Spring is just around the corner and as the crocuses start struggling to get their heads above the dirt, Hollywood is desperate to rise above the previous two months of forgettable films and box office disappointments. Now’s the time when the studios start playing their A game and this month features of a number of promising flicks. We’re highlighting a few below, listed by national release date, with a sampling of local independent houses following.
London Has Fallen – The eagerly anticipated sequel to Olympus Has Fallen. Just in case you were hiding out in a yurt searching for the inner you, that 2013 action thriller starred Gerard Butler as a disgraced Secret Service agent who saves the president when a group of North Korean terrorists take over the White House. Here we are three years later and when the British prime minister dies (under very mysterious circumstances) all the important heads of state come to London to attend his funeral. Uh oh—that doesn’t sound very good, does it? In addition to Butler, who is also producing, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, and Melissa Leo return from the first one … plus a whole slew of people you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: this movie about an American hero saving the British public was shot in Bulgaria.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – If you pick which movie you’re going to see based on how interesting the cast is you’ve probably already ordered tickets for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, and Thomas Kretschmann star … and Soledad O’Brien shows up playing herself! The reason all these people got together was to make this film adaptation of a memoir by Kim Barker called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan about her years as a war correspondent. The film’s directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the highly original duo behind such oddball movies as I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and last year’s most underrated film Focus.
Knight of Cups – There was once a writer/director named Terrence Malik who, for a time, seemed to walk on water. In 1973 he made a movie called Badlands and the critics nearly wet themselves. In 1978 he followed that up with Days of Heaven, again with insane critical praise. He didn’t make another film until 1998, The Thin Red Line which, once again, was greeted with hosannas from the cinema cognoscenti. But then something happened to Malik. In 2005 he wrote and directed A New World about the Jamestown, Virginia settlement (you know, Captain Smith and Pocahontas) and, well, while everyone agreed it was a beautiful movie to look it, people complained it was too long and very slow and terribly confusing since much of the time the cast spoke in an extinct Powhatan language. He followed that up with The Tree of Life, about a boy growing up in the 1950’s, intercut with scenes of the Big Bang and dinosaurs roaming the earth. Then came To the Wonder which closed almost immediately after it opened. So now there’s Knight of Cups which is described thus: “A screenwriter living in Los Angeles feels empty. Women provide a distraction to the daily pain he must endure, and every encounter that comes his way brings him closer to finding his place in the world.” What that means in that Christian Bale spends the movie hooking up with six different women, including Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Imogen Poots. Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, and Antonio Banderas are also along for what is sure to be a most singular ride.
10 Cloverfield Lane – It’s an interesting premise. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who is knocked unconscious in a car accident. When she comes to she discovers that she’s deep below ground, in the basement of a man she doesn’t know. His name is Howard Stambler and he’s played by John Goodman. Howard tells her that a monster has unleashed a chemical attack on the surface that has killed all the women over the age of 36. But is that the truth? Or is Howard just a nutjob survivalist who wants to make her his slave? Elizabeth decides to find out. The film is produced by J.J. Abrams who has called it the “spiritual sequel” to Cloverfield, the popular 2008 sci-fi “found footage” film which he also produced. John Gallagher, Jr. also stars.
The Brothers Grimsby – Sacha Baron Cohen (and wrote the screenplay) and Mark Strong play two brothers from the British town of Grimsby. They were separated at birth and Sebastian (Strong) has gone on to become a leading assassin with the British intelligence service, MI6. Nobby (Baron Cohen) on the other hand has turned out … well, just a bit different. He’s a racist, sexist, xenophobic English football hooligan with nine kids, a trashy girlfriend, and an aching desire to find his long-lost brother. Sebastian, obviously, wants no part of him but—and you’ll never guess—a terrorist plot forces him to team up with Nobby to save the world. The laughs, one assumes, never stop. Isla Fisher, Penélope Cruz, Rebel Wilson, Ian McShane, and Rebecca Front also pop up to add more chuckles.
Hello My Name is Doris – Have you had it up to here with movies about, shall we say, mature men who inexplicably managed to romance women young enough to be their grand daughters? Well, the orthopedic pump’s on the other foot with this comedy from Michael Showalter. Something of a legend in the alternative comedy scene, Showalter is the creator behind such TV shows as “Stella” and “The State” as well as Wet Hot American Summer. In this latest movie, Sally Field plays a 60-something mousy office worker who takes a self-help seminar and decides to shake up her life. And in doing so she begins a highly complicated relationship with a 20-something man in her office, played by Max Greenfield. Tyne Daly, Peter Gallagher, Stephen Root also appear. And I don’t want to hear any complaining; if it didn’t bother you when Woody Allen was cradle snatching, it shouldn’t bother you now.
The Divergent Series: Allegiant – Say goodbye to those pangs of need, Summit Pictures is at last releasing the next installment in the “Divergent Series” Allegiant. What, you missed the first two, Divergent and Insurgent? Really, you’ve got to keep up. Based on a young adult sci-fi adventure trilogy by Veronica Roth, it’s the story of a dystopian future (is there any other kind?) in which people are classified into one of five categories based on their personalities—Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. (Already we see I wouldn’t fit into this world because there’s no Bitchy.) Well what do you know but our heroine Tris can’t be classified and so becomes of enemy of the state. And before you can say “Katniss Everdeen” she’s fallen in with a group of rebels hoping to destroy the power structure. (Hmm, I wonder if Bernie Sanders has gotten wind of this?) Hollywood’s taken the three novels, turned them into four movies and Allegiant is the penultimate. I’ve seen the other two but really don’t remember much—it’s all a bunch of cute young actors running around blowing up things. I seem to recall Kate Winslet in one of them playing a villain and getting killed. For this go ‘round—in addition to the series stars Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, and Theo James—Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, and Bill Skarsgård (of the Swedish Skarsgårds) show up for the fun.
Midnight Special – Jeff Nichols has, up until now, written and directed some fairly offbeat independent films, all of which starred Michael Shannon and most had to do with the relationship between fathers and sons. Continuing in that vein, although now he has a studio budget, Nichols returns with this—in film parlance—high concept film about a father (Shannon) who discovers that his son has mystical powers. Unfortunately the government, in the person of Adam Driver, and a religious sect leader play by Sam Shepard find out about it as well … and all of them want to get their hands on this little tyke. So Shannon, along with ex-wife (Kirsten Dunst) and buddy (Joel Edgerton) set off to hide the kid in a secret location while, at the same time, everyone else is trying to catch them.
The Program – For 13 years Irish sports journalist David Walsh fought to bring to light the truth behind cyclist Lance Armstrong; specifically that Armstrong had won the Tour de France seven times by using banned substances. It was a long, hard trek in which people refused to believe what was hiding in plain sight simply because Armstrong was a “hero.” In 2012 the truth was finally recognized and Armstrong was stripped of his titles. Walsh wrote a book about the ordeal—Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. Now Stephen Frears has turned that work into a movie starring Ben Foster as Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd as Walsh. Frears is known for some very interesting films; Philomena, The Queen, The Grifters, My Beautiful Laundrette so here’s hoping.
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice – I know what you’re thinking, aren’t Batman and Superman supposed to be the good guys? What in the world do they have to fight about—cape envy? But I’m sure thousands of fanboys are frantically sending me abusive texts to set me right; in the last Superman, movie Man of Steel, ol’ blue eyes saved the planet but in the process destroyed most of Metropolis and alienated the populace. (People are ungrateful wretches, aren’t they?) Meanwhile somewhere in Gotham City Batman is watching and starts to worry that Superman is getting a little too big for his spandex britches. So for reasons that only make sense if you work in the film industry, the two start fighting with each other. Need more? Lex Luthor shows up with a new killing machine so Clark and Bruce have to kiss and make up and give Lex the heave-ho … with the help of Wonder Woman. (Oh, did I forget to mention that Wonder Woman’s in it too?) It may sound like a bunch of hooey, but heavens they’ve certainly lined up a cast of heavy hitters: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Shannon, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Laurence Fishburne. If you ask me, the real superhero is the poor schmuck who drew up all those contracts.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2—Now this is what you call “counter programming.” Here’s a film that’s the complete opposite of Batman vs. Superman. Cast your mind back to 2002 and the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a tiny independent Canadian-American romantic comedy about a young woman from a very strong-willed, close-knit Greek clan, Toula, who goes and falls in love with Ian, a non-Greek WASP, leading to no end of complications with her family. Made on a budget of $5 million, the film grossed in it’s first year of release $242 million, making it one of the most profitable films of all times. Over the years, writer and star Nia Vardalos has hinted at a sequel and now she delivers. The marriage of Toula and Ian has hit a rough patch just as their teen-aged daughter Paris is dealing with troubles of her own. But things go from bad to even worse when a long-hidden family secret gets aired and everybody’s in crisis. Returning from the first movie are Vardalos, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, and Andrea Martin. New to the series are Elena Kampouris, John Stamos, Rita Wilson, and Joey Fatone.
Shaft – Who’s the cat that won’t cop out/When there’s danger all about?/Shaft, right on/They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother—Shut your mouth! And with those immortal lyrics from Isaac Hayes the 1971 blaxploitation classic rolled into view on American movie screens. Richard Roundtree plays a private dick roaming the streets of Harlem in search of a kidnapped daughter of a black mobster … and leaving very little alive in his wake. The film was a huge, instant success which saved MGM from bankruptcy, spawned two sequels, a TV show, and won Hayes the Oscar for Best Song. Directed by the legendary Gordon Parks, in 2000 the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected the movie for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” (March 11)
Creative Control – A thinly veiled attack on the brave new world of technology, this sci-fi feature is directed by, stars, and is written (with the help of Micah Bloomberg) by indie darling Benjamin Dickinson. A hipster techo outfit in Brooklyn (where else?) has come up with a rival to Google Glass. Charged with finding uses for the glasses (called “Augmenta”) ad exec David (Dickinson) soon realizes that he can superimpose the faces of women in his office on the body of porn actresses. Pretty soon he’s having a torrid (simulated) affair with his best friend’s girlfriend. In no time at all David’s ability to discern the difference between reality and virtual reality has disappeared. Here’s my question, why don’t these techno-geeks spend their energy on an invention that would really help … like coming up with a content generating device which writes copy for entertainment web sites? (March 18-23)
The Club – I don’t put a lot of stock into the Academy Awards, but I was very happy to see that Spotlight won Best Picture … since I think it’s the best movie made in the last five years. Some folks have complained that the movie persecutes the Catholic Church for their actions in the child sexual abuse scandal. Heaven only knows what they’ll think of The Club. This Chilean film from the incendiary director Pablo Larraín tells the story of four priests who’ve been excommunicated for various crimes (most of which involve children). They’ve been sent to a small beach town to live incognito and purge their sins. Their past catches up with them, however, and Larraín lets the Church have it with both barrels for the past 40 years of silence. They’ve labeled it a black comedy but it sounds to me as if that’s the only funny thing about the movie. The film won the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival and was Chile’s entry for Foreign Language Oscar. Pass the smelling salts. (Harris Theater. Opens March 11)
The Princess Bride – “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours.” “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!” And, of course, “ … as you wish.” Aficionados will immediate recognize these lines from the 1987 Rob Reiner directed classic comedy The Princess Bride. Set in the mythical land of Florin, the story concerns two love birds (Robin Wright and Cary Elwes) and the motley assortment of ne-er-do-wells who contrive to separate them. William Goldman adapted the screenplay from his 1973 novel and though, initially, the film was only a modest success, it’s gone on to become one of the most beloved (and quoted) comedies of all times. Thanks in no small part to the knock-out cast including Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, Carol Kane, Billy Crystal, and a score by Mark Knopfler. (Regent Square. March 27)
Escape From New York – Come along with me to 1981 where we’ll visit a futuristic 1997. Confused? Then you’ve never seen the John Carpenter action film Escape from New York. Following on the success of the first Halloween, in 1981 Carpenter was given the green light to film this sci-fi story set in the dystopian future (is there any of kind?) of 1997. The country is so overrun with crime that the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. One fateful night Air Force One crashes and the island prisoners capture the president. Enter Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, an ex-soldier given 22 hours to find and extract the president. A physically grueling shoot, the movie was filmed in the burned-out city of East St. Louis Illinois with a (at the time) minuscule budget. But it was a huge success and cemented Russell’s Hollywood cred. In addition to Russell, you’ll catch some outrageous scenery chewing by Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Pittsburgh’s own, the great Tom Atkins. Fun facts: Though Carpenter wrote the screenplay, he brought in Nick Castle to punch up the script with some jokes. Castle has just played Mike Myers in Halloween. And the matte paintings of the background landscapes were created by none other than James “I’m king of the world!” Cameron. (March 4-10)
Galaxy Quest – There’s no better way to honor the memory of the brilliant actor Alan Rickman than catching his stellar performance in the 1999 comedy cult classic Galaxy Quest—an outrageously funny piss-take on the Star Trek TV series and movies and their rabid fan base. We meet a group of out-of-work actors still living on the fumes of their cancelled sci-fi television show. Tim Allen is the narcissistic William Shatner-type leading man thoroughly despised by his fellow cast members, Sigourney Weaver played the buxom Lt. Madison, whose only job was to wear tight tops and repeat the ship’s computer. And the glorious Rickman, in a role modeled on Leonard Nimoy, played a lizard-like alien doctor but, in fact, was a classically trained actor who blames the TV show for his wasted career. This crew, along with Tony Shalhoub and Daryl Mitchell are now reduced to haunting Comi-Cons and mall openings. Meanwhile, in outer space, a doomed race of aliens have picked up transmissions of the old show which they misinterpret as documentaries. This alien race is being systematically slaughtered by a really evil monster so they come to earth in hopes of convincing the cast from the TV show (whom they believe to be actual astronauts) to help destroy their enemies. There’s laughs around every corner of this movie … and none are funnier than Rickman unfurling his curdled voice and imperious manner and sinking his molars into comedy gold. (March 11-17)
The Maltese Falcon – When they talk about classic Hollywood films, the chances are good they’re talking about The Maltese Falcon. Based on a novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, this was the directorial debut of John Huston and is now considered one of the first film noirs ever made. In an iconic performance, Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, the archetypal “hard-boiled dick” hired by the classic “hard-boiled dame” (played by Mary Astor) to find her sister. Or is she? Nothing’s what it seems and nobody’s got more morals than you can shake a stick at and along the way Bogey meets up with three of filmdoms shadiest lowlifes, played by Sydney Greenstein, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Supposedly they’re all after an infamous statue, the eponymous bird encrusted with gold and jewels. But even the film’s fans readily admit that the script doesn’t really make much sense. Not that it matters, this is the Golden Age of Hollywood at it’s best. (March 25-31.)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.