Having thrilled to the season's first, preliminary wave of box-office blockbusters — from the all-conquering "Harry Potter" and "Shrek 2" to the almost dud-like "Van Helsing" and "Troy" — we now find ourselves in a brief, 'busterless lull, awaiting the real inundation.
On June 30, there'll be "Spider-Man 2," of course, as well as "Before Sunset," director Richard Linklater's belated sequel to his 1995 cult romance, "Before Sunrise," with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy returning to star. On July 9, the harshly revealing Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster" arrives, along with the Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman" and the possibly odd "King Arthur." (The billboards for "King Arthur" curiously identify neither the lead actors nor even the director, Antoine Fuqua, who did "Training Day.") Then, on July 16, comes Will Smith in "I, Robot," based on the classic 1950 short-story sequence by the late sci-fi master Isaac Asimov. The director is Alex Proyas ("The Crow," "Dark City"), and in trailers the movie looks weird and cool.
Not that this weekend is a total wash in terms of high-profile pictures. Michael Moore's already wildly controversial anti-Bush philippic, "Fahrenheit 9/11," opens today. It's a Michael Moore movie that's even more of a Michael Moore movie than previous Michael Moore movies; which is to say it's a compendium of genuinely disturbing assertions sprinkled with cheap shots (which somewhat undermine the director's substantive points), and that it ventures this time into new areas of overkill. You'll love it or you'll hate it. (The Bush administration will certainly have lots of interesting explaining to do.) I leave you to deal with it.
There are also a number of lower-key film possibilities, like "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," a movie that opened last weekend and has gotten some appreciative reviews. The director, Mike Hodges, is best known for the bracingly nasty 1971 crime drama "Get Carter." He drew renewed attention in 1998 with "Croupier," another agreeably hard-nosed lowlife study. "Croupier" was cleverly plotted and it featured the chiseled and tersely charming Clive Owen, whose performance confirmed him as a natural star. (He also plays the title role in "King Arthur," and has reportedly been offered the helm of the James Bond franchise once Pierce Brosnan disembarks. Reportedly — and if so, wisely — he has turned it down.)
Owen is back to anchor "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," but the movie — a tedious re-hash of "Get Carter" — is infuriating. Essential narrative information is either withheld or obscured, and logically inevitable plot payoffs (like a bad-guy bust-up at the end) simply wither away without explanation. Watching the film is like trying to read a book from which handfuls of pages have been torn at random. Hodges may have thought he was doing something arty with this movie, but the result is indistinguishable from ineptitude. I liked "Croupier" (check it out on video), and I wanted to like this picture. I gave up after the first 40 minutes, though, and was still annoyed the following day.
"The Intended," which is opening today, is a movie by the Danish director Kristian Levring, one of the original Dogme 95 group of strict and cheerless film theorists. Since this is a sternly conceived art-house flick that defies concise summarization, let me be especially brief. In 1920s Malaysia, an older-woman-younger-man couple arrives at a remote ivory-trading outpost deep in the jungle. He is to be employed there as a surveyor. The outpost is primitive (no bathing facilities), and the handful of inhabitants already on-site have clearly been way over-basted in the filth and humidity. Sexual tensions sprout like tree ferns. In the end, everybody is either dead or dearly wishing they were. Very Danish, I guess (although the actors speak English). "The Intended" is beautifully filmed, no denying that. But I left the theater wondering who the audience for it was supposed to be, knowing only that it wasn't me.
I haven't yet had a chance to see "Two Brothers," but I think I can recommend it to a certain sort of person. This movie is about a pair of tiger cubs — adorable, of course, judging by the production stills — who get separated shortly after birth, and spend the rest of the film overcoming fearsome obstacles in a quest to return to their native jungle. The reason I mention this movie at all is because the French director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, made a similar picture in 1988 called "The Bear," and I don't know anyone who happened to see that film who wasn't enthralled by the performances (there's no other word) that Annaud managed to get from his stars — who, of course, were mainly bears. If this sounds godawful, okay, skip it. But if I had to choose between "Two Brothers" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" or (please, no) "The Intended," I'm pretty sure where I'd be heading right now without a second thought.
Maybe the best thing to do while you're eagerly awaiting next week's big movies — if indeed you actually are — is to look into some of the recent films that have just come out on DVD. I can recommend the Brazilian "City of God," a whiplash docudrama about savage youth gangs in a hope-starved slum outside of Rio de Janeiro. The actors in this widely admired picture are mostly non-pros, actual residents of the actual slum, and they're startlingly effective. The movie has a sunbaked look all its own, and it's bathed in music: the violence comes as a recurring jolt. "City of God" is in Portuguese, with English subtitles, but it hurtles at you in such a rush that after a few minutes the words, believe me, don't matter.
Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for her all-out performance (under heavy prosthetics) as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster"; and Sean Penn and Tim Robbins got Oscars for their work in Clint Eastwood's harrowing "Mystic River." Both movies lie in wait at your local video store this weekend. Try not to be already depressed if you sit down to watch either of them.
Not only is "Bad Santa" just out on DVD, so is an "unrated" version called "Badder Santa," which has five whole minutes of extra footage added in. Since Terry Zwigoff's scabrous Yuletide travesty didn't seem to be all that "rated" in the first place, this is probably not a big deal. Either way, it's heartwarming to know that Billy Bob Thornton's scumbag St. Nick, wreathed in booze fumes and cigarette smoke, and cursing through a week's worth of skuzzy beard stubble, is now a permanent part of the Christmas-movie canon. Happy f---in' holidays, okay?
You might also opt for "50 First Dates" or "Along Came Polly," I suppose. But the one movie I would tell just about anybody to go out and buy or rent this weekend is the French animated feature "The Triplets of Belleville," which came out on DVD last month. "Triplets" is dreamlike and beautiful and really, lovably strange. (True, it is French, but since none of the characters actually talk, that needn't deter you.)
The story isn't what you'd call simple. An old woman has devoted her life to her grandson, who's grown up to be a marathon bicycle racer. When he's kidnapped by sinister characters who specialize in kidnapping marathon bicycle racers, she sets off with her pot-bellied dog, Bruno, to find him. After a long row across an ocean, she winds up in a big, grimy city that's part Manhattan, part Paris, and there she is taken under the scrawny wings of a faded sister music-hall act called the Triplets of Belleville. I'll say no more, except to note that this amazing film is filled with small wonders: The animation is fresh and poetically inventive; the toddling musical score vividly recalls the hot acoustic jazz of the great Django Reinhardt; and the title song, which was nominated for an Oscar, is unlikely ever to exit your head once it takes up residence therein. Why are you still reading this?