LOS ANGELES - Harry Potter doesn't just have the fate of the magical world on his shoulders. This time, the teen wizard's trying to save Hollywood, too
In this year of mediocre studio flicks, with movie attendance at its slowest pace since the mid-1990s, audiences might kill for a big film that really delivers.
Well, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" really delivers. As Harry and his pals work their way through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, each of the movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling's novels grow richer and more involving.
No. 4 is the best yet, with Harry imperiled by an unseen nemesis from beyond and also struggling with some teenage rites of passage, like finding a date to the big Yule Ball.
"As you grow up, you realize from the age of 14 or so, you grow extra emotions somehow, and I think Harry is at the point where he's at the mercy of all these emotions," said Daniel Radcliffe, back again as Harry.
"He suffers from the same frailties and hormonal-related problems as all sorts of people his age, but he's also going through this massive thing of almost paranoia, where someone's trying to get at him, trying to destroy his life, but he doesn't know who. Some invisible force is trying to tamper with his life in some way."
Along with "Harry Potter," the other 900-pound gorilla on the holiday schedule is Peter Jackson's epic update of "King Kong," starring Naomi Watts as the beauty who becomes the bait to capture a giant ape.
The season's other film highlights include an old-guard music legend and an up-from-the-mean-streets rapper.
Hip-hop star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson makes his film debut with "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," the story of a drug dealer turning his back on crime in favor of a rap career. Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot") directs.
Joaquin Phoenix belts out country classics as the late Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line," a portrait of the singer's early success, drug addiction and long courtship with the love of his life, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).
Like last year's Ray Charles film biography "Ray," "Walk the Line" deals explicitly with both the joyous and unsavory sides of Cash's life. From the start, Cash was an artist of the shadows, said "Walk the Line" director James Mangold.
"All you have to do is listen over and over and over again to any one of his songs," Mangold said. "Even when they first started appearing in the early to middle '50s, the lyrics are incredibly dark. Everyone else is singing about getting girls and being happy, and he's singing about, `I go out on a party and look for a little fun, but I find a darkened corner, because I still miss someone.' That's a dark lyric for a pop song."
The best of the rest ...
CURTAIN UP!: Mel Brooks' "The Producers," which went from Hollywood comedy classic to Broadway musical sensation, returns in a new film version. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their stage roles as producers who set out to create a Broadway flop - a musical called "Springtime for Hitler" - so they can pocket a fortune in unspent cash conned from investors.
"Rent," directed by Chris Columbus ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), is adapted from the stage smash centered on Manhattan bohemians who find love and friendship amid the daily struggle against poverty, addiction and AIDS.
"The protagonists are not the usual sort of people in musicals," said Rosario Dawson, who plays an HIV-positive heroin addict in "Rent." "Transsexual people with HIV and AIDS, people who are drug addicts, are making a lot of lifestyle choices that toleration-wise we have a big problem with.
"But it's interesting to me to see the humanity in the choices they make and how they're dealing with the same things everyone else deals with."
HIGH DRAMA: Reclusive director Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line") returns with his first film in seven years. "The New World" stars Colin Farrell in a historical epic about 17th century colonial leader John Smith, his romance with Indian princess Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), and the roots of Indian exploitation by white settlers.
It's a tougher, more authentic rendering of the story than the Pocahontas fable schoolchildren learn, Farrell said.
"It's a turning point in history, the birth of a nation, and the death almost of a culture," Farrell said. "The culture still exists, the Native Americans that remain, but they began to take a severe beating from the day the English arrived onwards.
"Terry was conscious of all those things and wanted to tell the story as he had read it in the history books."
ALL DOLLED UP: A healthy crop of costume drama and period pieces are on the way, led by "Memoirs of a Geisha," directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago") and starring Ziyi Zhang in an adaptation of the best-seller about a woman who rises from poverty to become an enchantress to Japan's most powerful men.
Keira Knightley joins the corset crew for a new adaptation of Jane Austen's romance and social satire set in 18th century Britain, "Pride & Prejudice."
Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson star in "A Good Woman," based on Oscar Wilde's comedy of romantic schemers, "Lady Windermere's Fan," updated to the 1930s Italian Riviera.
From director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, who died last spring, comes "The White Countess," a romantic drama with Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson as unlikely comrades in 1930s Shanghai as the Japanese occupation nears.
And the season's true costume queen may be Cillian Murphy in a flashy, cross-dressing role as an orphaned Irishman mincing his way through IRA violence and London's 1970s glam scene in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto."
IN A FAMILY WAY: Standing-room only domiciles are big this fall with the remake "Yours, Mine & Ours," starring Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo as widowed newlyweds whose collective kid count is 18 and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt in a sequel to a remake about a family of 12 offspring.
The ensemble comic drama "The Family Stone" features Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Claire Danes and Luke Wilson in the story of a clan that takes a severe dislike to the uptight businesswoman engaged to one of their fair sons.
Rob Reiner's "Rumor Has It" stars Jennifer Aniston, Shirley MacLaine and Kevin Costner in a post-"Graduate" comedy about a woman who learns her family may have been the basis for the book and movie "The Graduate."
"Bee Season" follows a teen (Flora Cross) overlooked by her parents (Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche) who suddenly finds herself empowered after her surprise success in a spelling bee.
THRILLERS AND KILLERS: "Munich" is Steven Spielberg's suspense tale following a Mossad agent (Eric Bana) who leads a retaliatory mission against Palestinians suspected of killing 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
George Clooney and Matt Damon head the ensemble cast of "Syriana," weaving multiple story lines in a "Traffic"-like tale of political and business intrigue centered on the oil industry.
"Derailed" stars Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen as business executives whose romantic affair subjects them to blackmail.
In "Freedomland," racial tensions erupt in a blue-collar community as a cop (Samuel L. Jackson) investigates claims by a white woman (Julianne Moore) who says a black man stole her car with her 4-year-old son sleeping in the backseat.
LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY: A man (Jim Carrey) loses his cushy job and turns to a life of crime with his wife (Tea Leoni) in the comic remake "Fun With Dick and Jane."
Harold Ramis directs "The Ice Harvest," a black comedy about a Christmas Eve getaway gone awry after a sleazy lawyer (John Cusack) and his partner (Billy Bob Thornton) embezzle $2 million.
Singer Usher stars in the romance "In the Mix" as a nightclub DJ who saves the life of a crime boss (Chazz Palminteri) then finds himself in dutch with the don when he falls for the mobster's daughter.
"The Matador" casts Pierce Brosnan as a burned-out hit man who finds an unlikely shoulder to lean on when he meets a traveling businessman (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexican bar.
FANTASY AND SCI-FI : "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is a visual-effects feast based on C.S. Lewis' tale of four siblings whisked to a magic realm where they battle an enchantress (Tilda Swinton) who has cast the land into endless winter.
"Zathura: A Space Adventure," adapted from the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg ("The Polar Express," "Jumanji"), follows the adventures of two brothers (Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo) dispatched on a cosmic trek by a mysterious board game.
Adapted from the animated series, "Aeon Flux" stars Charlize Theron as an anti-hero assigned to assassinate a leader of an oppressive government in a post-apocalyptic future. Theron said she knew virtually nothing about action films, but the former ballerina was eager to learn the moves.
"I was very scared going in, but also really excited about doing a film using my body again," Theron said. "I like that she never spoke. This character, she was very quiet, but she was telling her story through her body. It's a very physical role."
FROM ACROSS THE POND: OK, so Woody Allen isn't British, but the Manhattan homebody transplants himself to London for "Match Point," a dark drama about a tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose comfy life with his heiress wife is threatened by a fling with a wannabe actress (Scarlett Johansson).
Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity") directs "Mrs. Henderson Presents," starring Judi Dench as an eccentric society dame who founds a theater for nude musical revues in pre-World War II Britain.
GREAT LECHERS OF HISTORY: Johnny Depp is the Earl of Rochester in "The Libertine," about the aristocrat who scandalized 17th century society with his womanizing and subversive writings.
Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules") directs "Casanova," starring Heath Ledger as the 18th century heartbreaker, who finds the tables turned when his latest pursuit (Sienna Miller) resists his charms.
HITTING THE ROAD: "Transamerica" stars Felicity Huffman in a gender-bending role as a transsexual about to take the final surgical step to become a woman, who ends up on a cross-country romp with a newly discovered teen son needing some "fatherly" guidance.
Anthony Hopkins plays a real-life motorcycle enthusiast who sets out to break speed records in Utah in "The World's Fastest Indian."
COWBOYS IN LOVE, COWBOYS IN HATE: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as ranch hands who share a summer of love then conceal their ongoing affair from their wives and families in "Brokeback Mountain," directed by Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Tommy Lee Jones makes his directing debut and stars in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," about a ranch boss who forces the Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper) responsible for his best friend's death to dig up the body and haul it on horseback to a new resting place in the victim's Mexican home town.
Jones is happy the name of his debut film is such a mouthful.
"I like the title. If I were going to change it, I'd make it longer," Jones joked. "It's a mouthful, and that's a good thing. I prefer to use the Spanish title, `Los Tres Entierros de Melquiades Estrada.' And if you can't say that, you need to see the movie twice."