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Salt Lake City Weekly Ho Ho Hum

A dozen new, less-than-stellar movies for the Christmas season.

By Mary Dickson

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  More than a month ago, critics were already getting calls asking for Top 10 lists. A bit early, wasn't it? The holiday season hadn't even brought its barrage of contenders. But then, maybe the studios knew what was in store. Alas, the holiday season is upon us and I'm still having trouble coming up with 10 films that would qualify as the year's best.

With multi-openings weekly, the season has become a time marked primarily by excess — on and off screen. And there's not much to fa-la-la-la-la about at the local multi-plex. (With the exception of the exquisite Wings of the Dove, of course.) For the most part, the holidays are bringing in what feels more like summer schlock.

For the kids or the developmentally arrested, the offerings include a handful of films that could best be described as Home Alone With ... You can fill in the blank with Green Goo, A Mouse or Mr. Magoo. Flubber, a remake that gets swallowed up in its own excessive effects, has Robin Williams and his invention literally bouncing off the walls and creating havoc wherever they land.

DreamWorks offers Mouse Hunt, which may do for mice what Babe did for pigs, but certainly won't win any raves or prizes. It brings more effects, slapstick and mayhem with sewer pipes exploding, and men blown into icy ponds, through the floors and out the ceiling — all out-smarted by an indestructible and wily little mouse. As an added bonus, we get Christopher Walken in a cameo as an exterminator who nibbles on mouse droppings. An upcoming remake of Disney's The Borrowers looks a lot like Mouse Hunt with miniature people replacing the rodent star and John Goodman playing the maligned humanoid.

And in the same vein (is everyone modeling kiddy flicks after Home Alone these days?), is the live action version of the old cartoon series, Mr. Magoo, with Leslie Nielson as the bumbling, sight-impaired fellow. Then there's Home Alone 3, as mean-spirited as its predecessors, with the little boy from One Fine Day replacing Macaulay Culkin. The plot revolves around a computer chip some thieves want from the boy. More mayhem, more effects, more pratfalls, more wacky stunts, smashed faces and destroyed property. Ho ho hum.

For those who didn't get their fill of chills at Halloween, the holidays bring a few horror flicks. A sequel to a 1981 John Landis thriller, An American Werewolf in Paris, stars Julie Delpy as a "nightmare dressed to kill" when the moon is full. Then there's Scream 2, a sequel tamer and often funnier than the original, though it's still slasher-schlock and an excuse to carve up some nubile teens, which in this case happen to be all the hottest young teen stars. Some holiday spirit. The screenwriter brags about cranking this one out in three weeks. Ho, ho, give it a rest.

Scarier, though, is Kevin Costner's post-apocalyptic The Postman, not to be confused with the Italian charmer, Il Postino. Costner's Postman, at over three hours, is nothing more than jingoistic clap-trap, so embarrassingly bad it elicits only laughs. It's set in the future when war has destroyed the United States, leaving it in a state of anarchy without communication. An army of warriors is trying to keep folks isolated and hopeless. Then a man wearing a postal uniform comes on the scene with a sack of undelivered mail and a bagful of hope. He rouses the hopeless to new heights of patriotic fervor and sounds the old battle cry of the republic. Ho ho, har har.

Also on the lengthy side, though a vastly superior film, is Steven Spielberg's well-intentioned paean to freedom, Amistad, based on the actual 1839 slave revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship. The 53 African captives on board take over the ship and attempt to sail home, but are captured off coast of the United States and put on trial.

Morgan Freeman plays an abolitionist fighting for their cause with Matthew McConaughey as the young attorney who defends them. Nigel Hawthorne plays President Martin Van Buren, up for re-election and ready to appease the pro-slavery faction, while Anthony Hopkins plays former President John Quincy Adams, who takes the Africans' case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In a similar serious/historical vein is Martin Scorcese's upcoming Kundun, which follows the life of Tibet's 14th Dalai Lama through his exile in India. A major plus is that there are no Hollywood types on screen, only real Tibetan refugees.

Another mega-production, clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, is Titantic, James Cameron's action-adventure/love story set aboard the ill-fated luxury liner. The ending has already been written by history, though this version has the ship's lookout overlooking the fatal ice berg due to a little voyeurism. Who couldn't resist a peek at Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio getting intimate? Winslet plays the upper-class miss tired of her place in life who, though engaged to the unsavory hunk, Billy Zane, is attracted to the low-class DiCaprio. This could be the holiday's biggest hit. The sinking still packs a wallop.

Opening Christmas day is Good Will Hunting, penned by 20-somethings Matt Damon (The Rainmaker) and Ben Affleck, who managed to get Robin Williams to play a college professor-turned-therapist. Damon plays the title character, a young wage slave who has a photographic memory and can solve any math problem, but who has a run-in with the law requiring the help of Williams' character.

Quentin Tarantino, who has managed in record time to become a parody of himself, stays behind the camera in Jackie Brown, based on Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. Pam Grier plays the call girl/flight attendant who dances with arms dealers and federal agents.

In the way of comedy, there's For Richer or Poorer, made of the stuff of bad TV sitcoms. TV stars Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley are a tax-evading couple on the brink of divorce who hide out from the IRS in Amish country and eventually learn the value of hard work and reconciliation. Think of this as Green Acres Amish style. Ho ho, humbug.

See any Top-10 contenders here? If the holiday fare at your neighborhood six-plex doesn't thrill you, try your local video store. If it's holiday cheer you're after, pick up A Christmas Story, which still rates as my all-time favorite Christmas movie.

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