Aliens, Angels And Artiness

THE PILEUP SEEMS TO GET WORSE every year: that end-of-the-year deluge in which Hollywood hangs out its Oscar bait, its seasonal heartwarmers, its would-be blockbusters, and waits to see who'll bite. Here's a sampling of seven, whose aspirations--not to mention accomplishments--couldn't be more diverse. Let's start with the silliest...

... which is, beyond argument, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, a goofball alien-invasion parody that is so defiantly inconsequential it makes "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" look weighty. That's description, not dis. Cheerfully heartless, this inadvertent sendup of "Independence Day" sets up a big-name cast--Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close (as the president and First Lady), Annette Bening (very funny), Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Jim Brown--then brings on a horde of tiny, evil Martians to bump most of them off one by one, while also zapping Washington, Vegas, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Easter Island. What makes you giggle your way through much of the movie isn't the jokes--Jonathan Gems's script is surprisingly feeble, and Burton's comic timing is often flat--but the sheer, oddball chutzpah of it all. Both a tribute to schlock sci-fi and a deconstruction of it, this sleekly cheeseball $70 million production is all attitude. It's not Burton's best by a long shot, but I came out smiling.

Like Burton, Albert Brooks is nothing if not an original. His series of worried, life-sized, obsessive comedies--"Modern Romance," "Lost in America," "Defending Your Life"--stay in your system much longer than most. In his latest knotty little gem, Mother, co-written with Monica Johnson, Brooks plays a divorced writer who decides that the only solution to his problems with women and life is to get to the source of his woe. So he moves back in with his mother, played subtly and superbly by Debbie Reynolds. No doting mom, she's a brittle cookie whose every compliment c arries a criticism. The characters Brooks plays are always doggedly self-obsessed, but Brooks himself is a great observer, finding laughs in the minutest details of everyday banality. Who else could get a joke out of the ice that forms on the top of old sherbet? In its deceptively modest way, this edgily sweet comedy gets closer to the bone of mother-son relationships than many a more solemn opus.

One of the most memorable mothers Hollywood served up in the '80s was Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway in the deservedly beloved "Terms of Endearment." Aurora, still vital and exasperating, and trying to run everybody's life, is a grandmother in The Evening Star, a sequel that has only a fraction of the original's freshness and veracity. Basically, it's TV: broad, episodic, sitcomy and eager to please. MacLaine is still a treat, but Robert Harling, the new writer-director, wears his heart and everything else on his sleeve. As long as the movie stays in comic mode, it's sloppily likable. But when the dying begins--and there's a lot of it--beware. The movie seems to have about a dozen endings, all of them mawkish.

You'll need a high tolerance for artificial sweets to make it through The Preacher's Wife, a tepid remake of the 1947 "The Bishop's Wife," with Denzel Washington as a dapper angel who answers a prayer for help from a troubled inner-city preacher (Courtney B. Vance) and finds himself attracted in a much too earthly way to his proper but dissatisfied wife (Whitney Houston). Denzel's charm is undeniable, and Whitney and the church choir make some mighty noise. But except for the musical numbers, director Penny Marshall's poky, piety-by-the-numbers fable never lifts off the ground.

I feared that Nora Ephron's angel movie, Michael, would offer another heap of predigested uplift but was pleasantly surprised to find something quirkier and more off-center. John Travolta's angel--discovered by big-city tabloid reporters William Hurt, Andie MacDowell and Robert Pastorelli in a ramshackle Iowa motel--is a slob seraphim who smokes, chugs beer and ogles the ladies. More a matchmaker than a miracle worker, he oversees Hurt and MacDowell's slowly dawning romance as the jaded journalists take their prized story back to Chicago by car. This low-key charmer has its ups (Travolta's a funky, fleshy delight) and downs (Pastorelli is colorless). It's at its best when it forgets about its contrived plot and lets its attractive cast play off each other--like the charming roadhouse scene where MacDowell sings her song in praise of pies. Consider "Michael" a pleasant stocking stuffer.

For the more demanding filmgoer, no Christmas movie has been more anticipated than Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady. There was never much doubt that the director of "The Piano" and "Sweetie" would stamp Henry James's great novel with her own strong vision, and she has. She's Gothicized and sexualized the tale of Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), the glittering American heiress abroad who becomes entrapped in the ghastly designs of the expatriate Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) and his accomplice, Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey). The result is darkly gorgeous, fascinating, sluggish, undeniably audacious--and wrongheaded.

This story of a clash of mighty wills, of the conflict between old and new worlds, now seems to be about sexual repression and emotional masochism. Dramatically, Campion gives the game away the minute Malkovich's reptilian dilettante enters the scene: what on Earth does Isabel see in this creep? But we might as well ask what everybody sees in Isabel, who in Campion's curiously punitive vision is reduced to a skittish sexual hysteric. It's hard to tell the difference between the Isabel of the first part, full of bright promise, and the caged Isabel in Rome, betrayed by experience. Hershey's Madame Merle shines brightest, capturing the richness of this deplorable and pitiable character. This claustrophobic "Portrait of a Lady" is the kind of failure only a very gifted filmmaker could make: like it or not, it haunts you.

No one will ever consider Wes Craven's Scream Oscar fodder, but this funny and scary little experiment in terror from the man who invented "Nightmare on Elm Street" puts some fun back into a very tired genre. Craven and his clever screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, knowingly play with all the cliches of the teen horror movie by making all the characters horror-movie junkies themselves. These kids have seen and relished every grisly move Craven perpetrates on them, but it doesn't save their skins. Christmas treats can come from all sorts of unexpected places: this is one sleeper that will keep you wide awake.

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