Several Hollywood hopefuls will crash and burn during the usual December film tsunami
Hollywood apparently expects us to have quite an appetite for fractured family dynamics this holiday season, no doubt thanks to the success of previous December hits such as “Meet the Fockers” and “Little Fockers.”
Honestly, one such endurance test would be enough for the month, but no, we’re getting three: “The Guilt Trip” (Seth Rogen vs. mom Barbra Streisand), “This Is 40” (Paul Rudd and Leslie Bibb vs. their two daughters) and “Parental Guidance” (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler vs. their three grandchildren).
One of those films runs more than two hours. My posterior aches in anticipation.
In fairness, the season leading up to Dec. 31 also offers the usual high-profile Oscar bait, with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Les Misérables” leading the charge, followed closely by “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Impossible.” The latter, in particular, probably will linger with viewers for months (if not forever).
A few other high-minded entries would like to think they’re Academy Awards contenders, but probably won’t make the cut. “On the Road” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” head that list, with “Hitchcock” and “Not Fade Away” not far behind.
Finally, happily, we’ll get several that promise a good time at the movies without trying to overwhelm us with artistic pretensions. I’m eager to see “Jack Reacher,” “Quartet,” “Promised Land” and “Django Unchained” … the latter quite possibly the least appropriate movie ever scheduled to open on Christmas Day.
So what’re you wanting for? Grab the popcorn, and let’s go see a movie! (Or two. Or six.)
Already in release:
“Hitchcock” — The Master of Suspense is reasonably well served by this biographical snippet, set during the tempestuous development, production and release of “Psycho,” the ground-breaking shocker that made him even more of a household name. Anthony Hopkins wisely minimizes the Hitchcockian affectations, and Helen Mirren is splendid as his longtime wife and colleague, Alma. I’m not sure this project has the desired “holiday vibe,” however (see also “Django Unchained,” further down), and a narrative device concerning serial killer Ed Gein is strictly weirdsville.
“Lay the Favorite” — British director Stephen Frears hits Las Vegas for this earthy romantic comedy, which concerns a transplanted small-town Florida stripper (Rebecca Hall, as Beth) who heads for the greener pastures of Sin City and comes to the attention of fast-talking meta-gambler Dink (Bruce Willis). Turns out Beth has quite a head for numbers, on top of being a two-legged good luck charm; Dink finds her increasingly hard to resist, much to the annoyance of his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Frothy comedies are a change of pace for Frears, best known for sturdier fare such as “The Queen” and “Dirty Pretty Things.” Expect this one to pop up in arthouse theaters, probably after the holidays.
“Playing for Keeps” — Director Gabriele Muccino’s so-called romantic comedy is an odd duck, due to a disorganized script that can’t decide whether to be smutty or endearing. Gerard Butler is charm personified as a former soccer star trying to mend fences with ex-wife Jessica Biel and their young son (Noah Lomax). Sadly, the A-list co-stars (Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer) are given bizarre characters and little to do with them, and everything builds to a wholly unbelievable final act. Hardly the holiday bonbon everybody intended.
Friday, Dec. 14
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — Goodness, does anybody not know about what likely will be December’s biggest box-office sensation? Peter Jackson once again takes the director’s chair for this fresh slice of Tolkien myth-making, with newcomer Martin Freeman starring as the titular Bilbo Baggins; returning familiar faces will include Ian McKellen, as Gandalf; Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel; and Andy Serkis, as Gollum. The story, set before the events of “Lord of the Rings,” concerns Bilbo’s quest — alongside numerous feisty dwarves — to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug. Be advised: This is only the first chapter of Jackson’s three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s stand-alone novel.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” — Bill Murray’s portrayal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be the primary draw of this light-hearted biopic, set during the historic meeting between the U.S. president and Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West), which set the stage for the Allied collaboration that would halt the advance of Nazi Germany. One might expect this to be enough for most films, but director Roger Michell and scripter Richard Nelson actually are more concerned with the possibility that FDR used this retreat to cement his extramarital affair with sixth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney). The tone sounds typical of Michell, who helmed “Notting Hill” and “Venus,” but one wonders if the execution will seem, well, disrespectful.
“Save the Date” — Writer/director Michael Mohan’s Sundance darling stars Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a gal who has second thoughts about her upcoming wedding after accepting boyfriend Geoffrey Arend’s proposal. Worse yet, Sarah’s younger sister Beth (Alison Brie) is going gaga over wedding details, to the disinterest of her own fiancé (Martin Starr). The plot sounds like a TV sitcom, and the film clearly is designed to showcase the rising Caplan. The big question: Will anybody notice?
Wednesday, Dec. 19
“The Guilt Trip” — Nice guy inventor Seth Rogen hits the road in an effort to market his newest endeavor, and in a staggering display of questionable judgment invites his mother (Barbra Streisand) along for the ride. The resulting road saga is guaranteed to exploit every familiar, lowbrow verbal and slapstick element from countless earlier parent/adult child comedies, but there’s no denying the potential when these two stars play off each other. Colin Hanks, Kathy Najimy and Adam Scott top the supporting cast.
“Monsters Inc. 3D” — “You won’t believe your eye,” screams the publicity campaign, in reference to Mike Wazowski’s single-orbed, green beach ball self. Pixar’s delightful comedy follows “Finding Nemo” with this 3D makeover, but — honestly — we really don’t need that excuse to spend more big-screen time with Billy Crystal’s Mike and John Goodman’s James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, as they attempt to make dreamtime safe for little children around the world.
“Zero Dark Thirty” — Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) re-team for this ambitious account of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The story hook focuses on a CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) who becomes convinced that bin Laden isn’t “hiding in some cave” but actually is someplace where he could be reached; the lengthy docudrama then follows her dogged effort to persuade everybody else. The initial openings will be solely in New York and Los Angeles, for Academy Awards consideration; we’ll get it in January.
Friday, Dec. 21
“The Impossible” — Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts star as a husband and wife who arrive at a Thai beach resort with their three sons on Christmas Eve in 2004, just as the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits. Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s harrowing docudrama is based on events recounted by Maria Belon, the role Watts plays here. This is no Hollywood-ified “disaster flick,” but a grim depiction of the catastrophe that killed roughly 283,000 people, as experienced by the members of this one family, all desperately trying to stay alive. I suspect you’ll not soon forget it.
“Jack Reacher” — Best-selling novelist Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches, weighs between 210 and 250 pounds and sports a 50-inch chest. On the short list of commanding actors able to play this intriguing character, Tom Cruise hardly fits the physical description … and yet he’s got the part in director/scripter Christopher McQuarrie’s adaptation of “One Shot,” the first Reacher story to hit the screen. It’s a crackerjack book, full of delicious plot twists, and even if Cruise doesn’t look the part, he certainly has the presence. The top-flight supporting cast includes Robert Duvall, Richard Jenkins and Rosamund Pike. I can’t wait.
“On the Road” — Jack Kerouac’s seminal, semi-autobiographical Beat Generation novel comes to the big screen courtesy of director Walter Salles and scripter Jose Rivera, with Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart starring as Sal, Dean and Marylou. Sal was Kerouac’s alter ego, of course, while Dean stood in for Neal Cassady. Salles was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and early reports suggest that, contrary to what we’ve come to expect from the “Twilight” series, Stewart really can act. The question, of course, is whether this film can capture the counter-culture vibe that has made the book so significant since its 1957 debut.
“This Is 40” — Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann revive Pete and Debbie, the sidebar couple they played in 2007’s “Knocked Up,” in this new sort-of sequel once again written and directed by Judd Apatow. At a rather indulgent 134 minutes, this raunchy ode to fractured parenthood likely will wear out its welcome long before the final reel, but there’s no denying the American appetite for Apatow’s signature blend of smut and low comedy.
Tuesday, Dec. 25
“Django Unchained” — Having turned Nazi Germany on its head during the alternate-history events of “Inglourious Basterds,” enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino now will splash blood and snarky dialogue all over this similarly bent saga of the 19th century, slave-holding antebellum American South. Jamie Foxx stars as a slave-turned-bounty hunter who, with the help of mentor Christoph Waltz, attempts to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the racist clutches of a sadistic Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Look for plenty of familiar TV and B-movie faces: Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks, Tom Wopat and stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell (so memorable in Tarantino’s “Death Proof”). Certain to be tasteless and audacious, and opening on Christmas Day. You gotta love it.
“Les Misérables” — Victor Hugo’s massive novel began its modern musical life in a production that opened Oct. 8, 1985, at London’s Barbican Center; I guess we can admit that all concerned took their time to develop a big-screen adaptation, no doubt hoping to get everything right. Certainly the casting is superb, with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe as his relentless pursuer, Javert; Anne Hathaway co-stars as the forlorn Fantine, with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier. Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “The Damned United”) absolutely seems the correct director for the job, and in just a few weeks we’ll be able to judge whether he brought it off.
“Parental Guidance” — Yet another drink from the well of slapstick family dynamics, with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler starring as old-school grandparents asked to watch their grandkids by helicopter mom and dad Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott. Based on the rather broad preview, we can expect plenty of exaggerated yocks and, I’m sure, the destruction of considerable personal property. This is the best Midler can do?
Friday, Dec. 28
“Not Fade Away” — Writer/director David Chase (“The Sopranos”) returns to his own New York roots, as a former kid who dreamed of being a star drummer in a rock band, for this saga of three friends in 1964 New Jersey who try to make it big in the music world. John Magaro’s Douglas carries the focus, with Bella Heathcote as his girlfriend, and “Sopranos” alum James Gandolfini as the domineering father who, wouldn’t you just know, can’t understand his son at all. Chase is too electrifying a talent to ignore, but one must be wary of long-gestating directorial vanity projects; they have a tendency to disappoint.
“Promised Land” — Here’s one ripped from contemporary headlines: Natural gas company front man Matt Damon and partner Frances McDormand arrive in a rural town suffering economic decline, where they’ve been sent to sell the residents on a plan to pump cash into the local coffers in exchange for vaguely defined “drilling rights.” The assignment should be a slam-dunk, but the corporate shills encounter resistance from respected schoolteacher Hal Holbrook and a grass-roots counter-campaign run by concerned local John Krasinski. Director Gus Van Sant (“Milk”) should bring the proper tone to this hot-potato script by Damon, Krasinski and John Eggers.
“Quartet” — Dustin Hoffman turns director (!) for Ronald Harwood’s cheery play-turned-film, which is certain to be adored by everybody who flocked to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Maggie Smith has a similar role here, as Jean, a former stage diva forced into a home for retired opera singers. The hook: an upcoming concert intended to celebrate Verdi’s birthday, which — if they can learn to get along — would unite Jean with former colleagues played by Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay. The senior citizen clichés are apt to be thick, but who could mind, when given such a cast of scene-stealers?
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com