Popcorn and air conditioning

It seems only fitting that in this year when our collective odometer is ready to roll over for a new millennium and the medium of film has crossed the century mark, we’re going back to the future.

The media and fan frenzy accompanying the May 19 arrival in theaters of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace makes it feel eerily like a secular Second Coming. But Phantom Menace’s debut is only the beginning of a summer season in which a diverse batch of movies is slated to fill the rest of the screens at a multiplex near you.

While the public at large awaits Phantom Menace, a smaller cult eyes July 16, opening day for the final film by reclusive auteur Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining). Kubrick died unexpectedly last March after completing the long-awaited Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as psychologists whose troubled marriage is jump-started when they begin giving themselves over to their darkest sexual fantasies.

The excitement surrounding the film is not just aesthetic (how will this stylistic formalist deal with the irrational power of erotic desire?), but on an industry level. The nearly unprecedented control George Lucas has over every aspect of Phantom Menace is nothing compared to Kubrick’s tight rein, which began by swearing the cast members to a strict code of secrecy. It will be interesting to see what happens to Eyes Wide Shut with Kubrick gone.

For a movie season associated with fluff – popcorn action movies or featherweight comedies – the summer of 1999 has a number of serious films in addition to Eyes Wide Shut.

Spike Lee covers new ground with Summer of Sam (July 30), set in an Italian-American Bronx neighborhood during the scorching summer of 1977 and starring John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino and Anthony LaPaglia. The temperature of an already jittery New York is raised by extensive coverage of a serial killer dubbed Son of Sam in the tabloids. Lee focuses on the paranoia that strikes this insular community when a low-level Bronx thug becomes convinced the killer is a local, and begins his search by targeting easy scapegoats such as a budding punk rocker (Adrien Brody).

An even greater clash of cultures comes in Instinct (June 4), which casts Anthony Hopkins as a primatologist who lived so long among mountain gorillas in Rwanda that he was accepted as one of their own. Now in a prison mental hospital, he comes under the scrutiny of psychiatrist Cuba Gooding Jr., who tries to understand what led this brilliant scientist to murder.

Writer/director John Sayles journeys to Alaska for Limbo (June 4), which begins as the study of a small community in this last American frontier and shows how a widely diverse group of people seeks to alter this land of opportunity to fit their own image. Limbo is also a more intimate story, of a makeshift family (David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Vanessa Martinez) who come face to face with the real ruggedness of this place, and the way it strips human nature down to its core.

Of the lighter fare, there’s also a lot to chose from, in part because of the recent Hollywood trend of niche programming. Basically, it means making (relatively) smaller budget movies geared to a specific group (say, teenagers) as opposed to mammoth high-concept blockbusters meant to appeal to the widest possible audience spectrum.

In a surprisingly sequel-sparse summer, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (June 11) looks like a happy sure thing, another light-hearted spoof of secret agent movies and London in the swinging ’60s courtesy of Canadian anglophile Mike Myers.

If Austin Powers isn’t juvenile enough, there’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (June 18), based on the Comedy Central series. Don’t expect Disney quality animation or anything resembling good taste from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the duo also responsible for the wickedly funny Orgazmo), especially now that they’re free from TV’s restrictions.

For those who like their comedy and science fiction together, Mystery Men (Aug. 6), adapted from the Dark Horse comic by Bob Burden, may fit the bill. A group of grade-B superhero wannabes (the wildly diverse group of actors Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Kel Mitchell, Paul Reubens, Ben Stiller and Wes Studi) are called to duty when Champion City’s protector is undone by the villainous Geoffrey Rush and Lena Olin. With this cast, Mystery Men could be a full-blown scenery-chewing buffet or great campy fun.

A promising teen movie is Detroit Rock City (Aug. 13), where four devoted KISS fans in 1978 Cleveland are put to the test when their plans to attend a sold-out Detroit concert turns into an obstacle course that tests their resolve. Co-produced by Gene Simmons and featuring some of the best young actors around (Edward Furlong, Natasha Lyonne), imagine Detroit Rock City as a Pilgrims’ Progress for stoners.

Another movie with strong Detroit ties (which was also not primarily filmed here) is For Love of the Game (late summer), directed by Sam Raimi and starring Kevin Costner as a Detroit Tiger. While pitching what could be a perfect game against the New York Yankees (this is fantasy, after all), Costner’s aging athlete looks back at not only his career choices, but his romance with the woman (Kelly Preston) who has just left him.

Finally, for those who like their horror movies truly spine-tingling, The Blair Witch Project opens July 16. One of the true surprises of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this clever mock-documentary is about a film crew which disappears in Maryland’s Black Hills Forest after going out to make a film about local legend, the Blair Witch. A year later, their footage is "found," and details their physical and psychological descent into hell.

Once again, there will be plenty of choices to distract Detroiters from the inconvenience of three months of warm weather.

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