- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2000

Hollywood can move on to showcasing its "second season" now that summer is past.

Why only two movie seasons? Because the fall season extends from the emergence of likely Oscar contenders, often timed for October through December, to the ceremony in late March or early April. Once the Oscar results are revealed, the next summer season is right around the corner.

One is tempted to call this fall the season of Helen Hunt. The Oscar-winning actress of 1997 ("As Good as It Gets") returns in force with a fistful of titles this fall. The busiest performer of the season, she will be matched romantically with Richard Gere in Robert Altman's ensemble comedy "Dr. T and the Women" and with Mel Gibson in Nancy Meyers' comedy about an updated Don Juan who acquires supernatural insight in "What Women Want."

Miss Hunt plays the mother of Haley Joel Osment, the youngster from "The Sixth Sense," in an inspirational fable about the wonder of good works. The film, "Pay It Forward," is getting an Oscar buildup.

The actress also plays the worried, devoted fiancee of Tom Hanks in "Cast Away." In this Robert Zemeckis movie, the hero survives being stranded on a desert island.

The joke on Miss Hunt is that the only major Academy Award that probably isn't up for grabs is for best actress, presumably reserved for Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich."

Billy Bob Thornton also has an outside chance of claiming this season as his. He directs the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's ominous best seller "All the Pretty Horses," which co-stars Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz. He also directs a family comedy-drama from his own script, "Daddy and Them," which has a preview at the New York Film Festival next month but isn't on the Miramax release calendar for the remainder of the year.

A script Mr. Thornton wrote in collaboration with Tom Epperson, his "One False Move" partner, is directed by Sam Raimi. Called "The Gift," the new film stars Cate Blanchett as a small-town Arkansas widow whose psychic powers are recruited for a murder investigation. Mr. Thornton's mother was the inspiration for the character, and the cast — which includes Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear and Keanu Reeves — is oddly intriguing.

Lest we forget, Miss Blanchett was the best overlooked actress during the season that proved so rewarding for Miss Swank in "Boys Don't Cry."

"Thirteen Days" offers an account of the Cuban missile crisis by Kevin Costner, who plays John F. Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell. Of course, television got to this story about 20 years ago with "The Missiles of October."

Suburban Virginia figures in the inspirational sports saga "Remember the Titans," which alludes to the 1971 football season at belatedly integrated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. Denzel Washington is cast as tyro head coach Herman Boone.

The most savory of the movies with athletic trappings could be "The Legend of Bagger Vance." This feature by Robert Redford matches Will Smith as a knowing caddy with Mr. Damon as an aspiring golf pro in the South in the years after World War I.

"Men of Honor," which celebrates the black sailor who broke the color line among U.S. Navy divers in the 1950s, pairs Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. as an exemplary mentor and indomitable recruit.

Jude Law and Ed Harris get to target each other as rival Soviet and German sharpshooters during the Battle of Stalingrad in "Enemy at the Gates."

Seniority among the prestige literary titles goes to Henry James' "The Golden Bowl," by director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, with a promising cast of Nick Nolte, Jeremy Northam, Kate Beckinsale and Uma Thurman.

Geoffrey Rush could be equal to the disreputable task of playing the Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman's "Quills," a biopic that recalls the notorious libertine making do behind bars. He exploits Kate Winslet as a susceptible chambermaid who agrees to help smuggle out the marquis's wretched manuscripts.

Mr. Rush also has the title role in John Boorman's movie version of the John le Carre novel "The Tailor of Panama," as a reluctant informant for British spy Pierce Brosnan.

The Coen brothers have borrowed a famous apocryphal movie title for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a picaresque comedy-drama about fugitives from a Southern chain gang during the Depression. Preston Sturges evoked the title as a joke in his great Hollywood satire "Sullivan's Travels." The Coens seem to have borrowed it for a humorous variation on Homer's "Odyssey," with George Clooney as their down-home Odysseus.

Meanwhile, the camp whirlwind from Australia, Baz Luhrmann, will be taking wholesale liberties with "Moulin Rouge," incorporating some aspects of the vintage Toulouse-Lautrec bio, filmed 50 years ago by John Huston, while incorporating musical extravaganza and bohemian anachronisms galore.

This season offers a set of love-story curios: "Traffic," a drama about lawbreakers caught up in drug trafficking that co-stars Michael Douglas and fiancee Catherine Zeta-Jones, and "Proof of Life," the hostage melodrama that encouraged Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe to become entangled while sharing a prolonged shoot with director Taylor Hackford in Ecuador.

Another funny coincidence will contrast Minnie Driver as a hopeful beauty-contest finalist in "Beautiful" with Sandra Bullock as an undercover beauty-contest finalist in "Miss Congeniality." The latter pageant is threatened by terrorists.

The most spectacular single attraction may come from China — Ang Lee's martial-arts adventure yarn "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." If this movie proves to be a knockout, the esteem already earned by Mr. Lee for "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil" could generate awards momentum.

Animated comedies — "Rugrats in Paris," "The Emperor's New Groove" and the effects-intensive, live-action fantasies "102 Dalmatians" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — appear to be the most reliable family attractions.

Of course, "Grinch" is in the nature of a remake, with Jim Carrey playing the spoilsport originally drawn by Dr. Seuss and animated by Chuck Jones. The "Dalmatians" sequel requires some memory loss of what Disney did to the prototype while remaking "101 Dalmatians" three years ago. The best options might be revivals — "The Nightmare Before Christmas" at Halloween and "A Hard Day's Night" at Christmas.

The farcical-diabolical emphasis also gets a workout this season. In addition to Mr. Carrey playing the Grinch, Adam Sandler portrays an outcast junior Satan in "Little Nicky," and Elizabeth Hurley becomes the devil's errand girl who torments and teases Brendan Fraser in "Bedazzled."

"Bedazzled" is one of a dozen movies that will land in the fall after summer postponements. Another dozen or so have dropped off the calendar, a reminder that yearlong film festivals would be easy to sustain, as long as theater managements didn't mind a large helping of obscure attractions.

At the moment, so many theater chains seem to be contemplating bankruptcy after a wave of overly optimistic expansion that hard-to-place titles may have an even tougher time getting token exposure.

Eighty to 90 titles may open in the Washington area before New Year's Day. Comedies of one sort or another outnumber similarly random dramas by a ratio of about 3-to-2. The most exploitable single title, unless I miss my guess, is the feature reincarnation of "Charlie's Angels," with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu as the dolls and Bill Murray as den mother Bosley.

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