The summer in review: Vol. 1

The season of warm weather, no school and lake vacations will officially come to an end on Sept. 22. Although I probably failed to take advantage of the agreeable weather by most Minnesotan standards, I spent many of my weekends fighting the good fight against the recent movie box office slump by munching popcorn in a darkened theater.

So, in the interest of reminiscing and reflecting on this year’s summer films (and in an effort to make up for the laziness that is my wont during the summer months), I’ve compiled some thoughts on the films I paid too much to see these past four months (unfortunately, the number of those films warrants three installments, so please watch this space in coming weeks).

It may not be the same as bike rides on the Gateway Trail or fishing on Silver Lake, but here’s hoping my favorite form of warm-weather recreation was not taken in vain.

‘Fever Pitch’

Although this Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy actually premiered in April, I figured a film about baseball fanaticism is as good as any to kick off the summer movie season. Despite the spotty track record of late of the Bobby and Peter Farrelly (who directed), this engaging boy-gets-girl romp based on a Nick Hornby novel (originally focused on soccer, incidentally) is at least a stand-up triple if not a grand slam.

The movie, which chronicles the relationship between a successful career woman (Barrymore) and a sweet but Red Sox-obsessed schoolteacher (Fallon), marks a departure for the Farrelly brothers who imbue the film with heart and plausibility mixed with their usual ventures into “foul” territory. Fallon, too, finally begins to mature from Adam Sandler-knockoff to genuine leading man, paralleling his character’s coming-of-age as he contemplates the possibility of fatherhood and struggles to balance his first love (the Red Sox) and his true love. The result is an ending as fairy tale as the team’s real-life World Series success last year, marred only by unnecessary “Something About Mary” gags like a friend’s assistance with shaving in the shower. Grade: B+; out on DVD Sept. 13 (rated PG-13).

‘Sin City’

Robert Rodriguez has taken the comic book homage film to a new level with the ultra-violent but visually arresting “Sin City.” It wasn’t enough for the “Spy Kids” and “Desperado” director to mirror creator Frank Miller’s pulp comic series panel-by-panel; Rodriguez quit the Director’s Guild of America in order to bring Miller on as co-director for the project. The result is a highly stylized, but ultimately rewarding trip into dark noir storytelling.

The film focuses on three stories and three antiheroes: Marv (Mickey Rourke), Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and Dwight (Clive Owen), each with their own story line of saving a girl (Jaime King, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson, respectively) and dispatching with bad guys that are even more morally questionable than themselves. Rourke is the standout as the monstrous Marv who manages, through sheer personality and grit, to achieve the only truly sympathetic tragic hero mold in the bunch (though Willis also fits his grizzled detective role like a glove). The rest of the characters are filled out with borderline stunt casting of everyone from Benicio Del Toro as a cop who loses his head, to Nick Stahl as one of the few black-and-white characters splattered with color, to Elijah Wood as the ultimate anti-Frodo. Grade: A-; now out on DVD (rated R).

‘Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith’

Arguably the biggest movie of the summer and the end of a fantasy franchise does not disappoint in terms of scale and spectacle. “Revenge of the Sith” thankfully brings to a close this beloved series with an entertaining and appropriate conclusion, placing it high above “The Matrix” though still far below “The Lord of the Rings” in terms of blockbuster trilogies.

Legions of fans might collectively gasp upon hearing the last three “Star Wars” prequels referred to as a trilogy, rather than the six-film arc director George Lucas so obviously intended. And, to his credit, critics who have lambasted “The Phantom Menace” and “The Clone Wars” have generally failed to recognize that Lucas’ stilted dialogue and 70’s era costumes have simply been an attempt to remain consistent with the style he established in 1977.

However, those early films had the feel of an independent movie made with big aspirations while both embracing and transcending their campiness. Though “Revenge of the Sith” manages to grab audiences with masterful action sequences, passable dialogue and performances from Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid that rival that of Sir Alec Guinness’ in the original, 25 years of special effects progress wipes away the relatability of Lucas’ earlier films. As much as I love Yoda’s acrobatic fight sequences, there was something more tangible and downright charming about Jim Henson’s puppet version. Grade: B; out on DVD Nov. 1 (rated PG-13).

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

Despite mediocre reaction from both critics and box office receipts, this movie was the surprise treat of the summer for anyone who appreciates grandiose moviemaking, kept humble by the razor-sharp satirical wit of Douglas Adams.

From its opening musical dolphin sequence to the revelation of the true role mice play in our society, “Hitchhiker’s Guide” revels in its cleverness without condescending to its audience. A sadsack “Everyman” played perfectly by Martin Freeman (transferring his brilliant “Tim” character from the British series “The Office” to the big screen) gets wrapped up in a global crisis and, through a series of unlikely coincidences and the help of an intergalactic team, attempts to save the world and his love interest (the infinitely likable Zooey Deschanel).

The remaining cast members are each “stellar”: Mos Def plays Ford Prefect, an earnest and helpful alien. Sam Rockwell steals-scenes as a hilariously vapid “President” (with a vaguely familiar Texan accent). Alan Rickman lends his voice to the terminally depressed robot, Marvin. John Malkovich cameos as . . . well, another alien suited for Malkovichian portrayal.

But the real star is Adams’ writing. Only he could combine a high-concept comedic idea like a terrain that punishes you for thinking, with a low-brow gag like being slapped in the face by a fly swatter for violating that rule. Grade: A; out on DVD Sept. 13 (rated PG).

‘Madagascar’

When the new wave of computer-generated animated movies began in the mid-1990s with Pixar’s “Toy Story,” it seemed as though every subsequent effort to hit screens was a home run. Even when new CGI studios began producing films, DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and Blue Sky’s “Ice Age” were still hilarious and increasingly intelligent family films.

But while Pixar continued its string of quality movies with “A Bug’s Life”, “Monster’s Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo”, DreamWorks started churning out pop culture-happy schlock like “A Shark’s Tale” and (I’m sorry to say) “Shrek II”.

Their tradition continues with “Madagascar,” an unfunny, completely ridiculous story about troublemaking Bronx zoo animals shipped to Africa that feels rushed off the assembly line faster than you can say “The Incredibles” (Pixar’s latest and perhaps best CGI offering to date). In “Bug’s Life” and “Nemo”, audiences were presented with animal worlds that could coexist with unwitting humans, however unlikely (a similar premise in “Toy Story” and “Monster’s Inc.”). This DreamWorks film opts instead to allow its animal characters to act like humans even when in contact with them, a device that works in Bugs Bunny cartoons but only manages to leave these characters as one dimensional as Daffy Duck. Grade: C-; out on DVD Nov. 15 (rated PG).

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