STARRING Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger DIRECTED BY Steven Soderbergh
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WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? Roberts looks to win Oscar’s attention with this star turn as a real-life crusader.
Norma Rae’s got some serious competition in the heroine category, thanks to Roberts’ portrayal of Erin Brockovich. In the mid-’90s, according to the movie, Brockovich, a struggling single mother-turned-legal detective, helped California plaintiffs win a $333 million settlement of water-contamination claims against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. While Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) instructed Roberts not to meet the woman she was playing — “Julia was on the right track, and I didn’t want her to be pulled in another direction” — the director spent hours interviewing Brockovich and attorney Edward Masry (played by Finney). Roberts, meanwhile, got into the role by stepping into her most revealing wardrobe since Pretty Woman. “The day I got there,” says Roberts, “I was like, ‘That’s a shirt?!’ You just have to get over it. And then everyone else has to.” Written by Susannah Grant (28 Days), then buffed up by Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County), Brockovich sailed through production (even completing principal photography a day early) but hit a small snag when it came to its title. “The studio wanted a different one,” admits Soderbergh, “but the bottom line is, it’s Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, and people will go.” (March 17)
MISSION TO MARS
STARRING Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell DIRECTED BY Brian De Palma
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WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? The race to the red planet is on!
So what is Robbins — political activist, serious actor, and agitprop auteur — doing in a popcorn flick about a troubled trip to the angry red planet? “My kids have been wanting me to do anything in which I have an opportunity to have a little doll made,” says Robbins, who’s long wanted to act in an action-adventure with smarts. But he may have picked too smart for his kids; De Palma’s NASA-endorsed production is so steeped in space-travel science, it’s more likely to spawn telescopes than toys. But Sinise assures us there are thrills aplenty. “It really combines the science of 2001 and the emotion of Apollo13,” says Sinise, who starred in the latter. “If we spent all our time explaining how we got there, the movie would be 10hours long.” Hustling to beat Warner Bros.’ similarly themed Red Planet to theaters, De Palma actually finished ahead of schedule. None of that pressure was felt by the actors, but they did have other things to sweat through, like stifling-hot space suits and the nauseating wirework required to simulate zero gravity. While Sinise survived the special effects by tapping his Apollo 13 astronaut training, Robbins says his own prior experience with F/X was limited to the infamous 1986 flop, Howard the Duck. Wow, Tim, most people have forgotten you were in that. What possessed you? “Oh, why did I even bring it up? Let’s not even talk about it.” (March 10)