'Tis the season for movies

Tinseltown unwraps new releases just in time for the holidays

Some call it a blizzard, others call it a bonanza. But under any name the winter movie schedule is as jam-packed as can be, with literally dozens of new films lined up for release between now and New Year's Eve.

With many of these pictures already pumping out publicity, it's tempting to speculate on what the season's overall tone will turn out to be. The offerings are too diverse for generalizations, though, ranging from big-studio blockbusters to offbeat "counterprogramming" and outright art movies.

As usual, we can expect the winter mood to be more somber than the warm-weather silly season, especially when studios unleash their final Academy Award contenders to meet the end-of-year deadline. Beyond this, everyone's guesses are equally valid. For a roundup of some of the attractions that are sparking curiosity, buzz, and premature Oscar predictions as the blitz gets under way.

PSYCHO (Dec. 4) This has to be the goofiest idea in recent Hollywood history: a "re-creation" of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, which doesn't need re-creating, since it still gives first-time spectators as grand a jolt today as in 1960 when it premired.

Advance word says the new version will be identical to the original except for color photography and different stars until the notorious shower scene, when it will begin to set off in its own directions. Gus Van Sant, whose uneven record stretches from the hard-edged "Drug Store Cowboy" to the mild-mannered "Good Will Hunting," directs, and it's hard to say what mode he'll be in this time around. Just when we thought it was safe to go back to the multiplex!

A SIMPLE PLAN (Dec. 4) Oh, what a tangled web movie characters weave once they get into the lying game. That's what Hank and Jacob Mitchell learn after they stumble on some illegally stashed money and decide to keep it instead of calling the cops.

This is one of the rare grown-up movies directed by Sam Raimi, who cut his teeth on pictures like "The Evil Dead" and "Army of Darkness." Oscar speculation is already swirling around Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, who play the country-bred brothers at the heart of the story. It's possible this will prove the first late-year movie to combine thoughtful themes and bristling suspense in just the right proportions for a box-office killing - the kind of simple plan Hollywood executives dream of but rarely pull off.

THE LAST EMPEROR (Dec. 4) This isn't a new movie, but it's not an ordinary reissue, either. Recounting the history of modern China through the eyes of the country's last monarch, Bernardo Bertolucci's epic walked off with nine Academy Awards in 1987, including best picture and best director. Now it's better than ever, reedited by Bertolucci and graced with 40 minutes of previously unseen material, which was trimmed from the original to make it shorter. The result is longer than "Titanic" and many times more dazzling.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (Dec. 11) Speaking of history, director John Madden scored a crossover hit with the colorful "Mrs. Brown," and he's back to the annals of England in this romantic comedy about a legendary dramatist with a legendary case of writer's block so severe he can't summarize his latest drama beyond mumbling, "There's this pirate."

The writer is played by Joseph Fiennes, and Gwyneth Paltrow, hoping for better fortune than she found in "Great Expectations," portrays his girlfriend, who hops into men's clothing as readily as any of the Bard's comic heroines. Will the picture bring Elizabethan romance back into style? Or should the screenwriters have stopped with, "There's this playwright"? Curtain going up!

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (Dec. 18) In a year when animation and insects have been almost synonymous, this sounds like welcome relief: a feature-length DreamWorks cartoon about Old Testament events, produced with such concern for spiritual sensibilities that religious advisers reportedly were consulted about the screenplay.

The promotion campaign sounds more breathless than spiritual: "Moses and Ramses, brought together by fate and ripped apart by a secret." But the voice-only cast is enticing, from Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes to Sandra Bullock and Michelle Pfeiffer, and the subject is undeniably fascinating. Hopes are running high at DreamWorks, which has been exhilarated ever since its "Antz" showed that non-Disney animators can score a hit in today's market.

AFFLICTION (Dec. 20) Wintry in tone, subject, and setting, Paul Schrader's drama focuses on a New England policeman who tries to solve a violent crime while coping with more than his share of personal and professional problems. Nick Nolte has become one of today's most inventive and adventurous actors, and he's supported here by Sissy Spacek and Willem Dafoe, plus James Coburn in what may prove the year's most stunning comeback.

A CIVIL ACTION (Dec. 25) Legal dramas are a risky business. Not even Matt Damon could help "The Rainmaker" make much rain, but this fact-based thriller could help the genre plead not guilty. John Travolta plays a greedy lawyer wrapped in a perilously tangled case. Also on hand are Robert Duvall and John Lithgow, plus William H. Macy, fresh from his detective role in the "Psycho" remake. This marks the directorial debut of Steven Zaillian, who counts the worthy "Schindler's List" among his screenwriting credits. If his courtroom excursion has the same degree of moral seriousness, it will be stimulating indeed.

STEPMOM (Dec. 25) Chris Columbus discovered laughs in hits like "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," but advance word predicts a different tone in this comparatively sober comedy about a dysfunctional household including Ed Harris as the dad, Susan Sarandon as the mom, and Julia Roberts as the fiance who hopes to become the title character. It doesn't exactly sound like a bundle of Christmas cheer, but neither do most of the movies due on this date, and its cast would brighten any holiday season.

DOWN IN THE DELTA (Dec. 25) More family dynamics erupt in the first movie directed by poet Maya Angelou, who uses a folksy down-home style to tell this loosely strung yarn about a black woman who brings her drug-addicted daughter and two young grandchildren back to their roots in the Mississippi countryside. Alfre Woodard heads a sensational cast including Wesley Snipes and the late Esther Rolle.

THE THIN RED LINE (Dec. 25) Last but far from least, this ambitious World War II epic has many observers hoping for an insightful blockbuster that will give "Saving Private Ryan" a run for its money. James Jones's original novel is a relentlessly honest look at battlefield chaos, and its screen adapter is Terrence Malick, a missing-in-action auteur who hasn't directed a movie since the innovative "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" in the 1970s. The cast features busy stars like Travolta and Nolte alongside newcomers like Adrien Brody, whose "Ten Benny" just opened on the independent-film circuit. It won't be a pretty picture, but the Christmas season has reverberations long after the holiday glow has faded. In a year that has brought renewed awareness of war as a subject crying out for enlightened thought, this could prove the most substantial entry of them all.

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