Winter has finally arrived … at least on local movie screens. Lots of films this month are taking place outside in the middle of horrible winter storms. I don’t know about you but I go to the movies in January to get away from the cold—what’s Hollywood thinking? Check out some of the films barreling down the cinematic pike this month, like four guys stacked up on a luge. The films are listed by national release dates with local independent houses listed below.
The Hateful Eight – The first of our wintry offerings. Quentin Tarantino writes and directs this violent Western set in the same time period and cinematic universe as his 2012 violent Western Django Unchained. In a bitter Wyoming winter Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a bounty hunter bringing deranged hellcat murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh to the big city where she’ll be hanged. They decide to stop at a remote cabin where they meet up with a bunch of reprobates played by, among others, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Walton Goggins. Soon enough the blizzard hits and all of them, each with a reason to want the other dead, are trapped inside. Tarantino has been making the publicity rounds letting everyone know that he’s filmed the movie in anamorphic 70mm with the same camera lenses used to shoot Ben-Hur. You’d think he did it to capture the frozen tundra of Wyoming—but early viewers are questioning why nearly two-and-a-half of this film’s three hours takes place inside one room. Considering that it’s Tarantino, I guess he just wanted to make sure you got a good look at the blood and viscera. Not all theaters are showing the 70mm print, so make sure to call ahead.
Anesthesia – A hit at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Tim Blake Nelson has written and directed this decidedly indie film. You might know him as an actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Incredible Hulk) or writer/director (The Grey Zone, Leaves of Grass.) In Anesthesia, Sam Waterston is a philosophy professor who is wounded during a mugging and encounters a wide variety of strangers and friends in the attack’s aftermath. The film explores the community and isolation experienced in a sprawling metropolis (in this case New York City) and how connections are easily made, threatened, strengthened and lost. Nelson’s assembled a quirky cast of highly idiosyncratic actors including Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Gretchen Moll, Lee Wilkof, Gloria Reuben, Scott Cohen, and Glenn Close.
The Revenant – Cold enough for you yet? This oughta bring down the ambient temp. Coming off of the enormous success of last year’s Academy Award winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), director Alejandro Iñárritu teams up with Leonardo DiCaprio in this film based on a novel of the small name by Michael Punke which was itself based on the true story of fur trapper Hugo Glass, played by Leo. It’s 1823, in the wintry woods somewhere in the Louisiana Purchase. A group of trappers and hunters are set upon by Native Americans and Leo gets attacked by a bear. Tom Hardy is an evil hunter who decides that a wounded Leo is going to be a burden and kills him. Or does he? As it turns out Leo isn’t dead yet and he sets forth on a mission to revenge himself on Hardy for the attempted murder as well as a bunch of other really awful things Hardy’s done. The film also features Domhnall Gleeson, Lukas Haas, and Will Poulter.
The Benefactor – Richard Gere is in the middle of a career renaissance lately and has obviously been picking scripts meant to showcase his talent … in the hopes of garnering an Oscar nom. His other indie film this year was Time Out of Mind in which, nearly unrecognizable, he played a homeless man. With The Benefactor he’s gone to the other extreme playing a billionaire philanthropist in this debut feature film from writer/director Andrew Renzi. A fatal accident early on in the movie leaves Gere racked with sorrow, guilt and an addiction. To make amends he “adopts” a newlywed couple (played by Dakota Fanning and Theo James.) He buys them a house, pays off their student loans and gets the husband a great new job. That sounds like my kind of friend! But it all starts to go off the rails as Gere’s boundary issues come to the fore and all kinds of bad stuff starts happening. I guess it’s awful, but here’s the thing: All the crazy people in my life are poor—crazy rich folks would be a step up.
Ride Along 2 – First of all I didn’t even know there was a Ride Along 1. In case you missed that 2014 buddy comedy, Kevin Hart played a security guard who was fixing to marry the sister of top cop Ice Cube. But Ice forced Kevin to prove himself worthy by riding along on a 24-hour police patrol in Atlanta. (I’m not sure how comforted I am knowing that people are using urban crime as a pretext for matchmaking.) I know what you’re thinking—how could they ever top that? In Ride Along 2 Kevin has graduated from the police academy but still hasn’t married the sister, played by Tika Sumpter (though they are engaged.) Right before the wedding, however, Kevin accompanies Ice down to Miami to help nab a drug lord played by Benjamin Bratt. One can only imagine the hilarious hijinks which ensue. Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, and Sherri Shepherd also star.
The 5th Wave – J Blakeson directs this film version of Rick Yancey’s young adult science fiction novel of the same name. Aliens, known as the “Others”, have decided to conquer the planet. (Have they taken a good look at it lately?) The first wave of their attack is shorting out the electricity in moving vehicles; cars, trains, planes, etc. Wave two involves creating giant tsunamis all over the world. With the third wave they infect all the earth’s birds with an Ebola-like virus—except when you die you explode and your entrails infect others around you. In wave four the aliens disguise themselves as humans and under the pretext of helping what’s left of humanity start again, they round up all the survivors in camps. And that’s where this movie begins as we follow 16-year-old Cassie Sullivan and her attempts to save her family and while running into an old crush … who may or may not be an alien! It sounds fascinating, in a sick sort of way. Chloë Grace Moretz stars, along with Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, and Ron Livingston.
Dirty Grandpa – Sometimes even legends have to pay the rent. I think that might explain why Robert DeNiro is showing up in this comedy by longtime Sasha Baron Cohen collaborator Dan Mazer. Zac Efron plays a severely repressed corporate lawyer and the grandson of DeNiro. When the film opens Zac is one week away from marrying his prim and proper girlfriend when tragedy strikes: his grandmother has just died. Being a good grandson Zac offers to help his rough-around-the-edges grandfather with the grieving process. I kinda guessed it would be a road movie in which grandfather and grandson bond and each learns a life lesson from the other. Wrong! Little does Zac know that DeNiro is a foul-mouthed old coot and he tricks Zac into driving him to spring break in Miami so that he, DeNiro, can get lucky with one (or many) of the bodacious undergrads. In the trailer I saw, a near naked Efron is dancing in a frat house and crowing: “I just smoked crack!” Maybe it’s time we hold a telethon for DeNiro.
The Finest Hours – Not content with just being cold, The Finest Hours tosses into the mix the added fun of being sopping wet! This wintry and watery tale is based on a book from 2009 that was sorta/kinda based on a true life event. It’s 1952 and a horrifying blizzard (naturally) strikes off the coast of Cape Cod (obviously.) There’s an oil tanker out there caught in the middle of it and is cleft in twain, leaving more than 30 sailors trapped on the half that has only hours to remain afloat. A handful of very dedicated Coast Guard men (four, to be exact) set out in a small boat to rescue them. Chris Pine stars with Eric Bana and Carey Affleck. Craig Gillespie directs from a screenplay by Scott Silver, Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy. The Finest Hours is being released by Disney in regular format, Disney Digital 3-D, RealD3D and IMAX3D. If they had any guts, they’d make the theaters turn the air conditioning all the way up and every 20 minutes or so have ushers run down the aisles throwing buckets of water on the audience.
Jane Got a Gun – Natalie Portman plays a loving wife living in the wild west who turns to her ex-lover for help tracking down the band of desperadoes who have killed her husband. Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich and Ewan McGregor co-star. The real drama of Jane Got a Gun took place behind the scenes however. The original director was Lynne Ramsay with Portman and Michael Fassbender set to star. When he dropped out because of X-Men conflicts however Edgerton was recast in his role and Jude Law signed on to take Edgerton’s role. A week later Ramsay was fired and Gavin O’Connor took her place. But the next day Law left the movie saying he had signed on to work with Ramsay. Bradley Cooper took Law’s role, but then he dropped out because of American Hustle conflicts and was replaced by McGregor. The film was originally set to be released in August of 2014 but was pushed back a few times… and then the studio went bankrupt! The Weinstein Company picked up the distribution rights and now, finally, the film will see the light of day.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy – One Theater … to See Them All.” Here’s your chance to spend a few days watching the cinematic event of the early aughts. Peter Jackson (and half the population of New Zealand) were rightly lauded for this three-part film adaptation of the J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy adventure novels “Fellowship of the Rings,” “The Two Towers,” and “Return of the King.” Hollywood Theater will be showing one each day (the 3-ish hour theatrical release versions, not the 5 hours-plus extended director’s cuts.) Jackson and company did “epic” like it hadn’t been done in years and although the story itself is slightly goofy, the trilogy is a masterpiece of filmmaking. (And let’s just pretend those Hobbit sequels never happened.) Elijah Wood and Sean Austin are Frodo and Samwise, with Viggo Mortensen, Ian (“You Shall Not Pass!”) McKellen, Ian Holm, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and Cate Blanchett. (January 1-7)
Night of the Hunter – The only film Charles Laughton ever directed and considered by many to be the greatest non-Hitchcock thriller ever made. Robert Mitchum plays a con man and murderer, pretending to be a preacher, who marries recently widowed Shelley Winters because he’s sure she, or her two children, know where her bank robber husband hid his last stash before he was executed … and he’ll do whatever it takes to find out. Excellent performances all around, especially Lillian Gish as Miss Cooper, stylish and eerie cinematography and a screenplay by Davis Grubb from the James Agee novel have made Night of the Hunter one of the best under appreciated films—well that and the iconic tattoos on Mitchum’s knuckles. (January 9-10)
Carol – Currently sweeping the indie film circuit and scooping up a number of prizes in the process, Carol is based on the novel The Price of Salt written by Patricia Highsmith. The author was known for her psychological thrillers (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) but had to release this lesbian love story under a different name and through a different publisher. Rooney Mara plays a young New York student, Therese, who meets and falls under the spell of Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, a socialite trapped in a loveless marriage The relationship between Carol and Therese deepens and pretty soon Carol’s husband is threatening to divorce her and stopping her from seeing her children. Todd Haynes is the director, Phyllis Nagy the screenwriter and the film also stars Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson and Carrie Brownstein. (Opens January 15)
Where to Invade Next – Michael Moore’s first documentary in six years; Capitalism: A Love Story was the last, with Sicko, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 some of his other previous titles. In his latest Moore examines some of America’s social and economic problems-wealth inequality, children’s health, women’s rights, etc. and wonders how such issues are dealt with around the globe. He and his film crew “invade” various countries and learn how other nations have approached (and solved) what some people in America see as problems without any solution. If nothing else, it should keep some of the talking heads on Fox News chattering away for the next few months. (Opens January 15)
Hitchcock/Truffaut – In 1962 a firebrand director/critic of French filmmaking, François Truffaut, spent a week in the United States interviewing Alfred Hitchcock. They covered Hitchcock’s general thoughts on the art and craft of filmmaking as well as examining all of Hitchcock’s films, one by one. The conversations were edited into book form and “Hitchcock/Truffaut” was released in 1966 and, almost from the date of publication, became an essential work for cineastes the world over. And now documentarian Kent Jones takes a new look at the book and those interviews. Jones plays sections from the actual recordings in which Hitch and François discuss particular sequences … as those sequences are shown on the screen. It’s sort of like the two of them doing a DVD commentary track. Jones has also interviewed a host of directors—Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese (and others) who talk about the influence Hitchcock had on their careers and how the book helped form their notion of “cinema.” (Regent Square Theater. Opens January 1.)
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict – Some rich people collect vintage cars, other rich folk run people over with their truck and flee to Mexico with their mother and some rich people mount a self-financed run for the presidency. Not Peggy Guggenheim. Born in 1898 Manhattan into the filthy rich Guggenheim family, Peggy made clear she destined for a different path. By the age of 22 she had left America and traveled the world in search of the latest writers, painters and thinkers of the 20th century. And she found almost all of them, supported several and slept with most of them. Her real focus was modern art and by the late 1940’s had what is considered to be one of the most important collections of modern work in the entire world. She eventually settled in Venice in 1949 and built the Guggenheim Art Museum to house her collection. (It remains the one of the most visited sites in Venice.) Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Kandinsky, Alexander Calder, Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Jackson Pollock are just a few of the people who existed, one way or another, in Guggenheim’s world. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland has created a new documentary examining the life, times and legacy of this remarkable woman. (Harris Theater. Opens January 23.)
The Hateful Eight – Row House will be showing the 70mm version and it is the only film they are showing for the first two weeks of the month. Quentin Tarantino writes and directs this violent Western set in the same time period and cinematic universe as his 2012 violent Western Django Unchained. In a bitter Wyoming winter Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a bounty hunter bringing deranged hellcat murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh to the big city where she’ll be hanged. They decide to stop at a remote cabin where they meet up with a bunch of reprobates played by, among others Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins. Soon enough the blizzard strikes and all of them, each with a reason to want the other dead, are trapped inside. Tarantino has been making the publicity rounds letting everyone know that he’s filmed the movie in anamorphic 70mm with the same camera lenses used to shoot Ben-Hur. You’d think he did it to capture the frozen tundra of Wyoming–but early viewers are questioning why nearly two-and-a-half of this film’s three hours takes place inside one room. Considering that it’s Tarantino, I guess he just wanted to make sure you got a good look at the blood and viscera. (January 1-14.)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.