J. Robert Parks, who frequently contributes to the review archive at Looking Closer’s movie page, stops by with a preview of this summer’s big screen features…

As I have the privilege of mentioning (whining?) every year around Memorial Day, summertime is not necessarily a film critic’s favorite season. Regular moviegoers might thrill to a big special-effects blockbuster, a new Will Ferrell (or Owen Wilson or Ben Stiller or all of the above) stupid comedy, or a corny romantic comedy starring the pretty blonde du jour. But film critics get tired of them fairly quickly. It’s not that we don’t like those kind of movies. It’s that when you see 25 romantic comedies a year, it’s hard to get excited about number 26.

It’s even worse than that, though, as studios go out of their way to make these films seem as familiar as possible. They don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers, so each action thriller is designed like last year’s action thriller, each comedy farce like last season’s comedy farce. They’re the McDonalds hamburgers of movies. When you’re in the mood for a Big Mac, you don’t mind if it tastes like every other Big Mac you’ve had. But if you’re forced to eat Big Macs several times a week, well that gets a little old.

Fortunately, this summer actually looks like the exception to the rule. As even your senile aunt has noticed, there are an ungodly number of remakes, the most loathsome being The Dukes of Hazzard (Aug. 5). But there are some interesting possibilities, as well, with several top-flight directors working in creative directions. Take, for example, Batman Begins (June 17). On the surface, it appears to be just another sequel and of a franchise that wore out its welcome years ago. Yet, when you realize that the director is Christopher Nolan, who made Insomnia and Memento, the possibilities look significantly brighter. Add in Christian Bale, one of the more eclectic actors working in Hollywood, as the caped crusader, and Batman Begins might be that rare species of movie that grosses $300 million and still wows the critics.

It’s not just Batman, though. War of the Worlds (June 29) would be simply another alien war movie except that it’s directed by Stephen Spielberg and stars Tom Cruise. Both of those men have been branching out in recent years, refusing to rest on their checkbooks, so that’s another film that could defy the summer blockbuster odds. The same goes for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 15), which features the pairing of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. How about Richard Linklater (Before Sunset) and Billy Bob Thornton in The Bad News Bears (July 22)? And then there’s the return of Terry Gilliam, with his own adaptation of The Brothers Grimm (July 29). I wish that these strong creative minds were working with more original material. But if we’re stuck with remakes, let’s at least have intelligent filmmakers at the helm.

These aren’t the only big-budget movies I’m looking forward to, either. There’s tremendous buzz about Ron Howard’s new bio-pic Cinderella Man (June 3) starring Russell Crowe as depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. Dark Water (July 8) features the always compelling Jennifer Connelly in a ghost story directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries). And Mike Judge, who wrote and directed the cult classic Office Space, has a new comedy entitled 3001 (Aug. 5).

Even the kiddie movies sound better this summer. The early word is fantastic on DreamWorks new animated movie Madagascar (May 27), with my friend Garth remarking that Sacha “Ali G” Cohen steals the show. Robert Rodriguez, who did such a wonderful job with the Spy Kids series, is returning with another children’s flick, this one entitled The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D (June 10). But my most anticipated children’s film is Howl’s Moving Castle (June 17), directed by Japan’s grandmaster of animation Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Finally, though it’s not an animated film, I can heartily recommend Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (June 3). Yes, it’s aimed squarely at the tween girl audience who’s already fallen in love with the book, but the universal themes of family, friends, and love will cross more than a few boundaries.

The arthouse scene is always impressive in Chicago, but it too looks particularly strong this summer. My favorite is a brilliant German film called The Edukators (Aug. 5), which updates Truffaut’s Jules and Jim with a contemporary political edge. Wong Kar-wai’s long awaited (and long delayed) ode to lost love 2046 (also Aug. 5) will not disappoint Wong’s many fans. Neither will Thai director Joe Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (Aug. 19), a glorious minimalist work that echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Holy Girl (June 17) is an assured Argentinean film that focuses on a teenage girl whose growing sexuality is intertwined with her devotional Catholicism. Ingmar Bergman returns (yet again) with Liv Ullmann in Saraband (July 8), a reworking of his earlier “Scenes from a Marriage.” Hustle and Flow (July 15), starring Terrence Howard as a pimp facing a mid-life crisis, was the toast of Sundance, while Broken Flowers (Aug. 5), directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray, was recently the toast of Cannes. Finally, Fernando Meirelles, who made such a spectacular breakthrough with 2003’s City of God, offers The Constant Gardener (Aug. 26), which is based on a John Le Carre novel.

Ok, let’s not get carried away. Not every movie is going to be a winner this summer. Besides the aforementioned Dukes of Hazzard, we also have the semi-annual Hilary Duff extravaganza, this one called The Perfect Man (June 17); Martin Lawrence’s less-than-triumphant return in the jr. high comedy Rebound (July 1); the latest Michael Bay bloat-a-thon The Island (July 22); and Steve Martin trying to resurrect The Pink Panther franchise (Aug. 5). Steve might be a funny guy, but you don’t follow a legend like Peter Sellers. Furthermore, director Shawn Levy, whose best film might be Cheaper by the Dozen, is definitely no Blake Edwards. Still, none of those can compare to the horror that will be Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (Aug. 12). Anyone who’s actually looking forward to Rob Schneider taking off his clothes needs some serious, serious counseling.

Other films that I’d steer you away from (if the $50-million marketing budgets weren’t just going to steer you right back) include: The Honeymooners (June 10), which might be funny if it only starred Cedric the Entertainer and Gabriel Union, but it also stars Mike Epps and Regina Hall; Herbie: Reloaded (June 24), with Lindsay Lohan filling out her jumpsuit; Bewitched (June 24), Will Ferrell’s 58th movie of 2005; Stealth (July 29), Jamie Foxx’s reversion to drivel; Supercross (Aug. 12), a film about supercross racing (who woulda guessed?); The Skeleton Key (Aug. 12), yet another supernatural horror flick (God, please make them stop!); and Domino (Aug. 19), Tony Scott’s latest attempt to imitate Michael Bay. And in case you needed any warning, The Longest Yard (May 27) is absolutely offensive.

So, there you have it. Summer 2005–something for everyone, even the film critics.

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