In an era of wars and rumors of wars, the Screener decided to deal with this winter's influx of film by pitting them one against another, à la cock fights or major party primaries (because really, how different are those from each other?). A few obvious contenders were overlooked for reasons of space (Hard Candy vs. Where the Truth Lies, for NC-17 rating sketchiness; Derailed vs. Match Point, for Adultery Is Bad shock value), while others were omitted due to blatant disinterest (Chicken Little vs. Hoodwinked, both fairy-tale adaptations, or The Family Stone vs. Yours, Mine and Ours, two irritating holiday family comedies). Also, we admit to distinct prejudice against movies starring 7-year-olds and/or lycanthropes. Still, there's plenty of excitement left on the winter fight card.
AEON FLUX VS. V IS FOR VENDETTA
Praise the Lord (and pass the ammunition) for tough-chick futuristic thrillers based on comics/cartoons. We've been burned by recent ventures (Alias' Jennifer Garner in the dull-as-dishwater Elektra, e.g.) but both of these November releases have a lot going for them.
Pluses for Aeon Flux: The cult success of the old MTV cartoon, set 400 years in the future when our blue marble has been decimated by disease and most human survivors live inside a walled city-state; Girlfight director Karyn Kusama; and Academy Award-winning Charlize Theron (Monster, North Country), Charlize's friend Frances McDormand, Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), hunky Martin Csokas, Jonny Lee Miller and Pete Postlethwaite-all seriously rock 'n' roll.
Pluses for V Is for Vendetta: Based on Alan Moore's comic book, set in an Orwellian totalitarian Britain; Natalie Portman with a shaved head (rrraow) and Hugo Weaving (in a gutsy move to escape his Peter-Jackson-imposed career destiny as Elrond the elf-king). But then there's a wild card: The Wachowski brothers, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-produce-and who let us down so badly with the Matrix sequels.
The verdict: most likely Aeon Flux, for sheer nervy coolness.
ANNAPOLIS VS. JARHEAD
So, okay, this one is really no contest. We've been cracking up over the Jarhead trailer for months and some of us have reached the point where we can say along with Chris Cooper, "You will train, you will hydrate and you will maintain a constant state of suspicious alertness!" (followed of course, by a relaxed snore). It's clear that the adaptation of Marine Anthony Swofford's Iraq war memoir is in safe hands with writer William Broyles, Jr. and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), and may even join Three Kings as an uncompromising look at what an American presence in the Mideast has boiled down to for actual foot soldiers and grunts on both sides.
Pluses for Jarhead: Jake Gyllenhaal (who beat out Tobey Maguire and Leo DiCaprio for the part), Peter Sarsgaard and recent Best Actor winner Jamie Foxx (oorah).
Pluses for Annapolis, the story of a blue-collar lad (James Franco) who manages to get into the Naval Academy only to find his work, as it were, cut out for him: Um, pretty much nothing, except that Tyrese Gibson (Four Brothers) co-stars as his boxing opponent.
The verdict: Jarhead, by a desert mile.
***image3***THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE VS. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
Just when we started worrying about how we'd get our Frodo fantasy fix this December, The Lion et alia went into post-production and everyone heaved a big sigh of relief. Jumping right into the fray:
Pluses for The Lion: Shrek's writer-director Andrew Adamson; Tilda Swinton, ordained from birth to be the White Witch; the beloved allegorical tale by CS Lewis; a large untapped audience in the form of the religious right; and, an even more serious force to be reckoned with, the marketing company behind The Passion of the Christ. Minuses: Battle scenes that look a bit too Jacksonesque; child actors who must convincingly portray British schoolchildren who become warring kings and queens.
Pluses for Harry Potter: Comforting familiarity; Harry, Ron and Hermione beginning to be interested in things like dances and kissing; and the addition of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort to the already luvvie-stuffed Hogwarts faculty-and-foe set (Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian McKellan, Gary Oldman, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall, we could go on…). Minuses: The curious choice of director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile).
The verdict: Most likely the orphan wizard, as CS Lewis will be just too hard to pull off.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN VS. TRANSAMERICA
We were enthralled by author Annie Proulx's "gay cowboy story" in The New Yorker several years back, and even cut it out and sent it to two friends (who were in fact gay cowboys together). Ms. Proulx is like the Linda Hunt of writing, and gender is no barrier to her blunt, unprettied yet tender portrayal of Marlboro men in love. But then there's the brilliant Felicity Huffman (Sports Night, Desperate Housewives)-whom we once saw torching up the stage with Rebecca Pidgeon in a production of Mamet's Boston Marriage-as a pre-op MtF transsexual who discovers she has a son…tough call.
Pluses for Brokeback Mountain: Mr. Gyllenhaal again, with Heath Ledger and above all meticulous director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, whom we pray will leave the story as rugged and heartbreaking as it was in print.
Pluses for Transamerica: Felicity Huffman and then some.
The verdict: We're going with Transamerica and an Oscar for Huffman, terrified that Brokeback Mountain will be Redforded into Hallmark blandness.
***image1***MUNICH VS. SYRIANA
Maybe an odd pairing, but Mideastern political thrillers both, with solid teams behind them.
Pluses for Munich: Director-producer Steven Spielberg will bring his unique historical sensibilities to the project (though some of us actually didn't much care for the subtle anti-Semitism of Schindler's List); Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner wrote the script for this account of the secret Israeli squad assigned to track down and assassinate the Palestinians responsible for the 1972 murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; and Spielberg's assembled a striking cast, from Eric Bana (Troy and, um, Hulk…Spielberg must see something we don't) to Geoffrey Rush, sexy Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, Amélie) and Ciarán Hinds.
Pluses for Syriana: Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan's the perfect person to adapt Robert Baer's book See No Evil, creating another ensemble piece tracking different characters across the globe as they compete for the power and wealth surrounding the energy industry; he's also directing a strong cast of actors, from Matt Damon and George Clooney (who apparently gained 35 pounds for his role) to Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson…oh, yeah; come to mama. We should be tired of these guys by now, but we're just not.
The verdict: Syriana, because we're hoping against hope that producer Soderberg's back on form, even if he seems to have given up on directing.
BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2 VS. MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION
Both breakout smashes, both starring male comedians who play large older African-American women, both inspired by the premise that large older African-American women are inherently both ridiculous and funny. Man, they must know some different women than we do…
Pluses for Big Momma's House 2: CSI: Miami's hot property Emily Procter. And Martin Lawrence, we suppose, though we don't find him that funny.
Pluses for Madea's Family Reunion: Star Tyler Perry also directs, and the fact that it's now not coming out until next February means post-production will have a chance to even out some of the erratic qualities that plagued Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
The verdict: Madea's Family Reunion, if Perry can manage to keep it fresh and yet, pace Ezra Pound, make it new.
THE PRODUCERS VS. RENT
Both Broadway musicals, and that's about it for their common grounds.
Pluses for The Producers: The overwhelming popularity of the Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick stage version, though we'll probably always love and prefer Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Bialystock and Bloom; and the genius responsible for casting Will Farrell as neo-Nazi nut and terrible playwright Franz Leibkind.
Pluses for Rent: We're scraping the barrel on this one. The trailer is so radiantly, unabashedly ludicrous that when we first saw it, muffled snickers and snorts of laughter for all the wrong reasons went rippling through the audience. ("It's all about love!" the assembled cast warbles jauntily, while the accompanying montage gives the distinct impression that it's actually all about heterosexual love.) But the fact that director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potters) has kept most of the original cast, wars against the weird fact that a musical all about the East Village has been shot entirely in…San Francisco.
The verdict: The Producers, so an entirely new generation can find themselves standing over the office copier humming "Springtime for Hitler."
THE BEE SEASON VS. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
In the decade of adaptations, here are two runaway "literary" novels-you know, not as hard to read as Rushdie or Coetzee, but not mass-market bodice rippers either; nice middle-brow Vintage trade paperbacks with perhaps a reassuring "O" stamped across the top; a bit Wally Lamb, a bit Carol Shields-which may succeed even more as movies, and no one's heart will be broken if they're awful, because it's not like they ruined To Kill a Mockingbird or Dr. Zhivago or something. (Thank God Jonathan Franzen has kept Hollywood's sticky hands off his work thus far.)
Pluses for The Bee Season: Scott McGehee (The Deep End) co-directs, with Jake and Maggie's mom Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal handling the script and Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche and Flora Cross all acting for all they're worth.
Pluses for Geisha: Rob Marshall (Chicago) at the reins, and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) among those adapting; no wuxia or rooftop flying this time, but the reunion of crouching tiger Michelle Yeoh and hidden dragon Ziyi Zhang, as well as Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins) and Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern)-just try not to think too hard about the fact that they're all from different countries.
The verdict: A tie, between Geisha's lavish cinematic affect and some old-school emotional chain-yanking from Bee Season.
***image2***GET RICH OF DIE TRYIN' VS. IN THE MIX
When music stars make movies, everyone comes out ahead-performers, record labels and studios alike (if, that is, they aren't already under the same media-conglomerate aegis). Teen audiences are happy and conservatives have something to do: Protest against super-violent rap lyrics or super-sexy R&B lyrics now rendered into super-violent, super-sexy visuals.
Pluses for Get Rich: With Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directing, even a flick promising (however underhandedly) to glorify violence in the rap industry could, like 8 Mile or Hustle & Flow, cross over to the suburbs, if 50 Cent captures the camera's love; Terrence Howard even co-stars.
Pluses for In the Mix: Usher's fans are legion and his career can really only be helped along by this story of an unwitting mobster who falls in love with the don's daughter (Emmanuelle Chiriqui)-the don in this case being Chazz Palminteri.
The verdict: Get Rich, hands down, no contest, callin' South Side.
ALL THE KING'S MEN VS. KING KONG
Odd bedfellows, you say? Perhaps, but they both fall clearly under the heading of Films That Did Not Need to Be Remade, At All, Whatsoever.
Pluses for All the King's Men: Well, it did win Best Picture umpteen years ago; this time Schindler's List writer Steven Zaillian directs the Robert Penn Warren adaptation (already loosely based on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long) with Jude Law, Sean Penn and Kate Winslet-a mighty fine team of thesps.
Pluses for King Kong: Peter Jackson's gone from elves, dwarves and hobbits to megafauna, with luscious Naomi Watts in the Fay Wray role and Jack Black and Adrien Brody as her suitors. Jackson wrote the screenplay with LOTR co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens; and in the weirdest turn of the screw yet, Andy Serkis (that's right, Gollum) suits up to provide the motion-capture performance of the King hisself.
The verdict: Sadly, in 20 years, no one will remember either of them anyway.
***image4***WALK THE LINE VS. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
Even with not a lot happening in the biopic realm this year (except for Capote), these'd both be strong entrants in that category.
Pluses for Walk the Line: Where do we start? Endorsed enthusiastically by the Man in Black himself before his demise. Joaquin Phoenix has got that baritone voice down. Reese Witherspoon might get to turn her annoying brightness to some good dramatic purpose as steely June Carter. Will Joaquin sing? We still don't know yet.
Pluses for Good Night, and Good Luck: George Clooney (see Syriana, above); and it's black-and-white. And it's going to step on a lot of Hollywood toes still sore from the blacklisting years.
The verdict: Walk the Line, for pure entertainment appeal and groovy outfits; but Good Night, for lasting contribution to the freedom-of-speech debate (and, no doubt, incessant showings to sleepy high-school journalism classes).