Christmas Movie Preview

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A scene from 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman
Director: Joel Coen
Opens: Dec. 22

Three cons (Clooney, Turturro and Nelson) are on the lam in '30s Mississippi. A blind prophet intones, "You shall see a cow on top of a cotton bale, and many other startlements." Startlements are indeed in store: a one-eyed, toad-squishing salesman (Goodman); three maidens washing their laundry in a stream. These, and the name of the bombastic schemer Clooney plays — Everett Ulysses McGill — should be sufficient clues to identify the film's source: "based on The Odyssey by Homer." While tout Hollywood purloins comic books for its scenarios, Joel and Ethan Coen raid noble antiquity: not just Homer's fabulous travelog in verse but Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (for the movie's title) and MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" (for a delirious production number starring the Ku Klux Klan). Toss in enough gorgeous bluegrass music to make the movie's CD a must-have, and you have prime, picaresque entertainment. It celebrates the chicanery of the human spirit, the love of raillery and rodomontade. But don't ask us for reasons; we just liked it. As Clooney, who never radiated more star quality, opines: "It's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart." — R.C.

 

Cast Away
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Opens: Dec. 22

Tom Hanks is back on a killer beach, and this time he's alone. The soldiers hitting the Normandy sands in "Saving Private Ryan" faced grim death, but it might come in the arms of a buddy. Chuck Noland, the FedEx manager stranded on a Pacific island after a plane crash, has no one to talk to, to bray at, as he did to his harried underlings at work — no one to shore up his resolve or share his desperation. Well, all right. Chuck is a doer. So he will fashion tools, clothing, shelter; find food, draw cave paintings, make fire. He will replicate the ascent of man, all by his lonesome. He'll be Robinson Crusoe without Friday, Gilligan without the crew, Survivor without all those annoying other survivors. Hanks has often played a decent man isolated — in his mind ("Forrest Gump"), his disease ("Philadelphia"), his bereavement ("Sleepless in Seattle") or outer space ("Apollo 13"). As Chuck, he finds his best, most resourceful self in isolation. So does William Broyles Jr.'s script; the 80 mins. it spends on the atoll alone with Hanks make for engrossing storytelling. The film is less sure-footed back in civilization, with the girl Chuck left behind (Hunt). For its soul is on the beach, in its gradually unfolding secrets, its new perils and triumphs. The film has loved inhabiting the real estate of a restless, splendid solitude. So, perhaps, has Chuck; he's Adam in a more daunting Eden. — R.C.

 

Thirteen Days
Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Roger Donaldson
Opens: Dec. 25 in N.Y. and L.A.; wide Jan. 12

The interesting thing about life is that it does not come prepackaged in a three-act structure the way most movies do. It tends to lurch along like — oh, say, a disputed election in Florida. Take the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Since we are all still here to savor this accurate reconstruction of those anguished days, we know everything came out all right in the end. But seen through the eyes of presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell (Costner), it is still a suspenseful tale. Well acted too, especially by Costner and Greenwood as John F. Kennedy. The players don't particularly look like their historical models, but they make us feel their life-threatening pain and puzzlement. — R.S.

 

Finding Forrester
Starring: Sean Connery, Robert Brown
Director: Gus Van Sant
Opens: Dec. 19 in N.Y. and L.A.; wide Dec. 25

Forrester (Connery) is a one-book novelist, fallen into an endless Salinger-esque funk. From the window of his Bronx apartment he watches black kids playing basketball in a vastly changed neighborhood. The best and brightest of them, Jamal (good newcomer Brown), penetrates his lair on a dare, and a mentoring relationship develops between the cranky old writer and the very bright teenager. The film's twists and turns are as predictable as the patronizing racism at the private school that grants the boy a scholarship. Something more surprising might have been made of this odd couple, but Van Sant, emptily employing the realist manner of his early films, is goodwill hunting in all the wrong places. — R.S.

 

All the Pretty Horses
Starring: Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penélope Cruz, Lucas Black
D irector: Billy Bob Thornton
Opens: Dec. 25

In 1940s Texas, a young man named John Grady Cole (Damon) loses the ranch he loves in an inheritance battle, rounds up a buddy (Thomas) and heads for Mexico, looking for work, looking for adventure; looking, without quite admitting it, for the sort of experience that will make men in full of them. That, stripped of the fancy writing that rendered Cormac McCarthy's novel unreadable to some of us, is the narrative essence of "All the Pretty Horses," and it's not a bad one. The lads almost immediately encounter a funny, violent, nutsy kid (Black), and you know right away that his heedlessness is going to cause them a lot of bother. Among other things, his wild (indeed, murderous) ways will eventually mess up Grady's soulful romance with Alejandra (the lovely Cruz), daughter of the rich rancher the boys sign on with. All in all, it is, to borrow the old bunkhouse cliché, a rattling good yarn, even if it is all surface, no subtext. Whether there was some larger meaning in director Thornton's original cut — said to have been close to four hours long — is impossible to say, at least until the dvd comes out. For the moment, we have a perfectly coherent, handsomely rendered couple of hours, animated in particular by Damon's good performance — shrewd, innocent, angry, wistful and, above all, likable. Maybe this movie might have been more. But it could easily have been a lot less.

 

What Women Want
Starring: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt
Director: Nancy Meyers
Opens: Dec. 15

The accident is plausible: it involves a hair dryer, a bathtub and an electric shock. The results are improbable: the victim, Gibson's Nick Marshall, an adman confronting a career crisis, is given a magical ability to listen in on womens' thoughts. As comic premises go these days, it is acceptable. One settles back to enjoy the advantages, personal and professional, that accrue to Nick as a result of his unexpected gift. There's some good humor in the truths that he overhears, maybe even some sympathetic insights into the inner life of a sex he has exploited as God's hunky gift to womankind. Certainly it helps him ingratiate himself with Darcy Maguire (Hunt), the new creative director at his ad agency. But something goes wrong at about the moment they start getting romantically involved. Maybe it's a failure of chemistry between Gibson and Hunt. More likely it's a failure in the script, attributed to Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa. They just can't seem to establish a consistently bantering tone between the stars. They might also want to re-examine their boring subplots involving Nick and his conventionally rebellious teenage daughter, a romance with a waitress that goes nowhere, and a relationship with a suicidal woman at the office. Meyers gets lost in these meanderings. The movie has none of the giddy wit we associate with classic romantic comedy. It just runs on and on — like a slightly stupid story you wish you hadn't overheard in a singles bar. — R.S.

 

Chocolat
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Opened: Dec. 15

One snowy day, a woman named Vianne Rocher (Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive in the staid if picturesque French village of Lansquenet. Their intent is to open a chocolate shop, the sensual products of which are bound to remind the locals that life has more to offer than churchgoing and spousal abuse. Their goodies place them in conflict with the rectitudinous mayor (Alfred Molina) but warm the chilled souls of various inhabitants (Judi Dench, Lena Olin, John Wood). Vianne eventually makes common romantic cause with a riverboat wanderer (Depp) who also scandalizes the town with his unsettled and unsettling ways. The chocolatier will perhaps evoke for sardonic viewers the old dope peddler of Tom Lehrer's song, "spreading joy wherever [s] he goes." Indeed, some of the desserts apparently contain aphrodisiacs. The movie itself may suggest to those who find themselves unsusceptible to its fabulistic charms how easy it has become to travesty the manner of what used to be thought of as "art" movies. This one has something of their air — an attractive, slightly exotic setting, characters who appear to have some substance and some curious quirks. But everything is spun toward sugary sentimentality. And relentless predictability. Vianne always knows, and we always know, what effect her concoctions will have on her customers. They always shake off their repressions and troubles at precisely the right inspirational moment. Dench's character even manages to die just when she should, with her life's work neatly completed. Made with a sort of tasteful vulgarity, this movie never disappoints the slack-minded audience's anticipation of the humanistically healing banality, the life-crushing behavioral cliché. — R.S.

 

Pollock
Starring: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Ed Harris
Opens: Dec. 15 in N.Y. and L.A.; wide Feb. 16

There are two things you have to say about Jackson Pollock: He figured out a way to paint as no one before him ever had, and he was, as a human being, a shambles — drunken, depressed, disloyal and near to moronically inarticulate. The only way to approach his short and miserable life (he died in a possibly suicidal car crash at age 44) is as an insoluble mystery, and that's precisely what Harris, the star, director and co-producer of Pollock, does. The script by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller offers no explanation of the painter's dysfunction or his genius. We meet him pretty much when his wife Lee Krasner (the excellent Harden) does: hanging around Greenwich Village in the 1940s, struggling to break away from his imitative work. Then we see him achieve his breakthrough and watch his burgeoning celebrity do him in. There has never been a more antiheroic biopic than this one. Or a better portrait of the artist as a hopeless mess. Harris' great performance has a kind of blank grimness; it contains not a single moment of charm or self-awareness. Harris never allows his exhibitions of Pollock's inexplicable gift to soften or redeem the man's monstrousness. The result is a harrowing film, impossible to "like" in any conventional way, hypnotically impossible to turn away from. — R.S.

 

The Gift
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves
Director: Sam Raimi opens: Dec. 20 in L.A.; wide Jan. 19

Annie Wilson (Blanchett) is part psychic, part psychiatrist. The locals come to her modest Georgia home less for her readings of the future than for sympathy and counsel. Valerie the battered wife (Hilary Swank) needs to hear she has the courage to leave her brutal husband Donnie (Reeves). Poor afflicted Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi) needs to get those angry voices out of his head. And when prime rich bitch Jessica King (Katie Holmes) goes missing, her grieving fiancé (Greg Kinnear) comes to Annie. For though she chats with her dead grandmother, sleeps with a baseball bat beside her bed and has visions of the dead in her bathtub, Annie is quite the most sensible person around. Ah, the rural South, where nearly every-one — at least in popular fiction — is either ruttin' randy or picturesquely deranged. Annie can't do a good deed without getting whacked around by Donnie, the inbred ingrate. When she complains to a cop about him, the cop offers this blithe appraisal: "He's high-strung." No more so than the script, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson; it is given to violent outbursts amid its sullen patches, and plot twists that don't strain plausibility so much as ignore it. By the end, the movie has gone goofily gothic — more Wes Craven than Truman Capote — and you may be convinced that director Raimi meant "The Gift" to be a deadpan postmodernist horror comedy. The sole evidence to the contrary is Blanchett's performance: persuasive, subtle, impeccable. She seems the only guardian of sanity in this good-old-boy Bellevue. — R.C.

 

Family Man
Starting: Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni
Director: Brett Ratner
Opens: Dec. 22

Scrooge never dressed so smartly. Wall Street wolf Jack Campbell (Cage) looks cool and talks cruel: there’s a big merger brewing, so everyone in his mergers and acquisitions firm will work on Christmas day. But Scrooges have to sleep on Christmas Eve; that's when revelations and atonement come. Jack nods off on satin sheets and wakes in another bed — his own, in a parallel universe, where for years he's been married to Kate (Leoni), the sweetheart he left behind to be a zillionaire. In this nightmare world he has two squalling kids, a cruddy job selling tires in his father-in-law's store, a bunch of bowling buddies, an old van, and — can it get worse for this chic Manhattanite? — he lives in New Jersey. These days, the only way Hollywood can tell a story of ordinary people struggling with the awesome challenges and compromises of family life is to reduce them to sugarific fantasy. And, further, to view life's choices as Manichean: Jack is either a rich creep or a humanized husband and father. Kate sees it that way: when Jack talks his way into a job with the firm he used to run, she all but refuses the move to Manhattan. Who'd want to leave misery in the 'burbs? "Family Man" is a film that's fun to argue with. But at the end you may surrender to its "Wonderful Life" portrait of middle-class coping, and to Cage's poignant anguish. His features crumble, his shoulders sink under the burden of a strong man's perplexity. — R.C.

 

The Emperor's New Groove
Starring The voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton
Director Mark Dindal
Opened Dec. 15

This feature-length cartoon writhed for four years in development hell (or, as they say at Disney, Development Heck) before its title was changed from "Kingdom of the Sun," its scope narrowed from spectacle to intimacy, its tone altered from the dramatic to the brashly comic and all but one of its songs scrapped. There were other ominous signs: Disney didn't blanket the TV air with commercials; and Spade, in a recent visit with Jay Leno, was loath to mention his new movie. All of which meant, in the end, nothing; the film is a funny, breezy romp. Emperor Kuzco (very much like the sarcastic brat Spade plays on "Just Shoot Me" and everywhere else) is turned into a llama by his in-house sorceress (Kitt) and her dull aide (Warburton). Kuzco has only one ally, the gentle shepherd Pacha (Goodman). Despite their mutual hatred, they are just the pair to retrieve the remedy for his curse and restore the llama Kuzco to emperor status. So here's the story of a thinks-he's-hip fellow amusingly vexed at losing his identity. It could be called "Dude, Where's My Karma?" The cast, especially Spade (we keep wanting to call him David Snide) and Warburton, give bounce and sass to a script full of clever ideas. You won't find the emotional grandeur of "The Lion King" here, but that's OK. "Emperor" doesn't aim too high or strain too hard; it is at ease inhabiting its pretty, miniature realm. — R.C.