- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

Summer blockbusters are but a memory, albeit a noisy, incoherent one.

It’s the fall, the best time of the year for the serious moviegoer. Studios cram their autumn schedules with Oscar wannabes, hoping to seize the Academy voters’ attention as close to voting time as possible.

This year brings an added story line as an avalanche of old guarders strive to reclaim their turf. The coming months will see Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone hoping either to return to glory or, in the case of Mr. Stallone, regain a modicum of relevance.

If you thought Rocky was an underdog in his first title fight, imagine the uphill battle Mr. Stallone faces as a 60-year-old actor with “Rocky Balboa” (Dec. 22), the sixth film in his Rocky saga.

With younger pretenders including M. Night Shyamalan (“Lady in the Water”) and Neil LaBute (“The Wicker Man”) crashing and burning this summer, Hollywood could use a boost from its old warhorses.

The fall film season typically starts with a thud. September and January are dumping grounds for projects exciting little to no enthusiasm from audiences or studios — think “Kangaroo Jack,” “My Baby’s Daddy” and “A Sound of Thunder.”

This September could be different.

Sure, we’ll be treated to another sampling of “Jackass” behavior this month (Sept. 22), but we’ll also see Mr. De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (Sept. 15), a star-studded (Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Sir Anthony Hopkins) remake of “All the King’s Men” (Sept. 22), and possible redemption for Ben Affleck in “Hollywoodland.” (See review on D4.)

October gets even juicier and could end up as the year’s best month for movies.

Let’s start with Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (Oct. 20), the first of two World War II movies the Oscar darling will release over the next year. The film tells the story of the men who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima, coming close on the heels of the death of the photographer who captured the iconic moment.

More Oscar bait will be dangled by director Martin Scorsese, who has assembled a testosterone-laden lineup for “The Departed” (Oct. 6). Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg star in a tale of dueling moles on both sides of the law.

Stateside audiences will get their first glimpse of the Cannes bomb “Marie Antoinette” (Oct. 20), Sofia Coppola’s first film since her 2003 breakthrough, “Lost in Translation.”

Rare new kid on the block “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy makes his feature directorial debut with “Running With Scissors” (Oct. 27), an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ raucous memoir. Annette Bening’s turn as Augusten’s dyspeptic mama looks like a sure Oscar nomination just from the trailer.

November brings an eclectic array of films, including the return of James Bond when craggy-faced Craig, Daniel Craig takes over for Pierce Brosnan with the promise of a younger, grittier 007 in “Casino Royale” (Nov. 17).

Will Ferrell takes a more surreal path to our funny bone with “Stranger Than Fiction” (Nov. 10). The erstwhile Ricky Bobby plays the protagonist in a novel being written by an author (Emma Thompson) trying to knock him off. Marc Forster of “Finding Neverland” fame directs.

“Fast Food Nation” (Nov. TBD) uses Eric Schlosser’s scathing look at the burger McIndustry as a steppingstone into a fictionalized tale of the many lives intertwined with the burgers we hungrily devour.

Also, Russell Crowe’s bid for another best-actor nod comes with “A Good Year” (Nov. 10), routinely described as the male version of “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

Hollywood wheels out the heavy guns come December, starting with “The Nativity Story” (Dec. 1) from “Thirteen” director Catherine Hardwicke. Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) stars as Mary. Expect a cultural firestorm should this “Story” stray from the accepted narrative.

The makers of “Eragon” (Dec. 15) are hoping the “Lord of the Rings” crowd is up for another fantasy adventure ripe for sequels.

Robert De Niro takes his first step behind the camera since “A Bronx Tale” with “The Good Shepherd” (Dec. 22). The film recalls the early days of the CIA and stars Matt Damon, Mr. De Niro and Angelina Jolie.

The big-screen musical takes another small step toward recovered glory with “Dreamgirls ” (Dec. 21), co-starring Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx in this adaptation of the Broadway smash.

The fall could be a solid season for laughter no matter the month. Christopher Guest and his improv stock company return in “For Your Consideration” (Nov. 17), a timely spoof of Oscar nomination hustling in Hollywood.

In “Borat” (Nov. 3), a comedy with a subtitle too long to squeeze in here, Sacha Baron Cohen revisits his “Da Ali G Show” Borat Sagdiyev character.

And we’re holding out hope, based on a funny trailer, for “Let’s Go to Prison” (Nov. 22). The comedy stars “Arrested Development’s” Will Arnett and Dax Shepard as two inmates trying to survive their sentences.

Horror junkies will get their fix this fall with a trio of high-profile bloodlettings. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (Oct. 4) is the prequel to the surprisingly effective 2003 remake. “Saw III” (Oct. 27) brings back serial torturer Jigsaw for more ingenious ways to make actors scream bloody murder. And “Grudge 2”(Oct. 13) lets Amber Tamblyn stand in for Sarah Michelle Gellar (who returns in a cameo) in yet another Japanese horror remake.

The only question mark of the season is whether Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” (Dec. 8) will be released. The story couldn’t appear any less commercial, and that was before the director’s notorious behavior following his recent drunken-driving arrest. The film traces the final gasps of an ancient civilization and features no spoken English. Then again, Mr. Gibson’s last directorial effort also seemed like a tough sell at the cinema.

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