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The three biggest films of this winter's movie season involve various permutations of war

It looked like the three biggest films of this winter's movie season were all going to involve various permutations of war. In The Return of the King, war would be epic and visually astonishing; in Cold Mountain, war's more grievous and personally devastating qualities come to the forefront. Fortunately, the third war movie - the historically accurate and Billy Bob Thornton-infused The Alamo - is being shelved until April.

There's a lot to anticipate this season, even if you're not planning to be at any of the big blockbusters opening night. From family-oriented crowd pleasers (Santa vs. The Snowman, Big Fish) to a flurry of art and indie efforts (Girl With a Pearl Earring, 21 Grams) the next seven weeks are fertile with worthy movie-going options

Opening This Week

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World -- The setting - the ocean - and the time period - during the Napoleonic Wars - are both dramatic enough to make this film a guaranteed dose of eye candy. But director Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) has a way of getting compelling performances from major stars. And this time, he's working with Russell Crowe and the intriguing Paul Bettany. Even skeptics are starting to hope. (PG-13)

Looney Tunes: Back in Action -- After nearly massacring the Looney Tunes franchise with Space Jam, Warner Brothers finally does something right and hands Bugs Bunny and friends over to director Joe Dante (Gremlins), who actually knows how to turn special effects into characters. And the plot has a certain Roger Rabbit feel, with Daffy leaving Hollywood to get away from Bug's personality. He teams up with live-action Brendan Fraser for a globe-trotting adventure. (PG)

The Big Empty -- A slew of off-the-beaten-path but intriguing actors populate this quirky movie, which was produced by Spokane's own North by Northwest). Sean Bean (Fellowship of the Ring), Darryl Hannah (Kill Bill), Jon Favreau (Swingers), and Kelsey Grammer (TV's Frasier) meet up in this film. The story, about an actor who takes a mysterious delivery job in order to make some quick cash, might be just the antidote to the season's mix of Oscar-slavering dramas and family fluff. Plus it features a dwarf with some of the bluest eyes in this world, or whatever world most of the movie takes place in. (R)

Opening Nov. 19

The Missing -- Ron Howard's last film (A Beautiful Mind) was touching; his latest seems mostly terrifying. Cate Blanchett plays a woman raising her daughters alone in the New Mexican wilderness in the late 19th century. When her oldest is kidnapped by the region's bogeyman, she must turn to her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) for help. Wolves on tabletops, mysterious shadows in the trees and Blanchett's pale, stricken face vividly bring the threads of Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride to life. (R)

Opening Nov. 21

21 Grams -- "They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death. Everyone." Well if a line like that doesn't get your attention, chances are 21 Grams, by the director and writer of Amores Perros, won't either. The weight of the human soul pervades this intermingling of three lives - played by Sean "Oscar Boy" Penn, Benicio Del Torro and Naomi Watts. (R)

The Cat in the Hat -- When Ron Howard and Jim Carrey turned How the Grinch Stole Christmas into Hollywood gold a few years back, you just knew this one was coming. Now it's Mike Myers' turn to look completely ridiculous all made up and do a jig on the grave of old Theodore Geisel, while wearing that tall red and white topper. Would it be OK to leave our childhood memories of Dr. Seuss in peace? Apparently not. The only hope is for this one to flop -- that way, perhaps Horton, Sam (I am) and the rest of the good doctor's creations can stay in the books where they belong. (PG)

Gothika -- Halle Berry's in trouble: She wakes up in a mental hospital, accused of killing her husband -- and she seems to belong there. Those Academy Award chops and practice at channeling (weather) in the X-Men may come in handy as she starts "seeing things." Also starring Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz. (R)

Opening Nov. 26

Bad Santa -- This holiday vehicle doesn't sound like a Terry Zwigoff movie; after all, he directed the beloved, quirky Ghost World. So perhaps this somewhat twisted tale might be worth a look. The cast looks strong, with Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham and, in his second-to-last film, John Ritter. The story follows what happens when a couple of low-life crooks abuse the sanctity of Santa's name to commit a common crime. (R)

Timeline -- Archaeology students (Frances O'Connor, Paul Walker, Gerard Butler) inadvertently pop the cork on a wormhole leading back to 14th-century Europe. Weirder still, they find a message from the long-lost father of one of the students, dated 1347. Based on the bestseller by Michael Crichton. (PG-13)

The Cooler -- Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) has such famously contagious bad luck that he's hired by casinos to jinx the other customers. Bernie's luck takes a turn for the better when he meets cocktail waitress Maria Bello. (R)

The Haunted Mansion -- Well, Pirates of the Caribbean proved that a movie based on a theme-park ride could sail off with a shipload of booty. But this film from Disney, based on their famous haunted mansion, doesn't get Johnny Depp. Instead, Eddie Murphy will be mugging it up with zombies and ghosts as he learns important lessons about family and love. Sounds like holiday fare. We're just not sure which holiday. (PG)

Opening Dec. 5

The Last Samurai -- Tom Cruise is The Last Samurai. That's right: white boy, American icon, openly heterosexual Tom Cruise plays a Civil War veteran who goes to Japan to teach the warriors how to use guns. Buzz has not been kind to the premise of this film, and director Edward Zwick isn't exactly experienced with action. So let's hope that Cruise's charisma can keep this from becoming an insensitive mess of a movie. (R)

Highwaymen -- Jim Caviezel (Frequency) stars as the husband of a woman abducted by a mysterious man driving a '72 El Dorado. Caviezel meets up with a woman who escaped a similar fate, and together they set out to hunt down the serial killer. (R)

Honey -- Flashdance meets Disclosure? Jessica Alba (Dark Angel) has a hot career as a dancer and choreographer, but a sexual harasser threatens to derail it all. Also starring Mekhi Phifer. (PG-13)

Fellowship of the Ring -- A re-release of the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, including additional scenes. (PG-13)

Opening Dec. 10

Big Fish -- Tim Burton, the man who brought us Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas (along with the God-awful Planet of the Apes), turns to his sweeter side here. The excellent Billy Crudup plays a young man bonding with his dying father (Albert Finney, and Ewan McGregor in flashbacks). Burton's intense visual imagination should be perfect for capturing the mood of mythical nostalgia that infuses family lore. (PG-13)

Opening Dec. 12

Girl With a Pearl Earring -- Some people are holding their breath for Cold Mountain; I'm holding mine for Girl With a Pearl Earring. Based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, Colin Firth plays painter Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings begin to capture more and more the household's shy new maid (Scarlett Johansson). Tom Wilkinson plays Firth's romantic and artistic rival. (PG-13)

Stuck on You -- The masters of bad taste, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, set their sights on one of the last unconquered realms of human misfortune when the lead character of their latest film is actually two people -- kinda. Bob (Greg Kinnear) and Walt (Matt Damon) are conjoined twins, and if that's not funny enough for you, Bob decides to move to L.A. to make it big in the movies. Once out West, the pair must negotiate a wicked slew of celebrity cameos on the road to success. (Not yet rated)

Something's Gotta Give -- Borrowing its title but none of the plot from Marilyn Monroe's last, unfinished film, Something's Gotta Give is the latest in what seems to be the new "older women are sexy" genre. Jack Nicholson is snogging Amanda Peet but realizes he's really in love with the young woman's mother (Diane Keaton). (Not yet rated)

Love Don't Cost a Thing -- Teenage nerd pays the hottest girl in high school to date him... heard this one before? Yes, you have, but this time it's African-American teens working through life's little challenges. Starring Nick Cannon (Drumline), Christina Milian and Steve Harvey. (PG-13)

The Statement -- Michael Caine is always great; he picks good scripts, too. So this tale of an ex-Nazi hoping to while away his last days in France without anyone noticing should be a safe bet. Directed by Norman Jewison. (Not yet rated)

The Two Towers -- The re-release of the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with additional scenes. (PG-13)

Opening Dec. 17

Return of the King -- This is where Peter Jackson has been taking his trilogy for the past three years, and a misstep now would be fatal. Adventurous hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) will make his final push to destroy the evil ring of power. Expect a major crowd, and some action sequences that put the other (excellent) films in the series to shame. (PG-13)

Opening Dec. 19

Mona Lisa Smile -- Julia Roberts plays a free-spirited new teacher who has come to Wellesley, in part to liberate her young students from the staid expectations of their 1950s upbringing. Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Stiles play would-be young socialites; newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin is getting lots of buzz as the group's one girl who is more real than she is popular. (PG-13)

Opening Dec. 24

Monster -- Charlize Theron (The Italian Job) makes a break for cinematic credibility by playing Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who was executed for killing seven men in the 1980s. The new queen of independent cinema, Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, The Laramie Project), co-stars as Wuornos' lesbian lover. They get naked together. They want to win Oscars. Any questions? (R)

Opening Dec. 25

Cheaper by the Dozen -- Efficiency expert Steve Martin attempts to run his family (mom Bonnie Hunt, kids Hilary Duff, Piper Perabo and more) like a streamlined corporation. It doesn't take an efficiency expert to realize family fare like this makes a butt-load of money when it opens on Christmas Day. (PG)

Paycheck -- Philip K. Dick's work is back on the big screen, and this time it's Hong Kong action director John Woo behind the camera. Harrison Ford starred in Blade Runner, Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Arnold Schwarzenegger did Total Recall; now it's Ben Affleck's turn to see if playing a man in jeopardy, sci-fi style, will be similarly good for his career. This time, he has to find out what happened to a big pile of money, but he's had his memory erased. (Not yet rated)

Cold Mountain -- Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) directs this Civil War epic, based on the National Book Award-winning novel by Charles Frazier. Jude Law plays a Confederate defector, gravely wounded and trying to make his way back to his Tennessee mountain home on foot. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman plays a young woman whose father has just died and who must figure out how to run her rambling farm on her own. Supporting cast includes Renee Zellweger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and even Jack White (of the White Stripes). (Not yet rated)

Peter Pan -- Apparently a straight-ahead retelling of this old favorite, with P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) directing and, for once, a boy playing the lead. Jason Isaacs, Malfoy the elder in Harry Potter, plays Captain Hook, in this, the first live-action version of Peter Pan since the silent film era. (PG)

The Young Black Stallion -- Ever wonder what happened before the shipwreck in 1979's The Black Stallion? This Disney prequel, which will play at IMAX theaters, tells that tale. Much of it takes place in Africa, with big, beautiful scenery to match the size of the screen. (Not yet rated)

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