Change in temperature brings change of tone, topics for fall season in movies

By Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times via McClatchy-Tribune

LOS ANGELES – Lost at sea, lost in space, lost children, lost freedom, lost homeland, lost money, lost identity, lost jobs, lost hope, lost faith, lost lives: This fall, this is film. This is serious. I can’t wait.

September always brings a change in the temperature of what we see on screen. The Oscar contenders start showing up, the significant films with more to consider than, say, “The Wolverine” or “World War Z.” As much popcorn fun as “Wolverine,” “War” and the like might be, they don’t ask much of us. Not so the fall.

But 2013 is coursing with a fierceness that we haven’t seen in a while. It ripples through U.S. and international films alike. Even the titles suggest a certain weight: “12 Years a Slave,” “Prisoners,” “Mandela,” “All Is Lost,” “Gravity,” “Devil’s Knot,” “Night Moves” and “Dangerous Acts,” to name a few in the queue.

The shake-up begins in earnest Thursday when the Toronto International Film Festival opens with the world premiere of “The Fifth Estate.” Director Bill Condon’s dramatic thriller is about that modern-day barbarian at the gate, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

Roughly 400 barbarians are right behind him in the festival’s jam-packed lineup. Most seem intent on crashing through the conventional over the next 10 days.

For those who worry I’m suggesting that the movies will be dreary, that couldn’t be further from the case. The topics may be dark but the entertainment factor will not dim in the slightest. If anything, films that engage mind, heart and emotions tend to be the most satisfying, the most memorable.

It is fitting that we start the season with the story of a divisive antihero who some applaud, others despise. No matter which side of the line you stand on, Assange is someone who has made all of us think _ think. Thinking deeper, longer, harder and especially, rethinking, seems to be what filmmakers have in mind at the moment.

“The Fifth Estate” features Benedict Cumberbatch as the social network renegade who reframed the idea, the implications and the debate over exposing secrets. State secrets. Corporate secrets. Personal secrets. Damaging secrets.

Later in the year, Leonardo DiCaprio will surface as a keeper of secrets in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” playing a high-rolling stockbroker deep in duplicity. Director Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio usually make menace magnificently together. For the other 99 percent, the Occupy Wall Street collective tries its hand at a documentary that lands in theaters later this week: “99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film.” They make the economic downturn personal.

There is a rich stream of films examining other, even starker existential crises.

“Gravity” stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as engineer and astronaut untethered, their space ship a billion tiny pieces, their life support slipping away. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who wrote the script with son Jonas, the exploration is not space but life and why we cling to it so fiercely.

What is it like to face the possibility of death that way? “All Is Lost,” writer-director J.C. Chandor’s latest, with Robert Redford at sea _ against the elements, against the odds _ wonders too. For the filmmaker, the sea is a long way from his previous “Margin Call,” but the stakes are higher. It is a solo voyage for the actor in so many ways, the film’s fate hanging on his performance.

Tom Hanks as “Captain Phillips” has the survival of his men as his trial. His cargo ship in the clutches of Somali pirates, the spine tingling is in the hands of director Paul Greengrass, who brought such exquisite tension to two “Bourne” outings over the years. The question for Hanks is whether the film will help him out of troubled career waters of late.

The story, though, is as much about racial and economic divides as the efforts of one man. The racial divide will be dissected in many ways all season long. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” with Idris Elba as the great South African leader, and “12 Years a Slave,” with Chiwetel Ejiofor _ remember that name _ as a free man whose color costs him everything but his spirit, both premiere at Toronto.

A different kind of freedom is at stake in “Omar,” the latest from Hany Abu-Assad. The director’s treatise on suicide bombers, “Paradise Now,” was nominated for a foreign language Oscar in 2006. This dark story of lovers separated by the West Bank and the price of their relationship comes to Toronto with a jury prize from Cannes.

Dallas is the epicenter for two provocative dramas that I’ll have my eye on at the festival. “Parkland,” with Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and Zac Efron, will take us inside Parkland Memorial Hospital and the chaos on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. “Dallas Buyers Club” unfolds two decades later in 1986, when AIDS was still a death sentence. Matthew McConaughey’s performance is likely to bring an Oscar nomination, and it may be the one that brings him a win. It’s not so much the weight the actor lost to play a homophobic man fighting the disease but the weight of the subject matter for McConaughey, who is settling so comfortably into his prime.

Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County,” comes to the big screen with its devilishly divided house and biting satire in incredibly good hands. Directed by John Wells, its cast is a sprawling ensemble of A-listers including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and the very busy Mr. Cumberbatch.

Even the pure comedies have an edge this fall. Jason Bateman does double duty as star and director of a spelling bee gone south in “Bad Words.” Jennifer Aniston and Isla Fisher are ex-cons who team up for “Life of Crime.” Jay Baruchel will get into “The Art of the Steal.” And Jesse Eisenberg is dealing with the ultimate identity thief in “The Double.” It’s loosely based on a Dostoyevsky novella…

This is fall, this is serious. I can’t wait.