For YEARS , it has seemed that summer movies are not so much made as they are extruded from studio marketing departments -- like fast-food taco fillings. But that's an old lament, one that looks as if it could undergo a change. The wholesale embrace of dumb as the new smart has gone on for long enough now that we may be reaching a pendulum swing -- and I predict this based on nothing more than a recent New York Times trend piece noting an uptick in undergraduate philosophy majors and my own weariness of formulaic movies. ¶
The smartening-up of summer is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Not only is this season's crop of major motion pictures looking better-pedigreed and more interesting than usual, but the number of lower-profile alternatives to the blockbusters also looks especially encouraging. This summer's smaller movies seem to be heavily tilted toward rule-breakers, boundary-pushers, provocateurs, outlaws and rebels, when they're not exploring the twisty turns of difficult relationships and complicated psyches.
If you're looking for a break from the big guns, here are a few promising alternatives:
"Noise" (opening May 16), starring Tim Robbins as a self-styled vigilante fighting car alarms in New York City (he calls himself the Rectifier), looks strange and hilarious. William Hurt plays his nemesis, the mayor.
Among the brainier, artier, more cultish offerings of the summer are "Savage Grace" and "Quid Pro Quo." A new feature (finally) from "Swoon" director Tom Kalin, "Savage Grace," which opens May 30, is based on the nonfiction account of Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore), a flamboyant social climber who married the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, had a son and proceeded to live out a Greek tragedy. Kalin, whose last feature, in the early '90s, explored the imagined psycho-sexual dynamic between the infamous Nietzschean uber-mensch killers Leopold and Loeb, is interested again in exploring potentially toxic personality combinations. From the looks of it, Daly, husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) and son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) went together like ammonia and bleach, and "Savage Grace" looks like just the torrid, smarty-pants psychological thriller that's called for in hot weather.
In June, Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga star in "Quid Pro Quo," a dark story about a paraplegic public radio reporter who stumbles upon the bizarre underworld of "wannabe" amputees -- able-bodied people who wish to be disabled. Having been in a wheelchair since he was 8, Isaac (Stahl) suddenly finds himself romantically linked to one of them, giving him a new perspective on his life since the accident that left him unable to walk.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a new documentary by Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," "Taxi to the Dark Side"), opens July 4, just in time to remind us of the golden age of American magazine writing and long-form journalism, and features interviews with the likes of Ralph Steadman, Jimmy Carter, Tom Wolfe and Jann Wenner, plus archival footage, photographs, home movies and recordings, unpublished manuscripts and letters.
Another documentary portrait of a writer fighting another (but similar) fight is "Trumbo" (June 27), Peter Askin's elegant and in-depth look at the life, work and times of blacklisted Hollywood 10 screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Inspired by Trumbo's personal letters, which are read by actors David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Michael Douglas and others, it examines the dangers of government incursions into self-expression, and serves as a prophetic warning.
A lighter take on a subject just as serious is "Religulous," by "Borat" director Larry Charles. A documentary experiment opening July 11, it follows comedian and political commentator Bill Maher around the world, interviewing people about their religious beliefs. The trailer shows off the extremes of faith-based comedy potential -- including a guy who is sure the second coming will result in pizza growing on trees. No doubt it will anger thousands and preach solely to the unconverted, but the good Lord made big mouths and video cameras for a reason.
I'm very much looking forward to the brilliant French provocatrice Catherine Breillat's period piece "The Last Mistress," about sex and (in)fidelity, starring Asia Argento, which opens July 4. Always smart and perverse, Breillat makes the kind of films that you can really talk about once you're done talking about Judd Apatow.
Another documentary to look forward to is James Marsh's "Man on Wire" (Aug. 22), an exciting account of the "artistic crime of the century," which involved, in 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit's sneaking atop the World Trade Center and performing a tightrope act between the twin towers with no harness or safety net. Impossible to conceive of today and not because of the tragic loss of the towers.
The comedy "Hamlet 2," directed by Andrew Fleming, also opens that weekend. In it, a failed actor becomes a failed teacher and writes and stages an insane original production called "Hamlet 2" to save his job. Because of politically sensitive material -- Jesus is a character -- the play is almost shut down and the whole thing turns into a First Amendment case. The biggest sale at the Sundance Festival this year, it sounds like a "Citizen Ruth" for the new millennium, only crazier.