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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Hollywood will be opening more than 60 films between now and New Year's Eve. They will feature African-American debaters making history, murderous barbers making music, witches and giant bears making magic.

NPR's film critic Bob Mondello has a selective preview.

BOB MONDELLO: Nothing says holiday cheer quite like special effects - at least that's the Tinseltown theory. So with "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" having switched to summer openings, Christmas will be dominated by another book-based children's epic in which a war of many universes swirls around a little girl and a nifty gizmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE GOLDEN COMPASS")

DAKOTA BLUE RICHARDS: (As Lyra Belacqua) What's this?

JACK SHEPHERD: (As Master) It's the golden compass, Lyra. I feel you're meant to have it.

BLUE RICHARDS: (As Lyra) But what's it for?

SHEPHERD: (As Master) It lets you glimpse what is to come which is the utmost importance perhaps to all creation.

MONDELLO: All creation will actually hang in the balance in the sequels. But "The Golden Compass" will get things started with its digitized spirit demons and armored polar bears. Computer-generated animals are a kind of kid-flick fetish this season, what, with the water horse and its creature from Scottish legends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) They're not to supposed to be real(ph).

ALEX ETEL: (As Angus MacMorrow) His name is Crusoe. He's very friendly.

MONDELLO: Ah, but he gets very big, too, as opposed to "Alvin and the Chipmunks" who stay small but make a big noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS")

JUSTIN LONG: (As Alvin) You guys, he's dead.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) Chipmunks can't talk.

LONG: (As Alvin) Oh yeah? Check this out.

(Singing) Let me take you into funky town.

MONDELLO: While the Chipmunks go to funky town, the folks who brought you "Talladega Nights" are headed for Nashville. In "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," they'll take on the cliches of country music bio-pics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY")

JENNA FISCHER: (As Darlene) You're never going to make it.

JOHN C: (As Dewey Cox) Then maybe you don't believe in me after all.

FISCHER: (As Darlene) I do believe in you. I just know you're going to fail.

REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) (Singing) Walk home.

FISCHER: (As Darlene) I'm leaving you.

REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) You can take the children. But you leave me my monkey.

MONDELLO: Now if all this sounds a little silly, rest assured that there are serious pictures, too, some of them even serious comedies, like "The Savages," in which Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman try to deal with a dying father's dementia, "The Band's Visit," about an Egyptian police band that gets lost on its way to a concert date in Israel, and "Juno," about a hip 16-year-old who find herself in the family way and tries to look on the bright side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "JUNO")

ELLEN PAGE: (As Juno MacGuff) I could, like, have this baby and give it to someone that, like, totally needs it.

Unidentified Woman #1: You should look in the penny saver.

Unidentified Woman #2: They have ads for parents.

PAGE: (As Juno MacGuff) Yeah. Desperately seeking spawn.

MONDELLO: Desperately seeking anyone is Will Smith in the thriller "I Am Legend." He plays a scientist battling a plague that may have left him the last man on Earth, reduced to sending out radio messages every day for three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "I AM LEGEND")

WILL SMITH: (As Robert Neville) My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor in New York City. I am broadcasting on all A.M. frequencies. If anyone is out there, please...

MONDELLO: Smith is just dealing with the plague's undead victims, but other folks have to deal with far worse. Woody Harrelson, for instance, has to deal with politicians. He's playing "The Walker," a gay Washington gossip who gets mixed up in a murder scandal that involves a senator's wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE WALKER")

Unidentified Woman #3: (As Character) Let me give you a piece of Washington wisdom. Never stand between your friend and a firing squad.

MONDELLO: "The Walker" is a fictional take on political intrigue. "Charlie Wilson's War" is based on fact. It stars Tom Hanks as Congressman Charlie Wilson and Julia Roberts as the one-time diplomat, who, in 1979, helped him hatch the bright idea of arming the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR")

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Joanne Herring) Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?

TOM HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) Well, it's tradition, I'll say.

ROBERTS: (As Joanne) You sit at the intersection of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, the three agencies you would need to conduct a covert war.

HANKS: (As Charlie) Yeah.

MONDELLO: Didn't stay covert, of course, and had consequences which have been explored in a lot of movies about the Middle East this fall. The consequences will be explored again in "The Kite Runner," a film about two Afghan boys who are separated during that Soviet invasion. One stays in Afghanistan, the other leaves for the U.S., only to be drawn back by new disturbances two decades later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE KITE RUNNER")

BLOCK: Forgive me for what I have to tell you. Hassan is dead. A week before he died, he sent you a letter.

BLOCK: I dream that someday you will return to revisit the man of our childhood. I dream that flowers will bloom in the streets again and kites will fly in the skies.

MONDELLO: "The Kite Runner" is based on a best-selling novel and so is "Atonement," Ian McEwan's World War II story about an English 13-year-old who tells a lie that has terrible consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "ATONEMENT")

Unidentified Man #5: (As Character) You saw him?

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Briony Tallis) Yes, I saw him. I know it was him.

Man #5: (As Character) You know it was him?

RONAN: (As Briony) I saw him with my own eyes.

MONDELLO: Lush and romantic, "Atonement" stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy and is being touted as a likely awards contender.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "ATONEMENT")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Cecilia Tallis) I am very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused.

MONDELLO: Awards chatter at this time of year is often just talk, but in this case, it is richly deserved. Also being mentioned in that context is "There Will Be Blood," an epic in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays a Texas oil prospector at the turn of the last century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

DANIEL DAY: (As Plainview) I'm a family man. I run a family business. There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me.

MONDELLO: There's another family, though, and their business is religion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

Unidentified Man #6: (As Character) We have a sinner here with us. Get out of here, Devil.

DAY: (As Plainview) I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.

MONDELLO: Success is a theme in a lot of yearend films from the "National Treasure" sequel, "Book of Secrets," to "The Rocket," a rouser about a Canadian hockey legend who overcame prejudice in the 1940s to a drama directed by and starring Denzel Washington. "The Great Debaters" is the tale of a professor at a black college in Texas, who, in the 1930s, formed a debate team that challenged Harvard in a national championship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE GREAT DEBATERS")

Unidentified Man #7: (As Character) Are you threatening me, boy?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Mel Tolson) I wouldn't do that. But I cannot speak for those people outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

WASHINGTON: (As Mel) Debate is blood sport. You must destroy your opponent. Not only verbally but physically.

MONDELLO: Speaking of blood sport, let's round out our Christmas movie list with the season's bloodiest gamble. Director Tim Burton filming Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller about a murderous barber and his connection with a meat pie shop. Topping the cast is Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET")

JOHNNY DEPP: (As Sweeney Todd) All right. You, sir, no one's in the chair, come on, come on. Sweeney's waiting, I want you, bleeders. You sir, two sir. Welcome to the grave.

(Singing) I will have vengeance. I will have salvation.

MONDELLO: Salvation of an unorthodox sort just in time for Christmas and maybe for the Oscars.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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