Fall Movies: Corsets, Crises, Comedies And Cranks

Keira Knightley i i

Devonshire cream: Keira Knightley, corseted again as The Duchess. Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage hide caption

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Keira Knightley

Devonshire cream: Keira Knightley, corseted again as The Duchess.

Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage
Robert De Niro looks baffled i i

Say What? Robert De Niro muddles through in What Just Happened. Linson Films hide caption

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Robert De Niro looks baffled

Say 'What'? Catherine Keener (left) and Robert De Niro, muddling through in What Just Happened.

Linson Films
Annette Bening carries dog, talks on cell i i

Oh, oh, Annette: Bening's getting by, but without Luce's light, bright patter, in The Women. Claudette Barius/Picturehouse hide caption

itoggle caption Claudette Barius/Picturehouse
Annette Bening carries dog, talks on cell

Oh, oh, Annette: Bening's getting by, but without Luce's light, bright patter, in The Women.

Claudette Barius/Picturehouse
Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi hunker down i i

Soldier, boy: Omar Benson Miller (left) and Matteo Sciabordi hunker down in Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna. David Lee/Walt Disney Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/Walt Disney Pictures
Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi hunker down

Soldier, boy: Omar Benson Miller (left) and Matteo Sciabordi hunker down in Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna.

David Lee/Walt Disney Pictures
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman embracing i i

Jackaroo (and Kidman, too): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, braving the odds in Australia. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

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Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman embracing

Jackaroo (and Kidman, too): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, braving the odds in Australia.

Twentieth Century Fox
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Burn notice: Brad Pitt in the much buzzed-about Coen brothers comedy Burn After Reading. Macall Pollay/Focus Features hide caption

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Brad Pitt holds up a CD jewel box

Burn notice: Brad Pitt in the much buzzed-about Coen brothers comedy Burn After Reading.

Macall Pollay/Focus Features

Every time Hollywood suffered the box-office blahs this summer, a movie hero rushed to the rescue: Batman, Iron Man, Indiana Jones, Hancock, Wall-E, Kung-Fu Panda — together, they added more than $1.8 billion to the summer's $3.9 billion take.

Now, the industry's looking to find box-office gold in the more serious films of fall. What's on tap? Epics, Westerns, war movies and one picture with that Masterpiece Theater sensibility: an 18th-century melodrama, The Duchess, in which Keira Knightley plays a British aristocrat who dabbles in love, intrigue and, appropriately for the season, the politics of "change." Guess one thing change doesn't affect is campaign rhetoric.

Other films with a political bent this fall include Milk, the real-life tragedy of assassinated gay leader Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, and The Lucky Ones, a Tim Robbins road movie in which three wounded soldiers come home from Iraq to discover that life has moved on without them.

And director Oliver Stone, who's explored the legacies of presidents past in his films JFK and Nixon, offers a caustic comic portrait of our sitting president in W.

While Stone is skewering a political dynasty, director Barry Levinson will skewer Hollywood in What Just Happened?, about a talent agent (Robert DeNiro) fending off daily catastrophe in both his home and his professional life. Bruce Willis co-stars as an overweight, heavily bearded ... Bruce Willis. Credit him with being a good sport.

Another fall comedy: an updated remake of that '30s backbiting sensation The Women — without Clare Booth Luce's dialogue, which seems a shame, but with a cast that includes Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen.

Also going for laughs are the Coen brothers, who appear to be in a Fargo frame of mind with their CIA-versus-gym-rats comedy Burn After Reading, and British director Mike Leigh, whose Happy-Go-Lucky centers on a woman (newcomer Sally Hawkins) so relentlessly cheerful, she's almost alarming.

That last has been getting rapturous reviews in Europe, but the word's more mixed on Charlie Kaufman's impossible-to-pronounce Synecdoche, New York. At least the concept's pretty cool — it's about a theater director who tries to recreate Manhattan, life size, in a warehouse.

Word is that director Jonathan Demme is in peak form again with his domestic drama Rachel Getting Married, about a family's black sheep returning to the fold.

And Spike Lee will have an intriguing change of pace with Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II drama in which black soldiers get separated from their unit after one of them risks his life to save a child.

Children also figure in two Holocaust dramas: A Secret, in which an isolated, lonely boy discovers a dark story in his family's past, and The Boy In the Striped Pajamas, about a concentration-camp commandant's young son and the friendship he strikes up with a Jewish prisoner.

World War II's Pacific front is represented in Baz Luhrmann's sweeping epic Australia, featuring Down Under stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And another Australian actor, Russell Crowe, will play a duplicitous American in a more current war — battling al-Qaida, and also Leo DiCaprio, in Body of Lies.

Fall also brings a series of cinematic apocalypses: A plague darkens humanity's outlook in Blindness, a film that leaves Julianne Moore as one of the few people who can still see. And if that isn't sufficiently apocalyptic, there's Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in which a father trudges with his young son across an America that can no longer sustain life.

If you prefer your apocalypse, um ... now, well, what better evidence could there be of The End of Life As We Know It than High School Musical 3: Senior Year?

More down-to-earth teenagers will inhabit the romantic comedy Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; they're played by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, fresh-faced stars in a season with lots of star turns: Jamie Foxx as a homeless musical prodigy in The Soloist, Greg Kinnear as an abused inventor in Flash of Genius and Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris as taciturn lawmen in the laconic Western Appaloosa.

Add Angelina Jolie as the distressed mother of a kidnapped child in Changeling. She's thrilled when police say they've found her son — until she sees the boy. She's sure it's not her son, but no one believes her. (The story is based on a real 1920s incident in Los Angeles; Clint Eastwood directs.)

With so many children in peril at the multiplex this fall, it's probably a good thing that there are also films for children. Talking pooches in Beverly Hills Chihuahua, animated lions, zebras, and hippos in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and an animated superhero-puppy named Bolt, who escapes his handlers, not realizing he's just a canine actor — and has no superpowers in real life. Happily, he soon has sidekicks — a kitten and a hamster.

Kid pictures generally make big bucks in the fall, but they're unlikely to top the season's one guaranteed blockbuster, which is headed by a hero who's also gone missing. His story picks up just moments after we last saw him — in Casino Royale, grieving the death of his beloved and hungry for revenge.

Yep: We're talking 007, in a film called Quantum of Solace. That's a mouthful of a title — it's taken from an unrelated Ian Fleming story — but the producers promise more gadgets, more gorgeous women, more Daniel Craig and more of the original theme music that the last Bond film was so short on.

Can you wait?

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