- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

A question that loomed large before the summer movie season began — are all those sequels really necessary? — was answered with a lustier negative than anyone might have anticipated back in May. That was before “Matrix Reloaded” failed to become the season’s ruling blockbuster. And before audiences declined to justify the existence of “Dumb and Dumberer,” “Rugrats Go Wild,” “Pokemon 5,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” or “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.”

The three franchises contrived around leading ladies performed especially badly, although no rejection could rival the thunderous “Gigli” pratfall that awaited Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Miss Lopez will not return this fall, but the boyfriend will be back in the fray, playing the lead in a John Woo thriller called “Paycheck.”

The instant animated classic that did rule the summer box-office roost, Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” has emerged as the likeliest Academy Award winner for best animated picture, even if something as weird and Japanese as “Spirited Away” turns up again. Nothing comparable is lurking, although there is a hazy threat of the first “Yu-Gi-Oh” feature. Disney’s “Brother Bear” and the partially animated “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” may give families a couple of options in addition to “Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat” and a new, live-action version of “Peter Pan” during the holidays.

Kevin Costner’s satisfying throwback “Open Range” may herald the Western as the resurgent genre of the year. John Hancock’s production of “The Alamo,” one of the spectacles that anchors Christmas week, might provide a rousing finale to a Western bandwagon. Ron Howard, who passed on “Alamo,” turned to a Western closer in spirit to “The Searchers.” Titled “The Missing,” it co-stars Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones and Aaron Eckhart. “Hidalgo,” a Western starring Viggo Mortensen, has been postponed, perhaps to preclude confusion as the star approaches a coronation in the biggest of the Christmas spectacles, Peter Jackson’s concluding chapter of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King.”

In other trilogy news, “Matrix Revolutions,” presumably the concluding chapter of the grandiose science-fiction saga that grew prodigiously insufferable during that summer reload, gets a six-week jump on “Return of the King.” If the disillusion continues apace, it may be off the screen before “King” arrives.

Having reached three chapters of “Spy Kids” in a hurry, Robert Rodriguez will wrap up his lingering “El Mariachi” shoot ‘em-ups with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” which no doubt reflects some Western influence despite a modern setting. The considerably less prolific Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion end long sabbaticals with a crime thriller, “Kill Bill,” and a murder mystery, “In the Cut,” respectively.

A belated “prequel” with a flat-footed title, “The Young Black Stallion,” will add a third feature almost 25 years after the endearing appearance of “The Black Stallion.” The setting is North Africa in the late 1940s, and the director is a reliable horseman, Simon Wincer, the Australian who directed the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries.

Kevin Costner’s character in “Open Range” is a Civil War veteran whose battlefield experience proves invaluable during the showdown. The Tom Cruise character in Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” and the Jude Law character in Anthony Minghella’s film version of “Cold Mountain” are also Civil War vets. The former travels to Japan as a military adviser to the emperor and finds himself more sympathetic to outcast samurai retainers. The latter travels back home across a defeated and ravaged Confederacy.

“The Alamo,” which co-stars Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton and Jason Patric, needs to evoke frontier warfare a generation earlier. Director Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” the first of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels to be filmed, retrieves the period of the Napoleonic Wars while showcasing Russell Crowe as the redoubtable Capt. Jack Aubrey. “Master’s” sea battles and storms were simulated at the oceanside studio in Baja, Calif., famously constructed for James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

Since the country is at war and likely to remain so for a considerable time, it’s not inappropriate to see warfare claiming a large share of attention among ambitious filmmakers. The historical range is impressive, stretching from the mythological antiquity imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings” to the very recent past in “Beyond Borders,” a topical romantic drama that co-stars Clive Owen and Angelina Jolie as relief workers attracted to danger zones in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and West Africa.

For some reason Washington still lacks a confirmed date for a prestige literary adaptation: Robert Benton’s movie version of the Philip Roth novel “The Human Stain,” which stars Anthony Hopkins as a scholar who has been concealing a black racial heritage for years. Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise are also in the cast. The national opening date is Sept. 26, but Washington will evidently play catch up on a subsequent weekend.

We remain right on the timeline with Cate Blanchett as the crusading, martyred Irish reporter Veronica Guerin in a biopic of the same name; with Gwyneth Paltrow as poet Sylvia Plath in “Sylvia”; and with Colin Firth as the great Dutch artist Jan Vermeer in “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Mr. Firth is also a part of the most illustrious romantic comedy cast of the season, recruited by British screenwriter Richard Curtis (“The Tall Guy,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill”) for his directing debut in “Love Actually.” Mr. Curtis aspires to juggle about 10 subplots involving love in contrasting manifestations. The cast also includes Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Hugh Grant and Billy Bob Thornton. The last two will portray the prime minister of England and the president of the United States.

Nancy Meyers, who found immediate success with “What Women Want” after splitting with former spouse and collaborator Charles Shyer, will simplify the angles in “Something’s Gotta Give,” a romantic comedy that eventually matches playboy Jack Nicholson with playwright Diane Keaton. At the outset Mr. Nicholson is consorting with Miss Keaton’s daughter, played by Amanda Peet, positioned for consolation with Keanu Reeves, a doctor smitten with her mom. Evidently, the topic of “age-appropriate” mating is in for a workout.

The stellar dramatic players with fall vehicles include Denzel Washington, Nicolas Cage, Dustin Hoffman, Halle Berry, Albert Finney, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Connelly, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Geoffrey Rush, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Ben Kingsley and Ian McKellen. The comedians on board include Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers (as the Cat in the Hat), Eddie Murphy, Mike Epps and Steve Martin. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear will need to resemble a comedy team while playing conjoined twins for the Farrelly brothers in “Stuck on You,” which also makes room for Cher.

It promises to be a strong season coming and going for Ridley Scott, who has both an exceptional new movie, the crime parable “Matchstick Men,” and an augmented horror classic, “Alien,” to showcase his talent. The former, which stars Nicolas Cage as an unwary con man, bridges the seasons with distinction on Sept. 12. The 25th anniversary revival of “Alien” is scheduled for Halloween day. The deathtrap terrors of the principal setting in “Alien,” a contaminated space freighter called the Nostromo, should be intensified by the restoration of scenes that depict the grim aftermath of captivity for crew members Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton.

Although four other haunted house movies are on the fall calendar, including the Eddie Murphy comedy “The Haunted Mansion” and a remake of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it seems unlikely that anything will surpass “Alien” as an inducement to panic.

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