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Fall Movie Preview: November

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The Muppets
As the director of The Muppets, James Bobin has devoted a lot of deep thinking to an intangible quality he calls Muppetiness. ”It’s a very abstract concept, and it’s almost impossible to say what it is,” Bobin says. ”But generally, in the world there are people who are Muppety and there are people who aren’t. Some things feel Muppety and some don’t. Some months feel more Muppety than others. For example, September and April are very Muppety months — August, not so much.”

This particular November is bound to feel extremely Muppety, as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and the rest of the repertory company hit movie theaters in a splashy, star-studded musical comedy. It’s been 12 long years since the late Jim Henson’s beloved felt-puppet creations have had their own big-screen vehicle (and if you know that vehicle was Muppets From Space, you are probably a Muppety person yourself). To breathe fresh life into the franchise, The Muppets has been carefully engineered to target both the inner children of nostalgic Gen-Xers and a new crop of kids who may be only dimly aware of the characters.

Jason Segel stars as Gary, a die-hard Muppet fan who, upon learning that the Muppet Theater is going to be destroyed by a sinister oil magnate (Chris Cooper), sets out to reunite Kermit and the gang to save it. He’s joined in his efforts by his girlfriend (Amy Adams) and his best friend, a new Muppet named Walter. Like Gary, Segel, who co-wrote the film, is driven by a missionary zeal to rescue the Muppets from cultural oblivion. ”We’re coming from a really pure place,” he says. ”The thing that would have ruined this movie is if it were done with a sense of irony, with a wink-wink. This is purely about love for the Muppets.”

For Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, that love traces back to childhood hours spent watching episodes of The Muppet Show and the first three feature films: 1979’s The Muppet Movie, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, and 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. A sophisticated blend of vaudeville, slapstick, and absurdist humor, the original Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 to 1981, was aimed at grown-ups as much as kids. To Segel and Stoller, it proved a powerful influence. ”The Muppets are the gateway drug for comedy for our generation,” says Stoller, a Gen-Xer who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall. ”I couldn’t believe I was writing dialogue for these characters. I thought I was going to invoke some ancient curse to be treading on this hallowed ground.”

To properly honor Henson’s legacy, the filmmakers insisted on using old-fashioned puppetry rather than CGI. ”We’re trying to create a sense this is something you can touch,” says Bobin, who is making his big-screen directing debut after co-creating the HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords (Conchords star Bret McKenzie co-wrote some of the movie’s musical numbers). ”Doing this movie on a computer and having an animated Kermit would be depressing and sad.” Of course, that old-school approach presented its own technical challenges, like placing the 6-foot-4-inch Segel in the same frame as puppets that often barely came up to his knees. ”If Jason was about two feet shorter,” Bobin says drily, ”my life would have been a lot easier.”

Though the Muppets have been out of the limelight for a decade, the depth of love that remains for the franchise became clear as Bobin tried to fill a slew of cameo roles. More than two dozen stars, including Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, and Emily Blunt, eagerly signed on. Still, when it comes to unabashed fandom, no one can touch Segel, who has added some new items to his already large collection of memorabilia. ”They gave me a painting from Kermit’s house, a portrait of [the Muppet band] Electric Mayhem, which is up in my house now,” he says. ”And they gave me one of the big posters for the Muppet telethon we put on in the movie, which is gorgeous.” He laughs. ”I just keep collecting things that will keep me single for the rest of my life.” Perhaps, but at least he’ll always be Muppety. —Josh Rottenberg Nov. 23

J. Edgar
As America’s top cop for five decades, J. Edgar Hoover oversaw the creation of the FBI, helped popularize fingerprints and other forensic evidence, and wielded nearly unchecked authority to manipulate evidence and investigate supposed enemies of the state such as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Now director Clint Eastwood is turning the tables, prying into Hoover’s life in a big-screen biopic that would doubtless make the notorious G-man squirm.

The movie traces Hoover’s life from his childhood in Washington, D.C., through his ascent to power in the 1920s, his 50-year reign over the FBI, and his death in 1972 — with Leonardo DiCaprio donning prosthetic makeup to portray the man well into his bulldog-like elderly years. ”To me, it’s really a story of how absolute power corrupts absolutely,” says the star. ”He was always an outsider.”

As you might guess from a film scripted by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar doesn’t sidestep speculation that Hoover, who never married or had children, may have been a closeted gay man — and perhaps had a more than platonic relationship with his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson (played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer). ”I started to become curious about the why,” says Black. ”He did wonderful things for this country, but why did he end up doing so many things that were heinous and harmful?” To Black, sublimated homosexuality might help explain Hoover’s driving ambition to succeed at any cost. ”I think it was all in the name of trying to fill that void, where love goes, with public admiration,” he says.

Historians have found no definitive proof about Hoover’s sexuality. ”He was a very private person, so nobody knew too much about him,” says Eastwood. ”He and Tolson were kind of inseparable pals, so there was always the rumor that he was gay. Whether he was or not, I don’t know. In the picture, we leave that up for the audience to decide.” One thing is certain, though: ”He knew what he could do to everybody else by finding out what their life was like.” —Anthony Breznican Nov. 9

Puss in Boots
”I know him pretty well,” says Antonio Banderas of Puss in Boots, the orange tabby who first flashed a sword — and two adorably huge eyeballs — in 2004’s Shrek 2. Banderas has voiced the frisky feline in three previous feature films and four shorts, and has done so in English, Italian, and two versions of Spanish. ”Antonio is the encyclopedia of Puss in Boots,” jokes director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third), adding that the actor even wanted to tackle the movie’s Japanese dub (the studio went with a native speaker instead).

This ogreless spin-off stars a younger Puss, who, after being tricked into robbing a bank with childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), finds himself a wanted cat. ”It’s a redemption tale,” says Miller. ”He’s searching for a way to clear his name and wash away the sins of his past.” Years later, Humpty lures Puss into an elaborate plan that involves stealing golden eggs from the land of the giants. Joining Puss and Humpty is the slick thief Kitty Softpaws, voiced by Salma Hayek in her sixth collaboration with Banderas. ”You never have the other actors with you when you record [your lines],” says Banderas, ”but in this case I asked if Salma and I could record it together.” The result, we trust, will be purr-fect. —John Young Nov. 4

The Descendants
In the seven years since his acclaimed 2004 comedy, Sideways, Alexander Payne’s filmmaking career has gone a bit, well, sideways. ”I just got busy,” he says. ”I was producing, I got divorced, I had [knee] surgery, I did a short, I did a pilot, I wrote another script.” At last Payne is back with a new feature, this one starring George Clooney as a Hawaiian land baron whose life is upended after his wife (Patricia Hastie) goes into a coma and he learns that she’d been having an affair. Like many of Payne’s movies — including Sideways, About Schmidt, and ElectionThe Descendants aims for a delicate balance between the dramatic and the comedic. ”As I always say,” Payne quips, ”tone wasn’t built in a day.” —JR Nov. 23

Hugo
A 3-D fantasy set in 1931 Paris with a plucky boy hero, a mysterious robot, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a goofy authority figure? It doesn’t sound like the work of Martin Scorsese, master of gritty urban dramas. Yet Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, still allowed Scorsese to explore his cineast passions. The film follows a young orphan (Nanny McPhee Returns‘ Asa Butterfield) who inherits a broken automaton from his late father. The device’s inventor turns out to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a real-life toymaker and pioneering French filmmaker. ”The films of Georges Méliès have always inspired me, and it was a gift to really live with them and think about Méliès as a person,” says Scorsese. (Quips Kingsley: ”I got to play a movie maestro, directed by a movie maestro. Pretty irresistible.”) Hugo also let the director realize another ambition. ”I had always wanted to work in 3-D,” he says. ”I was inspired by the great 3-D pictures, like Dial M for Murder or House of Wax, where 3-D is really used to deepen the storytelling and the environment.” —Jeff Jensen Nov. 23

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Bespectacled British superspy George Smiley, author John le Carré’s classic hero, is back on screen three decades after Alec Guinness’ memorable portrayal in two acclaimed BBC mini-series. This time, it’s Gary Oldman who’s on the hunt for a mole in Britain’s MI6, and Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds (The Debt) play some of the suspects among his fellow agents. Oldman knows he has big shoes — or, rather, glasses — to fill. ”I expected people to say, ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve,’?” says Oldman. ”But we have more than one Hamlet, more than one King Lear. I see Smiley in that way. It’s an iconic character.” —Adam Markovitz Nov. 18

The Artist
The crowd-pleaser at Cannes this year was a black-and-white silent film — that’s right, a movie with virtually no dialogue, just intermittent subtitles and a musical score. Jean Dujardin picked up the fest’s Best Actor prize for his debonair turn as a 1920s silent-film star who watches his career crater as talking pictures become all the rage. ”I’d never done anything like it before,” says John Goodman, who plays a cigar-chomping studio boss. ”There was a lot of improvisation, but Jean doesn’t speak English and I speak no French. So he just waited until I stopped talking and he’d jump in. And it worked.” —Dave Karger Nov. 23

Tower Heist
Like any good caper, director Brett Ratner’s action comedy Tower Heist spent a lot more time in the planning phase than in the execution. In fact, the project had gone through so many revisions, touch-ups, and cast changes that star Ben Stiller didn’t know whose idea it was in the first place. ”I remember talking to Brett about a role and saying the dream casting would be Eddie Murphy,” says Stiller. ”And he said, ‘Well, actually, this whole movie was Eddie’s idea.’?” Here’s the gist of the story: A group of employees at a Trump-esque apartment complex — the film was originally called Trump Heist — decide to steal $20 million from one of the residents, a Bernie Madoff-like financial wizard (Alan Alda) who lost their pension funds in a Ponzi scheme. For a project more than half a decade in the works, the stealing-from-the-rich element certainly helps keep things timely. ”The recession definitely makes it more relevant,” says Ratner, ”but really I think heist movies never go out of style.” —Keith Staskiewicz Nov. 4

Jack and Jill
Adam Sandler may be playing two characters in his new comedy — a suburban family man and his abrasive twin sister — but he took home only one paycheck. ”At least I hope so,” says director Dennis Dugan (Just Go With It). ”That would move the profit margin back quite a bit.”

Sandler dons makeup, a wig, and two shapely lumps of silicone to portray the difficult Jill, who visits her brother, Jack, for Thanksgiving and then refuses to leave. ”Adam makes a hilarious woman,” says Katie Holmes, who plays Jack’s wife. ”What I love about Jill is that she has a sweet heart, and I really believe she’s only annoying to her brother.”

While film technology has come a long way since Hayley Mills first schemed with herself in 1961’s The Parent Trap, faking twins is still a challenging logistical feat. ”We had all the split-screen stuff and the head-replacement effects, but we still had to figure out how to schedule him,” says Dugan. ”We would need both Jack and Jill in the same day, and we found it was best to do Jack first because it was easier to put all that makeup on Adam than to get it off.” So if we see a smudge of eyeliner at the premiere, I guess we’ll know why. —KS Nov. 11

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
”Despite the fact that it’s a Christmas movie, nobody should think this is a family movie. Do not take your children,” warns Kal Penn, who returns as Kumar opposite John Cho’s Harold in the third installment of the pothead franchise (this time in stoner-friendly 3-D). The plot picks up a few years after the 2008 sequel, in which the pals were sent to Guantánamo Bay prison. ”Harold is happily married, living in this incredibly neat house,” Penn says. ”But Kumar could not be more in the dumps. Then a mysterious gift shows up, and that brings them back together for another highly inappropriate adventure.” Highly. —Benjamin Svetkey Nov. 4

Immortals
If you like your Greek gods wrinkled, bearded, and hidden in flowing robes, Immortals isn’t the titan clash for you. Henry Cavill (soon to be Superman) plays a buff mortal tapped by the gods (including Twilight‘s Kellan Lutz and Robin Hood‘s Luke Evans) to save both Olympus and Greece from the rogue Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). Beheadings, bludgeonings, and blood spurts abound. And in 3-D! Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell) also reports that the Mickey Rourke Experience was everything he hoped it would be: ”He’s very unpredictable [as an actor]. When you have him pointing a spear at someone’s head, it can keep people on edge.” —JJ Nov. 11

Melancholia
It’s no spoiler to say that the world comes to an end in Melancholia. After all, the earth’s destruction takes place in the film’s opening minutes — before it flashes back to the lavish wedding of a wildly depressed woman (Kirsten Dunst) and her stoically devoted man (Alexander Skarsgård). Despite controversial Danish director Lars von Trier’s bleak themes, the improv-heavy production proved liberating for the star. ”I’ve never felt so free on a set,” says Dunst, who took home Cannes’ top acting prize for her role. ”I wish we could go back and make a sequel — that’s how good of a time we all had together.” Given the film’s apocalyptic ending, though, Melancholia 2 seems unlikely. —Sara Vilkomerson Nov. 11

My Week With Marilyn
Portraying Marilyn Monroe on the screen is about as daunting as playing the Mona Lisa. But Michelle Williams faced the challenge head-on in My Week With Marilyn, which focuses on the behind-the-scenes troubles between Monroe and her costar-director Laurence Olivier (the aptly Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh) on the set of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl. ”For several months before we filmed, we did what Michelle called ‘Marilyn boot camp,’?” says first-time feature director Simon Curtis. ”She and I just devoured everything. Believe me, there’s no shortage of research material.” The two watched films and interview clips, read biographies and correspondence, and pored over photographs to re-create the woman behind the iconic Warhol print. —KS Nov. 4

Also Playing
It’s not ANOTHER HAPPY DAY for Lynn (Ellen Barkin) when she’s forced to confront her ex’s new wife (Demi Moore) at a family gathering (11/4)…. In the French thriller THE MONK, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) is tempted to commit murder (11/4)…. Growing up is hard to do in the black comedy RID OF ME (11/4)…. Channing Tatum suspects Al Pacino is covering up a double homicide in THE SON OF NO ONE (11/4)…. Texas’ COOK COUNTY plays host to this SXSW darling about an unhinged meth addict (11/11)…. Mumble the tap-dancing penguin returns in HAPPY FEET TWO (11/18)…. A woman attempts to escape her relationship with a man who’s as abusive as a TYRANNOSAUR (11/18)…. In the 3-D animated film ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, a boy (voiced by James McAvoy) sets out to learn how Santa delivers his presents (11/23)…. Flesh-eating fish feast on more swimmers in PIRANHA 3DD (11/23). —Grady Smith

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