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 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!" Meanwhile the movies themselves break all records, and if they don't do so legitimately, then a watermark is invented, i.e.: "This movie had the fourth largest opening of any movie to ever come out on the third Tuesday in August."

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 Hulk would seem on the surface to be dumb -- a big green guy who smashes stuff -- 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). The summer's other high-profile, big-budget comic-book movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, boasts characters from classic literature, among them Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll.

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 return of Jim Carrey, blaming it all on God, er, Morgan Freeman
The return of Jim Carrey, blaming it all on God, er, Morgan Freeman
Tang Yun stars as child violin prodigy Xiaochun in Together
Tang Yun stars as child violin prodigy Xiaochun in Together

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.

As always, though, there are a significant number of entries that defy categorization. We've got the Maori movie Whale Rider, the experimental art piece Cremaster 3 (which is actually part 5 in a series), a nonreality spinoff of a reality show (From Justin to Kelly), a John Sayles movie (Casa de los Babys), 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 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. And juvenile delinquency seems to be enjoying an art-house resurgence (Ken Park, Thirteen, Sweet Sixteen).

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 re-releasing 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.


Summer Preview

By Luke Y. Thompson and Gregory Weinkauf

MAY

Cremaster 3 The fifth and final installment in avant-garde artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle will also play across the nation alongside the previous four, hitherto shown only in one or two markets. A short synopsis of this film simply isn't possible; suffice it to say that if you aren't already tripping when you enter the theater, you may feel like you are by the time you leave.

Down With Love In what will likely be either a massive counterprogramming hit or a total flop, the director of Bring It On and the forthcoming Fantastic Four brings us Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger in a pastel-colored period homage to Sixties romantic comedies. We're supposed to recall Rock Hudson and Doris Day, but will contemporary audiences have memories that go that far back?

L'Auberge Espagnole 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.

Spellbound Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman have absolutely nothing to do with this feisty documentary about the American National Spelling Bee. Dewy director Jeff Blitz gets to the heart of childhood's most vital quest as eight youngsters and their hopeful parents and teachers seek The One who can save humanity from bad spelling.

The Trip Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg have absolutely nothing to do with this story about being gay in the Seventies. Dewy director Miles Swain gets to the heart of the American gay experience as a politically disharmonious gay couple and their friends seek the meaning of life by driving around and talking about being gay.

Tycoon Also known as Oligarkh, this 2002 release from Russia hits our shores with a unique perspective on capitalism infiltrating a Communist nation. Director Pavel Lungin adapts Yuli Dubov's novel Bolshaya Paika (The Big Slice) about a man who made the most of Russian free trade. Global economists may enjoy this as a double feature with the terrific Chinese comedy Big Shot's Funeral.

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