Setting screens afire

Times Staff Writers

THE movie doesn't open for another four months, but already "The Da Vinci Code" is attracting the kind of early audience interest reserved for blockbuster franchises such as "Spider-Man," "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter." Sony Pictures is so excited about its adaptation of Dan Brown's massive bestseller that the studio has started contemplating a follow-up film, perhaps based on Brown's "Angels & Demons" or a forthcoming Brown manuscript about the Freemasons.

It's safe to say, in other words, that the "Da Vinci Code" film -- due May 19 and starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard -- is high atop a good number of the year's must-see lists. Maybe even some must-see-several-times lists.

There are plenty of other white-hot movies headed to screens this year. After a long delay spent not only jumping on couches but also looking for a director, Tom Cruise is back with "Mission: Impossible III." Once set to be made by "Narc" filmmaker Joe Carnahan, "M:I III" was directed by J.J. Abrams from television's "Lost"; Abrams is making his feature filmmaking debut on the spy sequel.

Abrams is not the only pinch-hitter assigned to a high-profile 2006 release. At the last minute, Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") replaced Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake") behind the cameras for "X3." Daniel Craig, who starred in "Layer Cake," is taking the place of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in "Casino Royale." And filling the pastel suits of "Miami Vice" for the Crockett and Tubbs roles played on TV by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas will be Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" was a huge success, and the cast is back for the sequel, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," virtually guaranteeing a garrrrrgantuan hit. After all, who doesn't love a swaggering, staggering, Keith Richards-channeling Johnny Depp? The animated/live-action "Charlotte's Web" will feature Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Oprah Winfrey, John Cleese and Robert Redford, among others.

Several intriguing directors have new projects to watch for. Clint Eastwood, fresh off his double win for "Million Dollar Baby" at the Academy Awards last year, brings out what could be another powerful film in "Flags of Our Fathers," based on the book about the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Sofia Coppola, 2003 Oscar winner for "Lost in Translation," makes an interesting switch to historical drama, chronicling the young 18th century queen of France in "Marie Antoinette," played by Kirsten Dunst.

Oliver Stone brings his unique perspective on American history to an as yet unnamed film about the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And Mel Gibson, on the heels of his "The Passion of the Christ," is set to release another epic in a foreign tongue -- dialogue in Gibson's "Apocalypto" is in a Mayan dialect.

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