Golden Weather?

A partly cloudy look at the summer movies ahead.

It used to be that Serious Movies came out during the Labor Day-to-Christmas window, just prior to the Academy Awards—a logjam of quality following three months of frivolous popcorn fare. But lately Hollywood has started timing its DVD releases to the winter AMPAS voting season instead—thereby allowing Academy members to consider the nominees from the comfort of their own home-media centers without having to actually trudge out to the cinema with the rest of us humble moviegoers. Working back from that schedule means—as Variety and other showbiz annals have theorized—that prestigious Oscar ponies like last year's Seabiscuit can get their theatrical release in midsummer. In other words, it may be vacation time, but it's never too soon to start thinking about the Academy Awards. So where are the contenders? Could there really be an English Patient or an American Beauty among the customary summertime car chases, shoot-outs, and effects-driven extravaganzas? Let's see what the calendar holds. JUNE STARTS WITH the third Harry Potter movie, which finds our almost-adolescent heroes and hot older heroine smoking pot, having three-way sex, and road-tripping across Mexico. No, wait, that's the last movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Y Tu Mamá También, and we'd much rather see a sequel to that. But you know that Harry, Ron, and Hermione want to use their supernatural powers in a more grown-up fashion. Those downy lips and widening hips are clearly meant for something more substantial than battling witches and goblins. I guess that'll have to wait for Part IV: Harry Potter Gets His License and Drives to Tijuana. Also out June 4, the director's cut of Donnie Darko opens fresh from SIFF—but how fresh has any director's cut ever been, really? Then the English May–December romance The Mother features 60-something Anne Reid getting all hot and bothered about a studly young contractor. Oscar voters like brave performances, but they also prefer that brave, bare flesh to be taut and unwrinkled. Also fresh from SIFF, Beat Kitano's waggish samurai flick Zatoichi (June 11) has great buzz (plus dancing!), and it's facing the long-delayed, recently tweaked The Stepford Wives remake with Nicole Kidman, which features just the opposite. (Zzub, anyone?) Paul Rudnick (In and Out) may have written the script, but how many '70s sci-fi flicks do we really need to see cloned? Remember when Schwarzenegger was to star in a Westworld remake? Thank the voters of California that we were spared that one. June 18 brings a slew of titles that were first screened at SIFF; among them, we like The Corporation (which sticks it to big business), Baadasssss! (which sticks it to the Man), The Saddest Music in the World (which sticks it to the Great Depression), and Frankie and Johnny Are Married (which sticks it to Hollywood vanity). Regardless, the Tom Hanks–Steven Spielberg Oscar-bait collaboration The Terminal will probably mop the floor with them, no matter how odd Hanks' accent is this time. (After The Ladykillers and Catch Me If You Can, he seems to be leaving plain-vanilla English behind.) Should we care about some poor Eastern-European schlub caught in airport limbo? Even though the film isn't exactly political, you can't help but read some of Dubya's Department of Homeland Secur­ity into the script. Also out: the 100th Ben Stiller comedy to be released in 18 months—Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Control Room (June 25), the SIFF documentary about Al-Jazeera, may turn out to be a legitimate and still-topical Oscar pony, since we'll probably be in Iraq well through next spring—regardless of who's in the White House. Oh, here's another potentially dull, worthy Oscar contender from Hector Babenco: Carandiru, set in a grim and horrific South American prison only slightly less depressing than his last grim and horrific South American prison in Kiss of the Spider Woman. July BEGINS JUNE 30, since that's when Spider-Man 2 opens. Will it be any better or worse than the 2002 original (which grossed over $400 million)? That's not really the point. It's got the same director (Sam Raimi), the same stars (Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), more effects, and a new villain (Alfred Molina), but reiteration, not innovation, is the important part of the Hollywood formula. With a thousand comic-book plots and foes to choose from, Sony could go on milking the series forever, replacing Raimi and company with CG effects. Or, more fruitfully, the franchise could be merged with Harry Potter, meaning everyone goes on a sex-and-drug-fueled road trip through Mexico. (Kirsten Dunst and Ana López Mercado? ¡Muy caliente!) What sounds a lot more interesting, and well positioned in the Oscar derby (just remember Chicago's success), is De-Lovely, the musical biopic about Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) that uses his unhappily closeted gay life as a framework for his classic music. (Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, and Alanis Morissette are among those who perform the tunes.) It'll probably open here July 9, along with another summer must-see, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which features Will Ferrell in his leering, sexist, mustachioed '70s prime. Thank God he won't be a party to the Oscar stuffiness; the last thing we need is Will Ferrell gunning for respect . . . which he'll do in the adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces, being filmed now. A favorite from Sundance and SIFF, the surf documentary Riding Giants sounds like perfect summer fodder, although a bit too fodder-ish for later AMPAS consideration (not too many voting members actually, like, surf). Opposite those gnarly blue waves July 16 is Will Smith as cyborg hunter in I, Robot, which sounds like a dumbed-down Blade Runner, hopefully without the voice-overs. Smith, frankly, hasn't been that much fun to watch since Men in Black; and Robot is directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City), not exactly a guy known for comedy. Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (July 30) will have to be brilliant to compete with John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic. But given what a hash he made of Charade (see The Truth About Charlie . . . or better yet, don't), this, too, sounds like yet another needless dumbed-down copycat. (See also Catwoman and The Bourne Supremacy in the redundancy department; both debut July 23. Of Halle Berry, we might've expected better. Of Matt Damon, we expect nothing.) What's the biggest mystery of the summer? Whether M. Night Shyamalan can keep his off-season winning streak alive with The Village (July 30). Odds against: It's set in 1897 Pennsylvania, where, for some reason, Joaquin Phoenix and others wear yellow hooded capes. Odds for: There'll be some big surprise like the aliens in Signs or the superheroes in Unbreakable or the dead people in The Sixth Sense. What's the scouting report? Shyamalan is running low on knuckleball surprises. (Perhaps Phoenix will discover dead alien superheroes in that spooky forest. Or perhaps he'll jump in the next station wagon to Mexico.) Again, Shyamalan is always gloomy and serious amid the summer glare; problem is, his films are never about anything but their own gimmickiness and surprise—hardly the substantial fare favored at the Academy Awards. He got upstaged by his Japanese sidekick in The Last Samurai. Now Tom Cruise is mad. And you don't want to see Tom Cruise mad—unless it's in Collateral (Aug. 6), where he's no doubt hoping that playing a bad guy, like Denzel in Training Day, may be the ticket on Oscar Day. After all, he hasn't been really good in a movie since his nasty turn in Magnolia, so playing a heartless L.A. hit man may be a fine career idea. Or he may get upstaged by sidekick Jamie Foxx. Which would make him even madder. So then in his next movie he'd have to play . . . a serial killer? I think I smell the plot for his big release of 2005. On the same weekend, even more lethal than Cruise are the sharks of Open Water, a no-budget indie and Sundance fave shot with real actors surrounded by real sharks. (Both, it turns out, work for far less than Cruise.) SIFF–goers will have already decided whether the movie's more than a reality TV–style stunt. After that, sporting no fewer teeth, it's the vid-game knockoff Alien vs. Predator (Aug. 13), which emphatically does not star Sigourney Weaver (instead, she's in The Village, wearing one of those stupid yellow capes). Zhang Yimou's Chinese historical fantasy epic Hero (Aug. 20) might have an outside shot at a foreign-language Oscar nom, but like The Twilight Samurai (July 23), it's a little too slow and pictorial for its own good. Whether Patrice Leconte's talky two-hander Intimate Strangers (Aug. 13), about a woman who mistakes an attorney for a shrink and pours out her life to him, will gain traction with AMPAS voters is another issue and another language. Everyone's into therapy, including the rockers in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (a possible July release), but therapy movies are a different matter. IN CONCLUSION, I don't see too many Seabiscuits among the summer pack—not such a bad thing, really. Let's leave the boring derby nags till fall and enjoy what we can of what Hollywood does best during the warm-weather months: create mass-merchandizing opportunities masquerading as movies. The Oscars can wait, while Mexico beckons.

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