Just like the end of an inspiring speech that may or may not succeed in making its point, these final four weeks before 2009 tend to define or defeat the entire awards season purpose. Usually reserving the biggest and brightest of its celluloid guns, Tinsel Town takes no prisoners…and provides no answers when their efforts come up substantially short. Be aware that some of these titles may not survive through to New Year’s Eve. After all, why push for plausibility now when there’s an entire Spring upon which to scatter your liabilities.
Sean Penn, Jamesw Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Diego Luna
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Ever since his untimely death in 1978, there has been talk of Hollywood tackling the story of the famed gay San Francisco City Supervisor. Of course, the controversy surrounding shooter Dan White’s trial (and exceedingly lenient sentence) suggested that the ‘80s was not the proper era to pay tribute to the man. Now, two decades and a long time in development Hell later, Gus Van Sant is bringing his star studded take on the material to the big screen, and early previews suggest something very special indeed. Sean Penn will play the fallen figure, with Josh Brolin essaying the role of political (and personal) assassin. With Van Sant in the director’s chair this should be one of 2008’s best.
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Ridicule Ron Howard all you want (and we will, thank you very much) but he does seem to have his pick of high profile projects. Hot off its successful stage run, playwright Peter Morgan (responsible for 2006’s stellar The Queen) offers up this cinematic take on the historic sit down between the noted UK journalist and the only sitting President to resign from office. Retaining the original cast from both the London and Broadway runs, Howard stepped in quickly to take control—and praise the gods, Akiva Goldsman is nowhere in sight. When an international trailer leaked on the web, those old enough to remember the infamous interview were immediately transported back in time. Looks like another strong candidate come end of the year consideration.
Youth in Revolt
Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008; 2008)
Youth in Revolt
The legacy of oddball literature litters the off ramps of Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. There are still some of us waiting for Tim Burton to man up and revisit his proposed adaptation of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Now, Miguel Arteta of Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl fame tackles the absurdist cheek of writer C.D. Payne’s famed coming of age series. While some have complained of lead Michael Cera’s age gap with the book’s protagonist (Nick Twisp is 16, the actor just turned 20), all signs point to something that, if done right, could become a certified nerd gem.
Punisher: War Zone
Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
Punisher: War Zone
The behind the scenes drama that occurred while making this pseudo-sequel to the mediocre original from 2004 (it’s a self-proclaimed reboot ala The Incredible Hulk) will probably end up being far more interesting than anything onscreen. Script scribe Kurt Sutter asked for his name to be taken off the project, and then Lionsgate wrestled away control from director Lexi Alexander, supposedly to recut the action packed hard-R opus to fit a PG-13 demo-mentality. A guaranteed recipe for box office success, right?
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, John Cleese
(Fox; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In the Big Book of Bad Ideas, many would have listed a remake of the Robert Wise sci-fi classic as one of the more obvious catastrophes waiting to happen. Now, 57 years after Klaatu brought his plea for peace to a confrontational Earth, a “reimagining” of the material is preparing to perplex moviegoers. Many in the potential viewership have probably already dismissed the original as an old fashioned black and white oddity, but this update could be equally disconcerting. While the recently released trailer offers lots of F/X flash, the decision to put Hellraiser: Inferno‘s Scott Derrickson in charge smacks of motion picture illiteracy. Okay, he did also helm The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but does that really make him the best candidate to update a speculative legend? As with any unnecessary revamp, the cons far outweigh the implausible pros.
Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
(Miramax; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008; 2008)
Prolific stage scribe John Patrick Shanley has only broached the movies seven previous times, and his track record is rather hit (Moonstruck, Joe vs. the Volcano) and miss (Alive, Congo). But with his latest effort, an adaptation of his own 2005 Pulitzer Prize/Drama Desk/Tony Award winning hit, he seems to have struck cinematic gold. Overloaded with rapid fire dialogue, the four character piece has some solid acting chops behind it. Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman play a nun and priest respectively who square off over the treatment of a black student at their private Brooklyn school. Amy Adams and Viola Davis (herself a Tony triumph) round out the remarkable company.
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Iben Hjejle, Mia Wasikowska, George MacKay
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 31 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
At one time, director Edward Zwick was mostly known for his quirky hour long TV drama thirtysomething. Then he started making movies, and with the success of the sudsy Legends of the Fall, became something of a overripe engineer of ersatz epics. With Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond now under his belt, Zwick tackles another broad canvas concept. Nechama Tec’s book about Bielski partisans (read: Jewish Resistance Fighters) who took on the Nazi’s during World War II seems right up his alley, and the choice of leads—Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, and Liev Schreiber—seems absolutely perfect. Depending on how realistic and honest the filmmaker is, this could be a revelation—or another example of the auteur’s ambitious overreaching.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemying, Elias Koteas, Jared Harris
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
On paper, this appears like a win/win for Paramount. Fan fetish Fincher is always good for some glowing geek ink, and when he isn’t playing tabloid father of the moment, Brad Pitt does maintain that famed leading man juice. Still, the studio has started to show signs that they really aren’t happy with the final product. A recent screening of selected scenes had critics scratching their heads, and the notorious prickly director didn’t take the out of context complaints lightly. As a matter of fact, he hijacked his update of the animated Heavy Metal franchise and moved it to competing film company. The trailer from a few weeks back continues to argue for the film’s flawlessness. We will have to wait to see which side of the consensus reality finally falls.
Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Darby, John Michael Higgins, Danny Masterson, Terence Stamp, Fionnula Flanagan
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 19 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
Wait - didn’t Carrey already make this movie? It was called Liar, Liar, and remains one of the former funnyman’s biggest hits? No wonder he wants to travel back in talent time. While it’s based on a book by Scottish humorist Danny Wallace, expect lots of the standard shtick. After all, Carrey is still reeling from a pair of subpar performers—Fun with Dick and Jane and The Number 23. Oddly enough, he was so keen to take on this part that he waived his typically inflated upfront fee. Instead, he will take a percentage of the film’s box office success. Such a gamble will probably pay off. Even in an Apatow-oriented era, motion picture merriment still pines for the days when Carrey could mug his way to a solid mainstream blockbuster.
Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 19 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Will Smith apparently can’t let any seminal season of film go by without having a project in contention. Last year, it was I Am Legend. This past July, it was Hancock. Now the mega-million dollar man is back again with a compelling drama about an IRS agent with suicidal tendencies. While the premise appears suspect, Smith is clearly relying on Gabriele Muccino (who guided the actor to an Oscar nom for The Pursuit of Happyness) to deliver some year end artistic thrust. With costars Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson along for the ride, Smith should once again see his elephantine fame drive audiences to a story they might not otherwise accept—or enjoy.
The Tale of Despereaux
Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen
Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Dustin Hoffman, Ciarán Hinds, Tracey Ullman, Robbie Coltrane, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Kline
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 19 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 19 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
The Tale of Despereaux
When you look at the source material, and the storyline involved, this is the kind of cartoon that cries out for old fashioned hand drawn animation. So naturally, Universal went with the tired CG format. Certainly a tale involving a misfit mouse, a depressed rat, and a clumsy servant girl seems perfect for something more than flavor of the moment treatment. But there is a lot to be said for directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen’s approach. They are at least trying to mimic the classical look with the newfangled technology, and as a recent trailer suggests, they may just have pulled it off.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 30 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Much has been written about the long anticipated repairing of Titanic co-stars DiCaprio and Winslet. But this scandalous tale of suburban angst circa the 1950s may not be what the underage Harlequin romance set had in mind. With fellow sinking ship refugee Kathy Bates along for the journey, we enter the typical Ike era enclave, a burg overflowing with adultery, drinking, and untapped secrets/desires. Since winning the Oscar for his first film, American Beauty, director Mendes has made some remarkable movies. So it seems odd to hear people proclaiming that this is some kind of return to prominence. While many have marginalized the filmmaker for his (in their opinion) overrated status, there’s no denying his creative contribution to the artform. This film looks to continue that telling trend.
Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Samuel L. Jackson
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
With the proposed sequels to Sin City apparently stalled within Robert Rodriguez’s complicated love life, co-director Frank Miller has found someone to bankroll his own vision of the famed ‘40s crimefighter. Looking like an outtake from the celebrated graphic novels he’s known for, the magnified monochrome noir and attention to female detail is giving fanboys fits of tentpole passion. It’s important to remember, however, that Miller’s current cred comes in combination with other artists, filmmakers who know how to balance his interests with those of the language of film. One hopes he learned a lot from his partners, or this may be the shortest cinematic debut/departure on record.
Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann
(United Artists; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
For a while, it looked like Tom Cruise had hung his dramatic comeback hopes on the wrong pet project. This tale of the assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler seemed like a slam dunk for the Scientology soiled celeb. But then Bryan Singer brought his usual aesthetic baggage to the film as director, and before you knew it, United Artist was shuffling release dates and prodding publications with poisonous comments about the “un-releasable” results. Oh what a difference a successful screening makes. Apparently, focus groups were so taken by the period thriller (and the star’s performance) that the studio had a change of heart. After being exiled to March 2009, Cruise and company are now poised for serious awards consideration.
Forest Whitaker, Isaiah Washington, Bow Wow, Lil’ Wayne, Taraji P. Henson
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008; 2008)
The impact of Katrina is still being felt throughout the Gulf Coast, so it’s not hard to understand why filmmakers have been wary of tackling the tripwire subject. So when Tim Story, perhaps best known for his Fantastic Four films, decides to tell the story of a basketball coach (Forest Whitaker) who reassembles his team post-impact, one hopes for the noblest of intentions. Sadly, instead of tackling the real issues left behind in the wake of the devastating storm, we are left with another version of sports overcoming adversity. Yeah.