Synopsis: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad Tepes looks to make a deal with dangerous supernatural forces – without succumbing to the darkness himself.
Release Date: October 10, 2014
Thoughts: Okay, so along with my weakness for shark movies, creature features, Grease 2, Showgirls, and a bunch of other cinematic eye-rolls I have to say that I’m always up for a revisionist take on the vampire kingpin of ‘em all: Dracula. The origin of Dracula has been told countless times over the years from historically sound efforts to wildly fantastical takes on the myth with nary a drop of blood left unspilled. With a cast that includes Luke Evans (The Raven), Sarah Gadon (Enemy), and Dominic Cooper (Need for Speed), Dracula Untold looks to be in the campy-yet-serious group, catering to the Underworld and fan base but don’t think that will stop me from resting comfortably in my screening seat to see what new creases the creators have in store for this well-worn tale.
Synopsis: In Los Angeles in 1970, drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Release Date: January 9, 2015
Thoughts: I didn’t like The Master. There, I said it and I’m not sorry I did. I thought it was bloated and too cuckoo for words. Not that it wasn’t a handsomely made film featuring great performances (however un-Oscar nomination worthy a few of them were…) and there’s little doubt that director Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly what he’s doing behind the camera. Learning a lot from his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson may have his greatest tribute yet to the late master filmmaker with Inherent Vice, a 70s set detective story where Anderson can really go to town with his tripped out inclinations. Reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix (Her), looking to turn in another in a long line of loopy roles, Anderson’s newest project looks fun, fresh, and less meditative (read: snooze inducing) than his last picture.
Synopsis: A man is released from prison to help American and Chinese authorities pursue a mysterious cyber criminal. The dangerous search leads them from Chicago to Hong Kong.
Release Date: January 16, 2015
Thoughts: Not that Michael Mann has ever been a director that turns out work on a regular basis, but it’s been nearly six years since Mann’s Public Enemies rolled out into theaters. Returning with the cyber action adventure Blackhat, the first look here is classic Mann with lots of shots of grandly styled action sequences sure to be interspersed with a flawlessly perfect (but icy cold) production design. Starring Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and Viola Davis (Prisoners), Blackhat will be unveiled mid-January of 2015, when audiences will be weary on award-ready dramas and in the mood for the type of skilled cinematic craftsmanship Mann has perfected over the years.
Synopsis: In Depression-era North Carolina, the future of George Pemberton’s timber empire becomes complicated when it is learned that his wife, Serena, cannot bear children.
Release Date: November 12, 2014
Thoughts: Here’s one that I’ve been hearing about for well over a year and while some may find it perplexing that a film with two of the big A-List stars could struggle for a release date you can only blame their white hot careers. See, both Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and her American Hustle/Silver Linings Playbook costar Bradley Cooper (The Hangover: Part III) have been churning out several films a year and the timing for Serena is important. Without a major studio behind it (currently), if the film is to have any chance at being a part of the end of the year awards circuit it has to wiggle in to theaters at precisely the right time. Sounds like this dark drama will see the light of day before the end of 2014 – I’m hoping it was all worth the wait.
Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Thoughts: Packed with so many Oscar faves that it could double as sketch on Jimmy Kimmel, The Homesman is the type of award festival bait that could be hard to resist. Though the Western genre landscape has been largely barren for quite some time, when one does hit its mark it usually lands square in the bull’s-eye. Once again, early buzz has Hilary Swank moving to the front of the Best Actress race in a film not many people have heard of…whether she can nab her third trophy remains to be seen. All the elements seem to be there, though, and working alongside the likes of Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, also taking on writing and directing duties), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), and James Spader (Mannequin) I’m very interested in seeing if The Homesman can deliver on some rather intriguing promise.
Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.
Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda
Review: I suppose I need to start my review of This Is Where I Leave you by coming clean and saying that I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel on which his screenplay is based and hated it. Filled with endless turns of cliché situations and characters that seemed discarded from NBC’s 2004 pilot season, the book never made a case for its popularity in my mind. Still, based on the cast director Shawn Levy (The Internship) assembled I hoped the film adaptation would be able smooth out some of the book’s trite developments and be that rare unicorn where the movie was better than the book.
Alas, while the film does ultimately fare better than its source material, it remains a painfully laborious affair with no family squabble left un-squawked and no amount of gooey angst left un-squeezed. While Tropper has streamlined his novel for the big screen, he winded up throwing out more than a few interesting elements that provided these characters with what little interest they were sketched with in the first place. Particularly disappointing is the full-scale lobotomy performed on eldest brother Corey Stoll’s (Non-Stop) backstory, robbing the actor and the audience of some meaty insight into why the man is so gruff and glowering.
Returning home to sit shiva (a Jewish mourning period of 7 days where the family receives guests and remembers the deceased) the Altman children come back to the family homestead with baggage both physical and emotional. Cuckolded brother Judd (Jason Bateman, Bad Words) is dealing with his marital woes, unhappy sister Wendy (Tina Fey, Muppets Most Wanted) juggles scampering children and a non-present husband, responsible brother Paul (Stoll) can’t seem to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers) pregnant, and free spirit Phillip (Adam Driver, What If) speeds into town with his older fiancé (Connie Britton, The To Do List) in tow.
Living under the same roof again with their famous child psychiatrist mother (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding) could have made for a much more interesting mix of comedy tinged with pathos but Tropper and Levy hardly let a moment go by without a joke involving Fonda’s silicon-ized breasts, even sacrificing a hugely emotional scene near the end of the film to get in one more boob joke.
It’s time for Bateman to hang up this exasperated character he’s been playing for several decades now. He’s interesting enough of an actor to take some stretch opportunities but he’s returned to this well one too many times. Though he creates some nice sparks with Rose Byrne (Insidious) as his high school sweetheart, the rest of his performance seems flat and workmanlike. Hahn is mysteriously underused here, like Stoll she suffers from Tropper’s slicing up of her story arc…though it must be said I’m glad he removed one particular turn of events that would have had audiences furious. Britton barely makes an impact and while Fonda gets some of the best scenes in the movie, she looks like she’s going through the five stages of Botox as the film progresses.
Driver may be the next big thing but I’m yet to be sold on his charm – still, in his own way he gives the role some needed charisma, however oddly he delivers it. Though it pains me to say it, Fey is the real mistake of the film. She probably should have swapped roles with Hahn because her attempts to dig deep find her in shallow waters that she just isn’t yet capable of navigating.
It doesn’t help that these characters are the kind of gross oversized family unit that only can be displayed on the big screen. My movie companion thought that I missed the point because, as an only child, I may not be as in tune with the family dynamics that exist within a large household. This could be true but my problems lie not with the device but with the execution. Worse, the film introduces these messy people and then dares to provide the tidiest of wrap-ups without earning it. Instead of feeling sympathy for the misery everyone is enduring (of which none is related to the death of the patriarch, by the way) I felt like everyone got what was coming to them in one way or another.
The large ensemble family dramadey has been done so much better before in films like Parenthood – leave this one alone and take another look at that film instead. Not much to see here.
Synopsis: A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981 centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.
Release Date: December 31, 2014
Thoughts: Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a most prosperous last few years after receiving an Oscar nomination for his debut feature Margin Call in 2011. He followed that up last year by giving Robert Redford one of the best roles of his career in All Is Lost which I loved but divided many a moviegoer. Chandor is back in 2014 with this highly anticipated crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) that looks like an intriguing mix of styles that have echoes of of Scorcese, De Palma, & Cassavetes. Could be a sleeper hit thanks to its distinguished pedigree.
Synopsis: A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Thoughts: Tim Burton (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie) is a director that I’ve admired for quite some time. Bouncing from the lunacy of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to the dramas of Big Fish and Ed Wood, I’ve always been more drawn to his work that doesn’t involve (or rely) on special effects and it’s nice to see the director taking a break from his collaborations with Johnny Depp. That’s why Big Eyes looks so promising to me; not only does it sport two honest-to-goodness A-listers as leads but the true life tale of artist Margaret Keane is one that seems right up Burton’s alley. Those early Oscar hounds are saying this might be the movie that Amy Adams (Her) takes home an Oscar for and, wrong or not, the role seems tailor-made for the actress. Joined by two time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), I’d be on the lookout for this one if I were you.
Synopsis: Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship.
Stars: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell
Director: Craig Johnson
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I blame Saturday Night Live for not liking The Skeleton Twins more. I mean, stars Bill Hader (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) and Kristen Wiig (Friends with Kids, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) should shoulder most of the responsibility for the film feeling like an extended sketch from the tail end of the long-running late night show but it’s easier for me as a fan of both to just blame the show that brought them national attention.
As much as I know I should, it’s hard to separate out Hader and Wiig from being comedians and allow them the opportunity to sink their teeth into this familial drama about two twins brought together after a suicide attempt. Surprisingly (said with the utmost sarcasm) there are a lot of outstanding family issues that need to be settled and, wouldn’t you know it, over the course of the film they all seem to get dealt with in one way or another in director Craig Johnson’s hum drum script he co-wrote with Mark Heyman. From a visit with their absentee mother (an all too brief appearance by Joanna Gleason) to Hader’s reunion with his first love (Ty Burrell, Muppets Most Wanted) to Wiig’s ongoing issues with her husband (a surprisingly strong Luke Wilson) this is one of those kitchen sink movies where everything gets thrown in just to make sure no dramatic stone is left unturned.
When Hader and Wiig are apart, both actors turn in some impressive work that shows of their dramatic chops nicely. Hader especially has some nice moments as he comes to grips with his life not being in any shape or form what he intended it to be. It’s when the two are together in extended sequences involving lyp-syncing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, getting high on laughing gas, and dressing up for Halloween that I started to feel like these were scenes from the very late night writing sessions Saturday Night Live is historically known for. These goofball moments could have worked in a different film with a less somber tone but here they don’t fit with the rest of what Johnson has set-up.
Still, it’s a short ride and one that does go by quickly even with some fairly major bumps. And it should be noted that it’s a huge improvement over Wiig’s last attempt at a dramadey, the dreadful Girl Most Likely. A complicated film made more so by Wiig and Hader’s chemistry that reads more collegiate than familial, The Skeleton Twins doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to make much of an impression.
Synopsis: One couple’s story as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew and pick up the pieces of a past that may be too far gone.
Stars: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Jess Weixler, Ciarán Hinds
Director: Ned Benson
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I’m going to try my hardest to get through this review without working in a quote from The Beatles song featured in the title of this brittle drama. However, I may wind up resorting to cheap references to talking about “all the lonely people” and questioning “where do they all come from?” because aside from two strong performances from the leads, there’s not a whole lot more to discuss.
Originally filmed and intended to be released as two movies told from the male and female perspective of a crumbling marriage, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby feels familiar from the get-go. There’s a mystery surrounding why our titular character (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) has fled her marriage to Conor (James McAvoy, Trance) and returned home to mommy, daddy, and single-mom sis but Ned Benson’s script isn’t malleable enough to allow Chastain and McAvoy to rise above some overly dramatic sequences that feel like scenes out of a training video on grief counseling.
I’m growing less enamored with Chastain as I see more of her work. After scoring so big in 2011 & 2012 with a slew of memorable roles (like The Help, Lawless, Mama, and The Tree of Life), she’s now seemed to have slipped into that groove of making emotion filled movies as she waits on her next Oscar nomination. McAvoy. too, doesn’t seem all that challenged by the material, largely letting Benson’s cliché set-ups win out over the actors usually interesting instinct. It was a brilliant choice to pair Isabelle Huppert (Dead Man Down) and William Hurt (The Host) as Chastain’s parents because I actually believed they produced this character…but Huppert is stuck with a lot of out of the blue observances meant to be revelatory but wind up as mere devices to explain where some of Eleanor’s hurt comes from. Speaking of hurt, Hurt takes on another soft-spoken sage seemingly capable of one quizzical facial expression that indicates he’s just seen a sockeye salmon driving a dune buggy wearing a Versace dress. Then there’s Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as a grumpy college professor and colleague of Hurt’s that takes a liking to Chastain after she audits her class. Davis is as strong an actor as they come, but her performance here is so ice cold that it seems impossible someone like Eleanor could melt her.
Perhaps editing the two movies into one damaged the overall effect Benson was going for in showing there are two sides to every argument and some arguments are more interesting than others. The whole central conceit of the film was (and this may be a minor spoiler) done better in Rabbit Hole, providing nearly the exact same set-up but arriving at its final destination with its characters in row…rather than leaving them in the dust as Benson’s writing and direction is often wont to do.