A Warming Trend Movies: After years of violence and mayhem from Hollywood, this season's crop of holiday films breezes into town on angel's wings.

December 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

News flash: For Christmas, death is out, angels are in! As a friend says, "Good heavens, what's the world coming to?"

The truth is, this is the gentlest Christmas in many a year, with a surfeit of fuzzy-wuzzy get-in-touch-with-your-feelings movies and only one rock-'em-sock-'em adventure, and that one isn't even set against a context of terrorism, serial murder or invasion by genocidal maniacs from outer space. And there are two movies with angels in them, although both the angels appear to have a weakness for the gals. Make love, not war, eh, boys?

What is the significance of this development? Has Hollywood at last matured, developed a new compassion and humanity, a new sense of commitment to all that man can be? Nahhhh. The latex blood supplies ran real low.

So here's a list and description of the next few weeks at the movies, when the big boys come out and play. Be advised that some famous names, like "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Evita" won't reach Baltimore until the new year, although they'll get national publicity due to openings in New York and L.A.

Next Friday:

"Daylight" should do well, not because Sylvester Stallone stars in it, but possibly despite that fact. Its great advantage is that it is the only macho/heroic/action pic in the litter this Christmas, and where will all those teen-age boys who hate their parents but don't yet have girlfriends go if not to this one? "Twelfth Night"? It's a tale of a terrible accident in a New York-New Jersey tunnel (but why would anyone want to go to either place?), where Stallone leads survivors to the valued substance of the title. "Poseidon Adventure" in Gotham, anyone? Does there have to be a morning after? Among the treats: Claire Bloom yes, but no Philip Roth anywhere in sight.

The other opener is, in fact, "Twelfth Night," at the Charles, the third Shakespearean rag to come our way in just a few weeks. This is by far the most traditional and has been called an "official BBC version" of the comedy -- and you know what that means. (Hint: ZZZZZZZZZ. But maybe not.) Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne and Ben Kingsley are the stars in this Trevor Nunn-directed adaptation.

Dec. 13

The big Whitneyfest of the season is "The Preacher's Wife," a remake of an old Cary Grant-Loretta Young film, though a demotion is clearly involved: That one was "The Bishop's Wife." In this case, Whitney Houston is married to preacher man Courtney B. Vance and is unsatisfied because he's such a dry fish. The Big Guy sends a handsome angel in the form of Denzel Washington to help things along, but alas, Denzel himself falls in love with Whitney.

In "Mars Attacks," Tim Burton attacks. The crazed genius of "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and "Ed Wood" unleashes a parody of the cheapo '50s invasion-from-Mars flicks, at a cost of about 350 cheapo '50s invasion-from-Mars flicks. This one is so upmarket it stars Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close as Mr. and Mrs. President of the U.S.A. Look also for Rod Steiger, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short and Annette Bening. I love the preview where the dove of peace gets roasted by a green-brained little dweeb from outer space.

In "Jerry McGuire" it is alleged that Tom Cruise actually acts, but how could they tell? Cruise plays a hard-charging sports agent ++ who loses everything, learns humility and begins again. It's got to be better than HBO's "Arli$$." But then what isn't?

"The Secret Agent" returns the melancholy Pole, J. Conrad, to the screen. This adaptation of one of the master's slighter efforts stars Bob Hoskins and was written and directed by playwright Christopher Hampton and is set in the London espionage underground of the 1890s.

Dec. 20

One oddity of the schedule this year is that so many films are hitting so late. After a relatively sparse few Fridays in the early part of the 12th month, suddenly on a day a mere five before the big one, a full sked of seven films opens.

The most highly publicized of these is probably "The Crucible," with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in an update of the Arthur Miller classic about the Salem witch trials. Miller always argued that his play was a metaphorical examination of the hysterical grip of McCarthyism on America, but evidence abounds that this version has been opened up to include a wider and more relevant range of targets.

Then there's "Beavis and Butt-head Do America." End of paragraph.

"My Fellow Americans" offers James Garner and Jack Lemmon as former presidents -- one's a conservative, one's a liberal, but just the opposite of which you might guess -- who become involved in a scandal and must help each other out. The occupant of the office at that time is Dan Aykroyd; now that's scary! One of them was married to Lauren Bacall. That's even scarier!

"One Fine Day" offers George Clooney another chance at movie stardom and Michelle Pfeiffer another shot at a hit, two goals that have eluded these handsome people recently.

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