Old Faithful

For the 2004 summer season, Hollywood sticks with what it knows

(Disney, June 16)

Baadasssss!

Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Nia Long, David Alan Grier, Ossie Davis

Director: Mario Van Peebles

Writers: Mario Van Peebles, Dennis Haggerty

Premise: Playing his daddy Melvin, Mario dramatizes the trials and tribulations surrounding the making of the 1971 hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

Outlook: Why the five s's in the title? Because the MPAA won't allow the word "ass" in a title. Wouldn't be a bad idea to release Papa Van Peebles' original movie in a new, deluxe, DVD format to help get the word out. If Mario can sell it to the black youth audience, he'll have a hit.

(Sony Classics, May 28 limited, expanding later)

Catwoman

Starring: Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt, and that French dude from the Matrix sequels

Director: Pitof (one word, like Madonna; he's a former effects guy for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro)

Writers: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3)

Premise: Jettisoning the Batman connection altogether, Berry dons a Mouseketeer-meets-Matrix stripper outfit as Patience Philips, a graphic designer who gains some kind of super cat-powers.

Outlook: Had this film come out in 1993, starred Michelle Pfeiffer, and been directed by Tim Burton, we'd be talking mega-hit. As is, Berry's costume looks stupid (can't wait for the inevitable drag-queen version, though), the trailer's lame (she likes sushi!), and Mattel recently canceled plans for a Barbie tie-in. Expect Gigli comparisons before the year is out, as well as endless puns like "Cat-astrophe." Sadly, this will probably cancel out any chance of the real Catwoman character appearing in the new Christian Bale Batman franchise.

(Warner Bros., July 23)

The Chronicles of Riddick Starring: Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Alexa Davelos, Judi Dench

Writer/Director: David Twohy

Premise: That bald brute from the supercool Pitch Black returns, perchance to save the universe.

Outlook: Looks like a very heavy-handed allegory for the European Crusades, writ science-fictiony in the 26th Century. Dench may be seeing Alec Guinness potential as the mystical guide of the nice-guy Elementals, whom Richard "Dick" B. Riddick (Diesel) assists in battling the probably-not-nice Necromongers, led by Feore. Pitch Black was an Alien knockoff done right, but this may be the beginning of an action trilogy done silly.

(Universal, June 11)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writer: Steven Kloves, based on a J.K. Rowling book

Premise: Boy wizard and friends must confront a scary spellcaster.

Outlook: Probably another strong installment in a quality series. Michael Gambon's a good choice to replace woefully departed Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Whether the charm of director Chris Columbus can be replaced by the rough edges of Cuarón (the teen sex exposé Y Tu Mamá También) remains to be seen, but the odds are now greater that Harry and Ron will masturbate together on diving boards at the Hogwarts pool.

(Warner Bros., June 4)

I, Robot Starring: Will Smith and some robots

Director: Alex Proyas

Writers: Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), Akiva Goldsman (Lost in Space)

Premise: Smith plays a detective investigating a crime that may be the first-ever murder of a human by a robot. Because, y'know, according to Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, the metal guys aren't supposed to do that.

Outlook: Apparently the screenplay bears little resemblance to Asimov's book, and the teaser trailer has been laughed at by fanboy types online, mostly because the computer-generated robots aren't very convincing. But there's hope: First of all, the computer generation is far from finished at this stage. And second, while not all of Proyas' films have been hits (Dark City and Garage Days failed to make Crow-level dough), they're always interesting to look at.

(Fox, July 16)

King Arthur Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: David Franzoni (Gladiator), John Lee Hancock (The Alamo)

Premise: Supposed to be a more historically accurate, fantasy-free look at the legendary king of England, though Keira Knightley's tribal-tattooed warrior Guinevere looks more like a contemporary fantasy than anything else.

Outlook: There's a basic rule for Jerry Bruckheimer-produced actioners: The PG-13 rated ones usually suck, and the R-rated ones smash stuff up real good (King Arthur's rating is pending). Pirates of the Caribbean was a major exception, though, and with Disney and Knightley back on board, this could duplicate last year's formula for success.

(Buena Vista, July 7)

The Manchurian Candidate Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writers: Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears), Dean Georgaris (Paycheck)

Premise: John Frankenheimer's Cold War suspense film gets an update, with Washington stepping in for Frank Sinatra and Streep for Angela Lansbury. The actual region of Asia referenced by the title is no longer part of the story; this time, it's a big company called the Manchurian Corp. that plans to install a puppet president mentally programmed to do their evil bidding.

Outlook: A president who automatically does whatever a big corporation tells him to do? Isn't that a little far-fetched?

(Paramount, July 30)

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement Starring: Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews

Director: Garry Marshall

Writer: Gina Wendkos

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