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Mickey Rourke's Oscar buzz. Kate and Leo. Che Guevara. Everything old is new again.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Nov. 19, 2008

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Star power: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (left) and Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt.

It's that time of year again, and nothing brings on the holiday cheer quite like a slate of award-grubbing Hollywood epics.

'Tis the season in which studio heads happily toss away all sorts of cash in a last-ditch attempt to procure those golden statuettes, as if the glow of year-end prestige somehow washes away 11 months of garbage. Sometimes there are even some good films mixed in there.

As if The Motorcycle Diaries wasn't enough, every annoying college kid's favorite terrorist Che Guevara is getting another biopic, this time courtesy of Steven Soderbergh. Divided into two 131-minute films, to be shown back-to-back in some markets but released as separate features in others, Che stars Benicio Del Toro as the historical figure we know from hipster T-shirts.

Part one is The Argentine, a lush widescreen epic detailing Guevera's Cuban adventures with Fidel Castro. Part two, Guerilla, constricts the frame and I'm told drastically alters the shooting style, as apparently things in Bolivia didn't turn out so well. It's a typically ambitious and idiosyncratic project for Soderbergh, a guy whose failures are more interesting than most directors' successes.

Ron Howard's got a slightly simpler history lesson for us. Opie's taking on Tricky Dick, adapting Peter Morgan's acclaimed Broadway smash Frost/Nixon, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of unctuous Brit anchorman David Frost's seminal 1977 interviews with our second-most despicable scumbag president.

Howard's admirably avoided marquee names, allowing The Queen's Michael Sheen and Tony-winner Frank Langella to reprise their stage roles. The film opens in December, but for now let's just say that those crazy kids who never heard of Richard Nixon and Watergate might just have their minds blown. The rest of us will be wondering why Ron Howard keeps overexplaining everything like we're a bunch of morons.

Another tricky stage adaptation arrives in the form of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which on the boards won just about every drama award imaginable. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep and tackles that old can't-miss popcorn blockbuster subject of clergy molestation. But the real news here is that renowned playwright Shanley is stepping behind the camera for the first time since his remarkable 1990 directorial debut, Joe vs. the Volcano, a singularly lovely film that's often dismissed as a fiasco--but only by people who've never seen it.

If you're anything like me and thus still recovering from the mystifying boondoggle that was Clint Eastwood's Changeling, December's Gran Torino looks like a return to form. The 78-year-old workaholic's second movie in three months stars the Man himself, busting out his best gravelly Heartbreak Ridge voice as a grizzled Korean War vet who goes head to head with gangbangers in his decaying neighborhood.

This is the sort of project that promises to be either sublime or ridiculous, but for my money the most exciting shot in any trailer right now finds crotchety old Eastwood holding up an ancient army rifle, staring down a pack of street toughs and scowling: "Get off my lawn."

Hard to believe it's been more than a decade since the Titanic sank and a billion teenage girls sobbed their eyes out, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are finally reunited on-screen in Revolutionary Road. Directed by Sam Mendes (aka Mr. Winslet), this adaptation of Richard Yates' influential chronicle of suburban ennui doesn't feature any icebergs, and nobody's king of the world. But it's nonetheless hard to shake a been-there-done-that vibe from the early footage.

Mendes covered similar ground, however fatuously, with American Beauty, and Winslet already knocked the repressed housewife routine out of the park two years ago in Little Children. More distressingly, Yates' novel provided one of the main inspirations for the brilliant television series Mad Men, and available clips of DiCaprio's performance boast an eerie resemblance to the show's Pete Campbell.

But if you think Kate Winslet couldn't possibly work with a filmmaker worse than her husband, you're in for a surprise. In any sane world the folks responsible for The Hours wouldn't be allowed anywhere near a professional motion picture set ever again, but somehow director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare are back at it, tackling Bernhard Schlink's tricky novel The Reader, which is about how rough it is when you lose your virginity to a Nazi.

Ralph Fiennes stars as a lawyer recalling his ex-girlfriend's war crimes trial, and Winslet plays the sultry temptress in a wide variety of unconvincing old-age makeup. This tumultuous production prompted a deliciously public pissing contest between producers Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin--the two loudest, most unpleasant men in show business--until the latter finally had his name removed from the credits.

And the Oscar goes to ... Mickey Rourke? You'd better believe it. The 1980s' heir to Brando and subsequent tabloid trainwreck gets the comeback role of a lifetime in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, playing a washed-up former champ now working the grimy American Legion hall circuit somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

It's hard to tell what's more astonishing: the fact that Aronofsky tells a simple, straightforward story without his usual overwrought camera tricks, or the dignity and humanity Rourke brings to this sweetly sad saga of a ruined man. Attempting to patch things up with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) while awkwardly courting an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei), Rourke gives the kind of performance that makes all these tacky, end-of-the-year award campaigns seem suddenly worthwhile.

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