Harry Potter pulled a disappearing act from Hollywood's fall and holiday schedule, his sixth big-screen adventure bumped from this November into next summer.
That leaves a little more room to roam at the box office for the likes of James Bond, a vampire heartthrob, the "High School Musical" kids and all those talking cartoon critters studios are about to unleash.
The season offers action (Bond's latest, "Quantum of Solace"), family flicks (the animated sequel "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"), fantasy romance (the best-seller adaptation "Twilight"), and serious stuff lining up for the Academy Awards, from Nicole Kidman's epic "Australia" to Bond star Daniel Craig's war saga "Defiance."
Brad Pitt reunites with old pals George Clooney and Cate Blanchett in two films, Clint Eastwood does his own two-fer by directing Angelina Jolie in one drama and himself in another, and Oliver Stone takes on his latest president with a George W. Bush biopic.
Highlights of what Hollywood has in store:
THE WORLD AT WAR:
World War II is huge this season, with Cruise, Craig and director Spike Lee all offering dramas touching on little-known aspects of the conflict.
In director Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," Cruise stars as German Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who led a group of insiders in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a briefcase bomb.
Key scenes were shot at actual places in Germany where events occurred, including Bendlerblock, the place where the anti-Nazi conspirators were executed.
"It was eerie, but on the other hand, when looking at it from Stauffenberg's viewpoint and what he did and what these men did, it was powerful," Cruise said. "As an actor, I think I can say for all of us who were there that we felt fortunate to get those locations and shoot at those places. It really changes the performances to do it there at that spot."
Craig stars with Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell in Edward Zwick's "Defiance," the story of Jewish brothers who escape the Nazis and set up a community of resistance fighters in Eastern Europe.
Spike Lee directs "Miracle at St. Anna," starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller as members of the all-black "Buffalo Soldier" outfit fighting in Italy.
The film dramatizes the valor of troops whose heroism amid bigotry on the homefront is unknown to many Americans today, Lee said.
"These guys are true American patriots. They were fighting two wars," Lee said. "They were fighting the Nazis, the fascists in Europe and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and they were fighting Jim Crow racism, prejudice in the United States of America at the same time."
LICENSE TO AVENGE:
When we last saw Mr. Bond, the super-spy in the making was really steamed and looking for payback over the death of the love of his life.
"Quantum of Solace" picks up where "Casino Royale" left off, pitting Bond against a phony environmentalist trying to monopolize the water supply.
The title comes from a phrase in an Ian Fleming short story, where someone describes to Bond a relationship that unraveled and what measure of devotion is required to keep love alive.
"I love the idea of it. It applied to where Bond was at the end of the last movie," Craig said. "The one thing he didn't have with the relationship was that quantum of solace."
Also on the action front: "Heat" co-stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino reunite for "Righteous Kill," playing cops tracking a vigilante serial killer; Mark Wahlberg stars as a cop out to avenge the deaths of his family and partner in the video-game adaptation "Max Payne"; Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are hired lawmen in the Western "Appaloosa," directed by Harris and featuring Renee Zellweger; and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe team for Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies," about a CIA hunt for a terrorist mastermind.
"It's rare where you get a piece of material that's politically pertinent like this but also sort of non-preachy and engaging entertainment for an audience," DiCaprio said.
LOVE AT FIRST BITE:
"Twilight" is the good-girl, bad-boy romance based on the first book in Stephenie Meyer's series about an awkward teen (Kristen Stewart) who falls for a dazzling, eternally young stud (Robert Pattinson).
OK, so he's a vampire, but a nice vampire, from a family of bloodsuckers who eschew gnawing on human necks.
"He doesn't want to be a monster, he doesn't want to kill people," said "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke. "He loves her, but if he gets too passionate, he will want her blood. He will want to kill her."
Other odd romances include "Ghost Town," a comedy with Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear, about a misanthropic dentist able to see ghosts who falls for the wife of one of the dead guys haunting him; and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," director Kevin Smith's tale of destitute best pals (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who do a skin flick to raise cash.
LEO AND KATE:
Their epic love was giddy, passionate, unshakable _ until the ship hit the iceberg and sank. The stars of "Titanic," Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, share a far different love story in "Revolutionary Road," playing a couple whose marriage comes undone as they seek meaning amid the stifling conformity of the 1950s.
Good pals in real life, DiCaprio and Winslet had some awkward moments in their love scenes: her husband, "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes, was looking on and giving them pointers.
How weird was it?
"No more than any other situation like that," DiCaprio said. "Doing those type of scenes is always a bit strange, never mind a husband but an entire crew watching you."
Among other big-screen reunions: Brad Pitt reteams with "Ocean's Eleven" accomplice George Clooney for the spy-game black comedy "Burn After Reading," from Joel and Ethan Coen (who are reuniting themselves with Clooney and co-stars Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins); Pitt rejoins "Babel" co-star Cate Blanchett for David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages backward toward infancy; and Nicole Kidman is back with "Moulin Rouge" creator Baz Luhrmann, co-starring with Hugh Jackman in "Australia," a tale of a British aristocrat and a roughneck driving cattle across the continent amid a Japanese attack during World War II.
One of Hollywood's most efficient filmmakers, perpetual Academy Award contender Clint Eastwood again cranks out two movies in short order. First, he directs Angelina Jolie in "Changeling," the story of a single mom coping with corrupt police who return the wrong child in place of her abducted son.
Then, Eastwood directs himself in "Gran Torino," playing a veteran whose prejudices are challenged in encounters with his immigrant neighbors.
Awards season is crowded with other serious films featuring past Oscar winners, among them "Milk," starring Sean Penn as slain gay political pioneer Harvey Milk; "The Soloist," with Jamie Foxx as a schizophrenic music prodigy befriended by a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.); and "Doubt," with Meryl Streep as a nun who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing a boy.
Three decades ago, Richard Nixon faced the scrutiny of David Frost in what became a television event for the ages as the British TV personality delivered a remarkably candid interview with the fallen president.
"This was two lone wolves. It's a duel. Two complicated, fascinating, really brilliant people," said Ron Howard, who directs "Frost/Nixon," adapted from the play about the TV showdown. Reprising their stage roles, Frank Langella stars as Nixon opposite Michael Sheen as Frost.
"For men with their histories, their intelligence, their egos, a contest like this really did become kind of life and death," Howard said. "They say it in the piece: There can be only one winner."
The current president, George W. Bush, comes under the scrutiny of director Oliver Stone, who previously took on White House matters with "Nixon" and "JFK." Stone's "W." _ due out right before the November election _ chronicles Bush's life from his Yale days through the Iraq War.
"We're telling it while he's still in office, which has never been done," said Elizabeth Banks, who plays Laura Bush. "The Bush family is a political dynasty. In America, it's the closest thing we have to a political dynasty. Other than John Adams and John Quincy Adams, we've never had father-and-son presidents like this before."
FOR TEENS AND TWEENS:
Apparently, 12th grade was too much for your puny television.
"High School Musical 3: Senior Year" takes the Disney Channel sensation to the big-screen, reuniting the unlikely singing partners, basketball jock Troy (Zac Efron) and brainiac Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), along with stage rivals Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel).
"The set decoration is insane and beautiful. To think, in the first movie, we only had a ladder," Tisdale says, recalling one of her numbers from the original. "Everything's bigger, from details like the wardrobe, because of how big the screen is, and the musical numbers are so much bigger."
Another Disney Channel star, Miley Cyrus, lends her voice to the animated adventure "Bolt," the story of a canine TV star (voiced by John Travolta) on a cross-country trek to get home to his human co-star (Cyrus).
Other family flicks include "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," the live-action tale of a pampered dog (voiced by Drew Barrymore) lost in Mexico; "Igor," a cartoon comedy about a humpbacked lab assistant (voiced by John Cusack) who tries playing mad scientist; and "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," reuniting voice stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer as zoo animals out in the wild.
The sequel sets up one of the season's weirdest love stories, between Schwimmer's giraffe and Pinkett Smith's hippopotamus.
"He has this crush on her and finally confesses," Schwimmer said. "He believes he's only got a short time to live and that he's come down with this disease, so he's kind of convinced he's got to get up the nerve to tell her how he feels before he dies."
And those pesky "Madagascar" penguins are back, crashing the gang's plane in Africa then recruiting loads of grease monkeys _ meaning actual monkeys _ to rebuild it.