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FALL SNEAKS

What's Gonna Fly This Time?

After a summer of debunking some industry myths, autumn brings its usual complement of serious-minded movies, and there may be a few gems hidden in the lineup.

September 13, 1998|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Fall is here, and for the movie business as well as for schoolkids, it's time to put aside childish things and get serious.

Summer is gone and whatever money was squeezed out during what's traditionally a high earning season is a thing of the past. The fall, on the other hand, is the time when studios feel most comfortable releasing their more nominally adult films, the ones that it would most like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to remember when Oscar ballots go out the door.

This fall should be especially interesting because it follows a summer that shattered a couple of the cherished precepts that govern how the studios think about the performance of their pictures.

The first myth that went away is that audiences are never in the mood for anything serious before Labor Day. In an adroit piece of counter-programming that went completely against conventional wisdom, DreamWorks released "Saving Private Ryan" in the middle of the summer. Helped by Steven Spielberg's name above the title, "Ryan" did exceptionally well at the box office, proving that audiences are more adventurous than the timid souls who make a living predicting their patterns.

Likewise, though it had no major stars and did not have the steroid-induced boost of a monster opening weekend, "There's Something About Mary" proved to be one of the season's biggest hits, holding its audience from week to week in a way that proves the lasting power of word-of-mouth as no recent film has.

It's of course difficult to say before the fact which of this fall's films will similarly find a way to break free of the pack. One can, however, select the ones that look potentially interesting and, even more intriguing, notice the kinds of material that predominate at this time of the year.

THE WRITTEN WORD

Because fall product is supposed to appeal to whatever card-carrying adults still go to the movies, a considerable number of films coming out in the next few months are based on honest-to-God works of literature. Among them are:

"Beloved." A labor of love for producer and star Oprah Winfrey, who has worked for a decade on getting Toni Morrison's much-admired novel about an escaped slave to the screen.

"Lolita." After a one-week Oscar-qualifying run and a stint on Showtime, Vladimir Nabokov's tale of obsession and possession comes to theaters in force.

"One True Thing." Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger play a mother and daughter who are reunited by tragedy in Carl Franklin's version of Anna Quindlen's novel.

"Practical Magic." Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing star in an adaptation of Alice Hoffman's novel about modern-day witchcraft.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." Director James Ivory takes a break from the classics and concentrates instead on Kaylie Jones' autobiographical novel about growing up as the daughter of celebrated novelist James Jones (played by Kris Kristofferson).

STAR VEHICLES

Even in the fall, much as it might like to, the movie business can't do without its stars, though given the season we're occasionally exposed to a different kind of star vehicle. For example:

"Antz." Yes, this is computer-generated animation about those pesky insects, but where would it be without the voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone and a bunch of others?

"Gods and Monsters." Ian McKellen shows why he's one of the preeminent actors working today in a portrait of the great horror director James Whale lounging in Hollywood past his prime.

"Holy Man." A kinder, gentler Eddie Murphy cleaned up at the box office in "Dr. Dolittle," and now he's back as a modern-day wise man who works, naturally, on television.

"What Dreams May Come." The sight of Robin Williams scouring the afterlife for the woman he loves will, if nothing else, result in some funny interview material. "Women between 25 and 35 were 'uncomfortable with hell,' " Williams told Entertainment Weekly. "I went, 'You're supposed to be. It's not Beverly Hell.' "

"The Waterboy." O ye of little faith, Adam Sandler is too a star, at least to some people. Here he gets to play a klutz with an unlikely talent for the great game of football.

ACTION-PACKED

The only thing as reliable as stars in today's market seems to be thrillers and action films, and the early fall has a number that at least look promising:

"Ronin." Robert De Niro is more laconic than usual as one of a team of sinister covert operatives trying to snatch a mysterious silver box. Veteran John Frankenheimer does the directing.

"The Siege." Terrorism hits the U.S. big-time in this film (formerly called "Against All Enemies"), and assorted bigwigs (Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis) have a hard time figuring out the appropriate American response.

"Soldier." Well-worn Kurt Russell plays a well-worn outer space warrior in a script written by "Unforgiven's" David Webb Peoples.

ECLECTIC AND OFFBEAT

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