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dream teams

The Baltimore Sun

Stars like Will Smith may shine in hot-weather action comedies, cruising to box-office victory in souped-up vehicles with the top down. But the autumn movie season has always relied more on teamwork than on personal bests.

The fall is when the major studios roll out multicharacter literary adaptations and entertainment that relies more on fresh observation and risky subject matter, less on formula and shtick. These movies require solid acting companies to put them over. On paper, the troupes assembled this autumn dwarf ensembles past in their quality and diversity.

When it comes to films with elaborate casts of characters, the fall offers a succession of potential dream teams, in productions that range from quirky comedies to gruff, hardbitten Westerns.

After Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton, the presence of George Clooney almost guarantees a peak ensemble; he's a smart star and vivid actor precisely because of his yen to relate individually and equally to everyone else in the cast. Clooney once again acts for the Coen brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) in Burn After Reading, a parody caper set partly in a gym, with a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. The Coen brothers displayed a new maturity in No Country for Old M en, the unique, virtuoso ensemble piece in which the three main characters (played by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem) never appeared in the same shot. It should be fun to see the Coens apply their newfound mastery to their old style of buffoonery blending Ocean's 11 with The Big Lebowski.

Robert De Niro is at his most subtle and expansive playing a beleaguered Hollywood producer in Barry Levinson's tiptop behavioral comedy What Just Happened.

I loved a version of the film Levinson showed me a year ago and thought every actor, from Sean Penn and Bruce Willis to Catherine Keener and Robin Wright Penn, made his or her presence felt - whether they were playing fictionalized characters or, like Penn and Willis, satiric versions of themselves. Levinson says he has sharpened the movie since then, but even in its unfinished state it was an extraordinarily real and rueful work that won its laughs from shocks of recognition.

Whether you loathe or applaud Oliver Stone's reckless, conspiracy-charged brand of contemporary history, the cast he assembled for his President Bush biopic, W., makes it a must-see. Josh Brolin as W., Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Ioan Gruffudd as Tony Blair ... the list of potential coups goes on and on. Who could pass up watching James (Babe) Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush, or Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, or The Daily Show's Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer?

That other Academy favorite, Clint Eastwood, directs Angelina Jolie as the mother of a kidnapped child in Changeling, surrounding her with aces like John Malkovich, Colm Feore and Amy Ryan.

Ricky Gervais, a master of group interplay in his original British version of The Office and his HBO series Extras, becomes an unlikely big-screen leading man in Ghost Town, playing a humanity-hating dentist who can see dead people, including a ghost (Greg Kinnear) who wants to pair his living wife (Tea Leoni) with the dentist.

Directed by David Koepp, Ghost Town has something an ensemble comedy needs to succeed: a group of performers flexible and skilled enough to meld different styles of farce. It's always a treat to see Leoni perform with her unique italicized naturalness. Kinnear has a peerless ability to stretch the boundaries of a limited man. And, even if Gervais gives in to terminal biliousness (he's often funnier the more misanthropic he gets), it would be hard to curb my enthusiasm for the prospects of Ghost Town.

Those charismatic and surprising actors Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris played gangland combatants a few years back in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. In Appaloosa, which Harris has directed (from a novel by Robert B. Parker), they play old buddies who turn lawmen and try to make the title town a righteous place to live. These two may try to out-stoic each other, but with Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons in the cast the screen could be set for a frontier tour de force. (Many a great Western features spunky dames and a sterling British actor or two.)

Who knows whether Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sealed a new star-director partnership between Shia LaBeouf and Steven Spielberg. The brave, resourceful LaBeouf already has a good thing going with D.J. Caruso, who guided him through that nifty Hitchcockian pastiche, Disturbia. The LaBeouf-Caruso team returns in Eagle Eye, a suspense film partly about surveillance via cell phone, co-starring Michelle Monaghan (who was stringent and sympathetic in Gone Baby, Gone), the alluring, talented Rosario Dawson and Billy Bob Thornton, who never disappoints.

Almost all war movies, caper movies or Westerns are male ensemble pieces. The idea of the female crime-fighting team didn't catch on after Charlie's Angels. In the wake of the Sex and the City and Traveling Pants movies, though, we may be seeing more films like Diane (Murphy Brown) English's long-gestating The Women, which features an all-women cast.

It's a remake of the Clare Booth Luce stage comedy and 1939 George Cukor movie centered on a classy married woman (Norma Shearer in the original, Meg Ryan here) who divorces, then tries to win back her philandering husband as several other friends and acquaintances work through their own marital complications. Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith and Bette Midler are sure to enliven the company. The original was incorrigible; English has promised to tinker with the tone.

Some of the fall's most dynamic duos arrive pre-tested. Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who did their darndest to light up The Cotton Club and Unfaithful, play a man and a woman who resolve their separate midlife crises when each flees to the same coastal town - and they fall in love - in Nights in Rodanthe. (It's from a Nicholas Sparks best-seller: an enticement to some, a warning to others.)

That young, reliable Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, who was at his peak in last year's 3:10 to Yuma, anchor Ridley Scott's attempt at a smart and entertaining CIA thriller, Body of Lies, from David Ignatius' frighteningly authentic novel. (Before attaining superstardom, they acted together in Sam Raimi's 1995 Western, The Quick and the Dead .) Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Righteous Kill play a New York cop team trailing a serial vigilante, extending to an entire movie the rapport they demonstrated in their few shared minutes of Heat.

The recent deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes have brought new resonance to the comedy Soul Men, starring Mac and Samuel L. Jackson as R&B; veterans who sing at a tribute concert for their soul-group leader (played by John Legend). Hayes plays a bit part as himself. With Hayes, Mac and Jackson on board, it may live up to the name of the title characters' group: the Real Deal. And if this slew of movies with live-wire actors performs to expectations, the real deal is what audiences sick of computer-graphic fantasies will happily get this autumn, too.

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