Autumn is here, along with all the serious films Hollywood has been saving up for a year in hopes of winning a little Academy Award to put on the dresser. There are a lot of prestige pictures this month and a handful of films based on earlier (and in some cases Oscar-winning) documentaries. And with the season comes Halloween, too, so be on the look out for a few spooky favorites as well.
Films are listed by date of national release. Independent local cinemas are highlighted towards the end.
Freeheld—It was only a matter of time. First came marriage equality for the LGBTQ community … now comes the tearjerkers about the struggles behind the movement. Freehold is based on a true story that stars Julianne Moore as police detective Laurel Hester who lived in New Jersey with her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), who worked for the Ocean City Police Department. At the time New Jersey only offered domestic partnership, not marriage, to same-sex couples. When Hester developed brain cancer in 2005, she learned that local authorities would not extend her pension benefits to Andree. Her battle to see that her partner was taken care of after she died became a national sensation, and a documentary about the case won an Oscar in 2007. Steve Carell, Michael Shannon, and Josh Charles also star in the screenplay by Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated writer of Philadelphia.
The Martian—If you’re looking for one job that is relatively safe, you could easily be a botanist. I mean, really, how aggressive are Venus Fly Traps? But Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, finds himself in a situation far from safe, and, for that matter, far from home. He’s part of a mission to Mars (they have plants on Mars—who knew?) but a cosmic storm hits base camp leaving destruction behind. His fellow astronauts survive but assume he hasn’t and hightail it back home. The problem is that Watney isn’t dead and now needs to figure out how to make do with limited resources and let mission control know that he’s stranded on the Red Planet. Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor also star in this Ridley Scott-directed sci-fi cliffhanger.
Pan—J.M. Barrie was a novelist and playwright whose one big work was a story about a boy named Peter Pan. There’s been plays, books, movies, and musicals (even peanut butter!) based on this story about a boy who wouldn’t grow up. And here come another one. Joe Wright directs from a screenplay by Jason Fuchs based on Barrie’s characters. We meet an orphaned 12-year-old Peter who is snatched from the streets of London and taken to Neverland, a place besieged by the evil Captain Blackbeard. Peter and his new friends Tiger Lily and Hook (yes, as in Captain Hook) join forces to defeat Blackbeard…and along the way Peter turns into the legendary hero Peter Pan. Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Levi Miller, and Rooney Mara star.
The Walk—It’s 70’s a-go-go with this Robert Zemeckis-directed film about Phillippe Petit. You may not know him now, but in 1974 he caused a huge international sensation when he strung a tightrope between the twin towers of the then recently completed World Trade Center, then walked across it—1,350 feet above ground. A documentary about the event, Man on Wire, won the Academy Award in 2007. And here’s Zemeckis and his crew creating a 3D-narrative film about the story behind the stunt and Petit, the man at the center of it all—played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Look for lots of bad wigs, bell-bottom trousers, and plenty of 70’s flair… as well as the digitally recreated World Trade Center towers.
Crimson Peak—Guillermo del Toro takes a trip into the Gothic world of Poe and the Brontës with this fantasy horror film he directs and co-wrote with Matthew Robbins and Lucinda Coxon. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist in Victorian England torn between two men: the upstanding Dr. Alan McMichael, played by Charlie Hunnam, and the seductive Sir Thomas Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston. Guess which one the dozy cow chooses! Sharpe takes her back to his country place in northern England where he lives with his sister, played by Jessica Chastain. Of course things start going badly, and Edith learns that Sharpe, his sister, and the house itself holds murderous secrets.
Bridge of Spies—It’s amazing to think there are now adults (under age 30) with no memory of the Cold War between America and the U.S.S.R. For much of the 20th century, America’s battle against the Soviets was the defining aspect of not just our foreign policy but also of the American character itself. Steven Spielberg takes a trip back to those days with this story based on the U-2 incident in which a CIA pilot was shot down over Russia, causing a huge crisis since the United States denied ever carrying out espionage in Russia. An American lawyer, James B. Donovan, was assigned to negotiate the exchange of the pilot for a spy living in America. The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay, along with Matt Charman. Tom Hanks stars, with performances from Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, and Peter McRobbie.
Burnt—According to the press materials, Bradley Cooper plays an up-and-coming chef who destroys his career with “drugs and diva behavior.” As someone who spent years working in the restaurant biz, I can only say “Destroyed? As if!” I knew a lot of chefs back then, and believe me, diva behavior and drug use seemed to be requirements for the job. Anyway, Bradley cleans himself up and heads to London in an effort to resurrect his career by opening a new restaurant that can win the coveted Michelin three stars. John Wells directs a pretty impressive cast, including Lily James, Uma Thurman, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Rhys.
Suffragette—This is a star-studded film about the early years of the feminist movement in Great Britain and those who fought for women’s right to vote. Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Street star as two leading figures in those early days: Edith Ellyn and Emmeline Pankhurst. (Interestingly, Bonham Carter’s great grandfather was H.H. Asquith, prime minister during the Suffragette Era who did everything he could to quash the movement.) In Abi Morgan’s script, Carey Mulligan plays a young woman who joins the crusade after meeting and becoming inspired by Ellyn and Pankhurst. Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff also star.
Our Brand is Crisis—And here’s yet another film based on a previous documentary. Let’s go back to 2002 in Bolivia. In a tightly contested race, a former Bolivian president is running for the office again and hires the American political consulting firm started by Clinton crony James Carville to run his campaign. In 2005, Rachel Boynton made a documentary about the event with the message that while there’s a lot of great things America can export, our style-over-substance political campaigning is not among them. And now George Clooney and Grant Heslov, using the earlier documentary as a guide, team up to produce this slightly fictionalized version of that 2002 election. It stars Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as rival American politicos working their campaign “magic” on an unsuspecting South American country.
Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie—It’s a double-header of bad cinema! 1990 brought the release of Troll 2, about a family vacationing in a small town where the people disguised trolls want to turn the visitors into plants and eat them! (It’s this sort of thing that gives us vegetarians a bad name.) The movie immediately became a camp classic and is a major contender for the “Worst Movie Ever Made” award. Troll 2 is being shown at 9:30 p.m., and preceding it at 7:30 p.m. is Best Worst Movie, a 2009 documentary about the origins and filming of Troll 2, which is directed by one of the film’s actors, Michael Paul Stephenson, who interviews cast and crew, all trying to figure out how it went so gloriously wrong. (Oct. 3)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—This 1920 masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema has the distinction of being the first full-length horror film ever made. Dr. Caligari is a mysterious showman who at traveling fairs displays his “cabinet,” in which he keeps a somnambulist named Cesare, who, under Caligari’s evil influence, becomes a serial killer. You’ll go for the story, but you’ll stay to marvel at the work of director Robert Wiene and cinematographer Willy Hameister, who stretched the boundaries of German Expressionism with this classic film. The screening will be accompanied with live music by the Andrew Aiden Ensemble, an electronic chamber music group from Rochester, N.Y. (Oct.18)
He Named Me Malala—It’s challenging to think of anyone in the modern world more inspiring than Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban because she spoke out in support of education for girls. She nearly died from the attack, which left her with permanent scars, but Malala refused to back down. She’s led a global movement supporting girls education, and at 17, became the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize. This documentary by Davis Guggenheim provides the details and context of Malala’s extraordinary life. (Opens Oct. 9)
The Shining—In 1977, Stephen King wrote what many people consider to be one of his best novels, The Shining. It’s all about an evil hotel in Colorado that possesses the souls of its caretakers, forcing them to commit horrible acts of violence. In 1980, noted auteur Stanley Kubrick took King’s novel and turned it into a sumptuous visual masterpiece. There was just one problem: He threw out most of the book, substituting his own vision, and changed the ending. At the time King said of movie: “I gave Stanley a hand grenade … and he threw himself on it.” (King would later write a far more faithful adaptation for a 1997 television mini-series.) Here’s your chance to check out the Kubrick version starring Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson in what can most charitably described as a scenery-chewing performance. (Oct. 17)
Time Out of Mind—Richard Gere is already generating a lot of buzz for his performance in a classic Oscar-bait role; he’s playing a homeless man trying to make it through the day on the streets of Manhattan. Much is being said about the writing and directing of Oren Moverman, who adopts a neorealistic, almost European approach: little dialogue, naturalist soundscape, and a story we’re meant to piece together rather than having it telegraphed at every turn. Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick, and Ben Vereen also appear in this grinding look at life on the margins. (Regent Square Theatre; opens Oct. 2)
Reel Q—Pittsburgh LGBT Film Festival. Annual showcase of LGBTQ-themed movies. A few of the highlights include:
54—In 1998, Miramax Studios threw a lot of money at the unknown director Mark Christopher for a movie that examines the heyday of the notorious New York City disco Studio 54. Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, and Mike Myers starred. It was a troubled shoot from the start, and by the end, producer Harvey Weinstein took the film away from the director, ordered a whole series of reshoots, and edited the thing himself. The film was a huge financial and artistic bomb when it was released. I vaguely remember seeing it and not liking it very much; it seemed to be about the straight people who hung out at Studio 54, which is maybe not the reason you’d make a film about the place. (I mean, you could make a movie about Paul Revere’s career as a silversmith, but that’s really not the reason we’re interested in him.) Reel Q is now showing the original director’s cut with 36 minutes of never-before-seen footage—so it could be worth your time to check it out again. One thing I hope hasn’t changed, Myers unbelievably brilliant performance as Studio 54’s legendary owner, Steve Rubell.
All About Evil—Natasha Lyonne and Milk Stole star in this comedy slasher film about a mousey librarian who inherits a crumbling movie theater … and the steps she’s willing to take to keep the joint open.
Tab Hunter Confidential—In the 1950s there wasn’t a bigger movie star in America than the quintessential boy-next-door Tab Hunter. What America didn’t know was that even as he was scaling the heights of stardom, Tab was struggling with his identity as a gay man—one false move and his career would vanish. This documentary from Jeffrey Schwarz features interviews with, among others, Clint Eastwood, Robert Wagner, Debbie Reynolds, George Takei, Lainie Kazan, and Tab himself talking about his career, his life, and his extremely screwed up relationship with Anthony Perkins.
While You Weren’t Looking—A 2015 release examining the lives of the LGBTQ community in Cape Town, Catherine Stewart directs this film from a script by Vanessa Herman, Amy Jephta, Matthew Krouse, and Nodi Murphy. It’s an ensemble piece offering a new take on life in contemporary South Africa.
(Oct. 8-17; all films shown at the Harris Theater. Check out the website for dates and times.)
The Exorcist—It’s difficult to explain now the phenomenal media explosion caused by the release of The Exorcist in 1973. Front page stories about lines around the block, grown men passing out in the theater, people throwing up during the movie … it was cultural landmark. And it’s all about a little girl possessed by the devil and the two priests called in to rid her of the demon. Director William Friedkin used every cinematic trick available at the time to scare the living bejesus out of theater-goers. He’s helped considerably by a cast of top-notch actors: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, and, of course, Linda Blair as the bedeviled Regan MacNeil. (Oct. 24-31)
Thelma and Louise—The contemporary classic is directed by Ridley Scott from an Oscar-winning script by Callie Khouri. The film created a huge sensation when it opened in 1991, thanks, in part, to fearless performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as two women escaping their dreary lives in search of adventure. And adventure they found … plus a whole lot more they weren’t expecting. Scott, Sarandon, and Davis were all nominated for Academy Awards, as was Adrian Biddle for his stunning cinematography. And here’s some trivia: This is the film that launched Brad Pitt’s career as a major Hollywood heart-throb. (Oct. 2-8)
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic