This is the time of year when, like a character from a bad sci-fi movie, I leap into the brains of a bunch of L.A. teenagers, eager to hear what they think about the nonstop onslaught of summer movies.
I call them my Summer Movie Posse. We watch the trailers from a dozen or so upcoming films, then I take notes as the kids pick them apart, offering acerbic, insightful and sometimes surprising thoughts on what they liked and what they loathed. It's not exactly a scientific form of market research, but it's far more revealing than hearing what a bunch of jaded adults might have to say about "Land of the Lost."
When they're done, the Posse grades each film on a 1-to-10 scale (10 being best). They occasionally fall in love with an oddball film, but I'd happily put the Posse's picks up against any Entertainment Weekly summer movie box-office prediction. The Top 5 picks from last year's Posse were "Pineapple Express," "The Dark Knight," "Hancock," "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" -- and all five were big hits. Their Bottom 5 films included "Love Guru" and "Speed Racer," so I'd say they were pretty in touch with the summer movie zeitgeist.
This year's Posse was recruited by Molly Philbin, a 16-year-old student at Santa Monica High, joined by five other kids, ranging in age from 15 to 18. Five go to Santa Monica High, one attends University High.
Like all kids, they have strong opinions, especially when it comes to actors. Who do they like the most? Johnny Depp, who is considered unimpeachably cool, no matter what movie he's in. Among comics, they like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Adam Sandler, Justin Long and Ben Stiller. They are big fans of Denzel Washington, whom they view as a class act. They're less enamored of -- or have grave reservations about -- Christian Bale, Will Ferrell, Shia LaBeouf and Alison Lohman.
Actors are clearly more important to them than filmmakers. The only directors who registered on their radar were Quentin Tarantino -- whom they find fascinating -- and Michael Bay, of whom one of the Posse said, "He keeps making the same movie over and over again, as if he hopes someday he'll get it right."
In years past, most of their favorite movies have been comedies. But this year's Posse gave its top three scores to action films, led by "Terminator Salvation," which they thought had great visual effects and the makings of a compelling story. The No. 2 and No. 3 films were the real shockers, with "Public Enemies" coming in at No. 2 and Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" ranking No. 3.
I'm eager to see "Public Enemies" too, but largely because I'm eager to see anything from the fertile brain of its director, Michael Mann. But the Posse really had only one real reason for favoring the trailer -- Johnny Depp, whom I suspect they would be excited to see even if he were starring in a remake of "Confessions of a Shopaholic."
The Tarantino film earned high scores because of Tarantino's pedigree -- and because the Posse seemed intrigued by the idea of a revenge film set against the backdrop of World War II, a war they find fascinating, even though they have the only sketchiest ideas about its origins. But they seemed receptive to the trailer's one simple message: Hitler's Nazis are truly nasty guys and a group of brave Americans, led by Brad Pitt, are going to put the hurt on them.
There were plenty of movies they loathed, led by "Transformers," to which they paid the ultimate insult, saying it was fit only for their younger brothers. They also gave a big thumbs down to "I Love You, Beth Cooper," a comedy about a geeky high school valedictorian who very publicly declares his love for the hot girl in school -- and, to his surprise, discovers that she's actually interested in him. It took me a while to figure out why they were so hard on the film, which judging by its trailer wasn't any dumber than hundreds of other dumb teen comedies. But it quickly became apparent that it was the one film they judged on authenticity, not on humor or star power. And their verdict was clear: Beautiful high school babe falls for the school nerd? Ain't ever gonna happen.
Here's a sampling of their blunt assessments of some of the trailers they watched.
Alex Alexiev, 16: "It's very cool. I'm a science nerd and I like things that blow up, so I'm ready to see it."
Jasmine Jafari, 15: "The music was perfect. The machines were very scary. And the voice [on the trailer] really pulled me in, like it was whispering a secret in your ear. I loved it. A robot's anguish guarantees my attendance."
Zane Parker, 15: "It looks like they went back to a lot of the original ideas for the series, yet it has a lot more complicated ideas in it. I can't wait to see it."
Molly Philbin, 16: "My only worry is about Christian Bale. I'm not sure I like the idea of him yelling the whole time in that strange, creepy voice. That could get to you after a while."