November 30-December 6, 2005

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'Tis the Season

The holiday movie glut runs all the way through January for those who don't live in Oscar-contention towns

By Richard von Busack

JUST AS the winter season calls for heavy, comforting foods, the winter screen calls for spectacles and emotional wringers. This upcoming season promises to be as kriegsmude (war-weary) and discontented a winter as any on record.

Families get thrown together a lot from Thanksgiving to New Year's and beyond. They may not see eye to eye. However, they can all look in the same direction at a movie screen. Of course, the season really runs well into January as limited-release Oscar-contending films filter through to the provinces.

Although there's no new Lord of the Rings episode to cheer us up with evil yielding to good (for a change), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Dec. 9) opens with the first in what might be a seven-part series. Tilda Swinton plays the wintry White Witch, who freezes the land of Narnia; Liam Neeson does the voice of hero (and Jesus-surrogate) Aslan the Lion.

Night Watch, a much-delayed Russian hit, is supposedly scheduled for release sometime near the winter solstice; it's an appropriate time of year for a special-effects-packed fantasy about the supernatural battle between night and day.

Pulse (Dec. 16) is a cult Asian horror film finally getting wide release during the season of long nights. Wolf Creek (Dec. 25), an Australian slasher based on the career of "The Backpacker Killer," should satisfy an audience that would rather see something bloody on that bloody holiday. Speaking of wolves, Hoodwinked (Dec. 23) is an animated retelling of what happened when a wolf encountered Red Riding Hood (voiced by Anne Hathaway).

Of all the remakes, the most anticipated is the Depression-themed King Kong (Dec. 14). The casting of Naomi Watts—about as underrated an actress as there is around—suggests that there will be more to the Girl in the Paw than just a loud screamer. Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) directs.

Not much in the season can be classified as Chanukah cinema, but the Israeli hit Ushpizin (Dec. 9) tells a droll tale of a pair of Breslau Hassidic Jews living in Jerusalem. They are both as poor as Job's turkey and as childless as Abraham and Sarah, and the holiday of Succoth brings them a blessing.

More secular comedies abound, both light and heavy. Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (Dec. 21) with Steve Martin concerns the rivalry of families at a summer lakeside resort. (The previews of this as well as Martin's remake of The Pink Panther, due in February, certainly explain why the actor looked so melancholy in Shopgirl.)

Rumor Has It is Rob Reiner's answer to the long-discussed problem of making a sequel to The Graduate. In this fictional comedy, Jennifer Aniston learns that her family was the real-life source for "The Robinsons" in that 1967 comedy. Moreover, Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), the model for Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock, seems to be just as interested in her as he was in her mother and her grandmother.

The Family Stone (Dec. 16), a comedy about the generations having at one another (led by Diane Keaton), looks similar. Fun With Dick and Jane (Dec. 21) redoes a long-buried 1970s comedy. Laid-off suburbanite Jim Carrey turns bandit with the help of his wife, played by Téa Leoni. Mitigating factor: director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest).

Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents (Dec. 25) aims to be this year's The Full Monty: the story of the Windmill, London's own late-1940s nudie-cutie club where dancers posed in tableaux vivants of great art. Christopher Guest promises great twittery as an English censor outwitted by Henderson (Judi Dench) and her crusty but trusty manager (Bob Hoskins).

If that sounds too genteel, consider the most promising holiday counter-programming: The Ringer (Dec. 23). It has an unspeakable premise: a jerk (Johnny Knoxville) poses as disabled in order to crash the Special Olympics. And yet the previews are genuinely ticklish, what with champion actor Brian Cox doing some rare comedy work as a gruff cigar-chomping coach.

The Matador (Jan. 6) stars Pierce Brosnan as another anti-Bond, a cracked hit man who forcibly befriends a working stiff from Denver (Greg Kinnear). I saw it—v. funny, v. crude, and the hot colors of the Mexican locations are going to look extremely appealing during the dreary month of January.

Glory Road (Jan. 13) is for those who only cry at underdog sports victories. Jerry Bruckheimer produced this story of an early team of integrated basketball players: the Texas Western champs of 1966.

Woody Allen's serious London-set drama Match Point (Dec. 28 in New York and L.A., Jan. 20 here) has been acclaimed as his best work in years and was a highlight of this year's Cannes Film Festival. It revisits the concerns (and in many ways, the plot) of Crimes and Misdemeanors, though without Allen's customary comic relief. Johnny Rhys-Meyers is fascinating as a married social climber entangled with a trouble-prone Yank actress (Scarlett Johansson). The lush Cool Britannia locations are a rebuke to how crabbed and ugly Closer looked. Allen should have sojourned out of Manhattan years ago.

The Producers (Dec. 25) brings the Broadway juggernaut to the screen, complete with original cast members Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. Luckily, Will Ferrell takes the Kenneth Mars role as Hitler's biggest remaining fan. Perhaps, as his best joke in Allen's underrated Melinda and Melinda had it, Ferrell will play the part with a limp.

James Ivory's White Countess (Jan. 13) concerns between-the-wars exiles in Shanghai and reunites the Redgrave family (mom Vanessa, her daughter, Natasha Richardson, and Natasha's Aunt Lynn). In the rags-to-kimonos romance Memoirs of a Geisha (Dec. 23) by Rob (Chicago) Marshall, Michelle Yeoh has the lead role in the rags-to-kimonos romance, with the grave Ken Watanabe as the chairman. It's a real obi-ripper. Gong Li helps it along in the Joan Crawford part as the evil Hatsumomo.

Breakfast on Pluto (also Dec. 23) is the always-interesting Neil Jordan's take on a novel by Patrick McCabe, with cerulean-eyed Cillian "Scarecrow" Murphy playing a transsexual. TransAmerica (Dec. 23), also about transgender issues, is a mess. But it's a sweet appealing mess, with tasty tidbits throughout; Felicity Huffman provides a lot of pleasure as the drawling hero/heroine in search of a sex change; Graham Greene gives a courtly performance turn, and Fionnula Flanagan is rich as a horrendous mom.

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (Dec. 16) is a seriously sad lament for a pair of cowboys of the 1960s (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) who happen to be closer then their cowgirls would prefer. The pretty fillies in question are Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. Obviously the subject matter is a hell of a lot less shocking hereabouts, although it is understood that it will frighten the horses elsewhere. Still, seeing the tiptoe publicity, one sure misses the self-congratulatory, Otto Premingerian ad campaigns of the old school: "Only Ang Lee would DARE to film Annie Proulx's UNCENSORED SHOCKER! LEDGER AND GYLLENHAAL LITERALLY BURN THE SCREEN TO A CRISP!") In any case, co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry is expert as always in drawing up the closing off of the West.

Ledger also turns up in the title role of Casanova (Dec. 25), Lasse Hallström's version of the story of the legendary mack-artist.

Similarly aiming for prestige is the newest by the transcendental director Terrence Malick, The New World (Jan. 13), an impressionistic romance between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher)—happily enacted this time without "The Color of the Wind" playing behind it.

Turning from the dark past to the dark present and the even darker future is Dec. 9's Syriana, Stephen (Traffic) Gaghan's all-star espionage thriller about the crimes committed in the name of the oil racket. The film co-stars Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright and George Clooney, the last as portly and bearded as Santa Claus.

Munich (Dec. 23) is Steven Spielberg's tale of the Israeli Secret Service's mission to kill the Black Septembrists who engineered the Munich Olympics massacre. Reports are that it's quick, unSpielbergian and absolutely the opposite of escapist.

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