LOS ANGELES – Hollywood may not have a Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Shrek or Capt. Jack Sparrow on its upcoming lineup. Yet the fall and holiday schedule does offer filmgoers a chance to catch up with some familiar characters, stories and movie-making teams.
It'll be reunion season for actors and filmmakers such as Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott ("American Gangster"); Cate Blanchett and Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age"); Nicolas Cage and Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets"); Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton ("Sweeney Todd"); and Ben Stiller and the Farrelly brothers ("The Heartbreak Kid").
It'll be reacquaintance season for some classic characters in Robert Zemeckis' retelling of the Norse legend "Beowulf"; "Fred Claus," a North Pole comedy about Santa (Paul Giamatti) and his black-sheep brother (Vince Vaughn); and "I Am Legend," with Will Smith in a new take on the sci-fi thriller "The Omega Man."
There's even the return of a venerable genre, the Western, which has fallen on hard times in modern Hollywood. Crowe and Christian Bale star in the remake "3:10 to Yuma," about a poor rancher helping to escort a captured gang leader, while a second Old West tale comes close on its heels with "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
Brad Pitt, starring as James, said his own celebrity helped him sympathize with the outlaw, whose notoriety as a heroic Robin Hood figure was heavily fabricated.
"I liked the themes of fame, the obsession with fame. The idea of the Jesse James character being trapped behind a facade and not knowing how to get out," said Pitt, who plays James in the last year of his life as he lapses into paranoia over potential betrayal by accomplices and intimates, including young idolizer Ford (Casey Affleck).
"We operate under the assumption everyone is pretty much up on the Jesse James myth, so we start dissecting the myth," Pitt said.
In other fall films, Crowe plays a New York cop to Denzel Washington's Harlem crime kingpin in director Scott's "American Gangster"; Stiller rejoins the Farrellys, who directed him in "There's Something About Mary," for "The Heartbreak Kid," about a man who meets the perfect woman -- on his honeymoon with another bride; Cage sets out to clear an ancestor implicated in Abraham Lincoln's assassination in the "National Treasure" sequel; frequent collaborators Depp, Bonham Carter and Burton adapt Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," the musical about the murderous 18th century barber; Vaughn plays the title role in "Fred Claus" to Giamatti's Santa, who bails his sibling out of jail and forces him to work off the debt at the North Pole; Reese Witherspoon is a woman searching for her missing husband, an Egyptian who vanishes on a flight to Washington, in "Rendition"; Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly are a couple in grief after their son is killed by a hit-and-run driver (Mark Ruffalo) in "Reservation Road"; Phoenix stars with Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall in "We Own the Night," a crime tale in 1980s New York; and Tim Roth stars in Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth," playing a professor on the run in Europe as World War II looms.
Also, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone are featured in "Beowulf," with Zemeckis applying the performance-capture technology he used in "The Polar Express" to animate the epic of the hero's battle against the monster Grendel and his mother; Steve Carell plays a widower who falls for his brother's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche) in "Dan in Real Life"; Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon star in a murder mystery surrounding an Iraq war soldier after he returns home in "In the Valley of Elah"; Sarandon plays a wicked queen who banishes a fairy-tale princess (Amy Adams) to modern New York in "Enchanted"; Halle Berry is a widow who forges a relationship with her husband's friend (Benicio Del Toro) in "Things We Lost in the Fire"; a gang of beloved cartoon critters come to life in "Alvin and the Chipmunks," with Jason Lee; Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig appear in "The Golden Compass," set in a fantasy world where a girl rushes to rescue her missing friend; Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts mastermind American strategy to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in "Charlie Wilson's War"; and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are terminal patients who take a final road trip in "The Bucket List."
Here's a closer look at some fall and holiday releases:
RECLAIMING HER THRONE:
Nine years after "Elizabeth," Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and director Shekhar Kapur reteam for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," resuming the story of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I.
The new film has the spinster monarch juggling romantic temptation for Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), opposition from Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and the threat of conquest by Spain and its armada.
"The first film was about denial, what one has to do to sort of extricate oneself from oneself in order to rule. At the beginning of this film, she's still in a place of denial, but this film is more about acceptance in a way," Blanchett said. "On a domestic, prosaic level, you have a woman who realizes: `Am I not going to have children?'
"On a bigger scale, you have a woman asking, `Do people love me for who I am or for what they want from me?' Anyone in a position of power must go through that."
CATCHING A BUZZ:
Jerry Seinfeld returns with his first major project since "Seinfeld," co-writing and providing the lead voice in the animated comedy "Bee Movie."
The premise: worker bee Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld) befriends a human florist (Renee Zellweger), who becomes his aide when he sues humanity for stealing the honey his species toils to produce.
"Barry stings them in the one place it really hurts" -- their wallets, said Seinfeld, whose story has its roots in his fascination with nature documentaries.
"The ones about bees I've always found amazing," Seinfeld said. "The sophistication of their culture and architecture, and this amazing substance they make. Their communication system, their navigation system, and how they're not supposed to be able to fly. It always struck me as a great setting for a story."
Jodie Foster has played the victim in "The Accused" and the enforcer of justice in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Now, she's both -- along with judge, jury and executioner -- in "The Brave One," a thriller about a Manhattan woman who becomes a gun-toting vigilante after recovering from an attack that killed her fiance and left her near death.
"She is plagued by fear in a way she never really knew. Little by little, she turns that fear into a kind of monstrous rage," Foster said. "She buys a gun like a lot of women do, and having it in her pocket imbues her with this power, where she finds herself by coincidence or by design in situations she shouldn't be in.
"It's a descent or progression that starts as self-defense and very quickly becomes something else."
"The Kingdom" stars Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper as members of a U.S. counterterrorism unit chasing after the mastermind of a bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Their investigation runs smack into culture clash as Saudi leaders view them as arrogant Americans bulling their way into a matter for local authorities.
The pursuit hits close to home for Foxx's character, the FBI man leading the American response, who has lost a close friend in the bombing.
"He goes a little overboard because of the fact that it is personal, kind of like a 9/11 thing for him," Foxx said. "You see him on fire for this. `Whoever did it, I'm going to the end of the world to find out who, because it's personal.' And his team is telling him it's too personal."
INHERITING THE EARTH:
"I Am Legend," adapted from the same novel as "The Omega Man," takes place after a plague that wipes out most of humanity and transforms others into bloodthirsty nocturnal creatures.
Will Smith stars as a survivor -- and possibly the last human on Earth.
Smith said he spends much of the movie in silence, with just a dog for company. To help capture the character's desperate loneliness, Smith met with prisoners of war and inmates who lived in solitary confinement, including one man left alone so long he claimed he had trained cockroaches to gather food for him.
"It's fun to have a moment by yourself alone, a little peace and quiet, but peace and quiet turns into your worst nightmare very, very quickly," Smith said.
"If you break your ankle, you need your tonsils out, anything that takes another person to do, the first time you get an infection, you're in trouble," Smith said. "The reason that there are cities and civilizations and Screen Actors Guilds and AFL-CIOs, the reason people form groups, is that you can't survive by yourself."
As he did two years ago with "Syriana" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney moonlights as a performer in one movie and actor-director on another.
Clooney has the title role in "Michael Clayton," a legal drama about a corporate firm battling a class-action lawsuit.
"I play sort of a fixture in a law firm who does all the dirty work most people don't talk about," Clooney said. "He's not a guy who's ambitious to get to the top. He's just a guy who sort of makes a living. The idea is, times are changing and the world is crashing in around him, and he's boxed himself into a corner. He just wants to make this one last deal and get out."
Clooney directs and stars in "Leatherheads," playing a 1920s pro football player who recruits a young college athlete (John Krasinski) with whom he ends up in a romantic triangle over a reporter (Renee Zellweger) profiling the new star.
It was the first time Clooney took a starring role in a movie he also directed, but tough as that was, suiting up and hitting the field was worse.
"That was the hardest part, playing football every day. You forget how old you are until you get hit by a 21-year-old from Clemson University," Clooney said. "It literally just rattles the teeth. I'd be saying, 'OK, new rules: Nobody hit the director."'