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The Boston Phoenix Summer Squash

A crush of new movies manages to cram in a few surprises

By Alicia Potter

MAY 15, 2000:  A year ago we burned with questions. Will Tom and Nicole really do it on screen? Just how unbearable can Jar-Jar Binks be? Yet this season, with May scarcely upon us, many filmgoers have already have caught what may be the summer's hottest ticket: Russell Crowe scowling, squinting, and slashing his way through Gladiator, Ridley Scott's $100 million toga party. It's like opening your biggest Christmas present in October. What more could there be?

Well, plenty. Some 140 films crowd the cinematic slate, reflecting everything from supersized blockbusters and rowdy teen pics to auteurist comedy and the inevitable ripoffs of hits past. Still, expect the unexpected: given a line-up that features the first Revolutionary War picture in decades, new releases by Woody Allen, John Waters, and the Farrelly Brothers, and the debuts of Martin Lawrence in drag and the Blair Witch chick without her stocking cap, the odds are good that Hollywood isn't peaking with Crowe's Roman holiday.

Once again, a lot depends on Tom Cruise. Indeed, his headlining role in last summer's much anticipated but coolly disappointing Eyes Wide Shut stalled the release of what should be one of this season's bona fide megahits: Mission: Impossible 2 (May 24). Cruise reprises his role as the slick Ethan Hunt, who here must save the world from something even more lethal than a long speech by Sydney Pollack: a synthetic virus. Filmed Down Under by Face/Off's John Woo, this Memorial Day opener also stars Anthony Hopkins and Beloved's Thandie Newton.

Wolfgang Petersen's $100 million adaptation of Sebastian Junger's Gloucester-set bestseller The Perfect Storm (June 30) should wallop theaters like a hatch-battening nor'easter. It boasts the reunion of Three Kings buddies George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg; what's more, if memory serves, expensive movies about waterlogged boats tend to do pretty well.

At one point, Mel Gibson was tagged for the Clooney role in Storm, but this Fourth of July he takes a cue from Will Smith and joins forces with Independence Day director Roland Emmerich for the $80 million epic The Patriot (June 30). Imagine a colonial-era Mad Max, or Braveheart's William Wallace in a three-cornered hat, and you'll get the gist of Gibson's turn as a Revolutionary War soldier out to kick some serious British butt.

Maybe Gibson liked this role too much: he then swapped his Yankee Doodle for some cockadoodledoo to voice an American rooster stuck in a Yorkshire henhouse in DreamWorks' feature-length animated romp Chicken Run (June 23)! This farmyard flick is directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord, the Oscar-winning team behind the wildly popular "Wallace and Gromit" shorts. Other animated offerings ditch the traditional Disney approach as well: Titan A.E. (June 16), a $55 million cool-boy cartoon, taps the voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore; Disney's Dinosaur (May 19), the tale of a motherless baby iguanodon, blends computer-generated imagery with live-action backdrops; and the big-screen version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (June 30) stars real people, including Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader, Jason Alexander as Boris Badenov, and Rene Russo as Natasha Fatale.

From the pages of Marvel Comics comes Bryan Singer's The X-Men (July 14), the first in a series of adventures about genetic mutants -- played by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry -- who use their freakiness to fight evil. Bad-ass Jackie Chan is also on the side of the law in Shanghai Noon (May 26) as a Chinese imperial guard sent to the Old West to rescue a princess (Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu).

But the most formidable pairing of the summer may come in Disney's The Kid (July 7), which ingeniously matches Bruce Willis with . . . a cute tyke (Spencer Breslin). This time, though, the boy doesn't see dead people; he's the eight-year-old version of Willis's bristly baby boomer. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), on the other hand, is drawn to the underworld with What Lies Beneath (July 21), a supernatural thriller that finds Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer investigating spooky goings-on in a small town.

Big movies aside, the summer will unveil the latest efforts of a cadre of big directors. Woody Allen returns to Take the Money and Run territory with Small Time Crooks (May 19), a closely guarded Manhattan-set caper starring Hugh Grant, Tracey Ullman, Michael Rapaport, and Woody himself. Afterglow's Alan Rudolph unleashes Nick Nolte as a randy senator and Emily Watson as an undercover casino cop in Trixie (June 30). The Farrelly Brothers follow up There's Something About Mary with Me, Myself and Irene (June 23), another nothing's-sacred comedy in which Jim Carrey stars as a Rhode Island state trooper with multiple personalities. Also next month, the Coen Brothers will release a directors' cut of their flamboyantly clever 1984 homage to film noir, Blood Simple (June 2).

John Waters mines his own early kooky career in Cecil B. Demented (August 11), a farce about a band of underground filmmakers who kidnap a famous actress (Melanie Griffith). James Garner and Tommy Lee Jones join director and star Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys (August 4), a drama about aging astronauts. Fellow actor-turned-director Robert Redford rounds up Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, and Will Smith for the mystical period piece cum golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance (August 4). Meanwhile, Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book) keeps things kinky with 8-1/2 Women (May 26), the story of two guys who, after sleeping together, start their own harem.

Sex and relationships are also the subject of a handful of young hipster dramas. Based on a GQ magazine article, Coyote Ugly (August 4), tracks the pretty bar help at a chi-chi Manhattan watering hole. Greg Harrison's Groove (June 9) gets down with the San Francisco rave scene. But Gwyneth Paltrow isn't exactly partying in Don (The Opposite of Sex) Roos's Bounce (July 7), which casts her as a widow who's ignorant of the connection between her dead husband and new lover Ben Affleck.

The crumbs of last year's baked-goods blockbuster American Pie are all over this season's fare. Star Jason Biggs reunites with castmate Mena Suvari (American Beauty) in Amy Heckerling's Loser (July 21) and then joins last year's summer It Girl, The Blair Witch Project's Heather Donahue, in Boys and Girls (June 2). Also prominent is director/writer Chris Weitz, who stars in Chuck & Buck (July 14) and, with his director/writer brother Paul, helms a remake of 1948's Here Comes Mr. Jordan by way of the 1978 remake Heaven Can Wait; it's called I Was Made To Love Her (July 28). Dogma's Chris Rock lands the Robert Montgomery/Warren Beatty role of the dead man given a second chance at life.

Several other old films will also get that chance. Brendan Fraser livens up the Dudley Moore role in a modern version of the 1967 comedy Bedazzled (August 11), Angelina Jolie and Nicolas Cage team up in a rehash of the 1974 crime-drama Gone in 60 Seconds (June 9), and Samuel L. Jackson reincarnates that mean mutha -- shut yo' mouth! -- in John Singleton's update of the 1971 blaxploitation classic Shaft (June 16).

Eddie Murphy dominates one of the summer's few sequels: Nutty 2: The Klumps (July 28). No small feat -- here the comedian not only reprises his dual role of Sherman Klump and Buddy Love but also expands the brilliant dinner scene from the original, in which he hilariously played all the Klump clan. Still, he's not the only guy wearing a dress this summer. Martin Lawrence dons a D-cup and more as an undercover cop in Big Momma's House (June 2). And The End of the Affair's Ralph Fiennes tackles three roles in Sunshine (June 9), the award-winning drama by director István Szabó.

John Travolta packs on the special-effects make-up as the nine-foot alien star of the first in a constellation of sci-fi flicks, Battlefield Earth (May 12). Based on the bestseller by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the adventure is directed -- no joke -- by Roger Christian. Director Paul Verhoeven, who won cult favor with 1997's Starship Troopers, makes Kevin Bacon disappear as a military scientist who discovers a formula for invisibility in The Hollow Man (July 28). Impostor (August 11) finds Gary Sinise and Madeleine Stowe chasing extraterrestrial life. Jennifer Lopez takes a trip through, well, inner space when she literally gets into the psyche of a comatose serial killer in The Cell (August 18).

And, finally, if Russell Crowe with bared teeth and bared knees doesn't do it for you, that old standby William Shakespeare waits in the wings. Kenneth Branagh sets Love's Labour's Lost (June 23) in the late 1930s as stars Alicia Silverstone and Alessandro Nivola sing and dance their way through a score by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern. And Michael Almereyda's modern-day Hamlet (May 19) casts a bed-headed Ethan Hawke as the melancholy one, who aspires, of all things, to be an independent filmmaker.

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