The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Rob Cohen knows how to walk away from a franchise. The director behind such high-octane hits as XXX and The Fast and the Furious wasn't involved in what he calls the ''lackluster sequels'' to his movies that studios churned out without him. So what made Cohen take on the third iteration of a franchise he had no part in creating? One word: China. ''Ever since I converted to Buddhism and made Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, I've wanted to make a movie about China,'' he says.
Cohen got his wish. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a globe-trotting, time-traveling epic that spans over 2,100 years and unearths China's legendary terra-cotta army, some three-headed dragons, and, yes, a mummy, this time played by Li. Filmed half in China, half in Montreal, the movie reunites Fraser with the franchise that made him an action star. But not with Rachel Weisz, his costar in the last two Mummy movies. Instead, Mummy 3 finds the reluctant hero teaming up with Bello and Australian newcomer Luke Ford, who plays Fraser's son. ''When I made the decision to make the son 21,'' says Cohen, ''I got a very angry phone call from [Weisz's] agent, saying she'll never play the mother of a 21-year-old. I said, 'Okay, good, fine, bye.' It was critical to me to have this old-bull/young-bull family element. The father can't yet recognize the son's manhood, so it was important for the kid to not be a baby.'' (According to Weisz's reps, the actress never read the script and didn't consider doing the film because it would require a five-month trip to China with her infant child.)
The jovial Ford, it turned out, was a bit of an on-set prankster. The day the movie wrapped, Ford presented Cohen with a gift: a pirated DVD of the movie that he said he'd bought on China's infamous black market. ''For a minute there, knowing the nature of China, your heart skips a beat,'' says Cohen. ''Then I realized it was a joke. He really got me.''
If the prospect of seeing Dwight from The Office flashing devil horns behind the drum kit of a hair-metal band named Vesuvius amuses you, then congratulations, you've just made plans for the first weekend in August. Filmed during Wilson's hiatus from Dunder Mifflin, The Rocker is the first real box office test for Scranton's freaky beet farmer (we'll let My Super Ex-Girlfriend slide). Fortunately, he's been researching the part for a long time. ''This character is like the guys I went to high school with,'' says Wilson. ''If I'd never been given London Calling by the Clash, I'd still be listening to Whitesnake and Ratt too.''
Directed by The Full Monty's Cattaneo, The Rocker unspools the teased-hair tale of one Robert ''Fish'' Fishman (Wilson), who 20 years earlier was unceremoniously booted from a metal band shortly before they became platinum-selling monsters of rock. Since then, he's brooded, plotted revenge, and honed his high-hat chops. So when his high-school-age nephew's emo band, A.D.D., is looking for a new drummer, they give Fish a second shot at rock immortality. Needless to say, bittersweet life lessons are learned along the way. But if that plot sounds an awful lot like Jack Black's School of Rock, don't mention it to the director. ''That's always going to be a comparison, but this isn't as much of a one-man show,'' says Cattaneo. ''And I think our audience will be a little older than just children.''
Still, the comedy's biggest attraction for fans of The Office and the art of Acting in general is to witness Wilson immersing himself in The Method. ''I once read that Brad Pitt builds his characters through his hair,'' says Wilson. ''I did the same thing. The wig that I wore, you put that thing on and you can't help but walk a certain way. Add leather pants to the mix, and you've got a whole character.'' Somewhere that great Twisted Sister fan Stanislavsky must be smiling.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
Back in 2005, when the original Sisterhood about four high school friends who share a pair of magical jeans was released, things looked quite different for the film's stars. Bledel and Tamblyn were on cult TV shows, Ferrera was a respected but seldom employed actress, and Lively a relative unknown who had been plucked from a casting call. The movie grossed only $39 million in theaters, but DVD sales turned this heartwarming chicklet flick into a hit, which meant a sequel was almost inevitable.
But in those interim three years, everything changed. Ferrera's and Lively's careers took off on Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl, respectively, while Bledel's and Tamblyn's shows came to an end. When it was time to reassemble the cast, some were reportedly reluctant to make the sequel. Even magical jeans can't get you out of contractual obligations, though, and all four stars ended up returning. ''Yes, there were contracts and reluctancies,'' says director Hamri. ''But the truth of the matter was, once we were in the midst of it, all my actresses just lost themselves in it.''
Based on stories from three books in Ann Brashares' Sisterhood series, the sequel weaves together the tales of Carmen (Ferrera) taking theater courses at Yale, Bridget (Lively) reconnecting with a grandmother (Blythe Danner) she never knew, Tibby (Tamblyn) studying to be a director at NYU, and Lena (Bledel) choosing between two different love interests. ''From day one it was like being back on the first [Sisterhood],'' says Tamblyn. ''America and I immediately got on set and started complaining about how nice Blake's legs are and how it pissed us off.'' But can these 19-year-old characters compete with that other summer movie about four female friends navigating life, love, and clothing? ''Do the women of Sex and the City all share one pair of pants?'' asks Tamblyn. ''I think not.''
When a dewy American couple (played by Harrelson and Mortimer) befriends a mysterious pair of travelers while riding on a train from Beijing to Moscow, their journey quickly starts to derail. Much of Anderson's thriller shot on a 40-mile railway stretch in Lithuania takes place inside the train itself (''a monster,'' says Kingsley), and the film is particularly interested in the slippery morality that is plaguing the region in the post-Soviet era. As Kingsley puts it, ''It's not the Wild West. It's the wild, wild East.''
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The Lucas camp is extremely tight-lipped with details about this animated Star Wars spin-off, but here's what we know so far: The film will serve as a setup for an upcoming Cartoon Network series, and both take place in the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, back when Anakin Skywalker was still one of the good guys, ''the ultimate hero of the clone war and a great Jedi Knight,'' as Filoni puts it. The film will also introduce Asoka, a female Jedi who, according to the director, ''has to hold her own with Anakin and Obi-Wan, which is a tough path for any person.''
Based on Alicia Erian's 2005 novel, Towelhead follows Jasira, a 13-year-old girl of Lebanese descent (newcomer Bishil), whose sexual awakening takes a harrowing turn when her Texan neighbor (Eckhart) begins to molest her. It should be noted, though, that the movie emphasizes resilience, not tragedy. ''[Sexual abuse] is such an amazingly common experience,'' says Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty and created HBO's Six Feet Under. ''That whole notion of 'She's destroyed, she'll never have a normal life' I just don't think that's true.''
Robert Downey Jr.
When discussing Tropic Thunder Stiller's movie about a group of prima donna actors making a Vietnam War film that goes epically awry it's best not to call it an ''action comedy'' in front of its star and director co-writer. ''I hate that phrase,'' Stiller laughs. ''What does that mean, action comedy? I mean, there's definitely action in the movie. There's real stakes and people get hurt, but it's definitely a comedy. It's just a combo. It's sort of hard for me to describe.''
Let's give costar Downey a crack at it: ''What this movie really does is take some very below-the-knees machete shots at white men in the entertainment industry.'' Downey is alluding to his character, Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning Aussie who's so deeply Method that he dyes his skin black to play the African-American Sergeant Osiris. But that spirit of Hollywood eye-poking infuses the entire film. Stiller plays an action star who tries to stretch himself in a film called Simple Jack, Black is a drug-addled comedian best known for his flatulence, and Coogan is a first-time director who unwittingly sends his actors into the territory of a heroin cartel. Then there's Tom Cruise. The real-life action star literally stretched himself for Thunder, donning a fat suit and bald cap to play an extremely foulmouthed studio head in a performance that had a screening room of industry suits and Hollywood press convulsing with laughter earlier this month.
For his part, Black calls Thunder ''a comedy that looks like this massive war film,'' which meant doing some rather challenging stunt work. ''I have to ride on the back of a yak in my underpants for a lot of the movie,'' says Black. ''At one point this water buffalo went on the crazy train and just started bucking me.'' Well, whaddaya know: That has action and it's funny!
The Accidental Husband
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
When a pompous radio talk-show host named Dr. Emma Lloyd (Thurman) advises a caller to break off her relationship, the woman's firefighter boyfriend (Morgan) decides to exact revenge on Emma. His nefarious plan? Tampering with marriage records to make it look like he's actually married to her. ''It's a story that's rooted in the finest screwball traditions that have been evolving since It Happened One Night,'' says director Dunne of the comedy. ''[Emma] falls down, bangs her head a lot, and a lot of s--- gets on her dress.''
After Indy storms the box office, Harrison Ford the action star will give way to Harrison Ford the dramatic actor (remember him?) for this ensemble piece, which explores the effects of illegal immigration. The heavy subject matter normally art-house fare might reach a mass market thanks to a cast that also includes Penn as a border patroller, Liotta as a low-level official, and Judd as a defense attorney. ''I'm sure that I'm the weakest link in the movie,'' Judd jokes of her costars. ''And I'm totally okay with that.'' Next to those guys, we would be too.
If Shakespeare ever hoped that someday, somewhere, someone would write a follow-up to his great existential tragedy, this is surely not what he had in mind. The Sundance hit is a twisted comedy about a failed actor -- turned -- high school drama teacher who puts on a musical sequel in which Mr. To Be Or Not To Be, accompanied by the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus, sings such ditties as ''Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.'' ''The canon of teacher movies, like Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Poets Society, is very earnest,'' says director Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew). ''We liked this idea of a guy who thought he was that kind of a teacher, but he's really just an idiot.'' British comic Steve Coogan stars as the pitiful prof, while Elisabeth Shue plays herself. Or, rather, ''a version of myself,'' she says. ''I've quit the business and become a nurse.'' Coogan's character, it turns out, is something of a Shue fetishist. ''I'm obsessed with Elisabeth Shue,'' Coogan says. ''I metaphorically and literally kiss her ass. I invite her to my school to give a talk. She says some very explicit things. And they're shocking for fans of Elisabeth Shue.'' Like we said: twisted.
This thriller comes from the unlikeliest of sources: Steve Martin's brain. The comedian dreamt up the espionage tale, took an exec-producer credit, then stepped aside and let the experts take over. And it turns out that's not the only unusual thing about Traitor. ''I've never seen a movie where a Muslim is the hero,'' says Cheadle, playing a CIA operative who manages to infiltrate a band of terrorists with unexpected consequences. ''He gets caught up and has his allegiances, his Muslim faith, tested. It hopefully will serve as a good jumping-off point to examine this issue.''
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
You'd think that after nearly 40 movies, Allen would be a little savvier about PR. The legendary director is actually eager to dispel the titillating rumors swirling around his latest project, a bittersweet romantic comedy set in Spain. ''Because it was Penélope and Scarlett and Javier, it got out that there was torrid sex in the picture,'' Allen says. Sorry, that's not the case. There's sex, yes, but it's a discreetly photographed ménage à trois. ''People who come and expect those exaggerations are going to be disappointed.''
At least Bardem's No Country bowl cut is history. The Oscar winner plays a well-known Spanish painter who romantically juggles two American college students: recently engaged Vicky (Hall) and her wild-child best friend, Cristina (Johansson). But when his emotionally unstable ex-wife (Cruz) enters the picture, a frisky love triangle grows complicated.
The director wrote the script with Cruz in mind, and her first meeting with him left her dizzy. ''I was very nervous because there are so many myths about him,'' Cruz says. ''But he was so sweet, and I remember I left the office and took a walk around New York feeling very happy.'' And curious. She pummeled Johansson, now on her third Allen film, with questions about the director. ''You can see there is a familiarity that they have with each other,'' Cruz says. ''They can joke or be rude together, because they really love each other.'' Cruz cultivated her own rapport with Allen. When the film wrapped, he gave her his famous glasses as a gift. Just don't ask Allen to choose between his leading ladies: ''To come to the set every morning with two of the sexiest women in the world...'' he says. ''That was certainly as big a treat as you could have.''
Based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel, Choke stars Sam Rockwell as a historical reenactor who feigns gagging in restaurants. It's about time the Heimlich got the big-screen treatment (Aug. 1).... In Frozen River, two downtrodden women smuggle illegal immigrants: The drama won an award at Sundance (Aug. 1).... Kevin Costner is a layabout whose choice will decide the presidential election in Swing Vote. For once, the Waterworld Party might have a shot (Aug. 1).... Nostalgic for biker movies? Hop onto Hell Ride, starring exactly whom you'd expect: David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, and Michael Madsen (Aug. 8).... A spoiled L.A. brat (Emma Roberts) gets sent to a strict British boarding school in Wild Child. Odds are good that a stuffy headmaster will be doused in something gloopy (Aug. 22).... While on a job in Thailand, hitman Nicolas Cage finds a protégé, romance, danger, and a surprisingly tasty Massaman curry in Bangkok Dangerous (Aug. 22).... Pests in space: Three flies hitch a ride on Apollo 11 in the 3-D animated Fly Me to the Moon (Aug. 22).... A security guard (Kiefer Sutherland) realizes a store's Mirrors are haunted! Which is his way of rationalizing that his butt looks fat (Aug. 15).... Three pre-frosh students have their beer mitzvahs while visiting College (Aug. 29).... And in Babylon A.D., Vin Diesel delivers a woman with a secret through a postapocalyptic world. Diesel and the postapocalypse: They go together like chocolate and peanut butter (Aug. 29).
Steve Daly, Jeff Jensen, Chris Nashawaty, Missy Schwartz, Jessica Shaw, Benjamin Svetkey, Adam B. Vary, Josh Wolk