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.
Summer Movie Capsules
By Luke Y. Thompson
and Gregory Weinkauf
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 '60s romantic comedies. We're supposed to recall Rock Hudson and Doris Day, but will contemporary audiences have memories that go that far back? (Fox)
The Matrix Reloaded Silly humans, Matrix is for kids! Or perhaps not, given the R rating of this summer's hugely anticipated (and hyped!) sequel. Once again, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne don sexy sunglasses and adopt that weird, monotone cadence as they battle the Machine Army -- you know, in that other reality. They're assisted by the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith and Monica Bellucci against freaky nemeses Hugo Weaving, Lambert Wilson and a bunch of new characters who shoot at them a whole lot. Meanwhile, writers-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski plunder random mythology all the way to the bank. Let's just hope it doesn't inspire another Columbine. (Warner Bros.)
Pokémon Heroes You may exhale: The fifth Pokémon feature film has arrived. This time things get wet, as familiar characters like Ash and beloved Pikachu infiltrate an aquatic city to protect something called the Droplet of the Heart. See it quickly before Finding Nemo blows it out of the water. (Miramax)
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. (ThinkFilm)
Friends and Family It's The Birdcage meets Mickey Blue Eyes! A New York gay couple (Greg Lauren and Christopher Gartin) moonlights as mobsters, but their parents don't know, thinking the twosome runs a gay catering company. When the family shows up for a surprise visit, the charade is taken to extreme lengths, as the couple's mob buddies are coerced into pretending to be waiters and cooking up a dinner party. When rival gangs get involved, hilarity ensues. Advance word has it that this film may be the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but somehow the notion that Italians will embrace yet another Mafia comedy seems unlikely. (Regent)
2 Fast 2 Furious Star Vin Diesel and director Rob Cohen may have bailed on this particular franchise, but Paul Walker is 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)
Whale Rider Not actually a documentary about Lara Flynn Boyle visiting her boyfriend Jack Nicholson. Rather, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera about a young Maori girl of the Whangara tribe who must struggle against both her beloved grandfather and a millennium of patriarchal rule to prove herself as a leader. The beach-dwelling tribe learns much from the girl when she demonstrates her spiritual connection to whales. (Newmarket Films)
Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd 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 Carrey impersonation looks impressively dead-on. Maybe there's hope. (New Line)
From Justin to Kelly Correct us if we're wrong here, but wasn't American Idol a test of singing ability? When did the judges stop to analyze the acting talent of the contestants? Regardless, we'll all be able to judge for ourselves as winner Kelly Clarkson and finalist Justin Guarini star in this fiction film that reportedly involves a beach party. This might just put Mariah Carey's Glitter to shame -- not that it needed the help. On the other hand, screenwriter Kim Fuller did co-write the amusing Spice World. (Fox)
Rugrats Go Wild Those really grotesque-looking kids meet up with the globe-trotting 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 in 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)
Alex and Emma A Rob Reiner romantic comedy allegedly based on the Dostoyevsky 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 on for size several different hairstyles and accents. If she pulls it off, people may stop comparing Hudson to her mom. (Warner Bros.)
Hulk Hey, brother! Whatcha 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)
Capturing the Friedmans This documentary follows the dissolution of a seemingly typical family, after the arrest of father and son and subsequent ostracism of the clan by the local community. But all was not as it seemed, and as the filmmakers took a closer look, disturbing questions were raised. (Magnolia)
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle 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 weirdos, et cetera. 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)
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)
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's only contribution to the summer screen. (DreamWorks)
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.)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over Robert Rodriguez returns to his beloved adventure franchise for the third time in as many years. Young spy Alexa Vega gets caught in a virtual-reality video game designed by the evil Sylvester Stallone and must be saved by her brother Daryl Sabara, and probably their parents Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino. With Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban, thank goodness. (Dimension)
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)
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)
Freaky Friday Now in its umpteenth remake, the old "parent trades bodies with child" routine gets handed off to Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan (who also starred in the remake of The Parent Trap). Curiously, director Mark S. Waters made his debut with the perversely incestuous Parker Posey flick The House of Yes, so it'll be interesting to see if he can sneak any twisted subtext past the Disney folks. (Disney)
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 re-enactments. Sounds like a tricky balance to pull off, but all indications are that the husband-and-wife directing team of Shari Berman and Bob Pulcini has done so with aplomb. (Fine Line)
Freddy vs. Jason The walking corpse of a drowned redneck with Down's syndrome heads to Elm Street to take on a Kentucky Fried child-murderer who exists only in dreams. Fans of '80s slashers have awaited this showdown for more than a decade; given that most of the Freddy movies are pretty good and the Jason ones shoddy, there's a 50-50 chance of suckitude, especially since the producers totally dissed Kane Hodder by recasting Jason (with another stunt guy, no less). However, Hong Kong director Ronny Yu does have a track record of stylishly resurrecting '80s horror icons -- Bride of Chucky rocked. (New Line)
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)
Uptown Girls Brittany Murphy plays a New York socialite who becomes nanny 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)
Thirteen Evan Rachel Wood stars in this shocking tale of juvenile delinquency in Los Angeles. Shocking, that is, if it never occurred to you that teenagers do drugs, have sex and use profanity. Co-screenwriter Nikki Reed is only 14, which puts her mental age a good two years higher than that of the average studio scribe. (Fox Searchlight)
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)
Ken Park Self-appointed chronicler of juvenile delinquency Larry Clark teams up once again with his Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine (himself a former juvenile delinquent, currently minus only the "juvenile" part, except perhaps in sensibility). The story involves skaters, but this is no Grind -- expect Clark's usual heavy doses of underage sex, violence and profanity designed to titilla er, shock you out of your suburban naïveté. (Monograph Films)
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.