December Film Preview: Lots of Jingle and a Few Sober Stories

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Prema Mutiso, Dr. Omalu's wife) and Will Smith (Dr. Bennet Omalu) in "Concussion." Photo: Columbia Pictures.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Prema Mutiso, Dr. Omalu’s wife) and Will Smith (Dr. Bennet Omalu) in “Concussion.” Photo: Columbia Pictures.

Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-lin’, jing-jing-jing-a-lin’, too! Come on it’s lovely weather to duck into a warm movie theater and catch some of the offerings Hollywood presents for the holiday season. Yes, offerings … that’s plural. You might not realize it, but there are other movies beside Star Wars opening this month, and here’s a look at a few of them. Films are listed in order of national release dates, and there’s a preview of what’s showing at local independent cinemas as well.

 December 4

Chi-RaqThe latest from director Spike Lee, the movie is again proving Lee is one of the most inventive filmmakers around. “Chi-Raq” is a reference to an area of south Chicago plagued by gang violence. Certainly sounds like the set-up for your standard Hollywood movie, but Lee enlists Aristophanes to help tell the tale. Remember him? He’s an ancient Greek playwright and the author of Lysistrata, which, you’ll recall (if you were paying attention in class) is about a woman who organizes a protest against the Peloponnesian War by having Athenian women refuse sex with any man until peace is negotiated. Lee along with Kevin Willmott have updated the story to present-day Chicago, and the film features a knock-out cast: In the role of Lysistrata is Teyonah Parris, and she’s joined by Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, Nick Cannon, and many more. My favorite thing about the movie is the tag line on the ad: “No peace? No piece.”

 

Krampus – Does the onslaught of Sparkle Season have you down? Are you afraid that if you hear the Chipmunks’ piercing falsetto one more time (when all you really want to do is fill up your gas tank), you’re going to run amok? Has the Yuletide got you tied up in knots? In short, are you over it? Krampus might be just the remedy. It’s based on a German legend about the “anti-Klaus” – a demon who visits children who haven’t been good for goodness sake. Michael Dougherty directs Toni Collette, Adam Scott, and Conchata Ferrell as a typical dysfunctional family coming together for Christmastime. Judging from the trailer, it’s your usual “no place like home for the screwed-up holidays” kinda thing … until a hideous monster lands on the roof and the whole gang is running for their lives. It’s the perfect holiday treat for the little ‘uns – if you don’t mind paying for the years of therapy they’ll need to recover.

December 11

In the Heart of the Sea – Director Ron Howard and actor Chris Hemsworth team up again (after their race car biopic, Rush) for this film adaptation of a book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the whaling ship Essex. In 1820, the ship was attacked by a giant sperm whale, which left the crew stranded for 90 days. It was a huge news story back then, and the event inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. The Howard film examines the lives of the sailors before they put out to sea, and how they survived (or, rather, how some survived) after their encounter with the whale. Along with Hemsworth, the film features Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker and Charlotte Riley. (There’s a spoiler I could mention but won’t; just take my word for it: This might not be a film for the squeamish.)

December 18

Sisters – This film’s opening is what’s known in Hollywood as “counter-programming.” Sisters is one of the few movies choosing to open this weekend because of that other film making its debut. Since squealing boy fans the world over will be flocking to Star Wars, movie execs have scheduled, as they used to say on Monty Python, something completely different. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler star as sisters throwing one last house party before their parents sell the old homestead, and, as one imagines, a number of shenanigans ensue. Interestingly, neither Fey or Poehler are credited as the script’s writers; that’s from “Saturday Night Live” writer Paula Pell, the creator of the Internet series Hudson Valley Ballers. The draw of Sisters, beside Tina and Amy, is the large number of current and former SNL folks as well as some quirky New York actors: Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Kate McKinnon, Dianne Wiest, John Leguizamo, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, Brian d’Arcy James, Santino Fontana, Heather Matarazzo, and, of all people, James Brolin.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Look at it this way, after this there’s only two more to go. Back in 1977, director George Lucas premiered Star Wars, which along with Jaws changed the nature of the movie business. The summer blockbuster was born, and now, unless a movie makes $70 million opening weekend, it’s considered a flop. That first film turned out to be the third installment of what Lucas promised would be a nine-part series. And that seemed like a good thing since he followed up with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Fun movies and a terrific way to spend a rainy afternoon.

But in 1999, it all started to go horribly wrong with the release of The Phantom Menace. Suddenly LucasWorld didn’t seem a particularly entertaining place to be, and by the time we got through Attack of the Close and Revenge of the Sith, it was generally agreed that maybe the franchise had run its course. But we forgot that it’s a nine-part adventure, and George and the gang are in the process of coughing up the last three in the series. The Force Awakens (which is number VII) takes places 30 years after Return of the Jedi. No word on the actual plot (believe me, we landed in Normandy with less secrecy than this movie), but here’s my question: Since the emperor is killed and the Empire is defeated at the end of Jedi, who are they going to be fighting for the next three films? Rampaging boredom, if you ask me.

December 23

The Big Short – In 2010, Michael Lewis wrote the highly regarded nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, about the financial crash of 2008 and the build up to the housing and credit bubble. The book focused on several people who foresaw the coming troubles, and, through complex financial instruments, bet that both the market would crash and some banks would disappear. (In other words, they “shorted.”) Now director Adam McKay along with writer Charles Randolph have turned the book into a comedy/drama. Financial comedies may seem like an oxymoron, but advance word is tremendous, thanks in no small part to the stellar cast: Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Karen Gillan, and Marisa Tomei.

December 25

Daddy’s Home – I remember in a schlocky 1960’s horror film it was said that if someone was born on Christmas Day, God would be so mad at the child who dared crowd His own son’s birthday He’d turn the kid into a monster. (Don’t yell at me; the movie was The Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed; check it out if you don’t believe me.) For the new millennium, I think we can adapt that idea: If you release a movie on Christmas Day, God’s gonna be so angry He’ll put Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in it. (I could swear both these men have already starred in this exact same movie separately and together several times over the past few years.) Ferrell plays a mild-mannered guy married to Linda Cardellini who is trying to be the best step-dad he can to her children. Then Wahlberg shows up as the kids’ bio-daddy, and we know he’s very cool (and a lot of trouble) because he rides a motorcycle. Complications, not surprisingly, arise. See what I mean? Doesn’t it feel like you’ve already watched it a few times? I suppose that may not matter come Christmas night when you’ve put up with just about as much as you can from visiting relatives and need to see something … anything! Daddy’s Home certainly fits the bill.

 

Concussion – In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu—a forensic pathologist from Nigeria working at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Pathology—performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler’s center Mike Webster. His findings led to the first documentation of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in American football players.

He later carried out similar research on NFL player Terry Long who, like Webster, had a history of health problems, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse and suicide attempts … symptoms Omalu contended were caused by their long careers with the NFL. His finds were presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell and the backlash was immediate and fierce as the NFL tried to downplay the research, question Omalu’s skills and bury the story. Omalu’s (whose surname was shortened from his original family name, Onyemalukwubew, which means, as you know, come forth and speak) struggle to have the NFL acknowledge the relationship between repeated concussions and CTE were publicized in a magazine article and then book by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Peter Landesman has now written and directed a movie version (shot in Pittsburgh) with Will Smith playing Omalu. Alec Baldwin, Stephen Moyer, and Luke Wilson also star.

As an interesting side note – the hacked Sony emails (Sony being the studio behind the film) revealed that the NFL went to considerable lengths to get changes made to the script … some of which Sony, Landesman and Smith agreed to. Mamma, don’t let your sons grow up to be football players.

 

Point Break – You wanna know how the movie biz has changed? You’re going to find no better example than the two IMDB descriptions of the original Point Break and its remake. From the 1991 version: “An FBI agent goes undercover to catch a gang of bank robbers who may be surfers.” The 2015 version: “A young FBI agent infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists devastating the world’s financial markets. Extreme sports featured include snowboarding, wingsuit flying, free rock climbing, high-speed motocross, and surfing 70-foot waves.” I’m wondering if I even have the stamina to buy a ticket – I feel like I should be cross-training just to get through it. The original is famous for the barely concealed homoerotic undercurrent between the FBI agent Johnny Utah (played by Keanu Reeves) and the lead surfer (Patrick Swayze as Bodhi.) Something tells me homoeroticism will have no place in this new version … although they have kept the character name “Johnny Utah.”

Hollywood Theater

Entertainment – If you’re all “Fa-la-la-la-la-ed” out, I think I may have just the film for you. Gregg Turkington is a comedian and actor who is well-known by a few well-connected people. Over the years he’s developed the stand-up persona Neil Hamburger, a miserable, extremely unfunny comedian. In certain circles, especially with other comedians, Turkington’s Neil is a legend. And now Rick Alverson as director, along with Turkington and Tim Heidecker as co-writers, has created a loosely structured narrative around the Hamburger character. It’s about a washed up (and unnamed) comedian on a tour of low-life bars in the Mojave desert trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Entertainment is very much a movie for comedy insiders (maybe you know Alverson and Heidecker from the “Tim & Eric Awesome Show.”) If you’ve got a stomach for postmodern anti-comedy comedies, this might just be the Christmas gift you’ve been waiting for. (Opens Dec. 4)

 

Phantom of the Paradise – And here’s some additional “anti-Yuletide” film programming. In 1974, a young Brian De Palma wrote and directed this rock version of Phantom of the Opera. It also referenced The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust, plus nods to Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , with the whole thing satirizing the music industry. William Finley plays Winslow Leach, a songwriter who becomes a victim of an evil rock entrepreneur named Swan. Through a bunch of wild mishaps, Winslow ends up disfigured, living in the bowels of a concert venue and bent on destroying Swan. The film was a bomb when it first opened but quickly became a cult favorite. 1970’s celebrity and songwriter Paul Williams plays Swan and also wrote the numbers for the film’s score. (One of the tunes was nominated for an Academy Award, but it would be three years before he actually won a Songwriting Oscar … which he shared with Barbra Streisand for their “Evergreen” from A Star is Born.) Considering that it’s a De Palma film from the 70’s, you know it’s over-the-top craziness – and sure to drive thoughts of jingling bells and bedecked halls out of your head. (Dec. 4, 10 p.m.)

Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Labyrinth of Lies – By the late 50’s, most people in Germany were anxious to put the horrors of World War II behind them … the horrors as well as a full accounting of the complicity of the German people during the Third Reich. Fritz Bauer was a young judge who had briefly been held in a concentration camp in the early 1930’s and later fled to Sweden. After the war he returned to Germany and through unceasing work was instrumental in bringing about what’s known as the “Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials” in which hundreds of former death camp workers were eventually charged with crimes. Bauer was also instrumental in helping Israeli’s intelligence agency, Mossad, capture Adolf Eichmann. Labyrinth of Lies tells the story of those times by imagining a young lawyer working for Bauer after the war and his gradual realization about the nature of evil and collusion. The film has been selected as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars. (Regent Square Theater; opens Dec. 4)

 

It’s a Wonderful Life – You knew you were going to run into this on the list at some point, didn’t you? Let’s see, what could I possibly I tell you about this Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed classic that you don’t already know? Not many people are aware of this, but “Zuzu’s Petals” was actually a 40’s-era euphemism for cocaine. Just kidding – man, you’ll fall for anything. The movie, on its 1946 release, was a box office disappointment. Over the years, however, it’s achieved legendary status and according to the American Film Institute, has been voted the Number 1 “Most Inspiring Movie” of all time. As a holiday treat, Pittsburgh Filmmakers is offering free admission and asking you to bring a nonperishable food item or canned good for the East End Cooperative Ministry Food Drive. (Regent Square Theater; opens Dec. 18)

Manor Theater

Joy It’s reunion time for Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and writer/director David O. Russell. The four worked together on Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. (De Niro only had a bit part in that.) This latest film finds Lawrence as Joy Mangano, a single mother of three living on Long Island. She invents something called “The Miracle Mop,” which becomes a consumer sensation, and the film charts the four-generation dynasty of the Mangano empire. De Niro plays her father and Cooper a TV pitchman. Édgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, and Isabella Rossellini also appear. (Opens Dec. 25)

Row House Cinema

Made in U.S.A. – In 1966, French auteur Jean-Luc Godard made a movie called Made in U.S.A. It was “inspired” by Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, but also based on a novel, The Juggler, by Donald E. Westlake. Godard never paid Westlake for the use of his book, and so the film was never shown in the United States. Three months after Westlake died (in 2009), the movie finally came to America. It was not, however, hailed as a lost masterpiece. The film has very little to do with logic or plot or cohesion. Godard once said that the only thing you need to make a successful film is a “pretty girl and a gun,” and that’s about all he supplies here. The camera is fixed on the beautiful Anna Karina while live gangsters and dead bodies pile up around her. There’s also a thorough drenching of 60’s Pop-Mod design and color, and, for no apparent reason, a young Marianne Faithfull shows up at a street café to sing “As Tears Go By.” Ahhh, those Frenchies! (Opens Dec. 4)

 

Citizen Kane – After ranking number one decade after decade, the film world was shocked last year when the British Film Institute demoted Citizen Kane to second place on the list of Greatest Films, replacing it with Vertigo. Not withstanding the fact that Hitchcock is my favorite director, I admit to being a little shocked as well. Vertigo is hardly my favorite from Hitch’s oeuvre, and Citizen Kane is a truly brilliant piece of film-making. It’s one of those films, Casablanca is another, where you forgot how great it is it until you see it again and can’t imagine wanting to see any other movie for the rest of your life. Directed by Orson Welles and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, (with Gregg Toland’s genius cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score), Kane is loosely based on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst. I won’t reveal what “Rosebud” is, but I will tell you that, according to rumor, Welles and Mankiewicz chose that word for the movie because it was the nickname Hearst gave to a certain portion of his mistress Marion Davies’ anatomy. Happy holidays! (Opens Dec. 26)

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.