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Starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Opens Dec. 14
How many times can lightning strike? That's the theme of this film from a novella by Mircea Eliade. Dominic (Roth), an old professor, is ready to commit suicide when a lightning bolt nearly kills him, then miraculously restores him to vital middle age. He becomes involved with a woman (Lara) who reminds him of a lost love of his youth, and who seems to be channeling an ancient spirit. His gift of staying young holds a concomitant curse for her: she is aging before his eyes.
The first film Coppola has directed in a decade is not quite a triumph--its emotions fall flat at the end, when they ought to soar--but it is boldly romantic and seductively cinematic. The great American director of the '70s has survived with his operatic intensity intact. In Lara (Hitler's secretary in 2004's Downfall), he has an actress who can make emotions radiantly visible. Coppola, a starmaker from way back, still has an eye for charisma. In her performance, lightning strikes again.
There Will Be Blood
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Dillon Freasier, Paul Dano. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Opens Dec. 26
Ambition can drive a man to greatness or drive him to destruction, or do both. That was the theme of many novels of the early 20th century. One, Upton Sinclair's Oil, is the inspiration for this inward, wayward epic that spans 30 years of a tycoon's career. Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis, parading surface charm over a black heart) builds an oil empire on his tenacity, his ruthlessness and his seeming saving grace: a devotion to his son (Freasier), whom he totes from job to job.
Anderson's previous movies (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love) all teemed with vigorous eccentrics muscling themselves onto the screen. This film is stern, unaccommodating and, finally, daft. It's of a mind with its antihero, who says, "I don't care to explain myself." By the end, when Daniel faces off with a longtime preacher rival (Dano), the movie has retreated into its own deranged zone, to which even sympathetic viewers are forbidden.
The Golden Compass
Starring Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards. Directed by Chris Weitz. Opens Dec. 7
And it came to pass that The Lord of the Rings begat sequels. And the sequels begat The Chronicles of Narnia. And behold, they were very profitable, being released in the Yuletide season, when families look for movies that all may enjoy. And lo, comes now The Golden Compass, based on another quasi-religious fantasy novel by a Brit and set in a parallel world in which kids must smite down malevolent forces. In this case, that's Kidman, playing one of this year's many very pale villains (see also Depp in Sweeney Todd, Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton, Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort and the Legend mutants). The film's appeal will rest as much on how well the fantasy elements are handled as on how the story's more controversial anti-church elements have been transliterated for family audiences. So far, the omens look good.
I Am Legend
Starring Will Smith. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Opens Dec. 14
The moratorium on using New York City as the site of huge disasters is officially over. In this iteration, Manhattan becomes ground zero for a nasty plague. Gotham is sealed off from the rest of the world and inhabited solely, it seems, by former humans who go crazy when exposed to light--and by Will Smith. Oh, and his dog. The half hour of the movie that was screened for TIME was a nifty--and terrifying--mix of Cast Away and 28 Days Later. Smith has to forage for food (he goes deer-hunting in Times Square and pantry-diving in Tribeca), conduct experiments on rats to try to reverse the effects of the plague and, of course, fend off the ill-tempered creatures of the night. But what fun is there in all that if you have to do it alone? So he sends out a radio message every day asking for other survivors to meet him at South Street Seaport. (Clearly, he's hoping for tourists.) This is not the first movie to be made of the '50s science-fiction novel by Richard Matheson, but since filmgoers' appetite for both Mr. Smith and horror are at fever pitch, it may be the most eagerly anticipated.
Charlie Wilson's War
Starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts. Directed by Mike Nichols. Opens Dec. 25
Secretly, somewhere, do you miss The West Wing? All those good-looking people talking policy and politics, making Washington look so sexy and important? Well, add bigger-name stars, a global platform and a sex- and alcohol-steeped '80s milieu and you've got Charlie Wilson's War. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote West Wing and this, is like Michael Moore's alter ego. Moore makes fun of government; Sorkin makes government look fun. For the movie, he drew on the book of the same name, by journalist George Crile, about Congressman Wilson, a large-living Texan (Hanks), who orchestrated the covert funding of the mujahedin in Afghanistan, thus striking a blow against the Soviets--and arming a bunch of religious extremists. Hanks gets an assist from two able co-conspirators: Roberts, who plays a rich religious society dame from Houston, and Hoffman (above, with Hanks), a maniacal renegade CIA agent. Whether the appeal of Hanks and Roberts plus the direction of Nichols can bring out an audience that has so far not embraced movies about war is unclear, but the cast and subject matter suggest Charlie is gunning for an Oscar.
Starring Belén Rueda. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Opens Dec. 28
Not many people hear that a house is haunted and want to move in. But Laura (Rueda) does. She was happy growing up in an orphanage; now she lives there with her husband and adopted son, eager to commune with the troubled spirits of her childhood friends. Like last year's Pan's Labyrinth, this superior Spanish thriller artfully mingles the real and the fantastic. To see it is to believe in the power of movies to evoke the darkest, most potent emotions and to get a case of those old-fashioned old-dark-house chills.
Starring Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Page. Directed by Jason Reitman. Opens Dec. 5