Holidays Bring Quality Escapism

Thursday, November 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ All films not named ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' please raise your hands so audiences will know you'll be in theaters this holiday season.

Not since ``Star Wars'' returned with ``The Phantom Menace'' have moviegoers been so eager for a single movie.

And for a world abruptly cast into a war on terrorism, ``Harry Potter'' may be the ideal cinematic salve, a journey into a parallel world where magic rules and goodness triumphs.

``I've rarely read anything this imaginative and unique and also funny,'' ``Harry Potter'' director Chris Columbus said of J.K. Rowling's fiction phenomenon about a boy wizard fighting evil at a school of witchcraft. ``It's the ultimate fantasy that gives kids hope there's somewhere else they can go in their lives, and for adults, gives them the feeling of being 11 years old again.''

``Harry Potter'' has good company in the much-needed escapism department this fall. ``Monsters, Inc.'' got a head-start on the holidays with a record box-office debut for an animated film, while the first installment of ``Lord of the Rings'' hits in December.

``Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,'' about a kid tussling with aliens, could prove an animated sleeper. Martin Lawrence takes his comic attitude to the 16th century with ``Black Knight,'' a tale of a modern man hurled back to merry old England. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and friends plan the perfect casino heist in ``Ocean's Eleven,'' from director Steven Soderbergh, who's practicing his own escapism from weightier films like ``Traffic'' and ``Erin Brockovich.''

War-film fans can take a break from the real headlines with ``Behind Enemy Lines,'' starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson as soldiers in a fictional, near-future combat setting. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt provide espionage adventure with the cat-and-mouse thriller ``Spy Game.''

Filmgoers can even escape back into the fairy-tale world of Disney's animated ``Beauty and the Beast,'' which comes to huge-screen Imax theaters beginning New Year's Day.

``Pure escapism is very useful, maybe more so since the changed-world moment,'' said director Baz Luhrmann, whose high-spirited, tragicomic musical ``Moulin Rouge'' is returning to theaters for a limited run.

``Escaping into a world that can remind us of the good things in life. I've traveled the world (with ``Moulin Rouge), and people come up and thank me that they could get out of their head space for a couple of hours.''

As with the glitzy but lived-in look of ``Moulin Rouge,'' the makers of ``Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'' try to make the fantastical Middle-earth world of J.R.R. Tolkien feel like a real place, ``not some incredibly gorgeous and ideal land audiences can't relate to,'' said Elijah Wood, who stars as the hobbit Frodo Baggins.

``It's almost like what `Star Wars' did for the sci-fi genre, making it gritty and dirty and used and believable,'' Wood said. ``The thing about Tolkien is it reads like a history you can relate to and feel as if it actually existed. With this film, you get a sense visually that there's an age to the place. Nothing is perfect or pristine.''

Tim Allen provides escapism with one of the season's few comedies, ``Joe Somebody,'' about an Everyman who's awakened from a humdrum life after the office bully beats him up in front of his daughter.

``There's no explosions, and you can leave that theater smiling about humanity and enjoying what I do best, which is comedy,'' said Allen, whose other fall comedy, ``Big Trouble,'' was postponed indefinitely after the terrorist attacks because it had a scene about a nuclear device aboard a plane.

``What I want from movies right now is not to see how we think we're going to deal with terrorists,'' Allen said. ``I want to laugh or go into outer space or under the sea or watch `Indiana Jones' stuff.''

Then, of course, the holidays hold promise of escape into quality as studios roll out their serious Oscar contenders.

Films jockeying for awards consideration include: ``Ali,'' from director Michael Mann (``The Insider''), with Will Smith taking his dramatic title shot as the boxing legend; ``The Shipping News,'' starring Kevin Spacey in the best-seller adaptation about a newspapermen re-examining his family history; ``I Am Sam,'' starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer in the tale of a retarded man fighting for custody of his daughter; ``Gosford Park,'' Robert Altman's satiric murder mystery and class-war satire on an English estate; ``Monster's Ball,'' a death-row drama featuring Billy Bob Thornton as an executioner; ``Charlotte Gray,'' with Cate Blanchett as a British spy in France during World War II.

Also: ``The Majestic,'' Jim Carrey's latest hope to avoid another Oscar snub in the story of a blacklisted, amnesiac screenwriter in the 1950s; ``Vanilla Sky,'' a fractured tale of manhood from the ``Jerry Maguire'' team of Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe; ``The Royal Tenenbaums,'' featuring Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller as a family of brilliant failures; ``Iris,'' with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet portraying writer Iris Murdoch at different times in her life; and ``A Beautiful Mind,'' the story of Nobel Prize-winning economist John Forbes Nash Jr. and his battle with schizophrenia, starring last year's best-actor winner, Russell Crowe.

With ``A Beautiful Mind,'' director Ron Howard notes he's turned ``just about 180 degrees'' from his film last fall, ``Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.''

``But there is an odd parallel between the two. `Grinch' was driven by an extraordinary central character played by an unusually gifted powerhouse talent, Jim Carrey,'' Howard said. ``There's similarities on the other end of the spectrum for Russell Crowe, who captures this deeply complex, often troubled, always challenged character who's a genius.

``With Nash, personality, madness, ambition, all sort of colluded to create kind of an isolated individual. Like the Grinch. There's another parallel I had never thought of.''

``Ali'' focuses heavily on the boxer's personal and political struggles from 1964 to '74. But Smith promises some mind-blowing action in the ring.

``The boxing footage in this film will never be matched. You'll never get a group of guys together willing to punch each the way we did for a year and a half,'' Smith said. ``It's not even something I'm saying arrogantly. I just feel Michael Mann has created his all-time work of art.''

Compared to the big productions of ``A Beautiful Mind,'' ``Vanilla Sky,'' ``Ali'' and ``The Shipping News,'' ``I Am Sam'' is a small tearjerker whose makers hope awards attention will help lure audiences. Penn's powerhouse blend of comedy and drama should put him squarely in the best-actor race.

``Potentially, this movie can be big in the way `Rain Man' was big,'' said Pfeiffer, playing a self-absorbed attorney who gets lessons in life and parenting when she takes on the custody case of Penn's character. ``Films can get lost in the shuffle, but I think people will find this movie, ultimately.''

Practically any movie could get lost in the shuffle somewhat in a season that boasts ``Harry Potter,'' especially if moviegoers love it so much they pull a ``Titanic'' and go back to see it again and again.

To satisfy the meticulous ``Harry Potter'' legions, director Columbus wisely pushed the movie to 2 1/2 hours, unusually long for a family film. That way, Columbus notes, he could preserve as much of the novel on screen as possible.

``Fans, myself being one, are so obsessive about every page of the book. If I had my way, I would have shot a 6 1/2-hour film,'' Columbus said. ``Unfortunately, in reality, we did need to condense certain things and drop certain things. But most of the major scenes remain intact.''