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Sandra Bullock winds up adrift in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. (Warner Brothers Pictures)

Falling For Autumn Movies

Sep 2, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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If you just look at the box office grosses, rather than the bottom line, you'd swear Hollywood was closing the books this weekend on a sensational summer — more than $4.5 billion in the till, a couple of hundred million dollars higher than any summer on record.

The hitch is how much the film industry spent to achieve those grosses, with bank-busting blockbusters failing right and left — After Earth costing $130 million and barely grossing half that, Pacific Rim's producers spending $190 million (not counting advertising) and struggling to collect $100 million at the box office.

Still, with help from a Man of Steel, an Iron Man, and hundreds of lovably Despicable minions, all that profligate overspending did draw a lot of people to theaters. Now comes the tough part: extending the hot streak into cool weather with kids doing homework and new TV shows still sounding vaguely enticing.

Hollywood, as it happens, is turning to a strategy that stemmed box office slippage in the 1950s — give 'em something they can't get on the small screen.

Exhibit A: Alfonso Cuaron's apparently game-changingly realistic thriller, Gravity, in which a Hubble telescope repair mission is disrupted when space debris slams into astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and the space shuttle that got them there. Bullock is left floating helplessly, her oxygen running out, but it's Film Fest audiences who've been left breathless. Festival reviews have been every bit as stellar as Gravity's story.

Though it happened on land with plenty of people around, Solomon Northup, an unlucky African-American, got nearly as stranded 172 years ago in pre-Civil War New York, when he was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Northup's memoir, 12 Years A Slave, on which writer/director Steve McQueen based the film of the same name, has been in print for more than a century and a half. The picture reunites McQueen with his Shame star Michael Fassbender, who plays a sadistic slaveowner, and features Brad Pitt, who's also a producer. But the man who reaped hosannahs at Telluride this week was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the title character.

And proving that isolation can come from less extreme circumstances while still having pretty extreme consequences, from Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich, comes Her, a near-future dramedy about a lonely writer played by Joaquin Phoenix, who purchases the world's first artificially intelligent operating system for his computer, then finds his life changing in ways he didn't expect. The operating system's name is Samantha — think Siri but with more personality — and she (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) wants to know everything, including about feelings. Which leads to...um, feelings.

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