Revenge of the summer film guide

Looking for sanctuary in air-conditioned, soda-fountain-fed oases filled with 100-percent recycled screen fodder? It’s your lucky summer.

Photo By Larry Dalton

One of my many former and most flamboyant bosses once defined an “expert” as the first person to state the obvious. If you apply his rationale to this summer’s glut of popcorn movies, it takes only one word to reign as current authority on all things cinema: sequel.

Like the whispered mantra “plastics” that titillated the economic loins of Mr. McGuire and froze the blood of skittish Yuppie rabbit Benjamin in 1967’s The Graduate, “sequel” has become Hollywood’s buzzword du jour. This simultaneously beloved and abhorred emblem of blockbuster mentality, stardom and either American glamour or vulgarity (depending on which side of the fence you graze), monopolizes screens this summer like it has no other recent season.

The studios say they are just giving us more of what we want. Producers defend their pet projects by wooing tight-wallet accountants, tighter-fist stockholders and cookie-cutter marketing departments with a bastardized Field of Dreams philosophy: Make a sequel, and they will come. I say this dream-factory phenomenon is better described as giving us what we deserve. We patronize films like The Godfather, and we get The Godfather: Part II. We shovel money at 9 1/2 Weeks, and we get Another 9 1/2 Weeks.

A would-be governor explains the importance of choosing the correct SPF level.

But even the sequel game is a crapshoot. To paraphrase actor Cliff Robertson, who once made headlines (and should have won the Expert of the 20th Century Award) by complaining that Hollywood was crooked: The film business is not a stable process; it’s like trying to stand up in a canoe with your pants around your ankles. He was right. For every exhilarating X2: X-Men United that warrants multiple viewing, there’s also a somnolent Speed 2: Cruise Control that turns dark theaters into morgues. And let’s not forget those third installments and beyond that often have more in common with the war-zone superstition “three on a match” (Alien 3 pops immediately to mind) than with the idea that the third time is some sort of charm.

So, here we creep into summer 2003 with about 15 of 130 “new” releases carrying the stamp—or, in many cases, proudly waving the flag—of a previous production. This ratio seems small at first, but, as Robertson so expertly pointed out, numbers certainly can be deceiving.

Sacramentans attempting to survive summer heat waves with intermittent plunges into cool, climate-controlled environs other than chlorinated pools—or who would rather grease their palms with real imitation-butter flavor rather than yet another coat of sunscreen—theoretically could see one sequel per week from now until fall. Often on multiple screens for usually longer-than-average runs, these major motion-picture bullies help keep many more-noteworthy independent, documentaries and foreign films from squeezing into theaters other than the Crest and Tower, which already have a backlog of possible gems to mine.

This summer’s unusually severe case of sequelitis does include two of the season’s most anticipated films, X2: X-Men United and The Matrix Reloaded. X2 launched the unofficial summer season on an optimistic note, proving once again that science fiction can be smart and sexy without being stuffy or overtly sexual. Reloaded tries to pull off the same coup but with less success.

Stepford sequels from the American Pie and Charlie’s Angels franchises.

Another mega-sequel is Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (scheduled to open July 2), which reportedly was made at a cost of $170 million. When Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his trademark “I’ll be back” almost 20 years ago, I certainly didn’t expect him, at the age of 55, to star in films with naked cyborg assassins falling from the sky, and I never, not for one nanosecond, envisioned him as an in-the-wings candidate for governor. Here, he must save future resistance leader John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl) from a sort of she-bot, under the guidance of U-571 director Jonathan Mostow.

The movie Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (July 25) finds the Cortez siblings imprisoned inside a video game by a villain played by Sylvester Stallone. Director Robert Rodriquez used the new camera developed by James Cameron for IMAX’s stunning Ghosts of the Abyss to enhance the fun, as our young, scrappy heroes surf lava flows and as toads on pogo sticks fling their tongues at the audience.

American Wedding (August 1) is the third slice of the American Pie series. Steve Stifler (Bulletproof Monk’s Seann William Scott) returns to throw one testosterone-challenged buddy (Jason Biggs) a bachelor party and hit on the bridesmaids. No word yet on who abuses the wedding cake. This outing is directed by Jesse Dylan, the son of Bob.

Comedy fans who like their messages covered in pink icing rather than pastry also will be offered Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (July 2). Reese Witherspoon, showcasing a parade of pastel outfits, stars as a Chihuahua owner and Harvard attorney who tackles animal-rights issues on Capitol Hill.

Freddy and Jason share frosty summer beverage secrets.

Action fans with an insatiable taste for burning rubber may want to check out 2 Fast 2 Furious (June 6) as Shaft remake director John Singleton tears up the streets of Miami with some Vin Diesel-less street racing. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence also rip and run through Miami as narcotics cops in pursuit of violent ecstasy dealers in Bad Boys II (July 18). The film is co-written by Ron Shelton, who also wrote and directed the non-sequel Hollywood Homicide (June 13) with Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as Los Angeles detectives hunting down a rap-star killer. It’s Shelton’s second police story and the fifth lead role as a cop for Ford (no wonder he is getting so grumpy). Video-game and Angelina Jolie fans also get a heavy dose of arcade-like adventure and heaving, hurling bosoms in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (July 25). The globe-trotting adventurer fights in an underwater temple, Jet Skis, finds the mythical Pandora’s box and falls from a Hong Kong skyscraper.

For moviegoers wanting their action and comedy shoehorned into one movie, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu return in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (June 27), their second feature based on the 1970s TV show. The often scantily clad ladies track down a pilfered FBI Witness Security Program list as the hidden songbirds begin dying faster than Carrot Top’s film career. Demi Moore challenges Stallone for comeback honors as a suspect former Angel, and Bernie Mac has plenty to widen his eyes about, including Diaz assisting in the hands-on birth of a calf.

An obscure twist to the sequel craze is the blend of characters from two different movies into a single extravaganza. Rugrats Go Wild (June 13) employs this casting juxtaposition as Nickelodeon’s animated carpet creatures join forces with the wild Thornberrys on a deserted island. Hollywood also gives birth to its very own Rosemary’s baby: Freddy vs. Jason (August 15). The two perennial butchers of teenagers bring along their long razor-like fingernails and hockey mask for a horror fest that just as easily could be named Nightmare on Elm Street on Friday the 13th. Director Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) is no stranger to gore, sequels and shotgun marriages of characters. And two weeks later, Jeepers Creepers 2 (August 29) appears. The flick’s immortal flying carnivore is back to dine on the moist organs of a busload of lean basketball players and their much-softer cheerleaders.

This summer’s most interesting twist on the sequel strategy comes from Belgian director Lucas Belvaux, who offers three interrelated films at one time: a thriller called On the Run, the romantic comedy An Amazing Couple and a melodrama called After Life. The entire set recently played the Santa Barbara and San Francisco international film festivals and will be included in the three-day Sacramento French Film Festival (July 11-13).

For those who prefer remakes with non-cinematic origins, there’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (July 9). Starring Johnny Depp as a rum-soaked rogue and Geoffrey Rush as a pirate captain, the film was inspired by the Disneyland ride. Likewise, Seabiscuit (July 25), which stars Spider-Man’s Tobey Maguire riding high as jockey Red Pollard with some early Oscar buzz at his back, was adapted from the nonfiction book by writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville).

Last and possibly not least are all those 1970s TV shows that keep leaping onto the big screen. The latest is The Hulk, which stars Eric Bana (Chopper) as the green gamma-ray hothead under the direction of Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Meanwhile, made-for-TV celebs Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson, both alumni of the American Idol franchise, use their lips for multiple tasks in the musical spring-break comedy-romance From Justin to Kelly (June 13), and Mandy Moore finally lands a movie in which she (or at least her character) doesn’t die: How to Deal (July 18).

Gerry Watt, the former manager of the Tower Theatre, once gave me a button that protested Hollywood’s lack of originality: a circular pin with a red line cutting diagonally through numerous repetitions of the word “sequels.” Hollywood obviously didn’t get the message. This summer, Watt probably could make a fortune selling them outside theater exits.