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.
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-.
Walt Disney Animation Studios hit a grand slam last year with the cultural phenomenon "Frozen", which grossed nearly $1.3 billion worldwide, won two Oscars, and was one of the best films of 2013. The studio's follow-up, the superhero adventure "Big Hero 6", will likely make a lot of money, especially overseas, but it's one of Disney's weakest animated films of the past 20 years.
"Big Hero 6" is based on a Marvel comic book series not well known in the U.S. The setting is the fictional city of San Fransokyo, which, as you may have guessed, combines the look and feel of San Francisco and Tokyo. 14-year-old Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter of Nickelodeon's "Supah Ninjas") is a science and technology geek, just like his older brother Tadashi, who's attending the city's prestigious STEM university.
Through a series of events in which the writers take Disney's trademark "main character must have a loved one die" storyline to another level, Hiro becomes friends with Tadashi's latest invention: a chubby talking robot named Baymax who's specifically programmed to be a caretaker. The two join forces with four classmates, becoming Marvel's kid (and robot) version of "The Avengers", setting out to defeat an evil, masked supervillain who's stolen Hiro's newest creation.
The plot of "Big Hero 6" is about as basic as you can get. Unlike "Frozen", "Tangled" and other past Disney animated films such as "Chicken Little" and "Brother Bear", there's no originality or imagination in a script that easily could have been written in 45 minutes by a 14-year-old. Even "Wreck-It Ralph", which I was not a big fan of, had some creativity and an edge. Baymax may be round, but this film is flat.
"Big Hero 6" can also be called "How to Train Your Robot". Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams (who each directed excellent Disney animated films, 2011's "Winnie the Pooh" and 2008's "Bolt", respectively) and a total of eight writers, including two who wrote the comic book, were clearly trying to create a relationship storyline between Hiro and Baymax that mimicked Hiccup and Toothless from DreamWorks' highly-successful "How to Train Your Dragon" films. But they failed miserably.
So, what we're left with is a movie with a very narrow target audience: 8-11 year old boys obsessed with superheroes. "Frozen" was able to balance its appeal to both boys and girls even though it was a "Princess movie". No such luck here. "BH6" will sell tickets, and boatloads of toys and merchandise this holiday season. And, because of the Japanese setting, it will be big internationally. But it's impossible not to see this simply as a money-making project.
The animation is impressive, but not overly so, and while the action scenes do look good, most drag on way too long in an effort to cover-up for the lack of any drama or suspense. The voice cast is mostly no-names, which would be fine except that none of them stand out, and except for one running fist-bump gag, there are practically no laughs. The most clever element of the entire film actually follows the end credits (and is something Marvel fans will appreciate).
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Big Hero 6" gets a disappointing C-.
Much more enjoyable is Disney's 2014 short, "Feast", which runs prior to "BH6". This delightful 6-minute rom-com tells the story of a dog who loves human food and his human owner who loves...well I can't give too much away. It's charming, sweet and satisfying - three things "Big Hero 6" is not.
Space is no longer simply the Final Frontier. Director Christopher Nolan follows-up his "Dark Knight" trilogy and the critically acclaimed but highly overrated "Inception" with a sci-fi adventure that goes well beyond the phrase "To Infinity and Beyond".
In "Interstellar", Michael Caine (a Nolan staple) plays the head honcho at NASA. He repeatedly quotes lines from the classic Dylan Thomas poem "Do not go gentle into that good night". Well, "Good night" might refer to the nap you may grab during the film's 2-hour and 49-minute runtime, as this story mulls along at less-than time-warp speed. Overall, there are elements of "Interstellar" that work, but I expected so much more.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer in a future world in which the human race is on the verge of extinction. It's never explained why, but a lack of rain has turned Earth into a dust bowl (so let's assume it's global warming to blame). Cooper has two kids, including 10-year old daughter Murph. Cooper's been told that her generation will be the last of the human species, that is, unless a new home can be found.
Cooper and Murph receive a mysterious message and soon stumble upon NASA's secret headquarters (it was thought the agency was shut down), where Cooper reunites with his old professor (Caine) and meets his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway, sporting a similar hairstyle as Sandra Bullock in last year's "Gravity"). Cooper is convinced to join Amelia and two other astronauts on a mission to find another habitable planet for the humans to live. They're in a race to save the race.
But in typical Nolan fashion, time and space play a major role in this story. As Cooper and the others are traveling throughout the universe, everyone back home is getting older...quickly. And some of them (including a grown-up Murph) are also working hard to find a solution. It all gets rather muddled, and trying to follow the script's logic dealing with the two key scientific issues - relativity and (ironically) gravity - only leads to more confusion.
"Interstellar" works best in the first act, which takes place mostly on the ground, and includes the highlight scene of the entire film, in which Cooper says goodbye to his very upset daughter before heading out on his mission. There's true emotion and some very poignant details. However, once the action shifts to space, the story becomes surprisingly distant. Nolan's never able to bring us inside the space station or onto the planets the astronauts explore. I watched but never felt drawn in.
The stellar cast also includes two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon in a "secret supporting role", and Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn. In real life she's 81 but apparently not old enough-looking for Nolan, since she's forced to wear a ton of makeup. In fact, there's a lot of playing fast and loose with time and logic in this film. At one point Caine's character supposedly ages nearly a quarter century, but he hardly looks a day older. He's even wearing the same shirt.
The visual effects on display in "Interstellar" are solid (including a wild trip through a black hole - where's Morgan Freeman?), though not nearly as impressive as in "Gravity" or "Inception". The dialogue is filled with plenty of "out of this world"/5th dimension mumbo-jumbo, and at times, is extremely corny, particularly in several far-fetched decision-making scenes included to keep the audience straight on what's going on. And more than once I had a hard time understanding what was being said. Maybe Hans Zimmer's overpowering soundtrack was the problem. And I did mention the giant, wise-cracking rectangular robots?
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Interstellar" gets a C. It's epic in scale and scope, but unfortunately, not in execution. And it's not worthy of Best Picture consideration, though I'm sure it will get plenty. I survived this journey, but I can't say I enjoyed it.
I've figured-out what Nolan's next film should be: Based off the similarly titled "Inception" and "Interstellar", it's a football drama called "Interception". It stars Channing Tatum as an NFL QB looking to win Super Bowl M (it's got to be in the future) with his newly out-of-retirement head coach, played by - who else - Michael Caine.