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.

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.

A Beautiful Mind, Dec. 25. The other big bio-pic due Christmas Day is Ron Howard's portrait of John Forbes Nash Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for turning the tables on Adam Smith and originating a new approach to economics. Russell Crowe plays the mentally troubled genius, in a mode closer to "The Insider" than "Gladiator," which is cause for thanks. Jennifer Connolly plays his wife, and Ed Harris plays a government agent who's anything but what he seems to be.

Gosford Park, Dec. 26. Fans of "Upstairs, Downstairs" should line up eagerly for this well-groomed comedy of manners, which takes a not-so-discreet peek at the lives and loves of practically everyone in an English mansion during a hunting-party weekend 70 years ago. Robert Altman is cinema's most accomplished painter of character-crowded canvases like this - his "Nashville" and "The Player" helped invent and refine the genre - and he's close to top form here, thanks to expressive camera work and passionate performances by Maggie Smith (upstairs) and Alan Bates (downstairs), among many others.

Vanilla Sky, Dec. 14. If that sounds a little high-toned for you, float down to earth with this romantic comedy that insiders are touting as "Jerry Maguire" redux. Tom Cruise plays a womanizing businessman who learns life lessons from Penelope Cruz as his best chum's girlfriend. If their box-office records run true to form, Cruise plus Cruz should equal sure-fire success.

The Royal Tenenbaums, Dec. 21. The holiday season is perfect for family reunions, but what if J.D. Salinger were in charge of the party? The author of "Franny and Zooey" had nothing to do with this emotionally charged comedy, but some observers have felt his influence hovering over the story of three gifted youngsters (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson) who haven't lived up to their promise. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston play their parents. Wes Anderson directed, hoping for a commercial breakthrough after the critically acclaimed "Rushmore," which did better with art-minded critics than diversion-hungry audiences.

The Majestic, Dec. 21. Jim Carrey was the Grinch last Christmas, but this year he's taking a more serious turn. The time is the 1950s, when a Hollywood blacklist crippled the careers of artists with left-wing political views. Carrey's character is one of them, and he's lost his memory to boot. Bob Balaban is a commie-hating congressman on his trail, and Martin Landau is the movie-loving showman who befriends him. Will director Frank Darabont recapture the intelligence of "The Shawshank Redemption" or sink into the sentimentality that made "The Green Mile" seem 10 miles too long? At least he's made a movie that's not behind bars this time.

Monster's Ball, Dec. 26. Or maybe you like a penitentiary picture now and then? If so, check out this brooding drama about a family that's produced three generations of prison guards, including Billy Bob Thornton as a bigoted bully who falls in love with the grieving widow (Halle Berry) of a black man he helped execute. It's not a happy tale, but there's acting talent to spare.

And there's more. Science-fiction buffs can look forward to Kate and Leopold, with Meg Ryan as a present-day businesswoman wooed by a 19th-century nobleman who's traveled forward in time, and Impostor, with Gary Sinise as a scientist who may or may not be an alien.

Fans of Kevin Spacey, who played his own version of a possible alien in "K-PAX" earlier this fall, are waiting for The Shipping News, about a writer investigating his deceased wife's secret life. Iris stars Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as author Iris Murdoch at very different stages in her life.

Just before New Year's, Cate Blanchett will open as Charlotte Gray, a Scottish woman fighting the Nazis. And 2002 will debut with Brotherhood of the Wolf, a man-against-monster French melodrama that hopes to launch 2002 by beating "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at its own action-packed game.

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