02 November 2007

Hollywood's Forgettable Fall: Can 'prestige' movies save das holidays?

As the home stretch of the movie year arrives, Hollywood has rarely been more in need of a holiday pick-me-up.

Film and TV screenwriters are about to go on strike after months of bitter, fruitless negotiations. And a fall movie season that was supposed to deliver both healthy box-office returns and a pack of Oscar contenders has fallen short on both counts.

That's why a lot is on the line as the holiday film season arrives today with the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe epic "American Gangster" and Jerry Seinfeld's insufferable animated flick, "Bee Movie."

Hollywood is eager to restart a selling engine that stalled out around the middle of the summer with lukewarm performers like the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" remake (yawn), and never got back on track. And the Academy Awards race, which usually has produced one or two sure bets for Best Picture by now, is instead wide open. The scramble for both commercial and Oscar gold will proceed on two fronts, with a handful of films seeking to prove themselves in both categories.

In the prestige department, producers and executives at studios' specialty arms say that this holiday season is more packed with award-seeking fare than usual. The slate includes not just big-name dramas like "American Gangster," but also several films with literary pedigrees "The Kite Runner" (is this a book about Starbucks or do they just sell it there?) and "Atonement" and the latest offerings from major filmmakers like "Charlie Wilson's War", "No Country for Old Men" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Yawn Without Yawn".

Charlie Wilson's War
Release Date: Christmas Day
CONCEPT: A feel-good movie about Afghanistan. It tells the true story of Texas congressman "Good Time" Charlie Wilson, who gets involved with the Afghan Mujahedin in the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays Mr. Wilson, with Julia Roberts as a Houston socialite.
INSIDE TRACK: A "'mystery mesa' just outside Los Angeles" stood in for some Afghan locations, says director Mike Nichols. He tapped an Afghan immigrant community in suburban San Francisco to play extras.
BUZZ: Mr. Nichols is still polishing the film, but hopes are high for the megawatt cast.
METHINK: I wish it were Bonfire of the Vanities, II.

I Am Legend
Release Date:
December 14
CONCEPT: It's like "Cast Away." Except in New York. With Will Smith. "Legend" places him in a seemingly empty Manhattan three years after a chronic infection has wiped out the world's population.
INSIDE TRACK: Director Francis Lawrence balked at Warner Bros.' suggestion of filming the movie largely on special-effects green screens. Instead, he got permission to have real New York blocks closed off and then placed hundreds of assistants in doorways and on corners to ask people not to walk through the set.
BUZZ: The question: Will audiences want to watch Mr. Smith -- usually a reliable box-office draw -- alone (except for a dog) and silent for large blocks of time?
METHINKS: I'm a sucker for anything shot on location in New York. I'll go see it. If only just to see what all those lights under the FDR were about last spring.

American Gangster
Release date
: came out yesterday, fool.
CONCEPT: "Scarface" with Denzel. Mr. Washington plays 1970's Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, with Russell Crowe as the honest cop trying to bring him down.
INSIDE TRACK: Veteran producer Brian Grazer calls this film, in development since 2000, the "hardest movie I've ever made." Under director Antoine Fuqua, the budget started to spiral upward, and Universal Pictures shut the picture down after sinking $30 million into the project. Then Ridley Scott took the helm. The latest misfortune: Copies were leaked onto the Web more than 10 days before the film opened.
BUZZ: Oft-mentioned as a possible Best Picture, the movie has two strong star performances in a long, complex and violent drama that recalls "The Departed," last year's big Oscar winner.
METHINKS: I hate Denzel. He's been playing the same character for years. My man could overact an AmEx commercial but I still wanna see it. If only for those sweet 70's leather blazers.

Check out a bunch more, here.

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