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Like a thunderstorm, summer films advance

Like a thunderstorm, summer films advance

Movie nuts tend to regard summer as a breath of helium—a pleasant stretch that clears and empties your head and leaves you all giggly. They identify the hot months with prototypical vacation flicks such as Jaws and Star Wars, models of light escapism well suited to popcorn and air-conditioning. Yet there are signs the summer movie is becoming riskier, less classifiable.

Between last May and August, audiences were faced with the most fertile and challenging slate of major-studio summer fare since the early 1970s: Bulworth, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, He Got Game, The Truman Show, Out of Sight, Saving Private Ryan, and Snake Eyes. Some of those were indeed box-office disappointments. But Truman and Ryan grossed well over $100 million each—a rebuke to the conventional wisdom that viewers won’t accept ambitious movies during the vacation season.

Plenty of potential blockbusters are massing on the summer horizon, even beyond this week’s low-key opening of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Pretty sure things include the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill (May 28), the Adam Sandler romp Big Daddy (June 25), Matthew Broderick as Disney’s Inspector Gadget (July 23), and the John Travolta military procedural The General’s Daughter (June 18), while sleepers like the teen raunchfest American Pie (July 9) and the Jeff Bridges-Tim Robbins terrorist thriller Arlington Road (July 9) wait to slip through.

Yet among the summer’s many releases, we found several intriguing items beneath the megaplexes’ radar, as well as some megaton mainstream titles that sound sorta cool. Listed below are 18 movies we wouldn’t be ashamed to pay full price for. Realize, however, that the more offbeat and indie the movie, the less likely it’ll actually come to town—which is why you should call Carmike, Regal, and Belcourt YES!, and ask them to book these films.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me Once again, Mike Myers’ shagadelic secret agent battles archrival Dr. Evil (Myers again, reprising his uncanny imitation of SNL producer Lorne Michaels), who plans to use a time machine to wipe out his foe. The first Austin Powers ran out of steam after an hour, but that hour had some spot-on parodies of Carnaby Street mod and Goldfinger. Still, how do you top a Pussy Galore stand-in named Alotta Fagina? We’re hoping costar Heather Graham (Boogie Nights’ Rollergirl) has some ideas. (June 11)

The Blair Witch Project An ingeniously conceived horror film that makes an asset of conventional liabilities—no-name actors, digital cameras, a shot-on-video look—Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s no-budget shocker scared the hell out of jaded Sundance viewers last January. Three young filmmakers set out with camcorders to make a documentary about a chilling presence in the Maryland woods. Apparently, it didn’t go well—the opening credit announces you’re watching the footage they left behind. (July 16)

Bowfinger Steve Martin wrote this Hollywood comedy with a whiff of King of Comedy paranoia: A down-at-heels producer (Martin) corrals megabuck action star Eddie Murphy into his new movie the only way he can—by hiring a crew of actors and illegal aliens to stalk and film Murphy on the sly. Frank Oz (What About Bob?) directed. (July 23)

Buena Vista Social Club You bought the album; now see this well-received documentary on Ry Cooder’s project with the giants of Cuban music, directed by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire). (June 4)

Eyes Wide Shut Ahhh, who cares. I mean, it’s only Stanley Kubrick’s last film. It’s only been the subject of endless scrutiny, from its wildly protracted shooting schedule to the replacing of cast members Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s only an NC-17-caliber erotic thriller starring a frequently unclothed Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Um, so what was that Episode I thing again? (July 16)

The Haunting Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Speed director Jan de Bont return to Shirley Jackson’s hellish Hill House in the remake of Robert Wise’s 1963 horror classic The Haunting, in which an evil mansion terrorizes its psychic guests. Expect effects a lot more explicit than Wise’s insinuating shadows and buckling doors. (July 23)

The Iron Giant Advance word is excellent on this ambitious animated feature from former Simpsons collaborator Brad Bird—an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel about a boy who befriends the giant robot that lands in his hometown. Vin Diesel, Harry Connick Jr., and Jennifer Aniston supply voices. (Aug. 6)

Les Amants du Pont Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge) Two years ago, a survey in Film Comment magazine voted Leos Carax’s 1991 romantic drama as the second best film of the 1990s that hadn’t been distributed in this country. (No. 1, in case you’re interested, was Godard’s 1990 Nouvelle Vague.) Now, only eight years after its overseas release, you can see the love affair of artist Juliette Binoche and homeless fire-eater Denis Lavant—and you can see what got cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier his gig shooting Gummo in Nashville. (July 2)

The Muse In the new comedy from Albert Brooks, the writer-director plays a screenwriter who gets a career boost from an unlikely muse—an actual child of Zeus played by Sharon Stone. Her other clients play themselves: James Cameron, Rob Reiner, and Martin Scorsese. (June 4)

Mystery Men Now, here’s a combination: really great special effects with really pitiful superheroes. When maniacal Geoffrey Rush threatens the comic-book haven Champion City, the town’s defense is left to all-star crimefighters with less than impressive powers—irritable Ben Stiller, shoveler William H. Macy, bowler Janeane Garofalo. And that’s without second-string superheroes Paul Reubens, Hank Azaria, Wes Studi, and Kel Mitchell, or mad scientist Tom Waits. (Aug. 6)

Run Lola Run Hailed as a dazzling foreign import à la Diva and La Femme Nikita, German wunderkind Tom Tykwer’s thriller gives a woman less than 15 minutes to raise the 50,000 deutschmarks that will save her boyfriend’s hide from cops and mobsters. The fun part: The movie rewinds the 15-minute time frame for each of her three schemes—but which one will she choose? Clark Parsons, our man in Berlin, says achtung, baby! (June 18)

The Saragossa Manuscript The restored version of Polish director Wojciech Has’ intricate 1965 three-hour puzzle-box of a movie, adapted from an 1813 cult novel by Jan Potocki, in which a Belgian soldier’s travels in 18th-century Spain unlock stories within stories of peasants, cuckolds, gypsies, and supernatural beings. The restoration process was started by Jerry Garcia, of all people, and continued after his death by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who also helped bring the amazing I Am Cuba to light. (May 21)

Douglas Sirk Retrospective In 1950s Hollywood, German native Sirk made melodramas so stylish and deliriously excessive—not to mention so full of sexual tension, social criticism, and psychological threat—that they influenced directors as disparate as Fassbinder, Almodovar, and Tarantino (who named a burger for him in Pulp Fiction’s pop-culture café). If indeed it comes to Nashville, don’t miss this touring festival, which includes the Lana Turner Imitation of Life, The Tarnished Angels, Magnificent Obsession, and the incomparable Written on the Wind, with Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson, slutty Dorothy Malone, and an overdose of phallic oil-rig imagery. (July)

Summer of Sam Ten years after making the ultimate New York summer movie, Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee goes back to the summer of ’77, when the Son of Sam killer stalked the city, vigilante fervor ran high, and punk anarchy and disco hedonism collided. The movie’s harsh content reputedly has Disney worried about an NC-17 rating, but if the exhilarating trailer is any indication, this could be one of the year’s best films—especially with a cast that features Mira Sorvino, Adrian Brody, Ben Gazzara, John Leguizamo, Bebe Neuwirth, and The Practice’s cuddly Michael Badalucco as serial killer David Berkowitz. (July 30)

Tarzan The Lord of the Apes swings again in Disney’s new cartoon version, which, judging from the trailer, uses startling 3-D animation effects for the sensation of surfing tree trunks and soaring on vines. Voices include Tony Goldwyn, Rosie O’Donnell, and Glenn Close (who dubbed Andie MacDowell in the live-action Greystoke). (June 18)

The Third Man A spruced-up reissue of the 1949 Carol Reed-Graham Greene classic, with Joseph Cotten as the hack American novelist snared in the Viennese criminal and moral spider web of his shadowy chum Harry Lime (the unforgettable Orson Welles). We don’t know which we look forward to more: Robert Krasker’s fabulous tilted black-and-white cinematography on the big screen, or Anton Karas’ zither score in state-of-the-art sound. (May 28)

Francois Truffaut Retrospective Through June 24, New York’s Film Forum is staging a complete Truffaut festival, from his early short “Les Mistons” to the restored version of his much-maligned Mississippi Mermaid. That means brand-new 35mm prints of Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Two English Girls, and the Antoine Doinel films are now available on the market. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

Wild Wild West The advance word on this Will Smith-Barry Sonnenfeld blockbuster is awful, but it’s hard to see why from the nifty trailer, which mixes Rube Goldberg sight gags, hyperbolic gunfights, steam-powered mechanical spiders, the dynamite riff from Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” and Salma Hayek in fetching saloon-gal attire. In this TV retread, Smith takes over from Robert Conrad as 19th-century secret agent Jim West, and Kevin Kline plays his master-of-disguise sidekick Artemus Gordon. The oddest casting replaces midget villain Michael Dunn with...Kenneth Branagh? Guess Sir John Gielgud wasn’t available. (July 2)

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