The monsters are back. Yes, for your fall movie-going, genuine scary monsters of the sort that so rarely make it to the screen anymore.
We have very scary professional hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in the intensely awaited "Pulp Fiction." We have the big guy himself, in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," with Robert De Niro throwing the long shadow as he clomps around in cement boots. We have that blood-sucking freak Lestat, the vampire himself, as personified by Tom Cruise, and won't that be a fright? Even Freddy Krueger returns. Now there's a chill or two, no?
You're not scared? You say you want monsters? OK, try . . . Sylvester Stallone. Now you're quaking in your boots. We have . . . Macaulay Culkin, and that sends me into the bottom of my sleeping bag. And we have . . . brace yourself . . . William Shatner's hairpiece!
I knew that one would get you. Anyway, here's a preview of monsters and more reasonable people who will be checking into the local multiplex between now and Thanksgiving, offered (as always) with the proviso that dates change sometimes cavalierly, and movies appear and disappear in strange and mysterious ways.
The new fall season gets a great start Friday with Robert Redford's "Quiz Show," a brilliant autopsy of the TV scandal that rocked America in the late '50s and early '60s. But more, it's a story of American character, intensely dramatic, and also a document that details the subtly corruptive power of popular culture. Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro (Oscar nods both, I'm predicting) play Charles Van Doren and Herbert Stempel, antagonists and brother victims in the drama.
That same Friday gives us no less than Charlie Sheen romancing Nastassja Kinski, who may be a KGB agent, in the sky-driving melodrama "Terminal Velocity." Haven't they heard? The KGB is out of business. Then there's the potentially amusing "It Runs in the Family," with a Culkin that isn't a Macaulay, but a Kieran, as derived from the works of Indiana humorist Jean Shepherd. Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen round out the cast.
On Wednesday, Sept. 28, "Jason's Lyric" breaks through yonder window; that is to say, it's being offered as an "African-American 'Romeo and Juliet,' " which would seem to mean it's about a young woman from one gang principality falling in love with a young man from another. Filmed in Houston, it stars Baltimorean Jada Pinkett along with Allen Payne and Forest Whitaker, and almost got an NC-17 from the ratings board, until softened.
Friday, Sept. 30, looks quite interesting as well. First is the big-budget action flick that re-invents Meryl Streep. Called "The River Wild," and also starring Kevin Bacon, the film gives us La Streep rafting down some Western whitewater roller coasters with her kids while beset by psychotic escaped prisoners. Then, thanks to Stephen King, there's "The Shawshank Redemption," with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, the former as a dishonest Wall Street dude sent to prison, where he meets the latter, a wise old con. Can it possibly be that elusive first: a good movie from a Stephen King story? Stay tuned. Last, and potentially most pleasing, is "The Scout," with Albert Brooks as a Yankee scout who discovers a genius toiling in the Mexican leagues: one Steve Nebraska, played by Brendan Fraser. Alas, Brooks did not direct the picture; he merely stars and co-writes.
Friday, Oct. 7, is a day with a theme. It's the good, the bad and the really weird. The good is "Only You," with Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei, said to be a gentle yarn about star-crossed lovers in Venice and "surprisingly good for its kind." The bad has to be "The Specialist," with those two high-octane thespians S. Stone and S. Stallone. It's the same old story: revenge. He's a guy who blows a lot of stuff up, including all her enemies. The weird is "Ed Wood," from the already weird Tim Burton, a black-and-white bio of the cross-dressing nutty guy revered as the worst director in history, who unleashed "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on an unsuspecting world. Is Burton's take Plan 10?
I shudder at the approach of Oct. 14: it's one of those super Fridays in which every hack in Hollywood releases a film. But the most hotly anticipated is "Pulp Fiction," by bad boy Quentin ("Reservoir Dogs") Tarantino, a triptych of gangster tales that won the Palme d'or at Cannes and is said to resuscitate John Travolta's dying career. It's already been on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. "Little Giants" hasn't been on the cover of anything: It's a kid movie, with Rick Moranis as a hapless coach who shapes a series of A-team rejects into a football team to oppose Ed O'Neill's gang of winners.
Horrormeister Wes Craven, who unleashed Freddy on Earth, checks in with the modestly titled "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," in which Freddy returns to molest the stars of the first movie. I like that idea. "Exit to Eden" gives Dana Delany a chance to show off her body in a film about S&M; practices, while Dan Aykroyd is the cop who wants to bust her. Finally, the Charles shows the latest Lina Wertmuller film, "Ciao, Professore," about a northern Italian who takes a job teaching in an elementary school in southern Italy -- and, in Italy, the differences between north and south are greater than they are here.
On Oct. 21, Hollywood really goes nuts. Movies everywhere! To begin with, "Hoop Dreams," a documentary about four Chicago kids hoping to make it off the playgrounds and onto somebody's college floor and thence into the NBA is finally released. This film, in a much longer version, wowed 'em at the Sundance Film Festival last year. It's reportedly been cut to two hours from an original that ran nearly five.
Then the classic Robert A. Heinlein novel of 1951, "The Puppet Masters," gets a '90s update with Donald Sutherland and Eric Thal. The piece bears a thematic resemblance -- pod people taking over -- to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but Heinlein's came first. "I Like It Like That" recapitulates filmmaker Darnell Martin's growing up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Brooklyn. It's said to be a family comedy-drama from a woman's point of view. Then there's "Pontiac Moon," in which, once more, Ted Danson attempts to become a movie star. Another comedy-drama, this one is set in the late '60s, with Danson as a disturbed father who sets off to find his destiny with his son when his marriage collapses. Mary Steenburgen plays the wife who hunts him down.
"Trapped in Paradise," which some national magazines are calling by its old title, "Welcome to Paradise," is another in the can-these-TV-guys-carry-a-movie sweepstakes, with stars Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. Real movie star Nicolas Cage is along for the ride; the three are brother bank robbers overwhelmed by the sheer friendliness of a Pennsylvania town. "Radioland Murders," like more than a few films before it, sets a series of killings against the razzle-dazzle of big-time network radio in the '30s. The stars are not big -- Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson -- but the producer is: George Lucas of "Star Wars" fame.
All these sound like nice little movies, no? But there's a big one, too: "Love Affair," with America's fun couple, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, re-creating the roles that Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr made famous in Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember," that nuclear-powered weepie that was already "re-created" in Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle."
The Eastern Shore gets a rare movie boost on Oct. 28, when "Silent Fall," which was filmed there last year, opens. With Richard Dreyfuss as a child psychologist of one school and John Lithgow as a child psychologist of another, it's about clashing theories of the head. Bruce Beresford directs, and Eastern Shore native Linda Hamilton (of "Terminator" fame) co-stars. Who says you can't go home again? No one told her. That same day, Disney has a version of the childhood classic "Squanto: A Warrior's Tale."
"The DROP Squad," produced by Spike Lee and directed by David Johnson, also opens. In it, an African-American team de-programs a black ad exec who's forgotten where he's from. Then there's "The Road to Wellville," from the extremely irritating but sublimely talented Alan Parker ("Shoot the Moon," "Mississippi Burning"), which is based on a comic novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle. It's hard to get a fix on this one: It seems to have to do with zany corn-flakes millionaire John Kellogg's trying to convince people that the road to health detoured through enema city. Then there's "StarGate," a sci-fi deal with Kurt Russell and James Spader -- yes, but shouldn't a $55 million movie have some stars? Rumor has it that some pyramids get built during the story. Finally, "Imaginary Crimes" features Harvey Keitel as a con man trying to make do with the two daughters he inherits after his ex-wife's death.
November hulks in on the 4th on the clumpy-clumpy feet of the one, the original, Frankenstein. In line with last year's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," this one is "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," as directed by and starring (as Herr Doktor) Kenneth Branagh (he should be doing his movie "Hamlet" before he gets too old!), and no less a figure than Robert De Niro as the bolt-necked big guy himself. With Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. F.'s best gal, expect it to be very literary -- probably not too many severed heads. That same day, one of the slowest in the season, the chop-socky film version of a video game called "Double Dragon" opens.
By Veterans Day, Nov. 11, things are busy again. The biggest opening is Tom Cruise as Anne Rice's bisexual vampire Lestat in "Interview With the Vampire," directed by Neil "Crying Game" Jordan in his second try at a Hollywood career. Rice, of course, has let it be known that Cruise doesn't boast the kind of elegant androgyny that informed her idea of Lestat, but Cruise plunged onward, unafraid. Others in the cast are Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas. Incidentally, the movie had been scheduled for November 18 for six months and only moved up to this date last Thursday, throwing many other releases in turmoil. Why is anybody's guess.
Also sticking on November 11 is "The Santa Clause," in which television's Tim Allen plays a divorced dad who uses a Santa Claus outfit to win back the love of his son. Then there's the authentic Macaulay Culkin in "The Pagemaster," really an animated film in which a pen-and-ink version of Culkin goes skidding through the worlds of children's literature.
This is also the day that a movie called "The War" is set to open. It stars but is not dominated by Kevin Costner as a 'Nam vet; the focus is on his son, played by Elijah Wood, and the key battle is symbolic: for a tree house, not Hill 881. However, the "Interview with the Vampire" shuffle may frighten "The War" forward a week, as some unsubstantiated reports have maintained. Also, "The Professional" was set to open this day, but may be jockeyed forward or back a week. Let's talk about it anyway: It's by Luc Sante, the French smart guy who lit up the world with his art house hit "La Femme Nikita," and it's an American film about a French hit man trying to hang up the Beretta 92F but pursued (as hit men always are) by an enemy from the past. The good bad guy is Jean Reno, the bad bad guy is Gary Oldman, who's usually a good bad guy. Got that?
Finally, the Charles brings in Tom Noonan's extremely well-reviewed film "What Happened Was"; Noonan, who usually plays psychos (as, most chillingly, in "Manhunter"), re-creates an especially trying first date.
On Nov. 18, "Star Trek: Generations" beams down, this one a combined edition that mingles old (Shatner) and new (Patrick Stewart). We shouldn't prejudge, of course, but the previews look especially rancid. And if they really wanted to mingle, shouldn't they have put Shatner's hairpiece on Stewart's dome? Now that I'd pay to see. Also opening that day is "The Swan Princess," an animated version of "Swan Lake."
Finally, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, two more big ones land. First, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger's comedy "Junior," from Ivan Reitman, who directed him in "Twins." Danny DeVito's also along, but not a blood relative this time. No, the blood relative is . . . the fetus Arnold is carrying. Yes, that's what I said: Arnold gets a bun in his oven. Romantic interest is supplied by the real Mrs. Herr Doktor Frankenstein, Emma Thompson, who is married to Kenneth Branagh. Then there's "Miracle on 34th Street," a remake of the old Christmas semi-classic, this time with Richard Attenborough as the old fellow who represents himself as the real Santa Claus, and Elizabeth Perkins -- another real stretch -- as the pragmatic, frustrated young mother who doubts him. John Hughes produced, so expect the worst and hope for the best. Then there's Keenan Ivory Wayans' "Low Down Dirty Shame," which sounds more like a thriller than a goof: Wayans is a private eye who angers a drug lord.
Sometime in November, Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" will open, but no date has been set. Early word, however, seems to be quite good. There's also "Clerks," the best movie ever shot in a 7-Eleven, by two young men who spent a mere $26,000 to get a feature on the big screen.
Of course more money than that will be spent on the daily doughnut budget for some of the big Christmas films headed down the pike. We'll treat them in more detail in late November, but here's just a taste:
First on my list is Ron "Bull Durham" Shelton's take on the life of maybe the best and certainly the meanest of all Golden Era ballplayers, "Cobb," with Tommy Lee Jones at his cracker best as the boy who sharpened his spikes before he stole second. Who said the West was dead? Not Rob Lowe or Bill Paxton, who star in "Frank and Jessie," about the James boys who made their money the old-fashioned way: robbing banks. Then there's Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon and Samantha Mathis in "Little Women," a big-budget remake of the Louisa May Alcott novel. The Culkin kid will be back as "Richie Rich." Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins are matchmakered by no less than Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) in "I.Q." Jennifer Jason Leigh gets to do a prime snit turn as the great Dorothy Parker in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," an account of the fast tongues at the Algonquin Round Table.
And on and on it goes.