- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

The movie business seemed to be overdoing it in 2001 when seven sequels and seven remakes were lumped into the chronically overstuffed fruitcake of the summer movie season. This summer, when 16 sequels are on the calendar (the remakes remain stable at a mere eight), one might conclude that Hollywood can’t survive the season without a highly derivative diet.

The truth, however, is more nuanced. If you can just wait out the early summer onslaught of live action cartoons, fantasy spectacles, and feature-length adaptations of cheesy old television series, you will find that summers have actually grown more friendly to original, quality, “grown-up” movies than legend would have it.

But first, there is that onslaught to be endured.

Because distributors are releasing films ever further in advance of the traditional start of the season, the Memorial Day holiday weekend, two dozen new titles have already piled up since the first weekend in May; another 70 or 80 may open in the Washington area by Labor Day weekend.

“X2” and “Matrix Reloaded” have done formidable business, but not as formidable as the early combination punch of last summer, “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars, Episode 2: Attack of the Clones.” So it’s possible to think of the 2003 entries as relative disappointments even as they hurtle beyond domestic grosses of $200 million apiece.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the studios declined to make a weekly publicity spectacle of box-office returns. In the decades before the 1980s, tallies of cumulative national grosses were seldom touted. It took a special case — overwhelming hits such as “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music” or “The Godfather” — to justify bragging rights. Even then, estimates were the rule, as tabulated in Variety’s weekly updates of film rentals in the top 25 markets.

The commercial prospects of “The Hulk,” set for June 20, or “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines,” opening July 2, ought to arouse less interest than their prowess as cinematic spectacles. For example, will a director as accomplished as Ang Lee make a difference to a belated comic-book spinoff such as “The Hulk”? Will Arnold Schwarzenegger still have something dynamic or amusing in reserve for a “Terminator” encore?

It’s marginally interesting that Eddie Murphy is starring in the first comedy of the season, “Daddy Day Care.” His respectable opening weekend — about $27 million — will probably be trumped by Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty” this weekend, but one would prefer better comedies from both stars. If there’s an exceptional starring vehicle for a funnyman out there this season, it remains to be seen. Ensemble comedy is another story.

The most surprising and encouraging development of the young season is the sudden appearance of Christopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind” in the Top 10, following its expansion to several hundred theaters on May 9. It still doesn’t qualify for thousands of screens. It hasn’t grossed what an “X2” or “Matrix Reloaded” is capable of on a single day of an opening weekend. Nevertheless, one is reminded that good opinions can start to add up. “Wind” may already look like a colossus when compared with Mr. Guest’s earlier comedies, “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show.”

The monetary shadows thrown by the typical summer hits don’t necessarily obscure creditable or intriguing movies with less immediate drawing power. For example, last summer’s domination by “Spider-Man,” “Star Wars,” “Men in Black 2” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember” didn’t preclude smaller-scale success for “About a Boy,” “Insomnia” or “Lilo & Stitch.” It didn’t prevent “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” from emerging as the most improbable sleeper since “The Blair Witch Project” in the summer of 1999. Finally, it didn’t prevent the season from accumulating quite a few guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures: “Hollywood Ending,” “The Salton Sea,” “Undercover Brother,” “Reign of Fire,” “Pumpkin,” “The Master of Disguise,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Time Out,” and “Possession.”

As a matter of fact, the summer has sneakily evolved into a rather consistent season for showcasing sleepers and art-house attractions. In 1997 “Ulee’s Gold,” “Children of the Revolution,” “Mrs. Brown” and “The Full Monty” proved welcome surprises. Sometimes, Hollywood itself has played the class attractions close to its vest. In 1998 “Saving Private Ryan,” released in midsummer, redeemed the early wreckage of “Godzilla” and “Armageddon.” Then three other eminently watchable commercial pictures — “The Mask of Zorro,” “Out of Sight” and “A Perfect Murder” — came along in the second half of the season, after the big holiday pools of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July had evaporated.

The summer of 2003 has scarcely begun for family audiences. That omission will be corrected with the arrival of “Finding Nemo,” a wonderful new Pixar animated feature. It sets a conspicuously high standard for the rest of the season’s movies, whatever their ratings or intended publics.

The eligible list for families will grow with the birdlife documentary, “Winged Migration,” a striking pictorial contrast to the undersea environment that inspires Pixar’s illustrators in “Nemo.” Two other animated features open in June, “Rugrats Go Wild” from the Nickelodeon group, and “Sinbad” from DreamWorks. If older juveniles are talking their parents into “The Matrix Reloaded,” it should be easier to sell them on “The Hulk,” rated PG-13 rather than R. The savory Americana that enhanced “The Rookie” a year ago should prove a strong point for “Seabiscuit,” Gary Ross’ movie version of the recent Laura Hillenbrand best seller about the celebrated racehorse of the late 1930s.

Be patient, and the good stuff will turn up. If you aren’t particularly excited at the prospect of another installment of “Charlie’s Angels” or “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider” or “The Fast and the Furious,” relief may be in store: Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno in the French import “Jet Lag,” for example, or Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts in the James Ivory movie version of Diane Johnson’s “Le Divorce,” a delicious comic novel about American women with dubious French consorts.

It could be fun to see Rowan Atkinson rival — or displace — Mike Myers as a secret agent of James Bond vintage in “Johnny English.” Nicolas Cage and director Ridley Scott seem an odd comic match, but they have collaborated on an ostensible comedy titled “Matchstick Men,” which casts Mr. Cage as a con artist whose character may be improved by paternity. There’s reason to be leery of Cuba Gooding Jr. in anything at the moment, but “The Fighting Temptations” is an amusing title. It alludes to a gospel chorus, which the hero discovers during a visit to the South.

If recent patterns hold, several creditable movies will manage to emerge even while the season as a whole remains preoccupied with science-fiction spectacle and lewd farce. And just keep reminding yourself that not even Hollywood is likely to make a habit of 16-sequel summers.

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