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NewCityNet White Sale

By Ray Pride

JANUARY 26, 1998:  The sky is barren and the sun blinding. Bracing winds cut you raw; clouds of fluff spin, damping the desolate gray ether. Winter weather, but also the emotional temperature of all too many movies after the year-end rush of the Oscar-bound and the Golden Globes-eager into the multiplex. You've emptied your stockings of "Titanic" and "Sweet Hereafter" and now it's leftovers from either coast. It's almost as if studios fear Chicago at Christmas, thinking that the Arctic blast of January and February will somehow drive Midwesterners into distant cinemas instead of the corner tavern or in front of their televisions and under covers and lovers. This month offers up Alan Rudolph's "unwashed soap opera," "Afterglow," Gillian Armstrong's lushly photographed shaggy-great-grandfather fable, "Oscar and Lucinda," and Robert Duvall's dream project of the last thirty years, "The Apostle," with Duvall's incredibly rich performance at the center of a comic picaresque of a Pentecostal preacher on the lam from the law, God and mostly himself.

Those particular leftovers are pretty tasty. But for studio pics just out of the gate, January and February are the cruelest months. The duds and misfires are more common than movies that simply weren't ready for year-end release. Advance word on Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Dickens' "Great Expectations" is middling, but rumors are bound to start when a splashy movie gets moved from a Christmas release to late January, joining all the downright rotten movies that get flung into the new year in the general direction of the collective cultural amnesia. A good example of studio release patterns would be the success Paramount had last year with the horror jumble, "The Relic." The same slot was filled this year by "Hard Rain," a movie that matches "The Relic" in visual and thematic murkiness. The beginning months of the year are the first resting place -- before rental video, pay-per-view, satellite, cable, sell-through video, broadcast TV -- for movies with uncertain tone, like the supernatural-meets-cop-story "Fallen." It could strike a chord, like "The Relic" did, but it's doubtful many fingers are crossed behind the scenes. Polygram lost a battle royale with Robert Altman over the John Grisham-scripted "The Gingerbread Man"; his version's the one being released, but no word yet on whether that's a good thing.

Another upcoming megabudgeter is "Sphere," Barry Levinson's "The Abyss"-meets-"Alien" thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson. Postponed once already when Warners took a breather mid-production to cut a ballooning budget, it was sent back this week for a new ending after audiences were as cool to the finished product as they have been to the truly goofy coming-attractions trailer. But I'm always glad if an improbable quantity turn outs to be something appealing. It's probably an easier call not to expect much from the Spice Girls bratting up the screen in "SpiceWorld," and "Deep Rising," a thriller starring the never-popular Treat Williams. (I doubt you could tell me what that title means even if you see the movie.) Then there's "Desperate Measures," a much-postponed Barbet Schroeder thriller wherein Andy Garcia, the father of a child who needs a bone marrow transplant, discovers that the only way to save his son's life is to befriend psychopathic killer Michael Keaton. Misunderstood auteurship or just duds? Can't call 'em until you see 'em. So you were waiting for "Blues Brothers 2000" with Jim Belushi and John Goodman, then? (There's also a Macauley Culkin-alike tyke on hand to lower that flat-lining John Landis demographic.) Robert Benton's long-delayed L.A. detective tale, "Twilight" (originally "The Magic Hour"), pops up, but with Benton, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman involved in the L.A.-set detective tale and no December release for Oscar nods, "Blackout" may turn out to have been a more fitting title.

Gwyneth Paltrow twinkles through several pictures, including "Sliding Doors," a brittle but often very funny London-set variation on Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique." There's also the aforementioned "Great Expectations," a lushly designed nouveau riche romance in the art world of Manhattan, placing Ethan Hawke dead center of the Dickens novel as adapted by Mitch Glazer ("Scrooged"). Paltrow also appears in the thriller "Hush," playing a young wife convinced that mother-in-law Jessica Lange wants to kill her.

Three small diversions: Nick Gomez's "illtown," a tale of mid-level drug dealers losing their cool, told with the garish bubblegum hyperrealism of late-1980s Hong Kong movies. Beautifully shot by Jim Deneault, with a cast of indie-film stalwarts -- Michael Rapaport, Lili Taylor, Kevin Corrigan, Adam Trese -- Gomez gets down the particulars of the look and feel of contemporary central Florida, but many audiences will get lost in his variations on "Paradise Lost," with two bands of renegade fallen angels exterminating each other with great violence and little joy. It's a bold grab for the mythic, but delirium is a hard thing to sustain. Bill Pullman gives a wonderfully twisted and funny performance as an agoraphobic detective in "Zero Effect," embodying the conceits of first-time director Jake Kasdan's script, even when the storytelling turns literal-minded. Valentine's Day offers an unlikely charmer, the uncomplicated, often very funny romantic comedy "The Wedding Singer," with a restrained Adam Sandler playing a mid-eighties wedding singer whose romantic life crashes and burns until he meets beaming kewpie Drew Barrymore. After that, you'll be able to check out the likes of "John Carpenter's Vampires" and Joe Eszterhas' "Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film." While I haven't seen those movies yet, it's probably a fair truism that the barrel never has a bottom, but this is the time of year the studios root around for it.

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