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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2005

Steven Spielberg and the summer movie factory

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Hollywood and its CEOs, itchy publicists, lawyers, and multinational corporations would appreciate if you could forget that it snowed last weekend, please.

Merci beauCruise.

The summer films are here, as unnaturally early as a late April blizzard, and the season launches Friday with Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, a $110 million-plus epic about one of the bloodiest eras in the history of man - those nutty Crusades.

Yippee. Break out the SPF 15.

But first things first.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 1:

When I originally heard Jane Fonda was making a summer comedy with Jennifer Lopez called Monster-In-Law (opening May 13), I was puzzled. Here is a movie about a bride and her husband's overbearing demon of a mother - yet surely Jennifer Lopez was too young to play the mother-in-law of Jane Fonda.

Then I was told: No, Jennifer Lopez plays the bride, and Jane Fonda plays the monster-in-law.

My bad.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 2:

Will Smith invented summer.

Again, wrong.

Steven Spielberg invented summer, and Will Smith recorded a song called "Summertime." Spielberg invented summer 30 years ago: Jaws was first released June 20, 1975. Some movie historians date the start of the summer film season to the arrival of Godzilla on American shores in the mid '50s. Others agree on the date but not the reason: Drive-ins sprouted after World War II and gave audiences a reason to avoid the nation's aging move palaces, many of which hadn't been updated since the arrival of Al Jolson. Most hadn't installed air conditioning yet. They were hothouses from May to August.

Then Jaws - along with the May release of Star Wars two years later - gave the theater owners a reason to super-size single screens into multiplexes, while studios received a fresh demographic to slobber over. This evolved into the manufactured season we have before us.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 3:

Old TV shows never die, they just make terrific summer movies. Absolutely - no, no, no. This summer, hot on the heels of such never-asked-for-them favorites as The Flintstones and S.W.A.T., we get The Honeymooners (June 10) with Cedric the Entertainer, Bewitched (June 24) with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, and The Dukes of Hazard (Aug. 5), which has Jessica Simpson but leaves out that Confederate flag.

Of that bunch, however, your best bet is Bewitched, which is directed by Nora Ephron and shows a little Charlie Kauffman-ish Adaptation initiative: It tells the story of an actor (Ferrell) making a Bewitched movie who runs into a real witch (Kidman).

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 4:

The Fantastic Four (July 8) and Sky High (July 29) are not rip-offs of The Incredibles. Well, Fantastic Four isn't. Sky High is about a husband (Kurt Russell) and wife (Kelly Preston) superhero team, and directed by Mike Mitchell, who's last films were the dirt low Surviving Christmas and Deuce Bigalow. Fantastic Four (the 1960s Marvel Comic, anyway) was inspiration for The Incredibles, complete with an elastic man and an invisible girl - unfortunately, this adaptation from Tim Story (Jimmy Fallon's Taxi) also arrives with some of the nastiest buzz of the summer.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 5:

Just as Johnny Depp modeled his famous pirate of the Caribbean on Keith Richards, his Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 15) is modeled on the smooth, wrinkle-free appearance of ageless Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Absolutely not true.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 6:

Sports movies are a bad bet. The mediocre performance of Fever Pitch does nothing to refute this, yet possibly screenwriters have found a solution: Will Ferrell's soccer film, Kicking and Screaming (May 13), the remake of The Bad News Bears (July 22), the remake of The Longest Yard (May 27), and the skateboarding drama, Lords of Dogtown (June 3), shift the focus away from stories of odds-overcoming to tales of athletes (and their domineering sports dads) behaving badly.

Summer Movie Fallacy No. 7:

The biggest fallacy of all, that there's nothing for serious moviegoers to see until September rolls around. Just as summer reading season has bled into the holiday book-buying season - and just as television seasons, once the most rigid of the pop perennials, splintered into nonstop, rolling seasons - the sheer, overwhelming volume of movies being released now demand that quality mix with, well, crapola. Between Toledo and Ann Arbor, at least, dozens and dozens of movies, boutique and blockbuster, are lined up for the next 16 weeks - which provide Hollywood with more than 40 percent of its annual box office.

Why so many remakes?

Money's why. As much as a studio likes a sleeper, a multinational like Disney wants you recognize Herbie: Fully Loaded (with Lindsay Lohan, June 24) and The Pink Panther (with Steve Martin, Aug. 5) without a thought. Even a fairly generic computer-gone-nuts flick like Stealth (July 19) was retooled at the last minute to beef up the role of Oscar prince Jamie Foxx.

But that's no reason to suffer.

Taking a shameless cue from People magazine, the following is a guide to the 25 most intriguing releases of summer 2005. Some have already been seen. The rest of our picks are based on a highly complicated equation that is calculated using insider dish, rumor, and track records. Opening dates are extremely tentative and likely to change. Also, Summer Movie Fallacy No. 8: the new Star Wars is not Titanic in space, as George Lucas insists. It's far more depressing. I like to think about it as R2-D2 goes to Gary, Indiana.

•

The Twenty-Five to Watch:

25. Madagascar (May 27). Strengths: Ben Stiller returns after a long silence. It's been weeks. This time he's the voice of a zoo lion in DreamWorks latest digitally animated stab at a Shrek-rrific hit. Chris Rock is a zebra. Jada Pinkett Smith voices a hippo. The premise is cute: They leave their Central Park cages and rough it in the wilds of the title's island paradise. Weaknesses: DreamWorks Animation's Rolodex is generally a lot deeper than its story lines.

24. The Island (July 22). Strengths: Partly shot near the abandoned buildings around Detroit's Tiger Stadium, it takes the flip side of last summer's underrated I, Robot and has a smart cast: Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson play clones on the run. The screenwriters are Alias' Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. They know how to write a chase. Weaknesses: The director is Michael Bay. For his hyperactive editing (Armageddon) and ridiculously long movies (Bad Boys II), few filmmakers are as despised (or wildly successful).

23. Dark Water (July 8). Strengths: The plot comes from Japanese horror master Hideo Nakata (The Ring). The terrified actress is misty-eyed, serious-actor Jennifer Connelly. And the director is inspired: Walter Salles, hot off The Motorcycle Diaries. Expect more of an Others class act than a Grudge match. Disney recently pulled it out of the August ghetto to compete with the July 4th biggies. Weaknesses: Salles is an art house creature. When is subtle way too subtle?

22. 3001 (August, or later). Strengths: Mike Judge's first picture since his 1999 cult favorite, Office Space, and the screenplay is a winner: Luke Wilson plays an ordinary schmo who hibernates for 500 years and wakes up to an America so stupid, lazy, and apathetic he's greeted as a genius. Weakness: Even Office Space couldn't sustain its thin premise, and incisive satire didn't mean hot box office for Team America.

21. Mad Hot Ballroom (June). Strengths: Hyped as this summer's Spellbound, and with good reason: this fun, crowd-pleasing documentary about a group of 11-year olds in New York who enter a ballroom dance competition made more of a stir at the Slamdance Film Festival last January than a lot of films made at Sundance. Also, it just took the audience award at the Cleveland film festival. Weaknesses: A bit wee for some art house tastes.

20. Four Brothers (August 12). Strengths: When John Singleton punches the clock, the result is 2 Fast 2 Furious. When he sticks to mean streets, he gets nominated for Oscars (Boyz N' The Hood), or simply acclaimed (Baby Boy). This is more of the latter, a crime story with a cast featuring Mark Wahlberg (energized by raves for I Heart Huckabees) and Andre Benjamin of Outkast. Weaknesses: Consistency isn't the strongest suit for any of them.

19. Lords of Dogtown (June 3). Strengths: One of a few serious dramas this season, with a decent chance of crossover appeal. It tells the true story of the California skateboarding scene of the '70s and all its Behind the Half-Pipe stardom and ugliness. Previously told in the Oscar-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, the film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, has a knack for adolescent angst. Her last film was Thirteen. Weaknesses: Thirteen (like Lords) is more impressive for its promising young cast than its overheated melodrama.

18. Cinderella Man (June 3). Strengths: Early Oscar contender. Russell Crowe plays a real-life Rocky, James Braddock, a Depression-era loser given a final chance. Crowe knows his way around period pieces (as does co-star Renee Zellweger). I hear he can throw a punch. Paul Giamatti co-stars. Weaknesses: The director is Ron Howard, not known for his (groan) hard-hitting moviemaking, and last winter, the pic quietly moved out of the way of Million Dollar Baby.

17. The 40-Year Old Virgin (Aug. 19). Strengths: If the modern slob comedy must be thin, let it be as fun as this one. Steve Carrell, a highlight of The Daily Show and Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, plays the title virgin, surrounding himself with support from talent like Catherine Keener and Paul Rudd and a screenplay from Judd Aptow, who wrote the finest episodes of Freaks and Geeks. Weaknesses: Carrell is more of a character actor than a lead.

16. My Summer of Love (June). Strengths: Until something else comes along, Pawel Pawlikowski's British romance is the most swoon-inducing art film this season. The story of friends who bond over a moped and grow obsessed with each other - and you with them. Weaknesses: No recognizable names, and too nuanced (read: slow) to cross over.

15. The Wedding Crashers (July 15). Strengths: Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn and their Frat Pack (Stiller, Ferrell, etc.) have finally embraced their status as the smarmy slob comedy kings, and screenwriters are lining up to supply them: Here, Wilson and Vaughn crash weddings, and that's it. These films are all about chemistry, and they have it. Ferrell does his usual cameo. Weaknesses: Even the Rat Pack got sick of the Rat Pack, and these guys never climb out on a limb.

14. Broken Flowers (August). Strengths: Bill Murray, who could do deadpan better than a corpse, hooks up with Jim Jarmusch, the Akron native whose independent pictures like Stranger than Paradise are deadpan classics. Tells the story of a man (Murray) and a son he never knew, The cast is a dream: Jeffrey Wright, Julie Delpy, Jessica Lange. Weaknesses: Jim Jarmusch's sensibility combined with Bill Murray could flatline the weak of heart.

13. The Brothers Grimm (July 29). Strengths: Matt Damon and Heath Ledger star. Terry Gilliam directs. The idea is clever: The originators of the Grimm's Fairy Tales venture into the Enchanted Forrest and bump into their legends. Weaknesses: Gilliam, always a troubled filmmaker, predictably spent months at the throats of producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Plenty of great films come out of bad working relationships, but Gilliam famously does not compromise, and the Weinsteins, ready to make it years ago, threw their heft behind The Aviator instead.

12. George A. Romero's Land of the Dead (June 24). Strengths: Romero, director of the original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, returns for his fourth zombie picture. Dennis Hopper trudges along. Summer wouldn't be summer without brain eating. Weaknesses: On the other hand, Romero hasn't made a good movie in 20-plus years. Shouldn't he cede the undead mantle to Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later and his imitators?

11. Kingdom of Heaven (Friday). Strengths: Talk about nailing the zeitgeist. Ridley Scott returns to the epic, his first since Gladiator, to tell the story of a 12th century crusade and a blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) holding off Muslims bent on invading Jerusalem. The cast is a Who's Who of tall, angular mentor-types: Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson. And Scott doesn't tread lightly with a volatile topic. Weaknesses: Won't do for Bloom what Gladiator did for Russell Crowe, but it should repair the black eye that Troy, Alexander, and The Alamo had given epics.

10. Hustle & Flow (July 15). Strengths: Underrated Terrence Howard gives a moving, Oscar-friendly performance as a pimp who improbably decides that he can rap. It's not subtle but it is rousing, and the $16 million it fetched at Sundance (the biggest deal ever at the festival) is a steal. Weaknesses: Will be hyped to the heavens. Can you say "cliched"? How about "very misogynistic"?

9. Everything is Illuminated (August). Strengths: Most literate script of the summer. An adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's best-seller about an American (Elijah Wood) searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, it was written and directed by the smart actor Liev Schreiber. Late summer Oscar bait, with a dog named Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr. Weaknesses: This is Schreiber's first try at directing, and the unwieldy novel couldn't have been a snap to translate.

8. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (June 10). Strengths: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as spies. But really, they're playing the roles they're built for - movie stars. The question of whether Brad and Angie are more than co-stars shouldn't hurt, and the last time director Doug Liman held together a supposedly troubled action film, he got The Bourne Identity. Weaknesses: Keeping a tone balanced between light and exciting is trickier than keeping a celebrity marriage together.

7. 2046 (August). Strengths: Director Wong Kar-Wei returns with his first feature since In the Mood for Love, and no surprise, it's the best-looking movie since House of Flying Daggers. Both Daggers and this one star Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (who plays the lead in this winter's Memoirs of Geisha). The pace is languid, the story is nothing new (melancholic pining for the girl next door), but the images and the intensity is intoxicating. Weaknesses: It's not the kind of science fiction you're expecting.

6. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (May 19). Strengths: George Lucas tells the final installment of his landmark space saga, and like The Empire Strikes Back, darkness becomes him. Darth Vader breaths again. Chewie barks. The film bids a lovely elegiac farewell (and the bad guys are a sight). Weaknesses: What, you didn't see the last two Star Wars movies? The dialogue still sounds like the transcript from an intergalactic zoning board meeting. And that 1970s charm never does return.

5. Howl's Moving Castle (June 17). Strengths: The first film from Hayao Miyazaki since his breakthrough (and Academy-Award winner) Spirited Away. Just as unemotional and confusing, and just as full of dazzling bits of action. No matter what else comes out this year, it's a contender for the best animated-feature Oscar. Weaknesses: Anime is probably still too stiff (by choice) to drag in families by the minivan-full.

4. Batman Begins (June 17). Strengths: Warner Brothers remakes a franchise the smart way, starting with the right people, not the best-known. Christopher Nolan, of Memento and Insomnia, goes back to the D.C. comic book's detective roots and gives this series some welcome reality. Christian Bale wears the wings. The rest include Liam Neeson, Michael Caine (as Alfred), Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and former Toledoan Katie Holmes (though she's not Vicki Vale). Inspired all the way around. Weaknesses: This is a character who, no matter how you draw him, never satisfies all the people all the time.

3. The Aristocrats (August 26). Strengths: A single joke gets told by 100 comedians, 100 different ways. Sounds tedious, but it couldn't be more fascinating or inspiring. Director and comedian Paul Provenza rounds up a Who's Who of stand-ups to make a poignant love letter to the tough art of telling a joke. Bound to be a classic, and along the way, George Carlin gives you a chill: Free speech, he says, is wherever I feel like standing. Weaknesses: Oy, the language

2. The Bad News Bears (June 22). Strengths: Like the team itself, lots of people will be gunning for this one to choke. Now consider: Billy Bob Thornton slides into the Walter Matthau role of Buttermaker. The director is the great Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, who alternates the high (Before Sunset) with the deceptively low: The last time he made a movie with wisecracking kids, it was the subversive School of Rock. Weaknesses: As with Bad Santa, it's only likely to be taken seriously after the fact.

1. War of the Worlds (June 29). Strengths: Tom Cruise is getting 10 percent of the gross and he promised me a cut of video game sales. Still, I can be fair: Steven Spielberg beams up some E.T.s, but now they're more of the H.G. Wells sort. Don't expect Richard Dreyfuss and ring tones. Cruise plays a deadbeat dad who leads his family to safety, and yet the one to watch is Spielberg: A post-9/11 take on relentless, unknown invaders is a promising idea, and the filmmaking is apparently more you-are-there, nervous-camera, Saving Private Ryan style than dazzle and wonder. After Minority Report, A.I., and Catch Me If You Can, he's maybe the last director still making blockbusters and playing with ideas. But then, who's going to say no? Weaknesses: The world could end- although one phone call, and Spielberg could postpone that until the picture recoups its above-the-line costs.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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