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Think Different

Could it be that this year's crop of summer movies 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 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, and if they don't do so legitimately, then a watermark is invented (e.g., "This movie had the fourth-largest opening of any movie to ever 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 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). 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. 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, 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 2) 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), 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, a significant number of entries defy categorization. We've got the Maori movie Whale Rider, a nonreality spin-off 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. Juvenile delinquency seems to be enjoying an art-house resurgence (Ken Park, Thirteen, Sweet Sixteen). And superstar crossovers look to rake in the dough: 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.


What follows is a listing of films 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. If nothing else, you'll be well armed for your next game of charades.

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