It's time for the heavyweights to step out of their year-long training and duke it out for awards season supremacy. While December will toss its potential champions into the ring, the favorites are usually determined this month.
Right around the second week of the month -- that’s when things really start to get good. Critics can see it coming; studios celebrating past achievements in anticipation of bringing their latest and greatest to the viewing buffet. Sometimes, they’re dead right. Other times, they’ve obviously bitten off more than they can successfully chew. That could be the case with any of the so called high caliber efforts offered in November. A simple slight miscasting, an allowed directorial indulgence, a screenwriter asleep at his Power Book and BANG! -- no Oscar love. It’s mere Golden Globes all the way.
A clear example of this conceit is Lions for Lambs (9 November). It’s a true heavy-hitter, with the war in Iraq as a backdrop for a political drama centering on a conscientious Senator (Tom Cruise), who offers a journalist (Meryl Streep) some inside information on the government’s flawed foreign policy. Robert Redford is a college professor with favored students placed directly in harm's way. It will either be a liberal harangue, or a tightly balanced drama. It’s too soon to decide.
Also on the fence is The Kite Runner (2 November). It deals with a favored Afghani pastime (competitive kite racing) and adds in a little familial melodrama to spice-up the storyline. In this instance, Californian Amir returns to his native land to help a friend in need. He soon learns that the situation at home is more perilous, and promising, than the media makes it out to be.
Lions for Lambs
The Kite Runner
For two solid sure things, look no further than the latest from Ridley Scott and The Coen Brothers. The Cannes Film Festival went into full blown histrionic hype mode overdrive for the siblings sensational No Country for Old Men (21 November). Some have already labeled it the best movie of the year -- and that was with more than half of the season still to go. It’s an intriguing premise: a cold, craven film noir set inside the sun-swept vistas of the American Southwest. Using Cormac McCarthy’s book as a backdrop, the boys indulge in their patented quirk, while giving amazing actors like Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardim the roles of a lifetime. The result is absolutely stunning cinema proving implicitly that when the guys are 'on' they are electrifying.
Ridley Scott is no slouch either, though his last couple of outings (A Good Year, Kingdom of Heaven) really failed to connect with audiences. While many may scoff at his handling of a ‘70s period piece centering on one of Harlem’s most notorious street hoods (Denzel Washington, in his element), Scott has some familiarity with the crime genre. Both Someone to Watch Over Me and Black Rain delved deep into the underworld arena, and with Russell Crowe along as a determined police detective, American Gangster (2 November) stands as one of the month’s major motion picture events.
No Country for Old Men
The rest of the prospective royalty arrive from some rather peculiar sources. I'm Not There (27 November) comes from Todd Haynes, who’s intention was to make a rather expressionistic biopic of Bob Dylan. What tweaks this interpretation of the American troubadour is the way the director cast his subject. The protest icon will be played by seven different individuals, including actors like Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett (that’s right, Cate Blanchett). While many have doubted this schizophrenic approach, the clip of Blanchett channeling the mighty Zimm is spellbinding. Noah Baumbach also promises another telling look at life in freefall, this time, with an added emphasis on comedy.
Nicole Kidman is Margot at the Wedding (16 November), a buttinski sibling who wants to stop sister Jennifer (Jason Leigh) from marrying a supposed schnook (Jack Black). Casting may be a question here, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s the man behind The Squid and the Whale. And fanboy fingers have been crossed for months, ever since it was announced that Frank Darabont was finally tackling Stephen King’s giant bug blow out The Mist (23 November). With full geek squad support from the Ain’t It Cool News brigade and a promise of lots of hard-R action, it could make for one gore-drenched time at the movies.
I'm Not There
Margot at the Wedding
For some, Seinfeld stands as a comic masterwork. For others, it perfectly mirrors the smug, unfunny persona of its co-creator and aesthetic center. So who better to voice a flying honey- maker than the onerous observational comedian and a bunch of his stand up buddies? Bee Movie’s (2 November) publicity has been focusing on the nod and a wink approach to its previews, but as other recent CGI offerings have proven, once you anthropomorphize something, you better play to the wee ones, or else.
It’s the same fate facing the Dustin Hoffman family flick, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (16 November). The trailers are so whimsical the images practically drift off the screen, and the effects are but heavy-set pieces that reek of Night at the Museum mannerisms. But it’s all a matter of tone here, and from what we can see of Hoffman’s substantial scenery-chewing and Jason Bateman’s joyless jerk routine, this will be a pretty tough kid vid sell. At least Pathology (27 November) doesn’t have to worry about playing to the short pants set. This remake of a German thriller, helmed by a fellow countryman (Marc Schoelermann) has medical students competing to create the perfect murder. Sounds more irritating than intriguing, frankly.
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
Continuing the cavalcade of possible flops, a film that’s already been deemed a disaster is finally allowing the public to decide its aesthetic fate. The crowds at Cannes booed Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (9 November) off screens during the festival, and Dimension has sat on the film ever since. That was 2005. Apparently, the studio believes all cinematic stool samples get better with age -- or maybe the release is merely a contractual obligation between staff and a stunned director.
Hitman (21 November) also holds very little promise. Aside from the generic storyline (paid gun hunts pseudo spies) and the lame casting (Timothy Olyphant is a tentative choice for Agent 47), we are dealing with one the more contentious of filmic genres: the video game adaptation. Here’s hoping its more Silent Hill than Doom, House of the Dead, Resident Evil, etc.
Oh, and by the way, someone needs to remind Michelle Pfieffer that the best way to sidetrack an otherwise successful comeback is by starring in a silly romantic comedy where one of the characters is Mother Nature. You read that right, the old Queen of the Wilderness appears in this debacle in the making entitled I Could Never Be Your Woman (9 November). It is helmed by Amy Heckerling, proving that her Clueless days are really gone.
I Could Never Be Your Woman
Initially, many of the titles talked about here will seem like no brainers. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a movie about Santa Claus’s pissed-off little brother, or a motion picture epic based on a classic work of literary wonder? Still, there are many unanswered questions surrounding Fred Claus (9 November) and Beowulf (16 November). In the case of the seasonal satire, the rather weak trailer doesn’t appear to suggest the hilarity the set-up presupposes.
Similarly, Robert Zemeckis has had limited success with his computer animation canon. The Polar Express was a massive hit. Monster House (which he produced) was the victim of bad timing and middling marketing. This leaves his newest film in limbo. Another noted novel, Love in the Time of Cholera (16 November) is also getting the big screen treatment, and the cast at least suggests something very special. In addition, director Mike Newell’s last effort behind the lens -- the well received Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- has put him on the fast track to critical acceptance. Still, this is a beloved book, and if anyone can mess it up, it’s a well intentioned but far too controlling Tinsel Town.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Since it’s been moved around several times already this year, John Cusack’s bid for awards season respect, The Martian Child (2 November) already has a substantial strike against it. Of course, the rumor mill has been ripe with the requisite bad news; last minute reshoots, an uncomfortable studio, a star who won’t support the finished product. There have been films that have overcome such speculative buzz. But the failures far outweigh the triumphs, and it looks like this movie may be destined to simply disappear.
Another film with its own set of problems is August Rush (21 November). First off, there’s the Robin William dynamic. Any movie featuring this failed comedian’s continued push toward complete irrelevancy is doomed. Then there’s the North-like narrative, with its precocious musical prodigy (Freddy Highmore, who should know better after Arthur and the Invisibles) setting off for a musical fairy tale journey to find his parents. Yep, there are songs here, and though the composers come from some of today’s best indie icons, this kind of overly cutesy match-up sends a mixed message for moviegoers.
Finally, Disney steps up to offer us Enchanted (23 November), a fascinating premise (call it Splash with an animated princess in the place of the mermaid) potentially mauled by a slick, saccharine approach to the storyline. Ideas like this cry out for satire, not pat, implausible plotting. Still, if anyone can pull this off, the House of Mouse can. It will be up to former animator turned director Kevin Lima (Tarzan, 102 Dalmations) to create the requisite magic. Sony then offers us an African American seasonal effort, simply entitled This Christmas (21 November). Centering on a family reunion four years in the making, this will either be over-sentimentalized dreck, or clever and culturally acute. Based on the track record of writer/ director Preston A. Whitmore, however, this could be one get together that folds before it even begins.
The Martian Child