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Christmas Cheer (And Jeer)

The presents outweigh the coal at the multiplexes

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Considering all the money already spent by moviegoers on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Monsters, Inc. alone (half a billion bucks and counting) -- and considering many folks are scrambling to complete their last minute Christmas shopping -- it's a wonder anybody still has any cash left to spend on the remainder of the holiday films. But that's why studio executives love this time of year: No matter how tight an individual's finances, and no matter how many movies potentially might be glutting the marketplace, there's usually enough activity at the box office to keep Hollywood suits ho-ho-hoing all the way to the bank. This time around, we can expect approximately a dozen pictures to open in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. Sneaking an early peek under the tree, here's a look at five of them, reviewed in preferential order. (Look for reviews of the rest, including Ali and The Majestic, in next week's CL.)

Perhaps wary of the controversy that surrounded the liberal handling of factual material in such films as The Hurricane and JFK, the makers of A Beautiful Mind (***1/2 out of four) have gone out of their way to make it known up front that their movie is "a semi-fictional story" and "a distinctive departure from the source material." So with that out of the way, maybe even sticklers for historical accuracy will be able to grudgingly admit that Ron Howard's latest work emerges as one of the best films of the year. Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema -- even his most memorable pictures (like Apollo 13) have a stuffed-shirt quality about them -- but in tackling the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life but still went on to win the Nobel Prize, the director has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that paradoxically allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's neverending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe, in his first appearance since winning the Oscar for Gladiator, is excellent as Nash, but almost as impressive is Jennifer Connelly, the raven-haired beauty who, after being dismissed over the past decade-plus as pin-up fodder, builds on last year's Requiem for a Dream breakout with a touching performance as Nash's saintly wife, who weathered her husband's fluctuating fortunes down through the decades. Another plus: A superb score by James Horner (Titanic) that never travels quite where we'd expect.

Before breaking through stateside with The Others, writer-director Alejandro Amenabar made a handful of films in Spain, including the 1997 sleight of hand shocker Open Your Eyes. An intriguing drama about a self-centered hunk who suffers from strange visions after getting disfigured in a car accident, the movie was unpredictable in a manner that begs comparison with something as unique as Being John Malkovich: Thinking far outside the box, Amenabar provided a whiplash viewing experience akin to sitting down to watch The Big Chill and then having the film switched to Saving Private Ryan halfway through. Vanilla Sky (***1/2) is Cameron Crowe's risky remake, and what's most shocking about this controversial conversation starter is how faithful it remains to the original. In short, this isn't a typically dumbed-down rehash, a designation that will cost it millions at the box office (think Eyes Wide Shut all over again) but which will earn it the appreciation of adventurous filmgoers. Tom Cruise, a narcissist who nevertheless won't back away from perilous parts, shrewdly mixes both facets of his career as the pretty boy whose perfect life turns into a living hell after his face gets mangled, while Cameron Diaz, as his fatal attraction, slinks through the proceedings like a feral feline (Penelope Cruz, also in the original, reprises her role as the protagonist's dream girl, but she's mediocre at best). Unsettling, perplexing and playing like the visualization of a caffeine buzz, Vanilla Sky is a Christmas present with a kick.

The second part of this season's highly anticipated wizard show, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (***) has its roots in a literary legacy even more feverishly admired than the one for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (if that's possible). Filming all three parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy in one fell swoop (the second and third films will be released over the next two Christmases), director Peter Jackson gets things off to a promising start with this first installment, a three-hour epic that, while rarely scaling new heights in the fantasy genre, should nonetheless please both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are probably familiar with the saga's basic thrust -- noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord -- but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story (compare this to the opening crawl in David Lynch's Dune, which left viewers instantly confused). From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the pace rarely flags. Still, despite the fantastical setting, the sense of wonder that Jackson brought to such earlier efforts as Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures isn't quite as apparent (a determination not to offend the faithful may have something to do with it), and, as in Harry Potter, the computer-generated effects aren't always up to par. Admittedly, though, these are mere quibbles that diehard fans will brush aside like gnats, boding well for the remaining chapters in this ambitious undertaking.

Focus (**1/2) is the first big-screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's first novel, which faded from view as his plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible (among others) took their rightful place among the great American literary works of the 20th century. It's a safe bet this movie won't be around for the long haul, either: Heavy-handed beyond all acceptable boundaries, it's primarily redeemed by solid performances from William H. Macy and David Paymer. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a gentile in 1940s Brooklyn whose new eyeglasses suddenly have everyone around him believing he's a Jew. Quitting his job after a demotion, he finds it next to impossible to secure new employment, though he does eventually find a soulmate in Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), another gentile who's constantly being mistaken for a Jew. The pair get married, only to immediately take opposing views on how to deal with the constant harassment they face on a daily basis. The notion that people would look at the Waspish Dern and instantly peg her as a Jew is absurd (in other words, she's badly miscast), although no more so than believing that Lawrence wouldn't remove his glasses before applying for a job (yeah, it's symbolic, but it flat-out doesn't work). Much more affecting is the subplot involving Paymer's character, a Jewish store owner whose testy relationship with Lawrence provides the movie with its true backbone.

We're all familiar with Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma & Louise, but as far as screen couples go, look for Kate & Leopold (*1/2) to have a shelf life more in common with those of O.C. & Stiggs and Homer and Eddie. (Who, you ask? My point exactly.) Meg Ryan, whose ceaseless attempts to remain the pixie queen of frothy romantic comedies are becoming embarrassing, plays Kate, an ambitious sales executive whose career strength, according to her unctuous boss (Bradley Whitford), is that she knows what women want but thinks like a man while preparing successful ad campaigns. Naturally, it's going to take one special individual to thaw her out, and that would be Leopold (Hugh Jackman), a 19th century Duke who, via a scientific experiment conducted by Kate's ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), ends up being transported to present-day New York. Bland romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but it's rare to come across a time travel tale as listless as this one. After an insufferable first half in which we watch Leopold predictably become perplexed by modern-day gadgets like toasters and telephones, the second half marginally picks up thanks to the pleasing presence of Breckin Meyer as Kate's good-natured brother. Still, this is awfully anemic material, and yet another misstep for Jackman, the X-Men star who needed this about as much as he needed Swordfish. Incidentally, do the filmmakers not realize that a climactic plot twist means two of the characters earlier committed incest, or do they just not care?

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