Welcome to December – the time of Star Wars and Star Wars. December, the final calendar page in the shockingly disappointing cinematic year of 2015. This year has not only brought us some of the worst opening weekends of all time (We Are Your Friends, Rock the Kasbah, Jem and the Holograms, Victor Frankenstein), but also several genuine big budget flops (Pan, Jupiter Ascending, Tomorrowland), catastrophic franchise reboots (Terminator: Genisys, Fantastic Four) and two movies starring Kevin James (Pixels and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2). For an idea of just how bad this year was- not just in box office disappointments, but also in overall quality, Jurassic World became the third highest grossing movie of all time. Jurassic World – a movie that wasn’t even bad enough to be interesting nor good enough to be memorable. But we still have December – our last hope to end this year on something approaching a high note. Can it succeed?
The Big: KRAMPUS
December starts off slow with only one wide release movie this weekend – Krampus. This dark Christmas movie comes from Michael Dougherty, a regular screenwriter for Bryan Singer (whose collaborations include Superman Returns, X-Men 2, and next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse). Although Krampus is only Doughtery’s second directorial feature, his first movie Trick ‘r Treat (2007) became a minor cult hit despite its release being postponed for two years before being unceremoniously shuffled straight to DVD. (And it’s a very good movie; a worthy addition to anyone’s Halloween library.) Although Krampus seemingly avoids the vignette style approach adopted by his previous film, it should hopefully contain the same qualities of dark humor and genre-subversion that made it so popular. While the PG-13 rating might raise some eyebrows, remember Gremlins was rated PG. (And yes, I know that times and the MPAA were different then, but it’s still worth acknowledging.)
The Little: MACBETH
It’s possible that of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is the one that has the most success translating to films. From Throne of Blood to the 1971 Roman Polanski version to Black Adder, “the Scottish play” is short enough to fit into a conventional theatrical running time while having enough of a presence in the zeitgeist to enable us to follow the story, even if we can’t fully comprehend the Shakespearean dialogue. This version definitely has the potential to rank high in the pantheon of Bard adaptations. A visually striking trailer plus two of our best actors (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) plus its already terrific early reviews definitely make it one of December’s bright spots.
The Littler: CHI-RAQ, LIFE
Chi-Raq – While it might seem as though Spike Lee has been out of the limelight for awhile, he actually has had a pretty steady output over the past several years. His last film was only in 2013, his unfairly maligned remake of the South Korean classic Oldboy, plus he’s been regularly applying his skills to video games and documentaries. In this go-around, the controversial director is taking on the serious topic of overwhelming gang violence in Chicago by interpreting it through the classic Greek play of Lysistrata – where women promote abstinence in order to stop war – and making it a musical comedy. It’s a curious approach and one far more fascinating (if not necessarily effective) than if he played it a straight melodrama, as he is wont to do. Early reviews have been positive (82% Rotten Tomatoes, 7.6/10 average), and it’s always nice to see established filmmakers challenging themselves even if the results end up less than stellar. Nevertheless, regardless of how the movie is, people will probably be upset either by the film itself or by offhand remarks Lee will make during the press tour.
Life – It’s the latest film from director Anton Corbijn, whose previous three works – 2007’s Control, 2010’s The American, and 2014’s A Most Wanted Man were among the best pictures of their respective years. An auteur at using silence to enhance a film’s emotional ambiance, Corbijn now takes on the final days in the life of James Dean. Although this is not the first time he recreated the life (and death) of a died-too-young-icon (Control was about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis), this one unfortunately doesn’t seem to have the same strength as his first feature. Starring Robert Pattinson as the legendary actor, it is sitting at a moderate 61% Rotten Tomatoes – 6.1/10 average rating. What is it about Pattison dragging down otherwise solid directors (see also: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars)? The youngest Cullen boy is not even bad in these movies, but the films never seem to connect in the ways they should.
DECEMBER 11, 2015th
The Big: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
December continues lugging about slowly with yet another week with only one major wide release with little potential for greatness. Postponed from spring, In The Heart of the Sea is the true story/prequel to Moby Dick since no big budget movie can exist without an instant connection to a property we already know. Although it looks like a grand sea adventure and has a name director in Ron Howard, sea movies not involving Caribbean pirates have a tendency to be rejected by audiences (think Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – though fingers crossed for Shane Carruth’s new venture, The Modern Ocean). Star Chris Hemsworth also has yet to find a property other than Thor that garners him popular attention.
The Little: THE BIG SHORT
Directed by Ant-Man co-writer and regular Will Ferrell helmer Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers), The Big Short has a lot going for it. Despite being primarily known for comedies, McKay has established himself as an interesting enough filmmaker who understands how to play around with genre expectations, so it should be fascinating to see him expand beyond letting Will Ferrell be silly. The Big Short further gives us a sense of hope by being chockful of “what have they been up to” Oscar winners/nominees including Marisa Tomei, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, and erstwhile Hollywood It Boy Ryan Gosling. Early reviews also seem positive; Rotten Tomatoes has it at 93% / 7.7/10. However, the main focus of the film – the economic recession of the 2000s – has plagued filmmakers since the crash. Attempts to be relevant often causes writers to lose whatever conception of subtlety that might have had (e.g. 99 Homes), positively reviewed ones like Margin Call do little to no box office, and some are just disasters (e.g. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which ruined the legacy of a great performance and role, a great film, and a once-great director).
The Big: STAR WARS, EPISODE VII, THE FORCE AWAKENS
The Little: SISTERS vs. ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE ROAD CHIPS
It’s going to be hard to compete against Star Wars. So hard that even wide release movies are Little compared to the Force-fueled megahit barrelling our way. One piece of alternative programming is Sisters, the latest comedy collaboration from SNL/NBC female comedy stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. While both Fey and Poehler have earned success with other projects, Sisters probably won’t end up being one of their high points. Seeming closer to Baby Mama than Mean Girls, the movie has made its presence known with uninspired posters and advertisements that fit its utterly generic title. (Though while editing this article, they released this comedy piece making fun of Star Wars, which is getting positive buzz.)
While the overall sense of Sisters was initially of a movie being buried, putting it head to head against Star Wars could actually be brilliant. It’ll be nearly a month since A Night Before came out, which will make it the only new comedy in theaters, and December opened with two lacklustre weeks that were completely devoid of “fun” movies. Sisters could conceivably become a success simply by being the only other thing playing when Star Wars is sold out.
That is, except for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip . That’s right, there is a fourth installment in this “how are you still alive/why won’t you just die?” franchise,. Not only does this edition ensnare yet another member of Arrested Development family (Tony Hale replacing David Cross), but also shows us how old Jason Lee looks, which makes MallBrats (the upcoming sequel to Mallrats) an even more depressing idea.
The Biggest: THE HATEFUL EIGHT
And we have reached the last weekend of the year. The last chance for the studios to throw their final Oscar hopefuls into the mix and futilely hope for awards glory while wondering what to do with some of this year’s failed awards hopefuls, such as Snowden and I Saw The Light, which were shipped off to less Awards-friendly months in 2016.
Like every year, movies theaters at Christmas afford us a variety of ways to avoid our familial obligations, but the most notable one is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (not to be confused with Adam Sandler’s upcoming Netflix movie The Ridiculous Six). Tarantino and the Tarantino mystique is something that just is – whether or not you plan to see the movie (or are boycotting it), you understand what Tarantino is, so it’s practically pointless to explain why this movie tops this week’s list. (Though the 70mm roadshow presentation approach definitely gives it a extra touch of allure.)
It is notable though that Christmas might become the Tarantino slot with Django Unchained having also premiered on the holiday.
The Biggish: JOY, CONCUSSION, DADDY’S HOME, and POINT BREAK
Although Eight is getting most of the attention (and understandably so), it’s not the only big movie coming out this week. The third collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and actors Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, Joy tells of the rise of Joy Mangano, creator of Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers who would go on to establish a business empire. At least that’s what I get from Wikipedia/IMDB. The trailer is very uninformative (though in a good way) and so is the poster (in a not so good way).
Concussion takes aim at the NFL concussion controversy with the help of Will Smith brandishing a goofy accident as the doctor who identifies the reason why many former players succumb to brain damage, and Luke Wilson showing us that he is in fact still alive as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Daddy’s Home is the latest Will Ferrell comedy reteaming him with his The Other Guys co-star Mark Wahlberg. They worked well the first time, so maybe this tale of “lame dad vs. cool stepdad”…wait? It’s rated PG. An actual family comedy? Forget that. And finally, there’s Point Break. A remake of the Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves “classic.” Much like the attempts to sequelize and remake Top Gun, one has to ask – aren’t the filmmakers aware that people only like these films ironically? The only time anyone cared about Point Break in the past 20 years was because of Hot Fuzz.
The Little: THE REVENANT and ANOMALISA
Finally, two of the possibly best movies of 2015 are unfortunately probably going to end up NY/LA-only until late January.
The Revenant – Director Alejandro González Iñárritu follows up last year’s Academy Award-winning Birdman with yet another very interesting looking film, this time a 19th century Western survival/revenge tale starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Unfortunately, rumors abounded about a troubled production with many of the crew leaving because of various difficulties (plus bear rape). Moreover, the reported $135 million budget is a ridiculous amount of money for a movie that has a very limited audience potential. It’s definitely a must-see, but here’s hoping it doesn’t become his Heaven’s Gate.
Finally, there’s Anomolisa. Charlie Kaufman’s return (he has been virtually absent since his brilliant first directorial feature Synecdoche, New York in 2008), an intelligent adult animated movie for a change, and Community / Rick and Morty‘s Dan Harmon as a producer. Much like The Hateful Eight, it’s the type of movie where I could write about the nuances of it – the plot, the creativity of the film and its look, the need for more adult-focused animated movies – or hope that its pedigree and look speaks for itself. Also, this article’s getting long as it is.
So that’s December. Much like the rest of 2015, it’s a bit disappointing. There are a few movies here and there that genuinely seem worth seeing – Star Wars, Hateful Eight, The Revenant and Anomolisa – and a few “that’s sold out, but I’m already here, so I might as well see something” options. There aren’t even many Oscar bait movies to ridicule – that was November’s territory. But there is Star Wars … so that’s something. Stay tuned for MXDWN’s coverage as we look back at 2015. And probably talk a lot about Star Wars.