Starring: Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Gallagher, Buck Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Huey Lewis, Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Christopher Penn, Tim Robbins, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Madeleine Stowe, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Fred Ward.
Directed by: Robert Altman.
In the opening sequence of The Player, the knowing satire of Hollywood that reignited his career, director Robert Altman lampooned the standard Hollywood pitch meeting, in which desperate writers and directors sell the movies they want to make as weird hybrids of movies that have already scored (”It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman”). Though Altman has thrown many a beautiful curveball in his long career, he has stubbornly refused to master the pitch: Witness Short Cuts, his expansive new human comedy. It could never have been pitched because it can claim no precedents, not even previous Altman multicharacter panoramas like Nashville or A Wedding.
Based on nine short stories and one narrative poem by the late Raymond Carver — who specialized in capturing the small, often desperate, moments in ordinary lives — Short Cuts follows 22 characters as they wander through the suburban sprawl of Southern California. Unlike Nashville, this film has no one moment in which they all converge. Instead, the director invites his audience to eavesdrop on a series of muted dramas: An L.A. newscaster (Davison) and his wife (MacDowell) lose a son in a freak accident; on a fishing trip, three friends (Henry, Lewis, and Ward) discover a young woman’s corpse; a coffee- shop waitress (Tomlin) and her limo-driver husband (Waits) toast their marriage in the middle of a minor earthquake; a doctor (Modine) and his wife (Moore) share a hot tub and a host of hostilities with another couple (Ward and Archer).
With a different group of actors assembling each week to film their stories, Altman savored the experiment. ”I’m always looking for something that isn’t just a plot,” he says. ”Here we have multiple stories that are going on concurrently. I’m taking great liberties with the characters in the stories, crossing them from one story to another, but I’m trying to keep the general ambience of Carver.”
The departure from Carver’s stories has the blessing of his widow, poet Tess Gallagher, who says that Carver frequently rewrote his own stories after their first publication. ”Ray often said that he’d rather rewrite than write a story,” she says. ”The stories have been so revised during the 11 years we were together, I just decided, well, this is another rewrite, only it’s Altman doing it. I had a lot of trust that Bob loved the things that were genuine in the stories, and he would not leave those things behind.”
Fine, but does the darn thing work? ”I’m not saying this is going to be successful,” says Altman, ”but it seems to be working. No one’s going to know what it is until we put it together.” (Oct. 3)
Buzz: Short Cuts is assured a rapturous critical reception, but its deadpan style and 187-minute running time could prove wearying — especially to audiences used to seeing movies that wear their emotions on their sleeves.
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Luke Edwards, Colin Ward, Vanessa Redgrave.
Directed by: Yves Simoneau.
If she must play the mom, Jamie Lee Curtis figures she might as well be an evil one. ”I’ve made quite a few movies with children,” she says. ”I’m at that age , you know? That will be my ride for the next 10 years. But this time I liked not having to be liked.”
Likable she isn’t, but her character could have been truly hideous. In Simoneau’s loose adaptation of novelist Bernard Taylor’s grim 1988 psychological thriller, Curtis’ twisted, manipulative Jude blithely returns to reclaim the family she abandoned three years earlier.
Although Mom warps her eldest son (Edwards) in an attempt to exact revenge on her hubby (Gallagher), Curtis shied away from the incestuous implications in the story. ”It would have been very difficult for me to use that just as a tool in a thriller,” she says. Her sensitivity also had a business-side payoff. Well aware of their R-rated film’s eventual home, the producers, according to Curtis, shot ”TV versions of quite a bit of the movie.” (Oct. 15)
Buzz: One part ”Yikes!” One part ”Yuck!”
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Bebe Neuwirth, Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott.
Directed by: Harold Becker.
The minds behind this twisty thriller are so jittery about giving away its intricate plot turns that ”we had a hell of a time getting a trailer up for it,” says director Becker (Sea of Love). This much we know: A serial killer is stalking students at an ivy-covered Northeastern women’s college, complicating the lives of a well-meaning dean (Pullman) and his wife (Kidman). Which leaves Baldwin, playing a surgeon, as the bad guy? Maybe, maybe not.
As shooting was about to start at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., a campus rumor spread that Malice‘s closely guarded script contained violent scenes against women; students threatened a protest that would halt production. Producer Rachel Pfeffer met with a student rep. ”I told her that this is a smart thriller,” says Pfeffer, ”and it has nothing of the violence of Basic Instinct. The next day we had half the student body watching us make this movie.”
Meanwhile, the stars were wrapping up an intense month-long rehearsal period. Kidman consulted with a psychiatrist about her role, and Baldwin observed more than a dozen surgeries and learned to apply stitches. For Pullman, who plays Meg Ryan’s hapless fiancé in Sleepless in Seattle, the role of educator came naturally: He taught theater for two years at Montana State University in Bozeman. ”There were some aspects of academia that I’d love to have gotten into the script,” he says. ”You know, that feeling of what it is to be poor and teach.” (Oct. 1)
Buzz: Some say there may be a few too many red herrings.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne.
Directed by: Marco Brambilla.
In 1996, LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone), hot on the trail of psychopath Simon Phoenix (Snipes), is blamed for blowing up a building, killing everyone inside. The two are sentenced to the Cryo Prison, where inmates are frozen in suspended animation. Cut to 2032, when Phoenix escapes — and Spartan is set free to catch him. Demolition Man sounds exactly like the kind of action movie that has made producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) famous: big guns, big stars, and, yes, big bucks. Shooting of the film, which could end up costing an estimated $70 million (Silver claims $57 million), ran over schedule by almost six weeks — setbacks included a shoulder injury to Stallone and the firing of leading lady Lori Petty three days into filming. But the casting of the back-on-top Stallone alongside Snipes has reassured the powers that be.
”I always wanted to do a picture with Sly,” says Silver. ”I really like the baggage he brings to the part. He’s Rambo and Cobra, the guy who always gets the job done. I saw Wesley [as a drug dealer] in New Jack City and loved the baggage he brought. I refer to this as an anti-buddy movie.”
Maybe on screen. But off screen the two bulked-up stars did major testosterone bonding. When it came time to shoot the final fight scene between Spartan and Phoenix, director Brambilla blared the Rocky soundtrack. ”They got into it like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. ”Wesley did one-armed push-ups and then skipped rope [his homage to the training-scene montage in Rocky]. Sly pretended he was hitting a punching bag and his stunt coordinator became his manager, leading him into the ring. It lifted everybody up.” (Oct. 8)
Buzz: The biggest summer movie of the fall.
Ruby In Paradise
Starring: Ashley Judd, Todd Field.
Directed by: Victor Nunez.
Already the toast of Sundance and Cannes, Florida writer-director Nunez’s third film introduces Ashley Judd (youngest daughter of Naomi, sister of Wynonna) in the title role. As Ruby Lee Gissing, she’s an escapee from a Tennessee hillbilly upbringing who struggles to establish her newly independent self in the quiet of an off-season Florida beach town. Nunez (A Flash of Green) got nowhere trying to sell the script (”Hollywood is in a high mannerist phase,” he says. ”My film wasn’t hard-edged enough”), but now he’s experiencing ”a tornado of buzz.” And Judd’s assured performance has attracted Oliver Stone, who cast her in next year’s Natural Born Killers. (Oct. 8)
Buzz: Distributor October Films is slowly rolling out this languorous, uncommercial-looking movie. Good move. Though much loved by critics, it’ll need strong word of mouth to survive.
Starring: Leon, Doug E. Doug, Malik Yoba, Rawle Lewis, John Candy.
Directed by: Jon Turtletaub.
This real-life Rocky story about the Jamaican bobsled team’s uphill journey to the 1988 Olympics first captured the interest of Dawn Steel during her late-’80s tenure as president of Columbia. But script and budget problems derailed it until Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steel, now an independent producer, got it on smooth ice again as a low-budget (under $15 million) family feature. The saga offers a Hollywood rarity (and a Disney first): four black heroes. And there’s an offscreen Cinderella story — assistant casting director Lewis went from reading with auditioners to winning a leading role. (Oct. 1)
Buzz: Although the bobsled team flipped and crashed, advance word is that Cool Running could be a winner.
A Bronx Tale
Starring: Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Lillo Brancato.
Directed by: Robert De Niro.
De Niro makes his debut behind the camera with the story of a young Italian-American boy (Capra) growing up on the mean streets of 1960s New York. When he witnesses a murder, 9-year-old Calogero Anello finds himself caught between his hardworking bus-driver father (De Niro) and a local crime leader (Palminteri).
Writer-actor Palminteri, who saw a killing while growing up in the Bronx, based the ”semiautobiographical” script on his 1989 Off Broadway one-man show. Though more experienced directors wanted to bring his story to the screen, Palminteri was convinced that De Niro, a fellow Italian-American who wanted to direct, understood his story in a way no one else could. Good choice. De Niro wasn’t daunted when the budget reportedly swelled from $12 million to $22 million and the film was dropped by Universal. (It’s now the first release of new distributor Savoy.)
”Bob said, ‘If you let me do it, I’ll make it right,”’ says Palminteri, who was impressed by De Niro’s attention to detail. ”He plays my father and flew my dad up from Florida. Every day Bob would ask him questions: ‘How did you drive the bus? How did you carry your seat cushion? How did you wipe the steering wheel?’ It’s not a documentary, but he wanted it to be truthful.” (Oct. 1)
Buzz: Blockbuster? No. But word is that De Niro’s work on both sides of the camera is impressive.
Nightmare Before Christmas
With the voices of: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, William Hickey, Ken Page, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens.
Directed by: Henry Selick.
Ten years ago, when he was a miserable and mostly ignored Disney animator, Tim Burton couldn’t sell the idea. But when the now-superstar auteur approached the studio in 1990 to reclaim a poem and some sketches he had once doodled about a skeleton who impersonates Santa Claus, chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted that he let Disney produce the holiday tale as a feature.
Okay, said Burton, but it will be populated by spindly stop-motion puppets, not cuddly-curvy cartoons. ”In drawn animation, it would cost a fortune to put in all the shadows and textures,” says director Selick, a fellow ex-Disneyite whom Burton hired mainly on the strength of his wacko channel-identification spots for MTV. ”And it still wouldn’t capture the tactile reality we got with puppets and sets.”
The resultant macabre, $20 million fantasy is part holiday TV special, part Edward Gorey, part Edward Scissorhands. Danny Elfman has written 10 songs and provides the singing voice of the would-be Santa, Jack Skellington. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson, a Burton collaborator on Scissorhands and Elfman’s live-in lover at the time, was brought in to give some emotional appeal to Burton’s weirder characters, among them Oogie Boogie, a big mean burlap sack of spiders and snakes who looks unnervingly like a Ku Klux Klansman.
Isn’t it awfully ominous for a family picture? ”Oh, definitely,” says Burton with a conspiratorial chuckle. ”If we can disturb just one child, it will have been worth it.” (Oct. 13)
Buzz: Given the film’s creepy themes, it’s disturbed parents Disney should worry about.
Starring: Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott.
Directed by: Ronald Maxwell.
It was originally planned as a miniseries for Ted Turner’s cable channel, TNT, but the story of the Civil War’s most famous battle turned out to be too big for the small screen. In fact, with more than 5,000 extras, Gettysburg — which is based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel The Killer Angels — could make D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation look downright puny. Still, not everyone was thrilled about getting involved in Turner’s first feature film. ”I really didn’t want to do it,” says Sheen, who dons white beard and wig to play Robert E. Lee. ”I didn’t know anything about the character, I didn’t want to wear the makeup, I didn’t know how to do a Southern accent, and I hadn’t been on a horse in 15 years. But the producers just wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Turner himself had no such compunction — you can spot him in a cameo as a rebel who gets killed in battle. Wife Jane Fonda declined to take sides in the conflict — for once. (Oct 8)
Buzz: Once a TV movie, always a TV movie.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Starring: Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen.
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom.
The Addamses aren’t the only over-the-top family this fall. Meet the Grapes: a humongous housebound mom, a retarded brother, a sister who copes and copes and copes some more, and 24-year-old Gilbert (Depp), who longs for escape.
Peter Hedges, who based the screenplay on his mordant 1991 novel, was wary when director Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) cast a heartthrob as leading man. But Depp toned down his looks for the part, which calls for a mouth full of yellowish teeth. ”There’s no vanity in his performance,” says Hedges. Nor in that of Darlene Cates as the obese mother. Where did they find a woman whose real-life dimensions (she’s somewhere around 500 pounds) mirror those of her character’s? On Sally Jessy Raphael, of course. (October or December)
Buzz: Will Depp’s fans be champing at the bit to see him with imperfect teeth? Something to chew on…
A Dangerous Woman
Starring: Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, Gabriel Byrne, David Strathairn, Laurie Metcalf, Jan Hooks.
Directed by: Stephen Gyllenhaal.
Is a woman who insists on telling the truth dangerous? When the truth involves murder, stealing, and accusations of rape, and the teller is the outcast Martha (Winger), the answer is a resounding yes. Hershey plays Frances, the frazzled aunt who lives with Martha, and Byrne is the drifter who seduces them both. ”To be one man with two women in a movie like that is strange,” says Byrne. ”Strange and disturbing.”
To make the location easier to reach for the cast and crew, the three-sided love story was moved from the book’s New England setting to a town an hour outside L.A. ”It was filmed among these orange groves,” says Byrne. ”We were warned (by set decorators) not to pick any oranges off the trees, but of course, as soon as you’re told not to, you must. So on this walk, when I was surrounded by these luscious oranges, I plucked one. It was plastic.” He sighs. So much for the triumph of truth. (Oct. 29)
Buzz: Best case — Winger walks off with an Oscar nomination. Worst case — this Woman vanishes, maybe for good.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Isabella Rossellini, Tom Hulce.
Directed by: Peter Weir.
There’s a plane going down, and the passengers think they’re going to die. But some survive. What happens when they walk away from the wreckage? That’s what screenwriter Rafael Yglesias explores in Fearless, based on his 1993 novel. Hollywood execs told him the book couldn’t be translated to screen, but when Yglesias penned a script, husband-and-wife producers Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg bought it within 24 hours.
Fearless focuses on San Francisco architect Max Klein (Bridges), who survives the crash physically — even rescuing other passengers — but shuts down emotionally and embarks on a wrenching journey back to the land of the living. He’s helped by a friendship with a fellow survivor (Perez), who lost her infant son in the crash. Perez credits director Weir with extracting her most challenging performance. ”He taught me to remember who the character was and slip into her. Even when I saw a screening, I didn’t know how to think about the girl — there is nothing in that character that is me.” (Oct. 22)
Buzz: Bridges, Perez, and Weir have their loyal fans. And this could be the choice for audiences looking for an absorbing movie that isn’t set in Europe or the past.
Farewell My Concubine
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li.
Directed by: Chen Kaige.
After sharing the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May (with The Piano), this lush epic rode a wave of international acclaim back to China, where the warm reception came to an abrupt end. Immediately after its sensational Shanghai premiere in July, Concubine was banned by the Communist government.
Censorship seems to be Concubine‘s fate. The first version of writer Lilian Lee’s drama about two opera singers, written as a two-hour TV movie, was banned in Hong Kong in 1981 because of its depiction of submerged gay tensions between the principal characters — two boys initiated into the Peking Opera in 1925 (one chosen for male roles, the other female). Director Chen then teamed with Lee and doubled Concubine‘s script, melding the offending relationship into a Last Emperor-style panorama of social history. Now 170 minutes long, Concubine follows the two boys through World War II and Mao’s ascent, culminating in the fratricidal Cultural Revolution. The homoerotic longings of its heroes play out against tragedies Chen knows all too well.
”It’s like going back to a nightmare,” the director says of re-creating the Cultural Revolution. ”I’ve tried very hard to put what happened behind me, but I can’t. I don’t believe we have learned enough.” Concubine‘s repression sadly proves his point: Objecting to a climactic suicide that occurs after the Cultural Revolution (when the current generation of rulers came to power), Beijing censors won’t pass the film without a happier ending. Maybe they should move to Hollywood. (Oct. 9)
Buzz: Concubine:‘s subtitles, length, and homoerotic theme may intimidate moviegoers, but look for an international controversy this winter if China doesn’t submit the pic for Oscar consideration.
Starring: Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth, Forest Whitaker, Meg Tilly, R. Lee Ermey.
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
When a teenage rebel (Anwar) wakes up in her new Army-base housing to find icky tendrils wrapping around her body, she realizes that alien pods are systematically replacing the humans around her.
Taking paranoid inspiration from Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers — not Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake — Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) describes his version as ”’90s anticonformist.” Perhaps too anticonformist: The sci-fi thriller was completed last year, but Warner Bros., lacking confidence in its appeal, slated it for release only after American critics rallied around the film at May’s Cannes festival. The director also tussled with the studio to keep a shot of a boy-turned-alien being thrown from a helicopter. He won. ”I thought it was a happy ending when he hit the ground,” says Ferrara, grinning. (Oct. 15)
Buzz: The material might seem awfully familiar to adults, but every generation needs its version of pod people. With proper marketing — ”This is not your father’s Body Snatchers” — it could scare up some real business.
Home Of Our Own
Starring: Kathy Bates, Edward Furlong.
Directed by: Tony Bill.
Oscar winner Bates returns to misery, this time as a world-weary widow who lugs her family from L.A. to Idaho in search of the object of her obsession: an affordable house.
The story is told from the point of view of Shayne, played by 16-year-old Furlong (Terminator 2, American Dream), the caretaker of his five younger siblings. ”I see the movie as a memoir of a man looking back 30 years to the complex relationship he had with his mother,” says director Bill (Untamed Heart). ”She’s a woman who believes in corporal punishment, who couches her expressions of love — she’s tough and single-minded.” Because of the six kids, the Utah set was ”total fun,” says Bill. Furlong doesn’t share his enthusiasm: ”It was very cold,” he recalls, and ”so boring, I became friends with my teacher.” (Oct. 15)
Buzz: Too gloomy for kids, too kid-packed for grown-ups. The reviews will have to be great, not just good.
Also in October
Armand Assante, Sherilyn Fenn, and Sean Young spoof two thrillers in Carl Reiner’s Fatal Instinct; a 27-year-old (Sean Astin) pursues his dream of playing football for Notre Dame in Rudy; a bisexual woman and a male friend kidnap her female lover and hit the road in Bound and Gagged: A Love Story; a serial killer travels through electrical circuits to wreak havoc on a mother (Karen Allen) and her family in Ghost in the Machine; the real-life story of a woman (Suzy Amis) disguised as a cowboy is the inspiration for The Ballad of Little Jo; two boys embark on a cross-country odyssey in Josh and S.A.M.; Richard Gere and Lena Olin star in the long-delayed psychological drama Mr. Jones; Andie MacDowell plays a widow traveling in modern Egypt in the romantic adventure Ruby Cairo; Hulk Hogan watches over rambunctious kids in Mr. Nanny; in For Love or Money, hotel concierge Michael J. Fox tries to please wealthy guests and himself; Charles Bronson returns in Death Wish V: The Face of Death; fascists will rule the world if the hero of Philadelphia Experiment 2 can’t correct a time-space aberration; bodies (and old movie gimmicks) refuse to stay buried in Return of the Living Dead III; lost in the wrong neighborhood, Emilio Estevez is terrorized by Denis Leary in the thriller Judgment Night; Danny Aiello stars in Me and the Kid, a jaded-thief-meets- spoiled-rich-kid story; James Carville and George Stephanopoulos are the subjects of the documentary The War Room; and a boy gets involved in his family’s bloody feud in Italy’s Flight of the Innocent.