Highlights of the fall movie season:
“Burn After Reading” (opens Friday): After their moody Oscar triumph “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers let their hair down with this spoofy crime farce. Two dim-witted Washington gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) try to blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) for the return of a CD-ROM containing his memoirs. The duo treat their scheme more like a prank than a felony until the misanthropic spy gives them a violent taste of reality. Tilda Swinton plays the spook's irritable, unfaithful wife, George Clooney is her bumbling lover, and J.K. Simmons is an incompetent intelligence czar.
“Ghost Town”: After a near-death experience, testy New York dentist Bertram Pincus sees dead people and finds they're just as needy and pushy as the living. One pesky spirit wants him to break up the planned marriage between his widow and a dull suitor, and when Bertram falls for the lovely, intelligent woman, he enlists the ghost's help to chase her himself. On paper, it looks formulaic, but there's a raft of solid talent involved, from Ricky Gervais (of the BBC's “The Office”) in his leading-man debut to writer/director David Koepp (one of Steven Spielberg's favorite collaborators) to Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni as the ghost and his former wife. (Opens Sept. 19.)
“Lakeview Terrace”: In this racially charged thriller, a black LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) takes increasingly threatening action to force out the mixed-race couple (Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson) who move in next door. Director Neil LaBute delivers excruciating suspense as the feud escalates to dangerous violence. It's also observant about subtleties of discrimination, and powerfully acted. Jackson seems to have taken a lesson from Denzel Washington's bad-cop Oscar performance in “Training Day.” He's scary, ferocious, cunning and treacherous. (Sept. 19.)
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“W”: Oliver Stone and politics go together like kitchen matches and kerosene. His quick, low-budget biopic of our commander in chief is guaranteed to be a partisan broadside; I'm hoping it'll be shamelessly entertaining, too. With a lawn-lacerating car accident, boozing and a brawl between young George and his dad, the trailer could pass for an Adam Sandler comedy. Josh Brolin takes the title role, but I'm most eager to see that irrepressible hambone Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. (Oct. 24.)
“Synecdoche, New York”: From its obscure, tongue-twisting title to its reality-warping narrative, nothing in Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut takes the easy route. The story is a fable about creativity, imagination and aging, told through the life of a theater director creating an epic play on a life-size set of New York City. The ever-astounding Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the lead, with a starry cavalcade including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis as the perplexing women in his life. Coming from the quirky Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), it's certain to be arty, elegant and more twisted than a barrel of pretzels. (Oct. 24.)
“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”: The new wave of raunchy-but-nice comedy reportedly ratchets up a few notches with the latest from a writer/director famous for his crude wit, Kevin Smith (“Clerks”). Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks star as longtime friends who decide to fill their empty bank accounts by shooting a blue movie in Pittsburgh with local amateur talent. While the film doesn't quite deliver on its title (it's rated R), it's definitely rude. The late George Carlin, one of Smith's mentors, would be delighted by the tone of salacious silliness. (Oct. 31.)
“Quantum of Solace”: The latest James Bond adventure reportedly takes off 20 minutes after the finale of “Casino Royale,” with 007 on a personal vendetta to punish everyone responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. The trail leads Bond (Daniel Craig) to a ruthless businessman (Mathieu Amalric, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) making a grab for Latin America's natural resources. If the film continues in the cool, high-energy path of its predecessor, the 22nd in the Bond series could be memorable. (Nov. 14.)
“The Soloist”: Sometimes you have to get past the synopsis and put your faith in the talent. A disillusioned journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of performing at L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Also on hand are Catherine Keener and Stephen Root, director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”). My fingers are crossed that this one will soar to multiple-Oscar glory. (Nov. 21.)
“Australia”: No surfing, Foster's beer or glamour shots of the Sydney Opera House here. It's a historical-romantic saga from hipster auteur Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”). An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) who has inherited a huge cattle station recruits a rough-hewn stockman (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head across hundreds of miles of near-impassable terrain. There's high-society dancing, courtship and ferocious aerial attacks from Japanese dive-bombers as World War II erupts. (Nov. 26.)