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They're back...

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2001


At the movies, it was a summer to forget - unless a steady parade of feuding felines, digital dinosaurs, and artificial apes is your idea of Hollywood at its finest.

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Oh yes, "Pearl Harbor" made plenty of money - and it made even more in a reissue over Labor Day weekend. (They used to reserve that treatment for classics, didn't they?) But the season hasn't exactly been memorable, or stirring, or even entertaining, by Hollywood's own best standards.

And it certainly hasn't had great performances, except for the prettily filmed bomb in "Pearl Harbor" that looked so graceful as it swooped toward its target.

The grand old studios aren't bereft of grand new talents - they've just forgotten how to give stars material worthy of their abilities. Tim Roth with a monkey face? Julia Roberts in a fat suit? Gimme a break.

But things are about to change, if Tinseltown's barrage of pre-autumn publicity is any indication. Good acting is apparently back in style, and optimists are looking forward to meaty performances mixed in with the fantastic formulas, awesome camera tricks, and spectacular special effects that have become integral aspects of American movies.

Anthony Hopkins as a mysterious stranger. Johnny Depp as a Victorian sleuth. Cate Blanchett as a country-music fan in love with two crooks. Kevin Spacey as a man who may or not be an interplanetary alien. Sound enticing?

As if to make us squirm a little more this fall, some of the most performance-friendly fare will wait in the wings until after Thanksgiving, when some of Hollywood's most glittering names will show what they can do with unusually challenging roles. That's when Jim Carrey will go poignant as a small-time screenwriter in The Majestic, Will Smith will tap the complexities of a great prizefighter in Ali, and Gene Hackman will play the wandering father of a complicated family in The Royal Tenenbaums, to mention just a few tantalizing prospects.

Nor will the weeks before Thanksgiving be devoted entirely to high-toned acting. The most eagerly awaited treat, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, takes its cachet more from J.K. Rowling's novels and director Chris Columbus's track record ("Gremlins," "Mrs. Doubtfire") than from burning desires to see Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe act up a storm. Animation will also strike again - the Disney fantasy Monsters, Inc. is the one to beat - and the inescapable Arnold Schwarzenegger is looming in Collateral Damage, a political thriller sure to have more thrills than politics.

Still, the studios appear to have turned a corner, and we may not have to check our brains at the popcorn counter quite as often as during the long, tepid summer. Here are some of the pictures inspiring this hopeful prediction:

Hearts in Atlantis, Sept. 28. No current star is more gifted than Anthony Hopkins, and not since the late Alec Guinness has there been a more versatile actor, swinging from the histrionics of "Titus" to the horrors of "Hannibal" without missing a beat. He's also a hard worker, with two pictures - the other is "Bad Company," opening Christmas Day - on tap this season.

"Hearts" takes its cue from Stephen King's book about a 12-year-old boy (Anton Yelchin) with a self-centered mother (Hope Davis) and an enigmatic new acquaintance (Hopkins) who may be able to help him.

On paper, this seems an ideal role for Sir Anthony, who gets to be ominous (Where did he come from? What's he really up to?) and comforting (Somebody's got to protect that kid!) by turns.

The screenplay was penned by veteran writer William Goldman and directed by Scott Hicks, who showed in "Shine" that he knows how to handle eccentric heroes. But don't expect Hopkins to follow up with a concert tour, as the real-life "Shine" character did, though his on-screen work could put him in Oscar territory once again.