Blockbusters. Teen sex romps. Rock solid comedies. Usually, these are staples of the summer film crop. However, a blight seems to have ravaged this summer”s offerings, with sub-par action movies flooding the theaters along with jackass comedies that go beyond the normal accepted level of stupidity. Fortunately, there were a few old stand-bys and new faces that came through for those of us that continued to go to the theaters after “Tomb Raider.” The following are the few diamonds in the rough that kept us entertained and moved in a summer of schlock.
1. Shrek It”s a rare treat to find a film that truly entertains little kids, college students and adults. In the grand tradition of “Pee Wee”s Big Adventure,” “Goonies” and “Bill and Ted”s Excellent Adventure,” “Shrek” manages to bridge the gap between sophisticated humor and fart jokes. Mike Myers lends his voice as the hermit-like ogre Shrek, who is forced to come to the aid of all of the fairy tale creatures of the forest when Lord Farquaad exiles them to Shrek”s swamp. In the process, he begins to appreciate that there is more to life than making candles out of his earwax. The animation in the film is phenomenal, and the abundant and sometimes blatant cracks on Disney are fun to pick out. “Shrek” is a further example of how animation films don”t necessarily have to have lackluster plots and dialogue like some movies this summer that I could name. (I”ll give you a hint it begins with the letter “Final Fantasy.”
2. Ghost World Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson appear to be stock teen angst characters and show the reality and humanity of being “alternative.” Steve Buscemi turns in the most touching performance of his career as a middle-aged schlub who befriends Birch”s Enid. After their high-school graduation, the two girls plan to move in together and start a life fighting the establishment. Though as Johansson realizes that a job in a coffee shop is necessary to make a living, and Enid sees only Bucemi”s Seymour as her future, the trio must face their fears of living out life on Earth. The acting is tremendous, and Terry Zwigoff”s (“Crumb”) careful direction keeps the movie from slipping into the “coming of angsty-age” schmaltz that often plagues films of this sort. Just as the independent movement is becoming about as alternative as Coca Cola, it”s nice to see a film that takes its own path and doesn”t end on a happy note.
3. Kiss of the Dragon In the era of wire fighting and computer enhanced effects, a good old fashioned, street fighting movie has all but been forgotten. Leave it to Jet Li, the small but unbelievably tough martial artist (and this is without hyperbole) whose moves are so fast that he blurs the film. In this film, Li plays a cop who is enlisted to help French police in a sting but is double crossed and must take to he streets to survive. With one of the best opening scenes in recent film, this film sets a new standard for fight and chase scenes to which all future ones should be compared. The violence in the film is extensive and graphic, but there is so much that it goes beyond disturbing to just ridiculous. As a severed set of legs falls to the ground after a close encounter with a grenade, the viewer response is a groan and a laugh.
4. Sexy Beast Ben Kingsley, Ghandi himself, plays a character so mean, so rank, so foul that the kindly Indian would have called him a sorry son of a bitch. Kingley”s mid-level gangster Don Logan makes the trip from London to a Spanish villa to talk Gal Dove (Ray Winestone) into coming out of retirement to pull off the heist of the century. The nearly clich plot is stripped down to a power struggle between these two men, until the highly inventive third act heist and the entrance of crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), who is even more terrifying than Logan. This British sleeper is easily more entertaining than other recent caper films (“The Heist,” etc) and has a wonderful subtext about love, redemption, and the price of freedom. Plus, Ben Kingsley peeing on the floor. What more do you want in a summer film?
5. Made Imagine “Swingers” transplanted into the world of high-rolling gangsters, New York night clubs, and deadbeat wiseguys. Actually, although Jon Favreau”s and Vince Vaughn”s characters are similar to the “Swingers” duo, Vaughn”s wise-cracking, slightly irritating character seems more like a guy who saw “Swingers” one too many times and took on some of the less charming traits of Trent. Favreau and Vaughn play regular working class guys who are given a chance to prove themselves to mob boss Peter Falk, who gives a surprisingly scary performance. The back and forth dialogue is clever and has some of the same charm as “Swingers,” but don”t expect a sequel, for this film has a much less meandering plot than the L.A. nightclub film.
6. The Deep End While popcorn films tend to rule the roost on the summer slate, this dark film, based on the novel by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, is a tremendous exception. Tilda Swinton stars as Margaret Hall, a mother who attempts to protect her teenage son from his male lover, a predatory, sleazy nightclub owner. When the nightclub owner ends up dead in her backyard, Margaret does everything in her power to protect her son. Swinton shows Margaret go from fear to desperation to near madess, all with her eyes and a quiver of her lip. The story intensifies as a ruthless blackmailer and his brooding partner (Goran Visnijic) threaten to send suggestive, pornographic videos to the police, implicating her son in murder. While this film would probably be more at home during the fall Oscar rush, it is a pleasent change from the soulless garbage that permeates summer entertainment.