Sound like something you'd find in the back of your video store or at some obscure film festival in a backwoods town? In fact, the films by those aforementioned fellows are some of the most anticipated events this summer: Spider-Man (Sam Raimi), The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman), Insomnia (Christopher Nolan), Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez), and Scooby-Doo (James Gunn).
Sure, the summer also brings us the usual suspects doing the usual things, like George Lucas (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), Will Smith (Men in Black 2), Harrison Ford (K-19: The Widowmaker), Mike Myers (Austin Powers in Goldmember), and a couple of movie-length TV cartoons (Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Powerpuff Girls Movie). But many of the biggest and most anticipated films this season come from indie icons either ramping up for big-studio releases or returning to smaller films, but with way more money than before, as is the case with Neil LaBute's Possession and Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal.
While LaBute's and Soderbergh's efforts to bring their personal passions to a wider audience may cause the unrepentant art-house cinephile to sneer "sellout," there are still modest indies from the modestly budgeted and fiercely independent likes of John Sayles (Sunshine State), Eric Schaeffer (Never Again), and Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac).
"The fact that Insomnia [by Memento director Christopher Nolan] is a Memorial Day weekend movie says a lot about what this summer could be," says Drew "Moriarty" McWeeny, West Coast editor of the Ain't It Cool News Web site. "It's always cyclic, and I think we're reaping the benefits of 1999 right now." (Summer 1999 brought us several breakthroughs, such as American Beauty, The Matrix, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, The Sixth Sense, The Mummy, and, of course, the last Star Wars film.)
"I think the fact that Sam Mendes [American Beauty] has his film [Road to Perdition, which teams Tom Hanks with Paul Newman] this summer is good, and I'm hearing really strong things. A lot of the stuff we're hearing about, we're getting really strong, positive feedback. People seem really enamored of Signs [from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan]." McWeeny even went so far as to say his Ain't It Cool colleague, Harry Knowles, known for his distaste for Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise, loved The Sum of All Fears, the latest edition, starring Ben Affleck.
McWeeny predicts that at least five or six films from the summer will cross the $100 million mark, and picks Eddie Griffin's blaxploitation parody Undercover Brother as the potential sleeper. He names DreamWorks' animated horse movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron as his choice for most likely disappointment, citing the non-talking animals and the soft rock soundtrack by Bryan Adams. "God bless them for trying, but I don't see a lot of guys going to that movie. Bryan Adams ... it sounds like he ripped off the Incredible Hulk theme from the '70s TV show, note for note." John Sayles' Sunshine State is McWeeny's indie must-see of the season, with his top studio pick being Minority Report ("The script was kick-ass"). McWeeny also admits to anticipating one completely unscripted film. "Jackass: The Movie? Opening day, I am so there!"
McWeeny and Knowles have been very vocal about their apprehension over Warner Bros.' big-budget, live-action Scooby-Doo. "They're sitting on a train wreck," is how McWeeny puts it. "The postmodern thing isn't that funny anymore. ... Didn't Kevin Smith, in five minutes, already do that joke?" But if there is a chance for the movie, it may in fact be the script by writer James Gunn, previously known for the ultra-low-budget, hilariously written cult films Tromeo and Juliet and The Specials. "There are lots of campy, big, monstrous elements in the film that are me," says Gunn. "It isn't as dialogue-driven as The Specials, or even Tromeo; it's more about the images and the weirdness and the monsters. There's plenty of stuff that's me."
Gunn does, however, want to clear up one likely reservation many cartoon fans might have with a certain Scooby cast member. Though he claims never to have seen She's All That, Head Over Heels, Summer Catch, or any of the other critically reviled films to star the much-maligned Freddie Prinze Jr., Gunn insists the guy's right for the part of ascot-wearing Fred, pointing to The House of Yes as proof that Prinze can act. "Fred [the character] is a little bit of an arrogant asshole; he's pompous, he's a pretty boy, he's the kind of guy women love and men hate, and Freddie ended up doing it very well. ... He was able to find his inner pompous ass."
Gunn's former boss at B-movie studio Troma, Lloyd Kaufman, an unabashed detractor of mainstream cinema who intends to hold a mass demonstration this year at Cannes to protest the homogenization of Hollywood, is nonetheless pleased to see a former protégé make it big, even with a Hanna-Barbera-inspired movie about a cartoon dog. "James Gunn is immensely talented," Kaufman says. "He's 100 percent decent, and he will be a good influence on the mainstream, so I'm happy." Kaufman's seen other friends of his, among them Oliver Stone and Trey Parker, succeed while maintaining their integrity. On the other hand, he has some choice words for indie guys who've been super-sized, like Windtalkers director John Woo. "M:I 2, he cannot be forgiven for that," says Kaufman. "I think he has been fucked up by the system." He also fingers Samuel L. Jackson as someone whose work has suffered from super-sizing ("Film after film that's shite," he says).
In addition, Kaufman singles out Insomnia, Blood Work ("Clint Eastwood's a good director"), the Inuit-language The Fast Runner, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys ("I would see that movie in spite of Jodie Foster"), and Sunshine State as films he'd like to see this summer.
While Kaufman may think the buzz over Soderbergh's return to his roots with Full Frontal is overrated -- "At this point in the game, it's hardly revolutionary," he says -- the fact that the film is one of the more anticipated releases of the summer makes for a refreshing change. The cynic might suggest that it's only because Julia Roberts is in it, but screenwriter Coleman Hough thinks that people who go to see it expecting the typical Roberts movie may be confounded.
"It's a challenging piece, and I think people will be surprised," says Hough, a playwright making her feature screenwriting debut with Full Frontal. "If they don't like it, they can walk out. I think we've become so formula-oriented. It's almost like a baby feeding from the breast -- we don't feed from the breast anymore, we're given formula, and if anything strays from that formula, we spit it out, we cry, we burp, we can't deal with the breast anymore." Hough, like Kaufman, is anxiously awaiting Neil LaBute's Possession.
With Spider-Man now out and breaking records, there's still one more 800-pound gorilla to come -- Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Gunn probably sums up the general public's nervous anticipation best when he says, "I'm hoping it's gonna be cool, but I hated the first fuckin' movie."
As usual, summer brings something for everyone, including many films not yet discussed: The Importance of Being Earnest, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Eight Legged Freaks ... they're all here somewhere, on the pages that follow. The opening dates were current as of press time, though past experience dictates that many dates will change, some films will not come out in the summer, and one or two movies listed here may never be released at all. With ticket prices at record highs, you're going to want to choose carefully. Let the sorting commence.