If you still believe in Christmas movies, you probably still expect a fat guy to squeeze down the stove pipe of your condo to drop off your Sharper Image gift certificate. The truth is, Tinseltown has taken the tinsel down. December, once a time for Oscar-contenders and big-budget blockbusters, has become a month of cinematic mediocrities and major calamities. And while this year's schedule is more ambitious than Christmas past, it continues this tepid trend for the fifth year in a row. (Don't despair, just remember that glittery Christmas of '82, the winter of "Tootsie," "Gandhi," "The Verdict," "48 Hrs." and "Sophie's Choice," too.)
Only a handful of the dozen major studio releases look promising, which is especially disappointing after this landmark year of hits -- both critical and economic -- which may set an all-time record for box office revenue. -- Already superstar directors Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg are off to disappointing starts with "Wall Street" and "Empire of the Sun." Still Christmas '87 seems a slight improvement over last year's wan fare -- "No Mercy," "The Golden Child," "The Three Amigos" to name a few.
"Wall Street" is an entertaining, but spotty tale of a young stockbroker's corruption by a corporate raider. Michael Douglas gives a deliciously villainous performance as the money-mad arbitrageur, but Charlie Sheen seems out of place as the waif on the Street. Likewise Spielberg looks at lost innocence in his beautifully designed, but soulless "Empire," a child's World War II memoir with boy actor Christian Bale. The movie has its moments of technical purity, but overall it's as empty as a 2 1/2-hour cocktail party. A privileged British brat, separated from his parents when the Japanese invade Shanghai, comes of age under reduced circumstances.
The boy's trouble mirrors events in Bernado Bertolucci's majestic, mired-down three-hour epic, "The Last Emperor of China," which has already opened in New York and Los Angeles to crowds and mixed reviews. It tells the true story of Pu Yi, a Chinese brat raised in the lap of luxury as a boy king. The setting is the majestic Forbidden City, a glorious golden compound that once housed the Chinese emperors. The tale begins in 1908 as three-year-old Pu Yi is placed on the throne, then concludes with his re-education in a Communist prison camp.
"The Last Emperor" opens next week along with John Huston's last film "The Dead," an elegiac comedy-drama based on the James Joyce short story. Huston's daughter Anjelica and Donal McCann costar in this evocative story of a turn-of-the-century couple on New Year's Eve in Dublin. After a holiday party, she cries over a chidlhood romance, sharing the bittersweet memories with her husband. Astonished that she has kept this from him, he reflects upon their marriage, love and life.
Spielberg's Amblin' Entertainment is also offering "Batteries Not Included," an urban fantasy with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. They play the proprietors of a small cafe who lead the tenants of a dilapidated apartment building in a battle with would-be developers. Some teeny-weeny aliens get into the act in this socially self-conscious fantasy for the young at heart. Be your own judge when Universal studios hosts free sneak previews today at 1 and 1:30 p.m. today at several area theaters.
Goldie Hawn and significant other Kurt Russell get a jump on the competition with a Wednesday opening of "Overboard," a romantic comedy directed by Garry Marshall of "Nothing in Common" and "The Flamingo Kid." Hawn plays a snooty heiress who learns how the other half lives after she falls from her yacht and is picked up at sea minus her memory. Russell plays a rustic handyman who tricks her into believing she is his wife and the mother of his four horrible children. Love ensues.
Eddie Murphy's profane concert film, "Raw," and Bill Cosby's action spoof "Leonard VI" complete offerings for the week 18th. Murphy's four-letter feature is said to contain he best of his 60-day tour taped at New York's Felt Forum in 1986. It also includes a sequence at Murphy's home with a cameo from Robert Townsend of "Hollywood Shuffle." Cosby's big-budget action send-up -- which ousted Columbia Pictures chief David Puttnam hated from the start -- comes to town with dreadful advance press. Cosby, who plays a super secret agent, has publically disassociated himself from the film before it has a chance to flop.
Normally that would be The End of cinematic yuletide, as Christmas Day has traditionally been the cemetery for the clinkers. But last year Jane Fonda's "The Morning After" tested the rule and opened well on the holiday. Now into the breech comes "Broadcast News," a serio-comic look at TV journalism which is winning praise for leading lady Holly Hunter as the first woman bureau chief of a major network. William Hurt and Albert Brooks also star and James L. Brooks of "Terms of Endearment" directs. Filmed in Washington last spring, it shares the 25th with the G-rated childrens film, "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night."
"Broadcast News" had been slated for Thanksgiving Day which saw several studios rush the season, a strategy that has payed off for Disney with "Three Men and A Baby" and the re-release of "Cinderella." Like last year's turkey day offering, "Star Trek IV," they remain among the top two-grossing movies for the season. Likewise "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Nuts" tried November starts -- an ever more lucrative technique that is depleting the traditional two-week, mid-December glut.
Independent movie-makers will punch up the proceedings with "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," a sexy British social satire from Hanif Kureshi, and "Manon of the Spring," part two of the French epic that began with "Jean de Florette." Also Bill Forsyth's "Housekeeping," with Christine Lahti finally in a landmark role, arrives on January 8 with stellar early notices. Set in Fingerbone, Idaho, it's based on Marilynne Robinson's introspective novel of impermanence. Lahti plays an eccentric hobo Sylvie who leaves her travels to care for her late sister's adolescent daughters.
"Housekeeping" opened in New York in time for Oscar consideration along with Hector Babenco's "Ironweed," with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam," with Robin Williams; Woody Allen's "September," with Mia Farrow; and Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck," with Cher and Nicholas Cage. As with "Platoon," the romantic comedy "Moonstruck" will screen for critics in time for 10 best lists, but not for audiences in these parts. It's getting to be a tradition: all the real Christmas movies come to Washington in time for the white sales.