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A critic's guide to the season's hottest movies 

The Heat Is On

The calendar may say it's still four weeks away, but in Hollywood time, summer is here. Memorial Day Weekend used to be the official start of the big wave of summer movies. But in the last few years, the arrival of the big wave of summer movies has been creeping ever closer to April. The reasoning behind rushing the season? Money.

Besides getting a jump on the competition, the studios hope they'll also be getting a bigger slice of the box-office profits: Summer releases account for about 40 percent of each studio's annual box-office take. Which explains why we've already seen such big-budget efforts as "U-571," "Gladiator," "Battlefield Earth" and even Disney's "Dinosaur" open before Memorial Day.

But fear not gentle moviegoers, the season still holds plenty of surprises, must-sees and, yes, those ubiquitous boys of summer: Tom, Mel, Bruce, Will and the return of Rocky. No, not that sly Rocky, the one accompanied by his moose of a best friend, Bullwinkle. Here's what's ahead, keeping in mind of course, that opening dates are always subject to change.

May 24

"Mission Impossible 2" — Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the agent for whom no mission is too improbable or, uh, impossible. Directed by master action-choreographer John Woo, the buzz on this film is huge. The action-adventure also stars Ving Rhames, Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott and those hold-your-breath stunts.

May 26

"Shanghai Noon" — Hitting the Old West didn't work last summer for Will Smith, but perhaps Kung Fu stunt-genius Jackie Chan will have better box-office luck. This time Chan is an Imperial Guard who journeys to the American frontier to rescue a Chinese Princess (as if anyone would believe Lucy Liu couldn't take care of herself!). He also must contend with Indians, horses and shifty partner Owen Wilson.

June 2

"Big Momma's House" — Call me crazy, but the trailer to this latest Martin Lawrence gender-bending comedy never fails to make me laugh. The original "Whazzup?!?" comic plays an FBI agent who must impersonate a large, older Southern granny to protect single mom Nia Long and her son. Lowbrow? Yes. Fun? Looks like it could be.

June 9

"Gone In Sixty Seconds" — Nicolas Cage is Randall "Memphis" Raines, a legendary car thief gone straight. But when younger bro Giovanni Ribisi tries to pick up where he left off, "Memphis" must return to a life of crime to save him. Angelina Jolie and Robert Duval co-star.

June 16

"Shaft" — John Singleton returns to direct this remake of the '70s blaxploitation classic. This time it's Samuel L. Jackson playing Shaft, the detective known for mixing business with pleasure. The cast includes Vanessa Williams, Christian Bale and the original John Shaft, Richard Roundtree.

"Titan A.E." — Don Bluth's animated epic about a rebellious teen-ager (voiced by Matt Damon) who journeys through space in search of the legendary spacecraft Titan which is believed to hold the secret to saving the human race.

June 23

"Chicken Run" — Fans of "Wallace & Gromit" rejoice! This tale of a group of chickens who hatch a plan to escape their miserable coop comes straight from "W&G's" Aardman Animation folks. All about pluck, luck and perseverance in that uniquely British Aardman claymation style.

"Me Myself And Irene" — Jim Carrey returns as a mild-mannered Rhode Island cop with a split personality in this Peter and Bobby Farrelly comedy. Renee Zellwegger plays the love interest of both of Carrey's personalities.

June 30

"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" — Mixing live-action with animation a la "Roger Rabbit," Rene Russo, Robert De Niro and Jason Alexander star with that most famous "moose und squirrel." Rocky and Bullwinkle are on a mission to stop their evil nemeses Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader who have found a way to escape their animated world.

"The Patriot" — Roland Emmerich directs Mel Gibson in this period adventure set during the American Revolution. Gibson is Benjamin Martin, a pacifist and family man who becomes a reluctant but fierce warrior when the British advance on his South Carolina home.

"The Perfect Storm" — Based on a true story, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg are among a group of fishermen who run afoul of not one, not two, but three raging storm fronts which result in a terrifying waterspout (hurricane over water). "Das Boot's" Wolfgang Petersen directs.

July 7

"Bounce" — Ben Affleck, Gwyneth Paltrow and Natasha Hentsridge star in this romance about switched plane tickets and switched fates when the flight crashes. The survivor subsequently falls in love with the deceased traveler's wife.

July 14

"X-Men" — The creative writing duo that brought us "The Usual Suspects" tackle the cult comic about genetically mutated superheroes. Patrick Stewart is Professor Xavier, and Halle Berry and Famke Jansen are two of those mutants with good intentions who are woefully misunderstood by humans. Ian McKellen is the villain.

July 21

"Disney's The Kid" — Bruce Willis is a successful image consultant who magically encounters himself as a young boy. But the 8-year-old version of himself is less than impressed with the way he's turned out.

"What Lies Beneath" — Robert Zemeckis directs Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in this supernatural thriller. The two are a happily married couple whose idyllic life is disrupted by mysterious events.

July 28

"Hollow Man" — Elisabeth Shue and Kevin Bacon star in this suspense thriller about a team of scientists who discover the secret of invisibility. Bacon is the arrogant team leader who demands the procedure be tested on him — even though the team hasn't quite figured out how to reverse the process.

"Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" - Eddie Murphy returns as the lovable Sherman Klump who's about to marry Denise (Janet Jackson). When he can't shake his brazen alter ego, Buddy Love (also played by Murphy), Sherman decides to use a DNA-extraction process to purge his demon. Of course, Buddy has no intention of going quietly.

August 4

"Coyote Ugly" — Huge buzz on this sexy tale about a singer-songwriter (Piper Perabo) who comes to New York seeking fame and fortune. She finds both, but not on a traditional stage. Instead, she becomes one of a handful of outrageous barmaids at a morally questionable bar. Supermodel Tyra Banks also plays one of the notorious gals.

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" — OK, so it's not July 4th, but it is summer and Will Smith is here. This time, he plays a Zenlike golf caddy who helps disillusioned war veteran Matt Damon to a better understanding of the game and life.

"Space Cowboys" — Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland are a group of Air Force pilots who were bumped by a chimp from a 1958 NASA space flight. Decades later, they get their chance when a satellite designed by Eastwood's character starts plummeting toward Earth.

Undated As Yet

In "Love's Labour's Lost" Kenneth Branagh returns to Shakespeare, updating the classic. Alicia Silverstone, Matthew Lillard and Nathan Lane star. Ethan Hawke also takes a modernized stab at Shakespeare in Michael Almereyda's version of "Hamlet."

Baltimore native John Waters directs Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffith in his latest comedy "Cecil B. Demented." Dorff and Griffith are part of a group of cinema terrorists obsessed with avenging the current crass state of commercial filmmaking.

Cinema iconoclast Peter Greenaway's latest offering is "8 1/2 Women," a study of sex, power and chance after a father and son become so inspired by Fellini's classic "8 1/2" that they decide to open their own
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