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Deck the halls with boughs of Hollywood

No amount of whining, tantrum throwing or pants peeing has gotten me out of the holiday ritual I most loathe: daylong, weekend trips to Shiny, Happy Temples of Capitalism Run Amok. Fortunately, most local malls have within them or very close by a movie theater—that sticky oasis amid countless identical stores hawking overpriced gifts for people who don't really need anything. Simply duck into the nearest cineplex after breaking away to "go find something special" for the loved one who dragged you to the flippin' mall in the first place and let Hollywood gently brainwash your holiday blues away. As a bonus, movies are also a great place to take out-of-town relatives with whom you'd rather not yak.

So here, brothers and sisters in checkout-line/forced-social-interaction hell, is a guide to what you'll find on the big screens between now and Xmas, arranged by their scheduled release dates*.

*Actual release dates may vary. All are scheduled to at least open in Los Angeles before year's end, but not necessarily in Orange County. May increase chance of a heart attack or stroke or excessive bleeding or serious skin reactions or intestinal problems, such as bleeding and ulcers, which can occur without warning and may cause death.

Rocky Balboa: back to the well
Rocky Balboa: back to the well

FRIDAY, DEC. 15

Eragon(20th Century Fox)

The story:
In a fantasy world of kingdoms and dragons—no, not Scottsdale—young lad Eragon (Edward Speleers) finds a dragon's egg, which means he's either destined to save the world from an evil king or start the land of Alagaësia's first Denny's franchise.

What it's got going for it:Bestseller source material by teen prodigy Christopher Paolini; the directing debut of Stefen Fangmeier, who produced jaw-dropping visual effects in Signs, The Bourne Identityand The Perfect Storm; highfalutin supporting players such as Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle and John Malkovich.

What it's got going against it: Unless the Monty Python troupe is involved, castles and dragons and English accents make me sleeeeeepy.

Home of the Brave(MGM)

The story:After they return home from Iraq and try to adjust to civilian life—including acceptance of the painful Kid Rock-Pam Anderson split—American soldiers Jessica Biel, 50 Cent, Brian Presley and Mr. Samuel L. Jackson suffer from postwar trauma.

What it's got going for it:The first big-budget, non-documentary take on the current Iraq War; a modern retelling of that 1946 classic, seven-time Oscar-winning, warts-and-all look at after-wartime readjustment, The Best Years of Our Lives; no muthafuckin' snakes on the muthafuckin' plane!

What it's got going against it:Director Irwin Winkler has impressive Hollywood cred—as a producer (They Shoot Horses Don't They, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff and Goodfellas—best-picture Oscar nominees all—and Rocky, which won him a best-pic statuette). But Winkler only began directing in the 1990s, and his films—The Net, At First Sight, Life as a House, 28 Days and De-Lovely—were marginal at best.

The Pursuit of Happyness(Columbia)

The story:A struggling salesman (Will Smith) takes custody of his 5-year-old son (Smith's real-life son, Jaden) as he faces a life-changing professional endeavor.

What it's got going for it:Thandie Newton, presumably not getting groped by a cop this time, and Dan Castellaneta, presumably not Homer Simpson this time.

What it's got going against it: Spellcheck.

Venus(Miramax)

The story:Aging actors Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips (now there's a stretch!) have their lives turned upside down when one's brash young niece (Jodie Whittaker) comes to stay with them.

What it's got going for it:A not-so-much-for-this-but-for-your-body-of-work best actor Oscar for forever-shunned O'Toole, according to early betting at the track; writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell, who last teamed on 2003 indie The Mother, for which our crit Ella Taylor singled out each for praise, especially Michell's ease with small movies (which Venus and The Motherare) rather than with "pandering big-ticket items."

What it's got going against it: Michell's pandering big-ticket item Notting Hill.

*   *   *

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 20

Charlotte's Web(Paramount)

The story:Naïve little pig Wilbur befriends whip-smart spider Charlotte, who tries to save her pal from becoming the Other White Meat.

What it's got going for it:The source material, E.B. White's children's book, is a gen-u-ine classic; instead of another lame animated flick, this one's live action, with Dakota Fanning as Fern and such talents as Julia Roberts, Robert Redford, Thomas Haden Church, André Benjamin and Oprah Winfrey giving voice to barnyard critters (now there's a stretch!); co-writer Susannah Grant's credits include Erin Brockovich.

What it's got going against it: Grant's credits also include In Her Shoes.

*   *   *

THURSDAY, DEC. 21

Dreamgirls(Dreamworks/Paramount)

The story:It's the cinematic version of the Tony Award-winning musical loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes.

What it's got going for it:Beyoncè Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson and—in a turn that's also generating Oscar buzz—Eddie Murphy; director Bill Condon also adapted from a stage musical the screenplay for a little something called Chicago. Hmm, wonder how that went?

What it's got going against it:What the . . . ? No Miss Diana Ross!?! Baby, baby, where did our love go?

*   *   *

FRIDAY, DEC. 22

The Good German(Warner Bros.)

The story:An American journalist (George Clooney) goes to post-World War II Berlin to find his former lover (Cate Blanchett), but he stumbles upon a murder mystery in the process. The gimmick is the character patter and film's look rip off/honor such black-and-white classics as Casablanca and The Third Man.

What it's got going for it:The re-teaming of Clooney and one of cinema's most intriguing filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh, who directed, shot and edited Germanall by himself and only with equipment available in the 1940s.

What it's got going against it:The title of the next film, scheduled to be released the same day.

The Good Shepherd(Universal)

The story:The formation of the CIA—not to be confused with that far more sinister and shadowy operation, CAA—is viewed through the eyes of one of its first recruits (Matt Damon), whose naïve idealism is slowly corrupted by Cold War paranoia.

What it's got going for it:Game support from Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro and Mr. Robert DeNiro, who also directs!; a script by Eric Roth of Munich, Ali and The Insider fame.

What it's got going against it:Seriously, why didn't they just combine casts, restrict DeNiro to in front of the camera where he belongs and rename the whole thing The Good German Shepherd?

Letters From Iwo Jima(Warner Bros.)

The story:The Japanese who fought in the WWII battle of Iwo Jima against the United States share their recollections.

What it's got going for it:It's the flipside to director Clint Eastwood's recent ambitious, well-reviewed Flags of Our Fathers; Oscar loooooooves Old Man Clint.

What it's got going against it: Nobody saw Flags of Our Fathers.

Night at the Museum(20th Century Fox)

The story:On his first night on the job at a natural history museum, a night watchman (Ben Stiller) discovers the exhibits come to life. Based on actual events.

What it's got going for it:Maybe it was seeing Robin Williams done up as Teddy Roosevelt. Maybe it was Stiller's back-and-forth lines with Owen Wilson and back-and-forth slaps with a monkey. Maybe it's the soft spot I have for Dick Van Dyke, who plays Stiller's boss and, I don't care what anyone says, IS Rob Petrie. But the trailer for this contrived, big-budget, special effects-laden Hollywood popcorn muncher had me laughing my ass off.

What it's got going against it: Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Ricky Gervais and Mickey Fucking Rooney in the cast! A screenplay, based on Milan Trenc's children's book, written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon of the hilarious The State, Viva Variety and Reno 911!fame! How could there possibly be anything wrong with . . . uh-oh: it's directed by Shawn Levy, who gave us this year's The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married and the pilot episode of Pepper Dennis.

Rocky Balboa(MGM)

The story:An aging former superstar must weigh the risks and rewards of stepping into the limelight after all these years to accept another vicious challenge . . . but enough about Sylvester Stallone shamelessly returning to the Rocky well for a sixth time. He again directs himself as the now crusty Italian Stallion, who is offered a fight against current boxing champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver).

What it's got going for it:Check back when I give a shit.

What it's got going against it:Common decency.

We Are Marshall(Warner Bros.)

The story:Based on the true story of a 1970 plane crash that wiped out most players and the coaching staff of a beloved college football team in a small West Virginia town, this finds a young coach (Matthew McConaughey) trying to mend a program and a community.

What it's got going for it:Corona del Mar hometown boy done good McG (Charlie's Angels, The O.C.) in the director's chair.

What it's got going against it:A 30-second TV commercial that gives away the whole freaking movie.

*   *   *

MONDAY, DEC. 25

Black Christmas(Dimension)

The story:In this remake of a 1974 horror flick, sorority girls get creepy phone calls during their Christmas break, then have unfortunate encounters with a homicidal maniac—as opposed to the fortunate encounters one usually associates with homicidal maniacs.

What it's got going for it:No other horror films to compete against for miles; writers/directors Glen Morgan and James Wong, the team behind the first Final Destination, which, admit it, was pretty dang cool.

What it's got going against it:Oh, so when it's a nice chestnuts-roasting-by-an-open-fire movie, it's a white Christmas, but when it's a demented blood-splattering-on-pretty-white-girls movie, it's a blackChristmas. Screw you, Michael Richards!

Children of Men(Universal)

The story:Set in the near future, with mass infertility having pushed humanity to the brink of extinction, a government employee (Clive Owen) must protect the life of the world's last pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey).

What it's got going for it:A supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Michael Caine; Y tu mamá también director Alfonso Cuarón also directs here and co-wrote the screenplay; the source material was the dystopian novel by P.D. James, the English crime fiction writer and House of Lords member who has been credited with upgrading the entire mystery-writing genre.

What it's got going against it:Buttloads of holiday cheer.

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