Mayhem, money, grief and murder leave their mark on movie screens

HARD-BOILED HEAVEN

September 17, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

If you like them soft and sweet and full of human caring, shop elsewhere this fall. On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are happily lighting stogies of celebration up there in the saloon that is hard-boiled heaven, for theirs is the dominant aesthetic sensibility this fall. The new movies, or at least a significant proportion, appear to be classic tough-guy stuff, a threnody of scabby, sleazy violence and hucksters, con artists, hit men and grifters -- as well as cops. It seems that the just-opened "Clockers," Spike Lee's tough take on Richard Price's tough novel, pretty much sets the pace, with but a few exceptions.

Here's our seasonal survey of the bad news ahead until Thanksgiving, issued with the traditional proviso that the schedule is fundamentally irrational and that films come and go somewhat indifferently as the weeks go by.

Friday, It gets off to an appropriate start with "Seven," with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as detectives on the track of a serial killer who murders people who've committed various of the Deadly Sins; it looks gritty as a sandbox in an urban alley. But who will notice? The big news is "Showgirls," the NC-17-rated examination of stripper culture in that font of refined values, Las Vegas. The star, Elizabeth Berkley of small-screen fame, evidently spends most of the movie nude; the script is from Joe Eszterhas, and the director was that Dutch bad boy turned American bad boy, Paul Verhoeven ("Total Recall," "Basic Instinct") who insisted upon making a film with the naughty rating.

Then there's "Unstrung Heroes," with John Turturro. This one is sensitive and has a Baltimore twist; it is based on a family memoir by Franz Lidz, who used to write for the City Paper before heading up to New York and Sports Illustrated, where he remains. It's about the death of his mother and the strangeness of his father and his father's even stranger brothers.

Sept. 29, The grit continues when (at last) Denzel Washington arrives in Carl Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress." Franklin made his reputation on the tough little "One False Move"; this is his first big studio film. It stars Washington as Walter Mosley's detective hero Easy Rawlins and is set in the Watts of 1948. Things lighten up somewhat when Andy Garcia gets to star twice in Savoy's "Steal Big, Steal Little," as twin brothers in a squabble over an inheritance in a romantic comedy directed by Andrew Davis, famous from "The Fugitive," but new to the comedy arena.

Then there's "Moonlight and Valentino" on the same day, which examines a woman's ordeal by grief, in the aftermath of her husband's death; it also recounts her survival and eventual escape, with the help of friends. Elizabeth Perkins stars, with Whoopi Goldberg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kathleen Turner. "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers" is another installment in the series that will not die. Finally, "The Big Green" offers Steve Guttenberg as a football coach in a small Texas town.

Oct. 6 is a big, bad movie day. Leading the pack in the true-grit department is the new film from the Hughes twins (who did "Menace II Society") called "Dead Presidents," dead presidents being jargon for money, which is carried in an armored car, which is robbed by four Vietnam vets who can't get other work. Supposedly, very tough. Then there's a slicker look at violence in Richard Donner's "Assassins," which appears to treat professional killers like professional athletes, with Sylvester Stallone as the old pro and Antonio Banderas as the rookie who wants to replace him in the starting lineup. Lots of guns.

"To Die For," from nasty Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho"), is a black comedy about a psychotic cable-access weather girl (Nicole Kidman) who seduces a teen-ager into murdering her husband. A sensation wherever it's been screened.

There are two "nice" movies Oct. 6, but you have to look hard to see them. One is "How To Make an American Quilt," which looks very, very promising. Directed by the Jocelyn Moorhouse who did the wonderful "Muriel's Wedding," it stars Winona Ryder as a bride-to-be listening to older women tell their stories of love as they work on a quilt for her. The quilters include Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Jean Simmons. Then, in "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," Robert Duvall drills for oil in Oklahoma. The director is former actor James Keach.

Oct. 13, grit up the kazoo is featured in Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days," from the director of "Blue Steel" and "Point Break." It's a sci-fi noir, with Ralph Fiennes as an ex-cop who sells electronic memories stolen from others. He and Angela Bass are in search of a killer on the brink of the millennium. "Copycat" features two female detectives -- a cop and a forensic psychologist -- on the track of yet another serial killer. Les gals are played by Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver and the bad guy by -- are you ready for this? -- Harry Connick Jr.

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