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In effect, it's gotta be cool


They begin with the sound of ominous orchestral music, then with the buzz-saw screech of heavy-metal guitars. The screen dances with dark, disquieting images: a hulking black gunship buzzes over the waves in the moonlight, masked mercenaries train their guns on an unseen foe, a bloody fist punches through the rubble. Suddenly rockets are being launched, artillery lights up the sky. People dive through the air, leap off high bridges, crash on top of limousines.

Scantily clad women, flicking their tongues like snakes, crawl across the tops of bars. Cars go careening across the freeway. Luxury mansions explode into smithereens. A narrator, his deep baritone rumbling like a Humvee on black gravel, hisses, "It was sent back through time for one purpose only -- to kill us all."

Ears ringing, head pounding, feeling a teeny bit queasy, I am watching Hollywood's highest form of art: the Summer Movie Trailer.

Luckily I am not alone or I would probably want to kill myself. I'm sitting with Gabe, my 16-year-old neighbor, who has corralled a roomful of 10 kids, all roughly his age, to watch the trailers for the summer's most hotly anticipated youth-oriented films. I've convened this informal focus group -- known as my Summer Movie Posse -- for the last three years as a way to better understand how teens, Hollywood's ultimate target audience, decide what movies to see each summer. (For privacy reasons, posse members are identified by first names only.) Deeply opinionated and media savvy, these kids see a movie nearly every week during the summer, which is why studios make so many films geared to their favorite genres: comic book thrillers, special-effects action vehicles and broad comedies.

Watching trailers with these kids provides a fascinating glimpse of the adolescent psyche. They experience movies in a way that is almost incomprehensible to adults. For posse members, who've grown up on hip-hop samples and DVD interactive special features, the trailers are another means of deconstructing entertainment. When they see a flashy visual effect, their brains seem to whir and click and send an instant message that reads: "That could be as cool as anything in 'The Matrix.' "

The trailers also offer a confirmation of their moviegoing expectations, whether it's the re-uniting of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys 2" or Jim Carrey's inspired comic antics in "Bruce Almighty," which signaled to them, just through a few cleverly delivered jokes and sight gags, that their favorite comedian has rebounded from that serious movie jag.

Much has been made about this summer's being given over to a parade of franchise films; eight of the 14 trailers we saw were promoting sequels or prequels, most overflowing with shrieking tires and nonstop gunplay. The posse reveled in it. They have an abiding nostalgia for films like "Bad Boys" and "The Terminator," even though they were in theaters when they were tykes; they've grown to love them through the gauzy mythos of repeated DVD viewing.

The posse views a film like "Dumb and Dumber" with the same reverence that grown-ups have for "The Godfather." After watching the trailer for its upcoming sequel, "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd," Evan, age 16, said dismissively: "This one isn't even in the same realm as the original. The first one was an American classic, like 'Casablanca' or 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Romance versus audacity

This year's posse was made up of seven boys and three girls, and its tastes reflect that uneven split. The movies that ranked the highest (see accompanying chart) were the testosterone-heavy action thrillers. The girls were concerned about relationships and believability; the guys pretty much graded every film on the audacity of its special effects. Boiled down to essentials, the effects were either cool ("Bad Boys 2") or fake ("The Hulk"). The one trailer everyone wholeheartedly enjoyed was "Bruce Almighty," which is why PG-13 comedies are considered the holy grail for commercial summer movies: They don't offend anybody. The only action trailer the girls could stomach was the female-star-driven "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." Many of the summer's big action films are R-rated; but this under-17 crowd was unfazed. They agreed that with the exception of opening nights, they rarely experience any problems with getting into R-rated movies.

Cool is a rare element, as volatile as plutonium. The girls gave good marks to "Hollywood Homicide" simply for the presence of Josh Hartnett, who means a lot more to them than his more highly paid co-star, Harrison Ford. On the other hand, the boys raved about "S.W.A.T.," largely because the film is shrewdly populated with a host of their favorite actors, going in order of preference: Samuel L. Jackson, L.L. Cool J, Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Farrell. "That's an awesome cast," enthused Bennett, 16. "L.L. Cool J is so cool, Michelle Rodriguez is always hard and I've never seen Sam Jackson in a bad movie."

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