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The Boston Phoenix Waiting for Godzilla

1998 preview: Stars direct, plus more Gwyneth.

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 5, 1998:  Hollywood explores some intriguing issues this year before Godzilla puts its blockbusting foot down to begin the mega-movie madness on the Memorial Day Weekend. Some questions raised include: can we survive a year in which every other actor with an ego indulges his directorial ambitions? Can Gen X geniuses Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith expand their slacker horizons with their latest projects? And does the return of such maverick filmmakers as the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, and Linklater signify a return to the independent-filmmaking glory of 1996? Here are some of the movies that might provide the answers.


JANUARY

* Oscar and Lucinda. Ralph Fiennes returns to English Patient form playing another offbeat, star-crossed lover in an adaptation of a Booker Prize-winning novel. Australian director Gillian Armstrong tries to recapture her Little Women magic in translating this Peter Carey tale about a 19th-century Anglican clergyman (Fiennes) who seeks to win his true love's (Cate Blanchett) heart by transporting a glass church to a remote village in the Outback.

* The Winter Guest. British thespian Alan Rickman debuts as director in this stark fable about mortality based on the Sharman McDonald play. Mother-and-daughter team Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson play a mother and daughter who discuss the big questions in a coastal village on a day so cold the sea has frozen (pathetic fallacy alert).

* The Apostle. Directing for the first time in more than a decade, Robert Duvall turns in a tour-de-force performance as an all-too-human Pentecostal preacher who has to start a new parish fast after he beats his wife's lover "like a one-legged stepchild." With Farrah Fawcett and a cameo appearance by Billy Bob Thornton as an asshole.


FEBRUARY

* The Big Lebowski . Oscar beware -- the Coen Brothers are back with a movie reputedly better than Fargo. Jeff Bridges plays the title role of a layabout loser in LA mistaken by kidnappers for the other Lebowski -- the millionaire philanthropist. In the cast are Coen regulars John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Jon Polito.

* Sphere. The blockbuster season gets an early start with Barry Levinson's adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel about an alien spaceship found on the ocean floor. The powerhouse cast includes Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, and the ubiquitous Dustin Hoffman.

* Twilight. It's hard to think of the perennial Paul Newman as being in the twilight of his career, so perhaps this light-hearted romantic thriller might restore him to former glory. Robert Benton directs this story of retired private eye Harry Ross (Newman) who tries to help a friend in trouble and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery. Featured in the heavyweight cast is Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and Stockard Channing.

* Sliding Doors. Not enough Gwyneth Paltrow? She plays two roles in this Peter Howitt directorial debut as a young woman who concocts an alter-ego to double her pleasure in the romance department. John Lynch, John Hannah, and Jeanne Tripplehorn play some of the people confused by it all.

* The Butcher Boy. Neal Jordan pares down the epic scale of his Michael Collins with this black-comic adaptation of the Patrick McCabe novel. In rural Ireland a teenage boy (newcomer Eamonn Owens) takes a liking to homicide. Stephen Rea and Fiona Shaw play some of the people confused by it all.

* Les Miserables. Personally, I think this story was already getting stale with the stage production. Nonetheless, Bille August brings an epic eye and an outstanding cast to the mammoth Victor Hugo novel of Inspector Javert's (Geoffrey Rush) relentless pursuit of escaped convict Jean Valjean through Revolutionary Paris. Uma Thurman and Claire Danes play a mother and child (which is which?) sympathetic to Valjean's plight.

* Bulworth. Warren Beatty directs this "hair-raising comic chase" and stars as a US senator resigned to an assassination threat until given reason to live by Halle Berry. Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden, and Don Cheadle play some of the people confused by it all.


MARCH

Tommy Lee Jones reprises his Oscar-winning role from The Fugitive in U.S. Marshals with Wesley Snipes and Robert Downey Jr. (this guy works so much he can get arrested). John Travolta takes on the Bill Clinton role and Emma Thompson is his Hillary in Mike Nichols's adaptation of Primary Colors . Gary Oldman debuts behind the camera with his gritty, autobiographical Nil by Mouth, and Richard Linklater and John Sayles try to restore independent filmmaking to 1996 glory with, respectively, The Newton Boys and Men With Guns.


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