This summer, speculation on a box-office slump went from a Hollywood conspiracy theory to the national spotlight as news outlets everywhere reported on high-profile bombs from “Kingdom of Heaven” to “The Island,” “Bewitched” to “Stealth,” which collectively led to the weakest summer in revenue since 1997. And so the era when a full slate of Jessica Albas and Michael Bay movies and Batmobiles could win summer moviegoers over was no more. But summer ’05 wasn’t a total wash.There was a myriad of celebrity gossip (Russell Crowe beats concierge with telephone! Tom Cruise takes Katie Holmes hostage!), people spent more than a month in line for a single film and a long-dormant franchise was reborn with one of the most accomplished comic-book movies ever. The months flew by, but not all of it is in a haze. If you didn’t go to the movies this summer, here’s what you missed (or didn’t miss) at the multiplex.

Film Reviews
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Film Reviews
(Courtesy of New Line)

 

Crowe angry! Crowe smash!

Russell Crowe scored three Oscar nominations in as many years, headlined two Best Picture winners and rose from critically lauded obscurity to A-list sex god. Now, he’s a surly bully with a movie bomb and at least 30 extra pounds. Crowe kicked off his PR nightmare this year by decrying actors Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro for hawking international products, thereby violating their “fucking social contract” (Rousseau would be so proud), only to trump himself by allegedly assaulting a hotel worker with a telephone. His reprieve should have come with the well-reviewed “Cinderella Man.” Sadly, the movie, otherwise known as “Seabiscuit 2,” probably would have done better if the horse boxed and the moody Aussie was put out to sleep.

 

Sex gags rule

It’s been years since Hollywood scared itself into an MPAA-sanctioned corner of “clean” comedy — where it’s OK to have sex so long as it is a frantic, 30-second embarrassment in a cramped space — but this summer the crude finally ruled again. Sure, “Monster-in-Law” and “The Longest Yard” drew crowds, but neither of them had anything on the R-rated “Wedding Crashers,” the almost-$200-million comedic behemoth that outgrossed action flicks that cost five times as much to make. And now, with a leggy run for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” it’s clear that the R-rated comedy is here to stay. It’s a moment to cherish for 15-year-old boys everywhere: The T&A they have been so rudely deprived of since the “American Pie” heyday is now just a casual sneak in away.

 

Penguins, Moore-lite

America’s love affair with documentaries continued with the little French nature documentary that could “March of the Penguins,” which became one of the season’s biggest surprises. Audiences were also charmed by watching inner-city preteens get dance lessons (“Mad Hot Ballroom”), energized by fast-paced hip-hop routines (“Rize”) and had their adrenaline pumped up a notch thanks to some quadrapalegics playing an unlikely extreme sport (“Murderball”). And here’s the most exciting part: People went to see these movies even though Michael Moore had nothing to do with them. (Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t one of the plumper penguins.)

 

Show’s over

The sight of Jessica Simpson washing a car in nothing but that skimpy pink bikini might be the only reason that the critically mauled “Dukes of Hazard” raked in more than $30 million in its opening weekend. The fact that all those boys too shy for Internet porn spent their allowance on Simpson’s airbrushed legs as soon as possible might explain the enormous second-weekend dip that ensured the Good Ol’ Boys were a one-weekend wonder. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman’s long-awaited “Bewitched” proved less than magical, while audiences jilted “The Honeymooners” at the cinematic altar. But all puns aside, people, please stop making these movies.

 

Explosions lose their bang

While low-cost comedies and documentaries raked in the big bucks, $100-million-plus action tentpoles lagged behind. “Stealth,” “The Island” and even “Kingdom of Heaven” — from Ridley “Gladiator” Scott, the new master of the historical blockbuster — massively underperformed at the box office. Maybe audiences know who Josh Lucas, Jamie Foxx, Orlando Bloom and Ewan McGregor are, but will they really rush out to see a big movie because they are starring? Guess not.

 

No, I love you ore

There’s no point making fun of that beyond-bizarre TomKat multimedia spectacle anymore. That it’s a hoax has been reported since day one, and that it’s overexposed has been established in even the most masturbatory pop-culture rags — but that it might prove lucrative? There’s a scary notion. Yet Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise scored two of the biggest blockbusters of the season (“Batman Begins” and “War of the Worlds”). Meanwhile, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” inexplicably drew box-office receipts to the very sweet tune of $184 million in the United States alone. To say that the public’s insatiable fascination with the Brangelina phenomenon might have helped the gimmicky, lame-looking movie is a bit like saying Tom Cruise ought to look into a new publicist. Or, given the numbers, perhaps dignity is just a liability.

 

A star is born

OK, so even if you combine the box-office returns of all three movies Terrence Howard made this summer, you’d still end up with a figure smaller than the likes of, say, “Fantastic Four.” But with dazzling turns in the ensemble sleeper “Crash,” Sundance favorite “Hustle & Flow” and John Singleton’s “Four Brothers,” it’s clear that a star was born. In four months, Howard went from a relative unknown to an Entertainment Weekly cover boy, and as if that isn’t impressive enough, he did it with scene-swiping performances in some of the summer’s most provocative movies. To hell with it, we’re even willing to forgive him in advance for his forthcoming stint opposite 50 Cent in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

 

In a multiplex not so far away…

Twenty-eight years later, George Lucas finally completed the beloved science-fiction opus with “Titanic in Space” — er, “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” Fans dressed up as Obi-Wan and Darth, lined up a month before the movie opened and guess what? It was still pretty mediocre! How exactly is this one better than the other prequels? It had the same wooden acting, the same barebones dialogue and Anakin’s dark descent proved to be the ultimate anticlimax. Naturally though, it became the summer’s biggest hit. Everyone’s to blame for this one: Even if you thought it was “just OK,” you still paid to see the damn thing six times.

 

Not exactly a scream

It’s considered a rule of thumb in Hollywood that teenagers will never get sick of watching horny caricatures of themselves get stabbed, gutted or otherwise dismembered on the big screen, but sometimes even the most enduring American pastimes hit a rough patch. This summer, “Dark Water” promptly sank, and a sensationally bad dub job was the least of “High Tension’s” problems. Meanwhile, “Land of the Dead” found many dead theaters, and not even the promise of a red-lingerie-clad Paris Hilton impalement could sell genre fans on the in-name-only “House of Wax” remake. Well, at least we have that “Kill Reality” masterpiece to look forward to.

 

If you adapt it, they will come

Despite bombs like “Elektra” earlier this year, it’s clear that audiences will still go nuts for a big comic-book adaptation. “Batman Begins” — which has made more than $200 million in the United States and counting — showed that audiences favor well-developed characters and a psychological focus along with their explosions and car chases. And then “Fantastic Four” proved that after “Batman Begins,” they’d pay to see anything. But hey, there’s a lot to look forward to next summer with “X3,” directed by the devil incarnate (otherwise known as Brett Ratner), and Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” starring the guy from “One Life to Live” and “Undressed.” Let the superhero franchise overkill begin.

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