Movies May Keep You in the Dark This Summer

The season's big news is its sheer number of releases - more than 100 between this weekend and Labor Day

It's summertime, and the living is easy - unless you're a Hollywood studio exec wondering how your latest mega-budget extravaganza will fare against all the other mega-budget extravaganzas lined up for box-office battle.

Last year's biggest winners were high-tech action pictures like "Independence Day" and "The Rock," so that genre is represented most aggressively in this year's scramble for attention. Presiding over the scene are marketers with huge advertising purses and journalists who blur the line between coverage and promotion.

Some observers predict that too many adventures like Con Air and Men in Black will glut the market - causing well-made entertainments to fail not because they're defective, but because their sponsors didn't open them on the right dates, promote them with the right slogans, or generate the buzz that transforms a movie into a social phenomenon.

Others scoff at such complaints. A few monster hits may gobble up most of the season's profits, these analysts say, but smaller films also benefit when "event pictures" make moviegoing the most fashionable diversion for everyone from thrill-seeking youngsters to open-minded adults.

In any case, the news about this summer's lineup is not the content of the movies - the usual mix of glossy thrillers, featherweight fantasies, and cuddly romantic comedies - but their sheer number. More than 100 are on tap between now and Labor Day, when theaters will take their annual turn toward more serious projects with visions of Oscar dancing in their heads.

More sober-minded sorts can hunt for what the industry calls counterprogramming - films released on the theory that so much sound and fury will make some moviegoers desperate for more substantial fare. This will explain the presence of anomalies like Spike Lee's documentary Four Little Girls and Jean-Luc Godard's classic Contempt amid the explosive sounds of Air Force One and Face/Off.

Among arrivals most eagerly anticipated:

Speed 2: Cruise Control, June 13. This time it's a boat instead of a bus that's chewing up the local traffic laws, and you can bet Sandra Bullock will outwit Willem Dafoe before the final credits. Directed by Jan De Bont, the high-energy auteur of "Twister" and the original "Speed."

Ulee's Gold, June 13. Peter Fonda bids for a comeback as a reclusive beekeeper facing family problems. Directed by Victor Nunez, returning to the Florida landscape he memorably explored in "A Flash of Green" and "Ruby in Paradise."

Hercules, June 15. It's traditional for Walt Disney Pictures to release a major animation every year, and the studio is hoping this ambitious opus - said to be classical yet contemporary - will reclaim the glory of "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" after the lackluster performances of "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Batman & Robin, June 20. George Clooney dons the cape formerly worn by such notables as Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton, joining Chris O'Donnell's Robin and Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl to battle Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman. Directed by Joel Schumacher, who evidently didn't get the superhero out of his system with "Batman Forever."

My Best Friend's Wedding, June 27. Australia's marriage-mad filmmaker P.J. Hogan follows up "Muriel's Wedding" with this comedy, starring Julia Roberts as a bridesmaid who wants to snag her longtime friend away from his fiance.

Contact, July 11. Jodie Foster sets her eyes on the stars in this politically minded science-fiction epic, which ignites its rockets when a signal arrives from outer space. Carl Sagan's novel comes to the screen courtesy of Robert Zemeckis, whose career spans the trenchant comedy of "Back to the Future" and the goopy sentiment of "Forrest Gump."

Mrs Brown, July 11. This splendid example of "Masterpiece Theatre" filmmaking stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as an eccentric Scot who becomes her friend and comforter after Prince Albert's demise. Counterprogramming at its best.

Mimic, July 18. Independent filmmaker John Sayles looks at genetic engineering in this thriller about insects with a difference. The cast includes Mira Sorvino and director-turned-actor Steven Soderbergh.

Air Force One, July 25. As if pictures like "Independence Day" and "Absolute Power" didn't give the chief executive a hard enough time, now Gary Oldman hijacks his official plane and President Harrison Ford has to solve the situation or look wimpy, not to mention dead. Glenn Close played the first lady in "Mars Attacks!" and moves up (or down?) to vice president here.

Conspiracy Theory, July 25. Mischievous cab driver Mel Gibson spreads a rumor on the Internet, then finds himself caught between energetic attorney Julia Roberts and Washington power broker Patrick Stewart. Richard Donner, of "Superman" and "Lethal Weapon" fame, directed.

Career Girls, Aug. 8. Advance word is disappointing, but Mike Leigh's admirers will be eager to check out his first movie since the breakout hit "Secrets & Lies," focusing on two London women whose memories are reawakened by friends from college.

Leave It to Beaver, Aug. 1. Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Hi Wally! Did the "Brady Bunch" movies make money? Then maybe this will too! Who says summer is a silly season in spades?

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