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SUMMER SNEAKS ’94 : Crank Up the Air Conditioning : Yes, it’s summer movie time again. Grab that air-popped you-know-what and see what mood Hollywood is in

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday</i>

Somehow, we’ll never be able to think of them as popcorn movies again. Nine-hundred calories for a regular box, three days’ worth of fat, enough cholesterol to clog the Lincoln Tunnel. You go to summer movies for entertainment, not cardiovascular disease. How are you going to forget all your troubles and just be happy, when you’re worried that the next handful of popcorn may be your last?

Great timing, Center for Science in the Public Interest. You wait until after the greatest summer of popcorn pictures in history, the summer of “Jurassic Park,” “The Fugitive,” “The Firm,” and “In the Line of Fire,” keep your mouths shut throughout a winter where there wasn’t a popcorn movie in sight, then spring it on us just as trailers for “Maverick,” “True Lies,” and “Beverly Hills Cop III” were showing up on screens.

Now, as we accompany our kids into theaters for the most family-oriented summer line-up in memory, we face the choice of either buying them nasty theater popcorn or risk getting into a wrestling match with a 16-year-old usher trying to confiscate that tasteless air-popped corn the Center for Science suggested we make at home and sneak in!

The action this summer could be better in the aisles than on the screen.

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In fact, there aren’t that many pure popcorn movies--action/adventure films that cause nervous energy in the muscles around the jaw--on the ’94 summer schedule. Last year, there were 15 that fit the description. Between now and Labor Day, we’ll see six ( for more on the action movies this summer, see Page 6 ).

Of that group, only three--James Cameron’s “True Lies,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Philip Noyce’s “Clear and Present Danger,” with Harrison Ford starring in the third adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels--seem certain to become blockbusters. (Joel Schumacher’s “The Client,” starring Susan Sarandon in the John Grisham potboiler, also has good potential, though it’s not strictly an action film.)

By accident or design, there are two movies in the field mimicking the hot formula of “In the Line of Fire.” MGM, under new management, takes a shot at the action market with “Blown Away,” starring Jeff Bridges as a bomb squad expert being taunted by bomb planter Tommy Lee Jones, and Fox offers “Speed,” with Keanu Reeves as a SWAT team member trying to thwart another bomber, played by Dennis Hopper.

Exhibitors who’ve seen “Beverly Hills Cop III” rate it only a fair chance to become a hit, and bolster Eddie Murphy’s sagging career.

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That’s a modest crop of action films for the season. As if they’d planned to keep the tension level down in theaters, the studios have loaded the schedule with comedies (22), fantasies (10) and family-oriented movies starring kids (17). There are three animated features, including Walt Disney’s sure-hit “The Lion King,” three about the relationships between kids and animals (the dog in “Lassie,” the horse in “Black Beauty,” and the seal in “Andre”), and two fantasies about teen-age boys leading major-league baseball teams to victory.

Plus, a comic strip hero (“The Shadow”), a live-action cartoon (“The Flintstones”), and “Little Rascals,” a full-length feature starring an all-new cast of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and other Our Gang look-alikes.

It’s not that the studios didn’t learn from last summer’s grosses. You just can’t order up a dozen $60- to $100-million action movies from production and have them ready to glut the market in less than 12 months. John Grisham and Michael Crichton type fast, but they can’t turn instantly adaptable novels out overnight.

No, you’ll see that batch next summer, after the theater chains have all converted from coconut to canola oil, and American moviegoers are in the mood for a good musical.

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In the meantime, we will complete the harvest of children’s movies inspired by Macaulay Culkin and “Home Alone,” a unique combination of talent and story that had studio executives grasping at air a few years back, as if to catch their own shooting stars.

Culkin’s success was taken by many in the industry as evidence that the public was fed up with the sex and violence they have been stuffing down our throats for 10 years, and acted on that assumption by developing entire slates of children and family movies. Months before the opening of “Last Action Hero,” an $80-million parody of cartoon film violence, Columbia Pictures chief Mark Canton virtually declared the dawning of a new, PG-rated age in Hollywood, with a child--and Arnold Schwarzenegger--showing the way.

Instead, the movie flopped, and Schwarzenegger, with his tail tucked between his immense legs, rushed back to “Terminator” director James Cameron to do another hard-edged, high body-count action movie. Mark Canton, in the great tradition of failing upward in Hollywood, was promoted, and his theory about the commercial advantage of PG movies was exposed as a non-issue by the ratings of the summer’s five biggest hits. “Jurassic Park” and “The Fugitive” were PG-13, “Sleepless in Seattle” was PG, “The Firm” and “In the Line of Fire” were rated R.

People do pay more attention to ratings during the summer, and over the Christmas holidays, when children are more apt to wander into an R-rated movie and be blinded by sin. And this season, parents will find a reasonable mix. About a third of the 47 films scheduled for wide release are designed to appeal to children or families, about a third to adults, and the rest to that once-cherished range of 14- to 24-year-olds.

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What is missing, as usual, are serious dramas, and, inexplicably, romance. Educated people can suspend their intellect for the summer months (check the best-seller lists), but hormones rage on.

There are films with strong romantic subplots, and featuring attractive star match-ups. There are Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson, a fox and a hound, in Mike Nichols’ “Wolf,” but it’s a horror film, a retelling of the classic werewolf legend, with Nicholson playing a book editor who really does become an animal in bed.

In Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp,” the legendary lawman (Kevin Costner), has to tear himself from the arms of his lover (Joanna Going) to join his brothers for the gunfight at the OK Corral. And the summer’s other big Western, the tongue-in-cheek “Maverick,” pauses for something that, judging from the trailer, looks more like horseplay than foreplay between Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster.

Romance is apparently the central issue in Charles Shyer’s “I Love Trouble,” in which Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts play newspaper rivals--he’s a cagey veteran, she’s a wary cub reporter--who end up sharing sheets and a double byline.

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If you’re interested in serious romance, you may look for Gramercy’s “Foreign Student,” an interracial love story based on French writer Phillipe Labro’s autobiographical novel about a Paris exchange student (“Europa, Europa’s” Marco Hofschneider) who falls in love with a black woman (Robin Givens) in 1956 Virginia.

As for serious dramas, directors Oliver Stone and Jefery Levy both take a hard look at the mass media’s obsession with violent crime in “Natural Born Killers” and “S.F.W.,” respectively. If you want more, check the art-house schedule. Miramax will soon release Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” (how serious can it be with Keanu Reeves playing the incarnation of Siddhartha?), and Sony Classics has a little Swedish gem coming called “Slingshot,” for those charmed by “My Life as a Dog.”

The three movies being talked about most in Hollywood seem to be Universal’s “The Flintstones,” which industry insiders speculate might become this summer’s “Last Action Hero,” Fox’s “True Lies,” a special-effects thrill ride that is reportedly costing the studio more than $100 million, and Paramount’s “Forrest Gump,” which many feel could become the season’s sleeper hit.

Exhibitors who’ve seen “The Flintstones” say that they’re worried that it is too cartoonish (true, from the trailer, it’s hard to tell John Goodman’s Fred Flintstone from the real Fred Flintstone) and that children the right age for it have never heard of Bedrock.

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Though the story line of “Forrest Gump” vaguely recalls Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” it still sounds like the most original movie in the entire season. Starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks and directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”), it tells the epic story of a boy with an IQ of 75 who becomes a college football star, a war hero, a business mogul, and the White House guest of three presidents.

“Forrest Gump,” say those who’ve seen it, is a triumph of innocence in a complex world, which sounds like a fair--and commercial--tonic for our times. The only criticism anyone has leveled at it is that the studio is making a mistake releasing it in the summer, as if it were casting pearls before swine. We don’t have to take that.

Richard Donner’s “Maverick,” and “City Slickers II,” in which Billy Crystal and his pals hit the trail with the late Curly’s twin brother (Jack Palance) on a treasure hunt in the West, look like the surest bets among the comedies.

There are others from Rob Reiner (“North,” a comedy about a boy who divorces his parents and hits the road in search of perfect replacements), Penny Marshall (“Renaissance Man,” starring Danny DeVito as a boot camp instructor teaching Shakespeare to jugheads), Andrew Bergman (“It Could Happen to You,” about a cop who accidentally tips a waitress a winning lottery ticket), and Bob Clark (“It Runs in the Family,” which revisits the Cleveland family in Jean Shepherd’s now-classic “A Christmas Story”).

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On the broader end of the comedy scale, there is another Pauly Shore film coming from Hollywood Pictures (“You’re in the Army Now”) and, before theaters will have “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” removed from their screens, Jim Carrey will be back in New Line’s “The Mask.”

You may want to order a tub of popcorn after all.

* TODAY’S SPECIAL ISSUE

On the cover, Jim Carrey in “The Mask” starts off Summer Sneaks ’94, which runs through Page 12. An index to other features and listings is on Page 13. (Cover photo by Blake Little/New Line Productions)

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