Escape to a warm theater

December is when Hollywood goes for the money shot

Orc trouble, again? Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the surefire holiday slam-dunk sequel The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Orc trouble, again? Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the surefire holiday slam-dunk sequel The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

So far, 2002 has been a rather bleak year at the movies. Films postponed by the events of September 11, such as Big Trouble (a bomb in a suitcase threatens to blow up an airplane), Collateral Damage (terrorists blow up an American consulate) and Windtalkers (American and Japanese soldiers blow up each other), ranged from dreadful to disappointing. The summer blasted past with Spider-Man, The Bourne Identity and About a Boy barely buttering up a predominantly stale popcorn season. And Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones) and Robin Williams (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One Hour Photo) got in touch with their inner dark sides with patchy success.

Two films packed a visual wallop. Road to Perdition, the Depression-era gangster saga from director Sam Mendes (the godfather of American Beauty), was emotionless but utterly gorgeous. Minority Report, the futuristic cop saga about preventative police work from director Steven Spielberg (the godfather of American blockbusters), left critics swooning. But it took the elementary, ragtag, human comedy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding to bring people to theaters in droves, which suggests how starved the American public was for entertainment that did not include hard-to-digest violence, graphic sex, gross-out humor or Saturday Night Live alumni.

With winter nearly upon us, the major studios and independents are now focused on two synergistic tasks: wooing the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and coaxing people from their cozy confines to sup communally at the trough of disparate celluloid dreams. To accomplish just one of these chores is a challenge. To accomplish both is a minor miracle: It takes what my 8-year-old son refers to as a “hecka good” movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio does an Alan Hale Jr. impression in <i>Catch Me If You Can.</i>

Last year, four of the five films nominated for best picture first surfaced in limited release in December and opened wide in January and February. Only Moulin Rouge! was released in late spring. Also, nine of the 10 best-actor and best-actress nominees starred in films that received at least limited exposure in December and wide exposure in January and February. Denzel Washington as Training Day’s renegade cop was the lone exception, with an October opening.

This leaves hope that this year’s finest films are yet to come.

Washington, now a perennial Oscar contender, stokes this optimism as he moves into a Christmas slot as both co-star and director of Antwone Fisher (opens December 20). The star of The Hurricane and Malcolm X returns to biographical drama with this story of a sailor (played by Derek Luke) who was born to an unwed inmate and became a product of abusive foster care. Antwone confronts his inner demons as an adult with guidance from a Navy psychiatrist and searches for his family. The real Antwone Fisher actually wrote this screenplay.

The main character in Adaptation (opens December 6) is a screenwriter, also. Charlie Kaufman, who penned the imaginative Being John Malkovich, has concocted a story in which Nicolas Cage plays twin screenwriters. Kaufman based the script on his own failure to adapt the best seller The Orchard Thief to the screen. This self-indulgent deconstruction of art and commerce is directed by Spike Jonze, who is not to be confused with the just-as-provocative Spike Lee, who directs 25th Hour. In that movie (opens December 19), a dope pusher (Edward Norton) has one final day of freedom before serving a prison sentence.

A CGI image as Dobby the house elf in <i>Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets</i>.

Kaufman also penned the story of a third head case that will hit the theaters in time for eggnog. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (December 27), the “unauthorized autobiography” of Gong Show creator and self-proclaimed CIA agent Chuck Barris, is helmed by yet another actor turned director, George Clooney. This may be the sleeper of the season. Clooney has an appropriately dry sense of humor if not the proven technical expertise to turn such wacky material into a crowd or academy pleaser.

Miramax is releasing Confessions and continues its aggressive quest for gold—this is the company that orchestrated Shakespeare in Love’s Oscar nod over Saving Private Ryan—with the nearly simultaneous release of three other films. Pinocchio (December 25) stars Roberto Benigni typecast as a wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy. An adaptation of the popular Broadway musical Chicago (December 27) features movie stars who reportedly can sing (Renée Zellweger as a Monroe blonde, and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as chorus girls in a production that could become what Moulin Rouge! could not: the first musical since 1968’s Oliver! to win a best-picture Oscar. No definitive word yet on the vocal range of co-star Richard Gere.

Miramax’s third holiday entry is Martin Scorsese’s much-delayed Gangs of New York (tentatively opens December 20), a pre-Civil War clash of politics and ethnic groups set in the crime-infested Five Points area of lower Manhattan. Scorsese tried to get this sort of Dickensian Mean Streets project off the ground in 1977 and failed. He was in the midst of editing the film last September when production was postponed. He has incessantly re-shot and tinkered with the film since. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an Irish immigrant who attempts to avenge the murder of his father (Liam Neeson) by a political goon known as Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). The troubled young man also romances a local pickpocket (Cameron Diaz).

Power struggles between Scorsese and hands-on Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein were rumored to be rampant during production, and now an odd DiCaprio vs. DiCaprio battle has shaped up at the box office. The star of Titanic is no stranger to over-schedule, over-budget epics. He also has the dubious distinction now of competing against himself in rival films. He stars in not only Gangs, the most expensive movie in Miramax history, but also in Dreamworks’ Catch Me If You Can (December 25). In the latter film, he plays a teen who commits criminal fraud by impersonating an attorney, an airline pilot, a doctor and a professor while scoring with the ladies. Joining DiCaprio in a trinity of A-list talent are co-star Tom Hanks as a pursuing G-man and director Steven Spielberg.

Nicolas Cage in <i>Adaptation.</i>

There are also Hobbits in our film stocking this year. The DiCaprio vs. DiCaprio showdown probably will not eclipse industry interest in whether Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (December 18) will catch up with or, as early speculation has it, surpass Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in ticket sales. It’s J.R.R. Tolkien vs. J.K. Rowling, hard-core vs. soft-core fantasy. I put my money on Frodo (Elijah Wood) and company to top the Potter numbers. The Two Towers also has a fabulous opportunity to become the first sequel (The Fellowship of the Ring won 13 Oscar nominations) since 1972’s The Godfather: Part II to win a best-picture Oscar.

Film-festival entries of prominence also may work their way into the schedule and bolster the season’s six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon pedigree as well as its impressive credentials. Sundance’s Personal Velocity: Three Portraits stars Bacon’s wife, Kyra Sedgwick; Parker Posey; and Fairuza Balk in three stories about women struggling to change their lives. Rebecca Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of Gangs’ Daniel Day-Lewis, directs the drama. Cannes entries that may pop up include the bittersweet About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson plays a retired insurance agent belatedly in search of some meaning in his life. And subtitles ease us through Blackboards, the story of two unemployed teachers who patrol the Iran-Iraq border in search of pupils and who occasionally use their boards for stretchers as well as studies.

And what’s a holiday season without Meryl Streep tossing her hat into the ring? She co-stars in The Hours (December 27) with fellow former Oscar nominees Nicole Kidman (cast as Virginia Woolf) and Julianne Moore. Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry brings together three separate stories set in three different time periods, with a heavy psychological connection and several Kleenex moments.

Other productions offer a variety of subject matter and genres. Robert De Niro takes another potshot at comedy in Analyze That (December 6) as a mob boss who appears to have gone insane during his stay in Sing Sing and is put in the care of Billy Crystal. Another reunion of sorts brings together the cast of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation for the fourth time for Star Trek: Nemesis (December 13). This chapter also pairs the android Data with a twin, and Captain Picard with a clone. The Lion King (December 25) gets the IMAX treatment. And local filmmaker Joe Carnahan, whose action-short Ticker (starring Clive Owens) is currently showing at www.bmwfilms. com, grabs a holiday spot for his dark crime story Narc (out December 20), with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric wallowing in corruption and murder.

Think of the academy’s collective short-term memory as a Guinness Book of Records statistic. Think of the holidays as a gateway to the Academy Awards ceremony: a literal hotbed of elaborate marketing campaigns with entire public-relations departments scurrying about like panicky Christmas Eve shoppers.

Then, sit back and enjoy the show.