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Summer Movie Preview 

The year-end holiday season is a whirlwind rush to cram all titles into a five- or six-week window, with most weekends seeing the concurrent debuts of scores of movies competing for both cash and awards.

The summer season, on the other hand, is far more leisurely. With more time at its disposal, Hollywood can roll out most of its blockbusters one week at a time, so that the movies don’t end up cannibalizing each other’s profits from the get-go.

This year is no different. The schedule becomes more cluttered as the summer progresses, but even further down the path, some major titles are given their due: Note, for instance, the wide berth awarded to Spider-Man 2.

Here, then, are summaries of movies scheduled for release between now and Labor Day. As always, keep in mind that release dates are subject to massive fluctuation.

MAY 21

SHREK 2

PLOT: It’s Meet the Parents toon-style, as Shrek (Mike Myers), with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow, travels to the Kingdom of Far, Far Away to meet Princess Fiona’s (Cameron Diaz) parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews).

TALKING POINTS: The previous installment grossed $267 million and earned the first-ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature; this sequel will doubtless meet with its own elevated measure of success... The voice cast also includes Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots and Rupert Everett as Prince Charming.

MAY 28

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW

PLOT: Or When Nature Attacks!, as abrupt climate changes cause the entire planet to be decimated by tornadoes, snowstorms, heatwaves and other Weather Channel staples.

TALKING POINTS: Director Roland Emmerich previously incinerated the earth in Independence Day... Taking billing under the expensive special effects are Dennis Quaid, Ian Holm and Donnie Darko’s Jake Gyllenhaal... The end of the world was also showcased in the early-summer-1998 release Deep Impact — let’s pray this movie’s much better.

RAISING HELEN

PLOT: A top model (Kate Hudson) in New York must radically change her partying ways once she becomes responsible for her late sister’s three children.

TALKING POINTS: One of the kids is played by the insufferable Spencer Breslin (The Cat in the Hat), but on the plus side, the cast also includes Joan Cusack and Helen Mirren... If this bombs, director Garry Marshall has another summer flick in the wings: August’s The Princess Diaries 2.

SOUL PLANE

PLOT: After earning millions in a lawsuit against a major airline, a young man (Kevin Hart) creates his own airline, one with a decidedly urban emphasis.

TALKING POINTS: The cast includes Snoop Dogg, Method Man, D.L. Hughley and Tom Arnold (presumably as the token white nerd)... If this gets off the ground with audiences looking for some effective counterprogramming away from the blockbusters, it might lop off Barbershop-size grosses.

JUNE 4

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

PLOT: In his third year at Hogwarts, boy wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has to match wits with the murderous Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).

TALKING POINTS: Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Alfonso Cuaron has taken over from Home Alone’s Chris Columbus as director, all but guaranteeing that this installment will possess more of an edge than its two predecessors... Emma Thompson joins the cast, while Michael Gambon (Gosford Park) takes over the late Richard Harris’ part of headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

JUNE 11

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK

PLOT: In this sequel to the sci-fi sleeper hit Pitch Black, fugitive Riddick (Vin Diesel) ends up on a distant planet where he leads a rebellion against the tyrant who has enslaved the local populace.

TALKING POINTS: Pitch Black was more notable for its unique setting and cool monsters rather than its leading character, so it’s a big question mark as to whether Diesel’s anti-hero will prove as appealing in a different scenario... The cast also includes Thandie Newton, Judi Dench and, returning from Pitch Black, Keith David.

GARFIELD: THE MOVIE

PLOT: America’s most famous fat cat (next to Rush Limbaugh, anyway) passes the day eating, sleeping and creating mischief.

TALKING POINTS: Like Scooby-Doo, this places a computer-generated animal in the middle of a live-action setting... Bill Murray provides the voice for Garfield, and it’s a bit depressing to realize that this is his follow-up to Lost In Translation... The preview is nothing short of ghastly; as one fellow scribe muttered while suffering through it, “I hate the movie already.”

THE STEPFORD WIVES

PLOT: After moving to a new town with her husband (Matthew Broderick), a burnt-out career woman (Nicole Kidman) starts noticing that all the other wives are a little too perfect.

TALKING POINTS: Reportedly, this remake of the 1975 film has been updated to make its themes even more topical... The sterling cast includes Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken and country music star Faith Hill.

JUNE 16

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

PLOT: With his trusty companion Passepartout (Jackie Chan) at his side, the eccentric Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) wagers that he can circle the globe in less than 80 days.

TALKING POINTS: This adaptation of the Jules Verne classic features appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathy Bates and Rob Schneider... The 1956 version inexplicably copped a Best Picture Academy Award, but I see no lofty honors in this movie’s future; even box office success isn’t a given for such an old-fashioned yarn.

JUNE 18

DARKNESS

PLOT: An American family discovers its dream house in Spain, not realizing until after they’ve moved in that the joint is haunted.

TALKING POINTS: This opened in Spain (homeland of its writer-director, Jaume Balaguero) in late 2002 and played the rest of Europe throughout 2003… Anna Paquin and Lena Olin head the cast.

DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY

PLOT: When their gym is targeted for destruction by a major sports conglomerate, a group of outcasts decides to save the joint by facing off against a championship team in the ultimate dodgeball competition.

TALKING POINTS: This is Stiller’s fourth film this year, and in a smart casting move, he’s playing the villain rather than the hero (Vince Vaughn handles that role)... The satire will have to be mighty sharp for this to rise above being yet one more “underdog” yarn.

THE TERMINAL

PLOT: While flying to New York, a traveler (Tom Hanks) discovers that his Eastern European nation has just undergone a coup; now a man without a country who’s unauthorized to enter the United States, he must hang out for an indefinite amount of time at Kennedy Airport.

TALKING POINTS: Director Steven Spielberg reteams with Hanks (following Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can) for this drama loosely based on a true story... Catherine Zeta-Jones co-stars as a flight attendant who falls for the stranded visitor... Just as Seabiscuit was last summer’s obvious Oscar bait release, this looks like its 2004 equivalent.

JUNE 25

THE NOTEBOOK

PLOT: An elderly couple (James Garner and Gena Rowlands) discover a notebook that contains the story of young lovers (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams) whose courtship faced numerous obstacles, including her overbearing mother (Joan Allen) and the advent of World War II.

TALKING POINTS: This is based on the novel by North Carolina author Nicholas Sparks... The director is Nick Cassavetes, the son of Rowlands and John Cassavetes.

TWO BROTHERS

PLOT: Twin tiger cubs that were raised separately are reunited many years later.

TALKING POINTS: This isn’t the first time that director Jean-Jacques Annaud has decided to talk to the animals; he previously helmed The Bear... The human cast is headed by Memento’s Guy Pearce.

WHITE CHICKS

PLOT: Two black FBI agents (Marlon and Shawn Wayans) pose as bubbly blonde debutantes to uncover a kidnapping plot.

TALKING POINTS: This arrives courtesy of the same folks who brought us Scary Movie... The preview looks atrocious, meaning this will probably make a bundle.

JUNE 30

SPIDER-MAN 2

PLOT: While still sorting out his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) must take time out to suit up as Spidey and combat the fearsome Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina).

TALKING POINTS: Sam Raimi returns as director, this time working from a story co-written by Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People)... The Shrek and Harry Potter sequels have outside shots, but this is the movie with the best chance of supplanting The Passion of the Christ as the year’s top moneymaker.

JULY 2

THE CLEARING

PLOT: A wealthy Pittsburgh couple (Robert Redford and Helen Mirren) with few cares in the world find their existence shattered when the husband is kidnapped by an increasingly desperate man (Willem Dafoe).

TALKING POINTS: Pieter Jan Brugge makes his directing debut after working as a producer for many years (Bulworth, The Insider)... With that seasoned cast, this might be the movie of choice for older moviegoers not interested in FX flicks.

JULY 7

KING ARTHUR

PLOT: The valiant Arthur (Clive Owen) reluctantly agrees to lead Britain into a prosperous new age, with Guinevere (Keira Knightley), Merlin (Stephen Dillane) and the Knights of the Round Table at his side.

TALKING POINTS: While director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day may be a stranger to supersized epics, it’s old hat for producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Armageddon, Black Hawk Down, etc.)... An unknown before last year, Knightley made an impression in Pirates of the Caribbean, Bend It Like Beckham and Love Actually... Overexposure to tales of Camelot (First Knight, TV’s Merlin) might hamper this film’s potential.

JULY 9

ANCHORMAN

PLOT: In 1970s San Diego, chauvinistic TV anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) suddenly discovers he has a fight on his hands when a rising station employee (Christina Applegate) sets her sights on the news desk.

TALKING POINTS: Had this been released in 2002, it might have gone the way of A Night at the Roxbury, but given Ferrell’s formidable success in 2003 with Elf and Old School, this suddenly looks like a robust performer... The supporting cast includes rapper Chuck D and Best In Show scene-stealer Fred Willard.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE

PLOT: A nerdy Idaho teenager (Jon Heder) who lives with his unemployed older brother, their grandmother, and her pet llama has to contend with an obnoxious uncle who sells “herbal breast enhancers” as well as his stuck-up classmates.

TALKING POINTS: This was in the running for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival... That trailer’s pretty funny, something I can’t claim about most of the other comedy previews I’ve seen lately.

JULY 16

A CINDERELLA STORY

PLOT: The classic fairy tale gets a modern spin, with our young heroine (Hilary Duff) living in LA with her wicked stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) and discovering that her Prince Charming is actually the school quarterback (Chad Michael Murray).

TALKING POINTS: Seeking a screen career to rival that of her real-life nemesis Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday), Duff follows last summer’s The Lizzie McGuire Movie (not to mention Cheaper By the Dozen, in which she had a supporting role) with another vehicle sure to please her fan base.

I, ROBOT

PLOT: In the year 2035, a detective (Will Smith) investigates a murder seemingly committed by a robot — an impossibility, since robots have been programmed to never hurt humans.

TALKING POINTS: This is “inspired” by Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name... Director Alex Proyas was behind The Crow and Dark City, so this movie should at least be visually arresting.

JULY 23

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY

PLOT: Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) continues to sort out the mysteries surrounding his past in this sequel to The Bourne Identity.

TALKING POINTS: The Bourne Identity was a potent force at the 2002 summer box office, and with another top-notch cast (including Joan Allen) and plenty of Bond-like intrigue, this one should also fare nicely.

CATWOMAN

PLOT: A mousy woman (Halle Berry) struck down in the prime of life ends up acquiring nine of them when she reemerges as the superheroine Catwoman.

TALKING POINTS: Obviously, those long-ago reports of a Catwoman picture starring Michelle Pfeiffer (who was sensational in the role in Batman Returns) never left the rumor stage... Berry took the role after Ashley Judd turned it down, presumably to continue making dum-dum thrillers like Twisted... Sharon Stone co-stars as the villain of the piece, stirring unfortunate memories of Faye Dunaway’s hammy evildoer in Supergirl.

JULY 30

GARDEN STATE

PLOT: A man (Zach Braff) suffering from lifelong depression returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral; there, he makes a connection with someone else (Natalie Portman) coping with medical ills.

TALKING POINTS: This generated plenty of positive buzz at Sundance... Braff (who also directed and wrote the film) is best known for his starring role on TV’s Scrubs.

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE

PLOT: A quick run for White Castle hamburgers turns into a marathon road trip for two teenagers (John Cho and Kal Penn).

TALKING POINTS: Director Danny Leiner previously enriched our cinematic heritage with Dude, Where’s My Car?... Anthony Anderson (Kangaroo Jack, My Baby’s Daddy) pops up in a small role, making this his seventh film appearance in the past two years (that’s not even including last year’s short-lived TV series All About the Andersons).

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

PLOT: An army major and Desert Storm vet (Denzel Washington) becomes aroused by the odd behavior of his former comrade (Live Schreiber).

TALKING POINTS: John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic was clearly a picture that didn’t cry out for an update, and seeing how badly director Jonathan Demme botched the Charade remake (The Truth About Charlie) adds to our anxiety... Still, Washington is always compelling, and the casting of Meryl Streep in Angela Lansbury’s old role of the creepy mom is inspired.

THUNDERBIRDS

PLOT: Former astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his five sons, who together comprise the members of the top-secret outfit International Rescue, find their island sanctuary under attack by a criminal mastermind known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley).

TALKING POINTS: This is based on that quirky 60s TV series that starred a bunch of cheesy-looking puppets... The director is Jonathan Frakes, the Star Trek: The Next Generation actor who has landed a second career behind the camera (this is his fourth feature film credit).

THE VILLAGE

PLOT: The members of an isolated community accept the fact that the surrounding forest harbors an evil force, but one man (Joaquin Phoenix) decides to risk his life to uncover its dark secrets.

TALKING POINTS: Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan already has two summer blockbusters under his belt: The Sixth Sense and Signs... The cast also includes William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Adrien Brody.

AUGUST 6

COLLATERAL

PLOT: A cab driver (Jamie Foxx) is startled to learn that his latest fare is a trained assassin (Tom Cruise).

TALKING POINTS: Cruise’s films almost always gross at least $100 million, but given the less-than-flamboyant plotline and an August release date (late for a Cruise summer flick), this one might have its work cut out for it... The director is Michael Mann, the Heat helmer who had a rare misstep with Ali.

SHALL WE DANCE?

PLOT: A burned-out businessman (Richard Gere) falls for a dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez) and hires her to teach him ballroom moves.

TALKING POINTS: This is the inevitable Hollywood remake of a wonderful Japanese import that performed nicely at US art-houses back in 1997, and may God have mercy on their souls if they tarnish the original’s reputation in any way... Susan Sarandon co-stars as Gere’s wife.

AUGUST 11

THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT

PLOT: Immediately after commencing her duties as princess of Genovia, Mia (Anne Hathaway) learns that she’s to be named Queen — and that the Queen must have a mate.

TALKING POINTS: Julie Andrews returns as Hathaway’s prim and proper grandmother... This sequel might have the name recognition, but A Cinderella Story might steal some of this movie’s target audience by virtue of its earlier release date.

AUGUST 13

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR

PLOT: Two monsters from outer space face off against each other; as the tagline reads, “Whoever Wins... We Lose.”

TALKING POINTS: The Friday the 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street franchises were played out financially (creatively, they had been played out for decades) until the mad slashers were brought together in last summer’s modest hit Freddy vs. Jason; expect this pairing (based on the comic book series) to yield similar results.

YU-GI-OH!

PLOT: Young Yugi must confront an ancient evil as he takes part in the popular Duel Monsters card game.

TALKING POINTS: This animated feature is based on the phenomenally successful TV show and trading card series... The first Pokemon movie (with a similar fan base) grossed $85 million, which is probably why this is now landing in theaters.

AUGUST 20

CELLULAR

PLOT: After receiving a wayward call from a woman (Kim Basinger) who claims she’s been kidnapped, a young man (Chris Evans) desperately tries to locate and rescue her.

TALKING POINTS: Reliable William H. Macy (Fargo) appears in a supporting role.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

PLOT: Before losing his life in an effort to save Regan MacNeil, Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, in the role made famous by Max von Sydow) had a previous encounter with the Devil years earlier in Africa.

TALKING POINTS: Not many cared for Exorcist II: The Heretic or The Exorcist III, so why this belated prequel?... Director Renny Harlin appeared to be the Next Big Thing following Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, but his career largely derailed following such bombs as Cutthroat Island and Driven.

OPEN WATER

PLOT: While scuba diving during their well-earned vacation, an American couple (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) discover that their dive boat has accidentally left them behind, forcing them to fight (and float) for survival in shark-infested waters.

TALKING POINTS: This is reportedly “based on true events,” but the trailer – with its grainy photography and documentary feel – signals that it’s clearly hoping to become the next Blair Witch Project.

WITHOUT A PADDLE

PLOT: Three big-city guys (Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard) encounter all sorts of dangers when they embark on a rafting trip in the Oregon wilds.

TALKING POINTS: Director Steven Brill is still doing penance for writing and directing the Adam Sandler turkey Little Nicky... In an obvious homage (or desecration), Deliverance star Burt Reynolds pops up as a crazed mountain man - no word yet on whether he orders any of our heroes to squeal like a pig.

AUGUST 27

ANACONDAS: THE SEARCH FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID

PLOT: While researching a rare flower in Borneo, a group of scientists runs afoul of mutated anacondas.

TALKING POINTS: This was originally titled Venom until somebody at the studio decided to cash in on the modest success of 1997’s Anaconda — though how anacondas made it to Borneo in the first place, when they’re native to South America, presumably won’t be explained.

SEPTEMBER 3:

THE COOKOUT

PLOT: After moving into a swanky neighborhood, a promising NBA draft pick (Storm P) is shocked to learn that he unwittingly invited his rowdy friends and family members to his new home for a cookout on the same day that he’s scheduled an endorsement interview.

TALKING POINTS: The cast includes Queen Latifah (who also co-wrote the script), Danny Glover and Farrah Fawcett... Quick, can you say “Barbershop knockoff”?

NO DATE SET: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy continue their chatty romance in BEFORE SUNSET, writer-director Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his acclaimed Before Sunrise... Set in the near-future, CODE 46 stars recent Oscar winner Tim Robbins (Mystic River) and recent Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (In America) in a drama about two people trying to connect in a society in which travel has become severely restricted... COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is just what you’d expect from Jim Jarmusch: an intimate piece in which characters sit around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and chatting. The large ensemble includes Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Iggy Pop and Steve Buscemi... The great American composer Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) reflects on his life and views it as a series of musical productions in DE-LOVELY, co-starring Ashley Judd and a large number of contemporary music stars (Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall and more)... THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, adapted from John Irving’s A Widow For One Year, reteams Nadine co-stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple whose attempts to deal with a family tragedy are further complicated by the young man (Jon Foster) who enters their lives... Nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar a year ago, China’s HERO features an all-star cast of Asian actors (Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen, etc.) in an action-packed period tale from director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern)... Clive Owen (King Arthur) reteams with his Croupier director Mike Hodges for I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD, a neo-noir about a former criminal who returns to his old ways to solve his younger brother’s murder... An eclectic mix of young actors - Donnie Darko’s Jena Malone, Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo, Chasing Liberty’s Mandy Moore, Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit and Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin – pack the cast of SAVED!, in which a popular high school girl (Malone) becomes a societal outcast after she gets pregnant… No, it’s not a documentary about blacklisted actor Lionel Stander; instead, STANDER relates the true story of Andre Stander (The Punisher’s Thomas Jane), a white police officer in South Africa who became so fed up with the government he was serving that he embarked on a new career as a notorious bank robber… The Mongolian import THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL centers on a nomadic family and the camels in their care… Reese Witherspoon stars as upwardly mobile Becky Sharp in VANITY FAIR, an adaptation of the William Thackeray novel from director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding).
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