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From Hollywood, It's a Jam-Packed Holiday List

Nov 21, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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Hollywood will be launching more than 60 films between now and New Year's Eve. They're a varied bunch, featuring everything from African-American debaters making history to murderous barbers making music — not to mention witches and giant bears making magic.

That's right: In Tinseltown, nothing says "holiday cheer" quite like special effects, and with Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia having switched to summer openings, Christmas will be dominated by another book-based children's epic.

In this one, first in a series based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a war sprawls across many universes and swirls around a little girl and a nifty gizmo — an "alethiometer" or "golden compass" — that's of the utmost importance, she's told, to all creation.

All creation will, in time, hang in the balance in the sequels; The Golden Compass will get things started with an assortment of computer-generated goodies, from digitized spirit-demons to armored polar bears.

Such CGI animals are a kind of kid-flick fetish this season, what with The Water Horse, which centers on a little boy, a Scottish lake, and an egg that hatches into a creature from Scots legend. The boy names him Crusoe, and Crusoe gets very big — as opposed to Alvin and the Chipmunks, who stay small but make a big noise, singing tunes for a frustrated composer.

While the Chipmunks make their way to funkytown, the folks who brought you Talladega Nights head for Nashville. In Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, they'll skewer the cliches of such country-music biopics as Walk the Line and Coal Miner's Daughter.

If this all sounds a little silly, rest assured that there are serious pictures, too. Some of them are even serious comedies, like The Savages, in which Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman try to deal with a dying father's dementia; The Band's Visit, about an Egyptian police band that gets lost on its way to a concert date in Israel; and Juno, about a hip 16-year-old who finds herself in the family way and tries to look on the bright side.

Will Smith can't find much bright side to look on in the thriller I Am Legend. He plays a scientist battling a man-made plague that may have left him the last man on earth. He's reduced to sending out radio messages every day for three years, as the mutants who have been infected wait for him to make a fatal mistake.

Smith is just dealing with a plague's undead victims, but other folks will have to confront far worse. Woody Harrellson, for instance, has to cope with life among ... shudder ... politicians: He's playing The Walker, a gay Washington gossip who escorts political wives to social functions when their high-powered husbands are otherwise engaged. He gets mixed up in murder scandal involving a senator's wife.

That's fiction, while Charlie Wilson's War, believe it or not, is based on fact. It stars Tom Hanks as Texas congressman Wilson and Julia Roberts as the Houston socialite who in 1979 helped him hatch the bright idea of arming the Afghan mujahedeen for their war against the Soviets.

That idea, of course, had consequences which have been explored in a lot of movies about the Middle East this fall. And they'll get another going-over in The Kite Runner, a film about two Afghan boys separated during the Soviet invasion. One stays in Afghanistan; the other leaves for the U.S., only to be drawn back by new disturbances two decades later.

Like The Kite Runner, Atonement is based on a best-selling novel — Ian McEwan's World War II story about an English 13-year-old who tells a lie that has terrible consequences. Lush and romantic, Atonement stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, and it's being touted as a likely awards contender. Of course, awards chatter at this time of year is often just talk, but in this case, it's richly deserved.

Also being mentioned in that context: There Will Be Blood, a turn-of-the-20th-century epic with Daniel Day Lewis as a Texas oil prospector whose plans to acquire enormous wealth are thwarted by a teenage evangelist.

The drive to succeed, in business or otherwise, is a theme in a lot of year-end films, from the National Treasure sequel Book of Secrets to The Rocket, a rouser about Canadian hockey legend Maurice Richard, who overcame prejudice in the 1940s, to a film directed by and starring Denzel Washington. The Great Debaters is the tale of a professor at an all-black Texas college who in the 1930s formed a debate team that challenged Harvard in a national championship. He told his students to think of debate as a blood sport.

Speaking of blood, let's round out our Christmas movie list with the season's goriest gamble: director Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller about a murderous barber and his connection with a meat-pie shop. Topping the cast is Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who slaughters half of London as he looks for revenge, and for salvation.

Salvation, clearly, of an unorthodox sort, just in time for Christmas — and maybe for the Oscars.

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