Yes, it seems pretty quiet right now, and only four movies open this week — including a couple of pretty terrific ones — but do not be deceived. By Christmas Day (that’s Dec. 25 by most calendars) movie theaters will look very little like they do now as concerns what is on the screens. We get hit with four more new movies next week and then with a whopping seven more the following week. Even granting that a couple of these titles are more art house than not (and I expect one of them to go wider), this is a lot of movies for what is realistically a limited number of screens. Little, if indeed anything, that is playing now — or even this coming weekend — is likely to still be standing by Christmas. If nothing else, this should serve as a friendly warning to catch anything you plan on seeing in short order before the steamrolling begins on Dec. 17/19. Quality movies like Birdman, The Theory of Everything, St. Vincent (which is about played out anyway), and even estimable titles like The Babadook and The Homesman, which don’t open till this Friday (Dec. 12) are probable casualties of the Christmas rush.
The big push gets underway with Peter Jackson’s final, last — no foolin’, there ain’t no more — trip to Tolkein Land with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Of course, to better convince us that this is an Event, it opens on Wednesday. (The idea that Wednesday openings are impressive have, I fear, become a thing of the past, because it happens too often.) This is pre-sold — assuming that you haven’t been Tolkeined-put by this point. You can also bet — especially since it’s available in both 3D and 2D — that this will eat up multiple screens. Personally, I am rejoicing that it means the damned trailer will stop being on every movie I see.
That Friday will add Will Gluck’s Annie. Now, I liked Gluck’s Easy A (2010) and Friends with Benefits (2011) — the former more than the latter — but I’m having a hard time getting worked up over this updated and rethought version of the venerable musical of the aged (and amazingly right-wing) comic strip. I mean, seriously, we already have one bad film version of the show. (Who thought John Huston should direct a musical?) Of course, this isn’t really the show, and the show wasn’t the comic strip. The changes and the movie’s existence doesn’t bother me, but that doesn’t make me all that anxious to see it.
(This has been moved to a Jan. 16 opening in Asheville.) Sneaking into this (at least on the local front) is the art title Foxcatcher, the latest offering from director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball). The tagline tells us this is “Based on the shocking true story.” The studio (Sony Pictures Classics) assures us this is “a psychological drama directed by Academy Award nominee Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and starring Golden Globe winner Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo, Academy Award winner Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller. The film was written by E. Max Frye and Academy Award nominee Dan Futterman. Foxcatcher tells the story of Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who sees a way out from the shadow of his more celebrated wrestling brother Dave (Ruffalo) and a life of poverty when he is summoned by eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont (Carell) to move onto his estate and train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Desperate to gain the respect of his disapproving mother, du Pont begins “coaching” a world-class athletic team and, in the process, lures Mark into dangerous habits, breaks his confidence and drives him into a self-destructive spiral.” A great many critics are pretty gaga over this one, but I have yet to see it.
I’ve also not seen the 19th’s other title Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. I’m kind of hoping my luck holds in this matter. I didn’t hate the first one (neither was I wild about it). The second one — yeah, I hated it. Its main claim to fame was that it marked the first (unfortunately, not the last) time the presence of Amy Adams did not boost a movie to at least watchable status. She wisely seems to be sitting this one out. That’s good news for her. The good news for us is that the Jonas Brothers (remember them?) do not seem to be back as genitally-deprived singing cherubs. Otherwise, this looks like More of the Same — and I having a sinking feeling that Mr. Souther will tell me, “Well, you saw the first two,” and condemn me to this one.
That brings us to the madness of Christmas Day. My wife actually asked me what we were seeing on Christmas. I gave her a look I usually reserve for the spectacularly unhinged. Fortunately, I’ve already seen two of the Christmas offerings and may see two or three of the others, owing to the time of year. Now, I haven’t seen it yet — and am not going to a movie on Christmas, but if I was going to undertake anything so foolish, it would be to see Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. This, I’m sure surprises no one who knows anything about me, but this is even more interesting, since it reunites Burton with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Plus, the prospect of seeing Burton work with Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, and Terence Stamp holds an appeal. At least, we’ll be spared listening to people bitch about Johnny Depp.
I absolutely do not get how or why Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Plane of the Apes) The Gambler was moved to Christmas Day. It’s a remake of a pretty powerful, but not much fun 1974 Karel Reisz film that starred James Caan in the title role that is here taken over by Mark Wahlberg. I reserve judgment on Wahlberg’s ability to make me buy him as a gambling-addicted college English professor, though I confess I keep flashing back on him as a science teacher in M. Night Shyamalan’s laughable The Happening (2008). But the real question in my mind is simply is this the feel-bad movie of the holiday season?
And the Weinsteins (also behind Big Eyes) are on the scene locally with their annual dose of British Oscar Bait with Morten Tyldum’s (Headhunters) The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Yes, this has been out and garnered a lot of good reviews, but this is The Big Push. Because it’s the Weinsteins’ best bet for awards season — a well-made British prestige biopic that’s clearly a little edgier than The Theory of Everthing — I fully expect to have seen this by Christmas. Some may remember Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001) — a fictionalized account of cracking the German Enigma machine in WWII. There Alan Turing was turned into the fictional Thomas Jericho — so fictional, in fact, that he was no longer gay. These things happen in movies, you know. This is clearly the season’s big prestige offering.
At the opposite end of prestige we have Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview, which at this point seems less like a movie than a provocation — a provocation that may or may not (my guess is not) be behind this whole Sony hacking business. Now, someone calling themselves GOP (no, not them, but Guardians of Peace) has demanded that Sony withdraw the movie altogether. You can’t buy this kind of publicity. It frankly seems a lot of fuss over what is almost certainly a dumb R-rated comedy that is trying to be provocative with a ridiculous story about Seth Rogen and James Franco being sent to North Korea to assassinate Kim Jung-Un.
At least, the people who makes trailers have finally come up with ones that admit that Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods is — gasp! — a musical. The first trailers side-stepped that detail. Funny how when you take a Stephen Sondheim show and turn it into a film, it ends up being a musical. And this one has a bona fide big name cast — Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep — and is really aimed at musical fans. I like musicals, but I admit to reservations, because I’m not entirely sold on Rob Marshall. Plus — and I know this is heresy — I’ve never warmed to this score. That said, I wasn’t wild about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street till it was turned into the Tim Burton film. Of course, Rob Marshall is not Tim Burton, but I’ll give it a shot.
This brings us to two films I have seen. The first is Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken starring Jack O’Connell as real life hero Louie Zamperini. Here we have a movie that simply announces itself as “a true story,” though, of course, it back-pedals with all the usual “fictionalized for dramatic purposes” disclaimers in the ending credits. It is impeccable in every detail — so finely honed that it might have been made by a machine. I expect it to be a huge hit. It strives for maximum uplift and never risks offending just about anyone. It skirts any potentially divisive material. It is perhaps the safest movie I’ve seen all year. I do not criticize it for this, but neither can I say it excited me on any level. I fully expect a great many people to disagree.
(NOTE: Wild has been moved to a Dec. 19 opening date locally.) Finally, we have Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, which came as a pleasant surprise to me, because little about it held any innate appeal for me. I was inclined to think the success of Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club last year had more to do with the script and the performances than with the filmmaking. I still think it’s the better of the two movies, but Wild made me rethink Vallée’s direction. He uses many of the same techniques here — notably the quick-cut flashbacks — and I think they actually work better here. But they’re not in the service of quite as potent a story. The most amazing thing to me was that I actually liked Reese Witherspoon in this (I also liked her in Inherent Vice, which we don’t get till Jan. 9). I’m not down on her, but her tendency to break into a pitch that verges on being audible only by dogs tends to grate on me. Not so here — at least after the first few minutes. Of the films on this list, you could do a lot worse for Christmas fare. But remember, I’ve only seen two of them at this writing.