And You Thought Summer Was Jampacked ...

Between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, an unprecedented 50 films are slated for release.

Summertime - the Sequel!

That's what observers expect as Hollywood prepares to launch what Variety calls "an unprecedented assault of movies." By the trade paper's count, almost 50 films are slated for release during the scant 13 weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

While this is traditionally a strong season for ticket sales, it proved disappointing in 1996, so studios are changing their tactics.

Normally, autumn marks a turn from silly-season fantasies, farces, and romances to slightly more thoughtful fare. But burned by last year's dearth of breakaway hits during the period, Hollywood has packed its roster with big-budget "event movies" and high-profile star vehicles.

The irony is that summer turned out to have its own set of problems, with too many would-be blockbusters vying for attention from viewers - and for space on multiplex screens. (Nevertheless, Variety reports that Hollywood passed the $4 billion box-office mark by Aug. 14, two weeks ahead of last year.)

Will the fall schedule succeed in its effort to daze and dazzle us into shelling out the price of a ticket? The answer will be yes, if moviegoers see the new crop as more sophisticated than warm-weather disappointments like "Batman & Robin" and "Speed 2: Cruise Control."

If audiences perceive the newcomers as more of the same, however, results could be highly negative. And either way, two downbeat consequences are likely:

* The glut of movies jostling for screens will cause offerings not instantly successful to vanish almost immediately, so new contenders can take over their valuable space. This means that pictures with a shade of complexity or difference - which are difficult to market with simplistic slogans and need time to build audiences through word of mouth - may have special difficulty making their voices heard.

* Movies that really break conventional molds could have trouble getting into theaters at all. Last autumn's shortage of major-voltage hits gave a boost to independent pictures like "Sling Blade," overseas productions like "Secrets & Lies," and quasi-art films like "The English Patient," all of which went on to leading roles in the Academy Awards race. A rerun of this scenario isn't likely if Hollywood has a near endless lineup of megamovies itching for every available slot.

Whatever the season's outcome, some portion of the viewing public will naturally be pleased. As the contest commences, odds favor moviegoers with a taste for spectacle and sensation. Those hungering for more thought-provoking fare will be rooting for quieter "counterprogramming," served up by distributors wary of placing all their money on glitz, glamour, and glitter. Among the most anticipated pictures in various categories are these:

The Edge. Action and adventure have become so fashionable that even cerebral writer David Mamet has turned in their direction, scripting this high-energy tale about a billionaire testing his mettle against the Alaskan wilderness. Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin star, supported by Elle Macpherson and Bart the Bear, everyone's favorite bruin. Lee Tamahori directed.

The Rainmaker. John Grisham's bestselling novel cheers for a Novice Attorney fighting a Big Insurance Company that's brought disaster to a working-class family. Matt Damon and Claire Danes head the cast, with up-and-down filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in the director's chair. Grisham fans can also see The Gingerbread Man, his first original screenplay, with the legendary Robert Altman directing Kenneth Branagh as a lawyer and Embeth Davidtz as a mysterious woman.

L.A. Confidential. A good cop, a bad cop, an egotistical cop, and a tabloid sleaze-peddler are major characters of Curtis Hanson's thriller set in Hollywood during the '50s. The plot doesn't make much sense, but explosive acting (Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito) helps to compensate.

Seven Years in Tibet. Brad Pitt schleps across the Himalayas during World War II, escapes from a British prison camp, and winds up in a mutually enlightening friendship with Tibet's spiritual leader. Nature specialist Jean-Jacques Annaud is an appropriate director for this fact-based tale, although the picture's outlook is darkened by recent reports that its Austrian hero had Nazi affiliations. Christmas will bring a more promising film on a related subject: Kundun, director Martin Scorsese's account of the Dalai Lama's early years, ending with his flight to India in 1959.

The Peacemaker. The first film offering from DreamWorks, founded by Steven Spielberg and two similarly powerful cronies, pits intelligence agents George Clooney and Nicole Kidman against terrorists who've stashed away a nuclear missile. The project has thrills and stars in its favor, but the combination of a new studio and a first-time director - Mimi Leder of TV's popular "ER," also Clooney's usual turf - has some observers skeptical.

U-Turn. Oliver Stone loves to raise a ruckus, and some expect the physical and emotional intensity of this modestly budgeted chiller to do just that. Sean Penn plays a drifter in an isolated town where nobody will leave him alone. Also on hand are Nick Nolte and Billy Bob Thornton.

The season's most tantalizing family film is Anastasia, an animated musical from Twentieth Century Fox, a major studio invading the feature-cartoon world for the first time. Meg Ryan gives voice to the title character, a woman claiming to be the long-lost daughter of a long-gone Russian czar. Animations haven't been burning up the box office lately, and the subject may be too esoteric for young viewers, but hopes remain high.

Paving the way will be a reissue of The Little Mermaid, one of Disney's most impressive recent cartoons. Also aimed at families are Flubber, a Disney remake with Robin Williams, and a live-action Mr. Magoo with Leslie Nielsen, both due as the winter season gets under way.

The films will become more serious-minded between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when a mini-blitz of literary projects will arrive, hoping to capitalize on the recent Jane Austen boomlet.

Great Expectations, arguably the greatest of Charles Dickens's novels, gets an updated treatment with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, aided by Anne Bancroft as Miss Havisham and Robert De Niro as the story's mystery man.

The cycle of Henry James adaptations that began with "Portrait of a Lady" continues with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney in Washington Square, based on one of the master's more easygoing books, followed by Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove, from a darker and more intricate novel.

Moviegoers who find this too highfalutin can relax with Sphere in mid-December, adapted by Barry Levinson from Michael Crichton's surprisingly funny novel about derring-do in a submerged spaceship. The credits alone - Dustin Hoffman meets Sharon Stone - seem worth the price of admission.

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