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Time to Thank Your Stars?

With the Thanksgiving and Christmas moviegoing season upon us, exactly what can we look forward to? Lots and lots of big-time celebrities, for one. A slew of Oscar hopefuls, for another. But Hollywood's year-end blowout has some guests you might not expect to see--or see again.

November 08, 1998|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

In "The Player," Griffin Mill is a studio executive on the run from the law after he's killed a bothersome screenwriter. Hoping to distract himself from his problems, he slips off to a Hollywood desert hideaway where he explains to his new lover--the screenwriter's girlfriend--the ingredients of a successful movie. It needs "suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart and sex," he says. "And happy endings. Mainly happy endings."

During the fiercely competitive holiday season, studio executives want happy endings as much as audiences do. They'll take them in the form of box-office success, Oscar-worthy performances, critical raves, unexpected comebacks and sleeper hits. This year, if the holiday season has one common barometer, it's movie stars. Over the next two months, a host of A-list heavyweights, including Will Smith, Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Brad Pitt, Robin Williams and Julia Roberts will compete for Oscar and opening-weekend box-office acclaim.

If the stakes are high for actors, imagine the pressure at an under-performing movie studio needing a box-office home run to lift it out of a prolonged slump. Nowhere is there a more urgent need for an extra-base hit than at Universal Pictures, which hasn't had a bona-fide hot ticket since the release of "The Lost World" a year and a half ago. Throughout the prolonged slump, studio chairman Casey Silver has repeatedly soothed naysayers by pointing to a year-end stockpile of potential hits.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 15, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong actors--A caption in last Sunday's Calendar preview of upcoming movies should have identified the actors in a scene from "The Thin Red Line" as Ben Chaplin and Woody Harrelson.

Are they hits or misses? Here's the lineup (and the buzz): First to the theaters, on Friday, is "Meet Joe Black," which stars Pitt as a messenger of death who falls in love with Claire Forlani, daughter of the man (Anthony Hopkins) whose time on Earth has come to an end. The film will need every amp of Pitt's star wattage; early viewers, citing the film's glacial pace and three-hour running time, have called it an endurance test. "Babe: Pig in the City" arrives Nov. 25 with several key cast members returning to the original sleeper porcine hit (plus a new character played by Mickey Rooney). The sequel (which cost nearly three times the original) will benefit from considerable audience goodwill but has stiffer competition this time around, coming out so close to Disney's "A Bug's Life" and Paramount's "The Rugrats Movie."

On Dec. 4, Universal opens director Gus Van Sant's hotly debated shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho," which will need to attract young moviegoers to make a splash; followed by a Christmas Day release of "Patch Adams," which stars Williams in an inspirational comic tale about a misfit doctor's battle against the medical establishment. The early word: Steve Oedekerk and Tom Shadyac, the writer-director combination behind "The Nutty Professor," have delivered a big hit.

Hits have also been in short supply lately at Warner Bros., which has three holiday contenders. The most likely winner: "You've Got Mail," a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy about business adversaries who unknowingly fall in love via e-mail. Due Dec. 18, the film certainly has familiarity going for it. In effect, it's both a remake and a sequel, updating Ernst Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner," while reuniting the creative team (Hanks, Ryan and director Nora Ephron) behind "Sleepless in Seattle." Warners' other films are considered commercial longshots: "Home Fries," a quirky romance with Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson; and "Jack Frost," a father-son fantasy adventure starring Michael Keaton and Joseph Cross.

Coming off a mixed year, in which hits like "Armageddon" and "Mulan" were offset by a string of lackluster films, Disney is the other studio with a lot riding on the holiday season. In years past, studios with family films steered clear of Thanksgiving, fearful of such Disney juggernauts as "Toy Story" and "101 Dalmatians." This year Disney has a fight on its hands. Its '98 entry, "A Bug's Life," comes armed with good early word of mouth. But it will have to compete with "Babe" and "Rugrats," as well as persuade "Antz" fans that it brings something fresh to the battling-bugs animated film genre.

On the other hand, Disney has "Enemy of the State," the consensus favorite among Hollywood touts as the holiday season box-office champ. Due Nov. 20, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced paranoid thriller stars Will Smith as a young lawyer on the run after a chance encounter makes him the unknowing target of corrupt intelligence operatives. At Christmas, Disney has two other solid box-office contenders. One is "Mighty Joe Young," which stars Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron--and Mr. Young, a 15-foot-tall gorilla that escapes from captivity and terrorizes (who else?) the citizenry of Los Angeles. The other: "A Civil Action," which stars John Travolta in a legal thriller, based on the Jonathan Harr bestseller, about a personal injury lawyer enmeshed in a case that threatens to destroy him.

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