September 4, 1998


Overwhelmingly Large Slate of Movies for the Fall Season

By Michael Fleeman
AP ENTERTAINMENT WRITER

LOS ANGELES (AP) — With all the Oscar clatter surrounding this summer's "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Truman Show," you'd think they'd just cancel the fall movie season — the traditional time for studios to roll out their quality movies — and get on with the awards show.

Not so fast. More than 140 movies are due to arrive in theaters between Labor Day and New Year's Eve, and chances are a few will break out as Oscar contenders. But it's tough for viewers to keep them straight.



"The Thin Red Line" starring (clockwise from left) Adrien Brody, Dash Mihok, Will Wallace, Sean Penn, and Woody Harrelson.

With such a big, varied, overwhelming slate, just to stand out, a film would have to star Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson. And one does: "The Thin Red Line." That would have been the year's event picture about World War II if Steven Spielberg hadn't beaten them to it.

The glut is so extensive, the fall offers shades of the summer's dueling comets phenomenon, with not one but two films about precocious dwarfs — "Simon Birch" and "The Mighty" — and two computer-animated features about ants that talk: "Antz" and "A Bug's Life."

At last check, Meryl Streep is in at least two movies. So are Robin Williams, Travolta, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Jeanne Garofalo, Edward Norton and busy character actor Oliver Platt. Woody Allen lends his voice to one movie ("Antz") and directs another, "Celebrity." Val Kilmer and Sandra Bullock provide voices for "The Prince of Egypt" and appear on screen in separate films ("At First Sight" for Kilmer, "Practical Magic" for Ms. Bullock).

Even aging rockers from 80s hair bands have movies. Dee Snider, the frontman from Twisted Sister, wrote, directed and stars in "Dee Snider's Strangeland," and Poison's lead singer Bret Michaels does Snider a few hyphenates better as writer-director-producer-scorer of "A Letter From Death Row."

Out of the avalanche of films, a few trends emerge to help moviegoers make sense of the fall. Among them:

DON'T LET DEATH GET YOU DOWN

Maybe it's the approaching millennium. Maybe it's the moral crisis in Washington. Maybe it's just a coincidence. But several fall films deal with spirituality, the afterlife and the possibility of second chances.

Michael Keating dies in a car crash in "Jack Frost," then returns as a snowman, while Brad Pitt in "Meet Joe Black" has A-list death credentials. He's the Grim Reaper but falls in love with a tycoon's daughter during a vacation to the land of the living.

"There are a lot of people right now who are looking for some definition of what it is to be human," said Stephen Simon, one of the producers of "What Dreams May Come," about a wife (Annabella Sciorra) who kills herself so she can find her late husband (Williams) in the hereafter.

"It's very threatening to be confronted with the idea that things happen for a reason," added Oliver Platt, who plays an understanding surrogate father in "Simon Birch." "For cynics like myself, it's much easier to say: There's no plan; it happened. But as I get older, you start to ask these questions about life."

From the great beyond to the great unknown of the supernatural, there are the witches-with-man-trouble, "Practical Magic" with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, and Hollywood's latest take on cinema's favorite dwellers of the dark in "John Carpenter's Vampires" starring James Woods.

"We make it slightly more real in terms of the way vampires are killed," explained Carpenter, who was initially reluctant to make a vampire movie. "Crosses don't work. You have to kill them about 55 times and drag them into the sun, and when you do they ignite like magnesium."

HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTACHE IS

In "One True Thing," Renee Zwellweger is an ambitious magazine reporter in New York — the fourth movie lead this year to work for a New York magazine. She reluctantly gives up her career to take care of her dying mother (Streep) and finds just how painful it is to come to terms.

Another film pairing top actresses, "Stepmom," casts Susan Sarandon as the ex-wife who wants to hate former hubby's new girlfriend, Julia Roberts, but just can't do it. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Sarandon's health in this movie isn't so good, either.

The most disturbing family drama is from director Todd Solondz, whose "Happiness" is a very dark comedy that deals with loneliness, masturbation and pedophilia in suburbia. The film, virtually guaranteed an NC-17 rating, was dropped by October Releasing, under pressure from parent Universal Studios, and will be released independently by its producers.

STAR POWER

One of the most anticipated films of the fall is "Rounders," a snappy Matt Damon vehicle with his first lead role since the overnight success of "Good Will Hunting." Edward Norton makes a run for another Oscar nomination as Damon's morally challenged, fast-talking friend, and Gretchen Mol — anointed in Vanity Fair this month — plays Damon's girlfriend.

"With Matt, it was just a tremendous experience," gushed Mol, who also worked with Leonardo DiCaprio on "Celebrity" (she calls DiCaprio "an accomplished actor.") "Matt's got such a knowledge of filmmaking. He's really smart and sensitive, and he just made me feel comfortable."

LOOK TO A TOUGH BOOK

Filmmakers adapting "A Civil Action" from Jonathan Harr's bestselling book faced a dictionary- thick work filled with the intricacies of tangled civil litigation. In the end, hundreds of pages — and dozens of characters — were cut.

Similarly, it took Oprah Winfrey 10 years to bring Toni Morrison's "Beloved" to the screen while she searched for a way to extract a movie from the book's difficult narrative, which moves back and forth in time.

"We really wanted to follow the story. This movie is as true to the book as any story has been," said Winfrey, producer who also stars with Danny Glover. "We used the book every day. I would literally walk into the scene and... refer to the book. We'd ask: What does the book say about this?"

KEEPING ACTIVE

Thrillers and science fiction adventures didn't die in the summer's hail of meteorites. The fall season has a surprisingly large number of movies usually associated with the popcorn months, including a political thriller from "Armageddon" producer Jerry Bruckheimer in "Enemy of the State," starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith.

Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis and Annette Bening are called in to resolve a terrorist crisis in New York City in "Against All Enemies," and Robert De Niro is part of a team of mercenaries seeking a very important briefcase in Paris in "Ronin," which promises one of the greatest car chases since "The French Connection."

"This is not an action picture. It's a drama with action in it," said director John Frankenheimer. "This is a movie for an audience that really likes a good story. The characters are very, very interesting. I hope that people like the action sequences, but I think you could run this picture without the action sequences and have a very good movie."

There's also plenty to look at in the latest "Star Trek" evergreen, "Star Trek: Insurrection," with hundreds of special effects and, in a twist, a major love theme, as Capt. Picard is smitten.

"It's a totally different look than any other `Star Trek' film," said director Jonathan Frankes. "We're in the ninth venture in the franchise; I think surprises are essential."

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