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Silly season gone, a fall crop arrives

Labor Day weekend is here, beginning the onrush of new movies that traditionally arrive at this time of year - and raising the stakes for their success or failure, since audience expectations tend to be a bit higher once the summer silly season has ended.

Before looking ahead to the fall's most promising pictures, this is a good time to take stock of 1999 so far. In all, it hasn't been great, but it has certainly been interesting, with filmmakers stretching their skills - and their medium - in unexpected new directions.

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The biggest news of the late summer is "The Blair Witch Project," which has generated as many headlines for its financial wizardry - it will gross more than $100 million on an investment of around $50,000 - as for its imaginative approach to the horror genre. "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" has racked up $697 million, but for pure profitability it's an also-ran.

In "Blair Witch," three filmmakers are lost in a haunted forest. While this is not exactly a new idea, directors Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick make it fresh by showing it entirely through film and video supposedly shot by the terrified trio during their ordeal. The movie's creepiness comes mostly from shivery camera work, but there's no faulting its promotion that used a heavily visited Web site to involve viewers with the lives of the characters.

Also refreshing is the film's avoidance of explicit violence and computerized effects, which make its box-office victory over an extravaganza like "The Haunting" all the more significant.

Turning to the year's more serious dramas, the best of them have taken us on harrowing journeys into the heart of darkness in order to convey morally conservative messages.

Spike Lee's explosive "Summer of Sam" used a tragic event of the 1970s - vigilante violence spurred by fear of a serial killer - to illustrate the pathologies that arise when a society slips into cultural decay.

Stanley Kubrick's elegant "Eyes Wide Shut," based on a dreamlike Arthur Schnitzler novella, explored the dangers of sexual license through the story of a married couple facing temptation. Neither film ignited the box office - Lee's was too complex and ambitious, Kubrick's too spare and stylized - but both showed a commendable concern with meaningful issues.

So did "Arlington Road," a chilling look at home-grown American terrorism. And so did the extraordinary "Election," starring Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher and Reese Witherspoon as a precocious teenager who turns a student political campaign into a string of ethical peccadilloes. As hilarious and outrageous as Alexander Payne's last movie, "Citizen Ruth," "Election" probes social values with such astringent humor that some moviegoers weren't sure whether to call it a comedy, a tragedy, or both.

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Similar reactions greeted the year's best European import so far, "Run Lola Run," which turns a potentially sordid plot - about a young woman with just 20 minutes to save her boyfriend's life - into an exhilarating burst of high-speed cinematics.

Add up this diversified list and you have evidence that theatrical filmmaking remains healthy, despite rumbles of changes sparked by digital technology and improved home-video formats.

Meanwhile, moviegoers are already buzzing about the fall. Many new films have conspicuously dark story elements, indicating that the frivolous summer days of Austin Powers" have indeed ended:

American Beauty, Sept. 17. Kevin Spacey plays a fortysomething man with an unfaithful wife, a hostile daughter, and an overheated imagination.

Why are Hollywood-watchers looking forward to this unhappy domestic drama? Spacey is one of today's most gifted actors, Annette Bening and the hitherto unknown Wes Bentley make a tantalizing backup team, and first-time film director Sam Mendes has a strong reputation on the Broadway stage. Some observers think a downbeat story twist may hinder the movie's box-office prospects, but other indicators are very much in its favor.

Anywhere But Here, Oct. 22. Young actress Natalie Portman leaps from "Star Wars" to this drama of a dysfunctional mother and daughter, directed by the talented but uneven Wayne Wang and also starring Susan Sarandon and Bonnie Bedelia. Portman reportedly refused this role until a nude scene was deleted from Alvin Sargent's screenplay, but it remains to be seen whether the movie will echo her professional integrity.

Bringing Out the Dead, Oct. 22. The stars include audience-pleasers Nicolas Cage and John Goodman, but the big news is that director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader have teamed up again. Admirers hope they'll equal the artistry of their "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" with this story of an ambulance driver aghast at the human suffering he encounters. While it doesn't sound like much fun, it's likely to provoke a lot of thought.

Being John Malkovich, Oct. 19. No, it isn't a documentary about the talented actor. It's a space-warping fantasy about an ordinary man who accidentally finds a gateway into Malkovich's mind and decides to make as much money as he can from this decidedly strange discovery. John Cusack and Cameron Diaz head the cast - along with, you guessed it, Malkovich in the title role. This is certain to be a one-of-a-kind movie experience. Music-video specialist Spike Jonze makes his feature-film directing debut.

Music of the Heart, Oct. 29. Wes Craven cut his directorial teeth on low-budget horror fare like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the influential "Scream," but he goes upscale in this melody-filled drama about an inner-city music teacher. Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett star, which alone sounds like reason enough to see it.

Man on the Moon, Nov. 5. Jim Carrey got a little serious in "The Truman Show," and he'll probably go further in this bio-pic about Andy Kaufman, the late comedian. Danny DeVito and Courtney Love also star for director Milos Forman, who tackled similarly original material in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" with admirable results.

Random Hearts, Oct. 8. Sydney Pollack, who plays the immoral millionaire in "Eyes Wide Shut," returns to his director's chair for this romantic drama, featuring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas as investigators who fall in love while probing the deaths of their respective spouses. It sounds rather bleak, but star-power may pull it through.

Sleepy Hollow, Nov. 19. Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp in the offbeat "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands," and they've teamed up again for this fresh take on the classic tale of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman who terrorizes him. Christopher Walken and the irresistible Christina Ricci round out the cast.

Other eagerly awaited pictures include Fight Club, teaming Brad Pitt and director David Fincher in a drama of youthful violence; Anna and the King, a nonmusical version of "The King and I" (an animated version bombed recently); and Toy Story 2, an animated tale that can't possibly miss.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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