It's only June, but pundits have lost no time in spotting the most striking features of this summer's movie season.
One is that the season has already been under way for several weeks. Like baseball and other sports, cinema keeps stretching its tentacles into more weeks of the year. If you saw "Gladiator" way back on May 5, summer is old news to you by now.
Many blockbuster offerings are still on their way, though, and the most prominent trend is that action heroes are out, chills and fantasy are in.
Mel Gibson may make a zillion-dollar splash in "The Patriot," of course, and the TV-honed talents of Dylan McDermott and James Van Der Beek could give "Texas Rangers" a whole new life. But the season's most-eagerly awaited attractions lean more toward the waterlogged derring-do of "The Perfect Storm"; the fantastic visions of movies like "Space Cowboys," with Clint Eastwood as an aging astronaut; and "The Cell," with Jennifer Lopez as a child therapist recruited by the FBI to study a serial killer.
Summer's tantalizing titles include:
Me, Myself & Irene, opening today. Jim Carrey has been stretching his comic talent in unusual pictures like "The Truman Show" and "Man on the Moon." But for countless young fans - and more older ones than you might think - his forte is farce and his greatest hit is "Dumb and Dumber," one of the highest grossing gross-out pictures ever. When something clicks this well, Hollywood is eager for an encore.
So it's no surprise to find Carrey rejoining directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly for another exercise in physical humor with a road-movie twist.
The hero is Charlie, a policeman with alternating personalities - one sweeter than American pie, the other lecherous enough to make Mr. Hyde seem like a gentleman. Both of them love Irene, a new acquaintance who's never quite sure which Charlie she's dealing with at the moment.
The picture is longer and more repetitious than it needs to be, so it may not achieve the crossover success of "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary," the subsequent Farrelly hit. It also contains huge amounts of over-the-top vulgarity that many moviegoers will find way beyond the pale. Carrey fans will flock to it, though, and comedy connoisseurs will savor the subtleties of his performance. Not since Jerry Lewis dreamed up the original "Nutty Professor" has so much outrageous humor been conveyed through the curl of a lip, the hunch of a shoulder, and the twitch of a mischievous eye.
The Patriot, June 28. The hugely popular "Lethal Weapon" series has proved that millions of people want to see Mel Gibson shoot guns - but will this enthusiasm extend to 18th-century muskets?
That's what Columbia Pictures is waiting to find out. And the stakes are high, given the movie's reported budget of $80 million, almost one-third of which is said to have gone directly into Gibson's bank account.
He plays a reluctant hero who decides to fight in the Revolutionary War only after Redcoats raise his dander by killing his son. Common sense suggests that the picture will be stronger on battle scenes than antiquarian details, but it will be interesting to see if a meaningful history lesson can come from director Roland Emmerich, who lists "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" on his decidedly unhistorical credit sheet.
The Perfect Storm, June 30. Wolfgang Petersen submerged ships galore in "Das Boot," and after scoring more action-movie points with "In the Line of Fire" and "Air Force One," he's back in the water with this pricey adaptation of the bestselling book. George Clooney heads the six-person crew of a very endangered boat, with Mark Wahlberg and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio atop the supporting cast. Will they make "Twister" look tame, or will one wave too many turn the perfect storm into a perfect mess? Mother Nature may know, but she's not telling.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, June 30. Let's face it, aging kiddies, "The Rocky Show" was the smartest cartoon series of the '60s era. Now the spunky squirrel is back with all his sidekicks, including Bullwinkle the moose, the exotic duo Boris and Natasha, and various others - some animated and some in live-action form, thanks to the magic of technology pioneered by "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" a dozen years ago. It could look gimmicky, but who's expecting depth? And with Robert De Niro and Rene Russo along for the ride, there has to be some good fun in store.
X-Men, July 14. Hollywood is often tempted by comic-book franchises, which offer presold plots and characters with instant name recognition. On the downside, they cost lots to make - all those fantasy effects - and their audience tilts strongly toward the young end of the spectrum. "X-Men" is as popular as any comic book of its kind, and the movie version may strike a crossover chord with its bittersweet premise that society and superheroes are too different to get along. The live-action cast includes Patrick Stewart and Anna Paquin, and the director is Bryan Singer, of "The Usual Suspects" fame. They could score a superhit - or follow the underrated "Mystery Men" into superoblivion.
What Lies Beneath, July 21. Robert Zemeckis has shown an optimistic streak in pictures like "Forrest Gump" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but there's darkness ahead for Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in this supernatural thriller about a professor, his possibly paranoid wife, and a ghost. Early reports have stressed the secrecy surrounding this production, raising hopes that the filmmakers have some innovative tricks up their sleeve.
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, July 28. Eddie Murphy ended a slump with his 1996 remake of the Jerry Lewis comedy about a painfully shy scholar who becomes a loud-mouthed swinger with the help of a magic elixir. What would happen if Personality No. 2 stole the potion and used it to flummox our hero's wedding plans? And what if Murphy again played Klump family members of every age, size, and gender - this time throughout the whole movie, not in just a single obstreperous scene? So many moviegoers are itching to find out that box offices will swell even if the whole affair is a bit of a letdown. This professor isn't so nutty.
Space Cowboys, Aug. 4. The cold war is just a memory, and so are the exploits of four feisty test pilots whose careers ended when the astronaut program began. Now a dying satellite needs emergency repairs, one of the quartet is an expert in its technology, and he'll only take the assignment if his buddies are the backup crew. Sounds like a job for Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland. Eastwood also signed on to direct the picture, which augurs well for its creativity, even if its credibility runs thin.
Smaller pictures will also proliferate during the summer. Foreign imports include The Wind Will Carry Us, a deeply intelligent drama about a filmmaker visiting a rural Iranian village.
Documentaries include The Eyes of Tammy Faye, about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's troubled televangelism empire.
Independently produced fiction films include Girlfight, about a teenager who becomes a boxer despite her father's opposition. Revivals range from the crime drama Rififi to the Rolling Stones rockumentary Gimme Shelter.
It's too early to tell whether we're in for a great season, but it's certain to be a busy one.
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