It's usually right about this time of year that film critics, especially those of advancing years, begin to feel a slow chill of dread creep up their spines. Suppressing that urge, they generally find it quickly replaced by a sudden rush of sneering condescension and smug mock-martyrdom. "Oh no!" they cry. "This is summer, the season of dumb! How can I possibly suffer so ignominious a fate as to be forced to watch big-budget movies aimed at those less intelligent than myself?" Meanwhile, the movies themselves break all records.
But the "dumb" blockbuster might just be passé this year. Arguably the biggest film of the summer will be The Matrix Reloaded, and the few negative reviews that have surfaced so far tend to complain that the plot is too complicated. The comic-book adaptation The Hulk would seem on the surface to be dumb -- a big green guy who smashes stuff isn't exactly the picture of subtlety -- yet it's being directed by Ang Lee, who claims to be making a tragic film in the Hamlet mold (given his track record, that may not be an idle boast). And Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may not have James Cameron on board any more, but substitute director Jonathan Mostow is known for thrillers of above-average intelligence like Breakdown and U-571.
Further taxing the minds of the dumb is a series of unnecessarily wordy movie titles, most with colons in the middle. In addition to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (cleverly shortened to LXG by the marketing department), there's Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, the unwieldy Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and the grand champion of them all, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. To quote Butt-head, "If I wanted to read, I'd go to school."
Not that stupidity is entirely absent -- one could go broke overestimating the public's intelligence. Still, we should make a distinction between big, glorious, goofy dumb (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II) and abrasively awful dumb (Pokémon Heroes, Jeepers Creepers 2).
The time-honored summer counterprogramming tradition is to offer romantic comedies, and despite a copious lack of both Julia Roberts and Freddie Prinze Jr. this year, 2003 doesn't disappoint. We've got retro love (Down With Love), fanciful love (Alex and Emma), French love (Jet Lag, The Housekeeper), gay love (Boys Life 4: Four Play), parental love (Freaky Friday), surrogate sibling love (Uptown Girls), and, of course, the unnatural love of baked goods and wind instruments (American Wedding).
Then there are some interesting mini-trends. Thai cinema may prove to be the next big thing, if the horror flick The Eye (soon to be remade on these shores) and the historical epic The Legend of Suriyothai catch on. Juvenile delinquency seems to be enjoying an art-house resurgence (Ken Park, Thirteen, Sweet Sixteen). And superstar crossovers look to rake in the dough: A Nightmare on Elm Street bogeyman Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) finally takes on Friday the 13th killer Jason Voorhees (some new guy in place of Kane Hodder, who previously owned the role) in Freddy vs. Jason, while two sets of deformed-looking cartoon children get together in the Nickelodeon crossover Rugrats Go Wild. If Hollywood's listening, I'd like to see a Mandy Moore vs. Britney Spears flick next, but it had better be R-rated and feature mud pits.
Finally, two items that warm this critic's heart. Scott Hamilton Kennedy's excellent documentary OT: Our Town, about an inner-city school putting on a play, has at last received distribution and might just hit cinemas near you this season. And MGM is rereleasing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the big screen, where it belongs -- it may not be the best date movie, but males across America who have not yet experienced the glorious union of Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone owe it to themselves to go, possibly more than once.
MAY and JUNE
(Phoenix opening dates noted. Others may not show locally.)
Alex and Emma (June 20) A Rob Reiner romantic comedy allegedly based on the Dostoevski short story "The Gambler" (more seriously adapted with Michael Gambon a few years back). Luke Wilson plays a novelist on deadline, while Kate Hudson is the stenographer who inspires him. As Wilson enacts scenes from the book in his head, Hudson morphs into multiple characters, thereby allowing the actress to try several different hair styles and accents on for size. If she pulls it off, people may stop comparing Hudson to her mom. (Warner Bros.)
Bruce Almighty (May 23) Bruce (Jim Carrey) has a decent apartment, a job in TV news, and a girlfriend who looks like Jennifer Aniston. By movie standards, this means he's suffering, and when he blames God for it, the Supreme Being (Morgan Freeman, born to play God) gives Bruce the reins of power so he can see that it ain't easy being Lord. Carrey's Ace Ventura pal Tom Shadyac directs, so here's hoping the rubber man's back in form. (Universal)
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (June 27) The genius of director McG's first Charlie's Angels was that it had something for almost everyone: girls kicking ass for the ladies, fetishistic costume changes for the guys, self-satire for the hip ironists, Tom Green for those who prefer less subtle humor, Crispin Glover for the weirdoes, etc. It was a movie that made no apologies for its junk-food consistency, and neither does the new one, by the looks of things. Green and Bill Murray are gone, but instead we get Bernie Mac and, uh, Demi Moore. (Sony)
A Decade Under the Influence Ted Demme's last film, completed by Richard LaGravenese, is a documentary about most movie critics' favorite era of cinema, the '70s. The Production Code had just ended, and the corporate blockbuster mentality had not yet begun, so a bunch of wild and crazy auteurs basically got to make whatever they wanted. Among the many interviewed are such obvious choices as Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, Jon Voight, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese; we also get to hear from contemporary directors working in a similar mold, like Alexander Payne and Neil LaBute. (IFC)
Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (June 13) It's possibly the worst prequel idea since The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas: a Dumb and Dumber movie without Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels or the Farrelly brothers (or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone, long ago attached). Nonetheless, based on the trailer, Eric Christian Olsen's Jim Carrey impersonation looks impressively dead-on. Maybe there's hope. (New Line)
Finding Nemo (May 30) Pixar's latest computer-animated opus goes underwater in this tale of a young clownfish who gets kidnapped by a diver and winds up in a tank in a dentist's waiting room. Fortunately, the fish's dad (Albert Brooks) is on the case, with the help of a CIA father-in-law . . . wait, wrong movie. The sidekick in this one is another fish, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. Advance word has it that the script isn't quite up to Pixar's usual high standards, but the deep-sea visuals look breathtaking. (Disney)
Gasoline An Italian lesbian thriller about two young lady lovers on the run with a dead body in the trunk of their car and some nasty characters on their tail. You don't see that sort of thing every day. (Strand)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's finest collaboration returns to the big screen for the benefit of those poor, misguided souls who don't realize that Clint rules. Ennio Morricone's theme is similarly one of the all-time greats. Clint's made some mediocre flicks in recent years, but if you can come out of this one unimpressed, you're probably a Communist. Or French; go rent a Jerry Lewis movie instead. (MGM)
Hollywood Homicide (June 13) Ron Shelton follows his serious cop movie (Dark Blue) with a not-so-serious one that teams up yesterday's heartthrob Harrison Ford with current It-Boy Josh Hartnett. Ford, of course, is the hard-bitten veteran cop saddled with rookie partner Hartnett, who has a thing for yoga and New Agey beliefs. Presumably, they learn something from one another while attempting to solve a case, the nature and location of which are described in the film's cleverly alliterative title. (Sony)
The Hulk (June 20) Hey, brother! What'cha gonna do when the largest arms in the world run wild on you? Wait, wrong Hulk. No middle-aged wrestler's biceps can measure up to those of the 15-foot CGI creation who runs roughshod over San Francisco in this comic-book adaptation. Audiences will be lured in by lovely Jennifer Connelly and the promise of "Hulk smash!" but director Ang Lee hopes they'll stay for a story line he likens more to classic tragedy. Wait'll you see the mutated "Hulk dogs." Eric Bana, who did mood swings to perfection in Chopper, stars as alter ego Bruce Banner. (Universal)
The In-Laws (May 23) "Inspired by" the 1979 Alan Arkin-Peter Falk comedy, this version stars Michael Douglas as a CIA spy and Albert Brooks as -- this is a stretch -- a whiny neurotic. When the former's son marries the latter's daughter, both fathers-in-law somehow end up as mismatched partners in an international smuggling scheme. Director Andy Fleming is responsible for underrated pleasures The Craft and Dick, so maybe it'll actually be good. (Warner Bros.)
The Italian Job (May 30 ) He tried stepping into Cary Grant's shoes in The Truth About Charlie; now Mark Wahlberg tries on Michael Caine's footwear for size. The man's not a bad actor, but he doesn't help himself by forcing comparisons to the greats like this. Italy, meanwhile, barely registers any screen time in this heist remake directed by F. Gary Gray (A Man Apart), and Edward Norton only appears as the villain because he was contractually forced by Paramount. Mos Def, Seth Green, Charlize Theron and Donald Sutherland also appear in what looks to be at least a strong ensemble. (Paramount)
L'Auberge Espagnole (May 30) Loosely defined as "Euro pudding," and indeed some comparisons to American Pie leap to mind as a young dork (Romain Duris) explores his sexual impulses amid a wild crowd. Set mostly in Barcelona, this boy-abroad movie garnered six Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar. If that means to you that a movie is good, perhaps you'll dig it. With Amélie's marketable Audrey Tautou in one of her four new features this year. (Fox Searchlight)
Prozac Nation Better bring a feather duster to clear off this 2001 shelf-warmer so you can actually see it. In the '90s, it was hip to be depressed, which gave rise to Elizabeth Wurtzel's self-obsessed novel. Christina Ricci stars as Wurtzel, having a rotten time in her first year at Harvard because Anne Heche and Jason Biggs are there. Boo hoo! Erik Skjoldbjaerg (the original Insomnia) directs. (Miramax)
Rugrats Go Wild (June 13) Those really grotesque-looking kids meet up with the globetrotting Thornberrys in what promises to be an exotic adventure. Where else -- apart from maybe Spago -- are you going to get Tim Curry and LL Cool J at the same place? With music by Devo's zany front man, Mark Mothersbaugh. (Paramount)
Sweet Sixteen English working man's filmmaker Ken Loach (Poor Cow, Bread and Roses) delivers the story of a Scottish lad (Martin Compston) struggling to make a new home for his mother, who's newly sprung from prison. Naturally, more hard knocks await. (Lions Gate)
Together(June 13) Chinese auteur Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assassin) returns with He ni zai yi qi, this tale of a young, aspiring violinist who travels with his father to the bright lights of Beijing. Another "boy's journey" sort of movie, and an obvious bid by Kaige to bridge the gap between his Chinese roots and Hollywood paychecks, but indeed it looks -- and sounds -- charming. (United Artists)
2 Fast 2 Furious(June 6) Star Vin Diesel and director Rob Cohen may have bailed on this particular franchise, but Paul Walker's still around, now directed by John Singleton, and hanging with a new bald-headed ethnic sidekick in the form of Tyrese Gibson. Multiculturalism was cited as a major part of the last film's success, so the cast also includes Ludacris, Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser and the simply monikered Jin. We figure it's the fast cars people like, though, and there are plenty -- as long as they crash into stuff, it's all good. (Universal)
Wrong Turn(May 30) Director Rob Schmidt of the iffy, pretentious Crime and Punishment in Suburbia has somehow managed to keep working. His latest concerns teens chased through the mountains of Virginia by -- what else? -- hideously deformed, inbred, cannibalistic mutants. In case you don't get enough of this in real life, you may consider joining Eliza Dushku and Jeremy Sisto for their little adventure. Or you may not. With effects by Stan Winston. (Fox)
JULY and AUGUST
American Splendor The popular favorite at this year's Sundance Festival mixes drama and documentary in its look at the life of Harvey Pekar, who chronicles his own true life story in a comic, also called American Splendor. Pekar appears as himself in the real-life segments; Paul Giamatti plays him in the reenactments. Sounds like a tricky balance to pull off, but all indications are that husband-and-wife directing team of Shari Berman and Bob Pulcini have done so with aplomb. (Fine Line)
American Wedding For all the so-called immorality that goes on in the American Pie movies, it now seems that in this third one, long-suffering protagonist Jim (Jason Biggs) will end up marrying the first and only girl he's ever had sex with (Alyson Hannigan). Cast members who've gotten progressively more expensive (Mena Suvari, Tara Reid, Chris Klein, Shannon Elizabeth, Natasha Lyonne) have been jettisoned, but Fred Willard (yes!) joins the series as Hannigan's dad. Bob Dylan's less famous son Jesse (How High) directs. (Universal)
Bad Boys II At long last, Michael Bay has come to his senses and quit with the Ben Affleck PG-13 crap. The original Bad Boys didn't get much love from critics, but it didn't need it -- this one doesn't look like it could use the help, either. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as mismatched cops, with Gabrielle Union replacing Téa Leoni as the potential love interest (good call!), and a supporting cast that includes Joe Pantoliano, Henry Rollins and Peter Stormare. (Sony)
The Battle of Shaker Heights The second film to come out of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's HBO-funded Project Greenlight, this one features a pair of directors who have actually made a film before, and a screenplay that won a separate contest. The plot involves a teenager who's obsessed with World War II, to the point of re-creating some of its battles. Well, what teen isn't? (Miramax)
Cabin Fever Director Eli Roth's big-screen debut has a buzz surrounding it similar to that of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead. The plot sounds similar, too, with a bunch of unsuspecting friends trapped in a cabin by a mysterious threat. The danger in this one, though, comes from a flesh-eating virus. As Joe Bob Briggs might say, "Anyone can die at any time." (Lions Gate)
Casa de los Babys Who cares what this one's about? Any movie with that title has to be worth a look. Okay, turns out it's directed by John Sayles, which makes it even more of a must-see. And check out the cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen and Rita Moreno. The story involves six women who go to South America to adopt babies, then find out that the law requires them to live there. (IFC)
Dirty Pretty Things Audrey Tautou (Amélie) makes her English-language debut in this crime thriller from stylish Brit director Stephen Frears. In it, she teams up with an illegal Nigerian immigrant (Chjwetel Ejiofor; great name, now how the hell do you pronounce it?) to solve a mysterious murder in a fancy London hotel. (Miramax)
Don't Tempt Me An angel from Heaven (Victoria Abril) and a demon from Hell (Penélope Cruz) come to Earth to try to win over the soul of a boxer with a potentially fatal brain injury. Sounds totally insane, and an absolute must-see. (Fine Line)
Exorcist: The Beginning In what may just be the casting coup of the year, Stellan Skarsgaard steps in as the younger version of Max von Sydow's Father Merrin, battling demons in deepest, darkest Africa. This would have been director John Frankenheimer's final film, but the old master bowed out because of ill health early in the process, to be replaced by Paul Schrader. Thankfully, actor Liam Neeson bowed out, too; for all his strengths, he's no Swede. (WB)
Gigli At last you get to see it, folks: the movie that brought Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez together. What's the plot? Glad you asked: "B.Af" is Gigli, a hit man assigned to kidnap a retarded kid (Justin Bartha) and hold him for ransom. "J.Lo" is the lesbian hit woman assigned to baby-sit Gigli when it seems he won't be up to the job. Both become better (heterosexual) people thanks to the innocence and purity of their mentally challenged prisoner. Sounds like a blast, right? (Sony)
How to Deal Based on two youth fiction novels by Sarah Dessen, Mandy Moore's second feature starring role sees her cast as a cynical teen who has determined that true love doesn't exist. Care to take bets on whether she'll be proven wrong? The title's annoying, the poster banal, but Moore proved to be a surprisingly effective screen presence in the admittedly thin A Walk to Remember, so this could be the start of something big. (New Line)
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life Now that she's gotten over the loss of Daddy dearest, maybe Ms. Croft (Angelina Jolie) can get back to shooting stuff, jumping off things, and running afoul of armored primates made of stone. Jan DeBont takes over the directorial reins of this latest adventure, which sees Lara in Africa, looking for Pandora's box (wait, wasn't Pandora Greek? Does it matter?). (Paramount)
Le Divorce Now that Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts are brand names, James Ivory carts them to Paris to play around at being young zany women having weird romantic issues. (Fox Searchlight)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Apparently Sean Connery plays fictional adventurer Allan Quatermain here, and apparently he absolutely hated working with director Steven Norrington (Blade). Nonetheless, the movie got made, based on Alan Moore's zesty graphic novel, based in turn on classic characters such as Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) and Dracula's Mina Harker (Peta Wilson). Takes place in Victorian England, thus -- like Fox's other Moore adaptation From Hell -- shot in Prague. (Fox)
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde Everybody's . . . um . . . favorite frilly Harvard Law School grad is back. Reese Witherspoon dons the pink and heads to Washington to fight for animal rights. Obviously, she begins by removing all animal products from the craft service tables and catering trucks, and serving her Chihuahua vegan dog food. (MGM)
The Medallion Jackie Chan plays a Hong Kong detective with a medallion that gives him super powers. Julian Sands plays a character called "Snakehead," so what more do you need to know? (Screen Gems)
OT: Our Town Scott Hamilton Kennedy's video documentary about inner-city high schoolers putting on a play for the first time in 22 years isn't exactly objective, given that he cohabits with the gorgeous drama teacher at the movie's center. It's the kids' tale, though, and a triumphant one at that -- any pitch for the value of the arts in schools is a welcome one, especially when it's as eloquent as this. (Film Movement)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Sometimes a sure thing at the box office isn't necessarily nauseatingly trite. This romp from director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) looks adventurous, atmospheric and -- Geoffrey Rush excluded -- generally sex-ay. For sale is one Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) as a lad who must team up with thickly eyelinered pirate Johnny Depp to save Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) from bad pirate Rush. Based on the Disney ride, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and certain to earn a doubloon or two. (Disney)
Seabiscuit Tobey Maguire takes time out from slinging webs and wooing the daughter of a high-ranking Universal executive to pretend he's short enough to jockey a horse. Gary Ross (Pleasantville) takes on the novel by Laura Hillenbrand about the titular racehorse and the joy it brought to the country during the Great Depression. (Universal)
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas Everybody's favorite public domain Iraqi hero returns as a two-dimensional caricature voiced, natch, by Brad Pitt. Catherine Zeta-Jones voices the feisty sidekick chick and Michelle Pfeiffer the incongruous Greek goddess Eris. This is DreamWorks' only contribution to the summer screen. (DreamWorks)
S.W.A.T. Oh, come on, already. Fine, here's another cinematic remake of an old TV show. The thing is, from the story by George Huang (Swimming With Sharks) to an all-star cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J, it shows significant promise. Still, it begs the question: Will S.W.A.T. be fly? (Sony)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Arnie's back, or something like that. Probably doesn't do the "nude Terminator" thing anymore, though. Anyway, as the T-850 Terminator, he once again helps save humankind from those awful machines taking over the planet. Begging help are 18-year-old John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his girlfriend Claire Danes, who are being hunted by femme fatale "Terminatrix" Kristanna Loken. Franchise creator James Cameron didn't need the money, so Jonathan Mostow (U-571) directs. One question: Why don't the humans send back Robert Patrick to save everyone this time? Just curious. (Warner Bros.)
The Three Marias So, these three girls named Maria walk into a bar. . . . Actually, it's no joke. In this Brazilian crime drama, the three Marias are sisters out to avenge the murder of their father and brothers at the hands of one of their mom's spurned ex-boyfriends. You'll feel better about your own family reunions afterward. (Empire)
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SHOW ME HOW
To Be and To Have A French documentary that looks at the students in a one-room rural elementary school over the course of a year. Should make an interesting double feature with OT: Our Town. (New Yorker)
28 Days Later A deadly biological agent breaks loose in the U.K.; in 28 days (the usual length of time for a mail-order package to arrive over there, sorta like "six to eight weeks" here) the entire nation has been quarantined, as the infected have become hideously unpleasant zombies who move in fast motion. Should mark something of a comeback for director Danny Boyle, who's floundered lately with the disappointing A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. (Fox Searchlight)
Uptown Girls Brittany Murphy plays a New York socialite who becomes nanny to a little girl to impress her boyfriend. Originally called Molly Gunn, which could have led to a cool sequel called Molly Gunn 2: Gunn Control. There's still hope. (MGM)
Valentin Autobiographical story about the coming of age of an Argentine boy, whimsical and light, filled with hope, dripping with loveliness, oozing that certain je ne sais quoi that refreshes one's life and very soul. Supposedly, anyway. Written and directed by Alejandro Agresti. (Miramax)