It’s February and Hollywood is sending you a big box of Valentine’s Day cinematic chocolates. Some might be sumptuous, a few achingly sweet and others so bad you’ll want to slip them back into the box half-eaten. There’s also a number religious offerings this month with films focusing on Judaism, Christianity, polytheistic Egyptian Gods and, as with anything involving Los Angeles, the unbridled adoration of money.
Films are listed by national release dates with local independent cinemas listed afterwards.
The Choice – Nicholas Sparks is a one-man entertainment juggernaut. The man has written 18 romance novels,10 of which have been turned into movies with a combined worldwide gross of $866 million … not bad when you consider that the critical reception for each has been, to put it diplomatically, unkind. Maybe The Choice will break the mold. It’s based on a 2007 novel about a young couple, Travis and Gabby, and how their great love relationship is tested when … no, I can’t tell you, it’ll just upset you and you’ll wanna save those tears for the movie. Ross Katz directs Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer as our little lovebirds, with Tom Welling and Tom Wilkinson popping up to provide emotional support.
Hail, Caesar! – The latest from the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) and their fourth collaboration with George Clooney. (Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were their previous flicks.) Joining them in this star-studded romp are several Coen alums and a few newbies; Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand … and, Dolph Lundgren! The movie, set in the 1950’s, focuses on Eddie Mannix (Brolin); he’s a fixer hired by the studios to keep the exploits of the big stars out of the papers. But the biggest of the stars (Clooney) is captured by a group of communists and all hell breaks loose. How, one wonders, does Dolph fit into all of that?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – One day back in 2009 book editor Jason Rekulak had a title come to him from out of the blue: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He turned it over to comedy writer Seth Grahame-Smith who, after reading the original Jane Austen novel, declared “it was just ripe for gore and senseless violence.” If only Austen knew she’d omitted this vital element. The book Grahame-Smith wrote made a bit of a stir and now reaches the big screen with Lily James, Sam Riley, Matt Smith, and Lena Headey. It’s still the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her complicated courtship with Mr. Darcy, but now, just to make things more difficult, there are zombies walking the land. I suppose there’s no point in saying that the whirling sound you hear from underground is not reanimated corpses but rather Austen spinning in her grave. And yet I do feel the need to say that Pride and Prejudice is one of the few perfect novels ever written … did it really deserve this fanboy treatment? It will be interesting to see how it fares.
Deadpool – I know you won’t believe this but there’s another spandex wearing character in the Marvel Universe who hasn’t been given his own franchise. You’d think, by now, they’d’ve run out … but no, here comes Deadpool. Actually he showed up played by Ryan Reynolds in X-Men Origins: Wolverine but apparently they pulled a few punches with the characters. Reynolds returns in a version the creators swear will be more true to the way he’s presented in the comic books. When he was first introduced in 1991 he was a super villain, but he’s since morphed into a mentally unstable anti-hero mercenary with a black, profane sense of humor who, by the way, is also “omnisexual.” Let’s see how much of that gets into this movie which also stars, inexplicably, Leslie Uggams.
How to Be Single – Dakota Johnson, last seen being whipped in 50 Shades of Grey, is a single woman in Manhattan living without a clue. She’s befriended by a co-worker, played by Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson, who teaches her the ins and outs of being a gal on the go in the Big Apple. The film is based on the 2009 novel by Liz Tuccillo who, maybe not surprisingly, worked on Sex and the City. Tuccillo, along with Greg Behrendt, were the co-authors of the award-winning He’s Just Not That Into You. All in all, we are in serious “chick-flick” territory. Christian Ditter directs and Leslie Mann co-stars.
Zoolander 2 – I think it’s safe to say that nobody asked, but Ben Stiller returns with a sequel to his hit 2001 comedy about a sweet but clueless supermodel (Stiller) who got caught up in a plot of international intrigue. While it won’t ever win awards for the depth of its dramaturgy, it was cute and fun; a one-joke movie that knew when the joke was done. I wonder how that one joke is going to fare being stretched into a second full length movie; fashion models are being killed and Zoolander comes to the rescue. If nothing else, there’s a starry cast guaranteed to distract in case the film bogs down: Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Christine Taylor return from the original, along with Penélope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Benedict Cumberbatch and, get a load of this!, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
Race – It’s astonishing to think it’s taken Hollywood 80 years to get around to filming a version of Jesse Owens’ remarkable feats at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I wonder why? By ’36 Hitler was Germany’s leader and using the Olympics to promote his vision of “Aryan racial superiority.” And it was at those same Olympics that the African America Owens won four gold medals and set a number of records. Hooray for our side! But Race also tells the story that while the government used Owens as an advertisement for racial equality in the global community, he faced institutionalized segregation and racism in his home country. Indeed, after the Olympics Owens ended up a gas station attendant. Stephan James plays Owens and the film also features William Hurt, Tim McInnerny, David Kross, Clarice van Houten and in a rare dramatic role Jason Sudeikis.
Risen – Just in time for Easter. Kevin Reynolds, director of such films as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, helms a script he co-wrote with Paul Aiello. There’s trouble brewing in Jerusalem; following the crucifixion of “Yeshua” (aka Jesus) there are rumors that He has risen and the occupied Jews are planning an uprising. So Pilate (played by Peter Firth) orders a powerful Roman military tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and his second-in-command Lucius (Tom Felton) to find Yeshua’s dead body, dispel rumors of a miraculous resurrection and quell the imminent revolt. It’s being billed as the “unofficial” sequel to The Passion of the Christ.
Eddie the Eagle – You may not know him, but Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards has the most endearing sports story of all time. An athlete from England, Edwards was a downhill skier who dreamed of going to the Olympics. Short of funds, he switched to ski jumping because it was cheaper and there was no competition; he was the British ski jumping team at the 1988 Olympics where he competed, and finished last, in both the 70m and 90m events. But the more he lost, the more people embraced him to their collective bosom and he became a worldwide inspiration as the plucky underdog who, unfortunately, never wins the prize. Taron Egerton stars as Edwards, with support from Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken and Tim McInnerny in what looks to be a very British comedy. Actor Dexter Fletcher directs from a screenplay by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton.
Gods of Egypt – Alex Proyas directs this CGI spectacular taking place in a mythical, ancient time. Set, the Egyptian god of darkness, has captured the throne and plans to make everyone’s life a living hell. But Bek, a mortal, teams up with the god Horus to battle Set and save the world. It’s a lovely idea, but someone forgot to tell Proyas and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless that Egypt is located in Africa … therefore the people would be (a show of hands please) African. They would not be the passel of white actors hired to play them. After this was brought to his attention, Proyas went on an apology tour expressing remorse. We’ll see whether or not the public buys it. For what it’s worth, the film stars Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Abbey Lee, Brenton Thwaites, Rufus Sewell, and Geoffrey Rush.
We Are Twisted F***king Sister! – Did you ever wonder how the glam rock band Twisted Sister got their start? Me neither. But this rockumentary is going to tell you just about everything you need to know. In the 70’s and early 80’s, Twisted Sister was the most famous bar band playing in clubs around New York City and New Jersey. How they made the leap to nationally known group is what this 2014 film, directed by Andrew Horn, is all about. (February 19-22)
Chimes at Midnight – Orson Welles wrote and directed this film centering on Shakespeare’s recurring character Falstaff. (He appears in Henry IV Parts 1&2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor.) Welles combined a number of texts that tell the story of what he called “the betrayal of friendship.” It was a difficult shoot and he had to continually scramble for money to complete the film. When released in 1966 it quickly disappeared but has grown in stature since and is now considered to be one of Welles’ best. Incredibly byzantine legal issues kept the film unavailable for general release until 2015. Also starring John Gielgud, Keith Baxter, Jeanne Moreau, Ralph Richardson, and Margaret Rutherford. (February 26-29)
Janis: Little Girl Blue – You might wonder how Hollywood has made it this far without ever having made a documentary about Janis Joplin. (1979’s The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was only suggested by her life.) So here comes director Amy Berg to leap in and fill that void with this 2015 look at the tumultuous life and times of the little girl from Port Arthur, Texas who grew to become “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul” and died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. The documentary features contributions from Cat Power, Dick Cavett, Country Joe McDonald, Melissa Etheridge, Kris Kristofferson, and Yoko Ono. (Harris Theater, February 5-11)
Son of Saul – This Hungarian entry is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes as well as taking home every major “best of” award at film festival around the globe. It’s the first full-length film from László Nemes, who also wrote the script with Clara Royer, and takes place in Auschwitz. Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando (inmates forced to burn the corpses of the Nazi victims). Saul believes he’s come across the body of his dead son and goes in search inside the camp for a rabbi who can properly bury him. Interwoven into Saul’s tale is the true story of a revolt at the camp. (Regent Square Theater. Opens February 12.)
The Man Who Fell to Earth – I remember when this movie opened in 1976; everyone I knew who saw it came back and were like “What the hell was that?” Nicholas Roeg directed David Bowie in his feature film debut as an outer space alien who comes to earth to get water for his drought stricken planet. To get back home he starts a multi-billion dollar tech company so he can build a rocket to take him there. But romance, to a sweet young thing named Mary-Lou and played by Candy Clark, complicates his plan. The movie also features something you never thought you’d ever see: Sex scenes with Rip Torn. (Regent Square Theater. February 14 & 21)
Saturday Night Fever – While it isn’t true, as many have said, that this 1977 movie killed disco, it certainly did nothing for it’s longevity. What had been an underground phenomenon created by and for the black and gay communities, somehow got turned into this turgid soap opera about a straight white guy from Brooklyn who wants to dance his way to the top. And having The Bee Gees supply “disco” music surely didn’t help matters either. It did, however, provide the breakout role for John Travolta; just think of that iconic poster of him in the white suit on the dance floor. Travolta followed Saturday Night Fever with 1978’s Grease and became the sex symbol of the late 70’s. It went horribly awry when Travolta (with Sylvester Stallone directing) made the 1983 sequel Staying Alive, considered by many to be the worst movie in the history of film. (February 5-11)
Some Like It Hot – Rated by the American Film Institute as the funniest movie ever made … and they’re probably right. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond created one of Hollywood’s few perfect scripts and then Wilder directed a knockout cast. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two musicians who witness a gangland murder and dress up as women to escape the mob. In lesser hands it could have been a series of easy, lowbrow jokes, but instead becomes comedy gold as Wilder and Diamond (along with Curtis and Lemmon) knock it clean out of the park. Marilyn Monroe plays a member of the all-girl band Curtis and Lemmon are traveling with and Joe E. Brown steals the movie as an old lech with the hots for Lemmon. Even today, Brown’s final line stills rates as a cinematic touchstone. (February 12-18)
Friday the 13th – Little could anyone have guessed that when this quickie slasher film (made for $550,000) opened in 1980 it would pull in $60 million. So of course there was a sequel, and then another, and then other until there are now 12 movies in the canon. (Including Jason X where the killer is cryogenically frozen and shot into space!) All told, the franchise has made almost a half of a billion dollars. There was even a 1987 television show … who knew? And it all started with this romp about a group of young camp counselors returning to open a summer resort; pretty soon they’re being bumped off in pretty grisly ways … including Kevin Bacon in one of his first film roles. (February 26 – March 3)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based critic and writer.