Hollywood opens its presents early this weekend with the arrival of a few deluxe-wrapped packages full of good holiday cheer.
"Anna and the King," a richly decorated version of the classic musical "The King and I" sans the music, should pique the interests of romantic moviegoers young and old. It stars Academy Award winner Jodie Foster and Hong Kong action icon Chow Yun-Fat.
Gifts for the kids come in the form of the studio movies "Stuart Little" and "Bicentennial Man." Based on a beloved children's novel, "Stuart Little" tells the live-action adventures of a pet mouse, with a voice provided by Michael J. Fox. In "Bicentennial Man," Robin Williams undergoes a different kind of transformation, playing an android who learns what it means to be human. "Mrs. Doubtfire" director Chris Columbus helms the film.
Other high-profile holiday films opening in limited release include "Simpatico," a drama featuring A-list talents Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone and Nick Nolte, and "Topsy Turvy," a film about the lives of entertainers William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh ("Secrets & Lies," "Naked").
Below is a list of all the week's releases.
Opening Wednesday, Dec. 15
"Simpatico" (Fine Line) -- Jeff Bridges plays an affluent horse breeder whose reputation threatens to go to ruin when his penitent ex-partner played by Nick Nolte resurfaces to expose a horseracing scam the two masterminded many years ago. Albert Finney plays the innocent man who took the fall for their stint. Sharon Stone co-stars as Bridges' wife.
"Topsy Turvy" (USA) -- Acclaimed director Mike Leigh leaps back in time to enter the lives of two Londoners who were marked by extraordinary creativity: William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The film traces the bumpy collaboration of the writer-composer team after a period of declined popularity and creative impasse. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner co-star.
Opening Friday, Dec. 17
"Anna and the King" (Fox) -- Based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens, this film casts Jodie Foster as a British governess headed for Thailand to care for the children of the country's king, played by Chow Yun-Fat. By the end of her stay, she's managed to touch the lives of both the children and their father.
"Bicentennial Man" (Buena Vista) -- Robin Williams plays an android who is purchased as a household robot to perform menial tasks. His proud owners quickly learn that they don't have an ordinary robot as Williams begins to exhibit emotions and creative thought. Sam Neill, Oliver Platt and Embeth Davidtz co-star.
"Stuart Little" (Sony) -- Based on the classic children's novel by E.B. White, this animated feature combines live-action with state-of-the-art visual-effects technology to bring the lovable rodent and his adopted human family to life. Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie co-star. Michael J. Fox, Jennifer Tilly and Bruno Kirby provide voices for the animated characters.
"The Emperor and the Assassin" (SPC) -- Renowned Chinese director Chen Kaige and actress Gong Li reunite in this tale of power and ruthless ambition set in feudal China. Li Xuejian portrays a power-hungry king obsessed with becoming the first emperor of unified China, and Li co-stars as his devoted concubine abetting him in the enterprise.
"Magnolia" (New Line) -- "Boogie Nights" director Paul Anderson heads back to the San Fernando Valley for this modern-day tale of intersecting stories that feature "Boogie" alums Julianne Moore, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. Oh, and megastar Tom Cruise.
"Onegin" (Samuel Goldwyn) -- Set in 1820s Russia, Ralph Fiennes stars as a dashing aristocrat who's brought to the countryside through his inheritance of a large estate. There he acquaints Liv Tyler, a doting young woman whose love he refuses. Six years later, the two meet again on vastly different terms -- he's fallen obsessively in love with Tyler while she's comfortably married to another man.
"Ride With the Devil" (USA) -- Directed by Ang Lee, this Civil War drama stars Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jeffrey Wright as three friends who are avid supporters of the Confederate cause. Fighting as civilians, the three men pledge their allegiance to the South by killing unsuspecting Union soldiers. Singer-songwriter Jewel makes her acting debut as their love interest.
"The Cider House Rules" (Miramax) -- Directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape") and adapted from John Irving's best-selling novel, this coming-of-age story casts Tobey Maguire as a young man who has spent his entire youth in an orphanage. Hungry for experience, he sets out to explore the world outside. Charlize Theron and Michael Caine co-star.
Uh oh, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" might just hit its limit this weekend at the box office.
And who might bring Jim Carrey's megahit film down?
Answer: Former boy wonder Chris O'Donnell and his bunch of mountain-scaling unknowns in "Vertical Limit", that's who.
"I think 'Vertical Limit' and 'The Grinch' are neck and neck for No. 1, but I would give the edge to "Vertical Limit." The film is a spectacle, the studio is going for the adrenaline rush, and they have been marketing it very aggressively," says Brandon Gray, editor of boxofficemojo.com. "And it really doesn't matter that the film doesn't have any stars in it, that's irrelevant for this kind of film.
"But obviously, 'The Grinch' is a major player also, it did $27 mil last week (which was not a huge drop). Plus, it has the momentum, [which] definitely makes it a top contender for the No. 1 spot this weekend" Gray says.
And those two films are not the only battle going on in town, for there're also the Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe half romance, half drama "Proof of Life" and the big screen materialization of the role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons" with Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans, among others.
So without further ado, let's take a peek at all the major releases coming out this weekend.
THE SKINNY: Chris O'Donnell plays a disillusioned mountain climber who's been pulled out of early retirement to save the life of his sister (Robin Tunney) trapped in a really cold and dangerous peak. What a guy!
THE UPSIDE: The film has being brand new on its side, "The Grinch" does not. Or in Gray's words, "I think it should be able to just edge out 'The Grinch.' It should be good enough for the high teens."
THE DOWNSIDE: It's probably utterly predictable and shamelessly cliche -- but that's fine as long as you don't care about plot development, character development or, uh, stuff like that. "PROOF OF LIFE"
THE SKINNY: Russell Crowe roars as a hostage negotiator who is charged to save an American captive in Latin America but ends up hooking up with the poor guy's wife, played by, ahem, Meg Ryan.
THE UPSIDE: Finally, we get to watch the film which during its shooting Crowe and Ryan shacked up! But that is if you even cared in the first place.
THE DOWNSIDE: "The press seems more concerned with the Crowe-Ryan romance than the film itself. The marketing campaign for the film seems to highlight Crowe rather than the romance between the two actors. That could hurt the picture because audiences associate Ryan with romantic comedies. [Still,] it will have a decent opening, [albeit] a soft one. It could put it in the low to mid teens," says Gray, who puts the film at a solid No. 3 for the weekend. "DUNGEONS & DRAGONS"
THE SKINNY: Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, "American Beauty's" Thora Birch, Marlon Wayans and others play medieval in this rather untimely adaptation of the popular role-playing game in the 1980s.
THE UPSIDE: Well, the film certainly gives the avid fans and players of the game one reason to leave the house.
THE DOWNSIDE: "This film is going to remain in the dungeon," Gray said. "Fantasy pictures tend not to do well. It's possible for the film to be No. 5 -- and it's basically between that and '102 Dalmatians'. Probably $5 mil, give or take a million or so."
"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON"
THE SKINNY: Taiwanese director Ang Lee's homage to a long and persistent Chinese cinematic tradition: the swordsman epic. And oh, it stars two of Hong Kong's raddest actors: Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh ("Tomorrow Never Dies").
THE UPSIDE: Hey dude, it's sort of like "The Matrix." Or dude, is it actually the other way around?
THE DOWNSIDE: Not to be a tease, but the film only opens in New York this weekend. Why? "[Because] the studio is trying to build a word of mouth for this film. They're probably praying for an Oscar nomination and have the film go wide," Gray said.
And don't forget films such as "Rugrats in Paris," "Men of Honor," "Charlie's Angels" and "Unbreakable," which Gray predicts will take the No. 4 spot this weekend.