- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

The tradition of the blockbuster-movie summer began almost 30 years ago, with the appearance of Steven Spielberg’s movie version of “Jaws” in June 1975. Its phenomenal success and seasonal example were decisively reinforced two years later when George Lucas’ “Star Wars” took the business by storm after opening (at a mere three dozen theaters) on Memorial Day weekend.

Since then, it has remained awesomely lucrative to reserve potential phenoms for Memorial Day and Fourth of July breakouts. In many cases their performance has helped float the entire summer. In other years, there were so many supplementary hits that the season could more or less carry the year.

This summer, there’s a definite air of familiarity and perhaps finality about the principal attractions. Mr. Lucas concludes the “Star Wars” saga with a sixth chapter, subtitled “Revenge of the Sith,” opening nationally on Thursday. It is, of course, meant to account for the calamitous events that led to the plot of the exuberant prototype of 1977. In his determination to tidy things up, Mr. Lucas permits the running time to expand by about half an hour.

Mr. Spielberg opens on the Fourth of July with an update of the H.G. Wells alarmist fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” co-starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning as a tenacious father-daughter team. The source material seems to have eluded a major revamp since the George Pal production of 1953, an eye-opener for Mr. Spielberg in his boyhood.

There are echoes of earlier decades and movies all over the season. The return of “Star Wars,” plus the profusion of remakes or TV sitcom crossovers from the 1960s and ‘70s — “The Longest Yard,” “Fun With Dick and Jane,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” “Bewitched,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Pink Panther” — may be a clue to the formative years of many contemporary filmmakers.

“War of the Worlds” isn’t the only throwback to the 1950s. “House of Wax” paved the way with its May 6 opening. A very belated feature revamp of “The Honeymooners” will also play the racial novelty card: Cedric the Entertainer and Gabrielle Union portray the Kramdens in modern New York, with Mike Epps and Regina Hall as the Nortons.

One comic book franchise will attempt an ambitious restart: “Batman Begins,” entrusted to the talented director of “Memento” and “Insomnia,” Christopher Nolan, with Christian Bale in the lead. Another comic book franchise, “The Fantastic Four,” has been waiting in the wings for decades. Its live-action showcase has been entrusted rather less auspiciously to the director of the comedy dud “Taxi,” Tim Story.

It won’t be long before the spectacles are outnumbered by the summer comedies. Chris Rock will be paired with Ben Stiller in the animated farce “Madagascar” and then with Adam Sandler in the remake of “The Longest Yard,” which now promotes Burt Reynolds to coach of the bruising prison football team he quarterbacked the first time around. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which sounds like an unacknowledged remake of “Prizzi’s Honor,” offers tabloid headliners Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as married contract killers. Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman inherit the “Bewitched” menage, in a Nora Ephron variation that will be very, very knowing about its TV origins. Shirley MacLaine has been recruited to take everyone down a peg as the heroine’s cynical mom, Endora.

Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni sound like a better idea than the property they’ll try to improve: the crass “Fun With Dick and Jane,” which didn’t flatter George Segal and Jane Fonda in its first incarnation. The latest revival of the Inspector Clouseau franchise, boldly titled “The Pink Panther,” turns to Steve Martin as the hapless sleuth, abetted by Jean Reno as a droll sidekick, Beyonce Knowles as a vamp and Kevin Kline as the slow-burning superior, Dreyfus. A good sign: Mr. Martin is already off to a cheery start this season as a guest-star foil for Martin Short in “Jiminy Glick in LaLaWood.”

Cameron Crowe will disrupt the remake cycle with an original romantic comedy, “Elizabethtown,” set in Kentucky and co-starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. “Must Love Dogs” pairs Diane Lane and John Cusack as wary singles. “Herbie: Fully Loaded” will depend on Michael Keaton and Lindsay Lohan as a father-daughter match. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play shameless cads in “The Wedding Crashers.” Jane Fonda vows to sabotage Jennifer Lopez’s wedding in “Monster-in-Law” (see review on D3). The other Wilson, Luke, time-travels into a satirical future for humorist Mike Judge in a still untitled farce. And if you’ve been asking yourself why no one ever thought of remaking “The Bad News Bears” with Billy Bob Thornton in the Walter Matthau role, ask no more. It’s happened, for better or worse, under the direction of Richard Linklater.

The first weekend of the summer season, with “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Crash” and “House of Wax” in the vanguard, has already been judged a disappointment in business circles. Mired in a slump for a couple of months, the movies seem to be awaiting a timely shot in the arm from George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or anyone else with a pre-sold spectacle ready to rally the public.

However, it’s possible that the cycle of spectacles that began impressively with “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Alien” at the end of the 1970s has reached a point of diminishing astonishment and gratification. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy never jumped into the summer mix, but it took mythic spectacle about as far as the medium may need for the time being.

Audiences may discover more novelty (and human interest) in a disarming documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which bonds with children enrolled in ballroom dance classes in New York City public schools, or an accomplished sentimental throwback, “Cinderella Man,” the new collaboration between Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard, who celebrate the gritty career of boxer Jim Braddock during the Depression.

Loyal art-house patrons may want to be alert to the possibility of a last bow from Ingmar Bergman this summer. Despite assurances to the contrary, he did come out of retirement to direct again, casting Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in a sequel to “Scenes From a Marriage” titled “Saraband,” which catches up with the same mismates long after their divorce. They were also creatures of the 1970s and made their debut on Swedish television. What could be more fitting in the approaching movie season? Even Ingmar Bergman needs to backtrack.

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