ROYAL SUBJECTS

The Baltimore Sun

For real movie lovers, fall is the season of our greatest content. It's when the Oscar contenders start making themselves known, when the big-name directors get their names up on the marquee, when the potential blockbusters promising both popularity and prestige start to open amid great rejoicing.

Except ... maybe not so much this year. With fall 2007 just around the corner, no one film is dominating the movie-going discussion. The big-name directors - the Spielbergs, Scorseses, Eastwoods, Jacksons - are taking a breather, gearing up for big-time releases in 2008 and later. The Oscar race seems more wide-open than usual.

Fall 2007 is a movie season looking for an identity, a release schedule looking for a presumptive hit, an industry wondering where the next big thing will come from.

And that could be a very good thing. When expectations are low, surprises are more likely. Even if the sure things seem few and far between, the more-than-likelys are everywhere - including some in genres we haven't heard from in a while.

Like the Western, for instance. Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, set for an October release, boasts one of the planet's biggest stars - Brad Pitt - as well as the longest title in recent memory.

It's been a few decades since Westerns were big box-office, and recent entries in the genre (Kevin Costner's Open Range, Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) haven't generated much in the way of buzz or bucks. But Pitt is a major draw, a TV Western (Walter Hill's Broken Trail) is up for 16 Emmys and advance word on the film sounds promising.

Then again, maybe The Departed was onto something last year, and it's time for a resurgence in the gangster genre.

If so, expect big things from Ridley Scott's American Gangster (Nov. 2), with Denzel Washington as a Harlem drug kingpin and Russell Crowe as the hard-nosed cop dedicated to bringing him down.

Quirky kids' fantasies (think Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) will find their champion in Zach Helms' Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Nov. 16), with Dustin Hoffman as the 243-year- old owner of the world's coolest toy store.

For traditional kids' fantasies (think the Disney classics), there's Kevin Lima's Enchanted (Nov . 21), a mix of live-action and animation with Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for Junebug) as a fairy-tale princess come to life.

In the world of sequels, Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Oct. 12) should test the limits of that film-industry standby. True, the original film, 1998's Elizabeth, garnered seven Oscar nominations, including one for its star, Cate Blanchett. But are movie audiences really ready to embrace a movie franchise detailing the adventures of a 16th-century Tudor monarch?

No genre will be featured more prominently than the newest: consciousness-raising movies centering on the U.S. presence in Iraq and the Middle East. Peter Berg's The Kingdom (Sept. 28) stars Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper as FBI operatives investigating terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia. Robert Redford stars in his own Lions for Lambs (Nov. 9) as a liberal college professor who counsels his students to avoid the military, while Tom Cruise plays a GOP senator with some different views on the conflict.

Stardust, with Claire Danes as a celestial star fallen to Earth, landed with something of a thud this summer, but that may have been more because Paramount mishandled the film than any fault of its own. If so, and fantasy is still a viable movie genre, we can look further ahead to Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass (Dec. 7), the story of a 12-year-old girl's adventures in a parallel universe. In an intriguing quirk, the movie's adult stars include Daniel Craig and Eva Green, making it something of a cast reunion from the last James Bond film, Casino Royale.

Then again, there exists no surer bet in Hollywood than the star vehicle, the movie driven by the presence of a major star with proven box-office appeal.

Among the potential big winners: Jodie Foster as a vigilante killer in The Brave One (Sept. 14), Ben Stiller as a conflicted groom in the remake of 1972's The Heartbreak Kid (Oct. 5), George Clooney as a lawyer with a quivering moral compass in Michael Clayton (Oct. 12), Halle Berry as a desperate widow in Things We Lost In the Fire (Oct. 26) and Will Smith as the last man on Earth in I Am Legend (December).

What follows is a list of the major releases set for the coming months. As always, be certain of only one thing: Many of these dates will change.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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