The Fall Movies

Oscar Bait

Odd Couple: Anthony Hopkins plays the Spaniard in a May-December romance in ‘Surviving Picasso.’

Fall films go for the gold–statuette

By Zack Stentz

AS SUMMER gives way to autumn, so do the frothy popcorn movies give way to more thoughtful and substantial celluloid fare. Or that’s the theory anyway, with studios traditionally saving their “prestige” fare (read: period costumes and English accents) for release close to the Oscar nomination date, in hopes of giving studio heads bragging rights at Spago’s the following spring.

But in a summer when Castle Rock made good money by running Lone Star as intelligent counterprogramming to action-packed explosion fests such as Independence Day and Mission: Impossible and an autumn that promises as many gunfights as tearful soliloquies, the old rules seem to have fallen by the wayside.

So will this crop of thrill rides and highbrow events be any good? Only time will tell. The following films certainly sound interesting, but then again, Johnny Mnemonic sounded pretty good, too, in plot synopsis form.

It certainly wouldn’t be Oscar season without another bloodless period drama from the Merchant-Ivory team. But Surviving Picasso may just bring a little juice to the drawing-room formula, being after all the story of the tempestuous life and loves of the protean Spaniard artist. Certified non-Spaniard Anthony Hopkins plays the title character in this portrait of the artist as an old bastard. Hey, if Nixon could speak with a Welsh accent, why not Picasso?

Continuing Hollywood’s infatuation with the Emerald Isle (Circle of Friends, The Playboys, A Run of the Country) is Michael Collins, in which Liam Neeson plays the titular leader of the uprising against the nation’s English occupiers. Since we already know the answer to whether long-suffering Ireland wins its independence, the real question in Michael Collins becomes whether Neeson will find himself upstaged by his fabulous co-star Alan Rickman–here playing Collins’ political rival Eamon De Valera–the way that Rickman stole Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves out from under Kevin Costner’s haughty nose.

Miller’s Daughter: Winona Ryder gets bewitched in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible.’

After her performance in this spring’s forgettable Boys, local heroine Winona Ryder reappears this fall in a big-screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s classic witch-hunt drama The Crucible. Has Hollywood learned nothing from The Scarlet Letter about casting hopelessly contemporary actresses in period dramas?

And speaking of young, pretty, overpraised performers, the ubiquitous Liv Tyler shows up in Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! (their exclamation point, not mine). Hanks plays a Dick Clark­like promoter who orchestrates the rise of an early ’60s rock band. It’s not the Beatles, unfortunately.

So are there any under-30 actresses who deserve their reputations? Sure. For one, there’s the superlatively talented Claire Danes, of the regrettably canceled My So-Called Life television series, who stars opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a new film version of Romeo and Juliet, set in a funky, modern Florida that’s closer to Venice, Calif., than Verona.

Real-life star-crossed lovers are the focus of another feature, In Love and War, allegedly the true story of the romance between Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky, whose relationship later inspired Papa to write his classic novel A Farewell to Arms. Sandra Bullock does her cute, plucky love-interest thang as Kurowsky, while Chris O’Donnell attempts to deepen his smug frat-boy image by portraying the famous writer.

O’Donnell returns to more familiar terrain in another fall film, an adaptation of John Grisham’s death-penalty drama The Chamber. This time, O’Donnell plays a handsome young lawyer who must defend a racist old codger from the mean, green death machine. The gassee in question is played by workaholic Gene Hackman, who seems to appear in about 20 films a year.

Another effort to sway crowds instead of Oscar voters is director Ron Howard’s Ransom. Here’s the deal: his Ross Perot­like can-do gazillionaire (Mel Gibson) gets his boy kidnapped. But instead of paying up, he single-handedly and faster than an armadillo crossing a two-lane blacktop hunts down and brings to justice the thugs who done his family wrong. Problem solved, end of story.

Autumn also heralds the return of to the silver screen in its eighth feature film. In this outing, Picard, Data, and the rest of the Next Generation gang (sorry, no original cast members in this one) do battle with humanity’s deadliest enemies, the hive-mind Borg. Time travel, space battles, and the farmer from Babe all play a role in what the Ferengi accountants at Paramount hope will revive the flagging Star Trek franchise in a fashion closer to 1982’s action-packed Wrath of Khan than the slower-than-a-shuttlecraft Generations of 1994.

But the surest bet for autumnal entertainment promises to be a re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s haunting 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo. Sure, it plays on cable every month or so, but the crashing waves, bell-tower scene, and Kim Novak’s hair really should be seen on the big screen in all their glory. Unlike so many of his cinematic successors, Hitchcock knew how to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, making for at least one fall film that will provide all of the moviegoing pleasure with none of the guilt that lingers after a mindless movie like a popcorn-induced stomachache.

From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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