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A Movie Home Companion 

Our annual look at the summer's cinematic offerings

This summer, there are only two questions you have to ask yourself before going to see a film: (1) does this movie feature snakes? and (2) are these snakes on a plane?

Yes, this is the summer of Snakes on a Plane. If you've been living under a rock that hasn't gotten the Internet for the past nine months, you might not know that Snakes on a Plane will star Samuel L. Jackson, and that during the course of the film (Warning! Spoiler!), Mr. Jackson will deal with an infestation of serpents aboard an airliner and/or passenger jet.

Here's what the pitch session for this movie must have sounded like:

Screenwriter: OK, the film's called Snakes on a Plane, and ...

Producer: Whoa! You had me at Snakes! Now, while I write a check with an incredible number of zeroes on it, I just have two questions for you: How many snakes, and what kind of plane?

Strangely, in spite of the fact that Snakes on a Plane is already scheduled for release this summer, several other films will also be coming out. I guess Hollywood has to do something with all the money they make while corrupting our values and being out of touch with the heartland and keeping the American economy from collapsing in on itself. Thus, in the summer, they release blockbusters, films that spend more money on a single shot than the average person will make in a lifetime. To us, this is everything that's right and wrong about capitalism. Viva la revolution, dudes.

With that in mind, the illustrious Zak Woodruff and James DiGiovanna have divvied up the pics for the summer so as to give you, The Reader, an advance look at the cinematic delights that will suck up, irrevocably, hours of your time that you could have spent ending world hunger or protecting the rights of homosexuals or murdering infants or whatever else it is that Hollywood pretends it wants us to do when, in fact, it just wants you to pay a sawbuck to watch something explode next to Tom Cruise.

James will be presenting a roundup of the summer's comedy, superhero, sci-fi and sequel/remake films, while Mr. Woodruff will fill you in on the dramas, horror, family and action/adventure films that you and your loved ones will pretend to enjoy just so you can sit in some air conditioning.


Superhero Movies

I think the best movies are movies about heroes. And heroes, as we know, are defined not only by their strengths, but also by their superstrengths. Take the X-Men, for example. This summer, they'll be making their last stand in the mysteriously titled X-Men: The Last Stand. And yet, there are already two more X-Men films in the works. This is the kind of thing that only superheroes could pull off.

The greatest hero of all time is, of course, Sargent Shriver. But second greatest is Superman, who'll be returning to the big screen after a 19-year absence. This time around, Superman will be played by newcomer Brandon Routh, and Kevin Spacey will be camping up the role of Lex Luthor. Strangely, this film will keep with the continuity of the earlier Superman movies, except for Superman III and Superman IV, which super-sucked.

Some people wonder what it would be like to be a superhero. Others wonder what it would be like to do a superhero. Director Ivan Reitman, who's made such superfilms as Meatballs, Ghostbusters and the controversial Ghostbusters II, returns to his comedic roots with this story about a reg'lar fella (Luke Wilson) who makes the mistake of breaking up with a superheroine (Uma Thurman). Of course, as anyone who's ever broken up with a superheroine knows, the first thing they do is start driving by your house, calling you and hanging up, and using their heat vision to give you simulated herpes sores. Or, in this case, they try to break up your new relationship with an ordinary woman (Anna Faris). My Super Ex-Girlfriend is written by Simpsons scribe Don Payne, so who knows? It might actually be funny.

And it's not the only super-comedy coming this summer. There's also Nacho Libre and Zoom. Both of these look like the kind of films that should go straight to DVD, and then the DVDs should go straight into the garbage, and then the garbage should be deposited at a nuclear-waste facility. To be fair, Nacho Libre is helmed by Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess, so it has a chance. Unfortunately, it stars Jack Black, who's made a career out of being funny in one out of every five films he makes. In Nacho, he goes against type by playing an obese man. He's also a priest who moonlights as a shirtless wrestler in order to save an orphanage. Seriously. It's the old priest-has-to-save-an-orphanage plot. I wonder if he'll succeed? Now, to be fair, he's not really a superhero, but the pro-wrestler is the moral and sartorial equivalent of the superhero, so what the hell?

While Nacho Libre might actually turn out to be good, Zoom can only be described by using the dreaded and eldritch phrase "starring Tim Allen." Yes, former coke dealer and non-Emmy-winning TV "star" Allen follows up the tremendous success of The Shaggy Dog and Christmas With the Kranks by ripping off plot elements from Sky High and, if a recently filed lawsuit is to be believed, X-Men. In fact, though, Zoom's story is strikingly original: Allen plays a superhero who comes out of retirement to turn a rag-tag band of superheroes into an efficient fighting force so as to save the world. Also, his sled is named "Rosebud," and somebody killed his partner. Actually, you want to hear something even more terrifying than "starring Tim Allen?" Chevy Chase has a supporting role in this film. I really would have thought that after his ill-fated talk show, someone would have undertaken a quest to unmake him by throwing him into Mount Doom.

Speaking of unspeakable evil, the last of the summer superhero movies features Dick Cheney's favorite superhero, Satan. Yes: It's a remake of 1977's The Omen starring Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, David Thewlis and Mia Farrow, a woman well acquainted with Satan (she had his baby in Rosemary's Baby and married him in I Married Woody Allen). I'm suspicious of the project, but Schreiber has a knack for picking good roles in good films, so who knows?


Dramas

Gingerly wedged in between the dozens of sequels, remakes, superhero movies and other excuses for Happy Meal promotions and/or extended adolescence on a mass cultural scale, a few dramatic films are seeing summer release.

Two of the most intriguing dramas are based on things unseen. The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as a sleight-of-handyman in fin de siècle Vienna, a time when Freud was revolutionizing our understanding of human consciousness, magicians were the closest things to rock stars and people knew what fin de siècle meant (I believe it means "to cut off a fish's navigational appendage"). Due to his abundance of lady-wooing charisma, Norton runs afoul of the crown prince, played by Rufus "Dark City" Sewell, leading to a treacherous game of cat and mouse and bunny.

Sleight of hand--or, rather, of mouth--is found in The Night Listener, based on Armistead "Tales of the City" Maupin's novel. A radio host (Robin Williams in not-so-Good Morning Vietnam form) develops a phone friendship with a young AIDS patient who was sexually abused by his parents. Since this is a "Hitchcockian" story, there is a psychologically disturbing twist that may or may not involve actress Toni Collette.

Hey, are you ready to relive Sept. 11 on the big screen? Me too! I just can't get enough of that Sept. 11 mania that's sweeping the nation these days. And World Trade Center, the second such film after the recent United 93 (which is apparently quite good), is directed by a name you can trust not to make crappy movies or engage in weird, political conspiracy theories: Oliver Stone. The film stars Nicolas Cage as a Port Authority police officer who wakes up one sunny Tuesday morning and--I think you can fill in the rest (hint: "hero"). We may still need to wait a while for a Pentagon Crash movie, especially if it stars Charlie Sheen.

Some would say these Sept. 11 movies are too soon. OK, well, step right over to theater No. 2, where Flags of Our Fathers is playing. Clint Eastwood directed this story of the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, from a screenplay by Paul Haggis (famed for the smug Million Dollar Baby and Crash).

Moving away from war and terror into the cozy world of public radio is A Prairie Home Companion. Directed by recent lifetime-achievement Oscar winner Robert Altman (with assistance from his biggest devotee, Magnolia's P.T. Anderson), Prairie is a fictionalized backstage account of the last day of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show in St. Paul, Minn. In some ways, it's Altman and Keillor's swan song, complete with singing (by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), and, in standard Altman form, a loose structure and sprawling cast--including Lindsay Lohan as Streep's daughter. (Let me repeat that: Lindsay Lohan plays Meryl Streep's daughter.) Here's hoping the film, like all the radio show's children, is above average.

Speaking of music, Idlewild stars a largely black cast (including Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and Terrence Howard) in a Prohibition-era musical about speakeasies and gangsters.


Remakes and Sequels

Hollywood wouldn't be Hollywood if people didn't constantly accuse it of running out of ideas. But think: There are maybe a few thousand surviving stories from human history prior to the advent of filmmaking. Since the 100-year-old invention of the motion picture, Hollywood has churned out an average of 500 films a year (I made that number up, but I think you get the idea.) So that's 500,000 stories since filmmaking, and, like, 12 stories before it. It's no wonder they've run out of ideas! Can't we, as a people, stop demanding that they work their creative fingers to the bone and just accept a few sequels and remakes, ferchrissakes?

This summer's sequels and remakes include the aforementioned The Omen, X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. But not all of the redos are as obvious and simple. For example, who would have thought that it was time for a Miami Vice remake? Original Miami Vice creator Michael Mann takes the helm, and Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx take over the roles of Crockett and Tubbs, respectively. We can only hope that Farrell and Foxx will follow in the footsteps of former Vice men Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson and churn out a series of crappy pop records before fading into semi-obscurity.

One of the strangest sequel ideas of the summer is director Kevin Smith's anti-Superman film, Clerks II. Smith wrote one of the greatest, or maybe just weirdest and most overloaded, scripts of all time for the Superman movie, but it was ultimately rejected by studio heads. (You can probably hunt it down on the Internet.) In retribution, he's counter-programming with this follow-up to what some say is his one good film, Clerks. Brian O'Halloran, who starred in the original Clerks and went on to star in such films as Nothing, Not a Film and That Thing You Didn't See, reprises his role as convenience-store clerk Dante. Now in his 30s, Dante, like director Smith himself, must face up to a life that hasn't gotten any better in the last 10 years.

Far more baffling than Smith's post-Clerks career is the sequel to 2004's critically hated Garfield. Why would anyone make a Garfield movie in the first place, and why they even think of making a sequel? Hmm ... could it be because the film made $75 million domestically, and almost $200 million worldwide? Plus, maybe Bill Murray, who does the voice of Garfield, thinks this is his best chance at getting an Oscar.

Wait! An even worse idea: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a sequel to 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a sequel to 2001's The Fast and the Furious, which is a sequel to 1941's Citizen Fast and Furious. For the last sequel, they couldn't convince Vin Diesel to come back. This time, they couldn't even get Paul Walker to come back. Think about it: a movie that Paul Walker would turn down. That's like finding a lie that Ari Fleischer wouldn't tell.

Two of this summer's redos are nautical in theme and content: there are Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Poseidon, which is a remake of producer Irwin Allen's classic disaster film The Poseidon Adventure.

I can't imagine Pirates won't clean up at the box office: It's a sequel to a smash hit; it stars Johnny Depp; and with all the emphasis on piracy these days, it's bound to get a lot of publicity when the Recording Industry Association of America tries to sue it.

Poseidon is more of a crapshoot. The original came out at a time when movies were just discovering a new formula for sucking: big casts and big special effects. Nonetheless, it managed to be a pretty engaging thriller, at least if what I remember from when I was 7 turns out to be accurate (the part about the thing that lived under my bed was tragically confirmed by police on my eighth birthday). This time out, it's helmed by director Wolfgang Petersen, who gained his initial fame by directing nautical Nazis and a leaky submarine in Das Boot. In Poseidon, he'll have to settle for Hollywood liberals and a recycled script, but he'll be rewarded with a huge budget and ad campaign.


Action/Adventure

The good news about Snakes on a Plane is that it features a plane with snakes on it. The bad news is that we have to wait until Aug. 18 to see those snakes on that plane. This means three months of in-jokey, self-congratulatory free publicity by bloggers from Web sites like Fark.com and Hassnakesonaplanejumpedtheshark.net (not an actual site ... yet). Destined to be known as "the movie the Internet turned into a hit long before its release," S.O.A.P. might, in fact, be watchable; the director, David R. Ellis, proved his chops in Final Destination II, and Samuel L. Jackson rarely disappoints while in foul-mouthed mode. If you need a fix of airborne ophidiophobia in the meantime, you can always get out your copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark and watch Harrison Ford aboard the seaplane.

Also highly anticipated, The Da Vinci Code has no snakes, unless you want to get biblically metaphorical about it. But it does have anagrams--which always make for great cinema. (Remember Word Jumble: The Movie?) And biblical stuff aside, the film's scavenger-hunt plot is not unlike the "Simon says" riddles of Die Hard: With a Vengeance (also featuring Samuel L. Jackson). Tom Hanks (an anagram for "Ham Knots") stars as a professor who must track down a centuries-old secret involving art, religion and a Jesus who may have had children to get "cross" with. Hanks, who seems to have borrowed John Travolta's hair from Pulp Fiction, stars alongside Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen and Jean Reno, with directing by Ron Howard (anagram: Whoo! Narrd!), whose films tend to hug you right at the moment they should be punching you in the gut.

Pathfinder might punch you lower than that. It's about the vicious battles between Vikings and Native Americans that occurred centuries before Columbus ever sailed the ocean blue. Karl Urban (the quiet bad guy in The Bourne Supremacy) stars as a Viking boy, raised by Native Americans, who must eventually battle his own people. Why does this sound familiar? Perhaps because last year's The New World had the same premise--if not the same path.

No yen for Vikings? Try Chen Kaige's The Promise, an epic fantasy that, at a production cost of $40 million, is said to be China's most expensive film ever. In Hollywood, that would buy you a couple of David Spade flicks.

The video-game-based DOA: Dead or Alive gets my vote for stupidest title. That's like calling a movie Star Wars: War in the Stars or Lord of the Rings: Lord of the Rings.

Highly anticipated is Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, about a young man who tries to escape his fate in the dying days of the Mayan empire. Filmed entirely in the Mayan language, this could be the pre-Columbian The Passion of the Christ, which, if the Mormons are right, is redundant.


Science Fiction/Fantasy

I'm lumping fantasy and science fiction together because in Russia, they're considered one genre, and I'm still pretty sure we're going to lose the Cold War, so I want to be prepared.

I love science fiction, but I hate the kind of outer space shoot-'em-ups that George Lucas has intermittently inflicted on us for the last 30 years. Sci-fi should be a way to explore ideas, and at its best, it's unparalleled in its ability to carry a message or investigate a question.

One of the most promising proposals for this summer is a fantasy film from M. Night Shyamalan. Lady in the Water stars uber-actor Paul Giamatti and hyper-actress Bryce Dallas Howard. She plays the titular lady, who Giamatti, in the role of superintendent Cleveland Heep, finds in the titular water. Since he's a lonely man, he's very interested in her titularity. However, he's also flabbergasted to find that she's somehow fallen out of another reality to which she must return. Heep must help, or his lady will linger o'er-long in our dim dimension, and therein die. I've come to love Shyamalan's work, with the exception of The Sixth Sense. So I'm kind of the reverse of everyone else in terms of opinions on his films, and therefore, you should disregard everything I say.

Not trusting what anyone says is the theme of A Scanner Darkly, adapted from the Philip K. Dick story. Keanu Reeves stars as ... seriously, why does anyone hire Keanu Reeves? Does he have actual fans? Are there people who look at a marquee and think, "I must see this film in order to investigate the latest work from the estimable Mr. Reeves!" Anyway, if Reeves doesn't ruin the film, maybe the Dick story and supporting actor Robert Downey Jr. will make this dystopian sci-fi film an interesting look at drugs, paranoia and a world where the government has given itself permission to eavesdrop on our phone calls and hold us without charge if it deems us enemies of the state. Hey, waitaminute!

Two of this summer's sci-fi films, Pulse and The Lake House, are remakes of recent Asian works. The Lake House, which, freakishly, also stars Keanu Reeves, is a remake of South Korea's Siworae. If the Keanu part isn't a big enough turnoff, the plot is about a man and woman who live two years apart, but exchange special feelings of closeness by means of a mystical mailbox.

Pulse redoes Kairo, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation!). In this horror/sci-fi/thriller/teen-film/Internet movie, some horrifying teens find a science-fictional portal to a thrilling otherworld by means of the Internet. Which is to say they hear dead people. All the time!

Nicole Kidman, whose acting reminds me of a dead person, stars in The Visiting. She plays a psychiatrist who discovers that an alien microbe is infecting everyone on Earth, and then swears that she didn't get this idea from The Andromeda Strain. It's directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made Downfall, which is not only one of the best films of the last few years; it's also one of the best films ever. Still, I'll be impressed if he can coax a good performance out of Kidman.


Family Films

This summer's family films focus on owls, worms, supermodels, ants and the logical outcome of the real estate bubble: a house that eats its inhabitants. The owl movie in question, Hoot, follows an eighth-grader's efforts to save some endangered birds from a South Florida real estate developer who probably wants to build a Hooters, but doesn't understand what irony is. Luke Wilson and Jimmy Buffett co-star.

How to Eat Fried Worms adapts the Thomas Rockwell story about a boy's battle with a school bully that culminates in a contest to gulp down 10 wriggly nightcrawlers. Along with Blubber, Superfudge and The Book of Three, this was a fifth-grade favorite. But as we know from Fear Factor, eating worms is for all ages.

One Last Thing has what seems like a tacky premise--a dying boy is granted his final wish, to spend a weekend with a supermodel. The storyline triggers bad flashbacks to Milk Money, the film in which kids save up to pay Melanie Griffith to show them her boobs. One Last Thing seems to delve into deeper issues, though, and it's hard to believe co-stars Gina Gershon and Cynthia Nixon would have signed on otherwise.

In other coming-of-age tales, Twelve and Holding is about three 12-year-old boys taking their first awkward steps into self-discovery. Presumably, they do not trade traveling pants.

Among the animated all-ages films are The Ant Bully, about a boy who is mean to ants, and then is shrunk down to ant-size. Again, we can only hope that, against all odds, he learns some sort of lesson.

Monster House is about a house that, instead of being haunted, is actually a monster. A CGI monster! Scary in the way that only real estate can be.

With Cars, Pixar makes the unprecedented move of giving human voices and characteristics to nonhuman objects. What will they think of next? Owen Wilson, Bob Costas, Cheech Marin, Paul Newman and a lot of other people who you'd think have something better to do lend their talents to this story of a hotshot race car that must stay in a small town after it gets in an accident. The plot is lifted wholesale from Doc Hollywood, but in this version, the big-city character must cope not only with human feelings, but also high gas prices.

Over the Hedge is a reverse Madagascar: Here, wild animals have to learn how to live in civilization. This one has an almost surreal cast: Steve Carell, William Shatner, Avril Lavigne, Bruce Willis and (shudder!) Gary Shandling. I can't imagine that when God or Bog created the universe, He ever imagined those five would be together in one room.


Comedies

My favorite thing about comedy is how funny it is. Like, I find it funny that Adam Sandler is a star. And yet he is. This summer, he'll try to move back onto the A-list with Click, a warmedy (warm comedy) and to some extent a familedy (family comedy) about a man and his magical remote-control unit.

Another Saturday Night Live alum, Will Ferrell, stars in the NASCAR-themed Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It also stars Sacha Baron Cohen (best known as Ali G). It'll be interesting to see how they combine Ferrell's good-natured but dopey comedy with Cohen's mean-spirited and heady stuff. Since it's Hollywood, I'm guessing it'll come out mean-spirited and dopey, yet somehow heartwarming.

I can't imagine there'll be anything heartwarming about Little Man, which looks to be the most terrifying movie of the summer. Marlon Wayans makes use of CGI to play the part of a midget who has disguised himself as a baby. He's taken in by a couple who think he's truly a toddler, and then things happen that should simply never be portrayed on film, including a sequence where he's seen to have performed oral sex on his adopted mother. I feel dirty even mentioning it.

But the romance doesn't end with infantilized midgets and their oral fixations. No, the summer is rife with true romantic comedies. Jennifer Aniston stars in The Break-Up, wherein she tries to make Vince Vaughn want her by walking around naked and hairless. Here's the thing: She's Jennifer Aniston, and he's Vince Vaughn. She could make him want her by walking around in a burlap sack soaked in cat urine.

In You, Me and Dupree, Owen Wilson plays a middle-aged loser who moves in with newlyweds Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson. The whole point of this movie is to make posters with the tag line "Two's Company. Dupree's a Crowd." Now that you know the tag line, you can stay home.

Trust the Man, which has been sitting on the shelves for a while, should get a full release this summer. It has a stellar cast: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Balaban and Ellen Barkin. It's sort of a Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice for the post-Clinton years, with cheating and loving and forgiving and electing theocrats to help us keep it in our pants.

Of course, it's the teens who need the most help with the pants control, and teen comedies are where teens learn important lessons, like how to take a day off, what to do when you turn sweet 16 and what kind of club you should join for the day's first meal.

Lindsay Lohan, who has a lot of trouble keeping her breasts in her blouse, stars in Just My Luck, wherein she must stretch her acting muscles to play a spoiled, wealthy young socialite. In a mystical switch that is totally original, she kisses a down-on-his luck young man, and suddenly, he has all her luck, and she has all his misfortune. I fear she may just learn something from this.

Betty Thomas (Doctor Dolittle, The Brady Bunch Movie) directs a cast of largely unknown teen and just-post-teen actors in John Tucker Must Die. The titular Tucker is a teenage Casanova, and his heartbroken exes decide to get revenge on him. Unfortunately, their plan involves setting him up with another girl who's supposed to break his heart. Having seen a few teen films, I fear that she might just fall for him.

Stick It, from the writer of the strangely compelling Bring It On, swaps cheerleaders for gymnasts. It's gotten some horrible advance buzz, but maybe they'll re-edit it into an amusing 15-minute short before its theatrical release.


Horror

Finally, there's horror, of which there's a sparse crop this summer. Happily, there is at least one movie with an "ing" word as its title, thus following the horror convention known as "The Gerunding." The Reaping is about a series of creepy incidents in a small Louisiana town. A theology professor (Hilary Swank) arrives to investigate what could be a recurrence of the plagues from Exodus--you know, stuff like locusts, rivers of blood and smiting. Just having Swank in the film is scary. I've had a number of nightmares in which I'm chased by her teeth.

Also spooking theaters is An American Haunting, not to be confused with A Canadian Haunting, A British Flossing or A Nigerian E-mailing. Set in both ye olde and ye modern times, the film tells the story of the Bell Witch (no relation to Blair), a poltergeist who has cursed a Tennessee family since 1817. Note to poltergeist: Seek closure. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are among the stars.

The Descent is basically Deliverance with hotties. Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza and Alex Reid play Appalachian adventurers who discover some spooky caves and an even spookier race of subhuman monsters--redneck C.H.U.D.s, if you will. Banjo not included.

Of course, all of this is ultimately moot. It just doesn't make sense to make any more movies once Snakes on a Plane has been made. It features snakes. It features a plane. You read the title; you know exactly what you're getting. Can the same be said of such opaque films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, My Friend Flicka or Meatballs? I think not. No, with Snakes on a Plane the history of filmmaking comes to a close. Anything that happens after that is mere footnote.

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