Change to spare 

If you’re looking for signs of the apocalypse, consider this: David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) has made a G-rated movie for Disney.

It’s true. The Straight Story (Oct. 15) takes place in the 260-mile stretch between Laurens, Iowa, and Mt. Zion, Wis. That’s the road Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, The Grey Fox) traverses on his John Deere tractor in order to see his long-estranged brother. Apparently Lynch has created a warm, life-affirming and, yes, irony-free film. The end is near.

But David Lynch is hardly alone this fall in choosing a radically different path. A number of directors are taking detours into different genres and subject matter.

David O. Russell, whose previous films were taboo-bashing black comedies (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster), goes action/adventure with Three Kings (Oct. 1). In the waning days of the Gulf War, the unlikely trio of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube hunt for gold buried near their desert base.

Oliver Stone forgoes Vietnam (Platoon), conspiracy theories (JFK) and lethal weapons (Natural Born Killers) to make a movie about football, Any Given Sunday (Dec. 25). The gridiron conflict between an aging star and a rising young quarterback makes Miami Sharks head coach Al Pacino question his priorities, especially with ultra-ambitious team owner Cameron Diaz breathing down his neck.

In Mumford (Sept. 24), Lawrence Kasdan creates an ensemble film à la The Big Chill or Grand Canyon, but this time plays it strictly for laughs. The cypherish Loren Dean is a dubious shrink whose advice sends the neurotic residents (including Jason Lee, Mary McConnell and Hope Davis) of a scenic small town into a tizzy.

One of the supreme stylists of psychological violence, David Fincher (Seven, The Game), slides into numbing brutality with Fight Club (Oct. 15). Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are buddies who frequent underground "fight clubs" where frustrated white men beat one another to a pulp for the thrill of it.

The impossible to pigeonhole director Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) guides mercurial Jim Carrey into Andy Kaufman’s skin for Man On the Moon (Nov. 5). Carrey and Forman are both well-versed in button-pushing tactics and may just capture the essence of that master provocateur Kaufman, a bizarro comedian who was well ahead of his time.

After two subdued dramas about small breakdowns and their large repercussions (Heavy, Cop Land) James Mangold examines the inner workings of a mental hospital in Girl, Interrupted (Dec. 21). Based on Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical novel, the film follows Winona Ryder as her prescribed "short rest" turns into a sanity-questioning extended stay.

Wayne Wang (Smoke, Slamdance) also explores the female point of view in Anywhere But Here (Oct. 22). Natalie Portman stars as a teen who just wants a little normality while her status-conscious single mother Susan Sarandon actively seeks that fabled "better life" and uproots them to end-of-the-rainbow California.

Jane Austen’s small oeuvre continues to be fodder for the movies with Mansfield Park (Nov. 5). This adaptation comes via Canadian writer/director, Patricia Rozema, best known for her quirky, visually inventive lesbian-themed love stories, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night is Falling. Rozema is likely to find a fresh angle for Austen’s tale of class conflicts and suppressed desires.

One of France’s cinematic bad boys, Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) gets medieval with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Nov. 5) starring his soon-to-be ex-wife Milla Jovovich as the ultimate girl warrior.

Wes Craven is also shifting gears, temporarily abandoning horror films (Nightmare on Elm Street) to make the uplifting drama Music of the Heart (Oct. 29), starring Meryl Streep as an inspiring violin teacher in East Harlem, before returning with yet another self-referential slasher flick, Scream 3 (Dec. 10).

If all this change is too much for you, rest assured that other directors are staying their tried-and-true course. After the exotica of Kundun, Martin Scorsese returns to the mean streets of New York, reuniting with Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader in Bringing Out the Dead (Oct. 22), which stars Nicolas Cage as a night-shift ambulance driver who begins to question his grip on reality.

Barry Levinson also goes home again with Liberty Heights (Nov. 26), a male-bonding coming-of-age story set (like Diner, Tin Men and Avalon) in Baltimore during the deceptively placid 1950s.

Tim Burton once again lets his freak flag fly in Sleepy Hollow (Nov. 19), his adaptation of Washington Irving’s wigged-out American classic about a timid schoolteacher (Johnny Depp, who was Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) and his terrifying encounters with a headless horseman.

Which also signals the apocalypse, now, doesn’t it?

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