Fall Movie Preview

Fall Movie Preview: December

''Heat,'' ''Nixon,'' and ''12 Monkeys'' are some of the films coming out this month

Heat
Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd.
Directed By Michael Mann.

Bill it as De Niro and Pacino, together again for the first time — sort of. Both appeared in The Godfather, Part II, for which De Niro won the first of his two Oscars and Pacino the third of his eight nominations, but the two men, who played father and son in the movie, never shared a scene. Twenty-one years later, Heat pairs them up, or at least moves them a little bit closer together: As a cop obsessed with catching convict De Niro on a grand heist, Pacino spends much of the film separated from his fellow screen titan by little more than a car length.

Even the intensive preproduction period kept the two stars apart. Writer-producer-director Mann (The Last of the Mohicans), who says he only ''thought of people like De Niro and Pacino'' when writing the screenplay, sent the actors off in different directions weeks before filming began. ''They all worked with a large number of real people,'' Mann says. ''Pacino was around cops and homicide detectives and went on surveillances. De Niro and Kilmer [who plays De Niro's criminal protégé] spent time with convicts.'' As Kilmer's wife, Ashley Judd was sent off to bond with convicts' spouses, participating in penitentiary visits with them. ''There are some women who look so sweet and humble, and others who are so tough,'' Judd says. ''I saw some really mean people.''

The cast also saw some really scary neighborhoods, as Mann chose run-down areas in west L.A. for much of the movie's setting. Filming mostly at night, far from the cradle of a studio's soundstage, Kilmer says he's felt safer in South Africa than on the set of Heat. If there's any notion left that ''Los Angeles is not a dangerous town, the illusion disappeared very quickly,'' says the actor, who sports bleached-blond hair for the part. ''We were in the nastiest areas. Whenever someone started getting nervous, the location scouts knew they were getting to a place Michael would want to go.''

In Mann's script, the relationships of the characters are as gritty as the streets they inhabit. But despite the plethora of car chases and gunfire, the most brutal action in Heat may be the abusive relationship of Kilmer, who describes his character as ''an organized psychotic,'' and the constantly nagging Judd. Trying to explain their relationship, Kilmer says, ''What's that horrible joke? 'Why are 28 percent of married women beaten in the United States? Because they won't listen.' It's like that.'' Judd has a simpler take on why they stay together: ''Love, baby, love.''

Buzz: Michael Corleone versus Raging Bull and Batman? We're in line already.

Nixon
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Wood.
Directed By Oliver Stone.

Nixon may be no JFK — instead of positing a conspiracy, it promises a sympathetic look at the 37th President — but that doesn't mean the media won't use it as an opportunity to kick Oliver Stone around some more. Don't let Disney's eye-catchingly clever ''Nixon in '96'' buttons fool you — the return of Tricky Dick has been anything but an easy campaign.

The first hurdle was funding. Although they'd worked together many times before, Stone and New Regency president Arnon Milchan reached an impasse when Milchan wouldn't put up the $42 million budget the director required. (Disney's Hollywood Pictures division took on the project instead.) Then came the casting problems. Possibly mindful of his last attempt at playing an unlikable character — in 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities — Tom Hanks sidestepped the possibility of entering the Oval Office as Nixon; so did Robin Williams. (Not that anyone involved is complaining about landing Anthony Hopkins.) And finally, there were the leaks that occurred with a sense of skulduggery reminiscent of Watergate: An early draft of the script was faxed all over Hollywood, and early reports suggested it had Nixon organizing a hit squad to kill Kennedy. ''Ridiculous,'' snorted Stone, insisting the reports ''totally misrepresent the film we are trying to make.''

So what film are they trying to make? Stone's Nixon, shot on redecorated sets that were originally built for The American President, promises a look at the man from both political and psychological vantages — and yes, there will be plenty of Watergate. In fact, all the President's men have been busy researching the voluminous historical record. Woods, playing H.R. Haldeman, plunged into the CD-ROM version of the former chief of staff's recently published diaries, but he declined to meet his widow, explaining, ''I held off because I didn't want to feel any obligation to paint the character in any light other than what Oliver wanted.'' Paul Sorvino did brave a meeting with Henry Kissinger, who initially growled, ''Stone has portrayed Nixon as the tragic figure he was — of course, he makes me look like a major slimeball.'' And David Hyde Pierce hung out with John Dean: ''Most of the things I asked him were very technical,'' he says. ''Whether he picked what he wore to testify very consciously. What the temperature in the hearing room was. Oliver was very particular in adjusting tone and nuance.''

Buzz: Nixon remains the most controversial president in recent memory, so Nixon, no matter how nuanced, is sure to be hotly debated. It could be '95's must-see — or this year's Cobb.

Othello
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irene Jacob.
Directed By Oliver Parker.

Richard III
Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed By Richard Loncraine.

There's an old — and we hope apocryphal — story about a studio executive who, after attending a screening of Romeo and Juliet, promptly called his secretary and said, ''Get me this Bill Shakespeare on the horn.''

Now, with star-laden productions of Richard III and Othello opening within a week of each other this December, the Bard is once again the hottest Tinseltown scribe this side of Joe Eszterhas. Which can only mean one thing: Secretaries all over town are frantically flipping through their Rolodexes. ''Forget Spielberg,'' says McKellen, executive producer, cowriter, and star of Richard III. ''Shakespeare's the man.''

Both Richard and Othello were shot on location in Europe: Richard in England, Othello in Italy. And both plays were modified, to put it mildly. In Richard's case, McKellen's adaptation — or as he calls it, ''realization'' — transports the story to England in the 1930s, with Richard portrayed not as a medieval king but as a 20th-century tyrant. ''The world it deals with is much closer to The Godfather than Henry V,'' says McKellen. Another revision was to turn the characters of Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers into Americans, allowing McKellen to cast Bening and Downey Jr. ''The Americans are very welcome from a box office, big-international-movie point of view,'' he says.

For Othello, first-time feature director Parker cut nearly 70 percent of the dialogue and reordered some scenes. ''Instead of it being a massive, four-hour psychological drama,'' says Parker, ''I've gone for a fast-moving, relentless, erotic thriller.'' That may explain why he cast the smoldering Fishburne, a Shakespearean newcomer, as the tormented Moorish general. Fishburne admits having trepidation about taking on a part made famous by Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and James Earl Jones — not to mention Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat). ''My heart skipped a beat,'' he recalls. ''I was intimidated and frightened. I'm still getting over it.''

Of course, Fishburne probably didn't need to trot out any Strasberg techniques for many of the film's rather un-Elizabethan moments. ''We haven't any shower scenes, but we certainly get into the bedroom of Othello and Desdemona,'' says Parker. But Shakespeare would have done that. ''He was a theater owner. He was very interested in putting bums on seats.''

Buzz: Love the concept; babe, have you gotten through to Bill's people yet?

12 Monkeys
Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, David Morse.
Directed By Terry Gilliam.

The title refers to a riddle, and it's not the only one at the heart of 12 Monkeys. Is it a virus thriller? Cautionary tale? Romance? Sci-fi? ''Yes!'' enthuses Gilliam. ''All of those and more! Let's call it an enigma. That's what I like about it: It doesn't fit in any genre.'' Rest assured that it does have a plot. The year is 2035. Willis plays a prisoner who lives underground with the few humans who have survived a worldwide virus. To win his freedom, he travels into the past, where he kidnaps (and woos) a psychiatrist (Stowe) and tries to unlock the mystery of the world's demise. (Pitt pops up in a supporting role as a freaky animal rights activist.)

Confusing? Deal with it. ''I actually go out of my way to make films that are hard to define,'' chuckles Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King). Similarly, Willis and Pitt — who took salary cuts for the $30 million project — go out of their way to buck their popular images. Willis shaves his head and tattoos it like a rump roast; Pitt slashes his golden locks and blocks out his baby blues with wall-eyed contacts. Says Gilliam: ''They both are showing sides that I don't think anybody has seen.'' But Monkeys has a soft side, despite its themes of madness, death, and world destruction. ''This is a film that has at its heart a tragic romance,'' says Willis. ''As crazy as it sounds, I think people are going to find it sentimental.''

Buzz: Could be the marketing challenge of the year.

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