IF THERE doesn't seem to be an overriding theme to the upcoming holiday movies this year, there are certainly enough films to do with boats or planes. We're on the water in this flick. We're in the air in that one. Diving and soaring. Splashing and fluttering.
In Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," a crew of eccentrics (headed by Bill Murray) goes in quest of a mythical "jaguar shark." And then there's "Incident at Loch Ness," a documentary in which Werner Herzog hunts for the equally mythical lake beast. There's also "Beyond the Sea," Kevin Spacey's telling of the Bobby Darin story. And we have "The Sea Inside," about a quadriplegic man's fight for his right to end his life. Okay, fine, so those last two titles are metaphorical, although in "The Sea Inside," protagonist Ramon Sampedro's predicament has been caused by a swimming pool dive.
J.M. Barrie (a charming Johnny Depp) befriends young Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore) in Marc Forster's "Finding Neverland."
If water isn't your thing, try taking to the air with such aeronautical films as "Flight of the Phoenix" or the Imax movie "Fighter Pilot." And then there's "The Aviator," an account of Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire who dreamed of building the perfect flying machine. And let's really stretch the flight theme: You can look forward to Zhang Yimou's breathtakingly choreographed martial-arts film "House of Flying Daggers."
As everyone knows, the holidays mark Hollywood's final rush to Oscar season. As far as surefire bets go, two actors might as well order their high-price tuxedos right now. Jamie Foxx is sensational as Ray Charles in the movie "Ray," already out. And Don Cheadle hits his own high notes in "Hotel Rwanda," about the heroic actions of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu who helped hundreds of Tutsis escape death during the genocidal horrors in Rwanda.
It's harder to imagine Colin Farrell getting a nomination for sword-and-sandaling his way through "Alexander." If publicity and the public's interest are anything to go by, Oliver Stone's epic should expect some kind of booty at the box office. And there should be strong response, too, for Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," which marks the return of Leo the Great, as in DiCaprio.
Family audiences are already having a pretty good season. Pixar's witty, inspired "The Incredibles" took in more than $144 million in its first two weeks, and the visually splendid "The Polar Express," which opened last week, has already made more than $30 million. "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," sprung from the popular Nickelodeon TV show, opens Friday. And there's always "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," starring Jim Carrey as the strange Count Olaf, based on the popular children's book series, as well as the liveaction version of the 1970s TV cartoon "Fat Albert."
What about just good, quality films? Our best bets, based on having seen the movie or just having great expectations, are: James L. Brooks's "Spanglish," a romantic comedy from the man who gave us "Broadcast News"; "The Life Aquatic"; "The Chorus," a French film about a teacher who makes choir singers out of abandoned, unloved children; "The Woodsman," featuring Kevin Bacon as a child molester trying to live a good life; "A Very Long Engagement," a World War I romance from the maker of "Amelie"; "House of Flying Daggers"; "Hotel Rwanda"; Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education," slated for Jan. 14; and "William Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice,' " starring Al Pacino as Shylock, scheduled to open in late January.
There are more for you to discover. Read on.
Opening Nov. 19
'Kinsey': Portrait of A Sexual Revolutionary
'SpongeBob SquarePants': Soak Up Some Fun
A 'Treasure' That Should Be Buried
Depp Leads Enchanting Journey to 'Neverland'
'Sex Is Comedy'? Yes, Indeed
Who's Who: The enormous cast includes Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, David Bedella, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Brian Blessed. Oliver Stone directs.
What's What: Alexander, born in 356 B.C. in Macedonia, died just before his 33rd birthday. Long before then, he had conquered the known world, including Egypt, Syria, Persia and Asia Minor. (Me, I'm proud to be out of the house by 9 a.m.) In Egypt he was declared a pharaoh and a god. And he founded the cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Bucephala, India. Tutored by Aristotle, rider of the horse Bucephalus. Closely connected to his mother, Olympias (played by Jolie). There's a ton of epic fare to be anticipated here. Big question: Will Farrell's megastar presence evoke Alexander or render him banal? It's up to director Stone, whose larger-than-life megalo-personality seems crazily appropriate for the task. There's a rival project in the offing, by the way: Baz Luhrmann's on-again, off-again and untitled movie about Alexander, now in production and featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as the Great A and Nicole Kidman as his mother. (Nov. 24)
CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS
Who's Who: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julie Gonzalo and Dan Aykroyd star. Joe Roth directs from a Chris Columbus script.
What's What: This comedy is adapted from the John Grisham novel "Skipping Christmas." Allen plays Luther Krank, who decides to skip Christmas and go on vacation with his wife (Curtis). But when their daughter (Gonzalo) shows up unexpectedly, they have to make new plans. Allen (TV's "Home Improvement" and "The Santa Clause") and Curtis have shown their comic mettle, with Curtis on a comic roll after "Freaky Friday." But obviously they need a good script first. (Nov. 24)
SANTA VS. THE SNOWMAN 3D
Who's Who: The voices of Jonathan Winters, Ben Stein and Victoria Jackson. Created by Steve Oedekerk, who made "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" and wrote "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius."
What's What: This 3-D animation movie, 39 minutes long, is the first Imax holiday animated feature. It'll be screened at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Kids will love wearing 3-D glasses to see the in-your-face graphics of this movie. The audience: definitely tots up to about 8 years old. When a snowman helps himself to a flute in Santa's workshop, he triggers alarms. Upset over this, the snowman decides Santa has no monopoly on Christmas, so he assembles a snowman army to take over the yuletide operations. Although there may be too much implied militarism for some parents (the snowmen and the elf army fire at each other with weaponry that blasts heat or shoots chocolate sauce, and there are some "Star Wars"-like walking igloos), this is sweet-natured fun for the very young. This, incidentally, is a 3-D upgrading of a 1997 TV film of the same name. (Nov. 24)
Who's Who: Fanny Ardant, Jeremy Irons and Joan Plowright star. Written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
What's What: This imagined account covers the last months in the life of opera star Maria Callas (Ardant), who comes out of retirement to film "Carmen." She's haunted by a voice that no longer performs as it used to, as well as by memories of her past love affair with billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Irons plays Callas's manager, Larry Kelly. Zeffirelli, director of "Romeo and Juliet," was a close friend of the late Callas. (Nov. 26)
INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS
Who's Who: German filmmaker Werner Herzog and filmmaker John Bailey as themselves. Zak Penn directs.
What's What: Director Herzog's intended documentary about Scotland's legendary Loch Ness monster never got made. But he shot a lot of footage. So did Bailey, who was making his own documentary about Herzog. Penn culls footage from both cameras to document this story of Herzog's one-of-a-kind personality and wild, visionary impulses. (Nov. 26)
Who's Who: Directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith.
What's What: This documentary takes a look at what happens when a first-time filmmaker -- in this case, bartender Troy Duffy, whose script for "The Boondock Saints" was purchased by Miramax in 1997 -- confronts some cold, hard Tinseltown truths. The first thing Duffy learns: His new best friends suddenly drop him faster than he can say "turnaround." It doesn't help that Duffy, without a single credit to his name, comes off as an arrogant control freak. Like a train wreck, his implosion is morbidly fascinating. (Nov. 26)
Who's Who: The community of Whitwell, Tenn., is featured. Washington area filmmaker Joe Fab produced, wrote and directed.
What's What: Fab's documentary follows students at Whitwell Middle School, who, in 1998, took part in a symbolic project to commemorate the Holocaust. They decide to honor every victim of the Holocaust by collecting one paper clip for each victim. (Nov. 26)
Who's Who: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman star. Mike Nichols directs.
What's What: Based on the successful Broadway play by Patrick Marber, this modern romance is set in London. It's about the chance meetings and crisscrossing attraction between four strangers, played by Roberts, Law, Portman and Owen. Things get complicated when a party of the first couple dabbles with a party of the second. Judging by Marber's play, the language and the material -- which includes Portman playing a stripper -- will be sexually graphic. And Nichols, who made the then-risque and witty classics "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Carnal Knowledge," seems an inspired choice to make it all work. (Dec. 3)
Who's Who: African cinema's greatest figure, 81-year-old Ousmane Sembene, directs.
What's What: Set in an unnamed African village, this fable is about the taboo subject of female circumcision. Four women, ordered to undergo ritual "purification," flee to the sanctuary (or moolaade) of a powerful female villager who is also shielding her own daughter from mutilation. They trigger a big standoff with the traditionalists in the village. (Dec. 3)
Who's Who: Former Argentine president Carlos Menem as himself. Naomi Klein, author of the international bestseller "No Logo," and Canadian TV producer-journalist Avi Lewis made this documentary.
What's What: Klein and Lewis document Argentina's economic decline in general and the conduct of Menem in particular, as he presided over the country's dramatic descent during the tail end of the 20th century. They also follow a workers' movement to repossess abandoned factories, re-creating the jobs they once held within the framework of democratically run cooperatives. (Dec. 3)
Who's Who: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds star. David S. Goyer wrote and directed.
What's What: Snipes logs in his third appearance as the fearless vampire hunter. So does Kristofferson as his friend and ally Whistler. This time Blade's framed in a series of brutal killings. Of course, this is the work of the accursed Vampire Nation. And our hero must join forces with the Nightstalkers, a clan of human vampire hunters. This is also the third time around for writer-director Goyer. Reynolds plays Hannibal King, one of the Nightstalkers. (Dec. 8)
Who's Who: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts, Vincent Cassel, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bernie Mac star. Wait, there's more: Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Elliott Gould. Okay, that's an Ocean's 12-pack for you right there. Steven Soderbergh directs again.
What's What: They're back. The cool club cats who were in "Ocean's Eleven." And that Danny Ocean (Clooney) doesn't want to leave success alone. He summons his 12-person crew (including new wife Tess, played by Roberts) for a second go-round: an international heist in three separate cities, Rome, London and Amsterdam. But he's got problems: Casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia), who's still hunting him down for plundering his Vegas castle, dispatches a deadly hood named Dinner Jacket (Cassel) on Danny's trail. Also poking around is Europol agent Isabel Lahiri (Jones). This sounds like a guilty pleasure for everyone, including Soderbergh. And why not? There's no reason a cluster of famous faces in a laugh-it-up caper shouldn't do extremely well at the box office and the rental store. (Dec. 10)
Who's Who: American F-15 Eagle pilot John Stratton.
What's What: This 40-minute-long Imax movie is about Operation Red Flag, the international training program for air forces of allied countries. It follows Stratton as he trains with some of the world's best pilots and negotiates the program's challenging and dangerous exercises. The movie will screen at the Udvar-Hazy Center Imax Theater in Chantilly. (Dec. 11)
THE GREEN BUTCHERS
Who's Who: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Line Kruse and Mads Mikkelsen star. Anders Thomas Jensen directs.
What's What: In a small Danish town, two oddly paired pals, the dominating Svend (Mikkelsen) and moody loser Bjarne (Kaas), have had it with their arrogant boss, a butcher. They decide to open a butcher's shop of their own. When Svend causes the death of an electrician by accidentally locking him in the freezer, well, suddenly their supply of fresh meat becomes bountiful. And very popular. Time for one of those cannibalistic black comedies, a sort of Scandinavian-toned "Eating Raoul" or "Little Shop of Horrors." Jensen made the accomplished Dogme-95-styled films "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself," "Open Hearts" and "Brothers." (Dec. 10)
Who's Who: Nade Dieu and George Aguilar star. Jean-Luc Godard directs.
What's What: The old master of the French New Wave, Godard has turned his distinctive gaze toward the impact of war on humanity. The movie, divided into three Dantelike sections (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise), starts with a montage of war's horrors and concludes with a dark indictment of military power, set with grim irony in Heaven. Godard appears as himself, lecturing in modern-day Sarajevo about ironic similarities between Israelis and Palestinians. There are fictional characters, too, including Olga (Dieu), a Jewish Israeli of Russian descent determined to commit suicide as an act of protest. The movie's rich with Godardian commentary on the state of things all over the world. The French filmmaker, 74 next month, shows no sign of flagging. (Dec. 10)
Who's Who: David Sutcliffe, Antonio Sabato Jr., Jennifer Coolidge and Sonia Braga star.
What's What: Reportedly, the movie departs radically from the darker AIDS nature of the James Robert Baker novel on which it is based. It's about a graphic novelist named Dean (Sutcliffe) who is heartbroken over a lover, Pablo (Sabato), who deserted him after a 10-month relationship. Seeking closure, he pursues Pablo all the way to Argentina. Turns out he's part of a powerful political family down there. Braga, a former sex symbol (when that term was still used) in Latin American cinema, plays Pablo's domineering mother. It's directed by David Moreton, whose debut, "Edge of Seventeen," won the Audience Award at the 1998 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. (Dec. 10)
Who's Who: A large cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Alec Baldwin, Ian Holm and Alan Alda. Martin Scorsese directs.
What's What: This is the story, warts and all, of aviation pioneer Howard Hughes (DiCaprio), a billionaire, recluse, sometime Hollywood film mogul and lover of some of the world's most beautiful women. The story, which covers his life from the late 1920s through the 1940s, focuses on Hughes's involvement with moviemaking and his experimentations with aircrafts he designed. The story is also about Hughes's dark psychological nature, his phobias and withdrawal from society. Look for major star wattage, not to mention Leo's bid to stay high in the celebrity A-list (after this: possibly Baz Luhrmann's very iffy Alexander project). Also, you can expect Scorsese's always distinctive production design and a blitzkrieg Oscar campaign from Miramax Films, assuming Harvey and Bob Weinstein aren't distracted by their contract negotiations with Walt Disney. (Dec. 17)
Who's Who: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Connor Price, Craig Bierko and Paul Giamatti star. Ron ("A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13") Howard directs.
What's What: Here's another boxer-made-good fable, this one about Depression-era fighter and folk hero Jim Braddock (Crowe), who withstood heavyweight champ Max Baer (Bierko) after 15 rounds in 1935. Braddock takes up boxing to feed his family and ends up with a "Rocky"-like opportunity against Baer, who has already killed two opponents in the ring. With Crowe in the lead, co-scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman at the typewriter and Howard at the helm, this is essentially a reunion of the team that made "A Beautiful Mind." This time, however, the hero's battering other people's heads instead of scratching his own. (Dec. 17)
COWBOYS & ANGELS
Who's Who: Allen Leech, Michael Legge and Amy Shiels star.
What's What: Writer-director David Gleeson's coming-of-ager centers on Shane (Legge from "Angela's Ashes"), a geeky artist wannabe who moves into an apartment with Vincent (Leech), a gay fashion design student. Shane falls in love with Vincent's best friend, Gemma (Shiels). In an attempt to impress Gemma, Shane becomes a drug runner for a local dealer, which hinders rather than helps his romantic agenda. (Dec. 17)
Who's Who: Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Aimee Garcia, Victoria Luna and Cloris Leachman star. James L. Brooks directs.
What's What: Flor (Vega) and her 12-year-old daughter, Cristina (Luna), leave Mexico for a new life in Los Angeles. She thinks she is well on her way to happiness when John and Deborah Clasky (Sandler and Leoni), an affluent couple, hire her as a housekeeper. But she has many issues to deal with, including the cultural barrier, her daughter's growing independence and the rather odd family with whom she now lives. Brooks seems to pick his projects very carefully. This is his first written- and-directed film since 1997's "As Good as It Gets." This movie, coming from the man who gave us "Broadcast News" and "Terms of Endearment," is sure to be beautifully written, imaginative and funny. (Dec. 17)
LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
Who's Who: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Timothy Spall, Emily Browning and Liam Aiken star.
What's What: After the death of their parents, 14-year-old Violet Baudelaire (Browning), 12-year-old brother Klaus (Aiken), and their infant sister, Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), have to wait until Violet is old enough before they can tap into their considerable inheritance. Until then, they are forced to bounce from one guardian to another. The worst of all is the scheming Count Olaf (Carrey), who's determined to cheat the children out of their fortune. Also featured in the story: Luis Guzman, Jamie Harris, Craig Ferguson, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Adams as Count Olaf's motley assistants. Interest should be huge for this, given that 50 million copies of the first nine "Lemony Snicket" books have been sold since 1999. Carrey's one-of-a-kind presence should make this very entertaining. Director Brad Silberling's fine hand in "Moonlight Mile" should also contribute to a good picture, although all he has to do is stay out of Carrey's way. (Dec. 17)
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT
Who's Who: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Jodie Foster and Chantal Neuwirth star. Jean-Pierre Jeunet directs.
What's What: Mathilde (Tautou) and Manech (Ulliel) are lifelong sweethearts. But Manech is forced to go to the front during World War I. As the war comes to a close, Mathilde hears that Manech is one of five soldiers who have been court-martialed and pushed out of an Allied trench into no man's land. But their spiritual connection is so powerful, Mathilde believes she would feel something if Manech were dead. So she makes a determined bid to find her love. Director Jeunet made the superb films "Delicatessen," "The City of Lost Children" and "Amelie." This movie will have incredible visual design. And in Tautou, who played the title role in "Amelie" and was also in "Dirty Pretty Things," the French director has a compelling presence on screen. Look for this to register with the Merchant Ivory and "Amelie" crowds. (Dec. 17)
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Who's Who: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau star. Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou directs.
What's What: In this story, set during the 9th century, two local political captains, Leo (Lau) and Jin (Kaneshiro), are charged with finding and killing the leader of an underground alliance known as the House of Flying Daggers. The group, which robs the rich and gives proceeds to the poor, has long been a source of trouble for the regime. When Leo goes to capture a suspected member of the group, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), he's surprised to learn she's a powerful assailant, and also blind. But after imprisonment, Mei still refuses to divulge information. So Leo hatches a treacherous plan in which he'll spring her from prison, posing as a member of the House of Flying Daggers. The two become romantically attached. Another splendid, visual feast from director Zhang, this resembles but outdoes the amazing choreography and cinematography of Zhang's own "Hero," released earlier this year. As the Chinese entry for Best Foreign Language Film, it's one of the favorites to take the Oscar. (Dec. 17)
THE SEA INSIDE
Who's Who: Javier Bardem, Belen Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera and Celso Bugallo star. Alejandro Amenabar directs.
What's What: This Spanish- language picture (based on a true story) stars Bardem as Ramon Sampedro, who wages a 30-year campaign for his right to take his own life. A quadriplegic, he is paralyzed below the neck after a diving mishap. But lawyers consistently refuse his request to end his life. In his fight, Ramon has a profound effect on the people around him, including his legal team, a nephew (Tamar Novas) and two women: a new lawyer (Rueda) who supports his cause, and Rosa (Dueñas), a mother and worker who feels a close kinship to him. This is another leading contender to take the Oscar for foreign picture. Amenabar, who also made "The Others," took the Grand Special Jury Prize at the last Venice Film Festival for the movie, and Bardem took the Volpi cup for acting. (Dec. 17)
MEET THE FOCKERS
Who's Who: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Teri Polo and Blythe Danner star. Jay Roach directs.
What's What: Greg Focker (Stiller) has finally earned himself love and respect from his intended in-laws, Jack (De Niro) and Dina Byrnes (Danner). Now it's time for Greg's fiancee, Pam (Polo), to meet his own family. If Pam's folks are uptight, Greg's parents, the Fockers, are the opposite. They're a little too free and easy for the Byrnes clan. These families don't look ready to be brought together anytime soon. There seems to be little in the way of at least medium-size success at the box office for this comedy, given the success of the original "Meet the Parents," which also starred Stiller and De Niro. And the additional presence of Hoffman and Streisand as Stiller's parents should add something new to the mix. Director Roach has already proved his comic mettle with "Meet the Parents" and all three "Austin Powers" movies. (Dec. 22)
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
Who's Who: Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto, Bob Brown, Scott Michael Campbell and Paul Ditchfield star.
What's What: Quaid plays Capt. Frank Towns, the pilot of an oil-company plane that crashes in Mongolia's Gobi desert. Towns and his fellow survivors, oil workers, try to rebuild the plane from the wreckage. They have no radio, very little water and they're 2,000 miles off course. An engineer claims their only hope is to reassemble the plane under his direction. They try to bring the aircraft back but must deal with nature's surprises, including an electrical storm. And this ornery crew must also deal with one another. The movie's a remake of the 1965 "The Flight of the Phoenix," which starred James Stewart and was set in the Sahara. Producer William Aldrich is the son of director Robert Aldrich, who made the original. (Dec. 22)
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Who's Who: Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum star. Joel Schumacher directs.
What's What: Director Schumacher ("Phone Booth," "Batman & Robin" and "The Lost Boys") passed on big-name talent for a pair of relative unknowns: Rossum, an operatic singer who appeared in "Mystic River," and Scottish actor Butler, who was in "Timeline" and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life." Butler plays the Phantom, a disfigured musical genius who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera, causing fear among the opera's visitors. His life turns around when he spies Christine (Rossum), a soprano whom he decides to help with her ambitions. Obsessed with Christine, the Phantom exerts an eerie control and romantic jealousy over her as he attempts to make her a star. (Dec. 22)
Who's Who: Romen Avinian, Lala Sarkissian, Ivan Franek, Ruzan Mesropyan, Zahal Karielachvili star. Hiner Saleem directs.
What's What: This Armenian comedy about life in a post-Soviet mountain village has been exciting critics everywhere. Economic conditions are miserable. The Russians have long departed (along with their subsidies), and almost all of the young men have gone abroad for work. But good things happen, even in places like this. When sixtyish Hamo (Avinian) visits his wife's grave, he falls for Nina (Sarkissian), a widow also visiting the cemetery. The film celebrates its characters even in their misery. The movie won the San Marco prize at the Venice Film Festival. (Dec. 24)
Who's Who: Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen, Stephan Enquist and Giancarlo Giannini star. Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero co-wrote and directed.
What's What: A teenage girl (Paquin), her mother (Olin) and father (Glen), move into a new, remote house. But she soon realizes this house has a traumatic past, a tragic secret. There's also a mysterious, lurking presence in the building that threatens to destroy them all. This film, originally slated for a 2002 release, is another project (like Zhang Yimou's "Hero") that Miramax has incubated for more than a year or two before releasing. It's said to be very scary and bloody. And if it does well, it should bring attention to Balaguero, particularly his previous and reportedly also scary "Los Sin Nombre," never released here. (Dec. 25)
Who's Who: Kenan Thompson, Shedrack Anderson III, Kyla Pratt, Jermaine Williams, Keith Robinson, Alphonso McAuley, Aaron Frazier, Marques Houston, Dania Ramirez, Omarion, J. Mack Slaughter star. Joel ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") Zwick directs.
What's What: Based on the popular animated television series of the 1970s, this is about a group of adolescent boys living and kickin' it in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The ringleader is Fat Albert (Thompson), whose friends include Rudy, Mushmouth, Bill, Bucky, Old Weird Harold and Dumb Donald. The show and the movie are based on the standup routines and reminiscences of Bill Cosby, who grew up in Philadelphia. It will be interesting to see if Cosby's script makes any references to some of the hard-hitting and controversial speeches the comedian has made in recent years about the state of African American culture. (Dec. 25)
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
Who's Who: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon and Bud Cort star. Wes Anderson directs.
What's What: Determined to hunt down a shark, whom he blames for killing his partner, oceanographer Steve Zissou (Murray) assembles a crew (Team Zissou) that includes his estranged wife (Huston), a journalist (Blanchett) and the quirky Ned Plimpton (Wilson). The mission? To track the mysterious "jaguar shark" that ate his partner while filming a documentary of their latest adventure. Sounds like the perfect anti-plot for another Anderson special. With Murray and Wilson (who has been in every Anderson film and co-written three) onboard, the director of "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" can count on another cult success, if not an outright commercial hit. (Dec. 25)
BEYOND THE SEA
Who's Who: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Caroline Aaron, William Ullrich and Greta Scacchi star. Spacey, one of the many producers, directs.
What's What: This project has been an on-again, off-again affair over the years with different directors attached, including Barry Levinson. The reasons had to do with everything from securing the rights to Bobby Darin's life to finding the right story treatment to get a studio's green light. It seems Spacey has finally broken the impasse. In this surrealistic version, co-written by Paul ("Quiz Show") Attanasio, Spacey plays an older Darin looking at his life and reliving its significant moments. The film covers the ups and downs of his career, including the changing of his unwieldy name (Walden Robert Cassotto) to Bobby Darin, his turbulent marriage with Sandra Dee (Bosworth), his complicated relationship with his mother, Polly (Blethyn), and an older sister (Aaron) from whom Darin learns an astonishing revelation. The movie's also full of fantasy song-and-dance numbers, as well as ongoing conversations between Spacey's Darin and his younger persona (Ullrich). (Dec. 29)
GUERRILLA: THE TAKING
OF PATTY HEARST
Who's Who: British documentary filmmaker Robert Stone directs.
What's What: This project, once called "Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army," covers the strange life of California rich girl Hearst, who was abducted by the SLA, then joined its struggle. Stone outlines the highlights of the SLA, which, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocated full-scale revolution by robbing banks and shooting public figures the group deemed as political targets. The film also documents Hearst's involvement, including her capture and imprisonment. She was eventually given a full pardon by President Bill Clinton and found new celebrity appearing in such John Waters's films as "Cry-Baby" and "Pecker." (Dec. 31)
Who's Who: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Benjamin Bratt star.
What's What: In this adaptation of Steven Fechter's play, Walter (Bacon) is a convicted child molester trying to start a new life in his old neighborhood after a 12-year sentence. He's lucky enough to land a job, but there are booby traps everywhere, especially the school that sits threateningly close to his apartment. Although he tries to keep a low profile at his factory job, he attracts the romantic attention of a fellow worker (Sedgwick). Walter has to decide how much he can tell her, and what level of involvement with a new person he's able to handle. Bacon has received raves (and prizes) on the festival circuit for his performance. Similar praise has gone to first-time director Nicole Kassell, who co-wrote this with Fechter. (Sometime in December)
Who's Who: Andy Lau, Tony Leung (aka Chiu Wai), Anthony Wong (aka Chau-Sang) and Eric Tsang star. Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak co-direct.
What's What: In this Hong Kong cop mystery-thriller, Leung plays an honest undercover police officer named Yan. Meanwhile another cop, Ming (Lau), is really a mole working for a gangster (Tsang). Yan is aware that one of his colleagues is bad but doesn't know his identity; and Ming knows that someone in the department is on to him but doesn't know who. The trick is to find out each other's identity without giving the game away. A hit in Hong Kong, as well as a critical favorite (it was a success at this year's New York Film Festival), the movie has already spawned two sequels. (Sometime in December or January)
Who's Who: Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, Vincent Laresca, Robert Ri'chard and Antwon Tanner star. Thomas ("Save the Last Dance") Carter directs.
What's What: Jackson plays Ken Carter, the Richmond High School basketball coach who benched his undefeated team due to their collective poor academic record in 1999. If the film follows the true story, then Carter is determined to improve the team's scholastic achievements by forcing his players to sign personal contracts. The Richmond Oilers must agree not to use drugs or alcohol, to wear suits on game day and to maintain decent grades. The high point: When the team makes it through to the playoffs but some of the players' grades aren't up to snuff, Carter has to decide if they should play or sit. (Jan. 7.)
Who's Who: Lee Mi-sook, Bae Yong-jun and Lee Soh-yeon star. Korean director E J Yong wrote and directed.
What's What: In aristocratic 18th-century Korea, during the Chosun Dynasty, Jo-won's (Bae Yong-jun) primary mission is to seduce his aloof cousin Lady Cho (Lee Mi-suk). Always looking for dark fun and games, Lady Cho tells Jo-won he must first bed the virgin Soh-ok (Lee Soh-yeon), who has been selected as a concubine for her husband. But Jo-won becomes interested, instead, in Lady Sook (Jeon Do-yeon), a widow who has been celibate for nine years after her husband's death. Obsessed with seducing this chaste woman, he finds himself in competition for her attention with a scheming lothario. Does this sound familiar? Writer-director E J Yong freely adapted the novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" for this ancient tale of sexual intrigue and treachery. (Jan. 7)
Who's Who: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix star. Terry George directs.
What's What: Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), a hotel manager at a swanky hotel in Kigale, Rwanda, is faced with running a resort in the middle of a civil war. As the massacre gets worse, he's forced to give shelter to an increasing number of refugees, most of them from the Tutsi tribe, targets of the Hutu majority's genocidal mission. Paul, who's also taking care of his wife (Okonedo) and children, soon learns the art of staying alive. It means staying on the good side of the Hutu generals who are presiding over the brutality. The movie's based on the real-life experiences of Rusesabagina, who was a witness and active hero during the war that left more than a million dead. Northern Irish director Terry George has a real flair for depicting crowd scenes and nationwide strife, as seen in "Some Mother's Son" and "In the Name of the Father." Having seen this, I can vouch for its riveting scenes. Consider this a major Oscar contender for best picture and certainly for Cheadle's performance. (Jan. 7)
IN GOOD COMPANY
Who's Who: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Marg Helgenberger and Scarlett Johansson star. Paul Weitz directs.
What's What: When his company is taken over, magazine advertising manager Dan Foreman (Quaid) finds himself demoted. He's also under an obnoxious new boss, Carter Duryea (Grace), who's half his age and full of business-school jargon. To make things worse, Dan's wife (Helgenberger) informs him she's pregnant. And his new boss starts to date Dan's 18-year-old daughter, Alex (Johansson). Grace is coming off a terrific performance in Dylan Kidd's "P.S." And with "American Pie" and "About a Boy" under his belt, writer-director Weitz can all but guarantee good laughs. (Jan. 7)
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
Who's Who: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson and Michael Wincott star.
What's What: Niels Muller, who wrote the engaging screenplay "Tadpole," co-wrote and directed this film, based on real events in the mid-1970s. Penn plays Sam Bicke, an office furniture salesman who has a growing sense of alienation from, and disillusionment in, the American dream. He's also estranged from his wife (Watts) and brother (Wincott). Driven to despair by his failures and an impending divorce, he goes to Baltimore Airport and decides to take action. The movie, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard, attracted attention there for its depiction of an American president as an insincere salesman. (Sometime in January)
Who's Who: Bruce Willis, Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker and Kevin Pollak.
What's What: Willis plays Jeff Talley, a former LAPD negotiator who is haunted by a hostage crisis that went bad and left a mother and child dead. He has retreated from the high-pressure job to work as a small-town police chief in Ventura County. But when three delinquents hold a family hostage in a posh home on the outskirts of town, Jeff must face his nightmare and do things right this time. And there's an extra complication: the owner of the house is in league with the mob. (Sometime in January)
Who's Who: Zooey Deschanel, Sam Bottoms, Rachel Dratch, Will Ferrell, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Amelia Warner and Dallas Roberts star.
What's What: After seven years' estrangement from her father, actress Reese Holden (Deschanel) goes in search of the reclusive novelist (Ed Harris), who lives with a collection of eccentric characters, including a would-be musician (Ferrell). It turns out Reese has been offered a lot of money by as book editor if she can persuade her father to publish his love letters to Reese's late mother. (Sometime this fall or winter)
Remember, opening dates may change. For continuing movie coverage, check washingtonpost.com and each Friday's Weekend section.