Holiday-season film highlights: Bond, Nixon and a vampire

By David Germain

The ‘Madagascar’ gang gets things started.

LOS ANGELES — Nixon’s back. So are Kate and Leo, Nicole and Baz, a herd of stranded zoo animals and a very vengeful James Bond.

Despite the harsh economy, Hollywood has been on a box-office roll the last month, and studios head into the year’s homestretch with a solid lineup of returns, reunions and promising newcomers that could uphold the old saw about movies as a recession-proof business.

Lighthearted fare such as “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” provided a brisk prelude to the holiday season, of which the first big offering is the animated sequel “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.”

The movie reunites a voice cast led by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer as the foursome of zoo buddies, now stuck on a wildlife preserve in Africa after their ramshackle plane crashes.

Stiller enjoyed making the sequel more, partly because he wasn’t so lonely in the recording booth doing the vocals. Actors generally work alone on animated flicks, but one pivotal scene between Stiller’s Alex the lion and Rock’s Marty the zebra was recorded with both actors in the room.

“I really wanted to have that experience to see what came out of it. It was a lot of fun improvising back and forth, doing a scene with somebody else like a regular movie,” Stiller said. “Just getting Chris in the room and riffing with it was inspiring.”

Among other big films: Daniel Craig returns as Bond in “Quantum of Solace”; “Titanic” stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are together again in the domestic drama “Revolutionary Road”; Nicole Kidman reteams with “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann for the World War II-era epic “Australia”; Kidman’s ex, Tom Cruise, stars in his own World War II tale “Valkyrie”; Frank Langella reprises his stage role as Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”; “Babel” co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett reunite for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Keanu Reeves stars in an update of the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”; and a best-seller comes to the screen with “Twilight,” about a teen’s romance with a studly vampire.

Adapted from the first book in Stephenie Meyer’s series, “Twilight” stars Kristen Stewart as the new girl at school who falls for the eternally young bloodsucker (Robert Pattinson) from a family of vamps trying to do the right thing by refusing to feed off humans.

Teen girls have been the core audience for the books. But director Catherine Hardwicke figures it’s a story everyone can relate to, even her mom’s 70-something friends.

“You can relate to falling in love with the wrong person, not your socio-economic class, not your gender, not your race, or the bad boy in school — someone your family and his family and society doesn’t think you should be with,” Hardwicke said. “In this case, it’s extreme, because he’s not the same species.”

“Quantum of Solace” picks up where 2006’s “Casino Royale” left off, with 007 out to avenge the death of his great love. Bond bounds around the world, going rogue as his quest tosses him up against a phony environmentalist cornering a South American water supply and lands him in the company of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) with her own mission of vengeance.

Unlike the always slick Bond of old, Craig again presents an operative with rough edges, who reveals his emotional scars in the downtime between the action.

“You’ve got this mix, this man that works incredibly intensely for short periods of time on incredibly terrifying missions, then has to go back to normal life, and doesn’t cope with it very well,” Craig said. “I love that idea that he’s at his best when he’s in trouble.”

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