This Holiday Season is jam-packed with choices. From Awards Season contenders, to guaranteed blockbusters, there's something for everyone. I've made the list - and checked it twice:
"Penguins of Madagascar" (PG) The DreamWorks Animation spinoff to the highly-successful "Madagascar" trilogy is the final animated release of 2014. New voice cast members include Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich and Ken Jeong. Nov. 26
"Annie" (PG) This updated version of the classic musical stars Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), Jamie Foxx, and Cameron Diaz as Ms. Hannigan - a controversial casting choice since announced last year. Dec. 19
"Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" (PG) 5 1/2 years since 2009's "Battle of the Smithsonian", we finally get the third installment in the Ben Stiller-starring franchise. Rebel Wilson and Sir Ben Kingsley join the cast, and the film features the final on-screen performances of both Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney. Dec. 19
"Into the Woods" (PG) Disney's holiday musical boasts an all-star cast of Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden, and Johnny Depp. Looking to become The Mouse House's first live-action Best Picture nominee since "Mary Poppins" 50 years ago. Dec. 25
"The Pyramid" (R) 'Tis the one horror movie option of the season. Dec. 5
"Exodus: Gods and Kings" (PG-13) Ridley Scott directs Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Moses and Ramses in this Biblical epic. Co-stars Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and a busy Sir Ben Kingsley. Dec. 12
"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" (PG-13) The 3rd and final chapter in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" prequel trilogy, as Bilbo Baggins and Co. go on one, final "precious" quest. Dec. 17
HO! HO! HO!
"Horrible Bosses 2" (R) Follow-up to the 2011 hit with the all-star ensemble of Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudekis, and Jamie Foxx. New to the clan this time around are Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz. Nov. 26
"Top Five" (R) Chris Rock writes, directs, and stars in this romantic/inside Hollywood comedy. Supporting cast includes Kevin Hart, Rosario Dawson and Tracy Morgan. Early buzz is quite good. Dec. 12
"The Interview" (R) Seth Rogen and James Franco reunite and play a talk show producer and host who travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un. But the CIA has other ideas. Could be really funny or a huge, edgy flop. Dec. 25
"Inherent Vice" (R) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin and Reese Witherspoon (in a supporting role) star in this ensemble dramedy from director Paul Thomas Anderson ("The Master"). Dec. 12 (Limited)
"The Gambler" (R) Mark Wahlberg wants money and John Goodman wants his money back. Dec. 19 (Limited)
"A Most Violent Year" - Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and Jessica Chastain star. Dec. 31 (Limited)
THE CONTENDERS (aka Based on a True Story)
"The Imitation Game" (PG-13) Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley give nomination-worthy performances as British mathematicians Alan Turing and Joan Clarke looking to break the Nazi Enigma Code and end WWII. An inspiring drama. Nov. 28 (Limited)
"Wild" (R) Witherspoon seeking another Best Actress win as Cheryl Strayed, who's seeking purpose in her life while on a 1,100 mile hike. Dec. 5 (Limited)
"Mr. Turner" (R) From British director Mike Leigh. This is one of two painter biopics this season. Here, Timothy Spall plays J.M.W. Turner. Dec. 19 (Limited)
"Unbroken" (PG-13) Directed by Angelina Jolie, it's the true, incredible story of Olympian Louis Zamperini's fight for survival. Jack O'Connell is getting some Best Actor buzz. Dec. 25
"American Sniper" (R) Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper in this true story of one of the most influential Navy SEALs in U.S. history. Dec. 25 (Limited)
"Big Eyes" (PG-13) Some are calling this Tim Burton's most "normal" movie in years. Amy Adams (going for her sixth Oscar nomination) plays successful painter Margaret Keane, with Christoph Waltz as her husband. Dec. 25 (Limited)
"Selma" (R) The Martin Luther King biography has David Oyelowo ("Lee Daniels' The Butler") in the lead role. Dec. 25 (Limited)
Plenty of big films to see, so getting your shopping done early.
British actor Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance was opposite Michelle Williams in 2011's underappreciated biopic "My Week with Marilyn". One year later, he joined the stellar ensemble of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried for the big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical sensation "Les Miserables". Now, Redmayne finally takes center stage, giving a demanding and defiant performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything".
Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2", "Like Crazy") is also quite good as Hawking's eventual wife, Jane. The film begins with the two meeting at a party in the early 1960s, while Hawking is studying physics at Cambridge. They quickly develop a fascination for each other. At the same time Hawking is beginning to experience problems with his motor skills. Following a fall, he learns that he has Motor Neuron disease, a form of ALS. He's told that nearly all of his voluntary body functions (including walking and talking) will stop, and that he only has two years to live. Hawking tries to end his relationship with Jane, but instead, she decides to stay with him so they can fight the disease together. They soon get married and begin a family. And while his physical condition continues to worsen, Hawking begins demonstrating his intellectual brilliance, coming-up with new, revolutionary theories on time, space, black holes and the history of the universe.
Director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") crafts many memorable scenes in "The Theory of Everything", some of them challenging and heartbreaking. Watching Hawking, who just earned his PhD, trying to pull himself up a flight of stairs in his house, only to see his young son looking down at him, is extremely powerful. And Marsh does a nice job in keeping the narrative balanced evenly between both Stephen and Jane. This is an intimate look at both members of this relationship, not "The Stephen Hawking Story". As Stephen's personal caretaker for most of their marriage, we see Jane helping him eat, use his wheelchair, and supporting and encouraging him to continue to work. There are similar moments seen in this year's outstanding documentary, "Life Itself", involving late film critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz.
And we see the Hawkings' relationship go through highs and lows and take some unexpected turns. Their daily battle to try to be a "normal family", as Stephen describes them at one point, lasts far longer than the expected two years (which is never explained). Unfortunately, in the second half of the film, supporting characters are introduced who take-up too much screen time, interrupting what, up until then, is a fascinating look at two incredible people. The screenplay is based on Jane's own memoir, and all these events apparently did take place in real life. But following the first hour filled with wonder and hope, I couldn't help but grow a little angry watching the film turn into a romantic soap opera. And the ending leaves you with a brutal dose of reality, which thematically, may have been the point, but Marsh is way too heavy-handed with the symbolism here and throughout.
"The Theory of Everything" features nomination-worthy lead performances, a beautiful score, and a vivid, almost whimsical, visual look. I guess my problem is that I wanted 'everything' to work, and it just doesn't.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Theory of Everything" gets a B.
"The Hunger Games" movie franchise, based on Suzanne Collins' wildly successful book series, reached greater heights with last year's second installment, "Catching Fire". The sequel proved to be stronger, both in quality and at the box office, than the original film. Unfortunately, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1", the first half of the epic finale, is a major letdown.
As with other recent Part 1s, such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn", you realize, going in, that most of the action, suspense and emotion is likely being saved for "THG: Mockingjay - Part 2" (which will be released next November). Still, this movie is shockingly dull, with no spark and (other than a nice late surprise), very little excitement. In fact, J-Law's recent appearance on Letterman promoting the film was much more entertaining.
From the first minute it's clear that "Mockingjay Pt. 1" is completely different from the two previous installments. The plots of those two films revolved around the "Games", and a very mature subject: kids murdering other kids for the entertainment of society. In "Mockingjay" there are no games, but it has the most serious and darkest tone of the series. Returning director Francis Lawrence casts a gray overtone of gloom and desperation on Panem, whose citizens have been beaten down, physically and mentally.
At two hours and three minutes, "Mockingjay" is the shortest "Hunger Games" by about 20 minutes. And even though there is no competition, there are still psychological and relationship games being played: Katniss vs. the Capitol and the love triangle between Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Following the Quarter Quell, Katniss is stunned to learn that Peeta has been found alive, and is living inside the Capitol. However, Hutcherson's role is much smaller than in the other films (but he still gets second billing - good agent!) Most of his scenes are interviews with talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). On the other hand, Hemsworth's screen time is double, maybe even triple, and his performance is actually one of the most pleasant surprises.
The established roles of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and even President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have also been reduced for "Mockingjay Pt. 1", in favor of new cast members and other supporting players. Julianne Moore joins the ensemble and gives the standout performance as District 13 President Alma Coin, who works with Katniss as she becomes 13's Mockingjay symbol for the Capitol Rebellion. And the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who the film is dedicated to, once again has a few shining moments as Plutarch Heavensbee.
Much of the "Mockingjay" story, and at least half of the dialogue scenes, come as direct explanations to TV cameras, live crowds, and essentially us, the audience in the theater. You spend a lot of the film watching people talk and watching people who are watching people talk. Katniss' new, spokesperson-type training quickly gets repetitive. And when the most suspenseful sequence of the entire movie involves Katniss, her sister and her cat racing to get through an automatic door before it closes, you know there's a problem. Lawrence sings the "The Hanging Tree" at one point. The lyric "strange things did happen here" rang true as the scene dragged on, because it felt so out-of-place.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" is rated PG-13 for a few scenes of action/violence and mild disturbing images. Unlike the previous two, even diehards have no need to see this more than once, and many will undoubtedly walk out feeling genuinely disappointed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" gets a C. It's doesn't lay an egg, but just never has the chance to soar. "Part 2" opens on November 20, 2015. For fans of this franchise, that date can't come soon enough.
1994's "Dumb and Dumber" is considered by some to be a cult comedy classic, highlighted by one of the funniest performances of Jim Carrey's career. 20 years later, Carrey (who's hasn't had much success with anything in a while) and Jeff Daniels (who's earned an Emmy for his current work on HBO's "The Newsroom") reunite with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly for "Dumb and Dumber To". This is actually the third film in the franchise, following 1997's prequel "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd", which starred different actors. That's a film most people would like to forget, and now the same can be said for "D&DTo", which is guaranteed to be near the top of practically everyone's Worst Movies of 2014 list.
Where do I begin? The plot is absolutely ridiculous. In a nutshell: Harry (Daniels) needs a new kidney - and from a blood relative. He and Lloyd (Carrey), who's spent the past 20 years in a "home" as a prank, head-out on a quest to find the daughter Harry never knew he had. They get involved with her parents - a scientific genius father and a cheating step-mother, who's out to take all her husband's money. Everyone, including the girl's real mother (played by an almost unrecognizable Kathleen Turner), end-up in Texas at the KEN convention, the annual get-together for the smartest thinkers and inventors in the world.
But in order for Harry and Lloyd to get there, they've got to drive something. Although it's in the poster, the Mutt Cutts van prominently featured in the original is only in this sequel for about 10 seconds. It's an even shorter appearance than the odd and unnecessary Bill Murray cameo as a guy who makes meth in their apartment (this mock of "Breaking Bad" shows the level of "humor" on display). The majority of the time, Harry and Lloyd drive a hearse, symbolizing this film as rolling death.
Most of "Dumb and Dumber To" makes no sense - and that would be OK, if it was funny. But the stale, over-the-top, goofy comedy, dominated by lame physical gags, isn't worthy of a single chuckle. The story is needlessly complicated with multiple script swerves and multiple Rob Riggles. That's right, the comedic actor from "21 Jump Street" and "Let's Be Cops" plays twins here: a handyman who joins Harry and Lloyd on their trip and a secret agent who likes to literally blend-into his surroundings - another failed attempt to generate laughs.
So, for nearly two hours, Carrey and Daniels (both showing their ages) toss-out hundreds of awful, offensive, gross and just plain dumb jokes, in their ridiculous "D&D" voices. It's hard to imagine any of this was considered funny 20 years ago. It clearly isn't anymore.
I've never been a huge fan of Carrey's wacky comedies. He's so much better in dramatic roles and films where he can show a range of legitimate acting (the groundbreaking "The Truman Show" and even as Scrooge in "Disney's A Christmas Carol"). And for Daniels, what he does in this movie makes it even more shocking that he'd want this on his 2014 resume. I understand taking a role for a paycheck, but even that concept has its limits.
I'm not surprised at how bad "Dumb and Dumber To" turned-out. Anyone who's seen the trailers should expect the worst - and that's what you get. Blame must go to the Farrelly Brothers, who could have tried a lot harder by making the film more contemporary (every situation feels dated) and much smarter. Instead, what they've produced is the most depressing comedy of the year and a complete waste of time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Dumb and Dumber To" gets an F. I hate it a lot.
Interestingly, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence was signed to do a cameo in the film. However, contrary to previous reports that stated Lawrence herself requested to be cut out, the Farrellys say that due to scheduling conflicts, her scene was never filmed. Whatever the truth, Lawrence is not only the hottest actress in Hollywood, but the luckiest, for being able to avoid being connected in any way with this mess.
"Foxcatcher" is director Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's "Moneyball", making this his second "based on a true story" sports drama in a row. The first trailer was actually unveiled over a year ago (September 2013) because the film was originally scheduled for release last December. However, Sony Pictures Classics decided to take "Foxcatcher" out of 2013 Awards Season contention and push it back to 2014. At the time SPC said, "We support the decision of the filmmakers to allow for more time to finish the film."
The move surprised a lot of people, considering there was already plenty of buzz about funnyman Steve Carell, who went through a drastic physical transformation to play multimillionaire John du Pont, delivering a career-defining dramatic performance worthy of a Best Actor nomination and possibly a win. But co-screenwriter E. Max Frye (who penned the original draft in 2007), told me that additional editing was indeed the reason for the delay.
So, after more than a year in hiding, "Foxcatcher" is now out - unfortunately, with mixed results. There's a lot to like about this film, but it also has enough problems which, in my mind, keep it from being worthy of Best Picture consideration.
The set-up of "Foxcatcher" is stunningly slow, as we are introduced to Olympic Gold Medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum in one of his best roles), who's struggling financially with his career and his personal life. Mark's older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) also won Gold at the '84 Games. Dave has a big personality, is running a training facility, and has a wife and two kids. Even though they are brothers, in some ways they are exact opposites. But both hope to represent the U.S. again at the '88 Olympics, which are a little over a year away.
Mark is contacted by a man he is unfamiliar with, but will soon know all too well - John du Pont, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. Along with his many hobbies (and being one of the wealthiest men in the world) du Pont is a wrestling fan and would-be coach. He flies Mark to his Valley Forge, Pa. estate so they can, as John puts it to Mark, "talk about your future". The snail-like pacing doesn't end here. Practically every line of dialogue, particularly conversations between John and Mark, and Mark and Dave, includes lengthy, dramatic pauses that get more and more annoying as the film goes on. Even if this is how these people talked in real life, it really hurts the flow of the film. Just eliminating these pauses alone could have gotten the 2 hour-15 minute runtime under 2-hours.
John convinces Mark to come work for him, and soon convinces USA Wrestling to move their official Olympic training center to du Pont's estate, becoming part of "Team Foxcatcher". But things do not go smoothly, and when Dave enters the picture, the relationships between the three of them - the "love triangle" as Frye describes it - leads to problems and, ultimately, tragedy.
"Foxcatcher" isn't "The John du Pont Story", as many people may expect. It's more "The Mark Schultz Story", but the problem is he's the least interesting of the three main characters. Carell, who at times looks more like Alfred Hitchcock that the real du Pont, gives the showcase performance, captivating the screen with several powerful moments. When you string all of Carell's scenes together, you get a dominant, nomination-worthy effort.
In my mind "Foxcatcher" would've been a stronger film had du Pont been the main focus. In fact, two of the best scenes in the movie involve du Pont and his elderly mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who doesn't care for wrestling or any of her son's achievements. They provide insight into du Pont's mental state and some of his future actions. Redgrave's role is very small, but she and Carell provide an emotional layer to the film that's missing elsewhere.
What surpised me the most at the screening I attended was that the majority of the 400 people in the theater didn't know how this true story plays out. If you followed the news coverage of the events at the time, or read about them since, chances are you will still be surprised, as Miller does a nice job portraying the climatic events in a very simple, matter-of-fact way (which is how they actually happened) - even though the time frame is compressed drastically. Many are attacking Miller for altering the years in which some of the key action takes place, but the story wouldn't have worked any other way.
"Foxcatcher" is rated R for language, brief nudity and violence. It's worth seeing for the three showcase performances (Carell at the top of the list) and for the somewhat suspenseful story. But the plodding pacing and soap-opera feel prevents it from being gold medal worthy.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Foxcatcher" gets a B-.