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Fall movie preview: September 1993

”The Age of Innocence,” ”True Romance,” and ”M. Butterfly” are a few titles coming to theatres this year

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Now that the last blasts from the barrage of summer action flicks are quieting down, it’s time to anticipate the joys of Hollywood’s nonsilly season — the fall, when movies come to their senses and get good and serious about nabbing Oscars. Funny boy Macaulay Culkin explores his dark side, while funnyman Tom Hanks and fantasy maestro Steven Spielberg try their hands at tragedy. Emma Thompson rejoins Anthony Hopkins in another Merchant Ivory vehicle, proving Howards End was just the beginning. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese makes a film you’d expect from Merchant Ivory, and Brian De Palma unveils one you’d expect from Scorsese. Oliver Stone reinvades Vietnam, and Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman do their first tours of duty as directors. Michelle Pfeiffer and John Hurt play their first roles as countesses — she may be cuter, but he outdresses her. Here’s our one-stop guide to everything the movies have to offer this fall, with plenty of fun facts, thoughtful overviews, and inside gossip as bad for you as a box of jujubes. Enjoy!

The Age of Innocence
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Through one eye, the package looks foolproof — the lavish Hollywood adaptation of a classic American novel, featuring three of the world’s most talented and attractive movie stars, helmed by America’s greatest living director. Through the other, the idea of Martin Scorsese — better known for the blistering heat of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — directing a terminally uptight romance written by a turn-of-the-century blue blood seems ill-advised at best. That, Scorsese happily admits, was the challenge in adapting Edith Wharton’s 1920 tragedy of manners, The Age of Innocence — ”to see if I could direct a movie where the emotions and the communication are repressed, so that people say one thing and mean another, or mean nothing at all.” He laughs. ”It’s pretty hard to do — for me.”

Set in the 1870s, the tale of New York aristocrat Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), his thwarted love for the scandal-tainted Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer), and his rapprochement with his wife (Ryder) certainly contains grand if muted passions. But the film chooses not to ratchet up the scandalous longings submerged beneath the novel’s good manners. ”You’ve got to be very careful,” says Scorsese’s writing partner, Jay Cocks, ”because the effect of Wharton’s books depends on gradual turns of the emotional screw.” The screenwriters relied instead on extensive narration (in voice-overs by Joanne Woodward) to fill the enigmatic silences.

”The whole film is also about texture,” Scorsese emphasizes. The period’s thickly daubed layers of etiquette and ritual offered him a wealth of detail, often more articulate than his characters. ”Flowers,” he points out, ”provide beauty in the home, but also have a sensuality which the characters don’t express, which the flowers express for them.”

The meticulous director spent two years on pre-production research, employing nearly a dozen consultants to regulate the finer points of conduct, clothing, and even table settings. ”When they had dinner,” producer Barbara De Fina says incredulously, ”every course had a different china pattern.” Pfeiffer learned her highbrow mid-Atlantic accent from recordings of novelist Louis Auchincloss and Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Ethel. Scorsese even had research done on the real-life models for Wharton’s characters, to reproduce exactly the paintings that hung in their living rooms. That painstaking preparation also applied to other areas. ”Where I wanted the audience to look, where I placed the camera to communicate those ideas, that had to be well thought out in advance,” says the director. ”I couldn’t really improvise on the set because it’s a period piece and there are certain budgetary restrictions.”

Initially, Scorsese was so delighted by Columbia’s $30 million budget that he agreed to have the film ready for a Christmas 1992 release; that led to raised eyebrows when Columbia postponed Age until this fall. While his usual tortoise pace in the editing room — and the unexpected illness of his father — contributed to the delay, Scorsese admits the material posed unusual challenges. ”Because of the rhythm of the period, it’s not necessarily the intercutting of the dialogue but the intercutting of the pauses which could be maddening.”

While Scorsese is taking a daring professional leap with Age, he’s still working with a net. ”I’m usually attracted to similar themes,” he says. ”In this situation, it’s the obsessive love which can’t be consummated. So I always had the pure emotion of that theme to feel at home with.” (Sept. 17)
Buzz: After seeing a rough cut, Ryder proclaimed, ”It’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen! I was watching it, and I couldn’t believe I was in it!” She’s not the most objective critic, but early reports indicate her hyperbole isn’t just hype.

True Romance
Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken.
Directed by: Tony Scott.
Working from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino — whose lushly verbose and violent Reservoir Dogs has made him Hollywood’s hottest neo-Scorsese — director Scott propels newlyweds Slater and Arquette out of Detroit (with mobsters in pursuit) and into a hipper-than-hip cast of L.A. oddballs. Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder) welcomed the chance to take on this lower-budget ($13 million), more eccentric film. ”I’ve always worked as a hired gun,” he says. ”This is the first time I’ve had creative control, though I was very loyal to the script because it just sucks you in and doesn’t allow you to draw a breath.”

Scott snared Oldman with a one-line description of his character — ”a white pimp who thinks he’s black.” Kilmer is similarly almost unrecognizable as Slater’s muse, a dream-vision Elvis Presley. Slater, who adopted a buzz cut and dyed his hair black for the part (”We joked on the set that he looked like a toilet brush,” says Scott) stole mannerisms from Tarantino himself. ”I could have played really energetic, insane, crazy, and gone over the top with it,” says Slater. ”But Tony Scott really put the reins on me. He kept telling me, ‘Do less, do less, do less,’ and I liked that a lot.” (Sept. 10)
Buzz: The star-heavy marquee should excite the twentysomething crowd, but the bloody confrontations may make it a date movie only guys like.

M. Butterfly
Starring: Jeremy Irons, John Lone.
Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Before The Crying Game, there was David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play M. Butterfly, which shocked theatergoers when it opened on Broadway in 1988. The play starred B.D. Wong (Jurassic Park) as an alluring Chinese opera singer who seduces a French diplomat with feminine wiles. Since Wong’s name gave no hint of gender, audiences gasped when he — yes, he — stripped naked. In casting the screen version, Cronenberg (Naked Lunch) decided to forgo the element of surprise. ”I had the possibility of casting a couple of actors who were basically transsexuals — they were so female they were almost hormonal,” he says. ”But I didn’t want someone who was totally convincing as a woman, because at the end, you need a man who’s very strong, very angry, and very male.”

By casting the virile Lone (The Last Emperor), who began his career at the Peking Opera, Cronenberg knew his audience ”would be in on the charade” from the beginning. For the French diplomat, Cronenberg zeroed in on Irons, whom he had cast as twins in 1988’s Dead Ringers. Irons fretted that the diplomat portrayed in the play was too sexually inept. But Hwang dropped explicit parallels to the opera Madame Butterfly and made the character more worldly. Too much tinkering? No, says Cronenberg: ”The screenplay is much better than the play. It has so many layers of meaning.” (Sept. 10)
Buzz: The Crying Game – The Surprise + Star Power = Your Guess Is as Good as Ours.

The Good Son
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood, Quinn Culkin.
Directed by: Joseph Ruben.
Macaulay Culkin fans, beware. The Home Alone hero (or at least his father/manager Kit Culkin) is out to terminate his cute-kid image. In this psychological thriller, the 12-year-old star plays a young psychotic who tries to corrupt his cousin (Wood) when the unsuspecting boy moves in with Culkin’s family after his mother’s death.

It was a part Macaulay really wanted, and what Mac wants, Mac gets. Last year, Kit reportedly threatened to pull his son out of Home Alone 2 unless Fox gave him this role; original star Jesse Bradford (King of the Hill) was dropped. Director Michael Lehmann (Hudson Hawk) then left the project, and the production was put on hold for almost a year until Mac could fit the film into his schedule.

New director Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy), signed only after Culkin père reviewed his work, claims his young star’s performance makes the delays worthwhile. ”Mac is very strong, very eerie, very dangerous,” he says. ”He had an instinctive sense of how to play this kid. He didn’t do any shtick.”

And neither did his father, or so Ruben says. Once filming began, ”Kit was completely professional, 100 percent. Truthfully, the thing you ask for in a situation like this is that the parents stay out of the process. And that’s what he did.”
Buzz: Its Bad Seed appeal cannot be denied, but Good Son‘s R rating may keep Mac’s most loyal constituents home alone.

Mr. Wonderful
Starring: Matt Dillon, Annabella Sciorra, William Hurt, Mary-Louise Parker.
Directed by: Anthony Minghella.
In this bittersweet romantic comedy set and shot in New York City, Dillon stars as a Con Edison worker who slowly realizes he’s not over his ex-wife (Sciorra), despite her involvement with a professor (Hurt) and his own relationship with a sweetie from the ‘hood (Parker). ”People expecting the smooth ride of Sleepless in Seattle are going to be surprised,” says Minghella. ”There are bumps in this film. It’s romantic realism: Happiness comes at a price.” The director’s taste for verisimilitude sent Dillon down manholes, but, says Minghella, ”he was happy to do manual labor. The Con Ed guys were impressed with how quickly he picked up the welding.” (Sept. 24)
Buzz: With one film — the beloved Truly, Madly, Deeply — to his credit, Minghella has the touch to make Dillon a leading man for the ’90s. But only if he can avoid the dreaded Sophomore Syndrome, hereafter known as Poetic Justice-itis.

The Real McCoy
Starring: Kim Basinger, Val Kilmer, Terence Stamp, Zach English.
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy.
Fresh from her real-life Boxing Helena courtroom drama, Basinger returns to the screen a criminal-to wit, expert bank robber Karen McCoy, who teams with adoring wannabe thief J.T. Barker (Kilmer) on one last heist meant to free her kidnapped son. For their assault on Atlanta’s Parthenon-like NationsBank, the production dreamed up high-tech defenses to match an array of not-so-fictional burglar’s tools — including a souped-up ”magnesium lance” (something like a blowtorch) capable of slicing through six feet of steel. And speaking of fireworks, how did the reportedly mercurial Basinger get along with Kilmer? Australian-born action director Mulcahy (Ricochet) describes the relationship as ”ummm…[five-beat pause]…professional.” (Sept. 17)
Buzz: Unfortunately for the cash-starved Basinger, this one’s not setting off any alarms.

Starring: Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, Randy Quaid, Mr. T, Michael Stoyanov.
Directed by: Alex Winter and Tom Stern.
Never thought of Reeves the boy wonder as Juan the Dog Boy? How about Mr. T as a bearded lady? Like its casting, the comic premise of Freaked is a bit far afield: Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) plays bilious brat-packer Ricky Coogin, who sells his soul as spokesman for a poisonous fertilizer. When he and his buddy (Stoyanov) journey to South America to promote the product, they happen upon Quaid and his freak show, and it’s not long before they’re paying their dues as attractions.

Originally a horror vehicle for the alternative band Butthole Surfers, Freaked was revamped by Winter and Stern, ”using Mad magazine as point of reference,” says Winter, ”rather than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Three special-effects companies were on duty to help put the aaaaggghhh into the acting. ”I entered a weird meditative state,” Winter says of the 41 2 hours he spent each day getting turned into a monster-like mutant. ”Although that could have been the prosthetics glue.” (Sept. 24)
Buzz: Midnight movie…maybe even 2 a.m.

Boxing Helena
Starring: Sherilyn Fenn, Julian Sands, Bill Paxton.
Directed by: Jennifer Lynch.
What a story, and not a bit of it on screen! First Madonna bailed out of the title role. Later Kim Basinger was ordered to pay $8.9 million for the privilege of not starring. First-time director Lynch, David’s daughter, finally found Fenn (Twin Peaks), who didn’t feel fenced in playing a limbless woman kept in a box by the love-obsessed doctor (Sands) who mutilated her. But then the director and producer Carl Mazzocone fought the ratings board, who wanted to give Helena an NC-17, and won an R on appeal. Lynch — who maintains that Helena is ”not about violence, it’s a metaphor” — is concerned that endless publicity has already doomed her film. ”I’m terrified,” she says. ”Too much talk destroys something. People are sitting there thinking, ‘Madonna, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lynch, David Lynch. And when are her arms and legs going to come off?’ How could anyone enjoy the film? I can’t blame them.” (Sept. 3)
Buzz: Who are we to contradict the director?

The Joy Luck Club
Starring: Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, France Nuyen, Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamlyn Tomita, Ming-Na Wen.
Directed by: Wayne Wang.
Predictably, the idea of adapting novelist Amy Tan’s lyrical 1989 best-seller about two generations of Chinese women didn’t immediately torque Hollywood’s shorts. Director Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum) repeats the town’s litany in amused resignation: ”It’s all Chinese, all women, all Chinese, all women — you can’t make this into a movie.” But backed by Oliver Stone’s Ixtlan production company, Wang, Tan, and coscreenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) wrestled Joy Luck into a manageable script, framing the novel’s eight stories within the context of a going-away party and adding narration.

Intrigued, Disney agreed to finance the $11 million production. ”I think their only concern was that we could make the movie for a very low budget,” says Wang. To that end, the director shot most of his Chinese interiors on a soundstage in Northern California — a much easier location than China, where minor crises interrupted the production’s two-month stay. A day outside the town of Guilin was lost when angry farmers, who didn’t know village leaders had approved filming, ”refused to let us shoot,” says producer Patrick Markey. ”They were screaming and yelling and waving tools they use in the field.” Wang ended up with a nearly four-hour rough cut, which he whittled to 133 minutes. Bass claims the footage won’t be missed: ”If you don’t cry in this film,” he says, ”you’ll be one of 1 percent of this country.” (Sept. 8)
Buzz: Bass’ prediction is no idle boast, judging from the reaction of preview audiences, and Disney’s plan to show the film in a relatively small number of theaters should produce a modest word-of-mouth hit.

Money for Nothing
Starring: John Cusack, Debi Mazar, Michael Madsen, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rapaport.
Directed by: Ramon Menendez.
What would you do if you saw $1.2 million in unmarked bills fall off an armored car, leaving the bundle in the street with not a soul in sight but you? Jobless Philadelphia longshoreman Joey Coyle took the money and ran his life right off the road — a true story reworked as seriocomedy by the creators of 1988’s Stand and Deliver. ”Money is a drug for some people who would’ve blown it anyway,” muses Cusack (The Grifters), who stars as the suddenly greenbacked blue-collar worker. Mazar (the sassy, circumflex-eyebrowed secretary who moves from TV’s Civil Wars to L.A. Law this fall) plays the on-again-off-again girlfriend who’d just dumped him. ”But Joey and money together look real good,” Mazar says. ”They probably have great sex.” (Sept. 10)
Buzz: Cusack shaped his role to add complexity, so don’t expect a Disney-film cartoon buffoon. On the other hand, if you suddenly found $1.2 million, would the word complexity really come to mind?

Household Saints
Starring: Tracey Ullman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina.
Directed by: Nancy Savoca.
In this adaptation of Francine Prose’s novel, the director of 1989’s True Love returns to her Italian-American roots, this time to New York’s Little Italy, where a butcher’s daughter, bent on sainthood, falls in love with a law student, sees Jesus at the ironing board, and decides to become a nun. If the plot sounds quirky, try the casting: 26-year-old Taylor (Mystic Pizza) plays the teenage daughter of Ullman, 33, and D’Onofrio, 33.

”I was a concerned about playing a 13-year-old, but I worked on that ‘awkward’ thing,” says Taylor, who, as a vegetarian, had a hard time around the ubiquitous sausages. And D’Onofrio had more than his share: ”There’s this scene where I have to eat while my mother [Malina] talks, but she kept forgetting her lines. I think I had nine platefuls.” (Sept. 15)
Buzz: Heavy on strange humor, this eccentric movie will be a quiet blip in Savoca’s career.

Starring: Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, Malcolm McDowell.
Directed by: Morgan Freeman.
Based on Percy Mtwa’s popular South African play of the same title, Bopha! is a political story about the evils of apartheid and a domestic drama about the struggle between fathers and sons. As a black policeman, Danny Glover is torn between upholding the law and protecting his teenage son, a budding anti- apartheid activist. Arsenio Hall, producing his first feature film, was able to stretch his $10 million-plus budget, since everyone involved-including Woodard, Glover, and freshman director Freeman — worked for well below their usual salaries. Hall also saved money (and won points with villagers in Zimbabwe, where the film was shot) by hiring a local supporting cast and crew, who contributed opinions Freeman was eager to hear. Their arguments helped persuade Freeman to change the original, hopeful ending to the grimly incendiary conclusion moviegoers will see. Hall argues that the new ending shows villagers reacting more honestly, and believes the film’s appeal won’t be limited by its faraway setting. ”This movie is about the home and what comes out of it,” says Hall. ”Whether it’s Johannesburg or Compton, the struggle begins at home.” (Sept. 24)
Buzz: Critics may find Bopha! boffo, but South African dramas (Sarafina!, A Dry White Season, Cry Freedom) tend to disappear quickly, no matter how many thumbs are up.

Dazed and Confused
Starring: Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Michelle Burke, Wiley Wiggins.
Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Anyone who was a high schooler in the ’70s won’t mind the titular adjectives that Linklater (class of ’80) fondly uses to describe his generation. The director of Slacker returns to those hazy days, focusing on 18 hours in the lives of students newly freed for summer break. The setting is middle America, and the kids, who busy themselves getting stoned, listening to Alice Cooper and Peter Frampton, and working hard at being cool, are intensely average. ”I didn’t want to make a stupid rivalry movie,” says Linklater, 31, ”you know — the jocks against the stoners. Because in my experience, the jocks were the stoners.” The film’s consummate philosopher-stoner is played by newcomer Rory Cochrane, 21, a New York City native who, despite his age, was more familiar with the attitudes of the ’70s than with those of the small town outside Austin, Tex., where the cast spent last summer. ”We were subjected to some crazy prejudices,” says Cochrane, who wore a shoulder-grazing (and often face-covering) wig for the part. ”In the hotel elevator, if I was wearing the wig, parents would push the kids behind them, like ‘Take us first!’ I guess we looked like junkies.” (Sept. 24)
Buzz: This ”art-house” film has a chance of riding the current crest of ’70s mania, especially with a soundtrack so groovy it could actually make you nostalgic.

Striking Distance
Starring: Bruce Willis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Pastorelli, Tom Sizemore.
Directed by: Rowdy Herrington.
And the Wickedest Word of Mouth Award goes to…Striking Distance, starring Willis as a renegade Pittsburgh cop on the trail of a serial killer. Toxic rumblings erupted before the movie was finished. (”Hudson Hawk without the laughs,” an observer called it.) And in recent interviews, Parker, who plays Willis’ partner, has distanced herself from the project, griping that the movie became too violent. But on the Pittsburgh set of the film (which originally had the less testosterone-heavy title Three Rivers), all was harmonious. Even though Willis was campaigning for Bush at the time, and Parker was stumping for Democrats, they spent downtime as chums, watching documentaries in Bruce’s trailer, and he made tapes of his favorite blues music for her.

However, Pastorelli — better known as Murphy Brown‘s omnipresent painter, Eldin — was a problem. He decided to yank the producers’ gold chains by insisting on doing his own stunt, plunging 80 feet off a bridge into the Ohio River. ”I told them it was essential for my work,” he says. ”I said, ‘Look, if I get injured, we’ll just write it into the script next year. Eldin can fall off a ladder.”’ Ultimately, Pastorelli swung from a cable under the bridge while his stunt double took the leap. He insists he was merely playing a joke on the producers: ”I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, so I get my kicks where I can,” he says. (Sept. 17)
Buzz: A new ending has been shot and it’s supposed to be better than anyone expected. But that’s what they said about Sliver.

Starring: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin.
Directed by: Stuart Gordon.
Carnage-meister Gordon (Re-Animator) wanted ”to make a political statement,” which is why antiauthoritarian themes course through this sci-fi thriller. Its plot: A couple is incarcerated in a futuristic prison (stocked with a behavior-control device called an ”intestinator”) for the crime of trying to have a second child. Re-Animator fans needn’t fret about weighty undertones, however. Says a bemused Lambert, ”We had to stop Stuart from time to time because he wanted too much gore.” But the director’s research in California’s Pelican Bay correctional facility (home to some of America’s most violent prisoners) frightened Gordon more than anything in his script. The preproduction team, he says, ”had to sign release forms saying we understood that, if taken hostage, they would not try to rescue us. We had stab-proof vests, but one guard told me, ‘They always go for your eyes anyway.”’ (Sept. 3)
Buzz: An overseas hit, this pic looks to add the cult-movie audience to its expected action crowd.

Written by Tim Appelo, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Meredith Berkman, George Blooston, Doug Brod, Jess Cagle, Melina Gerosa, Nisid Hajari, Bronwen Hruska, Kate Myers, Gregg Kilday, Tim Purtell, Benjamin Svetkey, and Anne Thompson

Also in September

Stephen Rea plays a frazzled husband in the British comedy Bad Behavior; an Arab boy and an American girl are involved in a murder plot in The Seventh Coin; psycho-killer Brad Pitt drives cross-country with Juliette Lewis in the mercilessly violent Kalifornia; Nicolas Cage and Charlie Sheen pair up in the thriller Deadfall; Marcia Gay Harden wreaks havoc as a seductress in Crush; James Caan is a football coach determined to make his team get with The Program; Matthew Modine plays twins who have never met in Alan Rudolph’s Equinox; Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play retired spies drawn back into the business in Undercover Blues; Gabriel Byrne stars in Into the West, about two boys and a magical horse; Christopher Reeve and Deborah Raffin are lovers) in Morning Glory, a love story set in rural Georgia; Calendar Girl‘s Jason Priestley is a teen who wants to meet Marilyn Monroe; Orlando‘s Tilda Swinton stars in the biopic Wittgenstein, about the 20th-century philosopher; a man discovers that, due to a test-tube mix-up, his father is Leon, the Pig Farmer; a California surfer dude has to deal with the hardship that is Cincinnati in Airborne; and Baraka weaves images from 24 countries into a wordless narrative of eco-consciousness.