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HOLLYWOOD'S CHRISTMAS PACKAGE : Studio Santas Will Deck the Mall Marquees Seeking Hits, Oscars; Hughes, Stone Films to Lead Pack?

November 23, 1987|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

If you had suggested three years ago that Leonard Nimoy was about to direct two highly commercial Christmas movies back to back, people would have moved out of the way just in case you were about to be beamed back to whatever fool planet it was you came from.

But here we are on the eve of Hollywood's Christmas '87 and Nimoy, whose "Star Trek IV" was last year's runaway holiday hit, seems about to pull it off.

Nimoy's "Three Men and a Baby," a remake of a French film released just three years ago, is one of six Christmas releases that studio insiders and theater exhibitors regard as almost certain commercial successes.

The other most often mentioned contenders are John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" and Martin Ritt's "Nuts."

This is one of the toughest Christmas fields to handicap since the Crash of '81, the year the studios virtually dared people to risk their holiday mood on films about the Russian Revolution ("Reds"), international finance ("Rollover"), American social injustice ("Ragtime") and newspaper libel ("Absence of Malice").

No one expects that sort of problem this year. Exhibitors, fattened up on a yearlong diet of major studio hits, are expecting to do well on almost every film on the schedule. The field is hard to handicap because there are so many potential hits, and so few apparent dogs.

The only seasonally off-putting themes are those of "Wall Street" (insider stock trading) and "Empire of the Sun" (Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II). But those films are in the capable hands of Stone, whose "Platoon" reminded us that the most uncomfortable subject could be made compelling, and Spielberg, whose "The Color Purple" proved that the most uncomfortable subject could be made entertaining.

If there is a commercial weakness in this Christmas lineup, it is the absence of a hard-action film--a "Rambo," a "Beverly Hills Cop," a "Dirty Harry"--to satisfy the hearty appetites of vacationing teens.

Eddie Murphy will be around to sprinkle his uniquely colorful and much savored obscenities in his concert film "Raw." But movies boasting the sheer exhilaration of comic-book genocide are simply not under this year's tree.

What we have are an inordinate number of movies that may figure in the Oscar campaigns. "Wall Street" and "Empire of the Sun," because of Stone and Spielberg, are regarded as contenders for multiple Oscar nominations, and "Broadcast News" is Brooks' first movie since he swept the boards with "Terms of Endearment."

Early reviews on "Nuts," which opened Friday, have been mixed. But films adapted from plays generally fare worse with critics than with paying customers or academy voters, and the film has too rich a pedigree not to be a major player in the nominations.

As usual, there are many films that will be given limited release in major cities to qualify for the Academy Awards and to build critical reputations before being thrown into the frenzied national market.

Among those creating the most advance interest are Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam," starring Robin Williams; Alex Cox's "Walker," with Ed Harris; Woody Allen's "September," featuring the Woody Allen Players (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest); Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck," starring Cher and Nicolas Cage; Hector Babenco's "Ironweed," starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and the late John Huston's "The Dead."

Those films are not considered in the following list. The Christmas Derby handicap--based on conversations with industry insiders, film exhibitors and a wet finger raised in the air--is a prediction of how the movies in wide national release will ultimately fare at the box office.

Last year, we closed the introduction to the handicap by saying it's possible for the worst film on the list to finish first in the standings. Murphy's "The Golden Child" finished second to "Star Trek IV" among the season's highest-grossing pictures and came that close to proving the point.

The Christmas Derby Field, 1987:

1. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (opens Wednesday): John Hughes ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off") moves up in age, and perhaps in class, by directing adults Steve Martin and John Candy in a road movie about two commuters who become unlikely allies in a fight to survive a winter storm and catastrophic transportation problems en route from New York to Chicago.

2. "Wall Street" (opens Dec. 11): Opinion is mixed as to whether the recent problems on the real Wall Street will help or hurt ticket sales to Oliver Stone's drama about illegal insider trading. But Stone is so hot right now, he could sell penny stock to a Harvard MBA. The film stars Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah.

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