Risky Indies, Hollywood Hits: Woody, Will and War

After the Academy Awards, Hollywood usually takes a little hiatus until summer, when the studios roll out a weekly parade of stadium-fillers. But in recent years, it’s become difficult to pinpoint when spring ends and summer begins-and 2005 proves to be no exception.

In early March, Michael Eisner’s kid Breck Eisner, along with Paramount Pictures, will unleash Sahara (April 8), an Indiana Jones–like adventure featuring a missing Civil War battleship ominously called “The Ship of Death.” Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn star, and you can check out Mr. McConaughey’s blog, exclusively on MTV.com, to learn about the terribly exciting events surrounding his publicity tour. Whatever the box-office outcome, the young Mr. Eisner probably won’t get worse press than his dad.

The spring also promises close encounters of the third kind with the release of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (April 29) and George Lucas’ purported last foray into digital extravaganzas, Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (May 19). Buena Vista’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, based on the popular fantasy series by Douglas Adams, takes a page from the Fox playbook-heavy on the special effects, light on the A-list stars. Instead, it promises a diverse cast: Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel and the British thespian Martin Freeman ( Shaun of the Dead). If the trailer is any indication, the film promises to be as quirky as the books. Speculation surrounding Mr. Lucas’ Star Wars, however, suggests that the third installment features nothing more than better fight scenes than those seen in the other prequels. But here’s hoping that the highly anticipated transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader loosens up the leaden acting of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. Maybe then Mr. Lucas can confidently return to the smaller, American Graffiti –like projects he says he wants to direct again.

Another veteran, Sydney Pollack, hopes to make the U.N. more interesting than the Imperial Senate with his Nicole Kidman–Sean Penn thriller The Interpreter (April 22), Mr. Pollack’s first release since the disappointing 1999 Harrison Ford drama Random Hearts. Reportedly made for $80 million, it’s the first film shot within the confines of the U.N. Director Ridley Scott stirs up his own political tempest with the Crusade epic Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom, Eva Green ( The Dreamers), Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons. Fox is releasing the film in early May-the same time DreamWorks released 2000′s Gladiator, Mr. Scott’s last film to generate Oscar interest.

Let’s not forget the kids! Fox’s animation department, along with Blue Sky Studios, look to repeat their Ice Age success with Robots (March 11), an animated film starring Robin Williams-as an outdated robot kook, natch-and Ewan McGregor as a rural robot with a knack for mechanics. They become fast friends and, well, zaniness ensues.

Woody Allen kicks off this spring’s comedies with Melinda and Melinda (March 18), the story of a single woman told in two interwoven parts, as a comedy and a drama. Will Ferrell seems poised to outdo the last Allen stand-in, Jason Biggs, while Chloë Sevigny, Radha Mitchell and Chiwetel Ejiofor do their best not to be upstaged. If Melinda doesn’t satisfy the national yen for Mr. Ferrell, audiences won’t have to wait long until he shows up again: Kicking and Screaming (May 13)-a film with the same title as Noah Baumbach’s 1995 debut-stars Mr. Ferrell as a father and coach of his son’s soccer team who will do anything to win. Since no one mocks hypermasculinity like Mr. Ferrell, this film might be the only sure bet this spring. Be Cool (March 4), the (long-awaited?) sequel to 1995′s Get Shorty, reunites John Travolta and Uma Thurman in a music-industry satire that provides the on-screen couple plenty of opportunities to brush the cobwebs off the Batusi dance they perfected in Pulp Fiction. André 3000, Vince Vaughn, Danny DeVito, Cedric the Entertainer and The Rock round out the cast. The dark-horse candidate for best comedy of the spring is definitely Kung Fu Hustle (April 8). From the director of Shaolin Soccer, this Chinese import looks as indescribably trippy and anarchic as Soccer-which bodes well for the musical-comedy-noir genre. And last (and probably least) there’s the remake of The Longest Yard (May 27), starring Adam Sandler. The Waterboy star leads a pack of convicts against their jailers in a “friendly” game of football.

The documentary renaissance is nowhere near over yet. Hitting theaters first is the Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace (March 4), an unflinching portrait of American troops (curse words and all) stationed in Uday Hussein’s former palace that (surprisingly) garnered a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. So send your kids! Step into Liquid’s Dana Brown returns triumphantly with Dust to Glory (April 1), a documentary about the treacherous grand prix, the Baja 1000. Mark Wexler navigates equally perilous terrain in Tell Them Who You Are, an intimate portrait of his father, famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. But for those who prefer their documentaries à la Spellbound, Rock School (April 15)-about a Philadelphia school where kids learn everything from Aerosmith to Zappa-looks as humorous, and inspiring, as its Jack Black predecessor.

Alternatives-more accurate than “indies,” no?-don’t disappoint this spring, either. Danny Boyle follows up 28 Days Later with a heartwarming tale of Christian spirituality in Millions (March 11). The Ballad of Jack and Rose (March 25)-the third film from Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Penn and the wife of Daniel Day Lewis, who stars in the film-tells the tale of a perennial outsider and his awkward pursuit of love (in the form of Catherine Keener), all while trying to hold onto an abandoned commune. Steven Soderbergh goes all Schizopolis again, joining forces with foreign powerhouses Wong Kar Wai and Michelangelo Antonioni for Eros (April 8), a film about love. House of D (April 15), David Duchovny’s directorial debut, stars Robin Williams as a mentally challenged best friend to Mr. Duchovny’s child self. And Todd Solondz pulls no punches in Palindromes (May 6), the story of a 13-year-old girl who desperately wants to get pregnant, starring Ellen Barkin. The film promises to be a political lightning rod, and there’s no doubt that both conservative and liberal camps will take the bait.