Did you read the news? Hollywood has just promised to never make another bad movie ever again.
While we’re all dreaming of that wonderful day, you can check out highlights of what’s coming down the cinematic pike in April. The films are listed by national release dates, with a sampling of independent houses following.
Meet the Blacks – This may be either the funniest film of 2016 … or the year’s biggest bomb. Mike Epps plays Carl Black, a man who makes his living in Chicago through somewhat questionable means. When he comes in for a big payday he decides it’ll be safer if he’s not found in Illinois and, deciding that California is the place he oughta be, he and his family head west. And before you can say “swimming pools, movie stars” they’re moving into their new Beverly Hills home. What Black doesn’t realize is that he’s moved his family into a different movie franchise. D’you know those “Purge” movies? They’re set in a world where, once a year, all laws are suspended for 12 hours and everything is legal. That’s where the Blacks end up … in Beverly Hills just as the Purge is about to begin. The movie’s being described as a horror comedy spoof—and there aren’t many of those around. Maybe we’ll see why not.
Eye in the Sky – One of the last films made by the late Alan Rickman. Helen Mirren plays a military officer in charge of drone warfare targeting terrorists. She gets a group of suicide bombers in her sights and is set to give the “kill” order … then the pilot tells her a nine-year-old girl has just entered the area. There follows Mirren’s scramble to get some sort of official go ahead from the higher-ups, only to be met with an increasingly bizarre round of legal and political doublespeak and “plausible deniability.” Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Barkhad Abdi, and Phoebe Fox also star. Colin Firth is one of the producers and Gavin Hood (director of the Oscar winning Tsotsi) helms this wartime political thriller written by Guy Hibbert.
The Boss – Melissa McCarthy stars in this comedy based on a character she created when she was a member of the L.A. troupe The Groundlings. Michelle Darnell is a hard-charging business tycoon who makes money as fast as she does enemies. It turns out some of her financial gains are of the ill-gotten variety and she ends up in prison for insider trading. After her release she’s bankrupt, friendless, and homeless … and moves in with her former personal assistant, a woman Michelle humiliated every chance she got. From such acorns do mighty comedies grow. Or maybe not. But the cast is great; in addition to McCarthy there’s Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Kristen Schaal, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, and Margo Martindale. If any group of people could make a comedy fly, it would be this crowd.
Demolition – Poor Jake Gyllenhaal. In the movie Southpaw his wife dies in a tragic accident and he’s left to start his life again. In the movie Demolition his wife dies in a tragic accident and he has to start his life again. Here’s a tip, ladies; if Jake ever proposes to you—no matter how big and blue his eyes are—run as fast as you can the other way. In Demolition Naomi Watts is the woman who has to put Jake back together again. Not that she doesn’t have her own problems, what with raising a son all on her own. When a grief-stricken Jake writes a complaint letter to a vending company about their defective machinery, Watts is the one who responds … and I think you can take it from there.
Colonia – About as far away as you can get from Harry Potter, Emma Watson loses the red fright wig she wore as Hermione and stars in this German film based on the military Chilean coup of 1973. She plays Lena, the wife of Daniel (played by Daniel Brühl). They’re an innocent couple who get caught up in the street protests against General Pinochet. Daniel is abducted by the police (also known as “disappeared”) and gets taken to the remote village of Colonia Dignidad. At the time the place was thought of as a sort of cult run by a man known as Paul Schäfer (here played by Michael Nygvist.) It has since been revealed that Colonia Dignidad was a prison where anti-Pinochet forces were taken to be tortured. Watson pretends to join the cult so that she can rescue Daniel. All in all, a much more tense proposition than who wins the Quidditch final, right?
The Jungle Book – Remember Phil Harris singing “The Bare Necessities?” Louis Prima swingin’ through “I Wan’na Be Like You?” Well get ready. Disney has decided to remake their 1967 classic (the last animated film supervised personally by Walt and considered by some to be his best) with this live action/CGI version featuring the vocal talents of, among others, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba. It’s based on several short stories by Rudyard Kipling and concerns the doings of Mowgli, a human boy raised by wolves who navigates his way through the jungles of India. Jon Favreau directs from a script by Justin Marks. In place of Harris, you’ll be treated to Murray singing “The Bare Necessities” and, even though he’s been reviled for his “performance” as Captain Hook in the NBC live version of Peter Pan last year, Christopher Walken will be taking a stab at “I Wan’na Be Like You.” This could go either way.
Elvis & Nixon – The idea is so delicious it’s no wonder it’s been broached a few times before. In 1970 Elvis Presley, perhaps a little over medicated, began a cross-country trip which ultimately (and with a few detours) ended up with him flying to Washington D.C. in hopes of becoming an undercover agent for either the FBI or the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He achieved neither but through a bizarre turn of events ended up having a one-on-one meeting with Nixon which resulted in the now legendary photography of the King and Tricky Dick shaking hands—one of the most requested pictures in the National Archives. The story was first filmed in 1997, a documentary was made in 2009 and now this version written by Joey and Hanala Sagal and, somewhat surprisingly, Cary Elwes. No word yet on how good it is, but just the casting may make it worth the trip: Kevin Spacey plays Nixon and Michael Shannon is Elvis. Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Tracy Letts, and Tate Donovan (as Haldeman!) also star.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War – I know this probably labels me a hopeless Philistine but I’m a big fan of the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman, a PoMo remake of the Snow White fairy tale. It’s remembered, if at all, for two things—it’s consistently bad reviews and that the star, Kristen Stewart, left her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson and took up with director Rupert Sanders. Since then the two have split up, Sanders divorced his wife and Stewart has teased her fans with the idea that she’s bisexual. I loved the feminist rethink of the first film and ignored the tabloid stuff. Stewart and Sanders are both absent from this sequel which features Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron from the original. In Winter’s Tale Theron again plays the wicked queen, but here she’s also the sister of Emily Blunt. When Emily is betrayed in love she discovers she has the power to turn anyone and anything into ice while big sis tries to save her from doom. Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain play villagers with their own problems. If it all sounds reminiscent of the Disney mega blockbuster Frozen… well, I won’t tell if you don’t.
Keanu – It may or may not please Keanu Reeves to know that he’s been a star long enough that people are now able to start doing riffs on his name. No, this action comedy has nothing to do with one of the biggest stars to ever come out of Canada. The Keanu of the title is actually a much-beloved cat who has been taken from his home. His owner, Rell, is so distraught that he enlists several friends to steal him back. Little do they realize that the cat-nappers are violent gang members and in order to free the pussy Rell and co. have to pose as drug dealers. The film stars Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, who just concluding their long-running, and at times ground-breaking, TV comedy show “Key and Peele.” Will Forte, Nia Long and Luis Guzmán put in an appearance. And there’s even a rumor, unconfirmed, that Mr. Reeves provides a voice for the kitty during one of the scenes.
Mother’s Day – Director Garry Marshall has a unique way of celebrating particular holidays—he makes films about them! And films of a similar style: They’re star-heavy comedy/dramas telling different stories through self-contained vignettes which, nevertheless, are also interconnected. First came the 2010 movie Valentine’s Day about several couples in Los Angles dealing with the pressure the day puts on romance. Then there was the 2011 film New Year’s Eve, about couples in New York waiting for the ball in Time Square to drop. And now this picture which, in a break from tradition, is less about couples and their relationships and more about moms and their relationship with their children. Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Sudeikis, Jon Lovitz, and Margo Martindale star. Personally I can’t wait for his next one: Arbor Day.
Daleks-Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. – It’s perhaps a bit difficult (if not mystifying) for Americans to understand the enormous popularity of Dr. Who. This extremely long-running sci-fi serial about a time-traveling alien who saves various civilizations first began airing on the BBC in 1963 and has played, almost continuously, to the present day. At current count there have been 12 actors who have played the title role (the character “regenerates” into a new body—a.k.a. new actor—when the old one decides to leave the show.) Great swaths of the Internet are devoted to intensely argued debates as to who the best Doctor is. In 1966, to cash in on the popularity of the TV show, the producers made a full-length film version, starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor in which the show’s regular villains, the Daleks, have taken over the earth. It’s the 50th anniversary of the movie’s original release and there’s going to be a party to celebrate with a costume contest, a new digital print and just about all things Who-ish. (April 1, 7pm.)
Taxi Driver – “Are you talkin’ to me?” And with that line Travis Bickle, as played by Robert De Niro, entered the pantheon of Hollywood’s great anti-heroes. Paul Schrader wrote, and Martin Scorsese directed, this look as an extremely dystopic America in 1976. Bickle’s a very unstable Vietnam War vet who drives a taxi at night and decides it’s his job to rid New York City of it’s sleazier elements. Along the way he has run-ins with Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd. Bickle’s focus eventually settles on Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Famously, or perhaps infamously, it was Foster’s performance in this movie which so enthralled John Hinckley that he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to prove his love for her. This is a classic of 70’s cinema. (April 12-14)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato – The latest from British auteur Peter Greenaway, the man who brought you some of cinema’s most original work: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, The Falls and The Draughtsman’s Contract. This 2015 film concerns legendary Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein (director of Battleship Potemkin) and the time he in spent in Mexico in 1931, after having been spurned by Hollywood and the U.S. for his Communist connections. The film was a highly controversial entry at the Berlin International Film Festival last year. As with any Greenaway film, be prepared for a complete disregard for narrative and naturalism, and get ready for lots of male nudity. (Harris Theater. Opens April 1)
Too Late – Though the story itself may seem a bit hackneyed, it’s how writer/director Dennis Hauck puts it on the screen that’s got cineastes abuzz. It’s a contemporary noir thriller in which indie-fave John Hawkes plays a private investigator hired to find a missing woman. Been there, done that, right? Well, for starters Hauck has shot the film not digitally but rather in 35mm Techniscope (a process which probably reached it’s peak in the 60’s.) The film is also presented in five acts, each 22 minutes long and each filmed in one take. It’s Hitchcock’s Rope—ten ten-minute takes—on steroids! (Melwood Screening Room. Opens April 22)
Annual festival celebrating cinematic Judaica. Now in it’s 23rd year, the festival features a variety of short and full-length films. A few highlights:
Fire Birds – This 2015 Israeli film tells the story of a detective reluctantly assigned to investigate the murder of a man who may have been a camp survivor. The film features award-winning performances by Gila Almagor and Miryam Zohar. (In Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles.)
Frank vs. God – A modern twist on the story of Job. David Frank is enduring some really rotten times. He loses his wife, his dog and his house … and his insurance company won’t pay up because they decide that David’s trouble is an “Act of God.” So he decides to sue God. Stewart Schill wrote and directed this 2014 American comedy/drama which stars Henry Ian Cusick.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You – Writer/director/producer Norman Lear WAS television in the 70’s and 80’s. A maverick in an industry which didn’t take to mavericks, Lear only succeeded because of the quality of his work, creating such landmarks as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Sanford and Son” and countless others. In later years, Lear has become equally famous for his liberal activism. This new documentary takes a look at Lear’s life and times with testimonials from, among others, John Amos, Valerie Bertinelli, George Clooney, Marla Gibbs, Bill Moyers, Martin Mull, Mary Kay Place, and many more.
The festival takes places at various venues and times so check the website for more information. (April 7-17.)
Freaks – Even 85 years after it’s 1932 premiere Tod Browning’s Freaks still has the power to unsettle. Made two years before the Hollywood Production Code went into full effect, Browning took advantage of the liberty filmmakers still had to present this dark and disturbing tale set in a circus among the side-show performers. The beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra is having an affair with strongman Hercules. The two decide to kill the “Tom Thumb” type leader Hans for his money… but things go wrong. Really wrong. Browning (director of the original Dracula) had spent time in circus sideshows and based much of the movie on his experiences, he even hired actual side-show performers (notably the real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton). (April 1-7.)
Jurassic Park – There’s probably never been a greatest testament to the big boy still living inside the grown up Steven Spielberg than the unabashed glee and wonder infusing most every frame of this 1993 film. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, the film stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, and Pittsburgh’s own Jeff Goldblum (in a scene-stealing performance) and is set in an amusement park where recovered prehistoric DNA is used to bring dinosaurs back to life. Originally planned to be shot with stop-action models, Spielberg decided to go with the newly-refined process of computer generated images (CGI) and the rest is cinema history. The film is just a good old-fashioned boy’s matinee movie with plenty of chills and spills and, thanks to Goldblum, lots of laughs. (April 1-7.)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.