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FILM FORECAST // COOL SUMMER AHEAD

If there's one thing Americans need more than air conditioning, it's a few good movies. That much was obvious in the box office totals of the past seven weeks, in which lousy films such as Primal Fear and The Craft wound up No. 1 in ticket grosses.

Even this month's $41-million opening of Twister _ an amazing 10-to-1 advantage over the runner-up _ seemed like an act of moviegoer desperation. They finally got something worth paying for (in the computer-generated storms, at least) and bolted for the theater doors. Their disappointed mumblings sounded like a freight train.

Cooler heads should prevail in the next three months, when Hollywood unleashes its summer salvo of 50 _ count 'em _ 50 feature films. Moviegoers can afford to be pickier, knowing there's either a handful of promising films opening a particular week, or a blockbuster just around the corner.

Funny that as the days get longer, the stars become more visible.

What's a summer movie season without Arnold Schwarzenegger?

(Quieter.)

Or Jim Carrey?

(Duller.)

Or Tom Cruise?

(Fewer teeth.)

Or Demi Moore?

(More clothing.)

You get the idea. Things just wouldn't be the same.

Don't fret; they're all here this summer, along with a singing hunchback, angry aliens, a fire-breathing dragon and Eddie Murphy (who somehow seems to fit that group). We have impossible missions, improbable heroes and a guy who wore purple decades before Prince didn't like his own name. And, of course, we have sequels.

So, sit back and brush up on the best Hollywood has to offer, for the time being. As always, opening dates are subject to whatever paranoid fears studio executives may encounter in the next few weeks. We'll see the true Oscar contenders later. Summertime is mostly for brainless fun, familiar favorites and theater thermostats turned low.

It's pushing 90 degrees outside, you know.

Here's 50 inside:

May 31

Dragonheart _ These new special effects toys that filmmakers have at their disposal are reviving movie genres that couldn't be as effective before; alien invaders, mistaken-identity crises and, in this case, medieval dungeons and dragons. Dennis Quaid stars as a sword-swinging knight with a handy pal, a flame-throwing monster who sounds a lot like Sean Connery. Looks positively Jurassic.

Eddie _ Whoopi Goldberg brings her sistah act to the National Basketball Association, as the league's first female head coach. Jock cameos abound (or perhaps "rebound"), but it's Goldberg's sass that will send Eddie into box office overtime, if anything does. She's the only NBA coach who could make Dennis Rodman shut up and sit down.

The Arrival _ Charlie Sheen gets mixed up with extraterrestrials and a government conspiracy in this action-adventure. Sheen was tricked into the role when producers told him the aliens would look like cheerleaders.

June 7

The Rock _ Let's see . . . how can we put a twist on the old Alcatraz prison-break movies? Hey, why not work it out that the heroes must break into the fortress? That's the scenario facing Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery (all of him, not just his voice) when a terrorist (Ed Harris) takes over the prison. It's from the folks who brought you Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun and Bad Boys, so don't expect a somber meditation on the penal system.

The Phantom _ The snazziest costume of the summer movie season belongs to this guy. Billy Zane (Dead Calm, Orlando) dons the skintight purple wardrobe of the comic strip hero, to whom crime fighting is a longstanding family tradition. Could be another Batman, but it's more likely another Dick Tracy or The Shadow (i.e., splashy and negligible).

Cemetery Man _ Gory horror flicks are in trouble when the studio declares it a cult film waiting to happen. Translation: Nobody's going to go out of their way to see it, the movie's too strange for mass consumption, and somehow face must be saved. This one is slated to open only at Regency 20 in Brandon.

June 14

The Cable Guy _ So, you thought your cable installer's butt cleavage was irritating. Could be worse; he could be as maniacally irrepressible as Jim Carrey, and not funny enough to deserve $20-million for doing it. Carrey takes an eerie liking to one of his subscribers, played by a master of perplexity, Matthew Broderick. Previews suggest a darker tone than usual for the rubber-faced loony, but Carrey can't do any wrong these days.

Moll Flanders _ A poor 18th-century girl grows up learning the benefits of marrying well in this period drama, which doesn't appear to be as boisterous as the 1965 comedy The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. That film put a thudding capper on the career of Kim Novak. We'll see if Sean Penn's bride, Robin Wright, (Forrest Gump) can do any better.

The Horseman on the Roof_ An unusually high level of action marks this period romance, in which a dashing officer (newcomer hunk Orlando Martinez) dodges political oppression and cholera. Martinez didn't duck co-star Juliette Binoche (Blue), on-screen or in real life. Their affair in the film continued off the set, making them another publicity grabber for Miramax Films.

June 21

Eraser _ Arnold Schwarzenegger took time off from Planet Hollywood openings to star in _ surprise! _ a mega-budget, pyrotechnic action-adventure. This time he's a federal marshal in charge of an elite witness protection program that wipes out any trace of previous identity. He's not bad with body parts, either, judging from the preview trailer. Vanessa Williams discovers the colors of the wind include blood red; James Caan and James Coburn try to convince us they're still alive.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame _ Walt Disney Pictures' annual animated extravaganza reprises the Victor Hugo novel of a misshapen bellringer named Quasimodo and the prejudice he faces. Tom Hulce (Amadeus) is the voice of the posture-challenged hero, with Demi Moore as Esmeralda. Notice that Disney has dropped glimpses of Quasimodo singing in the previews, after audiences burst into inappropriate laughter at the sight. Time will tell if the film flies with audiences, or sinks like a sword in the stone.

June 22

Antarctica _ The Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa brings in the best IMAX huge-screen movie I've seen. Antarctica is a wondrous tour of the South Pole, with several sequences that are simply stunning. A perfect way to beat the heat this season. Call MOSI at 987-6300 for showtimes and group sales information.

June 28

Striptease _ Demi Moore, semi-nude. That's the promotional hook for Andrew Bergman's version of the frisky comic novel by South Florida author Carl Hiassen. Moore stars as a single mother who becomes an exotic dancer (wink, wink) to support her son. Burt Reynolds is getting positive comeback buzz as one of her customers, a morally challenged state senator. Bergman is a fine comedy filmmaker (Honeymoon in Vegas, The In-Laws, The Freshman), and previews suggest this film is closer to Get Shorty than Showgirls. And, yes, Moore does look sensational.

The Nutty Professor _ Eddie Murphy is fat _ not the colloquial "phat" that indicates a level of cool, either. That description was moot for Murphy, oh, about the same time The Golden Child was released a decade ago. The weight gain is compliments of special effects, in a remake of Jerry Lewis' 1963 comedy. A chem-lab potion turned Lewis from a dweeb into a suave lounge lizard then; Murphy transforms from a lookalike for NBC weatherman Al Roker into . . . Eddie Murphy. Does this mean he'll now be a hit in France?

July 3

Independence Day _ Every summer has its 800-pound gorilla and Independence Day appears to be this year's model. Essentially a throwback to those alien invader flicks that occupied our nightmares, with state-of-the-art special effects and a hip sense of humor, if those stunning previews are any indication. Bill Pullman (While You Were Sleeping) plays the president, worried about this extraterrestrial immigration problem, with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum aiding his response. Created by the team that brought us Stargate, but we won't hold that against them.

Phenomenon _ John Travolta stars as a man hit by lightning and left with a saintly aura and supreme intellect. Sure, Powder did it first, but we expect director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) to do it much better. Couldn't be any worse. Co-stars Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick and Forest Whitaker.

The Grass Harp _ An all-star cast brings Truman Capote's coming-of-age novel to the screen. Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) stars as the author's alter ego, who learns about life from colorful neighbors in a Southern town in the 1940s. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Nell Carter, Piper Laurie and Sean Patrick Flanery co-star.

Harriet the Spy _ Paramount Pictures and the Nickelodeon channel combine forces to bring Louise Fitzhugh's children's novel to the screen. Michelle Trachtenberg (a favorite on the kid-friendly TV network) stars as a precocious girl who eavesdrops on her neighbors' lives and records all in her secret diary. A few years earlier, she could have had a cabinet post in Richard Nixon's administration.

July 12

A Time to Kill _ John Grisham's novels are becoming as much a summertime tradition on screen as they are on the beaches. After the smashes The Firm, The Client and The Pelican Brief, Grisham could strike a seven-figure deal for his shopping list. This one centers on a racially charged murder case in Mississippi, with a little romance on the sidebar. (A Time to Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps?) Sandra Bullock gets top billing as an ambitious law student, Matthew McConaughey (Boys on the Side) co-stars as the defense attorney she attracts, and Samuel L. Jackson is the defendant. An open-and-shut case for box-office success.

Multiplicity _ A husband pulled in too many personal and professional directions clones himself to handle all the responsibilities. Starring Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton and, oh yes, Michael Keaton.

Kingpin _ The sport of bowling frames the latest comedy from the creators of Dumb and Dumber. Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers) stars as a lane hustler who encounters an Amish dimwit (Randy Quaid) with a flair for the game. the odd(bowling)ball couple bumbles its way into a prestigious tournament in Reno against another shifty kegler (Bill Murray).

Courage Under Fire _ Meg Ryan is Sleepless in Kuwait, as a Medavac chopper pilot killed during the Gulf War, then posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor. Denzel Washington co-stars (although they don't share a scene) as a colonel in charge of determining if she deserves it. The investigation leads to Rashomon territory, in which everybody has a different version of the truth. Directed by Edward Zwick, who guided Washington to a best supporting actor Oscar in Glory.

July 17

Kazaam _ A different sort of magic for Shaquille O'Neal. The NBA star plays a 3,000-year-old genie who helps a kid face up to bullies, a remarried mother and Hakeem Olajuwon (just kidding about the last one). O'Neal was a decent, unpolished presence in Blue Chips a couple of years ago. If he falters here, his film career will be on a level with his free-throw shooting.

July 19

A Very Brady Sequel _ Here's another story of a man named Brady . . . you know the rest, especially if you saw the two-part episode of the kitschy TV series when the sugar-coated family vacationed in Hawaii. Shelley Long and Gary Cole are back to do their dead-on impressions of Florence Henderson and Robert Reed, and we can't wait to see what Jennifer Elise Cox does with Jan Brady's middle-child traumas this time around.

Larger Than Life _ Where the heck has Bill Murray been? This is his first starring role in nearly 3 years, after the twin ditties Groundhog Day and Mad Dog and Glory, not counting those cool NBA commercials last season or a small role in Kingpin. He plays a guy who inherits an elephant, then travels cross-country to scam money for the pachyderm. Think It Happened One Night with a very big, leathery leg stopping motorists on the highway.

The Frighteners _ Dictionaries and a couple of copy editors don't list "frightener" as an official word. Director Peter Jackson is for real, however, after the fantastic Heavenly Creatures. Michael J. Fox plays a ghostbuster dealing with a serial killer from the hereafter. Hereafter, all movie titles must be cleared by Webster.

July 26

Joe's Apartment _ A bachelor's best friends are his cockroaches, if you believe this comedy, based on MTV's live-action/animated short film. Jerry O'Connell stars as Joe, whose scampering buddies teach him the benefits of sex, bugs and rock 'n' roll in the Big Apple. This one will be reviewed by Siskel and Orkin.

The Adventures of Pinocchio _ The wooden puppet boy gets the live-action treatment, with Oscar winner Martin Landau as kindly old Gepetto and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as the flesh-and-blood Pinocchio.

Mystery Science Theater: The Movie _ The long-awaited feature-film version of the cult-cable hit finally opens in Tampa Bay. Maybe. We'll believe it when we see it.

Phat Beach _ Looks like Gangsta's Paradise is a beach. Rap star Coolio appears in what is being touted as the first hip-hop surf movie. Jermaine "Huggie" Hopkins and Brian Hooks are top-billed. Frankie and Annette probably will skip this shindig.

High School High _ Jon Lovitz plays a teacher at Marion Barry High School, a campus so rough that it includes its own cemetery. The creators of the Naked Gun spoof series had a hand in this one, and a supporting role is filled by Mekhi Phifer, so good last year in Clockers.

August 2

The Crow: City of Angels _ Brandon Lee's tragic death on the set of The Crow would have prevented a sequel . . . until Miramax Films saw the box-office grosses. Funny how greed can overcome grief. Vincent Perez (Indochine, Queen Margot) takes over as a murdered man back from the grave to find vengeance.

Chain Reaction _ This one might be dismissed as a typical action flick, except for the keen eye for mayhem behind the camera. Andrew Davis, who rescued The Fugitive and made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege, directs this tale of a energy-generating experiment that someone with a lot of power wants to supress. Keanu Reeves has a chance to prove his Speed heroics weren't a fluke.

Matilda _ Roald Dahl's books are popular movie grist this year, with James and the Giant Peach and now this comedy. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman star as the parents of a strangely gifted young girl whose powers aim at adult authority. Titular star Mara Wilson's name still sends chills down our back, after cloying-kid performances in Miracle on 34th Street and Mrs. Doubtfire.

August 7

Jack _ A mother gives birth to a son who, through a genetic disorder, begins to age at four times the normal rate. At age 10 (looking 40), he begins public schooling, which causes the expected problems and high jinks. This wouldn't sound like a movie event, but check this pedigree: Jack is directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now) and stars Robin Williams as the man-child. Hope he isn't too Big for his britches.

Aug. 9

Tin Cup _ Former golden boy Kevin Costner tees off as an erratic golf instructor/caddie who invades the PGA tour to spite his rival (Don Johnson) and impress a lovely student (Rene Russo). Co-written and directed by Ron Shelton, who knows jocks better than any filmmaker and proved it with Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and The Great White Hype. Think Costner heard many "water hazard" jokes on the set after Waterworld?

Escape from L.A. _ John Carpenter's 1981 thriller Escape from New York finally gets a sequel. Kurt Russell returns as one-eyed mercenary Snake Plissken, who must invade the futuristic City of Angels after an earthquake.

Bound _ Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway) and Gina Gershon (Showgirls) join forces against a possessive mobster.

Fled _ Actors don't come much more defiant than Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin when they're on a roll. That trait should come in handy in this modern twist on 1958's The Defiant Ones, which starred Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. Fishburne and the best Baldwin brother co-star as antagonists who escape from prison, facing the wrath of the Cuban Mafia.

Aug. 14

Alaska _ Two children brave the wilderness to rescue their father, whose airplane crashed somewhere in our 49th state. Naturally, there's an orphaned polar bear cub who helps them along. Charlton Heston (We love you, man!) makes a brief appearance in support of his son, director Fraser C. Heston.

Aug. 16

The Fan _ Two actors harken back to memorable roles in this thriller, directed by Tony Scott (True Romance, Top Gun). Robert De Niro may remind you of Rupert Pupkin or Travis Bickle as an obsessive baseball fan. Wesley Snipes will look familiar in a baseball uniform (think Major League) as the player De Niro admires to a deadly fault.

Kansas City _ Robert Altman's kaleidoscopic vision finds another alluring subject, the jazz era of the 1930s. Harry Belafonte reportedly steals the show as a ruthless gangster named Seldom Seen, while Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a housewife out to save her husband from the mob. A popular hit at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood _ The Cryptkeeper returns, this time with another HBO chum leading the cast. Dennis Miller plays a detective who trails a killer to a house of ill repute inhabited by vampires. Call ghouls, perhaps?

Carpool _ Tom Arnold needs a ride to work. Would you want to be stuck in heavy traffic with him?

Aug. 23

The Island of Dr. Moreau _ You think O.J. Simpson had problems with DNA? Marlon Brando plays a mad scientist whose dabblings in genetics have created a race of mutants. Val Kilmer (Batman, for a while) is the intrepid hero who must defeat the doc, in this second film version of the H.G. Wells novel.

Solo _ Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Posse) stars as a poly-plastic warrior, wired for violence, who learns a few human feelings in the midst of a dangerous mission. Don't you hate it when that happens?

The Spitfire Grill _ A woman (newcomer Alison Elliott) is released from prison and makes a new life in a Maine hamlet. Her landlord and boss at the Spitfire Grill is played by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). Winner of the Audience Award for its reception at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.

Aug. 30

The Stupids _ Tom Arnold again, this time as head of a family that consistently lives up to its surname.

Super Cop _ The success of Rumble in the Bronx has New Line Cinema scrambling to find any Jackie Chan flicks still circulating on the Hong Kong circuit, to distribute in America. This is one of Chan's most daring films, with astounding stunts he, of course, performs himself.

Trigger Effect _ A techno-horror flick in which a couple (Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue) watches the computer network support system that operates their household fails. Without their computer's guidance, they fall prey to a night of looting, adultery and busy modem lines. Has Bill Gates been hanging around Stephen King?

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR . . .

British manners cultivated in Cold Comfort Farm; Lili Taylor as a feminist who boasts I Shot Andy Warhol; a child's tortured memoirs in Welcome to the Dollhouse; Ed Burns' follow-up to The Brothers McMullen titled She's the One; mature woman challenged by other women's youth in The First Wives Club; Bruce Willis trying to be the Last Man Standing in a violent town; archaeologists fearing The Relic; a rerelease of 1975's cult oddity Switchblade Sisters, compliments of Quentin Tarantino; Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer stalking The Ghost and the Darkness; Mel Brooks' overdue dubbed version of the French comedy The Visitors; Ice Cube chillin' in South Africa on Dangerous Ground; the phone-sex flick Mouth to Mouth; Danny Boyle's heroin-addled British hit Trainspotting; backstage at an asylum in Cosi; and Pierce Brosnan bonding with nature as Robinson Crusoe.

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