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By MILAN PAURICH



Published: Sun, September 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MILAN PAURICH

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

Call it payback time. After a summer movie season that brought us an abundance of treasures and 10-best list candidates ("Minority Report," "Road to Perdition," "Insomnia," "K-19: The Widowmaker," et al), I guess it's only fitting that fall's impoverished lineup would seem like a cinematic drought.

Sure, there are more titles to choose from than ever before, but the pickings for discerning moviegoers seem meager at best -- on paper anyway.

Thanks to a record number of warm-weather holdovers that got bumped from the summer slate either because of lack of screens or distributor confidence (including "Ring" and "The Tuxedo"), and others that have sitting on the shelf so long they're starting to grow whiskers (e.g., "Knockabout Guys"), autumn's offerings are lackluster enough to send finicky film fans into hibernation until the year-end holiday deluge.

With that caveat in mind, think of the following as an opinionated guide to the upcoming season's best bets and potential stinkers. (Since release dates are notoriously subject to change, better use a pencil when marking any of these down in your calendar.)

"City by the Sea." Vincent Lamarca (Robert DeNiro), whose father was executed for a 1950s kidnapping, is a cop whose own son (James Franco) may be a murderer. "Fargo" Oscar winner Frances McDormand co-stars.

"Swim Fan." Two fine young actors who got their big breaks in Steven Soderbergh films (Jesse Bradford from "King of the Hill" and Erika Christensen, Michael Douglas' drug-addicted daughter in "Traffic") team for this high-school "Fatal Attraction" about a promising young athlete whose one-night stand with an overzealous "swimfan" results in terror.

"Barbershop." Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer (star of a new Fox sitcom), and Anthony Anderson topline this comedy-drama about a day in the life of a South Side Chicago barber shop.

"Igby Goes Down." 17-year-old Igby (Kieran Culkin) copes with mom's cancer and dad's insanity by pursuing relationships with older women like Claire Danes. Susan Sarandon and Bill Pullman play this modern-day Holden Caulfield's parents. Although described as a comedy in the film's press release, expect "American Beauty" instead of "American Pie."

"Stealing Harvard." Jason Lee is a working-class stiff who turns to a life of crime to finance his niece's college education. Geek savant Tom Green plays Lee's bad influence buddy.

"The Transporter." Complications arise when a man (British tough guy Jason Statham from Guy Ritchie's "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels") whose job it is to deliver packages without asking questions starts breaking the rules. Directed by Hong Kong action wiz Corey Yuen and co-written by Luc ("Kiss of the Dragon," "The Professional") Besson.

"The Banger Sisters." Former rock groupies and best friends reunite after 20 years. One (Goldie Hawn) is as wild as ever; the other (Susan Sarandon) has adopted a more, uh, conservative lifestyle.

"The Four Feathers." A British officer (Heath Ledger) resigns his post just before battle and receives four white feathers from his friends (including Wes Bentley) and fianc & eacute;e (Kate Hudson) as symbols of his perceived cowardice. This remake of the 1939 Zoltan Korda swashbuckler was directed by Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth").

"Trapped." When their daughter (Dakota Fanning from "I am Sam") is abducted and held for ransom, Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend turn the table on kidnappers Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love.

"Ecks Vs. Sever." Ordered to assassinate each other, an FBI agent (Antonio Banderas) and a rogue NSA operative (Lucy Liu) soon discover there's a much bigger enemy at work.

"Moonlight Mile." A young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) lingers in the family home of his fianc & eacute;e after her accidental death. While grieving with her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), he falls in love with another young woman. Directed by Brad ("City of Angels") Siberling.

"Sweet Home Alabama." Not based on the Lynyrd Skynyrd song: A young woman (Reese Witherspoon) from a trailer trash background ditches her husband (Josh Lucas) and reinvents herself as a New York socialite. Directed by Andy Tennant whose previous Cinderella stories included Drew Barrymore's "Ever After" and Jodie Foster's "Anna and the King."

"The Tuxedo." A hapless chauffeur (Jackie Chan) must take a murdered secret agent's place using his special gagdet-laden tuxedo. With Jennifer Love Hewitt.

"Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie." Fresh fish; mixed vegetables; what's not to love? An animated musical comedy based on the popular children's video series.

"Red Dragon." F.B.I. agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) seeks the help of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins reprising his Oscar-winning role once again) to help solve the case of "Tooth Fairy" Ralph Fiennes. If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This was based on the same Thomas Harris novel that inspired Michael Mann's underrated 1986 film, "Manhunter." Brett ("Rush Hour") Ratner's version makes Lecter the centerpiece rather than just a supporting character.

"Welcome to Collinwood." Unofficial remake of classic 1958 Italian caper comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street" about goofballs (including William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell) who pull off a heist with the aid of an ace safecracker (George Clooney). Shot on location in Cleveland, this had its world premiere at May's Cannes Film Festival.

"Who's Your Daddy?" An Ohio high school senior inherits a porno empire. How do they come up with this stuff?

"Below." Strange things happen on a WWII submarine in this David ("Pitch Black") Twohy-directed sci-fi chiller co-written by Darren ("Requiem for a Dream") Aronofsky.

"Brown Sugar." PG-13 rated urban romantic comedy set against the hip-hop world features two very photogenic leads (Taye Diggs and "Love and Basketball" breakout star Sanaa Lathan) and a supporting cast of rappers (Queen Latifah, Method Man and Mos Def). Director Rick Famuyiwa had a modest hit on similar turf with 1999's "The Wood."

"Knockaround Guys." Wannabe East Coast gangsters get in hot water while on assignment in a remote Midwestern town. With such a terrific cast (Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Seth Green, John Malkovich, and Dennis Hopper, etc.), it's a mystery why this nifty little action-comedy -- which I saw in May of last year -- has been "knocking" around New Line's release schedule since fall 2000.

"Pok & eacute;mon 4-Ever." Meet Celebi, the newest member of the pocket monster cult, who has the ability to travel through time. Like, maybe a time when "Pok & eacute;mon" creatures stayed on TV and trading cards where they belong? You have been warned.

"Punch Drunk Love." Adam Sandler is a small business owner with seven sisters whose abuse has kept him alone and unable to fall in love. When a harmonium and a mysterious woman (Emily Watson from "Gosford Park") enter the picture, his romantic journey begins. Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") shared the directing prize at Cannes for this super-quirky romantic comedy.

"The Rules of Attraction." A college love triangle between James Van Deer Beek, Ian Somerholder and Shannyn Sossamen ("40 Days and 40 Nights") from former Quentin Tarantino prot & eacute;g & eacute; Roger Avary. Based on the best-selling novel by "Less than Zero" author Bret Easton Ellis.

"Swept Away." A snooty socialite (Madonna) stranded on a Mediterranean island gets horizontal with a hunky Communist sailor (Adriano Giannini whose father Giancarlo played the same role in Lina Wertmuller's identically-titled 1975 version). The first big-screen collaboration between the pop diva and her writer-director hubby Guy Ritchie.

"White Oleander." A teenager journeys through a series of foster homes after her mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) goes to prison for a crime of passion. Based on the Oprah Book Club selection by Janet Finch, the film co-stars Renee Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn.

"Tuck Everlasting." A free spirit (Alexis Bledel of "Gilmore Girls") meets and falls in love with a young man (Jonathan Jackson) who is part of a family of immortals (Mom and Pop are played by Sissy Spacek and William Hurt). This Disney flick based on the Nathalie Babbitt book hopes to follow in the footsteps of last year's sleeper "The Princess Diaries."

OCT. 18

"Abandon." A college senior (Katie Holmes) must deal with the sudden reappearance of her old boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam) after his unexplained two-year absence. The directing debut of Oscar-winning "Traffic" screenwriter Stephen Gaghan.

"Auto Focus." Director Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo," "Affliction") takes an unflinching look at the sordid life and even more unseemly death of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear in a risky performance already generating Oscar buzz).

"Formula 51." An American chemist (Samuel L. Jackson) plans to score a once-in-a-lifetime drug deal in Old Blighty. Things go sour, though, after some London gangsters decide to get involved.

"The Ring." In this DreamWorks remake of a popular Japanese horror film, journalist Naomi Watts ("Mulholland Drive") encounters a videotape with a bizarre history: Everyone who sees it dies within seven days. Maybe she should have waited for the DVD.

OCT. 25

"Frida." The much-anticipated big-screen biography of influential Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (played by Selma Hayek) by innovative stage and film director Julie ("Titus") Taymor. The exceptionally strong supporting cast includes Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Geoffrey Rush and Edward Norton.

"Ghost Ship." Strange things happen when a salvage crew tows a long-lost 1953 passenger ship back to shore. With Gabriel Byrne, Julianna Margulies and Isaiah Washington.

"Jackass: The Movie." Johnny Knoxville takes his MTV cult show to the big screen. Hilarity and spinal fractures inevitably ensue.

"Paid in Full." True story about three young men (Mekhi Phifer, rapper Cam'ron, and Wood Harris of HBO's "The Wire") who developed a conscience after building a drug empire in 1980's Harlem. Also featured in this Miramax release are Chi McBride and Regina Hall.

& quot;The Guest. & quot; Ashton Kutcher and Tara Reid take a honeymoon-from-hell in this David ("Airplane," "The Naked Gun") Zucker farce costarring such dependable laugh-getters as Molly Shannon and Andy Richter.

"The Truth About Charlie." After discovering that her late husband left her penniless, Thandie Newton ("MI-2") is besieged by mystery man Mark Wahlberg who thinks she's hiding the loot. Based on the 1963 romantic thriller starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, it was directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs").

"Waking Up in Reno." Two trailer park trash couples travel to Reno for a monster truck show. This long-delayed Miramax comedy stars Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson, all of whom should have known better.

ALSO IN OCTOBER:

"Bowling for Columbine." Michael Moore ("Roger and Me," "TV Nation") takes an alternately humorous and horrifying look at America's abuse of firearms. Winner of a special 55th Anniversary Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.




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