After multiple repeats of summer, the time has come for audiences to sleep, perchance to dream a little dream of more serious film fare. Fall ushers in the Prestige Season with the studios' veritable field of dreams, in which they create dramas in the hopes that we will come in lovingly devoted droves to the multiplexes and the art houses.
But this year's dreams from the factory have more than a hint of darkness about them. This Fall, both the major studios and the dependents (mini-majors and ancillary arms of the majors) in Hollywood are offering up visions that, while not quite as gruesomely nightmarish as say the very Grimm-like Pan's Labyrinth, reflect the more jaded perspective of a nation caught up in a complex, complicated and seemingly unending war; a nation that cannot seem to even find joy in the games of our youth, but only more scandal and disappointment.
I've never been much of a box office shaman or an Oscar prognosticator, but having been moved by the modest success of a heady thriller full of old-fashioned love and guilt like The Bourne Ultimatum and the raunchy teen sexcapades of Superbad, which is full of its own contemporary anxieties about dirty deeds, I'm ready and willing to wade into the darkness about to fall upon us.
I do so with eyes wide open and pick a few highlights, especially after the relatively slow start in early September. Between now -- the traditional start of fall -- and Christmas, it is very likely that some of these films will emerge as box office winners, awards-season favorites or a combination of the two. There will be others, certainly, but among these dark few, maybe you'll find dreams that will haunt you beyond the fall.
Box Office Potential: A corporate fixer (George Clooney) for a big-time law firm gets called in on a case with dire repercussions. Sounds like it could be a high-minded John Grisham plot (think The Firm meets The Rainmaker). When done right those always draw butts into the seats.
Prestige Indicator: When you bandy about names like Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack and, of course, Clooney, the golden glow shines brighter. And that extra wattage might even brighten the prospects for writer-director Tony Gilroy (screenwriter of the Bourne films) looking to prove he's more than just a smart screenwriter.
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE
Box Office Potential: A period piece with Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh romancing Queen Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) could attract the ladies, although there's less obvious interest for the lads.
Prestige Indicator: Blanchett burst onto the scene and announced herself as an Oscar maid-in-waiting as Queen Elizabeth in the first installment, which startled those unfamiliar with her and director Shekher Kapur. Calling forth the lightning twice might be easier because we should be expecting it this time around with Oscar favorites like Owen, Geoffrey Rush and Samantha Morton.
GONE BABY GONE
Box Office Potential: The Affleck brothers team up (Ben behind the camera, Casey in front) for this adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime thriller about a private investigator on the trail of a missing girl. Think Freedomland (but hopefully better, much better for everyone's sake).
Prestige Indicator: Lehane benefitted from the Clint Eastwood touch, which spun gold from his Mystic River, but his writing went a long way to setting that up and could do the same here.
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
Box Office Potential: When a widow (Halle Berry) invites her husband's best friend (Benecio Del Toro) to live with her and her children, they all come to terms with loss and begin to move forward. Heavy emotional drama rarely makes box office rain.
Prestige Indicator: Oscar winners Berry and Del Toro will generate heat and the presence of producer Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Swedish director Susanne Bier (After the Wedding) could guarantee that this Fire will burn brightly.
Box Office Potential: Add one part Denzel Washington and one part Russell Crowe and have Ridley Scott stir it up with more than a dash of violence for added spice. Sounds like a lethal cocktail more in line with the past glories of, say, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma rather than, say, New Jack City.
Prestige Indicator: Washington, Crowe, and Scott. That's a lot of awards-season firepower to not create a spark or two in a true-life inspired tale of a Scarface-type anti-hero.
Box Office Potential: A dark mythic tale that unfolds with the assistance of the latest CGI (which has been used to rejuvenate the appearance of middle-aged tough guy Ray Winstone, while further accentuating the positives of Miss Angelina Jolie). The Lara Croft fanboys will definitely be in the moviehouse.
Prestige Indicator: It is a classic tale, but will it be overshadowed by the special effects?
MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM
Box Office Potential: Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory based in a toy lab or maybe Toys 2. Neither one brings to mind huge box office, but there could be enough whimsy to touch the hearts of a few big kids.
Prestige Indicator: Stranger Than Fiction scribe Zach Helm steps behind the camera and teams up with Dustin Hoffman in what could become a Burton-Depp collaborating scenario. Yet for all the critical hosannas, what has that partnership truly yielded?
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Box Office Potential: The Coen brothers have lost a bit of their luster of late with misguided efforts, but a return to their crime noir roots might ring up registers.
Prestige Indicator: Based on the acclaimed book by Cormac McCarthy, Old Men has the starpower in front of the camera (Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and a supposedly buzzworthy turn from Josh Brolin), but it is the Coens who have the most to gain and/or lose from this excursion.
Box Office Potential: A young, music-minded orphan (Freddie Highmore) seeks to find his parents in the big city. This one will rush to tug the heartstrings and Highmore looks to be the next Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment, which could make him a real hook.
Prestige Indicator: Can Oscar nominee Kirsten Sheridan (who along with her father Jim earned a Best Original Screenplay nod for In America) steer a strong cast including Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Robin Williams and Terrence Howard away from the saccahrine and into a joyously bittersweet Rush?
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Box Office Potential: Tim Burton takes on Stephen Sondheim's smart musical thriller, which should play to his darker whimsical strengths and put a real chill in the winter box office.
Prestige Indicator: Burton and his star Johnny Depp can do no wrong from a critical standpoint, so maybe this cut will finally tap the vein and draw some real blood -- from red to gold.
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
Box Office Potential: A dramedy about a good-old-boy Southern Democrat (Tom Hanks) who ends up supporting a Middle Eastern conflict should do wonders at the box office right about now, right?
Prestige Indicator: Mike Nichols has a way of making critics and audiences take notice and while Hanks is an awards magnet, the real draw here sounds like it might be Phillip Seymour Hoffman in support. ©