Features & Columns

Summer Guide 2013 Movies

This summer's movies all have a dark streak
Frances Ha Frances Ha

A curdled version of "America the Beautiful" plays in the trailer for the home-invasion thriller The Purge (opening June 7). And some kind of equally subtle political allegory can be discerned in the gated community taken to outer space in Elysium (Aug. 9), which depicts the have-not/got-more civil war of 2154. And the executive mansion gets it once again in White House Down (June 28). Escapism keeps getting harder to find, even in summer movies


May 24

Frances Ha

Bright but not brittle director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) collaborates with the ever-rising Greta Gerwig, who was glimpsed in a small but key role in the last Woody Allen film. She is credited with co-writing this comedy about a hapless New Yorker who wants to be a dancer.

Gerwig has persisted through a string of half-baked indie movies that were far more forgettable than she is. She ought to be a star by now, and Frances Ha may finish the job. Both physically, and in choice of odd, uncompromising female roles, she bears a strong resemblance to the most versatile of Hollywood studio actresses, Barbara Stanwyck. And Baumbach's use of black-and-white cinematography may bring out that classic strain in the actress, who also happens to be his significant other.

June 7

Much Ado About Nothing

Just as some directors relax their actors with softball, Joss Whedon (The Avengers) used to encourage impromptu Shakespeare readings during rehearsals for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that tactic lies the basis of this low-budget Shakespeare adaptation, which is a little Neil La Bute in its mood, features modern dress (suit and tie) and is in black-and-white, shot in the spurious Tuscany of Santa Monica hillside mansions. Amy Acker from TV's Angel makes a witty Beatrice; Alexis Denisof is a sarcastic Benedick determined not to be married ("thrust the neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays"). Meanwhile, the ever-debonair Nathan Fillion plays that lawman's lawman Dogberry. It would be patronizing to assume that the many fans of Buffy weren't familiar with Shakespeare; knowing the extent of fanboy and fanlady tunnel vision, though, this may be the first Shakespeare they'll see. So it's a good thing all around.

June 14

Dirty Wars

Director Rick Rowley documents Jeremy Scahill, the journalist investigating the Joint Services Operations Command—the secret warriors tracking and killing terrorists from Yemen to Central Asia or people who to our best knowledge are terrorists or people who were driving in a truck that was the same brand of truck that a sought terrorist was known to drive or people who were just in the wrong tent at the wrong time. Scahill's brave investigations take him to scary places and to encounters with ever-scarier people.

Man of Steel

The previews reveal that our hero (Henry Cavill) is a war refugee and that the seeming "S" on his mighty chest is actually a Kryptonian rune for "hope." This potential Obamaism may trigger wails of "Benghazi!" among the loyal right-wingers watching in Southern movie theaters.

Yes, I am in favor of Superman, I ain't that ironic. Item: TV's Justice League Unlimited, an adaptation of Alan Moore's For the Man Who Has Everything, is very moving, despite the lackluster animation. My point is that there's no law a Superman movie has to be dumb or predictable, even if in Man of Steel the crypto-religious origin story is once again rehashed: Russell Crowe plays the godly Jor-El, while Kevin Costner appears as a corn-fed St. Joseph to the immaculate superhero. Through youthful confusion, Superman rises to face the Hitler of Krypton, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and ad astra per aspera.

June 21

World War Z

This may be the trend killer—the flop that ends the zombie craze—or the restart of a whole new round. The Good War, Studs Terkel's narrative history of World War II, isn't the exact source, but it might well have been. It's Why We Fight and How We Hopefully Won, all about fighting zombies on the beaches and in the streets.

Brad Pitt plays the U.N. investigator piecing together accounts of the global conflict. Rewrites galore have plagued the project, so the only certainty is that the film has Pitt and several hundred million zombs. Will the final version amplify or squelch the political satire of the real source: Max Brooks' novel? Marc Foster (Quantum of Solace) directs.

July 5

I'm So Excited

Fate is, one assumes, the hunter aboard a damaged and seemingly doomed plane of fools headed for Mexico City. No one is raving about this airborne allegory about the horrors of the Spanish economy, but they're murmuring with approval. Pedro Almadovar is one of the few directors who makes completionists out of the hardest to please. Maybe it's the graveyard wit, maybe it's the campiness, maybe it's the attention to glowing fine surfaces in the era when the digital changeover is making for a lot of ugly movies.

July 12

Pacific Rim

Simply colossal. Perhaps it will rekindle the love of super-robots that Michael Bay tainted in three lousy Transformer movies. Pacific Rim is fantasy creator Guillermo del Toro's marriage of Japanese kaiju (the aliens are even called "the kaiju") with a plot seemingly pilfered from John Wyndham's 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes.

We have war with an alien enemy, which has nested in the oceans. The critters must be repelled with skyscraper-size battle robots called "jaegers" ("hunters" in German). I'd love to think that these were a tribute to the mechanical killer jaegars in the novels of Cordwainer Smith, subject of 2013's most unfairly uncelebrated literary centenary.

July 19

Girl Most Likely

A couple of years ago, the sweet, bizarre and convulsive Kristen Wiig was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, where she supported the entire troupe on her shoulders like the low person in a human pyramid. Wiig starred in Bridesmaids, which was considered a risk; it was rewritten on the grounds that unfunny "gurls" needed projectile-diarrhea jokes to get the male audience laughing. Girl Most Likely, recently retitled from its original Imogene (as if in tribute to the great comedienne Coca), is described as Wiig's passion project. She plays a cracked-up boomerang girl bounced off of the New York theater scene who moves in with her mean mom (Annette Bening) and her mom's mendacious pal (one of the seriously underrated funny ones, Matt Dillon).

Summer Series

The summer's film series include the weekend-long Genre Film Festival (the SJSU Student Short Film Festival (May 23) and the Stanford Theatre's repertory screenings (the schedule was still to be worked out as we went to press).

Don't care to travel, let alone pay, for movies?

Eight sessions are scheduled for this year's Starlight Cinemas at various free locations in downtown San Jose, complete with food, crowds and opening entertainments. The series culminates with the Fifth Annual Zombie-o-Rama headliner, Zombieland (Aug 21). Come for the gut-munching, stay for the really good joke about Miley Cyrus. Included in the Starlight series: The Princess Bride (June 12), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (June 19) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Aug 14).

Redwood City's Old Courthouse Square series of free films runs every Thursday at sundown from June 6 all the way to Sept. 26. The films on display range in dates from My Fair Lady (1964) to The Croods (2013); there is heavy PG-ery here, though, with The Hunger Games. Rock of Ages wraps up the series Sept. 26: a nice finale, because once you see Rock of Ages, you really never want to see a movie ever again.