Best foot forward

Culture | Seeking Oscars, Hollywood rolls out the fare it wants to be judged by

Issue: "Finding the Best in the Worst," Dec. 15, 2001

Typically, the fall, and particularly the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is cinematically rich. Summer is dedicated to blockbusters-action films and Disney cartoons; late winter and spring months are reserved for films that don't fit anywhere else on the schedule, a dumping ground for movies that didn't live up to their potential or that studios found difficult to market.

But during the holiday movie season, studios roll out "prestige" films that executives hope will put them in the running for an Academy Award. Hollywood also offers family-friendly fare designed to capitalize on holiday gatherings that bring together multiple generations.

Sounds hopeful, but the Hollywood establishment has taught discerning moviegoers never to be too optimistic. Classics are commercialized and family films are often less than family-friendly. But some films scheduled for release this month may-and let me emphasize may-prove to be rare exceptions.

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The Fellowship of the Ring (Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images): It's an interesting convergence that the two most highly anticipated movies of the season are the first live-action film versions of two very different blockbuster fantasy series. Now that Harry Potter mania is dying down, public attention can turn to director Peter Jackson's filming of the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The film boasts a strong cast, including Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee and a budget (reportedly $300 million for the three films in the series) that will help bring Tolkien's vivid imagination to life. Whether the film will remain true to the essence of Tolkien's vision is another story, and may determine the series' ultimate success.

Philippa Boyens, one of the film's screenwriters, describes her concept of the movie's "message" this way on the studio's website: "What I see personally and what I've found and what we're trying to write into or layer into these films-for myself, it asks some interesting questions of a modern-day audience; one of which-for me-is the journey that Frodo takes to undo a huge evil. And could we do that in this modern day?" Eager fans-and a few studio executives-hope this makes a whole lot more sense on screen than it does in concept.

The Majestic (Rated PG for bad language and mild thematic elements): The Majestic is a period film that tells the story of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who, after suffering from amnesia, is mistaken for a missing small-town war hero. Jim Carrey stars, making another attempt to transition from slapstick to more serious roles. Director Frank Darabont, of Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile fame, told Premiere magazine that his movie has not only a period setting, but also a period feel. "If Capra can be deemed a genre, then I feel like we're making a Capra."

A Beautiful Mind (Rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, sexual content, and a scene of violence): In A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard (Ransom, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) directs Oscar winner Russell Crowe in the story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash suffered through years of schizophrenia, which affected his career and his marriage. The movie is being marketed as an "adult love story," and Universal will undoubtedly campaign heavily for a Best Actor statuette for Mr. Crowe's performance.

The true story of Nash's life is undeniably moving, but the film enters dangerous territory with its approach to reality: "It tries to honor the spirit of a life and get to some truth by way of imagination, not by way of the facts"-that according to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. The prolific Mr. Howard has as many misses as he has hits. Audiences can only hope this film will be more in the vein of Apollo 13 than last year's Grinch.

Black Hawk Down (Rated R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for bad language.): One of several war films moved into the holiday schedule as an indirect result of current events, Black Hawk Down brings Mark Bowden's best-selling 1999 novel to the big screen. Ridley Scott directs journalist Bowden's highly acclaimed account of a disastrous 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia that resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers.

The timing of this "story of modern war" couldn't be better for the filmmakers-assuming it's done well. Mr. Scott directed the rousing Gladiator, but also, more recently, brought the repulsive Hannibal to the big screen. Whether this film is worth seeing will depend on whether Mr. Scott chose to focus on the gruesomeness of the battle or the heroism of the Army Rangers who were successful in getting the survivors out of Mogadishu.


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