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11.26.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Andrew Schwartz
Benchwarmers : Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, a priest accused of molestation, and Amy Adams is Sister James in 'Doubt,' opening in mid-December.

Big and Bold

This holiday season's cinematic offerings go for bluster and bombast.

By Richard von Busack


A few decades ago, "turkey" was a bird of good omen to thespians. The slang meant "a holiday entertainment of guaranteed success," despite what the actor might personally think of its dry or greasy qualities when privately drinking and muttering to himself like the dad in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Is it too late to retrieve the original meaning of "turkey?" Perhaps not when we survey the holiday schedule, with rich, overstuffed butter-dripping fare in all directions.

Australia (Nov. 26), for instance. Baz Luhrmann has re-created not only the sweep of Gone With the Wind but the nigh-insane prevarication around that epic's making. Just as GWTW oversaw the coupling of the all-business North (Mr. Butler) with the all-romance South (Miz Scarlett), Luhrmann is mating an Aussie mustang, played by "Wolverine" Jackman, and a titled filly from England (Nicole Kidman) in order to foal a mighty island nation.

Considering that Luhrmann's previous work (recall Moulin Rouge!) has been as gaudy as a forest of Christmas trees, it might be overshadowed at the box office by a sleeper hit. Marley and Me (Dec. 25) could be it. The adaptation of John Grogan's sweet-sour memoir stars Owen Wilson as a Miami journalist who adopts a troubled bowser. Actress Jennifer Aniston, a chronic overreacher, is completely in her comfort zone as Wilson's blondie, facilitating her husband's progress from happy young guy to Dagwood Bumstead. This movie has good snark in addition to a wonderful dog who will make you cry and cry until your eyes come out on stalks, like you're a Dungeness crab. The other big dog story this fall is Bolt (Nov. 21), a 3-D Disney/Pixar cartoon about a would-be supercanine who never realized he was mortal; John Travolta and Miley Cyrus are in the vocal cast.

I've grown old listening to the announcements that someone was going to make a film of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dec. 25). F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story concerns a life lived in reverse. Now it is done, with the Fitzgerald-handsome Brad Pitt starring and David Fincher bringing out the macabre accents of the tale. Nothing else this season looks quite as distinguished or as moving.

One vaunted film, Sam Mendes' Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet vehicle, Revolutionary Road (Dec. 26), channels a Mad Men vibe without seeming to be as pungent as that incredible TV show, at least in the previews. Certainly Ron Howard's small-camera Frost/Nixon (Dec. 5) isn't devastating; Frank Langella is too beautiful to play our most warped president, grilled by our most obsequious chat show host. (As long as they don't make a movie called Leno/McCain, I'm good.) Doubt (Dec. 12) looks very, very savory, though, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a priest who may be fondling his altar boys. Meryl Streep co-stars as a nun on the warpath.

There's something about the Season of Giving that brings out the Nazis. I, too, choked when I saw Tom Cruise in an eye patch and a Wehrmacht uniform. But the previews for Valkyrie (Dec. 26), about the plot to kill Der Führer, has a smart, reliable director (Bryan Singer) and tantalizing previews. Kate Winslet in The Reader (Dec. 10) maintains that S.S. guards need love too. Defiance has Daniel Craig as a Jewish guerrilla fighting the Germans in the Polish forests.

Seeking more contemporary explosions, the demolitions fancier is directed to the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dec. 12), with Keanu Reeves as the alienated visitor and a rather taller-than-last-time Gort. For abject dumbness, nothing this season beats The Spirit (Dec. 25), with Frank Miller digitally leaching all the suave playfulness out of Will Eisner.

The comedy Four Christmases (Nov. 26), locally filmed, has a terrific premise: a couple get stuck Christmasing at their divorced parents' four residences. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon co-star, suffering through this insufferable time of year. Milk (Nov. 26) is Gus Van Sant's biopic of the pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn); Josh Brolin courts best-supporting Oscardom as the troubled copper Dan White. The Wrestler (Dec. 17) is a much-trumpeted comeback for Mickey Rourke. We'll see, because director Darren Arnofsky's taste for vaingloriousness (see Requiem for a Dream) could make audiences stick with the WWF. Finally, Cadillac Records (Dec. 5) looks like the season's only serious musical. It's the Chess Records story with Beyoncé as Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, and that last is a name great enough to end any article.


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