For those who don't tingle with anticipation for sequels or count down the days until a superpower fights for right, summer was once a time to stay out of the theaters. But as studios have smartened up about redefining and seducing mass audiences, they're making some changes about what this season has to offer -- and incidentally, beginning the Oscar race earlier than ever. Here, a highlight of upcoming films whose muscle relies on pedigree rather than pecs:
Heralded at the Toronto and Cannes film festivals, Atom Egoyan's latest drama focuses on a teenager (Devon Bostick) whose fantasy about his parents causes controversy when it plays out as reality on the Internet. While exploring the themes of terrorism, family and the information-sharing power of the Web, the film, says its writer and director, "is ultimately about how we gain access to the histories denied to us." (Friday)
Stephan Elliott ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") comes out of a decade-long retirement to direct this adaptation of Noel Coward's 1924 comedy of manners. Colin Firth stars as the put-upon husband of Kristin Scott Thomas, dowdy and tight-lipped as a lady fighting for her estate. Her devoted son's appearance on the scene with an American floozy, played by Jessica Biel, does nothing to improve her mood. "There's Jessica looking like a million bucks, and Kristin's all uglied up with a bad wig and a bad cardigan," Elliott says with a laugh. "I said, 'Kristin, you will never again be so camp and so evil.' " (May 22)
Adapted from two of Collette's novels, Stephen Frears' "Cheri" stars Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging prostitute who embarks on a long affair with the youthful title character (Rupert Friend); Kathy Bates costars as Cheri's mother. "I liked that on the surface it's bubbly, but underneath it's quite tragic," Frears says of the story, which layers social satire with romantic tragedy. As for casting Pfeiffer as a woman on the wrong side of youth, "You need someone who has been one of the great beauties of the world and is still beautiful," says the director. "She was very courageous about it." (June 26)
'The Hurt Locker'
Kathryn Bigelow directs former embedded journalist Mark Boal's script about a U.S. Army bomb squad stationed in Iraq, starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. With hand-held camera work intended to bring the audience onto the ground and into the tanks with the team, the film plays as much as a taut thriller as a character piece. While "The Hurt Locker" received acclaim at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Bigelow is hoping the film -- the trailer of which will play before the new "Terminator" -- will be equally embraced off the festival circuit. "I wanted to make a classic war film," she says, "action packed, masculine and portraying the heroism of men who have the most dangerous job in the world." (June 26)
'My Sister's Keeper'
When her parents, played by Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric, ask their youngest daughter, Anna (Abigail Breslin), to donate her kidney on behalf of her dying sister, Anna sues them for the right to her body. Nick Cassavetes' adaptation of Jodi Piccoult's bestselling novel -- which also stars Alec Baldwin as Anna's attorney -- is a deeply personal project for the director, whose daughter was diagnosed with a fatal illness when she was 4 (she is now a healthy 21). "Cameron plays one of my favorite characters ever, because I was Cameron," Cassavetes says. As for the anticipated critical reaction, Cassavetes shrugs. "There's an old saying about me: 'Great last name, wrong first name.' They kick my butt no matter what I do." (June 26)
'The Answer Man'
Starring Jeff Daniels as a famous self-help author whose own miserable life is in need of serious revamping -- enter Lauren Graham, right on cue -- the romantic comedy earned its writer, John Hindman, kudos when the script first began making the rounds. "I was that guy going on meetings being asked, 'How does it feel to have the hottest screenplay in town?' " Hindman remembers. But despite a career in production, making his debut as a director quickly brought him to his knees: "The pressure of the first day as a director is not representative of anything except if you can survive six miles under the ocean," he says. "I literally felt bones breaking in my body." (July 24)
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Independent-film fans should keep an eye out for these upcoming
'Rudo y Cursi': Brothers played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are pitted against each other in the world of pro soccer. May 8.
'Departures': Best foreign- language Oscar winner about an out-of-work cellist who takes a job preparing bodies for cremation and learns about life and death along the way. May 29.
'In the Loop': A U.S. general and a British politician try to stop their respective countries' leaders from starting a war in this political farce. July 17.
O'Horten': A train engineer's retirement brings about a life-changing moment. May 15.
SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES
'I love the smell of napalm in the morning.'
"Apocalypse Now," Aug. 15, 1979