It's not quite May, but I have officially begun my search for the perfect popcorn movie. That's what we call the big box-office bruisers that swagger through our summers because expectations are strangely both high — and low. A quick fix of fun and a one-liner to co-opt — "I'll be back..." — if we're lucky. A dismal Saturday night if we're not.
The creative heights these films set out to climb may be different than the dramatic and emotional peaks scaled by more serious fare in the fall. But it is not enough to just flex a few muscles or rest on special effects. Whether it's another round with old familiar Spidey or a newly imagined Hercules, these flicks are supposed to go for popcorn greatness.
What qualifies as a popcorn movie? Any film whose primary mission is to entertain (any thinking, crying or reflecting is just an add-on). Do they open only in the summer? No, they can land in theaters from January to December, but they must have popcorn soul. Here are a few of the mandatory ingredients, the butter and salt necessary to make ordinary popcorn unforgettable.
Delicious characters: Whether superheroes, sci-fi thrillers or horror chillers, on some level even the best fantasy and froth needs to make us care. Who wasn't rooting for Sigourney Weaver's sweat-soaked Ripley fighting an other-worldly creature in 1979's "Alien" or touched by that tentative other alien in
A villain worth buying: For heroes to be super, they need to have an adversary with an interesting criminal mind; the more complex, the more compelling. Ones that stay with you long after the house lights come up, like the late Heath Ledger's terribly tortured Joker in 2008's
The right actor in the right role: The very funny
Effects that make my day: Movies are inherently a visual medium, and the big screen gives filmmakers a big canvas. But to take my breath away it takes a special effect. In recent times, few have succeeded better than
Make me laugh until I cry: Every summer needs a strong comedy streak. But it's a thin line between funny and factitious. While there was a certain charm to "Ted's" (2012) foul-mouthed stuffed bear working out his issues with his best friend played by
Surprise me: One summer craving at the top of my list is for something, anything fresh. It can take any number of forms, I'm not picky; like the way 1996's "Scream" mixed that first funny/frightening cocktail or
Do I want a second helping: It is rare in movies, but some do improve over the years.
Don't disappoint me: Sometimes a movie's title will be such a good tease, it makes the let's-see list right away. The test is whether you come out satisfied or feeling like you were taken, as opposed to "Taken." Take 2006's "Snakes on a Plane." Please. The idea sounded so promising, the reality turned out to be nothing but snakes on a plane, no interesting slithering, just a boring wait for the next snake to drop. Among the summer's contenders: "Nothing Bad Can Happen," which of course means something bad will; "Let's Be Cops," which suggests good mayhem might be in the offing; and "Two Night Stand," either a laugh riot or a case of someone not learning from their mistakes, that would be me I'm talking about. Like most moviegoers, I don't forgive a bait-and-switch. I expect even silly movies to deliver on their promises.
Now pass me the popcorn please.