The November-to-New Year’s holiday window is the traditional time of year for Hollywood to lay out not only its big-ticket, kid-friendly family fare, but also the pictures deemed worthy of Academy Awards. Hence, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie sharing an opening date with Liam Neeson’s bow-tied performance as a pioneering sex researcher in Kinsey (both Nov. 19), and Jim Carrey’s deliciously twisted kiddie vehicle Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events going toe-to-toe with Martin Scorsese’s high-end Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (both Dec. 17 – though a few release dates herein could change).
Speaking of Alfred Kinsey and Howard Hughes, this is a season heavy with real-life biographies. Ray, anchored by Jamie Foxx’s uncanny (and Oscar-nomination shoo-in) performance as Ray Charles, is already in theaters. So, too, The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’ road pic about the young Ernesto "Che" Guevera, which is being touted for Oscar consideration.
In Callas Forever (Nov. 26), Fanny Ardant portrays opera legend Maria Callas during the later days of her regal career. In Finding Neverland (Nov. 19), Johnny Depp dons dapper Victorian duds and a strange Scottish accent to offer an imaginative account of how author and playwright James M. Barrie dreamed up Peter Pan.
In Beyond the Sea (Dec. 29), Kevin Spacey plays "Mack the Knife" pop idol Bobby Darin. And in The Sea Inside (Dec. 17), the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem portrays Ramon Sampedro, a paralyzed former ship mechanic who gained world renown for his 30-year fight to win the right to terminate his own life. The film is Spain’s entry in the foreign-language Academy Awards category.
The folks who dole out the Oscars have historically favored biopics, and there
are best-actor-and-actress candidates aplenty in the true-life field this time
around. (Look for Laura Linney as Clara Kinsey in Kinsey, too.)
Oliver Stone’s Alexander (Nov. 24), with Colin Farrell as the fourth-century B.C. Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, promises to bring pomp and paranoia to the genre of historical epics. The big-budget sandal saga boasts a lineup the MTV Movie Awards would love: Rosario Dawson, Angelina Jolie (as Olympia, with Olympian lips) and Jared Leto, joined by the likes of Val Kilmer (Philip, King of Macedonia) and Anthony Hopkins (Ptolemy). The buzz? There’s not much. It could be this year’s Gladiator (big hit). Or this year’s King Arthur (a bomb). (OK, that one was actually released this year, so King Arthur really is this year’s King Arthur – but we digress.)
More recent historical events are examined in a pair of pictures warmly received at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle portrays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who became an unwitting hero during the tribal civil wars that devastated the African nation in 1994. And in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Jan. 14), Sean Penn stars as Sam Bicke, a traveling salesman who, suffering a nervous breakdown, schemes to kill the president.
Note to overachievers looking for a role model: Cheadle of Hotel Rwanda has a key role in Richard Nixon, too. And the actor can also be seen in After the Sunset (currently in theaters), opposite Pierce Brosnan, followed by another big-studio popcorn pic, Ocean’s Twelve (Dec. 10), opposite the returning cast of Steven Soderbergh’s jaunty 2001 hit Ocean’s Eleven.
In terms of potential crowd-pleasers with high box-office expectations, Ocean’s Twelve – with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, et. al. – is certainly on the short list. So is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (Dec. 22), the Joel Schumacher-steered adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about a disfigured genius lurking around a Paris opera house. Scottish actor Gerard Butler has the title role, Minnie Driver is along for the ride and Warner Bros. is drumming up a big Academy Award "for your consideration" campaign in the Hollywood trades.
And let’s not forget The House of the Flying Daggers (Dec. 17), which comes from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, responsible for this year’s $100 million-plus martial-arts success story, Hero. This exhilarating Tang Dynasty epic, which stars lithe and limber Zhang Ziyi of Hero, is a dazzling, cinemagenic love story and a chopsocky spectacle that outperforms, in its scenes of wild, gravity-free combat, anything in Hero or the actress’s other well-known, Oscar-winning Asian magic-and-mayhem movie, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
More popcorn potential is at hand in National Treasure (Nov. 19), a cliffhanger starring Nicolas Cage as an archaeologist searching for "the most spectacular treasure in history," stashed by our Founding Fathers during the Revolutionary War. And in Blade: Trinity (Dec. 8), Wesley Snipes returns yet again as the cloaked comic-book vampire-slayer, with the dishy Jessica Biel joining the hunt.
Family discord, comic division, is the subject heading for Christmas With the Kranks (Nov. 24), an adaptation of John Grisham’s fluffy Yuletide tale about a couple who decide not to celebrate the holidays. Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis star. And in Meet the Fockers (Dec. 22), the in-law nightmare of 2000’s Meet the Parents is revisited from the other side of the aisle, with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as new hubby Ben Stiller’s dad and mom, matching wits and trading quips with Robert De Niro.
Fans of Wes Anderson’s left-of-center screwball portraits Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums can be heartened by the impending release of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Dec. 25), in which Bill Murray sports a red wool cap and a Speedo to portray a world-famous oceanographer looking for a killer shark and attempting to patch things up with his estranged son (Owen Wilson). Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe are on board the vessel, too.
Although Million Dollar Baby, from director Clint Eastwood, won’t get here until January, the film is opening in mid-December in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscars. Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank stars in this tale of a female boxer training for the Big Fight. Likewise, The Woodsman, with an Oscar-caliber turn from Kevin Bacon as a pedophile, won’t open in the rest of the country until the early weeks of 2005. The same, alas, can be said for Bad Education, the latest from Oscar-favorite Pedro Almodovar, which tracks the friendship of two men shaped by their experiences in a strict Catholic grade school.
Closer (Dec. 3) is another likely award contestant. The adaptation of the tough
Patrick Marber play about two couples cheating on each other with each other (or
suspecting as much) comes from director Mike Nichols. The cast, a killer: Jude
Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman.
There’s much more out there, of course. Another pair of anticipated titles: A Very Long Engagement (Dec. 17), which reteams Amelie star, Audrey Tautou, and director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, set in the trenches of World War I. And Spanglish (Dec. 17), from writer-director James L. Brooks, stars Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni, in a xenophobic comedy about a well-off Los Angeles couple trying to deal with their below-the-border, and va-va-va-voom (Paz Vega), help.
Another helping, anyone?
(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.