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DECEMBER 2008

STUDIOS WITH OSCAR AMBITIONS TEND TO OPEN THEIR BEST BETS AT YEAR'S END. HOW MANY OF THE FILMS BELOW WILL LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS?

CADILLAC RECORDS: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Cedric the Entertainer, Mos Def, Eamonn Walker, Gabrielle Union, Norman Reedus, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Tammy Blanchard, Jay O. Sanders, Eric Bogosian (Written and directed by Darnell Martin; TriStar Pictures)

Chess Records, the Chicago label that first gave voice to some of the world’s top rhythm and blues greats, is paid tribute in this big-screen biopic written and directed by Darnell Martin, the woman behind various episodes of Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, ER and The L Word. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the company’s co-founder and the man who helped the legendary Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) kick a harrowing drug habit. Jeffrey Wright takes on the role of Muddy Waters, Moss Def is Chuck Berry and Cedric the Entertainer plays Willie Dixon. In a recent New York Times article by Alan Light, Beyonce Knowles described meeting 70-year-old Etta James shortly after completing “Cadillac Records.” “She’s honest and no-nonsense,” said the 27-year-old Knowles. “I know that in some interviews she was like, ‘I don’t know if she can play me.’ But when I met her, she said, ‘You are a bad girl,’ and I know that’s the ultimate compliment from her.” Click here to read the entire New York Times article. Now Playing

FROST/NIXON: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Patty McCormack, Toby Jones, Jenn Gotzon, Rebecca Hall (Directed by Ron Howard; Written by Peter Morgan; Universal)

Richard Nixon may be the second worst president the American public ever had to endure. In 1977--three years after bidding a mortifying adieu to the White House, thereby avoiding impeachment because of the Watergate scandal--he agreed to appear in a series of televised conversations with British media giant David Frost. Nixon learned too late that he should have played harder to get; as it turned out, Frost stripped him bare, exposing his soul for anyone who owned a television set to see. Fortunately, Peter Morgan, author of the screenplay for “The Queen,” decided to explore the confrontation between these two strong-willed men in dramatic terms. The resulting play was a triumph in London and on Broadway. Best of all, director Ron Howard had the smarts to nail Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, the duo who brought Nixon and Frost to riveting life on stage (Langella won a Best Actor Tony for his take on Tricky Dicky). An unexpected bonus: Patty McCormack, the kid who received an Oscar nomination for her playing of the title role in the 1956 flick "The Bad Seed," plays the long-suffering Pat Nixon this time out. Click here to read about more new biopics. Now Playing

THE READER: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, (Directed by Stephen Daldry; Written by David Hare; The Weinstein Company)

Shortly after the end of World War II, Michael Berg, a German teenager played by David Kross, suffers a bout of scarlet fever in a public place and is taken home and tended by an older stranger. Her name is Hanna Schmitz and though she is older than Michael, she certainly does not qualify as a senior citizen. In fact, the 36-year-old Hanna is played by Kate Winslet--and before long, she and 15-year-old Michael are passionate lovers. Not only is Hanna passionate about Michael’s prowess in bed, but she is equally impressed with his skill as a fiery reader of tales by Homer, Twain and Chekhov. But, faster than you can say Hemingway, Hanna vanishes in the night, never to return to the devastated Michael. At least, not until years later, when Michael, now a law student obsessed with the Nazi war crime trials, spots his own special Florence Nightingale and learns that she may end up behind bars as punishment for her gig as a guard in a concentration camp. Can the mature Michael, acted by Ralph Fiennes, recover from his shock and perhaps save--or at least comfort--the aging Hanna (still played by Kate Winslet). We don’t know the answer, but we do feel confident that Hanna has not heard the last of Michael’s masterful reading. Stephen Daldry, director of “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot,” was the man in charge of bringing David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s hugely popular 1995 novel about the meaning of the holocaust to cinematic life. Now Playing

WENDY AND LUCY: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden, Lucy (Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond; Oscilloscope Pictures)

Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress of 2005 in “Brokeback Mountain,” Michelle Williams enjoyed a new wave of raves at the 2008 Cannes Festival for her performance in “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, the gifted filmmaker best known for the 2006 drama, “Old Joy.” In this new, socially-aware road movie, Williams plays Wendy, a financially strapped native of Indiana who packs her best pal, a canine named Lucy, into her car and hits the highway in pursuit of a lucrative job in an Alaskan cannery. Wendy’s car sputters out in Oregon, however, and that’s where her truly big troubles begin. Now Playing

ADAM RESURRECTED: Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Aylet Zurer (Directed by Paul Schrader; Written by Noah Stollman)

Unless you have access to Jerry Lewis’s private film collection, you probably have never seen “The Day the Clown Cried,” the 1972 holocaust drama in which the slapstick comic-director got tragic, playing a German entertainer who, while drunk, does a wicked impersonation of Hitler. His life is spared by the Nazis, however, and he is sent to a concentation camp where his job is to bring a little joy into the lives of Jewish children on their journey to the gas chamber. Small wonder the film never found a distributor and that Lewis opted to keep it out of sight. The wonder now is that what sounds like a strikingly similar story has been filmed and is on its way to your neighborhood art house. Based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, Noah Stollman’s screenplay focuses on a charismatic Nazi-era entertainer who performs for doomed concentration camp dwellers in the final hours of their lives. So what does he do after the war? He gets a gig as the boss of an asylum for Holocaust survivors. Jeff Goldblum plays the multi-talented showman and Willem Dafoe is his Hitlerian tormentor. Click here for Guy Flatley's 2001 interview with Willem Dafoe. Now Playing

CHE: PART ONE (THE ARGENTINE): Benicio Del Toro; Franka Potente, Julia Ormond, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Demian Bichir (Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Written by Peter Buchman; Focus Features)

In “The Motorcycle Diaries,” director Walter Salles focused on the youthful Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) as the budding revolutionary biked his way through South America and witnessed acts of injustice he would never forget. If you loved Salles’ 2004 hit movie, the odds are that you will be similarly moved by this follow-up film from director Steven Soderbergh. In place of the beautiful, magnetic Bernal, we now have the less beautiful but equally magnetic and talented Benicio Del Toro as the mature Argentine doctor who leaves his country and his profession and becomes known as Che, the idealistic but tough disciple of Cuban crusader Fidel Castro. The first of two new Soderbergh takes on Che, "The Argentine" will be followed by "Guerrilla." Now Playing

CHE: PART TWO (GUERRILLA): Benicio Del Toro, Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, Julia Ormond, Oscar Iaac, Meg Gibson, Alex Manette, Paul Vasquez, Rob Macie (Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Written by Peter Buchman; Focus Features)

This sequel to Soderbergh's "The Argentine" deals with the post-Cuban Revolution adventures of Che Guevara, once again played by Benicio Del Toro. Demian Bichir is also back as Fidel Castro. In a unanimous vote, The 2008 Cannes Film Festival jury, under the leadership of Sean Penn, named Benicio Del Toro Best Actor for his performance as Che Guevara in the double bill by Steven Soderbergh. Now Playing

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, John Cleese, Jaden Smith, Aaron Douglas (Directed by Scott Derrickson; Written by David Scarpa; Fox)

Sometimes an alien’s best friend on earth is the robot he brought along for the ride from outer space, a fact that was impressively illustrated in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Robert Wise’s stylish 1951 sci-fi flick. Now Keanu Reeves takes on Michael Rennie’s role of a gentle visitor from another planet who strives to make the world a safe place for Jennifer Connelly, who follows in Patricia Neal’s footsteps as a frantic young mom, and Jon Hamm, the sensation of TV's "Mad Men," plays a mystified NASA investigator. Click here to read about more new remakes. Now Playing

DOUBT: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Lloyd Clay Brown, Joseph Foster (Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; Miramax Films)

We’ve come a long way since Father Bing Crosby and Sister Ingrid Bergman radiated respect and sexless affection for one another in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” In “Doubt,” Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, a probing, dictatorial nun who strikes a shattering blow to affable Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her popular colleague at a parochial grade school in the Bronx, circa 1964. If you’ve seen John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, you know that the oppressively vigilant Sister Aloysius, troubled by what she considers Father Flynn’s dangerously close relationship with a black male student, accuses him of sexual molestation. Before long, life becomes holy hell for Father and Sister alike. By the way, both Crosby and Bergman received Oscar nominations for their performances in "The Bells of St. Mary's." Can you possibly doubt that "Doubt" will provide a similar springboard for Streep and Hoffman? Click here to read about more new movies based on plays. Now Playing

GRAN TORINO: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Brian Howe, Dreama Walker, William Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao (Directed by Clint Eastwood; Written by Nick Schenk; Warner Bros)

Walt Kowalski, a boozy, bigoted, gun-toting auto worker, tends to his simple house in suburban Detroit, grieves for his deceased wife, deals with memories of his long-ago Korean War experience, and bellyaches, noisily and profanely, about the “gooks”--the Asian families he insists are bringing down his neighborhood. Due to a set of outrageous circumstances, he is forced to come into close, constant contact with two of his neighbors, a bumbling teenaged car thief and his spirited sister. Eventually, the hot-tempered vet cools down and draws a cathartic comparison between this offbeat immigrant duo and his own ungrateful, upwardly mobile son and daughter. Can you guess who comes off best? The 78-year-old Eastwood was recently named Best Actor of 2008 by the National Board of Review for his portrait of Kowalski, and this film, as well as director Eastwood’s “Changling,” made the NBR’s 10 Best Films list. Click here for Guy Flatley’s 1976 New York Times interview with Clint Eastwood. Now Playing

THE WRESTLER: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood (Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Robert Siegel; Fox Searchlight)

Washed-up, impoverished and demoralized, Ram is so down on his luck that he can’t gain admission to his trailer-camp home until he comes up with his back rent. Which is why it is imperative that this former wrestling champ pull himself together and stage a comeback. Ram is played by former promising movie star Mickey Rourke, and people who caught this Golden Lion winner at the 2008 Venice Film Festival say the actor has staged a comeback worthy of an Oscar. Marisa Tomei, playing a hooker who has seen better days and nights, soothes Ram’s physical and emotional wounds, and Evan Rachel Wood is the estranged daughter with whom Ram struggles to reconnect. The big question is, can Ram reconnect with--and demolish--the big bad Ayatollah in a contest celebrating the 20th anniversary of their memorably brutal face-to-battered-face encounter in the ring? Now Playing

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Kate Beckinsale, Vera Farmiga, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, David Schwimmer, Noah Wyle, Floyd Abrams, Rod Lurie, Alik Sakharove, Eloise Stammerjohn, Courtney B. Vance (Written and directed by Rod Lurie; Yari Film Group Releasing)

An uncompromising reporter for a Washington, D. C. newspaper causes a national ruckus by writing a red-hot political expose and, in the process, outing a covert CIA operative (Vera Farmiga). Because she refuses to reveal the identity of the confidential source for her story, the reporter, played by Kate Beckinsale, is ordered to pay for her silence with a stretch in the pen (shades of The New York Times’ Judith Miller). Writer-director Rod Lurie, best known for “The Contender,” a topical, arguably paranoiac thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen that created a stir in 2000, penned a minor role for himself in this high-tension drama, and his fellow performers include Matt Dillon as a scheming prosecuting attorney, David Schwimmer as the husband of the "my lips are sealed" scribe, and Angela Bassett as her supportive editor. Now Playing

SEVEN POUNDS: Will Smith, Woody Harrelson, Rosario Dawson, Madison Pettis, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy, Steve Tom, Elpidia Carrillo (Directed by Gabriele Muccino; Written by Grant Nieporte; Columbia)

Multi-talented Will Smith targets our tear ducts in this tale of an IRS agent who is so overcome by guilt for the vile deeds of his past that he vows to put some joy in the lives of seven seriously suffering individuals. One is a blind pianist, played by Woody Harrelson; another is a perilously ill yet deeply seductive beauty, played by Rosario Dawson. You should probably be warned that this improbable story-line is not what "Seven Pounds" is really all about. In any event, you'd be best advised to bring along a hanky. Better make that two. Now Playing

THE CLASS: Francois Begaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaidja Rachedi, Juliette Demaille, Dalla Doucoure, Arthur Fogel, Damien Gomes, Louise Grinberg, Qifei Huang, Wei Haung, Franck Keita (Directed by Laurent Cantet; Written by Laurent Cantet, Francois Begaudeau and Robin Campillo; Haut et Court, France 2 Cinema)

In 2006, Francois Begaudeau published “Entre les Murs,” a well-reviewed novel tracing, over the period of one year, the complicated relationship between an innovative teacher in a rough Parisian junior high school and his lively, frequently combative students. Now Begaudeau, director Laurent Cantet (of “Human Resources” fame) and Robin Campillo have co-written a screenplay based on the novel, casting it with real-life, sharply improvisational high school students. Special bonus: author Begaudeau is at the head of “The Class,” playing the magnetic, sometimes meddlesome teacher. The film was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, where Sean Penn, the jury president, called it an “amazing film...a virtually seamless film. All the performances, magic. All the writing, magic. It just touched us so deeply.” Click here to read Guy Flatley's review of "The Class." Now Playing

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond (Directed by David Fincher; Written by Eric Roth; Paramount/Warner Bros.)

Brad Pitt will soon turn 50. But don’t feel depressed; just a bit later, the golden boy will be 49, and on the next birthday, he’ll be 48. You get the idea: in the Eric Roth screenplay, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the hero ages backward, and when he arrives at the ripe young age of 30, he meets the love of his life, a pip played by Cate Blanchett, who memorably played opposite Pitt in “Babel.” David Fincher, who had Brad sweating and swatting on all cylinders in “Fight Club,” will be at the helm. Now Playing

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Zoe Kazan, Michael Shannon, Ty Simpkins (Directed by Sam Mendes; Written by Justin Haythe; DreamWorks)

The last time this young and beautiful couple set sail together, they were so blinded by love that they failed to notice they were headed straight for an iceberg. This time, the still beautiful but not-so-young “Titanic” couple knows enough not to go near the water. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they are on course for a happy ending. In Justin Haythe’s adaptation of the haunting 1961 novel by Richard Yates, DiCaprio and Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, brilliant, sexually-charged newlyweds who believe their arsenal of sophistication, talent and magnetism will transport them to a charmed life among scintillating European intellectuals. Following a couple of unplanned pregnancies and career setbacks, however, they find themselves stranded in the stifling suburbs of 1950s Connecticut. Inevitably, Frank has a demoralizing affair with a colleague in his Manhattan office, and April beds down with the husband of a close friend. And don’t for a minute imagine that their kids are happy troopers. In her rave review of “Revolutionary Road,” The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani said that Richard Yates’ “portrait of these thwarted, needlessly doomed lives is at once brutal and compassionate.” Another reason to look forward to this re-teaming of Leo and Kate: It’s being directed by Kate’s husband, Sam Mendes--the man responsible for the lacerating “American Beauty.” Click here to read about more new movies based on books. Now Playing

VALKYRIE: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Wilson, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Fry, Carice Van Houten, Eddie Izzard (Directed by Bryan Singer; Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; MGM/United Artists)

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was the passionately Catholic, marginally crazed Nazi who huddled, somewhat tardily, with his fellow officers and hatched a plan to bump off Adolf Hitler toward the wind-down of World War II. Not only was he motivated by his deepening hatred of Hitler, but he was totally turned off by the war itself, having lost his left eye in a 1943 aerial strafing, plus his right hand and 2 fingers of his left hand on the same occasioin. But that was nothing compared to what happened in July, 1944, when he planted a bomb under Hitler’s conference room table. Some people were killed in the ensuing explosion, but nowhere among them was Der Fuhrer. And that’s how poor Von Stauffenberg came to face a Berlin firing squad later that month. The question now is, who could possibly play the role of this unpredictable, tricky, high-energy wannabe hero? And the answer, of course, is that incomparably unpredictable, tricky, high-energy superstar Tom Cruise. Adding to the promise of unpredictability and trickery is the fact that the director and the screenwriter of the film, former New Jersey high school classmates Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, are the guys who fooled us so masterfully in 1995’s “The Usual Suspects.” Click here Now Playing

WALTZ WITH BASHIR: (Written and directed by Ari Folman; Sony Pictures Classics)

One Israeli veteran of the eighties Lebanon War encounters another veteran years later in a bar. Troubled by their failure to remember crucial details about the devastation they had witnessed, the first veteran is driven to seek out still more veterans of the war in order to share and clarify memories of a horrific experience. This documentary-like animated feature was greeted with enthusiasm at festival showings in Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York. Now Playing

DEFIANCE: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay, Alexa Davalos, Jodhi May, Mark Feuerstein (Directed by Edward Zwick; Written by Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman; Paramount Vantage)

During Germany’s ruthless World War II occupation of Poland, four brave brothers escaped their captors and took refuge in a forest. Eventually, they joined a band of Russian resisters in an effort to combat Nazis and free imprisoned Jews. They succeeded to an astonishing degree, as this adaptation of Nechama Tec’s non-fiction book will no doubt make clear. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay play the brothers under the direction of Edward Zwick, who demonstrated that war is never less than hell in “Glory,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Blood Diamond.” Now Playing