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Gambit Weekly Cold Comfort

By Rick Barton

JUNE 1, 1998:  The motion picture industry has three seasons: summer, Christmas and the rest of the time. Weekend releases from January through mid-May and from September until Thanksgiving are a mixed bag. At Christmas (which runs from Thanksgiving through New Year's), the big Hollywood studios tend to debut their prestige pictures, those they tout for Oscars. But it's in the summer that they try to make their money. It's not uncommon for a film company to sell more tickets in the three summer months than in the other nine months combined. Titanic broke the mold last year, of course, opening at Christmas and going on to make more money than any other movie in history. But Titanic was scheduled as a summer movie and was supposed to have opened last July.

In Bulworth, Warren Beatty's suicidal senator says what's on his mind.
It used to be that the Hollywood summer stretched from Memorial Day until Labor Day. In the 1990s, however, we've seen the studios sneak the front end of summer into early May. The game plan is to try to get a picture out in front of the pack, pick up some good early word of mouth and hope to hold on when the onslaught comes later. This year we got such high-voltage summer fare as Deep Impact on theater screens by May 8, followed by a big-time star vehicle like Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer on May 15. Still, you usually can tell who the box office contenders are by those with the chutzpah to open on the big weekends (or, to help rack up those big early grosses, the Wednesday before). That makes Godzilla, which opened last Wednesday, this year's big lizard in more ways than one. Scheduled to follow these three flicks into theaters before school starts up again in September are 110 other movies. Some will inevitably be shelved, pushed to a later date or even dumped directly into video stores. Some that will be released in New York and Los Angeles will never make it to New Orleans. What follows is a selected survey of those films I'm pretty confident you'll be able to see during the time of year when dark, air-conditioned places will prove particularly inviting.

MAY

First a word about Godzilla: By the time you read this, the first grosses will be in. And the hype on this picture is so massive, I'm sure that opening weekend audiences will have been huge. Director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin proved with Independence Day that they can deliver a blockbuster. But I've got to wonder. Godzillas of yore have never done that well in the United States, so I'm predicting that by the time all the cash is toted, this newest lizard king will be viewed as at least a qualified disappointment (not that it won't make its money back here and abroad).

Also opening last weekend was Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the estimable Johnny Depp as "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson in this adaptation of Thompson's drug-fueled cult classic from the early 1970s. This story has long been considered unfilmable. But if anyone can pull it off, it is the uniquely gifted, former Monty Python cartoonist Terry Gilliam. Even if the picture fails, I feel certain it will prove fascinating. Trying to pick up scraps from Godzilla's table along with Fear and Loathing is Warren Beatty's Bulworth, a comedy about a suicidal senator who begins to outrage political audiences by telling them the unvarnished truth. The last weekend in May brings Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock as a young mother fleeing a faithless husband and finding romance in the arms of Texas rancher Harry Connick Jr.

Harrison Ford and Anne Heche make like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Six Days, Seven Nights.
JUNE

The first big picture in June should turn out to be Peter Weir's The Truman Show with Jim Carrey starring as a young man who lives an artificial life as the star of a TV documentary he's unaware is taking place. The buzz on this film, set for release June 5, is terrific, but Jim Carrey fans should be forewarned that this is not another chapter of Ace Ventura. June 12 brings Ivan Reitman's Six Days and Seven Nights, a romantic adventure vaguely in the tradition of Romancing the Stone. Harrison Ford (who's always getting younger babes) stars with Anne Heche. Also scheduled for June 12 is A Perfect Murder, a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, with Michael Douglas as the husband plotting to kill wife Gwyneth Paltrow.

The predicted box-office leaders for June 19 are a feature-length episode of The X-Files with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Mulder and Scully and Disney's summer animated feature Mulan, which tells the story of a Chinese girl who replaces her father in battle and leads her people to a great victory. Early reports say that Mulan stands poised to take the Magic Kingdom back to the animated heights of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. If the current schedule holds, the last weekend in June will bring Eddie Murphy in Betty Thomas' remake of Doctor Dolittle. Also scheduled to open June 26 is Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, based on the Elmore Leonard story about a bank robber (George Clooney) who gets romantically involved with the federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez) charged with capturing him. Rumors say this picture will greatly please the Get Shorty audience.

JULY

The Fourth of July weekend will no doubt belong to Michael Bay's Armageddon. Having survived the comet attack of Deep Impact, Earth is now threatened by an asteroid as big as Texas. We'll fight back with the same tactics, of course. Up go the astronauts to plant enough nukes to turn Texteroid into so much gravel. Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Buscemi star. Do you ever wonder if these post-Cold War deployments of our nuclear arsenal are the brainchildren of creative writers at the Pentagon?

The buzz says Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (starring Tom Hanks) combines the emotional wallop of Schindler's List with the adventure of the director's lighter fare.
Old friends return on July 10 as Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci and Rene Russo team up for Lethal Weapon 4. One can't help but worry about rumors that this picture was shot without a finished script or that its salvation may lie in the participation of comic Chris Rock. Antonio Banderas will swashbuckle into theaters on July 17 in Mask of Zorro. July 24 brings one of the most keenly anticipated films of the summer: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The movie stars Tom Hanks as the head of a crack Army unit during the Normandy invasion searching for the sole surviving brother (Matt Damon) of four siblings who went to battle in World War II. Those who have seen early prints of the film are saying it packs the wallop of Schindler's List into an epic package with the mass appeal of Spielberg's lighter entertainments.

The last weekend in July will see a squadron of releases battling for the popcorn dollar. Young Lindsay Lohan hopes to reincarnate Hayley Mills in Nancy Meyers' remake of The Parent Trap. Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson star as the parents. On competing screens, Samuel L. Jackson will portray a police negotiator who takes hostages himself when he's framed for murder in F. Gary Gray's The Negotiator. Kevin Spacey is the man authorities bring in to defuse the crisis. Meanwhile, those foul-mouthed writers from TV's South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, take bows in front of the camera in David Zucker's comedy BASEketball, the story of a couple of layabouts who invent a game combining elements of baseball and basketball only to see their creation ripped off by corporate manipulators. Sounds like what happened to Parker and Stone's share of ancillary rights to their South Park characters. And no doubt at the mall screen next door, Zucker's old Airplane! partner, Jim Abrahams, will have a movie of his own. Continuing in the tradition of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, Jane Austen's Mafia! will sacrifice everything in sight for one more joke. A fine comedic cast includes the late Lloyd Bridges in his last performance as well as Jay Mohr and Christina Applegate.

Mike Myers (left) turns in his first dramatic performance in the debauched disco flick 54.
AUGUST

August, of course, is vacation month, and movie viewing falls off as families jam the station wagon instead of the mall cinema. No picture opening this month arrives with the hype of Godzilla or Armageddon, but the month's big flick, scheduled to open Aug. 7, is supposed to be Snake Eyes, which finds Brian De Palma returning from the heroic action nonsense of Mission: Impossible to his roots in stylish thrillers. Nicolas Cage stars as a shady New Jersey police detective searching for personal redemption as he trails the assassin of the U.S. defense secretary. Gary Sinise, John Heard and Stan Shaw also star. The primary film willing to challenge Snake Eyes this first weekend of the month is Mark Christopher's vastly different 54, which looks at the 1970s cocaine-and-sex-fueled disco scene. Mike Meyers delivers his first dramatic performance in a cast that includes Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, Sela Ward and Sherry Stringfield.

Hollywood's remake of The Avengers benefits from the charms of Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman.
Aug. 14 brings Jeremiah Chechik's remake of the 1960s British TV series The Avengers with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman replacing Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as secret agents John Steed and Emma Peel. Sean Connery is an evil tycoon trying to manipulate the global climate. A lot less promising is John Bruno's Virus, which stars Jamie Lee Curtis in an alien-on-a-ship sci-fi action horror flick that seems as fresh as last week's crawfish peels. On Aug. 21, we're scheduled to get David Nutter's Disturbing Behavior, an "eerie comedy" about a bunch of high-school punks turning into total suck-ups. That will compete with Brad Anderson's independent feature Next Stop, Wonderland with Hope Davis as a lovelorn Bostonian looking for Mr. Right in the personal ads.

Finally, the summer season is set to end with Stephen Norrington's comic book Blade starring Wesley Snipes as a half vampire with a grudge against the blood suckers who drained dear old mom. If that doesn't ring your chimes, give thanks that Labor Day marks the return of the school season, if not cool weather.

OTHER (OFTEN BETTER) POSSIBILITIES

Even the more mainstream features profiled above are subject to being moved or even dropped. The smaller films below are particularly vulnerable to rescheduling. Still, I think they're all pictures to watch for. They might appear in town this summer or in the months to come. Look for Don Roos' The Opposite Sex (currently scheduled for late May) with Christina Ricci as a viciously destructive teen bent on making everyone around her miserable. Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow and Lyle Lovett are among Ricci's co-stars. Roos has been quoted as saying "our villain is scarier than Godzilla." Also scheduled for late May is Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco. The man who brought us Metropolitan and Barcelona returns with this look at young professional anxiety in the boom years of the early 1980s. Chloe Sevigny, Robert Sean Leonard and Jennifer Beals are among the stars.

Four small and interesting films are currently scheduled for June. They include Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, which tells the story of a would-be poet supporting his writing habit by working as a garbage man. Also scheduled for June is Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, a twisted romantic comedy about an ex-convict who kidnaps a teenager and forces her to pose as his wife in an encounter with his football-obsessed parents. Gallo stars with Christina Ricci, Angelica Huston, Ben Gazzara and Rosanna Arquette. If we're lucky, June will also bring us Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals, which was all the rage this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The story involves two young Native Americans who journey from their reservation to collect the ashes of a deceased father and in the process patch up some old grievances.

July promises another Sundance hit, Darren Aronofsky's [pi], the story of an ill-tempered young genius laboring at his computer keyboard hoping to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Wags at Sundance dubbed it Bad Will Hunting. Still another Sundance discovery is Tommy O'Haver's Billy Hollywood's Screen Kiss, which tells the story of a gay photographer in love with a musician whose sexual orientation is not clear. Also scheduled for July is Minnie Driver starring as a 19th century Jewish woman pretending to be Christian as she looks for work in Scotland in Sandra Goldbacher's The Governess.

August offers Tamara Jenkins' Slums of Beverly Hills, the story of a 1970s teenager (Natasha Lyonne) suddenly burdened with the need for a DD-cup bra. Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner also star. Also promised in August is Sarah Kernochan's Strike, which stars Kirsten Dunst and Heather Matarazzo in a story about students at a girls school determined to keep their institution free of pestilent boys.

On the documentary front, Steve Yeager checks in with Divine Trash, a tribute to the late star of John Waters' Pink Flamingos and other Waters films. Divine Trash captured the Sundance documentary trophy. Maybe most promising of all the independents, scheduled for the last weekend of summer, is Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors. A crack cast, including Jason Patric, Nastassja Kinski, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener and Amy Brenneman, stars in this tale of lust, betrayal and emptiness from the director of last year's controversial In the Company of Men. Knowing LaBute's work, it won't be pretty, but it may well be honest, insightful and riveting.


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