"Meet the Fockers," a family get-together comedy that threatens to live up to the riskiness of its title.
Each of these crowd-pleasers comes with a pedigree of its own. For example, "Lemony Snicket" (opening Dec. 17) is based on the astoundingly popular kiddie books by Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, who describes himself as "the afflicted author." With Jim Carrey in multiple roles that include the evil Count Olaf, Meryl Streep indulging her playful side, Jude Law voicing Lemony, and a tale about three orphans in grave danger, this is a "Harry Potter"-like franchise in the making.
"Ocean's Twelve" (Dec. 10) follows the charmingly debonair "Ocean's Eleven" and again stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia. The addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones will bring the cumulative teeth-whiteness to a unique high.
This time, Danny Ocean (Clooney) plans to make simultaneous clean getaways in Rome, Paris and Amsterdam, giving this sequel an international flavor. Director Steven Soderbergh tends to alternate serious cinema with the kind of fluff that pays his bills, and he's so good at it that the "Ocean" movies are as easy to swallow as they are on the eyes.
PHANTOM IN LOVE
If you're prowling around the warrens under the Paris Opera House, you might wonder. Who's that masked man with the scowl and perfect pitch? Why, it's "The Phantom of the Opera" (Dec. 22). You might not recognize the Phantom even without his mask, because writer-director Joel Schumacher and the original show's creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, chose the relatively unknown Gerard Butler as the disfigured musical genius more than a little obsessed with his protegée (Emmy Rossum).
Hard-core fans of the Broadway version are miffed that Michael Crawford was passed over. And those of us who thought Antonio Banderas stole "Shrek 2" when he coughed up that hairball wish that all his lobbying for the role had worked. But this movie has such a built-in audience that any protest will be drowned out by the Phantom's subterranean pipe organ.
Wesley Snipes dons the leather cape and the attitude for the third time in "Blade: Trinity" (Dec. 8), in which the half-vampire, half-human avenger tries to head off world domination. This time, he's also a victim of profiling, since the cops, who've been tipped off, have only scorn for vampire mutants like him.
Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand - what a pair! - play the parents of Gay M. Focker (Ben Stiller) in "Meet the Fockers" (Dec. 22), wherein Gay gets them together with his prospective in-laws (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). Watch for director Jay Roach to try to outdo the antics that reaped $165 million for 2000's "Meet the Parents," which he also directed.
Four years ago, it was unthinkable that a subtitled martial-arts movie would make $209 million. But that's exactly what was achieved by Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (which earned more than half of that total in the U.S.).
This season, the feat could be eclipsed by "House of Flying Daggers" (Dec. 3), the most gorgeous movie of recent memory. The hauntingly beautiful Chinese star Ziyi Zhang gets things going with her extraordinary drum dance, and the set-pieces created by director Zhang Yimou only get wilder from there.
If it's possible to swoon over a recluse who ended his days with gnarly fingernails and a crippling fear of germs, Leonardo DiCaprio is the one to make it happen. In "The Aviator" (Dec. 17), he plays Howard Hughes, the dashing and increasingly disturbed aircraft and Hollywood tycoon.
Since Martin Scorsese's biopic concentrates on Hughes in his prime, his glam romances take precedence over his later neuroses. His little black book includes the numbers of Jean Harlow (pop singer Gwen Stefani, in her movie debut), Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).
Hilary Swank proved she's tough by playing a him posing as a her in "Boys Don't Cry." She's even tougher in "Million Dollar Baby" (Dec. 17), about a woman struggling to be taken seriously as a boxer. Director Clint Eastwood plays a retired fighter who owns the gym where she trains and Morgan Freeman gets past his initial grumpiness to show her the ropes. Sounds like a knockout punch if ever there was one.
The name Adam Sandler can strike terror or joy in the hearts of different moviegoers. He may do both in "Spanglish" (Dec. 17), written and directed by James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News"). It's a comedy in which an upscale American couple (Sandler and Téa Leoni) take a Mexican immigrant housekeeper (Paz Vega) under their wing.
John Travolta gets to dance a little - and even sing! - in "A Love Song for Bobby Long" (Dec. 29), a drama about co-dependency and forgiveness. But "Saturday Night Fever" it's not. Travolta plays a white-haired alcoholic bum who squats in a virtual flophouse outside New Orleans with his enabler (Gabriel Macht) and their former landlady's daughter (Scarlett Johansson). When the resentful girl starts cleaning up after the two slobs you know hate could turn to love any second.
Jacques Cousteau might roll in his grave, but Bill Murray is the oceanographer who leads the underwater expedition in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (Dec. 10). Also on board for his personal vendetta against a shark are Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston. This comedy is bound to be hip and offbeat since it's directed by Wes Anderson, who made "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Shakespeare isn't necessarily a big draw, but Kenneth Branagh made him one with "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing." Now comes "The Merchant of Venice" (Dec. 29) with Al Pacino as Shylock, Jeremy Irons as the merchant, Joseph Fiennes as the empty-pocketed suitor whose debts are due and Lynn Collins as the wealthy heiress he hopes to marry.
Originally published on November 28, 2004