Summer is upon us. That is, summer as defined by movie studios which, in the 40 years since Star Wars was released, on May 25, 1977, have valiantly tried to stretch the boundaries of summer, content-wise, from the traditional June-July-August definition to include the other nine months of the year as well. (Mission pretty much accomplished, gentlemen. Thank you for your efforts.) As far as the actual summer movie season, it’s now more or less accepted that everything starts on the first weekend of May, and so it most certainly is this year. In case you hadn’t heard, a modest little picture called Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 debuts this weekend at an art house near you, and everyone you know, including you, have probably already bought advance tickets to see it. Me, I’m less similarly inclined. Despite my raised expectations from reviews and audience reports, I found the first GOTG exhausting and not just a little too self-satisfied. I’m not the biggest fan of Chris Pratt either– there seem to be quotation marks around almost everything he does. And when I scanned the generally positive reviews of GOTGV2 which seemed to reflect the writers having been so charmed by it (if not as completely as they were by the first one), the same warning flags started flying for me. If I’m to believe the indicators coming from some of my favorite film critics, two of the primary reasons I’d want to see GOTGV2, Karen Gillan and Elizabeth Debecki, come cloaked in enough CGI-gilded costumery that the actresses themselves might as well be computer-generated. And I’d be willing to bet that I would eventually be driven to violence over having to endure 2.5 hours of flashy, noisy explosions, impenetrable, universe-expanding “story,” Chris Pratt endlessly smirking, and a menagerie of cute characters dancing to a knowing soundtrack of ’70s hits I never much liked in the first place.
No, called me close-minded if you must, but I’m letting experience and, yes, preconceptions rule the weekend this time and saving myself the $15+ (plus parking, plus popcorn, plus post-picture Pepto-Bismol) and the aggravation over diving in with the swarm of multiplex zombies fighting to get seats for a movie I’m not even slightly interested in seeing. I’ll leave that fun to my daughters who, if they ever get out of bed on this charmingly gloomy Saturday in Glendale, California, plan to head out to the cinema and, with my blessing, see it by themselves.
So, if not the Adventures of Baby Groot and Star-Lord and Zamora and Drax and Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Snorlax and Cap’n Crunch and Christ knows who else, what exactly will there be to see during the coming months of summer? Well, a somewhat more than perfunctory glance through the Los Angeles Times Calendar section’s recent Summer Movie Sneaks revealed to these eyes exactly 13 movies, one of which I’ve already seen, that piqued my initial interest. (I’d like to hope that further investigation might reveal more, but who knows?) Strangely enough, none of those 13 were called Alien: Covenant (though I’ll admit curiosity here), Baywatch, Cars 3, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (beware the Depp!), Transformers: The Last Knight, War of the Planet of the Apes or, naturally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Budgetary bravado aside, with a lineup like that, I think Hollywood is right to be worried about the possibility of a serious bout of summer sequel and franchise fatigue.
No, I found some other pictures in which to invest some slim hope of a few worthwhile hours at the movies this summer, and a couple of them will seem like odd choices, given my sour disposition re the current crop of tentpoles being trotted out over the next four months. The sliver of hope I have invested in the prospects of a fun summer movie-going season rest squarely on the following 13 pictures, some of which may be coming to a theater near you sometime soon.
BABY DRIVER Writer-director Edgar Wright’s high-octane, soundtrack-driven action comedy, a riff on action pictures like The Driver and Drive which looks to harmonize with the sensibility of his wonderful Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). But will Simon and Garfunkel make it onto Wright’s playlist? (June 28)
THE BEGUILED The most intriguing remake of the summer finds writer-director Sofia Coppola revisiting the Southern gothic vibe of the 1971 Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood drama about a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) at first tended to and then at the mercy of the denizens of a mysterious girls’ school headed by a demented headmistress (Nicole Kidman). (June 30)
BUSTER’S MAL HEART Rami Malek stars in Sarah Adina Smith’s eerie puzzler about a hotel night manager whose encounter with a strange conspiracy theorist’s warnings of an upcoming event called the Inversion may have also triggered an apocalypse of a more interior variety. This is a hushed, genuinely disquieting thriller that is well worth taking a chance on when you can’t get GOTGV2 tickets. (Now playing)
DESPICABLE ME 3 Yeah, Minions was an almost complete bummer, but the Gru-centric first two movies flirted with classic status (especially the emotionally resonant first chapter), so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the third time around at least some of that original, slightly acidic charm will be retained. (June 30)
DETROIT Kathryn Bigelow’s latest foray into sociopolitical docudrama, this one centered on the Algiers Motel incident, a police raid which occurred during Detroit’s 12th Street riot in 1967 and resulted an even more violent and unprecedented citizen uprising. This one stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie and John Krasinski. (August 4)
DUNKIRK Eight minutes of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming WWII epic, shown before Rogue One in IMAX last Christmas, were enough to make me want to dump the Star Wars picture right then and there and see the remaining 112 of Dunkirk. This might be the great antidote to a summer bloated with franchise-based timidity and comic-book escapism. (July 21)
A GHOST STORY Writer-director David Lowery retreats from mystical forests (Pete’s Dragon) and back toward the more Malick-infused mysticism of his previous Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in a story of a ghostly visitation from a deceased father trying to reconnect to the life he’s left behind. Lowery brings back ATBS stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara alongside a suitably haunted cast of unfamiliar faces. (July 7)
I, DANIEL BLAKE Ken Loach’s 2016 Cannes sensation follows the trials and tribulations of a 59-year-old carpenter (Dave Johns) debilitated by a heart attack who finds himself forced to navigate through a tangled and inefficient health care system. The movie’s grim subject is reportedly leavened by Loach’s usual humanity, and it made it onto several 10-best lists last year, leading to this summer’s American release. (It gets a limited spin here starting June 17.)
IT COMES AT NIGHT Trisha, the debut film by Trey Edward Shults, was a searing family psychological drama that at times played with the intensity of a horror film. So this thriller, in which a family’s creeping paranoia and mistrust come to a boil as a mysterious force outside their increasingly unstable home moves ever closer, sounds like a natural extension. Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough. (June 9)
SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY This documentary brings together scores (sorry) of the industry’s upper-echelon film composers for an overview of the development of musical scores in motion pictures as well as a look inside the creative challenges and intense secrecy within the community of film composers. Even on your Netflix queue, this one looks to be intriguing and certainly worth a listen. (June 16)
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING Okay, okay, so even I can’t resist the MCU when it comes to the third refashioning of this greatest of all comic book heroes. The taste we got in Captain America: Civil Wars of what Tom Holland will bring to the Peter Parker Party was irresistible, and I am not about to complain about the upgrade given to Aunt May in the personage of Marisa Tomei. (July 7)
WIND RIVER From Taylor Sheridan, the writer responsible for Sicario and Hell or High Water. Sheridan directs this one, the third in his self-proclaimed trilogy of the modern American frontier, featuring Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal in a story about the FBI investigation of a murder on a Native American reservation. It doesn’t come out until August, but can I buy a ticket now? (August 4)
WONDER WOMAN To my mind, the last chance for DC Comics Entertainment to salvage something resembling entertainment value from their dour, self-serious attempts to keep up with the Marvels rests on the shoulders of filmmaker Patty Jenkins who, from the looks of the trailer at least, might be able to locate the humor that has gone missing from the DC superhero formula since the advent of Zach Snyder. Gal Gadot, as the titular Amazonian, heads a hell of a cast which includes David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Ewan Bremner, Chris Pine and Danny Huston. (June 2)
THE EMOJI MOVIE I’m kidding, I’m kidding… (July 28)
Of course, if summer is upon us, then so is drive-in season, and to get you in the mood for piling in the car for a movie here’s a taste of my assessment of the drive-in movie movie, Rod Amateau’s curiously titled Drive-In (1976):
“(A)s a portrait of what attending a drive-in could feel like (just replace your own scenarios for the cockamamie hijinks the movie itself supplies), as well as a glimpse (however brief) into the inner workings of a drive-in, from the snack bar to the box office to the projection booth, it has no peer. Drive-In is valuable simply because it exists, regardless of the degree to which it succeeds as entertainment, as a visual record of a form of movie exhibition that just doesn’t exist anymore, even though the drive-in itself in 2011 is far from extinct… I could almost smell the butter and grilling hot dogs during the opening montage that details the readying of the operation to open for the night, scored to that marvelously backward-glancing ode to family values on the silver screen, the Statler Brothers’ “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?” (“Tex Ritter’s gone, and Disney’s dead, and the screen is filled with sex”); and a glimpse of the projectionist inserting a fresh carbon-arc rod into the projector lamp housing made me gasp with nostalgic pleasure for all those dimly-lit presentations of the past… sometimes seen, and just barely, as if projected by a high-powered flashlight.” (Read the whole piece here.)
And really, of all the movies discussed above, one of the best summer movies, one that embodies the spirit of all those great (and not-so-great) exploitation pictures one might have seen at a drive-in like Rod Amateau’s in the ‘70s, came out at the tail end of the summer of 2010—Piranha 3-D, the spirited, nasty and extremely gory remake of Joe Dante’s equally spirited 1978 Jaws knockoff. I don’t have a 3D TV, so I can experience the full dimension of its stereoscopic wonders anymore, but they manage to get conveyed adequately enough even on a flat screen. Here’s a taste of my enthusiastic review:
“Piranha 3D is a swiftly-paced strain of B-movie exploitation that craftily employs 3D in service of an orgiastic explosion of nubile, oiled-up boob jobs and drunken behavior doubling as a very bloody dinner for a nasty school of meat-eating fish. The hungry schools are set loose on a bustling resort town (Lake Havasu standing in for fictional Lake Victoria) when an earthquake opens a fissure under the lake that connects it to a prehistoric piranha breeding ground. And the movie doesn’t waste much time plating these gill-laden Tasmanian Devils their first meal – a grizzled old fisherman named Matt, played by Richard Dreyfuss (!!), who quickly gets stripped to the bone and whets the beasties’ appetite for more gristle and gore… Aja and his screenwriters, Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stollberg, take perhaps a bit too much time setting up the main course, but ultimately the wait pays off. They prove astute at imagining all the different ways 3D can be employed to hurl various items at the audience, some more appreciated that others. There’s enough bikini-busting, silicone-enhanced breasts comin’ at ya in Piranha 3D that each ticket purchased ought to come with an application to the nearest zeppelin traffic controller school, and a surprise comic puking scene finds the audience with just the right perspective to encourage lap-checking for fallout afterward. Aja also stages a hilarious underwater girl-on-girl ballet/make-out session scored to Delibes’s “Flower Duet”… that is as hilarious and brashly up front about its intentions as anything Russ Meyer ever put on film.” (You can read the entirety of the review here.)
That’s about it. If you’re not ready for summer, or summer movies by now, well, then off to the latest chapters in the Optimus Prime and Captain Jack Sparrow sagas with you. There’s nothing more I can do. If you need me, I’ll be in my basement, my Blu-ray player on an endless loop of Piranha 3D. Call me when that Dunkirk picture comes out, will ya?