Hollywood Offers Plenty of Choices for Holiday Filmgoers

From the folks who brought you the autumn movie glut, it's time for - the winter movie glut! Hollywood has unveiled a daunting number of new pictures during its fall season, but audiences still have many attractions to sample before the end of 1997.

While the roster is too varied to sum up in a phrase or two, there's a general trend toward more modest entertainments, closer in scale to "Bean" and "The Full Monty" than "Starship Troopers" or "The Jackal."

Even the hugely expensive "Titanic," directed by special-effects wizard James Cameron, is being buzzed as a big-budget art film rather than a waterlogged disaster movie. Other directors known for eye-filling action are also focusing on more human-sized subjects. Steven Spielberg has left Jurassic Park for American history, and Martin Scorsese has turned his camera on the Dalai Lama instead of mean streets and mobsters.

Among the major items now headed to theaters:

Amistad, Dec. 10. Spielberg's first serious drama since "Schindler's List" tells the fact-based story of abducted Africans who take over a Spanish slave ship in 1839, are captured and imprisoned in Connecticut, and fight for freedom through the American court system with help from a black abolitionist and a former president. Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins head the cast.

Titanic, Dec. 19. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet board the ill-destined ship, and filmmaker Cameron has spent something like $200 million to show what happens next. Scratched from last summer's release slate when technical problems arose, the picture is right on schedule and preceded by enthusiastic word of mouth.

Jackie Brown, Dec. 25. Quentin Tarantino became Hollywood's scrappiest bad boy with the bloody "Reservoir Dogs" and the explosive "Pulp Fiction," then took a couple of years to dream up his next escapade. Based on Elmore Leonard's diverting but violent novel "Rum Punch," the new thriller spotlights Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson along with the delightful Pam Grier, a star of the 1970s "blaxploitation" craze making an unexpected comeback bid.

Kundun, Dec. 25. China has expressed outrage over Scorsese's sympathy for Tibetan freedom and autonomy, threatening action against the Walt Disney studio, which is releasing his film about the Dalai Lama's early years. American moviegoers can judge the controversy for themselves beginning Christmas Day.

Afterglow, Dec. 26. Alan Rudolph's most applauded pictures ("Remember My Name," "Choose Me") feature skilled performers who've been given an unusual degree of creative freedom. Portraying the offbeat relationship of two straying couples, this dramatic comedy boasts fine acting by Nick Nolte and Lara Flynn Boyle and brilliant work by Julie Christie, still one of the screen's most gifted stars.

Wag the Dog, Dec. 26. While audiences wait for next year's "Primary Colors," based on the bestselling novel about an oversexed president, they can try out Barry Levinson's pitch-dark comedy about a presidential aide (De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) who cook up a war to divert public attention from White House scandals in the days before an election.

Hollywood has high hopes for all these pictures, naturally, but only a few are likely to win rave reviews, box-office lines, and Oscar nominations. Which will be the winners? Audiences, pundits, and profiteers are positively panting to find out.

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