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Auteurs of Autumn

The Baltimore Sun

It's the Attack of the A-List Directors. And it's going to last for weeks - and months - in theaters this fall.

After scaling visual peaks with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (2004), Martin Scorsese digs into the asphalt jungles of the East Coast with The Departed, an undercover-cop suspense film set in Boston, with the powerhouse trio of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

Brian De Palma has been riding a new wave of renown ever since hip-hop stars began modeling themselves on his 1983 gangster movie Scarface. His 1940s period piece The Black Dahlia follows homicide cop Josh Hartnett as he attempts to crack an instantly infamous murder case that summed up the sick soul of postwar L.A.

Christopher Nolan, a cult hero because of his trick film Memento (2000), follows his blockbuster Batman Begins with a new puzzle movie, The Prestige, co-starring everyone's favorite wolverine, Hugh Jackman, and Nolan's Batman, Christian Bale.

Jackman also stars in The Fountain, from art-house fave Darren Aronofsky (Pi, 1998). He's a man whose search to cure his ailing wife - played by Aronofsky's fiancee, Rachel Weisz - spans continents and centuries.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who made a sensational debut with Amores Perros (2001) and showed his virtuosity with character actors in 21 Grams (2003), reportedly has topped himself in Babel, pulling off another multistranded storyline, this time with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

And Sofia Coppola, the rare female director to boast as strong a fan base as any of these guys, does an about-face from the contemporary comedy-drama Lost in Translation with Marie Antoinette. Kirsten Dunst plays the cake-prescribing queen.

A-list actors who've turned themselves into A-list directors bring on their most ambitious works. Warren Beatty's magnum opus Reds (1981) receives a special retrospective screening at the New York Film Festival - raising hopes of a theatrical re-release or (at last) a DVD.

Fresh off his Oscar win for Million Dollar Baby (2004), Clint Eastwood has directed Flags of Our Fathers, the story of the six men who raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in the moment memorialized by late photographer Joe Rosenthal.

And supporting actor-turned-director Todd Field, not heard from since his award-laden In the Bedroom (2001), offers an adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children, about the affair of a desperate househusband (Patrick Wilson) and a desperate housewife (Kate Winslet).

Will Scorsese and Eastwood square off at the Oscars again? Perhaps a more intriguing question is whether, this time, the better director will win.

A lot depends not just on how well the directors deliver, but on whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can put a convoluted film noir like Scorsese's The Departed in the same class as a World War II epic like Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers.

One thing, though, is clear. With a menu this rich - as the following categories illustrate - we're apt for once to enjoy both sizzle and steak.

Local heroes

Barry Levinson, mining a vein of political humor he hasn't tapped since he madeWag the Dog (1997) from a wild David Mamet script, has done himself one better: He has directed and written Man of the Year, the story of a Jon Stewart-like character (played by Robin Williams) who makes a run for the presidency.

Meanwhile, the ever-active John Waters appears as a spirited witness to the weirdness of Hollywood's ratings board in Kirby Dick's documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

Comeback kids

Some of us feel that British director Anthony Minghella was underpraised for his small-scale classic Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) and overpraised for his epicThe English Patient (1996). So it's a relief to learn that after the debacle of Cold Mountain (2003) he went back to intimate filmmaking with Breaking and Entering, a love triangle featuring Jude Law, Robin Wright Penn and Juliette Binoche (as a Bosnian refugee in London).

Way back in 2002, Australian director Phillip Noyce made a remarkable turn-around when he moved from slick Jack Ryan thrillers - Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) - to brilliant social dramas - The Quiet American (Michael Caine's best performance ever) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (a heartbreaking saga of childhood disrupted by institutionalized racism). This year he returns and tries to stay in his new groove with Catch a Fire, the story of a South African freedom fighter.

Kings of comedy

Mike Judge, who proved himself ahead of his time - or maybe a head of his time - with 1999's Office Space, the absolute word on the quality of life in the cubicle age, has concocted a madcap satire about how American democracy 500 years hence has turned into ... Idiocracy. Catonsville-bred cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt, who shot Little Miss Sunshine, also shot Idiocracy and thinks it's a howl. Will Baltimoreans get the chance to judge for themselves? Idiocracy has opened in New York and L.A. but is not on the local release schedule.

Thank the comedy gods - we'll definitely get Christopher Guest's latest, For Your Consideration. The king of improvisation has assembled his usual partners-in-farce (Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean) and Britain's Ricky Gervais (star-creator of BBC's The Office) in the tale of an indie film called Home for Purim that unexpectedly becomes a top entry in the Oscars.

And Marc Foster, the director of Finding Neverland, teams up with Will Ferrell for Stranger Than Fiction, the story of an IRS bureaucrat who discovers that a novelist (Emma Thompson) has been writing his life. Stranger than conventional fiction, all right; but funnier?

Family acts

Brothers and producing partners Ridley and Tony Scott hope to rebound from disappointments - Ridley's Crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven, and Tony's bounty-hunter shoot-'em-up, Domino - with off-type, offbeat projects. Ridley's Gladiator leading man, Russell Crowe, anchors his new film, A Good Year, playing a British banker who succumbs to the French countryside when he inherits a vineyard there. It's based on a novel by Peter Mayle in the grand tradition of Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going.

For D?j? Vu, Tony and producer Jerry Bruckheimer cast Denzel Washington as an ATF agent investigating a ferry bombing - but the movie's main attraction may be the sights and sounds it caught as the first production to film in New Orleans post-Katrina.

Equally politically charged is Bobby, the first big-screen feature in 10 years from Charlie Sheen's brother, Emilio Estevez, who has done most of his directing for TV. The Bobby of the title is Bobby Kennedy, and the movie takes place in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night Kennedy was shot. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne and everyone's favorite TV president, Estevez's father, Martin Sheen.

Animation mavens

Some call America's Pixar cartoonists the reigning geniuses of animation. Others rank Pixar's major influence, Japan's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), right above them. Still others bow down before Britain's Aardman Animations, the group that includes Nick Park, who wowed international audiences with the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run. In Flushed Away, Aardman artisans (not including Park) who usually work with plasticene puppets collaborate with a group of computer animators at DreamWorks. Together they say they'll bring the handmade Aardman touch to a CG action comedy about a pet mouse set adrift in London's sewers. The ubiquitous Hugh Jackman gives voice to the tiny hero, and Kate Winslet does the same for his new rat ally.

The Aardman folk will face competition from an unexpected source. George Miller, who made his name with the Mad Max movies, startled everyone when he produced a terrific live-action talking-pig movie called Babe (directed by Chris Noonan), then directed Babe: Pig in the City himself. When that inspired sequel bombed at the box office - too many misguided people spread the word that it was too dark for kids - Miller went back to the drawing board. Literally. He's about to unveil a CG-animated comedy, Happy Feet, about a dancing penguin. The problem is, the hero can't sing - and it's through song that Emperor Penguins find their mates.

Will this Dance of the Penguin match March of the Penguins? Well, if any filmmaker has a knack for finding the strength in whimsy, it's Miller, and his supporting talents here include Master and Commander screenwriter John Collee and actors Robin Williams and Elijah Wood. And who can resist the title's reference to one of Steve Martin's funniest stand-up routines?

International auteurs

Some of America's favorite overseas moviemakers will present intriguing films this fall - though their Baltimore openings have yet to be scheduled. From Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears: The Queen, which depicts the tug of war between Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) during their attempt to balance private and public mourning for Princess Diana. From Lasse (The Cider House Rules) Hallstrom: The Hoax, about con-man Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) and his nearly successful plot to convince the public that Howard Hughes had given him the material to assemble the tycoon's life story. And from Pedro Almodovar: Volver, which stars Penelope Cruz as a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Acclaimed at Cannes as the film that should have won the Golden Palm, Volver, if it lives up to the hype, may prove to be the alpha-and-omega film in this season of the A-list.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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