No greater Hollywood presence ... Few 'big' films set to open in December

Christmas is a-coming and the goose is not getting fat.

The goose, in fact, is hardly there. This will be the sparsest December of movie releases in many a moon, at least in Baltimore. I count a grand total of eight big studio pictures hitting the screens between now and The Day, and I remember a December not so many years ago when seven movies opened on a single Friday during a 23-premiere month.


The season begins Dec. 4 with Eddie Murphy in "The Distinguished Gentleman." Murphy plays a con man who finds himself deposited in pig heaven: the U.S. Congress. Lane Smith, who has parlayed a vague resemblance to Dick Nixon into a healthy career impersonating uptight Republicans (he began with Nixon some years back), plays another uptight Republican. Here's the plot: See Eddie jive the man.

On Dec. 11, "A Few Good Men" opens with the most deliriously positive advance buzz of any picture in years. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars Tom Cruise as a smug young Marine lawyer gliding through a military commitment before joining the corporate world, who finds himself defending two young Marines accused of killing a third. His solution is to cop a plea, but his Navy lieutenant assistant, Demi Moore, suffers from the hubris of integrity, and goads him into waging a true defense. This in turn puts him at loggerheads with the base commandant, a highly decorated Marine colonel played by Jack Nicholson. It's based on the play of the same name by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay.


That's the grown-up movie; for the kids on the 11th, there's a retelling of the grandest of the Christmas tales, the one with Ebeneezer Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. You're thinking: What else could they do? It's been a musical, it's been a cartoon, it's been at least four prestiges dramas. Is it in holograms? Is it the nude "Christmas Carol," for the very jaded? No such luck. It's "The Muppet Christmas Carol," with no less a personage than the wonderful British star Michael Caine as the heartless Mr. Scrooge.

The film is the first fruit of the famous Disney-Hensen deal of some years back that seemed to fall apart after the death of Muppet-genius Jim Hensen. But somehow the boys got back together again. In any event, its bloodlines are pure: The film is directed by Brian Hensen, who is the son of the great Jim, and executive produced by Frank Oz, the one and only Miss Piggy.

If you're not sick of Robin Williams after having been dragged to "Aladdin" by your kids 6,000 times, you'll get your 6,001st shot at the guy on Dec. 18 in Barry Levinson's "Toys." Based on the previews, it looks like a kind of fable: Williams inherits his gentle father's toy factory and has to struggle to keep his evil uncle from turning it into a mean old gun factory. An advanced screening -- no press allowed -- was held in Baltimore, and the word was that the movie was surprisingly dark.

Also on the 18th is the return of the mighty Mel Gibson. Mel appears as a '40s aviator who, depressed because his one true (( love has died in an auto acci-dent, volunteers for a primitive cryogenics experiment. He awakens 50 years later in the jaded '90s with his idealism and his love intact. It's a horror movie. No, no, it's a romantic comedy, of course. It's called "Forever Yours." On that same day, Steve Martin appears as a bogus miracle worker in "Leap of Faith." Traveling the Sunbelt circuit, the one true miracle he's capable of performing is zapping your money into his wallet. Debra Winger co-stars in the comedy-drama.

Two days before Christmas, the much-delayed and retitled "Trespass" reaches the screen. It was originally called "The Looters" and was set to be released in the beginning of the summer, a thriller based on the theme of black-white animosity. Alas, the Rodney King decision happened, Los Angeles exploded into either spontaneous rebellion or gun-store robbery caper (depending on your point of view) and the movie was hustled to the shelf by an embarrassed Universal Pictures.

Directed by actionmaster Walter "48 HRS." Hill, it follows as two white firemen from Arkansas find themselves locked in battle with two black gang-bangers in an eroding factory complex. The white guys are Bill Paxton and William Sadler and the black guys are Ice-T and Ice Cube. Actually, the confrontation isn't over a racial thing; it's over missing gold.

Finally, under the tree at Christmas, there's the puzzling "Hoffa," with Jack Nicholson in the big fat title role. Danny DeVito directed from a script by David Mamet, and co-stars. But really? I mean, he wasn't Lawrence of Arabia or Malcolm X. He was Jimmy Hoffa, labor leader and convicted gangster and, at least until now, nobody's idea of a hero.

If this one doesn't grab you or the general blur of holiday cheer has got you considering suicide, allow me to also note that on that same day, the Charles is opening Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."


This is a wonderfully merry little tale in which one of the characters spends the whole movie lying on the floor screaming with a gunshot wound in the stomach, another cuts off the ear of a cop while dancing to the tune of "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky" and everybody ends up dead at the end. Just the thing to chase those holiday blahs.