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Published: Sunday, 9/4/2005

Fall movies: Here's a look at what may be the season's top 25

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Blame the French.

Blame them for the September issue of Vogue all 802 pages of it. Blame them for the new TV season. If you re a parent, blame the French for having to buy new clothes for your children every September. Blame the French for what the music business now calls the fall concert season. Blame them for the entire fall arts calendar. Blame them for the way publishers release every book you want to read in September and October, ensuring you re too confused to buy any.

And blame the French, finally, for the deluge of movies we call The Fall Movie Season now officially 9,000 times larger (in sheer volume) than the Summer Movie Season. (Although, to be fair, the Fall Movie Season also encompasses the Holiday Movie Season, for convenience sake.)

In the late 1670s, they invented the fashion industry as we know it today, and fashion was the first art to change according to the season. It s a tiny stretch from French fashion to how the arts now come at us in seasonal chunks, said Joan De Jean, author of the recent history The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. And it makes sense that it would start with fashion because it is the art most affected by the weather, and once that idea is in place, it becomes a big marketing tool.

That s how you know the seasons change: there s a publicist.

In other words, we have bought so much into the idea that the Fall Movie Season, for example, is about serious movies that it is about serious movies every single year. And so it is this year. Below are the 25 most promising films opening between now and New Year s Day. Many we ve seen, others we haven t. There are films that are not so gravely serious: most notably, the adaptation of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (Sept. 30), in which you can see Julianne Moore say the line: Oh, a check from the Toledo Blade!

There s also animation: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Oct. 7) and Chicken Little (Nov. 4); comedy: Jennifer Aniston in Rumor Has It (Dec. 25); and action: Keira Knightley in Domino, Oct. 14. Below are the ones that promise, winter or fall, to stay in fashion the longest. Dates are tentative.

25. Rent (Nov. 11). Strengths: A Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical you had to be one of the Spin Doctors to land a ticket to when it opened on Broadway in 1996. A story of the New York City AIDS crisis of the 1980s filtered through a loose adaptation of Puccini, it s subject has stayed sadly provocative. Rather than cast say Ashlee Simpson and Usher, most of the original cast returns. Late 80s nostalgia is peaking. Weaknesses: Has Rent s time expired? The music hasn t aged well, and the director, Christopher Mrs. Doubtfire Columbus, will make this a hit if it s good at all, and a monster misguided bomb if it s treacly.

24. Tim Burton s Corpse Bride (Sept. 23). Strengths: Another month, another film from Burton and Johnny Depp, and that s a good thing. The multiplex could use eccentricity. This is Burton s third stop-motion feature after Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach and even when they re narratively shaky, and the songs don t sing, there s nothing like them. Depp voices a tortured Victor who accidentally marries an undead bride (Helena Bonham Carter). Cute animal friend? A worm who lives in her eye socket. Weaknesses: By definition, a cult film finds its audience much later, and this is not super kid-friendly. Also, notice how the commercials show animators working with their hands on actual puppets. That s because moviegoers may see it as just another digital cartoon, and those are starting to smell.

23. Shop Girl (Oct. 21). Strengths: Short, sweet, and melancholy. Just like the Steve Martin novella, about a sugar daddy (played by Martin) who becomes infatuated with a sales woman (Claire Danes) in the glove department at Saks. Nice casting: Jason Rushmore Schwartzman plays his young rival. General rule of thumb with Martin: His best movies are the ones he writes. (He wrote this.) Disney is so happy with the film, they hired the director, Anand Tucker, to make what they re expecting will be the next Harry Potter-ish franchise: His Dark Materials. Weaknesses: Could be as slight as that book feels. Plus, it s been constantly worked over.

22. Walk the Line (Nov. 18). Strengths: Save two seats at Oscar time for Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter Cash, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the legend Johnny Cash. They re locks. The music, as expected, is wonderful, and the concert scenes are electric. Better than Ray. Weaknesses: James Mangold has yet to prove he has a distinct voice. But the one gigantic weakness: You mean to tell me the story of Johnny Cash is the same story as Ray Charles, which was the same story as

21. The Family Stone (Nov. 4). Strengths: Sarah Jessica Parker in her first major post-Sex and the City role and possibly one of the more endearing comedies of the season. See if this sounds right: She plays the high-strung girlfriend of Luke Wilson, who brings this brittle businesswoman to New England to meet his just as tightly-wound family, among them Diane Keaton and Claire Danes. Think Meet the Parents without the slapstick. The buzz people, the ones who have no stake in the picture, say it ll be big. Who am I to argue? I m a sucker for holiday stories. Weaknesses: The filmmaker is Thomas Bezucha, a first-time studio hand with an indie voice. Also, sounds a bit predictable (if that s, in fact, a bad thing now).

20. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Nov. 18). Strengths: Well, duh. Not to begrudge straight-up wonder, but the darker the waters around Harry s ankles, the more this series pulse quickens. Ralph Fiennes plays He Who s Name Must Not Be Spoken Or Whatever. Weaknesses: Much of the darkness in Prisoner of Azkaban was credited to Y Tu Mama s Alfonso Cuaron. He s passed on this one, so Mike Newell is in. He may be English. He may have made Donnie Brasco. But his last film? Mona Lisa Smile. Also, six days before Thanksgiving, can you stomach Death Eaters ? (Of course you can double duh.)

19. The New World (Nov. 9). Strengths: Terrence Malick has made a career out of supply and demand: The fewer pictures the media-shy auteur delivers, the more valuable each one becomes. After Badland, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line, this is his fourth in 30 years. But it s a doozy: The story of John Smith (Colin Farrell), the 17th century adventurer who established the colony at Jamestown, Va. The cast boasts Christopher Plummer (as the first governor), Christian Bale, and newcomer Q Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. Typical Malick: The film shot in Virginia because of the quality of the light. Weaknesses: It s an event to dyed-in-the-celluloid film buffs. Malick makes pictures to last, not thrill.

18. Good Night, And Good Luck (October). Strengths: Nails the zeitgeist to tell one of the great untouched movie stories of the last half-century: the public 1954 showdown between Red-baiter Joe McCarthy and TV journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn), who took him to the woodshed. An equally ambitious directorial follow-up to George Clooney s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Good sign: it s the opening night selection at the New York film festival. Weaknesses: Not likely to be breaking news in red states. Did I mention it s filmed in black and white?

17. Pride & Prejudice (November). Strengths: Focus Features moved it back from September: Oscar, oh Oscar... Keira Knightley fills the famous clogs of Jane Austen s headstrong Elizabeth Bennet for this umpteenth adaptation of the 1813 potboiler. Knightley seems incapable of Masterpiece Theater mildew. Promises to be scrappier and more contemporary than any BBC series. Weaknesses: Jane s Bennett sisters have been around the block. Is this one too many times? Or does it just feel that way? Not to mention, this I put to you, sirs: How many high-toned accents will audiences stand before someone revolts?

16. Memoirs of a Geisha (Dec. 9). Strengths: If you lament that Hollywood stars of today don t have the glamour they once did, just look east. An adaptation of Arthur Golden s 1997 best-seller (and once ubiquitous airport read), it stars a who s-who of Asian crossover stars to tell the story of a geisha on the eve of World War II: Ziyi Zhang (House of Flying Daggers), Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai). And though Steve Spielberg developed it for years, the director sounds right: Rob Marshall, whose previous foray into theatrical glamour, Chicago, won a few Oscars. Weaknesses: To audiences (even book clubs), a foreign film is a foreign film is a foreign film, even when it s made by Americans. A tougher sell than anyone will want to admit.

15. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Dec. 9). Strengths: Disney, against the odds, found another multi-part fantasy by a British author perfect for shooting in New Zealand. But will Shrek director Andrew Adamson do for C.S. Lewis what Peter Jackson did for J.R.R. Tolkien? If it works, this tale of children who find a portal to a brighter world than Middle Earth has seven parts. Weaknesses: Will the inevitable murmurs about its religious subtext overshadow the film? Or will it be the most interesting thing about a picture that looks a little too anxious to bring to mind The Lord of the Rings?

14. Oliver Twist (Sept. 30). Strengths: Roman Polanski s follow-up to his 2003 Oscar-winning epic, The Pianist working again with that film s smart screenwriter, Ronald Harwood. But what sounds like another case of transparent award bait is a rather inspired match: Adaptations of Charles Dickens 19th century fable about a hard-luck orphan have a habit of dew-eyed sentiment. Polanski, who can be offhandedly, um, Dickensian at times, does not. Weaknesses: If it looks like a winner, why is it being released in September? Pleeeze sur, more information...

13. The Producers (Dec. 21). Strengths: Remember when you considered for two seconds flying to New York and spending $500 for a ticket to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the hottest Broadway show and biggest Tony winner in history? Good thing you saved that grand. They return for the screen adaptation of Mel Brooks musical, towing two promising names along: Uma Thurman, as the Swedish strumpet, and Will Ferrell, as the Nazi playwright. What could go wrong? Weaknesses: A movie based on a musical that was first a movie a movie many of us know and love intimately. The director is first-timer Susan Stroman, who did stage production, but what about those rumors Mel stepped in? And recreating the giddy live rush of the real thing couldn t have been springtime for Hitler.

12. Syriana (November). Strengths: Just shy of the 18-to-34 demo? Your prayers are answered: a film for adults, by adults, about adult subjects, from the writer, Stephen Gaghan, of one of the last great topical Hollywood barnburners, Traffic. Again, there are multiple story lines, this time about (oh, dear) terrorism and oil and the CIA. Working off the memoirs of former agent Robert Bear, George Clooney put on 35 pounds, and we can see the op-ed pieces already. Weaknesses: Gaghan also directs and his previous film was the Katie Holmes dud Abandon. If Constant Gardener doesn t excite audiences, hopes for critical thinking at the multiplex dim a bit. Plus, which do you vote for: thin Clooney or porker Clooney?

11. All the King s Men (Dec. 16). Strengths: A cast you could run for office on (Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, and on and on). A novel (Robert Penn Warren s 1946 Pulitzer Prize winner) that couldn t be more resonant: Penn plays Willie Stark, a populist politician who says what people want to hear and who becomes the governor of Louisiana through any means necessary. Weaknesses: Can a film breathe with that much taste and prestige going for it? With the novel (and an Oscar-winning 1949 movie) so beloved, the campaigning may be rough.

10. Match Point (Dec. 25). Strengths: No, no, no. This is Woody Allen s return to form, not all those other ones we said. Proof? He left New York to do it. It s a love story with tennis and England, but don t let that scare you: Scarlett Johansson, the star of this one, was so happy with the results she signed on to do Woody s next as well. (And Woody works best with a muse.) They loved it at Cannes. Another good sign: He s not in it. Weaknesses: Convincing audiences Woody is still capable of a Hannah and Her Sisters-size masterpiece after so many gurgles. As possibly the last feature DreamWorks is expected to release before it s sold, will the marketing folks give it the TLC it demands?

9. The Matador (Nov. 18). Strengths: A loosey-goosey surprise. Clearly sick of the role he just walked out on (Bond, James Bond), Pierce Brosnan is a soulful hoot as a sweaty lounge lizard version of a professional assassin. The story (he drags Greg Kinnear into his sights) is a formula but the way Brosnan goes about giving us an alternative vantage on his persona is memorable. They loved it at Sundance. And being one of the first releases from the new company founded by Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, it ll get some deserved spill-over attention. Weaknesses: Being one of the first releases from the Weinstein Company, it could be botched. Plus, are audiences ready for a James Bond without the suavity?

8. Elizabethtown (Oct. 14). Strengths: Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) returns to his personal, very charming Billy Wilder impressions that send people out of theaters with great big grins. Orlando Bloom pulls a Bill Murray and goes on a journey of self-discovery, on the urging of Kirsten Dunst, after his dad dies. The fine Kentucky band My Morning Jacket provide a melancholy vibe. And in a show of taste: as rumor has it, Crowe ditched Ashton Kutcher after the incredible realization the boy can t act. Weaknesses: Is Bloom without a bow and arrow an actor without a crutch? He hasn t carried a (good) picture yet. And Crowe still has the occasionally lapse into preciousness.

7. Get Rich or Die Tryin (Nov. 11). Strengths: The most intriguing couple of the year. The feature debut of 50 Cent, telling his shot-nine-times Bronx tale, in a drama directed by Jim Sheridan, who hasn t ventured far from his native Ireland: He made My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father and 2003 s In America. Hey, it worked for 8 Mile, directed by Curtis L.A. Confidential Hanson. Weaknesses: A happy surprise does not necessarily equal a repeatable formula. Not to mention, so far Eminem has charisma and 50 Cent has songs.

6. A History of Violence (Sept. 30). Strengths: The most accessible movie from director David Cronenberg since his remake of The Fly. And one of the most satisfying. Viggo Mortensen stars as a small-town diner owner who, after he shoots a pair of murderers, is visited by three mobsters from Philadelphia who insist he is someone else. Take the title literally: It s a more poignant approach to America s legacy of violence than Crash. And as in any decent Cronenberg flick, weird sex is involved. Weaknesses: The title, an adaptation of a graphic novel, could be a turn-off to the audience who will appreciate it most and a titillation to those moviegoers who are expecting a lighter, looser look at bloodshed.

5. The Squid and the Whale (October). Strengths: If you only have patience for one autobiographical, literate independent film about a family and a divorce, make it the engrossing directorial debut of screenwriter Noah Baumbach. Starring Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels (who does Oscar-worthy work), this went over big at Sundance which, I know, is not necessarily a good thing. Forget that. Baumbach, the son of former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown, gets the details that ring the loudest. Weaknesses: It s modest, and literal-minded audiences will have a problem with the same open-endedness that they had problems with in Broken Flowers.

4. Jarhead (Nov. 4). Strengths: An Oscar winner (American Beauty s Sam Mendes) directing a handful of our finest young actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx) in a story that couldn t be timelier, Anthony Swofford s best-selling 2003 dark, funny, and observant account of his time in the Marine Corps, from boot camp to fighting in the first Gulf War. Like the book, don t expect an easy evisceration of the military and its leaders but instead, introspection. Hiring an ex-Marine (Apollo 13 s William Broyles, Jr.) should silence those preemptive critics already lining up. For five minutes. Weaknesses: Mendes showed with his follow-up to American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, that a director who guns for awards is on thin ice.

3. In Her Shoes (Oct. 7). Strengths: A consummate word-of-mouth picture (meaning, the kind audiences adore). A very funny, perceptive drama about two warring sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz, who looks like a candy store), directed by the versatile pro Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). His follow-up to 8 Mile, if you can believe it. Expect a couple of Oscar nominations. Weaknesses: The kind of picture women have to drag men into (which is too bad; the security guards at my screening loved it). Also, it tweaks preconceptions of how smart a picture about two women can be. Turnover at your multiplex is so fast, does word of mouth still count?

2. Munich (Dec. 23). Strengths: Thank goodness for Steven Spielberg. He can do whatever he wants. He could build a bridge to the moon, just for fun. And yet he chooses the bravest path: to continue being one of the most ambitious, intriguing studio directors around. Only months after War of the Worlds, he returns with the story of the Israeli secret agents who set out to assassinate the Palestinians behind the 1972 Olympic massacre. The screenwriter is Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer for Angels in America. Plus, busyness becomes him: whenever Spielberg makes two pictures in the same 12-month period (1993: Jurassic Park, Schindler s List; 2002: Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can), his batting average is high. Weaknesses: A minefield of contentiousness. Not to mention, is he working too fast? Becoming a prisoner of his own ambitions? He started shooting Munich only a few weeks ago.

1. King Kong (Dec. 15). Strengths: Risky? Improbable? Certain to not only fail but anger the great gods of Skull Island? Truly, after his Lord of the Rings triumphs, only Peter Jackson has the chutzpah to get away with a remake of the most famous monster movie of all time. I ll give him the benefit of the doubt: the cast is ideal (Naomi Watts in for Fay Wray; Jack Black as the obsessed showman; Adrian Brody as a 1930s adventurer), the trailer is promising, and Jackson has a knack for giving heft to cheese. Weaknesses: Couldn t Jackson remake something less beloved and iconic, a picture no one ever heard of say, The Godfather? Are we about to witness a legendary example of success going to one s head and revealing itself as a big act of chest thumping?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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