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Another Dramatic Finish

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

If movies were food, we’d all be sick. Not because they’re diseased, though that Howard Stern film in production may be carrying something, but because of the imbalanced diet. Carbohydrates all summer, protein in the fall, saccharine over the holidays, leftovers through the spring.

The summer just ended was particularly malnourishing, virtually indigestible for people whose systems respond better to stories than special effects and to characters with recognizable human traits. We watched “Twister” with sudden longing for the complexities of Dino De Laurentiis’ “Hurricane.” We came to the conclusion after seeing “Independence Day” that the Earth is indeed ripe for takeover by reasonably intelligent life in the universe. And we watched “Mission: Impossible” in awe of how little it had in common with the cleverly written, ensemble-driven TV series.

But that’s all behind us, like pounds gained over the holidays, and we’re into a fall schedule as sinewy as the summer was fat. There are more than 20 dramas heading our way, including a fistful of literary adaptations, and about a dozen adult love stories. The comedy lineup has a broad range--"Beavis and Butt-head Do America” will bring up the rear--but there are a lot of them, most aimed at audiences with mature senses of humor.

Action fans aren’t totally abandoned. There are films with mesomorphs Sylvester Stallone (“Daylight”) and Steven Seagal (“The Glimmer Man”) and an airplane thriller (“Turbulence”). Plus, a trio of horror movies: “Stephen King’s Thinner,” about a man placed on an involuntary weight-loss program after running over a peeved Gypsy; “Bad Moon,” about a werewolf going fang to fang with the family dog; and Wes Craven’s “Scream,” about kids who must avoid the cliches of horror movies (“Don’t go into the basement!”) in order to survive.

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There’s high adventure in store in Stephen Hopkins’ “The Ghost and the Darkness,” a true story about an engineer (Val Kilmer) and a big-game hunter (Michael Douglas) who track a pair of lions terrorizing workers on the East African railway in the 1890s. And there’s higher adventure yet, altitude-wise, in Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks” and the eighth filmed episode of “Star Trek.”

If you sort the accompanying fall/holiday list by general categories, the most flagrant error in seasonal planning is with films targeted for children and families. Disney is squeezing another sequel out of “The Mighty Ducks” and looks to have a hit on its hands with its live-action “101 Dalmatians,” which stars Glenn Close, who has been playing Cruella De Vil since “Fatal Attraction.”

Warner Bros. will attempt to fill the animation gap with “Space Jam,” which pits a real Michael Jordan and some Looney Tunes teammates--among them, Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil--in a basketball game against an intergalactic five of evil aliens. Could be the Nike tie-in of the century.

Besides the Dalmatian herds, kids can look forward to lovable beasts in “Larger Than Life,” which sends Bill Murray on the road with an elephant inherited from his dad, and “The Leopard Son,” a nature study (which opened Friday) tracking a leopard from birth to adulthood in the African veldt.

Finally, there’s “Jingle All the Way,” a Christmas picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a guilt-ridden father scrambling on Christmas Eve to fill his son’s impossible wish list.

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The bulk of the Oscar nominees are always introduced in the final quarter of the year, but the first nine months of ’96 left a virtually blank best picture ballot. Critics lined up behind the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” released in March, and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” imported from England in July, but both figure to be forgotten by February. Most of the contenders will emerge from the bumper crop of high-profile dramas.

Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins,” a biographical portrait of the man credited with winning Ireland’s independence from England, won the top prize at the recent Venice Film Festival, and with Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts paired as the martyr and his lover, it will be treated as a major event. (Though it may not get Oscar consideration, first-time director Terry George’s “Some Mother’s Son,” about the mothers of arrested Irish Republican Army members, will make a nice companion piece.)

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“The Crucible,” adapted by Arthur Miller from his own play about witch-hunting in Salem, Mass., and directed by Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”), has been getting Oscar buzz since it and its stars--Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Paul Scofield--were announced.

There are three movies dramatizing events in 20th century African American history. John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) directs “Rosewood,” about the traumatic fallout of a criminal case in a black Florida community in 1923. Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” follows the decades-long attempt to prosecute the killer of Medgar Evers. And Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus” looks at a group of black men heading from troubled South-Central L.A. to the Million Man March in Washington.

Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus”) departed from a screening of the 1991 “Truly Madly Deeply” determined to work with its director, Anthony Minghella, and their subsequent collaboration--on an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient"--is already being fitted for a tux by distributor Miramax.

Who would have thought Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt might make the subject of an Oscar-worthy biographical film? The fact that Milos Forman has ended a seven-year hiatus to direct “The People vs. Larry Flynt” removes all doubt.

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Will three be the charm for director Barbra Streisand? Overlooked for “Yentl” and “The Prince of Tides,” Streisand tries again, directing herself and Jeff Bridges in the romantic comedy “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”

Among the other films with Oscar pedigrees are “Sleepers,” directed by Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) and featuring, in its ensemble cast, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt; Ron Howard’s “Ransom,” the story of an arrogant New York mogul (Mel Gibson) who tries to manage the negotiations for his kidnapped son’s return; “The Evening Star,” adapted from Larry McMurtry’s sequel to “Terms of Endearment,” reuniting stars Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine; and Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” a comedy--and a musical!

Allen’s film is one of several fall movies with an upbeat tempo. Tom Hanks debuts as a writer-director with “That Thing You Do!"--the story of a Beatles knockoff group that rises and falls in the mid-'60s--and Alan Parker, with a canvas as large as Argentina, brings the political opera “Evita” to the big screen.

Somewhere in all that will be enough films to fill out an Oscar ballot, but the studios are going to feel some competition from independents again this year. Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, opens Friday in Los Angeles, and it’s one film that Cannes and its sister city Beverly Hills ought to agree on.

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Then there’s Australian director Scott Hicks’ “Shine,” the audience favorite nine months ago at Sundance, and a film bound to be compared favorably with “My Left Foot” when it is released in November. “Shine” is the true story of a child prodigy pianist who had a breakdown at the onset of his career and disappeared into mental institutions for nearly 20 years before surfacing as the eccentric piano player in a neighborhood bar.

Other festival hits headed our way include “Ridicule,” French director Patrice Leconte’s story of gamesmanship in the court of Louis XIV, and “Breaking the Waves,” Dutch director Lars von Trier’s romantic drama about a woman’s attempts to satisfy the sexual fantasies of her paralyzed husband in a remote Scottish village. (Hint: She has to find some sailors.)

As for those literary adaptations, let’s go to the Shakespeare section first. Kenneth Branagh follows “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” with his epic-scale “Hamlet.” Stage impresario Trevor Nunn takes on the comedy “Twelfth Night.” And Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom”) brings us a version of “Romeo and Juliet” so strange--the story occurs in contemporary Florida, but the dialogue is verbatim Bard--that it’s actually titled “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” In the margins of the collected works are Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard,” a documentary about the actor’s attempt to find a way to make “Richard III” accessible, and “Love Is All There Is,” the story of two young people who meet during a production of “Romeo and Juliet” and fall in love.

Elsewhere on the library list are “The Portrait of a Lady,” directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”) from the Henry James novel, and Michael Winterbottom’s “Jude,” adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.”

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Among the comedies likely to stir up laughs and ticket sales, perhaps even some awards, are Albert Brooks’ “Mother,” which had people in its premiere audience at the Toronto Film Festival gushing about Debbie Reynolds; Penny Marshall’s “The Preacher’s Wife,” starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in a remake of the 1947 charmer “The Bishop’s Wife”; Nora Ephron’s “Michael,” which stars John Travolta as a high-living archangel; and Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire,” with that wild-and-crazy Tom Cruise playing a sports agent who vows to be honorable. Now that’s funny!

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FALL SNEAKS: THE LINEUP

Every movie coming out through the end of ’96, beginning on Page 17, plus freshman director Tom Hanks, Page 4; a look at the thick competition for the remaining box-office weekends this year, Page 8; a first peek at the wacky alien invasion from Tim Burton, “Mars Attacks,” Page 10; an interview with Madonna, tackling the biggest movie role of her career, Page 12; and our list of the missing in action, Page 34.

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AND ALL THE REST . . .

There’s still plenty to life--and this issue--besides movies. For an index of the week’s offerings in theater, performing arts, art, pop, jazz and family, see Page 37.


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