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A dash of a Darth, a pinch of Potter

After a movie year marked by controversy, Hollywood appears ready to take a break from getting under people's skin: 2004 was the Year of the Rant; 2005 is poised to be the Year of the Raves from moviegoers just looking for a good time.

Most films expected to arrive this year are heavily weighted toward escapism, a term that doesn't always mean junk. After all, movies are designed to take viewers away from their real lives; the rabble rousers of 2004 did it by disrupting our complacency about politics, religion, sex and even nutrition. This year, filmmakers seem determined to make everyone forget their troubles and get happy, thrilled or scared.

One exception to the fantasy trend should be the Nov. 11 release of Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford's bestselling novel about serving with the Marines during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Directed by Sam Mendes _ an Oscar winner for American Beauty _ and adapted by talented screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Cast Away), Jarhead will probably raise comparisons to the Iraq war through Swofford's irreverent, antiwar version of events. It's the film most likely to spark public debate in 2005.

Otherwise, the most anticipated films are brand names: the final Star Wars episode, another year at school with Harry Potter, different takes on Batman and King Kong, plus remakes of The Pink Panther, The Longest Yard, War of the Worlds, The Producers and Willy Wonka's fable. Movies will be inspired by television (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard), comic books or graphic novels (Fantastic Four, Sin City) and authors whose imaginations are suited for computer-generated special effects (C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, the Brothers Grimm and Douglas Adams).

The Tolkien effect continues with Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (May 6), a sword-and-sorcery epic appealing to the Lord of the Rings crowd. A more intriguing example of one film imitating another is Lords of Dogtown (June 10), a dramatization of Stacy Peralta's excellent skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys.

Of course, Hollywood will save most of its mimicry for proven genres: Too many horror films to mention (although a remake of The Amityville Horror sounds desperate), more biographies (boxer Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man, Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), Southern fried comedy (Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown), Broadway hits (Rent and The Producers) and bombastic action (Michael Bay blowing up The Island).

Animation studios will continue to compete for supremacy, with Disney offering Chicken Little (Nov. 4), DreamWorks joining the fray with the Central Park Zoo comedy Madagascar (May 27) and Fox Animation sending in Robots (March 11). The darkest horse imaginable is Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride (Sept.23), a creepy cartoon starring Johnny Depp.

We'll see some sequels that bear watching (Be Cool a.k.a. Get Shorty 2) and others that may not be bearable to watch (Underworld: Evolution, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, a XXX followup without Vin Diesel). An occasional classy book will make the transition to screen (Memoirs of a Geisha, another Oliver Twist) or inspire a spinoff, such as Every Word Is True, an account of Truman Capote's bond with two murderers while researching In Cold Blood. That movie opens in limited release in April.

What we won't see are many discussions about films on Meet the Press or Fox News Channel, a welcome relief to viewers tired of talking heads arguing about what Michael Moore or Mel Gibson have done. Unless, of course, such hot-button topics emerge from independent film festivals beginning with this month's Sundance soiree and, much closer and affordable, the Sarasota Film Festival beginning Jan. 28.

But any adventurous cinema that may spring from festivals will be drowned out by the hype for Hollywood's biggest releases. Here are 10 films you may be tired of hearing about before their release dates, which are subjlect to change:

+ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (May 6) _ Douglas Adams' cult novel about refugees from an Earth demolished by aliens will be the next big geek thing. I never read it, never plan to, and sincerely hope Garth Jennings' movie version makes me change my mind.

+ Star Wars: Episode III _ Revenge of the Sith (May 19) _ George Lucas finally gets around to explaining how cute little Anakin Skywalker became evil Darth Vader. What he needs to figure out is how to makehis escalating special-effects wizardry blend with the comparably low-tech look of Episode IV, released in 1977.

+ Batman Begins (June 17) _ Yes, we've seen the Caped Crusader's origins several times before, but director Christopher Nolan takes the orphaned heir to Asia where he's trained by a ninja cult. Christian Bale bulks up after starvation in The Machinist to play Batman, aided by Gary Oldman as Gotham City's future police Commissioner Gordon. And there are no nipples on the Bat suit.

+ War of the Worlds (July 1) _ Another remade classic with class. Steven Spielberg directs ill-tempered aliens for the first time, and Tom Cruise (Minority Report) for the second. The budget is estimated at $170-million, one of the most expensive ever. Somewhere, Orson Welles is boasting that it still won't be scarier than his 1938 radio broadcast.

+ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 15) _ The trailer is one of the hottest Internet destinations, but can Tim Burton sustain such colorful mania for feature length? Johnny Depp is a perfect choice to play Willy Wonka, and his Finding Neverland co-star Freddie Highmore should be a better Charlie than the original. No word yet on which confectionary has the promotional tie-in.

+ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Nov. 18) _ The student wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) represents Hogwarts in a competition among sorcery schools, while the evil Valdemort, of whom nobody is supposed to speak, makes his first physical appearance, and he looks like Ralph Fiennes.

+ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Dec. 9) _ C.S. Lewis' enduring literary classic gets the Disney treatment, with live actors (Tilda Swinton, Jim Broadbent, Rupert Everett) interacting with a computer-generated lion (voice of Brian Cox) battling a witch in a fantasy world. Bound to be a motion picture event, and Disney won't let us forget it.

+ King Kong (Dec. 14) _ After the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson can do anything he desires. He chose to remake his favorite movie, starring Naomi Watts as the giant ape's object of affection and Jack Black who, contrary to possible typecasting, is not playing Kong. That duty falls to Andy Serkis, an expansion of the motion capture technology he used to play Gollum.

+ The Producers: The Movie Musical (Dec. 21) _ On the other hand, I loved Mel Brooks' Broadway version of his 1968 film even more than the movie, and I hope this adaptation doesn't change my mind. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their stage roles, Will Ferrell plays Nazi playwright Frank Liebkind and Uma Thurman steps into the sexy secretary role recently vacated by Nicole Kidman.

+ Memoirs of a Geisha (late December) _ Arthur Golden's novel about a geisha housemaid (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi) who becomes a Japanese legend should be a linchpin of the awards season. Director Rob Marshall gets to prove his Chicago magic wasn't beginner's luck, and Columbia Pictures makes a late dash to the Oscars.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persallsptimes.com

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