Holiday Movie-Palooza
Box office gold or coal

No matter which chosen celebration you tie to the holiday spirit, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus, all Americans have one yuletide tradition in common - bumrushing the local cineplex. As we escape mini-malls, job commitments and dsyfunctional family get-togethers nationwide, society longs to spend the holidays with someone they really care about - big, shiny movie stars.

And in the season that is best known for its weight gain, studios dole out a massive helping of Hollywood celluloid to accompany our holiday cellulite. This season's box office fare is now gladly here to serve us with the usual plot twists.

Most notably: In Steven Soderbergh's remake of the Rat Pack's Ocean's 11, Matt Damon is the cast's "ugly guy." Elsewhere, Russell Crowe trades in his broad sword for an abacus. And writer/director Wes Anderson traces the royal lineage of the Tenenbaums.

On the next few pages we've listed the ingredients for this season's cinematic stew. Glaze them over and dip your fingers in the ones that look appetizing, because only you know what tastes good.

Ocean's 11 Let's get this out of the way quickly: the new Ocean's 11 is not art. There is little dramatic complexity, suspense or resonance in the story. Mankind's greatest themes are neither challenged nor elevated. No performances contained within will endure throughout the ages. Inspiration-wise, the film is loosely based on a forty-two year-old "movie-as-excuse-for-a-party" by those smug exemplars of sixties kitsch, Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. Finally, the movie is largely set in Las Vegas, which may be siphoning off world-class chefs and art collections by the dozens, but is still, and forever will be, damned as the begetter of Liberace, the fifty-cent shrimp cocktail, and "Taxicab Confessions." Art goes to Vegas to die, and rank commerce to flourish. All told, Ocean's 11 is much more aligned with what the late Pauline Kael would call "trash" - so be it. As Ms. Kael well understood, the merits of so-called trashy pictures - familiar formulas, skillful techniques, and beautiful movie stars - are often what attracts audiences to the movies, at least in mass quantities. Judged by this standard - as mere popular entertainment - the new Ocean's 11 delivers.

Viewed several generations removed from the Pack's heyday, the original Ocean's may have been, in Sammy Davis Jr.-speak, "like, fabulous to make, babe," but it is a real yawner to watch - a soporific exercise in hepcat self-stroking that becomes progressively duller with every nudge, wink, croon, and finger snap. Save for several palpitation-inducing appearances by Angie Dickinson, the Chairman's vanity project is interesting only in a cultural-relic sort of way (seeing the Vegas Strip in its backwater infancy is a bracing reminder of how quickly times have changed). Hot on the dual successes of Traffic and Erin Brockovich, both nominated last year for Best Picture, Steven Soderbergh initially seemed to be a curious choice for a remake, but the red-hot director corralled four above-the-title stars, convinced each to take a pay cut, and wisely discarded everything from the original 11 save for its basic plot set-up and the central character's name.

Charming Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is released from prison and immediately begins to assemble a crack team of specialists, including an Atlantic City blackjack dealer (Bernie Mac) with a concealed criminal record, a card shark (Brad Pitt) reduced to tutoring teen TV stars in Hollywood, a retired con man (Carl Reiner) betting greyhounds in south Florida, and a small-time Chicago pickpocket (Matt Damon) eager to prove his mettle in "America's playground." Ocean's aspirations are grandiose: the crew aims to rip off three casinos' daily yield at their subterranean gathering place, the nearly-impenetrable vault at the Bellagio. To complicate matters, Ocean has a hidden agenda: his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) has cast her dice romantically with Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia) the suave, vaguely sinister Sin City magnate who owns and runs the three targeted casinos.

Finally, a word about Soderbergh's on-location shooting. After making the decayed concrete husks of urban Detroit look cool (Out of Sight), capturing both the exclusive elegance (1999's The Limey) and the cookie-cutter, working-class despair of Southern California (Erin Brockovich), and navigating the sprawling Traffic through points as disparate as the Tijuana border crossing and Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine ghetto, Soderbergh outdoes himself this time. Las Vegas has been romanticized beyond belief in American movies - even in something as ostensibly downbeat as Leaving Las Vegas (1995) - but by the time Ocean's crew convenes at the Bellagio fountain as the film winds down, the accumulated visual dazzle in this love letter to Vegas is almost enough to wash away the sleaze. Almost. -Patrick Reed

And, in order of appearance...

December 14

Vanilla Sky is the latest from the guy who brought you Jerry Maguire, but more importantly, Almost Famous and Say Anything. With its Peter Gabriel-scored trailer that starts out with conventional romantic themes and veers quickly into action-adventure-thriller, this looks like a far better bet than any of last year's Christmas pickins (Cast Away? The Family Man?). If you can stomach the duo of Cruise (short) and Cruz (annoying), this one might have a plot worth sitting through. Maybe the poster says it all: love, hate, dreams, life, work, play, friendship, sex. Then again, maybe it doesn't.

The Royal Tenenbaums This film features the becoming-ubiquitous bickerin' Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke), along with Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Anjelica Huston. Will moviegoers pay to see a dysfunctional, eccentric family dramedy so close to the holidays when they can star in their own at home?

December 19

Lord of the Rings For the concentric set who just couldn't get enough of Harry Potter. And you know who you are.

December 21

Kate and Leopold Meg Ryan wears a decidedly different haircut than she did in Proof of Life (now showing on HBO). Last year's look was short, choppy blonde, with waves. This year is less blonde, longer, straight. Hugh Jackman looks much more attractive in 19th century garb than he did dressed as "Wolverine."

The Majestic Jim Carrey in the Capra-esque story of an out of work screenwriter being mistaken for a presumed dead war hero in the 1950s. Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) gets paroled from Stephen King prison stories.

December 25

Ali Will Smith added 30+ pounds of muscle to portray The Greatest, while wife Jada Pinkett Smith just wore heels to play Ali's first wife. Jon Voight relies heavily on prosthetics to capture the look of Howard Cosell. Filmmakers insist no one call it a "biopic." Got it.

A Beautiful Mind Can Russell Crowe make math sexy? We doubt it. Loosely inspired by the real life of a real guy (Nobel laureate and household name John Forbes Nash, Jr.) - except it's not really about anything that really happened to him. Crowe takes off the Gladiator gear, and Jennifer Connelly follows up her harrowing heroin-whore turn in last year's widely overlooked and underrated Requiem for a Dream.

Imposter A sci-fi thriller. On Christmas? Wait, come back. It is based on a story by the late Philip K. Dick (the guy who penned "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" aka Blade Runner; and "We can remember it for you wholesale" aka Total Recall). On the other hand, the plot smells a lot like the deservedly unsuccessful K-Pax.

The Shipping News Lingering on the heels of Lasse Hallstrom's overrated one-two treacle of Cider House Rules and Chocolat comes this adaptation of Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. Starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, and Judi Dench.

December 26

Monster's Ball Who releases a movie the day after Christmas, when everybody who has a job has gone back to work? So call in sick. Billy Bob Thornton hooks up with Halle Berry, playing the wife/widow of Sean/Puffy/Puff Daddy/P.Diddy Combs. Like the Green Mile only with a lot more nudity.

January 11

I Am Sam Sean Penn is a developmentally-disabled man trying to get custody of his daughter. Michelle Pfeiffer is his lawyer.

January 18

Black Hawk Down To qualify it for consideration for this year's Academy Awards, this film will be released for approximately 20 minutes on December 28, in New York and L.A. It was originally slated for an October release (which would've been the anniversary of the "Black Thursday" events it's based on), postponed post- 9/11. The movie's expected to adhere fairly faithfully to Mark Bowden's book, a literary journalism account of the U.S.'s ill-fated battle in Mogadishu. It was "the biggest firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War. Eighteen Americans dead and 73 wounded. More than 500 Somalis dead and at least a thousand injured. All for the capture of Omar Salad and Mohammed Hassan Awale, two men who were as little known after the fight as they had been before it." Whether or not the compelling drama of the book will translate to the screen remains to be seen. If it does, it'll leave Saving Private Ryan in the dust. But the reporter's ability to distill foreign policy into an immensely gripping account that minutely details everything from machinery (such as the eponymous 16,000 pound Blackhawk) to the Commandos and Army Rangers in intimate, glaring detail, should make this mandatory reading. The Night Stalker pilots (Special Operations Aviation Regiment - SOAR) train in Fort Campbell, KY. Actors Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven, who play the film's downed pilots, trained on simulations at Fort Campbell. Nationwide release is scheduled for January.

Already in (or set for) Platform Release nationally...
Likely bets for the Kentucky Theatre later this winter:

In the Bedroom Sissy Spacek is a New England mother struggling valiantly for another Oscar to go on the mantle next to the one for Coal Miner's Daughter.

Iris Kate Winslet is the young author Iris Murdoch, and Judi Dench plays the older. This movie includes the late novelist's battle with Alzheimer's.

Lantana An Australian drama starring Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, and Barbara Hershey.

The Man Who Wasn't There This film will have a small, major-city release, just in time for the Coens to get Oscar consideration. As with most Coen flicks, it will then platform to larger cities, before opening wide, sometime in January (a strategy that worked well for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in building strong word of mouth, if not Oscar-snagging credentials).

No Man's Land Opened December 7 in major markets, and might make it here by spring. Hailed as a modern Catch-22 only it's set in Bosnia in four languages. Won a screenwriter's award at Cannes.

Piñero Inspired by the life of the late Miguel Piñero (Nuyorican poet/playwright). Buzz is it could be this year's Basquiat. Or it could be this year's Before Night Falls. Nobody saw it either (though it earned Javier Bardem an Oscar nomination).

Coming Soon

Waking Life


Bread and Tulips


Our Lady of the Assasins


The Devil's Backbone.