Let’s all go to the movies!

Five movies to nosh on
Trying to find something worthy to watch in the dead of winter can be the moviegoer equivalent of Dumpster diving. You stooped almost as low as Tommy Lee Jones to watch him baby-sit cheerleaders in Man of the House. You endured the strained courtship interludes in Hitch just to savor the slapstick savoir-faire of Kevin James. You cursed yourself for going to Cursed.
Meanwhile, the hunger for true sustenance gnaws on.
We’ve got the perfect pick-me-up for those starved for a super-size tub full of cinematic snackability. Here’s a preview of five big pictures that are sure to pop your corn in 2005. And when we say big, we mean big. Big budgets, big concepts, big directors, big effects ó especially that hairy beast who goes ape in King Kong, and we don’t mean Jack Black. Intentionally omitted is the most anticipated film event of the summer, the opening May 20 of Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which George Lucas finally brings his multigenerational space opera to a close. The only suspense is whether this prequel goes out with a bang or a bust.
Batman Begins (June 17)
ïWhat’s popping? Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) wipes the Bat slate clean and explores the origins of the Caped Crusader with Christian Bale (American Psycho) inside the rubber suit.
A young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and seeks retribution. He goes to the Far East and learns martial arts from mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). Upon his return, the heir to the Wayne estate finds that Gotham City is overrun by crime. With an assist from loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he assumes an alter ego and exacts justice from his foes.
ïA few more kernels. Banished are Bat nipples, hammy villains and a comic-book hero adrift in his own adventures. Nolan ignores the four predecessors that began with 1989’s Batman to expose his avenger’s dark roots. “To tackle an icon who has never been explained before is a tremendous opportunity,” says the British director, who watched the campy ’60s TV series as a kid. “It’s a mythic story that draws upon Hamlet and The Count of MonteCristo.”
How does Nolan hope to compete with the state-of-the-art feats in the Spider-Man films? “The strength of Batman is his reality,” he explains. “He’s a guy without superpowers. Bruce Wayne uses detection, psychology and martial arts. Any one of us can be him.”
ïBonus treat. The Batmobile, a muscular hybrid of a Humvee and a Lamborghini Countach sports car that sits atop monster-truck wheels
ïYum factor. A dream cast led by the brooding Bale, a filmmaker who is a master of neo-noir and a script that sounds solidly entertaining.
War of the Worlds (June 29)
ïWhat’s popping? A close encounter of the deadly kind. Tom Cruise re-teams with Minority Report director Steven Spielberg in a retelling of author H.G. Wells’ paranoia-propelled sci-fi fantasy from 1898. Space invaders (who are NOT Martians) are out to annihilate the Earth in general and ó borrowing the setting from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play that panicked the nation ó New Jersey in particular.
But what is a Spielberg thriller without a dose of domestic drama in the midst of mass terror and destruction? Cruise is a divorced blue-collar dad who’s forced to face up to his responsibilities when he has to save his family, including moppet-of-the-moment Dakota Fanning as his daughter.
ïA few more kernels. Remember when Spielberg was the go-to guy for cuddly aliens such as E.T.? Zap that thought. “I have not seen Steven have this much fun in a long time,” says producer Kathleen Kennedy of his return to sci-fi action. “He’s uniquely suited to this genre in a way no one else is.”
Remember how Spielberg dropped nerve-rattling hints that a dino rampage was afoot in his Jurassic Park movies? Expect the same. “There are tons of those moments,” Kennedy says. In fact, there’s one in the first 15 minutes that “will knock your socks off.”
ïBonus treat. The leggy alien war machines that shoot out lethal beams of light. “Let’s just say that they are five times the size of a T. rex,” Kennedy says.
ïYum factor. Spielberg hasn’t gone the thrill-ride route for a while. But if anyone can make us care about attacks by intergalactic beings in these fretful post-9/11 times, it’s the filmmaker who made us all shark-phobic with Jaws.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 15)
ïWhat’s popping? Director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp join forces for the fourth time with this trippy take on author Roald Dahl’s deliciously subversive fable, which also inspired the 1971 Gen-X fave Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
As before, good-natured Charlie Bucket (12-year-old Freddie Highmore, who reunites with his Finding Neverland co-star Depp) and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly of Waking Ned Devine) win a chance to tour Wonka’s wondrous candy factory.
They are joined by four gluttonous children who suffer sticky comeuppances, thanks to the wily Mr. Wonka. Willy’s dad, Wilbur (Christopher Lee) ó a new character ó shows up in flashbacks.
ïA few more kernels. The pop-art trailer suggests a psychedelic sugar rush is in store. But those salivating to hear The Candy Man, forget about it. “The only music is when the Oompa Loompas (the factory’s tiny handymen) sing chants after each child encounters problems,” says producer Richard Zanuck. As for the 1971 version, he says, “this not a remake. This is Tim’s version of Dahl’s book.”
Burton is doing his best to bring Dahl’s semi-sweet fantasy to high-caloric life, building a candy land on 17 soundstages at London’s Pinewood Studio. Besides a chocolate river with an 80-foot waterfall, “there’s a nut room with 200 squirrels at work,” Zanuck says. Yes, actual rodents. “From birth, we sent them to training school for six months.”
As for Depp’s interpretation of the mysterious Wonka as a Carnaby Street mod hatter with a propensity for saying, “Let’s boogie,” Zanuck notes, “All I can say is that it lives up to his sense of the bizarre.”
ïBonus treat. In the first movie, the Oompa Loompas were played by dwarfs. Now they are all played by the same 42-inch-tall actor, Dee Roy, who is shrunk via camera tricks to a mere 30 inches.
ïYum factor. Johnny Depp and chocolate outdoes peanut butter and chocolate any day.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Dec. 9)
What’s popping? On a quest for its own Lord of the Rings, Disney launches a potential fantasy franchise with a deluxe treatment based on C.S. Lewis’ stories of a magical kingdom ruled by the messianic lion Aslan.
The film adventure, based on the best-known book in the seven-part series, follows four London siblings during World War II who are sent to stay in the country home of a kindly professor (Jim Broadbent). They discover a hidden passage in a wardrobe that leads to Narnia, a strange world blanketed by snow and inhabited by mythical creatures and talking animals.
The foursome learns that a frozen spell has been cast by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton of Constantine), and it’s their destiny as future kings and queens of Narnia to help Aslan break the wintry curse.
ïA few more kernels. He’s from New Zealand, where Wardrobe was shot. He has achieved monstrous box office success. And he knows his way around digital effects. No, not Peter Jackson of Rings fame, but close: Andrew Adamson, the director behind both Shrek films. Like Jackson, he is an avid fan of his source.
“One of the things I loved about the books is that the children are so empowered,” Adamson says. “In Narnia, they are treated as kings and queens. They’re not children anymore.” Unlike the wordy Rings trilogy, Lewis leaves more to the imagination. “The challenge for me is to live up to my memory of the books as well as everyone else’s,” says Adamson, who first read the collection at age 8 in just 10 days.
Circumstances are often serious, but there’s much spirited fun to be had in the children’s encounters, especially with the homespun heroics of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (the voices of Ray Winstone and Dawn French).
Lewis didn’t write his tales only to entertain, however. They also work as Christian allegories. Though the movie won’t downplay the religious themes, neither will it trumpet them. “We’re setting out to tell a good story,” producer Mark Johnson says. “The allegory is there if you look for it. But it’s also in The Matrix, too.”
ïBonus treat. No Beatrix Potter whimsy. All the digital animals, especially Aslan (voiced by Brian Cox of Troy), look and act like real-life counterparts.
ïYum factor. Johnson produced the enchanting 1995 family film A Little Princess. Wardrobe aspires to the same exquisite quality.
King Kong (Dec. 14)
ïWhat’s popping? After 17 Oscars and more than $3 billion in worldwide box office, Peter Jackson puts his Lord of the Rings clout to good use by making his childhood dream come true: He’s redoing his favorite film, 1933’s great-ape adventure King Kong, shot in his home base of New Zealand.
The basics are the same. During the Depression, maverick showman Carl Denham (Jack Black) discovers starving actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and sails off with his crew to a faraway island to shoot a film. Those who survive the monsters that stalk the treacherous jungle terrain rescue Ann from the clutches of a giant gorilla. They transport the captured 24-foot-tall Kong, the last of his kind and one lonely brute, to Manhattan.
The thrills and chills will reach heights beyond the crudely effective stop-motion animation of the original. Skull Island is creepier. Kong and his dinosaur rivals are fiercer. And the romance is swoonier, thanks to Watts and Oscar winner Adrien Brody, whose Jack Driscoll is a sensitive playwright working on the movie script.
ïA few more kernels. Jackson admires the original but realizes there is room for improvement. “We are taking everything we love about the 1933 movie, but then applying a 21st-century character development,” he says. “It wasn’t a priority back then. What they did have was a wonderful adventure.” The script especially expands the bond between Ann and Kong beyond her screams and his grunts.
Stars like Brody and Watts certainly will make the humans in the cast more memorable. But the Internet was abuzz when Jack Black, best known for his head-banging buffoonery in School of Rock, was cast as larger-than-life Denham. Not to fret. “He’s an actor at the end of the day,” assures Jackson. “A very good actor, as I am discovering more and more as we go along.”
ïBonus treat. When Kong goes berserk, there will be little stinting on the violence. “We obviously are being PG-13,” says Jackson, in his low-key Kiwi way, “but I want to try to get a head being bitten off somewhere in there, sneak one in past the ratings board.”
ïYum factor. Beauty, beast and Black? That’s one killer B-movie.