We've gotten through the winter doldrums, the summer blockbusters, and the fall Oscar hopefuls. Now, film fans, all that's left is to dodge those Salvation Army dudes with the constantly ringing bells on our way to the cineplex for some year-end holiday movie action!
Thankfully, action is actually something the studios have in store for us this holiday season. What this year's holiday slate lacks in slam-dunk blockbusters, it makes up for with the kind of variety that used to be unheard of during this time of year: You've got prestige entries from highly respected directors (Baz Luhrmann's "Australia"; David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), something for the kiddies (Adam Sandler's "Bedtime Stories"), heartstring tuggers (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road"), and, yes, bombs and bullets ("Transporter 3," "Punisher: War Zone).
About the only thing we don't have is a surplus of jingle bells and pine needles. Aside from the Vince Vaughn/Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy "Four Christmases" and John Leguizamo's "Nothing Like the Holidays," holiday-themed movies are in short supply in 2008 -- which, as anyone who's ever seen "Christmas with the Kranks" can tell you, is not necessarily a bad thing.
As always, we've taken a look at the seasonal release schedule, whittled it down to its strongest contenders, and assembled a list of BE-approved movies for your holiday season. Now you have at least an extra hour that you can set aside for hot buttered rum and chestnuts. You're welcome!
It may not have a very exciting title, but where Baz Luhrmann goes, widescreen, colorful action follows -- and "Australia" looks like it won't disappoint. Described as "an epic and romantic action adventure," the film features Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as a couple thrown together on a cross-country journey through the titular continent during the Japanese bombings of World War II. War movies aren't exactly popular at the box office right now, and Kidman recently suffered the indignity of being singled out as the least bankable actress in Hollywood -- but Luhrmann has a way of turning movies that look like garish bombs into piles of money, and it would be foolish to count him out.
This year's holiday schedule is relatively light on Christmas-themed fare, but one noteworthy exception is this rom-com starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as a bickering married couple forced to divide their holiday between four dysfunctional families. Vaughn, who clearly has a thing for Christmas flicks -- "Four Christmases" arrives on the heels of last year's "Fred Claus" -- seems to do his best work with an onscreen partner, and Witherspoon has proven her comedy mettle with "Legally Blonde"; add in a bang-up supporting cast that includes Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Favreau, and despite its formulaic plot, this has at least an outside shot at giving filmgoers some holiday cheer.
You can roll your eyes and wonder why in the hell anyone needed a "Transporter 3," but when a movie relies on a genre's stock ingredients as heavily as the first movie in this series did -- and makes money anyway -- you might as well just keep on cranking them out as long as the audience keeps showing up. There's no plot, really -- even the official synopsis consists of nothing more than a curt "Jason Statham returns as Frank Martin, the ex-Special Forces operative who specializes in high-risk deliveries" -- but with a screenplay co-written by Luc Besson and another go-round by the immensely likable Statham in the title role, plot concerns are somewhere near the bottom of a list of ingredients that stars and ends with action. If Luhrmann's "Australia" picks up negative word of mouth, there's a strong chance that "Transporter 3" could walk away with the top spot at the box office during its opening weekend. It won't win any awards for originality, but at least people know they're going to get what they come for.
Chess Records isn't a name that means anything to most people today, but during the '50s and '60s, it was home to an array of now-legendary musicians, including Etta James, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry. The label's rise is chronicled in "Cadillac Records," which features Adrien Brody as label founder Leonard Chess, Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James, and Mos Def as Chuck Berry. For the non-music geeks in the audience, the film's subject material is on the esoteric side -- and for folks who don't care about early blues and rock and roll, it might just look plain boring -- but the cast is intriguing, to say the least, and who doesn't think Knowles has been waiting to knock "At Last" out of the park since Christina Aguilera started singing it at concerts 10 years ago? With nothing but the latest "Punisher" reboot providing competition, all "Cadillac" needs is some strong reviews to put it over the top.
Punisher: War Zone
You're talking about a franchise that started with a direct-to-video laffer starring Dolph Lundgren, so expectations for any "Punisher" movie should be kept on the low end of the spectrum -- but even by those standards, "Punisher: War Zone" has carried the whiff of a project in trouble for the last few months, dogged by rumors of director Lexi Alexander being removed from post-production and a series of badly received trailers. Still, at its core, this is nothing more than the story of a man driven to violent extremes by horrific circumstances, and with two "Punisher" stinkers in the can already, it seems as likely as not that the third time will finally be the charm. As long as there's plenty of death and mayhem -- and with an R rating attached to "War Zone," that seems a given -- fans should come away from this installment satisfied.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In the 1951 original, an alien emissary ventured to Earth to put a lid on simmering post-WWII tensions between the Western world and the Soviet Union; now, over 50 years later, this updated version gives us Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, who is now here on behalf of the entire planet -- specifically its ecosystem. Taking a sci-fi classic and slapping an environmentally friendly coat of paint on it may not seem like the best idea -- particularly after similarly themed projects such as "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Happening" were so roundly panned -- but there's no arguing that casting Reeves as a blank-faced alien was a stroke of genius, and for fans of widescreen, big-budget action, this Scott Derrickson-directed remake is essentially the only game in town. The inevitably lukewarm reviews notwithstanding, it should offer a couple of hours of old-fashioned entertainment -- and who isn't curious about getting a look at a 21st-century version of Gort?
Clint Eastwood may be getting on in years, but lest you doubt he's still one badass mofo, just take a single look at the "Gran Torino" trailer, which offers a glimpse of Clint in action, single-handedly scaring the bejeesus out of hard-boiled Asian gangbangers. Think the sight of a 76-year-old man growling "Get off my lawn" is always funny? Get an eyeful of Clint in full Crypt Keeper mode in "Gran Torino" and think again. Eastwood's latest directorial effort, "Changeling," opened to poor reviews and lukewarm receipts, but "Torino" -- which some continue to insist is the "Dirty Harry" sequel that rumors suggested, despite all evidence to the contrary -- looks like another solid entry in the long Eastwood filmography, not to mention one last gritty action flick from the guy who pretty much redefined the genre.
A few years ago, a Mickey Rourke comeback seemed about as likely as Mickey Rourke staying alive long enough to see his 50th birthday -- but lo and behold, a Rourke comeback is exactly what seems to be forming around "The Wrestler." Director Darren Aronofsky saw parallels between Rourke's career arc and the sad tale of washed-up wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and stood by his star even through studio pussyfooting that saw Nicolas Cage briefly courted for the role. As "The Wrestler's" glowing festival reviews already attest, Aronofsky's instincts were right on the money; critics say Rourke's performance hearkens back to his riveting work in early releases such as "Angel Heart" and "Rumble Fish."
Nobody seems to know what exactly "Seven Pounds" is about -- the synopsis describes its central character as "an IRS agent with a fateful secret who embarks on an extraordinary journey of redemption" -- but what's really important isn't the storyline, it's that "Pounds" stars Will Smith in a role that reunites him with his "Pursuit of Happyness" director, Gabriele Muccino, promising plenty of hankie-wetting drama (and box office receipts). Smith has had a few flops, and a movie with a mystery plot is always a tough sell, but let's be realistic -- if "Seven Pounds" flops, it'll be a bigger surprise than whatever twist they've got in store for the movie's ending.
Jim Carrey returns to seriocomic form -- think "Liar Liar" -- in this tale of Carl Allen, a guy who says no to everything until a self-help course convinces him to change his ways completely and become a guy who always says yes, no matter what. It's the kind of "sane guy in a crazy situation" setup that Carrey excels in, and with a supporting cast that includes Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, and Terence Stamp, we're betting at least $100 million worth of moviegoers will be saying "yes" to "Yes Man."
He rose to fame on comedies built out of equal parts rude and stupid, but since the turn of the century, Adam Sandler has mostly flitted between tender dramedies ("Spanglish") and sappy, juvenile comedies ("Click"). Adam Shankman's "Bedtime Stories" seems to be a combination of the two, starring Sandler as a hotel handyman named Skeeter who discovers that the stories he's telling his niece and nephew -- no matter how fantastic -- are coming true. Kids, Sandler as a kindly uncle, special effects galore -- this is the type of movie that comes packed with an orchestral score and an emotional life lesson in the final act. It probably won't inspire repeat viewings like "Billy Madison" or "Happy Gilmore," but for something innocuous to show the kids, this is your Christmas destination.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about a backwards-aging man born in his 80s has been the stuff of dreams for more than one filmmaker, but it took David Fincher (and the combined might of a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, and Julia Ormond) to finally get it done -- and even then, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has been dogged by rumors of ongoing battles between Fincher and Paramount over the movie's running time, which is supposedly hovering between two and three hours. Early reviews have been mixed, but with this story and that cast, it'll take some seriously negative word of mouth to keep audiences out of theaters on Christmas Day.
A movie about a televised interview? It might sound like pretty boring stuff, if it weren't being directed by Ron Howard, adapted from Peter Morgan's play, and didn't star Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in reprises of their stage roles. Langella, who won a Tony for his portayal of Nixon, returns to the disgraced president here, presenting Nixon as a still-crafty politician who agrees to a no-holds-barred interview with David Frost in part because he believes he can steamroll the British television personality and set the tone of the conversation. Frost, however, has plans of his own; the movie's climax rests on their historic on-air confrontation. "Frost/Nixon" faces stiff competition on December 25th, which is probably part of why Imagine is rolling it out slowly; by the time it reaches wide release on Christmas, it might have enough positive buzz to entice moviegoers away from bigger, brighter fare.
Will Eisner's classic comic series isn't the household name that Spider-Man or Batman are, but neither was "Sin City" before Frank Miller brought it to the big screen -- and if the trailers are any indication, Miller's adaptation of "The Spirit" will boast more of the stylized, green-screen-heavy visuals that moviegoers responded to in "Sin City" (not to mention "300"). For non-comic fans, "The Spirit" offers plenty of action -- and a high cheesecake quotient, with supporting roles for Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Jaime King, and Sarah Paulson. And okay, so Sam Jackson looks pretty ridiculous in the trailers and posters, but Miller has earned our trust, right?
Thousands of "Titanic" fans have been wishing for years that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio would get together again to recreate some of that onscreen magic -- but they probably weren't thinking that reunion would take place in a project like Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road," in which Kate and Leo play a pair of deeply unhappy marrieds. Still, even if this film trades out waterlogged love for Baby Boomer ennui, its two stars have an awful lot of fans, and most of them aren't going to have anything to do on December 26 other than go shopping and cry along with Kate and Leo as their marriage buckles under the strain of lies and self-deceptions. Happy holidays, everyone!
Few movies in recent memory have overcome as much negative buzz as Valkyrie, only to see it all turned around by a simple trailer. For months, film sites across the Web sniggered and giggled at the sight of Tom Cruise, resplendent in eyepatch, as German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who spearheaded an assassination attempt on Hitler during World War II; everything from Cruise's non-accent to the German government's disdain for Scientology was fodder for the rumor mill. It didn't help that "Valkyrie" kept getting pushed back, or that Cruise's other projects since taking over United Artists (most notably "Lions for Lambs") tanked at the box office. But since debuting a third trailer, "Valkyrie" actually has people excited to see it. Cruise still has a huge public relations mountain to climb, but portraying the would-be murderer of one of the most evil men in history can't be a bad way to start, right?