Hollywood’s Great Escape
Anthrax. Hijackings. Terrorism. Israelis and Palestinians at each other’s throats. Destruction and loss of life on a staggering scale.
Had enough? Eager to flee to another world, a place far removed from our terribly troubled one, a parallel universe, if you will, where evil exists but the forces of good are powerful and can be counted on to know exactly what they’re doing? Who wouldn’t be ready for that trip right now?
In a coincidence remarkable even by Hollywood standards, at a moment when Americans are understandably enthusiastic about psychological escape, two widely popular epics of 20th century fantasy literature are coming to the screen to anchor the holiday movie schedule.
Out first, on Friday, is the relatively recent “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” published in 1998, the opening work in J.K. Rowling’s multi-volume series about a young boy who, all unknowing, has in him the makings of a great wizard. The Potter books have been the publishing phenomenon of the last decade, and Warner Bros. has taken care that the film, directed by Chris Columbus from a script by Steve Kloves, has been appropriately cast. Among the performers to be seen roaming the halls of Hogwarts are Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which arrives in theaters on Dec. 19, has a bit older pedigree, the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy on which it is based having been unflaggingly popular since it was published in 1954.
Impatiently awaited since a half-hour of early footage struck a chord with viewers at Cannes, “Fellowship” relates the perilous journey young Frodo Baggins and his companions take in an attempt to destroy an inordinately powerful golden ring.
Directed by Peter Jackson, best known for the psychologically acute “Heavenly Creatures,” “Fellowship” stars Elijah Wood as Frodo, with performers of the caliber of Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm and Ian McKellen as co-stars. This saga is so big it will take three movies to tell it all: The other two are already filmed and will be released in 2002 and 2003.
Escape, of course, comes in a variety of forms, and one of the most traditional that Hollywood proffers are its stars, those larger-than-life folk whose exploits can provide much-needed relief and release. The holiday season is prime time for star vehicles, and some (but by no means all) of the most anticipated this time around are, in alphabetical order:
“Ali.” A pumped-up Will Smith takes on the role of the protean Muhammad Ali in crack director Michael Mann’s first film since “The Insider.”
“A Beautiful Mind.” Speaking of “The Insider”: Its star, Russell Crowe, comes under Ron Howard’s direction in this based-on-fact story of a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician’s mental breakdown.
“I Am Sam.” Sean Penn plays a mentally challenged father fighting for child custody and helped by attorney Michelle Pfeiffer.
“The Majestic.” No, he’s not the Grinch this time. For Christmas 2001, Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who has some Frank Capra-esque experiences in a small town. Frank Darabont (“The Green Mile”) directed.
“Ocean’s Eleven.” Director Steven Soderbergh, increasingly adept at intelligently refashioning genre material, remakes the old Frank Sinatra-starring heist-in-Las Vegas movie. Those looking for stars will be more than content with a cast that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
“The Shipping News.” Lasse Hallstrom, Miramax’s director of choice after “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules,” takes on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx with help from a cast top-lined by Julianne Moore and Kevin Spacey.
“Spy Game.” It’s Mr. Pitt again, this time teamed with Robert Redford in a tale of, well, spies, directed by Tony Scott.
“Vanilla Sky.” The couple of the moment, Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, star for director Cameron Crowe in a remake of a truly spooky Spanish film, “Open Your Eyes,” which starred P. Cruz before she was so much as a gleam in T. Cruise’s eyes.
One person’s escapism, of course, is another person’s tedium.
Because the movie business knows that not everyone is going to be in the mood for the next big fish from Hollywood, a number of smaller films, independent in spirit if not necessarily in distribution, are being offered for those who want to try something a little bit different. Some of the more interesting of these films, again in alphabetical order, look to be:
“Charlotte Gray.” The very busy Blanchett (who’s in “The Shipping News” as well as “Lord of the Rings”) gets to star in a movie of her very own, a World War II romantic thriller from the novel by Sebastian Faulks, directed by Gillian Armstrong.
“In the Bedroom.” This powerfully acted film--directed by Todd Field and starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei--impressed Sundance with the intensity of its marital dynamics.
“Iris.” Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent star in the story of a literary marriage between novelist Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, who wrote a celebrated memoir about his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
“Lantana.” An Australian thriller about crime and relationships that’s also a highly regarded film festival favorite starring Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush.
“Last Orders.” Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, directed by Fred Schepisi, stars top British actors Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Ray Winstone in a story about the nature of lifelong friendship.
“Monster’s Ball.” Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry co-star in a drama about the lives of death row prison guards.
“The Royal Tenenbaums.” The latest from the well-regarded Wes Anderson (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore”) describes the difficulties of growing up in a family of geniuses. Stars include Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson.
Should the current international situation keep people from traveling, there are excellent foreign-language films ready and willing to bring the world to us. Some of the most interesting of the holiday season look to be:
“Behind the Sun.” Top Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (“Central Station”) directs a historical drama about love and vengeance set in his country’s badlands, circa 1910.
“Dark Blue World.” A big-budget effort from the Czech Republic, made by much of the same team that produced the Oscar-winning “Kolya,” but this time telling a World War II story of two men falling in love with the same woman. Now why does that sound strangely familiar?
“The Devil’s Backbone.” Mexican master of disquietude Guillermo Del Toro (“Chronos,” “Mimic”) moves to Spain to tell a ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War.
“No Man’s Land.” A favorite in Cannes, where it won best screenplay, this is writer-director Danis Tanovic’s disturbing yet comic look at what happens when Bosnians and Serbs are trapped together between enemy lines.
In the final analysis, probably nothing says as much about the character of the 2001 holiday film season as the fates of four high profile films, two of which were added to the schedule while the other two were removed, all because of differing viewpoints about what the public was ready to see.
New to the holiday mix are a pair of military dramas about American boys giving it their all against an implacable foe.
Opening first is “Behind Enemy Lines,” with Owen Wilson starring as a hotshot flyboy who ends up needing the protection of crusty veteran Gene Hackman. After that comes the highly anticipated “Black Hawk Down,” Ridley Scott’s version of Mark Bowden’s exceptional book about Americans under siege on the mean streets of Mogadishu.
Speaking of mean streets, “Gangs of New York,” Martin Scorsese’s look at the early days of the Manhattan underworld, will not be seen until 2002. And John Woo’s “Windtalkers,” a heroic story of Navajo code-breaking in World War II, which would seem to have an appeal very much like “Behind” and “Black Hawk,” was also removed.
Now more than ever, you pays your money and you takes your chance.