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Summer pix generate more heat than usual

AS MOVIE SUMMERS GO, this one actually hasn’t been half bad. Due to too many years in which the studios repeatedly gave new meaning to the concept of lowest common denominator, critics became conditioned to go on automatic pilot during the summer, to expect nothing but bad popcorn movies between June and Labor Day, at which time the serious film season would begin.

It was the 1980s that did this; in 1986, for example, five of the major summer releases were sequels (“Poltergeist II,” “Psycho III,” etc., as well as the season’s best film, “Aliens”), several were underachieving star vehicles (“Cobra,” “Legal Eagles,” “Big Trouble,” “Raw Deal,” “Heartburn”), and the number of lame comedies was staggering, from “A Fine Mess,” “Club Paradise” and “Nothing in Common” to “The Whoopee Boys,” “Back to School” and “Armed and Dangerous.” “Top Gun” ruled at the box office and “The Fly,” “Manhunter” and “Ruthless People” were pretty good, but the season was capped by three jaw-droppingly awful flops, “Under the Cherry Moon,” “Shanghai Surprise” and “Howard the Duck.” It was a good year to take most of the summer off.

This summer, there were four remakes and two sequels, reasonable numbers in what was generally a pleasantly balanced mix of pictures for kids, teens, women, men — and even critics. My daughter loved “Mulan” and “Madeline,” while my parents liked “The Horse Whisperer,” the first film they went to see in a theater in a couple of years. For my part, the two most satisfying films of the summer could simply not have been more different from one another — “Saving Private Ryan” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

WHATEVER THE FLAWS of its screenplay and momentary slippages into sentimentality, Spielberg’s World War II drama clearly represents a huge achievement, both artistically and in terms of the Zeitgeist. As a piece of physical cinema and an immersion in the experience of combat, “Private Ryan” is exceptional, and decisively ups the ante for whatever new war films will follow. Even more significant, however, has been the public reaction, which, we are told, embraces vets being profoundly moved and younger audiences coming away with an appreciation for the soldiers’ sacrifices that they never had before. Hardly a day has gone by without one columnist or another weighing in on the film’s import, with some having gone so far as to suggest that it is only with “Private Ryan” that the lingering guilt and cynicism left behind by the Vietnam War has been wiped clean. How anyone judges this sort of thing is beyond me, but the fact that the film is being discussed in these terms indicates the depth of its impact.

On the other hand, we have “There’s Something About Mary,” which a friend saw the other day back-to-back with “Private Ryan,” a contrast that recalled the most mind-bendingly mismatched double bill I ever encountered, years ago at the late Pan Pacific Theater — “Testament” and “Hot Dog — The Movie.” Utterly ignorant of the film’s nature or content, I saw “Mary” at an early screening with two or three hundred 18-year-olds, and couldn’t remember when I’d ever heard that much laughter at a movie.

It’s a rare picture in which the chemistry among all the elements onscreen is just right, and is passed on in turn to the audience. In this instance, Cameron Diaz’s sexy sweetness completely disarms the viewer, whereupon the Farrelly brothers pulverize you with outrageous gags that would have been too much under other circumstances but are mischievously mainstreamed here. “Mary” may not be a classic comedy, but it is funnier than hell and makes me smile whenever I think about it or even see an ad for it. The bottom line is that “Mary” and “Private Ryan” are the only two summer films I could imagine sitting through a second time.

Beyond these were three quite absorbing, entertaining pictures that were unusually intelligent and extremely well made — “The Truman Show,” “Bulworth” and “Out of Sight.” Thanks to Jim Carrey, Peter Weir’s fantastical seriocomedy found a large public, while Warren Beatty and Steven Soderbergh did not. But the latter filmmakers impressively reasserted their creative credentials after respective fallow periods, with Beatty once again hooking into sociopolitical concerns in a way that he always has in his best work, and Soderbergh making a shrewd thriller that compares favorably to Don Siegel’s distinctive genre pieces of the late ’60s-early ’70s.

ALTHOUGH IT WAS A TAD LEISURELY, “The Mark of Zorro” came gratifyingly close to hitting the right tone of affectionate sendup and genuine derring-do, provided a fine starring role for Antonio Banderas and introduced a very promising new leading lady in Catherine Zeta-Jones. Even more leisurely, “The Horse Whisperer” still represented a mature reworking of a dreary, lachrymose bestseller and provided the pleasure of impeccable craftsmanship. “Mulan” was above-par on the Disney animation scale, while “The Negotiator” featured two of the best actors of their generation, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, in solid parts, albeit in somewhat overblown circumstances.

Although both “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” proved meteoric at the box office, the summer demonstrated that the sci-fi and action categories have hit a creative dry patch; the effort to reinvigorate these commercially essential genres will be very interest-ing to observe in the coming months. Teenpix tumbled with the likes of “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Disturbing Behavior,” as did would-be competitors with “Mary” in the silly comedy arena — “Mafia!,” “Dirty Work” and “BASEketball.” Three Fox films — “Doctor Dolittle,” “The X-Files” and “Hope Floats” — did an astonishing amount of business given how undistinguished they were, and “Godzilla” was a film that somehow grossed more than $135 million despite the fact that absolutely no one could be found who would confess to liking it.

“Pi,” “Buffalo 66” and “The Opposite of Sex” asserted that it is possible for a distinctive independent film to achieve recognition during the heated summer season. At the same time, the number of indie pictures of some quality that seemed to come and go almost imperceptibly was alarmingly high, demonstrating that Sundance and critical buzz rarely translates into significant theatrical business. “Henry Fool,” certainly one of the most ambitious and accomplished films of the year, “The Last Days of Disco,” “High Art,” “Hav Plenty,” “Smoke Signals,” “The Land Girls,” “Whatever,” “Wilde,” “I Went Down,” “Lawn Dogs,” “Mr. Jealousy” — all of these generated at least a measure of critical support either on the festival circuit or at the time of their release, but mostly came and went without so much as denting the public consciousness. For all the talk about counter-programming and the hunger of “arthouse” audiences for quality fare in the face of Hollywood’s biggest onslaught of the year, the failure of these films is enough to make one rethink the wisdom of unloading so many specialized pictures at a time when most of them obviously will go overlooked.

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