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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

An upbeat season: Bumper crop of holiday films has a cheerful attitude

By CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI

BLADE STAFF WRITER

You want a fortune teller.

You don t want a film critic.

When it comes to previewing the annual summer movie tsunami or holiday celluloid slush puddle, the problem with film critics is that they can t judge a movie by its lousy cover. (At least not too loudly.) Unlike the rest of the movie-going public, film critics are not allowed to prognosticate, to guess, to speculate, to swivel their big thumbs in any direction whatsoever until they ve seen the film in question. This puts one at a definite disadvantage.

Because you, dear reader, are not denied one of the sublime pleasures of going to the movies: you don t have to give a movie the benefit of the doubt. You can pronounce a dud in the making entirely based on what you think of a few shots of Nicole Kidman s latest pageboy cut.

With the holiday movie season opening for business next weekend with roughly 20 percent of Hollywood s annual box office at stake between now and New Year s Day, not to mention a sizeable chunk of February s potential Oscar nominees the studios are quaking in fear at a superpower each of you takes for granted:

Your memory of movies past.

Sight unseen, you probably already have a decent idea about that next Bridget Jones installment opening next month. You re probably certain that Meet the Fockers, the follow-up to Meet the Parents, co-starring Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand, is hilarious.

Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great many of you are pretty certain you made the right decision and skipped that movie last summer when it was named Troy. (The difference is simple: Alex has elephants, Achilles, a bum heel.)

I envy you. You see the same TV commercials I see. You watch the same trailers, read the same articles, look at the same posters. You wonder why a studio run by Ivy League graduates and MBAs would release Surviving Christmas nine days before Halloween.

And you knew it stunk before you even decided not to see it. Whadayaknow me, too.

I could tell you what I think of the Jerry Bruckheimer-Nicolas Cage-outrun-the-fireball lollapalooza National Treasure. But I haven t seen it yet. Its studio doesn t plan to screen it for critics until a few days before it opens. Same for roughly a third of the films in this preview. And a general rule of thumb in the movie business is this: The closer to opening day that a studio screens a film for critics, the worse said film tends to be.

That said, wild speculation is for other people. Not me. I use an educated guess. And a little insider information. For this holiday preview, I'll use both - along with the fact I've seen about half of the following movies already.

What is certain? Well, to be specific: Hollywood is anticipating post-election year depression on a national scale. If last holiday season was chockablock with domestic hand wringing (21 Grams, Mystic River), serial murder (Monster), war (Cold Mountain), and the decline of civilization (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), this holiday season is its maniacally upbeat twin Aunt Ethel, hopped up on eggnog and about to pass out.

Cheerful is the buzz word.

So is "biography" - there are at least five major ones due in the next two months. And since we're talking trends: Jude Law is a one-man trend. He's been in two movies in the past eight weeks, and he's due in four more before Christmas. Something else to watch for: the rise of digital humans. With The Incredibles and Polar Express, animators are getting creepily comfortable with doing away with flesh-and-blood homo sapiens, and they're getting better at it and we'll all probably be replaced someday - but hey, we're cheerful, right?

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November's Lucky Seven:

1. The Incredibles (Nov. 5). Starring: The voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and NPR's Sarah Vowell. Why You Should Care: For starters, Pixar follows up Finding Nemo with an insightful celebration of suburban angst, funneled through a pretty terrific comic book adventure about a superhero team sidelined because of insurance rates from malpractice suits. That's the adult reason. Everyone else can soak in Iron Giant director Brad Bird's back-to-the-future retro designs and a heartfelt screenplay that never turns cloying. Reason for Concern: Too grown-up for kids, and too kiddie for grown-ups?

2. Alexander (Nov. 24). Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, enough togas to cloak a frat house. Why You Should Care: Oliver Stone returns with a complicated, cast-of-zillions war epic about the Macedonian conqueror (Farrell) who rolled over much of the world before dying at 30. Reason For Concern: Stone is not big on nuance, and while the rest of the planet is increasingly political, our most ideological director makes a film about a wartime leader that is allegorical.

3. Kinsey (Nov. 24). Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard. Why You Should Care: Neeson and Linney bring warmth to a fairly clinical take on an engrossing figure, the sexpert Alfred Kinsey, who revolutized (then scandalized) the study of sexual behavior in the '40s and '50s. It's a tasteful story about a prudish period. Reason for Concern: Kinsey taught in Indiana, and sex didn't play so well in the Heartland the first time.

4. Finding Neverland (Nov. 12). Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, assorted ragamuffins. Why You Should Care: Few movies are ever so concerned with the artistic process as Marc Forster's pleasant (but pretty square) biography of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie (Depp), who found inspiration in a widow (Winslet) and her four boys. Reason for Concern: Forster wants to be everything to every audience: a family film with vague art house pretenses but heartwarming enough not to alienate mainstream Oscar folk. He does it. But the film suffers.

5. Vera Drake (November). Starring: Imelda Staunton and a lot of beige. Why You Should Care: Never mind that director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) remains the most uncompromising filmmaker of his time; Staunton is a sure thing for an Academy Award nomination. She plays an abortionist in 1950s England. Reason for Concern: It doesn't get much happier from there. Leigh swings between movies about buoyant spirits and downtrodden sufferers, and this is more of the latter.

6. The Polar Express (Nov. 10). Starring: the voice, facial movements, and physical intonations of Tom Hanks, who plays five roles. Why You Should Care: The soft-glow illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 children's book about a boy who takes a magical choo-choo to the North Pole, have been lovingly reproduced. And though Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis misstep as often as they succeed, they take chances. In this case, the characters were entirely adapted through a computer that captured the motions of live actors. Reason for Concern: That glassy, mannequin glaze in the eyes cuts back on any real soul; not to mention, big holiday pictures tend to become tacky.

7. Bad Education (November). Starring: It-boy Gael Garcia Bernal. Why You Should Care: Spain's Pedro Almodovar, following Talk to Her and All About My Mother, remains the provocative Christmas tree of international cinema - colorful and gaudy - and in recent years he's also turned illuminating. Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) plays a former altar boy who confronts the priest who once molested him; Almodovar subs the usual confrontational grittiness with the feel of a tangled noirish mystery. Reason for Concern: Almodovar is an acquired taste (who grows more accessible with each film).

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December's Lucky Seven:

1. Ocean's Twelve (Dec. 3). Starring: Every dues-paying member of the Screen Actors Guild residing between the San Gabriel mountain range and Malibu (but specifically, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, and on and on). Why You Should Care: Because the return of director Steven Soderbergh to the fun means another example of the year's nicest trend: sequels made by inspired filmmakers. The plot involves simultaneous heists in three European cities, and as with the first one, Soderbergh shamelessly embraces Hollywood glamour without looking even a bit self-conscious about it. Reason for Concern: Only if you crave actual meaning behind that beautiful facade.

2. The Aviator (Dec. 17). Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani. Why You Should Care: Anything directed by Martin Scorsese is reason for attention, and after making Gangs of New York for Miramax, this glitzy, grand-scale bio of investor/dreamer Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) continues the filmmaker's move away from the personal cinema (Mean Streets, etc.) he started with. Reason for Concern: Scorsese is at his best when exploring violence, and Hughes' tale is relatively cushy.

3. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Dec. 17). Starring: Jim Carrey, narration by Jude Law, a hot literary property. Why You Should Care: Though only a glimpse has been seen, Carrey and director Brad Silberling appear to have at least captured the Dickensian darkness of the perverse Snicket series for children, about three dour orphans and unscrupulous Count Olaf (Carrey). Reason for Concern: With a new Harry Potter-size franchise riding on its reception, will hit-starved Paramount allow novelist Daniel Handler's deliciously acerbic wit to remain intact?

4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Dec. 24). Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, the eccentric whimsy of director Wes Anderson. Why You Should Care: Behind the touching nuttiness of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is a true original, and Anderson is expanding his palette: Aquatic tells the story of a Jacques Cousteau-y explorer, and it could give Murray his long-expected Oscar. Reason for Concern: Anderson walks a dangerous line between whimsicality and preciousness.

5. House of Flying Daggers (Dec. 3). Starring: Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi, eye-popping cinematography, dazzling brawls. Why You Should Care: Chinese master Zhang Yimou had a surprise hit in early September with the art-house epic Hero, but Daggers is its visceral opposite: a warmer, accessible, finely honed, more exciting martial arts epic. Reason for Concern: Martial arts fatigue.

6. Spanglish (Dec. 17). Starring: Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega. Why You Should Care: Because it's the return of director-writer James L. Brooks (Broadcast News), whose last comedy was the Oscar-winner As Good As It Gets, and few filmmakers are so mainstream and literate at once. Plus, this casting is clever: Sandler plays a renowned chef who falls into a forbidden romance with his Latino housekeeper (Vega, of Talk To Her). Reason for Concern: Brooks makes a movie every six or seven years - and As Good As It Gets didn't show much growth.

7. Closer (Dec. 3). Starring: Julia Roberts, Jude Law (yet again), Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, zero holiday cheer. Why You Should Care: When you absolutely must adapt a difficult stage production, your go-to man is director Mike Nichols, who returns to the kind of scorched-earth relationships he explored 40 years ago with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And if his recent adaptation of Angels in America is any clue, Nichols is still relevant. Reason for Concern: Oscar may come knocking in February, but in December, with tidings of joy hitting you in the face at every turn, are audiences willing to mix in a little bitters with all that holiday cheer?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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