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Scene presents its top movie picks for the winter season

Observer Scene | Wednesday, November 7, 2007

As if the end of summer weren’t bad enough, it also marks the beginning of the tedious wait until Oscar season. In the months between August and November, studios release their least desirable movies, with a few exceptions, in anticipation of the bombardment of Oscar-worthy films come November and December. This year’s winter movie season marks the return of Julia Roberts and Disney 2-D animation, as well as the continued dominance of Judd Apatow and the yearly Oscar-worthy performance from Will Smith. There’re blockbusters and indies and musicals (oh my!) and a whole lot of awards buzz. The following are the films that will offer you the most entertainment for your increasingly costly movie ticket this winter.

“Atonement”Released: Sept. 7Starring: Keira Knightley, Jams McAvoy, Romoloa GariBased on the book by Ian McEwan and set in England against the drama World War II, “Atonement” tells the story of two lovers and the girl who betrays them. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl with a vivid imagination and dreams of being a writer, through a series of misunderstandings and accidents accuses Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the new lover of her sister, Cecillia (Keira Knightly) of a crime he did not commit. Sent to jail, he takes the choice of joining the army instead. As Briony (Romoloa Gari) ages she begins to realize her mistake and declines attending Cambridge to serve as a nurse instead. Meanwhile, Robbie and Cecillia try to be reunited. As romantic as the plot first sounds, “Atonement” promises to be more, with characters that evolve and aren’t always likeable. Directed by Joe Wright of “Pride and Prejudice,” his latest film is certain to be as visually stunning. Another thing to look forward to should be the film’s score. Dario Marianelli returns with Wright from “Pride and Prejudice,” which received an Oscar nomination for its score. The selections released through the trailer and Web site have created a captivating and dramatic soundtrack.

“Lions for Lambs”Release date: Nov. 9Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Pena, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep New Hollywood talent combines with old in “Lions for Lambs,” a new political thriller. After meeting with West Coast professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena) leave to serve in the armed forces in Afghanistan. On the other side of the country, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) remains on the verge of disclosing a groundbreaking story to television journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). The information Irving reveals may well determine the fate of Arian and Ernest. Back on the West Coast, Dr. Malley debates with a student (Andrew Garfield) over ideologies and national policy. “Lions for Lambs” chronicles events unfolding on both coasts and abroad. Much like last year’s film “Babel,” “Lambs” loosely combines three seemingly disparate storylines into a broad composition, relating the impact of events on different people across the globe.

“Beowulf” Release date: Nov. 16Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ray WinstoneOld English epics aren’t exactly the stuff of movie magic, right? Anglo-Saxon taglines tend not to narrate the previews we see on television. However, “Back to the Future” director Robert Zemeckis seems set on bringing the 8th century into the 21st with this month’s “Beowulf.” Animated much like Zemeckis’s film version of “The Polar Express,” Beowulf features the voices of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother – a far cry from the dark, watery beast in the original tale – and British actor Ray Winstone (TV’s “Henry VIII”) as the eponymous epic hero.The prognosis on “Beowulf” seems iffy at best, as an animated, near-Disneyfied version of the story is unlikely to be dark enough to capture the proper flavor, and an overly violent version will probably omit the real substance of the original. Still, it will be interesting to see how Zemeckis’ vision pans out, even if it means watching Grendel’s mom flirt with Beowulf like in an Old English version of Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacey’s Mom.”

“Enchanted”Release date: Nov. 21Starring: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Susan SarandonCombining live action, 2-D animation and the magic of Disney, “Enchanted” is set to warm the hearts of anyone who has ever loved a Disney princess movie. The latest fairytale from the House of Mouse follows the journey of Giselle (Amy Adams), a young maiden engaged to marry Prince Edward (James Marsden) in the land of Andalasia. But Giselle faces a frightening situation when the prince’s evil step-mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), casts her into the 3-D, live-action world of Manhattan. Soon Giselle finds herself falling for handsome lawyer Rob (Patrick Dempsey), whose own engagement to Nancy (Idina Menzel) adds more complications to Giselle’s world. The movie is filled with references to past animated Disney features, and the musical numbers pay homage to the music of past films. Alan Menken, the Academy Award-winning composer of “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” returned to the animated world from Broadway to compose the music for the movie. “Enchanted” marks a slight return to Disney’s traditional 2-D animation. “The Princess and the Frog,” the studio’s first feature-length 2-D animated movie since “Home on the Range,” is set to be released in 2009.

“Juno”Release date: Dec. 5Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, JK Simmons, Allison Janney”Juno,” directed by Jason Reitman of “Thank You for Smoking,” looks to be both hilarious and meaningful as it presents a personal, and less melancholy, view of teenage pregnancy. Juno, an offbeat and smart high school student, decides to find her own solution for unplanned pregnancy by locating parents for her unborn child. She discovers an affluent suburban couple desperate for a child played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Throughout the pregnancy, Juno, along with her mother (Allison Janney) and father (JK Smmons), deals with her reception back at school, the newly awkward but not ruined relationship with the boy who is the father of her child, and the difficulty of understanding who you are supposed to be when you are forced to grow up so fast. In her own words, Juno is “just out dealing with things way beyond [her] maturity level.” This film is also exciting for the new talent it contains. Ellen Page, of the last two X-Men movies and “Hard Candy,” and Michael Cera, of “Superbad,” are both emerging as strong and appealing actors.

“The Golden Compass”Release date: Dec. 7Starring: Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva GreenYoung Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) embarks on an adventure of epic proportions in “The Golden Compass.” Based on Philip Pullman’s novel by the same name, the movie follows Lyra’s adventures as she leaves Jordan College in Oxford and steps out into a world of intrigue. Before leaving, Lyra is given a mysterious instrument known as an Alethiometer (described as the titular “Golden Compass”) that is said to be capable of telling the truth. The beautiful but cold Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes young Lyra to come live with her. Following his newfound movie star status as James Bond, a bearded Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel, Lyra’s mysterious and powerful uncle who is obsessed with discovering the secret of a strange substance known as Dust. Eva Green, Craig’s costar in “Casino Royale,” combines with him again on “Compass” as the enigmatic witch Serafina Pekkala. The “Golden Compass” involves all manner of magic and mystery and traipses across alternate universes as Lyra begins her quest.

“I Am Legend” Release date: Dec. 14Starring: Will SmithEver feel like you’re the only person around? In this winter’s sci-fi thriller “I Am Legend,” Will Smith gets the opportunity to experience just that, and to the extreme. Some time in the near future, a deadly virus sweeps through New York City and takes out seemingly everyone but brilliant scientist Robert Neville (Smith). In time, Neville discovers that he is not, in fact, alone in the world – rather, he’s slowly joined by the infected, zombie-like mutants who were exposed to the virus that nearly destroyed the city. As the lone uninfected survivor, Neville carries the only immunization from the virus in his veins, leaving him vulnerable and friendless. Based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, “I Am Legend” has been adapted to the screen twice previously. With Smith’s versatility as an actor – few in Hollywood could play Muhammad Ali, a dating guru and the primetime Fresh Prince as successfully as Smith can – bodes well for this version to be the strongest one yet. Plus, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like virally infected zombies roaming the streets of New York.

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”Release date: Dec. 21Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen WiigDirector and screenwriter Judd Apatow owned the summer of 2007 with “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” but now he’s changing directions from the world of slacker comedies with heart to the world of the music biopic – the fictional music biopic, that is. “Walk Hard” parodies and draws inspiration from hit biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” It stars John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, whose life and voice bear a significant resemblance to Johnny Cash. Apatow co-wrote “Walk Hard” with Jake Kasdan, who worked with Apatow on the TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” Kasdan directs the project that reunites many from the Apatow crew such as Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Harold Ramis. New to Apatow’s crowd is Jenna Fischer (“The Office”), who plays Dewey’s true love in a character reminiscent of June Carter. And just as the music of Johnny Cash was vital to “Walk the Line,” the music of Dewey Cox also plays a significant role in the comedy. Listen closely to the lyrics of some 20 songs for some extra laughs as Dewey rises, falls and rises again.

“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”Release date: Dec. 21Starring: Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Ed Harris, Helen Mirren, Justin Bartha”National Treasure” wasn’t historical accurate. It wasn’t deep. It wasn’t even plausible. But it was terribly fun. And the sequel, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” looks set to do it again. To clear his family name after his great grandfather is accused of being a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Gates (Nicholas Cage) is back not only to steal more stuff, but to add kidnapping (of the president, no less) to his list of misdemeanors in the search of truth and, yes, treasure. This time around, there’s even a “book of secrets” that contains everything from information about Area 51 to the missing Watergate minutes. Much of the original cast – including Nicholas Cage as Thomas Gates, Diane Kruger as Abigail Chase, Jon Voight as Patrick Gates and Justin Bartha as Riley Poole – is back and will be joined by the astounding Ed Harris and Helen Mirren. So maintain your disbelief, and have a grand old time.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”Release date: Dec. 25Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman”Charlie Wilson’s War” features a talent overload that will certainly lead to a heap of Academy Award nominations. Oscar winner Mike Nichols directs the film adapted (from a book of the same name) by Emmy winner and “West Wing” genius Aaron Sorkin. Meanwhile, the film stars three acting powerhouses and Oscar winners – Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Add in appearances by two of the most talented young actresses in Hollywood – Amy Adams, an Oscar nominee, and Emily Blunt, a Golden Globe winner – and you have a recipe for not only a successful film, but also a good film. “Charlie Wilson’s War” follows Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) as he conspires with a rogue CIA agent (Hoffman) and a Texas socialite (Roberts) to assist the Afghan Mujahideen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is the first time Hanks and Roberts – two of American’s favorite actors – have appeared in a film together, and it’s the first time Roberts has physically appeared in a film (she has done voice work) since 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve.”

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” Release date: Jan. 17Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman”The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” may not seem like a hefty epithet to levy at a criminal, but this murderous moniker is more than fitting for Sweeney Todd, the main character in Tim Burton’s new film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker) the film tells the story of Barker, a barber wrongly imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Upon his release, Barker learns that Turpin has schemed to seduce his now-dead wife and take his daughter, and he decides to exact revenge. Joining forces with meat pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Barker slowly evolves into Sweeney Todd, with deadly results. Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is a much-beloved play, and seeing the talented use their rarely heard singing voices should be interesting at the very least. Burton, with his distinctive, slightly creepy directing style, also seems to be a perfect fit for this macabre musical. Time will tell as to how successful of an adaptation “Sweeney Todd” turns out to be, but making an appointment with the Demon Barber seems like a very good idea.