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Fall Arts Preview 2004

12 minute read
Richard Corliss, Lev Grossman, James Poniewozik and Josh Tyrangiel

Like an impatient teacher itching to enlighten a classroom of sleepy students, fall is a season that snaps, “Pay attention!” Summer’s over, school’s in, and popular culture gets a little more serious. It’s the antisilly season, when people want challenge as much as comfort. The seasonal adage may be “Fall back,” but autumn is the time for great leaps forward. And late August is the time to hope for them.

After months of brainless Hollywood bombast, you can look not for bigger films but for smarter ones. The romance novels of summer are beach litter now; time to buckle down to nonfiction. TV may be ready to take off its dancing shoes and take on weighty subjects–like a Chris Rock sitcom that defuses racism by exploding it.

In these pages, TIME’s critics report on the top autumn anticipations. And if some of the offerings seem too much like homework, play hooky. See a Broadway show with a favorite star tandem or a movie with a mute, heroic dog, or try a cool new video game. Then write an essay about it, class, and have it on our desk by Monday.



Broadway’s $20 Million Odd Couple

Everyone says it’s the show you gotta see. But it won’t be easy. Months before its Oct. 27 opening night, a revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 comedy, The Odd Couple, this time with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, has amassed $20 million in ticket sales–the highest advance take ever for a Broadway nonmusical.

The two stars, who helped turn Mel Brooks’ The Producers into the first smash theater hit of the millennium, are one of show biz’s top money teams. In this tale of mismatched roommates, Lane will play Oscar, the slobby sportswriter, while Broderick tackles the fussbudget Felix. There have been rumors that they may occasionally switch roles.

The six-month run is virtually sold out, but booking agents may be persuaded to part with certain tickets at $1,000 a pop. Or you can go to the multiplex in December and catch the duo in the movie version of The Producers musical. –By Richard Corliss


Beginning an Ariel Bombardment

Rosemary Harris,74, has always possessed the gift of making common sense seem a stroke of genius, a thing of beauty. Her equipoise will be tested as she inhabits a nation wracked by war in Ariel Dorfman’s The Other Side (opening Dec. 6 at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club). It’s one of three plays by the Chilean author (Death and the Maiden) to premiere this season. Purgatorio opens in Seattle in October, Picasso’s Closet in Washington in June. –R.C.



On Oscar Night, Will the Man in Black Be Handed a Man of Gold?

This legendary singer from the South had a string of genre-bending hits in the ’50s and kept his luster for 50 years, through marital breakups and drug busts. He had a sibling whose early death haunted him. He himself died just as he was about to be immortalized in a Hollywood biopic.

Bet you didn’t know how much Ray Charles and Johnny Cash had in common.

Now we’ll see if Walk the Line, which opens Nov. 18, can cop the Oscars (two) and nominations (six) that came Ray’s way. Right off, we can think of two contenders: Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cash, for Best Actor and Reese Wither-spoon as June Carter Cash for Best Actress. Both performances have the power, precision and humanity that make Academy voters take admiring notice.

The film, directed by James Mangold (Cop Land, Identity), synopsizes Cash’s first 40 years: his Arkansas upbringing; his restless first marriage; his signing with Sun Records in the early, Elvis days; crucially, his halting courtship of Carter, who became Johnny’s enduring bride. They were married for 35 years until their deaths, four months apart, in 2003.

As singers, Witherspoon and Phoenix do decent impressions of the originals. But their emotional acuity rings true. Phoenix seems to be channeling Cash when he radiates a stare of dread and danger and sings, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” In Walk the Line, the kick is in seeing how Phoenix brings Cash back to life. –R.C.


A Man, a Dog and a Laugh Riot

Nick Park might have been tempted not to fiddle with perfection. His mini-epics starring a hapless inventor named Wallace and the stoic pooch Gromit, had won two Oscars for Best Animated Short. Could this droll couple, so comfortable in a film of half an hour or less, do the stretching exercises needed for feature length while retaining their sly wit, their modesty, their veddy middle-class Englishness?

You bet! Or, rather, rah-thuh! In Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (opening Oct. 7), the tale of a creature that terrorizes townsfolk by eating their prize vegetables, Park and co-director Steve Box have created a horror-romance that owes as much to Jane Austen’s social comedies as to the Hammer monster movies of yore. The result is the flat-out funniest movie in dog’s years.

Park and his team still make their stop-motion marvels by hand, manipulating plasticine figures, photographing them for 1/24 sec., then repeating 100,000 or so times. In an animation age in which nearly everything is pixelated, such dogged craftsmanship is old-fashioned, English and, dash it all, heroic. –R.C.



From the Pokey to the Pantry

I want to focus on my salad,” snipped a cabbage-chopping Martha Stewart in 2002, when a CBS Early Show host pressed her for details of her stock-trading scandal. One prison term later, Stewart is again ready to focus on her salad–and to make some cabbage for her media empire. With reality-TV impresario Mark Burnett, Stewart will launch her version of The Apprentice (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. E.T., debuts Sept. 21) and a syndicated daily cooking-and-crafts show, Martha (debuts Sept. 12).

Even before jail, people loved Stewart or hated her–and frankly, the latter often works better in reality TV. But she has a tricky task. The Apprentice: Martha Stewart will purportedly be geared more toward Stewart’s lifestyle business and be less hard edged than Donald Trump’s version, yet reality shows thrive on conflict. Can she fire people in prime time while stoking the hearth fires in daytime–and duck the gender double standard? (Tough male boss=leader; tough female boss=bitch.) And ratings success does not necessarily equal business success, as Trump could attest if he weren’t too proud.

NBC–in need of a comeback after falling to fourth place in key ratings–is not exactly flaunting Stewart’s stay in jail in its promotions. CBS, on the other hand, has Cybill Shepherd playing Stewart in the unflattering movie Martha: Behind Bars, airing Sept. 25. But for Stewart, a reminder of her dark times could be a good thing. TV loves a survivor. (There’s a reality show by that name, no?) And viewers may be ready to let her prove that she, like a properly yeasted dough that’s been punched down, can rise again. –By James Poniewozik


Finally, a New Sitcom That (Chris) Rocks

Remember those blissful days of childhood? Good times with friends, secure and happy, not a care in the world? Chris Rock doesn’t, and thank God for that. As a kid in Brooklyn, the comedian was bused from a blighted neighborhood to a mostly white school, where he was picked on daily. And you can watch him relive it–in a fictionalized, laugh-like-a-barking-seal-funny version–every Thursday at 8 p.m. E.T. on UPN. (That’s right, UPN has the best new show of the fall. Let’s hope Satan owns a down parka.)

Everybody Hates Chris (starting Sept. 22) has very likely the best sitcom title ever, and the pilot just gets better from there. Much of that is owing to the acid tongue of narrator-writer-producer Rock. When gunshots erupt at the junior high in Chris’ neighborhood, Rock deadpans, “Much like rock ‘n’ roll, school shootings were invented by blacks and stolen by the white man.” Just as delightful is Tyler James Williams as young Chris, a pint-size Job who helps raise two siblings and befriends a white nerd at school. (“Mutual ass kickings,” Rock narrates, “seem to bring people together.”)

Chris is no sentimental Wonder Years, but it has a real affection for its era–the early-’80s dawn of hip-hop–and a deep sense of family. Mom (Tichina Arnold) is a tough-loving lioness, while dad (Terry Crews) is a tightwad who knows the exact cost of everything (“That’s 30¢ worth of oatmeal!”). But both are preparing Chris for a tough world the best way they know. Here’s hoping he has a long, miserable childhood. –J.P.



A Star Is Born, All Over Again

In the original Katamari Damacy, you played a space prince who ran around rolling up paper clips and buttons and people and houses and cars–you know, whatever–into huge balls of junk. Then your daddy, the King of All Cosmos, turned the junkballs into stars. That made no sense. Which didn’t stop it from rocking.

The sequel, We Love Katamari (coming Sept. 7 for PlayStation 2), doesn’t mess with success. You’re still a prince, still rolling up stuff into stars, but now it’s, like, different stuff. There’s a snow level, a classroom level and–ooooh–an underwater level. Like the original, it will be cheap ($29.99), charming and nicely nonviolent. And it will still make no sense whatsoever. –By Lev Grossman


World War II, Version 2.0

Normandy. Tunisia. Stalingrad. Palls of oily black smoke towering over ruined cities. Automatic weapons chattering and soldiers shouting in shattering 5.1-channel audio. Battlefields it would take years to find Private Ryan in. When it arrives this fall, Call of Duty 2 (for PC and Xbox 360) will be the new state of the art in simulated WW II combat. Whatever campaign you choose–American, British, Russian or all of the above–it will be so intense, you’ll almost wish you’d drawn a desk job Stateside. Almost. –L.G.



Trashy, Happy and in Control

With Gretchen Wilson’s debut album, the 4 million-selling Here for the Party, the world learned that she’s a Redneck Woman. What will we find out when she releases her follow-up, All Jacked Up, on Sept. 27? “That I have a lot more control of my music,” says Wilson, laughing. “Like all new artists, I had to make compromises on the first one. A couple of songs weren’t totally me.”

Wilson shows a sensitive, but not sentimental, side on the winning ballad I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today and covers the Billie Holiday classic Good Morning Heartache in old-fashioned one-mike, one-take style. Lest anyone think she’s getting classy, the title track is about being very drunk, hitting on the wrong guy and getting a tooth knocked out when “a big ole girl walked outta the blue/ 10 ft. 2 with a bad attitude.” (The video features Kid Rock, the poet laureate of sloshed hookups.) “I’ll never run from being trashy,” says Wilson. “I love the homemade stuff I get with ‘Redneck Woman’ on it. Apparently, the Bedazzler is back in.” –By Josh Tyrangiel


Because He’s Still Young at Heart

For 30 years, it’s been the same question: Which Neil? The lumber-shredding, screeching Canadian eagle of vengeance? The willfully weird but kind of dull experimenter? The acoustic guy? This time it’s just Good Neil. Neil Young, 59, started making Prairie Wind, out Sept. 27, his (lordy) 31st album, a week before he had brain surgery–a nice p.r. detail but also a legit reason for him to think about mortality and drift back to his days on the Canadian steppe. There’s politics and religion too, as well as some of Nashville’s best musicians, though it’s not really a country album. It’s more a unified theory of Neil, and his timing couldn’t be better. –J.T.



More Good and Evil, but in Venice

Where has John Berendt been for the past 11 years? It has been that long since he wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which spent four of those years on best-seller lists. The answer, apparently, is Venice. That makes sense: Where else could Berendt find the mix of rich gossip and Gothic calamity that made his portrait of Savannah, Ga., so fascinating?

In his new book, The City of Falling Angels (Penguin Press; 414 pages), due out in September, Berendt’s subject is the death not of a human being but of a building: Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s 200-year-old gilded treasure chest of an opera house, which burned to the ground in 1996. Was it an accident or arson?

Berendt’s investigation gives him an excuse to hang out with an array of beguiling Venetians, including Count Girolamo Marcello, a wry nobleman who lives in a 600-year-old palace. “What is true? What is not true?” Count Marcello asks. “The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change … That is the Venice effect.” –By Lev Grossman


Cooking Duck à l’Orange for the Soul

One night Julie Powell, a neurotic, cash-strapped, Queens, N.Y., temp, decided that she was going to cook every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell, 30, is not a domestic goddess; she’s emphatically, unembarrassedly a domestic mortal. But she is also a genuinely gifted thinker and writer about food. As we learn in the account of her culinary marathon, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (Little, Brown; 320 pages; Sept. 28), Child’s gastronomical masterpiece teaches Powell precious lessons about herself. Chief among them? That “you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life.” –L.G.

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