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Our annual discerning guide to summer cinema.

Know what's progress? In 1977 and '78, the big summer movies were Star Wars and Superman. Twenty-five years later, they're Star Wars Episode 2 and Spider-Man. Now that is evolution in action.

Sarcasm aside, this summer's movies have a lot to offer. Not only are the two most McDonaldized juggernauts now behind us, we can look forward to a season almost entirely free of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jim Carrey and John Travolta. And superheroes. And Jar Jar. The clouds just parted and birds are chirping.

The following list of ouchless summer movies may even contain a few gems. Last year I was right about Ghost World, but failed to mention the hilarious parody Wet Hot American Summer or the compellingly twisted time-travel story, Donnie Darko (my favorite movie of 2001). Who knows what neat little flicks will rise to the top this year, initially drowned out by the buzz of larger movies?


The Local Scene

SORRY TO SAY, THERE'S not a lot of local-film action around Tucson this summer. The annual Bisbee Film Fest is on hiatus, and even festival guru Vikki Dempsey is taking a break after 10 years of thoughtful video-art shows. As for The Screening Room, it currently lacks solid summer plans, though a festival of rejected TV pilots is set for the fall.

What you can look forward to is a steady stream of foreign and indie offerings at The Loft, and more midnight movies of 1980s classics at Cineplex Odeon Catalina. Upcoming films include A Fish Called Wanda and Wargames. For more information call 881-0616.


Star Wars vs. Spider-Man

NOW ABOUT THOSE juggernauts. Previously in this newspaper, a critic put down Attack of the Clones for bad screenwriting and whatnot. True as this is, I couldn't hate the movie. It's Star Wars and I'm hooked. Even if the next movie consists of Jar Jar Binks reading the phone book to Ewoks for two hours, I'll pitch a tent outside and wait.

That said, I did have one big problem with Attack of the Clones. No, not the love scene in the grassy Teletubbies world. ("Again! Again!") My problem is that clearly Anakin has Oppositional Defiant Disorder (professional diagnosis), yet the Jedis set him up with a mentor, Obi-Wan, who just graduated. Obi-Wan can barely fend off a bounty hunter with a metal wastebasket over his head, let alone dispense discipline to an arrogant upstart. Why not make Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) Anakin's mentor instead? Nobody talks back to Samuel L. Jackson. Really, they could have avoided this whole "Darth Vader" thing entirely.

I have an even bigger problem with Spider-Man. No, not the fact that his wrist goo is biological rather than some sort of sleeved Super-Soaker device like in the comic book. And no, not the "anachrophobia" of a 1960s comic-book world forced to merge with 2002 New York. What bugged me was (1) Tobey Maguire confessing his life-long love to Kirsten Dunst followed by (2) a "let's just be friends" speech when she reciprocates. What an idiot. Superman jumped right in the sack with Lois Lane, you know. Are Tobey's tights too tight? It's Kirsten Dunst.


Other Fantasy/Sci-Fi Movies

IF A HUMAN spider and flying R2D2 weren't enough for you, you still have options, fantasy-wise. Steven Spielberg has completely emptied his box of blue-filtered lenses for Minority Report (which kinda sounds like a working title for Amistad). Tom Cruise stars, once again, as the top gun in his field--only this time that field is "specialist in the pre-emptive arrest of future criminals." Not quite as snappy sounding as "jet pilot," is it? The previews are enticing--especially those robot spiders that look like frisky coat hangers.

Reign of Fire stars Matthew McConaughy and Christian American Psycho Bale in the first post-apocalyptic dragonslayer movie ever--certainly an achievement. It does look like dumb fun. So does Eight-Legged Freaks, starring David Arquette and lots of golf-cart-sized CGI spiders. I guess spiders are hot this year. Crickets are out.


Sequels II: Return of the Sequels

FEAR NOT, THERE are only four big sequels (not counting Star Wars) this summer. The one I'm most likely to see is Men in Black II, despite the absence of Linda Fiorentino. (What happened to her?) The original was sharp, fast, witty and designed to be sequelized. It's a good sign when the original director returns, and Barry Sonnenfeld is sure to keep things zipping along like he did the first time.

Also returning to helm his sequel is Richard Rodriguez, whose Spy Kids was an enjoyable combination of James Bond movie and Pee-Wee's Playhouse. In addition to parents Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, Spy Kids 2 features Steve Buscemi and Ricardo Montalban.

Speaking of Bond takeoffs, the third installment of Austin Powers looks avoidable. Titled, then untitled, then retitled Goldmember after paying a settlement to James Bond's lawyers, the Mike Myers franchise was already out of steam the last time around. If you're in the mood for more midgets, cleverly concealed body parts and character names that sound like genitals, go for it--but please don't absorb "groovy, baby" into your personal lingo. That's so year 2000.

As for Stuart Little II, personally, I find it hard to justify driving to the movie theater and paying good money to watch Geena Davis interact with a mouse. But that's just me.


Sequels I Wish They'd Make

O Brother, Where Art My Car?; The Others 2: Another Others; Life as a Studio Apartment; Moulon Beige; The Curse of the Jade Scorpion King; American Beauty II: Let's Have Another Look at That Floating Bag; Hedwig II: Another Inch!; Crouching Bush, Hidden Cheney; The Tuxedo 2: Cummerbund; Harry Potter and The Creepy Priest; Proof of Life 2: Refutation of Life; Gummo 2: Nicorette Gummo; The Man Who Still Wasn't There; Pay It Forward 2: Lay-Away; A.I. Warshawski; 1 Conversation About 13 Things and 12 Angry Men 2: Pig-Bitin' Mad!


Action: Non-Serious

THE difference between a serious and a non-serious action movie is that one ends with a heartfelt speech and the other ends, for instance, with a prolonged fight sequence inside a crash-test dummy lab. You'll see a lot of dummies in ...

XXX, starring Vin Diesel. This is just your average "extreme-sports player gets hired as an international spy" movie. The director of The Fast and the Furious returns with more muscle cars, more chase scenes and more Diesel. (You just know Vin Diesel's real name is probably Herman or Melvin or something.)

The Bourne Identity proves, once and for all, that Matt Damon can run. If you had any doubts about his track and field skills, doubt no longer. Damon even has Run Lola Run star Franka Potente along to set the pace. Actually, the Robert Ludlum story is about a spy who loses his memory, which is kinda like being a TV-news anchor and losing your ego. Eventually it all comes back to him and then Damon runs some more. This could be decent--director Doug Liman showed lots of promise with Go.

Bad Company, sadly, does not feature Anthony Hopkins singing such rock anthems as "Feel Like Makin' Love" and "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy." Instead, he's buddied up with Chris Rock, a hapless soul who must inhabit the CIA-spy shoes of his deceased twin brother. A plot based on twins ... two men who become buddies ... I've never heard of anything like it. Could Joel Schumacher, director of the final two Batman films, be on to something new here?

Among all these films, my vote goes to Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo. The premise is that Chan doesn't want to fight, but the suit makes him. The sight of Chan doing amazing stunts while acting surprised should be funny. Jennifer Love Hewitt has been enlisted for additional martial-arts bouncing.

If that does well, expect more Jackie Chan imports (complete with bad dubbing) and enjoy him while you can--Chan only has a few more movies in him before his damaged spine disowns him.


Action: Serious

I'VE NEVER BEEN A big fan of action movies that take themselves seriously. Especially not Tom Clancy-based movies, which seem to fetishize government officials and high-tech equipment. The Sum of All Fears, the latest Clancy adaptation, revolves around terrorists getting nukes from a former Soviet country to set off in the U.S. during the Super Bowl. Don't expect to go home laughing. Somehow, Harrison Ford has been replaced with Ben Affleck in the recurring Jack Ryan role, which is fine as long as Ben doesn't eventually end up cracking whips and holding up golden idols while shouting, "This belongs in a museum!"

Harrison Ford has bigger fish to fry. He's in K-19: The Widowmaker, playing the commander of a Russian nuclear submarine that has a meltdown. Supposedly this is a true story and there's a moral dilemma about whether to let the crew live. Fun, fun, fun. Katharyn Bigelow directs.

Windtalkers, in spite of its unfortunate title, seems fairly promising. It's a John Woo action yarn revolving around the Navajo tribesmen whose indecipherable language was used to confuse the Japanese during WWII. The main question is: Which will be first to go completely over the top? Nicholas Cage's acting or Woo's directing?

I'm not sure if Rabbit-Proof Fence is really an action film, but it's directed by Philip Noyce, who has an extensive action résumé. It's a true story following three aboriginal Australians who, in 1931, were captured as slaves ("domestic servants"), but they then escaped and journeyed over 1,500 miles home. Starring Kenneth Branagh and not likely to feature explosions, it's probably the most tasteful of the bunch.


Suspense, Crime and Horror

WANT TO HEAR THE creepiest crime-drama premise ever? The latest from Clint Eastwood follows a retired FBI director who has just had a heart transplant, and is then hired to investigate the death of the woman whose heart is in his body. Ewwww.

They might be just as creepy, but it's hard to tell what They is about. Something to do with a bunch of people who have the same recurring nightmares. Or so They's press release says.

Pandora's Box is a psychological thriller featuring an all African-American cast. I couldn't quite figure out the plot of this one either. If you're curious maybe you should ask They.

Swimfan appears to be a horror film about a high-school couple on the swim team who are seduced and then stalked by the new girl in town ... or something. What is it with these press releases? Have they all been written by They?

At least Halloween: The Homecoming is decipherable. A handful of people win an Internet contest to spend a weekend in the house where Michael Myers went a-killin'. Of course, it's all fun and games until somebody loses a head.

But the scariest movie of all has got to be the re-release of Cinema Paradiso with nearly an hour of additional footage. Director Guiseppe Tornatore's original was fine at two hours. What are They thinking?


Movies With Wuv in Them

ROMANCE SNUGGLES VERY well next to both comedy and tragedy. You get plenty of the latter in Unfaithful, a tale of adultery from director Adrian Lyne, who gave us Fatal Attraction. For having such a simple plot and such generic characters, this is a surprisingly effective and even-handed drama. But why is it that when a man cheats on his wife in Fatal Attraction, the marriage is salvageable, but when the reverse happens in Unfaithful everyone is doomed?

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is one of those romantic-comedy-dramas that even the director (who in this cases is Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri) admits is a "chick flick." Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and Ellen Burstyn star in a story about Southern Belles that spans multiple generations. Oh, man.

Pumpkin stars Christina Ricci, who herself used to resemble a pumpkin (in a good way) and starred in movies about Halloween themes. Ricci now appears to have shrunk, both in size and in indie-film stature. In Pumpkin she plays a sorority girl who falls in love with a mentally challenged fellow. Who knows? Maybe it's OK. Let me know.

Igby Goes Down is a coming-of-age dramatic comedy in which Kieran Culkin searches for sane life outside of prep school. The cast includes Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman, Ryan Phillippe, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet and Claire Danes, so it has potential.

Tadpole is another coming-of-age romantic comedy, also about a prep-school kid. This one has the 15-year-old protagonist becoming entangled with Sigourney Weaver. (Remember: It only works in this direction. Older men with minor females is unseemly and wrong. I heard it from They.)

About a Boy, which I caught last week, isn't so much a romance as a story of friendship. It's perhaps the sweetest movie you'll ever see that doesn't also make you want to puke. The characters are so well-developed you actually miss them after you leave the theater.


Auteur Directors

THESE ARE THE MOVIES whose directors are of more interest than their stars. Signs, for example, comes to us from M. Night Shyamalan--he of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. This time, the portentous mystery involves crop circles--are they from landing spacecraft? You can be certain there will be some sort of twist, or twists, to watch for ... like, maybe the circles were made by dead people. Mel Gibson stars.

The Road to Perdition is director Sam Mendes' first film since he won the Oscar for American Beauty. Only somebody riding high on Oscarmania would put the word "perdition" in his movie's title. It means "eternal damnation," as in Hell, as in why didn't they just call it The Road to Hell? Tom Hanks stars along with Paul Newman and Jude Law in a story about a mobster hit man who seeks revenge after his family is killed. Sadly, the floating bag from American Beauty was not cast and recently hosted an infomercial.

Full Frontal is either Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to sex, lies and videotape... or his homage to Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, depending on what interview you read. It stars Julia Roberts, David Duchovny and several others in a complicated A-likes-B-but-B-likes-C unrequited-love story set in the behind-the-scenes world of movie people.

Possession comes to us from Neil LaBute, of In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty fame. LaBute continues his transition from writer about human cruelty to creator of gooey love tale. Here he follows parallel romances between scholars Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow and the Victorian poets they're studying.

John Sayles goes all ensembly on us again (last time was Passion Fish) with Sunshine State, which takes place somewhere south of Georgia and north of the Florida Keys.

Insomnia, of course, is from Curtis Hanson--the Memento guy. Don't worry, it's not backwards. Reviews are very positive.

Curtis Hanson, best known for L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, has directed Eminem and Kim Basinger in 8 Mile. This definitely falls into the "I'll only see it if it gets excellent reviews" category.

Among the most promising of the auteur movies is P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler, of all people. We'll have to wait till the fall to find out what the Boogie Nights and Magnolia director has devised this time. Roller Girl, falling frogs ... Adam Sandler?

My pick for the fall, though, will be About Schmidt, directed by Alexander Payne (Election) and starring Jack Nicholson. I really liked Election.


My, Aren't You Cool

THESE ARE THE MOVIES for people in the know. 24-Hour Party People, for instance, is a must-see for anybody who claims to be a fan of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, or any of the artists associated with the Manchester Scene during the last 1970s and early '80s. (Me, I'm a fan of The Durutti Column.) The film appears to be a scatter-brained, low-budget biopic, but might be, like, cool.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is another biopic, following the stories of Robert Evans' inside-Hollywood rise to fame as a producer and Pal to the Stars. It's based on inside information inside Robert Evans' book, and it stars that insider, Robert Evans. It's very inside, so be sure to see it. Inside.

Prozac Nation should have many depressed fans of Elizabeth Wurtzel's novel (about a life-nonaffirming year at Harvard) shuffling their feet dejectedly to the local cineplex. Christina Ricci stars, and allegedly does her first nude scene. Line up now.

CQ has everything a retro-loving hipster could want--it's directed by Roman Coppola--with a soundtrack by Mellow, so there's a strong The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, the French band Air) connection. It also has a story set in the middle of the 1960s French pop and French sci-fi scene, and Jeremy "Spanking the Monkey" Davies in the lead role.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, starring Jodie Foster, has perhaps the worst-timed movie title ever, but its premise about Catholic boys who create a subversive comic book does look intriguing.

If you want to see recent Cannes winners such as Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Michael Moore's documentary about gun nuts, Bowling for Columbine, you'll probably have to wait a few months.


Comedies: Funny

I DON'T CARE IF he hasn't had a single good movie beyond Wayne's World, I am looking forward to Dana Carvey's Master of Disguise. (Carvey has been lost to us for the last few years due to a whopping five open-heart surgeries.)

The Good Girl, featuring Jennifer Aniston, seems worth a look. She plays a woman torn between her pothead boyfriend (the always-great John C. Reilly) and a guy who thinks he's Holden Caulfield (Jake Gyllenhal). I like the cast, plus it's directed by Mike White, the very quirky yet compassionate force behind Chuck & Buck.

One-Hour Photo gets my vote not because it stars Robin Williams as a clerk who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops, but because the family is headed by Gary Cole, who was so great in Office Space and The Brady Bunch Movie.


Comedies: Not Funny

THESE ARE IFFY. S1m0ne, starring Al Pacino as a movie producer who creates a computerized "virtual actress" that develops a life of her own--kinda like that animated woman in Final Fantasy. S1m0ne has that high-concept, it'll-be-funnier-if-we-put-numbers-in-the-title feeling. That's not a good feeling.

Frank McClusky, C.I., starring Dave Sheridan as a safety-obsessed guy who wears a helmet at all times and still lives with parents Randy Quaid and Dolly Parton, seems mildly amusing. But how funny could it be if they couldn't even come up with a decent title?

Mr. Deeds is Adam Sandler's latest, about a rich guy with a heart of gold. Winona Ryder co-stars as part of her punishment for shoplifting.

Undercover Brother seems like a cute blaxploitation spoof, but I sense that all best gags are in the trailer. It goes from that witty "blackness confirmed" elevator bit to the Denise Richards catfight in about 10 seconds, which is roughy how long it takes a Saturday Night Live skit to fall on its butt.

In A Guy Thing, Jason Lee throws a bachelor party before his wedding to Selma Blair, but wakes up next to Julia Stiles with no idea what happened. I'm getting a bad Three's Company feeling here. The only funny bachelor party movie is Bachelor Party.


Comedies: Really Not Funny

THOUGH I'M SURE it's better than Freddie Got Fingered, I'm still not getting near Jackass: The Movie. Why pay to see someone cover himself in feces when you can babysit and see it for free?

Eddie Murphy's Pluto Nash might be a funny sci-fi gambling comedy, but you gotta wonder about any movie that was shelved for over a year, like this was (they've done lots of reshoots).

As for Scooby-Doo, I'd rather listen to Casey Kasem scream obscenities for two hours than sit through another film starring Matthew Lillard--even if he is perfectly cast as Shaggy. The big questions about Scooby-Doo are, "Did the world really need a Scooby-Doo movie?" and "Is it okay if I eat dry Froot Loops from the box while watching it?" Expect loads of pot jokes, a few mildly amusing cameos, and a clever take on the unmasking of the villain.

Serving Sara involves a gold digger who discovers a loophole in the way the divorce process papers are served. Matthew Perry, Elizabeth Hurley and Bruce Campbell are in the cast. I'll wait till it's an in-flight movie and watch it without sound.

When I saw the title of Slap Her, She's French, I was hoping somebody was going to try to get that look off Amelie's face. Alas, this is not what the movie is about.


Animated

THE BIGGIES THIS SUMMER are Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (horses--yawn) and Lilo & Stitch (yet another cartoon that strives to be knowing about its cartoondom). A redeeming factor for Lilo & Stitch, to me, is that one of the voices is done by the hilarious Kids in the Hall member Kevin McDonald, who seems like he could use the work.

Hey, Arnold! The Movie is based on some Nickelodeon program. The story involves stopping a developer from building a mall and ruining the main characters' neighborhood. I like those people at Nickelodeon.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie probably looks just like the show, which I watched the other day and was surprised to find is really violent. It makes those vicious old Tom & Jerry cartoons look like Mr. Rogers Takes Quaaludes. Nonetheless, the Powerpuff Girls are cooler than they have any right to be. If you know who Mojo Jojo is, take pride.


Wanna Give Your Kids Nightmares?

EASY. JUST TAKE THEM to see the rockin' musical The Country Bears. Not only do these furry freaks make the evil Chuck E. Cheese animatrons look like tribbles in comparison, they all answer to Christopher Walken. There is something wrong with any movie that teams up talking, dancing bears and Christopher Walken. Also, one of the voices is done by the Village of the Damned-like Haley Joel Osment. (I'll bet he sees dead bears.) Look, if you really want to hear music by Don Henley, John Hiatt, Elton John, Brian Setzer, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, take a stack of quarters to the Waffle House and remember--beware of bears.


Hey, Sports Fans!

THESE PICTURES ARE PRETTY sporty. The sportiest of the bunch is Kung-Fu Soccer, an import that press notes allege is the most successful Hong Kong movie of all time. With their fancy movies, these guys make Pele look like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.

Basketball aficionados might like Like Mike, which stars teen hip-hop artist Lil Bow Wow as a boy who finds a pair of magical sneakers (flubber?) that allow him to play basketball with the pros. Crispin Glover and Eugene Levy are in this--maybe it's OK.

Blue Crush is a romantic action movie feature women surfers, including Michelle Rodriguez, who has the sexiest eyes since Lauren Bacall. But Bacall didn't surf.

In case you were wondering what happened to the guy who directed the "Wassup?" commercials, he's been making Drumline, a story about African-American marching bands in Southern schools.

Finally, though the sport isn't as big in Tucson as it was a few million years ago, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course features Australian Steve Irwin as a tracker who tries to save a crocodile which has swallowed a top-secret satellite beacon.


Keep Waiting

MARTIN SCORSESE'S Gangs of New York, which was originally supposed to come out in the summer of 2001, will very likely be released in December of this year.

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