LOS ANGELES - Hollywood's long, dreary summer finally is over. Now it's on to the good stuff. And it better be good, if film studios hope to salvage what's shaping up as the worst year for movie attendance since the late 1990s.
After a summer season that left audiences generally uninterested, the fall and holiday lineup offers the promise of fresh films with an exotic cast of characters that includes country music legends, a great ape, teen wizards and a Japanese geisha.
The long-awaited adaptation of the best seller "Memoirs of a Geisha," director Rob Marshall's follow-up to "Chicago," stars Ziyi Zhang as a poor Japanese girl who becomes a geisha goddess.
Many people define "geisha" as a high-end prostitute, but Zhang discovered a rich artistic and social fabric behind the geisha culture.
"From my opinion, `geisha' means a woman skilled in the arts. Like dancing, singing and playing musical instruments," said Zhang, making her first English-language movie after such Chinese martial-arts hits as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero."
"They are also skilled in the art of conversation," said Zhang, who underwent two months of geisha "boot camp" to learn complicated dances, the proper way to wear kimonos and the art of pouring tea.
Other big films include Steven Spielberg's "Munich," a thriller about the slayings of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics; "All the King's Men," starring Sean Penn as the Southern political boss of Robert Penn Warren's classic novel; "Jarhead," a Gulf War tale with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx; "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," an animated yarn featuring the voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter; "The New World," Terrence Malick's epic set in colonial America with Colin Farrell; and "Elizabethtown," Cameron Crowe's romance starring Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom.
Also, "The Weather Man," with Nicolas Cage as a TV forecaster who has a stormy personal life; "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," starring 50 Cent as a street hood aiming for a rap-music career; "Oliver Twist," Roman Polanski's fresh take on the Charles Dickens orphan-boy classic, featuring Ben Kingsley; the animated "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," the big-screen debut of TV's cheese-loving Brit and his faithful dog; and "In Her Shoes," a sister-act tale from director Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential").
"In Her Shoes" follows two sisters, one a knockout (Cameron Diaz) who has leeched all her life off her workaholic sibling (Toni Collette), and the grandma (Shirley MacLaine) who helps them reconnect after a bitter estrangement.
"My character, she's kind of gotten away with her looks, gotten away with her ability to charm people and find her way without having to work," Diaz said. "And she's kind of coming to the end of that rope, as well as having nothing to fall back on, having bitten the hand that's always fed her."
Science-fiction and fantasy are shaping up as some of the season's biggest attractions, led by "The Lord of the Rings" mastermind Peter Jackson's new take on "King Kong," starring Naomi Watts as the beauty who steals the heart of the gigantic primate.
The fourth "Harry Potter" tale casts the young hero (Daniel Radcliffe) into an international wizardry competition that leads him to another showdown with dark sorcerer Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
The British fantasy franchise gets its first English director in Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"). For all the magical trappings of "Harry Potter," Newell enjoyed injecting a sense of his own classroom days into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Aside from everything else, these are school stories," Newell said. "In a middle-of-the-road English education, the teachers are embattled, the school is a very kind of anarchic place and a very funny place, as well. Where two sets of people - one of which is becoming adults and one of which is trying to avoid going back to becoming children - clash.
"The anarchy of youth, it is really rich stuff. I loved that. I loved doing the school side of it."
Hollywood's current love affair for fantasy continues with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," adapted from C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series.
The film, whose cast includes Tilda Swinton and Jim Broadbent, follows the adventures of four English children in World War II who battle an evil witch enslaving a magical land of giants, talking animals and centaurs.
"Narnia" director Andrew Adamson (the "Shrek" movies) figures the recent surge in fantastical stories has something to do with the real-world stories audiences see all the time on TV and on the big screen.
"There has been an awfully lot of reality programming in the last 10 years and natural-disaster movies. I do think there's somewhat of a backlash," Adamson said. "People do want to be taken to new worlds. They're kind of tired of this one and want to go somewhere where they can let their imagination run free a little bit."
Fall's fantasyscape also includes the video-game adaptation "Doom," starring The Rock as part of a commando force taking on creatures from another realm on Mars; and "Serenity," a sci-fi adventure whose behind-the-scenes story is a drama unto itself.
After scoring with the TV version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Joss Whedon created a smart, funny show called "Firefly," about misfits living on the edge of the law aboard the rickety space ship Serenity 500 years in the future.
"Firefly" lasted only 14 episodes but its cult audience kept interest alive. Now Whedon has directed the big-screen continuation "Serenity," reuniting the "Firefly" cast.
"I took the overreaching arc I was headed toward in the TV show and made that the plot of the movie," Whedon said. "I had to jettison or streamline plenty of things. It's two totally different mediums, and you've got to respect that. A TV show can kind of meander its way along and find a little piece of something for everybody. A movie is more about the momentum of the main story."
Sarah Jessica Parker also returns to the big screen in "The Family Stone." After her TV series "Sex and the City," Parker is on familiar turf as a Manhattan woman in love, though her character is the flipside of Carrie Bradshaw. Parker plays a career woman who makes a terrible impression on her fiance's relatives when meeting them for the first time.
Unlike loose and lively Carrie, Parker's character is a tightly wound woman who "is really at a loss to navigate basic interactions that so many of us feel confident about," the actress said. "So many people feel fairly comfortable around new people. They can figure out a room or say something inappropriate then navigate back from it. She doesn't have those skills."
Also trying something different are Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in director James Mangold's "Walk the Line," a portrait of the early years of the country star who died in 2003.
"I'm not a singer by any means," said Phoenix, who did his own singing (as did Witherspoon). "If it was a fictional character where it was a made-up voice, it might have been harder. But I had a specific voice to go after, so I had to work specific muscles and really work at hitting certain notes. It was nice to have a recognizable voice as a goal."
Also on the musical front: "Rent," director Chris Columbus' follow-up after making the first two "Harry Potter" flicks; and "The Producers," Susan Stroman's adaptation of Mel Brooks' Broadway show that won a record 12 Tonys. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their roles.
Charlize Theron and Keira Knightley each have two wildly different films coming. Both actresses step into full action mode, Theron with "Aeon Flux," adapted from the animated sci-fi TV show, Knightley with "Domino," a casino-heist caper inspired by the real-life story of actor Laurence Harvey's daughter, who quit her modeling career to become a bounty hunter.
"It's one of those things you hear about and think, `God, this is an absolutely insane story. It's so crazy it has to be true,'" said Knightley, noting that while Domino Harvey's career switch is true, the casino heist is make-believe. "She's an amazing woman to turn her back on everything that certainly we in today's society would think she could want."
Knightley also headlines the 18th century period piece "Pride & Prejudice," a new adaptation of Jane Austen's classic about love, marriage and Britain's rigid social-class structure.
Theron also stars in "North Country," a drama about a single mother who takes groundbreaking legal action over sexual harassment by co-workers at a Minnesota mining company in 1989.
"If you were a single mom, there's no way to support yourself and your kids by working in a hair salon," Theron said. "It's about a woman who decides to go and do what was considered a man's job, but was treated quite horribly for it and decides she has to fight for her rights when everyone thinks she should just shut up and take it."
Steve Martin also has a twofer season with "Cheaper By the Dozen 2," reprising his role from the 2003 family hit as patriarch of a family of 12 kids, and "Shopgirl," adapted from his short novel.
"Shopgirl" stars Claire Danes as a Saks clerk wooed by a rich older man (Martin) and a younger guy (Jason Schwartzman). The story originated with Martin's long-held interest in how people go about looking for love.
"There was a time in my life when I was very interested in relationship psychology," Martin said. "Relationships end, but they don't end your life. But people do often spending more time finding out about failed relationships than finding successful ones."
Though he had not envisioned any movie prospects when he wrote the book, Martin said once he had adapted it into a screenplay, he felt should go ahead and act in the film, as well.
"I would have felt a little funny if another actor was playing this role," Martin said.