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Obsessive-compulsive cinema

Holiday films focus on the fixated

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Obsession provides the secret ingredient in filmmaking. With the financial stakes so high and the industry so competitive, only the most determined people get movies made. So it's no surprise that an art form dominated by so many driven personalities should gravitate to stories about the similarly preoccupied.

Dedicated, never-say-die individuals like Ray Charles and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie not only make history, but provide familiar subjects for biopics like Ray and Finding Neverland. Even compulsive nobodies like Christian Bale's emaciated, insomniac factory worker in The Machinist (opening Nov. 24) make compelling onscreen protagonists. For the holiday season, major films tend to be by, about and -- in some cases -- for obsessed individuals. (Remember, all release dates are subject to change.)

Three of the most highly touted films focus on singular personalities. Alexander the Great became arguably mankind's most conspicuous overachiever by conquering much of the world by the age of 27. (How much had you done by that age?) The season's biggest -- and practically only -- epic film, Oliver Stone's Alexander (Nov. 24) stars Colin Farrell in the title role and features Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie as his parents, and Christopher Plummer as his tutor, Aristotle. In addition to reliving Alexander's military triumphs, the film should determine whether Farrell is a bankable movie star, and if Stone can reclaim his 1980s relevance. (Not! See review p. xx).

In the 1940s and '50s, Alfred Kinsey overthrew not nations but America's conventional wisdom about the birds and the bees. In Kinsey (Nov. 24), Liam Neeson plays the pioneering researcher who investigated the sex lives of common Americans, including himself and his assistants (including Peter Sarsgaard and Laura Linney as his wife). Gods and Monsters filmmaker Bill Condon directs. (See review.)

Martin Scorsese reunites with his Gangs of New York star Leonardo DiCaprio for The Aviator (Dec. 17), a profile of the famed aviation pioneer, millionaire and sometime filmmaker Howard Hughes. The Aviator focuses on Hughes' life from the 1920s to the '40s and shows hints of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that would turn him into a germophobic recluse. Scorsese feeds his own fascination with classic Hollywood with a cast that includes Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Jude Law as Errol Flynn and No Doubt's Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow.

Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey shows off his chops as both a director and a singer by helming and starring in Beyond the Sea (Dec. 29), a biopic of "Mack the Knife" crooner Bobby Darin. Kate Bosworth plays Sandra Dee.

Crazed, malicious personalities invariably make the juiciest villains. In Joel Schumacher's lavish musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (Dec. 22), Gerard Butler plays the disfigured composer who preys on his rivals in the Paris Opera. Meanwhile, in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Jim Carrey portrays Count Olaf, a conniving thespian trying to bilk three hapless orphans out of their inheritance. The adaptation of the first three books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window) in the darkly comic children's series makes a bid to be next Harry Potter franchise.

Intimate relationships unify director Mike Nichols' most famous films. In Closer (Dec. 3), Nichols' adaptation of the Patrick Marber play, two couples (played by Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman and Jude Law) swap partners in a caustic roundelay about the cruelest aspects of love.

French director Catherine Breillat usually focuses on the darkest aspects of human sexuality, but she lightens up for Sex is Comedy (Dec. 10). Anne Parillaud plays the filmmaker in a fictionalized portrayal of the headaches and awkwardness involved while shooting a sex scene for her 2001 film Fat Girl.

Another French film, A Very Long Engagement (Dec. 17), shifts to obsessive, unrequited love. Audrey Tautou of Amelie plays a woman who goes to enormous lengths to locate her fiance, officially declared dead in the aftermath of World War I. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet also directed Amelie, but expect the shockingly violent Engagement to have the sweep of a Cold Mountain or The English Patient.

The Royal Tannenbaums director Wes Anderson extends his fascination with obscure relics of the 1970s by casting Bill Murray as an oceanographer suspiciously similar to Jacques Cousteau in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Dec. 24). The A-list cast includes Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett and Anjelica Huston.

Some films try to take our pop obsessions and sell them back to us. You might not expect much self-referential "meta" humor from Fat Albert (Dec. 25), but Joel Zwick's film takes the Cosby kids of the classic Saturday morning cartoon and transports them to the present (where they're played by flesh-and-blood actors). Kenan Thompson's Fat Albert even confronts creator Bill Cosby face-to-face.

Compared to the likes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the Blade movies provide second-tier entries in America's bloodsucker fixation. But Blade II proved to be a terrific, action-packed kill-fest, so if Blade: Trinity (Dec. 8), which pits Wesley Snipes' vamp-killer against Dracula, even comes close to that film's delirious thrills, it'll be Christmas' best guilty pleasure.

George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh make back some of the dough they've lost on riskier projects (Full Frontal, Solaris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) with Ocean's Twelve (Dec. 10). Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vincent Cassel join the original cast -- which includes Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts -- for another complex caper that promises to be a glitzy good time. But not anything to be obsessed over.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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