June 12, 2013, 10:16 AM — In the world of movies, summer begins in early May, when the first superhero movie emerges, but in reality it doesn't really begin until June, when school lets out. (Or, more precisely, the summer solstice on June 21.) In any case, summer usually means big entertainments, with big stars, big explosions, big chases, big laughs, and big everything. So to celebrate, here's a selection of ten great (or at least fun) summer movies streaming on Netflix.
Hard to believe, but Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) was released in August. Based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and updated to Vietnam, it depicted the surreal, mind-bending journey of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) upriver to find the missing, insane Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper appear in memorable supporting roles. Awash in heat haze and buzzing gunfire, it was quickly proclaimed one of the year's best movies, but lost the Oscar to Kramer vs. Kramer. You'll never hear "The End" by The Doors in quite the same way again. Coppola's longer, but soberer 2001 cut, Apocalypse Now Redux, is available as a separate stream (and was also released in August).
Marlon Brando returned to summer movies a generation later in a funny, potent supporting role in Frank Oz's The Score (2001), released in July. Robert De Niro and Edward Norton play a couple of thieves who reluctantly team up to steal a priceless scepter; it will be De Niro's "one last big job" before he retires and settles down with Angela Bassett. Of course, just about everything goes wrong. It's not an extraordinary work, and certainly not the best thing that any of these actors has ever done, but the clean, smooth, light direction by Oz (who started out as a Muppeteer and the voice of Miss Piggy) and a smart script co-written by Lem Dobbs make it happily surprising and a great deal of fun.
Escape from L.A.
This sequel to Escape from New York probably disappointed many fans for being less menacing and quite a bit sillier, but John Carpenter's Escape from L.A. (1996), released in August, is as much a parody of all things Hollywood and Los Angeles as it is a decent summer action bang-up. Kurt Russell returns as badass Snake Plissken, who must enter the danger zone of Los Angeles to recover a doomsday device. There he encounters all kinds of "B" movie stars doing ridiculous things (playing basketball, surfing, or performing plastic surgery). The cast includes Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Valeria Golino, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi.
The Mask of Zorro
A nobler hero than Snake, Zorro truly soars in this big-budget July release, produced by Steven Spielberg (the king of summer) and directed by Martin Campbell. The Mask of Zorro (1998) stars Anthony Hopkins as the "real" Zorro, now passing on his mantle to the younger Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). His job is to defeat the evil tyrants, liberate the peasants and rescue Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Though it runs over two hours, the movie is beautifully pitched and paced for maximum smiles and thrills. Incidentally, Zorro was created in 1919 for the pulp magazines, and made his movie debut a year later in The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
With the new Star Trek: Into Darkness tearing up theaters, it's a good time to revisit Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a June release. After the first film in the series baffled fans, Meyer steered it a little bit more toward the feel of the classic TV series, and even resurrected one of its best villains (Ricardo Montalban). The movie features more banter between characters (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the gang), as well as some fantastic visual effects, suspenseful set pieces, and an unforgettable ending. Kirstie Alley plays the sexy Vulcan crewman Saavik, but was replaced in Star Trek III.
Another summer movie based on an old TV series, Mission: Impossible (1996) brought a comeback to the career of director Brian De Palma, who had been through a bit of a slump. De Palma's usual themes of obsession and voyeurism fit perfectly into a spy movie, and he created several memorable moments and set pieces. Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, who must not only protect a special list from falling into the wrong hands, but must also avenge the death of his mentor and figure out who betrayed him. It's fairly complicated, but three accomplished screenwriters--David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne--keep things moving along well enough. Emmanuelle Béart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, and Kristin Scott Thomas play members of Hunt's team, and Vanessa Redgrave steals all her scenes from everyone.
By 1997, control of Hong Kong had been handed back over from the British to the Chinese, and for fear of loss of creative freedom, many filmmakers had relocated to Hollywood, including the great John Woo. Face/Off (1997), released in June, was the first time he had been able to adapt his personal themes and imagery to a Hollywood movie. John Travolta plays good guy Sean Archer, who must take on the identity (and the face) of bad guy Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) in order to find the location of a bomb Troy has planted. Unfortunately, a comatose Troy awakens and takes on Archer's identity, creating a very confusing--and action-packed--situation. Woo's style is hyper-kinetic, but also balletic and operatic; there's no one like him.
Another Hong Kong star had taken up residence in Hollywood around that same time. Jackie Chan's 1992 movie Supercop: Police Story 3 was slightly edited and dubbed into English for its July 1996 U.S. release. He plays the "supercop" of the title, going undercover with Michelle Yeoh to infiltrate and break up an international drug ring. However, Jackie's girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) accidentally identifies him and gets herself kidnapped. Chan's speedy, quasi-comical stunts here are spectacular, including a mind-blowing jump from a motorcycle onto a moving train. Stanley Tong directs. There's no need to have seen Police Story 1 or 2 to enjoy this movie.
A Fish Called Wanda
Not every summer movie is a big action movie or a slapstick comedy. Sometimes you get sophisticated, dry humor like this incredible movie from former members of the Monty Python team. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a sexy American criminal mastermind who must get close to a foppish barrister (John Cleese) to discover the location of some stolen diamonds. Michael Palin plays the owner of the title fish who may also have some information. Kevin Kline (at top) plays Curtis' lover, the cocky, brash, well-dressed and hilariously stupid Otto. The screenplay by Cleese is perfectly polished, and endlessly hilarious, and the direction is by Charles Crichton, a legendary veteran of the English Ealing studio comedies of the 1950s. Amazingly, although comedies--especially summer comedies--never get nominated, A Fish Called Wanda (1988) earned an Oscar for Kline, and nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
Finally, there's Kevin Smith's meta-movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), an August release that more or less wraps up what summer comedies are supposed to be. In this story, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) have been the inspiration for a successful comic book,Bluntman and Chronic. When they discover a movie is being made without their approval (and without getting paid), they hit the road for Hollywood. Ben Affleck reprises his character Holden McNeil, from Smith's Chasing Amy, but also plays Ben Affleck. Jason Lee brings back characters from Chasing Amy and Mallrats. Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson--no relation to me) turn up as their Clerkscharacters as well. Best of all, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher both appear in this movie, for the first time since Return of the Jedi(although they never appear together). All in all, it's messy and fairly ridiculous, but endlessly hilarious.