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by Matt Mazur

5 Sep 2008

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, all kinds of strange things happened to me, ranging from transcendent to downright dire. I sat next to the freaky Marilyn Manson at a screening, unbeknownst to me, and when the lights came up I audibly gasped in fear. I was shoved, stalked and harassed by a homeless, deranged drug addict who made me miss seeing legend Max Von Sydow speak live at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (thanks!). I somehow also managed to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of hundreds-strong crowd by asking a director a question he didn’t particularly like and openly scoffed at to the crowd, following a film screening that no one else in attendance particularly liked.

Whether it was being propositioned by streetwalkers while asking for directions (honest!) or simply making the rookie mistake of choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, yet highly torturous footwear I own over something sensible and proceeding to trek several miles, for several hours like an idiot, last year’s festival was a genuine learning experience.

Crippling blisters, bleeding feet, and terror in the streets aside, Toronto’s festival days are mainly exciting and fun, so here I am again, white boots at home in the closet where they belong. I am ready to spit out thousands and thousands of words that will be, for those of you actually keeping track, part “blog”, part actual film criticism. I’ll have to just get over the fact that some people don’t really care what I am wearing (though I have brought the Holy Gay Trinity of Gucci, Prada, and Miu Miu along to help this year), but, since everyone is so up in arms lately about the differences between a “blogger”, a “film critic”, and being a “fan” lately, I feel like I now have extra audiences to please. Again, thanks.

I will try desperately to keep the focus on the films, but in such a spontaneous climate filled with zany film industry comings and goings, who knows what will happen? All I know is I am writing about anything and everything that crosses my path, because, let’s face it: Toronto can get crazy at festival time.

This year, I was mostly jazzed to come back for the year-end prestige films that seemed to eminently loom on the filmic horizon, and after being so completely blown away by the sheer multitude of high-profile releases my prior trip to the Toronto Film Festival offered me, it seemed a logical assumption that all of these hugely anticipated films would make their debuts at Toronto. Chatter amongst most bloggers and movie devotees I know centered (in fact, it still centers) largely on the following films:

Doubt. The Reader. Australia. Revolutionary Road. Grey Gardens. The Road. Milk. Frost/Nixon. The Young Victoria. W. The Soloist. Body of Lies. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Cheri. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

This group of 15 movies seems to be the heavy artillery brigade of award contenders that will be trotted out come trophy time. These are the juggernauts that Oscar prognosticators have on their “major nominations” maps, which feature the biggest, brightest stars. In other words, they are the flagship prize-winners and powerhouses that Toronto is generally known for launching.

Guess what? None of those will be included in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival’s program. Not a single one.

Some have been bumped to 2009, and some are probably still not even all the way finished yet, but one thing is certain: the most anticipated flicks of the year will be released mainly to theaters first, rather than to festivals. Cinema enthusiasts will just have to wait a little longer to get word on these buzzy releases. Most entries premiering at Toronto this year, instead, will actually be auspicious North American debuts, rather than world premieres. Many are still desperately seeking distributors. A large handful will have already been shown at Venice and Cannes, and many still will be shown next month at the New York Film Festival.

Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling was nixed by Toronto because star Angelina Jolie decided to stay home with her newborn twins, rather than hauling her celebrity across the continent, out to Ontario, to stump for the flick (how’s that for punishing a working mother?). Curiously, the New York fete will feature The Changeling. With or without Angelina, we still don’t know, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get –- film aficionados (me included) are damn-near chomping at the bit to see if the Cannes buzz is to be trusted.

Speaking of Cannes, this year it looks as though the “international” will be forcibly inserted back into the festival’s title: films by such intercontinental auteurs as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Walter Salles, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar Wai pepper the schedule, and in place of the more high profile English-language releases (like last year’s buzz-gobblers Juno and Atonement), there are several smaller indie releases that don’t really compare: does anyone honestly care about the new Guy Richie gangster idiocy, or Kevin Smith’s lame-brained Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Nope.

Last year’s slate featured almost every single important film, presented with luscious sound and perfect picture (Toronto’s technical elements are sublime), by all of the most important directors of the season; the only Oscar prospect that didn’t play in Toronto last year was probably There Will Be Blood. So, I was, many ways, disappointed in what was being offered for 2008, after being so consistently blown away by the sheer volume of star wattage the previous year (as were so many other film fans, festival patrons, and other journalists I know). Of course, when a film critic whines, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

When I began my plan of attack by writing out my ridiculously awesome schedule, I realized I had become one of those jaded, shrill, complaining industry types that I had run afoul of so many times last year and despised so much (all that was missing was a ubiquitous BlackBerry surgically attached to my ear and a steady stream of complain-y epithets). I discovered that the line-up, despite it’s rather, um, cozy feeling, was going to be filled with an excitingly quiet fury and a divergent, thorough intelligence. In other words: get over it, Mazur!

Coming to this fest is exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s also a privilege. Crazy, random things happen at events like this and to be so close to the action is literally energizing -– you would be surprised at how late I can stay up, how many films I can see in a day, how much I can write, and how little I eat; it’s as though I am a beautiful fern existing on air and films alone. This year, organizers and programmers have taken careful consideration to assemble some of the best hidden gems you haven’t heard about (yet), but should definitely familiarize yourselves with, pronto.

Last year, I saw only one film on day one, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. This year’s first day began with a scheduling snafu, born of my inability to read press conference dates properly and my insistence on drinking one too many tequilas at a random Irish pub in Toronto’s Gay Village, somewhere on Church Street.

I had to scramble to find something to occupy my time, and unfortunately landed at the screening for the Argentinean Liverpool, a film from director Lisandro Alonso that I didn’t know the first thing about. I followed that rueful misfire with Olivier Assayas’ newest, the invigorating Summer Hours (which will be given the full treatment in another blog as I will be speaking with the esteemed Mr. Assayas later this week), and, finally, I was supposed to see Brick director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kickuchi, but because of a major screw-up on someone else’s part, I was put in the wrong waiting line and got shut out. When I got to the right line, the other press and industry folks standing there were rabidly jumping the line, yelling at each other, and generally acting like petulant school children. So, in place of that film, and all of the uncontrollable nonsense being allowed in the rush line, I had a lovely meal of venison with mushroom au jus and fried gnocchi at a Leslieville lounge called Barrio.

Liverpool (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2008, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain)

But now, it’s time to get on with the single, lame film review of the day, and to do that, I will need to bring out a massive chopping block, and immediately put the offender out of it’s misery: Liverpool is a challenging film that is full of subtle ideas that wants to be an important art-house film with a maverick indie pedigree, but it just doesn’t work, it barely entertains. I can’t see this playing to even the most staunch crowd of independent film fans and it going over well.

The film begins with scenes of men at work in a factory-like atmosphere, in solitude. The director actually does a very good job of establishing a claustrophobic mood in the first 15 minutes, showing a maze of nightmarish industrial complexes and the stagnation of these men’s hard-working existences. The tight, locked-in feeling instantly melts away when the camera follows the alcoholic lead character Farrel (nicely captured by Juan Fernandez) outside as he catches a much-needed breath of fresh air, and we realize that the employees are on a freighter, out to sea.

The glimpses of the panoramic ocean vistas are spectacular, but fleeting in this exhilarating moment. In these scenes, the director does show a flair for being able to construct solid, well-framed shots, even if they do linger much too long. This is something that could easily be fixed with a little bit of editing room magic, though I suspect this lethargic crawl is what Alonso had in mind.

Farrel is going to home, to the mountains at the southern tip of the continent, to see if his mother is “still alive”. This is the single action that propels the story forward, and it happens so excruciatingly slowly, and paced so aimlessly, that at times, it becomes very hard to watch as there is little dramatic action taking place. Often, the camera just inches along, preferring to stop and simply capture the banal, which is a nice artistic statement, but, for viewers, can be tedious. I kept thinking “why not just make a documentary?”

Very little dialogue in this piece makes for a spare, still experience. Fernandez’s ruggedly handsome, weathered face is enough to at least intrigue the viewer, but when he’s not on screen, things fall slightly apart. What started out promising, with a rollicking original score, quickly devolved into a mediocre character study that took way too long to set up, and that’s not just American impatience speaking, either. It is extremely interesting to watch this man’s re-entry into society after (it is implied) a life spent as a ne’er do well, but a picaresque series of documentary-feeling images does not necessarily make for a pleasant film-watching experience. The director does achieve a clear sense of disconnection, as none of the characters communicate with one another, really, and most, are in many ways, isolated.

This loner’s journey to see his mother certainly has its moments. The visual grandeur being its most obvious positive characteristic, with Alonso painting imaginatively with natural light sources and robust views of the rugged countryside, but the emotional payoff is missing. Despite the flaws, Liverpool remains remarkable mainly because of its canny showcasing of a place and culture that are rarely represented on film, for North American audiences, and for that, it must be lauded for bravery. In giving us a glimpse of this slice of life, it does succeed, but in terms of either cinematic convention or innovation, it rarely moves past being a middling art experiment, and borders on being a chore to watch. Had I not been seated squarely in the middle of the theater, surrounded by people, I might have been tempted to leave.

While Liverpool is devoid of plot and largely anti-climactic, it is, at least, much different than anything else you’re likely to see this year. I’m not sure that is a compliment, but it sets the film apart from the usual fall season offerings. The ending is cheeky, and tries to be clever, but by then, it’s too late to care anymore as most people in the theater had their eyes fixed on the exits.

by Bill Gibron

4 Sep 2008

It’s as precious as oil, and just as many wars have (and will) be fought over it. But unlike the battles braved by American soldiers to keep SUVs humming on US highways, these clashes come at the price of something far more precious - the basic necessities of life. According to one estimate, there are over 1.2 billion people on this planet without access to potable water. And of that number, the UN has targeted several million with direct emergency aid campaigns. So why is the situation only getting worse? Seems like the key word is ‘privatization’, and as Irene Salina shows in her fascinating documentary Flow, those contracted to solve the problem and financially benefiting from same have only added to the misery.

Focusing on a few foreign countries - Bolivia, South Africa, and India - and then moving to an unusual grass roots challenge in Michigan - Flow is your basic no-frills tell-all. It follows the premise that all humans have the “right” to water. Not to bottled water. Not to high priced, frequently unavailable water, but pure, clean, easy to obtain, and inexpensive drinking water. With the influx of foreign multinationals who have figured out a way to make massive profits out of empty infrastructure promises, Salina shows that it is typically the poorest people, without anyone to support their situation, that often find themselves paying exorbitant prices for dirty, unavailable resources.

There are many villains in this consistently one-sided commentary. Executives from major names like Suez and Vivendi defend their choices while we see how aimless and rather arrogant they are. A small village in South Africa must buy prepaid coupons to access their ration. But since many of them are uneducated, they must be taught the new system. The company’s answer? Appalling picture books with cartoons, all printed in English (not the native tongue, by the way). In India, a one man revolution has taken place, local farmers and villagers able to use ancient landscaping techniques to create their own renewable aquifers. Of course, once a contract is signed with a big name business, the ‘cease and desist’ threats begin.

The West is not left out of the blame game. We are ridiculed for our love of bottled beverages, taken to task for thinking what we are getting is somehow better than what comes out of the city tap. Of course, Flow fails to acknowledge that some states like Florida have such foul tasting and tainted municipal sources that a case of Zephryhills (now owned by Nestle) is better than relying on your local government. Still, it’s shocking to see people with perfectly viable reservoirs draining Dasani after Dasani thinking they are doing something wholesome and healthier. The situation escalates when a small town in Michigan battles a big name to save its own basin.

This one struggle goes to the heart of Flow‘s purpose. When Nestle loses its court case, told they cannot simply pump as much water out from under these citizens as they want, the lawyers wrangle a reprieve. Indeed, while the appeals process chugs along for the next few years, they still operate at near full capacity. It’s the same almost everywhere you go with the exception of Bolivia. There, riots and massive demonstrations force the leadership to kick out the private companies. If the people cared, says one frustrated organizer, there’d be many more victories like this.

In fact, one of the most startling aspects of Flow is its predictions about world water needs and shortages. We learn that there may be more oil in the ground than life giving liquid to go around, and at the rate we consume, the concept of privatization will be more or less a given. Salina suggests that the primary goal of these companies is control. Money may be an ancillary benefit, but if you have the power over basic necessities, you can certainly name your terms and demands. We can already see it happening in the India case. Instead of supporting people who’ve figure out a way around their drought plagued dilemma, (via rainwater runoff) the elected officials line their pockets and undermine their efforts.

All throughout Flow are talking heads supporting the policy positions offered and criticizing those who would argue free market and outright capitalism. Some make a lot of sense. Others have a tinge of post-‘60s psycho radicalism to them. This does not mean that their ideas are any less valid, but when dealing with something so large and so crucial to the survival of the planet, the more sensible usually supplant those driven to screeds. From an aesthetic standpoint, Salina also does a wonderful job of adding ambient elements to the scholarship. On the one hand, we see the standard images of free flowing rivers and streams. On the other, music modulates the foreboding, making the threat even more menacing.

Salina makes Flow function as a wake-up call to those who take such issues as an international given. After all, how many people who run the faucet as they brush their teeth, think that they are actually wasting the equivalent of a whole South African town’s weekly supply? When we pick up that bottle of Evian, do we really understand that in some South American countries people would kill for such a source? Indeed, one of the more moderate speakers believes that, just like during other times of crisis, an informed outside constituency will rise up to rectify what commerce and corruption has shattered. For that fact alone, Flow is an important film. That it states its many positions in a powerful and persuasive manner helps to limit some of the more tired rhetoric.

And still the war rages on, winner and losers racking up the casualties as a populace cries out for some manner of justice. While films such as this may not sway the conflict one way or the other, it will at least sum up the sides involved. More importantly, Flow feels like the truth. It doesn’t have the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock smugness or self satisfaction clouding its cause. Instead, it looks at a seismic situation and allows the facts to frighten everyone into attention. Here’s hoping that once the fear subsides, some substantive solutions can be discovered. If not, this is one mêlée where, if one side loses, everyone does.

by Rob Horning

4 Sep 2008

This happens every time I make the mistake of tuning into the Republican convention: I end up extremely frightened for America. The glee with which the Republican party repeats its new slogan “Drill baby drill” is extremely unsettling, as it shines a light on the nihilistic, end-times animus that fuels it. The underlying belief behind the slogan is that there is no hope for innovation when it comes to energy resources, and restraint in the form of environmentalism or conservation is an expression of weakness in the coming war of all against all for what’s left on the planet. Government only serves to impede this anarchic struggle, which is why the Republican party apparently believes the preservative restrictions the state places on despoiling economic behavior must be lifted. It’s another indication at how reactionary the party is, how it seems utterly unable to grasp the notion of future consequences. The slogan, rendered more accurately, would read: “Suck the world dry, there is no future!”

Writing in 1982, historians Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen noted in Channels of Desire the peculiar American fixation on despoiling as a perverse form of patriotism. “The adversarial interpretation of the relationship between people and the natural world is prominent in commercial ideology and production. Waste and throw-away are signatures of what is often termed ‘the American way of life.’ ” They then quote this astounding remark from Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who demonstrates how this contemptuous attitude can be reconciled with a certain strain of end-times Christianity. Asked whether he favored preserving the land for future generations, Watt replied, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” So in light of the Rapture’s imminence, we should drill, baby, drill.

Fitting for an eschatological view of the universe, we are supposed to believe that such contempt for the future will somehow assure that the past will return. But the small-town USA of the 1950s is gone for good, thanks in part to Republican economic policy. If anything, last night seemed like 1992 all over again, with conservatives vilifying cosmopolitanism and diversity and trying to bait the country into a needlessly destructive cultural civil war, as if we don’t all share the same needs for things like better health care, a job-generating economy, and a sense that the country won’t be destroyed by environmental catastrophe. Tuning into the RNC, you’d think such problems don’t exist, and that the real problem is elitist overlords from the Demonic Northeast threatening to dismantle families and extinguish Christianity. As Douglas Rushkoff notes, the Republican Party is eagerly transforming itself into the “hate party.”

Megan McArdle’s analysis here seems apt. With nothing substantive to say about any issue, the Republicans are out to launch an “all-out cultural war.” (McArdle’s awesome line about Romney’s speech perfectly captures the occasional arbitrarity of conservative contempt: “Mitt Romney seems to use the word liberal in a randomly perjorative fashion.  I half expect him to say ‘I was eating breakfast this morning, and my hash browns were all liberal.  I sent them back and told the waitress to bring me some good, conservative hash browns.’ “) Of this war, Sarah Palin is the harbinger. Ingeniously, the Republican party would like to make the election a referendum on her, as a person, and they are expecting that on that personal level, many American approve of the values she claims to represent. But at the level of ideas, she is a far-right conservative crusader, far outside of the mainstream, and the ideas she represents will probably prove abhorrent to Democrats and independents alike if they (or the press) bother to ferret them out and reinforce them clearly.

by Rob Horning

4 Sep 2008

At his blog, economist Lane Kenworthy posted a compelling look at growing income inequality in America, illustrating with graphs how median income has fallen away from per-capita GDP—meaning that as the economy has grown, less of the benefits of that growth have been spread across the entire class distribution of the population. Kenworthy points to this as a source of strain on the middle class and sees it as a fundamental subtext for the upcoming presidential election.

Generally speaking, Democrats regard this inequality as a matter of those at the top leveraging their advantages to seize more and more of the pie. The solution to this, typically, is a progressive tax regime that takes away some of those financial advantages, redistributing the wealth created to those below. The rich resent this, as they tend to misconstrue the gains derive from passive investment as their just deserts for risk taking. (Whereas Marx describes capital as “dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased of him.”) But the middle class potentially has their tax burden lightened while getting improved government services financed by the new tax revenue.

Republicans obviously don’t see it this way. They instead evoke the past, when inequality was not so stark (thanks to policies they rejected at the time) and try to paint a picture of progress as failure and disruption, as individuals being crushed by a distant federal government that is essentially their enemy. The solution to the problems the middle class faces, from this point of view, is a recommitment to individualistic values of self-reliance and a church-based, small-town-size community (while scorning community organizers, the existence of whom signal a localized disharmony that conservatives are loath to acknowledge), and a repudiation of the idea that a federal government has any meaningful role in most people’s lives. This seemed to be the subtext of Sarah Palin’s angry, demagogic speech at the Republican convention last night—that small town people should be wary of those purporting to have expertise. At the Washington Monthly site, Steve Benen articulated the theme of the RNC this way:

Seriously, what’s the message of the week in St. Paul? That Republican governing works? No. That Republicans have a legitimate policy agenda? No. That the next four years should be different from the last eight? No. It’s simple: “Your house may be on fire, but don’t trust that man standing outside with a hose, because he doesn’t share your values.”

The Republicans offer voters an opportunity to live in a fantasy world in which they really are self-reliant and government is unnecessary; where “values” really are so uniform—perhaps because they are mandated by a God whom everyone must worship—that there aren’t any meaningful conflicts among groups that the state would have to mediate. All you need is a military to protect the homogeneous group from outside infiltration. (This is why conservatives are so quick to ridicule “political correctness”—because the existence of diversity, competing interests, fundamentally threatens their ideology of government. The only competing interest, from the conservative point of view, are those that the marketplace sorts out.)

Meanwhile, when voters abandon the idea that the atheistic federal government should work for them, it becomes captured instead by professional politicians and the corporate interests they serve—it becomes a machine of plunder, as Jamie Galbraith details in The Predator State. Ideologues like Palin ultimately provide the cover for kleptocrats like Duke Cunningham and his ilk.

by Colin Covert - Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

4 Sep 2008

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 dimwitted 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.)

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 lifesize 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 at 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 the movie that gets everyone to stop talking about The Dark Knight. (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 avoid Hallmark Channel schmaltz and 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.)

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