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`Titanic' is buoyed by dearth of other good films right now

Everybody seems to have an explanations as to why "Titanic" is doing so well at the box office, but I'm sort of leaning toward the theory that is succeeding so phenomenally because there are so many awful films out there.

Think about it. When the Christmas holiday glut of movies is over and the pre-Oscar "platform" releases are done, all we're left with is a slate of cinematic sludge that turns the first month of the year into "Junky January."Not that this is anything new. The major movie studios generally dish up many of their worst leftovers at the start of the year. In January 1997 alone the studios delivered such bombs as "The Relic," "Turbulence," "Beverly Hills Ninja"and "Meet Wally Sparks" to theaters.

Of course, those were somewhat offset by a couple of good movies that were also released around the same time, including "Mother," "Everyone Says I Love You" and "The Crucible."

This year we haven't been nearly so lucky. Not only have we gotten such cinematic turkeys as "Spice World," "Deep Rising," "Half-Baked" and "Firestorm," there's been little in the way of quality cinema to balance things out.

Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" was a big disappointment, "The Boxer" failed to score a knockout and the one really good film of the bunch, "Wag the Dog," is now almost painful to watch, given the recent Clinton White House sex scandal that makes it look a documentary.

Even the usual January "paradise" for both critics and moviegoers alike, the Sundance Film Festival, was a mixed bag this year. If not for some of the very good short and long-form documentaries that were shown at the festival, it would have been very slim pickings.

Now keep in mind that none of this is meant as a slight to "Titanic's" ever-growing legion of fans, whose repeat business is certainly helping its monumental box-office take (though, admittedly, I believe it is good but extremely flawed). And, in truth, the late-summer and fall movie schedule usually sees almost as many horrible flicks in wide release.

And there are still a handful of promising-looking films that were "platformed" - released in Los Angeles and New York before the end of last year so they could be considered by Academy Awards voters - that will open locally in the next month or so, including Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" and Alan Rudolph's "Afterglow."

But so far, 1998 isn't shaping up to be a very promising cinematic year.

At least it can't get any worse. (You may still want to keep your fingers crossed, just in case I've jinxed things.)

- TITANIC TV:

Speaking of James Cameron's $200 million epic romance/historical adventure film, NBC has already outbid the other television networks for the rights to air it beginning in 2000.

According to the New York Daily News, NBC has agreed to pay $30 million to show the movie five times over a five-year period, which should make it as overexposed as "The Wizard of Oz" once was.

The only question is what NBC will do about its more than three-hour running time. Even with some content cuts, with the usual amount of TV ads the film will run at least four hours. So expect the network to show the movie in two parts.

At least network officials will have something to run in place of "Seinfeld," should they choose to do so.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK, NO. 1: "I didn't see it because it's not a movie I'd pay to see, much less want to make. Listen, I knew all you guys would come around, and you can quote this; you can put it on a (expletive) billboard if you want to. I TOLD YOU SO! I WAS RIGHT!" - actor Michael Keaton, gloating over the failure of last year's "Batman & Robin"

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK, NO. 2: "I know a lot of screenwriters, and I go completely nutty on the subject of what screenwriters go through. But you don't want to wave your Uzi with ridiculous rage when the studio doesn't deserve it, particularly when there are more pressing problems in the world." - Jake Kasdan, writer/director of the upcoming comedy "Zero Effect," discussing the studio method of "rewriting" original script treatments by committee

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK, NO. 3: "It blows my mind that casting directors and directors tend to see you as what you've played before. Because they're in the movie business you'd think they'd know that it doesn't mean that you were cast in this role because that's what you are. I'm certainly not a mermaid, you know. I'm not an android or whatever." - actress Darryl Hannah, describing the way that casting agents typecast certain performers