POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2012:
It's The Most Genre-Filled Time of the Year
What to see -- and avoid -- in theatres this holiday season
Winter is slowly becoming the new summer, cinematically speaking. What was once the domain of Oscar-bait movies has morphed into a weird combination of quasi-summer event films and genre movies looking for a profitable opening, mixed with actual holiday-themed stuff for the family and those Oscar contenders that hate releasing early in the year lest they be forgotten when nominations are doled out in January 2013.
That's what Thanksgiving and Christmas are looking like: a peculiar and recent amalgam of shooting for every demographic possible. However, it does boast two killer apps -- The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino -- and a new Twilight movie, if you care about that.
Hitchcock. The poster is great, the casting is superb, and the subject has been long for the telling. Anthony Hopkins portrays Alfred Hitchcock as he finds himself bucking his studio, moral crusaders, and his wife (an already perfectly cast Helen Mirren) when he becomes obsessed with making his next film, a little story called Psycho. Toni Colette, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), and Jessica Biel fill a periphery of iconic characters in this clearly light-hearted biopic directed by Sacha Gervasi, whose documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil was equal parts triumph and pathos.
Killing Them Softly. Director Andrew Dominick's 3rd feature in 12 years (after the batshit crazy Chopper and his great, if very long-titled, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) finds the Kiwi master re-teaming with Brad Pitt, along with the amazing Richard Jenkins and a welcome Ray Liotta for a gritty, '70s-style, Boston mob tale that has my interest piqued. Based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade, Pitt plays a mafia muscle man called in by his boss to get to the bottom of the heist of a really exclusive, mob-protected poker game. Shades of Fincher abound.
Dragon. Okay, it's an incredibly generic English title and its Chinese equivalent, Wu Xia, is pretty much like calling an American action movie Action Movie. But if you've seen 1993's Iron Monkey, you'd be forgiven for thinking that ancient Chinese people would have long ago learned to stop fucking with Donnie Yen -- kind of like Eastwood.
Yen (who, for my money, is the underrated Jet Li) plays Liu, a martial arts god who just wants to start a new, familial life in the countryside only to find that his old life as a badass makes him indispensable to his former boss, played by the more-famous-than-you-realize Takeshi Kaneshiro. A History of Violence meets martial arts asskickery with a little Unforgiven, starring a seasoned Donnie Yen? Sounds like Christmas to me!
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. With The Brothers McMullen and She's The One, the Queens, NY-born auteur Ed Burns became fairly successful at the tail end of when being a mid-'90s indie star mattered. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (his seventh film as writer, director, producer, and actor) tells the story of Gerry Fitzgerald (Burns), the conciliatory son who attempts to barter the amiable return of his absentee father (Ed Lauter) for a Christmas gathering with the family he infamously abandoned 20 years before. The trailer looks earnest and the plot is a well-worn template, though never underestimate the warmth of a Christmas redemption story -- or Burns' knowing way with unlikely humor in a family drama.
Hyde Park on the Hudson. King George VI had a good year in 1939, getting over his stutter in time to stand up to the Third Reich. That incarnation was played by Colin Firth in 2010's delightful The King's Speech. Hyde Park tells the other side of the tale, when George and Queen Elizabeth (portrayed here by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) make their first -- in the history of British kings -- official visit to America and the home of the hobbled President Roosevelt to ask if the USA might want to help kill a bunch of asshole Germans. We clearly obliged.
Bill Murray plays FDR with what seems like a disbelief-defying gravitas in this mirthful slice of meta-film history.
Playing for Keeps. Gerard Butler (300) stars in this generically-titled dramedy about a former sports star who goes back to coaching his young son's soccer team -- and not pulling a Kenny Powers in the process. Playing for Keeps looks like an uplifting bit of holiday filmmaking and that's fine, though Butler, a well-rounded actor who can do comedy or drama, is really just trolling in paycheck films while abdicating his rightful throne as a Scottish action badass. Liam Neeson can't keep doing that shit forever.
The Hobbit. Almost ten years after the release of the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, director Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth to ... make three more movies based on the J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit -- a book that's about half as long as The Fellowship of the Ring. While that has the George Lucas-like taint of a director returning to the well (after PJ's lackluster, though indulgently ambitious, King Kong remake and then his outright awful adaptation of The Lovely Bones), I really couldn't be happier to see Jackson come back and geek out on the book that turned me on to Tolkien.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is conscripted by the wizard/angel Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to be the 14th member of a group of dwarves who want to retake their hometown from the rule of a malevolent dragon that sleeps on a mountain of dwarven treasure. Orcs, goblins, elves, and the stirrings of Sauron get in their way. There's a reason that this is the only film opening on this weekend. It might as well be a new Star Wars flick.
Monsters Inc. 3-D Pixar is following a trend that you are going to see much more of: re-releases in 3-D. The Phantom Menace and Titanic did it earlier this year (and you'll eventually be getting all six Star Wars films in diorama mode). Monsters, Inc.'s story of kid-phobic creatures who power their dream society with children's screams remains one of Pixar's best films and I'm totally for re-releasing it or any older and classic films on the big screen -- though not because of the added dimension. They don't need it. For example: fuck Casablanca 3-D.
Zero Dark Thirty. Yay. We killed bin Laden. That's pretty much the gist of Zero Dark Thirty, a film whose production began about 20 minutes after that douchebag's dead body got dropped into the Indian Ocean. What ZDT really heralds is director Kathryn Bigelow's second chance at The Hurt Locker -- an inexplicably Oscar-winning film that no one really saw in theatres because people still hated the Iraq War. Now everyone wants to see this.
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3-D. Did you know Cirque de Soleil were Canadian? Me either. But then I hadn't had to give any thought to the Québec-based acrobatic dance troupe until this film reared its shimmering, abstractionist fairy tale head. Produced by James Cameron, Worlds Away looks to be an amalgam of live performance and fantastical eye-candy combined into something that I want no part of. In 3-D.
Jack Reacher. Based on the titular series of gritty novels by Jim Grant (under the pseudonym Lee Child), Tom Cruise (all 5 feet 7 inches of him) portrays Jack Reacher, a former MP and all around badass who seeks justice for the innocent regardless of how much it fractures the law. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (whose The Usual Suspects is still great) offsets the wisdom of casting Cruise in the role of Reacher by bringing on the deity known as Werner Herzog to play the villain. I'm sold.
This Is 40. Writer/director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People), after wisely taking a break from comedy oversaturation, returns with his trademark quirky, sweet, and sometimes gross brand of mid-life humor with This Is 40. The "sort-of-sequel" to Knocked Up finds Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd portraying their characters, Debbie and Pete, several years after the events of the first film and who are coming to grips with turning 40 -- taking neurotic stock of the second half of their lives. Melissa McCarthy, John Lithgow, and Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd) co-star.
Parental Guidance. Billy Crystal looks like Katherine Helmond in Brazil. If that weren't weird enough, the people that made this flick probably expect his and Bette Midler's last living fans to actually drive to a theatre unaided by some annoyed offspring. Marisa Tomei plays a world-weary mother who leaves her kids under the ministrations of her neurotic parents so she can go work in a better movie.
Django Unchained. It's Quentin Tarantino and new. That should really be all it takes to get your ass in a seat. Jamie Foxx is Django, a liberated slave who joins forces with a suave bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who needs Django to identify one of his targets. In return, he will help Django free his wife from the clutches of a devious plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Trademark dialogue from QT combined with another anachronistic exploration of history in what looks to be a gorgeously shot, pulpy revenge tale will probably make Django Unchained the coolest Christmas gift you'll ever get from a stranger.
The Guilt Trip. On the surface this seems like it might be a somewhat generic, inoffensive road movie -- and it might very well be. Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand as an inventor son and his spinster mother travelling across country to reconnect as he tries to sell his next big idea seems sort of milquetoast enough. But writer Dan Fogelman (Cars, Bolt) has a good track record with imbuing seemingly generic ideas with warmth, surprise, and heart. Maybe this isn't just counterprogramming for those without a pulse, though if you skip Django for this than we are probably not in the same species.
Les Misérables. Tom Hopper (The King's Speech) adapts the long-loved, long-running Broadway hit musical drama with mega-stars Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Helena Bonham Carter. Jackman plays a destitute Frenchman who is imprisoned for stealing bread. When he escapes Crowe makes it his personal mission to bring him to justice. Hathaway plays a bald prostitute. The production looks lavish and the music sounds lovely -- and this is a bit of counterprogramming that might give Django a run for its money.
But there's plenty out right now! The comfy chairs are calling.
Flight. Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis breaks his holiday motion capture streak (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) and returns to live-action filmmaking with Flight, starring Denzel Washington. He plays a veteran commercial airline pilot who pulls an impossible aeronautical move to miraculously save all of his passengers when their plane goes down. Despite the glaring hero worship there's an FAA investigation that finds that he had alcohol in his system. Was he the cause or the savior of the incident? Who knows? The only time I can flip perfect over-easy eggs in a pan is when I'm drunk.
This Must Be the Place. In what might be the weirdest entry of the holiday season, Sean Penn portrays an aging, maladjusted, Robert Smith-esque rock star named Cheyenne whose boredom with retirement is interrupted when he learns that his father is dying. Upon realizing his father was a Holocaust survivor, Cheyenne embarks on a quest to find the Nazi responsible for his father's torture because apparently Cheyenne just heard of Nazis. Penn looks out of character here. With him, the premise of writer/director Paolo Sorrentino's fifth feature film is surreally interesting.
Wreck-It Ralph. Disney's latest animated film (their 52nd) is a CGI shout-out to Gen-Xers who cut their gaming teeth in arcades and really geeked out on TRON. John C. Reilly voices Ralph, a video game bad guy who gets tired of being an asshole after thirty years and decides to escape the system -- only to imperil his bad guy colleagues. Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Ed O'Neil co-voice.
The Man with the Iron Fists. RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan was always in love with mid-'70s, Shaw Brothers-era martial arts films. His affair finally comes to fruition in The Man with the Iron Fists. Produced by Quentin Tarantino and co-written with Eli Roth (Hostel) from a story by RZA, Fists tells the genre fable of an ancient Yojimbo-esque, Chinese blacksmith (RZA) whose deadly weapons are used to divide his village amongst the many factions vying for supremacy. When shit gets out of hand, the blacksmith becomes a weapon himself. Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu star alongside original music by The Black Keys and Wu-Tang Clan.
The Details. A nest of raccoons upends the lives of an upscale, married couple (Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks), setting in motion a domino-effect of infidelity and murderous pandemonium. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes (Mean Creek) seems to imbue The Details' comedy-of-errors conceit with a dark tone while directing a supporting cast that includes the estimable Laura Linney and Ray Liotta (occupying two films this season) -- picking up where his last bad guy role left off.
Breaking Dawn: Part Vulva. It's is finally here: and by that I mean I'm happy that these fucking movies are almost over. After cruelly adapting the dreadful writing of Stephanie Meyer over four-and-a-half, really long films, director Bill Condon -- the series' 4th behind the camera -- finishes his second part of Breaking Dawn, hopefully with same the camp sensibility that made Part Labia so ironically enjoyable. Bella gives birth to Edward's mixed breed daughter while violating the tenets of the Volturi, the vampire governing body who inhabit just one of the many meandering, anti-climactic plotlines in a quadrilogy of really shitty and successful movies.
Lincoln. Stephen Spielberg has a trade off: one for the masses and one for the Oscars. Last year it was The Adventures of Tintin followed closely by War Horse -- because either way he hates Germans. Lincoln is clearly Oscar-bait. But the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as one of our most revered Presidents, directed by one America's most legendary and consistently iconic directors is a pretty compelling reason to be interested in what amounts to another Titanic story: history where you know the ending but which might be re-cast into something immediate. (For a full review of Lincoln, see Cinema, P31.)
Rise of the Guardians. The holidays are really just an amalgam of retrograde myths and nostalgia, of gold dust and the radiant supernatural, whether it's Halloween or Christmas. In what seems to be the first really holiday-themed film of the season, Rise of the Guardians finds a cornucopia of all-stars -- from Santa to the Easter Bunny -- being led by Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to defend mortal children from the Nightmare King (Jude Law) who wishes to enslave their world.
MONSTERS INC. 3-D
Life of Pi. Richard Corliss is already calling this the next Avatar and I really hope that's not true. For one thing Corliss is a hack and for another Avatar is actually pretty awful. Based on the pantheistic, interspecies adventure novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells the story of "Pi" Patel, an Indian son of a zoo owner. Adrift at sea after a shipwreck, he's stuck with a Bengali tiger as his only company and eventual best friend. The visuals scream arty Ang Lee while representing his first crack at 3-D -- which is, hopefully, all it has in common with Avatar.
Red Dawn. This remake of the of the 1984, Cold War agitprop film -- ingeniously starring much of the Brat Pack -- replaces a WWIII-style, Cuban/Russian invasion of America with a contemporary Red Chinese invasion. But wait, no it doesn't! Having sat on the shelf for over two years, the producers figured out a way to recut and homogenize the film to appease our Chinese overlords, replacing them with North Koreans -- arguably the least credible threat to America on Earth.
LIFE OF PI
Silver Linings Playbook. One reason I like writing these list columns is because it reminds me that terrible madman geniuses like David O. Russell are still making movies. See Spanking the Monkey to understand how Russell uncomfortably gets into characters' heads (Jeremy Davies plays an introvert who bones his mom) and then watch Three Kings to see how he can mix genres into a hilarious satire (in this case of the first war with Iraq). Those films will give you absolutely no idea of what to expect from Playbook, the story of a divorced teacher and mental patient (Bradley Cooper) who finds his manic pixie girl (Jennifer Lawrence) as he tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. The trailer reveals an idiosyncratic rom-com packed with unlikely actors (even Chis Tucker comes out of hiding) who seem to realize what kind of amazing director they are working for. Put it this way: De Niro looks alive.
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