LOS ANGELES - Hollywood loves money. So does Ebenezer Scrooge. So what better way to launch the holiday season than putting the old money-grubber at the head of the line to separate movie-goers from their cash?
The latest version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" features Jim Carrey as Scrooge. Coming on Ebenezer's coattails will be everything from vampire romance ("The Twilight Saga: New Moon") and end-of-the-world stories ("2012," "The Road") to epic science fiction ("Avatar") and a new incarnation of the world's greatest detective ("Sherlock Holmes").
Presented in 3-D, "Disney's A Christmas Carol" is the latest from Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"), who presents Dickens' London with the same performance-capture technology he used on "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf."
Carrey and such co-stars as Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins worked on a bare soundstage, their bodies covered with sensors so digital cameras could record their performances in 360 degrees. Sets, costumes and other details were filled in later by computer animation.
The process allowed actors to take on multiple roles, with Carrey playing Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come that teach him the meaning of the season.
While Zemeckis loves Alastair Sim's 1951 "A Christmas Carol," he said previous adaptations never captured the full impact of Dickens' surreal images. As he made "Beowulf," Zemeckis realized he now had the tools to bring "A Christmas Carol" to the screen the way he imagined it on the page.
"It was the idea of being able to actually recreate London and not have any limitations whatsoever. Anything that existed at the time we could present," Zemeckis said. "Then the idea that Jim could play Scrooge in all the different ages, and the ghosts, they could be his alter-ego, and he could play those. Everything just fell into place."
With "Sherlock Holmes," Robert Downey Jr. and director Guy Ritchie also recreate old London while reinventing Arthur Conan Doyle's brainy, monkish detective as an action hero, verbal quipster - and even a bit of a lover.
Downey's Holmes fights with fists, clubs, pistols and hammers, trades odd-couple banter with best buddy and roommate Watson (Jude Law), and shares romantic moments with the one woman (Rachel McAdams) who never got the better of him.
It was a nice change of pace for Downey after he leaped to the box-office A-list with last year's comic-book blockbuster "Iron Man."
"It was such a radical departure," Downey said. "A period piece. A very, very established kind of iconic image comes to mind when you think of Sherlock Holmes. Whereas Iron Man was a relatively unknown quote-unquote second tier superhero ... until last year."
Another series that jumped to blockbuster status last year was Hollywood's take on author Stephenie Meyer's love story between a sensitive schoolgirl (Kristen Stewart) and her immortal vampire boy toy (Robert Pattinson).
The second instalment, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," is a lesson in teen heartache as Pattinson's Edward dumps Stewart's Bella, realizing the danger he represents to his human girlfriend.
The brooding Bella finds solace with a school chum (Taylor Lautner) and his werewolf gang and eventually winds up pulling Edward out of a jam.
"Edward breaks up with Bella for her own protection, but Bella believes it's because he doesn't love her any more, and she goes into a terrible depression," said "New Moon" director Chris Weitz. "In the end, there's kind of a lovely turnaround whereby Bella has to go and save Edward, having been saved by him throughout their past."
Also in the fantasy realm, James Cameron is back with his first fictional film since 1997's "Titanic" swamped Hollywood to become king of the Oscars and the biggest modern blockbuster. "Avatar" also marks Cameron's return to his science-fiction roots and a reunion with "Aliens" star Sigourney Weaver, who joins Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana among the cast of the filmmaker's 3-D epic about humans taking on the form of extraterrestrials as they explore a distant world.
"What we have on the screen right now is 150 per cent of what I imagined. The other 50 per cent is the part I could not have imagined without having the actors there, without working with a team of artists who come up with all these amazing, outlandish designs," Cameron said. "My job was really kind of herding the cats, getting the artists to kind of be cohesive about the esthetic decision, so it was all one world, so it seemed like part of an evolutionary or ecological system."
Hollywood has dozens of other films, big and small, coming before year's end. Here's the lowdown on some highlights:
HUSBANDS, WIVES AND LOVERS:
"Chicago" director Rob Marshall orchestrates his latest musical with "Nine," based on the Broadway adaptation of Federico Fellini's foreign-language classic "8 1/2."
It's the story of a filmmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his many, many women: His wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his mom (Sophia Loren), his film star (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer (Judi Dench), a lover from his youth (Stacy Ferguson), and a fashion journalist (Kate Hudson).
Singing in a recording studio was a new challenge for some of the cast, including Cruz.
"You feel very vulnerable, because you can't hide anything," Cruz said at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "But it was so much fun. After you are there and you start singing and everything starts to come together, if you can really be in the moment and enjoy it, it's an amazing experience."
Also in the mood for love:
"Did You Hear About the Morgans?" - A Manhattan couple (Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant) in a rocky marriage find new twists in their relationship after they see a murder and are hustled into witness protection.
"It's Complicated" - A messy love triangle develops among a bakery and restaurant owner (Meryl Streep), her ex-hubby (Alec Baldwin) and an architect (Steve Martin) in the latest from director Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give").
FOXES, FROGS AND RODENTS:
Meryl Streep also joins George Clooney and Bill Murray among the voice cast of Wes Anderson's animated comedy "Fantastic Mr. Fox," the tale of a wily fox waging war with human farmers.
Anderson gave his voice actors a taste of rustic life by taking them to a real farm to record the vocals.
"It was like going to camp," Clooney said at October's London Film Festival, where "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was the opening-night movie. "We were out in the middle of nowhere on people's farms, doing sound effects and rolling around in the fields."
Also among the menagerie:
"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" - The followup to the family hit about critter crooners Alvin, Simon and Theodore has the threesome finding their hearts and singing talents tested in a battle of the bands against a trio of female chipmunks.
"The Princess and the Frog" - Disney animation goes old-school as the studio releases its first hand-drawn cartoon in five years with this update of "The Frog Prince" fairy tale, set on the jazzy Louisiana bayou.
THE END OF THE WORLD:
The Mayan calendar predicted an end of days in 2012.
Director Roland Emmerich makes good on that prophecy with his latest doomsday story "2012," featuring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover in a tale of a world devastated by cataclysm and struggling with a terrible quandary: Who do you choose when you can save only a fraction of humanity?
"It's like a Noah's Ark story in a way," Cusack said. "It mirrors a few of the ethical dilemmas that are posed by asking the question of who gets to go and who doesn't."
Also on the apocalypse front:
"The Road" - Author Cormac McCarthy's starkly poetic vision of doom comes to the screen in this adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen as a father on a desperate road trip across the wreckage of America, seeking some hope of a future for his young son.
INSPIRATION ON THE PLAYING FIELD:
Clint Eastwood taps "Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven" co-star Morgan Freeman to play Nelson Mandela in "Invictus," a post-apartheid drama about the South African president rallying black and white behind his country's rugby team during an underdog run in the 1995 World Cup.
Matt Damon, who co-stars as the captain of South Africa's rugby squad, said Freeman was the only choice to play Mandela.
"Someone would have been keelhauled if he hadn't played that role," Damon said.
Also from the wide world of sports:
"The Blind Side" - Just in time for his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens comes this real-life drama about Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a black youth surviving on his own who gets a shot at a better life after he's adopted by a white couple (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw).
"Lord of the Rings" mastermind Peter Jackson turns to the homefront while keeping a foot in otherworldly realms with "The Lovely Bones," an adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel about a slain girl (Saoirse Ronan) watching over her family from heaven.
The cast includes Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci.
Jackson said he cried when he read the novel.
"If the things that I was imagining that made me cry could be put on screen, I thought this would be really amazing," Jackson said. "Because I think the book is an incredible book, but it's very personal. And I think what you get out of that book depends a lot on what experience you've had in your life and what experience of death that you've had, and losing loved ones."
Also in a family way:
"Up in the Air" - Happily living life without connections, a corporate hatchet man (George Clooney) travels the country aiming for a 10 million-mile frequent-flyer milestone only to discover that family bonds might be the greater value, after all.
"Old Dogs" - A divorced guy (Robin Williams) enlists his womanizing best buddy and business partner (John Travolta) to help care for the twin kids he never knew he had.
"Brothers" - Jim Sheridan directs this reversal-of-roles drama about siblings (Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal), one a Marine presumed dead in Afghanistan, the other a black sheep who becomes man of the house for his brother's wife (Natalie Portman).
"Everybody's Fine" - Robert De Niro co-stars with Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell in the story of a widower who sets off to reconnect with his grown kids in this remake of the Italian original from Giuseppe Tornatore.