Hollywood's Holiday Soopa-Doopa Movie Palooza

Mele kalikimaka. The gifts have all been opened. The living room is a disaster. Wrapping paper covers every square inch of surface area. The dogs have knocked over the tree. Puddles of eggnog congeal on the carpet. The cookies have been decimated. Dad's asleep on the couch. Outside, UN peace-keeping troops are preparing to take action.

There's only one solution to the pre and post-holiday armageddon that is your house, and that's ignore. Go to a movie. It's an American tradition, as evidenced by the scores of movies that open during the Christmas weekend. Take the popcorn garlands off the tress, stuff 'em in your pockets and get ready for Hollywood's gift to you.

Well, we have a gift for you too. Knowing how Hollywood throws out the flicks in clumps at this time of year, we thought we'd let you know what's worth the Movie Bucks you got in your stocking. And thus, from us to you, the Holiday Moviepalooza, covering the season's most bloated and hyped films.

And while the much-anticipated installment of the Silent Night, Deadly Night is still missing, there's still a flick or two worth gandering at.

Christmas isn't Christmas without Tom Hanks pimping his star appeal. Watch him get fat, thin and hairy in Bob Zemeckis' Cast Away. And what says Christmas (or at least Xmas) more than the Marquis de Sade, in Quills? Billy Bob Thornton puts all the pretty Matt Damons in his telling of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Nic Cage takes the inverse of It's a Wonderful Life and turns it into his own star vehicle in The Family Man. Sandra Bullock tries desperately to bring meaning to her existence in Miss Congeniality, which at least gives William Shatner another paycheck. .

What film has been naughty? Which ones are nice? Check out the Holiday Moviepalooza to find out. We've even checked them twice; it seemed the appropriate thing to do.

And Happy Holidays.

Hanks banks on his new role in 'Cast Away'
By Bert Osborne

Survivor, schmurvivor. Inasmuch as he first came up with the idea for his new movie some five years ago, perhaps it stands to reason actor/producer Tom Hanks would scoff at the suggestion that Cast Away owes anything at all to a certain TV phenomenon from last summer. In the film, Hanks plays a hustling, bustling FedEx exec who's forced to stop and smell the tropical foliage as the sole survivor of a company plane crash that leaves him stranded on an uncharted South Pacific island and presumed dead.

"I don't think that show has, or will have, any bearing at all on us. For one thing, that show has already played itself out. It's already become passé, hasn't it? For another thing, the only connection we share is the iconographic aspect of a desert island. I mean, their question was, 'Who will survive?' Ours is, 'WILL he survive?' They're two very different questions," Hanks insists during a recent interview.

In the case of Cast Away, however, the question is essentially rhetorical. While the bulk of the movie is a one-man showcase for Hanks - who braves the elements, forges fire, learns to fish, and maintains his sanity with the help of an imaginary friend of sorts (when a volleyball washes ashore from the wreckage, he draws a face on it and dubs him "Wilson") - it will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the previews that Helen Hunt bookends the film as Hanks's love interest.

"All the posturing that goes on about trailers giving away too much is amazing to me. I mean, we wanted a good trailer that didn't lie to people about the movie, the way a lot of trailers do, and just because you've seen the trailer, that doesn't mean you've seen the whole movie," Hanks replies. "You know what? They showed the ship sinking in the trailers for Titanic, too, but that didn't stop everybody from going to see it anyway. And we all know that Dorothy makes it back to Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, but that doesn't keep us from watching it every year on TV, either."

The last time Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis joined forces, they struck box-office (and Oscar) gold with the 1994 blockbuster Forrest Gump. With Cast Away, it was Zemeckis who decided to make the movie in two installments. To give Hanks time to drop some 40 pounds for the latter half of the film, Zemeckis shot the first part of Cast Away in early 1999, and then he suspended production for almost 12 months - during which time he directed the Michelle Pfeiffer/Harrison Ford thriller What Lies Beneath - before rendezvousing with a much leaner Hanks to complete shooting earlier this year.

"This idea had been swimming around inside me for a long time, and finding just the right director was a really big deal, because once you pitch it to somebody, there's no turning back. It's like you get them pregnant, and you're not going to be rid of them for the year or two it takes to finally give birth to the idea, you know? It's almost like, before you ask them out on a date, you have to decide whether or not you want to be married to them," the actor explains with a laugh.

"I knew Bob would be a good match for this story, because he wouldn't have taken it on unless he saw in it some sort of confounding philosophical dilemma to examine," he continues. "We were in total agreement about going for a level of authenticity in every aspect of the story. We wanted it to have a purpose beyond the standard contrivance of how most castaway situations are depicted. Rather than having the character stumble upon a beautiful waterfall or whatever, we have him collecting every little drop of rain he can find, you know?"

Hanks pauses and grins again. "The last thing we wanted was some glamorized, Swiss Family Robinson sort of set-up, where they've built elaborate treehouses with fully functioning kitchens, or irrigation systems made out of bamboo that connect to a fancy shower, or where they've turned the steering wheel of the ship into some contraption that raises and lowers a draw-bridge. We didn't want any of that kind of stuff because, let's face it, why would anybody EVER want to leave a tropical paradise as fantastic as all that?"

If one of the film's prime objectives is resisting "romantic grandeur" and "hokey heroism" in favor of portraying the reality of what such an ordeal would be like for "your normal, ordinary guy off the street," as Hanks puts it, then the 44-year-old actor is ideally cast in Cast Away. For the large part of his career, Hanks has cornered the Hollywood market on playing admirable Everymen and occasional paragons of virtue.

Hanks doesn't buy it, though. "If I was really going to attach any significance or logic to that, then I never would've done Saving Private Ryan, or I never would've played Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. There's nothing average or ordinary about the Marines who landed at Omaha Beach or the astronauts who flew to the moon, you know? OK, so maybe I'm not a very threatening or intimidating screen presence. Well, the vast majority of people you meet in the world are neither threatening nor intimidating, so I guess I'm just not sure there's anything all that special about me," he offers with a shrug.

Remind him how effectively Harrison Ford played against his heroic type in Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath earlier this year, and the actor replies, "You know, I can't say I've ever felt the urge to play a villain just for the sake of playing a villain. As an actor, I wouldn't gain anything by that, and I don't think the audience would gain anything from it, either."

Hanks chuckles. "Of course, having said that, it looks like my next movie is going to be Road to Perdition with (American Beauty director) Sam Mendes, in which I can guarantee you I'll play a guy who kills people quite mercilessly and for very specific reasons," he says. "I can tell you right now what's probably going to happen. I won't be able to win for losing. Because it's me playing the part, he'll probably come across as the nicest, most normal and ordinary exterminator you ever did meet."

Freedom of Sexpression
'Quills': a period response to censorship
By Patrick Reed

Considering all of the partisan-fueled pandemonium that has rained ceaselessly upon our squabbling nation since Election Day, it is easy to forget how, for a few weeks surrounding the Democratic National Convention in August, the topic of censorship was resurrected and debated. Responding specifically to Senator Joe Lieberman's zest for scolding the entertainment industry, in defense showbiz apologists thumbed (as they always do) through the pages of history for examples of uncouth expression ferociously and unjustly attacked. Over the years, it's become very evident that the dominant tastemakers in the "entertainment community" love to illuminate the artistic integrity of rebels past and present in biopics (witness the accolades bestowed upon The People vs. Larry Flynt in 1995). Rolled out in time for Oscar consideration, Quills seeks to become the most defiant defense of artistic freedom yet. To do so, it retreats nearly two hundred years into the chaotic landscape of Napoleonic France and tackles that most odious of reprobates, the Marquis de Sade.

With Quills, director Philip Kaufman makes a welcome return after a long absence; his last release was the adaptation of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun in 1993. Most of his movies have drawn from previous literature, be it fiction (Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1988]), "new journalism" reportage (Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff [1982]) or diary entries (Henry and June [1990]; Anaïs Nin's account of life with Henry Miller in bohemian 1930s Paris also gave Kaufman a brush with censorship himself during the brief NC-17 brouhaha). Doug Wright's play won a couple of Obies in 1996, and his transferal of Quills to the screen, combined with Kaufman's re-emergence, has attracted both an impressive cast and a lot of art-house anticipation. Despite this buildup, the film falls short of matching Kaufman's best work (Right Stuff and Unbearable Lightness), mainly due to its inability to probe the complexity of both its overriding message and its characters, starting with the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) himself.

The set-up for Quills is enticing: the movie delves into Sade's final stay at Charenton asylum during the early 1800s, where he feverishly writes tales of ribaldry and manages to sneak the manuscripts to an underground publisher through the aid of a young washerwoman and admirer named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) as well as the willful ignorance of the asylum's affable overseer, Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). After Sade's latest release causes a national sensation, renowned Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine, donning his icy reserve for the zillionth time), a hard-line adherent to moral purity and imaginative torture practices (incessant water dunking is preferred) is sent to monitor the doings at Charenton. Soon, the forces of sexual liberation and fundamentalist authority meet head on, and Sade's comfortable amenities (including his writing quills) are stripped away.

Throughout Quills, Kaufman and Wright attempt to balance black comedy with even darker explorations of repression, sexual and otherwise, but of the central characters only Sade comes across as especially intriguing and complicated, and despite Rush's fearless performance he doesn't dominate the picture (too bad Rush has been mainly relegated to period pieces since his Oscar for Shine in 1996). Indeed, as Quills progresses Madeleine and Coulmier clumsily move onto center stage, and one can't help but wonder if the aim for a wider audience motivated this emphasis on the younger characters. Anyone familiar with Winslet from pictures such as Heavenly Creatures (1994) knows her talents reside far above the water level of Titanic (1997), but her Madeleine doesn't move much beyond a stereotypical "tragic peasant with a pure heart" characterization. As for Phoenix, although he keeps a handle on Coulmier early on, by Quills' final scenes his maniacal hamming approaches the level of his Roman emperor in last summer's overrated Gladiator. Ultimately the fates of Sade, Madeleine and Coulmier in Quills insist, with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer, that to deny one the right to explore every impulse halts mankind's progress toward true enlightenment and the full enjoyment of life.

Quills may serve as a notable addition to popular culture's canonization of its most heinous practitioners of bad taste, and as a brash reminder to Lieberman, Bill Bennett and other finger-waggers that what seems disgusting today will likely fail to raise tempers tomorrow. However, as a grand defense of sexual freedom in both thought and deed, Quills' contemporary significance is undermined by its reliance on simple sloganeering (of course, parallels between Quills and the Starr-Clinton ordeal can - and already have - been made; Kaufman's reputation should earn him more respect than that). Quills is entertaining enough, especially if you like to wallow in the erudite depths of Sade's depraved imagination, but despite admirable intentions, its attempt at muzzling the braying hounds of censorship with a convincing response encased in artistic brilliance falls short.

Yee Haw!
'Sling Blade's Thorton back in the saddle directing 'Horses'
By Bert Osborne

Four years have passed since character actor and self-professed "good ol' boy" Billy Bob Thornton made his auspicious debut as a writer/director/leading man with the down-home indie drama Sling Blade. The critical and popular success of the movie launched a new phase in his acting career - including higher-profile roles in more studio-driven films (from Armageddon to Primary Colors to A Simple Plan) - but the 45-year-old Thornton has been biding his time before releasing a directorial follow-up.

And now. All the Pretty Horses, his screen version of Cormac McCarthy's best-selling cowboy novel (adapted by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his Silence of the Lambs script), is actually Thornton's THIRD directing effort, after a dysfunctional family drama called Daddy and Them, which has been sitting on a shelf for almost two years now, with no firm release date in sight. Ordinarily, that might suggest the studio didn't have a lot of faith in the film, but Thornton insists it's "all part of the grand scheme of things."

"We always intended to hold it back until after All the Pretty Horses came out, because even though the story and the characters in Daddy and Them aren't all that similar to Sling Blade, it IS another low-budget little movie that I happened to write, direct and star in. We didn't want people comparing the two movies. I knew everybody would be gunning for me the next time, with that whole sophomore jinx theory and all, so we wanted to give Daddy and Them more of a chance," Thornton explains.

"The bottom line is, I happen to be an actor who occasionally directs, but I'll always be an actor first and foremost, you know? Right after Sling Blade, I just wanted to concentrate on being a thespian, so I kind of booked myself up and acted in a whole string of different things," he says. "I'm only interested in being a director to see a particular vision through. I'm not the sort of guy who's always out there looking for his next directing gig. For the most part, I'd rather do my own things."

Thornton made an exception for All the Pretty Horses, which casts Matt Damon and Henry Thomas as a couple of Texas ranch hands who hit the road in search of adventure and prosperity south of the border (circa 1940). Lucas Black, who co-starred with Thornton in Sling Blade, is a dangerous little misfit they meet along the way, and Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz plays Damon's forbidden love interest. ("It's funny. Originally, I was fighting tooth and nail with the studio to let me hire her, because she wasn't very well known over here, and now that she's popping up on all these magazine covers, suddenly everybody in the front office had the idea of casting her from the very beginning," the director quips.)

"The great thing about directing one of your own scripts is you never have to give it a second's thought about what anything means or how you're going to get it across, because you've been inside it for so long," Thornton notes. "With this, I just loved the [Cormac] McCarthy book, and then reading Ted's script, it just struck me as the kind of thing I might write, not nearly as well or anything like that, but it had the same sort of spirit as something I'd write, you know? It wasn't like I was trying to tell a story about some British lord at the turn-of-the-century or a sci-fi movie or anything like that. I felt I knew a little something about these characters. I knew their landscape."

He still fancies himself a "laid-back redneck" who's most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. On this day, he's wearing Metallica - although the rosary necklace is an interesting new touch. Has Billy Bob Thornton found religion? He laughs. "Actually, I'm a pretty religious person, but it's sort of my own religion, you know? I mean, look, I'm wearing a rosary with a Metallica T-shirt, if that tells you anything."

The Family Man
It's a wonderful life in deja vu all over again
By Rhonda Reeves

The best thing about The Family Man is that it does NOT star Helen Hunt as the female lead, as is apparently mandated by law (see also: Pay it Forward, Dr. T & the Women, What Women Want, and CastAway.... or better yet, don't). Instead, the director went with Téa Leoni as Kate (who's been touted as The Next Big Thing for some years, and is still, instead, perhaps best known as David Duchovny's wife). She does a fine job: walking, talking, and emoting. Best of all, there is not one expression on her face that owes a residual debt to Mad About You.

In the eponymous lead is Nicolas Cage as Jack Campbell, in a role that would (as is true of almost all Nicolas Cage roles) be far better served by George Clooney (who purportedly took Three Kings after Cage, Gibson, and other A-listers passed on it).

Casting aside, Family Man is an amalgam of a lot of holiday movies you've already seen, like It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Scrooged (though Cage is no Bill Murray). Then it throws in the recent spate of road-not-taken/alternate universe-themed movies like Me Myself I and the seldom-seen Demi Moore fantasy, Passion of Mind, where the protagonist is living out an interesting and/or lucrative professional life, only to be cast into a world of domesticity where they actually married that former sweetheart and settled down to routine suburban family drama. Sliding Doors was yet another entry in the popular parallel universe genre.

All of which is to say, there's nothing new or fresh here.

Still, Cage is charismatic as the arbitrager who begins the movie, described by his boss in a Hallmark moment as, "You're a credit to capitalism Jack."

In urging his staff to work through Christmas, he says of the upcoming merger, "you RIDE IT. You don't ask it for a vacation," and "my gift comes with ten zeros!" And he reminds them with typical holiday verve, "watch what you say to your institutional customers."

This is the lucrative result of his choice to abandon Kate at the airport years earlier to take a banking gig in England. He could've gone with a wife and kids, but this is where he ended up instead. He shudders when he thinks he could've ended up a broker at E.F. Hutton.

He seems positively ebullient in his penthouse life. Still, he is at least moderately intrigued when he gets a message out of the blue from Kate, prompting speculation and reflection on his part about the road not taken.

Several scenes later, he wakes up in their New Jersey home, and is greeted by the wife and kids. And as did Murray in Groundhog Day, he panics when he realizes he has no idea how long he'll be stuck, or when he'll get back to his "real" life.

What follows are the typical "fish out of water" scenes. See Jack change a diaper. See Jack make chocolate milk for his daughter. See Jack drive a minivan instead of his Ferrari. See Jack sell tires at his father-in-law's store. Surprisingly though, the material comes across as more sweet than sentimental, and is at least occasionally amusing.

Most of this is owed to the believable chemistry between Kate and Jack, and it's easy to see that (Jersey-aside), he could've done worse.

Still, even though Kate provides him with a narration of the turns in the road that led them to this place (an unplanned pregnancy, her father's heart attack), it's still difficult to imagine that these two bright, shiny college grads happily and willingly landed in suburban squalor, complete with bowling trophies.

Every life's filled with compromises, sure - but the movie can't seem to make up its mind between venerating Jack's domestic, income-deprived, existence as some sort of exercise in true-love nobility - and mocking it.

The film seems to suggest Poverty = Values, and yet it never misses an opportunity to mock and condescend to the New Jersey landscape, houses, cars, and workplaces.

That's why, in the end, this movie succeeds or fails on its merits as a love story.

If you buy Cage and Leoni as a sort of contemporary Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed, you'll like it fine.

Dirty Harriet
'Liquored up and lacquered down' in 'Miss Congeniality'
By Rhonda Reeves

Miss Congeniality opens in a scene that's a direct ripoff of the critically-acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse. In both, geeky young girls in glasses defend a bullied young nerd, only to have their compassionate ministrations rejected and scorned by the defendee. (The kid in Dollhouse shoves Heather Matarazzo away with a callous, "get away from me Wiener Dog" and she slinks away, rejected). In Miss Congeniality, the child playing a young Grace Hart (Sandra Bullock), discovering she's not about to be thanked for her troubles, punches the kid out.

This sets up the plot (for want of a better word), as the grownup Grace has become a fiercely undomesticated FBI agent.

Far too much time is wasted establishing her "character" (again, for want of a better word) on the force, before the real story kicks in - wherein she must infiltrate (as a contestant) the Miss United States Pageant to foil a bombing attempt.

The best scenes in this fluffy confection are handily stolen by Michael Caine as Victor - the "coach" who's brought in to transform her from "Dirty Harriet" to a plausible Miss New Jersey (since the real one is disqualified for her antics in "Armagettin-it-on").

In trying to clean up her habit of chewing with her mouth open, he asks, "What was the question? I was distracted by the half-masticated cow..."

He's perfectly sincere (and that's the key) as a man scorned, someone who's now off the circuit, and outside the pageant's inner circle. He tells agent Hart, "The year we lost, the winner was a deaf-mute. You can't beat that." (Miss America buffs will recognize the allusion.)

Candice Bergen, Pageant Queen Bee, insistent that the contest is a "scholarship competition," informs Bullock in an early scene, that she's spent her whole life fighting against "women like you... feminists... intellectuals... ugly women."

Here again is a movie that can't quite make up its philosophical mind.

Is this a satire designed to rip into the entire culture of beauty pageants?

Or is it a "we're all sisters here" celebration of womanhood in which there's room for all of us - slobs and beauty queens - as the misty final scenes seem to suggest?

Who really cares?

As dumb comedies go, it delivers a few laughs. The "War Room" like atmosphere where Bullock is transformed - electrolysis, wax, sunbed, makeup, hair consultants - is genuinely amusing (Caine asserts, Yoda-like, "Eyebrows! There should be two!" before surveying her with the admonition, "Another two coats, then seal it.") - as is their Right Stuff-like scene where they emerge from the airplane hangar.

Bullock's only talent may indeed be the one Caine suggests ("to convert oxygen into carbon dioxide"), but people have gone farther with less in Hollywood.