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The ballad of a so-so summer movie season

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It was a summer movie season packed with outrageous characters, unbelievable developments and shocking denouements. America's film fans were collectively kept on the edges of their seats, unable to break away from the fantastic tales being played out in front of their disbelieving eyes.

But enough about the off-screen antics of Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise. Let's turn our attention instead to the movies that were trotted out between early May and the end of August.

It's reached the point where one summer movie season pretty much resembles the one that preceded it, as it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the cinematic offerings apart. (Ah, I still cherish the "vintage" summer slates of 1982, 1984 and 1993 the way some people cherish fine wines.) The heavily hyped blockbusters pull in millions, yet few seem destined for classic status in the decades ahead -- certainly, Jaws and Star Wars have nothing to fear from the likes of this year's Pirates of the Caribbean and X-Men sequels. The indies release quality projects to placate discerning moviegoers, yet their combined grosses wouldn't even cover the down payment on Adam Sandler's new home entertainment center. And as always, Hollywood suits hold their breaths for the entire four-month stretch, waiting to see if the seasonal box office will top the previous year's tally or if heads will roll and fingers will point if the industry suffers a financial decline. (Good news for those expendable employees: 2006 should surpass last year's totals for the comparable time frame.)

At first, this summer produced mixed signals. Despite strong reviews, season opener Mission: Impossible III performed below expectations, with its $133 million gross failing to even match its price tag of $150 million. As expected, the movie turned out to be an international smash ($261 million for a worldwide total of $394 million), but star Tom Cruise's bizarre real-life behavior, believed to be the cause of falling stateside interest in the film, finally led Paramount Pictures to sever its long-standing relationship with the actor this past month.

Poseidon was an even bigger domestic bomb. Sporting a $160 million budget, the remake-that-no-one-asked-for (a designation shared by the needless rehash of The Omen) earned a waterlogged $60 million from US audiences, forcing the international crowd to again save a studio's bacon ($121 million overseas for a $181 million total).

M:I3 and Poseidon were hardly the only pictures to lose barrels of domestic cash this summer. Under most circumstances, a $195 million gross would be cause for a round of champagne toasts, but the hefty price tag of $270 million means that Superman Returns will come up substantially short of expectations and might signal an end (or at least a new direction) for the franchise. Other notable underachievers included Miami Vice (cost: $135 million; gross: $62 million) and Lady In the Water (cost: $70 million; gross: $41 million).

But even with Cruise and the pseudo-Titanic flick threatening to capsize the season as far as studio coffers were concerned, the early weeks of the hot-weather period also witnessed the triumphant launches of Cars, yet another notch in Pixar's belt, and The Da Vinci Code, whose success was guaranteed by the rabid interest in Dan Brown's best-selling novel.

Other blockbusters were equally easy to call. There was no question in anyone's mind that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest would emerge as the summer's top-grossing picture (well, the Entertainment Weekly staff questioned it, since they predicted it would finish in sixth place). Meanwhile, the irresistible premise of Click all but insured that Adam Sandler would chalk up yet another summer hit. And even though Will Ferrell didn't have the golden box office touch of Sandler -- neither of his 2005 summer vehicles, Kicking & Screaming and Bewitched, elevated his leading man candidacy -- the growing buzz that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby would do the trick proved accurate once the picture opened to better-than-predicted numbers and sustained word of mouth.

But the real story in analyzing box office returns can be found in singling out the sleeper hits that unexpectedly made waves on the charts. Counter-programming during the summer months isn't a new concept, but few past movies have pulled it off as fashionably as The Devil Wears Prada, a critical and commercial hit which conclusively demonstrated that there are large numbers of filmgoers who simply aren't satisfied with action romps featuring superheroes and swashbucklers. The picture's $120 million gross is just enough to push it past The Break-Up ($118 million) for the final slot on the Top 10 Moneymakers list (see sidebar). On the indie scene, the breakout hit is Little Miss Sunshine, which, after a successful run in limited release, shows signs of really taking off as it continues to go wider. With more theaters being added, Little Miss Sunshine has already shucked the art-house label, meaning that the two biggest financial winners on that front were Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion and, surprisingly, the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Gore's cinematic lecture on global warming has already positioned itself as a leading contender for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, but it's not the only summer flick to stir talk of Academy recognition. Yup, Oscar record holder Meryl Streep has already generated buzz for her sharp turn as a ruthless magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada.

Meryl was grand, but truthfully, no other summer performance satisfied me as much as the one delivered by one of Streep's costars. As the perpetually panicked assistant Emily, British actress Emily Blunt stole the film from both top-billed ladies (Streep and Anne Hathaway). Indeed, it was a notable summer for English actors, as the season's other great performances came from Ray Winstone, who contributed a powerful turn as the tough but decent Captain Stanley in the art-house release The Proposition, and Ian McKellen, who playfully provided almost all the juice as Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code. Combine their efforts with that of British writer-director Neil Marshall, whose horror yarn The Descent was a thrilling break from the same-old same-old, and the conclusion is irrefutable: Rule Britannia, this summer for sure.

THE TOPS & THE FLOPS

Summer's Best

1. A Prairie Home Companion. Robert Altman's best film in over a decade was a joyous celebration of life, a pensive meditation on death and a glorious primer on raucous show biz shenanigans.

2. An Inconvenient Truth. This year's March of the Penguins -- a well-crafted documentary that startled box office prognosticators with its ability to slice through all the summer clatter and make a mark on discerning moviegoers.

3. The Descent. Pimps and profiteers have long since commandeered the modern horror film, so it was nothing short of miraculous to stumble across one as atmospheric and as ingeniously structured as this UK import.

4. Little Miss Sunshine. The little movie that could, this Sundance hit continues to build on its positive word of mouth thanks to a likable cast and a savagely witty script.

5. Superman Returns. Yes, the film's final stretch is borderline deadly. But overall, this intelligent comic book adaptation edged out Cars (and beat Pirates by a nautical mile) to emerge as the summer's most emotionally satisfying and visually stimulating blockbuster.

Summer's Worst

1. You, Me and Dupree. Memories of the abysmal Garfield: The Movie easily convinced me that life was too short to be spent watching the blink-and-you-missed-it sequel (Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties) that came out this summer. No matter: There were still enough bad movies to go around, and none was worse than this unwatchable comedy, the multiplex equivalent of the Chinese water torture.

2. Trust the Man. The indie version of You, Me and Dupree, this likewise shared an affinity for obnoxious characters, dopey dialogue and absurd situations.

3. Lady In the Water. Apparently, M. Night Shyamalan is George W. Bush's doppelganger in Hollywood: His popularity continues to plummet as more and more people realize how ridiculous he can be.

4. Poseidon. The "disaster flicks" of the 1970s were disreputable but often fun; this remake of the best of the bunch (The Poseidon Adventure) was too boring and impersonal to register as anything other than a bad idea.

5. Over the Hedge / The Ant Bully. Not every animated film can be Cars (or even Monster House). This pair showcased miscast A-list actors and spastic storylines -- with unconvincing last-second "lessons" stapled on, of course -- at the expense of anything more substantial or enduring.

TOP 10 MONEYMAKERS

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest -- $408 million

2. Cars -- $240 million

3. X-Men: The Last Stand -- $234 million

4. The Da Vinci Code -- $217 million

5. Superman Returns -- $195 million

6. Over the Hedge -- $154 million

7. Click -- $135 million

8. Mission: Impossible III -- $133 million

9. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby -- $130 million

10. The Devil Wears Prada -- $120 million

(Through Aug. 30. Source: www.boxofficemojo.com.)

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