Mixed forecast

The highs and lows of winter film.

From here to March (the 25th, to be exact), both multiplex and art house will have two varieties of film to offer: Oscar-bait and the dogs of winter. Studios rush to screen their prestige pictures in NYC and LA before the end of the year for AMPAS consideration, while those of us in smaller markets often have to wait months to see the nominees and award-winners (so much for Seattle's being a world-class city).

The same dark vernal period is also a dumping ground, an orphanage, and a cemetery of bad cinema. Less heralded from Hollywood are its unwanted outcasts, its actor-vanity-projects-gone-bad, its cost-overrun spectacles, its bizarre foreign imports, its ill-advised stage and literary adaptations, its miscalculated sequels, its SNL spin-offs, its shamefaced one-week engagements of titles headed straight to video and in-flight markets. Below, we offer a preview of both kinds of coming attractions, with dates always (and we mean always) subject to change.

December

Ka-ching! With 2000's box office down from last year and many theater chains' falling into protective bankruptcy—including the parent of our own Landmark/Seven Gables group—everyone wants a holiday bonanza of ticket sales. This coming weekend will inevitably be dominated by Disney's latest animated musical, The Emperor's New Groove (reviewed this issue). Like the recent grating Grinch, Groove intends to coerce parents to bring their kids to repeated viewings and purchase related goods by force of sheer marketing power.

For those who prefer old-fashioned sentimentality to naked commerce, there's Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life, running in its traditional engagement at the Grand Illusion. Reviewed this Thursday on our Web site, What Women Want purports to be a comedy about a rake (Mel Gibson) reformed through the gift of telepathy—it's directed by a woman, but that's no guarantee against sexism.

The behemoths arrive on the 22nd and Christmas Day. Already, more has been written about Tom Hanks' weight gain and loss for Cast Away than the entire volume of chad journalism to date. Does this reworking of the Robinson Crusoe story say something about a fat, affluent society yearning for simplicity and austerity? Or do we just want to see a guy talk to a volley ball for two-plus hours? Either way, it's the flick that stands to succeed or fail most visibly this month. By contrast, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and David Mamet's State and Main have both been screened and favorably reviewed at festivals. There's considerable Oscar buzz for the former, which includes amazing martial arts sequences, while the latter seems to indicate that the Glengarry Glen Ross playwright is moving more toward mainstream comedy with his tale of film crew shenanigans in a small town.

Nicolas Cage's yuppie midlife crisis in The Family Man and Sandra Bullock's FBI agent makeover in Miss Congeniality sound like traditional Hollywood products. Still, there's promise to the idea of William Shatner as beauty pageant emcee (does he sing?), and we can hope for at least one patented Cage-goes-ballistic moment in Family.

Date movies are in good supply. Chocolat, from The Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallstr�pairs up photogenic Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) in 1950s France. Malena offers sex appeal in 1940s Italy, where a boy becomes infatuated with a local beauty. Both films epitomize a certain atavistic art house trend toward golden-lit smooching in romantic European climes. By contrast, Venus Beauty Academy is set in contemporary France, as fortysomething Nathalie Baye searches for love in all the wrong places. (Surprise! The movie just got bumped to January!)

Maybe a date film and maybe a Western is Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses, which partners Matt Damon and Pen鬯pe Cruz in 1940s Mexico. Apparently Billy Bob delivered and had rejected an epic first cut of the film, perhaps indicating a future director's cut DVD.

More seasoned directors can be expected to deliver more reliable products. Barry Levinson's An Everlasting Piece is a decided departure from his usual Baltimore milieu, set in 1980s Belfast instead. (Surprisingly, he didn't write the script about enterprising toupee salesmen, although there might be some thematic overlap with Tin Men.) From Gus Van Sant, Finding Forrester is a lot like his Good Will Hunting, as reclusive Salinger-like author Sean Connery mentors a promising young writer.

If you detest all seasonal uplift and inspiration, there's Dracula 2000 and the brilliantly titled Dude, Where's My Car?, featuring some kids from TV. (Given the relative paucity of frivolous, funny teen movies this month, a revival of Scary Movie would probably do excellent business during the school holidays.)

For those fond of Greek mythology and the Coen Brothers (and who isn't?), December concludes with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a reworking of the Odyssey in 1937 Mississippi. With Clooney, John Turturro, and slack-jawed Tim Blake Nelson on the lam from a chain gang, it's a picture that won't disappoint Coen fans and features an excellent Depression-era soundtrack.

January

Oddly, no local theater is programming the obvious choice to inaugurate the new year: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Somewhat less sweeping in its scope is Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, which spans two countries and counts about a dozen major characters in its overlapping stories of drug smuggling, law enforcement, and addiction. It's a long, absorbing picture that marks the sex, lies, and videotape and Erin Brockovich director as one of the most accomplished American practitioners of his craft. Then there's painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, a biopic about a gay Cuban poet that's earned strong reviews. Johnny Depp and Sean Penn have small supporting roles.

In a larger part, Kevin Costner plays a presidential advisor during the Cuban missile crisis in Thirteen Days, as JFK and RFK grapple with nuclear annihilation. (Don't expect any love scenes with Marilyn Monroe.) The same weekend offers Anti-Trust, set in Seattle (though filmed in Vancouver, naturally), where Tim Robbins and 54's Ryan Phillippe deal with corporate unpleasantries. Sam Raimi's The Gift sounds like a supernatural suspense flick with Giovanni Ribisi and Academy Award-winning Bellingham native Hilary Swank among its cast.

Things get lethal in Shadow of the Vampire, which is set on the set of the 1922 Nosferatu, where Willem Dafoe plays a vampire playing a vampire under the direction of silent-era great F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich). Opening the same weekend, The Claim also takes place in the past, during the 1869 gold rush in California. It's a fine, loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge by English director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo). There, too, blood cannot be denied.

On the local front, worthwhile film series include an Alec Guinness program at SAM (weekly through March), a retrospective of Soviet cinema at the Grand Illusion, and the wonderfully named Festival of Depression (an eight-title omnibus also at the GI). Satyajit Ray's complete Apu trilogy also gets a run at SAM, while 911 Media Arts Center offers snow- and skateboarding flicks for the kids on the 12th.

The May Lady is a much-praised feminist work from Iran's foremost woman director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. From South Korea, Nowhere to Hide features great John Woo-style action sequences, while another SIFF title, the Spanish Solas, offers mother-daughter drama.

February

As a wild guess, let's say that the abstract-expressionist painter biopic Pollock will open this month. Directed by and starring Ed Harris (who bears a strong resemblance to the hard-drinking icon), it includes numerous '50s art-world figures in its story. Another arbitrary prediction is that the French 17th-century costume epic Vatel might arrive with G鲡rd Depardieu and Uma Thurman, perhaps on the heels of The House of Mirth, with The X-Files' Gillian Anderson starring in the adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel.

More certain is SAM's three-title film series associated with its John Singer Sargent retrospective; appropriate period treatments include The Heiress, A Room with a View, and Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. The Scottish 1970s drama Ratcatcher has drawn some favorable notices and was shown here at last month's Women in Cinema festival (as was Songcatcher, which arrives in March). From Japan, Moonlight Whispers promises a kinky take on teen love, perhaps reminiscent of the recent South Korean Lies. For those who prefer bullets to bondage, there's a week of Sergio Leone shoot-'em-ups, with Clint Eastwood prominently featured. The French With a Friend Like Harry is a black comedy that's been well-received at festivals.

South Korea's recent cinema boom is represented by Chunhyang, a music-filled love story set in the 18th century, while the documentary Alma concerns the loving but frayed bonds between a daughter and her bag-lady mother. Sooner or later, we'll also see Wong Kar-wai's dreamy, haunting depiction of not-quite-lovers in '60s Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love, and Joel Schumacher's atypically gritty Vietnam War drama Tigerland.

March

Finally. The days grow longer and the Academy Awards are in sight. Two fine films from SIFF get one-week runs. Suzhou River is a Chinese reworking of Hitchcock's Vertigo set in the grimy criminal underworld of contemporary Shanghai. The excellent documentary Sound and Fury concerns cochlear implants for deaf children, a seemingly dull topic that turns out to comment profoundly on issues of physical perfection and technology's redefining what's supposedly normal and natural. Then there's Squelch, from Red Rock West director John Dahl, which sounds like a remake of Spielberg's Duel.

What other movies would we like to see released? Among various long-delayed, curiosity-inducing titles is Blow Dry, with the always wonderful Alan Rickman and Hilary and Jackie's Rachel Griffiths. A Good Baby features E.T.'s Henry Thomas as a backwoods recluse who stumbles upon an infant. You've got to like the gay werewolf premise of the English The Wolves of Kromer. Sean Penn's The Pledge can be expected to serve up lots of capital "A" acting with Jack Nicholson as a cop investigating a child's murder. The Personals, from China, should be a good comedy about everyone's favorite section of the newspaper. Set mostly on a park bench, festival darling Spring Forward features The Daytrippers' Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty (think back to Deliverance) as unlikely pals.

The sad fact is that Hollywood doesn't tend to release what it views as its most bankable or prestigious pictures between the end-of-the-year rush and Memorial Day. During the resulting doldrums, that makes small, foreign, indie, and repertory movies all the more important. There will be plenty of good and bad films alike during the interim, but it'll still be a long wait till the beginning of summer blockbuster season. In the meantime, start planning your Oscar party.

—B.R.M.

 
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