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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 11:00 am

Holiday film preview

Unexpected gifts among lumps of coal


The consensus among critics is that 2010 has been less than a memorable year as movies go. Moviegoers agree to a certain extent, if box office tallies are to be believed. As we enter the last month of the year, a frontrunner in the end-of-the-year awards season has yet to emerge. I’d be hard pressed to name a film I enjoyed more than The Ghost Writer, which was released all the way back in February. However, movie studios know that if they can get their films on as many Top 10 Lists as possible, as well as land a few prestigious awards, that can mean a boost at the box office for a movie that might otherwise only break even. Last year’s big winner, Slumdog Millionaire, is a textbook example of this kind of strategy paying off. The film was fresh in the minds of critics and award-givers and it reaped the benefits. So, there’s reason to hope that the studios have saved their most prestigious and entertaining films for the holiday season, traditionally their most profitable time of year.

What follows is a rundown of the movies that will hit area screens over the next six weeks. Some need no extra publicity (if you don’t know about Tron: Legacy then you’ve been living under a rock), while others from smaller studios need to be put on your radar, as these films tend to be of higher quality. Films with firm release dates are listed first in the order in which they’ll play, while others are arranged according to the month they’ll hit area screens.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Disney Studios attempts to revive this under-achieving franchise after Walden Media put the C.S.Lewis’ series into turnaround after the poor box office take of the second entry in the series, Prince Caspian. This time around the Pevensie brood take a trip across the sea on the title ship in order to stop the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) from putting into action her latest evil plan. Cutting-edge special effects, cute animal characters and a family friendly approach are being used to resurrect this series. (Dec. 10)

The Company Men – Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper star as corporate middlemen who find themselves on the unemployment line when they’re downsized at their respective companies. While this material may hit too close to home for some, the film has the potential to pointedly examine the effects of corporate greed and expansion and the collateral damage that results. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch the film’s trailer – it gives everything away. With Kevin Costner as Affleck’s well-meaning brother-in-law. (Dec. 10)

The Tourist – Johnny Depp takes on the title role as a traveler who vacations to Milan only to find himself involved in a case of international espionage once he crosses paths with Elise (Angelina Jolie), an Interpol agent who uses him to trap a fugitive. The two leads certainly bring enough star power to open this film but what remains to be seen is if they have any chemistry. Can they create a North by Northwest vibe in this riff on the Hitchcock mistaken man formula? (Dec. 10)

The Fighter – Mark Wahlberg stars as boxer Mickey Ward, a fighter with vast potential who can be a champion if he can only overcome his personal demons. His brother Dick (Christian Bale) once was on the brink of boxing success but squandered every opportunity that came his way. Now, he manages Mickey and hopes to steer him away from all the pitfalls that lie in his way. Have we been down this road before? You bet, but with Wahlberg, Bale and Amy Adams on board and director David O. Russell (Three Kings) at the helm, I’m willing to step into the square ring once more for this fact-based fight tale. (Dec. 17)

Tron: Legacy – While Disney’s 1982 sci-fi effort Tron hardly lit up the box office, it did manage to achieve a cult following that the current bosses at the Mouse House are hoping to tap into some 28 years later. Jeff Bridges returns as Flynn, the techno-wizard long thought to be dead, who inadvertently stumbled into a microscopic computer world of his own creation in the original. Years later, his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), accidentally follows in his father’s footsteps and finds himself fighting for his life in this sub-atomic gladiator world. More intriguing is that he finds his father is still alive and the two rage against the machine in their quest to return to the real world. If the trailers are any indication, this film utilizes the latest in 3-D technology to great effect. (Dec. 17)

How Do You Know? – Writer/director James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets) returns with this love story about a confused young woman (Reese Witherspoon) who’s torn between her goofy boyfriend, professional baseball player Manny Wilson (Owen Wilson) and a friend from her past, George Michelson (Paul Rudd), who’s unemployed and being investigated by the FBI for fraud. Brooks is usually a sure hand with this sort of material, as he has the deftness to deliver laughs that don’t overwhelm it and a degree of drama that doesn’t weigh his films down. Throw in his standby star, Jack Nicholson as Rudd’s father, and this seems like a sure bet. (Dec. 17)

Yogi Bear – Everybody’s favorite picnic-basket-raiding bear finally hits the big screen in this feature that combines animation with life action in – you guessed it – 3-D. Anna Faris is a documentary filmmaker who travels to Jellystone National Park to work on her latest project, only to have it thwarted by Yogi and his main cub, Boo-Boo. If the success of the last two Alvin and the Chipmunks films are any indication, this one should go through the roof. (Dec. 17)

Gulliver’s Travels – Jack Black stars in this modern update of the Jonathan Swift tale as Lemuel Gulliver, a travel writer who takes a wrong turn at the Bermuda Triangle and winds up marooned on the island of Lilliput where he’s literally a giant among the tiny inhabitants who live there. Visual gags seem to be the order of the day and I’m sure none of Swift’s social commentary makes the cut here. However, Black is always enjoyable and hopefully his enthusiasm will save the day. With Emily Blunt and Jason Segel. (Dec. 22)

Little Fockers – Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro go toe-to-toe for the third time as reluctant in-laws who fail to see eye-to-eye on anything, especially on how to go about raising the youngest members of the Focker clan. Greg (Stiller) finds himself in a bit of a bind with another Focker on the way and funds in the bank dwindling. He takes a night job to make ends meet, which pushes Jack (De Niro) over the edge as he thinks his son-in-law might not be man enough to keep things together. Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman return as Greg’s parents while De Niro’s old cohort, Harvey Keitel, shows up for the fun. (Dec. 22)

True Grit – Their first film since the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers remake the seminal John Wayne western, though the tone is far more serious than the 1968 movie because they adhere more closely to the novel by Charles Portis. Jeff Bridges (yep, him again) tries to fill Wayne’s boots, taking on the role of Rooster Cogburn, while Matt Damon is on hand as La Boeuf, his Texas Ranger ally. Josh Brolin is Tom Chaney, the despicable prey they pursue. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the Coens’ brand of excessive violence colors this classic tale. (Dec. 22)

Country Strong – Gwyneth Paltrow returns to the big screen as Kelly Canter, a country music veteran who tries to ride the comeback trail on the coattails of up-and-coming songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). This plan doesn’t sit well with her husband/manager Ed (real-life country superstar Tim McGraw), while things are further complicated by Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a rising star with her eye on Hutton. Paltrow’s singing and performance are being touted as Grade A, while the film is thought to be this year’s answer to Crazy Heart. (Jan. 7)

127 Hours – Aron Ralston made headlines around the world when it was reported that he had cut off his own arm after being trapped between a rock face and a dislodged boulder for more than five days. This incredible story is the basis for director Danny Boyle’s life-affirming film based on Ralston’s memoir and the videotapes he had made of himself while trapped. James Franco delivers an introspective and moving performance as Ralston, tapping into the man’s sense of optimism even in the face of despair. Having seen the film twice, I can say it’s one of my favorites of the year and should not be missed. It is a life-affirming event that won’t soon leave you.

All Good Things – This fact-based film examines one of the most perplexing missing murder cases in New York State history. Ryan Gosling is David Marks, the youngest son of Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) who’s built a virtually unrivaled real estate empire. However, things begin to unravel when David is accused of killing his wife, Katie (Kirsten Dunst). The ensuing investigation uncovers long-held secrets that threaten the Marks’ empire as well as their reputations. Based on the Robert Durst murder case, the filmmakers claim they uncovered new evidence while conducting research for the film. (December)

Black Swan – Natalie Portman stars as a veteran ballerina poised to take on the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. However, an impressive ingénue (Mila Kunis) bursts upon the scene, threatening to steal the limelight from her. The rivalry that breaks out between these two is as vicious as anything you might see between two competitors. Director Darren Afronsky (The Wrestler) focuses on the moral choices the characters make and the effect these choices have on their character as they strive to achieve their goals. All is not as it seems in this drama that has more than its fair share of twists. (December)

Casino Jack – This film about lobbyist Jack Abramoff recounts how he was able to build an empire through under-the-table deals and shady favors, only to be brought low by a government sting that causes his million-dollar house of cards to fall apart. Buzz is high for Kevin Spacey’s performance as Abramoff, while the film itself is poised to be an audience favorite what with backlash against every suspect government practice at a fever pitch. (December)

Blue Valentine – Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as Dean and Cindy, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Through flashbacks, we see how these two met, how their love flourished and how, little by little, their relationship disintegrates. Deceptively simple in plot, the film garnered raves at the Sundance Film Festival for its heartbreaking look at how love can fade little by little and for the performances by the two leads. A bit of controversy occurred when the film was given a NC-17 rating for its graphic sex scenes, a decision that’s being appealed. (January)

Frankie and Alice – Halle Berry stars in the title role(s) as a conflicted woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder. Seems that Frankie is a normal woman who just tries to take things day by day, while her alter ego is a raging racist who wears away at her self-esteem. In extremely limited release, this is an obvious push for Berry to win her second Oscar. (January)

I Love You Phillip Morris – Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a convict who weasels his way out of prison so that he can win back the heart of Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), whom he fell in love with during his first stint behind bars. This film was well-received at Sundance but none of the major studios picked it up in a distribution deal, all allegedly too leery to put their money behind a dark comedy focused on a homosexual relationship. Small distribution house Consolidated Pictures snatched it up and are hoping to ride some end-of-the-year buzz and awards to box office success. (December)

The King’s Speech – Colin Firth is King George VI, the reluctant monarch of England who rose to power when his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated the throne to marry a commoner. Petrified about being thrown into the spotlight because of a debilitating stammer, George seeks help from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist with whom he forms an unexpected friendship. Inspirational and humorous, Firth is being touted as the one to beat in the Oscar’s Best Actor race. (December)

Rabbit Hole – Becca and Howie Corbett’s (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) lives are shattered when their young son is killed in a car accident. Each copes in a different way, as Howie loses himself in the past while Becca enters into a relationship with the young man responsible for their child’s death. Adapted from the play by David Lindsay-Abaire, the performances by the two leads are being heralded as some of the best of the year. (January)

Somewhere – Writer/Director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) returns to familiar territory with an examination of another unorthodox relationship. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a hedonistic Hollywood star who gets a wakeup call when he’s forced to care for his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). Both wind up reevaluating how they look at one another, while Marco decides to finally grow up in this genuine human drama. Early reviews indicate that Coppola is back on solid ground after her disastrous Marie Antoinette, while this one may finally make Dorff a star. (January)

The Tempest – Director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King) bends genders in this latest Shakespearean adaptation, changing the lead role of Prospero from that of a man to a woman and casting Helen Mirren in the part. Exiled on a remote island, the sorceress does her level best to find a way home while dealing with a potential slave revolt led by the rebel Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). With Alfred Molina and Russell Brand. (January)

Contact Chuck Koplinski at

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