August Cinema Preview: A Few Flowers in the Dirt

August is what’s traditionally known as the “dog days” of summer. Originally called that because it was at this time of year, near ancient Greece and the Mediterranean Sea, that the dog star Sirius, began showing on the horizon at sunrise. Nowadays we call these the “dog days” because August is when Hollywood offloads the last of the summer crap to make way for the prestige pictures (and Oscar hopefuls) scheduled for the fall. However, there are a few bright blooms with new movies from Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin and documentaries about the Earth, Chris Farley and Kurt Cobain. Here’s a sampling of what’s in store. The films are previewed in order of their national opening dates …

August 7

Ricki and the Flash – From the pen of Diablo Cody (the writer of Juno and United States of Tara) comes the latest Meryl Streep vehicle. The three-time Oscar winner plays a woman who, years ago, left her husband and children to pursue a career as a rock star. And now, several years on, her estranged daughter is facing a personal crisis and Ricki (Meryl) goes home to try to make things right. The film is directed by Jonathan Demme and features Kevin Kline (Streep’s co-star from Sophie’s Choice) as her ex-husband, 80’s heartthrob Rick Springfield as her bit-on-the-side and, playing her daughter, is her daughter-in-real-life Mamie Gummer. This isn’t the first time that mother and daughter have played mother and daughter – in the 1986 film Heartburn Mamie played Meryl’s 3 year old daughter. (Opens August 7.)

 

Fantastic Four – Who isn’t shocked to learn that 10 long years have gone by without a remake of The Fantastic Four? A whole decade! Yes, 2005 brought us the first film version of the one of Marvel’s oldest comic book franchises, but after the 2007 sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer flopped, plans were shelved in hopes of happier times. If we know nothing else about Marvel Studios, we know that if there’s a chance to make some money they’d film a guy hanging wallpaper … if he’d wear a leotard doing it. So here comes this latest version; Four youngsters get caught up in a space travel experiment which goes horrible wrong and when they arrive back on Earth they’ve returned with heretofore unknown powers.

Miles Teller plays Reed, a sort of human Gumby; Kate Mara is Sue, who makes herself invisible; Michael B. Jordan plays Johnny a.k.a “The Human Torch” (you’ll never guess what he can do) and poor Jamie Bell is stuck playing Ben Grimm who can turn himself into a big rock and spends most of the movie as a CGI effect. They join forces to battle the evil Dr. Doom and pretty soon it looks like … well, whatever it always seems to look like in a Marvel movie.

 

Shaun the Sheep Movie — From the studio that brought you Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run (Aardman Animations) comes Shaun the Sheep Movie. The film is based on the television series Shaun the Sheep and it features the clever, mischievous head of the flock, Shaun. One day he decides he needs a day off from all his labors on Mossy Bottom Farm and hatches a cunning plan that’ll help him get some rest. But his scheme go horribly awry and the next thing you know the entire flock ends up lost in the big city, chased by a nefarious worker from Animal Control who is determined to rid the city of sheep. Can Shaun save the flock and get everyone safely back to the farm? I’d say that the answer is probably never in doubt … there’s also no doubt that while Pixar and other computer animation styles have their plusses, nothing tops Aardman’s hand-made stop-motion animation for charm and ingenuity.

August 14

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – D’you ever wonder why movies are the way they are today? Just look at the writing credits on the film version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The screenplay is by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram from a story by Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson from an earlier story by Ritchie and Wigram based on the television series by Sam Rolfe which was developed, in part, with help from Ian Fleming.Whew! Would it be churlish to point out that Tennessee Williams wrote what many people consider to be masterpieces all by himself? In any event, this is a film version of the 1960’s television series and it’s directed by Ritchie. Though he’s a man with an interesting cinematic vision, he’s also known for the excessive, unsupported violence of that vision. (I suppose, however, that having been married to Madonna probably does leave you with a lot of repressed anger.)

Ritchie (and the fleet of writers) have decided to keep the story set in the 60’s as they follow the general blue print of the original series; an American agent, Napoleon Solo, (played by Henry Cavill) is forced to team up with a Russian spy, Illya Kuryakin, (Armie Hammer) to battle a nefarious global menace known as T.H.R.U.S.H. Rumor has it there will be spoofing of the time period, which is good since nothing sinks these sorts of films faster than when they take themselves too seriously. Of course, the downside could be it ends up like Austin Powers without the jokes …

August 21

Hitman: Agent 47 – The number of successful live-action films based on video games is fairly low and I think the reason is pretty obvious; when you crave the Halo experience it’s because you want to be inside it, not sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers in chairs all facing the same wall. In 2007, 20th Century Fox made a film version of the video game “Hitman” which went on to be listed in Time magazine’s ten worst video game movies ever. But Hollywood’s nothing if not optimistic (in a cynical sort of way) so here comes a new version based on the same game. The title character is described as an assassin who has been genetically engineered and trained from birth to be the ultimate killing machine. Now all grown up, he’s out to destroy employees of the corporation trying to create their own elite assassins. Aleksander Bach directs a cast which includes Rupert Friend, Ciarán Hinds, Hannah Ware, and Pittsburgh’s own Zachary Quinto.

 

Grandma – Lily Tomlin in her first leading role in 27 years. Written and directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie and About a Boy), Grandma is the story of Elle Reid, a misanthropic, lesbian poet grieving the death of her partner … when one day her 18-year-old granddaughter shows up at her door. Sage, the granddaughter, has a big problem and is hoping Grandma can help her out – and the two set off for a day trip with some major consequences. Advance word is extremely positive and there’s already talk of Tomlin scoring an Oscar nom for her performance. Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliot, Judy Greer, and Laverne Cox also star.

 

Sinister 2 – These days the world is such a hectic place and with the constant demands of social media it’s hard to keep up with the things you want to do, let alone the things you need to do. So it’s entirely understandable if you happened to miss the 2012 supernatural horror film Sinister. In case you were at a spinning class, here’s what you missed: Ethan Hawke played a true crime writer who discovers a series of video tapes showing various families being murdered. It turns out that a demonic figure, Bughuul, has possessed the families’ youngest child to kill the grown ups. Who wouldn’t want more of the same?

In this sequel, it’s three years later and an unsuspecting family move into the house in which the demon is living. Bughuul tries to convince one of the twin boys to kill his family – meanwhile a police officer (James Ransone from the first film) is still trying to get to the bottom of the killings in Sinister 1. Not that this has anything to do with anything, but did you know that the word “sinister” is from the Italian word for “left-handed?” That kind of explains why the nuns kept hitting you lefties with a ruler during penmanship class. Like I said, it has nothing to do with the movie, but it’s something to think about during the slow parts.

August 28

We Are Your Friends – The world of the electronic dance music and nightlife scene in L.A. is cut throat. Don’t believe me? Well this film, directed by Max Joseph (from a screenplay by Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer from a story by Richard Silverman) rips the lid of the seething cauldron of said scene.

Zac Efron plays a young DJ who harbors big dreams of becoming a record producer. He eventually garners the notice of DJ James, an electronic dance music legend in that world. DJ James, played by Wes Bentley, takes the young Zac under his wing and begins to mentor him in the secret ways of the electronic dance music. It all looks like it’s smooth sailing ahead until … enter the dame. (Cue lonely saxophone wailing out a plaintive, bluesy tune in the background.) Emily Ratajkowski plays Sophie who is DJ James’ girlfriend. You don’t have to be an aficionado of The Bold and the Beautiful to figure out what happens next. Will Zac go for love, fame … or what’s behind door number three? Electronic dance music and nightlife stars – Nicky Romero, Dillon Francis, Alesso, and Them Jeans – make cameo appearances as well.

Hollywood Theater

I Am Chris Farley and Cobain: Montage of Heck – Two new documentaries chronicling the lives of men who shot to fame early in their careers, burned bright and then crashed to earth in the 1990’s, both victims to their substance abuse addictions. Cobain, with the band Nirvana, was the first “superstar” of the grunge music scene. Farley was a comedian who made his name with Second City and became a break-out cast member of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s important to note that both documentaries are made with the input and approval of their families, so it’s unlikely you’re going to hear the whole story of their lives (and deaths.) But if you’re a fan, it’s a chance to revisit their groundbreaking careers. (Opens August 7)

 

Turbo Kid – It’s a Canadian action horror film … and you gotta admit there’s not a lot of those around. We open in the future: 1997. Confused? Turbo Kid is a retro-futuristic action comedy saluting sci-fi movies from the 1980’s. So of course it’s 1997. The world collapsed sometime in the 80’s and now, in this post-apocalyptic nuclear winter there’s a young boy, The Kid, scratching out a life for himself and his friend Apple, by travelling The Wasteland on his BMX in search of water. The brutish thug who rules the land, Zeus (and his sidekick Skeletron) kidnap Apple and The Kid has to find a way to get her back. Written and directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. (Opens August 28)

Manor Theater

American Ultra – Jesse Eisenberg is a slacker store clerk in this action comedy more interested in getting stoned than selling Slurpees. One night some men in black suits and skinny ties show up and try to murder him! Even more surprising is that using skill, speed and dexterity he never knew he had, he kills the hitmen instead. As is turns out he’s a “sleeper” government operative trained to kill with no conscious memory of his past. The government has decided he’s a liability so they want to rub him out … but he’s too well-trained, and too high, for them to handle. Also starring are Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton and John Leguizamo. (Opening August 21.)

Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Infinitely Polar Bear – Maya Forbes (the writer of, among others, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Monsters vs. Aliens) has written and directs this semi-autobiographical story about her family. The movie is set in Cambridge in 1978 and opens with Cam, the father, (played by Mark Ruffalo) recovering from a recent mental health breakdown. Cam suffers severely from bi-polar disease and his life has been a series of hard-fought battles with the illness. And things are only about to get more difficult when Cam’s wife, Peggy, (Zoe Saldana) decides she needs an education since it’s up to her to support the family and while she’s back in school Cam needs to take care of their two teenage daughters. Keir Dullea also stars, and playing the young sister based on Maya is Imogene Wolodarsky … who, in fact, is Maya’s daughter in real life … move over Mamie and Meryl. (Opens August 7, Regent Square Theater)

 

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance – Long before there was An Inconvenient Truth there was Koyaanisqatsi, a documentary by Godfrey Reggio about humanity and our involvement in the environment. The film, comprising slow motion and time-lapse photography, opens with the majesty and wonder of the natural world; slowly signs of human life and civilization begin appearing in the frame. The movie (which contains no dialogue) ultimately chronicles the frenzied pace of modern life and our direct opposition to our environment. Due to copyright issues, the film went unseen for most of the 90’s. More than anything Koyaanisqatsi is a cinematic tone poem juxtaposing perception-bending photography with a profoundly emotive score by Philip Glass. (August 16, Regent Square Theater.)

Row House

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – This Disney film was hugely popular in it’s 1988 release. Based on a novel called Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, this blend of live action and hand-drawn animation made most of the Top Ten lists of the time and won four Oscars. (The most an animated film had won since Mary Poppins.) Bob Hoskins plays a hard-boiled detective who is assigned to a case in Toon Town, a part of L.A. where animated characters live. Hoskins was repeatedly singled out for his ability to make his interactions with the cartoon figures (added later) so believable. The film contained so many risqué references that Michael Eisner demanded cuts from director Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis (having final cut approval) refused and so the movies was put out not as a Disney film but one of their Touchstone Pictures releases. When the Laser Disk version was released, rumors were confirmed – via frame-by-frame examination – that some of the animators did include naked shots of Jessica Rabbit, the film’s femme fatale. Kathleen Turner is the uncredited voice talent for Jessica Rabbit (who’s songs were sung by Amy Irving) and she got to deliver the movie’s most famous line: “I’m not bad … I’m just drawn that way.” (Aug 7-13)

 

The Fifth Element – It’s the 41st century and Bruce Willis, a former highly decorated army general, is now a cab driver in a Brooklyn which looks like one of the unused sets from Blade Runner. Suddenly, out the sky and into his cab, drops “The Fifth Element” played by Milla Jovovich as a sort of intergalactic supermodel. Apparently some evil aliens have sent a giant ball of fire hurtling toward earth and the only thing that’ll stop it is having Jovovich perform a ritual with a bunch of magic rocks created by good aliens. The problem is that the rocks have been planted in the stomach of an alien diva who’s about nine feet tall (partly because she’s wearing what looks like a vacuum cleaner on her head.) So Willis and Jovovich hightail to the Diva’s galaxy to get the stones and then have to make it back to the Pyramids to perform the ritual to save the planet. Luc Bresson directed this 1997 sci-fi camp classic which poses the question: “If, 20 centuries from now, scientists have perfected interspace and intertime travel, how come they couldn’t fix Willis’ male pattern baldness?” (Aug 14-Aug 20)

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.