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Fans, it's safe to go to the theater

After months of duds - and that hurting bottom line - it's no wonder that Hollywood makes its appeal: We saved the best for last.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published November 17, 2005

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[Universal Studios]
'King Kong'

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[Columbia Pictures]
'Fun with Dick and Jane'

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[Disney]
'The Chronicles of Narnia: The lion, the witch and the wardrobe'

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[Columbia Pictures]
'Rent'

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[Disney]
'Bee season'

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[Warner Bros.]
'Syriana'

This is Hollywood's kiss-and-make-up season, when moviegoers can forgive and forget the 2005 movies that repelled audiences in droves.

The worst summer at box offices in a generation gave way to a fall season of insignificance. Ticket sales are at least 8 percent off last year's pace due to a toxic combination of DVDs, theaters that aren't fun anymore and movies not worth the trouble.

Come back, Hollywood beckons, and we'll show what we can do when we really put our minds to it.

Studios traditionally save their best films for the holidays, when award ballots are being filled out and many moviegoers are on vacation from work and school. But there's an extra sense of desperation in 2005, with revenues and consumer confidence ebbing.

Hollywood needs King Kong to hoist its fortunes on his hairy, sloped shoulders and the Lord of the Rings crowd to find nirvana in Narnia. The industry needs The Producers to produce and Rent to pay more than only that. Studios will settle for the quick payoffs of a sequel (Cheaper by the Dozen 2) and a remake (Yours, Mine and Ours) that are essentially the same movie.

But what Hollywood really needs are cash cows such as Steven Spielberg, Jim Carrey and anything animated or sci-fi to connect with the masses one time for old times' sake, and maybe for the sake of the industry's future.

In times like these, even the usual rush of serious awards contenders, Munich, Memoirs of a Geisha and Syriana among them, gets second billing. Right now, it's all about the Benjamins, not the Oscars.

Here are the winter movie releases Hollywood is banking on. Release dates are subject to change according to the studios' confidence. Happy holidays.

Nov. 23

Rent: The late Jonathan Larson's award-winning Broadway musical reaches the silver screen. Six original cast members (Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Anthony Rapp) reprise their roles as Greenwich Village bohemians living (and dying) through one eventful year. Oddly, director Chris Columbus chose to film it on location in California.

Bee Season: A failing marriage prompts a father (Richard Gere) to focus on his daughter's attempt to win the National Spelling Bee.

Paradise Now: Hany Abu-Assad's movie offers insight into the minds of Palestinian suicide bombers, but not sympathy. The first half illuminates regional tensions from a perspective seldom depicted in films; the second is an understated thriller. A must-see movie for observers of Middle East politics.

The Ice Harvest: John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton steal a mob fortune and can't get safely out of snowbound Wichita. Any resemblance to Ben Affleck's flop Reindeer Games is unfortunate.

Just Friends: What did we do to deserve two Ryan Reynolds comedies in two months? He dons a fat suit, playing a guy who goes from chunk to hunk to woo a high school crush. Also starring Reynolds' Waiting co-star Anna Faris. Expect something like Shallow Hal, only shallower.

In the Mix: Pop music sensation Usher plays a nightclub DJ who rescues and romances the sexy daughter (Emmanuelle Chriqui) of a mobster (Chazz Palminteri). The typecasting trifecta is in play.

Yours, Mine and Ours: The Cheaper by the Dozen update made a mint, so why not remake another movie featuring 18 children? Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo step into Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball's 1968 roles as newlyweds picking up after all those tax exemptions.

Nov. 25

The Squid and the Whale: A college professor (Jeff Daniels) and his wife (Laura Linney) are drawn to extramarital affairs, spoiling their relationships with two sons. Based on the childhood experiences of writer-director Noah Baumbach.

Dec. 2

Aeon Flux: Academy Award winner Charlize Theron (Monster) plays a sleek, acrobatic assassin in the 25th century, working for her North Country co-star and Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Fargo). That's a lot of Hollywood gold to invest in a live-action version of an MTV animated series.

Dec. 9

Syriana: The international oil industry is the backdrop for an ensemble indictment of corruption from writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for doing it to the drug trade in Traffic. George Clooney plays a CIA agent questioning his duty while an oil executive (Matt Damon), a prince (Alexander Siddig) and a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) face ethical crises.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Since Frodo took care of that ring business, fantasy fans have needed a reason to memorize strange names and take a myth too seriously. C.S. Lewis' seven-book Narnia series should keep them occupied for a decade or two.

Memoirs of a Geisha: A child of poverty (Ziyi Zhang) becomes a woman of means after training in the art of geisha, satisfying the needs of wealthy men. Arthur Golden's novel gives director Rob Marshall a chance to prove his triumphant Chicago debut wasn't a fluke.

Dec. 14

King Kong: The 8,000-pound gorilla of holiday movies. Fans will flock to be amazed by their hirsute hero: director Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings trilogy earned Oscars and eternal devotion. Kong looks awesome in preview trailers, chasing Naomi Watts doing the Fay Wray thing while Jack Black and Adrien Brody keep the monkey off their backs. This one might singlehandedly reverse the box office curse of 2005.

Dec. 16

The Family Stone: Each holiday movie season brings heartwarming dramedies about families getting along worse than yours. This one has a neurotic woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) meeting her prospective in-laws (Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson), who aren't impressed. The photogenic cast (Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes, Luke Wilson, Dermot Mulroney) suggests everyone will get along nicely by the fadeout.

Dec. 21

Fun with Dick and Jane: Finally, a remake of a movie that deserves it. The 1977 version with George Segal and Jane Fonda was a cute idea during inflationary times: Spouses rob banks to make ends meet. Times are tough for different reasons now, so it's Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni's turn to make us laugh at larceny.

Cheaper by the Dozen 2: Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt return as parents keeping track of their brood and competing with a conspicuously consuming neighbor (Eugene Levy). Sequels like this are a dime every second dozen.

Dec. 23

Munich: On paper, the best film of the holiday season, if not the year. Steven Spielberg revisits the aftermath of the tragic 1972 Olympic Games, when a secret Israeli strike force was dispatched to assassinate planners of an attack on Jewish athletes by Arab terrorists. Spielberg's devotion to history (Schindler's List, Amistad) and ability to spin crackling adventures suggest something special is on the way.

The Ringer: Talk about counter programming: Spielberg's somber epic opens against a con artist (Johnny Knoxville) posing as a mentally challenged athlete to fix the Special Olympics. If any single day can represent the highs and lows of Hollywood, this is it.

Hoodwinked: Shrek's shredding of fairy tale icons inspired this computer-animated comedy, turning the Little Red Riding Hood yarn into something like CSI: Enchanted Forest. Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) voices Red, whose alibis for being at Grandma's house don't add up for skeptical detectives (Anthony Anderson, Xzibit). And they all served time happily ever after.

Transamerica: Felicity Huffman goes from Desperate Housewives to desperate preoperative transsexual searching for the son she never knew.

Dec. 24

Casanova: Heath Ledger plays the legendary 18th century lover, pursuing the affections of a plucky woman (Sienna Miller) in Venice. Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) takes a comical approach to seduction, as opposed to Federico Fellini's ornate eroticism in his 1976 film.

Dec. 25

The Producers: Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy is an Oscar-winning classic, and his musical version won a record 12 Tony awards. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their stage roles as con men plotting a profitable Broadway flop titled Springtime for Hitler, written by an insane Nazi playwright (Will Ferrell). Is there any way this movie can miss?

Mrs. Henderson Presents: While German bombs drop on London, an Englishwoman (Judi Dench) opens a nightclub where performers drop their clothes to keep up morale. Based on a true story.

Wolf Creek: Deliverance in the Australian outback, where young backpackers are terrorized by a psychotic bushman. Squeal like a dingo.

Rumor Has It: The prize for the season's most ingenious comedy premise goes to Rob Reiner's movie. A woman (Jennifer Aniston) learns her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) inspired the Mrs. Robinson character in The Graduate. Pretty cool, until the Benjamin Braddock prototype (Kevin Costner) who married and divorced her mother (i.e. Elaine Robinson) begins making romantic overtures. Here's to you, Mr. Reiner.

January

As usual, several high-profile films will open in New York and Los Angeles before Dec. 31 to make the Academy Award eligibility deadline, then stretch out their release strategies into 2006 to stay fresh in voters' minds. In other words, it's too soon to know when they'll turn up around here. Keep an eye out for:

Brokeback Mountain: Two sheepherders (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal) fall in love on the range, an erotic secret haunting the rest of their lives.

The Libertine: Johnny Depp plays poet John Wilmot, the 17th century Earl of Rochester whose tastes for wine, women and more wine created a posthumous legacy.

Breakfast on Pluto: Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) is earning raves for his portrayal of a transvestite cabaret singer in Neil Jordan's comedy.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: Tommy Lee Jones' first job directing a movie earned two Cannes Film Festival awards for its screenplay and Jones' performance as a ranch hand fulfilling a dead man's request.

The Matador: An eccentric paid assassin (Pierce Brosnan) forces a businessman (Greg Kinnear) to assist with his latest assignment.

The New World: Director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) depicts the first contact between American Indians and Europeans, led by Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell).

Match Point: Woody Allen tries something new, a drama with Hitchcockian overtones, as a tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) falls for a femme fatale (Scarlett Johansson).

The World's Fastest Indian: The fact-based story of Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), who built a vintage Indian motorcycle that set speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 16, 2005, 09:07:07]


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