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Holiday movie preview: No blockbusters, but lots of potential

Jim Beckerman
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
Night watchman Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is chased by a T-Rex during his memorable night at the museum in "Night At The Museum." (Rhythm and Hues/Twentieth Century Fox/MCT)

In this year's Hollywood Christmas pie, moviegoers may be hard pressed to stick in their thumb and pull out the plum.

There's no "Narnia" this time around, no "King Kong," no "Lord of the Rings," no "Grinch" -- and the only "Potter" this year is Beatrix, the subject of Dec. 29's "Miss Potter." In short, no big "event" movie.

To be sure, there's "Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," the latest installment of the reliable if unspectacular Tim Allen franchise.

And there are a few other familiar brands hitting the shelves: among them "National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj" (Dec. 1) and "Casino Royale" (Nov. 17), featuring a new James Bond, Daniel Craig, in an old vehicle ("Casino Royale" was filmed as a spoof back in 1967).

More literate kids may be looking forward to "Charlotte's Web" (Dec. 20), a children's film with a built-in audience from the popular E.B. White book, not to mention an earlier cartoon film version in 1973. And theater fans are buzzing about "Dreamgirls" (Dec. 15), which has the advantage of big names (Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx) and the disadvantage of being a stage musical adaptation ("Rent" and "The Producers" both bombed a year ago).

There may even be an audience out there for "Rocky Balboa" (Dec. 22), featuring Sylvester Stallone as the doddering palooka in an 11th-hour sequel that may do for his career what "Myra Breckinridge" did for the aging Mae West.

Certainly, there's no shortage of movies with holiday themes: "Deck the Halls" (Nov. 17), "The Nativity Story" (Dec. 1) and "The Holiday" (Dec. 8), not to mention the chiller "Black Christmas" (Dec. 25).

What there is not this year is an indisputably big, super-hyped holiday movie to anchor the season, the way a "name" department store anchors the two dozen boutiques in a shopping mall.

But before anyone sheds tears over what Santa forgot to deliver, consider the up side: a number of unknown quantities, any of which could turn out to be the surprise must-see of the holiday season.

Such as? "Night at the Museum" (Dec. 22), with Ben Stiller as the night watchman pursued by a pack of living dinosaur skeletons. Or "Eragon" (Dec. 15), a medieval saga about a dragon. Or "Apocalypto" (Dec. 8), the Mel Gibson saga of the ancient Mayan culture, filmed -- needless to say -- in ancient Mayan. Or "Pan's Labyrinth" (Dec. 29), about a lonely Spanish girl who creates a mythological fantasy world in her back yard.

Not to mention a couple of CG-cartoon characters that could well take off with the younger set: including the dancing penguins of "Happy Feet" (Nov. 17) and the toilet-traveling rat in "Flushed Away" (today), a premise so revolting that it's virtually guaranteed to appeal to kids of all ages.

So consider this movie season as less the standard Christmas cornucopia than a holiday treasure hunt. Not many big-ticket items under the tree -- but lots of cool little surprises if you look hard enough.

All dates are subject to change. Some movies will open in limited release, then expand to more theaters later in the season.

Friday:

  • A GOOD YEAR -- English banker (Russell Crowe) drinks in the beauties of France when he inherits a vineyard in Provence.

  • THE RETURN -- Sarah Michelle Gellar returns to the dream of the crime when she starts having nightmares about a 15-year-old murder.

  • STRANGER THAN FICTION -- Will Ferrell lives less than happily-ever-after when he discovers his life has a narrator (Emma Thompson).

  • HARSH TIMES -- Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez are hard-luck buddies in South Central Los Angeles.

  • FUR -- The life and weird times of photo-grapher Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman).

  • COME EARLY MORNING -- Ashley Judd takes a long hard look at her short hard life.

  • COPYING BEETHOVEN -- Stormy Beethoven (Ed Harris) tries to compose himself in his final year.

    Nov. 15:

  • FLANNEL PAJAMAS -- A couple (Justin Kirk, Julianne Nicholson) find themselves in a shrinking, fading, unraveling relationship.

    Nov. 17:

  • CASINO ROYALE -- Blond, James Blond (Daniel Craig) is the new fair-haired boy of the Ian Fleming franchise.

  • HAPPY FEET -- March of the animated penguins.

  • TENACIOUS D IN: THE PICK OF DESTINY -- Jack Black and Kyle Gass are two guitarzans looking to be kings of the musical jungle.

  • FAST FOOD NATION -- Ensemble drama, by Richard Linklater by way of Eric Schlosser's non-fiction bestseller, takes a bite out of the fast food industry.

  • LET'S GO TO PRISON -- Career criminal and judge's son belly up to the bars together in Bob Odenkirk's ("Mr. Show") comedy.

  • BOBBY -- Dreams die along with Bobby Kennedy in this ensemble drama about 22 people in the Ambassador Hotel the night the presidential candidate was shot.

  • FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION -- Indie filmmakers are spinal-tapped for comedy in Christopher Guest's latest send-up, with the usual gang of oddballs (Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey).

    Nov. 21:

  • THE HISTORY BOYS -- The college-bound geniuses of Alan Bennett's play graduate to the big screen.

    Nov. 22:

  • DECK THE HALLS -- Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick are the Christmas light-heavyweights who get into an epic brawl about their garish outdoor displays.

  • THE FOUNTAIN -- The search for the fountain of youth drives Hugh Jackman to drink in this film with three parallel stories spanning 1,000 years.

  • DEJA VU -- Mental time-traveler Denzel Washington puts 'er in reverse to prevent a woman in the past from being murdered.

    Dec. 1:

  • THE NATIVITY STORY -- Mary (Keisha Castile-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) can't book a hotel on Christmas Eve.

  • TURISTAS -- Backpackers find themselves on the trail to trouble in a Brazilian jungle.

  • NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER: THE RISE OF TAJ -- Kal Penn teaches stuffy Oxfordians how to shake some old-school booty in this sequel to the 2002 hit.

    Dec. 8:

  • UNACCOMPANIED MINORS -- These kids can't take off for Christmas, literally -- they're stranded in a snowed-in airport.

  • APOCALYPTO -- A funny thing happened on the way to the human sacrifice -- but the ancient Mayan youth (Rudy Youngblood) who goes AWOL in Mel Gibson's epic isn't laughing.

  • THE HOLIDAY -- Two women (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet) swap homes and lives.

  • DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE -- The videogame comes to the big screen, complete with a self-contradictory title (someone who's dead on arrival can't be dead or alive). We'll get Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector to investigate.

  • BLOOD DIAMOND -- A diamond is a farmer's, smuggler's and businessman's best friend in this saga of Sierra Leone's bloody jewel trade, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.

    Dec. 15:

  • DREAMGIRLS -- Beyonce Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson battle to be the supreme Supreme in this adaptation of the Broadway musical about a Diana Ross-like diva and her singing co-stars (a thinly disguised Supremes). With Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy.

  • ERAGON -- One dragon egg, over easy, brings a medieval farm boy (Edward Speleers) into conflict with an evil king (John Malkovich) in this sword-and-sorcery epic.

  • PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS -- Salesman Will Smith won't let his career (and spelling problems) get in the way of his son's (Jaden Smith) future.

  • THE GOOD GERMAN -- American journalist (George Clooney) is drawn into a "Third Man"-ish murder mystery in post-war Berlin, investigating the death of someone not named Harry Lime.

  • HOME OF THE BRAVE -- Three soldiers struggle to readjust to civilian life after Iraq.

  • THE PAINTED VEIL -- Doctor Edward Norton and wife Naomi Watts don't speak the same language -- as the natives or each other -- in Somerset Maugham's tale of transplanted Europeans trying to assist in a Chinese cholera epidemic.

    Dec. 20:

  • CHARLOTTE'S WEB -- A spider (voice of Julia Roberts) spins webs of enchantment for a nervous pig (Dominic Scott Kay) in this adaptation of E.B. White's children's story.

    Dec. 22:

  • THE GOOD SHEPHERD -- Matt Damon finds greener pastures in the early CIA.

  • NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM -- Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again -- much to the dismay of night watchman Ben Stiller.

  • WE ARE MARSHALL -- New coach Matthew McConaughey tries to breathe life into a football team sidelined by tragedy.

  • ROCKY BALBOA -- The champ (Sylvester Stallone) fights one last round on the way to the retirement home.

    Dec. 25:

  • CHILDREN OF MEN -- In 2027, human beings are no longer able to procreate, and Clive Owen is happy to do something about it.

  • BLACK CHRISTMAS -- Somebody is stalking sorority sisters -- and it ain't Santa Claus -- in this remake of the 1974 thriller.

  • NOTES ON A SCANDAL -- Pottery teacher Cate Blanchett muddies her reputation by carrying on with a student.

    Dec. 29:

  • MISS POTTER -- The tale of Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger).

  • PAN'S LABYRINTH -- Lonely girl loses herself in a maze of mythological creatures.
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