Jude Law and Kate Winslet star in All the King's Men.
Pirates, superheroes, and animated cars have collectively scared up some $3.9 billion at movie box offices since early May, a big improvement over Hollywood's lackluster summer of 2005.
But the Labor Day weekend is traditionally the end of the summer movie season, and now it's time for grown-up movies to reclaim the multiplex. More than 100 fall films will open by Thanksgiving, many of them with Oscar hopes.
One that is getting a lot of buzz is Flags of Our Fathers, a World War II epic about one of the hardest-fought battles on the Pacific front. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film focuses on the six men who raised the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima. But Eastwood wanted to honor all the men who fought in that battle, so he will also approach it from the Japanese perspective in a film to be released next year.
That sort of even-handedness will probably not be a feature of another possible Oscar contender — a new version of All The King's Men, the Depression-era classic about a politician who spins out of control.
If Sean Penn were actually playing a king in All the King’s Men, you'd say he was part of a sort of royal flush, along with Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II in The Queen, Kirsten Dunst urging that her subjects eat cake in Marie Antoinette, and Forrest Whitaker throwing his weight around in The Last King of Scotland. Except that Whitaker's not playing royalty either...he's playing dictator Idi Amin in one of several fiercely political films set in Africa.
Probably the most prestigious of them is a drama that resembles Crash and Syriana in the way it weaves varied elements together. Japanese rifles, Moroccan snipers, American tourists, and misunderstandings in so many languages that the filmmakers called the film Babel.
Does Babel sounds like a modern-day cautionary tale? Well, try this one: the true story of a peace-loving man radicalized when his country opts to fight terrorism by imprisoning suspects without charges, and torturing them. The country is South Africa in the '80s; the "terrorists" are led by Nelson Mandela; the film is Catch a Fire.
Catch a Fire is a film biography, a form that always blossoms in the fall. This year's include two biographies of biographers: Infamous, another telling of the Truman Capote saga, and The Hoax, about how Clifford Irving made up details in his Howard Hughes bestseller.
There's also Running with Scissors, based on a memoir so bizarre it sounds made up, and a fictional adaptation of the non-fiction expose, Fast Food Nation.
And then there's Stranger Than Fiction, a comedy about a tax collector who finds himself caught up in a novel as it's being written. He's just going about his life, and then he starts hearing his life being narrated. All very funny, until the author decides that for plot purposes, the tax collector should probably die.
Some literary characters, on the other hand, never die. They just shape-shift: a secret-agent named Bond, for instance. In Casino Royale, there's a new 007 — Daniel Craig — and an attempt to take the James Bond series back to the relative realism of the first Ian Fleming novels.
The Guardian, meanwhile, is designed to do for Coast Guard divers what Top Gun did for Navy pilots, complete with training montages, and much urgent jumping out of military helicopters. Think Wet Gun.
Also in the action category is Martin Scorsese's The Departed, a crime thriller with a high-powered cast. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover cop who infiltrates the mob only to discover that a gangster has infiltrated the police force. Matt Damon, Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson are among the tough guys who have to figure out who's a rat, and who isn't.
The crime category also has a couple of "films noir" with a Hollywood subtext. One is Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia, about a movie starlet who's found murdered. And the other is Hollywoodland, about the ambiguities surrounding the death of actor George Reeves, the guy who played Superman on TV back in the 1950s.
Hollywood's navel-gazing won't be limited to detective thrillers. There's also a pair of Tinseltown comedies. One is For Your Consideration, a riff on the Oscar race from Christopher Guest, who made This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind.
And from Barry Levinson, who had great fun linking showbiz and politics in Wag the Dog, comes a new satire linking showbiz and politics. Man of the Year is about the host of a cable-comedy fake-news show. He's played by Robin Williams, and when he makes a joke out of running for president, he cracks everybody up on the campaign trail. But then, on voting day, the joke's on him. He wins, and must actually govern.
Hollywood will also have some jokes for the little ones this fall. There are animated rats in Flushed Away, animated bears in Open Season, and animated dancing penguins in Happy Feet.
All of this before Thanksgiving, before the Oscar crush, before Rocky Balboa comes back for what he promises — and let's hold him to it — will be his last title bout.