LOS ANGELES - In good years, Hollywood beats its chest and crows, "It's all about the movies!" In bad years, like 2005, Hollywood looks for something to blame and whispers, "It's all about the movies."
Studio honchos hope it was just a weak crop of flicks that resulted in a 7 percent drop in movie attendance last year and that doomsayers are wrong in predicting home-entertainment options have eroded the big screen's appeal.
If it really is all about the movies, 2006 stands a chance of turning Hollywood's slump around with a film lineup that - on paper, at least - looks like a winner.
You've got your man of steel and your mutant superheroes. You've got your pirates of the high seas and your overturned luxury liner. You've got your cartoon cars and your talking animals. You've got your action spectacle from Tom Cruise and your passion project from Mel Gibson.
And you've got your usual load of sequels, remakes and potential sleepers, plus a couple of sobering films that will test audiences' tolerance for reliving national tragedy as the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches.
Here's a rundown of Hollywood's sure hits and safe bets, along with a peek at some other intriguing possibilities (where available, specific release dates are included):
"Superman Returns" (June 30): Admit it. For all the X-Men, Bat guys, Spideys and Fantastic Foursomes prancing around on screen, the Boy Scout from Krypton is still your favorite superhero.
As the last "Superman" franchise did when it launched in the 1970s with an unknown named Christopher Reeve in the title role, "Superman Returns" has a fresh face, Brandon Routh.
"I never intended to cast a well-known actor," said "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer, who made the first two "X-Men" movies. "A known actor comes with baggage, and Superman as a character is much larger than any actor. I wanted him to come just with the baggage of the superhero. That's enough history to contend with."
"Superman Returns" draws its star power from Routh's colleagues, Kevin Spacey as super-villain Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane.
While it's not a sequel to the four movies Reeve starred in, "Superman Returns" is "sequel-like," the new movie drawing on the spirit and design of the earlier franchise, Singer said.
The premise: Called away on urgent off-world business, Superman comes back to Earth years later to renew his romantic dance with Lois and save us puny mortals - again.
"Mission: Impossible III" (May 5): Finally, the smackdown we've all been waiting for, Tom Cruise against Truman Capote.
Cruise's third go-round as super secret agent Ethan Hunt pits him against Philip Seymour Hoffman, star of the acclaimed film biography "Capote," who plays the bad guy in "Mission: Impossible III."
Hoffman, a character actor known for smaller, intimate films, said he was thrilled to mix it up with Cruise. The studio is keeping details under wraps, so Hoffman cannot say much other than that he's the heavy.
"That's about all I can tell, or they'll put me in jail," Hoffman said.
"X3" (May 26): Those marvelous mutants return for what could be the final chapter in the "X-Men" saga. The whole crew is back, including Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Rebecca Romijn and Famke Janssen, whose character seemingly died a watery death at the end of "X2: X-Men United."
With Singer moving on to "Superman Returns," directing duties fell to Brett Ratner, maker of the "Rush Hour" flicks.
This time out, the superpowered mutants find themselves slowly being more accepted into a society that feared them as freaks, only to face new turmoil when a "cure" is discovered for their mutant condition.
"If you could actually get rid of your special power which alienates you from the rest of the world, would you do it?" said Jackman, who reprises his role as Wolverine. "It's a metaphor very much about intolerance, I think, fear of anything that's different. If you could choose to not be Jewish or not be gay or not be African-American. Life maybe is not as easy if you're a minority. Would you take the opportunity to change that if you could?"
Jackman said "X3" would conclude the "X-Men" trilogy, though a Wolverine solo movie is in the works.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (July 7): Hard to believe that just a couple of years ago, Johnny Depp was that weirdo who was box-office poison. Depp follows up his 2003 blockbuster, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, with the first of two sequels (part three follows in 2007).
Depp returns as woozy buccaneer Capt. Jack Sparrow, reunited with co-stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and director Gore Verbinski.
"Poseidon" (May 12): Director Wolfgang Petersen updates the 1970s disaster tale "The Poseidon Adventure," about a monster tidal wave that tips an ocean liner upside down.
The cast of survivors struggling to the bottom, er, top of the vessel includes Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum and Richard Dreyfuss.
Director Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm," "Das Boot") knows water, promising to make "Poseidon" just the sort of visual feast to make the cruise-ship industry sweat a bit about last-minute cancellations.
"The Da Vinci Code" (May 19): Take one runaway best seller, add the directing-producing team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and reunite them with their "Splash" and "Apollo 13" star, this guy named Tom Hanks.
Adapted from Dan Brown's murder thriller that dissects the origins of Christianity, the film stars Hanks as a symbologist caught up in the mysteries of an ancient, shadowy religious society.
"Casino Royale" (Nov. 17): Craig, Daniel Craig. Don't let the blond hair fool you. He's James Bond.
Craig becomes the sixth actor to play Britain's super-cool agent 007, with Judi Dench reprising her role as spymaster M in an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel as our hero takes on a dastardly casino owner.
"Cars" (June 9): The folks at Pixar Animation gave you "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles."
How could they miss with a cartoon comedy about talking automobiles, especially when it's directed by Pixar's creative mastermind, John Lasseter?
Owen Wilson, Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt lead the voice cast in the tale of a race car that learns about life in the slow lane when he's sidetracked into a snoozy burgh called Radiator Springs.
"Over the Hedge" (May 19): Then you have DreamWorks Animation (the "Shrek" movies, "Madagascar"), whose latest cartoon centers on that demarcation line where human suburbia meets the realm of furry animals in the wild.
Among the voice cast: Bruce Willis as a wily raccoon, Garry Shandling as a timid turtle, Steve Carell as a frenzied squirrel, William Shatner as a possum that specializes in playing dead, Avril Lavigne as the possum's daughter, Wanda Sykes as a saucy skunk and Nick Nolte as a bear.
"Ice Age 2: The Meltdown" (March 31): A woolly mammoth, a sloth and a saber-toothed tiger walk into a sequel...
Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary reunite as mouthpieces for the mismatched trio from the 2002 animated smash, joined by Queen Latifah, who provides the voice of a fellow mammoth.
The gang this time must run for cover as global warming is about to melt a glacial dam and unleash a catastrophic flood. Fun for all the family.
"World Trade Center," (August), "Flight 93" (April 28): Have we reached that point where the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, has worn off sufficiently where we want to see the events reprised on the big screen?
The curiosity factor - and two very different approaches - bode well for the first theatrical dramatizations about the terrorist attacks.
Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" stars Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena in the real-life story of Port Authority policemen trapped in the rubble of the twin towers.
"Flight 93," directed by Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday," "The Bourne Supremacy") uses a casts of unknowns as passengers who fought back against terrorists on the plane that crashed Sept. 11 in rural Pennsylvania.
"Miami Vice" (July 28): Michael Mann oversaw the TV cop show that helped define hip '80s style and music. Now he's got Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell as his smooth new undercover cops as they take on Miami drug runners.
"Underworld Evolution" (Jan. 20): Kate Beckinsale's back as the vampire in black, whose war with rival werewolves grows more complicated when she learns she has been betrayed by her bloodsucking kin.
"The Shaggy Dog" (March 10), "The Santa Clause 3" (Nov. 3): Tim Allen's back in the Disney fold, resurrecting the studio's franchise as a district attorney mutated into a bushy canine and reprising his Kris Kringle role as Santa fights Jack Frost (Martin Short) for dominion over Christmas.
"Flushed Away" (Nov. 3): The makers of "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" spin a computer-animated tale featuring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Ian McKellen in the story of a pampered rat washed down the drain from his cushy digs into the sewers.
"Charlotte's Web" (Dec. 20): The live-action adaptation of E.B. White's classic children's tale features Dakota Fanning and the voices of Julia Roberts, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Buscemi.
"Apocalypto" (summer): Mel Gibson scored the first blockbuster done in ancient languages with "The Passion of the Christ." Now he tells a historical epic in the Mayan tongue of Yucateco, set before the 16th century Spanish conquest of Central America. Gibson says the film will be light on dialogue and heavy on imagery and action. Lethal arrow?
"The Pink Panther" (Feb. 10): If there's an actor alive who maybe, possibly could resurrect Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau without bumbling his way to oblivion, it has to be Steve Martin. Martin stars as the idiot savant French detective in a crime caper co-starring the actor's old pal Kevin Kline as Clouseau's long-suffering boss, along with Beyonce Knowles and Jean Reno.
"Lady in the Water" (July 21): M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs") spins another strange one, about a building super (Paul Giamatti) who discovers a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the tunnels beneath the apartment complex's swimming pool.
Other promising titles: "Basic Instinct 2" (March 31) returns Sharon Stone to her femme-fatale role, this time preying the field in London; "Nanny McPhee" (Jan. 27) stars Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay, as a nanny whose strange powers bring order to the household of a widower (Colin Firth) with seven unruly kids; "Click" (June 23) brings Adam Sandler the remote control of his dreams, a device that magically transforms his job and home life; "The Lake House" (June) reunites "Speed" stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as romantic pen pals who learn they're corresponding two years apart from each other; "Stranger Than Fiction" (Nov. 10) casts Will Ferrell as a man suddenly able to hear a mysterious narrator (Emma Thompson) chronicling his life - and impending death; "Nacho Libre" (June 2), from "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess, stars Jack Black as a Mexican priest who doubles as a wrestler to raise cash for his orphanage; "The Break-Up" (June 2) presents Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn as ex-lovers living in mutual hostility when neither will move out of the condo they share; "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" (July 14), directed by Ivan Reitman, has Uma Thurman as a superhero scorned who unleashes her powers on her ex-boyfriend (Luke Wilson) after he dumps her; "Pursuit of Happyness" (Dec. 15) puts Will Smith back in dramatic mode as a single dad who finds himself homeless with his young son; "Flags of Our Fathers" (fall), directed by Clint Eastwood, follows the story of the U.S. troops famously photographed raising the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II.
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