Summer Movie Previews

To guarantee a rich summer harvest, studios traditionally stock their releases with proven commodities -- sequels, remakes, adaptations, and high-profile stars. This year will be no exception: Die Hard with a Vengeance, Batman Forever, Under Siege 2, and Hellraiser IV<> figure as certain moneymakers. After the astounding success of dark horse Forrest Gump<>, however, Hollywood is looking to hedge its bets and diversify. Not only is it releasing more films than any previous summer -- 19 percent more than last year, according to Variety<> -- but it's also venturing into more specialized areas, exploiting new talent, and investigating innovative technologies.

The digital revolution has offered filmmakers a rich new field to till, in terms of both technology and story material. Industrial Light and Magic has transformed Casper<> into the first film in which, for better or worse, most of the major characters are computer animation. Johnny Mnemonic<> and Virtuosity<> explore the shadowy world of virtual reality and cyberpunk intrigue. The success of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert<> did not go unnoticed; alternative lifestyles this summer are going mainstream. Major stars Wesley Snipes and Robin Williams (no stranger to drag after Mrs. Doubtfire<>) will dress up in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar<> and the remake of La Cage aux Folles -- Birds of a Feather.<>

But first, let's look at the . . .

Blockbusters?

Every summer there's a number of movies that absolutely have to hit it big -- because they cost a fortune to make, or to hype. Or both. This year the stakes and budgets are higher than ever, as this list of do-or-die releases indicates.
* Braveheart<> (May 24). I don't know about the rest of you, but I get a kick out seeing thousands of guys in skirts beating the crap out of one another with crude-edged weapons. Mel Gibson directs and stars in this account of the heroics of William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish rebel and bane of the tyrannical English king Edward I, who's played archly by Patrick McGoohan. Co-starring a bunch of talented Celtic newcomers as well as the entire Irish army, this hopes to make Rob Roy<> look like a diluted cocktail indeed.

* The Bridges of Madison County<> (June 2). You thought Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway made an interesting couple in Don Juan DeMarco<>? How about Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as the lovers in this adaptation of the Robert James Waller bestseller written for remedial readers and fans of Yanni. Clint directs this tale of a photographer who lights the fire of a yearning, cliche-addicted housewife. Unless he tosses in a few gunfights and pithy one-liners, he may remain unforgiven for taking on this project.

* Batman Forever<> (June 16). The last Batman made only about $200 million, so naturally the people at Warners were pissed. They dumped dark and weird director Tim Burton for Joel Schumacher and dour and dull Batguy Michael Keaton for hunky Val Kilmer, added hot Tommy Lee Jones as bad guy Two-Face, hotter Jim Carrey as arch-nemesis the Riddler, and up-and-coming hunkette Chris O'Donnell as sidekick Robin. Dark Knight aficionados may miss Burton's twisted take on the legend, but they and everyone else will be lining up for tickets.

* Pocahontas<> (June 23). Those of us who had the privilege of seeing Mayor Menino shake hands with Mickey Mouse a few weeks back at the Wang's Pocahontas press conference can appreciate the amount of publicity Disney is pumping into its latest animated franchise. This is the story that bored you in fifth-grade American History class -- about the romance between Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson), a founder of the Jamestown colony in 1607, and the Native American princess of the title. With music by the composer from Beauty and the Beast, lush Disney animation, cute and funny animal characters, a healthy dose of political correctness, and enough PR to launch a presidential campaign, this will make The Lion King<> look like a pussycat.

* Apollo 13<> (June 30). Tom Hanks could read the phone directory at this point and it would gross a hundred mil and earn him an Oscar nomination. So this suspenseful high-tech account of the ill-fated moon launch should garner Universal about as much money as the original mission cost. Sharing the capsule with Tom are Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon; undismayed by the fact that we all know how the story ends is director Ron Howard. This film will also reveal that NASA and not Forrest Gump was the originator of "Stupid is as stupid does."

* Judge Dredd<> (June 30). Sylvester Stallone's career is harder to kill than a cockroach, and in this adaptation of the sci-fi comic-book hero he returns to his strong suit of robotic violence and monosyllabic inarticulateness. It's the near future and apparently the Contract with America has paid off, because the judicial, law enforcement, and penal systems have all been replaced by Sly wearing a costume that looks like a 1956 Oldsmobile. He's judge, jury, and executioner until the tables get turned.

* Waterworld<> (July 28). Hey, give the guy a break already. The last we heard about Kevin Costner and his sinking Waterworld project is that he's been digitally restoring his thinning hair in post-production, director Kevin Reynolds has walked, and the $172 million production has qualified for federal disaster relief. Set in a dystopian future where all land has been submerged after the polar ice caps melted, the film features Costner as an amphibian hero out to dry the whole thing out. Already labeled "Fishtar" and "Kevin's Gate," this picture has all the ill omens of his Dances with Wolves - and you remember who had the last laugh with that one.

* Cutthroat Island<> (opening late summer). When even Gabriel Byrne turns down the chance to star in your picture, you know you're in trouble. Unfazed by the fact that not a single pirate movie has done well since the passing of Errol Flynn, Finnish action-helmer Renny (Die Hard II, Cliffhanger<>) Harlin casts wife Geena Davis as a distaff buccaneer in this budget buster. Her significant other is heartthrob Matthew Modine (remember how he wooed us in Mrs. Soffel?). This could be this year's surprise hit, or it could plunge its woeful parent studio Carolco into Davy Jones's locker.

Deja views

It wouldn't be summer without Roman numerals, and this year has more than its share, as well as plenty of remakes of old classics and adaptations of everything from TV series to computer games. And no, Apollo 13 is not a sequel.

* Die Hard with a Vengeance<> (May 19). This looked like a sure thing until some damn fools went and blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Bruce Willis teams up with sullen black activist Samuel L. Jackson to stop nutcase Jeremy Irons, who's blowing up and burning key sites in Manhattan as revenge for being cast in Louis Malle's Damage<>.

* Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie<> (June 30). Remember when the merchandising came after the movie and not the other way around? Based on the cheesy TV show, action figures, lunchbox, and what-have-you is this film about a half-dozen teenagers who cut classes and morph into superheroes.

* Nine Months<> (July 14). Here's a rarity -- a remake of a French comedy that's not from Disney. Twentieth Century Fox follows up its Power Rangers with this Hollywood-ization of Patrick Braoude's Neuf mois. Hugh Grant plays a bumbling bon vivant confronted by the prospect of fatherhood, Julianne Moore is the mother-to-be, Tom Arnold plays an asshole, and Robin Williams is a wacky obstetrician. Chris (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire<>) Columbus directs.

* Under Siege 2: Dark Territory<> (July 14). The original Under Siege<> was Steven Seagal's best picture, a taut and witty thriller set on a warship and featuring a brilliant performance by Tommy Lee Jones as the villain. This time the siege is on a train, where bad guy Eric Bogosian wants a billion bucks in ransom. He doesn't figure on pissed-off ex-Navy SEAL Seagal as one of the train's passengers. If the excitement flags, there's always the bar car.

* Hellraiser IV (August 4). Is anyone but Clive Barker still interested in this series? "Pinhead" is back, in case you were wondering. You know, the vaguely evil guy with all the nails in his face. He and fellow his fellow cenobites promise to gross out fans in this reprise of their diabolical and graphic mayhem.

* Sabrina<> (late summer). Here's the difference between 1954 and 1995: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, and Billy Wilder versus Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, Greg Kinnear, and Sydney Pollack. Pollack reprises Wilder's classic romantic comedy about an ugly duckling (Ormond) who returns from Paris transformed into a glamorous babe and is wooed by stodgy millionaire Ford and his ne'er-do-well brother Kinnear. If this retains any of the original's magic it could be something special.

Philadelphia, here we come

If Tom Hanks can get an Oscar for being gay . . .

* Wigstock: The Movie<> (June 23). This cross-dresser may be this year's Paris Is Burning<>.

* The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love<> (June 30). The debut film of Maria Maggenti, this is a frank and funny look at the high-school romance between a white tomboy and her beautiful African-American classmate. It's the lesbian version of Zebrahead<>.

* Birds of a Feather<> (late summer). Based on La Cage aux Folles<>, one of the most popular -- if not most annoying -- foreign films of all time, this Mike Nichols effort features Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the middle-aged gay couple in a tizzy because the son of one of them is about to get married. Nichols's former comedy partner, Elaine May, wrote the screenplay, which could make for a more entertaining and enlightening remake.

* To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar<> (late summer). Priscilla, Queen of the Desert<> heads west in this comedy featuring the unlikely trio of Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze (Swayze's got the best legs) in drag.

Profits of doom

There's nothing like the end of the millennium and a Republican majority in Congress to put folks in the mood for the Apocalypse. Taking a cue from David Koresh and the success of Outbreak<> are the following harbingers of a dread future.

* Congo<> (June 9). As in Outbreak,<> unexplored Africa is the culprit in this adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel about a scientific expedition in search of diamonds and a rare gorilla species who find themselves suddenly a link lower in the evolutionary and food chains. Directed by Frank Marshall (Alive, Arachnophobia<>), it stars Tim Curry and Dylan Walsh, which may explain why the apes get top billing.

* Species<> (July 7). Homo sapiens has been pretty smug about dominating the planet for the past hundred millennia or so, but that might change if some summer movies prove prophetic. The danger in Species comes not from the Congo but from outer space -- which transmits a radio message that includes the DNA code for a human/alien hybrid, a sometimes beautiful, sometimes monstrous morph played by newcomer Natasha Henstridge. Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, and Forest Whitaker play clueless scientists who fear the worst.

* Lord of Illusions<> (August 18). A magic act proves apocalyptically real in this Clive Barker (again) supernatural thriller.

Virtual reels

Those of us who are road kill on the information superhighway will get a crash course in cyberspace over the next few months as several major studio releases not only employ the latest in computer-generated special effects but exploit it for story ideas.

* Casper<> (May 26). Behold this Friendly Ghost, O Kevin and Mel, and despair. No longer will Hollywood have to endure your inflated salaries and bloated budgets if this version of the tepid cartoon character is a hit. The Industrial Light and Magic wizards who brought us many of the wonders in Jurassic Park have apparently rendered actors obsolete by replacing them with digitalized specters. Token mortals include Christina Ricci, but it remains to be seen whether this high-tech hocus-pocus will prevent viewers from confusing the wimpy title spook with the Pillsbury Doughboy.

* Johnny Mnemonic<> (May 26). It's about time cyberpunk maestro William Gibson made an impact on the big screen. Based on one of his stories, this stars Keanu Reeves as a futuristic data carrier who's got a limited time to download the info-laden chip in his brain before it drives him mad or the bad guys get him or both. With Dolph Lundgren and Ice-T; the director is artist Robert Longo.

* Virtuosity<> (August 4). In 1999 Los Angeles, cops practice their trade on virtual-reality criminals -- until the latest model escapes from cyberspace into the city streets. In this Brett (The Lawnmower Man<>) Leonard thriller, Denzel Washington plays the officer sent to track the megabyte malefactor down.

* Hackers<> (August 11). Among other benefits, the Internet has offered wiseass young hackers the opportunity for high-tech mischief, and filmmakers a new forum for exploring Generation X angst. Iain (Backbeat<>) Softley directs this tale of computer jockeys wrongly accused of digital persiflage who must clear their names.

Mock epics

They cost a ton of money and nobody wants to see them, but that doesn't stop Hollywood from investing in that hoary dinosaur of genres, the historical epic.

* First Knight<> (July 7). It sounds like a romantic comedy starring Richard Gere, and in a sense that's what this Camelot-era tale is. Gere is Lancelot, Sean Connery is King Arthur, and the incomprehensibly hot Julia Ormond is Guinevere in this version directed by the unlikely Jerry Zucker (Naked Gun, Ghost<>).


* Wild Bill<> (August 4). Overrated Old West gunman Wild Bill Hickok is played by underrated actor Jeff Bridges. Ellen Barkin is his sometime flame, the irrepressible and ill-smelling Calamity Jane. Walter Hill directs this Western while desperately hoping that the world has forgotten Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.

* Restoration<> (late summer). Robert Downey Jr., Sam Neill, David Thewlis, and the omnipresent Hugh Grant don wigs and party hard in this drama set in the court of Charles II. Downey is the royal physician who runs afoul of seductresses Polly Walker and Meg Ryan.

Beast feast

What's the deal with Hollywood and animals this summer? True, Free Willy<> was a surprise hit a couple of years ago, but wasn't that just a fluke? The only explanation is that it's part of a conspiracy -- in tandem with the digital animation of Casper - to render obsolete overpaid human performers. Still, there's a limit to the number of personable pigs, killer whales, and pandas the big screen can accommodate.

* Fluke<> (June 2). It's not straining our willing suspension of disbelief to accept Matthew Modine reincarnated as a dog, which is in fact the premise of this shaggy-dog story directed by Carlo (Flight of the Innocent<>) Carlei from the bestseller by James Herbert. Fluke<> is the tale of a dog who must cope with the knowledge that he was Geena Davis's co-star in Cutthroat Island<> in a previous lifetime. With Nancy Travis, Eric Stoltz, Comet, and Barney.

* Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home<> (July 21). Two years have passed since Willy, the three-and-a-half-ton killer whale, and Jesse, the 95-pound preadolescent kid, parted company. Now they've got sibling problems, a situation coupled with an oil spill that brings them back together in this sequel to the inexplicable 1993 hit. I mean, have you ever seen what one of these orcas does to a cute little seal?

* Babe<> (August 4). By now we've overcome the shock of the talking pig in Gordy, so the histrionics of this swine should come as no surprise. It seems Babe was raised by Farmer Hoggett's crack sheepdog, who taught him everything she knew. So Hoggett enters Babe in a sheepdog competition. Somehow writer/producer George (Mad Max<>) Miller and director Chris Noonan got a movie out of Dick King-Smith's children's novel.

* The Amazing Panda Adventure<> (August 11). Ryan Slater, Christian's kid brother, stars in this tale of a callow American kid who visits his naturalist dad in China. Initially put off by his father's preoccupation with pandas, he learns to love the little guys when he has to rescue a cuddly cub from poachers.

Heroine fixes

Following in the wake of The Piano<> and Little Women<> are these films featuring women in leading roles.

* Mad Love<> (May 26). Bonnie & Clyde<> and Thelma & Louise<> had their day, now it's time for Matt (Chris O'Donnell) and Casey (Drew Barrymore). Directed by Antonia (Priest) Bird, this is the tale of a pair of young lovers, one of whom is a little funny in the head and has a passion for loud noises.

* Clueless<> (July 19). Based loosely on Jane Austen's Emma<>, this comedy features flavor-of-the-month Alicia Silverstone as a matchmaking yenta who discovers that, as smart as she is, she's no match for writer/director Amy Heckerling.

* To Die For<> (July 21). Gus Van Sant hopes to rebound from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues<> with this story of a TV journalist (Nicole Kidman) who hires her teenage lover to knock off her husband because she thinks he's holding back her career. But her husband's family strike back by hiring hitman Matt Dillon to knock off Nicole. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.

* Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde<> (July 28). As James Woods could attest, Sean Young is ideally suited to play the distaff version of Robert Louis Stevenson's infamous villain. This updated version of the quintessential tale of good and evil injects a powerful dose of gender-bending with its potent transformative brew.

* Fair Game<> (August 4). Cindy Crawford makes her acting debut as a family attorney threatened by some bad person. Would that be William Baldwin? Andrew Sipes directs.

* Jane Eyre<> (August 11). One of the most powerful heroines in literature, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre<> returns to the screen in this version directed by Franco Zeffirelli. If nothing else, this boasts one of the summer's most eclectic casts, including William Hurt, Anna Paquin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Elle MacPherson, Joan Plowright, and Maria Schneider.

* Beyond Rangoon<> (August 25). Sisters Patricia Arquette and Frances McDormand learn the true meaning of the phrase "tourist trap" -- not to mention the terms independence, resourcefulness, and identity -- when the former's passport is stolen while they vacation in the Far East. Spalding Gray, no stranger to the Orient himself, co-stars in this film directed by John Boorman.

* Mary Reilly<> (late summer). Speaking of Mr. Hyde, here's what Julia Roberts has been up to since she dumped Lyle. She's playing the mousy cockney housemaid who was one of the evil guy's first conquests. With John Malkovich miscast as the sweet and good-looking Dr. Jekyll; directing this odd feminist retelling of the classic is Stephen Frears.

* Showgirls<> (late summer or early fall). Writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, the boys who brought us Sharon Stone sans knickers in Basic Instinct<>, are seeking more NC-17 notoriety with this tale of Las Vegas lap dancers. Described as All About Eve<> in the altogether, it stars Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle McLachlan, and Gina Gershon. What do you want to bet they milk the rating for all the publicity they can and then cut it for an "R"?

PC-17

This summer the screen will be a refuge from the right-wing rantings of shock radio. In search, no doubt, for new story material, Hollywood has opened its doors to a multicultural range of races, religions, and ethnic groups, hoping that political correctness is tantamount to better box office.

* Tales from the Hood<> (May 24). Remember the good old days of blaxploitation and tasteless hootfests like Blacula? You can relive them in this rapper/horror spoof directed by Rusty Cundieff and produced by Spike Lee. Former Mod Squadder Clarence Williams III stars as a sinister undertaker who takes three would-be young hustlers on a tour of the real Underworld.

* Smoke<> (June 16). Winner of the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear, this laid-back effort by Wayne (The Joy Luck Club) Wang follows the mild-but-compelling adventures of smoke-shop owner Harvey Keitel and his diverse clientele. Based on a story by Paul Auster, and with William Hurt as a neurotic customer and Forest Whitaker as a clueless, one-armed mechanic, this film comes without a surgeon general's warning.

* The Indian in the Cupboard<> (July 14). The audiences I've been part of who've seen the trailer for this film have greeted it with stunned disbelief or hoots of laughter, but that doesn't mean it can't be the sleeper hit of 1995. Frank Oz directs this fantasy about a kid (Hal Scardino) whose toy Native American, Little Bear (Litefoot), comes to life. All goes well until a plastic cowboy gets stuck in the cupboard as well.

* Dead Presidents<> (July 19). The Hughes brothers -- Allan and Albert -- electrified audiences with their uncompromising look at the urban gangsta life in Menace II Society<>. They go back a generation in this Vietnam-era flick about ghetto violence and disenfranchisement. A vet returns home from the bloody rice paddies to find no work and no respect. Enlisting the help of comrades-in-arms, he plans a bank heist.

* Dangerous Minds<> (July 28). Typecast once again as an ex-Marine, Michelle Pfeiffer heads for the inner city to build men out of the bad-attituded students and complacent bureaucrats in a beleaguered high school. This looks like a distaff, urban version of Dead Poets Society<>.

* A Walk in the Clouds<> (July 28). Being Hispanic is hip this summer, or so hope the Zucker brothers of Naked Gun<> and Ghost<> fame who are producing this multicultural period romance directed by Like Water for Chocolate<>'s Alfonso Arau. Keanu Reeves is a GI returning from WW2 who falls in love with a latina beauty (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) whose father is a wealthy and intolerant vineyard owner played by Giancarlo Giannini. Anthony Quinn rounds out the cast as an overbearing but wise old fart.

* Kids<> (late summer). Miramax has got another NC-17 promotional opportunity with this candid account of the sexual and criminal behavior of alienated urban youngsters. Photographer Larry Clark makes his directorial debut; this picture reportedly makes My Own Private Idaho<> and The Basketball Diaries<> look like Beverly Hills 90210.<>

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