Summer movie picks -- Spend the season watching ''Jungle Fever,'' ''City Slickers,'' ''Thelma & Louise,'' and more

Movies are pop dreams, and summer is the dream season. There’s something uniquely soothing about taking in a movie after a hypnotic day of sun, surf, and thrillingly unhealthy hot dogs. Emerging into the warm night air, one feels not simply refreshed but centered, as if the joys of art and life had been magically aligned. Here, Owen Gleiberman looks at the best current bets for summer-movie dreaming.

There’s a world of difference between a movie that evokes laughs and one that evokes laughter. City Slickers is nothing more than a good-natured Western comedy about a trio of urban dweebs who go on a cattle drive. Yet it’s no fluke that the film is shaping up as a major hit: The jokes, even at their wildest, are rooted in reality — in the embarrassingly sincere desire of three aging yuppies (Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby) to live out their youthful fantasies. After almost 15 years in Hollywood, Crystal has found the right vehicle for his gentle-smartass persona. The movie has its scrappy sections, but it’s the one comedy this year with real joy in it, and real humanity, too.

Judging from the critical reaction to Madonna’s riveting backstage documentary, you’d think the Blond One was the first pop star in history to keep a subliminal, media-age distance from the camera (does anyone remember Bob Dylan?) or to turn celebrity into an art form (I recall a certain elfin one-gloved superstar of the early ’80s having some luck with this approach). More than that, you have to wonder whether all the pundits who’ve proclaimed Madonna a ”postmodern” artist really appreciate what’s so terrific about her: her impish celebration of sin, the way she’s turned her natural exhibitionism into a metaphor for healthy — that is, unrepressed — living, and, most of all, the exhilarating pop thrust of her music. Truth or Dare captures it all — the spontaneity beneath the calculation, the warmth beneath the sex- goddess cool.

A quintessential popcorn movie, Ron Howard’s spectacular epic is about two fire-fighting brothers (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) struggling to live up to their father’s heroic legacy. The story is lightweight but engrossing, and there’s always plenty to munch on. The fire-fighting scenes have a Spielbergian grandeur, and since the actors did much of their own stunt work, dancing through flames that are searingly — unfakably — real, the movie, while dramatically hokey, produces a giddy suspension of disbelief.

This middling but amiable Bill Murray comedy has a terrific first 45 minutes. Murray’s performance as Bob Wiley, a pathologically phobic Manhattan nerd, begins as a delightful piece of comic masochism. We can easily understand how a clinging geek like Bob would drive his psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) crazy. What’s more, Murray is sly enough to show you that ruining the shrink’s life is Bob’s secret agenda, his way of getting even with a world that’s happier than he is. The movie ends up pulling its punches, but for a while, at least, Murray gets a chance to cut loose.

PARIS IS BURNING Jennie Livingston’s revelatory documentary about the urban subculture of black and Latino drag balls opened in New York City to near-unanimous acclaim. Then the national distribution was held up, partly by delays over the licensing of nearly 20 disco songs used in the film. Now that has been cleared up, and Paris Is Burning should be popping up around the country this summer. It’s an amazing movie, a story of dispossessed youth taking refuge in their own narcissism. This generation’s drag artists don’t simply dress up as women. They mimic the entire panopoly of idealized images that have been thrust at them from fashion and advertising. Their stories are witty, desperate, sometimes profound.

One can have mixed feelings about a movie and still think it’s eminently worth seeing. So it is with Spike Lee’s latest, a tale of interracial romance that’s laced with powerful moments — even though they never add up to a sustained vision. The affair between Flipper (Wesley Snipes), a successful black architect, and Angie (Annabella Sciorra), his Italian-American temp secretary, becomes the occasion for another of Lee’s ripe urban collages. The characters are all vibrant and funny, but the central romance remains the least-developed element in the film. By the end, one gets the distinct — and disturbing — feeling that Lee doesn’t want it to develop.

Fifty years ago, Orson Welles staged the greatest one-man show in movie history, reinventing the cinema as a pyrotechnical funhouse for adults. The story of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane seems every bit as audacious now as it did the day it opened. That’s because what’s special about Kane — the sheer transformative thrill of invention — is there in every shot, every performance, every narrative surge. If you’ve never seen Welles’ masterpiece, make it tops on your list: It’s as spellbinding a cinematic fairy tale as anything in the post-Star Wars era.

An inner-city cross between Diner and American Graffiti, Joseph B. Vasquez’s funny, heartfelt story of four guys from the South Bronx has what so many low-budget movies lack: a canny and convincing sense of film rhythm. The “homeboys” — two black and two Puerto Rican — are uneasy friends who spend a long night cruising their neighborhood and then venturing into the forbidden paradise of Manhattan. The movie taps into modern urban dreams without romanticizing them.

If this gun-totin’ feminist extravaganza hasn’t been the smash hit many insiders expected, that may be because its first half is so deadly earnest: You never caught Butch and Sundance — or, for that matter, the screwball lovers of Something Wild — treating their flight from civilization with this much soulful seriousness. The movie is most fun when its good ol’ girl heroines (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) put their man troubles on hold and burn rubber down the most spectacularly visualized two-lane blacktop in years.

City Slickers
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes