Setting Oscar’s table: Hollywood polishes up the silver screen

Here are some things to look forward to in the coming days at the movies: ancient Mayans, British schoolboys, Broadway hits, a Philadelphia pugilist, adultery and more adultery, a barnyard of talking animals, and a version of the Nativity story as told by the director of the kids-gone-wild melodrama Thirteen.

These are the glory days of cinema, that end-of-the-year blip between the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas ham (that would be Sylvester Stallone, in Rocky Balboa) when the studios and their prestige divisions pump out would-be Oscar contenders, and all of a sudden there really are good movies to see.

As for the ancient Mayans, Apocalypto brings a long-gone culture and a dead language to life in mega-violent Mad Mel style, while Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain flashes back and forth (pretentiously) between ancient Mayan and modern times.

The Brit schoolboys are not of the Harry Potter ilk, but of Alan Bennett’s prize-winning play The History Boys, and of the hunky art-student type Cate Blanchett gets her adulterous mitts on in Notes on a Scandal.

The big Broadway smash Dreamgirls gets movie-ized, the streets of Philadelphia get Sly-ized again, Charlotte’s Web gets Babe-ized (with computer-rendered talking animals voiced by Hollywood stars), and the Joseph-Mary-and-Jesus-in-the-manger story gets brought to life just in time for Christmas, with Whale Rider Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary!

The early buzz on Oscars (and Golden Globes) has Peter O’Toole very much in the running for Venus, Will Smith likewise for The Pursuit of “Happyness, Penelope Cruz for Volver, Blanchett and Judi Dench, both for Notes on a Scandal, and Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, both for Dreamgirls.

Two great Mexican directors, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, turn in great, head-spinning cinematic affairs: Cuaron’s Children of Men, a scary parable of ecological, spiritual and physical ruin set in the very near future, and Pan’s Labyrinth (see below).

Whew. We’re already exhausted. Here’s a look at some of the season’s highlights (opening dates might change):

The Nativity Story: Amid all the holiday junk food, this film’s the real deal. Catherine Hardwicke’s human-scaled biblical about Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) cuts to the quick of ordinary Nazarenes who rise to their extraordinary destiny as the parents of Jesus. (Opens Friday)

— Carrie Rickey

The Nativity Story – Trailer

Apocalypto: There’s trouble in the Mayan temple when warrior Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), chosen for human sacrifice, flees the kingdom. Set in 15th-century Mexico as the civilization of architects and astronomers was in decline, Mel Gibson’s bloody spectacular (think Braveheart in the Yucatan) boasts an edge-of-your-seat footrace through the rain forest. The first major movie with dialogue in Yucatec. (Dec. 8)

— C.R.

Apocalypto – Trailer

Blood Diamond: Diamond mines get plundered and Leonardo DiCaprio gets an accent (South African) in Edward Zwick’s political thriller about a mercenary (DiCaprio) and a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) teaming to fight a diamond cartel that’s terrorizing the people of Sierra Leone. Jennifer Connelly plays an American journalist who’s snooping around, and wondering whether to fall in love with the dashing mercenary and his Errol Flynn facial hair. (Dec. 8)

— Steven Rea

Blood Diamond – Trailer

The Holiday: Cameron Diaz as an American with man trouble, and Kate Winslet as a Brit suffering from same. For the holidays they trade domiciles in the hope that a change of scenery will spur a change of heart, a sentiment seconded by the new men in their lives, Jude Law and Jack Black. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give). (Dec. 8)

— C.R.

The Holiday – Trailer

Charlotte’s Web: Move over, Babe. E.B. White’s beloved pig tale gets the live action/CGI treatment in this adaptation starring Dakota Fanning as Fern, who saves a piglet, Wilbur, who in turn learns life lessons from a wise spider named Charlotte (voice by Julia Roberts). (Dec. 15)

— C.R.

Charlotte’s Web – Trailer

Eragon: This year’s Lord of the Rings — well, that’s what Twentieth Century Fox is hoping, anyway — is the tale of a Middle Ages farm boy who finds a mystical dragon’s egg, and all the special-effects sword-and-sorcery that ensues. John Malkovich, the beautiful Sienna Guillory, and Blood Diamond‘s Djimon Hounsou costar, with British newcomer Edward Speleers in the title role. (Dec. 15)

— S.R.

Eragon – Trailer

The Pursuit of Happyness: Will Smith portrays the real-life Chris Gardner, homeless single dad, who, as the world crashes around him, clings to the lifelines of fatherhood and a stockbroker trainee program. That’s Will’s real-life son, Jaden, making his film debut as his on-screen son. (Dec. 15)

— C.R.

The Pursuit of Happyness – Trailer

Curse of the Golden Flower: From the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers comes this Tang Dynasty martial-arts epic, a widescreen, flying-ninjas melodrama with Asian megastars Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li as an estranged emperor and empress, dealing with clandestine love affairs and coups d’etat. It’s the most expensive film ever made in China, and, by all accounts, one of the most sumptuous. (Dec. 22)

— S.R.

Curse of the Golden Flower – Trailer

Rocky Balboa: It’s not over till it’s over, says the Philly pug (Sylvester Stallone) in this sixth (and reportedly final) installment about the has-been who fights for his right to be a somebody in the ring and, more important, reconnects with his estranged son. (Dec. 22)

— C.R.

Rocky Balboa – Trailer

Volver: Penelope Cruz is a force of nature in Pedro Almodovar’s tragicomedy about mothers, their estranged daughters, and the possibility of reconciliation beyond the grave. Borrowing liberally from the melodramas Mildred Pierce, Bellissima and Two Women, the writer/director has confected a paradoxically original film in which hopelessness and despair are trumped by hope and love. (Dec. 22)

— C.R.

Volver – Trailer

Dreamgirls: Tear down the mountains, yell, scream and shout. You can say what you want, I’m not walking out — on this highly anticipated backstage musical that’s already drawn Oscar buzz. Life imitates art imitates life in the film version of the `80s Broadway show inspired by `60s R&B trio the Supremes, and starring Beyonce Knowles (of the trio Destiny’s Child), Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson. (Dec. 25)

— C.R.

Dreamgirls – Trailer

Notes on a Scandal: Boos and hisses to Fox Searchlight for a trailer that gives away the entire movie, but, still, this psychological thriller based on the Zoe Heller novel What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal looks like a winner. Cate Blanchett plays a London art teacher, married with children, who gets caught in an affair with one of her students. The person who catches her: the school’s headmistress (Judi Dench), who has her own twisted agenda. (Dec. 25)

— S.R.

Notes on a Scandal – Trailer

The Good German: Steven Soderbergh directs his version of a 1940s Hollywood noir, shot in black-and-white, and shot through with old-school studio aesthetics. George Clooney stars as an American journalist in just-after-World War II Berlin who stumbles on a U.S.-Soviet conspiracy involving missing Nazi scientists. Cate Blanchett is an old girlfriend, and Tobey Maguire plays a clean-cut Yank who may not be so clean after all. (Dec. 29)

— S.R.

The Good German – Trailer

Venus: Peter O’Toole stars as an aging British thespian (not unlike Peter O’Toole) who enters into a relationship with a much, much younger woman (Jodie Whittaker). A bittersweet character study that wowed crowds at the Toronto Film Festival (and is on track to gain O’Toole an Oscar nomination), the film has been handily directed by Notting Hill‘s Roger Michell, and brings new twists to the old May-September romance thing. (Jan. 5)

— S.R.


Venus – Trailer

Pan’s Labyrinth: Hellboy director Guillermo Del Toro tells the story of a young girl in post-Civil War fascist Spain as she tries to deal with a brutally cruel stepfather, and escapes into a dark, beautiful fantasy world inhabited by fauns, fairies and monsters. Ivana Baquero, 12 during the shoot, gives the kind of kid-actor performance that makes the grown-ups look like fools. (In this case, very dangerous fools.) (Jan. 12)

— S.R.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Trailer

— — — —

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers