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No holiday for quality

Hollywood used to fill the time from Labor Day to Thanksgiving with throwaway movies. This year, the studios aren't taking a breather.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2002


Hollywood used to fill the time from Labor Day to Thanksgiving with throwaway movies. This year, the studios aren't taking a breather.

2002 is turning out to be a pretty good year at the movies, with hardly a week passing without something of interest arriving in theaters.

If the first eight months of 2002 are any indication, moviegoers have some treats in store this fall.

The stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving used to be when Hollywood took a breather, filling screens with throwaway products. The really good stuff came out after Thanksgiving, when studios worked extra hard to impress critics and award voters.

Not any more.

Not when audiences are buying tickets priced higher than ever at a record pace. The fall 2002 slate is loaded with pedigree projects and Oscar-winning actors. And, of course, some junk that might turn out to be better than expected.

We'll come back on Thanksgiving Day to preview the holiday movie homestretch, including such high-profile releases as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, another Star Trek, the musical Chicago and promising performances by Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) and Kevin Spacey (The Life of David Gale).

Until then, these fall selections should sustain 2002's movie momentum. Opening dates are, as always, subject to change.

Aug. 30

Possession -- Can Neil LaBute, creator of the gender collisions In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, actually be a closeted romantic? His adaptation of A.S. Byatt's swooning novel will tell. Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart play literary researchers discovering -- then mirroring -- a poetic Victorian love affair. Jeremy Northam and Meryl Streep look-alike Jennifer Ehle co-star.

FearDotCom -- Internet users die after visiting a killer Web site. And you thought spam mail was an inconvenience? Judging from the cast billing, Stephen Dorff survives and Stephen Rea did it.

Slap Her, She's French -- An exchange student from -- guess where? -- creates an uproar in high school. Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) plays the tres chic intruder vexing campus queen Jane McGregor (MTV's Live Through This).

Sept. 6

City by the Sea -- Robert De Niro gets serious again after a string of successful comedies that ended with Showtime. He's a detective investigating a murder and the chief suspect is his son (James Franco). A conflict of interest? Perhaps, but De Niro never loses ours. Oscar winner Frances McDormand co-stars.

One Hour Photo -- Robin Williams isn't concerned about laughs this year, considering Insomnia and a disappointing HBO comedy special. Oscar buzz has been building since the Sundance film festival for his performance as a mild-mannered photo-lab technician obsessed with a family's Kodak moments. Oh, and each theater where it plays gets double prints.

Swimfan -- Fatal Attraction meets Clueless. Erika Christensen -- who played Michael Douglas' daughter in Traffic -- gets (Glenn) Close with a hunky high-school swimmer (Jesse Bradford), then won't be ignored.

Sept. 13

Barbershop -- One day in a South Side Chicago barbershop means sharp scissors and pointed punchlines from Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer. It must be Friday.

Stealing Harvard -- Oh, no. Not another Tom Green movie. The most talentless celebrity this side of Anna Nicole Smith encourages his buddy (Jason Lee, who should know better) to commit crimes to finance his niece's college tuition.

Sept. 20

The Banger Sisters -- This could be fun. Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn play grown-up former rock 'n' roll groupies reuniting for a middle-age fling. If writer-director Rob Dolman is smart, he'll use flashbacks incorporating footage of Hawn's look-alike daughter Kate Hudson playing the same kind of role in Almost Famous.

The Four Feathers -- The title refers to a symbol of cowardice given to a British Army officer (Heath Ledger) who resigns before a crucial battle. A.E.W. Mason's novel made a rousing colonial adventure in 1939.

Trapped -- Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love co-star as child kidnappers with a foolproof scheme that, of course, goes wrong or else there wouldn't be much of a movie. Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend are the victimized parents. You have to wonder about the timing of such a movie when real-life children are being snatched at an alarming rate.

The Weight of Water -- A journalist (Catherine McCormack) researching 19th century ax murders sees a reflection of her own troubled marriage in the eyewitness account of a victim's sister (Sarah Polley, in flashbacks). Meanwhile, the reporter's husband (Sean Penn) gets distracted by a former lover (Elizabeth Hurley). Sounds like too much weight for one movie.

Sept. 27

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever -- Lucy Liu strikes a blow (and a martial arts kick) for womanhood as a ninja-style secret agent with a vendetta. Just don't bruise Antonio Banderas' face, please.

Sweet Home Alabama -- Reese Witherspoon graduated from Legally Blonde to become the latest actor whose face is all a movie poster needs. She plays a socialite preparing to marry the son (Patrick Dempsey) of New York City's mayor (Candice Bergen). But first she must clear up a little matter of divorcing her first husband (Josh Lucas), bringing her back to her rural roots.

The Tuxedo -- Jackie Chan's delayed action comedy. He's a chauffeur who tries on his employer's formal wear and discovers its crime-fighting powers. So does an international espionage ring.

Oct. 4

Red Dragon -- Hannibal Lecter made his first screen appearance (played by Brian Cox) in Manhunter (1986), based on Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon. Now director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) revisits the story with Anthony Hopkins reprising his Oscar-winning role. Edward Norton co-stars as an FBI agent using Lecter's expertise to capture a brutal killer (Ralph Fiennes).

Moonlight Mile -- A young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) moves in with the parents (Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon) of his recently deceased fiancee, then falls in love with another woman (newcomer Ellen Pompeo). Writer-director Brad Silberling based the story on his grief after the 1989 murder of his girlfriend, actor Rebecca Schaeffer (of TV's My Sister Sam), by an obsessed fan.

Spirited Away -- The growing popularity of anime, Japanese animated films, prompted Disney to buy the rights to an example directed by the genre's master, Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke). Disney previously released Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro on home video. A young girl leaves her suburban life for a fantasy world of monsters and witches. English dubbing is provided by Daveigh Chase (Lilo of Lilo & Stitch), Lauren Holly and Suzanne Pleshette.

Oct. 11

Brown Sugar -- A metropolitan couple (Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan) find love. This was the first film to begin production in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks. Co-starring Queen Latifah and Mos Def.

Tuck Everlasting -- Natalie Babbitt's novel about a family of immortals and the lass (Alexis Bledel) who loves one of its sons (Jonathan Jackson) gets the Disney treatment. William Hurt and Sissy Spacek preside over what must be a crowded dinner table.

The Grey Zone -- Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson (O, Eye of God) continues to prove he isn't the bumpkin he played so convincingly in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Nelson devotes his developing skills to a story of Jews assisting the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Pokemon 4ever -- Is that a threat?

Oct. 18

Punch-Drunk Love -- Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) shared the best director prize at Cannes for turning Adam Sandler into an actor worth serious consideration. Sandler plays a hapless man bullied by seven sisters who finds romance with a mysterious woman (Emily Watson). I've insisted for years that Sandler has something more to offer audiences than aggressive morons. This could be the start of something big.

Swept Away -- Madonna returns to the silver screen in a remake of Lina Wertmuller's 1974 film about a vain socialite (guess who) marooned on a desert island with a hunky Communist (Adriano Giannini). Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) swears he didn't realize at first that his wife's co-star is the son of Giancarlo Giannini, who played the role in the original.

The Ring -- No, Hobbit-heads, this isn't the second part of Peter Jackson's trilogy. It's a remake of a Japanese thriller titled Ringu, about a circulating video that kills anyone watching it. Let's hope director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican) is operating on fast-forward this time.

Oct. 25

Formula 51 -- Samuel L. Jackson brings his bad self to a tale of a drug chemist selling a new ecstasy-style drug on the streets of Liverpool. That has to be against Jedi rules.

Waking Up in Reno -- Wake me up if this movie finally arrives. It's been on the back burner for nearly a year. Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson are trailer neighbors swapping partners on the way to a monster truck rally. Call it Billy Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice.

Ghost Ship -- A salvage crew discovers a passenger ship missing since 1953 and things start going bump in the night. Julianna Margulies and Gabriel Byrne lead the stampede in the other direction.

Jackass: The Movie -- Not the Tom Green biography it sounds like, but close. Another MTV escapee, Johnny Knoxville, encourages foolish, life-threatening behavior for fun and profit. Please don't encourage a sequel.

The Truth About Charlie -- Mark Wahlberg is no Cary Grant, but Thandie Newton has a touch of Audrey Hepburn that could lift this remake of Charade above blasphemy. She plays a widow discovering why someone wanted her husband dead, and Wahlberg is a helpful sort who probably knows more than he's letting on. Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), so that's a plus.

Nov. 1

I Spy -- The 1960s television series is memorable mostly for making Bill Cosby the first African-American actor to win an Emmy. Now it's being rehashed with Eddie Murphy taking the role of pro athlete (this time a boxer instead of a tennis star) recruited by a secret agent (Owen Wilson, subbing for Robert Culp) to locate a missing military jet.

Frida -- Salma Hayek beat every other Hispanic actor to the punch, landing the coveted role of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist known for her self-portraits and for her relationship with artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Hayek sports a unibrow to mimic Kahlo's appearance, in a film with loads of scandalous and historical potential. Geoffrey Rush co-stars as Leon Trotsky and Edward Norton pops in as Nelson Rockefeller.

The Core -- Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo and Stanley Tucci journey to the center of the earth to prevent a geological disaster.

The Santa Clause 2 -- Disney is still debating the release date, but this one seems likely. Tim Allen probably can't wait. He seemed to be the next big comedy star after the original Santa Clause in 1994, then stumbled in dreck like For Richer, For Poorer and Big Trouble. Allen returns as an ordinary guy committed to being Santa Claus, but he didn't read the fine print about needing a wife. Whose knee does he get to sit on?

Nov. 8

Femme Fatale -- Antonio Banderas deals with another tough babe. This time it's Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men) playing a con artist with a nasty streak. Directed by Brian DePalma, who's been rolling Snake Eyes since his last decent movie, Mission: Impossible.

8 Mile -- The title refers to a mean Detroit neighborhood where an angry, profane rapper (Eminem) vents through his music and becomes a recording star. Sounds autobiographical, yo, but there's all kinds of (expletive) allowing Eminem to stretch, you know what I'm saying? Kim Basinger co-stars as the musician's mother in a film directed by Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys, L.A. Confidential).

Nov. 15

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- Strange occurrences warn the young magician (Daniel Radcliffe) to stay away from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When he arrives, Harry uncovers a supernatural plot to scare everyone away. Everyone from last year's box office hit returns, plus Kenneth Branagh as a menacing professor. Get ready for another media blitz and box office bonanza.

Phone Booth -- Larry Cohen's screenplay bounced around Hollywood for years, proving too much of a challenge to actors such as Mel Gibson and Jim Carrey, and filmmakers such as Michael Bay and the Hughes brothers. Joel Schumacher took up the cause and hired Colin Farrell (Minority Report) to essentially play a single 90-minute scene. Farrell plays a guy held hostage in a phone booth by a sniper who'll shoot if he hangs up.

Nov. 22

Die Another Day -- The 20th James Bond adventure bounces from Korea to Cuba to Iceland with Agent 007 saving the world for, well, the 20th time. Pierce Brosnan is back as the suave secret agent, with Academy Award winner Halle Berry as the latest Bond girl. Director Lee Tamahori promises a lot of references to past Bond flicks, including Berry's publicized bikini pose, reminiscent of Ursula Andress in Dr. No. Can that really have been 40 years ago?

The Emperor's Club -- Sounds a little like renewing membership in Dead Poets Society. Kevin Kline plays a prep school teacher breaking through to a rebellious student (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).

Nov. 27

Treasure Planet -- Disney promises an imaginative, sci-fi retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic pirate tale, Treasure Island. This version is animated, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (TV's Third Rock from the Sun) providing the voice of Jim Hawkins, an enslaved protege of Long John Silver (Brian Murray).

Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights -- Sandler probably had to let off steam after playing it fairly straight in Punch-Drunk Love. He wrote the story, described by co-screenwriter Allen Covert as a Hannukah musical, and voices three characters, including an elderly basketball coach and a New York Knicks front-office executive.

Friday After Next -- Ice Cube and Mike Epps return as the blunt speaking (and smoking) Craig and Day-Day, after the raunchy hits Friday and Next Friday. What do these guys do the other six days of the week?

Be on the lookout

As usual, some of the most intriguing films will drop into Tampa Bay area theaters whenever distributors can muster enough prints and a big enough advertising budget. Keep an eye out for:

Michael Moore taking aim at America's gun culture in the Cannes favorite Bowling for Columbine; the Sundance grand prize and cinematography winner Personal Velocity; Heaven, starring Cate Blanchett as a vengeful widow; Philip Glass' trippy documentary Naqoyqatsi; Mike Leigh's latest British working-class melodrama All or Nothing; the heist flick Welcome to Collinwood; the overdue mob movie Knockaround Guys; a French pastry titled My Wife is an Actress; the Inuit saga The Fast Runner; a sado-masochistic working relationship in Secretary; Julianne Moore dealing with race issues Far from Heaven; an intimate teacher-student relationship in Blue Car; the Chinese import Happy Times; a college student in the risky porn business in Who's Your Daddy?; Ray Liotta sniffing out a Narc; an Irish civil-rights protest turned Bloody Sunday; and the odd coming-of-age tale Igby Goes Down starring, um, one of the Culkins.

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