What has good people being bad, bad people being worse, superheroes being bad to each other, a six-foot rabbit and a cinema institution turning 90? May Movie Madness in Pittsburgh! Here’s a sneak peek at what’s on offer this month with films listed by release date, followed by a sampling from the local independent houses.
Captain America: Civil War – Well, they’ve run out of villains! As in the recent Batman v. Superman, the fine folks at Marvel Studios are now turning their heroes against one other. It’s like a skin rash run amok! In this little photoplay, the government is trying to pass something called the “Anti-Hero Registration Act” meant to curb the doings of superheroes who have, on our behalf, rid the planet of evil-doers but, in the process, left cities desolate in their wake. It turns out us mere mortals just don’t understand what a hard job saving the world on a daily basis is. Some of our costumed crusaders are cool with the law; Iron Man, Black Panther, Black Widow, and Spiderman to name a few. Others, however, are perfectly furious!; including Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and Winter Soldier. So these two groups fight a bunch of CGI battles with each other in (according to internet pre-reviews) parking lots around the globe. I think the actual battle is going to be between the special effects department and the agents of this roster of movie stars—Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Daniel Brühl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Slattery, Alfre Woodard, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany, John Slattery, and Hope Davis. It’s two-and-a-half hours long, which means that each of those actors will only get, on average, eight minutes screen time. Although, when I think about it, that still much be too much.
The Lobster – Now here’s a film to bring up when people say there’s only ten basic plots. Set in the near future, The Lobster tells the lighthearted tale of what’s going to start happening to single people all too soon. By law they will be taken to a place called “The Hotel,” and shut up inside the joint where they have 45 days to find a mate. And get a load of this—if they don’t find someone, they’re turned into animals and released into the woods! You have to wonder what sort of life writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has lived that he could think up of a story like this, with the help of co-writer Efthymis Filippou. Lanthimos, one of the players in the new Greek Weird Wave Cinema, is the director of the cult hit Dogtooth. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star, along with Olivia Colman and Jessica Barden, which fairly begs the question—if Farrell and Weisz can’t find willing partners in less than 45 days, what chance do the rest of us have?
Money Monster – Jodie Foster takes on her fourth directorial assignment with this narrative look at the financial meltdown of 2008. George Clooney plays the host of a cable financial television show (think Jim Cramer and Mad Money) a bombastic, insufferable narcissist always happy to pimp the latest Wall Street “can’t lose” offering. Jack O’Connell is a regular investor (a.k.a. sucker) who fell for Clooney’s pitch and, eventually, lost everything when the stock mysteriously tanked. He bursts into the studio where Clooney and his producer, played by Julia Roberts, are broadcasting live and threatens to blow himself up (along with everyone in the building) unless he gets answers regarding the financial chicanery. The movie plays out in real-time as the principals seek to undercover the truth. Giancarlo Esposito and Dominic West also star.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising – You know what? For one reason or another I never got around to seeing the 2014 comedy Neighbors. In case you were out of town that weekend, the film starred Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a couple with a newborn child moving into a new neighborhood … unaware that right next door was a frat house lorded over by Zac Efron. The couple began a protracted war with the frat boys to see who would control the neighborhood. The film was a critical disaster but, of course, a box office bonanza so a sequel was rushed into the works. This time Rogen and Byrne, thinking that since they got rid of Efron and his boys, they’re on Easy Street, get new neighbors … a sorority!!! (How do they think up these things?) And those girls are even worse than the boys. So Rogen contacts his old nemesis, Efron, to join forces and get the young women to leave. Chloë Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow, and Ike Barinholtz lend their own skills to what is sure to become one of the greatest comedies about young couples fighting sororities/fraternities in their neighborhood.
The Nice Guys – Of course it’s lunacy to judge movies by their trailers, but the promo for The Nice Guys is getting huge buzz and people are predicting big things for this match-up of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two low-lifes trying to solve a crime in 1970’s Los Angeles. Shane Black directs, from a script he wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi, and it’s described as a mystery action comedy buddy film. Not a lot of them around. Gosling is a down-on-his-luck private investigator who teams up (reluctantly) with a snarling enforcer played by Crowe. The two begin looking into the death of a faded porn star and their investigation unearths a national, if not international, conspiracy. Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Ty Simpkins, Margaret Qualley, and Keith David also show up. The R rating might limit the box office appeal, (Hollywood hates R-rated comedies) but advance word is hugely positive and both Crowe and Gosling are favorites in the industry.
Alice Through the Looking Glass – Once upon a time a man whose real name was Charles Dodgson wrote, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, two of the greatest books in the language: Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. The works still astound in their unbound whimsy and staggering imagination. But for some reason that wasn’t good enough for Tim Burton who, in 2010, directed a version of Wonderland which thanks to his, well let’s be nice and call it “aesthetic,” turned it into a pointless display of special effects and needless scenes of combat and bloodshed. That’s Tim! So now comes Burton’s version of Looking Glass. He’s not the director this time around, that would be James Bobin, but he is producer and this one, with returning stars Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, and many more, appears to be just more of the same. You’re free to make up your own mind of course, but if you’re looking for me I’ll be at home reading a good book.
X-Men Apocalypse – You thought mutants weren’t a thing until 2000 when Bryan Singer directed the first in the X-Men franchise? Well think again! Mutants have been around since the beginning of civilization … specifically a mutant named Apocalypse. He may be immortal and invincible but even demi-gods need a rest so he settles down for a nap—and doesn’t wake up for a thousand years. When he does he looks around and, like so many of us after a long sleep, is disgusted by the world. So comic book movies being what they are, he decides to kill all the regular people (a.k.a. “non mutants.”) As per usual, Magneto is up for some human hunting so he, with more mutants-gone-bad, join Apocalypse in his quest. And, also per, Dr. Xavier and the nice mutants take it upon themselves to get rid of Apocalypse and his gang … and oh! the CGI battles which ensue. Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy star, along with Oscar Isaac, Olivia Munn, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, and Hugh Jackman.
Born to Be Blue – Jazz music, as everyone knows, is famous for it’s improvisational riffs. Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau fittingly uses that idea in his take on the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, which he describes as “semi-factual, semi-fictional.” Baker was a leading exponent of West Coast cool jazz and who, thanks to his good looks and musical talents, became one of the biggest musicians in the 1950’s. By the end of that decade, however, he was a hopeless, dedicated heroin addict whose legal troubles were legendary. In the 60’s, allegedly during a drug-buy-gone-wrong, Baker was beaten up and his attackers kicked in his front teeth, destroying his embouchure and ending his career. But thanks to new dentures and rediscovery by critics, he had a late career revival until his death at 58. Budreau, along with Ethan Hawke playing Baker, presents that story with lots of riffs and wildly invented scenes which are delighting film fans but infuriating Baker fans. It’s no wonder the movie has not been “authorized” by the Baker estate. (Harris Theater. May 6-12)
Elstree 1976 – What would life be like if you where part of modern civilization’s most monumental cultural touchstone … but nobody knew? That’s the story behind this Jon Spira-directed documentary. The Elstree of the title is the name of the legendary film studio in London; It’s where Alfred Hitchcock got his start in the 20’s, James Bond movies where shot there, as were a bunch of Hammer horror films, the original “Avengers” TV series, The Shining, Raiders of the Lost Ark and a slew more. In 1976 production started on a film which would ultimately change movies and revolutionize the film industry: Star Wars. This documentary visits with a handful of extras and bit players who were in the movie but covered by costumes, lost in crowd scenes or only on-screen for a few seconds. Some have stayed in the business, some have not, but all have the distinction of being a (very tiny) part of cinema history. Spira interviews them about their experience on the film, getting behind-the-scenes information and finding out what they’ve done with their lives since. Show biz sure is a heartless profession. (Harris Theater. May 13-19)
The Family Fang – Marking his second turn as a feature film director Justin Bateman helms this David Lindsay-Abaire screenplay of Kevin Wilson’s bestselling 2011 novel. And nobody is going to accuse Bateman of picking “easy” material. Caleb and Camille Fang are artists whose “work” involved filming (and embarrassing) their children, Annie and Buster, who were forced to take part in interactive public performance art pieces. Well the kids have grown up and, not surprisingly, are estranged from Mom and Dad. Annie is a Hollywood actress and Buster a writer. Their careers, however, start to take a turn for the worse … just as news reaches them their folks are missing and assumed dead. So Annie and Buster go off in search of their parents … and themselves. Bateman plays Buster, Nicole Kidman is Annie with Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett as Caleb and Camille. It’s a black comedy featuring a heavy dose of melancholy. But don’t let that stop you, if the thought of Walken playing a performance artist doesn’t intrigue, then you got problems. (May 6-12)
The Third Man – Let’s all join hands and sing “Happy Birthday” to the Hollywood Theater in Dormont which is turning 90 years old! (It’s also the five-year anniversary of that theater becoming a nonprofit.) It’s a remarkable feat for an independent movie house and they’re pulling out all the stops with this one-night only event. Your host for the evening is local-boy-makes-good David Conrad, best known for his starring role in the TV series “Ghost Whisperer” opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt. Conrad has selected to screen the 1949 classic noir The Third Man starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Trevor Howard. Carol Reed was the director, Graham Greene the writer and it’s all about some seriously morally compromised people doing some very unsavory things in post-WWII Vienna. In addition to the film, the jazz ensemble Tom Roberts & Friends will be on hand to provide more entertainment. There’s also food, prizes and a fund-raising raffle. Happy birthday Hollywood! (May 14, 7pm)
Love & Friendship – What’s that? You adore Jane Austen but if you see one more protracted courtship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy you’re going to scream? You refuse to be held accountable for your actions if you’ve got to witness John Dashwood cheat his mother and half sisters out of their inheritance? Can’t stand the thought of Emma messing up the lives of everyone around her one more time? Yes, Austen was an astonishingly brilliant writer, but only six of her novels were published in her lifetime … and all of them have been filmed and filmed again. What’s a dedicated Janeite to do? (As her more rabid fans style themselves.) There’s hope on the horizon with this film written and directed by Whit Stillman. It’s a comedy based on one of Austen’s earliest works, a short epistolary novel called Lady Susan, and it’s about a woman of society with the morals of a snake. The film reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny who last appeared together in Stillman’s 1998 drama The Last Days of Disco. Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, and Tom Bennett also star. Janeites rejoice! (Opens May 27)
A Bigger Splash – Okay, here’s a question: Does Dakota (50 Shades of Grey) Johnson ever make a movie in which she keeps her clothes on? Because she doesn’t in A Bigger Splash. But then, in her defense, none of the leads in the movie do, and that means you get to see Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Ralph Fiennes being unscrupulous to one another in a gorgeous villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria wearing nothing but what the good Lord gave them. So I know what you’re asking: How in the world did we all end up here? Swinton plays a rock star who goes to the island to recover after throat surgery, bringing along her filmmaker lover Schoenaerts. They’re toasting nicely in the Mediterranean sun … until Fiennes shows up as Swinton’s former lover and record producer, and he’s brought along his teenage daughter played by Johnson. It’s all kisses and smiles until people start doing things they shouldn’t be doing with people they shouldn’t be doing them with. It’s mind-games and mayhem and then—well I don’t want to give it away. Just know that it’s being billed as an “erotic thriller.” Luca Guadagnino directs from a David Kajganich screenplay which in turn is based on the 1969 Alain Delon/Romy Schneider French film La Piscine. (Opens May 27)
Harvey – It’s almost never done anymore (except for the occasional summer theater) but in it’s day Mary Chase’s 1944 play Harvey was just about the most popular comedy on Broadway, running for 1,775 performances (in an era when six months was considered a record-breaking.) The play actually won the Pulitzer Prize, beating out—unbelievably—Tennessee Williams’ classic drama The Glass Menagerie. (Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about awards.) It concerns an easy-going guy named Elwood P. Dowd whom everybody loves, but there’s just one problem; he never goes anywhere without his best friend, a six-foot tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. Most of the play is about people conspiring to get him committed into a sanitarium—until they begin to notice just how the idea of Harvey has brightened their lives. The play then went on to even greater levels of fame when it was turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 1950 starring Indiana, PA’s own Jimmy Stewart. It was a huge commercial and artistic success … here’s your chance to find out what all the fuss is about. (May 13-19)
Shadow of a Doubt – Everyone has their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. (Or films.) But what was Hitchcock’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film? His 1943 noir thriller Shadow of a Doubt. And all I can say is that Hitchcock sure had good taste. Set in Santa Rosa, CA, Shadow is the story of an American family and town… if not the quintessential American family and town. Thorton Wilder wrote the screenplay—and as the author of Our Town knew a thing or two about small burgs. The happy, contented family at the center of the movie is in for a shock when the mother’s brother, played by Joseph Cotten, shows up out of the blue saying he needs a rest from the rigors of the big city. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s a serial killer trying to evade the police. His niece, Teresa Wright in a career-defining performance, is a young woman who has spent her life idolizing her uncle—but over the course of the film comes to see he’s evil and that she must try to stop him. It’s not your typical Hitchcock film with mind-blowing scenes of cinematic marvels, it’s a calm, steady movie where dread and fear builds inexorably to a heartbreaking ending. A must-see. (May 27-June 2)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic