In this volume I look at the return of one of the great champions of awards-bait dramedy, Liam Neeson hunting a killer on a passenger jet, an astonishing doco about WW2 refugees hiding underground, a Chilean tale about how advertising first met politics, a biopic of one of the great African-American singers, a heist film involving magicians, and Lars von Trier's latest controversial and explicit work.
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Devin Ratray
Director: Alexander Payne
Analysis: The filmographies of amiably eccentric filmmakers tend to go in two directions. Some retreat up their own increasingly stylised ass, doubling down on the traits that made them famous to the point of alienating all but their most loyal fans. Others challenge themselves a little, keeping their trademark style, but finding a groove that will open up their work to a wider audience.
Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways," "About Schmidt") is one of the latter type. He's found his niche in awards-friendly dramedies about frustrated guys with family and/or romantic issues who ultimately forge their own path and some semblance of growth. Along the way there are flashes of refreshingly biting humor that doesn't pull punches. That trend looks to continue with his next effort.
The story follows an aging alcoholic dad (Bruce Dern) who is convinced he's won a million dollar prize, though his family refuse to believe it. He sets out on a long trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim his alleged winnings with the help of his troubled, estranged twenty-something son (Will Forte). The pair confront their various issues and ultimately bond on the way.
Payne is at least stretching himself a bit here. The cast consists of quite a few respected actors with steady careers, but not obvious box-office pulls. The landscape plays a big part of the film, as is the decision to shoot the film quickly (in just five weeks) and in black and white - the latter a move that distributor Paramount Pictures protested. Boasting a script Payne co-wrote with Phil Johnston ("Cedar Rapids"), the right ingredients are here - can the magic happen again?
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rupert Grint, Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Aubrey Plaza
Director: Fredrik Bond
Analysis: Set to premiere at Sundance and Berlinale shortly, this action-oriented rom-com from "Project X" scribe Matt Drake made the Black List a few years ago and nearly fell apart not long after that. Shia LaBeouf was originally attached to star, then dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Zac Efron then came onboard, but the project hit a delay of nearly a year. That led to Efron departing and LaBeouf coming back.
Shot in Romania over the Summer, the story follows a young man (LaBeouf) who falls in love with a Hungarian girl named Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). Unfortunately, Gabi is married to a violent and mentally unstable crime boss (Mads Mikkelsen). Armed with little more than his wit, the young man endures one bruising beat down after another to woo Gabi and keep her out of harm's way.
LaBeouf reportedly tripped on acid for real while filming scenes where his character was on the drug. Commercials helmer Fredrik Bond, who has worked with musician Moby, helms the project and has brought Moby along to do the film's score. The film seems unusual for a rom-com, actually sounding more akin to a British or French gangster film. The real question is if LaBeouf and Wood share the requisite chemistry.
Opens: September 20th 2013
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Analysis: Indie film darling Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself with some quite brutally honest, minimalist and yet deeply personal movies like "Meek's Cutoff" and "Wendy and Lucy". Now she is back with this just wrapped drama about three radical environmental activists plotting to blow up a dam, a story that sounds like something along the lines of a contemporary take on Edward Abbey's novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
Paul Dano was cast in one of the key roles, but dropped out and ended up being replaced by Jesse Eisenberg. Like Reichardt's previous work, it's expected to be a streamlined and fairly self-contained film. In this case, the exploration is all about understanding the psychology behind how an environmentalist might cross that line from peaceful demonstrations to full-blown eco-terrorism. The film is currently slated for an early Fall release.
Cast: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Mike Epps, Zack Zublena, Ella Thomas
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Analysis: This biopic of legendary jazz singer Nina Simone caused controversy with the casting of "Star Trek" actress Zoe Saldana. Various critics said she simply "wasn't dark-skinned enough" to take on the role of the legendary jazz singer, with Simone's real-life daughter one of the most vocal in opposition. "My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice," she said. There's no denying that Simone's lack of confidence in her body image is a big part of the story.
Even with a prosthetic nose, dark make-up and some period costumes, Saldana still doesn't look a lot like Simone. Most won't be satisfied until they see the actress in action. Not a lot is known about the plot other than it will deal with the singer and activist's rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo). The hiring of horror film director Ryuhei Kitamura ("Midnight Meat Train," "No One Lives") seems an odd choice certainly, and film does not have the co-operation of the Simone estate. It's an unusual gamble this one, I wonder it if will pay off.
Opens: February 15th 2013
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Néstor Cantillana
Director: Pablo Larraín
Analysis: One of the five films nominated for this year's foreign language Oscar, this Chilean historical drama/political satire has already drawn acclaim at the various festivals it has played. It also won the top prize at the Directors' Fortnight section at Cannes. Based on both real events and a play by Antonio Skármeta, the story is set in Chile in 1988 when military dictator Augusto Pinochet calls for a referendum on his presidency after bowing to international pressure.
Opposition leaders persuade a brash young advertising executive, Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), to spearhead their campaign to vote 'No' to Pinochet's rule. This comes as the boss of his advertising agency is busy working on the 'Yes' campaign. With scant resources and constant scrutiny by the despot's watchmen, Saavedra and his team devises an audacious plan to win the election and free their country from oppression.
The film essentially deals with one of the earliest moments in history when advertising tactics came to be widely used in political campaigns. Filmmaker Pablo Larraín made one unusual choice with the movie - shooting the entire thing on low definition Sony U-matic magnetic tape - the same film stock that television news in Chile used in the period. While it's jarring to some, it allows the modern shot scenes to fit in perfectly with actual footage of democratic rallies and police crackdowns.
Reviews praised the attention to detail regarding the period recreation, and the engaging plot which turns the scrutiny of advertising in on itself. Set for a limited theatrical release on February 15th in the United States, just a week or two before it gets a promo push at the Oscars (which it is expected to lose to "Amour"), the film will hopefully gain traction when it hits the disc and VOD market.
No One Lives
Cast: Luke Evans, Adelaide Clemens, Lee Tergesen, Derek Magyar, Beau Knapp
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Analysis: Filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura earned a lot of love for the under seen and impressive Clive Barker adaptation "Midnight Meat Train" starring Bradley Cooper. Unfortunately that goodwill hasn't carried over to this unrelentingly dark and gruesome slasher which premiered at Toronto to some scathing reviews.
The story follows a gang of ruthless highway killers who kidnap a wealthy couple traveling cross country. They soon discover that things aren't what they seem - the man they've taken (Luke Evans) turns out to be far more lethal than any of them. The film comes down to a choice of whom do you cheer for - a gang of murderous and torturous thieves, or the unnamed and seemingly immortal psychopathic serial killer anti-hero who turns the tables on them.
David Cohen's script in particular was singled out, but Kitamura's direction was also criticised for some strange editing choices and a highly oppressive tone. Gore fans, however, should be delighted by all the blood and flesh being torn apart on the screen.
The presence of some solid actors like Evans, Clemens and Tergesen seem a strange fit for the material. The project comes from WWE Studios, the wrestling federation's film label which has mainly churned out forgettable action films so far like "The Marine," "12 Rounds" and "See No Evil". With even some very accepting horror film critics making bold statements about this film, those reviews (and Evans' intense sex appeal) do make me curious.
No Place on Earth
Cast: Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk, Chris Nicola
Director: Janet Tobias
Analysis: An intriguing sounding documentary which scored rave reviews at Toronto, this explores the discovery and revelation of how an extended Ukrainian Jewish family took refuge underground in the 77-mile long Priest's Grotto Cave for eighteen months to evade Nazi capture during the Second World War. The 38 people-strong Stermer family lived in almost complete darkness for 511 days, making it the longest-recorded uninterrupted period of underground survival.
Former "60 Minutes" and "Dateline NBC" producer Janet Tobias makes her directorial debut on the film. It was a project that she originally wasn't drawn to because she felt there had already been enough epic stories about Holocaust survivors, and further films would not be able to bring anything new to the table. Ultimately she changed her mind and, with the help of caving enthusiast Chris Nicola and surviving members of the Stermers, spent six years financing, shooting and assembling this documentary.
The film employs actors and filmmaking talent, such as "Buried" cinematographer Eduard Grau, to recreate the Stermers' experiences underground. It was harrowing, not helped by traitorous former neighbors and the ruthless hunting of the Nazis which meant every time someone had to head outside their gypsum labyrinth for supplies, they ran a huge risk. 95% of Jews in the region perished in the Holocaust which gives you an idea of how incredible it was that these people survived. Magnolia Pictures snapped up the distribution rights last year and will likely debut it in a limited theatrical run along with a high-profile VOD release.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Michelle Dockery, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Anson Mount
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Analysis: "Taken" on a plane? Liam Neeson re-teams with his "Unknown" director Jaume Collet-Serra on this $50 million high-concept thriller that has been filming in New York for Dark Castle Productions. Neeson plays a burned-out veteran of the Air Marshals service who steps onboard a routine transatlantic flight from JFK to Heathrow.
Shortly into the journey, he starts receiving mysterious text messages ordering him to have the government transfer $150 million into a secret account, otherwise a passenger will die every 20 minutes. So begins a cat and mouse game at 40,000 feet, with the lives of 200 passengers hanging in the balance including characters played by Scoot McNairy ("Argo," "Monsters"), Anson Mount ("Hell on Wheels"), and Nate Parker ("Arbitrage").
There is also Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") as a stewardess, and the needs-no-introduction Julianne Moore as the passenger sitting besides Neeson. The movie is famous for being Collet-Serra's fall back project when the live-action "Akira" remake fell through at Warners, and there's no question this is a fairly safe play for the studio. Whether it'll be any good? We'll see.
Now You See Me
Opens: June 7th 2013
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Director: Louis Leterrier
Analysis: The career of action film director Louis Leterrier has had its ups and downs. At best we got the fun of the original "The Transporter" and the decent "The Incredible Hulk". At worst, we got the pretty bad "Transporter 2," and the very disappointing "Clash of the Titans" remake. Now, he returns with what looks like one of the better ones, a kind of "Ocean's Eleven" meets "The Prestige" caper film that seems much more suited to his strengths.
Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco star as The Four Horsemen, a hugely popular super-group of illusionists who pull off the trick of robbing a bank on another continent. An FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) enlists the help of an Interpol detective (Melanie Laurent) and a famed magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) to stop them before they pull off their final and most audacious heist yet.
A flashy trailer the other month made the film look pretty impressive, and at a cost of $70 million it's a big budget risk for Summit Entertainment. Opening in the midst of Summer against some major franchise sequels, the film hopes to capture that market not interested in superheroes, sci-fi or stories about the end of the world. Hopefully it'll be as entertaining as its trailer.
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Jamie Bell, Connie Nielsen
Director: Lars von Trier
Analysis: Following "Antichrist" and "Melancholia," Lars von Trier completes his so-called "Depression Trilogy" with this project which once again looks at how characters deal with depression and grief in different ways. His star of this trio of films, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is back along with some previous collaborators and a couple of new faces.
Gainsbourg plays a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac found beaten up in an alley by an old, charming bachelor (Stellan Skarsgard). He takes her home to care for her, and she recounts to him the story of her erotic life from birth to the age of 50. Shot in Belgium and Germany in the late Summer/early Fall, those involved say it's untamed and uncensored von Trier doing what he does best.
Two versions of the film are being cut. One will be a softer cut for mainstream theatrical distribution, the other will be the full on explicit cut which will likely get release in very select rollouts. Those involved say the sex scenes are essentially being done for real, and there will be plenty of nudity (male and female) from everyone involved.
The film will also display actual sex acts, likely along the same line as Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs". Shia LaBeouf claims he sent in sex tapes of him and his girlfriend to von Trier as an audition, though somehow I doubt said tapes will end up on the Blu-ray special features disc. I guess the real question is whether the Cannes Film Festival will have von Trier back to premiere the film after the controversial comments he made to the press on the Croisette in 2011.
Steve Coogan, James Lance, Christian McKay and Antonia Thomas star in photographer turned filmmaker Elaine Constantine's coming of age tale set in Northern England in 1974. At the time, all-night dance marathons in legendary clubs took place as local DJs avoided hits in favour of B-sides and lower profile songs on albums. Black American soul music in particular found a whole new audience in this underground club scene that celebrated it anew and fully appreciated it - a time before the rave scene became plagued by drugs and assholes. The film itself will follow two friends who find their eyes opened up to the world's possibilities by this music.
Not Safe for Work
Joe Johnston follows up his success directing the well-regarded "Captain America: The First Avenger" with this micro-budget thriller from Blumhouse Productions. Max Minghella plays a young paralegal trapped at work while a killer is on the loose with orders to destroy certain files and neutralize anyone who tries to stop him. Eloise Mumford also stars in the project which boasts a script by horror scribes Adam Mason and Simon Boyes. Right now though, there's little to no information on the film On concept alone it doesn't sound like much, but considering those involved I'd expect there will be more than meets the eye.
The Numbers Station
Shot a while ago and for sale at AFM where Image Entertainment acquired it, it's looking like Kasper Barfoed's thriller will likely get a quick theatrical run early in the year ahead of a higher profile disc and VOD release. John Cusack plays a disgraced black ops agent tasked with the dead-end job of protecting a code operator (Malin Akerman) for a small CIA broadcast station in a barren region. When a car bomb outside the station signals an ambush, the pair is forced to take refuge in the station and the truth becomes their priority if they want to make it out alive.
Volume A: The ABC's of Death, About Last Night, About Time, Admission, A.C.O.D., Adult World, After Earth, Afternoon Delight, Aftershock, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, All Is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, Angry Little God, Are We Officially Dating?, As I Lay Dying, Ass Backwards, At Any Price, August: Osage County, Austenland
Volume B: Backmask, Baggage Claim, Bailout: The Age of Greed, Battle of the Year, Beautiful Creatures, Before Midnight, Belle, The Best Offer, Better Living Through Chemistry, Beyond The Hills, Big Sur, The Big Wedding, Black Dog Red Dog, The Black Marks, Bling Ring, Blood Ties, The Brass Teapot, Breathe In, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium
Volume C: The Call, Can a Song Save Your Life?, The Canyons, Captain Phillips, Carol, Carrie, A Case of You, Cavalry, CBGB, Chavez, Child of God, Chinese Zodiac, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers, C.O.G., The Colony, Come Out and Play, The Company You Keep, The Congress, Concussion, The Counselor, The Coup, The Croods, Crystal Fairy
Volume D: Dallas Buyers Club, Dark Blood, Dark Skies, Dead Man Down, Decoding Annie Parker, The Deep, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Devil's Knot, The Devil's Rapture, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Disconnect, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon's Addiction, Dorothy of Oz, The Double, Drift, Drinking Buddies, Driven
Volume E: The East, Eden, Elsa and Fred, Elysium, Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, Emperor, Empire State, Empires of the Deep, Ender's Game, The English Teacher, Epic, Errors of the Human Body, Escape From Planet Earth, The Europa Report, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, Everything Will Be Fine, Evil Dead
Volume G: Part 1: Gambit, Gangster Squad, The Gatekeepers, Get a Job, Getaway, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Ginger and Rosa, Girls Against Boys, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard
Volume G: Part 2: Graceland, The Grand Masters, Grand Piano, The Grand Seduction, Grave of the Fireflies, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, The Green Blade Rises, A Green Story, Greetings from Tim Buckley, Growing Up (and Other Lies), Grown Ups 2
Volume H: The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, The Heat, Hell and Back, Hell Baby, Her, Hidden, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Homefront, Horns, The Host, The Host 2, How I Live Now, Hummingbird, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunt
Volume I: I Frankenstein, The Identical, Identity Thief, I'm So Excited, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, In Fear, Inside Llewyn Davis, Insidious Chapter Two, Interior Leather Bar, The Internship, In the Blood, The Invisible Woman, Iron Man 3
Volume J-K: Jack Ryan, Jack the Giant Slayer, Java Heat, Jayne Mansfield's Car, Jimmy Picard, jOBS, Jurassic Park 3D, Justin and the Knights of Valour, K-11, Kick-Ass 2, Kid Cannabis, Kill Your Darlings, Kiss of the Damned, Kon-Tiki, Knight of Cups
Volume L: Part 1: Labor Day, The Last Days On Mars, The Last Exorcism: Part II, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, Leo the Lion, Leviathan, Le Weekend, Libertador, The Lifeguard, Like Someone in Love, The Little Mermaid 3D, The Loft
Volume L: Part 2: London Project, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, The Longest Week, Long Time Gone, A Long Way Down, The Look of Love, The Lords of Salem, Lore, Love and Honor, Love is All You Need, Lovelace, Lowlife, Lullaby, Luv
Volume M: Part 1: Machete Kills, Magic Magic, Malavita, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Maniac, Man of Steel, Man of Tai Chi, The Man Who Sold the World, A Many Splintered Thing, Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box, Mary Mother Of Christ, May in the Summer, McCanick, Meet Me In Montenegro, Milo
Volume M: Part 2: Mindscape, Mobius, Mockingbird, Molly Moon: The Incredible Hypnotist, Monsters University, The Monuments Men, Mood Indigo, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, A Most Wanted Man, Mother of George, Movie 43, Mr. Morgan's Last Love, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Mystery Road
Volume N: Nebraska, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Night Moves, Nina, No, No One Lives, No Place on Earth, Non-Stop, Northern Soul, Not Safe for Work, Now You See Me, The Numbers Station, Nymphomaniac
Volume O-P: Part 1: Oblivion, Oculus, Odd Thomas, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, One Direction Concert Movie, One Square Mile, Only God Forgives, Only Lovers Left Alive, Open Windows, Out of the Furnace, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, The Paradise Trilogy, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Passion, The Past, The Patience Stone
Volume P: Part 2: Pawn, Pawn Shop Chronicles, Penthouse North, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Phantom, The Physician, Pieta, The Place Beyond The Pines, Planes, Plastic Jesus, The Playroom, Plush, Post Tenebras Lux, Prince Avalanche, Prisoners, The Prophet, The Purge
Volume Q-R: The Quiet Ones, The Railway Man, The Rambler, Random, Reality, RED 2, Red Light Winter, Red Machine, Red Wing, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Reykjavik, R.I.P.D., Riddick, The Rover, Runner Runner, Rush
Volume S: Part 1: S-V/H/S, The Sacrament, Safe Haven, Saving Mr. Banks, Scary Movie 5, The Scribbler, The Sea, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Serena, The Seventh Son, Side Effects, Sightseers, Simon Killer, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, A Single Shot, Small Apartments, Small Time, The Smurfs 2
Volume S: Part 2: Snitch, Snowpiercer, Someone Marry Barry, Something in the Air, The Sorcerer and the White Snake, Space Warriors, The Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers, Starbuck, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: Episode II & III 3D, Still Life, Stoker, Stories We Tell, Sweetwater, Syrup
Volume T: Part 1: Tar, Tarzan 3D, A Teacher, Thanks for Sharing, Therese Desqueyroux, Therese, They Came Together, They Die by Dawn, Third Person, This Is The End, Thor: The Dark World, A Thousand Times Good Night, Three Days To Kill, Three Worlds, The To Do List, Tom a la ferme, The Tomb, Tomorrow You're Gone
Volume T: Part 2: To The Wonder, Too Late, Touchy Feely, Toy's House, Tracks, Trance, The Trials of Cate McCall, Trust Me, Turbo, Twelve Years A Slave, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Twice Born, Two Night Stand, The Two Faces of January, Two Mothers, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas, Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, Tyler Perry Presents: We The Peeples
Volume U-W: Part 1: Under the Skin, Unforgiven, Untitled David O. Russell Project, Untitled Nicole Holofcener Project, Untitled Terrence Malick Film, Upstream Color, Venus in Fur, Very Good Girls, Virtually Heroes, Wadjda, Walking with Dinosaurs 3D, War Witch, Warm Bodies, The Way Way Back, We Are What We Are, We're the Millers, Welcome to the Jungle, Welcome to the Punch, What Maisie Knew
Volume W: Part 2-Z: White Bird in a Blizzard, White House Down, The Wilderness of James, Winter Rose, Winter's Tale, Wish You Well, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, Wolves, Words with Gods, World War Z, The World's End, You Are Here, You Can't Win, You're Next, You're Not You, The Young and Prodigious Spivet, The Zero Theorem