Baltimore Sun

A rotten summer may be redeemed with fall movies

Russell Crowe stars in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."
Here's the dictionary definition of a fool's errand: Coming off one of the worst movie summers in recent memory (you know there's trouble when two of the season's best, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Freaky Friday, come from Disney's live-action division), pick three movies worth looking forward to for the fall.

Problem is, if this summer is truly indicative of Hollywood's creative capacity, it's going to be hard to find three movies worth getting out of the chair for, much less three to anxiously await. On the other hand, if Hollywood has been saving its best for the fall, there may be nothing but good movies on the horizon.

For the sake of our collective sanity, let's hope that Hollywood has neither forgotten the word "quality" nor developed a slate for the fall that has one Oscar contender opening after another. If you're looking to book three movie nights between now and the end of the year, here are a trio of possibilities that should at least leave you entertained, if not sated.

Rookie writer-director Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent is the story of a dwarf who inherits an abandoned train station and develops a halting, reluctant friendship with a hot-dog vendor and a painter who lives nearby and is separated from her husband.

Advance word out of Sundance is nothing but good; the film opened with little advance buzz, yet walked off with both the screenwriting and audience awards. And while nothing about the film screams box-office blockbuster, its quiet dignity and unforced charm should appeal to audiences eager to embrace a dark horse, a movie that will fly under most people's radar screens.

Among the fall's hoped-for blockbusters is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, director Peter Weir's take on author Patrick O'Brian's novels of life in the 19th-century British navy.

The $135-million Master and Commander stars Russell Crowe, in his first role since being Oscar-nominated for A Beautiful Mind. It's also his first role since he strengthened his reputation for surliness (a reputation he doesn't deserve, Crowe told Entertainment Weekly last month) by turning ugly after his acceptance speech was cut short at last year's British Oscars. His outburst may have turned off American Oscar voters, who declined to give him a second-straight Best Actor award (he had won a year earlier for Gladiator), but will it turn off audiences as well?

More importantly, though, Master and Commander marks the return of Weir to the big screen after a five-year absence. His last film was 1998's sublime, satiric (and cautionary) The Truman Show, and the Australian director, who specializes in carefully drawn character studies set among opposing cultures that don't quite mesh (The Mosquito Coast, Witness), would hardly seem a natural for this sort of seafaring adventure flick.

Finally, there's the season's nearest-to-a-sure thing, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Director Peter Jackson's adaptations of the first two chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of the battle for Middle Earth already have earned $1.8 billion worldwide and garnered six Oscars (out of 18 nominations).

Rarely has such massive popularity been matched by such critical acclaim, and there's little reason to expect a letdown in the final chapter, as Frodo and Sam continue on their quest to destroy the One Ring and thwart the evil Sauron. But will this be the chapter of the trilogy to nail down that elusive Best Picture Oscar?