The coolest seat in town

Going to a movie remains one of the better ways to beat Sacramento’s unrelenting summer heat. Here are some of this season’s onscreen options.

The Chronicles of Riddick, Catwoman, The Bourne Supremacy

The Chronicles of Riddick, Catwoman, The Bourne Supremacy

Childhood memories of surviving sizzling summers in North Highlands during the 1960s now feel like a blurred demilitarized zone between historical footnote and suburban legend. Teen rascal and quasi-anthropologist Mike Flanders once fried eggs in the middle of meandering Larchmont Drive as proof of the season’s potential lethality. But there were many ways to persevere.

My parents’ home was the site of the neighborhood’s first Doughboy pool. Summer refugees passed under a “We don’t play in your toilet, so please don’t pee in our pool” sign on the patio into our 3-foot deep oasis to cool down or maybe nearly drown, depending on the size and temperament of the crowd that day. A neighbor’s Slip’N Slide, a water-lubricated plastic runway on which dashing youngsters could flop and skid for some 20 feet before plowing into a patch of lawn that quickly devolved into a mud hole, served as an alternate source of refreshment.

Around the corner lived a trucker. One summer, his three sons stood several 5-foot-high cylindrical freight containers in their driveway and turned them into hose-fed dunk tanks. Popsicle-truck drivers doubled as anti-swelter paramedics, and impromptu Kool-Aid stands would sprout up and then suddenly be siphoned dry by young entrepreneurs who were usually thirstier than they were patient.

Rooftop swamp coolers held the screaming outdoor climate at bay. And trips to the nearby lake and rivers all had their appeal. But nothing had quite the same allure and therapeutic rush as an air-conditioned movie theater. Maybe it was the hushed voices and dim lighting that added to the reverential aura of piped-in refrigeration. Hollywood didn’t really care about the why. But Hollywood did care about box-office receipts. And if professionally regulated temperatures helped sell tickets, then, in the name of all things cha-ching, the movie ads would trumpet such luxury right alongside the names of marquee stars.

With the eventual proliferation of central air, this marketing feature began to shrivel in value. Chilled theater air lost some of its mysticism and eminence. People who went first to enjoy the coolness and second to see a particular movie now found their priorities reversed. They wanted more bang for their buck and more of what they knew they liked. They should have been more careful about what they wished for.

Shrek 2

Hollywood responded to this heresy with its own summer blockbuster mentality that demanded more bucks for every bang. Marketing geniuses once adamant about advertising theaters as “fully” air-conditioned now peddle huge budgets, special-effects orgies, sequels and remakes as flags of glory.

For every sexy, exhilarating X-Men, we have been battered with several noisy, bloated Armageddons. For every superb X2: X-Men United, we must dodge several catatonic Speed 2: Cruise Controls. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have taken most of the heat for initially feeding this “bigger is better” syndrome, while the universal infiltration of such heating-and-air companies as Trane and Carrier is never mentioned. And so it goes as we take a look at some of the many upcoming major motion pictures and the trickle of alternative or indie titles whose opening dates, noted below, sometimes change as the season progresses.

Sequels and a prequel: Audience familiarity to studio product and brawny budgets are the biggest drivers, again, behind most of this summer’s popcorn releases, which have evolved, or perhaps devolved, into a new genre: the big-budget popcorn sequel.

Shrek 2 (May 21) takes a sort of Meet the Parents slant as Fiona introduces her new green hubby to her folks, and her father begins plotting to separate the love-struck ogres. Expect the same wacky mix of wisecracks, flatulence, music and fairy-tale irreverence.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (June 4) begins year three at Hogwarts with mass murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) escaping from prison as wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) walks among the landmines of puberty. The story, under the direction of Y tu mamá también’s Alfonso Cuarón, takes a darker dramatic edge than its predecessors.

The Chronicles of Riddick (June 11) features Vin Diesel battling a galactic despot and his necromonger army in this sequel to Pitch Black.

Alien vs. Predator

Spider-Man 2 (July 2) has Tobey Maguire again as Spidey/Peter Parker, who reunites with romantic interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) as half-octopus Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina) plots his demise. Before Sunset (July 2) begins nine years after the one-night Vienna courtship of Before Sunrise, with director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy all returning. The Bourne Supremacy (July 23), the sequel to last year’s top-renting video, features Matt Damon and Franka Potente as a globe-hopping CIA assassin and his lover in another conspiracy-thriller.

In Alien vs. Predator (August 13), a research expedition exploring an Aztec pyramid underneath the Antarctic stumbles across some menacing iconic creatures; Resident Evil’s Paul W.S Anderson directs. Princess Mia (Anne Hathaway) needs to wed to replace her retiring queen grandmother (Julie Andrews) in Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement (August 11). Exorcist: The Beginning (August 20) traces the story of Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) back to his first encounter with Satan in post-World War II Africa. Renny Harlin directs.

Remakes and updates: In the “Why don’t they leave cult classics alone?” category, Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Glenn Close and an orgasm-feigning Faith Hill headline in an update of the 1975 feminist thriller The Stepford Wives (June 11). The world may not need another version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (June 16), especially one starring Jackie Chan and directed by Frank Coraci (The Waterboy), but all-star cameos including Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish prince may provide some levity.

Hilary Duff stars in A Cinderella Story (July 16), in which the legendary ball and glass slipper are replaced with the Internet and a cell phone. And Denzel Washington goes paranoid with good reason in an update of the 1962 cold-war brainwashing conspiracy The Manchurian Candidate (July 30).

Special-effects galore: Independence Day director Roland Emmerich subjects us to the fallout of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow (May 28), with Dennis Quaid racing to save stranded son Jake Gyllenhaal from a tidal wave that is about to crush Manhattan. I, Robot (July 16) plops Will Smith in the year 2035, where he investigates the death of a U.S. Robotics-employed inventor just days before his latest model is released on the domestic market. Visionary Alex Proyas (The Crow and Dark City) directs. Halle Berry’s breasts may be real, but her flesh-baring cat suit certainly qualifies as a special effect, as Catwoman (July 23) breaks from DC Comics mythology to allow current kitty to purr, growl, crack a mean whip and alley-fight with Sharon Stone.

Raising Helen

Oscar cachet: Revenge and greed are at the core of The Clearing (May 21), in which Robert Redford is a millionaire with skeletons in his closet, and Willem Dafoe is his kidnapper. Tom Hanks plays a Balkan emigrant without a valid passport in The Terminal (June 18), who is forced to live within John F. Kennedy International Airport after a coup erupts in his homeland. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays his stewardess love interest; Steven Spielberg directs. The marriage of boozing, womanizing children’s-book author Ted Cole and his wife (Jeff Bridges and Kim Bassinger together for the first time since 1987’s Nadine) may or may not survive the death of their two sons in The Door in the Floor (June 23). De-Lovely (June 25) looks at the career, music, platonic marriage to a socialite (Ashley Judd) and homosexual affairs of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline). And a hit man (Tom Cruise) carjacks a Los Angeles taxi and driver (Jamie Foxx) while executing contracts in Collateral (August 6), under director Michael Mann (The Insider and Ali).

Comedy: Kate Hudson plays a career girl in Raising Helen (May 28) who moves in with her three nieces after her sister dies and wants to be both friend and parent. Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller head up a team of gym rats and misfits in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (June 18). Marlon and Shawn Wayans, under the direction of co-writer and kin Keenen Ivory Wayans, go undercover as white women in White Chicks (June 23) to investigate a spate of debutante kidnappings. Old School’s Will Ferrell leads a macho group of newsmen threatened by the arrival of a female associate (Christina Applegate) in Anchorman (July 9).

Drama: The Notebook, based on another book from prolific former Fair Oaks resident Nicholas Sparks, is a Kleenex-box love story in which James Garner reads aloud to Gena Rowlands the story of two North Carolina young lovers (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams) separated by World War II. Separation is also the key word in We Don’t Live Here Anymore (August 13) as two couples (Laura Dern, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts and Peter Krause) are shredded by midlife crisis and adultery.

Adventure: Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) takes us back to 400 A.D., where Clive Owen stars as King Arthur (July 7), with visits to the Round Table, a love triangle and non-geometric battlefields.

Talking to Live Creatures: M. Night Shyamalan courts the supernatural and another twist ending with The Village (July 30), in which residents of an 1897 Pennsylvania hamlet (Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and Sigourney Weaver) make a volatile truce with the mystical creatures living in the surrounding woods.

The summer also includes several tentatively scheduled documentaries (including the surfing homage Riding Giants) and a re-release of a current cult favorite (Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko). Even so, possibly the coolest pending lineup is a homespun marvel of inventive festival programming by Cécile Mouette Downs: the third annual French Film Festival at the Crest Theatre (June 16-18). In an inspired move, the lineup will include five films not distributed in the United States; several local premieres; and classics from the 1960s, such as Jacques Tati’s Playtime. So far, increasing popularity of the festival suggests Downs is carving out a much-needed niche.