This summer, beasts, love and monster truck shows await you

Some students rigorously pursue independent, intellectual passions. Others engage in community service or personal reflection, meditation and growth. Some just binge on sleep.

But no matter what your plans for this summer are, you’re going to the movies.

It’s the frigid air conditioning, the gleeful glimpses of furtive pre-teens making out, the endless bustle of vacationers — movie theaters are the agora of August.

Of course, you could spend the coming months renting the great classics of filmmaking (start with the oeuvres of Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa and Hitchcock). Or you could catch up on some of the great films that came out last year when you were too busy to see them (the bare minimum is “Requiem for a Dream,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “Pollock” and “Quills”).

But with summer fare like Crocodile Dundee in L.A. and Jurassic Park III, who has time for all those old films? If you’re going to brave the new releases, brace yourself: there’s a lot of crap coming to a theater near you. And hopefully a few gems as well.

The Greeks had earth, wind, fire and air. Women’s magazines have astrological signs. But for our purposes, let’s categorize the four main summer movie-going types:

Masochists

Where to begin? Summer releases, most of which are marketed explicitly for the 12-year-old male population, are often absurdly bad. Consider yourself warned.

I think “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” is high on the list of teasingly terrible summer movies. Paul Hogan returns as everyone’s favorite Aussie. If he were any other nationality, there would be veritable riots over the absurd stereotypes his movies espouse. Someday Australia will get its fair revenge.

But then again, rivaling for the top of my don’t-see list is “Driven,” a Sylvester Stallone/Burt Reynolds flick about race car driving. And then there’s “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” with Martin Lawrence and Danny Devito. The black-man-as-thief motif is getting really old.

I think between dumb and offensive, I’d choose offensive every time. But “Freddy Got Fingered” may wreak havoc with my priorities. Tom Green directs and stars in this paean to Tom Green. There’s narcissism, bizarre humor, attacks on the elderly and playing with animal corpses. For the really perverse, there’s even a plot. Don’t ask. Ditto with the title.

Here’s one to skip: “The Forsaken.” Sean (Kerr Smith) is an idiot. He picks up a hitchhiker (stupid) who’s a nasty vampire hunter (damn). They use Megan (Isabella Miko) as bait for the bloodthirsty demons (just plain misogynistic). Sean tragically ends up with the ‘vampire virus,’ which should adequately convince the public that horror films are ideology machines. Do I detect a little AIDS paranoia here?

Something about the summer (is it the heat? school’s waning influence?) compels people to do stupid things — like going to see sequels for films that were bad to begin with. This summer, we have “Scary Movie II,” “Jurassic Park III,” “American Pie II,” “Rush Hour II” and “The Mummy Returns.” You know what’s going to happen, right? There’s not much pleasure in banality.

“Scary Movie II” revisits the Wayans brothers’ problematic psyches to provide alternately funny, stupid and just plain gross spoofs on horror films. The original cast returns, adding Tori Spelling, Tim Curry and, dear God, say it isn’t so, Marlon Brando as the priest from the Exorcist. It is a dark day for cinema.

“Jurassic Park III” is exactly what it sounds like. The premise, kept under wraps, reportedly involves a wealthy paleontologist’s aerial tour of Isla Sorna. Surprise, surprise, a tragic accident maroons his party and they encounter dangerous beasts. Running for lives ensues.

Though it stars the talented William H. Macy (who has gone on record complaining about the production) and was gussied up by scriptwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (“Election,” “Citizen Ruth,” both of which are amazing films), expectations should be low. Directed by Joe Johnston, who did “Jumanji.”

“American Pie II” and “Rush Hour II” will likely be very popular because of their reprisal of entertaining couples: Jason Biggs and Shannon Elizabeth are (to no one’s surprise but Biggs’) sexually mismatched, and Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan are the ultimate odd couple.

“The Mummy Returns” and terrorizes a London museum. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah and Oded Fehr return with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a new villain, the Scorpion King. I can smell brain cells rotting.

Babysitters

Whether your charges are tots or teens, there will be plenty of films for the younger generation this summer. Continuing the digital trend in children’s films, we have “Shrek,” a computer-animated comedy with the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. It’s from the PDI/Dreamworks team that produced “Antz” (the finest piece of animated political philosophy you’ll ever enjoy). Following the children’s book by William Steig, it introduces us to a nasty ogre who goes on a journey to save a beautiful princess. He learns the meaning of love along the way. Awwww–

Felines and canines battle in “Cats and Dogs,” a live-action/CGI animation film with an impressive voice cast (Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire, Jon Lovitz and Susan Sarandon). The trailers look impossibly juvenile, which is probably about right.

“Altantis: The Lost Empire” is animation Disney-style with the voices of Michael J. Fox, Leonard Nimoy and James Garner. A museum cartographer dreams of completing his grandfather’s quest to find the lost empire of Atlantis. The team responsible for “Beauty and the Beast” directs. It should be visually accomplished.

For slightly older kids (and those very very young at heart), “Dr. Dolittle II” will return Eddie Murphy to the screen in one of his signature roles. The animal kingdom stages a labor strike and the Doc is brought in to help. Maybe we’ll get a nice lesson in Socialism 101, Hollywood style.

Then there’s always “Evolution,” with Dan Aykroyd, David Duchovny and Julianne Moore (who is way too classy for such silliness) in a sci-fi comedy about the earth’s sped-up billion-year evolution process.

Female adolescents may nag you to take them to “A Knight’s Tale,” starring Heath Ledger and other young hunks in a medieval drama set against modern rock music. Or they may torture you with “The Animal,” starring Rob Schneider and “Survivor”‘s Colleen Haskell (such a couple just begs to exist) in a farce about a man who receives animal organ transplants and then takes on bestial traits. It’s from the producers of “Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo,” may they rot in hell every one of them.

Pubescent teens (male, of course) will no doubt want to see “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” a big-screen adaptation of the video game. It’s computer-animated and features the voices of Ming-Na Wen, James Woods and that workhorse Alec Baldwin. A female scientist takes a stand against alien invaders.

But if that’s too enlightened for your wards, then by all means take them to see Lara Croft, that perennial mass masturbation fantasy, live on screen in “Tomb Raider.” Angelina Jolie is a hottie; the film will sell billions.

Escapists

Far be it for me to deny people time to tune out with mass-produced, focus group-screened, committee fare. There will be time and there should be time. With a little discernment, it may not even be wasted.

“One Night at McCool’s” promises to be a delightful comedy about the varying recollections a group of men have about the wacky female they interact with in one heated night. Andrew Dice Clay (remember him?) surfaces in this film alongside Michael Douglas, Matt Dillon, John Goodman, Paul Reiser and the ever-charming Liv Tyler.

It’s the summer for Hollywood breakups. Other than Tom and Nicole, we have the couple in “The Anniversary Party,” a quasi-indie project co-written, co-directed and co-starring Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh along with Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline and Gwyneth Paltrow. In the film, an estranged couple comes together to celebrate their six-year marriage anniversary. As the party devolves into an adult game of truth or dare, we have a sort of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for Gen-Xers. The entire project was shot on digital video.

Then there’s always Warren Beatty’s comedy “Town and Country,” whose marital reconfigurations and reevaluations should be entertaining given the combined comic talents of Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Andie MacDowell, Jenna Elfman and Garry Shandling. Peter Chelsom (“The Mighty”) directs.

You’re not really a full-fledged star in Hollywood unless you make an appearance in the summer flicks, so expect lots of large and famous casts. For example, fit Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, John Cusack and Billy Crystal into one film, and you think you can pull off a hit? “America’s Sweethearts” does. It follows these four in a romantic comedy about feuding married box-office stars and a nervous publicist trying to keep the whole thing under wraps until the studio’s latest opus is released. And people called De Sica the master of realism?

Also mocking monogamy is “About Adam,” the promising British/Irish comedy starring Kate Hudson (genuine smile, fabricated accent). A man seduces three sisters, each of whom knows about her siblings’ involvement with the title character.

Science-fiction lovers have a myriad works to choose from, the best of which will be Tim Burton’s reimagination of “Planet of the Apes.” Though the company has denied that it is either a sequel to or a remake of the original, it begins with an identical premise: a pilot (Mark Wahlberg) lands on a strange planet and finds himself in a world turned upside down. Co-starring Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, and Kris Kristofferson, and employing the talents of a promising cast of effects artists, it should be another notch on Burton’s belt of visual masterpieces.

“Pearl Harbor” is typical summer fare. It stars big name actors (Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale) in a love triangle set against a historical tragedy. This formula never fails to draw crowds. Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “The Rock”) directs.

Funny how they come in pairs: if the lines are too long for “Pearl Harbor,” try its bastard sibling “The Man Who Cried,” a visually nuanced work starring the far more talented cast of Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett and John Turturro in a World War II drama directed by the accomplished Sally Porter (“The Tango Lesson,” “Orlando”).

Action-adventure hails from “Swordfish,” with John Travolta as a CIA agent who uses Halle Berry to convince Hugh Jackman, a computer hacker, to steal millions from the DEA. And from “Made,” in which the cast from “Swingers” meets Sean “Puffy” Combs, follows two boxers as they get involved with the Mafia. Or from Frank Oz’s (“In and Out”) “The Score,” a dime-a-dozen heist drama underusing the tremendous talents of Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett.

Last but not least, Stephen Spielberg makes his return to directing (since “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998) with the much-anticipated “A.I.” The futuristic story, originally developed by Stanley Kubrick and based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, follows a young android (Haley Joel Osment) as he tests his capacity for human emotion.

Aesthetes

Happily, there are many magnificent non-mainstream films coming out this summer. Though potentially difficult to find outside of major cities, they are worth your attention and pursuit. Who knows, after this year’s precedent, you may even see some of them up for Oscars next year.

“The Luzhin Defence,” based on the glorious novel by Vladimir Nabokov and starring the brilliant John Turturro and Emily Watson, follows a sensitive chess genius’ love affair with a society woman. It received wonderful notices at the Toronto Film Festival, and the director, Marleen Gorris (“Mrs. Dalloway,” “Antonia’s Line”), is known for her subtle touch and carefully composed works. It should be a gem.

For those who think that post-Hitchcock directors have forgotten the art of suspense, your savior has arrived in Dominik Mol, whose dark new film about a too-helpful friend, “Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bein” (the English release is called “With a Friend Like Harry”), generated prodigious buzz at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.

Another talked-about crime comedy is “Sexy Beast.” Forgive its title and see Ben Kingsley’s incredible performance as a psychotic crook.

Continuing the trend of their familiar period works like “Howards End” and “Remains of the Day,” Ivory/Merchant brings us “The Golden Bowl,” based on a Henry James novel. A man marries an heiress for her money (duh) but is in love with (duh) someone else. Classic concerns, but I have no doubt the visuals will be sumptuous and the acting (by Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Anjelica Houston, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam) equally splendid.

An equally promising historical drama is “The Affair of the Necklace,” based on the true story of Jeanne de la Motte-Valois and starring Hilary Swank, Christopher Walken and Adrien Brody. A young woman in pre-Revolutionary France is left penniless by political unrest and must restore her good name by stealing a priceless necklace. The real Jeanne is vilified in most French historical accounts, but how could any film not side with Hilary Swank?

At the opposite end of the class spectrum, there’s “Wakin’ Up in Reno,” a potential debacle (or delight) starring Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson as two trashy couples who travel to Reno to see a monster truck show. Yes, that really is the premise. And the director, Jordan Brady, disturbingly lists his CV credits as having played “Frat Guy” on “Dream On” and “Teen Boy” on “Baywatch.” Normally, Thornton and Theron can do no wrong. We’ll see.

Two fine documentaries are hailing from national film festivals: “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s portrait of Latin jazz music and musicians, and “Startup.com,” which follows the startup company govworks.com and credits Yale professor D.A. Pennebaker as a producer.

If you don’t do documentaries but still want social issues and provocation, try “Bread and Roses,” a drama about working-class Latina janitors in L.A. who attempt to unionize. Adrian Brody stars; Ken Loach directs. “Our Song,” directed by the wonderful Jim McKay (“Girls Town,” a tremendous rental if you can find it) tells the coming-of-age story of three girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s remarkable to see a male director who roots for young girls without a trace of condescension.

It’s always a pleasure to return to wonderful directors who have been silent for too long. This summer, Tom Tywker (who directed the terrific “Run Lola Run”) brings us “The Princess and the Warrior.” It’s not a remix of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but a surreal story about a young nurse (played by the phenomenal Franke Potente) whose interactions with a psychotic patient may give her the ability to turn back time. This fairy tale is a must-see.

So is John Singleton’s “Baby Boy,” which is about as different from a fairy tale as his masterpiece “Boyz N the Hood” was from his poor opus “Shaft.” “Baby Boy” returns to the neighborhood from “Boyz N the Hood” and introduces us to a group of black men as they struggle to meet adulthood (in all its literal and metaphorical manifestations). Tyrese, Omar Gooding, Snoop Dogg and Ving Rhames star in this powerful work.

Another returning writing/directing team is Mark and Michael Polish, whose debut work “Twin Falls Idaho” (the first in a trilogy) is one of the most touching and poignant films you’ll ever see. “Jackpot” is the second in that trilogy and follows a singer and manager as they tour the country. The Polish brothers’ stories are slightly surreal and always told with disarmingly honest passion.

More off-beat fare comes in the form of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The German rock singer/transsexual of the title already has a cult following from the successful off-Broadway run of the musical. John Cameron wrote, directed and stars.

The queen of satire, Reese Witherspoon, appears this summer in “Legally Blonde,” a comedy about a sorority queen whose boyfriend dumps her for being too blonde. She finds revenge and empowerment by following him to law school. Witherspoon makes any film wonderful. See “Election” if you doubt me.

And finally, not to be missed is Baz Luhrmann’s turn-of-the-century event, “Moulin Rouge.” Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Strictly Ballroom”) is known for his stylized filmwork, abundant costumes and sets, and scrumptious visuals. The trailer promises beauty, freedom, love, truth — all those good narrative staples. But with Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman (singing, it’s true), there’s already enough talent to fill a hall. It should be spectacularly decadent and very unique, and that’s a rare find for a summer release.

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MARISA BASS
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