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Bah, Humbug! 

Cynicism edges out cheer this holiday season

Twinkly Tim Allen as Santa Claus? Try surly Billy Bob Thornton instead. A crowd-pleasing adventure yarn in which the dapper superspy saves the world, the girl and the martini? Replace that with a gritty epic where dusty frontiersmen lose their lives trying to protect a square of Texas real estate.

A light-hearted romp about a precocious kid who uses his magic powers to help his fellow students? Brace yourself for a heavy drama about a disturbed boy who uses NRA-sanctioned firearms to blow away his classmates.

Clearly, there are many of those in the film community who didn't get the word that Christmas is generally a time of peace and goodwill and cute reindeer with red schnozzes. Instead, take a look at the schedule for the remainder of 2003, and it's obvious that many of the titles are hell-bent on taking audiences to dark places, internal areas far away from the hearty ho-ho-ho's we usually associate with Yuletide. Dysfunctional families are at the center of over a half-dozen upcoming features, while others spend their time exploring such unsavory topics as murder, racism, child abuse, dementia, and whether Ben Affleck's career can be saved.

Of course, for those who can't handle the truth (Hollywood's version of it, anyway), there are enough light-hearted romps to go around as well, warm-and-fuzzies featuring cheerful elves, beloved cartoon characters and Steve Martin's mild-and-crazy shtick. So even though cynicism reigns, Hollywood's got you covered regardless of your mood this season.

NOVEMBER 5

THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS
PLOT: It's the ultimate showdown between the humans (led by Keanu Reeves' Neo) and the machines (represented by Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith) in the final installment in this influential sci-fi trilogy.

THE LOWDOWN: This past summer's The Matrix Reloaded made $281 million, even better than the first film's $171 million haul; still, there's no denying that another current trilogy has stolen some of this series' thunder. . . Warner has decided to immediately go global with their cash cow by premiering it all over the world on the same day.

NOVEMBER 7

ELF
PLOT: A human (Will Ferrell) who was adopted and raised by elves bids adieu to his North Pole home and travels to New York City, where he's forced to remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas.

THE LOWDOWN: Ferrell gained plenty of new fans with his scene-stealing supporting turn in this past spring's Old School, so this is clearly time for him to be making this sort of leading-man move. .. The innocuous PG rating aside, this sounds like the sort of lowest-common-denominator drivel that Rob Schneider usually foists upon us at this time of year. . . Ed Asner, one of those "we thought he was dead" celebs, pops up as Santa Claus.


LOVE ACTUALLY
PLOT: The British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), a kindly widower (Liam Neeson) and a neglected wife (Emma Thompson) are just three of the many characters who find romance in London during the holiday season.

THE LOWDOWN: The trailer includes scenes from scripter Richard Curtis' past hits (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary), which actually isn't a bad way to market this. . . The gargantuan ensemble cast also includes Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, Pirates of the Caribbean's Keira Knightley, and, as the US president, Billy Bob Thornton.

PIECES OF APRIL
PLOT: An independent young woman (Katie Holmes) invites her estranged family to her New York apartment for Thanksgiving; needless to say, not much goes right.

THE LOWDOWN: This was one of the most-discussed films at Sundance this year, and Far From Heaven's Patricia Clarkson, who plays Holmes' bitter mother, won a special award for her performances in three festival films (including this one).

NOVEMBER 14

ELEPHANT
PLOT: An ordinary day at a Portland high school turns into a nightmare after a boy opens fire on his fellow students.

THE LOWDOWN: After selling out with Finding Forrester and the ill-advised Psycho remake, director Gus Van Sant has been trying to get back to smaller, more experimental pictures with the barely seen Gerry and now this. . . Inspired by the Columbine killings, this gritty endeavor beat out some reportedly formidable competition to take the Palme d'Or (as well as the Best Director prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, amid plenty of protests.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION
PLOT: Humans (Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin) and toons (Bugs, Daffy, Porky) team up for a wild adventure that carries them across the globe in search of treasure.

THE LOWDOWN: Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) seems like a good choice for director. . . This has to be better than the execrable Space Jam, which was basically 90 minutes of legendary animated characters worshipping at the altar of Michael Jordan.

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