The days may be getting shorter, but the list of films vying for an Academy Award gets considerably longer in November. We’re nearing the deadline for Oscar noms, so the studios are bringing out the big guns this month; important pictures, hard-hitting dramas and star performances designed to make everyone sit up and take notice. Below are some of the highlights of this month’s releases. Local, independent movie houses are listed below.
Miss You Already – A throwback to what used to be called a “woman’s picture”, this looks like a Beaches for a new millennium. Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette star as two women who’ve been friends from childhood. Inseparable since, their friendship is severely tested as the two hit middle age and life gets in the way. Jess (Barrymore) and her husband Kit, played by Dominic Cooper, finally conceive a much longed-for child at the same time that Milly (Collette) is diagnosed with cancer. Paddy Considine also stars, along with a rare appearance by Jacqueline Bisset. Catherine Hardwicke directs this four-hankie weeper.
Spectre – This is the last time Daniel Craig will be appearing as James Bond. (Or, rather, he said in a recent interview that the only way he’d play Bond again is if they paid him a lot of money. Considering that he got $17 million for Skyfall, exactly how much does he consider “a lot” to be?) This time around Bond is investigating an evil, secret group known as SPECTRE. Meanwhile on the home front, British politicians are trying to shut down the Secret Service. Christoph Waltz is the villain, with Ralph Fiennes as “M,” Ben Whishaw as “Q” and Andrew Scott as “C.” (I’m not making that up.) Sam Mendes, the director of Skyfall, returns as well.
The 33 – On August 5, 2010 near Copiapó in Chile, the San José Mine copper/gold mine collapsed and entombed 33 miners. It was 17 days before the miners were discovered to still be alive and another two months before they could be rescued. It was a news story that circled the globe and the whole world followed the rescue efforts. And now comes the movie version with an international cast including Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne and Bob Gunton.
By the Sea – Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt star in this romantic drama … written and directed by Jolie. The two haven’t appeared together in a movie since 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith – it was on that shoot they met and fell in love. This time they’re playing a married couple in the 1970’s. She’s a former dancer and he’s a writer and the two have been going through a few rough patches. As a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage they take a vacation in out-of-the-way European towns where in one they encounter eccentric villagers. Don’t know if it’ll be any good, but they’re beautiful and it was filmed in Malta, which is also beautiful, so if nothing else it’ll be a good-looking movie.
Love the Coopers – I was recently in a store looking to purchase balloons for a Halloween party I was hosting … and had to shove the Christmas decorations out-of-the-way to get to them! I’m convinced the day after Christmas is soon going to be considered the start of the next Christmas shopping season. If that makes you happy and you’re one of those people who thinks Christmas doesn’t come soon enough, you’ll definitely want to check out this ensemble comedy film about four generations of the Cooper family who come together for Christmas and discover, even with all the family drama and whatnot, there’s no place like home for the holidays. With Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei, John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Anthony Mackie, Alan Arkin, and Ed Helms. The film, incidentally, was shot here in Pittsburgh—let’s hope it meets a better fate than the most recent Pittsburgh-lensed film The Last Witch Hunter.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 – When last we left our heroine Katniss Everdeen she and other leaders of the rebellion where planning their siege on the Capitol and President Snow. At least I think so. I’ve seen all the earlier movies but can’t really remember what happened in each. I’m pretty sure that in Part 1 a bunch of people in oatmeal colored shifts were hiding out in a bunker while fighter jets were bombing them. I guess in this one they come outside and, judging from the trailer I saw, follow Katniss in her quest to bring down the empire. Closing out the franchise are Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Jena Malone, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and, in one of his last performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Legend – This movie, with Oscar-bait written all over it, is a biopic about twin brothers Reggie and Ronald Kray. Forgotten now, the Krays were a famous part of the Swinging London scene in the 1960’s and hobnobbed with all the big celebrities of the day. Ronnie, who was bisexual, was involved in a few scandals when it came out he was sleeping with a couple of politicians. But the Krays had another, much darker, side—they were vicious criminals involved in robberies, protection rackets, assaults and cold-blooded murder. This movie tells their story from the viewpoint of Reggie’s wife Frances and follows Reggie’s struggle to control the feral Ronnie, who was declared legally insane in 1979. But why Oscar-bait? Because through the miracle of modern movie magic Tom Hardy is playing both brothers … the Academy eats that stuff up!
Secret in Their Eyes – The winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was El secreto de sus ojos. An Argentine film set against the backdrop of the 1970’s “Dirty War,” this crime thriller involved one-time lovers obsessed by a horrific murder committed years ago and led to a surprising and shocking climax. And now Hollywood is having a go with this remake written and directed by Billy Ray. The story’s been reconfigured somewhat and features Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts as FBI investigators and Nicole Kidman as a District Attorney. The three are devastated when the child of one of them is brutally murdered. Years later they come together to close the investigation, which leads to—we hope —a surprising and shocking climax. Dean Norris and Michael Kelly also star.
The Danish Girl – Will Eddie Redmayne win back-to-back Oscars, having won last year for The Theory of Everything and now for playing Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in this Tom Hooper directed adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel? This is the kind of role that Academy Awards were invented for. The movie concerns one of the first people known to have sex reassignment surgery in the world. In 1904, Danish artist Wegener married fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb and the two settled down as painters. Soon Gerda was painting Einar dressed up as a woman named Lili and the popularity of those paintings made Lili famous. Einar would eventually undergo experimental surgery and transition to Lili. In the film, Matthias Schoenaerts shows up as a guy who’s fallen in love with Lili … and you can guess it gets pretty messy from there. The film also features Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw.
Victor Frankenstein – Were you of the opinion that since, according to IMDB, there are 200 films, TV movies and shows about Mary Shelley’s creation there was nothing left to say? You simply don’t understand how Hollywood works. While normal people might see that 200 and think “enough’s enough already,” film people (in this case script writer Max Landis, son of John) say “if 200’s good, then 201 is better!” And so in this version Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor Strausman, a man with a tragic past, who is befriended by and then becomes assistant to Dr. Victor Frankenstein (played by James McAvoy). Together the two men make a human figure and give him life. And don’t worry about whether its true to the Shelley original or not since—and this is surprisingly—Igor wasn’t a character in novel. He also wasn’t a character in the famous 1930’s Boris Karloff classic and sequels either. Who knew?
The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating Film History of Pittsburgh – John Schalcosky, founder of the website “The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh” screens a collection of very oddball film and TV bits from Pittsburgh’s history. There’s footage of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood, 1932 Pirates spring training, a 1962 broadcast of a WIIC 6 o’clock news program and even bloopers from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. (November 15. 7 p.m.)
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Alfred Hitchcock used to say that this movie was the first true “Hitchcock” picture featuring, as it does, so many of the cinematic tropes we’ve come to associate with him. Both the cool blonde and the wronged man show up in this 1927 film, loosely based on the Jack the Ripper murders. Though it wasn’t a “talkie”, it’s fascinating to watch how Hitchcock tells the story with visuals so powerful you’d swear there was dialogue and sound effects. Ivor Novella stars as a man mistaken for the notorious serial killer. And at this screening live music is provided by Richard Nicol and Steve Rightnour as Pittsburgh Modular and Monorocket. (November 22. 4 p.m.)
Difret – This harrowing film was an award winner at both the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. With Angelina Jolie as executive producer, the movie—written and directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, examines one of Ethiopia’s well-established, if horrific, customs … marriage by abduction. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl kidnapped on her way home from school who accidentally shoots and kills her would-be husband. The founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association travels to the village to defend the girl and helped make illegal the forced marriage tradition. (November 20-22)
Three Rivers Film Festival – 34th Annual celebration of national and international filmmaking. November 6-15. Highlights include:
The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution – Stanley Nelson, Jr. directs this documentary which takes a look at one of the most radical groups from the radical 60’s. “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” grew out of the anger and protest of the era to fight the virulent bigotry of social, political and economic racism. For a brief while they worked to bring about constructive change, but like so many other groups from that time infighting and factionalism took it’s toll … as well as the FBI’s obsessive witch hunt against them. (USA, 2015)
The Boy and the World – An animated children’s film following the journey of a young boy who’s life is turned upside down when his father leaves their village home and takes a job in the city. The boy begins a quest to bring his family back together again. Directed by Alê Abreu. (Brazil, 2015)
The Lady in the Van – In the 1970’s, British playwright Alan Bennett allowed a homeless woman to park her camper van in his driveway … she stayed there for 15 years. He is a playwright after all (The History Boys, The Madness of King George among others) so, of course, he wrote a play about it which starred Maggie Smith and won a whole slew of awards. Nicholas Hytner directs a film version with Smith recreating her award-winning performance. (UK, 2015)
Rams – A darkly comic film about two estranged brothers who own adjacent sheep farms in a sleepy, secluded valley in Iceland. When a contagious sheep virus threatens their livelihoods and the future of the valley, old grievances must be put aside. But can they be? From director Grímur Hákonarson. (Iceland, 2015)
This Changes Everything – Based on the 2014 book by Naomi Klein, this documentary travels the globe exploring the challenge of climate change and looks at some of the communities being most effected; from areas in Montana and Alberta, Canada to South India and Beijing and more. Directed by Avi Lewis. Alfonso Cuaròn, Danny Glover and Seth MacFarlane serve as co-producers. (USA, 2015)
What Our Fathers Did – Documentary which follows three men on a journey through Europe. Two of the men had fathers who were high-ranking Nazi officials and the third man in a human rights lawyer who’s grandfather escaped from the village where the Nazi fathers has carried out mass killings. A thoughtful rumination on the past, memory, father/son relationships and moving into the future. Directed by David Evans. (UK, 2015)
Various dates, times and locations. For more information check the Three Rivers Film Festival website.
Trumbo There’s already Oscar-buzz surrounding this biopic about, and Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. One of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters he, along with nine others, were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about Communists working in the industry. But they refused to talk, were all sent to prison and became known as the Hollywood Ten. Once released, Trumbo couldn’t get work so he and his family moved to Mexico. For ten years he wrote screenplays under assumed names and even won two Oscars during that period; for The Brave One and Roman Holiday. Cranston stars, along with Michael Stuhlbarg, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren playing Hedda Hopper. (Opens November 25)
Spotlight – More talk of Oscars with this drama about muckraking journalists. Tom McCarthy directs from a screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer about a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who, in 2003, revealed historical child sex abuse within the Boston Catholic Diocese and the decades-long cover up. Advanced word on the film is that it presents a vivid, documentary-style look at investigative journalism and the importance of this disappearing trade. You’ll be shocked to hear this, I know, but maybe TMZ shouldn’t be your only news source. A big cast of heavy hitters includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and Len Cariou. (Opens November 20)
Ocean’s Eleven – Director Steven Soderbergh got the tone exactly right in this 2001 remake of the 60’s Rat Pack caper film. Detached and impossibly cool, there’s humor, intelligence and not a little style all at work here telling the story of a crew of con men who plan and carry out the largest heist in the history of Las Vegas. Soderbergh’s studied and controlled cinematography places an extremely sophisticated George Clooney at the center of a large cast playing brilliantly off one another: Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould and, especially, the late Bernie Mac who manages to steal every scene he’s in. (November 13-19)
Titanic – To this day I still can’t believe I sat through this whole thing when it opened in 1997. It was three hours long … and I already knew how it ended! A big ship sets sail and a few days later hits an iceberg and sinks. It’s the in-between part that froze my brain since director/writer James Cameron sticks a soap opera in the middle of it. In performances that made them international stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play passengers who meet on-board. He’s poor and she’s rich (and engaged) but they fall in love anyway. Meanwhile Billy Zane, as Kate’s fiancé, is hoppin’ mad at Leo … leading to my favorite scene in the movie: Water is gushing in through every porthole and the ship is moments away from meeting the ocean floor – but there’s Zane running around with a gun trying to shoot Leo. “Billy, chill out … the problem’s gonna take care of itself.” It’s lunacy like this scene (and many others) that’ll really have you rooting for the iceberg. (November 27-December 5)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based critic and writer.