Summer Movies 2004 Guide


Detroit Free Press
Summer movie guide
April 25, 2004
If you’re wondering what will be coming to movie theaters in the weeks and months to come, this is it: the Big List.

Here are the quick-hit descriptions of the movies scheduled for spring and summer release, along with Free Press film critic Terry Lawson’s insider information on what to expect from the celluloid offerings. As always, the release dates are subject to change.


May 7

“VAN HELSING” The post position goes to this adventure thriller about the title character (Hugh Jackman), the vampire hunter in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” who is beholden to assist a Transylvania-like country in its attempt to vanquish the revived bloodsucker, along with a couple of other predators who aren’t helping tourism a bit: Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. Universal owned the horror-movie market of the ’30s and ’40s with these characters and if “Van Helsing” fulfills expectations, look for sequels and spinoffs.

The Skinny: It’s a great concept, but then, so was “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which it superficially resembles. We can only hope that director Stephen Sommers, who had great success with “The Mummy,” finds a balance between special effects and the old-fashioned thrills and the psychological subtext that made the original movies classics.

“NEW YORK MINUTE” The almost-legal Olsen twins star in a romantic comedy about — what else? — Long Island twins who sneak off to Manhattan with different agendas: Ashley to compete in a speech competition that could win her a European scholarship, Mary-Kate to watch her favorite band (played by Simple Plan) shoot a video. Naturally, romance and a stupid old assassination plot gum up the works.

The Skinny: The Olsens have starred in a number of movies aimed at the 10- to 16-year-old female demographic, but all but one have gone direct to video. Warner Bros. is betting the current popularity of teen chick flicks will rub off.

“THE RETURN” An unclassifiable and fairly unforgettable drama from Russia about two teenage brothers whose lives are turned upside down by the return of their father, whom they barely know, after a 12-year absence. With their mother’s approval, he whisks them off for a trip that is a cover for some other mysterious mission.

The Skinny: In yet another argument for the overhauling of the system by which foreign language Academy Award nominations are made, “The Return” failed to make the cut, despite winning the best-of-show prize at the Venice Film Festival. Original and compelling, it’s one of the year’s best films and arrives with its own real-life tragedy: The actor who plays the younger, resentful son drowned last year in a river shown in the movie.

“WILBUR” An acclaimed dark comedy about two brothers — one of whom is suicidal — who inherit a used-book store in Glasgow and whose lives are changed by their relationship with a hospital cleaning lady (played by the great Shirley Henderson) and her daughter.

The Skinny: Though set in Scotland, the film was cowritten and directed by Denmark’s Lone Sherfig, whose “Italian for Beginners” was one of the most audience-friendly movies to come out of the austere Dogme filmmaking movement. Originally released as “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” the title was shortened after it was realized some people didn’t think suicide was that funny.

“MARTIN & ORLOFF” The founders of the sketch comedy ensemble the Upright Citizen’s Brigade wrote and star in yet another comedy focusing on a suicidal man (Ian Roberts), a marketing executive whose therapist is apparently more disturbed than he is.

The Skinny: The Brigade’s Comedy Central show had some hardcore fans, but even cameos from simpatico gagsters Tina Fey and David Cross aren’t likely to give this much wild-card momentum.

“I’M NOT SCARED” A 9-year-old Italian boy makes a horrific discovery near his small village that not only tests his courage and resourcefulness, but also puts him between his family and neighbors and his own conscience.

The Skinny: Based on a best-selling Italian novel, this suspense thriller-character portrait was another foreign language Oscar victim passed over by the selection board. It’s directed by Gabriele Salvatores, whose “Mediterraneo” won the Academy Award in 1992.

May 14

“TROY” The revival of the star-studded historical epic continues with Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Homer’s account of the Trojan War. Ignited when Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals away Helen (gorgeous newcomer Diane Kruger), the wife of Sparta’s king, the Greek warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt) launches a decade-long assault on Troy. The large, impressive cast includes Brendan Gleeson as Spartan king Menelaus, Julie Christie as Achilles’ mother; Eric Bana as Trojan warrior Hector and Peter O’Toole as his father, King Priam.

The Skinny: Though the advertising campaign focuses on the copious amount of beefcake on display, those who have read the script say the battle scenes and romance have been well integrated into a compelling story that should have across-the-board appeal. With a nearly 3-hour running time, let’s hope it’s as compelling as they claim.

“BREAKIN’ ALL THE RULES” Jamie Foxx turns the awful experience of being dumped by fiancee Gabrielle Union into a best-selling book about how to rebound from a break-up, setting in motion a series of events that affects the love lives of his best friends and his own prospects for happiness.

The Skinny: The only studio film that dares challenge “Troy” is betting that a lot of what the marketers call the “urban audience” will have little truck with togas and sandals.

“YOUNG ADAM” Ewan McGregor has the title role in an adaptation of a novel by Scotland’s answer to the Beats, Alexander Trocchi, playing a drifter who, having taken a job on a coal barge owned by a couple, helps fish a female corpse out of the water. In flashbacks, we learn the woman was no stranger.

The Skinny: Or more to the point, the skin. McGregor and Tilda Swinton, who owns the barge with her husband, spend a great deal of the movie in the nude and in bed, as do the other women McGregor attracts. Nevertheless, the distributor appealed the NC-17 slapped on the movie by the ratings board.

“SINCE OTAR LEFT” A 90-year-old woman, her sad daughter and rebellious granddaughter share a tiny apartment in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where the grandmother hangs onto the hope that her son, Otar, will return and relieve their misery.

The Skinny: Directed by a former protege of Bertrand Tavernier and Krzysztof Kieslowski, this winner of the critic’s award at last year’s Cannes festival has also made a celebrity of Esther Gorintin, a retired dental assistant who plays the grandmother.

“SECRET THINGS” Fired from their respective jobs as a bartender and a stripper, two women hatch a plot to seduce the owner of the French bank where they get hired, along with his son, in hopes of making a killing.

The Skinny: Like “Romance” and “Baise Moi,” another provocative French drama that incorporates real sex into the storytelling.

“SUPER SIZE ME” One of the big-buzz films at this year’s Sundancefestival, this first-person documentary has maker Morgan Spurlock eating at McDonald’s exclusively for a month and comically charting the physical and mental reactions he experiences.

The Skinny: Though subject and director Spurlock attempts to portray himself as a Michael Moore-esque everyman, he’s apparently had some experience making reality shows, and charges have already started to fly that he danced around, or at least exaggerated, some of his conclusions. It can hardly be denied that he — gasp! — gained weight, though. The distributor who put up nearly $1 million will be happy to claim it helped persuade Mickey D’s to drop the Super Size menu.

“WITH ALL DELIBERATE SPEED” A half-century after the landmark integration ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education, those who were involved look back at the Supreme Court decision and the social upheaval that resulted.

The Skinny: An unofficial sequel of sorts to the contentious 1964 documentary “One More River,” which contained interviews with Ralph Bunche, James Meredith and Malcolm X.

May 21

“SHREK 2” The sequel to 2001’s fractured fairy tale about an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) who falls for the formerly beautiful princess he was ordered to rescue begins where that film ended, with the couple and the talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) on their way to the Kingdom of Far, Far Away to celebrate their marriage with Fiona’s parents (Julie Andrews and John Cleese). It appears, however, that Prince Charming isn’t finished with them yet.

The Skinny: Though it’s expected to be a smash, ailing DreamWorks is taking no chances, spending millions to promote it and assembling a virtual mob of fairy-tale villains to provide Shrek and Co. with comic conflict.

“THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD” The latest from experimental Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has two brothers in Depression-era Winnipeg competing in a contest sponsored by beer heiress Isabella Rossellini, who literally has hollow legs filled with beer, to find the saddest music in the world.

The Skinny: Convincingly stonewashed to make it look like a lost, black-and- white movie of indeterminate age, this wild — and wildly funny — movie seems likely to introduce one-of-a-kind Maddin to a larger audience.

“THE AGRONOMIST” Jonathan Demme, keeping his hand in documentaries and pursuing his fascination with Haiti (previously reflected in a CD compilation of Haitian music), tells the story of the volatile Caribbean nation through the dissident voice of Jean Dominique. A wealthy agriculturist turned agitator, Dominique founded Radio Haiti Internationale and made an enemy of murderous dictator Papa Doc Duvalier and his equally nasty son.

The Skinny: Demme recognizes star power when he sees it, and Dominique is as charismatic as they come, a storyteller with a passion to equal that of the director.

“MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN” A re-release of the British comedy troupe’s controversial 1979 religious satire about a clueless chap in 23 AD Judea named Brian Cohen (the late Graham Chapman) who is mistaken for the messiah and attracts a posse of misguided disciples. Like the equally hilarious “Holy Grail,” a digitally remastered and restored version is getting a very limited theatrical run in anticipation of a new DVD edition.

The Skinny: You might assume the Pythoners are simply exploiting the success of “The Passion of the Christ” with a movie once dubbed blasphemous (mostly by people who didn’t see it), and you would, of course, be correct.

“ZERO DAY” Yet another independent drama inspired by the Columbine school shootings, told through videos discovered after the fact that were made by two suburban teenagers who call themselves the Army of Two.

The Skinny: Less artful and more literal than “Elephant” but without the soap operatics of “Home Room” and “The United States of Leland,” it makes good use of its “Blair Witch”-inspired structure.

May 26

“RAISING HELEN” Kate Hudson is Helen, a New York modeling agency assistant whose older sister and brother-in-law are killed in an accident, leaving her to raise their children — a teenage girl, a 10-year-old boy and a kindergartner played by Abigail Breslin, the little girl from “Signs.” The cast includes John Corbett as a minister she turns to for help and eventually comfort, Helen Mirren as her boss and Paris Hilton as a sideshow attraction.

The Skinny: Director Garry Marshall has shown he can handle sentimental with “The Other Sister,” romance with “Runaway Bride” and chick flicks with “The Princess Diaries” and its impending sequel (see below). This apparently mixes them all together for audience-friendly entertainment. Plus, he has bubbly blond experience: He directed Hudson’s mother, Goldie Hawn, in 1987’s “Overboard.”

May 28

“THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” Another save-the-world epic from director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”). Dennis Quaid plays a paleoclimatologist, whose knowledge of weather patterns comes in pretty handy when global warming turns out to be more than something liberal politicians use to scare us and every disaster-movie threat, from hurricanes to earthquakes, come at us all at once. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the son he has to save from an Ice Age assault on New York City, and computer-generated effects play very bad weather.

The Skinny: It’s probably instructive to remember that for all its cheesiness, “Independence Day” was an entertaining movie, though Emmerich’s follow-up “Godzilla” remake was not. 20th Century Fox has a lot riding on this — $150 million minimum, by most guesstimates.

“SOUL PLANE” Despite the title, its producers say this comedy is not “Airplane” goes to the ‘hood: It’s said to be more on the lines of “Barbershop.” Kevin Hart plays a young entrepreneur who parlays a $1-million settlement he receives when his dog dies from airline neglect into his own business, a small airline catering to African Americans. On the other hand, the airline is called NWA and Snoop Dogg is a pilot, leaving us to believe some farce may in fact be involved.

The Skinny: The success of the “Barbershop” films has the forever-ailing MGM thinking black can get them into the red, but any film in which the token white guy is Tom Arnold should be checked thoroughly on the runway.

“SAVED!” The latest in the recent spate of films about just how mean high school girls can be to each other — and everybody else — boasts an interesting twist. It’s set in an evangelical Christian school where the queen bee, played by Mandy Moore, turns on former best friend Jena Malone when Malone gets pregnant during an act of charity — attempting to convince her boyfriend he’s not really gay. Eva Amurri plays a Jewish girl under intense pressure to convert. Patrick Fugit is a skater boi, and Macaulay Culkin, having apparently given up on growing up, acts from a wheelchair.

The Skinny: Those who saw this at its Sundance premiere were divided on whether it was anti-Christian right, anti-teenage girl or just anti-funny.

“A SLIPPING DOWN LIFE” Lili Taylor stars as a woman who hears a song by an obscure rock-poet named Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce) and becomes so obsessed she drops everything to attend a club performance in North Carolina, where she decides on the spur of the moment to carve his last name on her forehead. This gets his attention, and that of a lot of other people as well.

The Skinny: Based on a novel by Anne Tyler, this low-budget film, made five years ago, was a labor of love for Toni Kalem, an actress making her directing debut.


June 4

“HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN” The third installment of the series based on the books that got young America reading again has undergone some changes. Gone is director Chris Columbus, who abandoned his plan to make three Potter movies in three years before handing the reins to someone else. So, too, it appears, is the plan to replace the actors playing the young wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his

Hogwarts’ classmates with younger actors. (They’re apparently all due back for at least one more

adventure.) Columbus replaced himself with Mexico’s Alphonso Cuaron, whose last film was the sexy hit “Y Tu Mama Tambien” but who also has the fine family film “A Little Princess” on his resume. Gone, too, is Richard Harris, who died as production was about to begin, replaced in the role of Dumbledore by character actor Michael Gambon. The story, as everyone probably knows, begins the summer before Harry’s third year at Hogwarts, in which he makes the unhappy discovery that his powers can’t always be controlled, and that the escaped wizard of the title (Gary Oldman) is out to get him.

The Skinny: Though Cuaron has said that his take on the material will be different and perhaps darker, he thinks kids will still be wild about Harry and reminds us that the audience is growing up with the books and these movies. Warner Bros., meanwhile, will get a chance to see how a Potter film does when kids are out of school and get a read on what direction a continuing series should take. Though J.K. Rowling said she intended to wrap the story up with the seventh book, she’s apparently now having second thoughts.

“LOVE ME IF YOU DARE” Since childhood, Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard have related to each other through a game in which they dare each other to do increasingly outrageous things. But now they’re grownups, and the game is getting more audacious and risky. This movie, which combines live-action and animation, is hoping to be described that way as well.

The Skinny: Its debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival had some comparing it to “Amelie” and “Run Lola Run,” albeit not always in a good way.

“VALENTIN” Argentinian director-writer Alejandro Agresti apparently based his story of an 8-year-old sent to live with his grandmother in 1960s Buenos Aires after his mother leaves his abusive father on an episode in his own life, which means it wears its sentimentality without shame.

The Skinny: Though Miramax originally planned to release this in America a year ago, it held off in hopes it would get a foreign-language Oscar nomination: It didn’t.

June 11

“THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK” Vin Diesel, who for a minute or two looked like the next big action-movie star, regroups with a sequel to the low-budget sci-fi thriller that got him on the radar, “Pitch Black.” The first of what is planned as a trilogy has escaped space convict Riddick caught up in some sort of intergalactic warlord rivalry that gets him imprisoned yet again, but we’re guessing he’ll again use his ability to see in the dark, not to mention his masculine wiles, to break free and set a few aliens straight.

The Skinny: The overhyped Diesel walked away from two previous action-movie franchises, but while the sequel to “XXX” is still looking for a new frontman, Diesel is apparently returning in the third “The Fast and the Furious” film, without original partner Paul Thomas Walker, so if “Riddick” hits, he could be back.

“THE STEPFORD WIVES” Less a remake, as they like to say, than a reimagining of the 1975 thriller about a housewife who discovers all is not what it seems in a perfect little suburb, with director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick (who previously teamed on “In & Out”) going for laughs instead of chills. Nicole Kidman has the role originally played by Katherine Ross, and Matthew Broderick is the husband who figures having a less opinionated, eager-to-please spouse might be an improvement on all that equality nonsense.

The Skinny: Though there was apparently some tumult during production, with costar Bette Midler (who replaced Joan Cusack after her brother John dropped out of the part played by Broderick) making no new friends, Paramount, which originally scheduled the film for last fall, is betting Kidman’s first comedy since 1998’s “Practical Magic” is a bona fide summer audience pleaser.

“BAADASSSSS!” A loving, funky tribute to Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” recounting how the 1971 blaxploitation hit written by, directed by and starring the black-empowered Van Peebles as a gangsta who gets away with it got made and became a hit. Van Peebles’ son Mario directs and, naturally enough, plays his old man, so if the movie pulls a few punches, you’ll understand.

The Skinny: “Sweet Sweetback’s” success started right here in Detroit, where Van Peebles was able to wrangle a booking at the old Grand Circus Theater that ended up lasting nearly a year. The rest is history, or at least legend. Amusing note — when the movie was premiered at festivals last year, it was still titled “How to Get The Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass.”

“GARFIELD” Hard to believe that this benign comic strip about the relationship of a fat, surly cat and his owner was ever considered cutting edge, and harder yet to believe that it’s taken 30 years for it to get to the big screen. CGI effects are apparently a major part of the family comedy, in which Garfield, voiced by Bill Murray, is forced to help his owner (Breckin Meyer) find that dumb dog Odie, who has disappeared.

The Skinny: Internet wags named the trailer for “Garfield” the worst of the year, and the computer effects look even creepier than Scooby-Doo’s. But that shouldn’t prevent one of the few G-rated films of the summer from doing a bit of business, and Murray’s contribution can’t hurt.

“NAPOLEON DYNAMITE” The title character — whose name is not, its litigation-fearing producer insists (though not very convincingly), taken from Elvis Costello’s one-time pseudonym — is a teenage geek-outcast in Preston, Idaho, with an even geekier best friend, an amusingly screwed-up family life and a compulsion to break into a little dance at comically inopportune moments. Stuff happens.

The Skinny: To the surprise of some and dismay of others, the self-consciously eccentric trifle became a must-see at Sundance, and the filmmakers took advantage by making a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight that will see Napoleon conquering at least 1,200 screens. They should hope there are a lot of geek-lovers out there.

“ZATOICHI” Writer-director-actor Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, he of the existentialist cop thrillers and frozen face, resurrects a Japanese icon in a slick and entertaining action movie about a stooped, blind masseur who is actually a crafty expert swordsman who protects the countryside from warlords, thugs and murderous geishas.

The Skinny: Fans of Asian cinema will be well-acquainted with the character, who has appeared in dozens of movies (many available now on DVD), but Kitano’s interpretation brings surprising new twists, along with equal amounts of humor, swordplay and violence.

“OASIS” South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong wrote and directed this Venice Film Festival prize-winning drama about a man sentenced to prison for a hit-and-run, who upon his release attempts to make amends with the dead man’s family. But the only member who will listen is the victim’s sister, who suffers from cerebral palsy.

The Skinny: Lee is emerging as one of the bright lights of the new Korean cinema and is so respected there he was recently named culture minister.

“STRAYED” A love story set in the days preceding the German occupation of Paris, starring Emmanuelle Beart as a mother of two small children attempting to flee the country who is offered refuge by a strange boy.

The Skinny: Based on a French best-seller, it’s directed by Andre Techine, whose films “Wild Reeds” and “Alice and Martin” broached similar themes.

June 16

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” Jackie Chan takes the role of Passepartout, the lovable thief memorably played by Cantinflas in the high-budget, high-spirited and highly disregarded 1956 movie of the Jules Verne novel; Steve Coogan, who was terrific in “24 Hour Party People,” is Phineas Fogg, the Victorian dandy who bets the members of his London gentleman’s club that with the advent of air and rail travel, he can indeed circumvent the globe in 80 days.

The Skinny: Independently financed and produced, this comedy was dropped by original distributor Paramount, which got cold feet over all that hot air, despite a supporting cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Luke and Owen Wilson and, as a Turkish sultan, the governor of California. Disney ultimately came to the adventure’s rescue.

June 18

“THE TERMINAL” Steven Spielberg and pal Tom Hanks reunite for a romantic comedy apparently inspired by the true story of an expelled Iranian who, after having his briefcase stolen at Paris’ De Gaulle airport, was stranded there. In this version, Hanks is a citizen of a war-torn Eastern European country that officially ceases to exist at the same time he lands in New York, making him literally a man without a country — so the airport becomes his home. Catherine Zeta-Jones costars as an airline attendant with whom he falls in love, and “Y Tu Mama Tambien’s” Diego Luna and Stanley Tucci are also in the cast.

The Skinny: If the film is as good as the trailer, currently getting an excellent reception from audiences, this should provide Hanks a quick rebound from the disappointing “The Ladykillers” and Spielberg with his biggest summer hit since “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

“THE DARKNESS” Anna Paquin stars in this haunted-house story about a teenager who discovers her family’s new home has a secret past.

The Skinny: Though filmed in English, this was made in Spain, where it was released as “Darkness” two years ago. With little spookum on the summer schedule, Miramax’s genre division Dimension is looking to fill a void.

“DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY” Vince Vaughn tries to save his neighborhood gym by competing with a ragtag team in the national dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas, ultimately going up against a corporation-backed super-squad led by Ben Stiller.

The Skinny: The 11th film this year to star Stiller — OK, it’s just the fourth, but it seems like many more — it is apparently not a true story, though it does costar his wife, Christine Taylor.

June 23

“THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR” The son (Jon Foster) of a private prep school teacher takes a summer job as an assistant to a famous children’s book author and illustrator (Jeff Bridges) living in the East Hamptons, only to fall in love with his wife (Kim Basinger), who is still grieving the death of her two sons.

The Skinny: If the premise sounds slightly familiar, that’s because it’s based on John Irving’s last solid novel, “A Widow For One Year,” or at least the first third of it. Attempting to slice off a piece of one of Irving’s densely plotted, decades-long novels did not prove a successful strategy for “Simon Birch,” an adaptation of the first section of “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” but maybe director Tod Williams will have better luck.

June 25

“SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW” By just about everyone’s assessment, one of the riskiest ventures of the summer — or of the year, for that matter. A retro science-fiction adventure set in the 1930s, it stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a reporter looking into the disappearance of America’s top scientists, a mystery that is partly solved when her old flame, dashing aviator Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), takes to the skies with his pals to do battle with the robots and never-before-seen flying machines invading the city.

The Skinny: With “Mission: Impossible 3” delayed by Tom Cruise’s decision to make “Collateral” with Michael Mann first, Paramount is hoping this innovative adventure, filmed with live actors working exclusively with CGI effects and backgrounds, will be the season’s dark-horse hit. Or, of course, it could just be “The Rocketeer” with better effects.

“THE NOTEBOOK” James Garner and Gena Rowlands appear in the framing story of this adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks best-seller about a notebook chronicling a 1946 love triangle involving a young woman (Rachel McAdams) forced to choose between two suitors (Ryan Gosling and Kevin Connolly).

The Skinny: Sparks wrote the novels that spawned the similarly sentimental films “Message in a Bottle” and “A Walk to Remember,” both of which were minor hits; New Line is betting this one has summer juice.

“TWO BROTHERS” Jean-Jacques Annaud, director of the surprise international hit “The Bear,” returns to nature to tell the stories of two tiger cubs separated at birth, one of which becomes a legendary predator in 1920s French Indochina, while the other becomes a circus star. Guy Pearce is the explorer who unknowingly reunites them.

The Skinny: Should this have any of the savage poetry and romanticism of “The Bear,” lightning could strike twice.

“WHITE CHICKS” Marlon and Shawn Wayans costar as FBI agents who attempt to redeem themselves after a foul-up by protecting the hard-partying hotel heiresses the Wilton sisters (get it?) from a kidnapping scheme. To pull it off, they have to masquerade as, yep, rich, white chicks.

The Skinny: If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that the makeup is both impressive and a little unsettling, and that the gags are not exactly “Tootsie”-style. But anything that keeps these talented clowns from making another “Scary Movie” is OK by me.

“DE-LOVELY” No one can dispute the casting in this Cole Porter biography, which has Kevin Kline playing the songwriter looking back on his life as one mad musical about a gay songwriter who is nevertheless madly in love with his wife, played by Ashley Judd.

The Skinny: Martin Scorsese toyed for a long time with the idea of making this movie, but the job has been left to his sometimes producer, Irwin Winkler, who has hired some sympathetic performers — Elvis Costello, Costello’s wife Diana Krall, and Sheryl Crow among them — to interpret Porter’s brilliant songs.

“DEAR FRANKIE” A 9-year-old boy travels from town to town and hand-to-mouth with his mother (Emily Mortimer), occasionally receiving a letter from his father at sea, a sailor on the HMS Accra, who recounts his adventures in faraway lands. We know, of course, that the mother is writing the letters, creating a problem when Frankie hears the Accra is due to dock near their current home.

The Skinny: The film will have its premiere at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival, which will give Miramax, which is forever altering its release and marketing plans, the time and opportunity to make another adjustment.

June 30

“SPIDER-MAN 2” Having graduated from high school in the 2002 smash, Peter Parker is now a college student and part-time shutterbug for the Daily Bugle — when he’s not using the powers he inherited from a radioactive arachnid to battle super-freaks like Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), that is. The rest of his time is spent pining for girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), now a model dating the astronaut son of his Spider-Man-hating boss, and trying to help his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) through her grief over the death of Uncle Ben. What a web he has slung!

The Skinny: With the first film surpassing nearly all expectations, finding a wide audience that made it a smash while pleasing the hard-core fans, you just knew the sequel would get complicated. First Tobey Maguire’s participation was in question when he said a back injury might prevent him from continuing in the title role (to which Columbia quickly responded by leaking that Jake Gyllenhaal was standing by to take over). Then the first two scripts were rejected as unsuitable, and comic-loving novelist Michael Chabon was brought in to spin the tale, only to have that rewritten by Alvin Sargent. But former Detroiter Sam Raimi is still at the helm, and Bruce Campbell has a cameo as a snooty usher, so how wrong could this really go?


July 2

“AMERICA’S HEART AND SOUL” Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg traveled the length of America shooting its beauty and wonder and interviewing citizens with some remarkable stories to tell in a documentary that just happens to be released in time for the nation’s birthday.

The Skinny: This is being released by the Walt Disney Co., which has been accused of getting too far away from mainstream American values in recent years, so I would expect more heart-tugging than soul-searching.

“THE CLEARING” Robert Redford is a successful, self-made businessman whose very good life goes very bad when he is kidnapped by a former employee and held for ransom in a forest. His wife, Helen Mirren, takes on the job of getting him freed.

The Skinny: Though Redford may be the world’s best-known champion of independent film through his Sundance Institute, this is the first time the aging movie star has ever participated in one — save his financing and narrating “Incident at Oglala,” an agit-prop documentary about the Leonard Peltier case; naturally, this had its debut at the Sundance festival this year.

July 5

“THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL” A travelogue-documentary with recreated scenes about a rare white camel calf that is rejected by its mother and struggles to find its place with a tribe of nomadic Mongolian shepherds whose way of life is being encroached upon by nearby strip malls and other modern intrusions.

The Skinny: The filmmakers have modeled their movie, which has been making the rounds of festivals, on the classic early documentaries “Man of Aran” and “Nanook of the North” by Robert Flaherty, who was hardly above staging a scene or two.

July 7

“KING ARTHUR” The first meeting of the Round Table since 1995’s “First Knight” is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, but don’t look for exploding castles and super-swords. It aims to put the legend into historic context, with Arthur attempting to reunite a British kingdom that has been divided into fiefdoms by warlords. (Any resemblance to the present is unintentional.) Clive Owen, of “Croupier,” is Arthur; Stephen Dillane is right-hand wizard Merlin; Keira Knightley is Guinevere and hunky Ioan Gruffudd, TV’s Horatio Hornblower, gets a shot at movie stardom as Lancelot.

The Skinny: The problem with putting Arthur in historical context is there is no real historical context, but this is set between the fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages. With director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) in charge and a script by Daniel Franzoni, who wrote “Amistad,” we can assume it’s going for something like imagined realism, anyway. Still, Disney moved it up from Christmas to summer, indicating they think it’s more an audience picture than award bait.

July 9

“ANCHORMAN” Had “Broadcast News” been a comedy — wait, it was. OK, if “Broadcast News” had been a Will Ferrell comedy, it might have gone something like this. Ferrell is a top-rated, bona fide media star in San Diego in the ’70s, beloved by the public and management, chased by local ladies, king of the world, until the arrival of Christina Applegate, a real reporter who challenges his authority, news skills and ethics.

The Skinny: If you don’t want to see this, you’ve either a) never seen Ferrell; b) never seen local news; or c) don’t remember how TV newsmen dressed in the ’70s. This just in: Look for all kinds of cool-face cameos. They love the duds.

“SLEEPOVER” Alexa Vega (“Spy Kids”) is one of a quartet of recent 8th-grade graduates who, on a summer sleepover, are challenged by the popular girls to an all-night scavenger hunt that takes them from the suburbs to the city with all manner of unexpected adventures. One prediction: Some lucky lady will get her first kiss.

The Skinny: The movie demographic known as “tweenies” — girls ages 8-13 — is beginning to be an important market niche, which is why this movie without a single big-screen star is being released in July instead of April.

“BEFORE SUNSET” Nine years after the romantic chance encounter between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” the pair are reunited in a sequel set in Paris, where Hawke, now a successful writer, is on a book tour.

The Skinny: Linklater, fresh off his first studio hit, “School of Rock,” shot this in a little more than two weeks on a minuscule budget. It’s obviously a case of loving his characters, since he also featured them in his experimental animated film, “Waking Life.”

July 16

“I, ROBOT” Based on science fiction pioneer Isaac Asimov’s anthology of the same name, it incorporates elements of all nine stories about a future society where robots live with humans but must follow three iron-clad rules: A robot can never injure a human or allow a human to come to harm; a robot must obey all human orders unless it’s to violate the first law; a robot must protect himself unless that violates the first or second law. In what is said to be a sort of prequel to the Asimov stories, Will Smith stars as a detective investigating a murder that seems to be a result of robot rule-breaking. Alan Tudyk (“A Knight’s Tale”) is the primary robot suspect.

The Skinny: Asimov, who died in 1992, is suddenly a hot property. Though this film, originally developed at Disney, has taken five years to get to screen, writer Jeff Vintar is already at work adapting Asimov’s “Foundation” series for a projected franchise. If this hits, director Alex Proyas (“The Crow”) and Smith are on board for a sequel.

“A CINDERELLA STORY” Hilary Duff, liberated from “Lizzie McGuire” after Disney, in what looked like a bonehead move, failed to fatten her paycheck, moves to Warner Bros. for a comedy about a San Fernando Valley dork who works in a diner run by a stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) who dumps all the hard work on her. But her life takes a turn when a mysterious boy finds her lost cell phone and they begin a notes and e-mail courtship that will hopefully become real on the night of — no looking ahead now — the big dance.

The Skinny: Warner is positioning itself as the teen girl-friendly studio, and teen girls don’t get friendlier than the popular Duff.

“THE CORPORATION” A clever Canadian documentary that has impressed film-festival audiences with its argument that giant corporations, emboldened by profits, power and government protections, have gone a little crazy, taking on the personality traits of psychopaths. A number of case studies furthering the proposition are dissected, and various CEOs and company spokesmen are trotted out to make economic and social arguments that sound, upon inspection, a little crazy.

The Skinny: While this will probably preach primarily to the anti-WTO choir, it is surprisingly entertaining and provocative, and one of the segments focuses on Steve Wilson, a TV reporter, and his wife and former reporting partner, Jane Akre, who claimed they were fired in Tampa after their employers yielded to pressure to tone down a story about Monsanto and they went public.

July 23

“CATWOMAN” Warner Bros. has been trying to get this off the ground ever since Michelle Pfeiffer stole “Batman Returns” from the star and the other villains, but the result is very different from what was originally imagined. The character now bears little relation to pet groomer Selina Kyle; she’s a graphic artist named Patience Philips, played by Halle Berry, who is murdered when she stumbles across some evil-doing perpetuated by her cosmetics company employers. Fortunately for her, a cat she once befriended is actually an immortal Egyptian, who resurrects her so she can defend the rights of felines and other animals everywhere.

The Skinny: The pro-animal plotline may make PETA think they’ve died and gone to heaven, too. We can assume this lays on the camp, and Halle Berry in the rubber catsuit may be hard to resist for a certain segment of the audience.

“THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” starring Matt Damon as a spy with amnesia, was a mid-sized hit for Universal, so they went ahead with the plan of adapting two subsequent novels by the late Robert Ludlum featuring the character. In this one, his identity goes missing again, this time stolen by a mysterious operative who assassinates a Chinese vice premier, putting a serious crimp in U.S.-Chinese relations that Damon has to sort out. CIA colleagues Brian Cox and Julia Stiles return from the first film, as does Franka Potente as Bourne’s girlfriend. They’re also joined by new agent Joan Allen.

The Skinny: Though Universal attempted to downplay conflicts over locations and the script with “Identity” director Doug Liman after that film was cited by critics and audiences as one of the more intelligent espionage thrillers of recent years, he didn’t re-up for the sequel. The job went to Britain’s Paul Greengrass, who has even more of an art-house sensibility, having directed the little-seen but much acclaimed “Bloody Sunday.”

“HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE” A simple Friday-night run to White Castle for a munchie-curing bag of burgers turns into an altogether larger sack o’ woe for the roommates of the title, a Korean-American investment banker (John Cho) and an Indian-American med student (Kal Penn).

The Skinny: Think “Hey Dude, where’s my fried onions?”

“SHE HATE ME” Spike Lee returns to independent-style moviemaking with this story of a Wharton grad (Anthony Mackie) who gets fired from his biotech job after threatening to go to the SEC with some damning information (Spike Lee, meet Steve Wilson). Now unemployable, he’s amenable when a former college girlfriend, now a corporate executive and a lesbian, offers him cash to impregnate her partner. Soon he’s in the baby-making business with ethical issues of his own.

The Skinny: Though “The 25th Hour” had its admirers, it was less than the hit Lee had hoped would return him to the A-list. This may be less a retreat from the Hollywood system than a return to roots.

July 30

“THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE” A remake of John Frankenheimer’s Cold War paranoia thriller, set in the present and starring Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber in the roles originally played by Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. They’re veterans of the first Gulf War who have been brainwashed and given code signals that, when activated by the enemy, are designed to trigger political and international turmoil. Meryl Streep costars as Schreiber’s manipulative mother.

The Skinny: The original film was not successful when originally released, but after being withheld from circulation for 20 years (not, as rumor had it, because of the JFK assassination, but over a rights dispute) it became a cult classic. Director Jonathan Demme had little luck remaking another film from the era (“Charade”) but his gift for suspense (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and the richness of the material offer hope.

“THUNDERBIRDS” A live-action version of the ’60s British sci-fi show that used marionettes and stop-motion animation to chronicle the adventures of an Air Force colonel, his five sons and a high-tech support team who used their special skills — along with a lot of souped-up rockets, satellites, flying cars and other cool, fast-moving stuff — in elaborate rescue missions. Bill Paxton plays the colonel, leading a lot of good-looking young people (and Anthony Edwards, as brilliant scientist Brains) in an attempt to prevent a power-mad villain, played by Ben Kingsley, from stealing all their cool stuff and using it for evil.

The Skinny: Universal is hoping to launch a franchise that will appeal both to “Spy Kids” fans and Trekkies.

“THE VILLAGE” M. Night Shyamalan looks to raise a few more goose bumps with his first period thriller. Set in a small Pennsylvania village in 1897, the residents never leave, fearing that mysterious creatures that dwell in the woods that surround them and with whom their elders apparently forged a truce will hurt them. Joaquin Phoenix is a young man looking to challenge the myth by leaving and taking the daughter (Judy Greer) of the village leader (William Hurt) with him. Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver and Cherry Jones are also in the impressive cast.

The Skinny: Though all Shyamalan’s post-“Sixth Sense” films have been successful, they have suffered by comparison. Since he claims this is his last trip to the supernatural well for a while, maybe the ideas are again flowing.


August 6

“COLLATERAL” Tom Cruise does a John Travolta in this drama directed by Michael Mann (“Ali”), taking the villain role as a taxi passenger whose driver, played by Jamie Foxx, realizes his fare is a contract killer and that when he finishes his rounds, he’ll be the last victim. Mark Ruffalo is a detective looking for Cruise, and Jada Pinkett Smith, playing a district attorney, is the penultimate target.

The Skinny: This project has been around for a long time (at one time Adam Sandler was pegged to play the driver), and it sounds more like a stunt than a movie. Then again, any director who gave us “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Heat” should be given the benefit of the doubt.

“SHALL WE DANCE?” Yet another Americanized remake, this one of the Japanese charmer about a shy accountant who rediscovers his dormant passion when he secretly signs up for ballroom dancing classes. Reset in Chicago, it now stars Richard Gere as a man disappointed with his job, marriage and life, who takes a dance class after becoming enthralled by the teacher he glimpses on his nightly ride home on the L train, played by Jennifer Lopez.

The Skinny: Though this was originally retooled with Tom Hanks in mind, Gere’s hoofing in “Chicago” apparently convinced director Peter Chelsom (“Serendipity”) he could take the lead.

“MARIA FULL OF GRACE” A teenage peasant (Catalina Sandino Moreno), unable to support herself clipping roses, reluctantly becomes a mule for a Colombian drug cartel, agreeing to smuggle heroin to the United States in her stomach. The surprise winner of the audience award at Sundance (it usually goes to fluff like “Real Women Have Curves”), it’s being touted as that rare film that could cross over from the art house to the megaplex.

The Skinny: HBO produced “Maria” and thinks it can duplicate the success of “American Splendor,” which also premiered at Sundance and ended up on more than a few best-of-the-year lists in 2003. If the Sundance reception is an indicator, the cable network could be right.

August 11

“THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT” Anne Hathaway returns as the teenager who discovered she was royalty in the 2001 hit, based on a young readers’ novel. That book spawned a follow-up, but this sequel was made from an original script, in which the part-time princess of tiny Genovia moves there to prepare to wear the crown, only to discover an arranged marriage comes with the title.

The Skinny: Nearly all the original supporting cast returns, including Julie Andrews as Hathaway’s grandmother and tutor in all things royal, Hector Elizondo as Genovia’s security chief, and Wiener Dog her

self from “Welcome to the Doghouse,” Heather Matarazzo as the princess’ misfit best friend. Mandy Moore, however, has graduated to lead roles. This and “Raising Helen” give director Garry Marshall two shots at a romantic summer hit.

August 13

“ALIEN VS. PREDATOR” The long-rumored match-up of two monsters in the employ of 20th CenturyFox finally comes to screen, but don’t expect Sigourney Weaver or the Governator to be in their corners. The much-worked-upon script, set in the present, has a billionaire (Lance Henriksen) ordering up an excavation that uncovers some unfriendly face-huggers. That’s good news for some teenage predators from outer space, who come to Earth every thousand years to prove their hunting skills.

The Skinny: Since this is more inspired by the video games of the same title than any of the movies, you may not be surprised that the director is Paul W. S. Anderson, the talent behind the movie adaptations of games “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat.”

“YU-GI-OH!” Animated children’s film based on the Americanized edition of the Japanese TV series. Teenagers of the future uncover the secrets of the ancient “Shadow Game” that almost destroyed the entire universe, only to find that summer movie synopsis writers are losing interest even as they write this.

The Skinny: With Pokeman apparently — hopefully — played out, Warner is out to launch another cheaply made franchise with product synergy, and this is, I suppose, the best they could come up with.

“DANNY DECKCHAIR” A lighter-than-air Australian comedy about a cement-truck driver (Rhys Ifans) who, despairing over the loss of a girlfriend, tries to perk up his life by attaching his lawn chair to helium balloons and seeing where they take him. That turns out to be a small town in the outback, where he starts a new life, while everyone back home is wondering where he’s gotten to.

The Skinny: Almost as funny as it is silly, this turns out, like so many absurd Australian comedies, to have its inspiration in a true story.

August 20

“EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING” As the title implies, this takes place before the events of the horror classic and its sequels — one of which was also set before the original film, but never mind — telling the story of how Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), as a young African missionary, discovered that evil wasn’t just a concept, but an entity.

The Skinny: Oh, what a tangled web. A film of the same name, directed by Paul Schrader, was scheduled for release last summer, but when the production company got a look at it, they got cold feet. So they got Renny Harlin (“Cutthroat Island”) out of exile to gore it up with some reshoots, and he ended up making an entirely new film with a new cast. (Liam Neeson had the Merrin role in Schrader’s movie.) But when the movie is released on DVD, it will contain both versions of the film, so you can be the judge: Did Schrader make a boring movie or are the producers just pinheads? That could be kinda fun.

“CELLULAR” Proud — and talented — shlock salesman Larry Cohen wrote this thriller about a man (Chris Evans) who receives a call on his cell phone from a woman (Kim Basinger) who claims she has been kidnapped, that the bad guys are going after her husband and son, and all will be killed unless the man can figure out where she is. Meanwhile, he’s getting that telltale beep that his battery is about to go dead.

The Skinny: If this sounds suspiciously close to “Phone Booth,” that could be because Cohen wrote the original version of that script too, which was far better than the one that finally got filmed (by which time nobody used phone booths any more, unless their cell batteries run out.) I keep a temp charger with me, but hey, let’s not ruin this movie, too.

“TWO MEN WENT TO WAR” Two men assigned to England’s dental corps in World War II long for action and go AWOL to German-occupied France, where they destroy a German radar system. But when they return, they’re tried as deserters.

The Skinny: So ridiculous you know it has to be based on a true story, which it is, and which was the subject of the book on which this is based, “Amateur Commandos.”

“WITHOUT A PADDLE” Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Abraham Benrubi have all been previously resigned to best-pal roles, and now they’re playing second fiddle to a dead guy, taking a canoe trip together in Washington State in hopes of using their late friend’s map and research to find the cash stolen by D.B. Cooper. Unfortunately, they run into some backwoods mountain men, and since one of them is played by Burt Reynolds, guess what movie we’re spoofing?

The Skinny: Why do I have that sinking feeling that instead of laughing uproariously, I will be squealing like a pig?

“HERO” The great Chinese director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) makes his first bona fide action film in this biography of China’s first emperor, who just happened to be an assassin. The story has been previously told in the sprawling “The Emperor and the Assassin,” but Zhang’s version, which was China’s unnominated submission for the foreign language Oscar and the most expensive and popular film ever made in that country, stars Jet Li, which means we can expect a lot less talk and a lot more butt-kicking.

The Skinny: Miramax has delayed the release of this film (which also stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, costars of the languorous “In the Mood For Love”) for nearly two years and will now release it with the imprimatur “Quentin Tarantino Presents.” Did someone say Cheese Royale?

“OPEN WATER” A husband and wife (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) attempt to relieve the stress of their demanding if ordinary big-city lives with a scuba-diving vacation but make the mistake of signing on to a boat where the guy who has the job of making sure that everyone who goes into the water comes out can’t count.

The Skinny: Shot on digital video with unknown actors, this documentary-style drama will be endlessly described as “Blair Witch” meets “Jaws,” but that’s exactly what it is. For 80 excruciating minutes, you will be rightly fearing the worst, gripping your armrest and tapping your feet to remind yourself you are on dry land. It does not make you feel better to know it is based on a true story.

“INFERNAL AFFAIRS” Tony Leung shows up yet again as an undercover cop who infiltrates a Chinese organized-crime syndicate, and Andy Lau plays a gang member who joins the police force as a mole in this intense, well-plotted Hong Kong crime thriller. It’s unfortunately saddled with a title that makes it sound like another chapter of “Police Academy.”

The Skinny: Yet another film whose release has been inexplicably delayed in the United States. (There have already been two sequels in Hong Kong.) This is one of those films you want to see before the inevitable Hollywood remake.

August 27

“WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE” The author of “In the Bedroom,” Andre Dubus, wrote the short story and novella that were combined for this drama about two couples, played by Naomi Watts and Peter Krause and Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern, whose lives are changed by an affair.

The Skinny: Yet another Sundance spawn, but don’t be put off: A superior script and fine performances overcome the earnestness.

“ANACONDA 2: THE BLACK ORCHID” Now here’s what we’ve been awaiting to cap the summer: A sequel to the big deadly snake movie that does not star Owen Wilson, Jon Voight, Ice Cube and the artist formerly known as J-Lo. No, the cast for this sequel is headed by Eugene Byrd, Morris Chestnut and Salli Richardson, who are . . . Well, who cares, when there are big deadly snakes slithering around?

The Skinny: The horror, the horror.

“BENJI RETURNS: RAGS TO RICHES” No, really, here’s what we’re looking forward to to cap the summer: A return to Gulfport, Miss., where the original Benji roamed, for a new story about everyone’s favorite mutt — OK, maybe just the favorite mutt of kids of the ’70s — who teams up with a shaggy dog actually named Shaggy to rescue his mom from an unscrupulous breeder.

The Skinny: You can take the dog away from the kid, but you can’t take the dog lover out of the kid, or something like that.

The comic book sequel “Blade: Trinity” is now set for a holiday release; “A Sound of Thunder,” based on a Ray Bradbury story about a future where time travel is a tourist-run business, is on for October; “Cheer Up,” with Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas ranger who has to protect a cheerleading team, is currently unscheduled and may get a new title; “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a family film based on the best-selling novel about a girl and her dog, is now due in January; and “Man-Thing,” another action film based on a Marvel Comic, should do its thing in October.

The new version of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” may open in New York and Los Angeles in September, but won’t show up here until sometime later in the fall; Mike Hodge’s revenge thriller “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” has been delayed to see if star Clive Owen generates any heat in “King Arthur”; Chinese historical swordplay epic “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” will be rolled out slowly by Sony Classics, depending on how all the other historical swordplay epics fare; and as for “The Quest,” a.k.a. “Spring Break: The Movie,” which was pushed back to avoid competition with reality flop “The Real Cancun” — how about never? Does never sound good to you?

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