Summer cinema

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the blockbuster

Photo Illustration by Samantha Cid

Editor’s note: The movies are such a great escape from long hot summer days, drawn-out class wars and all those things. But did you know that the movies are also this country’s biggest source of presidents? I tell you, it’s true!

Before Ronald Reagan became our nation’s greatest president, he starred in the blockbuster Bedtime for Bonzo. As a child in Austria, I remember going to see this movie over and over, and watching in awe as Ronald Reagan uses his monkey, Bonzo, to disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although I was still a boy in short pants, I remember saying to myself, “Someday, I will do that, too.”

Likewise, before they were presidents, John F. Kennedy starred in the movie PT 109, F.D. Roosevelt played opposite John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and Abraham Lincoln nearly won an Oscar for his role in The Birth of a Nation. So, we should all remember that the movies give us not just great memories, but also great presidents.

By SN&R Summer Guide Team

This I now know: Writing about summer films during an early-May thunderstorm feels akin to composing an advance obituary of a celebrity. A sense of urgency is somehow missing.

Lightning slashes at the ink-splotched sky, and I abandon my computer to take up an old-fashioned Midwestern storm watch. I attempt to will a power outage to strike and camouflage my procrastination. The local flow of electricity remains constant. Meanwhile, the outside temperature drops, creating the kind of crisp chill that usually trumpets the arrival of winter’s Oscar contenders—not three months of upcoming blockbusteritis and theme-challenged escapism.

Hailstones pound my front lawn. They chaotically ping and pong in the street, simulating the frenetic budding of my favorite vegetable—that’s right, popcorn—and inspiration begins to slither over me like extra squirts of artificial hot-butter flavoring.

I quickly perch again before my PC screen and pound back at Mother Nature on my keyboard. I am hyper and optimistic. After all, 2004 was a banner summer for sequels. Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Spider-Man 2 (especially in IMAX format) and Before Sunset all were excellent. Even the cookie-cutter Bourne Supremacy was entertaining.

Maybe this incredible run will continue with the prequel to the Batman franchise. Maybe action and special-effects extravaganzas will give birth to well-developed characters as well as action figures. Maybe the recycling of baby-boomer TV shows will be riotous trips down memory lane rather than bastardizations of yesteryear relics. Maybe …

Hmm, OK, maybe I am more than optimistic. Maybe I am asking for miracles. But hey! This is summer, damn it. At least the theater refrigeration units work, even if some of the movies don’t. Let the studio suits swim about in flop sweat and stew in their own juices. You and I are smart enough to sort the blockbusters from the bombs, aren’t we? And there is plenty of product from which to choose. Here is how the season looks from my room with a view.

This weekend launches several films, including an African-American version of the classic TV series The Honeymooners and tabloid fodder Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie playing wedded assassins hired to kill each other in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I would have more luck in a crapshoot than picking the winner here, so let’s move on first to my five best bets of the season. The opening dates following all film titles could change as the summer progresses.

The Bad News Bears

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest close encounter is an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (June 29) in which Earth’s battle for the future of mankind is revealed through the eyes of a deadbeat dad (the prolific Tom Cruise) and his estranged family. Meanwhile, Batman Begins (June 17) explores the origin of industrial heir Bruce Wayne’s alter ego with American Psycho’s Christian Bale in black cape, pointy-eared hood and tight Batsuit. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) just may be the right guy to revitalize the franchise.

The independent ticket of the summer may be Hustle & Flow (July 15). Terrence Howard (this guy is someday Oscar-bound) plays a Memphis street hustler with a drive to blossom as a legitimate musician. This Sundance Film Festival winner also doubles as a Hollywood calling card for newcomer writer-director Craig Brewer.

Two comedies also top my list. Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell and numerous magic spells are cast in the big-screen version of TV’s ageless romantic-comedy series Bewitched (June 24). Kidman seems perfect as the nose-twitching witch who wants to be a normal suburban housewife opposite Ferrell’s befuddled husband. The tongue-twisting support of Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (try saying that 10 times real fast) is icing on the cake. And The Wedding Crashers (July 15), with hot-as-barbecue-coals Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn playing divorce attorneys in search of lovelorn ladies, is billed as a sort of coming-of-age story of 30-year-old men.

Batman is not the lone superhero this season. Fantastic Four (July 8) chronicles the misadventures of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing as they adjust to life on Earth after returning from a DNA-altering space mission. Sky High (July 29) features a sort of live-action Incredibles couple (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston) whose son is having problems discovering his superpowers. And science fiction takes a dark turn when human clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) flee a spare-parts factory in The Island (July 22), with the excellent Djimon Hounsou (In America) and Steve Buscemi co-starring for director Michael Bay.

Batman Begins

Two sets of siblings are the focus of two very different films. The Brothers Grimm (July 29) comically explores the origin of the authors’ many fairy tales. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger star under visionary director and Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. And Terrence Howard pops up in a supporting role in Four Brothers (August 12) as four adopted siblings (two are white, and two are black) reunite at their mother’s funeral to avenge her murder. Mark Wahlberg headlines for director John Singleton (Shaft and Boyz n the Hood).

Military action films are also on the marquee. Stealth (July 29) has Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx as Top Gun fighter pilots out to neutralize a runaway jet manned by artificial intelligence. Rob Cohen (XXX and The Fast and the Furious) directs. The Great Raid (August 12) is based on the true story in which 500 American soldiers are rescued from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines. John Dahl (Rounders and Red Rock West) directs. And armed conflict slops onto civilian life as director Tony Scott (Man on Fire) continues his courtship of graphic violence in Domino (August 12), which is loosely based on real-life former Ford model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley).

The remaking of rather sacred cows is getting to be a frequent recurrence. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 15) credits Roald Dahl’s book as source material, but it will take a Herculean effort from Johnny Depp to dislodge Gene Wilder as the definitive Willie Wonka. Director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and, yes, the Planet of the Apes remake) is providing the phantasmagoric eye candy. The Bad News Bears (July 22) resurfaces with Billy Bob Thornton as the manager of a team of Little League losers, under the direction of Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunset). And Steve Martin attempts to fill the late Peter Sellers’ well-worn gumshoes as bumbling inspector Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther (August 5).

The trend of remaking Japanese ghost stories also continues with Dark Water (August 12), in which a leaky ceiling points the way to a portal to an afterlife for a mom (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter—a radical change of pace for director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries).

The Honeymooners

The Dukes of Hazzard (August 5), based on the popular TV series of 1979 to 1985, revives the “good ol’ boy” tomfoolery of muscle-car cousins Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville). Willie Nelson is aboard as moonshiner Uncle Jesse, and Burt Reynolds as Commissioner Boss Hogg. Cars also play a prominent role in Herbie: Fully Loaded (June 24), with Lindsay Lohan in the driver’s seat of the miraculous love bug and Matt Dillon mugging it up as her NASCAR rival.

Couples come together in two romantic comedies. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (August 19) stars Steve Carell as a wallflower electronics-store clerk who falls for a mother of three (Catherine Keener). Prepare for lots of smooches from pooches in Must Love Dogs (August 5), as a divorced preschool teacher (Diane Lane) finds romance on the Internet with a dog-loving race-boat builder (John Cusack). And a couple comes apart at the seams because of adultery in the darkly comic Romance & Cigarettes (August 19), which sports a very impressive cast (James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mary-Louise Parker and Christopher Walken) under director-actor John Turturro.

Thrillers include Wes Craven’s Red-Eye (August 5), in which a passenger aboard a flight from Dallas to Miami is forced to help the slimeball sitting next to her kill a rich businessman, or he will kill her father. George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (June 24) is full of dead men and women walking. And just when you thought it was safe to go spelunking again, along comes The Cave (August 26), in which American explorers underneath the ruins of a 13th-century abbey in Romania bump headlamps with a new species.

War of the Worlds

Foreign-film fans are not left out of the loop either. Secuestro Express (August 5) is about an affluent young couple held for ransom by three thugs in Caracas, Venezuela. Legendary filmmaker Tsui Hark (the Once Upon a Time in China series) and martial-arts master Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) pool their talents to introduce a mystic realm in Zu Warriors (August 19) that guards the mortal universe. And Night Watch (July 29) is the first installment of a Russian trilogy based on the novels of Sergie Lukyanenko, in which a medieval truce between forces of light and darkness is threatened by the emergence of a third powerful force known as “Other.”

Documentaries have made a strong showing on the film circuit the last few years, and a few are headed our way. David LaChapelle’s Rize (June 24) captures the “krumping” dance phenomenon that he encountered on the set of Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty” music video. In March of the Penguins (June 24), French director Luc Jacquet trails a flock of the tuxedoed creatures in Antarctica for 13 months. The Aristocrats (August 5) goes backstage, where more than 100 comedians stand up and do their thing in front of us and each other. And Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (August 5) uses video footage of the late Timothy Treadwell, who spent 14 summers among Alaskan bears, to comment on the turmoil of the human soul.

The Wedding Crashers

Sacramento contributes to the summer film fare with the fourth annual Sacramento French Film Festival, which runs for two weekends at the Crest Theatre (July 15-17 and 23-24). This year, festival programmer Cécile Mouette-Downs mixes both French and local film shorts with Gallic features. And the Crest also hosts a Saturday-night Trash Film Orgy (June 25 through July 30) that exhumes such dubious treasures as Re-Animator, Polyester and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

So, there it is: barely the tip of the cinematic iceberg, yet just about something for everyone.