Yet while summer is the traditional playground for the industry's reliable big earners, and them alone, this season's lineup does offer other reasons besides the air conditioning to visit film theaters over the next couple of months.
Given the general collapse of standards in mainstream cinema, it's no surprise that two obvious examples of worthy viewing are in nontraditional genres (documentary cinema Michael Moore's Sicko is the obvious example, but there are others) and animation. Brad Bird's follow-up to The Incredibles, Ratatouille (June 29), is at the top of this viewer's summer viewing list. It defies all clichés in having a rat protagonist trying to make good as a gourmet chef, and may catch the same wave that has made Anthony Bourdain's expose of working conditions in fancy restaurants, Kitchen Confidential, so popular.
Prestigious, "Oscar-bait" releases are rare in the summer, but A Mighty Heart (June 22) may be an exception. A drama depicting Mariane Pearl's search for her abducted husband Daniel, it directly addresses the tragic true events that led to the Wall Street Journal reporter's horrific demise. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom knows his way around the region and is very aware indeed of the realities of Middle Eastern politics, as previous work of his such as The Road to Guantanamo demonstrates.
Other predictions are harder. Most of these films are unseen even unfinished. Producers of special effects epics like the latest Harry Potter (July 13), or even The Simpsons Movie (July 27), are working down to the last minute. One good bet, however, is to look at the credited director's previous work. Director-oriented auteurism is out in film studies, but always makes sense as a viewer guide.
Take for example veteran German eccentric Werner Herzog. That he's made an action drama about POWs tortured by North Vietnamese Rescue Dawn (July 13) isn't all that surprising. Many of his best films (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, even the documentary Grizzly Man) are about obsessives battling enigmatic Others (natives, bears), while others of his films deal empathically with the struggles of those locked in closets, blind, deaf, or all of the above (Kaspar Hauser, Land of Silence and Darkness). He's actually ideal for the material, whatever the ultimate merits of the film. Such are the joys of the auteur theory!
Other proven filmmakers releasing work this summer include Kasi Lemmons, whose Talk to Me (July 13) re-creates a lost era of positive radio activism from the maker of Eve's Bayou. Milos Forman returns with Goyas Ghosts (July 20), which involves a duel between the Spanish artist (Stellan Skarsgard) and a priest (Javier Bardem) over model Natalie Portman. It's ideal material for the director of the dueling musicians of Amadeus and the court intrigue of the overlooked Valmont.
There are still a few indie filmmakers standing from the 1990s. Greg Mottola directed an excellent indie, The Daytrippers, a decade ago; he breaks a long silence with the teenage sex comedy Superbad (Aug. 17). John Dahl is a good neo-noir filmmaker with a sharp sense of humor (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction); he may break a drought with the hitman comedy You Kill Me (June 22) with Ben Kingsley ("Sir Ben," as he told the late Christopher Moltisanti).
Promising foreign films include My Best Friend, by France's Patrice Leconte (The Man on the Train), The Willow Tree by Iran's Majid Majdi (The Color of Paradise), and The Wedding Director by Italy's Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket). And then there's Exiled, by Hong Kong's last man standing of classic gangster films, Johnnie To. To's Triad Election (Aug. 31) is already one of this year's best films.
And then ... who expects much who expects anything from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (June 15)? Or Transformers (July 4)? The trailer for 1408 had audiences laughing in the theater I saw it in: John Cusack in a no-exit hotel. Another coming attraction that sent me bolting was for Evening (June 29), an all-star ensemble piece that looked like a remake of The Notebook, packed with extra life-affirming action. Trailers can lie, as studios push them in predictable patterns, but reviews will have to be stellar to entice my bargain matinee participation.
Viewers should in any event seek out and support good work. The last seven years of bad movies aren't your fault but the next seven years might be.
Most of these films haven't been seen yet; those that have are designated with an asterisk. Unless otherwise noted, all items were written by Chuck Wilson.
A MIGHTY HEART
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Will Patton, Irrfan Khan
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Angelina Jolie stars as Mariane Pearl, whose best-seller A Mighty Heart detailed her 2002 journey to Pakistan to search for her husband Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed by Islamic fundamentalists. Futterman (who wrote Capote) portrays, in flashback, the late Daniel Pearl.
Cast: Parker Posey, Melvil Poupaud, Gena Rowlands, Drea de Matteo
Director: Zoe Cassavetes
Frustrated with her love life, and bored with the job of making sure a luxury hotel runs smoothly, thirtysomething Nora Wilder (Parker Posey) gradually runs down until a chance encounter with visiting Parisian Melvil Poupaud restarts her. Posey brings every nuance she can to making a tritely conceived and written character come alive, her work here providing further confirmation that she's one of the best film actors today, in any sort or size of role. Writer-director Zoe Cassavetes fills this film's early going with declamatory characters who proclaim their woe (rather than showing us through dialogue and action). Like her late father John, Zoe seems to want to deal with prickly, self-destructive characters, but unlike Dad, whose films consist of interminable burrowing into his characters' souls via lengthy, drunken, revealing, and/or pointless scenes, Zoe's film is a series of short slick scenes that move Posey's character along on a predictable arc of self-discovery. Nonetheless her work improves as the film progresses, going off in odd if fragmentary tangents before its far-fetched if pleasing ending. (G.R.)