Think Different

Could it be that this year's crop of summer movies actually requires a brain cell or two?

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 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, and if they don't do so legitimately, then a new benchmark is invented, i.e., "This movie had the fourth largest opening of any movie to come out on the third Tuesday in August, starring Dustin Hoffman, and containing the syllable "ish' in the title!"

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 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). The summer's other high-profile, big-budget comic-book movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, features characters from classic literature, among them Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll. And Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may not have James Cameron on board anymore, 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 (Jeepers Creepers II).

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 fanciful love (Alex and Emma), French love (Jet Lag, The Housekeeper), parental love (Freaky Friday), surrogate sibling love (Uptown Girls), and, of course, the unnatural love of baked goods and wind instruments (American Wedding).

As always, though, there are a significant number of entries that defy categorization. We've got the Maori movie Whale Rider, a nonreality spinoff of a reality show (From Justin to Kelly), the return of the 3-D movie (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over), and a comic-book adaptation that's part documentary (American Splendor).

Then there are some interesting minitrends. 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 (Thirteen, Sweet Sixteen). And superstar crossovers look to rake in the dough: Nightmare on Elm Street bogyman 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 Nickelodeon's 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, one item that warms 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 will hit a cinema near you (the Castro, to be exact) this season.


What follows is a comprehensive listing of every film that we know of scheduled to open during the summer months. Right when we finished the list, at least one movie probably shifted its release date. By the time you're done reading, more will have done so. Some will be postponed to another season, while others may never open at all, but if you love cinema, we know you won't care. Memorize all the synopses anyway, and you can pretend to be knowledgeable about every picture of the season, and many beyond. If nothing else, you'll be well armed for your next game of charades.

May 30

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 essentially got to make whatever they wanted. Among the many interviewed are such obvious choices as Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, Jon Voight, Sidney Pollack, and Martin Scorsese; we also get to hear from contemporary directors working in a similar mold, like Alexander Payne and Neil LaBute. (IFC)

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