High hopes for a flock of holiday flicks
Would-be holiday blockbusters are lining up for screenings at your multiplex, and few observers dare to predict how the competition will play out.Skip to next paragraph
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Most agree that 2001 has been a disappointing year for quality. Hollywood revenues are up, though, and Americans dazed by the scary headlines of recent months seem eager for old-fashioned entertainment.
Of course, the studios dreamed up this season's slate long before Sept. 11. But it happens that old-fashioned entertainment is high on the bill, and hopes for a ticket-window gold rush are running strong.
To get the flavor of movie events between now and New Year's Day, consider "Ocean's Eleven," opening today. It has time-tested ingredients from the get-go, starting with the fact that it's a remake of the 1960 comedy-thriller about a rascally gang bent on burgling a trio of Las Vegas casinos.
It's been updated, of course, with 21st-century scamps - George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia - replacing Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals of yore. But director Steven Soderbergh has opted for a retro mood that's refreshingly restrained by current standards, keeping the violence and vulgarity to a PG-13 level.
The results are flimsy, but fun, combining the suspense of a crisply planned heist movie with the smart-alecky dialogue of a screwball comedy. Add the eye-dazzling charm of Julia Roberts as the "wild card" character (played by Shirley MacLaine in the original), and you have a caper that rarely goes wrong.
Still, no one expects Soderbergh's souffle to win the season's box-office crown. Current tastes in entertainment run less toward raffish buddy pictures than straight-out fantasy, and in that category a victor has already been declared. Can any force compete with "Harry Potter," which is filling Warner Bros. coffers with record-setting speed?
"Yes!" says New Line Cinema, whose "The Fellowship of the Ring" is poised for a Dec. 19 release in theaters around the world. What show-biz sorcery from the Hogwarts School has managed to turn the long-awaited "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - a $270 million extravaganza based on a perennial bestseller with an international fan base - into what the entertainment paper Variety now calls an "underdog"?
Maybe it's not so mysterious, after all. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was directed by hitmaker Chris Columbus, of "Gremlins" and "Home Alone" fame, and it reproduces the bulk of J.K. Rowling's wildly popular book with worshipful respect.
By contrast, admirers of New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson expect him to bend "Rings" to the shape of his own cinematic fancy, bringing it closer to his imaginative "Heavenly Creatures" than to J.R.R. Tolkien's stylistic blend of sociological satire, whimsical wordplay, and mind-teasing mythomania.
And don't forget that "Rings" rang weakly at the box office when Ralph Bakshi conjured up an animated version in the 1970s, using an early version of the rotoscoping technique employed by Richard Linklater in "Waking Life" this year.
What else does Hollywood have in store? Here are some highlights of what could be the studios' most profitable year yet:
Ali, Dec. 25. You might think of other candidates for the title role of this prizefighting biography - Denzel Washington or Laurence Fishburne - but Will Smith seems a natural, assuming he's gotten his muscles in shape. His mouth will be important, too, since the Ali in question is Muhammad Ali, a boxer whose words were often as daunting a weapon as his fists. Eyes will also be on the storytelling style of director Michael Mann in his first outing since "The Insider," last year's most engrossing fact-based drama.