So you think the holidays are a time of goodwill? Not in Hollywood. When it comes to this season's movies, it's war out there. The result of last year's pitch meetings, in which every good idea seems to have spawned two films, is a bloody battle that's taking place at movie theaters. It's up to audiences to decide their fates: Which are gifts worth unwrapping and which are the year's most expensive lumps of coal?
'CASINO' VS. 'HEAT'
Casino Plot: Gliding into Mob-infested '70s Las Vegas, wise-guy director Martin Scorsese places his bets on his big screen alter ego Robert De Niro as a casino operator, Joe Pesci as his hyper hitman problem pal, and Sharon Stone as a seductive hooker with a heart of brass. What It's Got: The mean neon streets are right up Scorsese's alley, and Stone, testing her acting limits, comes up aces. Weak Spots: Goodfellas De Niro and Pesci have played this hand before. And the film's complex narration and three-hour running time could test the patience of some moviegoers, while its in-your-face violence could scare others away. Release: Nov. 22.
Heat Plot: Cop Al Pacino chases robber Robert De Niro through the even meaner streets of Los Angeles as Miami Vice creator Michael Mann pumps up the action. What It's Got: Val Kilmer, leaving his batsuit far behind, does a startling turn as a wife-battering psychopath, while Pacino and De Niro get down in their first ever on-screen showdown. (Their intercut roles in The Godfather, Part II don't count.) Weak Spots: De Niro and Pacino meet only twice at the movie's beginning and its end. Lots of chases, gunplay, and explosions separate their big act-off. And it's 2 hours and 45 minutes long; doesn't anybody know how to use the word Cut! these days? Release: Dec. 8.
OTHER CRIME STORIES
Money Train Best buddies Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson (White Men Can't Jump) threaten to become the Hope and Crosby of slapdash action movies as they play New York City transit cops (and brothers don't ask) who clash over whether to hijack a money-laden subway train. Romantic sidekick Jennifer Lopez in the Rosie Perez role steals the show. (Nov. 22)
Goldeneye Thirty-three years after the first Bond movie, Dr. No, and six years since the last exhausted installment, Licence to Kill, Pierce Brosnan resurrects the vintage English superspy. Sixties nostalgia combined with '90s-style superstunts should make for a hit cocktail as the new Bondsman goes through all the patented moves. (Nov. 17)
Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead More florid gangsters straight out of Tarantinoville: Andy Garcia and his gaggle of inept criminals botch a job and then find themselves the target of crime boss Christopher Walken (who stepped in at the last minute for James Caan) and hitman Steve Buscemi. (Dec. 1)
'TOY STORY' VS. 'JUMANJI'
Toy Story Plot: It's a battle of the hippest as Buzz Lightyear, an astro action figure vocalized by Tim Allen, threatens to dethrone Woody, a pull-string cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks, as king of the playroom. Synergy in Action: Toys come to life onscreen; toy replicants are sold at a store near you. What It's Got: Newfangled, eye-popping visuals it's Hollywood's first full-length computer-animated movie; and in contrast to the PC Pocahontas, it's got genuine laughs for young and old. Weak Spots: Little Bo Peep aside, the characters belong to a virtual boys' club, which could disappoint girls; and Randy Newman's uninspired songs are likely to be long forgotten come Oscar time. Release: Nov. 22.
Jumanji Plot: Robin Williams has been trapped in a jungle board game for 26 years. When he finally escapes, wild things chase him into the real world, where F/X-assisted chaos whipped up by Honey, I Shrunk the Kids director Joe Johnston ensues. Synergy in Action: Chris Van Allsburg's slim picture book about a magical board game balloons into a $50 million movie, which spawns actual board game tie-ins. What It's Got: A postmodern Peter Pan in the always-nimble Williams, ably second bananaed by the still-underappreciated Bonnie Hunt, and an imaginative bestiary of computer-generated elephants, tigers, and bears oh, my. Weak Spots: Don't expect any Aladdin-like flights of lunacy here; Jumanji's kiddie-book origins could also put off jaded older teens. Release: Dec. 15.
Four Rooms Too many directors (hipsters Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino) may have spoiled this froth, with only first-night-on-the-job bellboy Tim Roth holding together the farcical elements in a four-episode anthology about one New Year's Eve in a hotel California. But check out who's checking in: Bruce Willis, Madonna, Jennifer Beals, and Antonio Banderas. (Dec. 25)
Sabrina If you remember Billy Wilder's 1954 romance Sabrina, you may be just the audience for Sydney Pollack's faithful remake. While Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond wrestle the ghosts of Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, the puckish Greg Kinnear makes an overnight transition from amateur to pro. (Dec. 15)
Grumpier Old Men One of moviedom's most enduring odd couples, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, reteam to reprise their surprise '93 hit. If anyone can get their juices flowing, it's ageless screen sirens Ann-Margret and Sophia Loren, who provide love among the ruins. (Dec. 22)
Father of the Bride Part II A family movie for ABC's TGIF crowd. Not only does this sequel round up all the original's major players Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, even a super-fey Martin Short it then shamelessly throws two new babies into the mix. Beyond corny, but it's played extremely well with test audiences. (Dec. 8)
FAST ACTION HEROES
Nick of Time Plot: Johnny Depp following in the tire tracks of Speed star Keanu Reeves jumps into action as a mild-mannered accountant under orders to assassinate the governor of California (Marsha Mason). Racing the Clock: Depp has less than two hours, or oily-mustached Christopher Walken will kill his kidnapped daughter. What It's Got: Depp's newly shaved-and-showered good looks, Walken's evil stare, and the film's cute gimmick (it takes place in real time) will suck in viewers. Weak Spots: By the end, that no-longer-cute gimmick may have you looking at your watch. Release: Nov. 22.
Sudden Death Plot: Jean-Claude Van Damme flexes his Belgian muscles at a band of money-hungry terrorists who've taken control of a fan-packed hockey rink. Racing the Clock: Van Damme has less than two hours, or Powers Boothe will kill his daughter and the Vice President. What It's Got: With a sky-high concept and even more violence than the average hockey game, this latest outing from Timecop's Peter Hyams should score with the testosterone set. Weak Spots: The script is said to be lame, meaning that Van Damme's status as the Rodney Dangerfield of action heroes is unlikely to change. Release: Dec. 22.
PENN VS. PENN
Dead Man Walking Plot: Tim Robbins, this time behind the camera as writer and director, shapes a grim melodrama around Sean Penn as a very bad boy a death-row murderer who is befriended in his last weeks of life by spunky nun Susan Sarandon. What It's Got: Robbins (who based his script on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 autobiography) has coaxed moving performances from both Sarandon and Penn, who rarely acts nowadays. And the soundtrack, including a title song by Bruce Springsteen, should make a killing. Weak Spots: Dead Man makes Seven look warm and fuzzy not a very good sign when even uplifting prison movies (The Shawshank Redemption) have trouble filling seats. Release: Dec. 29.
The Crossing Guard Plot: Penn this time behind the camera as writer and director shapes a grim melodrama around his bad-boy forerunner Jack Nicholson as a jeweler out to kill the drunk driver (David Morse) who ran down his daughter. What It's Got: Sentimentalists will want to see the emotional scenes that reunite Jack with former love Anjelica Huston, who plays his ex-wife. And there's a strong opening-credits song by Bruce Springsteen. (Do we smell a trend here?) Weak Spots: It makes Dead Man Walking look warm and fuzzy. And as a screenwriter, Penn is...well, he sure can act! Release: Dec. 1.
Cutthroat Island Plot: Yo-ho-her! It's a swashbuckler in skirts, as Geena Davis takes command of her dead dad's pirate ship and, along with man-slave Matthew Modine, sails off in search of buried treasure. What It's Got: The Amazonian actress joins forces with her hubby, go-for-broke director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger), who usually gets maximum bang for his buck. And at $70 million and counting, there'd better be a lot of bang in this popcorn movie's carriage chases, swordplay, and storms at sea. Moments That Make Men Wince: Davis blows off one of the film's villains with a cannonball. Weak Spots: Has there ever been a hit pirate movie? This mom-and-pop operation is bucking the odds. Release: Dec. 22.
Waiting to Exhale Plot: As readers of Terry McMillan's 1992 best-selling novel know, there isn't much of one: a quartet of black chicks sitting around talking when they're not telling off the men in their lives. What It's Got: Whitney Houston's first screen appearance since The Bodyguard and another muscular performance by Angela Bassett (Strange Days), not to mention the inevitable Whitney ballad this one is called ''Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)'' and an all-female soundtrack that's sure to dominate the charts. Moments That Make Men Wince: Bassett trashes her husband's BMW after he asks for a divorce. Weak Spots: Episodic story plays like an Oprah segment; women will have to assure their dates that the actresses spend a lot of time in their lingerie. Release: Dec. 22.
KEN VS. EMMA
Sense and Sensibility Plot: A no-nonsense 19th-century English single woman (played by no-nonsense 20th-century soon-to-be-single woman Emma Thompson) falls for shy guy Hugh Grant. Kate Winslet is her wacky sister. What It's Meant to Remind You Of: Thompson's Oscar-winning turn in Howards End. What It's Got: Director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet) and Thompson, who adapted Jane Austen's comedy of manners into a screenplay, load it with enough jaw-dropping scenery and class to qualify them as the coed Merchant and Ivory. Early word is astounding. Weak Spots: Another Austen film the critically worshipped Persuasion beat them to the punch. Release: Dec. 13.
Othello Plot: Moviedom's most compelling lousy husband, Laurence Fishburne, again targets his on-screen wife, this time as the jealous Moor who turns on Desdemona (Red's Irène Jacob) after the scheming Iago (Kenneth Branagh) whispers she's been bed-hopping. What It's Meant to Remind You Of: Branagh's Oscar-nominated soliloquizing in Henry V. What It's Got: The always-riveting Fishburne and the inevitable comparisons to the O.J. Simpson case will make for king-size hype. Weak Spots: Director Oliver Parker's short-attention-span approach (out went 70 percent of the Bard's dialogue, up went the hormone level) will have purists slinging arrows; the Elizabethan English might grate on mainstream ears. Release: Dec. 14.
Restoration Some bad omens plague this 17th-century comedic drama about the Black Death: The release has been delayed a year, and the novel's author, Rose Tremain, has been dissing the film in the press. But if stars Robert Downey Jr., Meg Ryan, and the ubiquitous Hugh Grant can capture the book's raucousness, it might recover. (Dec. 22)
Richard III Nixon's got competition in the tragic tyrant department: Ian McKellen plays the other tricky Dick in this updated Shakespeare production (reset in 1930s England). With a respected but lowish profile cast (Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, and Nigel Hawthorne), the film could be overlooked. (Dec. 22)
Cry, The Beloved Country With U.S. race relations looking pretty dismal, this adaptation of Alan Paton's 1930s tale of black-white relations under apartheid in South Africa may be timely after all. The stentorian costars are James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. (Dec. 15)
Tom and Huck It's a good thing Mark Twain is quite dead; imagine what he'd think of Disney hyping his classic characters as ''the original Bad Boys.'' Regardless, prepubescent idols Brad Renfro (The Client) and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Home Improvement) will likely sell a raft of tickets. (Dec. 22)
The American President Plot: Director Rob Reiner goes to Washington in full Frank Capra mode. His running mate: Veteran Hollywood liberal Michael Douglas, playing a widower chief executive whose right-wing reelection opponent (Richard Dreyfuss, snapping like Phil Gramm) attacks him when he starts dating an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). What It's Got: Feel-good romantic vibes that have preview audiences filibustering over the flick's virtues. Weak Spots: This cast is way beyond its second term; yesterday's boy wonder Michael J. Fox is the youngest face in it. Conservative audiences may squirm at the public caning their ideology gets. Release: Nov. 17.
Nixon Plot: Oliver Stone, the ultimate political handler, offers a requiem for the late Richard M., enacted here by Anthony Hopkins as a tragic figure whose private demons determined the arc of his public Watergate disgrace. What It's Got: A higher-powered supporting cast than $42.5 million usually buys these days, including James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), Paul Sorvino (Kissinger), Ed Harris (Howard Hunt), Bob Hoskins (a way-gay J. Edgar Hoover), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), and David Hyde Pierce (John Dean). Weak Spots: In sound-bite trailers, Hopkins' decidedly non-Nixonian speaking voice seems a major sticking point. Will it play more unimpeachably over a three-hour movie? Release: Dec. 20.
'Nixon' and 'Heat'
Nothing makes me want to relive the '70s quite like the movies of the '90s. This season, the two films I'm awaiting most eagerly are both throwbacks to the brooding intoxications of that inspired cinematic era. Heat, Michael Mann's underworld thriller, unites those two icons of '70s Method intensity, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in the story of a Los Angeles police detective on the trail of a criminal mastermind (Al's the cop, Bobby's the crook, and the two have only a couple of scenes together). The plot is reportedly dense with complications, but if anyone can make a movie like Heat sizzle it's Mann, who, at his best, evokes the drama of police pursuit with a vérité virtuosity that rivals Scorsese's Mob portraits. In Nixon, Oliver Stone, an artist-sensationalist who has grown in complexity, cuts right to that decade's heart of darkness with a backroom pathography of its most defining figure. In the trailer, Anthony Hopkins hardly comes off as a facsimile of Nixon, but my hope is that he and Stone have gone for something richer: an impersonation of the soul. Owen Gleiberman