When it comes to spring, it's a mixed bag at the flicks. 

Coming Distractions

Considered Hollywood's off-season, spring releases traditionally are all over the map. Comedies, dramas, sci-fi explosions, teenybopper angst and even family fare, the next few months offer moviegoers a visual smorgasbord of genres. Here's a look at a few of this spring's morsels, meant to whet our appetites before Hollywood serves up its main course — the summer blockbusters. (Release dates are given when available.)

Exploring the final frontier seems to be a popular theme this spring, what with last week's Mike Nichols comedy "What Planet Are You From?" and now this week's sci-fi drama "Mission To Mars"(March 10). Brian De Palma helms the latter for Touchstone, directing a cast that includes Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle. The premise? Man's first mission to Mars is nearly wiped out by a strange beacon. Sinise heads up the mission to rescue any survivors and find out what went wrong. In early May, look for John Travolta's star turn in "Battlefield Earth." Travolta plays the heavy in this adaptation of a novel by Church of Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard.

Several studios are hoping to cash in on the recent revival of the Bard. Look for Ethan Hawke as the dour Dane and Julia Stiles as Ophelia in a modern retelling of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Then Stiles plays Desdemona to Mekhi Phifer's Othello in "O," which sets the classic tale of jealousy and obsession in the world of high-school basketball. Also on tap this spring is Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost," stylized as a 1930s Hollywood screwball romance.

The hyphenates club grows this season with a handful of actors adding director to their resumes. First, Edward Norton directs himself and Ben Stiller in "Keeping the Faith" (April 14). The two play childhood friends who find themselves falling for a girl from their youth, Jenna Elfman, when she resurfaces in their lives. Besides the usual rivalry, things are complicated by the guys' careers: Norton's character is a Catholic priest; Stiller's is an orthodox rabbi. "Roseanne" creator Matt Williams makes his directing debut with a heartfelt adaptation of Billie Letts' book "Where the Heart Is,"(April 28) starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing. Sally Field also tries her hand at directing with the equally heartfelt tale "Beautiful," starring Minnie Driver. The hard-working Driver also stars in actress Bonnie Hunt's big-screen directing debut, "Return to Me" (April 7). Hunt also co-wrote the screenplay which is about a widower (David Duchovny) who unknowingly falls in love with the recipient (Driver) of his dead wife's heart.

Another actress, Sofia Coppola (yes, Francis Ford's daughter) makes her behind-the-lens, big-screen debut with "The Virgin Suicides," (April 7) starring Kirsten Dunst. Without the help of a family pedigree, John Swanbeck is making a splash with his directing debut — snagging the highly respected, Oscar-nominated Kevin Spacey for his tale of three rival industrial lubricant salesmen stuck in the same Midwestern hotel room on the eve of the biggest sale of their careers. It's titled "The Big Kahuna"(April 21). Then cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak ("Lethal Weapon 4") makes his debut with the action-filled drama "Romeo Must Die" (March 24) starring Jet Li.

A handful of dramas are on tap from well-established directors as well: Betty Thomas directs Sandra Bullock in "28 Days"(April 7). Not Bullock's usual light and breezy romance, here she plays a reporter who finds herself sentenced to rehab after a DUI charge. Steven Soderbergh directs the next Julia Roberts flick, which also isn't a romantic comedy. As the title character of "Erin Brockovich," (March 17) Roberts is a twice-divorced mother of three working for lawyer Albert Finney. In the based-on-a-true-story drama, Roberts' untrained Erin uncovers a water pollution cover-up and champions the cause all the way through the judicial system, finally winning the then-largest settlement ever in a class-action suit. Roman Polanski is back on the big screen after nearly a decade's absence. The result is the thriller "The Ninth Gate," (March 17) starring Johnny Depp as a rare-book expert hired to track down the two remaining copies of a demonic text. Stephen Frears directs John Cusack and Tim Robbins in the romantic comedy "High Fidelity," (March 31) about a thirtysomething record-store owner who decides its time to grow up and settle down.

Then Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson star in William Friedkin's military courtroom drama "Rules of Engagement"(March 31). When Jackson is about to be sacrificed for an order he gave during an embassy attack, he calls on former Vietnam buddy-turned-lawyer Jones to represent him. The interest in World War II continues with "U-571"(April 21). Matthew McConaughey stars as a U.S. Navy lieutenant who leads a secret mission that infiltrates a German U-boat. Harvey Kietel and Jon Bon Jovi co-star.

One of the movie events this spring — aside from the Academy Awards, of course — may be the opening of "American Psycho"(April 14). Based on Bret Easton Ellis' literary shocker of the same name, it stars Christian Bale, Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny. Among the indie films generating a lot of buzz for spring is Steven Kane's "The Doghouse." It's about spousal abuse, but with a twist: This time the abused partner is the husband, who's a professional baseball player. But the most talked-about picture surely will be the latest from Mike Figgis. Called "Time Code," (March 31) the movie takes place over a single unit of time and is filmed in a single take. Although Figgis had four separate digital cameras catching his ad-libbing cast during the day's shoot, he'll choose only one camera's work. It should prove quite an entertaining experiment for film fans and students alike.

Families haven't been overlooked this season, in fact, there are three big flicks aimed squarely at the wholesome set. First is DreamWorks latest run at Disney's long-held king of animation status. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh provide the voices for two con artists who find a map to the legendary city of gold in "The Road to El Dorado" (March 31). On the prehistoric side there's the live-action Flintstones sequel "Viva Rock Vegas" and Disney's "Dinosaur." The latter has the dubious distinction of fast-becoming the most expensive movie to-date, with costs already at $200 million. If you caught the trailer this past Christmas, you know the high-tech animation is spectacular. The story, however, is pretty ordinary: dinosaur egg is stolen by pterodactyl, egg is dropped, egg hatches in a den of creatures who would be the forerunners of what we know as lemurs. When the big, dinosaur-decimating asteroid is on its way, this sole dinosaur knows enough to hide and survive. Which, of course, paves the way for the evolution of us, if you ascribe to Darwin's theory, that is.

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