Lights! Camera! (and plenty of) Action!

People in North Dakota haven't even put away their snowplows but the summer movie season, which seems to start earlier and earlier each year, is already upon us.

Predicting summer's hits and misses at the multiplex is seldom easy. But this year's passel of releases is so diverse - at times even bizarre - that it defies description.

First the good news.

One of the summer's most eagerly awaited movies, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," runs about two hours and 10 minutes, some 30 minutes shorter than its overlong predecessors. It's also directed by a filmmaker with serious credentials - Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") - and early word has it he wants to explore more serious aspects of Harry's wizardly world.

Also in the good-news department - potentially, that is - are movies that touch on timely themes. "The Day After Tomorrow" tackles global warming. "Saved!" centers on a born-again Christian teen. A remake of "The Stepford Wives" takes a look at suburban sexism. Even if these turn out to be bad, at least they should be interesting.

Now the bad news.

Summer is still the cinematic silly season, and this one promises no shortage of sequels, spin-offs, and familiar formulas. So get ready for "Garfield," "Spider-Man 2," and "Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement," not to mention "Alien vs. Predator."

Sequels and spin-offs aren't automatically disappointing, of course. Many viewers are looking forward to "Shrek 2," debuting at the Cannes film festival this month, and "Before Sunset," which revisits a compatible couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) several years after their all-night conversation in 1995's "Before Sunrise." Also due are a Jonathan Demme remake of the political satire "The Manchurian Candidate," and a version of "Around the World in 80 Days" pairing cerebral Steve Coogan with Jackie Chan.

The season's biggest promotional binges are certain to revolve around big-budget films like "Catwoman," starring Halle Berry, and "King Arthur." Somewhat lower publicity profiles - but not necessarily smaller audiences - will greet "The Chronicles of Riddick," with Vin Diesel battling aliens, and "The Village," another excursion into spookiness by M. Night Shyamalan, who concocted both the ingenuity of "The Sixth Sense" and the awfulness of "Signs."

Continuing an ongoing trend, a number of warm-weather releases are based on books, and the best of them may prove literate as well as literary.

"Vanity Fair," with Reese Witherspoon, is adapted by Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") from William Makepeace Thackary's classic. "A Home at the End of the World" is taken from the novel by Michael Cunningham, whose "The Hours" gave us one of the best book-derived films in recent memory. "The Door in the Floor," with Jeff Bridges, comes from "A Widow for One Year," the John Irving novel. "Bright Young Things" is the marquee-friendly title of a comedy based on Evelyn Waugh's less enticingly named "Vile Bodies." Even sci-fi is taking a bookish turn with "I, Robot," inspired by Isaac Asimov's fiction.

While the Hollywood studios unveil pictures like these, "counterprogramming" by independent and overseas films can provide a vacation from noisy spectacles.

Already making news is "Fahrenheit 9/11," a documentary by Michael Moore, of "Bowling for Columbine" fame. Miramax Films provided much of its funding, but Walt Disney Pictures has reportedly ordered its subsidiary not to release the picture because its skeptical view of the war on terror might push too many emotional buttons. Some distributor is certain to pick it up, though, and the controversy has made Mr. Moore's admirers more eager than ever to see it.

African-American giant Spike Lee has assembled an impressive cast for "She Hate Me," a dark comedy about sex and business. Fans of Asian cinema are anticipating "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," inspired by Japanese samurai epics. "Maria Full of Grace" follows a Colombian woman into America's drug scene. And "The Best of Youth," a six hour film, tells a tale of two brothers over several decades of Italian history.

In the end, though, mainstream Hollywood is likely to make the largest impact on moviegoers' hearts, minds, and wallets. Tom Hanks rarely fails to score a hit, and with Steven Spielberg directing him in "The Terminal," he seems assured of yet another one. Ditto for Tom Cruise, who stars in "Collateral" under Michael Mann's direction.

In all, Tinseltown has a varied slate in store for us - and that's very good news.

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