May Cinema Preview: Mirth and Mayhem

Welcome to the Merry Month of May in Cinema Land … although considering that we’re coming into Special Effects season, I’m not sure “merry” is the correct adjective. Perhaps the Mayhem and Merchandise-Tie-In Month of May might be better. Hollywood’s starting to unfurl it’s tent-pole movies, but if your filmic diet needs more, here’s a rundown of what’s on the menu of the big houses and local independent screens.

The movies are previewed in order of their national opening dates …

May 1

The Avengers: The Age of Ultron – The whole world wants to know: “Who is Ultron?” Well, this weekend the whole world is going to find out. Ultron is a giant intergalactic ATM from which Marvel Studios is hoping to withdraw at least as much as the $1 billion they made from the last Avengers movie.

Just kidding! Ultron is a villainous robot brought to life when Tony (Iron Man) Stark makes a big boo-boo in his lab. All your favorites are back: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner (Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye) as well as newcomers-to-the-franchise James Spader, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as various good/bad guys/gals. And before I forget, Samuel L. Jackson also shows up as Nick Fury. Even if each only gets 10 minutes of screen time, that’s a two hour film right there. Joss Whedon returns as writer and director.


May 8

5 Flights Up – A very New York love story/comedy starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a longtime married couple who, no longer able to bound up the eponymous stairs to their Brooklyn apartment as they did in their limber youth start looking around for a new place to live. House hunting in the Big Apple is a horror movie to begin with – toss in Cynthia Nixon as a prototypical hard-driving realtor, a sick dog, a possible terrorist plot and, well, as Cindy Adams used to say “Only in New York, kids.”


The D Train — Poor Dan Landsman … all his life he’s been a nobody. He’s got a boring job, not a whole lot of friends and winds up in charge of putting together his high school reunion. Quickly realizing that attendance is going to be dismally low, Dan develops a plan! A former classmate, Oliver Lawless, is now a TV commercial actor and Dan is certain that if Oliver shows up everyone else will, too. The problem – how to get Oliver there. A qualified success at this year’s Sundance Festival, the film stars Jack Black and James Marsden … and has a soon-to-be-talked about plot twist which I don’t dare mention.


Hot Pursuit – Another in Hollywood’s newest genre, the female buddy movie. In this one Reese Witherspoon plays an uptight, by-the-book cop who winds up the police escort for the wife of a drug kingpin (played by Sofia Vergara). The two hate each other like poison but because they’re being chased by both the baddies and the goodies, they realize, through their comic misadventures, near escapes and all around hijinks, that they have more in common than they thought. Ahhhhh, that’s sweet.


May 15

Mad Max: Fury Road — Heads must have rolled in Hollywood when studio executives realized that someone had allowed the Mad Max franchise to go dormant for 30 years. You just know somebody lost their job because of that glaring oversight. So original writer/director George Miller returns to bring us this story of a post-apocalyptic world where evil, vicious people drive around the desert in repurposed cars looking to kill people. The title character, having lost his wife and children to these monsters, wants to be left alone – but a woman named Imperator Furiosa needs Max to lead her out of the desert. Tom Hardy takes over the role which made Mel Gibson an international star way back in 1979. If Furious 7 wasn’t loud or violent enough for you, Mad Max might be just the ticket.


Pitch Perfect 2 – As the poster has it, “We’re Back Pitches!” The sequel to the surprise summer hit of 2012. We’re reunited with the college women’s a cappella group “The Barden Bellas.” Though they triumphed at the first film, they may have bit off more than they can chew when they compete on an international level. What the hell … it’s better than watching cars explode. Anna Kendrick returns as Beca and Rebel Wilson is back as “Fat Amy.” Interestingly, this is the feature film directorial debut of Elizabeth Banks … who you may know as Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games series.


White God — It’s like The Birds … but with dogs! A Hungarian film about a dog, Hagen, who is abandoned when the father of his guardian puts him out on the side of the road. Lila, his little girl owner, sets out to get him back. Hagen goes looking for Lila as well, but along the way becomes a leader of a pack of rebel dogs who rise up and attack humans who mistreat animals. White God was a prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival and the canine cast won the “Palm Dog Award”


May 22

“Far From the Madding Crowd” – You know you can’t escape the upcoming months we’ve got in store of CGI monsters and overpaid movie stars running around in films featuring scripts which seem to have been created by a smart phone app. So give yourself a little treat before the onslaught and consider this latest film adaptation of the classic novel by Thomas Hardy. Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong Victorian woman who inherits a country farm and is soon romanced by three very different men; a sheep farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts,) a policeman (Tom Sturridge) and a wealthy bachelor (Michael Sheen.) I never read the book so I don’t know who she picks … but if it’s not the rich guy she deserves whatever she gets.


Poltergeist – L.A.’s in a tizzy right now trying to figure out who’s gonna be the new Spider-Man … since there hasn’t be a Spider-Man movie released in about the last seven minutes. And yet 32 years have gone by without a remake of this 1982 Steven Spielberg-written horror film (which gave us the classic line “They’re heeeeeeeeere.”) The reboot script is written by Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire and stars Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the quintessential happy suburban parents … until evil spirits enter the house and kidnap their daughter. Those damned evil spirits!


Tomorrowland – When he wasn’t breaking any number of hearts worldwide by getting married last year, George Clooney was also filming this sci-fi fantasy flick. Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) this Disney movie – named after one of the areas in Disneyland – is about a former boy-genius inventor (Clooney) who, years ago, was kicked out of the land in question by a competing boy genius (played as a grown up by Hugh Laurie.) Now a young, gifted teenage girl teams up with Clooney and they set out to travel back to Tomorrowland, but first they need to figure out where it is on the time/space continuum.


May 29

Aloha — A romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski, Bill Murray and Alex Baldwin. Cooper plays a military contractor who, while on the job in Honolulu meets up with an old flame (McAdams) while falling for a new flame (Stone.) It’s written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote and directed Jerry Maguire so if it turns out to be good, I predict a slew of reviews opening with the line “You had me at Aloha.


Insidious: Chapter 3 – First came 2010’s Insidious in which the Lambert family tries to save their son from the clutches of evil spirits. (Those damned evil spirits again!) 2012 brought us Insidious: Chapter 2 where the Lamberts move to another house while the first house is being investigated, only to be pursued by those evil spirits. And now comes Chapter 3; it’s a prequel, starring Dermot Mulroney, which attempts to explain how those spirits got so evil in the first place.


San Andreas – What with all the recent news reports about fracking-caused earthquakes happening around the world this film probably couldn’t be more timely. The long-threatened California earthquake finally occurs and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, playing an L.A. rescue-helicopter pilot, sets out with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) to find their daughter. Also featuring Colton Haynes, Ioan Gruffudd, Paul Giamatti and Kylie Minogue. I’m sure it’s just dandy, but will it stack up against 1974 schlocky celebrity disaster movie Earthquake, about the same San Andreas Fault-based earthquake, starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner and presented in the technical wonder of “Sensurround” in which the theaters cleverly turned up the woofers on the sound system to make movie goers believe they were sitting through an actual disaster. (If you’ve ever seen the film, you know they were.)


Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Planet of the Apes – “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” The 1968 original with Charlton Heston about an astronaut who gets lost in space and ends up on a planet where apes are the primary primates and humans are the slaves. Also starring Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s legendary score and what is probably the most famous and shocking final 10 minutes of any movie ever made. (Regent Square Theater. May 3, 8 p.m.)


Wild Tales – Argentine film nominated as Best Foreign Language Oscar and the winner of a slew of awards from around the world. This black comedy/drama, written and directed by Damián Szifron, is six unconnected short stories about people living on the emotional edge. (Harris Theater. (May 8-13)


The Promised Land – There’s a Pole, a Jew and a German who … no, it’s not the start of a joke, but the plot of one of the selection’s from the “Martin Scorsese Presents Polish Masterpieces” series. This early (1975) film from Andrezej Wajda is the story of three men who decide to build a textile factory in 19th century Lodz and, as they say in the movies, things get complicated. (Harris Theater. May 18-20)


Hollywood Theater

Citizen Kane — Some may rise as others may fall but this Orson Welles directed film is still the one to beat when compiling a list of All Time Greatest Films. Citizen Kane disappeared after it’s initial lackluster 1941 release, partly because William Randolph Hearst, on whom the title character is based, blacked-out any coverage in his nation-wide chain of newspapers. But with the passage of time, and the waning of Hearst’s power, the film eventually acquired it’s reputation as a masterpiece – because of Welles’ direction, Herman Mankiewicz’ script, Bernard Herrmann’s music and, especially, Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking cinematography. Oh, and in case you’re interested, Rosebud turns out to be … a little boy who talks to dead people! (May 6 & 7)

Escape From New York – Special event fundraiser! Hollywood Theater celebrates the fourth anniversary of their re-opening with a showing of a newly restored digital transfer of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic futuristic adventure film about a group of renegades trying to flee a New York which has become a maximum security prison. One of the stars of the film – and Pittsburgh’s own – Tom Atkins will be on hand to talk about his experiences on the movie. Plus food, drinks, auction and live music by The Retro Agents. (May 9, 6 p.m.)


Row House Cinema

Burroughs: The Movie – The 1983 documentary, now digitally restored, about notorious Beat writer William S. Burroughs who, among many other things, wrote Naked Lunch, was a heroin addict and accidentally shot and killed his second wife. The film was made with Burroughs cooperation and features interviews with Lucien Carr, Jackie Curtis, Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith. (May 1-7)


The Craft — Robin Tunney plays the new girl at a Catholic high school who meets up with a bunch of outcasts, only to find out that they’re actually a coven of witches. This 1996 cult favorite is directed by Andrew Fleming and also stars Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True. (May 15-21)

The 39 Steps – One of the films which helped establish Alfred Hitchcock’s international reputation. Though this 1935 film is based on a John Buchan novel, it’s pure Hitchcock from beginning to end; from the wrong-man-on-the-run plot to the urbane witty villain to the first appearance of the icy, sophisticated “Hitchcock Blonde.” Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll star is this comedy thriller that’s nothing but pure bliss. (May 22-28)

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.

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