It’s officially that most exciting time of the movie year: all of the most exciting stuff isn’t actually opening unless you are among the anointed within an easy trip of downtown New York or Los Angeles. And may I say that for all I would grouse and kvell about this (not always on this blog) when I lived in Chicago, my experience of last fall in Madison really brought how just how bad it could get. But notwithstanding all of that, there’s a lot of great-looking stuff: for much of it, we’ll just have to be patient.
Dr. Stephen Strange is one of my favorite Marvel heroes, and I’ve been waiting on Doctor Strange since the very start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’d walk barefoot on broken glass for Tilda Swinton. So why am I feeling so indifferent? Two reasons, I think: one is Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’m back to finding annoying and over-exposed, and whose casting feels like the single most “pander to the internet” gesture Marvel Studios has ever yet indulged in. The other is director Scott Derrickson, whose good films consist of two-thirds of Sinister, and whose bad films include the dreadful The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the almost indescribably mismanaged remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Marvel industrial system has so far suggested that it’s very good at keeping talented filmmakers pinned down to a somewhat deliberately middlebrow level of quality; let us hope and pray that the same system will tend to boost actively bad filmmakers up to the same level.
Even discounting those things, the trailers promising “Magical Inception” would fail to impress me, but at least it looks to be pretty as a result.
Also looking pretty, prettier than I have the stomach to admit almost: DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, whose concept (Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick sing pop songs, learn to be themselves & work together) screams “the worst of DWA back in the low period of the mid-’00s”, but whose every last frame of released footage looks beyond splendid: the textures and colors all suggest children’s handicrafts in felt and flocking, like a whole movie inhabited by moving cloth toys. I hate how much I enjoy looking at the thing. I hate even more that this is the animated release from the month that I’m most excited to see. We’ll get to the other one in a bit.
And now, to unbury the lede: the wide release this month I’m most excited for, by a whole lot, is Hacksaw Ridge. I’m sure it’s unseemly to admit that I’ve really missed having director Mel Gibson around for the last ten years, because no matter how nasty he is as a person, he is a great conductor of violent combat scenes, and if this is as much Braveheart Goes to World War II as it looks, I will be a thoroughly happy camper.
How about those limited releases I was so excited for, then? This week, it’s Loving, the true story of a mixed-race couple in the 1950s, directed by the reliably interesting Jeff Nichols.
The big release will surely be Arrival, which I have seen. The social-science-fiction tale of communicating with aliens is smart enough, but I liked it rather than loved it. Rest assured, if you’re waiting for this one with great anticipation, it will likely live up to your hopes.
Winter and Christmas are still a month or more off, but we get previews of them both: Naomi Watts in the snowstorm thriller Shut In, which will surely be kind of terrible, but I have a weak spot for name actors who stumble into gussied-up B-pictures; and Almost Christmas, 2016’s foremost exemplar of the “murderer’s row of black actors stuck in a domestic dramedy” genre.
The most limited of the limited releases is undoubtedly Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee’s experiment in 120 frames-per-second 3-D cinematography will be playing at a grand total of two theaters in the world, one in New York, one in LA. The rest of us will see it, eventually, in one of several gutted versions: 120 fps 2-D, regular 3-D, regular 2-D, I think 48 fps. A pity – the movie is apparently not much good, and the tech demo aspect was very much what I was excited for. As for good movies, or at least hopefully good movies, the ones that most pique my interest are Paul Verhoeven’s rape revenge picture Elle, with the magnificent Isabelle Huppert, and the ’60s pulp homage The Love Witch. For it is, they tell me, a perfect homage.
Want to watch the shadowy, hollowed-out version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? Now’s your chance.
Meanwhile, there’s a nice spread of totally disparate genres: the sardonic teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, which I have heard on good authority is a very excellent version of a standard formula; the franchise spin-off mega-budget tentpole Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which hopes to keep the Harry Potter magic alive while jettisoning all the things that were likable about the Harry Potter films; and a Miles Teller boxing picture, Bleed for This. This is ingenious casting, because it allows all of us to live out the universal fantasy of seeing Miles Teller get punched in the fucking face.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea starts its limited-release call, and I’ll go ahead and confess right now that this has been one of my most-anticipated films of the year without a single pause since January, so whenever it pokes its nose into the Midwest will be a very great day for me, indeed.
The always-exciting game of “What shall the family see on Thanksgiving Weekend?” offers a nice range of possibilities: the tony-looking Robert Zemeckis WWII spy thriller Allied, better known as the movie that broke up Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, which will do for the thirtysomethings and middle-aged; Bad Santa 2 is for the dirty-minded souls who were, like, ten years old when Bad Santa came out way the hell back in 2003, because 13 years is exactly how long you should wait for your buzzy comedy sequel; and Rules Don’t Apply, a Howard Hughes-adjacent period film that finds Warren Beatty acting for the first time in 15 years and directing for the first time in 18, is for… somebody. 90-year-olds like movies too, I suppose.
My own family, since I am a member of it, will of course be attending the 56th feature made by Walt Disney Animation Studios, Moana, and I simply cannot get excited for it. Something looks unspeakably wrong with the character animation in the trailer: the mushy exaggeration typical of directors Ron Clements & John Musker’s work (the Genie in Aladdin; the whole cast of Hercules) refuses to transfer properly to a 3-D environment, if the trailers are indication, and I invariably end up with my eyes watering a little when I have to stare at the goofy demigod Maui for more than frame or two. Also, the first released song, “You’re Welcome”, is frankly garbage. I have started to come to the conclusion that I simply don’t like the house style at Disney now that they’re working exclusively in 3-D CGI (Tangled remains their only film in the medium that I thoroughly love), and “I just don’t like Disney” is the kind of thought that leaves me feeling like my entire personality has been thrown out. It’s a most unpleasant feeling. More on this in a few weeks.
Honestly, nothing of particular interest appears to be on offer among the several films getting thrown into an Oscar-qualifying run this weekend, though Mifune: The Last Samurai seems like a good bet as far as clip docs about dead movie stars go. Also, despite (because of) looking aggravatingly pedestrian in every possible way, the cross-racial adoption drama Lion, with Dev Patel trying to prove that he’s a great actor alongside Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara offering support, is likely to be an Oscar player of some scale. So, that’s a thing.