LOS ANGELES – The fall movie season comes down to one man this year. Bond. James Bond.
The movie industry's prestige period, when studios trot out their big Academy Award contenders, also has become a steady blockbuster season with such recent hits as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, most of the "Harry Potter" flicks and last year's "King Kong" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Inheriting the license to kill from Pierce Brosnan, Craig is the sixth actor to play 007. Adapted from Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, "Casino Royale" takes James back to his beginnings as a young operative taking on a terrorist ring being financed at an exotic gambling hall.
Not yet the casual womanizer of later years, Bond is assigned a gorgeous woman as ally -- Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a bean-counter dispatched by British intelligence to keep tabs on the money he's gambling with.
Uncharacteristically, Bond falls in love -- and gets his heart stomped on.
"We're kind of meeting him for the first time, and a number of things need to be explained. His attitude toward women, how he becomes what he becomes," Craig said. "He meets Vesper, this very beautiful, very complex, very mysterious girl who steals his heart then double-crosses him. It may explain the distrust of Bond for women later."
Without the big fantasy spectacles that have been Hollywood's fall mainstays in recent years, real-world stories will have to take up the slack. Luckily for film fans, there's an interesting crop of possibilities:
--"All the King's Men," a fresh take on Robert Penn Warren's novel of a Southern political boss inspired by Huey Long, stars Sean Penn as the idealistic leader whose rise to power is poisoned by corruption. "Schindler's List" screenwriter Steven Zaillian directs a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini.
-- Clint Eastwood, who directed Penn to a best-actor Oscar in "Mystic River," follows his best-picture champ "Million Dollar Baby" with the World War II saga "Flags of Our Fathers." Starring Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker, Barry Pepper and Jamie Bell, the film tells the story behind one of the most enduring war photographs: The soldiers who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima.
-- Martin Scorsese reunites with Leonardo DiCaprio and brings along Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Martin Sheen for "The Departed," the director's return to the cops-and-mobsters tales that have been his strong suit. DiCaprio plays a cop who's undercover in Nicholson's crime gang, while Damon plays a mob member who's infiltrated the police department.
-- "Babel" features Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett leading a huge ensemble in a story stretching over three continents as the shooting of a tourist on a bus in the African desert begins a series of tragic events that unfold among American, Moroccan, Mexican and Japanese families. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams") directs.
-- After lip-synching to Ray Charles' voice for his Oscar-winning turn in "Ray," Jamie Foxx gets to do some singing of his own in "Dreamgirls," an adaptation of the stage musical that co-stars Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson. The film follows the triumphs and trials of a trio of female soul singers in the 1960s.
Director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") skillfully blends story and character with show-stopping musical numbers and takes singer Knowles and comic Murphy to places audiences have never seen them, Foxx said.
"All you've got to do is find the right people to redo it. You go get Eddie Murphy and Beyonce, forget it. Now you've got buzz. What? Eddie Murphy, my hero, and the most dynamic singer-dancer of our time?" Foxx said. "Our core audience that's going to go watch `Dreamgirls,' they're going to want to see a little bit of drama. They want to see what's going on with the acting, to see Beyonce nail the acting. And then when she starts singing, forget it!"
A sampling of other key fall movies:
-- Fantastical comedy: "Stranger Than Fiction" stars Will Ferrell as a man suddenly able to hear a writer (Emma Thompson) as she chronicles his life -- and his pending death; Ben Stiller plays a night watchman at a natural-history museum who seeks help from a wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) when Roman gladiators, Neanderthals and Attila the Hun come to life and wreak chaos in "Night at the Museum."
-- Horror redux: Fright franchises return, led by "Saw III," with the diabolical serial killer (Tobin Bell) adopting an apprentice and staging new mind games for his victims; "The Grudge 2," starring Amber Tamblyn in a follow-up to Sarah Michelle Gellar's hit about a malevolent presence that infects the living; and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," recounting the formative days of power-tool-wielding killer Leatherface.
Ancient history: Already encumbered with a cast of unknowns speaking in a dead language, Mel Gibson's action adventure set at the end of the Mayan civilization will test the impact his anti-Semitic comments during a drunken-driving arrest might have on audiences; director Sofia Coppola follows her success on "Lost in Translation" with "Marie Antoinette," an 18th century pageant filtered through modern songs and pop-culture trappings to spin the story of the doomed French queen (Kirsten Dunst).
"It appeals to me, the white wigs, the costumes. That people actually lived like that attracted me, because it's so bizarre in a way," Coppola said. "There's something really decadent about it, and also visually it's so different than contemporary films. ... Also it was a challenge to try to make a period film, but in a fresh way, in a different way. My own way."
-- Artists and con artists: After last year's Oscar-winning "Capote" comes "Infamous," a second tale of Truman Capote and his dark path researching the true-crime novel "In Cold Blood," with Toby Jones as the author, Sandra Bullock as writer Harper Lee and Bond star Craig as killer Perry Smith; "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" stars Nicole Kidman as the famed photographer in a fictionalized romance co-starring Robert Downey Jr.; Jack Black stars in an embellished account of how he and musical partner Kyle Gass formed their folk-rock duo in "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny"; "The Hoax" features Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, the man who faked interviews with Howard Hughes for a bogus autobiography.
-- The sporting life: Sylvester Stallone seeks to revive his career by going back to his roots in "Rocky Balboa," the sixth flick in his boxing franchise, with Rocky aiming at one last fling in the ring; Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as a probation officer who whips a band of teen thugs into a football squad in "Gridiron Gang"; "We Are Marshall" features Matthew McConaughey as a coach trying to rebuild a West Virginia college football program after a plane crash devastates the team.
-- Family time: Animated creatures will be out in force with "Flushed Away," featuring the voice of Hugh Jackman as a pet mouse stranded among sewer rats, "Open Season," following a pampered bear (Martin Lawrence) in the wilderness, and "Happy Feet," about a penguin (Elijah Wood) who becomes a tap-dancing fool among his brethren; "Flicka" stars Alison Lohman as a teen who tries to turn a wild mustang into a riding horse in a new take on the book "My Friend Flicka"; E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" has Dakota Fanning leading the human cast, with live-action animals and bugs voiced by such stars as Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford.
"It's one of my favorite books. It's probably everyone's, one of their top 10s," Fanning said. "It has so many feelings in it. It's so sad and happy and funny and sweet at the same time. The movie's just like the book."
-- Presidential politics: Emilio Estevez directs an all-star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Lindsay Lohan in "Bobby," following 22 people at the hotel the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated; "Man of the Year" stars Robin Williams as a political talk-show rabble-rouser whose mock campaign ends up getting him elected president.
-- Tawdry Tinseltown: "Hollywoodland" features Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins in a detective story about the death of George Reeves, star of the 1950s TV show "Adventures of Superman"; Brian De Palma directs "The Black Dahlia," which co-stars Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank in the murder investigation of a B-movie actress in 1947.
-- Oscar bait: Russell Crowe and his "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott reunite for "A Good Year," a romance about a cutthroat London investment whiz who regains his humanity on a trip to a French vineyard inherited from his uncle; Steven Soderbergh directs his "Ocean's Eleven" star George Clooney in "The Good German," about an Army correspondent caught up with an old flame (Cate Blanchett) in post-World War II Berlin; "The Good Shepherd," directed by Robert De Niro, stars Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie in the story of one of the founders of the CIA.
With such talent behind them, those latter three movies will be among competitors seeking recognition in Hollywood's awards derby. Fall marks the start of Hollywood's awards mania, which is the subject of its own movie with "For Your Consideration," director Christopher Guest's comedy examining the hysteria of Oscar season.
Catherine O'Hara, a regular in Guest's ensemble casts, plays an actress whose low-budget movie catches her awards buzz, which quickly infects other members of the cast. Co-stars include Guest, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Eugene Levy.
"It has nothing to do with the Academy Awards. What it has to do with is how people, actors respond to this, the rumor of something happening like that. It can be very innocently done. You can go the dry cleaner's and someone says, 'I think you should win an award for that performance,"' Guest said.
"Invariably, the person will ingest that and then fantasize about that, but that doesn't do any good for anyone. They're thrown into a situation they haven't asked for that makes them very anxious, and in my experience, having been nominated for awards and won and lost awards, it's a very disruptive kind of roller-coaster ride. ... I'm really interested in the chemistry of that."