By our count, there are but two sequels waiting to have oil rubbed on their backs this summer -- one featuring an evil lord named Vader, the other featuring an evil lord named Schneider -- so the season has that going for it, which is nice.
But in lieu of sequels come comic-book superheroes (Batman, the Fantastic Four), small-screen retreads (Bewitched, cursed with the worst trailer ever, and The Dukes of Hazzard, which not even General Lee's been waiting for), and big-screen redos (The Pink Panther, Bad News Bears, The Longest Yard, The Honeymooners, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and War of the Worlds), which doesn't even take into account Jiminy Glick in Lalawood, which is barely a movie anyway.
Of the 130-something movies scheduled to play this summer, few will warm the hearts of the most air-conditioned critic. Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, with Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, and Sharon Stone; Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe as boxer Jim Braddock and Paul Giamatti as his trainer; and Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, arrive without action figures and Happy Meals -- and bless their sunburned souls for trying to make art during a season of commerce. Perhaps it won't be such a long, hot summer after all. -- Robert Wilonsky
The following previews are written by Luke Y. Thompson, Robert Wilonsky, and Bill Gallo. Scheduled openings can -- and probably will -- change.
Starring: Val Kilmer, LL Cool J, and Christian Slater
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Written by: Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) and Kevin Brodbin (Constantine)
What it's about: A bunch of FBI trainees go to a secret island hideout that's been rigged up like a CSI mystery by their unhinged professor (Kilmer). It's designed as a training simulation, but the place is also loaded with elaborate death traps set to knock them all off one by one.
Why it will be fabulous: The elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style traps are amusingly conceived and suitably gory.
Why it will be dreadful: Filmed in early 2002, this baby's been on the shelf for a long, long time.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Natalie Portman, and Chewbacca
Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: Lucas, though word is that Tom Stoppard did some ghost writing too.
What it's about: Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) finally turns into Darth Vader and kills a lot of people. Chewbacca shows up. Yoda fights a lightsaber duel with the Emperor (who's also known as Darth Sidious, just for confusion's sake). New baddie General Grievous fights with four lightsabers at once, thereby owning Darth Maul's dead, cut-in-half ass.
Why it will be fabulous: Darth Vader and Chewbacca, people! Plus Jar Jar apparently shows up only in the background and doesn't speak.
Why it will be dreadful: If there's any way to screw up a good story, George Lucas can find it. Also, Jar Jar doesn't die.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti, and Renée Zellweger
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman
What it's about: Ditched by his ugly sisters, Cinderella Man (Crowe) begs his fairy godmother to make him beautiful so he can go to the ball. Ah, if only. Instead, it's a Depression-era boxing movie, in which Crowe gets paid to punch people in the face.
Why it will be fabulous: Giamatti might get to win that Oscar next year for his strong supporting turn.
Why it will be dreadful: Five words: "A film by Ron Howard."
Starring: Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Gabrielle Union, and Regina Hall
Directed by: John Schultz (Like Mike)
Written by: Danny Jacobson, Saladin Patterson, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield, and Don Rhymer
What it's about: Hollywood's latest raid on vintage TV: Cedric puts a new ethnic spin on Jackie Gleason's beloved loudmouth, Ralph Kramden.
Why it will be fabulous: Cedric's ability to play blue-collar could send this one to the moon.
Why it will be dreadful: Nobody can channel the spirit of "The Great One." Do you get the feeling you'll pine for the murky black-and-white images and canned laughs that once emanated from your old Philco?
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Starring: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
Directed by: Doug Limon (The Bourne Identity)
Written by: Simon Kinberg
What it's about: An unhappy married couple who earn their paychecks as assassins learn that they've been hired to kill each other.
Why it will be fabulous: The Pitt-Jolie twosome should be fun to watch under Limon's fast-action framing.
Why it will be dreadful: This promises to be a plot-heavy romp that could easily fire blanks.
Starring: Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: David Goyer (Blade)
What it's about: This relaunching of the moribund franchise tells how Bruce Wayne (Bale) became the Dark Knight after seeing his parents executed in a Gotham City alley. In this version, Bruce heads to the Himalayas to train (with Neeson, shades of The Phantom Menace) and returns to Gotham to find a bad city run by a good cop, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and overrun with creepy villains, chief among them The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
Why it will be fabulous: No Joel Schumacher, no Alicia Silverstone, no Batnipples. Did I mention no Joel Schumacher?
Why it will be dreadful: Because origin stories are boring and because the idea of sitting through one more Liam Neeson "training session" is about as appealing as sliding down the Batpole naked.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley MacLaine, and Michael Caine
Written and directed by: Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally)
What it's about: A spinoff of the sitcom: A TV producer revives the classic show and inadvertently casts a real witch in the title role. Enter Kidman.
Why it will be fabulous: If the acidic journalist and fictioneer Ephron has put some punch into it, this could prove to be dark fun. The cast is certainly high-octane, and the plot-tinkering sounds interesting.
Why it will be dreadful: The reason this was canceled is that the one-joke premise grew stale. It's no fresher today.
Land of the Dead
Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, and zombies!
Written and directed by: George Romero
What it's about: The creator of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead finally gets to make a new big-budget zombie movie, after the mediocre Dawn remake made a pretty penny. Continuing the Romero Dead saga, the film envisions a post-Apocalyptic world in which humans live in fortified cities while trying to ignore the fact that every place outside their walls is inhabited by flesh-hungry zombies.
Why it will be fabulous: It's a sequel that's been requested for 20 years -- almost as long as Revenge of the Sith. And Romero is not the kind of director who will go soft.
Why it will be dreadful: John Leguizamo? Why?
War of the Worlds
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and Tim Robbins
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp and Josh Friedman, based on a novel by H.G. Wells
What it's about: A family fights for survival amid an invasion of "alien tripod fighting machines."
Why it will be fabulous: Expect lots of special-effects dazzle in the Close Encounters/Jurassic Park style and more of Spielberg's characteristic empathy for the little guy.
Why it will be dreadful: Tom Cruise.
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, and Ariel Gade
Directed by: Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Written by: Rafael Yglesias (From Hell)
What it's about: American remake of Ringu director Hideo Nakata's other movie about a malevolent drowned girl ghost with hair in her face and the power to manipulate water.
Why it will be fabulous: The original is one of the scariest movies ever, and Salles is no slouch.
Why it will be dreadful: Nakata's original came out three years ago, and since then, audiences may have overdosed on that whole "long black hair covering the face" bit. Also, both of the Hollywood Ring movies and The Eye cribbed liberally from the original already.
Starring: Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, and Julian McMahon
Directed by: Tim Story
Written by: Michael France, Simon Kinberg, and Mark Frost
What it's about: Four astronauts -- Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and sister Sue (Alba), Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), and Ben Grimm (Chiklis) -- are bathed in gamma rays during an outer-space trip and are transformed, respectively, into the Human Torch, Invisible Woman, the stretchy Mr. Fantastic, and the hideous Thing. The superhero team, a 44-year-old Marvel Comics institution, battles its armor-clad nemesis Doctor Doom (McMahon); chaos ensues, duh.
Why it will be fabulous: Because Marvel has managed to do the superhero movie thing right with the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises.
Why it will be dreadful: Then again, The Punisher, Daredevil, Elektra, and Hulk were superawful, and the trailer looks fantastically horrid.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John August
What it's about: Charlie Bucket (Highmore, Depp's Finding Neverland co-star) finds one of the golden tickets that allows him to tour the candy factory of demented sweets-maker Willy Wonka (Depp). Also on the treacherous tour are the usual suspects, including Charlie's Grandpa Joe, Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, and the Oompa-Loompas.
Why it will be fabulous: There's no music this time, and Burton promises to go deeper and darker than Mel Stuart did in his 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Why it will be dreadful: Because as much as you and I and everyone else loves Johnny Depp, he ain't no Gene Wilder. And because, alas, "Pure Imagination" is a swell song that will be missed.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Clarke Duncan as "The Big Bald Black Guy"
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Mission: Impossible III) and Caspian Tredwell-Owen (Beyond Borders)
What it's about: In the future, residents of a secluded facility all dream about going to "The Island," allegedly the last uncontaminated place on Earth. Naturally, it's all a lie: The Island is really a place where they get harvested for their vital organs. When amusingly named protagonist Lincoln Six-Echo (McGregor) learns this uncomfortable truth, a bunch of chases and explosions and really quick edits ensue.
Why it will be fabulous: Michael Bay made The Rock.
Why it will be dreadful: He also made Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.
The Brothers Grimm
Starring: Matt Damon and Heath Ledger
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: Ehren Kruger
What it's about: A fictionalized fantasy about the German fairy-tale authors, here portrayed as con men who lift fake curses only to encounter a genuine form of black magic that will force them to deal with things they've only written about.
Why it will be fabulous: After Gilliam's aborted Don Quixote effort, The Brothers Grimm sees him back in fantasy mode, which is what he does best.
Why it will be dreadful: Its release was postponed for a year, as Miramax's Harvey Weinstein tried recutting it. His version then scored lower with test audiences than Gilliam's did.
Starring: Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, Jessica Lange, and Julie Delpy
Written and directed by: Jim Jarmusch
What it's about: Murray plays Don Johnston (heh), an aging, sweatsuit-sporting Lothario who's dumped by his young girlfriend (Delpy) just as he receives news of a 20-year-old son he never knew. (Shades of The Life Aquatic, but still...) Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) is the pal who convinces Murray to take a trip down Amnesia Lane to see his old lovers, including Stone, Swinton, Lange, and other all-stars, and find out if any of them might be the mother.
Why it will be fabulous: Did you not just read the synopsis?
Why it will be dreadful: Seriously, read it again. And then rent Coffee and Cigarettes for the Bill Murray scene with The RZA and The GZA. Dreadful. Hardly. Then again, Dead Man does kinda suck.
The Pink Panther
Starring: Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Beyoncé Knowles, and Jean Reno
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Written by: Len Blum, Steve Martin, Michael Saltzman, and Glen Bloomberg
What it's about: A new take on Peter Sellers' surpassingly incompetent French detective in which Jacques Clouseau (Martin) tackles a case combining a murdered soccer coach, a priceless diamond, and the usual selection of beautiful women.
Why it will be fabulous: It takes les grandes balles for Martin to assail the rich life and high art of Inspector Clouseau.
Why it will be dreadful: Can The Jerk out-bumble Peter the Great? The smart money says non.
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