As the fall movie season cranks up next week, several questions arise:
Can Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels get any dumberer?
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Will Christopher Nolan regain his mojo with "Interstellar"?
Can Katniss Everdeen convince us to see "Mockingjay, Part 2" in 2015?
Will Jon Stewart have a directing career if "The Daily Show" folds?
The answers will arrive in due time as fall films roll out.
I admit I love the autumn film season with its promise of something wicked this way coming in October, the rise of serious-minded films competing for Oscar attention and the battle to release the first holiday film.
Among the releases I'm looking forward to with high hopes this season:
"Gone Girl" -- Directed by David Fincher, who's done "Seven," "The Social Network," "Fight Club" and so many other sparkling, original gems that this movie merits high levels of pure anticipation. When a wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears, her perfect marriage to her hubby (soon-to-be-Batman Ben Affleck) cracks under media scrutiny. Opens Oct. 3.
"Dear White People" -- Justin Simien won a spot on Variety's annual "10 Directors to Watch," and here's one reason. A college DJ (Tessa Thompson) starts a bit called "Dear White People" and lays down the law on racial relations. If this comedy proves to be as caustically honest as its trailer suggests, it could become the "Do the Right Thing" of the 21st century. It opens Oct. 17.
"Whiplash" -- I am rooting for veteran character actor J.K. Simmons to finally snag the big breakthrough film role he's deserved ever since his superior work as a neo-Nazi on the HBO prison drama "Oz." He's got a shot here as an insanely ruthless music teacher who pushes an aspiring young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) to the brink sanity. It also opens Oct. 17.
"St. Vincent" -- How can you not see a movie starring two of Chicago's most stylistically different personalities? Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy appear in a story about a single mom dealing with a bad influence on her son, Murray's drinking and gambling curmudgeon. Opens Oct. 24.
Along with those four, the fall season offers plenty of other films. Here's the Daily Herald's list of movies scheduled to open through Nov. 21. (Our holiday movie preview will be published on that date.) Keep in mind that release dates can change on a dime, if studio execs think they can earn more dimes that way.
"The Congress" -- Celebrated director Ari Folman (for his astonishing, animated, quasi-documentary "Waltz With Bashir") looks at the dilemma of actors in the digital age in this tale of an aging actress (Robin Wright, playing a version of herself) who sells rights to her digital likeness to Hollywood so she can "star" in future movies without ever aging. Harvey Keitel plays her agent. Danny Huston plays a studio head. Jon Hamm plays a head CGI animator.
"Falcon Rising" -- An ex-U.S. Marine travels to the slums of Brazil to hunt and punish the men who attacked his sister. While he's at it, he also mops up the underground world of drugs, prostitution and police corruption, all ruled by the Japanese mafia. Starring Michael Jae White and Laila Ali.
"The Identical" -- The mysterious "twin connection" is the subject of this drama about two identical brothers (Blake Rayne), separated at birth during the Great Depression then later brought together by their mutual passion for music. With Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta and Seth Green.
"The Last of Robin Hood" -- Kevin Kline plays Hollywood action star/romance idol Errol Flynn in this look at the aging actor's scandalous fling with a young would-be starlet (a very grown-up Dakota Fanning) pushed by her publicity-hound mother (Susan Sarandon). If the trailer is any indication, this could be one dull "the price of fame" tale.
"Life After Beth" -- An impressive, star-heavy cast helps tell this comic romance about a regular guy ("Spider-Man 2" villain Dane DeHaan) who loses his true love (Aubrey Plaza), but gets a second chance when she returns from the dead. With Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, Chicago's own John C. Reilly and Paul Reiser.
"Starred Up" -- Written by prison therapist Jonathan Asser, this drama is billed as "a merciless, uncompromising portrayal of a dehumanizing life behind bars" presented through the personal story of teen convict Eric (Jack O'Connell), who is prematurely transferred to the same prison as his unpredictable, estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn).
"Abuse of Weakness" -- Controversial French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, director of the startling, adults-only dramas "Romance" and "Fat Girl," writes and directs a story based on her own life. A filmmaker (Isabelle Huppert), despite being bedridden because of a stroke, wants to make a movie about a con who swindles celebrities. She proves to be an easy victim to his manipulative charm as their symbiotic relationship jumps the tracks.
"Code Black" -- Real-life physician Ryan McGarry makes his directorial debut with this documentary about C-Booth, L.A. County Hospital's trauma bay and the birthplace of emergency medicine, where he follows a team of "dedicated, charismatic young doctors-in-training." Because who wants to watch charisma-challenged doctors?
"Dolphin Tale 2" -- Winter is depressed. Turns out that the aquatic star of the 2011 family hit movie "Dolphin Tale" needs friendship, not romance, and it's up to her human buddies (the entire returning cast of Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Austin Stowell) to find her a suitable BFFF (best finned friend forever).
"The Drop" -- Critics' fave Tom Hardy stars as a bartender in a Brooklyn bar owned by his tough cousin (the late James Gandolfini), who uses the place to launder underworld money. Punks rob the bar, and all you-know-what breaks loose. With original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Noomi Rapace and a cute little dog. (And we all know what happens to cute little dogs in crime tales, don't we?) Screenplay by Dennis Lehane, author of "Gone Baby Gone" and "Mystic River."
"The Homestretch" -- A documentary by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly looks at three homeless Chicago teenagers: Roque, performing Hamlet with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Anthony, a recent dad and canny artist with lyrics and poetry; and Kasey, whose mother refused to accept her lesbianism.
"No Good Deed" -- Anyone who's seen "A Clockwork Orange" knows you should never open your door to a stranger claiming to have been in a car accident. Terri (Taraji P. Henson) does, thereby putting herself and her kids into jeopardy from Idris Elba's smooth-talking mystery man.
"The Notebook" -- Not a remake of the Nicholas Sparks weepie. A dark story of 13-year-old twin brothers (called "One" and "The Other") who, in World War II-besieged Hungary, learn how to be human beings from observing the flawed adults around them: desensitized people accustomed to cruelty, hatred, violence and suffering.
"The Skeleton Twins" -- "SNL" vets Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader show their dramatic chops (along with comic ones, too) as estranged twins who reconnect and examine why their lives jumped the tracks. Contains the dopey, overused cliché of the pop song lip-sync singalong, so let's not get our hopes up. With Emmy-winning Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson.
"The Guest" -- "Downton Abbey" star Dan Stevens shows his dark side by playing a former soldier in Iraq who ingratiates himself into the family of a friend killed in action. The family thinks he's wonderful. Until (cue the Bernard Hermann music) his mental and moral cannon comes really loose and the guest goes full-tilt Terminator. Directed by Adam Wingard, who gave us the thriller "You're Next."
"Hector and the Search for Happiness" -- Simon Pegg plays the title psychiatrist, so bored and unchallenged by his life that he embarks on a global quest for the secret to true happiness. Good luck with that, Hector. Rosamund Pike plays his girlfriend, who must feel pretty bummed by this twist of events. Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer co-star.
"In Search of Chopin" -- British documentary maker Phil Grabsky examines the life and work of Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, having already performed similar films on Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.
"The Maze Runner" -- A science-fiction thriller about a group of boys who mysteriously wake up one day and discover they are trapped in a massive maze. Plus, their memories have been wiped. All they know are their dreams about an organization known as W.C.K.D. and, of course, they appear to be stuck in the ending of "The Shining."
"My Old Lady" -- New Yorker Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is shocked to learn that the Paris apartment he has inherited from his estranged father is occupied by a feisty Englishwoman (Maggie Smith), who can, by law, collect monthly payments from him until she dies. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her daughter, and, no doubt, potential romance material.
"This is Where I Leave You" -- An all-star cast (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne) looks good in this zany comedy (based on Jonathan Tropper's best-seller) about an awkward family reunion. (The comic version of "August: Osage County," perhaps?)
"Through a Lens Darkly" -- Thomas Allen Harris writes and directs a feature documentary tracing the evolution of photography while tracing the history of African-Americans from the slavery era through today.
"Tracks" -- Mia Wasikowska stars in the fact-based story of Robyn Davidson. She treks through 2,000 miles of sprawling Australian desert with a dog and four camels. Her journey of self-discovery is chronicled by a National Geographic photographer, played by the always watchable Adam Driver.
"Tusk" -- Kevin Smith apparently mixes "Misery" and "Human Centipede" to create a macabre tale of a curious podcaster (Justin Long) who is drugged and abducted by a strange man (Michael Parks) in a wheelchair with a knack for surgery. Co-starring Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense."
"A Walk among the Tombstones" -- Yes, the lowercase "a" is the movie's accurate title, according to the studio. Liam Neeson plays a former cop with a particular set of skills that he uses to root out the sadistic thugs who brutally murdered the wife of his new employer, a wealthy drug dealer (Dan Stevens).
"The Boxtrolls" -- Splendid stop-motion animation (mixed with computer animation) highlights this children's fantasy about a boy named Eggs being raised by British boxtrolls, misunderstood creatures who live in old, discarded boxes beneath the city.
"The Equalizer" -- A mysterious man with a particular set of skills (Denzel Washington) risks his life to help a young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) escape Russian gangsters. The man is so good at wiping out baddies that he risks becoming dullingly unrealistic. Based on the 1980s TV series with Edward Woodward.
"Fort McCoy" -- A fact-based drama directed by Kate Connor, who plays her own grandmother, the wife of Frank Stirn (Eric Stoltz), a barber for the American Army and POW camp at Fort McCoy, Wis., in the summer of 1944 when 425,000 German soldiers were brought to U.S. camps during World War II.
"Rocks in My Pockets" -- Latvian-born artist Signe Baumane tells five fantastical tales based on the courageous women in her family and their battles with madness by employing a beautifully textured combination of papier-mâché stop-motion and classic hand-drawn animation.
"Swim Little Fish Swim" -- A domestic comedy about finding your bliss. When a 19-year-old French artist moves into a dysfunctional couple's tiny Chinatown apartment, things get even worse between a dedicated nurse and her irresponsible, musician husband.
"Two Night Stand" -- Don't you hate it when a paralyzing blizzard forces you to stay with your one-night stand much longer than you wanted? That happens to New Yorkers Megan (Analeigh Tipton) and Alec (Miles Teller) in Max Nichols' directorial debut. Worse, the couple is trapped in Brooklyn.
"My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks" -- Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Fluttershy prepare to perform with their new band, The Rainbooms. When The Dazzlings, a new girl group, turn the friendly showcase into a Battle of the Bands, tensions mount between the competing musical acts! (Can we stand it?)
"Annabelle" -- Remember that really creepy possessed doll at the beginning of the horror movie "The Conjuring"? She's baaaaaack. In her own movie starring (I'm not kidding) Annabelle Wallis and Alfre Woodard. You'll never listen to "I Only Have Eyes For You" the same way again, if they keep the song in the movie.
"The Hero of Color City" -- It's a battle for survival when two unfinished drawings try to steal a magic rainbow in Color City, the source of all color in the Crayon universe. Can timid Yellow, pessimistic Black, meticulous Green, sarcastic Red, brave Blue and overanxious White save the day? An animated adventure starring the voices of Christina Ricci, Craig Ferguson, Rosie Perez, Jessica Capshaw and Sean Astin.
"Left Behind" -- When the biblical Rapture strikes, millions of people disappear, leaving behind Christian nonbelievers such as pilot Ray Steele (Nicolas Cage), struggling to keep his plane from crashing as it runs out of fuel. Meanwhile on earth, Steele's daughter looks for her brother and mother, both of whom may have disappeared, leaving her alone in a world of terror and despair.
"Addicted" -- Sometimes, having it all isn't enough. Zoe (Sharon Leal) risks her perfect marriage, great kids and wonderful job because she's on the prowl at night for something more. Guess she's addicted to love. (We'll find out if they use the Robert Palmer song on the soundtrack.)
"Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" -- It begins when little Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) gets a wad of gum in his hair. Things get worse, and by the time he's had the worst day of his life, he realizes he's not alone. Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Megan Mullally and everyone else has bad days, too. If the trailers are any indication this could be hilarious, despite a lot of major clichés.
"The Good Lie" -- You might remember them as "The Lost Boys," orphans of the civil war in Sudan that began in 1983. Fifteen years later, 3,600 of them are brought to America. This is their story, starring several Sudanese actors, many of whom were also children of war. Reese Witherspoon and Corey Stoll star.
"I am Ali" -- Claire Lewins directs an intimate documentary about boxing's legendary "The Greatest," with guests such as Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Gene Kilroy.
"The Judge" -- Nothing brings an estranged father and son relationship together like a first-degree murder charge. Robert Downey Jr.'s hot shot big city attorney can't stand his dad, Robert Duvall's small-town judge. When Billy Bob Thornton's DA charges Dad with killing someone, his son reluctantly takes his case. Vera Farmiga co-stars.
"Kill the Messenger" -- Another fact-based drama, this one starring Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who uncovers the U.S. government's policy of allowing drug cartels to flood American streets with cocaine so they can finance the rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Could be the season's best real-life horror movie.
"Pride" -- "We're being backed up by perverts!" is how one woman sees it. That's before she and the other families of coal miners under the rule of Margaret Thatcher in 1984 get to know the gays and lesbians who raise money for them during a divisive strike. Along the way, they raise awareness and boost toleration from the locals. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy star.
"The Best of Me" -- Novelist Nicholas Sparks strikes again! Former high school sweethearts Dawson and Amanda (James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan) say "game on!" after returning to their small town for the funeral of a friend. But the troubled past that drove them apart is still there, lurking, waiting, itching, ready to strike. Expect more carefree jumping into lakes, fireplace scenes, lady-and-the-tramp relationships and old scars that haven't healed.
"Birdman" -- A former superhero movie star (Michael Keaton, a former superhero movie star) stages a comeback by way of a Broadway play. Will his ego crush him? Or everyone else? Trailers make this movie look like it's loaded with life-lesson calendar sayings. With Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis.
"The Book of Life" -- Visually reminiscent of Tim Burton's work, this animated epic from producer Guillermo del Toro blends classic themes of a man willing to do anything for love, including taking a trip to the Netherworld and challenging himself to face his greatest fears. Voices by Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana and Ice Cube.
"Dracula Untold" -- Forget the historic Vlad the Impaler. To fight his ancient enemies, this well-meaning Dracula (Dominic Cooper) grows a pair (of fangs) and takes a walk on the dark side. "Sometimes the world doesn't need a hero," Drac's son says. "It needs a monster!" What has Dad been reading to this kid?
"Fury" -- No, not the horse. Not the Avengers leader. Not a remake of Brian DePalma's Chicago horror film. It's David Ayer's World War II drama about a tank commander (Brad Pitt) whose crew faces "overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany!" Shia LaBeouf and Michael Pena help Pitt give Hitler a military heart attack.
"John Wick" -- Ah, yes, the old hit-man vs. hit-man plot involving pals with conflicted loyalties. A former contract killer (Keanu Reeves) is contacted by an old friend (Willem Dafoe) hired to bump him off. With Bridget Moynahan.
"Laggies" -- In indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton's sixth movie, a friend's lavish wedding triggers a life change for 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley), stuck on a life plateau until she meets teenagers (led by Chloe Grace Moretz) who become her liberators by granting her permission to not go with the flow.
"Ouija" -- Winner for the horror movie with the blandest, most overused genre title of the season. Friends of an apparent suicide victim use a Ouija board to contact her and say how much they miss her. First clue they're in trouble: the answering spirit doesn't know how to spell "friend."
"Stonehearst Asylum" -- A Harvard graduate (Jim Sturgess) becomes obsessed with a mental patient (who wouldn't? She's Kate Beckinsale) while working at a mental asylum taken over by the inmates. Based on an 1845 Edgar Allan Poe short story and directed by Brad "The Call" Anderson.
"Before I Go To Sleep" -- Nicole Kidman plays an accident victim who wakes up every day with her memory cells wiped clean, but a growing sense of paranoia. When she starts slowly putting things together, she becomes suspicious about everyone around her, including her doctor (Mark Strong) and even her husband (Colin Firth).
"Nightcrawler" -- Done properly, Dan Gilroy's drama could be a "Network" or an "Ace in the Hole" for the 21st century. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a reporter who becomes a star in the nocturnal world of freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles. Renee Russo plays his tough-as-Kevlar boss. With Bill Paxton.
"Big Hero 6" -- From Walt Disney animation comes a sci-fi action comedy about a genius kid and his inflatable sidekick (should the Michelin Man sue for damages?) out to solve the mystery of a Kabuki villain armed with microbots.
"The Homesman" -- Tommy Lee Jones both directs and stars as a cowpoke who helps a frontier woman (Hillary Swank) transport three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa, where they apparently belong. With Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld and John Lithgow.
"Interstellar" -- An engineer (Matthew McConaughey) leaves the planet to save it in Christopher "Inception" Nolan's sci-fi drama, directed from his brother Jonathan's script about inter-dimensional travel, inspired by the theories of physicist Kip Thorne. Anne Hathaway stars.
"Jessabelle" -- All Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) wanted to do was spend some peaceful time recovering from a horrible car accident at her Louisiana childhood home. But noooooo! An evil spirit wants to keep her as a permanent guest. From the producer of "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious."
"Rosewater" -- "The Daily Show" host and anchor Jon Stewart makes his directorial debut from his screenplay based on a true story. Gael Garcia Bernal plays BBC journalist Maziar Bahari, tortured for 118 days by Revolutionary Guard police for photographing street riots in Iran.
"The Theory of Everything" -- Eddie Redmayne plays renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) before receiving the terrible diagnosis that put him in a wheelchair at 21. A biopic based on "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen."
"Beyond the Lights" -- Joining other ethically questionable professional guardians who fall for their clients (The Bodyguard" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," for example), a cop named Kaz (Nate Parker) gets chummy with the superstar (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) he's assigned to protect. Turns out, he's the catalyst for making her a better performance artist, too!
"Dumb and Dumber To" -- Are we going to get a "Dumb and Dumber" sequel once every decade for eternity? The 1994 Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels comedy spawned a dismal 2003 prequel ("Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd" with Eric Christian Olsen and Derek Richardson.) Now, the original stars reunite with original directors the Farrelly brothers. Harry discovers he's got a daughter, and Lloyd discovers her, too.
"Foxcatcher" -- Directed by Bennett "Moneyball" Miller, this fact-based drama tells how Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) pins his hopes on being "coached" by eccentric multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) for the 1988 Olympics. It doesn't end well.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" -- The producers handed this franchise over to Francis Lawrence, director of the humdrum 2005 supernatural thriller "Constantine." Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) fights for Peeta under a new president (Julianne Moore.)
"The Imitation Game" -- You'd think that being the genius mathematician, logician, cryptologist and computer scientist who cracked the German Enigma Code that helped the Allies win World War II would make Alan Turing a British hero. Nope. The government prosecuted him for homosexual acts in 1952. The great Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing. With Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode.