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HARD-BOILED HEAVEN Mayhem, money, grief and murder leave their mark on movie screens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"Screamers" stars Peter ("RoboCop") Weller, stuck on a war-ravaged planet where any thing or person is apt to turn suddenly into a killing machine. Then -- talk about true grit! -- there's that trashy, lurid novel "The Scarlet Letter." Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, Gary Oldman as Roger Dimmesdale. Think of all the high-school sophomores who won't have to read the awful book; they can just rent the video. And finally, Joe Eszterhas returns to write "Jade," an erotic thriller from Paramount that elevates Linda Fiorentino to the big time and David Caruso (he hopes) as well.

Oct. 20, things settle down, but not much. A thriller called "Never Talk to Strangers" arrives, starring Rebecca DeMornay as a shrink who is being stalked by one of her patients. Is that gritty or what? It also co-stars the man of the season, Antonio Banderas, who will go from "Who's that" to "That guy again?" in two months. Then we have "Leaving Las Vegas," in which Elizabeth Shue, heretofore one of the movie industry's nicest girls, plays a down-and-out Vegas prostitute who saves an embittered screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) from his own destructive impulses.

"Mallrats" gives the acerbic talent of director Kevin Smith ("Clerks") a shot at a big-time movie; his star is Shannon Doherty in a film about people who work in malls. Finally, "Now and Then" features four young actresses and four older actresses as different versions of themselves. The older women are named Griffith, Moore, O'Donnell and Wilson. Looks very promising. Moore (Demi) produced.

Oct. 27, Another possibility is "Vampire in Brooklyn," in which Eddie Murphy tries to reclaim some kind of box-office clout. The director is horror specialist Wes Craven. In the grit department, two entries: One is "Get Shorty," from the modern master of the hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard. It's Leonard's Hollywood novel, based on the amusing conceit that a low-level gangster from Florida might fit into Tinseltown just fine. The stars are John Travolta and Gene Hackman. Then there's (be still my heart) Cindy Crawford, making her feature-film debut in "Fair Game" as a lawyer on the run from mob hit men, and protected by Miami cop Billy Baldwin. Billy Baldwin? Cindy Crawford? Like, no way. "Powder" is about an albino feral youth discovered in the wilderness and brought into a small town, where he quickly shows how smart he is. It's from the folks at Disney.

November looks a little softer. Its first weekend, Nov. 3, brings in the Jodie Foster film "Home for the Holidays," shot here last spring. It's about a single mom (Holly Hunter) coming home to spend time with a dysfunctional family at Thanksgiving, running into such loonies as Robert Downey Jr. and Anne Bancroft. Premiere reports the dinner scene used up 63 turkeys in more than three weeks of shooting. Then there's "Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain," a kids' movie, and the undistinguished "Hellraiser: Bloodline," of the horror series invented and abandoned by Clive Barker. Finally, the Woodman Cometh with "Mighty Aphrodite," the newest mystery from Woody Allen. What's it about? Nobody knows yet.

Nov. 10, a week later, we're back on the wild side; Martin Scorsese's gangster melodrama, "Casino," opens with stars Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci. It was written by Nick Pileggi who also wrote -- book and script -- "Goodfellas." It's about a struggle for power (over the edifice of the title) between a "good mobster" and a bad one, a stone killer, with De Niro and Pesci, respectively, in the roles. Another crime story, "Money Train," opens, directed by the excellent Joe Ruben of "The Stepfather." Those two pals from "White Men Can't Jump," Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, play transit cops who change sides to become subway robbers. The big one, however, is "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," starring Jim Carrey. Don't ask how good. Ask how much. The answer: a lot.

Nov. 17, two of the biggest films of the year open. The new James Bond film, "Goldeneye," with Pierce Brosnan in the role invented by Sean Connery, arrives. An early sample makes it look like a lot of rattattatatat and boom and very little else. Then there's "The American President" from Rob Reiner, with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. He's Mr. Big, a widower; she's a spunky environmental activist. Robert Redford was set to star, but had a fight with Reiner, and thus the ever dim Douglas got the nod. Commercial prospects are still high. A third opener that day is "Les Miserables," directed by French film legend Claude Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") and starring French film legend Jean-Paul Belmondo. Not the musical, it's freely adapted from the Hugo novel.

Nov. 22, there's a computer-animated film, "Toy Story," which is attracting a great deal of pre-release buzz. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen do the lead voices. That same day, "In the Nick of Time" arrives, possibly in the same nick of time for Paramount if "Vampire in Brooklyn" vaporizes. Set in "real time" -- that is, the actual 90 minute running time of the movie -- it follows as an innocent guy is told to assassinate a politician or kiss his kidnapped daughter goodbye. Johnny Depp and the great Christopher Walken star.

Only one-fourth of "Four Rooms" was directed by Quentin Tarantino; the other three guilty parties are independent heroes Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell. It's about New Year's Eve at the funky L.A. hotel Chateau Maremont (R.I.P., John Belushi), with each story set in a separate room. Tim Roth is the bellboy. Among the guests: Bruce Willis, Antonio Banderas (again! this is getting boring), Madonna and Marisa Tomei. Also opening is the long-delayed Jack Nicholson film "The Crossing Guard."

Also this fall: Not all big films have release dates. Some of the others that will show up sooner or later in the next three months include Jeff Bridges as "Wild Bill," "Waiting to Exhale" from the best seller by Terry McMillen, and Hugh Grant as an icky fellow in "An Awfully Big Adventure."

Coming up: Then there's Christmas, which we'll leave to detail on another day. But it looks like a tempting December. There's: the ultra hip festival sensation, "Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead"; "Heat," a crime thriller from Michael Mann with both De Niro and Pacino; Quentin Tarantino in "From Dusk Till Dawn"; John Woo, the great Chinese action director, returning in "Broken Arrow" with John Travolta; a remake of Billy Wilder's "Sabrina" with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear; and "Twelve Monkeys," partially shot in Baltimore by Terry Gilliam, a futuristic thriller starring Bruce Willis and the Senator Theatre. And, God help us, demons from both the left and the right: Oliver Stone's film "Nixon"!

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