As Mel Brooks might have said, It's good to be the movie critic.
But it's even better to be the movie critic in the fall: You go from heaven to paradise. That's because control of the theaters is more or less recovered by the adult segment of the population, as the children are all back in school studying to get good jobs as electrical engineers or working hard to earn additional merit badges in the Scouts. Yes, indeed, there are a few "RoboCop III's" and "Striking Distances" on the docket, but there's also a film or two of some potential distinction, as, for example, new works by Scorsese, Merchant-Ivory and David Cronenberg. Yes, movies to chew, not swallow. It's characteristic of the fall that there's not a single film (or films) dominating talk, as with "Jurassic Park" vs "Last Action Hero" this summer. And isn't that refreshing?
So here's a look at the schedule through Nov. 24, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is the traditional start of the Christmas movie season, offered with the usual proviso that these dates are as slippery as baby food on linoleum, as movies disappear and appear on the strangest of marketing whims.
* Friday begins a busy week among the small fry, with only one studio film slated. That's "Calendar Girl," from Columbia, set in the perpetual movie Camelot of 1962. It's about three 18-year-old boys -- Jason Priestly, Jerry O'Connell and Gabriel Olds -- who try to meet Marilyn Monroe.
The controversial "Boxing Helena," also opens with Sherilyn Fenn as the Helena who is, literally, boxed. It hails from Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of director David ("Blue Velvet") Lynch. Julian Sands plays the surgeon who boxes Ms. Fenn by removing her arms and her legs. Ick.
In "Kalifornia," Brad Pitt plays a psychotic killer who terrorizes two earnest, liberal researchers who believe in rehabilitation.
"Fortress" returns Stuart Gordon to the big job behind the camera after a hiatus: He was the sick genius behind "Re-Animator." "Fortress" is billed as a futuristic thriller and stars Christopher Lambert as a man trying to escape from a sophisticated prison in 2013.
Finally, "Wedding Banquet" chronicles an arranged marriage in this country between two Chinese students, with the complication that the boy is gay and only gets married to masquerade for his visiting parents.
* Sept. 10, Tony Scott's version of a script by Quentin ("Reservoir Dogs") Tarantino arrives. "True Romance" stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in an unusual love story set in L.A. It's attracting advance buzz based on its intensity and violence.
"Money for Nothing," with its title borrowed from a hot lick by Dire Straits, follows: John Cusack suddenly finds himself in possession of $1.2 million in unmarked bills that's fallen off a truck. Sleepy, cool Michael Madsen plays the cop who tracks him down in this fact-based comedy thriller.
In "The Real McCoy," Kim Basinger is an ethical bank robber battling unethical bank robber Terence Stamp, with Val Kilmer as her love interest.
Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner pair up in "Undercover Blues," a comedy about a CIA couple trying to stay retired but continuously brought back into the world of espionage.
* Sept. 17 is shaping up as one of the most extraordinary days in recent movie-going memory. Martin Scorsese's long-awaited and much-delayed (it was originally scheduled for last Christmas) "The Age of Innocence" begins an exclusive run at the Senator. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, it's based on the Edith Wharton novel.
Mike Newell's "Into the West," his follow-up picture after "Enchanted April," also opens. It's about kids who run away to the West on a big white stallion, except that the West is the West of Ireland. Their father, Gabriel Byrne, and half the cops in Dublin follow.
A more conventional big Hollywood thriller stars Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker as Pittsburgh-based river police (they have three of them there, remember), called "Striking Distance."
"Airborne," from Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, stars Shane McDermott and takes place in the world of rollerblading.
* Sept. 24, William Hurt returns to the screen after a vacation for "Mr. Wonderful," which doesn't sound so wonderful at all. He's a divorced guy trying to find a husband for his ex-wife to cut down his alimony payments. Annabella Sciorra co-stars.
That same day, James Caan plays a hard-nosed football coach in "The Program," a slice-of-life piece that examines big-time college football. Craig Sheffer ("A River Runs Through It") is the biggest of the young actors masquerading as jocks. David S. Ward, currently in Baltimore shooting "Major League II," co-wrote and is directing.
Morgan Freeman makes his directing debut and Arsenio Hall his producing debut with "Bopha," a drama starring Danny Glover as a South African policeman caught between worlds when his son turns rebel against the system he's spent his life defending.
* Pending: A dramatization of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" is set to open in the big town Sept. 8, so it'll probably be reaching the smaller ones sometime in late September. It stars Ming-Na Wen and Kieu Chinh and was directed by the highly regarded young Asian-American director Wayne Wang.
* Oct. 1, yet another sports movie opens. It's "Cool Runnings," about the Jamaican bobsled team and that's not a joke. The star is Leon, no last name, and the inevitable burned-out coach who agrees to shepherd Leon and his pals through the rigors of training is played by John Candy.
It wouldn't be fall without a Michael J. Fox movie, so there's "For Love or Money." But then it wasn't spring without a Michael J. Fox movie ("Life With Mikey"). In this one, Fox plays a concierge in a fictitious New York hotel. Co-starring is Gabrielle Anwar, the young woman who tangoed so spectacularly with Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman."
* Oct. 8 brings one of the seasons few big, conventional, exaggerated shoot-em-ups: "Demolition Man," with a blond Wesley Snipes as a bad 20th-century dude who wakes up 300 years down the line in a peaceful world and decides to take it over from the highly evolved rabbit people. So the terrified inhabitants wake up a 20th-century lawman to deal with him: Sylvester Stallone!
For lots of bang-bang and gore, there's "Gettysburg," made with Ted Turner's millions and released by New Line. It's derived from Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels," with Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels and Sam Elliott. But . . . Martin Sheen as Gen. Robert E. Lee?
And the great, weird David Cronenberg returns with "M. Butterfly," a version of David Henry Hwang's Tony award-winning play about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese opera star who may or may not be what she seems to be. Cronenberg, a specialist in twisted relationships, should have a field day.
That same day, "Mr. Nanny" will open, with Hulk Hogan.
* Oct. 15, "Josh and S.A.M.," a much-postponed project from Castle Rock, at last, maybe, will make its appearance. It's about two brothers who run away from home for one of those zany cross-country odysseys so beloved of the movies. The gimmick is that the older boy convinces the younger one that he's a robot.
* Oct. 22 is heavy with possibility. That's the day Robert Altman's first film since the rapturously received "The Player" arrives, with either a bang or a thud. It's three hours long! Derived from short stories of angst and bitterness by Raymond Carver, the critically acclaimed writer, it's called "Shortcuts."
And that's not even the big one! The big one is "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas," a state-of-the-art animated film produced by Burton and directed by Henry Selick. It uses stop-motion animation, that forgotten genre of herky-jerky dinosaurs, but this stuff is supposed to be extremely hot. Disney says it'll do for the art what "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" did for cel animation. It's purported to be macabre and magical at once.
"Rudy" is a fact-based drama about a walk-on to the land of giants, Notre Dame football. Based on the story of Rudy Ruettiger, it stars Sean Astin as the 150-pound defensive halfback. It's directed by David Anspaugh, that specialist in Indiana sporting inspiration who also helmed "Hoosiers."
And, finally, "Judgment Night" may make a star of Dennis Leary, who plays a bad boy hunting suburbanites Emilio Estevez and Cuba Gooding Jr. across the inner city when they take the wrong turnpike exit.
* Oct. 29, "Fearless," the new Peter Weir film, arrives -- good news for fans of the director of such classics as "Gallipoli" and "Witness." It features Jeff Bridges and Isabella Rossellini, and follows Bridges' hard passage in recovering from a near-fatal accident.
* Pending: More than a few big openers have yet to receive release dates, but they should be noted. Fox's "Beverly Hillbillies" arrives sometime in late September or October, with Dabney Coleman and Lily Tomlin as the banker and his dried-up prune of a secretary.
In "Good Son," Macaulay Culkin does a bad-seed number by influencing poor Elijah Woods into doing nasty things.
Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" will figure in here somewhere, with Denzel Washington as a homophobic lawyer who ends up representing Tom Hanks, another lawyer, who is gay and dying of AIDS.
The big-budget weepie "Mr. Jones" stars Richard Gere as an irrepressible but irresponsible goof who seeks help from psychiatrist Lena Olin, who may or may not prescribe serious medication -- complicated by the fact she's in love with him.
"Carlito's Way" reunites the incendiary actor Al Pacino with the incendiary director Brian DePalma, again (as in "Scarface") in the milieu of crime. The setting this time is the barrio of Manhattan, as old Carlito must defend his turf against young punks coming up. Sean Penn and John Leguizamo co-star.
* Nov. 5 offers a classy start to the month with "The Remains of the Day," from the swanky team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Derived from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, it's about a perfect English butler facing the end of a society that requires perfect English butlers. The stars are once again the brilliant Anthony Hopkins and the brilliant Emma Thompson.
Then (is this going from sublime to ridiculous or what?) there's "RoboCop III," with Peter Weller-look-alike Robert Burke (he's starred in a few of Hal Hartley's independent films) in the role of the cop who doesn't stop for doughnuts.
* Nov. 12 -- oh no! not again! not from Universal! -- but yes, it's . . . more dinosaurs. The movie is "We're Back: A Dinosaur Story," in which the creatures are described as "amiable." And who wouldn't be, with the voice of Walter Cronkite? It's actually an animated version of a child's classic book, with screenplay by playwright John Patrick Shanley, and vocal performances by John Goodman, John Malkovich and Julia Childs as well as Uncle Walter.
The same day an even rarer extinct species -- the costume melodrama -- puts in another appearance. It's a legit cape-, panache- and rapier-equipped version of "The Three Musketeers," albeit brat-packed for our age, with Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris "Scent of a Woman" O'Donnell and Oliver Platt as the three sword studs and their understudy, D'Artagnan. Can they top the two great Richard Lester "Musketeer" films of the early '70s? Don't bet on it. But keep an open mind.
Paramount's drama called "Flesh and Bone" stars Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Quaid (that's Meg Ryan to you, bub) in a down-home Texas-style story of a wandering boy and the gal he meets in a small town.
* Nov. 19, Paramount gets the jump on the Christmas rush with its sequel to the megahit of a few years back, this edition called "Addams Family Values," with all the old standbys, including Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston.
* Nov. 24, the class item is "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," with Macaulay Culkin in the role normally played by a 12-year-old girl. The big local angle is that David Zinman of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducts the New York City Ballet orchestra for the production.
That day's other big opener, "A Perfect World," has Clint Eastwood directing himself as a Texas ranger on the trail of an escaped convict played by Kevin Costner.
* Pending: Sometime in November a horror movie called "Ghost in the Machine" will open, about a serial killer who becomes a computer virus (I don't make these things up) and takes over electric implements as a way of killing.
And the legendary 1961 costume epic "El Cid," with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, will be re-released in a restored edition.
Among fall's many candidates, these five films seem to offer the most potential for serious distinction:
* "The Age of Innocence," directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. Scorsese, widely regarded as America's best director, engages classical American literature -- in the form of an Edith Wharton novel -- for the first time in his career.
* "Carlito's Way," starring Al Pacino and Sean Penn, directed by Brian DePalma. One of America's most flamboyant directors reunites with a great actor to make yet another investigation of criminal culture.
* "Remains of the Day," starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, directed by James Ivory. A cultivated American director examines an obscure British-Japanese novel with a great cast.
* "M. Butterfly," starring Jeremy Irons, directed by David Cronenberg. Regarded as America's sickest director ("Dead Ringers," also with Irons), Cronenberg takes on a
Tony-award-winning play that examines the farthest reaches of sexual attraction.
* "Shortcuts," directed by Robert Altman. This iconoclastic director ("The Player") tackles the sad, muted and intertwined works of one of America's great short story writers, the late Raymond Carver.