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It seems to get earlier every year, doesn't it? Here we are, in the midst of celebrating Halloween, and Hollywood's telling us that the festive year-end holiday season is already upon us -- that it's time to start thinking not only about Thanksgiving but all the way to Christmas. And, more importantly to them, we should be prepared to start shelling out big bucks to catch the seasonal fare.

Don't believe me? Then check out one of the titles opening this Friday, November 1:

The Santa Clause 2. That's right: A movie about Santa Claus, a movie about elves and reindeer and all that ho-ho-hoing, a movie that, let's face it, should be opening smack in the middle of December -- yes, that's the movie that somebody at the studio decided just had to be released on the very first day of November.

But who am I to hold back the advent of holiday cheer? Here, then, is a look at the titles scheduled for release between now and the end of the year, as well as some limited titles we shouldn't expect until early 2003. Add to this list some films that have already opened elsewhere (e.g., Bowling for Columbine, Auto Focus and Comedian, all bowing here this Friday), as well as assorted offerings from local film organizers (such as the Charlotte Film Society), and there should be enough cinematic goodwill to last until next year's holiday season -- which, at this accelerated rate, will probably kick off circa mid-August.


PLOT: A suave CIA agent (Owen Wilson) is forced to team up with a boisterous boxing champ (Eddie Murphy) to locate a missing stealth bomber.
THE LOWDOWN: This action adventure is directed by Betty Thomas, who gave us insufferable big-screen updates of Dr. Dolittle and The Brady Bunch Movie... Malcolm McDowell is typecast as the sneering villain.

PLOT: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), still fulfilling his duties as Santa Claus, learns that a provision of his Yuletide contract states that he must get married or lose his status as The Big Red One.
THE LOWDOWN: The 1994 original grossed $145 million, but the fact that it took this long to cobble together a sequel signals that it wasn't creative inspiration that struck but rather the realization that Allen's screen career has gone absolutely nowhere (Buzz Lightyear voice-overs aside) during the past eight years.


FEMME FATALEPLOT: After betraying her collaborators following a jewel heist, a comely criminal (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) assumes the identity of another woman, though that doesn't keep her safe for long.
THE LOWDOWN: After the costly sci-fi flop Mission To Mars, director Brian De Palma returns to the thriller genre with a film that's reported to be full of twists and turns... Antonio Banderas co-stars as a photographer who gets tangled up in Romijn-Stamos' schemes.


PLOT: A young man (rapper Eminem) tries to break out of the slums by using his singing skills to his advantage.
THE LOWDOWN: This could theoretically be an unofficial remake of Purple Rain if it turns out to contain that film's uneasy mix of sizzling music sequences and flat dramatic moments, but with director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) behind the camera, it's being promoted not as fodder for the MTV crowd but as an award contender.


PLOT: The life of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is explored, from her accomplishments in the art world to her relationships with fellow artist and husband Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) and Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush).
THE LOWDOWN: As a longtime Salma Hayek fan, I'm glad to finally see her in a meaty, high-profile role... A competing Kahlo film was simultaneously in the works (with Jennifer Lopez as Frida!), but this one won out... The impressive cast includes Edward Norton (who also co-wrote the script), Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd.

PLOT: After Alcatraz is reopened, an FBI agent (Steven Seagal) must go undercover to infiltrate the joint and prevent an assassination from taking place.
THE LOWDOWN:Ya gotta admit, that goofy title is at least easier to remember than the previous generic one they had attached to this project, Lockdown... The cast also includes Morris Chestnut, Ja Rule, Kurupt and Nia Peeples... Presumably, the studio is operating under the assumption that not everybody out there wants to see young Mr. Potter waving his wand (and they may be right).

PLOT: A mysterious evil presence invades the Hogwarts school, and it's up to boy wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends to unlock the mystery.
THE LOWDOWN: Practically the entire original cast returns, with Kenneth Branagh a new addition in the role of vain Professor Gilderoy Lockhart... The third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, will be released during the summer of 2004.

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