Summer Film Previews

Our critics enter the summer-movie fray

Around the World in 80 Days
STARRING: Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile De France, Jim Broadbent

DIRECTOR: Frank Coraci

WRITERS: David Goldstein, David Benullo, Michael Weiss...and Jules Verne

PREMISE: Chan and Coogan take to the skies in the umpteenth remake of this classic novel.

OUTLOOK: Looks like good old-fashioned fun -- if any market for such a risk still exists. Coogan (star of British TV hit I'm Alan Partridge) and Chan are both geniuses of their craft, and the stunt casting -- including the Gropenator as a polygamist in a fugged-up wig -- seems amusing. In the case of director Coraci (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy), this appears to be evidence that if you survive Adam Sandler, you are allowed to make a cool movie.

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.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi
STARRING: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa

DIRECTOR: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (Kikujiro no natsu)

WRITERS: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Kan Shimozawa (novels)

PREMISE: Blind traveling masseur moonlights as noble Samurai.

OUTLOOK: The eccentric Japanese actor-writer-director returns with a great early buzz on his Samurai battle royale. The question is, can anyone Beat Takeshi?

Bukowski: Born Into This
STARRING: Charles Bukowski, Bono, Sean Penn, Barbet Schroeder

DIRECTOR: John Dullaghan

PREMISE: From the official press release: "The name Bukowski is as synonymous with fighting and fucking as it is with poetry and prose.... John Dullaghan's documentary brilliantly manages to reveal the man behind the myth."

OUTLOOK: You'll probably be able to smell the liquor in the air at theaters playing this one.

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


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

OUTLOOK: Looks like a very heavyhanded 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.

Coffee and Cigarettes
STARRING: Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Roberto Benigni, the White Stripes and many other famous faces


PREMISE: A compilation of short films made by Jarmusch over the years, all of which are filmed in black-and-white and involve comic conversations between two or three people over, yep, the titular caffeine- and nicotine-delivery devices.

OUTLOOK: Is there anyone out there who doesn't want to see Bill Murray play a scene opposite the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA? Or Steve Buscemi mediating between Cinque and Joie Lee? Iggy Pop and Tom Waits discussing, well, anything? This stuff is cool, people! The only potential downside is the frustration smokers will feel not being able to light up in the theater when everyone onscreen is doing so.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story STARRING: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Rawson Marshall Thurber (the short film/commercial "Terry Tate, Office Linebacker")

PREMISE: Another month, another Stiller-in-a-wig movie. Does the man never sleep? Anyhow, the film's title says it all, except that the movie isn't really based on a true story.

OUTLOOK: Didn't that one episode of South Park already exhaust every possible gag to be wrung from the notion of a dodgeball world championship? Here's a bold prediction: Dollars to donuts there'll be more than one scene of a man getting hit in the crotch.

STARRING: Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Steven Tobolowsky, the voice of Bill Murray

DIRECTOR: Peter Hewitt

WRITERS: Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow (the Cheaper by the Dozen remake)

PREMISE: The fat cat popularized in the '80s finally hits the CG big time.

OUTLOOK: Really, think about it: Fat, obnoxious comic-strip creature, eats and complains constantly, annoys bachelor and dog. This could just as well be the Cathy movie. Director Hewitt previously helmed the heartwarming British comedy Thunderpants, about a kid who farts a lot, which mysteriously remains unreleased on our prim shores.

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

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón

WRITER: Steven Kloves, based on the 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.

Kaena: The Prophecy
STARRING: The voices of Kirsten Dunst, Anjelica Huston and the late Richard Harris

DIRECTORS: Chris Delaporte, Pascal Pinon

WRITERS: Chris Delaporte, Tarik Hamdine

PREMISE: Kaena (rhymes with "hyena") is a teenage girl who lives in a floating forest above the clouds. Defying the elders of her village, she will undertake a perilous journey to discover why the forest is slowly dying.

OUTLOOK: Kaena began life as a video game concept and evolved into the first fully CG-animated feature from France (dubbed by Hollywood stars on these shores). From a critical standpoint, any kind of animation that isn't Disneyfied, Pixared or anime-based seems worthy of note; but from a commercial standpoint, American audiences tend to gravitate toward the familiar in their 'toons.

The Mother
STARRING: Anne Reid, Peter Vaughn, Anna Wilson-Jones, Daniel Craig

DIRECTOR: Roger Michell (Notting Hill)

WRITER: Hanif Kureishi (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid)

PREMISE: Senior widow gets hots for her married daughter's booty servant, who complies.

OUTLOOK: Looks kinda like a smart blend of Saving Grace and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Mama's boys and AARP chicks may find it equally pleasurable.

Napoleon Dynamite
STARRING: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader, Haylie Duff

DIRECTOR: Jared Hess

WRITER: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess

PREMISE: Slacker loser in Idaho reveals cool streak.

OUTLOOK: Before Elvis Costello ferociously sucked up to Hollywood, he gave himself amusing pet names, such as the one snatched for this film's title. Looks like authentic indie comeuppance giggles aplenty. Seems all of a piece, since at the beginning of his career, Costello was dubbed by journalists "The Avenging Dork."

The Notebook
STARRING: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands, James Garner

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Nick Cassavetes

PREMISE: Following an ill-fated move into mainstream Hollywood thriller with John Q. , Nick Cassavetes returns to the stuff that he and his late father have always been good at: quirky, character-based romance starring Gena Rowlands.

OUTLOOK: Should attain a mixed demographic, as the film, much like Big Fish, depicts a romance in contemporary times with Garner and Rowlands, then in flashback with the hot young leads. Total chick flick, but Cassavetes can usually make things interesting.

Spider-Man 2
STARRING: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco


WRITERS: Michael Chabon, several others

PREMISE: Sony spends and recoups another shitload of money.

OUTLOOK: Seems like a winner, reuniting the forces that capably succeeded the first time out -- although it would have been cool if Dunst replaced onscreen sweetheart Maguire with the more intriguing Jake Gyllenhaal, as in real life. Molina takes over villain's duties as tentacle-thrashing Doctor Octopus. More of the cheeseball humor of Raimi (the Evil Dead movies) would be welcome, but perhaps screenwriter Chabon (Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) will add some weird literary pedigree to this pricey pulp.

The Stepford Wives
STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken

DIRECTOR: Frank Oz (Miss Piggy)

WRITERS: Paul Rudnick (In & Out), Ira Levin (original novel)

PREMISE: Dark-comedic remake of paranoid-sexist 1970s sci-fi movie about suburban horror and systematic wife-replacement.

OUTLOOK: The producers pulled a bait-and-switch on Kidman, luring her with promises of fanciful co-star John Cusack, then ironically replacing him with middle-aged Ferris Bueller. Entire production sounds similarly confused, and after The Score it's impossible to trust Yoda-Piggy in the director's chair anymore. Theme is ridiculously threadbare, too: Ask your female boss to phone you from her Escalade to tell you how the movie's oppression relates to her.

The Terminal
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

WRITERS: Sacha Gervasi (The Big Tease), Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me if You Can)

PREMISE: Realizing that they don't yet have all the money in the world, Hanks and Spielberg decide to team up and make another movie together. Spielberg has an entire airport terminal built on a soundstage, and Hanks does a funny accent. Or something like that.

OUTLOOK: It's Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. What part of that don't you get? It's probably critic-proof, but frankly the concept -- of a guy living in an airport because he can't go back to his fictional foreign country or enter the U.S. -- sounds kinda painful, as does Hanks' Boris Badenov voice.

Time of the Wolf
STARRING: Isabelle Huppert, Beatrice Dalle, Maurice Benichou, Patrice Chereau


PREMISE: A French family finds its country vacation home occupied by strangers with guns. But that ain't the worst of it -- it slowly becomes clear that some unknown cataclysm is gradually causing the End of the World as We Know It.

OUTLOOK: So basically it's like Signs, but without aliens, and probably a less happy ending? Could be the first French film parents can take their teenage boys to.

Two Brothers
STARRING: Guy Pearce and two tigers

DIRECTOR: Jean-Jacques Annaud

WRITERS: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard

PREMISE: Two tigers are separated at birth -- one is sold to a circus and loses his spirit, while the other is raised as a fighter for sport. They meet again as adults, when they are forcibly pitted against each other.

OUTLOOK: Everybody loves tigers; just look at how many people have tattoos of them. Not everyone loves Guy Pearce, but probably enough to help the movie do OK. Annaud's always had more success with animals than people anyway.

White Chicks
STARRING: Marlon Wayans, Shawn Wayans, Brittany Daniel, James King

DIRECTOR: Keenen Ivory Wayans

WRITERS: Assorted Wayanses and friends

PREMISE: African-American FBI officers go undercover as, essentially, the Hilton sisters.

OUTLOOK: Since blondes and black men absolutely never fraternize in American society, this movie should build the vital bridges of tolerance and understanding. Ha. Whatever. At least someone's finally making a joke out of that damned annoying Vanessa Carlton song.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
STARRING: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd


WRITERS: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay

PREMISE: Will Ferrell mugs a lot as a sexist San Diego newscaster in 1973.

OUTLOOK: The trailer suggests easy summer retro laughs with no surprises whatsoever.

Before Sunset
STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater

WRITERS: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

PREMISE: The romantic Yank and Frog from the 1995 film Before Sunrise reunite nine years later.

OUTLOOK: From Slacker to School of Rock, Linklater throws his heart into his work. This quickie sequel (shot in fifteen days) may deliver the same offhand charm and believable characters as its predecessor. This time Hawke pretends that he's an author -- an obvious case of art reflecting life.

The Bourne Supremacy
STARRING: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Joan Allen, Brian Cox

DIRECTOR: Paul Greengrass

WRITERS: Tony Gilroy, Brian Helgeland, novelist Robert Ludlum

PREMISE: This time Jason Bourne (or whatever his name is) must clear his name following brutal assassinations.

OUTLOOK: The first one proved a pleasant surprise, and this sequel promises lots of dark intrigue all over Germany, Russia and India. In particular, the work of Greengrass holds appeal, as his documentary-style Northern Ireland riot reenactment Bloody Sunday was truly stunning. Production here was apparently rushed, but whatever its flaws, at least it don't feature no Affleck.

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 & Michael Ferris (Terminator 3)

PREMISE: Jettisoning the Batman connection altogether, Halle 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, Halle'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.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
STARRING: John Cho, Kal Penn

DIRECTOR: Danny Leiner (Dude, Where's My Car?)

WRITERS: John Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg

PREMISE: Stoner Indian student and stoner Korean student quest for burgers.

OUTLOOK: Sometimes the title says enough.

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

King Arthur
STARRING: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgård

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.

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 Corporation that plans to install a puppet president (Schreiber) 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 farfetched?

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
STARRING: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett

DIRECTORS: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills)

PREMISE: Having established a prior relationship with Metallica -- who allowed its music to be used on film for the first time in Paradise Lost -- Berlinger and Sinofsky set out to chronicle the recording of the St. Anger album and very nearly captured the band's utter disintegration on camera.

OUTLOOK: Ticket sales to Metallica fans alone will more than make back the film's budget, but word from Sundance is that, much as The Osbournes appeals to more than just metalheads, the drama surrounding the combustible Hetfield and Co. is compelling even to viewers with no mastery of puppets whatsoever.

She Hate Me
STARRING: Anthony Mackie, Monica Bellucci, John Turturro, Chiwetel Ejiofor


PREMISE: A corporate whistleblower (8 Mile's Mackie) loses his job on Wall Street and winds up selling his sperm to rich childless lesbians who pay big bucks to get impregnated the old-fashioned way. Yes, it's a comedy.

OUTLOOK: Lee is often on shaky ground when it comes to comedies, and it'll be ironic if vocal minority groups (lesbians, in this case) start protesting him.

STARRING: Ben Kingsley, Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards, Sophia Myles and some big, colorful spaceships

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Frakes

WRITERS: Peter Hewitt (Thunderpants), William Osbourne (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), Michael McCullers (both Austin Powers sequels)

PREMISE: Live-action rendition of the 1960s U.K. Supermarionation sci-fi show in which wooden string puppets saved the day from danger in, yes, some big, colorful spaceships. It remains to be seen which is creepier -- a vintage marionette or Bill Paxton.

OUTLOOK : Likely to do well in the U.K., but here? Frakes' track record is questionable: Other than Star Trek movies, the erstwhile Commander Riker is best known for directing the horrible kiddie sci-fi movie Clockstoppers.

The Village
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver

WRITER/DIRECTOR: M. Night Shyamalan

PREMISE: A nineteenth-century Pennsylvania village, hermetically sealed from the rest of civilization, is disturbed by an outside menace.

OUTLOOK: Shyamalan's a ding-dong. While The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable smartly mixed dank moodiness with semi-unpredictable "twist" endings, the flailing Signs dumbed things down into eye-rolling territory. This project appears to follow suit, with nice production values and cast but a lame, sub-sub-Twilight Zone "twist" even webheads have long since sussed. If you can't figure it out from the red paint marks on the villagers' doors, you are exactly the designated audience for this movie. Catch it in an Amish town for extra fun.

Alien Vs. Predator
STARRING: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova and some big ugly meanies from outer space

DIRECTOR: Paul W.S. Anderson

WRITERS: Paul W.S. Anderson, Shane Salerno, Peter Briggs

PREMISE: Titular franchise thingies battle each other in Antarctica while humans stupidly interfere.

OUTLOOK: After two pointless placeholder sequels, at least the Aliens finally get to do something on Earth. Their interactions with the Predator species are sure to fuel many a comic-geek debate, but whoever wins, the human actors are brave to participate. Note: Director Anderson did Resident Evil (and its star, Milla Jovovich) and is not "that Magnolia guy."

Benji Returns: Rags to Riches
STARRING: Titular canine, some guest stars from Everwood and Touched by an Angel

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Joe Camp (of course)

PREMISE: Benji goes vegan. Naw, just kidding. Benji springs into a new adventure involving diabolical dog breeders.

OUTLOOK: Record-breaking 30-year-old hound celebrates anniversary and demonstrates staying power to wannabes like Beethoven. Could say more, but why kick a dog?

STARRING: Chris Evans, Kim Basinger, Jason Statham, Jessica Biel

DIRECTOR: David Ellis (Final Destination 2)

WRITERS: Larry Cohen (Phone Booth), J. Mackeye Gruber & Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect), Chris Morgan

PREMISE: A young man (Evans) gets a random cell-phone call from a woman (Basinger) who has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Her phone battery is dying, and he's her only hope.

OUTLOOK: Looks like the cell-phone propaganda lobby is at it again! Just as all manner of businesses start to ban loud cell-phone conversations, those Hollywood liberals conspire to indoctrinate us with positive images of the inexpensive communication devices saving lives, damn them! Of course, any movie that cell-phone users can relate to is likely to make heaps of cash.

Code 46
STARRING: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton

DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World)

WRITER: Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People)

PREMISE: A love story set in a near-future where travel is restricted to residents of cities, and even then only those who purchase a special type of insurance. Outside the cities, the world has become a desert filled with shanty towns and illegal immigrants.

OUTLOOK: Combining cautionary global politics with character-based drama is a Winterbottom trademark, but the sci-fi hook may garner him a new audience. And if that's not enough, the film's R-rating descriptive also promises "brief graphic nudity."

STARRING: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo

DIRECTOR: Michael Mann

WRITERS: Michael Mann, Frank Darabont, Stuart Beattie (contributor to Pirates of the Caribbean)

PREMISE: Foxx plays an LA cabbie forced into service by killer Cruise.

OUTLOOK: Frankly, this sounds less like a movie than a template for a screenwriting workshop. Mann's affection for LA's mean streets (Heat, TV's Robbery Homicide Division) may score him another hit, but -- baddie or otherwise -- isn't the entire world completely sick of Tom Cruise by now?

Danny Deckchair
STARRING: Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Justine Clarke, Andrew Crabbe

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Jeff Balsmeyer (veteran storyboard artist making feature debut)

PREMISE: Australian comedy about a guy who escapes his big-city blues by sailing away in a chair attached to helium balloons.

OUTLOOK: Anybody's guess, but thanks to the recent discovery of Australia, some novelty is possible. Also, lovely Miranda Otto as a blasted meter maid may represent the year's biggest emotional conflict of interests.

Exorcist: The Beginning
STARRING: Stellan Skarsgård, James D'Arcy, Isabella Scorupco

DIRECTOR: John, wait, Paul Schrader...oops, make that Renny Harlin

WRITERS: William Wisher (The 13th Warrior), Caleb Carr (The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy), Alexi Hawley

PREMISE: Skarsgård plays the younger version of Max von Sydow's Father Merrin character, tangling with the devil in mid-twentieth-century Africa.

OUTLOOK: Frankenheimer died before filming had started. Then Schrader directed the film as a psychological thriller. Once the studio saw his cut, they decided they wanted more of a head-turning and green-puking kind of horror flick, so they recast most of the major roles and hired Harlin (Schrader's version will still apparently come out on DVD). This level of "creative differences" usually doesn't bode well for a film's quality, not to mention the fact that no Exorcist sequel to date has exactly been an aesthetic or commercial triumph.

Gojira STARRING: A guy in a monster suit, some Japanese people

DIRECTOR: Ishiro Honda

WRITERS: Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata

PREMISE: Formerly trimmed, dubbed and Raymond Burr-ed as Godzilla on these shores, the original Japanese "big critter stomping on Tokyo" flick finally hits U.S. theaters uncut, with 40 minutes of footage previously unseen stateside and a Japanese language track.

OUTLOOK: To quote Harry Knowles of MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT! A geek-stravaganza if ever there was one.

Hero (Ying xiong)
STARRING: Jet Li, Daming Chen, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad)

WRITERS: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang

PREMISE: Prior to China's Imperial history, a brilliant warrior tells a threatened king of his prowess.

OUTLOOK: Its budget ($17 million) probably equals the catering costs on a Scooby-Doo movie, but this is China's most expensive film yet and a big hit in its homeland. A flashback-heavy narrative should provoke intrigue while Jet Li's martial arts gifts wow the action enthusiasts.

A Home at the End of the World
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, Sissy Spacek, Matt Frewer

DIRECTOR: Michael Mayer (debut)

WRITERS: Keith Bunin, Michael Cunningham (novel) PREMISE: Farrell plays a straight Clevelander in 1980s "New York" (Toronto) who moves in with gay Cleveland friend (Dallas Roberts) and falls for female roommate (Wright Penn), whom gay friend -- oops! -- was planning to impregnate. Then they all go visit Sissy Spacek in the country.

OUTLOOK: The Hours novel was also written by Cunningham, and frankly it wasn't "deep" or "moving" -- it was tedious. If that's your cup of tea, have another lukewarm swig, courtesy of Warners' new "independent" wing.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
STARRING: Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Charlotte Rampling, Malcolm McDowell

DIRECTOR: Mike Hodges

WRITER: Trevor Preston

PREMISE: Gangster tries to go bucolic while solving the murder of his brother.

OUTLOOK: At least the second film to be named after a mortality-themed Warren Zevon song (the other being Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead), this British gangster movie reteams Owen and Hodges (Croupier). It could satisfy some indie-philes not interested in watching Owen play a fancy-pants King Arthur, and Rampling's usually a treat. But Malcolm McDowell as yet another heavy? What, was Dennis Hopper busy?

Infernal Affairs
STARRING: Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang

DIRECTORS: Andrew Law (not the same person as star Andy), Alan Mak (A War Named Desire)

WRITERS: Alan Mak, Felix Chong (Gen-X Cops 2)

PREMISE: The first film in a popular Hong Kong action franchise, Infernal Affairs follows the parallel stories of a gang mole in the police force and an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, both of whom find themselves seeking similar objectives.

OUTLOOK: Miramax finally seems to be learning that dubbing is not the way to go. If it does well, there are already two sequels available to import.

Open Water
STARRING: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Chris Kentis (1997's Grind, not to be confused with the recent skateboarding flick of the same name)

PREMISE: A vacationing couple goes on a scuba-diving trip and is accidentally left out to sea, surrounded by sharks. Based on a true story.

OUTLOOK: The filmmakers used real sharks. Real. No one's gonna be bitching about how fake they look, like they did with all the Jaws movies. Audiences jaded by mega-budget, computer-generated stuff who want a good water-based scare are gonna eat it up like Jaws at a beach party.

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

DIRECTOR: Garry Marshall

WRITER: Gina Wendkos

PREMISE: Last time around, she found out she was a princess. Now our heroine learns that she has 30 days to find herself a prince, or give up the throne. There's something like seven of these books already in print, so this cinematic series has only just begun.

OUTLOOK: The first Princess Diaries was surprisingly appealing, and all the same people are back, including Heather Matarazzo as the less-attractive best friend. John Rhys-Davies joins the cast on this outing, and he knows a thing or two about picking franchise projects.

STARRING: Alexa Vega, Mika Boorem, Kalli Flynn Childress

DIRECTOR: Joe Nussbaum

WRITER: Elisa Bell (Vegas Vacation)

PREMISE: Barely-teens compete against popular high school girls in an all-night scavenger hunt.

OUTLOOK: The director of the silly George Lucas in Love wriggles his way into a feature-directing deal, proving that anything is possible in America. Elements including stealing a car and vying for the "best" table in the cafeteria suggest a spirited teen hit, but nonetheless smells like Lean Girls.

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
FEATURING: Tom Dowd, Ray Charles, Tito Puente, Aretha Franklin

DIRECTOR: Mark Moormann

PREMISE: Veteran recording engineer-producer's diverse career is documented.

OUTLOOK: First-time director arrives without a pedigree, but Dowd's decades of pop life and work sound lively. Plus, how often do Coltrane fans and Skynyrd fans assemble in the same room?

Without a Paddle
STARRING: Matthew Lillard, Seth Green, Burt Reynolds

DIRECTOR: Steven Brill (Adam Sandler movies)

WRITERS: Jay Leggett, Mitch Rouse (Employee of the Month)

PREMISE: Urban buddies go camping. And rafting. Badly.

OUTLOOK: Dork-a-thon. Some may squeal in amusement . . . but please, deliver us.

FEATURING: The voices of Dan Green, Wayne Grayson, Amy Birnbaum

DIRECTOR: Ryôsuke Takahashi


PREMISE: Spiky-haired anime guy from popular cartoon series and card game battles ancient evil.

OUTLOOK: Children, gaming geeks and quasi-Egyptologists rejoice. Even if you're not a fan, the title is fun to say in bed.

The Cookout
STARRING: Storm P., Eve, Queen Latifah, Danny Glover, Farrah Fawcett, Vincent Pastore

DIRECTOR: Lance Rivera

WRITERS: Queen Latifah & Shakim Compere & Darryl French, Laurie B. Turner & Ramsey Gbelawoe, first-timers all

PREMISE: A newly successful basketball player (Storm P.) throws an old-fashioned cookout for his longtime friends and family. But when his new hangers-on and corporate co-workers show up as well, humorous interactions ensue.

OUTLOOK: Latifah's been on a roll lately, but if she makes too many movies that sound almost exactly the same as Barbershop (up next: Beauty Shop), people may stop coming. The premise of The Cookout is extremely basic -- the degree to which the vast ensemble cast has any kind of chemistry together is going to make or break it.

Fahrenheit 9/11
STARRING: Michael Moore, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Michael Moore (yes, it's allegedly a documentary, but remember, he won a writing award for Bowling for Columbine)

PREMISE: Just in time for election season, Moore chronicles the connections between the Bush and bin Laden families, and no doubt implies that more could have been done to prevent the events of September 11.

OUTLOOK: They're gonna love it in Europe. Here at home, it's become the cool thing for Democrats to distance themselves from Moore, but the bottom line is he knows how to make a documentary that can engage the average American, and he almost single-handedly made the Bush AWOL issue a news item again this year.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
STARRING: The voices of Akio Otsuka, Atsuko Tanaka, Koichi Yamadera


PREMISE: Sequel to the highly influential anime about downloading human souls ("ghosts") into robot bodies. The original film was one of the most obvious stylistic and narrative influences on The Matrix.

OUTLOOK: DreamWorks did right by its last anime release, Millennium Actress, which didn't make a whole lot of money. Everyone who knows the name Mamoru Oshii will likely see this sequel and love it, but will anyone else?

MC5 * A True Testimonial

DIRECTOR: David C. Thomas

PREMISE: Documentary about the '60s Detroit hard-rock band, whose political stance caught the attention of the authorities. Includes archival and recent footage, as well as actual FBI surveillance tape.

OUTLOOK: This film should be enlightening to the kids of today who think all '60s music was mellow stoner jams. It should also find favor with those who fondly remember the band. Whether it gets seen by a wider audience depends entirely upon how well the film's publicists are able to market it.

STARRING: Thomas Jane, Ashley Taylor, David O'Hara

DIRECTOR: Bronwen Hughes

WRITERS: Ken Friedman (Bad Girls), Bima Stagg

PREMISE: The true-ish story of South Africa's popular early '80s antihero.

OUTLOOK: The director of Harriet the Spy takes on a gritty tale about a bad cop who robbed banks to prove that Apartheid was wrong. Big points for originality. Already a fave in its home country, itself an up-and-coming moviemaking haven.

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