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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
MAN AND MODEL: Sam Worthington contemplates his 'Avatar.'

Holiday Film Guide

By Richard von Busack

YouTube wag has already pilloried James Cameron's Avatar (opening Dec. 18) as a remake of FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Clone War Thundercats. That's harsh, but we have only previews—and the profile articles Cameron has so generously allowed—to give us any clues as to whether this holiday epic will be Titanic-sized or a resounding flop. What we do know is that it's a sci-fi parable of planet invasion, heavy with colonialist guilt, with Sam Worthington playing a crippled warrior using technology to inhabit one of the 9-foot-tall, azure-skinned, giraffe-eared, technically unsophisticated members of a faraway planet. IMAX and Real3D will add something to the impact of the CGI that's impossible to judge from computer screens.

All the other seasonal screenings will probably have an easier time of it as Cameron draws the critics' fire.

Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus doesn't have a firm release date locally, but it's playing in the British Commonwealth already. One likes Tom Waits' Satan, dressed a bit like Neville Chamberlain. One respects Gilliam's recovery from the loss of his star by a prisming of the late Heath Ledger's character into several other name movie stars, such as Johnny Depp and Jude Law. And the plot, contrasting deep wells of fantasy with the desolation and pollution of London, echoes Ray Bradbury and The Circus of Dr. Lao.

Speaking of London: There will be so much suffering this holiday season in the other theaters, that I think we're all entitled to something a little emotionally restrained, namely, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25), even if we're not too jazzed by Guy Ritchie's urge to make our hero "accessible"—i.e., faster and more violent. Rachel McAdams shows up as the troublesome Irene Adler; Jude Law plays Watson; and the reliable Mark Strong is the disreputable Lord Blackwood, a peer with plans for the British Empire. Moriarity is in it for a moment, too, in preparation for a sequel that's already under way.

And as the junior version of Holmes' sovereign, Emily Blunt plays The Young Victoria (Dec. 18) with Rupert Friend as Albert, Jim Broadbent as the sailor-king William IV, Julian Glover as Wellington and so forth. People love it when you elbow them in the ribs and tell historical stories about the personages when they're trying to look at the gowns.

The chill season is warmed with Nine (Dec. 18/25 depending on city) and the welcome sight of Penelope Cruz honeyed up in lingerie; it's Rob Marshall's musical version of Fellini's 8, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the Mastroianni part; Sophia Loren plays his mother, just one of the many women pulling the bedeviled director in separate directions. Nicole Kidman co-stars; what's a winter without icicles?

And on the subject of fateful icicles, we have The Lovely Bones (Dec. 25)—Alice Sebold's harrowing, tear-wringing and seemingly unfilmable bestseller finally makes it onto the big screen after years of false starts. Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings) envisions the candied heaven of a vanished murdered girl (Rose McIver), circa 1972, with Susan Sarandon as her inconsolable mother and new music by Brian Eno.

35 Shots of Rum (Dec. 18) is Claire Denis' new tantalizer about the connections between a loose group of Franco-Africans in Paris. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Dec. 11) features Robin Wright Penn as the distracted wife of a much older plutocrat (Alan Arkin); the director is the chronically interesting Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose, etc.)

Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man (Dec. 11) stars Colin Firth as the Southern California professor who is recovering from the death of his male lover during the JFK years. ;It's Complicated (Dec. 25) finds Nancy Meyer of the satisfying Something's Gotta Give leading a love triangle: Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin playing monkey-in-the-middle with Meryl Streep.

Up in the Air (Dec. 25) is the new film by Jason Reitman, with George Clooney as a layoff specialist who never considered hiring a wife and kids. Anna Kendrick co-stars; she's best known for the intrepid supporting work she does in the Twilight movies as Bella's gabby, dippy gal pal.

Invictus (Dec. 11), the new Clint Eastwood movie, parallels the story of Nelson Mandela with the Rugby World Cup of 1995 held in race-torn South Africa, with Matt Damon as an Afrikaaner player. Because of the rugby theme, one guesses that the moral of the story is that black and white bleed the same color. William Earnest Henley's bad poem gives us the odd title.

For children: the Alvin and the Chipmunks: Squeakquel, (Dec. 23) and Disney's make-or-break attempt to retrieve classic flat animation, The Princess and the Frog (Dec. 11)—a Creole-themed fairy tale with voodoo and R&B songs by Randy Newman. A medium seemingly headed for extinction at the hands of CGI makes it to the end of this tumult-ridden decade; this may be the best news of the end of the year.

In downtown San Jose, the California Theatre gets fired up for a series of holiday films: The Wizard of Oz (Dec. 17–18, 7:30pm); the completely Jim Carrey–free 1938 version of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 19–20), with the excellent Reginald Owen acting out Scrooginess unseen this side of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. It's a Wonderful Life is on at 9pm on the Eve itself—it's playing simultaneously in Palo Alto at the glorious Stanford Theatre. On Dec. 20–23, the Stanford hosts a real connoisseur's Xmas movie, The Shop Around the Corner. Downtown San Jose's California wraps up the holidays with A Christmas Story (Dec. 25, 7:30pm) and a couple of days of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Dec. 26–27). Any season giving us both Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood can't be all bad.

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