The darkening 10 weeks between the end of summer and the start of the holiday bonanza, Hollywood's two seasons of excess, make up a slender but often flavorsome slice of the American movie pie. The fall always delivers a few prestigious offerings: last year's "American Beauty," the big Oscar winner, for example.
In this tweener season, "Beauty's" best actor Kevin Spacey is paired with Helen Hunt, who won the best actress statue the previous year for "As Good as It Gets," in "Pay It Forward," which also stars the best supporting actor nominee for "The Sixth Sense," Haley Joel Osment. Despite its potential for saccharine sentiment -- the kid is striving to change the world for the better -- this could be one of the fall's more worthy releases.
Probably the most eagerly awaited film of the fall is the oft-retitled "Cameron Crowe Project." This autobiographical look inside the world of rock 'n' roll in the '70s is an ensemble picture, now called "Almost Famous," which might describe its star, Billy Crudup.
Richard Gere will star in "Dr. T and the Women" for Robert Altman, the grand old man of the fall, whose career has rebounded. Among the women are busy Helen Hunt, and Kate Hudson, who also has a major role as the groupie Penny Lane in "Almost Famous."
A younger director known for his dark view of humankind is Neil LaBute, whose "Nurse Betty" promises to bring edge to an otherwise hollow early September. The piquant Renee Zellweger has the title role. On a lighter note, golden girl Gwyneth Paltrow will pair with Ben Affleck in "Bounce."
Robert De Niro, who seems to race from picture to picture, is featured in two fall releases. The black comedy "Meet the Parents" looks more promising than the military drama "Men of Honor," although the latter gives the star the chance to do a Gen. MacArthur variation, corncob pipe clenched between his teeth.
A number of fall releases have been waiting on the shelf for some time. "Lost Souls" with Winona Ryder has been held back for at least a year. Both "Red Planet" and Robert Redford's golf comedy-drama, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," were originally set for summer, but now have early-November slots that could carry over into the holiday season.
A wild card this fall is the sequel to "The Blair Witch Project," titled "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2."
As it is directed by the potent documentarian Joe Berlinger, the return to the scrubby, accursed Maryland woods might far surpass the original. Another director who brings a dark but powerful sensibility to the screen is Darren Aronofsky, whose "Requiem for the Dream" stars Ellen Burstyn, veteran of soon-to-be re-released "The Exorcist."
Then comes the holiday deluge, with major outings for Jim Carrey (as The Grinch), Glenn Close (again as Cruella DeVil), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon, Mel Gibson, George Clooney and Kevin Costner.
But for the next month, here is how the picture business looks. As always, the release dates are subject to change.
Highlander: Endgame -- Christopher Lambert, the original immortal warrior in 1986, and in the 1991 and 1994 sequels, returns, this time paired with Adrian Paul, who took on the mantle for television. Their mission pits them against "the most powerful immortal of all." Might that be Satan?
Whipped -- Amanda Peet, recently featured in the failed "Isn't She Great" and the more successful "The Whole Nine Yards," heads the cast of this comedy about college buddies who compare notes on their weekend scores every Sunday at the local diner. Peter M. Cohen is the writer-director-producer and the male cast includes Brian Van Holt, Jonathan Abrahams and Judah Domke. Zorie Barber and Callie Thorne round out the ensemble.
Backstage -- This rap documentary focuses on Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" tour, featuring DMX and Method Man.
Turn It Up -- Originally titled "Ghetto Superstar" and based on the album and novel by Pras (Prakazrel Michel), this tale of the Brooklyn rapper Diamond and his struggle to hip-hop his way up the ladder to fame and fortune gives the Fugee his first star vehicle. Pras worked up the project with writer-director Robert Adetuyi. Rapper Ja-Rule plays the best friend, the gangsta Gage, and Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Diamond's musician dad.
Nurse Betty -- Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors") directs, and Renee Zellweger stars in this tale of a waitress fleeing hit men played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. On the run, the Kansas girl finds her Oz in Los Angeles, where she lands an acting job on her favorite soap, a doctor show that stars her idol, played by Greg Kinnear. Aaron Eckhart, Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince are also on view.
The Watcher -- James Spader's FBI agent has burned out after a career of chasing serial killers, so he leaves Los Angeles for Chicago to begin a new life, only to encounter a new wave of gruesome slayings that could only have been perpetrated by an old nemesis, played by Keanu Reeves. Games ensue in Joe Charbanic's thriller, which co-stars Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson and Ehris Ellis.
The Way of the Gun -- Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro are longtime partners in crime and Juliette Lewis is the pregnant surrogate mother they kidnap in this first directorial effort by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Christoper McQuarrie. Nicky Katt, Taye Diggs and James Caan are also featured in this tale of tension between the two outlaws as one of them is drawn to their captive.
Bait -- Jamie Foxx, who delivered such a powerhouse performance as the rising quarterback in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," has a less heroic and complex role this time in a "48 HRS." variation. He plays a loser doing time for stealing prawns who is tossed into a cell with a dying perpetrator of a huge gold heist. Freed, Foxx's man is tracked by a U.S. Treasury investigator played by David Morse in hopes he will lead him to the bullion. Kimberly Elise is the love interest, and Doug Hutchison, David Paymer, Mike Epps, Jamie Kennedy and Robert Pastorelli are featured under the direction of Antoine Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers").
Urban Legends: Final Cut -- Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Davis and Joseph Lawrence play student filmmakers bent on taking the money-fame route in Tinseltown but who must first survive their final semester at Alpine University, where their student masterpiece is a contender for the Hitchcock Award. The producers of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" are behind this post-teen thriller about killing the competition, directed by John Ottman and featuring Anson Mount, Eva Mendes, Marco Hofschneider, Loretta Devine, Hart Bochner, Michael Bacall and Anthony Anderson.
The Contender -- Joan Allen heads the cast as a senator nominated to fill an opening as vice president whose confirmation is doggedly opposed by a powerful senator, played by Gary Oldman, who digs up secrets from her past. Directed by Rod Lurie.
Almost Famous -- Cameron Crowe's new film has long been a project in search of a title, and for a time "Stillwater" was a contender. Whatever its name, the film from the writer-director of "Jerry Maguire" follows a 15-year-old rock fan named William, whose love of music lands him an assignment from Rolling Stone to interview an up-and-coming band, which leads him to a loss of objectivity and lessons in life. Patrick Fugit plays the kid, and the cast includes Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The Exorcist -- William Friedkin's 1973 classic of possession, starring Ellen Burstyn as a divorced movie star and Linda Blair as her 12-year-old daughter, returns to the big screen in a version ballyhooed as having previously unseen footage and remastered sound. Screenwriter/novelist William Peter Blatty's shocker was a big Oscar contender, with many nominations. Jason Miller and the great Max Von Sydow are featured, and Mercedes McCambridge dubbed for Blair in the diabolical outbursts.
Remember the Titans -- Denzel Washington and Will Patton play a new black coach and a veteran white coach in the football-fixated Alexandria, Va., in 1971, a time of turbulence fomented by anti-war and civil-rights struggles. In Boaz Yakin's fact-based tale, Washington plays Herman Boone, newly hired as head coach at the recently integrated T.C. Williams High, whose Titans have a tradition of winning under the leadership of Patton's Bill Yoast.
Best in Show -- Christopher Guest ("Waiting for Guffman") is the director and co-writer (with Eugene Levy) is this satirical look at the Mayflower Dog Show. The writer-director plays a North Carolina fly-fishing shop owner who hopes his bloodhound will finish as best in show. Guest's "This Is Spinal Tap" partner, Michael McKean, is featured, along with Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Patrick Cranshaw, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban and Levy.
Beautiful -- Sally Field turns director in this self-proclaimed Cinderella story starring Minnie Driver as the determined daughter of a dysfunctional household whose obsession with beauty pageants pushes her into competition for the "Miss America Miss" crown. Joey Lauren Adams is the best friend and Hallie Kate Eisenberg is her daughter. Kathleen Turner is featured.
Cherry Falls -- Geoffrey Wright ("Romper Stomper") directs this horror item, which stars Brittany Murphy as a small-town teen-ager hunting for the killer who is terrorizing her school.
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