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November 29-December 5, 2006

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Get a Buzz On

The holiday movie season can relieve the December stresses, if you pick carefully, very carefully

By Richard von Busack

WHAT IS THIS thing called buzz? Is it strobing vision caused by the slightly off-register photo of a celeb on a magazine cover? Is "buzz" the drone of a publicist's voice caught in the flytrap of my voicemail? ("Your readers will be interested in ...") Or is buzz really just the shriek of some telephone-screamer in some far-off Manhattan or L.A. office—a shrill cry, distorted by distance, to the insistent whine of a dentist's drill?

Imagine a world without buzz. Please think of the holiday-film précis below not as adding to buzz but merely as providing some useful guidance during a stressful season.

First, Christmas. Think of it: disorientation, panic, crowds, darkness—except for heat, the holiday season boasts many of the most noteworthy features of hell.

The mold was not yet on the Jack o'lantern before The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause started the annual catastrophe. (In legalese, an "escape clause" means something that excuses a promisor from failure to meet the contract's terms. Can't say you weren't warned by the title.)

The Nativity Story (Dec. 1) takes on the holiday legend from a traditional angle. New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) plays, so to speak, the Virgin Maori. Christmas at Maxwell's (December, exact date TBA) employs the more 7th Heaven approach. Unaccompanied Minors (Dec. 8) goes for the nigh-parricidal slapstick.

Also coming our way is the remake of Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark's other famous Yuletide movie: Black Christmas (Dec. 25). This do-over revisits the 1974 film's time-honored approach pitting a foaming maniac against a houseful of sorority sisters. Michelle ("I was Buffy's little sister, remember?") Trachtenberg plays one of several coeds in peril.

For slightly younger kids, Night at the Museum (Dec. 20) has Ben Stiller as a security guard at a natural-history museum where the displays come to life. For reasons known only to his rehab counselor, Robin Williams plays a statue of Theodore Roosevelt.

'The Pursuit of Happyness'

Winter cinema packs a flurry of emotional donkey-punches. The most furious looks to be The Pursuit of Happyness (Dec. 15), with Will Smith as a homeless but honest dad in San Francisco. Tears, of some sort—if not the ones proverbially shed for answered prayers—may be unleashed by Rocky Balboa (Dec. 22). Even at his age, Rocky may live to fight another day, but what's sadder than athletes dying young, as in We Are Marshall (Dec. 22), about the 1970 plane crash that took the lives of 75 members of the Marshall University football team?

Answer: the plight of our vets. In Home of the Brave (Dec. 15, limited release), Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and 50 Cent separately recover from Iraq trauma.

'Charlotte's Web'

But it takes a talking pig to make people really bawl: Charlotte's Web (Dec. 15). Some of us required intravenous fluids after seeing Babe, and this live-action version of E.B. White's classic looks just as dehydrating, even if Dakota Fanning does play Fern. Julia Roberts voices a commonsensical Charlotte; Steve Buscemi is Templeton the rat, the salt on the film's tale.

As Dickens describes him, the Ghost of Christmas Present is known for rich robes, smoking roasts and roaring fireplaces. Maybe he is the spirit of the cinematic cataclysm, too, and movies about civilizations put to the torch, ever so popular at the butt end of the year.

Thus: Blood Diamond (Dec. 8), in which Leonardo DiCaprio searches for a priceless gem hidden by Djimon Hounsou. DiCaprio (with a South African accent) wants the diamond, Hounsou wants his lost son and Jennifer Connelly wants the story—everyone else wants to watch the landscape blow up.


For Apocalypto (Dec. 8), Mel Gibson conjures up a Mesoamerican Twilight of the Gods. Eragon (Dec. 15) intends to take up where The Lord of the Rings left off, with fireballs, swords and dragon-cam views of massed Dark Ages armies. Curse of the Golden Flower (Dec. 22) is Zhang Yimou's latest polychrome ancient Chinese battle epic. It features Chow Yun-Fat's return to the screen after several years to play an emperor who is not just ruthless but a miserable clock-watching martinet. Children of Men (Dec. 25) is Alfonso Cuaron's evocative and superb science-fiction epic of societal breakdown in 2027, based on P.D. James' novel. At the behest of his ex-wife, Julianne Moore, Clive Owen must escort Earth's last pregnant girl to safety.

The harder-to-classify films are perhaps even more interesting: The Good German (Dec. 22) offers a love triangle of George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett, the last-named Dietriching it in Berlin 1945. Shot in a particularly glorious looking black-and-white, the film pays tribute to Fritz Lang thrillers. Bombed-out ruins, labyrinthine sewers and fog-shrouded but shiny Lockheed Electras warming up on the runway: the ingredients are all there. It opens date and date with The Good Shepherd, director/star Robert De Niro's history of the CIA, with Matt Damon as a spook who stays with the agency from its roots to modern times. Unfortunately, Angelina Jolie has to do the workaholic's wife bit: "If you go out and spy on the Russians tonight, I may not be here when you get back."

More double-crossing, and more Cate, appears in Notes on a Scandal (Dec. 27), with Judi Dench getting to play a monster, Blanchett's hard-faced, unwanted friend; it's based on Zoe Heller's novel about a student/teacher romance.

The Holiday (Dec. 8) has a Londoner (Kate Winslet) swapping houses with a Beverly Hills girl (Cameron Diaz); in their new lodgings, the two get involved with new men (Jack Black and Jude Law—gee, who wins that contest?).

Dreamgirls (Dec. 25) is the film version of the musical about a girl-group awfully like the Supremes, with Beyoncé and Eddie Murphy singing through decades of music and fashion. Despite Jamie Foxx in the Berry Gordy role, it is American Idol's Jennifer Hudson who will be getting all the ink.

For those craving green fields and grazing sheep, Miss Potter (Dec. 29) stars Renée Zellweger in the Beatrix Potter story: scandalous times in Montmartre, opium and sexual experimentation will not be part of the biopic. It turns out that Potter, when not water-coloring tender pictures of bunnies, was fighting developers and polluters in the Lake District.

The Painted Veil (Dec. 29) has Naomi Watts as the restless wife of a doctor (Edward Norton) who finds duty in the 1920s in the Far East during a cholera epidemic.

Since the next two months will be a fiesta of vainglorious acting and shameless Oscar-grub, For Your Consideration, which just opened, will be a reprieve. Christopher Guest leads a cast of indie film never-wases caught in the awards machinery when their picture gets "buzz"—which in some cases, means a movie's death rattle.

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