Risky business: Hollywood Takes Some Chances

Fall films send Hollywood out on a limb

History holds that Holly-wood is a risk-averse industry, hinging its creative decisions on how much revenue its films can generate on opening weekends. But many of the films scheduled for this fall challenge that notion.
As usual, plenty of safe prospects are on the lineup, including the sequels Analyze That and The Santa Clause 2 and the latest outings for James Bond, Harry Potter and the starship Enterprise.

But fall 2002 features a striking amount of daring, unusual projects, the kind of films that bid to push envelopes and explode pre-conceived notions, if they live up to their creators' ambitions. But if they don't come together, they're likely to be spectacular, agonizing, what-were-they- thinking failures. After two years of playing it safe, Hollywood is letting its leading lights pursue artistic aspirations that may not sell at all.

If any one person represents the trend, it's screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, writer of 1999's Oscar-nominated oddity Being John Malkovich. This season will see the release of two films based on Kaufman scripts, each of them a head-spinner. Adaptation (scheduled to open Dec. 6) re-teams the writer with Malkovich director Spike Jonze, and stars Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman, struggling to adapt a book (Meryl Streep is the novelist) about an orchid collector (Chris Cooper).

The other Kaufman project is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Dec. 27), in which Sam Rockwell plays none other than "Gong Show" creator Chuck Barris, recruited to be a CIA operative by a mysterious spymaster (George Clooney, making his directorial debut). Does the movie-going public really want to see Chuck Barris playing a secret agent? Or Nicolas Cage in the throes of writer's block? Maybe we do and just don't know it: Few would have guessed that Being John Malkovich would have been such a trippy delight.

Many of the movies of autumn and winter are marked by strange subject matter, unconventional casting or quirky reinterpretations of past films. The dates listed below reflect the most recent release information at press time: Some may get postponed until next year, and others may only get Oscar-qualifying releases in New York and Los Angeles before New Year's, so expect the unexpected.

Spirited Away: The creator of the brilliant Princess Mononoke presents a supernatural tale of a girl trying to rescue her parents from evil spirits in an animated film that became Japan's biggest moneymaker — and may be one of the best films of 2002. (September)

Red Dragon: Thomas Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel — already filmed by Michael Mann as Manhunter — gets another big screen treatment with Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Hopkins in his signature role. From the director of the Rush Hour movies, Brett Ratner, heaven knows why. (Oct. 4)

Punch-Drunk Love: Magnolia's Paul Thomas Anderson directs Adam Sandler as a pudding-obsessed salesman with rage issues who falls in love with Emily Watson. Sandler's dramatic stretch played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. (Oct. 11)

Swept Away: Madonna and her husband, Snatch director Guy Ritchie, finally collaborate for an awful-looking remake of Lina Wertmüller's 1975 castaway romance. (Oct. 11)

Auto Focus: Filmmaker Paul Schrader applies his obsession with, well, obsessed characters (Hardcore, Affliction) to "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) and his troubles with sex addiction. (Oct. 18)

The Ring: Mulholland Drive's Best Actress nominee Naomi Watts stars in the American remake of Ring, a Japanese thriller about a lethal videotape. (Oct. 18)

The Truth About Charlie: Mark Wahlberg takes the Cary Grant role in Jonathan Demme's remake of Charade staring Thandie Newton. It had a year-long stint in post production and supposedly includes 50 songs on the soundtrack, promising a feast of music, editing and camerawork that could make it this year's Moulin Rouge! (Oct. 25)

Frida: Salma Hayek plays Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter famed for her self-portraits, in a biopic directed by the ultra-stylish Julie Taymor. (Oct. 25)

All or Nothing: Secrets and Lies director Mike Leigh offers another highly improvised film of a troubled working-class family, starring Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall. (Oct. 25)

Bowling for Columbine: Charlton Heston and Marilyn Manson are among the interviewees in Michael Moore's gonzo documentary on American gun culture in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings. (October)

8 Mile: Eminem playing a struggling rapper in a film that would easily be dismissed as another Purple Rain were it not directed by Curtis Hanson of L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys fame. (Nov. 8)

Far From Heaven: Julianne Moore plays a 1950s housewife in Todd Haynes' erotic tribute to the lush movie melodramas of Douglas Sirk. (Nov. 8)

Femme Fatale: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays the title role opposite Antonio Banderas in Brian DePalma's twisty heist film. But what are we to think when the director willingly compares it to the perplexing Mulholland Drive? (Nov. 8)

Phone Booth: Joel Schumacher's cinematic exercise takes place entirely in and around a street corner phone booth, with Colin Farrell playing a yuppie who'll be shot by a sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) if he hangs up. (Nov. 15)

Solaris: George Clooney plays a widowed astronaut in Steven Soderbergh's remake of the acclaimed, deliberately paced sci-fi film known as "Russia's 2001: A Space Odyssey." (Nov. 27)

Treasure Planet: Disney's animated, outer-space adaptation of Treasure Island boasts a trailer with some astonishing special effects and a half-robotic Long John Silver. Arrr! (Nov. 27)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Peter Jackson's first chapter in Tolkien's trilogy was last year's biggest gamble, but the second chapter is one of 2002's sure things. Andy Serkis of 24 Hour Party People gives voice to the all-CGI Gollum. (Dec. 18)

Gangs of New York: Already notorious for multiple delays and budget over-runs, Martin Scorsese's lavish treatment of 19th-century New York gangs finally sees the light of day. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis. (Dec. 25)

Catch Me If You Can: Christmas Day sees Leonardo DiCaprio competing with himself in both Gangs and this Steven Spielberg action-drama, in which Leo portrays a young con artist pursued by G-man Tom Hanks. (Dec. 25)

About Schmidt: Jack Nicholson's performance as a frustrated retiree in this film from the creators of Election was one of the toasts of the Cannes Film Festival. (Dec. 25)

Pinocchio: Roberto Benigni presents a live-action look at the wooden puppet who comes to life, with the 49-year-old actor/director playing the title role opposite other adults cast as kids. No lie: It doesn't sound good. (Dec. 25)

Chicago: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere play the musical leads in the film version of the 1974 Kander and Ebb musical, famously choreographed by Bob Fosse. Miramax is touting it as its Oscar contender for this year. (Dec. 27)

Max: John Cusack plays a Jewish gallery owner and one-armed WWI veteran who in 1918 gets to know a struggling artist named Adolf Hitler (an intriguingly cast Noah Taylor). (Dec. 27)

The Hours: Julianne Moore plays a 1950s housewife — again — in a time-shifting tale that juxtaposes her with Meryl Streep as a present-day poet and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, going about the last day of her life. From Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliott. (Dec. 27)