August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

>>FIRELIGHT
William Nicholson, the pen behind Nell and Shadowlands, wrote and directed this period piece about a 19th-century surrogate mother (Sophie Marceau) who can’t renounce the love she feels for her child. And she doesn’t think the father of the child is half bad, either. ”I’ve heard people saying it’s sentimental,” says Marceau (Anna Karenina, Braveheart). ”But for me, there is nothing over-the-top about emotions.” (Sept. 4)

>>KNOCK OFF
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hong Kong action maestro Tsui Hark do some serious damage to an international terrorist group. Not exactly a new idea for a Van Damme picture. Then again, the picture’s not exactly new either; it was completed more than a year ago. Shooting entirely on location in Hong Kong, Hark explains, ”I wanted to combine Van Damme with the Asian feeling.” The result, he says, is ”a bit surreal.” (Sept. 4)

>>DIGGING TO CHINA
Think Sling Blade meets Welcome to the Dollhouse: A lonely 9-year-old girl (Evan Rachel Wood) befriends an even more alienated — and alienating — mentally retarded man (Kevin Bacon). ”It wasn’t that I read this and thought, I know this subject well, it would be good for me to direct,” says Ordinary People Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, who made China, his behind-the-camera feature debut, for less than $3 million. ”But I loved the script so much, I knew it had to be made.” (Sept. 11)

>>TOUCH OF EVIL
Using an old memo as a blueprint, cinematic surgeons have recut director-actor Orson Welles’ 1958 classic to the big guy’s specifications, mainly by reordering scenes. Charlton Heston, who still speaks perfect English as a Mexican official (per Welles’ dictate), says: ”If I had it to do over I’d use a tinge of accent, like Ricardo Montalban.” (Sept. 11)

>>WITHOUT LIMITS
Almost two years after the underperforming Prefontaine, another biopic of the late Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine (who hated coming in second) crosses the finish line. Says cowriter-director Robert Towne (Personal Best): ”In a world increasingly about how much money you make, the life of a guy who believed that what he did was terribly important seems like a radical notion.” (Sept. 11)

>>MONUMENT AVE.
In director Ted Demme’s drama, young Irish punks in Boston go from running drugs to running scared. Meanwhile, the filmmakers have been running interference trying to maintain their indie cred. After rejecting one backer’s offer of $9 million, they brought the movie in for $3.5 million. ”Everyone wanted us to tone down the violence and drugs,” says star Denis Leary, ”but we went and made the film the way we wanted it.” (Sept. 25)

>>RUSH HOUR
Jackie Chan is a Hong Kong detective and Chris Tucker an L.A. cop on the tail of kidnappers in the latest buddy pic from director Brett Ratner (Money Talks), which promises to unite Chan’s hyperkinetic chopsocky with Tucker’s hyperkinetic, er, everything. ”I met with Jackie and convinced him to let me hire Chris Tucker instead of Martin Lawrence,” gloats Ratner. ”I think he was pleased in the end.” (Sept. 18)

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