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Winter Tales From Tinseltown

Observer Scene | Monday, October 30, 2006

The dry spell following the end of summer is finally over as the winter months usher in a bounty of must-see movies just in time for awards season to begin. There is a general lull in quality film releases in the months of September and October as summer blockbusters end and studios hold their Oscar hopefuls for a release time closer to Oscar season, lest those films be forgotten come January and February. This winter seems to offer it all Рdisturbing and riveting dramas, well-acted and fart joke-free comedies, a Beyonc̩-lead musical and blond-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig as the newest 007.

The Queen (Oct. 6, 2006 – Limited Release)

Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” a film already generating Oscar buzz for its lead performances and deftly handled storyline. “The Queen” fleshes out the tumultuous period following the death of Princess Diana in August 1997, specifically through the lens of the British Royal Family and their reactions. Profiling a conflict between the formerly stoic royals and the phenomenal outpouring of grief among the public worldwide, director Stephen Frears captures this struggle in a skillful way already garnering attention from the press and critical film circles.

“The Queen” features performances, which are sure to be strong, from James Cromwell (“L.A. Confidential”) as the Queen’s husband Prince Phillip, Michael Sheen (“Underworld”) as Prime Minister Tony Blair and the venerable Mirren as the embattled Queen herself. Mirren’s performance has already been the cause of Oscar rumors, as she recently won the Volpi Cup for her performance in “The Queen” at the Venice Film Festival. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan also won top honors for their respective categories, cementing the possibility for “The Queen” to make a strong showing come Oscar season.

Stranger Than Fiction (Nov. 10, 2006)

Will Ferrell returns to the silver screen in a role very different than his last as comic racecar driver Ricky Bobby. He plays Harold Crick, an everyman IRS auditor whose life is being written by novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She does not realize this peculiar relationship, yet he hears her discuss the novel of his life in his head. He consults professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to help him with this voice – which seems to know what will happen before he does. Hearing the voice pulls Crick out of his dull existence, but trouble ensues when he hears she plans to kill him.

This movie has garnered attention due to the all-star cast. Ferrell has been playing more and more dramatic characters of late and this film is in that vein. Thompson and Hoffman bring their considerable acting chops and will most definitely provide a solid supporting cast to Ferrell. The up and coming Maggie Gyllenhaal also makes an appearance as Crick’s government-hating love interest Ana Pascal. The story is interesting and fresh, the cast is top-notch and it seems that director Marc Forster has inserted the right amount of drama, romance and comedy to make this one of 2006’s most memorable films.

A Good Year (Nov. 10, 2006)

According to its tag line, “Everything matures… eventually.” And while the main character, Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), might, this film might have enough impact to deserve praise usually reserved for a mature French wine. “A Good Year,” directed by Ridley Scott and written by Marc Klein, is based off a book written by Peter Mayle. Although it is advertised as a comedy, it appears to be a drama at heart. Workaholic Max Skinner suddenly receives notice that his favorite uncle (Albert Finney) has passed away.

After journeying to Italy to sort out the will, Max learns that he has inherited his uncle’s vineyard. But the Italian lifestyle does not mesh very well with Max’s love of work and money, and he must decide whether to sell off his childhood memories or make money off the vineyard.

This is the crux of a journey of personal discovery and love. Reminiscent of “Under the Tuscan Sun” and about a million other dramatic romantic comedies, the film doesn’t appear to be very original. But it could turn out to be a late season surprise that garners Scott some of the credit he has recently lost.

Casino Royale (Nov. 17, 2006)

A new Bond heralds a new start to this iconic franchise. “Casino Royale” tells the story of how James Bond transformed from grunt assassin to super-spy 007. Set in the Bahamas, it is based on the first book written by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels which inspired the film franchise. The narrative weaves itself through a poker game that Bond is sent to infiltrate in order to keep terrorist bankroller Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from ever again seeing the light of day.

It introduces Daniel Craig as Bond, who starred in the underground British gangster film “Layer Cake” under the direction of Matthew Vaughn, the producer of Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” He takes the helm from Pierce Brosnan, who many considered the best Bond since Sean Connery. The flaxen-haired Craig has stirred much controversy for inheriting the Bond mantle with his rugged looks that are not in line with the more suave Bonds of the past.

Famed Dame Judi Dench reprises her role as the leader of the British intelligence service, MI6. Eva Green (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is the newest “Bond girl” in her role as the watchful Vesper Lynd. Martin Campbell, director of “Goldeneye,” a film many consider the best Bond film in recent memory, returns to helm this twenty-first installment in the Bond series.

For Your Consideration (Nov. 22, 2006)

With his reliable comedic crew in tow once again, Christopher Guest directs and co-writes (with Eugene Levy) “For Your Consideration” – a look into the chaos of awards season in Hollywood. The film follows three characters as they learn that their roles in “Home for Purim” are garnering critical praise and awards buzz. Guest takes a different approach in his latest project. Past films “This is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” have all been mockumentaries covering areas such as small-town local theater and dog shows. “For Your Consideration” departs from its predecessors and is instead a narrative, yet it remains largely improvised.

Improvisation is a key trademark of Guest’s films. Therefore, he brings back the same exceptional comedic talent again and again. Those returning for “For Your Consideration” include Catherine O’Hara, Ed Begley Jr., Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Fred Williard and Jane Lynch. Notable newcomer is Ricky Gervais of BBC’s “The Office.” Guest and Levy write extensive backgrounds for each character that the actors are able to draw from as they improvise with a sparse script. Long-time fans are very aware of this process and “For Your Consideration” is a much-anticipated follow-up to 2003’s “A Mighty Wind” for Guest’s cult-like following.

Déjà Vu (Nov. 22, 2006)

“Déjà Vu,” directed by Tony Scott and written by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, is promising in many respects. The film’s cast is star-studded, featuring Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer and Jim Caviezel. Denzel Washington plays an ATF agent investigating a New Orleans ferry boat that explodes – or does it? The movie plays with the concept of time, alleging that déjà vu is not just a “trick of the mind” but a true repetition of time, evidence that humans can flow back and forth across the time continuum.

Although the government is far from developing a “time viewing” machine that appears in the film, time travel has been a long-debated topic is science, and the film does use some hypotheses of time travel that have been released by the scientific community.

In order to be successful in his investigation and save hundreds of lives, Washington must learn how to shuffle through past days in order to prevent the crime. The concept of the movie is a witty one – especially for an action flick. It allows the same day to repeat over and over again – action-packed, yet different every time. The preview draws in the audience immediately, and the movie looks as if it will do the same.

The Fountain (Nov. 22, 2006)

Fresh off “Requiem for a Dream,” a harrowing look at the shattered dreams of four drug addicts, Darren Aronofsky set out on a mission to film a science-fiction epic for Warner Bros. With Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and a $75 million budget in tow, the talented young director was six to eight months away from creating his first mainstream masterpiece.

That was in 2001.

Five years later, the latest iteration of Aronofsky’s undying passion project – “The Fountain” – is barely recognizable from the film it once was. But it still holds all the same promise.

An imaginative tale of one man’s thousand-year quest to find the Tree of Life and save the life of his beloved, “The Fountain” has been recast with enchanting leads Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. Although the budget was cut to $35 million – meager by the bloated standards of current Hollywood fare – Aronofsky put his burgeoning career on hold for years just to see this film through.

Now that “The Fountain” is on the cusp of its final unveiling, a very simple question remains for Aronofsky. After his exhausting odyssey, will it have been worth it? The answer to that query lies with the film’s ability to do more than just astonish the senses. It needs to resonate within hearts and minds.

Blood Diamond (Dec. 15, 2006)

Following yet another acclaimed turn in a Martin Scorsese picture, Leonardo DiCaprio will take on a more popcorn role in December’s “Blood Diamond.” He teams up with Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou (“The Island”) in a story where DiCaprio, a greedy South African mercenary, enters into an unlikely alliance with Hounsou, a fisherman who has lost his family because of diamond mining, to obtain control of a rare diamond.

The setting of civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s provides a social and political backdrop against which this action thriller will try to deliver a message. Early reviews of the film call it anywhere from award-winning material to another standard Hollywood blockbuster. Director Ed Zwick (“The Last Samurai,” “Glory”) has a penchant for creating movies that audiences either love or hate, and it appears this will be no different. It is almost certain, however, that the star power of DiCaprio will make “Blood Diamond” a highly watched and commercially popular movie, regardless of its critical success.

Dreamgirls (Dec. 22, 2006)

Academy Award-winner Bill Condon directs this film adaptation of the eponymous Broadway musical. “Dream Girls” follows three talented soul singers, forming “The Dreamettes,” on their rise to success in the 1960s and 70s music industry. The trio, consisting of Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrel (Anika Noni Rose) and lead singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson), receives its big break when the singers are discovered by talent manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx).

As “The Dreamettes” start to gain in notoriety, Curtis Taylor Jr. exercises increasing power over the group’s musical direction. The girls struggle with the changes made in exchange for success, eventually jeopardizing the group’s survival.

“Dreamgirls” promises to be an intriguing film, full of spectacular music, a talented cast and the feel-good ideal that dreams do live forever.

Rocky Balboa (Dec. 22, 2006)

Sixteen years after “Rocky V,” the Italian Stallion steps back into the ring for what’s been billed as “one final round.” “Rocky Balboa” follows the titular character (Sylvester Stallone), who challenges young fighter Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) in an exhibition round. With Adrian dead, the heart and soul of the series may have gone out of Stallone’s beloved franchise, and it may be hard for “Rocky Balboa” to recreate the financial and critical success of the initial 1977 release.

Sylvester Stallone wrote this film along with “Rocky,” and he is also returning to the director’s chair. However, his creative capacity may have gone the way of the dodo as he gets on in years. Unless he can find the next inspirational song to pair up with great cinematics (“The Eye of the Tiger” with the now famous steps scene), this one will not stand up to the greats of this franchise. Nonetheless, an early Christmas present may in the works from one of America’s most beloved stars and hearing that familiar Bill Conti theme in the trailer is enough to get any Rocky enthusiast pumped to cheer one last time for the ultimate underdog.

Children of Men (Dec. 25, 2006)

The eagerly anticipated futuristic drama by director Alfonso Cuarón (“Y Tu Mamá También,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) has already garnered early award buzz. Based on the novel by P.D. James, “Children of Men” stars Clive Owen as Theodore Faron and envisions a future in which women are no longer able to bear children. When Faron discovers a pregnant woman, he tries to help her escape to a sanctuary at sea that may preserve humanity.

The obvious Christian allegory may generate some controversy as this film is set to debut on Christmas Day. However, “Children of Men” comes just in time for this year’s Oscar nominations, something the producers surely had in mind. Cuarón may be looking for his break into the inner circles of Hollywood and Owen is assuredly hunting for the Best Actor statuette. Supported by Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, “Children of Men” promises to be one of the more interesting films released this winter.