A few weeks ago the Los Angeles Times unveiled their Summer Sneaks section in which the hometown paper for the movie industry breathlessly and exhaustively reported on all the gigantic blockbusters (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, G.I. Joe, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, etc., etc.) that you apparently need to know about, as well as about 3,297 other movies to be uncorked between now and Labor Day, all of which add up to create the fevered season of hype known as a Hollywood summer. A week or so later Entertainment Weekly did the same thing. And I had to take note. I came of age in the summer of Jaws. I love the summer movie season. But I’m increasingly less impressed with the recycling of toys and comic books as the epicenter of the industry’s annual pitch for an ultimate orgasm of commerce and popcorn munching. This statement, you’ll remember, comes from a man who voted Speed Racer the best film of 2008, so you will understand that every preconception, prejudice and refusal has a glaring exception or two just waiting to jump out of the closet and expose folks like me as obvious hypocrites.
But really, it honestly is not very often that a surprise like Speed Racer gets logged in the banks of movie-going experiences. Granted, I thrilled to J.J. Abrams’ revisiting of Star Trek, even when moments before entering the theater I was still grumbling that I didn’t care about Star Trek anymore and was imagining a inevitably hollow, indifferent picture to follow the onslaught of trailers for more summer movies I don’t want to see. The ultimate triumph of Star Trek version 2009, besides being the most rousing entertainment of all the Star Trek movies (with the possible exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is that it reminded me why the universe of Star Trek still matters. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, was discovering that these iconic pop culture figures somehow still do matter, that at least I still have far more invested in them and their care than I was even consciously aware of having. Watching the youth restored to these characters while having their mythos honored the way it is here was refreshing and a relief. Far more than the Star Wars series, Star Trek is no longer the province of cultural mothballs but revitalized, clever and ready to engage once again. That in itself is the biggest summer treat mass audiences have been given and accepted in a long time. (Speed Racer operated in the same heady realm, and it’s a far better movie still, I think, but as you are no doubt aware very few took the Wachowski Brothers up on their invitation to play during May of last year.)
But even with the proof, in Star Trek, that my expectations could be so fundamentally off-base, it’s still hard for me to get excited, as Entertainment Weekly insists I should, about this summer’s big-ass slate of films. I thumbed through that “Summer Movie Preview” issue with “all the buzz on over 80 new films” and was bored stiff by the time I turned the page into the month of July. Really, am I supposed to care that Stephen Sommers, perpetrator of Van Helsing, has a new action blockbuster based on a toy I was bored with in 1967? Am I supposed to get all squirmy with excitement at seeing shots of a sweaty Megan Fox intercut with heavy-metal images from Michael Bay’s new movie about toys I was at least 15 years too old for when they were first popular? And despite my fondness for McG and the first Charlie’s Angels feature (about as zesty and giddily exciting as any pre-fab confection could be), that new Terminator movie just looks so goddamn glum and desperate, and overly familiar. Hell, I didn’t even like Terminator 2: Judgment Day all that much. It’s going to take some real narrative magic to convince me there are untold elements of this John Connor saga that are still worth telling.
There are pictures being released this summer that I’m genuinely excited to see. They’re just not, with a couple of huge exceptions, the ones that studios are bolstering with embarrassing levels of marketing. Of the 16 movies I picked out of the over 80 new films EW is so damned excited about, only four of them could be classified as blockbusters, and only one of those has any chance at all of morphing into something resembling a tent-pole franchise. Two of them are crime thrillers with no sequel potential (Public Enemies, The Taking of Pelham of 1 2 3) and one is a Pixar film, which is its own kind of tent-pole. Only Land of the Lost looks like it has any possibility of being spun out past this summer, and sequels to that movie, if there are any, are better bets for the straight-to-video market, unless America falls deeply, profoundly in love with the way Will Ferrell skedaddles like a sidewinder away from the movie’s pesky T-Rex. Thankfully there will be small, independent releases that will show up to steal the thunder out from the likes of yet another Harry Potter movie (Zzzzzzzz--- Hunh? What? No, I’m awake.) But of the films gathered under the Summer Movie Preview umbrella, these 16 are literally the only ones to rouse anything like real interest on my radar. Frankly, like Juan Pierre thrust unexpectedly into the summer spotlight for the Dodgers, I’d be happy as hell with a .300 batting average at this end of this summer—if only as many as five of the 16 movies I’m banking the hopes behind my entertainment dollars on actually deliver on their promises, why, I’d feel like that was bucking the odds at a practically supernatural rate.
So what are these 16 potentially magical SLIFR saviors of summer? So glad you asked.
BIG MAN JAPAN (5/15)
Opening this weekend in limited release. I am going to take Aaron Hillis at his word and on his enthusiasm and get myself out to the showing of this one posthaste: “I hurt myself laughing at this amazingly inventive mockumentary, and because it's so good, I refuse to give away much more than an insistent recommendation. A long-haired, sad-sack government employee, Dai-Sato (Hitoshi Matsumoto), has somehow inspired a documentarian to follow him around as he eats lunch alone and extols the virtues of umbrellas (he likes anything that expands). In long takes that cut like early Jarmusch, the first half hour rambles on with downbeat wit before dropping a boulder of truth on our heads about the unlikely hero's job, why everyone in the city hates him, and how it involves electricity surging through his nipples and extensive CGI. Read nothing else about this film.” Perhaps you might want to avoid even watching this trailer...
'Nuff said. Let’s go!
THE BROTHERS BLOOM (5/15)
Director Rian Johnson’s follow-up to Brick looks like a breezy, slightly odd caper that seems just silly and human enough to provide an excellent alternative when all those Angels and Demons shows are sold out. What would be better is to do what I’m gonna do-- just scratch the scary Catholic movie altogether and actually plan on seeing Johnson’s movie instead. Then you don’t suffer the disappointment (or the obnoxious opening weekend crowds shuffling through the turnstiles to see Tom Hanks) and you end up supporting a smaller-scale, much more personal project that looks like its director really had reasons to make it as opposed to simply marking time in Sequelville just because. (Nick Dawson talks to Rian Johnson here.)
Early reviews from Cannes suggest that we may now have to consider two possibilities: a) either John Lasseter has entered his and Pixar’s souls into a Faustian bargain to keep his company’s spotless commercial streak (and nearly-as-spotless artistic streak) intact, or b) the folks at Pixar are just simply brilliant storytellers working at perhaps historic heights of artistic confidence and that Up is going to be their best yet. Considering that their most disappointing movie (Cars) was still pretty good by anyone else’s standards, Up seem like a pretty strong bet.
DRAG ME TO HELL (5/29)
Some proud horror geeks I know have seen this movie already and are confirming with great glee that the hopes those of us who have pined for a return to Sam Raimi’s horror-comedy roots (a la Evil Dead 2) may well emerge undashed and quite fulfilled by this new bag of bones. The trailer practically exalts in that old Raimi energy, making it, perhaps even more than Star Trek, the ideal way to kick off the summer movie season, especially if you can figure out some way to see it at a drive-in…
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (5/20 on HDNet, 5/22 theatrical)
Steven Soderbergh’s newest drama looks provocative, chilly and visually arresting, and that’s not just because it stars porn actress Sasha Grey. This formalist examination of a particular aspect of the sex trade looks to be the rare semi-high-profile summer release that isn’t loaded with explosions and/or in 3D. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those things, but if nothing else The Girlfriend Experience could be a alternative tonic, a restless respite from CGI action pictures and raucous comedy in favor of a more rewarding Sex, Lies and Videotape-esque template. Or maybe it’ll just be another Full Frontal.
LAND OF THE LOST (6/5)
I know, I know. Whaaaa...? I’m no Sid and Marty Krofft fetishist, though I did watch the show as a kid. It just looks funny to me, in an Anchorman/Step Brothers kind of way, only with giant dinosaurs. Sounds like an ideal Saturday matinee.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 (6/12)
I’m having a harder time getting behind this one, given my great love for the original Walter Matthau-Robert Shaw picture which, despite what the Los Angeles Times thinks, is a movie that is hardly a solid candidate for improvements and refurbishments courtesy of Tony Scott. I’m willing to give it a try though, if only so that Larry Aydlette and I can have something to yammer about. Which reminds me, I promised L.A. I’d watch Domino, and I have yet to do so. Can I take two Tony Scott movies in one month? We’ll see.
YEAR ONE (6/19)
Here’s the movie on this short list with the biggest chance of being a total dud. Yet it has the imprimatur of Harold Ramis behind it, and to hear him talk about the movie being a way of satirically engaging with the idea of religious fundamentalism has me at the very least intrigued. And there are at least two solid laughs in the trailer. So here’s hoping it lands closer to Groundhog Day or Stripes than Analyze This or Analyze That. Hell, I’d be happy if it was half as funny as Caveman.
THE HURT LOCKER (6/26)
Attach the name Kathryn Bigelow to any project and it automatically becomes worth a look. And so it is with this intense-looking film, yet another foray into that most dangerous of gambles, the commercial fate of an Iraq war film. Can Bigelow succeed in engaging the public where the likes of Paul Haggis, Brian De Palma and Kimberly Pierce have failed? This looks like a great opportunity to Bigelow to wrestle with the tension between her muscular pulp aesthetic and the grim reality of war, where the action is never as purely exhilarating as it can seem at times on screen.
PUBLIC ENEMIES (7/1)
I haven’t a whole lot of confidence in my expectations for this movie, based solely on the trailer above. I’ll just keep reminding myself that, against all likelihood, Michael Mann’s last movie, Miami Vice, was sensually alert, visually fascinating stuff, and maybe the revered director can pull another rabbit out of his hat with Johnny Depp starring as John Dillinger. That said, it seems to me that this one, alongside Year One and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, has the biggest chance of drowning in its own flop sweat right there on the big screen. I’ll still buy a ticket though, unless (and maybe even if) it starts getting reviews that more resemble Mann’s The Keep.
In my book, the summer’s most promising movies are the ones that look to deliver big laughs, and of all those, if Borat and the audiences at SXSW are any true indicators, this one might just be the biggest producer of guffaws and belly laffs of them all. The comedy will, of course, be ladled on top of yet another of Sasha Baron Cohen’s devastating cultural examinations, much of it at the expense of the easily fleeced and flummoxed, and if it works then there’ll thankfully be a whole lot more to talk about around the cinematic water cooler than whether the effects in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are as neat-o the second time around. I can’t wait to see that whole locksmith sequence.
ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (7/17)
In true Miramax/Dimension fashion, this highly regarded horror thriller has been sitting on the shelf for something like two years, but those who have seen it insist that it is something special. The trailer seems pretty routine, but I don’t think it is too much to hope for a bilious butterfly to emerge from the cocoon of mediocrity surrounding this movie’s marketing.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (8/21)
Well, this is either going to be really fun, a Kelly’s Heroes for the Kill Bill crowd, or the biggest eye-roller of the summer. I’m not sold on Brad Pitt’s accent as featured here, but it wouldn’t be the first time that bits of a performance seen in isolation do not reflect the quality of the thing as a whole. And that could be the case with the movie too. Good or bad, any Tarantino movie is going to have a must-see aura about it, and coming off the brilliant Death Proof I remain interested in what the aging wunderkind has left in his gas tank. If nothing else, it could be the movie that will make those who hated Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book reassess the offenses of that movie in light of a whole new slew of morally questionable carnage.
FINAL DESTINATION: DEATH TRIP (8/28)
Still licking his wounds from the unfriendly reception afforded his lively, deliberately crude Snakes on a Plane a few years ago, director David R. Ellis returns to the Final Destination franchise (he directed the spirited, whiz-bang second chapter) to give it a 3D goosing. Here’s hoping Ellis gets ample opportunity to flex his action chops as well as his fear-mongering muscles as the Rube Goldberg contraptions rigged by a relentlessly spry Death just keep on cranking.
BLACK DYNAMITE (9/4)
Wow, if the filmmakers somehow manage to bottle the pitch-perfect tone of this trailer and sustain it to feature length (a trick that was beyond Keenen Ivory Wayans and his genial but wildly uneven I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka), then we could be witness to a real marvel of a pop satire with this one. There’s so many ways it could go wrong, or flat, or remain grounded when it should be soaring higher that the hero’s hair, that I’m just gonna sit on my hands for now and quietly hope for the best. But, damn! He drives a $5,000 car and wears hundred-dollar suits! Now, that’s something to hope on!
Left at the altar by Fox twice, Mike Judge turns to the Weinsteins for some sugar this time. Not exactly a reassuring scenario for the director in terms of the Weinstein’s track record of shelving projects or turning them loose with lame-duck marketing, or no marketing at all, eh? (Some of the best Weinstein/Dimension titles have trickled onto video store shelves with no fanfare whatsoever). Let’s not only hope that Judge avoids the shiv slipped to him with Office Space and Idiocracy, but that this working-stiff comedy is as worthy as its predecessors were of the red carpet treatment they never received.
These are the 16 summer movies I am going to pursue with various degrees of intensity. Some will be duds; some will be better than they first appear in trailer form; and some will be exactly the tonic hoped for. Given that the time I have to spend in movie theaters is in no way as bountiful as it used to be, I’m going to hold myself to these titles as my main first-run fun over the next couple of months. There may be a smaller title that pops up and becomes unexpectedly alluring and irresistible, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to stay away from the big $200million tent-poles. Those can wait for Blu-ray. I have another plan for my movie summer.
Over the last year I have really enjoyed taking my eldest daughter out to revival screenings of some of the great classics and other fun, relatively vintage films available on Los Angeles screens, watching her interest in older films strengthen as she makes connections between actors from film to film, and between the films themselves. Since last summer together we’ve seen a Randolph Scott double feature (Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone), The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, The Lady Eve, Explorers, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, all on the big screen. Most recently we took in a Jimmy Stewart/Randolph Scott double feature, Winchester ‘73 and Bend of the River, at what I’ve come to think of as our theater, the New Beverly Cinema. When we walked up to the box office, owner Michael Torgan greeted my daughter with a smile and told her he’d heard that Bend of the River was one of her favorites. This made her grin profusely, of course, and feel very special. Then we were served popcorn by the lovely Julia Marchese, who greeted us with enthusiasm as well. My daughter likes Julia a lot: “It’s nice to see a pretty girl here, Daddy,” she told me as we marched down to the front of the auditorium. (The audience at the New Beverly may be weighted toward men who tend to look like me, but it is neither exclusively male nor weighted toward homely women. Julia just stands out for her because of her general friendliness and occasional high-profile appearances on stage.)
I’ve come also to look forward to checking out each fresh New Beverly calendar in great anticipation of what new treasures I can bring into my daughter’s purview, and it was the line-up Michael has concocted for May and June that really kicked my happiness into high gear. If there are only 16 movies out of 80 or so big Hollywood releases on tap for the summer, well, that’s high of a low must-see to who-cares ratio. But the New Beverly, the American Cinematheque, and the Cinefamily have probably three times as many fantastic programs in store just through the end of June alone. When it comes to what boils down to the better use of my entertainment dollar, the choice is pretty clear. Not only are admissions for all these Los Angeles revival screens less expensive (almost by half) that the screens the big elephants will be stampeding across this summer, there is no doubt as to the quality of what you’ll be seeing. You may go into Land of the Lost or The Brothers Bloom or even Up with a reasonable awareness that it is entirely possible the movie will end up less than the promise it dangles to you in the trailers and in your anticipatory imagination. But when you roll up to the box office and buy a ticket to see Lawrence of Arabia, or Duck Soup, or Meet Me in St. Louis, or Once Upon a Time in the West, or A Matter of Life and Death, you know you’re in for nothing less than a masterpiece, a sure, golden thing. With those kind of choices, I cannot justify rolling the dice for full price at the Arclight too often. Besides, at the Arclight they don’t know my daughter’s name or make her feel as welcome as she feels at home the way they do at the New Beverly.
My daughter and I are in for so many treats in the next few weeks, it’s almost embarrassing. I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect of taking her to see her first Marx Brothers double feature at the New Beverly next weekend. By the end of Animal Crackers (1930) she’ll have Captain Spaulding’s big number committed to memory, and she’ll still have Groucho and Harpo’s mirror sequence, and all the sublime wordplay of Duck Soup (1933) yet to come. These are potential watershed moments for her, essential building blocks in her appreciation of the movies, and we’re so lucky to be able to see them together on a big screen. Will she be able to endure all three Back to the Future movies (1985-1990) in one sitting (March 29)? I doubt it. My plan is to go for one, maybe II, and fill in the blanks on DVD later.
But we’ll stay for both features the following Sunday (May 31) when Michael rolls out Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and George Cukor’s Little Women (1933), a double bill tailor-made for wide-eyed little girls. Thanks to the New Beverly, in June she’ll get to have her first experience with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) theatrically—how many kids over the past 25 years have been able to say that? And it’s on a double bill with John Carpenter’s Starman (1984)-- again, a perfect complement to her natural taste for the fantastic. The very next program affords the first opportunity for her to be exposed to Alfred Hitchcock, though I’m wondering if it might be better to have her first sampling be something like The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps or North by Northwest rather than the spectacular perversity of Strangers on a Train (1951), which will be featured alongside Suspicion (1941). I just think of Robert Walker bending over the unfortunate Laura Elliot in that amusement park and suspect my young one might not be quite ready for that just yet. She would most certainly be ready, however, for yet another literally dreamy double bill—Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). She will officially be movie drunk after that program.
But it’s not all about me and my kid at the New Beverly over the next two months. Just me, me, me gets served just fine as well. For God’s sake, this is ridiculous: this weekend the New Beverly kicks off seven straight nights with a dripping-wet new print of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) on a program with a feature-length bounty of sci-fi trailers from the vaults of New Beverly midnight maestro Phil Blankenship. And Friday night Phil extends the thrills with an ultra-rare screening of the schlocky 1979 thriller The Car, in which a demon-possessed Lincoln (it is a Lincoln, is it not, Phil?) pursues sheriff James Brolin and sends lots of innocent, unsuspecting Sunday drivers straight to asphalt hell.
I have until May 22 to convince my wife to come along with me to one of the greatest double bills in New Beverly history (well, at this this month), for it is on that day that Charles Bronson’s two best starring vehicles, The Mechanic (1972) and Mr. Majestyk (1974), will unspool in all their stripped-down glory. Majestyk is based on a terrific Elmore Leonard story and directed by Richard (Mandingo, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) Fleischer, and The Mechanic may be not only Bronson’s best action thriller, but one of the only good movies ever made by director Michael Winner. Watch out for that shock ending! May 27 and 28 provides another opportunity to see Let the Right One In (2008) sans the crappy subtitles currently featured on its home video release, along with another acclaimed thriller, Timecrimes (2007).
On June 6, spend time in the company of character actor extraordinaire and New Beverly regular Clu Gulager as the theater mounts a triple feature tribute to the actor’s ‘80s output-- Hunter’s Blood (1986), A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and Terror at London Bridge (1985). It should be a lot of fun to see Clu in his glory and listen to his stories from the stage of his (and our) home away from home. Phil shines with another couple of midnight classics coming this month: Motel Hell (1980; June 12) starring Rory Calhoun (“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!”); and John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980; June 20).
And on June 21 and 22, one more chance to see this blog’s mascot movie, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the way it should be seen, all wide and wind-swept and echoing haunted echoes of Harmonica and the ghosts of Sweetwater.
Speaking of special programming Brian Quinn and Eric Caidin have populated June’s Grindhouse nights with some spectacular treats. June 9 brings you Plague Town (2008) and the queasy Swedish classic The Sinful Dwarf (1973). (Check out Michael Guillen's excellent interview with Plague Town's director David Gregory.) But the duo has really outdone themselves on June 23 with a Ray Dennis Steckler double feature of epic proportions-- The Thrill Killers (1965) and an ultra-rare chance to see Steckler’s oddball masterpiece, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964) on a big screen. Screaming and frugging in the aisles will undoubtedly be encouraged!
Okay, that 27 separate chances to reach movie nirvana before the end of June alone at the New Beverly Cinema, and that’s not even the entirety of the calendar. (Keep up with their schedule on the New Beverly Facebook page.) That’s 11 more movies than were on my entire summer 2009 wanna-see list, and we have no idea what treasures will be in store for us during the months of July and August. And that’s just the New Beverly. You can see Tommy (1975) at the Aero as part of the American Cinematheque’s 70mm Festival (here’s the Cinematheque’s entire May calendar), and the Cinefamily has a run of Abel Ferrara double features every Friday through the end of the month, plus a spectacularly quirky line-up during their June comedy festival. Good grief, I haven’t even mentioned the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, always stellar options for the revival minded Los Angeles filmgoer who doesn’t want his or her cinematic menu dictated solely by the big studios.
So why waste time complaining about the dearth of summer fare? If you’re lucky enough to have these options at your ticket-buying fingertips, I look forward to running into you repeatedly as we both take copious advantage of this bounty all summer long. And if you don’t, take a look at the titles above, write some down, think about other titles they’ll remind you of, book a Netflix-fed revival theater schedule of your own this summer and indulge, rather than trudging out to see Terminator: Salvation even though you might not really want to, just because the inescapable advertising says you should. This is the glory of great revival theaters like the New Beverly and all our Los Angeles options, and the plethora of classical goodies available on DVD—we’re never very far away, either a click of a mouse or a short drive, from the most nutritious courses on the cinematic menu.