A Winter Wonderland At The Movies

Courant Film Critic

With kindly and wicked monsters already on hand, and wizards young and old in the wings, fantasy rules in a holiday season shadowed by persistent mourning and pervasive fears. What better time for flying brooms and an all-powerful ring?

The end-of-year Hollywood festival, already launched with the tremendous opening weekend of the Disney-Pixar ‘‘Monsters, Inc.,” seems poised to take another leap into the financial stratosphere on Friday with the release of ‘‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.” Already opened to rave reviews in London (as ‘‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone”), the first film of the fabulously successful cycle of novels by J.K. Rowling will almost certainly help to bring family audiences pouring back into movie houses.

Tickets are even being sold in advance.

The only possible rival for Harry Potter & Co. is the first film in a trilogy that ranks as the most enduring fantasy epic of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien's ‘‘The Lord of the Rings.” ‘‘The Fellowship of the Ring” brings doughty hobbits and fearsome black riders into theaters Dec. 19.

The live-action Rowling and Tolkien tales of magic and dark forces are the biggest and most ballyhooed fantasies of the season. Besides ‘‘Monsters, Inc.,” the holidays will also offfer another animated feature, ‘‘Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” a futuristic tale of bizarre inventions and weird aliens. This release aims mostly at kids. Jan. 1 will bring the re-release of ‘‘Beauty and the Beast” in a giant-screen format, for theaters like the Odyssey house at Hartford's Crown Palace.

For adults in search of romance or comedy, two time-travel sagas are in view. In ``Black Knight," Martin Lawrence grabs at a sunken bauble that yanks him back to the Middle Ages. In ``Kate and Leopold," Hugh Jackman plays a 19th-century man pulled by accident into the 21st-century realm of Meg Ryan.

The latter picture is one of many whose release dates have been juggled for various reasons. Miramax Films was to have released Martin Scorsese's ``Gangs of New York" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis in late December, but it has been delayed until spring, either because of fears about its unsettling subject matter or because of its excessive length. So ``Kate and Leopold" became one of Miramax's end-of-2001 contenders.

Harvey Weinstein's amazingly successful mini-major also has two other, even more prestigous films on the way, both set for Christmas Day releases: Lasse Hallström's ``The Shipping News" with Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, based on the Annie Proulx novel, and ``In the Bedroom" with Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson.

Two other leading contenders for Oscar nominations are based on real people rather than works of fiction.

Michael Mann's ``Ali" with Will Smith arrives Christmas Day, and ``A Beautiful Mind" with Russell Crowe as the mathematics savant John Forbes Nash Jr. will open wide in January after limited runs at the close of December.

With patriotism running high after the devastating tragedies of Sept. 11, a number of war pictures will storm in. Twentieth Century Fox has moved up ``Behind Enemy Lines," about a pilot shot down in hostile territory, with Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman. Columbia Pictures has high hopes for Ridley Scott's ``Black Hawk Down," with Josh Hartnett heading the cast of a fact-based account of a fiery fight in Somalia. It will come in January, after limited 2001 openings, as will ``Charlotte Gray," Gillian Armstrong's World War II drama starring Blanchett. Geopolitics in a troubled world figure in Tony Scott's ``Spy Games," starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt as CIA adventurers.

But the biggest buddy picture of all is ``Ocean's 11," directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts. It is one of two big remakes in view, the other being Cameron Crowe's ``Vanilla Sky," with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz (who also starred in the original Spanish film, 1997's "Abre los Ojos").

Cruise could emerge as an Oscar contender, as he did working with Crowe in ``Jerry Maguire," and Jim Carrey makes another major career move after last year's green yak-fur makeup job as the Grinch. This holiday, Carrey looks normal, even handsome, in the Capraesque tale of the Hollywood blacklist ``The Majestic," directed by Frank Darabont.

Both pictures are wide mid-December releases, but Disney is holding back on the picture that looks like the best adult entertainment of the season, Wes Anderson's ``The Royal Tenenbaums," with a cast that includes Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson, as well as Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover and Bill Murray. As always, schedules are subject to change, now more than ever. In addition, pictures such as the Coen brothers' ``The Man Who Wasn't There" with Billy Bob Thornton, already open in New York, will also be rolling out. But here is how the big pictures look as the movie year spins to a close.

Nov. 16

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - A trio of unknown kid actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, head the cast as Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in Chris Columbus' retelling of the instant classic by J.K. Rowling. Other key players in this tale of strange goings-on during Harry's first year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Richard Harris as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Alan Rickman as the menacing Severus Snape and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall. John Cleese appears as Nearly Headless Nick, Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw are Harry's uncle and aunt, and Julie Walters is briefly seen as the mother of the Weasley clan.

Novocaine - Steve Martin, who showed his dangerous side in David Mamet's ``The Spanish Prisoner," plays a wealthy dentist who becomes a murder suspect after a sexy patient seduces him into supplying her with drugs. Helena Bonham Carter co-stars as the woman in question, and Laura Dern, Elias Koteas and Scott Caan are featured under the direction of David Atkins.

Nov. 21

Spy Game - Robert Redford and Brad Pitt team as inseparable CIA partners, mentor Nathan Muir and protégé Tom Bishop, who traveled on company business to Vietnam, Berlin and Beirut. Now, on the edge of retirement, Muir learns that Bishop has turned rogue and is jailed in Beijing after attempting to break a prisoner out of China. Tony Scott (``Enemy of the State," ``Crimson Tide") directs.

Black Knight - Martin Lawrence does some time-traveling inspired by Mark Twain in this variation on ``A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." The mouthy guy plays a slick-talking worker for a medieval-themed amusement park transported back to the Middle Ages, where he teams with a broken-down ex-knight and a peasant girl to fight the evil King Leo, played by Kevin Conway. Tom Wilkinson and Angel Desai lend support.

Out Cold - Snowboarding buddies played by Jason London, Zach Galifianakis, Flex Alexander and Derek Hamilton enjoy a high old time on Alaska's Bull Mountain, partying hardily and chasing snow bunnies. Then the death of the king of the mountain puts their fun in jeopardy as the son, played by Willie Garson, elects to sell the real estate to a Colorado skiing tycoon acted by Lee Majors. The turf war is on. Brendan and Emmett Malloy co-direct.

Nov. 30

The Enemy Within - Owen Wilson plays a top naval flier who finds himself at odds with his commanding officer, played by Gene Hackman. He defies orders and risks his career to carry out a rescue mission. John Moore directs. The cast includes David Keith, Elizabeth P. Perry and Gabriel Macht.

Texas Rangers - Long delayed, this tale about the creation of the famed law-enforcement team stars teen hunk James Van Der Beek and Rachael Leigh Cook, looking for a comeback after ``Josie and the Pussycats" tanked. Also riding the range in the aftermath of the Civil War are Dylan McDermott, Ashton Kutcher, Randy Travis, Tom Skerritt, Usher Raymond, Vincent Spano. and, as King Fisher, Alfred Molina. Steve Miner directs.

Dec. 7

Ocean's 11 - George Clooney and Julia Roberts play anex-con and his ex-girlfriend in Steven Soderbergh's revision of the 1960 Rat Pack caper comedy. Clooney plays Danny Ocean, the role originated by Frank Sinatra, with Roberts as his former girlfriend Tess, now involved with a Las Vegas casino kingpin played by Andy Garcia. Also in the new rodent ensemble are Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliot Gould, Edward Jenison, Bernie Mac and Carl Reiner.

Dec. 14

Vanilla Sky -Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz head the cast of Cameron Crowe's remake of a Spanish film that also starred Cruz, Alejandro Amenábar's ``Abre los Ojos," or ``Open Your Eyes." In the Americanized version, which co-stars Kurt Russell and Cameron Diaz, Cruise plays a handsome womanizer disfigured in a car crash precipitated by a jilted lover, then restored to iconic looks again through the miracles of plastic surgery. Jason Lee and Johnny Galecki are featured.

Not Another Teen Movie - The teen genre gets lampooned in Joel Gallen's comedy, which pairs Chyler Leigh as an artist outcast who wears glasses, a ponytail and paint-stained overalls and Chris Evans as a football star who bets he can turn the mocked outsider into a prom queen.

Dec. 19

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Elijah Wood plays Frodo Baggins in the first film based on the famed trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Sean Astin plays his companion Samwise Gangee, with Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf the Grey. Ian Holm is Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett is Galadriel, Liv Tyler plays Arwen Undomiel and Sean Bean acts Boromir in this epic of the battle of the Hobbits against the Dark Lord, Sauron. Peter Jackson directs, working on all three films simultaneously.

Dec. 21

The Majestic - In an unabashed homage to Frank Capra, Frank Darabont directs Jim Carrey in a tale of the Hollywood blacklist that takes a twist into that holiday favorite ``It's a Wonderful Life." The supporting cast includes Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, Allen Garfield, Bruce Campbell and Amanda Detmer, with Daniel Von Bargen as an FBI agent and Hal Holbrook, Ron Rifkin, David Ogden Stiers and James Whitmore in smaller roles.

Kate and Leopold - Meg Ryan is Kate and Hugh Jackman is Leopold in this time-travel romance about a late-19th-century bachelor English duke transported by accident to present-day New York. Liev Schreiber is Stuart, who mismanages the time machine, and Philip Bosco, Natasha Lyonne, Breckin Meyer and Bradley Whitford are featured in this New York love story.

Joe Somebody - Tim Allen plays a divorced corporate cipher beaten up as his daughter watches on ``Bring Your Child to Work Day." James Belushi is the fallen star, now a martial-arts type, who teaches poor dad to fight back. John Pasquin directs a cast that includes Hayden Panettiere as the daughter, Kelly Lynch as the ex-wife and Julie Bowen as the love interest.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius - Once called Johnny Quasar, the world's smartest 10-year-old must now save the world from green aliens that resemble rotting oobleck. Debi Derryberry voices the brainy inventor kid in this animated feature, written and directed by John A. Davis. Paired with Jimmy is a robotic dog. The voices of Martin Short, Patrick Stewart and Rob Paulsen are heard on the soundtrack.

Dec. 25

Ali - Will Smith floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee under the direction of Michael Mann. The powerhouse ensemble for this epic biography of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali features Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright and Mykelti Williamson.

The Shipping News - Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore head the cast of this retelling of the masterly Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an unfortunate soul who finds work as a reporter in Newfoundland after the death of his estranged wife. Cate Blanchett plays the lost, faithless mate; Judi Dench is the man's odd aunt; and Moore is a single mother who becomes involved in his new life. Lasse Hallström directs.

How High - Rap superstars Redman and Method Man play two young dudes who smoke something magical that lifts their college entrance exams so stratospherically high that they land at Harvard. Jesse Dylan directs.

In the Bedroom - Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson head the cast of this tale, set on the coast of Maine, about a couple whose only child suffers through the tragic end of a love affair. Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei and William Mapother (brother of Tom Cruise) round out the cast. Todd Field, who has acted in ``Eyes Wide Shut" and ``Ruby in Paradise," makes his feature-writing and directing debut.


The Royal Tenenbaums - Gene Hackman plays the dying patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum, whose once brilliant children come together to bid farewell to the man who seems to have ruined lives of infinite promise: the boy real estate and financial genius Chas, the brilliant girl playwright Margot, the junior tennis champion Richie. Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson are the kids, Anjelica Huston is their mother, Etheline. Wes Anderson (``Rushmore") is the director and co-writer.

Black Hawk Down - Ridley Scott takes on modern warfare in this fact-based film about the Battle of Mogadishu. The title refers to the two UA-60 helicopters shot down when 120 American Delta and infantry Ranger troops flew into Somalia to captured two lieutenants of a renegade warlord. The cast includes ``Pearl Harbor" veterans Josh Hartnett and Tom Sizemore as well as Eric Bann, Jason Isaacs, Ewan McGregor, Johnny Strong, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven.

A Beautiful Mind - Russell Crowe takes the mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr. through a life of brilliance and madness (paranoid schizophrenia) and recovery that climaxes with a Nobel Prize in this fact-based but fictionalized film from Ron Howard. Jennifer Connelly plays his wife, and Ed Harris and Paul Bettany are featured in a company that also includes Judd Hirsch, Christopher Plummer and Vivien Cardone.

Charlotte Gray - Gillian Armstrong directs Cate Blanchett in Sebastian Faulk's World War II drama about a Scottish woman working in London during the Blitz who has a brief but deep affair with an RAF pilot who is then lost over France.

I Am Sam - Sean Penn plays a mentally retarded man fighting for custody of his daughter in this drama directed by Jessie Nelson. Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars, with support from Laura Dern and Loretta Devine.

Gosford Park - The grand old misantrope auteur Robert Altman dabbles in an Agatha Christie genre in this tale of a 1932 murder at an English country estate. As always in his larger pictures, his ensemble is splendid, with Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Maggie Smith and Emily Watson all on hand.

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