Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fall Movie Preview: My Top 10 Most Anticipated Films

Labor Day tends to be a somewhat melancholy holiday—at least for those for whom summer still carries a leisurely connotation of exotic vacations, barbequing on the patio, and lazy days by the beach.

Yeah, me neither.

For a lawyer in southern California in particular, the end of summer doesn’t mean a whole lot. Weatherwise, the temperatures just start to slope gently downwards (and not really noticeably until November), while the work...continues. I guess the partners do come back from their vacations, but it’s not like the cases went away while they were gone. Oh yeah, and the summer associates are gone, which means no more free lunches.

But even back in my salad days as a student, I always looked forward to the fall. There was a crispness in the air that I miss now, and a sense of expectation. Fall was when the new year really began. And best of all, fall meant the return of good movies. Sure, the Oscar contenders would inevitably cluster in a rather absurdly high concentration around the Christmas holidays, but you could always expect a decent number of quality films to roll into theaters before then.

That last part still holds true, thank goodness. And so, in celebration of the new season, I will pinpoint the ten films I’m most looking forward to this fall. I have no doubt I will be underwhelmed by some (though I hope not all) of them, and that I will see others not on this list that will impress me deeply. I also freely admit that these ten tilt heavily towards major studio releases featuring major players. I have faith the media and my better informed film-buff friends to steer me towards the smaller gems. In the meantime, these ten films reflect only my sheer visceral interest, based on the subject matter, the people involved, and what I’ve read about them in the entertainment mags.

Directed by Brian DePalma. Adaptation of novel by James Ellroy. Starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart. De Palma has been off his game for a while, but this film—based on the true story of a young starlet who was murdered and sickeningly mutilated in the 1940’s, and whose murderer was apparently never found—looks like a return to form. At the very least, it is sure to be a swell exercise in style.

Directed by Steve Zaillian. Adaptation of novel by Robert Penn Warren. Starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo. Ok, so the trailers are shameless Oscar bait, but with that cast, whaddya expect? Of course, that approach didn’t work so well for “Cinderella Man,” and it’s not usually a good sign when a movie’s put on the shelf for as long as this one was. Still, pedigree does count for something. Besides, I’ll see just about anything with Mark Ruffalo in it.

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Remake of film “Infernal Affairs.” Starring Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmigia, Mark Wahlberg. Easily the movie I’m most eagerly awaiting this fall, even if (or perhaps because) it’s a remake of a perfectly good Hong Kong film that was barely released in the U.S. The premise is fucking brilliant, both as a narrative hook and as a thematic departure point: a young cop (Leo) is sent undercover to infiltrate a notorious gang at around the same time a member of the gang (Damon) is sent undercover by his boss (Nicholson) to infiltrate the police force; before long, both sides figure out there’s a mole in their midst, and each mole is tasked with tracing and exposing the other. Why I’m not up in arms about the remake factor is that while “Infernal Affairs” was a very good film, it could have been better...and you can’t ask for much better than Scorsese to take a second crack at it. As I said, pedigree does count for something.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins”). Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine. This seems to be the season for movies about magicians, and “The Illusionist” was just good enough to whet my appetite for something hopefully even better. From the looks of it, “The Prestige”—a tale of two dueling magicians, one (Jackman) the better showman, the other (Bale) the better magician—has a more overtly mystical, even spooky edge to it than “The Illusionist." This could go either way in terms of effectiveness, though I have confidence in Nolan’s ability to pull the rug out from under his audience. But the two most compelling reasons to see “The Prestige” speak for themselves: Jackman and Bale. Double yum.

[LUCKY YOU: Apparently this film, which was originally supposed to be released in October, has been pushed to next March. But I flag it anyway because it’s directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys”) and because Eric Bana looks pretty scrumptious in the trailers. Oh yeah, he’s supposed to be a poker player with relationship issues and daddy issues, with Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall, respectively. Drew is, I think, supposed to be a lounge singer. Yikes. Maybe that’s why they keep shelving this one.]

BORAT (Nov. 3)
I actually find Bruno funnier than Borat, but I have little doubt Borat’s “Cultural Learnings For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” will be most...enlightening. Poor ol’ Kazakhstan will never be the same again.

Directed by Martin Campbell (“Goldeneye,” “The Mask of Zorro”). Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench. I’m no James Bond fan, nor do I have particularly high expectations for his latest outing, but I’m curious to see how the first blond Bond ever fares. Craig is no slouch as an actor, and I have a weird fascination with Eva Green (a “hot or not?” type of fascination, combined with a “can she act or not?” fascination). Besides, Campbell was the director who managed to breathe a spark of new life into the franchise with “Goldeneye.” Here’s hoping he does it again this time.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”). Starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn. A sumptuous-looking fantasy about a love that defies time—or does it? A love, anyway, that’s reincarnated several times throughout the ages. Jackman and Weisz should make a great onscreen couple—they both know how to plumb real emotional depths and look hot at the same time.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire. Clooney seems bent on bringing black-and-white historically-based pictures back into fashion again, and I say more power to him. He’s as likely to succeed as anyone else, especially with Soderbergh at the helm and the A-list cast noted above. He plays a journalist covering the Potsdam conference who runs into an ex-lover (Blanchett) and gets caught up in some kind of post-WWII political conspiracy. Not sure what part Tobey plays in all this, but he’s reportedly fantastic in it.

Directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”). Starring Beyoncé Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose. I thought this movie was about the Supremes, but it’s not—at least not explicitly, though it is based on a musical that was “inspired” by the story of the Supremes’ rise and fall. Lord knows Beyoncé doesn’t need another star vehicle, but who doesn’t, at some level, like to watch a movie about battling divas? They give the phrase “larger than life” real meaning. “Dreamgirls” has good buzz, and will add a welcome shot of razzle-dazzle to the Christmas season.

Directed by Robert De Niro. Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, De Niro. Damon’s a CIA agent who begins his career in the early years, at the height of Cold War paranoia, and the effect of his career on his home life. Jolie plays his wife, which I find a little hard to buy, but Damon’s one of the more intelligent actors working today, and this film rides on his performance.

Waiting for the reviews:

Hollywoodland: Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins. Another unsolved Hollywood murder mystery partly based on a true story – the suicide of George Reeves, the first actor to play Superman.

The Last Kiss: Zach Braff, Jacinda Barrett, Rachel Bilson—a remake of an Italian movie, but for overall mood/sensibility, this looks like “Garden State 2,” only this time the angst’s about lifelong commitment, i.e., marriage.

The Last King of Scotland: Forest Whitaker plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin with what looks like remarkable conviction, at least judging from the previews. Some poor Scottish dude gets mixed up with him and struggles to escape.

Flags of Our Fathers: Based on the bestselling book about the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Ryan Philippe, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, some other youngish fellas.

Marie Antoinette: Sofia Coppola’s dreamy take on the life of the French queen as a young girl, played by Kirsten Dunst; booed at Cannes, looks like another wispy “Virgin Suicides”-ish mood piece, and doesn’t shy away from some creative anachronism.

Catch a Fire: Anti-apartheid drama that centers on the formation of a revolutionary (Derek Luke), but what especially interests me is what looks like a genuinely shaded and complex relationship with a white cop played by Tim Robbins. Directed by Philip Noyce, one of the most wildly uneven directors ever—his work ranges from the seriously silly (“The Saint”) to the seriously sublime (“The Quiet American”).

Volver: Pedro Almodovar’s latest had Cannes swooning at his feet, and picked up a collective award for best Actress among his entire principal female cast (including Penelope Cruz). Don’t know too much else about the movie except that Almodovar apparently had Cruz wear a false butt to weigh her down some—a fact which I shouldn’t remember but which makes it a little hard for me to take this movie as seriously as I should.

A Good Year: Looks like “Under the Tuscan Sun” for men, with Russell Crowe as the go-getter who learns to enjoy life by cultivating a vineyard in Provence. A lovely fantasy for those of us still in the rat race but who aren’t left estates in the south of France. I’ll buy it. But it’s directed by Ridley Scott, of all people: not someone whose films are exactly bathed in a golden glow.

Stranger than Fiction: It’s like “Being John Malkovich,” with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Dustin Hoffman. Sounds great, except I didn’t really like “Being John Malkovich.” Directed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”).

Blood Diamond: South Africa’s getting quite the once-over this fall, between this movie and “Catch a Fire.” This one’s about the diamond cartels, and features some major talent: Leonardo di Caprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly star. Plus Edward Zwick directs. I’m of two minds about that: Zwick directed “Glory” and the underrated “Courage Under Fire.” But he also gave us the bloated “Legends of the Fall” and the execrable “The Last Samurai.”

The Painted Veil: This Christmas season’s high-toned, likely-to-be-overlooked literary adaptation, this one of W. Somerset Maughm’s novel about a British doctor (Ed Norton) who carts his philandering wife (Naomi Watts) off to China, where a cholera epidemic is raging.

Miss Potter: Renée Zellweger plays Beatrix Potter, Ewan McGregor plays her publisher, and Emily Watson plays...somebody. What’s not to like? Besides, Beatrix Potter gives me the warm fuzzies. Perfect movie for Christmas.

Movies I should be interested in but just am not: Babel (sure to be a downer); Little Children (ditto). Yes, I'm shallow. No, I do not like watching people wallow in pain, whether of the physical or psychological variety. Deal with it.

And that's it for now. Bring on the movies!