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Summer Gets a Sequel

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Chris Petrikin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Scared away from theaters this summer by the plague of “mores”--more mummies, more dinosaurs, more apes, more hormonally charged teens, more dumb movies?

Don’t care whether Vin Diesel is a French wine, a new grade of fuel or the star of a summer hit?

Have your second set of teeth?

Then welcome back to the fall, a time when Hollywood shifts from formulaic summer movies to more high-minded films aimed at adults. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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After a record-setting summer dominated by big-budget, youth-oriented sequels and one-weekend wonders, this year Hollywood’s fall offerings don’t change tone as dramatically as in years past, when the season was aimed mainly at grownups and cineastes who steered clear of the multiplexes during the raucous May-through-August stampede. In fact, with a bunch of films aimed at all ages and tastes, this fall looks a lot like what we’ve just seen, minus the numerals in the titles, big budgets and ear-splitting pyrotechnics.

“The fall used to be very much more identifiable with a certain type of film,” says Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. “Now you have some potentially huge movies, comedies, dramas, some that may be Academy Award considerations, all sorts of pictures.”

While this fall--the weeks between Labor Day and the beginning of the holiday season in mid-November--has something for everyone, no title has emerged as a must-see. The season kicks off Friday with “Hardball,” starring Keanu Reeves as a down-on-his-luck coach of an inner-city baseball team. It ends with the Nov. 9 releases of “Shallow Hal,” the latest comedy from the Louis B. Mayers of raunch, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and “Windtalkers,” a World War II action film starring Nicolas Cage, this time without the Italian accent.

Scheduled between is a buffet of comedy, action, kid stuff, thrillers, hip-hop tales and drama. It’s light on chick flicks (save for the Drew Barrymore vehicle “Riding in Cars With Boys”) and romantic comedies, but heavy on A-list, older male stars. There’s no sneeze guard on this smorgasbord, so beware.

On the whole, these next two months look more like a quiet diversion before the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas avalanche of event movies and Oscar contenders hits theaters--think “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”; “Lord of the Rings”; Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz; Will Smith in Michael Mann’s “Ali”; Martin Scorsese teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio on “Gangs of New York”; and Steven Soderbergh’s remake of “Ocean’s Eleven,” with a new rat pack led by Brad Pitt.

“This Christmas season looks incredibly strong,” says Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin. “It should be a very competitive season, as opposed to last year when we were searching for five Academy Award contenders. As for this fall, normally it’s a very spirited, qualitative season ... but this fall is a bunch of question marks.”

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But that heavy holiday season doesn’t mean the fall won’t have its charmers and sleeper surprises, like last year, when “Meet the Parents” sneaked into theaters en route to becoming one of fall’s all-time biggest hits.

Sony Pictures’ Jeff Blake, president of worldwide marketing and distribution, says he views this fall with some trepidation because of the large numbers of films being released each weekend--an average of 8 a week--but he says the moviegoing seasons are beginning to blur, becoming less distinct.

One reason for the sheer volume of films stems in part from the studios’ run-up of production last spring as a precaution for the then-threatened strikes by the writers’ and actors’ unions. “The studios made roughly twice as many movies this spring as opposed to last spring,” says Miramax Films’ L.A. president, Mark Gill.

These films cost money sitting on shelves while their production loans accumulate interest expense, and because there were so many “event” films staking out holiday and summer weekends this year, the studios have tried to unload some of their cache in the usually less crowded fall.

On the upside, there are no sequels, and those virtually indistinguishable boys and girls of summer are being benched in favor of a bunch of honest-to-goodness movie stars (mostly male), albeit some who are facing the autumns of their own careers.

After a three-year hiatus, Robert Redford is back on-screen and in prison in “The Last Castle” (he’s also in the holiday picture “Spy Games” with Brad Pitt). Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton team up as escaped cons for “Bandits.” Anthony Hopkins curbs his carnivorous appetite to play a kindly, mysterious stranger who changes a boy’s life in “Hearts in Atlantis.”Maybe it’s purely coincidental or a sign of the further graying of the old guard, but this fall, Michael Douglas (“Don’t Say a Word”), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Collateral Damage”), Tim Allen (“Big Trouble”), John Travolta (“Domestic Disturbance”) and Kevin Kline (“Life as a House”) all play fathers forced to either reconnect with, redeem or avenge their families.

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On the other hand, for actresses Hollywood must seem like a real-life version of “Logan’s Run,” in which everyone is done away with on their 30th birthdays. The only opposition to the preeminence of pretty young things comes from filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, who continually create meaty roles for women of a certain age--or at least one woman, Frances McDormand. This year is no different as the Coens return with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” starring Thornton and McDormand.

Several films that look, at least on paper, like they qualify as summer fare--Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage”; the Jet Li-as-multiple-characters action film “The One”; and Ben Stiller and Chris Kattan’s respective geekboy comedies “Zoolander” and “Corky Romano”--were either moved from the May-August onslaught to safer ground in the fall or were inspired by the past success of similar films during this time period.

“I think that what you’re seeing is the belief that it’s a 52-week-a-year business, and the fall is not just about arty, academy pictures anymore,” says Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios. “They seem to be pushing those [Oscar contenders] back to Christmastime.

“‘The One’ could have been a summer picture, but there was another Jet Li picture in the summer, so we looked at what’s in the marketplace and there didn’t seem to be any action yet ... so we felt like this [Nov. 2] was a good date,” Sherak explained. “It used to be that you set a date and that was your date, but now no one is afraid to move a movie, because if you have the wrong date, you’re dead.”

Despite all the star power, studio executives and other Hollywood insiders are hard-pressed to come up with a list of what they think will be the hits of the fall.

“Monsters Inc.,” “Don’t Say a Word” and “Bandits” get votes for their box office potential, while “Shallow Hal,” “Zoolander,” “Hardball,” “Joy Ride,” “From Hell,” “Windtalkers” and “The One” are considered potential breakouts.

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One of the biggest question marks is the Sept. 21 ensemble comedy “Big Trouble,” directed by “Get Shorty’s” Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Tim Allen and Renee Russo, among others. Disney is hoping Sonnenfeld, who last directed “Wild Wild West,” can recapture that “Get Shorty” magic (it opened in 1995), but the new film has yet to generate any buzz and poses a real marketing challenge with its large cast and lack of marquee names.

The Farrelly brothers’ “Shallow Hal” represents a transition from their signature bawdy comedies and taps into a more sentimental vein than they’ve ever attempted--although you might not guess that from the trailer. After failing to repeat the success of their biggest hit, “There’s Something About Mary” (1998) with last year’s “Me, Myself & Irene” and this summer’s “Osmosis Jones,” the brothers are due for a little reinvention and career stimulation.

The fact that no real Oscar contenders have yet emerged is expected to change come the holiday season, but a few fall films are being closely watched based on their pedigrees. “Training Day” is already generating heat for the performance of Denzel Washington; “K-PAX” boasts performances from Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges; “Life as a House” stars Kline and the next Anakin Skywalker, 20-year-old Hayden Christensen. “The Last Castle” pits Redford against “The Sopranos”’ James Gandolfini; and the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” could also attract some attention.

This fall also marks the return of several directors whom audiences haven’t heard from in recent years. Paramount will release “Lucky Break,” director Peter Cattaneo’s follow-up to the 1997 smash comedy “The Full Monty.” Iain Softley, who garnered critical acclaim for his last film, 1997’s “The Wings of the Dove,” returns with the Spacey-Bridges picture, “K-PAX.” Penny Marshall hasn’t really been heard from since directing 1996’s “The Preacher’s Wife,” but she’s back with “Riding in Cars With Boys.”

And although they directed the 1999 documentary “American Pimp,” Allen and Albert Hughes haven’t made a feature film since 1995’s “Dead Presidents.” The brothers are back with “From Hell,” a period thriller starring Johnny Depp as a detective tracking Jack the Ripper in late-19th century London.

A handful of first-time feature directors also have their coming-out parties this fall, including Neal Slavin, who directed William H. Macy and Laura Dern in “Focus,” an adaptation of an Arthur Miller novel; Christine Lahti, who directed Albert Brooks in “My First Mister”; and David Atkins, who directed Steve Martin in the thriller “Novocaine.”

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But none probably faces the same pressure as Peter Docter, who with “Monsters Inc.,” set for release Nov. 2, is charged with continuing Disney/Pixar’s streak of computer-animated hits.

“You have to live up to the past films, so there’s a lot of expectations,” concedes Docter, who worked as an animator and writer on Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies and the Academy Award-winning short “Geri’s Game.”

Fall usually represents an opportunity for independent films, and this year should be no different.

“Our audience--a more sophisticated audience that goes away for the summer--is back into their day-to-day grind and they’re seeing movies on a more regular basis,” says Paramount Classics Co-President Ruth Vitale.

Richard Linklater returns this fall--after last directing the poorly received 1998 studio film “The Newton Boys”--with two films, “Waking Life,” a film shot on digital video and then computer-animated through a technique called “interpolated rotoscoping”; and “Tape,” a live-action digital film starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. And Stephen Frears returns after last year’s “High Fidelity” with the dark, 1930s-era drama “Liam.”

One of the biggest treats might come in the form of the French language film “Amelie,” due Nov. 2 from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose only English-language film was “Alien Resurrection” (1997). “Amelie” was a smash hit in France, and after special screenings during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, journalists have viewed the fanciful romantic comedy starring Audrey Tautou as one of the year’s best shots for crossover success and awards.

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If every other niche hasn’t been addressed this fall, fans of the 1999 surprise success, Christian-themed apocalypse tale “The Omega Code” will get their turn at the turnstiles Sept. 21. That’s when Los Angeles-based Gener8Xion Entertainment (funded by Trinity Broadcasting Network in Orange County) releases the sequel, “Megiddo: Omega Code 2.” The original, starring Casper Van Dien and Michael York, shocked Hollywood by opening at No. 10 at the box office in its first weekend, eventually earning $12.6 million.

According to Gener8Xion’s Sean Abbananto, the company intends to show with “Megiddo” that the first film was no one hit wonder. “‘Omega Code’ did what it was supposed to do ... opened doors. But we want to get better with each product and we think we’ve done it here.”

To back that up, Gener8Xion has spent $21 million on “Megiddo” (triple the cost of the first film) and intends to release it in 400 theaters that first weekend, 100 more than for the original.

Maybe moviegoers should just look at this fall as a series of blind dates--you go in with the highest of hopes, but you never know what you’re going to get. Often you’re disappointed, but occasionally you get lucky. *

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