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After A Ho-Hum Summer, Hollywood Ramps Up For Fall

Michael Keaton stars as a washed-up film star trying to make a stage comeback in Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman. (Alison Rosa)

Note: There are 26 films in the on-air version of this story — but here are three favorites.

Hollywood hauled out Apes, Transformers, and X-Men and still had a humdrum summer at the box office. For the first time in years, no summer blockbuster has managed to crack the $300 million barrier at the North American box office. In fact, until Guardians of the Galaxy came along, the film industry was looking at its lowest attendance figures in more than a decade.

Still, hope springs eternal, and with nearly 100 pictures lined up for the fall, there are bound to be a few that get pulses racing again.

Intriguingly, none of them — not even one — qualifies as a straight-up superhero movie. There is a black comedy about an actor who once played a superhero, and who is now so down on his luck he's fantasizing about a return to stardom ... on stage. That's Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, with former Batman Michael Keaton suffering an elaborately visualized breakdown in the title role. Critics have been raving since the film's Venice Film Fest premiere earlier this week.

They've also had affirmative things to say about Rosewater, the film that first-time writer/director Jon Stewart took a leave of absence from The Daily Show to shepherd to the screen. Rosewater tracks the tough ordeal Iranian journalist (and Daily Show guest) Maziar Bahari was put through in an Iranian prison after authorities there decided his work for foreign news organizations amounted to spying.

And if the Middle East doesn't darken your mood, director Christopher Nolan may manage it in Interstellar, a vision of a future where humankind is rapidly running out of food, and the world's best minds are convinced that their task is not to save the earth, but to find a way to escape it.

Cheery stuff — and all hitting theaters before Thanksgiving, after which the awards contenders come out to play: Broadway musicals, biblical epics, hobbits. The sun'll come out tomorrow, dontcha know.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hollywood's had a humdrum summer at the box office. In fact, until "Guardians Of The Galaxy" came along, the film industry was looking at its lowest attendance figures in more than a decade. But hope springs eternal, and there's always fall. So we asked our critic Bob Mondello for a selective preview of the coming season.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You know what's not on the fall movie list - not even once? A straight up superhero movie. There is a movie about an actor who once played a superhero and who is now so down on his luck he's fantasizing about a return to stardom while balanced on a roof edge high above the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're Birdman. You are a God.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Hey, is this for real, or are you shooting a film?

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) A film.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You people are full of crap.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Music.

MONDELLO: He has written a play called "Birdman."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: He's a Hollywood clown (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, he is. But he's going out on that stage and risking everything.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) This is about being respected and validated, remember? That's what you told me.

MONDELLO: That's Michael Keaton who, as a one-time Batman, knows a little something about what the hero's facing in "Birdman." While there won't be other superheroes in theaters, there will be plenty of regular heroes and a heroine or two, including a "Hunger Games" gladiator who's become a symbol of resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNGER GAMES, MOCKINGJAY PART ONE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Any association with the mockingjay symbol is forbidden.

MONDELLO: Yeah, well, forbid all you want. Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, is not hearing it in "Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART ONE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Are you fighting, Katniss? Are you here to fight with us?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) I am. I will.

MONDELLO: Heroics elsewhere this fall will occasionally be historical and require not physical, but intellectual prowess. "The Imitation Game" gives us Benedict Cumberbatch as British mathematician Alan Turing, who basically had to invent a computer during World War II to help the Allies break the German's Enigma code.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Let me try. Then we'll know for sure.

MONDELLO: Turing was not what you would call a team player.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Gentlemen, meet Mr. Turing.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Will you two work together, then? I'm afraid these men would only slow me down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Popular at school, were you?

MONDELLO: Still, he achieves great rings as does a humbler, but no less brilliant Englisman in "The Theory Of Everything" - a physics genius who must battle not just his physics department, but his physical condition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) It's called motor neuron disease. Life expectancy is two years.

MONDELLO: That diagnosis came when he was 21. He's lived another 50 years already, though not without setbacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) He has pneumonia. The only way he will survive would be to give him a tracheotomy. He will never speak again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Yes, he will. >>UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) My name is Stephen Hawking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) It's American.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Is that a problem?

MONDELLO: I don't mean to suggest that there won't be rock them, sock them movie heroics this fall. Some severely damaged leading men will be living up to Hollywood stereotypes, rescuing damsels in distress. Liam Neeson as a non-recovering alcoholic in "A Walk Among The Tombstones"...

LIAM NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) I've done this before.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) You're going to do it again.

MONDELLO: Denzel Washington as the Equalizer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EQUILIZER")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Robert McCall) I'm here about a girl.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) (Laughing).

MONDELLO: And Ben Affleck wants to see himself as the good guy in "Gone Girl," but he ends up being chief suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE GIRL")

BEN AFFLECK: (As Nick Dunne) I had nothing to do with the disappearance of my wife.

MONDELLO: And then there's a story about a woman who doesn't seem to want to be rescued - romance called "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby" that has a structural gimmick in the storytelling. It looks at a relationship from the guy's point of view and also from the gal's, in a car, during a downpour. Here's Eleanor Rigby's take.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character) You're sopping wet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) You noticed that?

MONDELLO: And here's how her boyfriend heard that exchange.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You're sopping wet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) Oh, you noticed? Thank you.

MONDELLO: Trouble in paradise? It is called "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." Other films with storytelling gimmicks included teen dystopia - "The Maze Runner" - and David Cronenberg's latest industry in-joke, "Maps To The Stars." All of that fantasy is balanced this fall by a lot of true stories about headline-makers. Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in the thriller "Foxcatcher," based on a tragic 1990s combo of money, sports and mental illness.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXCATCHER")

STEVE CARELL: (As John du Pont) We're going to do great things, Mark.

CHANNING TATUM: (As Mark Schultz) I'm going to give you everything I have.

MONDELLO: Also, "Jimi: All Is By My Side," in which rapper Andre 3000...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE")

ANDRE 3000: (As Jimi Hendrix) Watch out for your ears.

MONDELLO: ...Plays an up-and-comer named Hendrix.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE")

ANDRE 3000: (As Jimi Hendrix) I want my music to go inside the soul of a person.

MONDELLO: "Tracks," about a woman who made a solo trek across 1,700 miles Australian outback...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRACKS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: When people ask me why I'm doing it, my usual answer is why not?

MONDELLO: And "Rosewater," the directing debut of Jon Stewart, about a writer who appeared on the Daily Show, and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: You are a spy.

MONDELLO: ...Ended up in an Arabian prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: Who are you working for? The CIA? Who is Anton Chekhov?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: Anton Chekhov the playwright?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: You tell me. It is you who has listed an interest of him on Facebook.

MONDELLO: And though the plot in "Fury," Brad Pitt's tank crew drama is pure fiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FURY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: I've never even seen the inside of a tight.

MONDELLO: The tank itself is real, borrowed from a museum and reportedly the first World War II Tiger Tank ever to grace a film set.

Sound a little heavy? Well, even the fall's comedies sometimes center on serious issues - suicide in "The Skeleton Twins" starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SKELETON TWINS")

BILL HADER: (As Milo) I get depressed about my life.

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Maggie) So you're not a famous actor? I got news for you. No one's a famous actor.

HADER: (As Milo) George Clooney is a famous actor.

WIIG: (As Maggie) OK, George Clooney. I guess that's one exception.

MONDELLO: Demolishing stereotypes is the point of a campus satire called "Dear White People."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: I read your entire 15-page, unsolicited treatise on why "The Gremlins" is actually about suburban white fear of black culture.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: The gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken, and freak out when you get their hair wet.

MONDELLO: And the fact-based comedy "Pride" is sort of a twofer, about both striking coal miners and the gay group that raises money to help them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE")

ACTRESS #2: That guy was talking about lesbians. Can't be true, can it? You're all vegetarians.

MONDELLO: More serious takes on social issues include "The Judge," a passion project for producer and star Robert Downey Jr., "Frontera," in which Michael Pena is caught up in an immigration scandal and "Whiplash," a Sundance Film Festival crowd-pleaser about a young jazz musician...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: Here we go. 5 - 6 - 8.

MONDELLO: ...Who gets bullied by his music teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: Were you rushing or were you dragging?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig.

MONDELLO: Back to school with a vengeance. And while I'm talking back to school, parents will be relieved to know that after a summer notably lacking in family films, the fall has five kids flicks before Thanksgiving. The "Box Trolls" about a boy being raised by timid critters underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOX TROLLS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #17: No more hiding, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #18: Right.

MONDELLO: "Big Hero 6" about a kid with an inflatable semi superpal.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #19: What's wrong with you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #20: Low battery.

MONDELLO: A resilient youngster in "Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY"

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #21: We are not going to let this day get the better of us.

MONDELLO: An assertive princess in "The Book Of Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: Did I mention I studied fencing?

MONDELLO: And those ever-traveling "Penguins Of Madagascar."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #22: We've arrived in the center of Dublin Ireland. We've got to blend in - riverdance

MONDELLO: And while the kids are being treated to affirmation and adventure, "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan will be scaring their parents have to death with a vision of a world that's run out of food in "Interstellar."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #23: We must confront the reality that nothing in our solar system can help us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #24: Now you need to tell me what your plan is to save the world.

MONDELLO: That gets us to Thanksgiving, after which the awards contenders come out - to play Broadway musicals, biblical epics, hobbits - but we're out of time. So we'll save those for another day. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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