Reading the falling (tea) leaves

Thematics, not theatrics, could be a defining characteristic of the 'serious' movie season

Like you, I have yet not seen any of the fall movies. Nevertheless, perhaps also like you, I still have strong opinions about every single one of them. For instance: This 1970s-period Ron Howard race-car thing, "Rush" (Sept. 27)? If it's so Oscar-ready, why is it opening so early in the Oscar season? Bad omen! (On the other hand, screenwriter Peter Morgan wrote Howard's thoughtful "Frost/Nixon." Good omen!)

This "Don Jon" comedy (Sept. 27) from Joseph Gordon Levitt? Great trailer. Good omen. Already love the film. And that George-Clooney-and-Sandra-Bullock-as-stranded-spacewalking-astronauts flick "Gravity" (Oct. 4)? The teaser leaves you wondering if it'll be hours of slo-mo weightlessness and muted screaming. Bad omen. But that credit — "Directed by Alfonso Cuaron" — may be the most promising omen of the fall film season.

Simplistic? Perhaps. Honest? Definitely.

Take "Runner, Runner," that slick, open-collared Justin Timberlake-Ben Affleck poker thriller (Oct. 4).

"Looks stupid."

Oh, that's not me. That's the woman who sat behind me the other night at a theater. After the trailer for "Runner, Runner," she muttered "Looks stupid" to her companion with the same languid derision that I imagine Nero summoned as he sent Christians to the lions.

I am no marketing person, but I can say with confidence that this kind of coolly mumbled snap judgment must be the most chilling phrase a movie studio exec could overhear.

Because Hollywood, if nothing else, is about manipulating expectations. The worldwide marketing costs of the average effects-driven event movie wouldn't be north of $150 million right now if studios didn't know that manipulating audiences is as much a science as it is a crap shoot.

The trouble is, Hollywood has become too good at reminding us of what we love, and in response we've become equally skilled at reading cinematic tea leaves — the jaunty tone of a trailer, the thin credits of a cast — and divining easy judgments.

Often too-easy judgments.

The fall movie season, the so-called serious season, has always been a trickier bet than the (flashier) summer, (heftier) holiday and (ephemeral) spring seasons. Fall is when film takes a few more chances, cliches can look like risks, and omens become less obvious.

With this in mind, I grouped much of what's opening between now and November by theme and characteristic, smoking out hidden qualities and histories, and, in true audience fashion, hastily decided if these qualities made for good or bad omens.

Hollywood, you're welcome. (Note: Opening dates tend to be tentative.)

The untold history

It wouldn't be autumn without loose takes on history and the subsequent whining about the veracity thereof. You've heard plenty about Diana, one-time Princess of Wales, and boyfriend Dodi Fayed, but what about her two-year romance with a British-Pakistani heart surgeon? There's a lot to like here: "Diana" (October), with Naomi Watts as a spot on Diana, was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who memorably captured the bunker mentality of another famous figure (Hitler) in "Downfall" (2004). But, jeepers, the trailer is so obsessed with Watts' re-creation, her eyes, her hair, you wonder if there's insight as well.

Comparatively, Jennifer Hudson has it easier, playing the less ubiquitous "Winnie Mandela" (Sept. 6). As does Daniel Radcliffe, as a young, questioning Allen Ginsberg in "Kill Your Darlings" (October). But Winnie's decades as a figure of resistance in apartheid-era South Africa, and Ginsberg's tangential relationship to a murderer (fellow Beat Generation member Lucien Carr), appear camera-ready for flattening into tidy Hollywood schematics.

Judgment: Bad omen.

Wide-open spaces

Long, desolate expanses, ripe for dread and isolation, as well as the paradox of intimacy on a grand scale, are perfectly suited to the dimensions of a movie screen (and/or Oscar envelope).

Call it a byproduct of too many Oscar night snippets of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Jaws," but seeing movie characters with nothing at their backs but sky, ocean or mountains crystallizes motivations and story in a way that dialogue rarely does. "Alone at sea, a man has only himself, and his will to survive": Or so says the overstated trailer for "All Is Lost" (Oct. 18), which features Robert Redford alone on a sinking boat and clearly understands better than the film's marketing team that less is more. Director J.C. Chandor's follow-up to his terrific Wall Street drama, "Margin Call," understands silence as well as his previous film did doublespeak.

Likewise, the Indian Ocean of Tom Hanks' Somali pirates movie "Captain Phillips" (Oct. 11) and the endless space of "Gravity" (Oct. 4), as well as the vast interstates of Alexander Payne's black-and-white "Nebraska" (Nov. 22), should bring austerity and purpose, leaving no room for padding.

Judgment: Good omen.

The (not yet a) movie star

Everyone starts somewhere. And the ground floor is the most interesting.

Call me trusting, but there's something comforting about Disney backing a WikiLeaks-Julian Assange movie, "The Fifth Estate" (Oct. 18), carried by an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch. Even better: Fox distributing "12 Years a Slave" (Oct. 18), a film from somber-somber Brit filmmaker Steve McQueen, adapted from the true story of a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Oh, and Cumberbatch is in one that, too, opposite star Chiwetel Ejiofor. McQueen's film also features Michael Fassbender (Magneto in the "X-Men" reboots), who also headlines the Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy drug thriller "The Counselor" (Oct. 25). Even Chris Hemsworth, who returns to the Marvel-verse for "Thor: The Dark World" (Nov. 8) and is not quite a major star, feels like more of an incentive to see "Rush" than Howard.

Judgment: Good omen.

Lit adaptation

Prestige has little to do with quality (and vice versa).

The biggest disconnect of any fall movie season is the lack of imagination brought to the adaptations of works that once stirred imaginations. Unless Mike Newell's "Great Expectations" (November) brings new energy, what's the point? Is it me or do you get the feeling that filmmakers dive into, oh, "Romeo and Juliet" (Oct. 11) again because they like saying the title? As though a little bit of the work's status rubs off?

Similarly, what would any dutiful adaptation of "The Book Thief" (Nov. 15), Markus Zusak's 2006 Holocaust tale, offer to movie audiences beyond a recognizable Oscar hunger? More promising is "Big Sur" (November), the second Jack Kerouac adaptation this year and, hopefully, the less cowered (if you can sit still as an earnest Kate Bosworth shouts, "Why can't you follow though with what your heart knows is best and true?"). "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (Nov. 22), though, will work. Why? Jennifer Lawrence has the confidence to make it her own.

Judgment: Bad omen.

Laid low by excess

What a nice surprise when a movie season feels of-the-moment relevant.

Say what you will about Leonardo DiCaprio but, on the heels of "Django Unchained" and "The Great Gatsby," his latest, Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (Nov. 15), about a real-life securities fraud schemer, completes a tidy little trilogy on class. That's a quietly thoughtful thing: Income disparity should be the great contemporary subject of the arts, as it's certainly become the great contemporary preoccupation of its audiences. Indeed, if there's a larger theme here, playing out in curious ways this fall, it would be excess and the comeuppance of responsibility: There's "Don Jon" and "Thanks for Sharing" (the latter with Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow, Sept. 20), both of which are about men addicted to sex — and both are romantic comedies. Then there's "Delivery Man" (Nov. 22), with Vince Vaughn as a cash-strapped guy who learns his sperm donation resulted in 533 children. It looks sincere. And, yes, it stars Vaughn. Everyone grows up sometime.

Judgment: Good omen

Filmmaker's track record

There's nothing sweeter than watching filmmakers at their peak.

Before you quickly dismiss a trailer this season, Google the director's credits. Of course, do this every season, but during autumn you'll find more surprises than usual. For instance: that seemingly unnecessary remake of "Carrie" (Oct. 18)? It's directed by serious-minded Kimberly Peirce, best known for "Boys Don't Cry," another film about growing up female and different. The seemingly minor "All Is Bright" (October), starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti as French-Canadian Christmas tree salesmen? It's the first feature in eight years from Phil Morrison, who made a beguiling splash with "Junebug" (which gave the world Amy Adams), then kind of disappeared.

And "Enough Said" (Sept. 20), that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini comedy that looks like a Nora Ephron leftover? It's from director Nicole Holofcener, a fairly incisive observer of contemporary living who has never made a bad movie (and is best known for "Friends With Money" and "Lovely and Amazing").

In fact, I can think of two other new films this fall from directors who have never really made a bad film: "Gravity," from Cuaron, the director behind "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien"; and "Captain Phillips," from Paul Greengrass, whose "Bourne Supremacy" (and "Bourne Ultimatum") redefined the action movie.

That's decent insurance.

Judgment: Good omen.

cborrelli@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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