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Fall Arts Preview '09: The drama club

Behold 10 fall films with more than money on the line

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The Informant!

Sept. 18, Warner Bros.

When he's not making Ocean's Eleven sequels, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reinvents himself. Whether wading into the jungle for the 4 1/2 -hour epic Che, or going out on a limb to give hardcore porn star Sasha Grey a starring role in indie flick The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Still, neither of those movies, nor The Good German, lit the box office on fire. In order to fund his more artistic endeavors, Soderbergh has to score with the occasional studio movie starring some award-winning A-list actor. That's The Informant!, starring Matt Damon as a corn industry whistleblower. His performance is getting serious awards buzz this year, and may carry The Informant! to box-office success despite the darkness of its comedy. Soderbergh surely hopes so; his future plans for challenging films may be at stake. Google "Soderbergh, Moneyball" for proof.

Jennifer's Body

Sept. 18, Fox Atomic

After winning an Oscar for writing Juno, Diablo Cody saw her chance to breathe new life into a genre that was running out of fresh ideas. High school-set horror comedy Jennifer's Body represents a chance to establish herself as a screenwriting brand, and to prove she's not a one-hit wonder.

Transformers pin-up Megan Fox plays the titular cheerleader, who's turned into a bloodthirsty demon by a Satan-worshipping rock band. The adorable and talented Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) inherits the role of Jennifer's nerdy best friend from Ellen Page (who dropped out of the movie), and the film's redband trailer features Juno-style witty quips ("Nice hardware, Ace"). But striking the right tone for this genre may be difficult for Cody to pull off, even with director Karyn Kusama (tough-chick films Girlfight and Aeon Flux) at the helm.

Surrogates

Sept. 25, Disney

With the exception of the ill-advised sequel Live Free or Die Hard, Bruce Willis hasn't been the star of a live-action movie since the forgettable 16 Blocks in 2006. Since then, Willis has done a number of supporting roles in movies both big and small, but Surrogates will be the first real test of his leading-man appeal in years.

This futuristic tale about a cop investigating a series of surrogate (i.e. robot) murders looks like an intriguing mash-up of Strange Days, Minority Report and I, Robot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's written and directed by the same guys who brought you Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Between this and Kevin Smith's next movie, Willis is on the comeback trail, but he'd better hope audiences come down with a case of 12 Monkeys-like movie amnesia before they enter the theater.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Oct. 2, Overture

It's been two years since Oscar winner Michael Moore released Sicko and the lesser-seen Captain Mike Across America, but the incendiary provocateur couldn't return to theaters at a more appropriate time. In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore sets his sights on the U.S. economy and the global financial crisis during the transition from President Bush to President Obama.

Not much is known about the movie, but expect Moore to ask tough questions of important people and to push some government buttons in the process. Moore says this may be his last documentary for a while, so he'll have to make it count if he wants to end this phase of his career on a high note.

Whip It

Oct. 9, Fox Searchlight

After opting out of Jennifer's Body, Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page made a bold decision to star in Whip It, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, which follows a beauty pageant-averse misfit who joins a roller derby league in Austin, Texas.

Adapted from Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl, this tale of teenage-rebellion-on-wheels boasts some great choreography and a hip soundtrack, and co-stars Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis and Barrymore herself, with Jimmy Fallon as the league's cheesy, hung-over announcer.

Barrymore has a solid track record as a producer but she's unproven as a director, so it remains unclear whether Page made the right decision to walk away from a more commercial movie and the creative team that made her a star.

An Education

Oct. 9, Sony Pictures Classics

This Sundance sensation from director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby, who adapts Lynn Barber's coming-of-age memoir, is generating major Oscar buzz thanks to newcomer Carey Mulligan.

An Education follows Mulligan as a teenage girl growing up in 1960s suburban London. Her life changes after she meets a charming older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who teaches her about life and sweeps her off her Oxford-bound feet. Emma Thompson co-stars as the headmistress of the girl's school, while Alfred Molina plays her disapproving father.

Mulligan has a bright future ahead of her, but an Oscar nomination could boost her career to another level (think Marion Cotillard) and establish her as a leading lady in Hollywood for years to come.

Where the Wild Things Are

Oct. 16, Warner Bros.

Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book has suffered through as tortured a development as any in recent Hollywood history. To give you an idea of how long this film has been in the works, there was a teaser trailer attached to prints of The Grinch in 2000.

That said, Where the Wild Things Are looks amazing. Jonze lined up the voices of Forest Whitaker, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara as the Wild Things, newcomer Max Records as the young protagonist Max, and Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo as Max's mother and her boyfriend. And the whimsical production design does an incredible job of establishing a live-action new world.

Yet this is an undeniably challenging story for Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers to adapt. Jonze hasn't directed a feature film since Adaptation in 2002, and the pressure is on him to live up to his reputation and deliver a timeless hit for fans of the book.

The Box

Nov. 6, Warner Bros.

Writer-director Richard Kelly's debut, Donnie Darko, showed real promise, but his follow-up, Southland Tales, was a major disappointment. Now he puts his studio-system future on the line with The Box.

Based on Richard Matheson's short story Button, Button, which was previously adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, The Box stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a married couple who are visited by a disfigured man (Frank Langella) with a box. Inside the box, there's a button. If they press that button, they will receive a million dollars ... and someone that they do not know will die.

That's the premise of this creepy, '70s-set thriller, and it provides a solid moral dilemma to test its characters. Here's hoping Marsden's acting chops are up to the challenge, and Diaz rediscovers her movie-star mojo. If nothing else, The Box will be full of surprises, including 80 minutes of original music that members of Arcade Fire recorded for the film's score.

A Christmas Carol

Nov. 6, Disney

Robert Zemeckis has spent most of the last decade experimenting with motion-capture technology, first with The Polar Express, and most recently with Beowulf. Zemeckis' efforts culminate with A Christmas Carol, which finds the writer-director putting some new twists on the Charles Dickens classic. The Victorian-era tale stars Jim Carrey (making his Disney debut as Ebenezer Scrooge) and Gary Oldman in four and three roles, respectively, as well as past Zemeckis collaborators Robin Wright Penn (Beowulf) and Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

The Polar Express was a megahit with audiences, but Beowulf didn't quite slay the box office dragon: It took in only $82 million domestically despite a reported budget of $150 million. If A Christmas Carol doesn't connect with audiences, Zemeckis may want to consider a return to live-action filmmaking, which he, pardon the pun, Cast Away back in 2000.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Nov. 13, Fox

Using stop-motion animation, writer-director Wes Anderson adapts Roald Dahl's book, following a family of foxes forced to fend off a group of angry farmers tired of sharing their chickens.

Anderson will have help from the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, as well as those of usual collaborators Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray. Fantastic Mr. Fox looks as Wes Anderson as any of Anderson's live-action movies, and the quirky filmmaker's comic sensibility may be the perfect match for the material. That said, there are several animated movies coming out this fall, and this one may not be as "kid-friendly" as 9, Astro Boy, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Planet 51.

scene@csindy.com

Click here for the complete Fall Arts Preview 2009 table of contents!

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