[2 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s that time of the year again. Time for the days to get longer and hotter and the moviegoing experience more complicated and chaotic. The summer of 2014 shouldn’t be any different than the past, especially when we see a May line-up including a couple of crude comedies, the return of two of Marvel’s most beloved non-Avengers franchises, and a wealth of indie efforts to hopefully drag you away from the mundane mainstream and into something more substantial.
With it already out in theaters overseas and review embargos lifting left and right, the verdict is in on this second go-round for the rebooted webslinger… and it’s a mixed decision to say the least. Many believe it’s an improvement over the Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone original, while others point to Sam Raimi’s definitive part two as proof that this revisionism has no idea how to handle the character. Whatever the eventual consensus, one thing’s for sure. As the first film out of the Summer 2014 gates, Spider-Man 2 is bound to make millions. Whether it can hit Marvel’s billion dollar benchmark remains to be seen.
Call it counterprogramming. Call it an opportunity for some arthouse fare to breathe during the otherwise crowded popcorn movie mania. Whatever you decide, be aware that this is a based-on-a-true story about a young black orphan raised by British aristocracy in an age of slavery and outrageous bigotry. The main thrust of the narrative revolves around the out of place noble, her treatment by her adopted family, and the reaction of those in the English uppercrust who don’t shy away from their ignorance and intolerance. Early reviews call it shallow and lacking drama. Still, as an example of race in an earlier time, it could be an eye opener.
Everything’s coming up Elizabeth Banks right now. She’s part of the popular Hunger Games film phenomenon, was a part-time fixture on 30 Rock, and has had a multitude of movie roles, all of which has helped her land her first directing gig (Pitch Perfect 2). Opening in limited release, she’s also part of Steven Brill’s (Little Nicky, Drillbit Taylor) latest comedy, playing a TV talking head who gets a shot at network legitimacy. Only problem is, she’s stranded miles away from the interview with no money, car, phone, or means of identification. Sounds like a female-ccentric After Hours. It also sounds right up the actress’s alley.
Summer means occasionally shoving some unknown product at the Western moviegoing public, hoping something will stand out among the familiar sequels, prequels, revamps, and reimaginings. In this case, we have the second installment of a popular Thai action franchise. The first film, made more than nine years ago, focused on a young man named Kham who travels to Australia to help retrieve a stolen elephant. This time around, an animal camp owner is murdered and Kham is the chief suspect. Go in expecting coherent storytelling and Hollywood level polish and you’ll be disappointed. If all you want is well choreographed fight chaos, this will satisfy your martial arts jones.
Time for some tepid horror to go along with the city destroying and the super-heroics. What we have here is another example of the “found footage” film approach meshed with an actual narrative that comments on such a cinematic gimmick. A couple head out to a remote cabin to work on their relationship while he films a nature documentary. He then runs into a reclusive artist and things get weird? Apparently, instead of being scary, this movie wants to go all meta on Banksy and other solitary creators. Sounds… well, it sounds weird. It also sounds like it’s about as frightening as a fake Picasso.
A womanizer, played by Cam Gigandet (whose name reminds one an elusive foreign car part) wakes up one day to discover that his penis has left his body and taken on human form. Naturally, such emasculation leads him to reform, while his walking, talking wiener gets in all kinds of trouble. Sounds like an uproarious and raunchy comedy, right? Well, according to sources, the most clever thing about this wannabe laugher is the title. Apparently, the penis calls its previous owner and asks for help, getting him in trouble with the ladies in the process—and not in a good way. Yeesh.
In a post-World War II Poland, a young nun is sent on a mission to earn her family’s blessing. She discovers a deep dark secret about her parents, as well as her Aunt’s role in the Stalinist regime. Hoping to find her mother and father’s final resting place, she embarks on a journey that becomes a serious self-awakening. Of course, the Holocaust comes into play when our heroine discovers her Jewish heritage, but co-writer/director Paweł Pawlikowski prefers a personal approach. In fact, with its black and white cinematography and reliance on period piece panache, the end result is more like a home movie than a feature film.
You probably haven’t heard about this movie, right? I mean, it’s not like Seth Rogen and co-star Zac Efron haven’t been on every media platform—tradition and social—squawking about this supposed “classic” comedy about a young couple coming face to face with a rowdy bunch of frat boys who move in next door. All WTF zoning laws aside, Universal is really pushing this lewd laugher from Forgetting Sarah Marshall/ Get Him to the Greek‘s Nicholas Stoller. So far, the buzz is beyond good, and some of the surprise guest spots for our two main stars (including an ESPN one featuring the Green Bay Packer’s Aaron Rodgers) have been hilarious.
Someone called this Jon Favreau’s allegorical response to being dropped from Iron Man 3. Others are just glad that the accidental tentpole guide is back in the smaller, indie arena where he used to excel. Whatever the case, the multitalented writer/director/actor plays a failed restaurateur who tries to revive his fortunes via a food truck. He also hopes to fix things with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) while traveling cross country to reclaim his good cuisine name. Sounds like a road picture with gourmet overtones—and when you consider the cast contains Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson, it’s like a mini-Avengers reunion… only with truffle oil.
It’s always good to follow in the family business, and for the great grandson of the famed Frank L. Baum (Roger) the Emerald City is a pretty cushy place to work. The former banker and stockbroker has, since 2005, been putting out his own takes on the merry old land of Oz, and one of them is now being adapted into a surreal CG animated experience. From the look of the trailer below, it appears that the entire budget was spent on the voice casting. The animation is less than Pixar perfect and the introduction of new characters like Marshall Mallow and the China Princess will just confuse classicists.
Simon James (Eisenberg) is a meek, mild mannered employee with a crush on a fellow co-worker (Wasikowska). James Simon (Eisenberg again) is a doppelganger, the spitting image of our milquetoast hero whose personality is the polar opposite. Naturally, things come to a violent loggerhead when Simon discovers James is wooing his gal. This third film from British comedian Richard Ayoade (Submarine, AD/BC: A Rock Opera) has received mixed reviews since premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Many say it’s too similar to the work of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam to be 100% successful (really???) Others find the previous references to be the movie’s saving grace. Go figure.
After decades in the news, hours of debate, and four fabulous documentaries that covered almost every aspect and variation of this strange saga, do we really need a feature length docudrama about the infamous West Memphis Three? Better still, did we really need one that takes the focus away from the three men wrongfully accused and instead turns to a victim’s mother (Ms. Witherspoon) and a P.I. hired by the defense (Mr. Firth) to track down new evidence? Well, that’s what Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan has to offer, and from the looks of its, the answer to the above questions is a solid, unsympathetic “NO!”
A horror “musical?” Well, that’s a new one (unless, of course, you count The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Phantom of the Paradise among the mash-ups). In this case, first time feature filmmaker (and composer) Jerome Sable sets his slasher dynamic in a theater camp, with songs and slaughter an equal part of the mix. The story centers on a young girl working as a counselor who lives with the legacy of her dead mother, who died performing a role that our heroine is now required to essay. And then the blood spattered bodies start piling up. Apparently, this film succeeds in being scary and tuneful.
Billed as an “American Christian/comedy”, and when you consider it comes from the directing team (Andrew and Jon Erwin) who gave us the abortion survivor drama, October Baby, you just know we’re in for some preaching within the pratfalls. The story centers on a group of Moms who just want a single solo evening to themselves. The only problem? They have to leave their lunkheaded hubbies in charge of the kids. “What could go wrong?” says the ad campaign. Supposedly a real-life look at the trials and tribulations of parenting, this laugher is a risk for the Erwins. Sure, the faith-based fans base will show up, but crossing over commercially is another thing all together.
Since his death this past February, fans have been eagerly awaiting the last few films made by Philip Seymour Hoffman, hoping to discover something magical or revelatory in his final performances. In this case, it appears that his devotees are in for a shock. Directed by Mad Men‘s John Slattery, this movie wants to be a black comedy with dire dramatic overtones. Instead, early reviews suggest an ambitious mess. As for Hoffman, he’s a low level conman whose stepson has recently died. When a reporter comes sneaking around, looking into the lad’s demise, the title area responds in typical closed community fashion.
James Franco has been in the news lately for (allegedly) trying to hook up with an underage girl via social media. While that whole ‘scandal’ turned out to be more teapot than tempest, the savvy in the audience ignored the sensationalism and, instead, found a possible PR stunt connection. Indeed, the latest member of the Coppola family to fancy themselves a filmmaker (Gia) has adapted Franco’s short stories set in the title California community for the big screen, and one of the stories centers on the author playing a high school coach who seduces a student. Sound familiar?
Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated films of this or any summer, Gareth Edwards makeover of the Kaiju classic has been leaving audiences breathless ever since those amazing trailers (including the one below) hit the Internet. Just look at it—the destruction. The scope. The whole backstory which rewrites the character’s nuclear age history. While the Japanese complain that America has made their Toho terror too “fat”, cinephiles have stared agog at something washed in both spectacle and sympathetic human characters. Hopefully, the actual film is as good as these ads. Heck, if it is half as memorable, we’ll have a new classic on our hands.
Taking time away from the final season of Mad Men, Jon Hamm heads up Disney’s feel good sports film about a struggling baseball scout who decides to travel to India in hopes of finding the next great phenom among the nation’s legion of talented cricket players. Using a reality like game show as a ruse, our hero comes across two prospects who have nothing to do with the ancient athletic pursuit and everything to do with raw talent and desire. Naturally, it’s a clash of cultures, as West meets East, and then visa versa (when the foreign players come to America). It’s based on a true story.
Remember how much you loved the horror film Wolf Creek? What’s that you say? You don’t remember a movie named that, scary or otherwise? Well, don’t fret. The original came out in 2005 and has developed a minor cult following amongst fright fans. While it was supposed based on real events, later researched proved that suggestion specious at best. Still, distributors are always looking for product to push on clueless creepshow aficionados, so nine years later, we have this unnecessary sequel. At least original director Greg McLean is back, as is villain John Jarratt. Otherwise, this has straight to home video written all over it.
James Gray and Cannes seem to go hand in hand. After his first film, Little Odessa, each of his subsequent projects—The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and this one—were all nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or. None of them one, but still, that’s quite an accomplishment. American audiences have been less supportive of his efforts and it looks like this one will suffer the same fate. The story of a young woman who comes to Ellis Island only to be taken in by a theater owner and forced into prostitution, there is both melodrama and period flair in abundance. Typical Gray.
Bryan Singer may have “started” the current comic book superhero craze with his ode to the amazing mutants under Dr. Charles Xavier’s and his nemesis, Magneto’s tutelage, but they have never been the “best” of this particular cinematic subgenre. So for some of us in the film criticism profession, his hiring for this sequel to the surprisingly great X-Men: First Class appeared more of a step backward than a fresh move forward. Of course, the trailer is more than tantalizing and the time travel storyline gives us fans a chance to see characters both past and present interacting. We’ll cut Singer some slack, but he better deliver.
Oh good lord. When a preview for this soon to be Summer atrocity was shown before a screening of Winter’s Tale, the press attending could barely contain their disdain. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore may have worked well together in the past (The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates), but their reteaming reeks more of the comedian’s recent paycheck cashing efforts (Jack and Jill, the Grown-Ups franchise) than it does anything remotely new or novel. Even the premise offers up the antiquated notion of mixed families ala The Brady Bunch/Yours, Mine, and Ours with the new age self-help term in the title. Groan.
It’s 1977 and Australian writer Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) has decided to trek across 1700 miles of outback desert with her dog, four camels, and a photographer from National Geographic (Adam Driver). Her adventures would become one of the most celebrated memoirs in the history of said literary genre. Now her tome is being translated into a film featuring two fresh young faces up against a phalanx of sizable Summer tentpoles. After five different attempts to adapt the material, director John Curran delivers this story of struggles and man’s place among nature. While his previous film - Stone - was awful, the rest of his creative canon suggests he has the vision to pull this off.
In this remake of a 1997 Israeli film, an angry man (Williams) is told, inexplicably and falsely, by his equally miserable physician (Kunis) that he has a brain aneurysm. When pressed for the amount of time he has left, our desperate doc blurts out “90 minutes.” This sends our protagonist out into the mean streets to the Big Apple with one thought on his mind, making amends to those he wronged. While the actors and premise don’t seem all that promising, the man sitting in the director’s seat is cause for celebration, Field of Dreams’ Phil Alden Robinson.
Are summer season audiences really in need of a screwball comedy cum heist film featuring aging icons Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson, especially one aimed at the aging demo that made films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a hit? Who knows? All we know is that the plot revolves around a couple, no longer married, who decide to get back at the corporate raider who ruined their pension plan. Our pair bring along neighbors Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie along for the wackiness. Sounds promising, though reviews from across the pond point out that the pros (great chemistry among the cast) can’t overcome a plethora of cons.
With the amazing Jodorowsky’s Dune still impressing film fanatics worldwide, it makes sense for US distributor ABKCO Films to release this latest effort by the famed Chilean-French auteur, his first movie since 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Mostly autobiographical, with the filmmaker’s patented magic surrealism firmly in place, the story centers around Jodorowsky’s childhood. If it’s anything like such masterpieces as El Topo, The Holy Mountain, or Santa Sangre, we have another classic on our hands. Here’s hoping he doesn’t wait another two decades to make another movie. Anyone whose seen the 85 year old in action knows that he is far from ready to retire.
Time to confess a bit of personal bias, this critic loves the character of Maleficent and hates the idea of Angelina Jolie playing her. Now, this actress is not a member of my “cinematic Kryptonite”, but the idea of taking a sensational, one-off villain and building a CG heavy mythology and backstory for her, and then casting one of the planet’s most identifiable actresses in the role, just reeks of pandering and a creative cash grab. Still, Disney may be able to prove me wrong. I did enjoy their Oz overhaul, but Sam Raimi was behind the lens. This time around, the guy who worked on the F/X for that film, Robert Stromberg, is in charge.
Seth MacFarlane had a surprise hit with his talking toy comedy Ted. Now he wants to take on the old West in a hard R spoof that will have to struggle to survive comparisons to the ultimate cowpoke comedy, Blazing Saddles. Granted, the light from Mel Brooks’ genius would take several millennia to reach Mr. Family Guy, but he can be funny when he wants and the trailer indicates he plans on being very humorous indeed. And when you’ve got such unexpected stars as Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron in the cast, this could be more than just some crude, lewd laugher. Or perhaps not.
Filth is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, the writer responsible for a little heard of novel called Trainspotting. While his output has been uneven, and fans are still eager for a Spotting sequel, if this is anything like its far more famous literary cousin, we could be in for quite a time. James McAvoy plays a demonic dervish of a police officer. To call him a “bad lieutenant” would be an understatement. As part of his daily routine, he indulges in “games” against his coworkers. As he starts to investigate the murder of a Japanese student, he slowly starts to lose his sanity.
Three environmentalist plot to blow up a dam. What takes place is more morality play than edge of your seat thriller, which is apparently what director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond have in mind. They are more curious about the reasons for this radical action than the deed itself. Considering how good their previous films are, it’s a safe bet that this will be equally engaging, with a timely pro-Green message to boot. On the other hand, one fears this getting lost in the Summer season bedlam. Sometimes, it’s the indie efforts that have more impact than the F/X epics.