Fall Movie Preview

Fall Movie Preview: December

''Mars Attacks!,'' ''Ghosts of Mississippi,'' and more round out this fall's films

Mars Attacks!
Starring Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Pierce Brosnan, Lukas Haas, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Paul Winfield, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Signey, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Annette Bening, Pam Grier, Jim Brown
Directed by Tim Burton

Last December, teasers for Independence Day revealed aliens blowing up the White House, and audiences went berserk. Will they whoop as loudly for Mars Attacks!, in which a green-skinned, skull-faced ambassador from the angry red planet lays waste to the U.S. Congress with a ray gun?

Only time and trailers will tell. But computer-animated death rays won't be the only firepower in director Burton's $70 million flight of fancy, a bubble-gum-trading-card-series adaptation that's part spoof of, part tribute to, tacky '50s monster movies, chichi '60s sci-fi thrillers, and corny '70s disaster flicks. Mars has something audiences haven't seen in '90s fun-house rides like ID4, Twister, and Jurassic Park: two bona fide A-list movie stars. Nicholson is ditsy President Dale; Close plays bitchy Mrs. President, a walking freezer in Nancy Reagan reds who tells her husband that if Martian emissaries visit, ''They're not going to eat off the Van Buren china.'' Or is that three top-billed star turns? In one of umpteen nods to Dr. Strangelove, Nicholson plays an additional role — the blond, twangy-talkin' Vegas hotel developer Art Land. ''That was Jack's suggestion,'' says Burton. ''It just seemed like that kind of movie.''

It almost wasn't any kind of movie when Warner balked at Burton's initial $100 million budget. Why so pricey? In part because he wanted stop-motion puppet animation for his aliens, a la Nightmare Before Christmas, to get ''the quality of those old Ray Harryhausen movies.'' But then George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic did a test reel that persuaded Burton to go with computer-graphics animation. The cost dropped $30 million, and Warner gave the green light.

Live-action filming wrapped in June. But as ILM works at warp speed to conjure invasion antics that the actors only imagined, will Burton also shoot more footage with his human cast? He says no, but Haas, who plays a ''kinda stupid'' Kansas teen out to vanquish the invaders, says he may get another crack at his climactic speech: ''There's a possibility we're gonna go back. We didn't want it to be too emotional at the end — it's such a sarcastic, satirical story.'' (Dec. 13)

Buzz ID's success should help (much of the film is said to play like an inspired parody) and hurt — to recoup its cost, Mars will have to seem like more than just a smart spoof.

Ghosts of Mississippi
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Craig T. Nelson, Wayne Rogers, William H. Macy, Michael O'Keefe, Darrell Evers, Yolanda King

Like an evil spectre from America's divided racial past, Byron De la Beckwith, the convicted murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, haunted the making of Ghosts of Mississippi. Filming in Jackson, Miss., where De la Beckwith, whose two previous trials resulted in hung juries, was finally found guilty of the 1963 murder in 1994, Reiner and his crew found themselves working within 50 yards of the killer, now inside the Hinds County Courthouse jail. During a jail tour, Reiner saw him asleep, his cell strewn with racist literature. ''It was bizarre,'' he says. ''It's just as well [he was sleeping] because I don't know if I could have talked to him.'' Woods, who ages 30 years as De la Beckwith, turned down a jailhouse visit. ''I had no desire to meet the guy,'' he says adamantly.

1 2 3 4 5 10