Summer may be the season of the blockbuster, but September through December is where studios release their most varied titles. From sci-fi thrillers to dramas and potential Oscar nominees, Hollywood unleashes a veritable storm of A-list talent and often brilliantly original films. Here are our picks for the highlights of Fall 2011.
9/2 – “APOLLO 18” (Dimension – Gonzalo López-Gallego – Sci-Fi Thriller)
What Is It: Apollo 17, which launched in December 1972, was NASA’s last official manned mission to the moon. However, in December 1974, the Department of Defense sent two astronauts on a top secret, under-the-table kind of mission, and the found footage from that journey reveals why we’ve never returned to the moon since. What’s up there? Aliens? Ghosts? Russians? A bunch of sound and light cues? Or something even more terrifying?
Why We Care: We cry foul with the whole “the reason why we never returned to the moon” angle, ’cause if there was anything resembling life (or afterlife, or whatever it is) on that rock, we’d be up there every day and twice on Sundays with scores of military types, scientists, psychics, hippies, you name it. Still, the premise does succeed in giving us a bit of the heebie-jeebies, especially since it involves something as seemingly innocuous as the moon (versus, say, Mars, which everyone knows is crawling with nasty aliens). We’ll call it right now as a mix of “Paranormal Activity,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “Alien,” and we’re surprised the whole “found footage” horror gimmick hadn’t been translated to an outer space setting earlier — there are plenty of opportunities with such an approach to shell out some good jump scares (and rake in some decent box office) on a low budget. Let’s just hope “Apollo 18” turns out to be actually scary, and if it has to have a twist ending, let’s hope it actually enhances the movie we’ve just seen rather than negates it.
9/2 – “SHARK NIGHT 3D” (Relativity – David Ellis – Horror)
What Is It: Sexy and inexplicably/unnecessarily obnoxious young people show off their Hollywood-perfect abs and bikini bodies during a weekend getaway at a lake and find that sharks don’t need salt water to wreck havoc on the attractive. Sara Paxton plays (lest anyone be confused) a gal named Sara, a hot, smart and sensitive blonde who might last a little longer than any of her idiot friends — though, if you remember “Deep Blue Sea,” being “hot, smart and sensitive” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re completely safe from harm all the way up to the closing credits.
Why We Care: Because it’s called “Shark Night 3D,” which means there are sharks and when they bite people in half, that shit’s gonna fly out into your face. We’re not quite sure about that “Night” part, though, as every scene in the trailer seems to take place during the day — are we actually going to get some nocturnal shark attacks, or is that part of the title supposed to be meta-ironic-cool and stuff? Anyway, director David Ellis is right at home when it comes to this kind of outrageous mayhem, whether it be in three dimensions (“The Final Destination”) or not (“Snakes on a Plane”) — the only thing kind of disheartening is that PG-13 rating, which means the kill scenes won’t be too graphic, which seems a bit self-contradictory with this sort of flick (and, uh, basic premise). Maybe we’ll get a more visceral Director’s Cut on Blu-ray… and some more night scenes.
9/9 – “CONTAGION” (Warner Bros. – Steven Soderbergh – Action Thriller)
What Is It: Famous movie stars get really, really sick in director Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble examination of a worldwide epidemic in which a highly dangerous (and wildly infectious) super-virus lays waste to the population and spreads fear, suspicion and panic. The impressive dramatis personae includes Matt Damon as a husband and father whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is one of the earliest victims of the bug; Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet as three of the doctors racing against time to find a cure (or at least containment); and Jude Law as a San Francisco journalist.
Why We Care: Steven Soderbergh pulled off a compelling portrait of several characters from radically different walks of life all linked by a multinational crisis with “Traffic” (which, believe it or not, is almost 11 years old now), and “Contagion” looks like it could be just as powerful an examination (if a bit louder and more frantic). As usual, he’s managed to gather a terrific cast, and he’s already thrown us for a loop with the trailer revealing that one of his all-stars dies pretty early on. It’s good to see Soderbergh back where he belongs: telling talented (and expensive) movie stars what to do and delivering a compelling story on time and under budget. No more talk of “retirement,” okay. Steven? We kind of need you out here.
9/9 – “WARRIOR” (Lionsgate – Gavin O’Connor – Action/Drama)
What Is It: Director Gavin O’Connor delivers a punchy Irish melodrama with this story of family and fightin’ (sounds pretty Irish, no?), as Tom Conlon (Tom Hardy), a high school teacher and former boxer, is trained to get back in the ring by his alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). And wouldn’t you know it — his opponent in a big mixed martial arts tournament ends up being his own brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton). Jennifer Morrison plays what appears to be the only female in this story’s universe.
Why We Care: No other sport lends itself to serving as a backdrop for a good screaming/crying/hugging family drama quite like boxing. “Warrior” definitely isn’t a new story — we’ve seen many variations of it over the years, from “Rocky” to “The Champ” to “Raging Bull” to last year’s excellent “The Fighter.” But when this type of story is done well (and it often is), there’s nothing quite like it — nothing can get your blood pumping quite like a good boxing movie. “Warrior” definitely looks to be another entry in the “good” category; the casting of Nolte as a drunken Irish trainer is inspired, and the two stars, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, are both about half a millimeter from complete and total movie stardom — this might be the film that makes them both Hollywood heavyweights. Director Gavin O’Connor’s last film, “Pride and Glory,” was nothing if not passionate and, rather admirably, completely and unapologetically earnest — expect the same treatment here.
9/16 – “STRAW DOGS” (ScreenGems – Rod Lurie – Crime Thriller)
What Is It: “Superman Returns” couple James Marsden and Kate Bosworth reunite for this sweaty Southern gothic in which a Hollywood screenwriter and his trophy wife move to her Dixie hometown, where they’re promptly terrorized by her hunky thug of an ex-boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) and his gang of redneck ne’er-do-wells. A remake of the now-classic 1971 thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Sam Peckinpah, which was based on the book “The Siege at Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams.
Why We Care: Because it’s certainly been a while since we’ve had a sweaty Southern gothic! The original “Straw Dogs” was a harrowing tale about a meek pacifist driven to arguably psychotic levels of bloody retribution when violent men invade his home (and wife) — it’s the kind of movie that made your stomach turn, as only Sam Peckinpah could do. They just don’t make ’em like that any more, but this remake doesn’t seem like it’s trying to compete with its classic predecessor on any level, apparently content to deliver what looks like a well-made revenge flick that’s heavy on the sticky, dangerous atmosphere. This is a perfect role for James Marsden, who can pull off the crazy behind the eyes, and Kate Bosworth gets to prance around showing off her wet, scantily-clad body for the first time since “Blue Crush,” though this time in a much more sinister (and decidedly grown-up) context. And watch out for that Alexander Skarsgard fella — it’s only a matter of time before the “True Blood” vamp explodes and emerges Phoenix-like from his own ashes as a bona fide Hollywood superstar.
9/16 – “RESTLESS” (Sony Classics – Gus Van Sant – Drama)
What Is It: Gus Van Sant’s oh so quirky melodrama chronicles the romance between a terminally ill cutie (Mia Wasikowska) and a weirdo who likes to attend funerals (Henry Hopper) whose best friend is the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). No, we didn’t suddenly timewarp back to the ’90s; this bizarro indie flick was actually made in the past year — and if it doesn’t make you tear up at least once, you’re a sad, cold-hearted bastard who doesn’t believe in love (or ghosts).
Why We Care: Gus Van Sant could vomit on the sidewalk and exclaim “Hey, look at this!” and we’d probably at least nod and “appreciate” it. Few directors have been more idiosyncratic than he; he’ll try everything and anything without fear (or concern that it will make either sense or money) and yet all of his work is distinctly and recognizably his. It’s a good thing we love Van Sant so much, ’cause “Restless” (horrible title, that) looks like it’s going to require a lot of that love if we’re going to get through it without going into sugar shock. However, as ridiculous (way ridiculous) and obnoxiously sentimental as it looks, it’s also got Mia Wasikowska in its corner (or front and center, rather), which definitely goes a long way — and, through thick and thin, we believe in Gus, even when he tries to give us reasons not to.
9/23 – “MONEYBALL” (Sony – Bennett Miller – Drama)
What Is It: A sports story on a low budget, “Moneyball” chronicles Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) successful attempt to put together a baseball club by shunning the hopelessly dated insight of baseball “insiders” and instead using computer-generated analysis to create a sort of hand-picked “Island of Misfit Toys” of great players. He is a assisted by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a statistics whiz kid just out of college. Victory ensues.
Why We Care: The crusade of Billy Beane and his radical reinvention of baseball recruitment and management is one of the strangest and most interesting true-life sports stories out there. Really, this guy shunned decades-long traditions and practices and tried something so bizarre and out there that there’s really no way it should’ve not only succeeded but hit a home run straight out of the park and into the next neighborhood (figuratively and literally). Brad Pitt is the perfect choice to play Beane, and his knack for sly comedy should come in handy for his scenes with Hill, who looks to be doing wonders with what’s probably little more than a reactionary role. Add Philip Seymour Hoffman (who we just don’t see enough of these days) reuniting with his “Capote” director Bennett Miller and a screenplay co-written by Aaron Sorkin and you’ve got yourself an Oscar contender covering all the bases.
9/23 – “MACHINE GUN PREACHER” (Relativity – Marc Forster – Drama)
What Is It: Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace,” “Monster’s Ball”) directs the true-life story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a former drug-dealing biker who found God and became a crusader for hundreds of Sudanese children who’ve been forced to become soldiers. Childers and his wife Lynn (played by Michelle Monaghan) founded and currently operate Angels of East Africa, the Children’s Village Orphanage in Nimule, Sudan.
Why We Care: Yes, thank you, Marc Forster, for giving Gerard Butler a role in something that’s not a lame romantic comedy co-starring Jennifer Aniston or Hilary Swank or whoever. Don’t let the somewhat goofy, “Hobo with a Shotgun”-esque title throw you off — the story of Sam Childers is a strange but true fable; whatever inspired a hard-drinking biker thug to drop his hellraising ways and go save the children in the name of the Lord can only be described as “miraculous.” Michael Shannon is in this, too, which is awesome, but we’re most looking forward to seeing Butler sink his teeth into his first truly lusty/juicy role since screaming (often) about Sparta as King Leonidas in “300.” Call this a Saul/Paul yarn for those who know their Bible, and Childers certainly knows his — and hundreds of kids thank him for it.
9/30 – “50/50” (Summit – Jonathan Levine – Drama/Comedy)
What Is It: A bittersweet portrait of dying young, “50/50” tells the story of a 27-year-old who’s suddenly diagnosed with cancer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and how this affects his best friend (Seth Rogen), girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), mother (Anjelica Huston) and, above all, himself. Determined to beat the odds, he befriends both his young therapist (Anna Kendrick) and several fellow cancer patients (including Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). Directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser.
Why We Care: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming a national treasure. His performances in “Brick,” “Mysterious Skin” and “The Lookout” were all top-notch, and now he’s transitioning nicely into more mainstream fare with featured roles in “Inception” and the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” (though let’s just forget about his turn as Cobra Commander in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” shall we?). He owned as a punk rock guardian angel/trickster earlier this year in “Hesher,” and now “50/50” looks like it could very well be his breakout hit. It’s extremely difficult subject matter handled with an Apatow-ian sense of humor and sensitivity — hopefully audiences won’t shy away from what’s bound to be an unapologetic tearjerker that won’t hold your hand through the rough patches.