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FALL SNEAKS

Hollywood, Show Us Your Chops

Goodbye, blah-buster summer. Hello, quirky fall. In the season of risk, forget big booms and think personal choices. Whew.

September 10, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

And, wasn't that a dreary summer?

"Me, Myself & Irene" was funny, if you think making light of schizophrenics and shooting injured cows is funny. And, what was the point of "Hollow Man"--that being invisible is great because you can sexually harass women undetected? And, didn't Academy Award winners Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie stretch their talents in "Gone in 60 Seconds"?

If it wasn't for the spectacle of ancient Rome re-created by computer in "Gladiator," or those cackling hens plotting escape in "Chicken Run," or wondering how the heck Tom Cruise did his own stunts spinning on motorcycles and dangling from a cliff in "M:I-2," would the summer of 2000 have been memorable at all?

But take heart, movie aficionados. In Hollywood, autumn has arrived.

Just as the leaves are weaving a vivid tapestry in reds, yellows and golds across this fair land, so too are movies about to change their tone with the season--well, some of them anyway.

Sandwiched between summer and the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays, the fall is a quirky, tantalizing period for Hollywood, when filmmakers embark on personal projects, stars take on riskier roles and character drives the story.

Stories like "Girlfight," a "Rocky"-like profile of a female prizefighter raised in the Brooklyn projects. Think studios would release that in the summer?

Or "Billy Elliot," the story of a British boy with a passion for ballet growing up in a gritty coal-mining town.

Or "You Can Count on Me," a film about a single mother in an upstate New York town who receives an unexpected visit from her rebellious lost soul of a brother.

Or "Dancer in the Dark," the story of a Czech immigrant single mother working in a factory in rural America who is losing her eyesight but not her passion for music. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

"In the summer, there is so much pressure to be a blockbuster, while at the holidays, there is so much pressure to win Academy Awards," observed director Bruce Paltrow. "But pictures in the fall tend to be more personal in nature. They're not cookie-cutter films."

Adds writer-director Nora Ephron, autumn is a time when movies "get a little bit more adult and a little bit more risky."

Paltrow and Ephron have reason to savor this autumn season. Both have films coming out this fall.

Paltrow directed his daughter, Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, in "Duets." The road-trip movie, made on a shoestring $12.5-million budget, revolves around six people whose lives converge in the raucous world of--are you ready for this?--Middle America's karaoke bars.

"It's a world absent of cynicism," Paltrow says of karaoke. People "are not waiting to jeer at you or call you stupid--they are ready to applaud those with the courage to stand up and sing."

And, yes, that's Gwyneth herself singing tunes like "Bette Davis Eyes."

"If this movie doesn't fall on its ass," the director says, "then it's going to be great."

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Ephron, meanwhile, has just directed a "twisted comedy" called "Lucky Numbers." The film stars John Travolta as a local TV weatherman in Harrisburg, Pa., who schemes with a sociopathic lottery ball girl (Lisa Kudrow) to rig the state lottery. Or, as Ephron puts it: "It's something between 'Fargo' and 'Ruthless People.'

"The character Lisa plays draws pingpong balls out of a machine and dreams of being Vanna White, but Vanna White is so far beyond any level of success you could ever imagine for her," Ephron adds. "Travolta is a guy with a very clear notion of how important he is to the people of Harrisburg, even though no one outside the 75-mile radius of that television signal has ever heard of him. He has his own table at Denny's."

See what we mean about the fall? Even the hype dispensed by directors is better.

This fall, attendance could be further affected by the Olympic Games in Australia and the election race as it heats up.

With that in mind, here are some other movies that should make the fall an intriguing season:

September

One of the more thought-provoking movies will be "Remember the Titans," which stars Denzel Washington as football coach Herman Boone, who in 1971 took over a newly integrated football team in what was then the racially divided city of Alexandria, Va.

The movie was written by an African American screenwriter, Gregory Allen Howard, who left Los Angeles four years ago because he wanted to get away from the racial strife that he felt was eating away at the city's fabric. Moving to Alexandria, Howard began asking how that city managed to peacefully integrate.

"Believe it or not," Howard recalled, "they told me a high school football team peacefully integrated this city. The city was torn asunder because of race riots and fears of integration--then their football team started winning."

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