Summer Lovin' at the Movies

The looming red figures swinging from movie multiplexes and crouched on the sides of buildings, the consumer product tie-ins and the clever slogans paid off: This year's first summer blockbuster opened to the tune of $114 million in box office sales. As to the movie, most of the best parts of Spider-Man are the parts with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst cooing. The special effects, despite their dazzling perfection, come off a little too shiny. The irony hangs around us like a sagging web: a $139 million budget, miles of latex and endless man-hours of computer animation -- and the best moments still come from good ol' human chemistry.

The bar continues to rise on the stratospheric expectations for summer movies. Blockbusters have become economic powerhouses with budgets the size of small countries (Spidey's was almost three times U.S. aid to El Salvador since 1999, just for perspective). The Los Angeles Times reports that the studios are "engaged in a checkbook war to manufacture successors to such aging action heroes as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis." New action stars don't even have to slog their way up from "Conan the Barbarian," anymore. Now, they're plucked straight from the WWF (cf. The Rock) or wherever and hyped directly into $10 million-a-movie stardom. Every year, it seems like the hype has reached its apex, and every year, it escalates.

Faced with all of this, we movie-goers have a dilemma: Can we indulge our summer movie craving -- our jones for action, fluff, schmaltz and star-power, a desire as deep as that for fake butter -- without feeling that some part of our soul has been pre-packaged, franchised and sold?

The answer is no. But if you're anything like the rest of us, chances are you'll go see at least one or two of this summer's releases anyway. With summer movies, it's sometimes useful to think of them not in terms of what will be good, but what kind of emotional reaction they are likely to provoke. Are you in the mood to laugh, cry, or have your fight-or-flight instinct triggered?

(Disclaimer: only hopelessly compromised Hollywood insiders get invited to preview screenings. It's not as if the author has actually seen these movies.)

A MOVIE THAT MAY INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING NOOKIE

Secretary (James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhal, opens August 9) seems like summer's most promising date-movie. Remember James Spader? Think feathered hair and unctuous demeanor. He broke the evil yuppie mold in the John Hughes teen flick, "Pretty in Pink." A card-carrying member of the Brat Pack, Spader got a bit stuck in the slimy rich kid rut until "Sex, Lies and Videotape." With that 1989 homage to the psychosexual, writer-director Steven Soderbergh and Spader managed to make strange sexual neuroses seem ... pretty hot. Now Spader stars in what is supposed to be a romantic comedy with an S&M twist. Bondage, dominance and a hot, evil yuppie. How can you resist?

A MOVIE THAT WILL MAKE YOU THINK ABOUT NOOKIE IN NEW WAYS

Speaking of Soderbergh, the director's latest, Full Frontal (Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, opens August 2) is being billed as a "sequel-in-spirit" to none other than Sex, Lies and Videotape. An actor falls in love with a magazine writer, digital cameras get involved, mind games ensue. Despite the bloated "Ocean's Eleven," Soderbergh is a real storyteller, and it's exciting to have him working his magic in a quick, low-budget labor of kinky love. If he can pull off some of the alchemy that once managed to make Andie MacDowell seem less than annoying (in Sex, Lies), then Full Frontal should be truly sexy.

MOVIES THAT WILL GIVE YOU A KICKASS ADRENALINE RUSH

Action movies are not films. They are nighttime alternatives to amusement parks. As with roller coasters, we overdose on sugar and salt, the rush leaves us slightly nauseous and head-achey, and we don't pretend to have had an enriching cultural experience. The ability to appreciate Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Akira Kurosawa is not mutually exclusive with a love of action movies.

That said, the 2002 summer action movies are reaching some kind of apocalyptic peak. Much like reality TV, they're now so extreme that the whole affair smacks of Roman decadence and makes me feel that we must have peaked as a culture if we are so numb that we need these kind of stunts to feel alive.

But I've been saying that for years. I'm still going to see the straight-to-Imax release, ESPN's Ultimate X (Travis Pastrana, Brian Burnquist, opens May 10). Granted, it's an Imax-sized commercial for ESPN's X Games, but ... holy God. In the preview, dirt bikes fly skywards. The shots tease the audience with the promise of what's going to happen to these people when gravity kicks in. The voice-over is from an athlete detailing his injuries; "I've broken 26 bones, I've been in surgery 6 times..." It's enough to make Jackie Chan proud (he who has broken every bone in his body at least once).

Of the other movies with the letter X in the title, the big-budget extreme action marketing-fest of the year is Triple X (Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, opens August 2). The Hollywood machine is positioning XXX as the 007 for the Maxim crowd; the idea is, hype Vin Diesel like a star and pay him like a star, and maybe he'll turn into a star. Diesel, formerly Mark Vincent, was plucked from the surprise car-action movie hit "The Fast and the Furious." He has a sexy voice and an even sexier body, but despite the buzz from The Fast and the Furious, he's no Sean Connery. As one Hollywood insider says, "Let's just put it this way: In The Fast and the Furious, they filmed Diesel's big emotional scene about the death of his father with Diesel facing away from the camera."

A MOVIE FOR A NICE CATHARTIC, TEAR-JERK

It wouldn't be a complete summer movie line-up without something that necessitates a nice big box of Kleenex. "Pearl Harbor" tried to serve this purpose last summer, but kind of only managed to make us snort fitfully.

The obvious candidate for this summer's cry-fest is Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, opens June 7), based on the surprise bestseller by Rebecca Wells. The book's strong suit is the friendships among the four older women, said Ya-Yas. We live in a world swamped with buddy movies that laud the powerful bonds of male friendship (which by the way don't get denigrated as "guy movies" the way movies about female friendships get dismissed as "chick flicks"). So it's nice to see a movie about the ties between women. The book is kind of smarmy at times, and the movie promises to beef up the smarm (Sandra Bullock is kind of smarmy by nature, after all). But at least the women playing the older Ya-Yas are heavy-hitting actresses; Ellen Burstyn and Maggie Smith.

MOVIES THAT WILL MAKE YOU FEEL VIRTUOUS AND READY FOR THE COCKTAIL PARTY

"At last!!" the film buffs are saying. "Now we're on to something I might actually want to see." Yes, it's true, this summer actually looks mildly promising when it comes to good films. The problem is that unlike with movies like Triple X, it's a lot harder to predict what you're going to get with movies that are actually, well, original. It's impossible to say, at this point, which will be best, so tied for this nomination are:

Sunshine State (Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, opens June 21). From John Sayles, the writer-director who brought us "City of Hope" and "Lone Star," comes a movie about ... Florida. What could be better? A backdrop that summons every tabloid story of our time, urban sprawl and Falco and Bassett in the same movie.

The Last Kiss (Open August 2). This movie tied for the Sundance audience award, which means that at least in the thin mountain air of Utah, it was a crowd-pleaser. It's Italian, and involves romance and weddings.

Ivans XTC (Danny Huston, opens June 7). From the director of "Immortal Beloved" and "Candyman," comes a creepy thriller about Hollywood excess. Sometimes Hollywood is its own best critic.

CQ (Billy Zane, Dean Stockwell, opens May 24). From son-of-director-Francis, Roman Coppola, comes a movie set on a movie set. A '60s director tries to make an over-the-top sci-fi movie about 2001. The buzz is good.

A MOVIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL DIRTY, BUT STILL READY FOR THE COCKTAIL PARTY

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, opens June 14) has two scandalous titles: its own and "The Atomic Trinity," the title of a comic book created by the movie's hormonal Catholic pre-teen protagonists. It makes the Holy Trinity sound like a trio of butt-kicking super-heroes. It's all deliciously sacrilegious, or dangerous. With those edgy titles, this indie will either prove amazingly timely or amazingly unlucky, depending on how audiences are feeling about Cardinal Law in June. It does have Jodie Foster going for it, co-starring as a nun with a peg leg.

A MOVIE TO SEE WITH YOUR MOM

The Notorious C.H.O. (Margaret Cho, opens July 3) is crass, foul-mouthed, and includes a lot of material about Margaret Cho's self-proclaimed "fag hag" status. So it's not necessarily the obvious choice if your mother is easily shocked, or, on the other hand, it's the most obvious choice if you're out to shock your mother. But if your mama is hip, then this is the movie to see: It features the actual Cho family matriarch, Notorious M.O.M. Cho's impression of her mother is both hilarious and all-American, in a way that the producers of her short-lived ABC sitcom "All-American Girl" couldn't understand. When Cho's real genius is at work, she's too messy, too real and too in your face for primetime television. Her first movie, "I'm the One That I Want," was a kind of eulogy to her sitcom. The new movie covers more ground and is more purely derived from her stand-up routine, with no holds barred. Amen.

A MOVIE TO AVOID SEEING WITH YOUR MOM, AT ALL COSTS

This is an important warning. I made the mistake, once upon a time, of renting "Spanking the Monkey" and watching it with my parents in the living room of the house where I grew up. The movie involves masturbation and Oedipal sexual tension. Must ... not ... make eye contact ... with Dad...

I'm not sure anything could be quite that excruciating, but I would keep away from Tadpole (Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver, opens July 19) when visiting with the 'rents. The title isn't quite as masturbatory as Spanking the Monkey (what was I thinking?) but it does have an equal dose of Oedipal intrigue. In a Sundance festival acquisition frenzy, Miramax paid $5 million for this film, which was shot on digital video.

A MOVIE TO HELP X-FILES FANS WEAN THEMSELVES FROM THE MOTHER SHIP

M. Night Shymalan is out there making sure that everyone knows that Signs (Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, opens August 2) is not "Unbreakable," a never-ending film characterized by Entertainment Weekly as "gloomy and airless." Signs seems to take place entirely in a cornfield. Maybe it's a bright, airy cornfield.

In any case, E Weekly insiders say the buzz for Signs is good. And it's about time someone did the definitive crop circle pic. This movie could be methadone for the X-Files set. Now that their show has been cancelled, Signs has it all -- inexplicable codes, aliens and a spiffy, well-designed title sequence.

MOVIES TO SEE IN ORDER TO AVOID SEEING ATTACK OF THE CLONES

The makers of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, opens May 16) are assuring people that the hype has been toned down. The new movie is supposedly better, deeper, darker. The filmmakers seem to want our sympathy because they have showed restraint: This time, they haven't even launched a department store clothing line. This time Jar Jar does something funny that will make you forgive his past film transgressions.

Let me be frank. I don't care if Jar Jar Binks flagellates himself on-screen. With a budget the size of California's energy crisis, it's unforgivable to come up with something as devastatingly mediocre as "The Phantom Menace." Bumbling Jar Jar just happened to be brown and have a West Indian patois (could he be black?), and the scheming, spineless bad guys happened to wear Coolie hats and look like carp (could they be Asian?). But it's not even the mild racism that truly rankles. With that kind of money and the kind of blind enthusiasm that Star Wars provokes, Lucas could have hired the best creative minds in the business. So what does he do? He gives us Jar Jar.

We must stop rewarding this kind of behavior. "The Matrix" was no "Casablanca," but it proved that when enough attention is paid, action movies can come up with decent plots and characters. The mega-hype-franchise machines must be taught to spend some money on the damn script.

Instead of seeing Attack of the Clones, see Lovely and Amazing, a two-adjective release from the director of the two-gerund, Walking and Talking. See One Hour Photo (Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, opens August 21), in which Robin Williams tries to make up for "Patch Adams" by playing a psychopath. Or, if you're a fan of Al Pacino's hangdog face, you can catch Williams in yet another bad guy role in Insomnia (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, opens May 24).Hilary Swank also does co-star penance, as she attempts to make up for "The Affair of the Necklace."

Other bigger budget options include the morals-and-mobsters movie, Road to Perdition (Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, opens July 12), worthwhile if only to see Tom Hanks play a bad guy with a mustache. See Possession, in which the man who brought us "In the Company of Men" tries to direct Gwyneth Paltrow as a frumpy academic, or The Good Girl (Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, opens August 7), in which Aniston tries to play a frumpy cashier. See Windtalkers (Nicholas Cage, Adam Beach, opens June 14) for God's sake, the movie about Navajo Indians working as codetalkers for the U.S. Marines during World War II.

Just stay away from the clones. Even in the world of franchise movies and corporate mega-powers, where success is increasingly tied to branding, we must vote with our ten bucks and draw the line. We must send a message to the major studios. "We admit that we love the summer blockbusters," we must tell them. "But we will not stand for a total lack of plot, character and dialogue." We will not come over to the dark side.

Michelle Chihara is the senior writer at AlterNet.org

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