Wednesday, December 3, 2014

At the Movies – December 2014 – Part 2: Hollywood Films

Drama:

The Gambler – Crime Drama/Thriller – Dec 19
Plot Summary: Jim Bennett is a literature professor with a gambling problem. He gets very down and finds himself in debt to some dangerous gangsters. This is the remake of 1974’s The Gambler. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Rupert Wyatt, writer William Monahan, producer Mark Wahlberg, and cinematographer Greig Fraser. Actors Involved: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and Michael Kenneth Williams. Quality Potential: High/Medium. This film has me pretty interested for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it looks great. I am curious to see how director Rupert Wyatt will follow-up all the acclaim he received for his work directing Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I am also curious to see how good the writing is – William Monahan was on top of his game, beginning his career with Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed and Body of Lies. But, his last two projects have not been nearly as good (Edge of Darkness and London Boulevard, which he also directed). I hope The Gambler sees a return to form. Lastly, the cast is strong, but I am looking forward to seeing Brie Larson’s follow-up performance to Short Term 12 (one of my favorite performances of 2013) the most. I am definitely going to see this. It looks like a blast. Trailer: Here.

Big Eyes – Biographical Drama – Dec 25
Plot Summary: Margaret Keane famously painted pictures of people with big eyes in the 1950s; however, her husband took all the credit for her work. She took him to court trying to regain ownership of her work, which proved to be a long and arduous legal battle. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Tim Burton, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, composer Danny Elfman, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Actors Involved: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, and Jon Polito. Quality Potential: Medium. Tim Burton used to make cool, interesting and stylish films (things like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood). Now, he makes mediocre (if not just straight bad) films (things like Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows). Maybe Big Eyes is finally a return to form? It is sort of the same story with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They were rising stars after writing Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, but have only churned out rather forgettable stuff since. This could be big for them as well. It is really hard to gage this film. It could be great. It has fantastic people behind and in front of the camera (Bruno Delbonnel, for example, is my favorite working cinematographer), but Burton has not made anything good since 2006’s Big Fish (although, I am not as charmed by it as most seem to be – leading me to argue that the date is really 1999 with Sleepy Hollow). It looks like it is going to be a good drama, built on the strong performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, with a mix of Burton’s eccentric style thrown in, but who is to say; I have been wrong before. Trailer: Here.

Action/Adventure:

Exodus: Gods and Kings – Action/Drama – Dec 12
Plot Summary: Moses and Ramses grew up together as brothers, lavished with all the spoils afforded to gods on Earth; but as Moses comes into his own, he begins to realize that the Egyptians’ treatment of their slaves is unjust under God’s law. Moses defies his brother, leading a rebellion, claiming that the slaves must be set free. Ramses fights back, set on teaching all the slaves a lesson by taking their lives; and thus, Moses must lead his people out of Egypt. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Ridley Scott, writer Steven Zaillian, composer Alberto Iglesias, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Arthur Max. Actors Involved: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Indira Varma, John Turturro, and Ben Mendelsohn. Quality Potential: High/Medium. Ridley Scott is a brilliant visual director, who often makes fantastic epics. He has made many great films, like: Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut), American Gangster, and Body of Lies. His two most recent films are both good as well, but each have their own exceptions. Prometheus is a phenomenal sci-fi film from a visual standpoint, but the story is just ridiculous to the point where the film suffers overall. This brings up a key point to Scott’s work. He must work with a good script, as while he always presents things splendidly visually and gets strong performances, his weaker films always are the result of a poorly plotted script. With The Counselor, a brilliant film that is sure to one day find its cult audience, Scott made something too specific for general audiences. It is visually dynamic and features great performances, but it is too intricate, complex and maybe a little slow (or so many have said – I think it is a great film). Exodus: Gods and Kings looks like a massive epic, something Scott thrives on; and with Steve Zaillian scripting, the story should hopefully be strong. Scott has also assembled a wonderful cast lead by Christian Bale (one of our best working actors). I am very excited to see the film as it looks to have all the ingredients of a great epic (a genre that is just not done that much anymore, and one that I miss): scale and scope, action, adventure, drama, and at the center a very compelling dynamic between two brothers, Moses and Ramses. Trailer: Here.

Into the Woods – Musical Fantasy – Dec 25
Plot Summary: This is a musical modern twist of the Brothers Gimm fairy tales. All the beloved characters inhabit a world in which they dream of a better life. One day, a witch tells them that they will find their dreams in the woods; however, as with any fairy tale, the characters realize that getting what they want is not exactly what they were expecting. It is based on the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical of the same name. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Rob Marshall, cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer Dennis Gassner. Actors Involved: Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, Lucy Punch, and James Corden. Quality Potential: Medium. Walt Disney Studio Pictures seems like a perfect studio to take on this adaptation; although, some are worried that Disney will not uphold the musical’s darker elements (like the ending). We shall see. Director Rob Marshall too seems like an excellent choice. Let us just forget about his poor musical Nine and forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and just remember how much we love his adaptation of the musical Chicago (it even won Best Picture). He has a great, fun cast and strong technicians around him. The film certainly looks very fun and who does not love a good musical (another genre we are lacking in today). Trailer: Here.

American Sniper – Biographical Action/Drama – Dec 25 (limited – wide Jan 16)
Plot Summary: Chris Kyle tells the story of his military career. As a Navy S.E.A.L. sniper, he had over one-hundred and fifty confirmed kills – the most in US history. Key Filmmakers Involved: Producer-director Clint Eastwood, producer Bradley Cooper, cinematographer Tom Stern, and production designer James J. Murakami. Actors Involved: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. Quality Potential: High/Medium. Director Clint Eastwood was on a roll between 2003 and 2008 with Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby (which won Best Picture), Flags of Our Fathers, Letter from Iwo Jima, Changeling, and Gran Torino (all very good films); but since then, he has struggled with forgettable and mediocre films – maybe none more so than his last: this year’s Jersey Boys (which was lambasted by critics). American Sniper looks like it is going to be fantastic – a probable Best Picture contender – built on gripping tension and a strong Bradley Cooper performance. Yet, with Eastwood’s last four films being disappointing, who is really to say if this will come together. Eastwood has been very streaky as a director in his career, having gone on long stretches of consecutive good or bad films in the past. Thus, American Sniper could be another on this bad streak or the beginning of a new good streak. Trailer: Here.

Comedy:

Top Five – Comedy – Dec 5
Plot Summary: Comedian Andre is at the top of his game, but has grown a bit bored with it all. He wants to make a change in his life and pursue roles as a serious dramatic actor. Meanwhile, his reality-TV star fiancé wants him to agree to broadcast their wedding on her show. While all this is happening, Andre decides to agree to give a rare interview to put his choice to change career paths into perspective for his fans; however, he might be falling for his interviewer only complicating his life more. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Chris Rock, producer Scott Rudin, cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, and co-producers Jay Z and Kanye West. Actors Involved: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove. Quality Potential: Medium/Low. Top Five has been giving off a mixed signals. Critics seem to think it is quite good, while test audiences are much more mixed if not negative. It looks very funny and features a great cast of comedians; but, Chris Rock’s first two outings writing and directing his own work amounted to two mediocre films (Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife). It is hard to ignore the clamorously positive critical buzz however. Trailer: Here.

Annie – Family Musical Comedy – Dec 19
Plot Summary: Annie is a foster kid who is streetwise enough to make it in New York City. She lives with a bunch of other kids under the supervision of her mean foster mother Miss Hannigan. Things are about to change for Annie, however, when she meets Will Stacks, a local tycoon who is running for mayor. His campaign teams thinks that it will be a great political move for him to take Annie in. Now it is up to her to win his love so that he does not send her back to Miss Hannigan when the campaign is over. This is based on the Thomas Meehan stage musical (many of us remember or grew up with the 1982 film version). Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Will Gluck and producers Will Smith and Jay Z. Actors Involved: Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, and Cameron Diaz. Quality Potential: Low. Annie does have some stuff going for it. Jay Z should provide it with a good soundtrack and the songs will likely have an updated appeal as well. It also has a great cast (Foxx, Byrne, Cannavale, and Diaz are all very funny). Will Gluck is a serviceable director. He has made three comedies to date (Fired Up!, Easy A and Friends with Benefits). All three are entertaining, but nothing that special. I think Annie will be entertaining, but there is a lot of better stuff to see in December, unless you have young children. Trailer: Here.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb – Adventure Comedy – Dec 19
Plot Summary: Larry Daley still works at the night patrolman at New York’s Natural History Museum; however, something terrible is threatening the magic of the museum (it is the magic that allows its exhibits to come alive at night). Now, Larry and friends must embark on the global mission to save the magic. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director-producer Shawn Levy, producer Chris Columbus, composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, and production designer Martin Whist. Actors Involved: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Dan Stevens, Owen Wilson, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Steve Coogan, Dick Van Dyke, Rami Malek, Ricky Gervais, and Mickey Rooney. Quality Potential: Very Low. The Night at the Museum series is reasonably funny and entertaining, but the cynical side of me sort of believes that this second sequel exists only to play on the name value of the series void of all creative ambition, with some of the actors returning for easy paydays. Maybe this will turn out to be fun and entertaining, probably not though. Shawn Levy generally makes forgettable broad comedies. His best film to date is, by IMDb user ratings, Real Steel (which is not a good movie – I would pick Night at the Museum as his best). Trailer: Here.

The Interview – Action Comedy – Dec 25
Plot Summary: Dave Skylark is the host of a very popular celebrity tabloid TV show. Skylark’s producer Aaron Rapoport is always on the hunt for bigger guests to book on the show. Somehow, Rapoport is able to book North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It will be his first interview with any member of the press outside North Korea. Wanting to seize this opportunity, the CIA recruits Skylark and Rapoport to assassinate Kim Jong-un when they meet him in Pyongyang. What could possibly go wrong? Key Filmmakers Involved: Director-producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen and composer Henry Jackman. Actors Involved: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Timothy Simons, and Diana Bang. Quality Potential: Medium. Writing, producing and directing partners Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen began putting together their own films in 2011, starting with 50/50 and following it up with This Is the End and Neighbors. The Interview is their latest project and their second directorial effort. 50/50 and This Is the End are both great films – 50/50 is funny and resonates dramatically while This Is the End is a very fun crude action comedy. The Interview looks to be along the same lines as This Is the End – a crude action comedy that just gets more and more ridiculous as things spin out of control. It worked for them before, it probably will work for them again. If nothing else, The Interview makes for good counterprograming to everything else coming out on Christmas (though, it is too bad that this got delayed from its original early Fall release date where it probably would have performed better at the box office; now it has to contend against The Hobbit 3, Unbroken, Night at the Museum 3, Annie, Into the Woods, The Gambler, and Big Eyes). Trailer: Here.

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