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Season's Screenings The Christmas rush: Unwrapping all that Tinseltown has to offer for the holidays.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first two weekends in December have been relatively benign in the movie campaigns, with only one big studio film -- "Father of the Bride: Part II" -- marshaling the nerve to compete against the heavy hitters of Thanksgiving, such as "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," "Goldeneye," "The American President," "Toy Story" and "Casino." But as a certain king once almost said: After the weekend comes la deluge.

La deluge begins politely enough with the much-anticipated "Sense and Sensibility" next Wednesday, at the Senator exclusively for a bit. The third Jane Austen movie to hit this year (after "Clueless," derived from Austen's "Emma," and "Persuasion," now at the Charles), this one is attracting attention to itself by an oddity: It may in fact represent the first time in movie history that someone gets a best actress and best screenwriter Academy Award nomination.

That person is Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay and stars herself. The director is Ang Lee, the brilliant Taiwanese who helmed "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman."

Next Friday brings three more big ones. The first and possibly most eagerly anticipated is a coup of casting. That's both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as robber and cop (respectively) in the heist melodrama "Heat," from the flashy stylist Michael Mann of "Miami Vice" and "Last of the Mohicans" fame. Co-stars are Val Kilmer and Jon Voight.

Then there's the remake of the classic Billy Wilder romantic comedy "Sabrina," the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star. In this case, it's Julia Ormond getting the treatment, but she's already a star. In the roles played by Bogart and Holden so memorably in 1954, we find Harrison Ford and talk-show and Jeep Eagle huckster Greg Kinnear. The replacement for the ultra-cynical Wilder is the much less cynical Sydney Pollock, with his broad sensibility ("Tootsie" was his, but alas, so was "Havana").

The third one is an oddity. It's "Jumanji," with Robin Williams, derived (and much amplified) from a Caldicott Award-winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. The film has more of the vaunted computer-generated special effects that have already taken the country by storm in Disney's "Toy Story." It'll be interesting to see if that film steals the thunder (and the box office) from "Jumanji." The film is about a couple of kids who find an enchanted Victorian board game out of which springs not only bats andlions and tigers and bears (OK, no bears) but Robin Williams looking like Robinson Crusoe.

Lord help us all: The big opener, on Wednesday, Dec. 20, is "Nixon," according to Oliver Stone. The early Newsweek cover story was gooey as an explosion in a candy factory, but we shall have to wait to see what the master of the paranoid as a style of movie making does with the master of the paranoid as a style of statecraft. Anthony Hopkins in said to be brilliant as Nixon, but the previews and the bit showing on TV don't begin to do it for me.

For movie critics, Dec. 22 is a day of maximum horror with nine movies opening simultaneously. My memory is eroded over the years by too many movies that were too much like too many other movies, but I suspect this is a record of sorts.

By far the oddest of these films will heave into the Charles, and it's for those people for whom the holidays are the worst of all downers. They think they feel bad? They don't know from bad, not until they see "Leaving Las Vegas," Mike Figgis' downbeat study of a writer who just decides it's time to die, goes to Vegas to do so, and chooses the bottle as his weapon of deliverance. The movie is oddly cheery as Nick Cage bonds with a prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue and each agrees they'll be friends but that neither will try to save the other. Ho, ho, ho!

The most eagerly anticipated Dec. 22 opener is "Waiting to Exhale," based on the Terry McMillan novel that was such a best seller. To those of us on the guy side of the guy-gal fault line, the movie could not be described as overly friendly. It follows four middle-class African-American women in Phoenix as they struggle with the men in their lives, nearly all of whom are found wanting or inadequate in some way. The big news here is that it's Whitney Houston's second movie and Angela Bassett's latest, after "Strange Days"

and "Vampire in Brooklyn."

"Cutthroat Island" is the big production number, a mega-million-dollar revisionist swashbuckler, with Geena Davis as a female pirate in search of a lost treasure in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. The director is her husband, Renny Harlin, an effects and pyrotechnics genius, and this one has spectacle to boot, including some great old-fashioned ship-to-ship battles and some chases that are astonishingly visceral. Matthew Modine is in the Olivia de Havilland role and Davis plays the Errol Flynn part.

Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, Jean-Claude Van Damme is saving the Stanley Cup, his daughter and the vice president of the United States from terrorist Powers Boothe in "Sudden Death." Universal liked this one so much it pulled it from the October schedule and reinserted it in the December line-up for maximum megabucks from the male teen-age audience that alone seems to adore the kick-boxing Belgian.

Universal is covering the less-testosterone-soaked sector of the market with the traditionally pen-drawn animated feature "Balto," about a heroic sled dog in Alaska. Among the voices are those of Kevin Bacon and Bob Hoskins, and the director is Simon Wells. Also hoping to snatch up some kiddy attention is "Tom and Huck," a reiteration of the great Mark Twain novel about kids along the Mississippi at the time of the Civil War. Tom Sawyer is played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, from "Home Improvement." Meanwhile, Brad Renfro, who made such a strong impression in "The Client," plays Huck Finn.

Mel Brooks has another go at '90s comedy in "Dracula -- Dead and Loving It," with Leslie Nielsen as the nasty neck sucker. This is an interesting concept because it was Nielsen's "Naked Gun" series that all but replaced Brooks' far more sedate and less joke-dense style of movie parody, while Mel struggled with such el lame-o failures as "Spaceballs" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." Does Mel still have it? Can Leslie save him? Interesting questions, both.

If he can't, the only ones grumpier than Mel on Dec. 22 will be Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who return in "Grumpier Old Men," a sequel to last Christmas' surprise hit. Ann-Margret is back, but new to the cast (but not anyone's heart) is Sophia Loren. Ms. Loren's assignment is hardly memorable: to turn the bait store into an Italian restaurant. Possibly it'll be funnier on screen than on paper.

Next is an odd, much-postponed film with Robert Downey Jr. as a foppish doctor exiled from the English court to the rude slums of London in "Restoration," a historical drama set in the early 18th century. Previews have been showing for months it seems, complete to the delicate Downey with a beauty mark on his chin, an inch of pancake on his face and one of those broad-brimmed and beplumed cavalier's hats on his head. Now the film is finally upon us, ready or not, and there's no place to hide.

The last film of the year saves itself for Christmas Day, a Monday. Who better to celebrate Christmas with than Quentin Tarantino? The movie is his first official "comedy," and it's called "Four Rooms." It's an anthology, set in four rooms in an L.A. hotel. Tarantino directed one of the stories and produced the whole thing. The other directors are Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez and Alexander Rockwell. The one common character is the bellman, played by Tim Roth.

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