January's blizzard of movies

January 07, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Movies, it must be remembered, are retail. If you could run a major department store, you could run a movie studio.

Thus, January is to movies as January is to Macy's: sales and left-overs, a bargain basement operation to clear the books before the new fiscal year starts. Inventory reduction. As that plays out in America's bijoux, it means some of the stuff that's made a big national splash finally heaves into B-town, trailing either great reviews or the stink of catastrophe. It also means that a lot of little items that would have died if put up against the Christmas biggies finally sneak in for a shot at survival.

Here's a look at what's opening over the next few weeks, after today's arrival of "Shadowlands," "Cabin Boy" and "The Air Up There."

Next Wednesday, the hip-hop stylings of Kid N' Play return in the inevitable "House Party 3," in which Kid ties the knot, to Play's chagrin. This series started out delightfully under the direction of the Hudlin brothers, then succumbed to dreary sequelitis. Is the third time a charm, as advertised, or one more stop on the road to oblivion?

Jan. 14, the big one hits. That's "Philadelphia," widely hailed as the first major Hollywood film to deal with AIDS. Tom Hanks plays an ambitious and successful young lawyer whose employment at a prestigious law firm is terminated when the partners suspect he has the disease. He hires a lawyer to represent him in a suit, but the lawyer -- Denzel Washington -- is not untainted by fear of the disease and by his client's sexual orientation. The film is Jonathan Demme's first since "Silence of the Lambs."

"Iron Will" is a dogsled race story -- yes, another one of those -- that chronicles the 500-mile trek of a tough North Dakota kid from Winnipeg to St. Paul in hopes of copping a $10,000 prize, saving the farm and raising college tuition. Saving the farm? fTC They haven't saved a farm in an American movie in 50 years, but the wrinkle here is that the film is set in 1917. It stars McKenzie Astin and Kevin Spacey and a bunch of dogs and was directed by Charles Haid, the old Officer Andy Renko from "Hill Street Blues."

The third entry that day is "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," with Robert Duvall, Richard Harris and Shirley MacLaine. Duvall and Harris are grumpy old men who kvetch at each other to fill the livelong days of their retirement down Miami-way. If I have it right, Duvall is the repressed one and Harris the walking life force -- you might call it the Ruth Gordon role -- who once grappled with the big daddy man of the title.

Jan. 21, "Intersection" finally gets here after a late Christmas week cancellation. This is the Richard Gere-Sharon Stone-Lolita Davidovich triangle in which he attempts to choose between his beautiful wife (Stone) and his beautiful mistress (Davidovich). Decisions, decisions! Evidently, an auto accident figures into the process.

Then there's "Six Degrees of Separation," with the great Australian director Fred Schepisi trying to find a cinematic methodology to John Guare's highly theatrical play, based on an adaptation by Guare himself. Will Smith plays a black con man who charms his way into the lives of a circle of affluent and refined New York liberals, playing on their racial guilts and their eagerness to seem prejudice-free. Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing are the primary chumps.

Jan. 26, another Wednesday, "Blink" opens. This thriller has attracted good buzz: Aidan Quinn as a cop and Madeleine Stowe as a blind violinist whose sight has just been surgically restored, and the first thing she sees is . . . a murder.

Then, on Jan. 28, we get another Christmas leftover -- Christmas, that is, of 1991! This is "Car 54, Where Are You," emerging at last from the financial wreckage of Orion, once almost a major studio and now almost a memory. A refabrication of the old TV series from the '60s, this one stars David Johansen and Daniel Baldwin as the lovable but mild police officers in a colorful New York precinct. Four writers get credit on the project, a usual sure sign of "artistic differences," but we shall see what we shall see.

As always, there's a raft of films slated for the month that have yet to be assigned an actual play-date by their sponsors. We are assured that most of the following will indeed grace January.

"Farewell My Concubine" at last arrives, after having been slated for the Charles only to find the Charles having shut down before opening day. Chen Kaige's coldly brilliant film tracks the tangled lives of two performers in the Peking Opera -- Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi -- and the woman who comes between them (the beautiful Gong Li) over 50 years of tumultuous Chinese history. It's the kind of film the West has all but forgotten to make: an epic of history that keeps its focus narrowly and passionately emotional.

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