Hey everybody, movies are coming back! In three of the last four months, there have been fewer than 10 wide releases in North America, and while August had a whole lot, nearly all of them were the kind of underperformers that get quietly dumped and make no money. Ah, but in November, we have no fewer than 17 movies to think about, plus the first big wave of Oscar hopefuls. And some of it even looks good!
Some of all of the above categories, but let’s start alphabetically, so we can get Arctic Dogs cleared out of the way. Short version: it’s a shitty-looking animated feature starring Jeremy Renner at precisely the worst time in the history of the world to release a kids’ movie starring Jeremy Renner. And, like, real shitty looking.
Okay, so on to the rest: we have on the one hand, a couple different flavors of failed Oscarbait: Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a combination of period drama, issues film, and vanity project that, one suspects, would probably have gotten swept under the rug in September if Warner Bros. had been thinking more clearly a few months back. The other is Harriet, the kind of biopic whose entire fate rests on getting the kind of reviews out of Toronto that it didn’t get. Which is a shame for the first major film about the life of Harriet Tubman, and for up-and-comer Cynthia Erivo, whose career absolutely did not need a film that’s apparently this mediocre and doomed financially at this point. Rounding off the wide releases is the sixth or fourth Terminator film, Terminator: Dark Fate, which I really desperately need to be good, both for specific franchise fandom, and for more general “we need more Linda Hamilton in the world” reasons. And I, at least, have enjoyed the trailers, though I take this to be a minority opinion.
In limited release, Martin Scorsese and Netflix present the monumental gangster epic The Irishman, and while the ludicrous running time is probably enough to keep me out of a theater for this particular movie, I appreciate that Netflix actually seems willing to give a large number of people a chance to see one of their films on the big screen for a change.
Roland Emmerich has always been basically Michael Bay but less so, and he’s also possessed of the kind of deranged jingoism that seems to be a hallmark of conservative immigrants. So I wonder if it has been itching in his craw all these many long years that he doesn’t have a Pearl Harbor of his very own. Certainly, I can think of no better reason for Midway to exist: it’s the story of the next-most-famous event in the Pacific Theater of WWII, given Emmerich’s usual huge ensemble cast approach, and a couple lines of dialogue in the trailer that look like bad movie all-timers. I am pleased to have a movie this expensively idiotic to look forward to; I am even more pleased that you know that somebody at Lionsgate thought, for at least a few minutes, that this was going to be an awards play.
Other wide releases: with Halloween fresh in its grave, Christmas movie season can officially begin with Last Christmas, a drippy-looking romcom thing that has somehow managed to acquire for itself a script co-written by Emma Thompson (who has a supporting role, no less!). And the “wrestlers humiliating themselves in kids’ movies” genre makes a surprise reappearance with Playing with Fire, in which John Cena has to babysit kids while also putting out forest fires.
Last but clearly not least, Mike Flanagan, one of the most reliable working horror directors, has made his second Stephen King adaptation (and the first to receive theatrical release) with Doctor Sleep, an attempt to be sequel to both The Shining the book and The Shining the movie. I wish it well; I like Flanagan and I like The Shining. But boy, did I not like the novel at all: it ranges from droning to mildly terrible, with a subplot about Alcoholics Anonymous that’s so long that I think it actually becomes the A-plot.
In limited release: Shia LaBeouf plays his own dad and makes us all attend his therapy session, in Honey Boy.
I did say there was some stuff here I thought might actually be good, and here we finally are: Ford v Ferrari, a movie lab-created to watch with your dad over Thanksgiving. Not ordinarily my thing, but it’s been directed by James Mangold, who has a pretty strong track record to his name at this point. I am no fan at all of it being two and a half hours long, but we live in a fallen world, and this is the best one can hope for.
The other film I’m at least kind of optimistic for, something lab-created to watch with your grandmother over Thanksgiving: The Good Liar, which features Ian McKellen as a con artist getting outwitted by his mark, Helen Mirren. Those two actors going at each other for two hours is all you need, really, but I do regret that it’s directed by Bill Condon, a man whose career has consisted of nothing better than mediocrity and at least of things worse than that. So it does well to keep one’s enthusiasm in check.
Our third consecutive weekend of four wide releases is rounded out by a new version of Charlie’s Angels that looks so awful, they’ve resorted to selling the soundtrack as a bigger draw than the plot, stars, or action. And it does bum me out that Elizabeth Banks isn’t a good director, because I love her as an actor, but there’s not one appealing beat in those ads. Lastly, there’s some kind of inspiring movie about important social issues, All Rise, that neither your nor I nor anyone we know will ever think about again.
The big film in limited release is Waves, which has attracted some level of enthusiasm in its festival appearances, and I can’t convince myself it looks even slightly good.
My thing is to talk about the wide releases first, and then just name-drop the limited releases that I might never even get to see in theaters; but I’m going to flip that around. Because what the fuck is this Dark Waters thing? The trailer and logline – corporate attorney turns towards the light to fight for the environment – screech the worst kind of paint-by-numbers Oscarbait, but also it’s directed by Todd Haynes? How does this thing come to be? Is there some extraordinary art film that’s being stubbornly hidden in the advertising? Because if so, it’s being hidden impossibly well.
But anyway, morbid curiosity notwithstanding, how about those wide releases? 21 Bridges arrives at its latest and probably last release date, and I’d almost be interested: “we need to lock down Manhattan” is the kind of absurd ’80s-style action concept that might be fun in the right hands. But I doubt very much these are the hands: there’s no hint of the necessary amount of kitsch anywhere surrounding this project. Also, Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and I already didn’t like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, so I categorically refuse to believe the good buzz.
The biggest title, obviously is Frozen II, and I’m not inclined to push back on that. Truth be told, in this year of Disney asserting its absolute dominance over the medium of cinema, this is the one release of theirs that I’m actually interested in, a little. That interest was much diluted by the latest trailers, which promise the blandest stakes, busiest plot, and simplest emotional appeals; but I do find myself curious what a full-on Nordic fantasy epic done as a family adventure movie in the 2010s might look like, even so. And the very least we can say is that it will be a full musical with songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, so there will be something to enjoy about it at least.
Sneaking in right before Thanksgiving are a pair of old genres given 2010s facelifts. There is, for one, the lover-bandits on the run picture Queen & Slim, charged up with a message about police violence against African-Americans. The good version of this would be very good indeed, the bad version would be mortifying, and we just don’t have the evidence to know where it’s going to fall between those two.
We do, however, have ample evidence to assume that Knives Out, a murder mystery for the Twitter age, will be good: critics have been going apeshit for it since Toronto. I slightly hope they’re wrong, honestly: the most enthusiastic reviews are promising a version of this film I don’t really want. There’s a line in the last full trailer, Toni Collette talking about something she read on Twitter, that I find utterly witless and irritating, and the sense I’m getting is that this is where much of the humor and “insight” of the film resides. Basically, I was hoping for a whodunnit from the Rian Johnson who wrote The Brothers Bloom, and I am starting to fear that instead, I shall be getting a whodunnit from the Rian Johnson who wrote that unforgivably asinine “bad cell phone reception” gag from the opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But we shall find out soon enough.