Darkman is the greater, weirder achievement.

Edge of Tomorrow (June 6)
Why you'll probably see it: Because, for some reason, you're sticking with Tom Cruise.

What you should see instead: I've just started the book from which Edge of Tomorrow is based, All You Need Is Kill, but so far it's pretty involving. Writer Hiroshi Sakurazaka envisions a Groundhog Day-like war drama in which a young soldier, Keiji Kiriya, dies on the battlefield, only to discover that he's been given some sort of cosmic do-over, allowing him to restart the day and try to keep from getting killed. The book marries a coming-of-age narrative to a commentary on the insanity of war, making it something of a futuristic Red Badge of Courage. The film's trailer looks promising, but considering that Cruise is no kid—he turns 52 a month after Edge of Tomorrow opens—it'sdefinitely not going to be exactly like the book. Whether it'll be as good remains to be seen.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (June 27)
Why you'll probably see it: Because you'll see literally any movie with robots.

What you should see instead: Every Transformers movie has been atrocious, and even if the likeable Mark Wahlberg has taken over for the departed Shia LaBeouf, that doesn't change the fact that this latest sequel will stink as well. If cool robots are your criterion, though, go with The Black Hole, Disney's 1979 attempt to cash in on the Star Wars fad. A deep-space crew comes across a vessel that's been missing for years—when they board the ship, they find out what happened, to their horror. A sci-fi/action-adventure/disaster film, The Black Hole is a lovable late-1970s relic highlighted by its inventive effects, especially its live-action robot characters: the loyal V.I.N.CENT, the lovably crotchety Old B.O.B. and the silent killing machine Maximilian. All of them have more personality and dramatic range than Optimus Prime and his lumbering buddies.

Tammy (July 2)
Why you'll probably see it: Melissa McCarthy was funny in Bridesmaids.

What you should see instead: First, let's give props to Tammy, which is one of the few movies this summer to star a woman and be based on an original screenplay. (That's like spotting two unicorns.) But its premise—down-on-her-luck Tammy (McCarthy) takes to the open road with her wacky grandma (Susan Sarandon)—made me wonder what the greatest road-trip comedy of all time is. (The great It Happened One Night doesn't count since it's more of a romantic comedy.) I'm sticking with Midnight Run, which opened in July 1988 and proved that two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro could be a viable comic actor. (Though maybe that wasn't for the best: Those Fockers sequels are soul-killing.) He and Charles Grodin are excellent as, respectively, a bounty hunter and his target. Midnight Run was directed by Martin Brest, who like with his Beverly Hills Cop demonstrated a talent for mixing comedy and action that Hollywood hasn't shown much of a knack for since.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)
Why you'll probably see it: Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of 2011's summer surprises, and this one promises to have a lot more action.

What you should see instead: Dawn's hook is its man-versus-monkey showdown as humanity fights to stave off extinction. If the movie doesn't deliver the goods, though, we've already got a great sci-fi movie about vicious creatures laying waste to Earth. That would be 1997's Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoeven's satire of fascism and hawkish foreign policy populated with frighteningly giant killer bugs and intentionally dimwitted human characters straight from Beverly Hills 90210. On the surface, Starship Troopers plays like a shoot-'em-up action movie, but underneath, Verhoeven is mocking Americans' susceptibility to blatant appeals to their patriotism. (The parodies of recruitment ads aren't that far removed from the rah-rah spirit that six years later led to the invasion of Iraq.) In Dawn, humanity's fate hangs in the balance: In Starship Troopers, Verhoeven slyly asked if we were even worth preserving.

Planes: Fire and Rescue (July 18)
Why you'll probably see it: Other than How to Train Your Dragon 2, there's not much this summer that's animated.

What you should see instead: With each passing year, The Iron Giant looks more and more like a classic, even though at the time of its release it was a commercial dud. This 1999 summer offering is the brainchild of director Brad Bird, who had previously worked on The Simpsons and went on to helm The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Set in the 1950s, the movie tells the story of a young boy who befriends an alien robot that the U.S. governmentwants to capture. The Iron Giant is more than a cartoon E.T.: It's a simple, powerfully emotional tale about acceptance, sacrifice and (most importantly) pacifism that stands in stark contrast to a lot of stimulation-overload kids' films. The Iron Giant sank like a stone at the box office, but those who saw the movie loved it—a fact backed up by it placing in the Top 10 of a recent Time Out poll of the all-time greatest animated films.

The Expendables 3 (August 15)
Why you'll probably see it: It's old guys you love blowing shit up.

What you should see instead: The Expendables helped popularize the notion of the old-man action movie, but for a more nuanced take on this creaky genre, check out Harry Brown, a 2009 thriller in which Michael Caine took a break from being Bruce Wayne's butler to play a retired military man out to avenge the death of his best friend. Part Death Wish and part Gran Torino, Harry Brown is a bleak revenge film that lets Caine show off some of the badass swagger he harnessed in 1970s films like Get Carter. But the film also sneaks in some poignant observations about the fear of getting old, which the meathead jocks of The Expendables would never admit to.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson

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Photo: © 2014 Marvel. © 2014 CTMG