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Second Bananas, Reaching Fruition

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page N18

Is it safe to come out now?

Is Shrek safely hibernating?

Is Spidey cocooning? Is Harry Potter cadging a nap? Has Michael Moore left the building?

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'Sky Captain'
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'Shaun of the Dead'
'The Forgotten'
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'Ladder 49'
'I ♥ Huckabees'
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'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events'
'Meet the Fockers'

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David O. Russell and Jason Schwartzman on 'I ♥ Huckabees'
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Gael Garcia Bernal on 'Motorcycle Diaries'
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Critic Desson Thomson: Behind the Screen


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The recent DVD resurrection of "The Passion of the Christ" notwithstanding, the cinematic Bigfoots of 2004 seem to be in retreat, at least for now. Granted, "Alexander," Oliver Stone's historical epic starring Colin Farrell, looms on the horizon, poised for attack. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," in which Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Howard Hughes, will come in for a landing in December. Fresh from his triumphant turn in "Lost in Translation," Bill Murray will star in "The Life Aquatic," another quirky comedy by Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"). And sequels -- including "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," "Meet the Fockers" (Barbra Streisand's long-awaited return to comedy), "Ocean's Twelve" and "Blade: Trinity" -- dot the multiplex landscape like so many unidentifiable candied green things in a fruitcake.

But the coming movie season is also distinguished by an impressive number of films in which dependable supporting players are finally headlining. The guys we usually turn to for a little comic relief are stepping up and delivering dramatic turns. The background is taking center stage. The Little Guy Is Striking Back.

We've already seen Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who starred in the rapturous 2001 comedy "Y Tu Mama Tambien," star in "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Criminal," respectively (the latter co-starred John C. Reilly, another go-to supporting actor finally getting his due). Bernal, happily, will be heard from again in Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" later this year.

It's not as if Hollywood didn't know the guys on the bench could do it. Consider Chris Cooper, who won the Oscar in 2003 for best supporting actor for "Adaptation." On Friday, he'll break out as the star of John Sayles's "Silver City," in which he plays a character based on George W. Bush. That same day Paul Bettany, who had Russell Crowe's back -- and provided crucial dramatic glue -- in "A Beautiful Mind" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," will take the romantic lead opposite Kirsten Dunst in "Wimbledon," a comedy set in the world of professional tennis. Jamie Foxx, who surprised many observers this past summer with his serious turn in Michael Mann's urban drama "Collateral," will star as Ray Charles in "Ray," by Taylor Hackford, in October. (In a similar move, look out for Kevin Spacey as singer Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea," another biopic in a slew that also includes "Kinsey," "Finding Neverland" and the aforementioned "Aviator" and "Alexander.")

There are some more breakout performances to look forward to: Bernie Mac in "Mr. 3000"; Paul Giamatti ("American Splendor") and Thomas Haden Church in Alexander Payne's "Sideways"; Christian Bale in "The Machinist," directed by Brad Anderson ("Next Stop Wonderland"); Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda," a real-life tale of heroism during the massacres in 1994. These are the actors that die-hard film fans follow like players from the minors, rooting for them and urging them from the sidelines until their guys hit the bigs, at which point the surrogate bleacher moms strut around saying, "I've been a fan of his since he played the hamburger flipper in 'Moving Violations.' " (Isn't there some kind of rotisserie league for geeks like us?)

The Summer of 2004 was the Summer of the Political Docs, nonfiction films -- most of them bashing President Bush -- that invaded theaters like a well-oiled army. (Familiar in our mouths as household words: "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Hunting of the President," "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered," "Bush's Brain" and "Brothers in Arms." May those happy few be in our flowing cups freshly remembered -- and endlessly, windily debated.) Bringing up the rear flank: "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," a biography of the Democratic candidate by George Butler ("Pumping Iron").

A few more nonfiction titles to look out for: "End of the Century," Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields's film about punk rock pioneers the Ramones; "Lightning in a Bottle," a concert film by Antoine Fuqua featuring Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Solomon Burke and Ruth Brown, among other blues artists; and "The Yes Men," about a team of performance artists and culture-jammers who impersonate members of the World Trade Organization in their politically motivated pranks.

Meanwhile, where are the women? Where they usually are: outsmarting their Secret Service handlers in the White House (Katie Holmes in "First Daughter"), coping with motherhood -- or not (Julianne Moore in "The Forgotten"), trying to lose weight and get a guy (Renee Zellweger in the sequel "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason") and dancing backward in high heels (Jennifer Lopez in "Shall We Dance?"). Paging Gloria Steinem: We've got an acute case of testosterone poisoning and need an antidote, stat!

If it's true that Hollywood is still a man's world, it may not be much longer. It may not even be a human's world much longer. In addition to being a big day for Cooper and Bettany, Friday also marks the debut of the Green Screen as star in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Director Kerry Conran made the movie by shooting his actors in front of a green screen, so he could insert them digitally wherever he wanted. (Conran has reportedly even found old footage of Laurence Olivier, who will appear as a hologram.) The cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Jude Law in one of six movies he'll star in before the year is out, including David O. Russell's comedy "I H Huckabees," "Closer" with Julia Roberts, "The Aviator," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and a remake of 1966's "Alfie." It seems safe to assume that six Jude Law movies coming out within eight weeks of each other is a ratio we can all live with.

Indeed, some of the best films of the season may turn out to be movies that don't feature live actors at all. "Team America: World Police," a comedy by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, boasts a cast of crime-fighting . . . marionettes. A few weeks before Christmas, Tom Hanks will voice the animated feature "The Polar Express," based on the Chris Van Allsburg story.

And shortly thereafter, the TV-to-big-screen breakthrough we've all been waiting for: "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," wherein the wacky little sea sponge and his pals in Bikini Bottom strike out for parts unknown to solve the mystery of King Neptune's stolen crown.

Come to think of it, between SpongeBob, Snicket and "Finding Neverland," in which Johnny Depp will play "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie, this season looks like one in which it'll be great to be a kid. Again.


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