LOS ANGELES — Brad Pitt reinvents baseball, while Kristen Stewart acquires a taste for blood. George Clooney runs for president, while Meryl Streep impersonates Margaret Thatcher. Leonardo DiCaprio puts America under surveillance, while Robert Downey Jr. faces a criminal mastermind.
Variety abounds in Hollywood's fall and holiday seasons as studios pack the schedule with Oscar hopefuls, action flicks, comedy and music-themed tales, as well as a family lineup that brings the return of the Muppets, dancing penguins, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Puss in Boots.
Downey's back in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" as the great detective and his ally Watson (Jude Law) meet archenemy Professor Moriarty. Clooney directs and stars as a White House aspirant in "The Ides of March," with Ryan Gosling as an aide who stumbles onto disturbing campaign secrets. Stewart reunites with vampire lover Robert Pattinson and werewolf pal Taylor Lautner in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1," the next-to-last chapter in their supernatural saga.
Split into two movies, the final book in Stephenie Meyer's series holds major life changes for Stewart's Bella, which we won't divulge here for sake of the handful of fans who haven't read it. For those who have, director Bill Condon says the cliffhanger that concludes part one is a no-brainer.
"The clue lies in the book," Condon said. "I would say that if you know the book well, I think you'll have a good sense of where the first movie will end."
The season also brings two films directed by Steven Spielberg, the globe-trotting story "The Adventures of Tintin" and the World War I saga "War Horse"; Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film "Hugo," about an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station; "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," with Tom Cruise's elite team going rogue after an attack on the Kremlin; the comedy "Jack and Jill," with Adam Sandler in dual roles as a family guy and his pesky sister; and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," an adaptation of the Swedish best-seller starring Daniel Craig as a journalist aided on an investigation by a deeply troubled computer genius (Rooney Mara).
Real people provide intriguing stories as Streep seeks to add to her record 16 Oscar acting nominations, playing the British prime minister in "The Iron Lady"; Pitt takes over the Oakland A's front office as pioneering baseball strategist Billy Beane in "Moneyball"; and DiCaprio takes on the sweeping life of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood.
The film spans decades, covering the bureau's successes taking down gangsters in the 1930s, Hoover's paranoia about communists and civil-rights leaders, and questions about his sexual preferences.
"He was surrounded in mystery. I'd always heard a lot about rumors of his sexuality, the cross-dressing, but more than that, the man had absolute power when it came to forming the bureau of investigation and its influence over the government," DiCaprio said. "He was pretty much a historical figure that wasn't to be messed with."
In "Moneyball," Pitt's Beane takes over the A's and builds one of baseball's most cost-effective teams through "sabermetrics," a statistical analysis that broke with conventional Major League scouting by identifying undervalued players.
"It's tough, tough material in a sense of how do you make a dramatic film out of sabermetrics? But there is a story of going up against a system," Pitt said. "If we hadn't been doing it this way for so long, is this the way we'd begin if we were starting today? Like our use of oil. You could ask the same question if the automobile was being invented today. Would we really be going oil?"
Hollywood is giving a fresh start to familiar titles and characters. Among them: the animated sequel "Happy Feet Two," with Elijah Wood's tap-dancing penguin coping with fatherhood issues; "Puss in Boots," an animated "Shrek" spinoff chronicling the early adventures of Antonio Banderas' gutsy cat; "The Muppets," the first big-screen outing in more than a decade for the beloved puppet gang; "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked!", with the talking rodents stranded on a remote island; "The Thing," a prequel to the 1982 horror tale about Antarctic researchers terrorized by an organism that replicates human forms; and "Footloose," with newcomer Kenny Wormald as a youth rebelling against a town's ban on dancing.
"Footloose" director Craig Brewer was 13 when he saw the 1984 original. It was a seminal movie for Brewer, whose credits include the acclaimed "Hustle & Flow," and it bothered him when the remake was announced and people asked, "why would you want to do some tripe like 'Footloose'?"
"Are you kidding? 'Footloose' rocked my world. It really rocked my world," Brewer said. "I made it for a new generation, but I'm a filmmaker because of 'Footloose.' I think I'm actually a better man because of 'Footloose.'"
Peter Jackson shares similar childhood fondness for "Tintin," on which "The Lord of the Rings" filmmaker is a producer. New Zealander Jackson said that Belgian writer Herge's stories of intrepid young reporter Tintin are as popular there as they are in Europe.
But like most Americans, Spielberg never heard of Tintin until he was in his 30s, only discovering Herge's storybooks after French critics compared the character to Indiana Jones when 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out.
"Indiana Jones is a chiseled character and I guess has a different kind of tenacity," said Spielberg, whose film stars Jamie Bell in a performance-capture role as Tintin, with computer animation providing the final look of the characters. "Tintin is much more of a Boy Scout. He's a reporter, but he begins by reporting a story that is always about a mystery that needs to be solved or a puzzle that needs solving, and he winds up becoming the story. You're not supposed to do that, I think, in journalism. You're not supposed to become the story."
Spielberg also directs the live action "War Horse," which follows the travels of a horse that journeys from rural England through the battlefields of Europe during World War I.
Other films for the fall and holidays include "Tower Heist," with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy orchestrating a revenge raid on a swindling tycoon; "Arthur Christmas," an animated adventure about a youth (voiced by James McAvoy) who delves into Santa's high-tech operation; "Real Steel," starring Hugh Jackman as an ex-fighter training a robot boxer in a world where machines have taken over in the ring; "In Time," featuring Justin Timberlake on the run in a future where people scramble for time allotments to stay alive; "Immortals," with Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto in a clash of ancient Greek gods and heroes; and "The Big Year," casting Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as rivals in a bird-watching competition.
Also, "Dream House," starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as a couple whose new home holds terrible secrets; "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in a drama about a boy convinced that his father left a final message before his death in the Sept. 11 attacks; "New Year's Eve," an ensemble tale set on the last night of the year that features Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Biel and Hilary Swank; "The Sitter," with Jonah Hill as the world's worst babysitter; "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron as a writer reconnecting with hometown classmates; and "Contagion," tracing a deadly virus as it sweeps around the globe.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, "Contagion" has an all-star ensemble led by Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law.
Shunning Hollywood conventions, Soderbergh aimed for a fact-based thriller that would authentically capture how authorities and the general public might respond to a viral threat.
"The more realistic it is, the scarier it is, and we just spent a lot of time not only on the science, but sort of analyzing interpersonal behavior in these kinds of situations," Soderbergh said. "It was a challenge to try and avoid the things that were kind of movie tropes, and yet keep it entertaining and keep the thing sort of moving along."
While Soderbergh wants to put audiences on alert, the Muppets just want to put on a show.
"The Muppets" features Jason Segel and Amy Adams as a couple helping to reunite Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and their friends for a telethon to save the Muppet theater from the clutches of an evil oilman (Chris Cooper).
Also a co-writer of the movie, Segel said that much as he loves his R-rated comedies, he's always been drawn to the wholesome message of the Muppets.
"I have a real affinity for things that are good, that are nice and are teaching kids to be kind to each other," Segel said. "It's really easy to get a laugh making fun of somebody, and I think too readily people rely on that. And the Muppets never did. Their whole message is about kindness."
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