Staying on Target

Aiming for a familiar audience, the films of summer hope for more hits than misses

Welcome to the movies of summer 2001! Of course, whether you'll actually feel welcome is another issue: Hollywood is doing its usual stuff to attract the most dollars, which may not always mean your dollars... unless you belong to that centrally crucial demographic -- males ages 13 to 25.

You may not be part of that target audience, but so far it seems as if the brains of at least one studio have gotten it right: Universal's The Mummy Returns kicked off the season with a nearly $70 million opening weekend. While the numbers are no doubt heartening to the studio, it should be heartening to the rest of us that the film apparently appealed to both genders and to a broad age range -- that is, the rest of the country isn't being totally ignored just to please the testosterone monsters.

Ray Greene, former editor of the trade magazine Box Office, points out that a satisfying popcorn primes the pump. "It's shaping up as a fairly strong summer," he says. "When a movie comes out early and does huge numbers, it gets people in the moviegoing mood."

Still, The Mummy Returns is just one film that could easily be a crowd-pleasing fluke. Or, as Greene succinctly puts it, looking at the lineup of junk coming up: "Here comes da crap." High on the list of crowd-pleasing junk are all the sequels -- Doctor Dolittle 2, Rush Hour 2, American Pie 2, Jurassic Park 3 -- as well as remakes of Rollerball and Planet of the Apes and adaptations of games (Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). The formulaic nature of the offerings spreads beyond the sequels and adaptations to even the films that aren't sequels -- Evolution, a special-effects comedy, and Tomb Raider, a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type of adventure based on a video game.

"These may not all be bad," Greene says, "but what's really going on is the same thing that has made filmmaking so uninteresting for the last several years: It's nothing but copyrights talking to each other. The M.B.A.s in the executive suites only care that it be pretested. There's no risk-taking, just an economic model."

As usual a few megablockbusters dominate most filmgoers' expectations. The biggest of these is Pearl Harbor (opening nationwide this Friday, May 25), from the team of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay. These are the guys responsible for The Rock -- which earned big bucks but little critical respect -- and Armageddon -- which did even better commercially but was cited by numerous critics as aesthetically corrupt to the point of evil.

This time they seem to be trying for the best of both worlds: piles of money and respect, using the Saving Private Ryan model: simultaneous action and seriousness. Weeks before its release, Pearl Harbor was already being mentioned as Oscar material. "It's like Roland Emmerich last year with The Patriot," says David Poland, a veteran industry journalist now headquartered at www.voicesofhollywood.com, citing another popcorn-movie director who tried to have it both ways. (The Patriot grossed more than $100 million but was still perceived as a disappointment, coming in at number 20 for the year, despite the hype and presence of Mel Gibson.)

Another hugely anticipated film is Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, a remake of the 1968 Franklin Schaffner hit that spawned four sequels and a TV show. Burton is an extraordinarily idiosyncratic director who nonetheless has managed to command huge budgets. He hasn't had a monster hit since Batman and Batman Returns, but he is never less than interesting.

Steven Spielberg, the reigning Master of Summer, is represented by two upcoming major films: (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Jurassic Park III. A.I.'s unusual pedigree could be a formula for genius or catastrophe: Spielberg took over the project from longtime friend Stanley Kubrick after the latter's death. If ever there was a pair of filmmakers whose style, philosophies, and priorities were direct opposites, it's the cold, intellectual, and daring Kubrick and the warm, fuzzy, aesthetically cautious Spielberg. In Kubrick's hands one would have expected this story of a child robot (Haley Joel Osment) to be unsettling, provocative, and possibly even confounding. With Spielberg at the helm, there is the risk that it could turn into an even more saccharine version of Spielberg protégé Chris Columbus's sentimental Bicentennial Man. Its commercial prospects are probably inversely proportional to the extent that it's a Kubrick film.

As for Jurassic Park, even Spielberg seems to have tired of the franchise, after two installments that were among the highest-grossing movies of all time. For the new film, he's only producing, having turned over the directorial reins to Joe Johnston, whose films (Jumanji, The Rocketeer) are generally pleasant diversions.

If one genre looks particularly lackluster this season, it's comedy (nonaction division). The big entries all reek of staleness: Doctor Dolittle 2, with Eddie Murphy; Scary Movie 2, a hastily assembled sequel to last year's surprise low-budget hit, with a pack of Wayanses on both sides of the camera; American Pie 2, another, only slightly less hastily assembled sequel; and The Princess Diaries, a Disney production that is one of (so far) only two G-rated films this summer. (The other is the recently opened animated Trumpet of the Swan.)

Maybe some of the smaller comedies will save the day and provide the delight people hope for when they go to the movies. After only acting in Saving Private Ryan and 15 Minutes, Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen) returns to directing with the romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York. America's longest-running comedy auteur, Woody Allen, has The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, a period film noir spoof; it sounds like Woody going strictly for laughs, which is always promising. Writer, director, and actor Kevin Smith shows up with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, apparently the final chapter in the series that started with Clerks and continued with Mallrats and Chasing Amy. And John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale try to recapture lost love in Serendipity, from the extremely eccentric director Peter Chelsom (Townand Country).

The dearth of G-rated films is baffling and may be troubling for parents. In addition to the two family films mentioned above, there are a number of animated features almost all of which have PG ratings -- even though the genre is usually directed at children. DreamWorks' computer-animated Shrek, which opened May 18, will soon be followed by Disney's nonmusical action cartoon Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Cats & Dogs (not yet rated) is a droll-looking animated/live-action hybrid from Warner Bros. Sony will release Japanese director Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (PG-13), adapted from his own series of video games. And Warner shows up with a second animated/live-action feature, the Farrelly brothers' Osmosis Jones, with Chris Rock, David Hyde Pierce, and Laurence Fishburne providing the voices for a white blood cell and a cold capsule and the lethal virus they're battling within the body of a flesh-and-blood Bill Murray.

The rest of the summer schedule is dominated even more than usual by action of every stripe. There's car action ( The Fast and the Furious), caper action (Swordfish and The Score), and even arty British caper action (Sexy Beast, with a truly terrifying performance from Ben Kingsley.) Sci-fi action shows up in two late entries: Rollerball, a futuristic Roller Derby picture with Chris Klein, Jean Reno, and LL Cool J, and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, which has Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube on Mars, circa 2025. The late August dates for these two suggest a lack of studio confidence, but you can't rule a movie out until you've actually seen it for yourself. Also on the sci-fi front is Evolution, a hybrid comedy-action film with David Duchovny and Orlando Jones.

Advance word is that Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie as video-game heroine Lara Croft, is an Indiana Jones knockoff filled with the same sort of over-the-top, Hong Kong-style stunt work that helped make Charlie's Angels a hit. A similar type of action -- though presumably a little more realistic -- will doubtless be in evidence in two vehicles for transplanted Hong Kong stars. In Kiss of the Dragon, Jet Li kicks butt as a Chinese spy on the run. Then, a few weeks later, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker return in Rush Hour 2, with Crouching Tiger cutie Zhang Ziyi added to the mix. A different sort of foreign action can be sampled in Brother, the first English-language production of Japanese hard-boiled auteur Takeshi Kitano, who stars as a yakuza trying to set up a new life of crime in Los Angeles.

Finally, there is always one absolutely weird, impossible-to-call shot in the lineup, and this year it's Moulin Rouge, set in Paris circa 1900 and featuring the great pop songs of the 20th Century, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lennon and McCartney, from Sting to Elton John, Dolly Parton to David Bowie. (See "Short Cuts.") Moulin Rouge sounds so strange that -- just maybe, possibly -- it could work.

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