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September 14, 2006

Fall movie preview: Sorcery, sci-fi, and Spaniards

Although Scorsese’s The Departed—a remake of the Hong Kong cult classic Infernal Affairs—has received less-than-sparkling reviews from advance screenings, and Sofia Coppola’s badly mangled Marie Antoinette (surely it is this year’s Memoirs of a Geisha) might well turn out duds, this season will still be a great one for film. Here are the top five reasons why.

Michel Gondry’s new film, The Science of Sleep (September 22), co-starring Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, looks visually stunning, to say the least. Gondry’s vivid artistry should make this romantic comitragedy an appealing feature for fans of his last film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Bernal—utilizing his fluency in English, Spanish, and French—stars as Stephane, a young man with a tenuous hold on reality. He falls in love with his next-door neighbor, cutely named Stephanie (Gainsbourg), but his inability to keep his dreams from taking over his life proves to be one hell of a roadblock in their potential relationship. The Science of Sleep may lack the deft narrative touch of Charlie Kauffman, who kept Spotless Mind coherent and evocative, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Gondry fares on his own. Festival-goers gave it mixed reviews, but at worst, it should resemble a frantic 105-minute music video. At best? A feast for the imagination.

In a way, magic was a precursor to film—visual tricks and sleight of hand combine to lure the audience into fantasy and wonder. The Illusionist (the Ed Norton film released in August) tried to capture the enigma of that era, but lacked the passion and nerve to follow through on its pledge. The Prestige (October 20) hopes to accomplish what The Illusionist doesn’t: a real sense of mystery. Directed by Christopher Nolan (who is definitely capable of creating suspense, if his 2000 masterpiece Memento is anything to go by), The Prestige stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as two magicians living in the Victorian era whose lives tangle in a mix of competition, jealousy, and the need to understand each other’s craft. Those who have read the award-winning novel on which the script was based will know all the twists and turns of the story, but having obtained the author’s enthusiastic blessing, Nolan’s adaptation should prove worth the ticket price.

For Mr. Jackman, 2006 seems to be the year. Having already starred in X3 and Woody Allen’s Scoop, he follows up his performance in The Prestige with an epic triple role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (November 22). Aronofsky, responsible for the emotional trauma of Requiem for a Dream and the thrilling edginess of Pi, turns again to the subject of human mortality, this time adding themes of love and, um, time travel, to the mix. Jackman and Rachel Weiss enact a love story three times: once in the present, once in the bygone world of conquistadors and fountains of youth, and once in the futuristic year of 2500. With Arnofsky’s distinct cinematic style, his skill at packing a hell of an emotional punch, and a profound, philosophical twist to the love story, The Fountain should be a hit, and not just with the cult crowd that embraced Arnofsky’s previous films.

Little-known fact: In its first incarnation, The Fountain was supposed to feature Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the lead couple. Interestingly enough, audiences will still get to see those two stars team up this fall, in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (October 27), the last film in the director’s “Death” series. Iñárritu has a gift for weaving separate storylines together into a web of human interaction communication, as evidenced by the first two films in his trilogy, Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Amores Perros took place in Mexico, while 21 Grams was an American film. In this last installment, Iñárritu goes global, spreading his characters and actions out over three continents and shooting in four languages—hence the film’s title, which refers to the Tower of Babel (in the Bible), the human project of achieving apotheosis that was stopped by God through a confusion of the languages. The film is supposed to place human being in juxtaposition with one another and with the world through their inability to communicate and make linguistic connections, and it won Iñárritu the Best Director prize at Cannes. This is one for the Oscar watch.

Spanish-language directors are making a big splash this fall, spearheaded by Pedro Almodóvar’s latest offering, Volver, making headlines at Cannes, and Iñárritu’s film, which features segments in his native language. Another contender is the chameleon-like Alfonso Cuarón, who is known for many individual films, notably Y Tu Mamá También and the third Harry Potter movie. Children of Men (September 29) marks another turn in his career, working loosely off a P.D. James novel about a dystopian world where women have suddenly and mysteriously become infertile, leaving mankind to ponder its collective mortality while descending into chaos. Sounds depressing, but, ah, there is hope in the form of a miraculously pregnant woman who must be escorted to safety to ensure the continuation of the human species. There is more than just hope for the film, though, with a cast led by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, and Cuarón’s eye for cutting, modern details shaping the action.