Hollywood offers few gifts under the tree this season

by Doug Cummings

Every year, Hollywood studios save their most dramatically ambitious films for the winter months, hoping to cash-in on the critics' attention when various award ceremonies commence. But in recent years, the number of winter award-seeking productions have begun to take a back seat to the $200 million summer blockbusters commanding the payrolls and qualities like financial risk, star power, market audiences, and established formulas have taken precedence over originality and creativity.

1995 has personified this phenomena, in what has certainly been one of the worst years for Hollywood creativity and this winter season promises to be no exception. From self-replicating sequels like "Father of the Bride II" and "Grumpier Old Men" to Renny Harlin's iffy swashbuckler "Cuthroat Island" and Mel Brooks' latest stupid humor fest "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," the Christmas season looks about as cinematically exciting as week-old tapioca pudding. Even the films that claim to have more ambition, like Oliver Stone's latest exercise in political sappiness, "Nixon," and the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino schlock-o-rama "From Dusk Till Dawn," seem like more of the same from filmmakers in shoeboxes.

Still, there's a few films that might be worth adding to your vacation itenerary. Here's four that range from light entertainment to potentially artistic successes, though the verdict can only be cast once the lights dim and the images begin to flicker.


"Miami Vice" and "The Last of the Mohicans" director Michael Mann serves up a glossy detective/crime thriller starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, and Tom Sizemore. Pacino is a cop with a chaotic personal life who tracks down a methodical criminal by sorting through his tangled psyche. Mann excels at high-adrenaline, glittery thrillers and, combined with "Casino," you could watch 6 hours of De Niro in 2 weeks.

Les Miserables

While this latest film version from director Claude Lelouch ("A Man and A Woman") takes great liberties with Victor Hugo's work, the film is garnering accolades as a moving meditation on a humble man's odyssey through heroism and criminality in his pursuit of purpose. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the international star from the French New Wave, heads an impressive cast of performers.


The latest version of the classic Shakespearean play may be director Oliver Parker's feature debut and it may also only contain a rumored 300f the play's original writing, but it also boasts lead performances by Lawrence Fishburne and the Bard-connoisseur Kenneth Branagh. The tragic story of Iago's sordid machinations that bring about Othello's growing disrust of his wife could be a welcomed companion piece to the other Shakespearean film this season, "Richard III."


A remake of the Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn 1954 romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder. It tells the story of a chauffeur's daughter-turned-sophisticated beauty who subsequently becomes the fulcrum point in a romantic triangle between two wealthy brothers. Sydney Pollack, a dependable Hollywood filmmaker of movies like "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," directs Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear in a film that promises to be a witty foray into classic romantic comedy.

Shanghai Triad

China's most internationally-acclaimed filmmaker, Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou"), offers a gangster epic that takes place in Shanghai during the '30s. The film transcends the usual explicit violence and gore that has become a fashionable staple of the genre and instead investigates the underworld culture through the eyes of a young boy. Yimou's graceful visuals and dramatic storytelling abilities promise to deliver.

12 Monkeys

The latest from ex-Monty Python animator and visual maestro Terry Gilliam ("Brazil," "The Fisher King") is a science fiction thriller about a 21st-century convict who travels back in time to present day to keep a deadly virus from being created. The script is by David Peoples ("Blade Runner," "Unforgiven") and despite the presence of sex icons Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, early movie clips show Gilliam's wild imagination and surreal vision promises to outshine them both.

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