Digging for Oscar gold

Some sparkles of hope for fall

The good news is - it's over! The summer film season, as flimsy and frivolous as any in recent memory, has finally become just that: a memory, and one to be erased as quickly as possible.

Moviegoers who like to use their minds and hearts as well as their eyes and ears are hoping the fall season will offer a significant dose of substantial pictures to help them forget the nastiness of "Hollow Man," the stupidity of "The Replacements," the vulgarity of "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps," and other stuff that soured the multiplex scene during the warm-weather months.

The bad news is - it isn't over! Advance buzz predicts that Hollywood's autumn schedule will be suspiciously like the summer slate, with the same appeals to silliness and sensationalism.

Noting that fall movies usually turn to "mature themes, classical scores, and actors wearing tunics," the entertainment trade paper Variety reports that this autumn's high-profile films are "unusually heavy on action, horror, comedy, and Jim Carrey in a big green suit."

There's also a large amount of "product" lined up for space on the silver screen, suggesting that pictures will vanish with extraordinary speed if they don't score huge box-office numbers from the get-go. So prepare for a high-intensity advertising blitz to match the onslaught of movies competing for critical praise, audience attention, and ticket-window dollars.

It's possible Hollywood will surprise us, of course, especially if these prognostications lead us to lower our expectations for the major "tentpole movies" that studios rely on to keep their profit margins healthy.

And some of the fare may prove to have unexpected depth. Remember the Titans looks like a standard sports picture - until you notice that it stars the gifted Denzel Washington and was directed by Boaz Yakin, who made the commendably serious "Fresh" and "A Price Above Rubies." Maybe he's sold out to the system. Or maybe he's challenging the system with a gridiron picture that lives up to its interesting subjects of male competition, racial tension, and the integration experiments of the 1960s and '70s. We'll find out when it opens Sept. 29.

What else is slouching toward multiplexes as autumn begins? Here are some of the pictures most anticipated by audiences - and by Hollywood, hoping to equal last year's overall box-office take despite lackluster numbers during the summer:

Almost Famous, Sept. 15. After becoming a hot property with "Jerry Maguire," director Cameron Crowe seized the opportunity to make this somewhat autobiographical account of his mid-'70s career as a pop-music reporter. Billy Crudup, who's proved his charismatic talent in pictures like "Jesus' Son" and "Without Limits," plays the rock-singer hero, with Kate Hudson as the groupie who falls for him. These actors are almost famous now, and this movie could make them actually so if it performs as well as the DreamWorks studio hopes.

Dancer in the Dark, Sept. 23. This offbeat item hails from Scandinavia, as do leading lady Bjrk and director Lars von Trier, although both have large American followings. Bjrk plays a handicapped worker whose life plunges into chaos when she gets into a deadly feud with a policeman. Von Trier helped originate the stripped-down Dogma 95 filmmaking style, but he swings to the other extreme here, using 100 cameras to shoot the song-and-dance numbers of this musical tragedy. The results are uneven, but they're exuberantly cinematic - enough to win the highest prize at last spring's Cannes filmfest, making this a must-see for adventurous movie buffs.

Girlfight, Sept. 29. Hollywood is readying a new wave of prizefighting pictures, and this independent contender beats the trend by several months. It was written and directed by Karyn Kusama, who gives a new twist to old genre conventions via a feisty heroine who uses boxing as an escape route from a boring life and an overbearing dad. It has a potential knock-out punch in the form of Michelle Rodriguez's acting, which helped the movie snare major awards at the Sundance festival.

Bamboozled, Oct. 6. Spike Lee fizzled with "The Original Kings of Comedy," a performance-based movie that gave little leeway to his filmmaking talent. But this is a Lee project in the fullest sense, complete with the kind of racially charged premise that made pictures like "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever" so controversial: A struggling African-American writer dreams up a 21st-century minstrel show for a TV network, and soon blackface entertainment is sweeping the nation. Lee loves to pack his movies with everything from psychological nuance to sociological sweep, and this button-pushing comedy could stand with his most provocative works.

Dr. T & the Women, Oct. 13. If you have fond recollections of Robert Altman hits like "Nashville" and "The Player," you'll find much to enjoy in this comedy-drama about a Dallas physician who spends so much emotional energy on the women in his life that his own psyche goes haywire. Richard Gere's expressive acting could revitalize his career, and Helen Hunt and Shelley Long stand out as well. Anne Rapp wrote the screenplay, but Altman's probing camera gives the movie his distinctive signature.

Pay It Forward, Oct. 20. The compulsively watchable Kevin Spacey plays a schoolteacher whose star pupil fulfills an assignment by turning acts of human kindness into a compassionate pyramid scheme. Action specialist Mimi Leder isn't the director one might have expected for this reportedly sentimental script, but audiences may flock to see more of young Haley Joel Osment, whose acting in "The Sixth Sense" earned an Oscar nomination.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Oct. 27. "The Blair Witch Project" racked up the biggest cost-to-profit ratio of any film ever, so at least one sequel was inevitable. But expect the unexpected: The follow-up was helmed by Joe Berlinger, a seasoned documentary director working with a budget far higher than the original's tiny price tag, and the screenplay reportedly throws out the amateur-footage format that gave the first film its sense of first-person terror. Will these innovations refresh the franchise? Only a certain Witch knows for sure....

The Golden Bowl, Nov. 3. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant have become legendary for their meticulous literary adaptations, and this ranks with their most ambitious efforts: an exquisitely filmed exploration of Henry James's deeply introspective novel, with a luminous cast headed by Nick Nolte as an aging business tycoon, Kate Beckinsale as his idealistic daughter, Jeremy Northam as the European prince she marries, and Uma Thurman as a former lover who refuses to let him go. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the literate screenplay.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Nov. 17. Ron Howard has directed his share of uninspired movies, but Jim Carrey can liven up any affair, and Dr. Seuss's famous villain seems like a tailor-made role for him. Advance word stresses the picture's heavy reliance on special effects, which could dilute the story's Seuss-like simplicity - or make it soar for modern kiddies. If the latter prospect comes true, look for boffo box office straight through the yuletide season.

Speaking of which, plenty more is in store between Thanksgiving and Christmas, from the deserted-island drama "Cast Away," reuniting Tom Hanks with "Forrest Gump" director Robert Zemeckis, to the loftily titled "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a scattershot comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, of "Fargo" fame. Will they warm our winter-chilled hearts or will the Grinch steal their box-office magic? Hollywood can't wait to find out.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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