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Holiday Movie Review 

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN, MICHAEL BOWEN, JOEL SMITH, ED SYMKUS and KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & tep right up, folks, and plunk down your $9 for the finest in cinematic comedies, dramas, thrillers, fantasies, chick flicks and horror movies between now and the Iowa caucuses (Jan. 3).





There's all manner of filmic fun available before the Big Important Movies arrive, dripping with prestige, late in December. Several of the Oscar contenders, of course, won't be seen on Palouse screens until January. But by then, we'll be focused on another form of the Grand Theater of Illusion: presidential primaries.





You think Alien vs. Predator (opening on Christmas Day!) will be scary? Wait'll it comes down to Candidate Hillary vs. Nominee Rudy.





So fend off political thoughts by browsing our film caps. (Dates of release reflect our coming-to-the-Spokane-area best guesses.) And enjoy your escapist fare....





-- MICHAEL BOWEN





[[ OHMYGOD SCARY STUFF ]]





AFTER DARK'S HORRORFEST 2


Nov. 9


"Wait ... something's not right. That drooling, creepy thing with fangs appears to be snuffling the smooth back of that naked hot-bod chick. Oh, crap -- it saw me! I know -- I'll run into the dark woods/basement/abandoned slaughterhouse to get away. Whew! I think we ditched the monster. OK, you get some gas for the car and I'll wait here. Yeah, that's the trick -- we should split up in the dark. Wait ... something's not right."


--KEVIN TAYLOR





THE MIST


Nov. 21


If there's one thing Stephen King likes more than unseen evil, it's psycho-ass religious types believing that evil to be God's judgin' hand. That's more or less what happens here. A queer fog descends upon a small town and, as people die, the remaining townsfolk divide on ideological grounds.


-- LUKE BAUMGARTEN





I AM LEGEND


Dec. 14


The words "post-apocalyptic" and "brilliant scientist" can only mean that Will Smith is once again out to save the world. Unlike the rocket ships and hoo-rah! that he had in Independence Day, Smith has only a dog and chemistry set to help save what's left of ... well, can we still call it humanity after what the virus has done to them? I Am Legend is not exactly The Omega Man (1971, Charlton Heston) but each is based on the same 1954 novel. This one is directed by Francis Lawrence, the music video dude who broke out with Constantine (2005, Keanu Reeves). Just stay inside at night, OK?


-- KT





ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM


Dec. 25


Red is indeed the color of Christmas. Computer whiz boys Colin and Greg Strause got sci-fi fans in a bloody froth when they won an R rating for this reprise of their terrible monster-on-monster flick from 2003 (which was rated PG-13). The "red-band" (R-rated) trailer online "is VERY gruesome," one fan boy gushes. The monsters seem very monster-ish, and as they duke it out on Earth, their appetites for blowing people up, flaying them or biting them with big, drooling teeth remains unabated.


-- KT





[[ SERIOUS (AND NOT SO SERIOUS) CARTOONS ]]





BEE MOVIE


Nov. 2


Thankfully, those early trailers suggesting that Bee Movie was going to be a live-action film imitating an animated one (with real actors in fuzzy costumes pretending to be cartoon characters) proved false. The film is indeed CG-animated. Jerry Seinfeld (in his first -- and maybe only -- feature role) stars as a honeybee who escapes the hive, discovers that humans are stealing the world's honey, sues, then has to save the planet and its dying plant life. The trailers make it look like the usual cute, lighthearted animated kids' movie, but all those deeply unfunny "Bee Movie TV Juniors" they keep showing during commercial breaks on NBC still have us highly skeptical.


-- JOEL SMITH





ENCHANTED


Nov. 21


Real-life and animated worlds collide. Princess Giselle (Amy Adams, Junebug) has been promised to a charming prince (James Marsden, Hairspray), but she's kicked right out of her hand-drawn world of cels by a witch (Susan Sarandon) and straight into the loveless world of ... Manhattan. When she meets "McDreamy" Patrick Dempsey in our world, how will the love triangle get recalibrated? Judging from the sight gags, Disney's acknowledging that the world of make-believe is funnier with a dose of irony -- but will skeptical viewers buy the idea that we could use a little more fairy-tale lovin' amid the rush-rush of our lives? At least Giselle commands a squad of worker-chipmunks who act weawy, weawy cute. --MB





ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS


Dec. 14


JAAA-SOONNN! So the press materials breathlessly announce "this much-anticipated movie" will arrive in theaters in six weeks. Will tomatoes still be ripe then? Squeaky-voiced singing rodents -- as a serious film concept, that is -- grow mighty thin in small doses. The trailer for this blend of computer animation and live action has Jason Lee (Dogma, My Name Is Earl) shouting the trademark AAAALLL-VIIINN!! ... and a poop joke. 'Nuff said.


--KT





[[ WEEPIES (YOU KNOW, RELATIONSHIP MOVIES) ]]





MARTIAN CHILD


Nov. 2


Grieving widower John Cusack decides to adopt a quirky 6-year-old boy. Kid lives in a cardboard box and thinks he's from Mars. Heartwarming connections between misfit father and son ensue. John's real-life sister Joan plays one of the many characters who think he's not up to the parenting challenge. -- MB





LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA


Nov. 30


He's not just crushing on her: Fiorentino has loved Fermina for 52 years. In a sensuous adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel (set in Colombia from the 1880s to the 1930s), Javier Bardem plays the romantic Fiorentino, who's pitted against Benjamin Bratt as the rationalist physician, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, the husband of Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Director Mike Newell has filmed crime (Donnie Brasco) and fantasy (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). But can he produce a romantic epic? In the acting department, meanwhile, the contrast between Bardem's lover here and his sadist-on-a-rampage in No Country for Old Men may once again attract Oscar's attention.


-- MB





P.S. I LOVE YOU


Dec. 21


Gerald Butler (300, The Phantom of the Opera) has died suddenly, but he left his widow (Hilary Swank) 10 encouraging messages from beyond the grave. Swank yearns to yank our romantic heartstrings, but she seems to have forgotten that Sandra Bullock got caught in a time-warp in Premonition and that in The Lake House, Sandra and Keanu couldn't figure out the time-space continuum, either. (Gimmicky romance has a way of seeming gimmicky.) Kathy Bates plays the mother who never approved of the marriage in the first place, Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon are the friends who help the young widow out of her depression, and Harry Connick Jr. adds romantic-comedy hunk appeal.


-- MB





[[ COMEDIES THAT GET ALL SERIOUS ON US ]]





THIS CHRISTMAS


Nov. 21


A family matriarch (Loretta Devine) and her beau (Delroy Lindo) have invited his son and her five adult children back for the holidays. It's been four years since their last reunion, so everyone has secrets to reveal. (Why, it's as if they're together again for the first time.) Gospel songs and dance sequences enliven the festivities.


-- MB





MARGOT AT THE WEDDING


Nov. 30


Margot (Nicole Kidman) kinda has this thing with her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She relentlessly picks apart everything in Pauline's life as a way of deflecting the intense jealousy that she feels. When Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) head to the Cape for Pauline's wedding (to Jack Black), things bubble over.


Noah Baumbach, the guy who demystified male preteen masturbation -- making it simultaneously endearing and heartbreaking in The Squid and the Whale -- now tackles sisterhood. Also, though, with Margot and Claude, Baumbach seems to be continuing his examination of how screwed-up parents manipulate their kids and wield them like weapons.


-- LB





JUNO


Dec. 5


Jason Reitman's (Thank You for Smoking) newest film takes an unconventional look at an unconventional young woman (Ellen Page) who finds herself in high school with an unplanned pregnancy and a gentle, slightly addled boyfriend (Michael Cera) -- she would call him just a pal -- who has no idea what to do now. Her plan, with the blessings of her understanding, kinda-hip parents (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney), involves another couple (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner) who can't conceive. The film manages to be funny, sweet, startling, sad and thoughtful, all at the same time. Page, who was terrific in Hard Candy, may be in line for an Oscar nom here.


-- ED SYMKUS





THE BUCKET LIST


Dec. 25


There's a point when the unending hurtle toward death gets you close enough that you can't keep ignoring the abrupt, unforgiving halt at the end. Or at least, I'm assuming there's a point; I haven't gotten there myself. But that point is the only -- and I've thought about this a lot -- the only reason I can find for films like The Bucket List.





An old billionaire (Jack Nicholson) and an old mechanic (Morgan Freeman) who took at least one philosophy class together way back in the day meet in a hospital room after each has gotten some really bad news. Then it's off to see and do the things each has never done. Despite their differences (which are myriad), they find a way to do those things together. Hopefully that'll make that sudden halt at the end a little less abrupt and unforgiving.


-- LB





[[ COMEDIES (UNPRETENTIOUS DIVISION) ]]





FRED CLAUS


Nov. 9


Santa's younger brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) is the black sheep of the Claus family. After his girlfriend dumps him, he moves back to the North Pole and continues his sibling rivalry with Santa (Paul Giamatti). Ludacris plays an angry elf. Directed by David Dobkin (The Wedding Crashers, Clay Pigeons).


-- ES





CHRISTMAS IN WONDERLAND


Nov. 21


Mom's too busy, so Dad (Patrick Swayze) has to bring their two moppets to the mall on the day before Christmas. Ah, but things go wrong. One of the kids wishes for a million bucks, then finds close to that much -- counterfeit, of course -- in a bag dropped by bad guys. At which point this goes all Home Alone with slapstick violence. Ho ho hum.


-- ES





NINA'S HEAVENLY DELIGHTS


Nov. 23


Set in Scotland, romance and food are at the center of this lighthearted dramatic comedy (with musical moments). The romance is explored in gay, lesbian, and straight relationships. The Indian food is experienced in a curry contest called "Best of the West." The music comes through in big Bollywood style and with a taste of Scottish Highland dance.


-- ES





THE PERFECT HOLIDAY


Dec. 12


A little girl's mother is divorced and needs some cheering up at the holidays. Maybe the department-store Santa could help with some matchmaking? Or maybe Santa could just make his own moves in that department, ya know what I mean? Because even with a bumbling, well-fed elf delivering sidekick slapstick, you just know that Santa's gonna sleigh her. Queen Latifah narrates and Terrence Howard plays Mr. Bah Humbug.


-- MB





[[ THE SPUN ZONE: SERIOUS POLITICAL MOVIES ]]





LIONS FOR LAMBS


Nov. 9


Robert Redford produces, directs, and costars in this triptych of stories about troubling issues in contemporary America. He plays a college professor who's concerned that a talented student (Andrew Garfield) is throwing it all away. Left-leaning journalist Meryl Streep gets a one-on-one with war-mongering senator Tom Cruise, and sparks fly. Two American soldiers (Michael Pena, Derek Luke) attempt to change the world by fighting for their country, but they're in the wrong place (Afghanistan) at the wrong time. All three stories are interwoven. Well-meaning, thoughtful, and often very tense, Lions for Lambs is perhaps too heavy-handed in its political preaching.


-- ES





WAR/DANCE


Nov. 9


Sean and Andrea Nix Fine won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance this year for War/Dance, which focuses on three schoolchildren from Uganda's Patongo Internally Displaced Persons camp as they travel across the war-torn country to compete in the national music and dance festival. Bold, shimmering cinematography tells a story of how kids deal with growing up to the sound of gunfire.


-- JS





DARFUR NOW


Nov. 16


Documentarian Ted Braun follows six people fighting to bring an end to the genocide and atrocities in Darfur. Don Cheadle and George Clooney trudge from one press conference to another, urging action. Along with her countrymen, a rebel fighter watches for the Janjaweed in the hills; at night, they use stones for pillows. The chief prosecutor from the international criminal court pleads before the United Nations. A humanitarian aid worker brings food to the refugee camps in wind-swept Chad. All implore the film's audience: Do something.


-- JS





THE KITE RUNNER


Dec. 14


Everything that was wrong about Afghanistan that Khaled Hosseini wrote about in the source novel is still wrong in real life. This long-finished film kept having its release date changed, so the actors could be safely removed from the country due to a rape scene in the film. Many years after two best friends part ways, the one who moved to America is called back home in an attempt to rescue his friend's young son, who has been kidnapped by the Taliban. The riveting story is, unfortunately, marred by flat performances from the young actors.


--ES





[[ FANTASYLAND ]]





MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM


Nov. 16


The toy store of Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is full of magic, but only if you believe in it. When a mirthless accountant (Jason Bateman) drops by at Mr. M's request, all the toys play dead. Molly (Natalie Portman), the store's socially awkward manager, wonders why the need for an accountant nosing around -- until Magorium confesses he's retiring and leaving the store to her. Then things really get interesting: toy riots.


-- LB





HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS


Dec. 7


When I watched the totally disappointing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last year, I couldn't help but think: "Damn, this film needs Sam Elliott as a wise and wily cowboy." Because of the time period and insular British story, that wasn't possible. Though it's broadly similar, The Golden Compass doesn't have those problems. And guess who's in it? Sam Elliott, as a wise and wily cowboy. Hot damn.





Blending turn-of-the-19th-century futurism with totemic fantasy and witchcraft, The Golden Compass is gorgeous to look at. The story, about a girl with an incredible destiny and an evil brain trust on her tail, isn't going to win any awards for originality. The characters, though -- talking war bears, cowboys, witches -- just might.


-- LB





THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP


Dec. 25


A little boy in Scotland finds a mysterious egg. It hatches. The thing inside looks like a baby dinosaur. Then the "water horse" outgrows the bathtub and starts scampering about, scaring off bulldogs and society ladies and fishermen and just generally creating a ruckus. So the family decides that the creature -- by now, it's enormous -- has to be set free to swim in a nearby lake. Which, since this is Scotland, is known as a "Loch."


-- MB





[[ ADVENTURELAND: HEAVING BOSOMS AND HAIR CHESTS ]]





BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD


Nov. 16


Brothers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store run by their own mom and pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Then things really go awry. Director Sidney Lumet may be 83 now, but he's down with postmodernism enough to tell the brothers' story in jumbled chronology -- perhaps reflecting the film's jumbled relationships. (While Marisa Tomei, for example, plays Hoffman's wife, she's sleeping with both brothers.) We get multiple perspectives on the same screw-ups.





The title derives from an Irish toast: "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." Well, the devil knows that Lumet's characters are dying. And he's moving in.


-- MB





BEOWULF


Nov. 16


In Annie Hall, Woody Allen warned us all not to read it. Besides, the world of Anglo-Saxon warriors who slay dragons is so macho, there didn't seem to be any room for either 300-style special effects or babes. Well, Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) is going to fix that. He's going to get Angelina Jolie to slither like a slimy seductress, and Sir Tony Hopkins to lend prestige, and John Malkovich to do his freaky-deaky dark wizard act again -- just as in Eragon, and with about as much success. You could spend time trying to figure out Jolie's accent, or you could read Seamus Heaney's translation of the 1,200-year-old poem instead -- despite what Woody said.


-- MB





HITMAN


Nov. 21


I'm 47 ... Agent 47. Nope, this professional assassin doesn't have a proper name. Played by a shaven-headed Timothy Olyphant, and engineered in a lab to make him perfect, he's set up and targeted by -- well, he doesn't know who's done this, but the Russians are chasing him all over creation. Things get more complicated when he falls for the lovely Nikka (Olga Kurylenko), a woman who's carrying all sorts of emotional baggage.


-- ES





AWAKE


Nov. 30


It's a really bad sign when a movie delays its release for an entire year. It's even worse when, a month before the film goes wide, there's not even a trailer to be watched. That's the story with Awake. All we know is that it's about a dude (Hayden Christensen) who suffers anaesthetic awareness during surgery -- he's awake, he has full feeling, but he's unable to move or scream. Oh, his young wife's in it too. They suffer through the consequences of a tragic accident.


-- LB





NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS


Dec. 21


When his great-grandfather is accused of being the mastermind behind Lincoln's assassination, Ben Gates (Nick Cage) heads out to clear Gramp's name. He ends up, though, discovering the existence of a book that has all of America's secrets (the JFK cover-up, the missing Watergate tapes, Area 51) bound within its pages. Did you see the first National Treasure, like millions of others? Expect the same here, down to lots of fascinating research at the Library of Congress.


-- LB





[[ OVERCOMING OBSTACLES CATEGORY (DISABILITIES DIVISION) ]]





MUSIC WITHIN


Nov. 16


Office Space slacker Ron Livingston stars as Richard Pimentel in this real-life story of the guy who spearheaded the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Pimentel was a gifted public speaker who lost his hearing in 'Nam. When he meets and befriends a foul-mouthed genius with cerebral palsy, he sets out to change attitudes about the disabled. (Shot in Portland.)


-- JS





AUGUST RUSH


Nov. 21


A young pop-classical musician couple is separated from their son when they split up. Years later, the son (Freddie Highmore), living in an orphanage, discovers music, then sets out to find his parents. Oh, no! Robin Williams, guitar case in his hand, love patch on his face, plays a "mysterious street singer."


-- ES





THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY


Nov. 30


Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel's third film (after Before Night Falls and Basquiat) is based on the true story of magazine editor Jean-Dominique Baudy (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a stroke in his early 40s, leaving him paralyzed, but with his brain and left eye still fully functioning. Based on his memoir -- and using plenty of narration -- it's about how he communicated via blinking, and what was going on inside his head, revealing both good and bad, and mixing his distressing situation with flashbacks and fantasies. In French and English.


-- ES





[[ FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: BIG FAT OSCAR MOVIES ]]





NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN


Nov. 21


The Coen brothers are back in top form in this tight, nasty thriller about a hunter (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a big stash of loot from a drug deal that went wrong. The bad news is that he's now the hunted, being relentlessly tracked by a pale-faced fellow (Javier Bardem) with a strange haircut, an even stranger weapon, and a passionless approach to killing people. The film returns to the mood the Coens caught way back in Blood Simple, but the "humor" here is much blacker. With Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Barry Corbin joining the other actors out in vast landscapes that make them look small and unimportant.


-- ES





ATONEMENT


Dec. 14


Based on a prestigious novel, and with Vanessa Redgrave in a small part, this has "Oscar contender" written all over it. In 1935 England, a little rich girl has a crush on a young man (James McAvoy) who's well-educated but lower-class; he in turn, longs for the girl's older sister (Keira Knightley). The little girl gets Robbie in some very deep trouble indeed. Then the Dunkirk evacuation scrambles all three of their lives. The question is: Will the film sentimentalize the separated-lovers plot, or will it retain novelist Ian McEwan's emphasis on the soul-draining difficulty of lifelong remorse? The trick with literary adaptations is balancing actions and thoughts, externals and internals.


-- MB





CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR


Dec. 25


In 1980, we were on Osama's side. The thinking was: The enemy of my enemy the Soviet Union is my friend. Tom Hanks plays a rule-bending congressman from the piney woods of East Texas who somehow manages to funnel millions of dollars and lots of weapons into the hands of the Afghan mujahadeen -- with the help of Julia Roberts' right-wing socialite and Philip Seymour Hoffman's rogue CIA operative. Director Mike Nichols and his three stars all have gold statuettes on their mantles. Think they're trying to foment some controversy to go along with more Oscar victories?


-- MB





THE GREAT DEBATERS


Dec. 25


African-Americans ought to idolize educators and accomplished students, not just athletes, celebrities and musicians. That seems to be some of the impulse behind this true-story film produced by one one-name celebrity (Oprah) and directed by and starring another (Denzel). Somehow during the Depression, a small college in East Texas managed to challenge mighty Harvard in the national college debate finals. As the debate coach, Washington will face off against Forrest Whitaker, who plays the father of one of the debaters.


-- MB





THERE WILL BE BLOOD


Jan. 18


Here is a film that follows a tough, spare man through a tough, spare Texas landscape in a long opening sequence without dialogue. The bold opener sets the tone for a bold, sweeping film that follows the evocatively named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a hardscrabble miner who strikes oil and realizes it can bring all the wealth of Croesus ... as long as he doesn't play fair. As he gains power and loses soul, Plainview is pit against charismatic preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine). Director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a bold step away from the tenor of his previous films (Cigarettes and Coffee, Boogie Nights) in this epic that is already generating Oscar buzz.


-- KT





[[ THREE MUSICAL MOVIES, AS DIFFERENT AS CAN BE... ]]





I'M NOT THERE


Dec. 7


New York Times writer Robert Sullivan argued, in a recent preview, that Todd Haynes' experimental Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There tells us as much about Haynes as it does about Dylan. Probably a little more.





The film uses six actors (Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and the 13-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin) to recreate seven tumultuous eras in the life of a man who, according to Haynes's thinking, is good at creating enduring art, but who's at his best when reinventing his own image.


-- LB





WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY


Dec. 21


Finally, the long-awaited arrival of two inevitable film phenomena: the slapstick parody of the legendary-musician-battles-personal-demons biopic; and the coming of John C. Reilly as comedic leading man. Reilly, who shone as sidekick to Will Ferrell and Dirk Diggler, borrows heavily from Ray, Walk the Line and The Doors as a grits-brained, skirt-chasing, drug-addled country musician who goes from teen wonder to washed-up has-been and everywhere in between. Produced by Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Freaks and Geeks) and co-starring Jack White as Elvis and The Office's Jenna Fischer as Cox's ever-loving one-and-only, the film's cut line tells you everything you need to know about Reilly's persona: "Life made him tough. Love made him strong. Music made him hard."


-- JS





SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET


Dec. 21


Tim Burton, for all his towering achievements and dismal failures, knows how to set a scene. Here he takes Stephen Sondheim's Grand Guignol musical about injustice, revenge, close-shave double entendres and human-flavored baked goods, creating a canvas of whites and blacks and grays, then splatters them with buckets of crimson. Whether this will astound the way some of his older work did (and still does) remains to be seen. With a cast like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter and Alan Rickman, though, even a well-set scene that never goes anywhere will probably be worth staring at for a couple of hours.


-- LB

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