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Hollywood's Early Thaw 

The 2002 movie season gets underway

What's it say that one of the most promising films of the upcoming winter/spring movie season is something called Death to Smoochy? Of course, we're all familiar with the axiom of not judging a book by its cover -- or, in this case, a movie by its moniker. With Danny DeVito directing and Edward Norton and a non-sentimental Robin Williams starring, this dark comedy has a shot at being one of the more memorable films of the next few weeks, which, given the track record for this time of year, would make it an exception to the rueful rule.

Usually, the first few months of the year are when Hollywood studios tend to throw out their more dubious offerings. But it's never all doom and gloom. Some limited-release Oscar hopefuls open nationally during this period, as well as some interesting-looking indie products. After all, let's not forget that last year's best film, the sleeper art-house hit Memento, came out during the first part of the year.

In the hope that there's another Memento lurking in the shadows, here's a lightning-quick look at the 50 titles scheduled for local release over the next few weeks.

January 18:

BLACK HAWK DOWN, based on Mark Bowden's best-selling novel about the 1993 battle of Mogadishu that brought out the best qualities in America's fighting men (but which also led to numerous deaths), has been transformed into Columbia Pictures' prime Oscar bait, opening wide after a limited December release in New York and Los Angeles. Pearl Harbor's Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore head the large cast; Ridley Scott provides direction. . . .Steve Oedekerk, writer of such ghastly affairs as Patch Adams and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, signs as on writer, director, producer and star of KUNG POW: ENTER THE FIST, a broad spoof of dubbed karate flicks. . . .In THE SHIPPING NEWS, the adaptation of Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a newspaperman (Kevin Spacey) coping with personal tragedy gets a new lease on life after he returns to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. The grade-A cast includes Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. . . .A Miami dentist (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) learns to love the cold after he inherits a team of sled dogs in Disney's SNOW DOGS.

January 25:

Sounding like an intriguing cross between The Wolf Man and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon yet taking place in a Dangerous Liaisons setting, France's BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (LE PACTE DES LOUPS) centers on the exploits of two men (Samuel Le Bihan and Mark Dacascos) hired by King Louis XV to stop a beast that's been savaging the local populace... .The latest screen version of Alexandre Dumas' classic tale THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO stars Jim Caviezel (Angel Eyes) as the wrongly incarcerated man who escapes from prison, fashions himself into a nobleman, and plots revenge against the former friend (Guy Pearce) who betrayed him. . . .Sean Penn plays a mentally challenged man fighting the courts to retain custody of his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) in I AM SAM. Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars as his attorney. . . .In what sounds like an old X-Files script found lying around, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (based on John Keel's book) stars Richard Gere as a newspaper reporter who investigates possible UFO sightings in West Virginia. . . .After small roles in The Princess Diaries and Dr. Dolittle 2, 17-year-old pop star Mandy Moore lands her first lead role in A WALK TO REMEMBER, a love story based on Nicholas Sparks' novel and set in North Carolina.

February 1:

At just around the time Nicole Kidman learns whether her performances in The Others and Moulin Rouge siphoned enough votes off each other to deny her an Oscar nomination for either, she'll star in BIRTHDAY GIRL, about a Russian mail-order bride who ends up with a shy British clerk (Ben Chaplin).... A college nerd blackmails three jocks into setting him up with a beauty queen in SLACKERS. I saw this film's trailer back-to-back with the one for Showtime (see the March 29 entry), making me fret that this might be a looong movie season.

February 8:

The title BELOW refers to where the members of a US submarine during World War II stumble across a supernatural entity. David Twohy (Pitch Black) directs. . . .Originally scheduled for an October 2001 release but delayed for obvious reasons, COLLATERAL DAMAGE stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a firefighter whose wife and child are killed after a terrorist (Cliff Curtis) bombs downtown LA. When it becomes obvious that the assassin is "untouchable" due to reprehensible US policy, the angry widower decides to settle the matter himself. . . .One of last year's best films, MONSTER'S BALL is a hard-hitting tale about a gruff prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and his relationships with his bigoted father (Peter Boyle), his confused son (Heath Ledger), and a struggling waitress (Halle Berry) he meets right after overseeing her husband's execution. . . .Bosnia's entry into this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race (and boy, does it deserve a nomination) is NO MAN'S LAND, a drama-cum-black-comedy about a Bosnian and a Serb who are stranded together in a trench located between their respective camps.... ROLLERBALL is a remake of the 1975 film about a future society in which all expressions of violence are forbidden except on the playing field of a popular new sport. Chris Klein (Election) handles James Caan's old role; the cast also include reliable French actor Jean Reno, model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and music stars LL Cool J and Pink.

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