As the song has it, June is bustin’ out all over. And that’s certainly true in movie land. It’s summertime and here’s the chance for the big studios to start raking in the big bucks with all the big CGI offerings they’ve been saving up until the kiddies are on summer break.
What follows is a selective list of what’s in store at the movie chains and on local independent screens. Major new releases are previewed in order of their national opening dates, followed by locally made indie films and screenings of old favorites.
Entourage — For those of you who wish the good times never ended, all your favorite bad boys from the HBO TV series are back: Adrien Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara and, of course, Jeremy Piven. And why have they returned after 14 years? Well, it would be churlish to mention that most of them haven’t worked since … because Piven has. He’s currently playing the title character in the British period soap opera “Mr. Selfridge.” In 2008 he tried his hand at Broadway when he appeared in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. Piven walked out of the show midway through claiming he had mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi. Mamet remarked that Piven was leaving “to pursue a career as a thermometer.”
But as Shakespeare said, “what’s past is prologue,” and Piven returns as Ari Gold (a character based on Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm, currently Chicago major and former Obama Chief of Staff). In the “Entourage” TV show, Gold represented hot movie star Vincent Chase, played by Grenier and based on Marky Mark. Now Gold’s a studio executive bankrolling Chase’s directorial debut. There’s a ton of cameo appearances including Tom Brady, Gary Busey, Andrew Dice Clay, Kelsey Grammer, Piers Morgan, and Mark (no longer Marky) Wahlberg. It’s like the world’s most expensive 12 Step meeting.
Spy — Melissa McCarthy is back on the big screen in a movie I could have sworn she was already in. But no, here she plays a milquetoast CIA analyst who has spent years supplying technical backup to spies in the field. When the star agent and love of her life Bradley Fine (Jude Law) disappears and his replacement is compromised, McCarthy is forced to go undercover to save the world from a nefarious global arms dealer (Rose Byrne). It sounds formulaic at best, but it does feature a very interesting cast: Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Statham (in a rare comedy role), and two of England’s hottest comedians, Peter Serafinowicz and the luminous Miranda Hart (currently playing “Chummy” in BBC’s “Call the Midwife.”) Spy is written and directed by Paul Feig, who also directed McCarthy in The Heat and Bridesmaids.
Love & Mercy — In 1965, Beach Boys songwriter and producer Brian Wilson had just released the album Pet Sounds and was starting to work on the follow up Smile. Unfortunately, Wilson began to experience increasingly alarming mental health issues which turned into several nervous breakdowns. Eventually the Wilson family hired therapist Eugene Landy; the arrangement almost destroyed Wilson and saw Landy having his license revoked and barred from ever contacting Wilson again. Bill Pohlad directs this version of the Wilson and Landry story. Paul Dano plays Wilson as a young man, John Cusak plays the older Wilson, Paul Giamatti is Landy, and Elizabeth Banks is Wilson’s girlfriend. The screenplay is by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner and the film was made with Wilson’s cooperation.
Jurassic World — Am I wrong or wasn’t the underlying message of the Jurassic Park series a caution against being blinded by greed? Well, director Colin Trevorrow, along with a pack of writers, throw said caution to the wind and bring us Jurassic World, the fourth installment of this saga about dinosaurs scientifically brought to life in the modern world. Here’s the plot: The “Jurassic World” dino-theme park on Isla Nublar has been highly successful for the last decade. Here’s the problem: People are bored and attendance is slipping.
Yes, you read that right. Nobody’s going anymore because they’re all, like, “dinosaurs … whatever.” So the company creates a new giant genetic mutant to entertain the crowds. What could possibly go wrong? Hasn’t anyone seen the previous films? The second movie, The Lost World: Jurassic Park ended with a T-Rex running loose through the streets of San Diego so what kind of whackadoodle would even consider going to Isla Nublar? The same sort of person, I guess, who has grown bored looking at a “regular” dinosaurs. (Try not to cheer when the mutant eats them.) Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, B.D. Wong, and Judy Greer star. Will it be a hit? Or will it bring to mind the tag line from the Stephen King film Pet Sematary: “Sometimes, dead is better”?
I’ll See You in My Dreams — Quick, notify the authorities; Hollywood made a movie about old people! You know some studio worker somewhere is going to get fired for this. Blythe Danner plays an elderly widow estranged from her daughter and living in a retirement community. It’s a life of TV, golf, bridge … and wine. But her world gets shaken up when a couple of men suddenly show up for romance and she reaches out to her daughter. A gentle comedy/drama, the film features supporting performances from June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and Sam Elliot. See it now, before Hollywood remakes it with the hottest stars from the Disney Channel.
Inside Out — This latest animated film from Pixar is about a young girl named Riley who’s uprooted from her Midwest home when her dad takes a job in San Francisco. Inside Out takes us inside Riley’s mind and we meet the five emotions battling for control: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. Part of the fun may just be matching the actor with the onscreen character, as voice talents include Diane Lane, Amy Poehler, Kyle MacLachlan, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Richard Kind, Laraine Newman, Bobby Moynihan, and Paula Poundstone. And here’s a no-brainer: Anger is played by … Lewis Black.
Dope — This film was described in its press materials as a “coming of age comedy/drama for the post hip hop generation.” And that slightly alarmed me. I have to admit I didn’t realize we were post hip hop; in fact, I hadn’t really made up my mind to admit that the hip hop generation had even started. (Life can be hard when all you listen to is Doris Day.) In Dope, three kids from a very rough section of Inglewood, California have big dreams for their lives, but first they have to navigate their way through gangs, drugs, and their own self-doubts. When they end up at a big underground party in L.A. their futures are suddenly called into question. Zoë Kravitz, Forest Whitaker, Shameik Moore, and Blake Anderson star.
Ted 2 — It’s your own damned fault! In 2014 Seth MacFarlane wrote and directed A Million Ways to Die in the West. That film was a huge bomb. Meanwhile, in 2012 MacFarlane wrote and directed the movie Ted about a foul-mouthed, talking teddy bear who comes between a man (Mark Wahlberg) and his girlfriend. So which movie is Seth going to bring back? This time around Ted (the teddy bear) is marrying a woman named Tami-Lynn, except he needs Wahlberg to provide sperm for artificial insemination. (Don’t yell at me, I’m only reporting the facts.) Also strapping themselves in for the ride are Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Schiff, Patrick Warburton, Morgan Freeman, Dennis Haysbert, Liam Neeson, John Slattery, David Hasselhoff and, here he is again, Tom Brady. I guess he’s got a lot of time on his hands since he doesn’t have a ball to deflate until the fall.
A Little Chaos — In the middle of a summer filled with nonstop CGI effects and inconsequential plots, who would have ever thought a movie like this would be released? It’s about dueling landscape artists! Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts play rival gardeners in the court of Louis XIV. And wouldn’t you know it but they fall in love! Who knew shrubbery could be so turgid?! You might be tempted to dismiss it as nonsense, but the brilliant Alan Rickman directs and there’s an outstanding supporting cast of some seriously talent actors from both sides of the pond: Jennifer Ehle, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Penry-Jones, Steve Waddington, Adrian Scarborough, Phyllida Law, and Helen McCrory. And, as a bonus, Rickman turns up as the aforementioned Sun King.
Gemma Bovery — In the world of “high concept” movies, Gemma Bovery surely must rank near the top. If you were paying attention in your high school AP English Lit class you’ll know that Gustave Flaubert wrote a little book called Madame Bovary in 1856 about a doctor’s wife named Emma Bovary who, to assuage her boredom, has a number of adulterous affairs. That novel is considered a masterpiece of realist fiction writing. (Some fun facts: Flaubert and his work were put on trial for obscenity, but he was eventually cleared and the trial substantially increased sales of the novel. And in the 1950s play Auntie Mame we find the following exchange: Mame Dennis: “Flaubert worked on Madame Bovary for ten years!” Vera Charles: “Oh really? How did she stand it?”)
Director Anne Fontaine has redone the story for the present day, basing it on a 1999 graphic novel called Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds. In the movie version Martin, a well-heeled hipster (and Flaubert fan) moves to the French countryside where an English couple have taken up residence. Martin becomes convinced that the two are straight out of Flaubert’s novel and his attempts to “rescue” the woman lead to no end of problems. Fabrice Luchini is Martin while Jason Flemyng and Gemma Arteton are the Mr. & Mrs. Bovary doppelgängers. The film is mostly in French, but a little mental exertion is good for the soul!
Dark Star/Alien/Aliens — There’s probably not a scarier looking monster in all of filmdom than that Jabberwocky-esque thing from the Aliens franchise. Designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, that creature gave the whole world nightmares after its 1979 debut. (Especially my little brother whom I took with me to see Alien not knowing how terrifying it was. It’s a wonder he even talks to me.) Well, here’s your chance to relive the terror … and more. There’s a screening of the first Alien and the 1986 Aliens. Both are about a lethal extraterrestrial life force killing humans and using their bodies for … well, you’ll find out. Also on the bill is Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, a documentary about Giger’s work and life and believe me, the monster from Alien is one of the most normal things he ever did. (Screenings June 5-10.)
Bigfoot: The Movie — Buy local! And I don’t just mean your tomatoes but your movies as well. This comedy/horror movie was filmed and set in Ellwood City. Bigfoot starts terrorizing the town and three Yinzers are called into action to save the city. The movie is directed by native Jared Show who co-wrote the movie with lead actor (and Greensburg native) Curt Wootton. You might recognize Wootton as the YouTube sensation “Pittsburgh Dad.” Also appearing are Pittsburgh commedians Jimmy Krenn and Mike Wysocki, and former WPXI news anchor Darieth Chisolm. (7:30 p.m., June 18)
This year the Arts Festival is presenting a selection of locally made independent films. The venture is called Art on Film; it’s done in cooperation with Pittsburgh Filmmakers and they’ve got a quite impressive lineup. All screenings take place at the Harris Theater. Here’s the roster:
Tracing Outlines — What do Alexander Calder, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen have in common? All were artists who, long before they achieved icon status, were showcased in a tiny little gallery called “Outlines,” which was opened by Elizabeth Rockwell in Pittsburgh on the Boulevard of the Allies in 1941. After relocating to Oakland (into what is now the Pittsburgh Playhouse), the gallery moved back downtown and eventually closed in 1947. But who knew there was a time when Pittsburgh was on the cutting edge of the avant garde? This documentary by Cayce Mell explores the story of Rockwell and Outlines. (June 5, 7, and 10)
Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of Rebels — In 1839, slaves taken from Sierra Leone staged a mutiny on board the schooner Amistad, demanding to be returned home. Their legal case, which involved laws in the US, the UK, and international treaties, eventually made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The film documents the trip that local filmmaker Tony Buba made to Sierra Leone in 2013 to the villages of those slaves, to discover how much of the Amistad history has come down through the ages. ( June 6, 8, and 11)
Homemakers — Colin Healey wrote and directed the story of a young singer who inherits her grandfather’s abandoned Pittsburgh home and comes back home to restore it. There’s a slew of local acting talent on view, including Rachel McKeon, Sheila McKenna, Harry O’Toole, and Diana Ifft. ( June 6, 10, and 12.)
Progression – Once upon a time you couldn’t give away space in Lawrenceville … now it’s impossible to walk down Butler Street without bumping into a microbrewery. Progression—the story of three urbanite couples working their way through a progressive dinner in Larryville—examines what happens when hipsters move into your neighborhood. It’s written and directed by locals Gab Cody and Sam Turich. (June 6, 8, and 13.)
The Umbrella Man — Peter Brennan is a man whose son has just died tragically. Instead of grieving, Brennan falls in with one of the many conspiracy groups existing on the fringes of JFK’s assassination. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: A few years ago this story was produced as a play at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. At the time the writer was credited as Edward J. Delaney but now the writers are listed as Michael and Joe Grasso. I’m not sure why Mr. Delaney decided he needed two new names, but the thing was filmed in Pittsburgh and features lots of local actors. (June 7, 11, and 13.)
Conan the Barbarian — Perhaps the most surprising thing about this 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger sword-and-sorcery epic is that the screenplay was written by Oliver Stone! When John Milius came on board as director he rewrote Stone’s script, which was based on a character created in 1932 by Robert E. Howard for Weird Tales magazine. The, ahem, plot finds a young Ahhnold orphaned when his parents are murdered by Thulsa Doom, the leader of snake cult played by James Earl Jones. Along the way Conan meets the comely Sandahl Bergman as female brigand Valeria. Max von Sydow, playing King Osric, shows up and asks Conan to rescue his daughter … who was brainwashed into joining the snake cult! Perhaps Wikipedia puts it best by noting that even though critics complained about Schwarzenegger’s wooden acting and the film’s violent scenes “Conan was popular with young males.” And there you have the movie business in a nutshell. (June 5-10)
Gone With the Wind — It’s almost impossible these days to explain what a worldwide cultural phenomenon GWTW was back in 1939. Following the hugely successful publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, the casting of the role of Scarlett O’Hara became a national obsession, thanks to the orchestrated P.R. orgy by the film’s producer David O. Selznick, and the film’s release was an event of international importance. Since then the movie has sold more than 200 million tickets (heaven knows how many more have watched it on TV and DVD)—and in 2014 Guinness World Records estimated that total box office, adjusted for inflation, is $3.44 billion. But I’m torn. While GWTW represents the Hollywood film factory at its zenith, and it is the quintessential “movie movie,” unfortunately the racial and gender politics are cringingly painful to watch. This movie almost makes slavery look like fun! The good news is that Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award (for her portrayal of Mammy). The bad news is that at the ceremony held at the Coconut Grove she had to sit at a table near the kitchen. (June 12-18)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail — The quotations alone could take up a page and a half: “We are the Knights who Say ‘Ni’.” “It’s just a flesh wound!” “That rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide!” Holy Grail, released in 1975, was the first feature film the British comedy troupe Monty Python made after their BBC television sketch show went off the air. And despite the Pythons being little known in America, the movie became, at the time, the highest grossing British film in the States. Here Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin send up the King Arthur legend, medieval England and, because it’s Python, the art and craft of filmmaking. Holy Grail has been voted as one of the ten best comedy films in polls both here and in Great Britain. “I’m not dead yet!” (June 19-25)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.