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Holiday Movie Preview 2017
Posted By: Sam, on host
Date: Wednesday, October 25, 2017, at 16:06:57

It's that time of year again! The Hollywood movie machine is gearing up for
its annual glut of blockbusters and prestige pictures. For some reason it
refuses to spread these things out, so here they all are:

November 3 - Thor: Ragnarok

In the Marvel Universe, the Thor movies have been the most consistent missteps.
Thor is, frankly, a boring character. He rarely has a character arc, and his
only real moments of warmth are throwaway one-liners having to do with him
not fully understanding humans. He'd be better as a supporting character
than a main one with whom one is supposed to empathize.

But I am cautiously optimistic this time, because it seems like they're
angling for a different formula. Also, the Hulk is in it. The pairing
worked in the Avengers movies. There might be enough chemistry there for a
full film.

November 3 - Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Second film by director Dan Gilroy. His first, Nightcrawler, was an
auspicious debut, fully living up to the credentials of his writer-director
family, including brother Tony Gilroy (who directed Michael Clayton and one
of the Bournes). Here, Denzel Washington plays a "driven, idealistic
defense attorney, who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself
in a crisis that leads to extreme action." This generic but refreshingly
spoiler-free IMDb summary doesn't suggest the eccentricity that the trailer
does. Good or bad, it appears to be on a wavelength all its own, which is
nice when so much else feels like cranked-out factory product.

November 3 - Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke team up again (something like eight films
to date) for this military drama about a Vietnam vet and his old marine friends
burying his son, who was killed in Iraq. Heavy material, but apparently there
is a comedic side that, done right, I can envision softening the blow while at
the same making the human drama all the more authentic. Linklater has a very
uneven track record, but this is the kind of thing he can knock out of the
park. Bad analogy, because his best films aren't showy at all, but if you've
seen the exceptional "Before" trilogy or Boyhood, you know what I mean.

November 3 - LBJ

Rob Reiner directs this biopic of Lyndon Baines Johnson, following his
political career right from the beginning. Reiner has delved into politics
before, such as with The American President in 1995, but the fact that he's
only made one good movie since suggests caution. Also, is this a movie anybody
asked for? Full disclosure: Not a fan of political biopics as a rule
anyway, but LBJ feels like the guy you make a movie about when all the other
modern presidents have been taken already.

November 10 - Murder On the Orient Express

I love Agatha Christie. I inherited that from my mother, who is a voracious
reader of Christie and her contemporaries in the genre. Filmic adaptations
of her work have been prolific; most recently, the Joan Hickson Miss Marples
and the David Suchet Poirots (with a couple of crushing exceptions) are about
as wonderful as fans of the novels could have ever hoped for. All the same,
I'm always up for more: I grew up on the Peter Ustinov films, the British
Tommy and Tuppence series, and the amazing Billy Wilder film version of
Witness For the Prosecution. Not all Christie adaptations are welcome: I
rather loathe the newer Marple series (it is simplistic and sensational in
the worst way). But I am always hopeful when I hear of a new Christie work
in production.

What I don't understand is why, out of the dozens of Poirot novels, director
Kenneth Branagh took on Murder On the Orient Express specifically. Second
only to Ten Little Indians (not a Poirot novel), it has been adapted more
times than any other Christie story. Twice, the adaptations have been near
perfect: The Sidney Lumet film from 1974 is probably the best Christie
adaptation from a purely cinematic standpoint, while the 2006 David Suchet
episode is the great gift that fans of books so rarely receive: an
beautiful, well-produced adaptation that is faithful to the smallest wonderful
details without being ungainly in its medium. (Side note: It also features
Jessica Chastain, in a role that predates her discovery.)

With two great screen adaptations already (and several others, including even
a video game), do we really need another take? Why not The Murder of Roger
Ackroyd, an equally celebrated novel but rarely adapted and inexplicably
butchered by the Suchet series? Why not The Hollow, relatively unknown but
with a surprising depth of character worth exploring on film?

Never mind. Another Orient Express is what we've got, and if it's good,
it's good. Will it be? No idea. Branagh is talented but unreliable. I
adore his 1991 film Dead Again, but precious little else outside of his
Shakespeare adaptations. Supporting him is a cast the size of...well, the
size of the 1974 film: seasoned veterans like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer,
Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Penelope Cruz, alongside more recent stars like
Daisy Ridley. Branagh himself plays Poirot. He's up to the task, but if his
instincts aren't spot on to begin with, it could go very wrong without someone
else in the director's chair to steer him.

November 10 - Daddy's Home 2

Not sure anybody wanted a sequel here. I mention it just because Mel Gibson
stars, arguably playing a caricature of his real-life reputation. The
casting choice has stirred some controversy, but I suspect the movie won't
be significant enough for that to linger once it disappears from theaters.

November 17 - Justice League

So far, the new DC Comics cinematic universe is a mess. Other than the
very noteworthy Wonder Woman, everything else has just been a lot of sound and
noise. I'm not the least bit optimistic about Justice League, which shows
no sign of retreating from past mistakes. I do love Wonder Woman, and I was
pleasantly surprised to get a great movie about her earlier this year, but I
can't think of any good reason to bother with any of the others. Great
Batman movies are only just in the rear view mirror, and all the others have
the same superpower: they can make computer-generated lights appear around

I know, I'm a downer, and I'm in serious jeopardy of losing my nerd
credentials. But I'm getting worn out on even the good Marvel movies.
I like about two thirds of them, but it's like being force fed buckets of
ice cream. At first, it's fine. At first.

November 17 - Coco

Pixar takes on Mexican mythology with this film based on the Day of the Dead.
Visually, the film looks beautiful and inventive. In terms of tone, though,
I worry that Pixar is gravitating toward the hyperactive pacing of so many
of their competitors; the best films in their back catalogue have found time
for contemplation within the adventure. Of course I don't know that this film
doesn't do that: I've only seen the trailers, and Pixar trailers are often
underwhelming for different reasons. Frankly, there's a very good reason
for that: Pixar makes original films, and original films are notoriously
difficult to sell, because they can't just say, "Yeah, it's exactly like that
other movie you liked."

So, hey, Coco looks not so great. That makes it one of my most anticipated
movies of the season!

November 24 - Darkest Hour

Joe Wright helms this account of Winston Churchill at the outset of World
War II. The film concerns the crucial decisions he has to make about whether
to negotiate with Hitler or go to war. Wright is an interesting director
whose work ranges from Pride and Prejudice all the way to Hanna. I thought
his weakest film was his last -- Pan -- but with this film he's arguably
back into more familiar territory. He did, for example, 2007's Atonement,
an absolutely gorgeous period drama with great emotional tension.

I did just complain about Oscar baity political biopics, but this one takes
place at a more interesting and dramatic time in world history. There is also
the potential for it to be quite relevant: in the wake of the Brexit
referendum, material like this invites contemporary commentary. That could
be good if it merely draws upon current issues as fuel, but if it tries to
preach a viewpoint, it will bring Godwin's Law upon itself before any
discussion has a chance to ensue.

November 24 - Polaroid

I've pretty much checked out of the horror genre in recent years, so I'm not
a good guide here. But can I just say that the "do an innocuous thing and
DIE" genre is insanely overused? The "watch a video tape and DIE" movie
(The Ring) was pretty good, but it has to shoulder a lot of blame for like
a billion knock-offs, all of which take the least compelling part of that
movie and go wild. This one is "get your picture taken and DIE."

Anything CAN be good, and there's no reason this one can't be. I'm just
saying the executives that greenlight these things are completely insane.

November 24 - The Man Who Invented Christmas

I don't know if it's a trend yet, but there seems to be a small fad lately
for biopics of writers of famous and popular works. This one is about
Charles Dickens and specifically chronicles the events of his life that
led to the writing of A Christmas Carol. It's not a million miles removed
from, say, Saving Mr. Banks, which detailed the real-life inspiration of
P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins stories and their subsequent adaptation into the
great Disney movie. Also belonging to the subgenre is Professor Marston and
the Wonder Women, which is still in theaters.

This is no comment on the likely quality of the film, just an observation.
But I do gravitate toward stories of artists, it remains to be seen if this
material makes a compelling story in its own right.

November 24 - Chappaquiddick

What'd I say about modern political biopics? Here's one about Ted Kennedy.

December 1 - The Disaster Artist

Remember Tim Burton's (probably) best movie, Ed Wood? James Franco takes a
stab at that with this dramatic telling of the making of Tommy Wiseau's The
Room, probably the most famous good-bad cult movie since Rocky Horror.
Franco directs and also plays Wiseau. It strikes me as pretty perfect
casting, frankly. Although he's capable of restraint, he's done a lot of
movies where he's just one side or the other of too much. But that's what
you need if you're gonna be Wiseau, this kooky character of uncertain
origin who out of nowhere makes an inexplicable film and disappears. He
can't possibly be a real person, but somebody had to have made that movie,

December 1 - Wonder Wheel

Woody Allen's annual film for 2017 is about a carousel operator on Coney
Island in the 1950s. Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, and Kate
Winslet star. Expect that marriages will fall apart as middle-aged neurotics
conclude that they need mates who seem unburdened by existential crises.
It's funny because it's true, right? Bizarrely, in some sense every Woody
Allen movie since Hollywood Ending (or so) is the same, and yet they have
run the full gamut from delightful (Midnight In Paris) to excruciating
(Whatever Works).

December 8 - The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro directs this Cold War era fairy tale about a pair of
lowly employees in a top secret government laboratory. Del Toro is much
better at this sort of offbeat surreality than with big budget spectacle:
think Pan's Labyrinth vs. Pacific Rim. I adored his last film, the
psychological thriller Crimson Peak, which, while a story grounded in
reality, was directed as if it weren't. Here, however, the genre gives his
imagination free reign to go to all the quirky places only he can.

December 8 - All the Money In the World

Ridley Scott retells the story of the infamous John Paul Getty III kidnapping.
It's a tough, unpleasant story, and I'm frankly wary of it as I have a low
threshold for stories of children in peril. Never mind. In the right hands,
the film could be a great launching pad for both a disquieting socio-political
thriller backed by some consideration of the ethical and emotional issues
that collide here. Are Ridley Scott's hands the right hands? He's a
talented filmmaker but particularly unreliable. Hard to imagine that the
same filmmaker that made the lean, clean The Martian is the same one that
made the revolting mess that was The Counsellor.

December 8 - Just Getting Started

Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones team up in this buddy movie about an
ex-FBI agent and an ex-mob lawyer fending off a mob hit. Movies like this
depend entirely on the chemistry of the leads, and I think it's fair to predict
that Freeman and Jones would work brilliantly together. Both know how to
command the screen, and a movie that sets up a rivalry between them and lets
them loose could be a lot of fun.

The danger, however, is that the casting is so good that nobody remembers to
write a story, or a least a few jokes. This exact problem happened recently
with the Going In Style remake, starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and
Alan Arkin. It was great casting. I enjoyed watching them play off each
other. But I don't think the movie made me laugh once, and I was utterly
unmoved when the credits rolled.

So which way will it go? No idea, but writer-director Ron Shelton hasn't made
a good movie since 1996, so I'm not getting my hopes up.

December 8 - I, Tonya

Now here's a biopic I'm looking forward to, just because the story
mystifies me to this day. It's about figure skater Tonya Harding. If you
know the name at all, you know the stranger-than-fiction story about her
and her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. I remember when all that hit the news and
just couldn't, and still can't, wrap my head around the fact that that
really happened. A movie that explores some of that could be very compelling.

It was smart to center the story around Harding, rather than Kerrigan.
We identify with Kerrigan. She would make for a strong protagonist in a story
about her. But Harding is an enigma. I think cinema is the medium best
suited to try to get inside her head. Is that a place we want to be? Maybe
not, honestly, but on the other hand how can we reconcile, control, and/or
reinvent the primal, even savage side of human nature if we cannot
understand it?

December 15 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars trilogy #3 continues. Lots of people will love it. Lots of people
will hate it. Very few people will be in the middle. Me? I'm absolutely
looking forward to it. I understand why The Force Awakens was a disappointment
for many, but I think we have to let go of the idea that any new Star Wars
film is going to compare well against the either the original trilogy or the
nostalgia it inspires. That's an impossible feat, and no matter how much
we may think -- even correctly -- that we have identified precisely where any
given new Star Wars movie goes wrong, the reality is that if those problems
were somehow magically fixed, you still wouldn't have a movie that improves
upon your imagination about what happened to Luke, Leia, and Han Solo after
The Return of the Jedi. The correct decision was not to bring back those
characters at all and just do out-of-band Star Wars movies like Rogue One.
But as that isn't what's happening, fair enough: I'll go in open-minded
and enjoy what this crop of movies is doing right: primarily, that they do,
unlike the prequels, generally feel like they belong in the Star Wars universe
and recapture the casual, adventuresome spirit of the originals.

December 22 - Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle

Funny -- Dwayne Johnson stars in his sequel to the Robin Williams Jumanji film,
but Johnson also starred in a movie called The Rundown...which was originally
going to be called Welcome To the Jungle, and did officially get called that
in certain parts of the world. The connection is coincidental; there's no
relationship between the two films.

Anyway, this film is a proper sequel, not a remake. I don't think we needed
a sequel to Jumanji, did we? Anything *can* be good, and if it is, that's all
the justification it needs. But I'm not particularly drawn to this one yet.

December 22 - Pitch Perfect 3

But I admit a soft spot for this series. I'm not ashamed to say that I love
the first Pitch Perfect, which doesn't feel like a musical but most assuredly
is. It has some great singing and musical arrangements in it, and it's funny
besides. Unusually for me, it's one of those movies that sucks me in if my
wife puts it on, or I spot it on television.

The sequel was definitely a step down. While I enjoyed it, it was
only because I got to revisit characters I had already gotten to know and
enjoy. I expect to enjoy this third movie in much the same way.

December 22 - Downsizing

Director Alexander Payne takes an offbeat, fantastical turn with this movie
about a guy who shrinks himself down to four inches tall. Why, you ask? To
reduce his ecological footprint, of course, and for that matter enjoy a more
luxurious lifestyle. Because, I dunno, food is cheap if you don't need very
much of it.

It's a great premise for a social satire, and Payne, who got his start with
Citizen Ruth and Election, is no stranger to the genre. But my favorite films
of his are more earnest (About Schmidt and Nebraska, for example), and the
early word is conflicted: a few are saying that the film loses its way in the
second act. Maybe that's true, and maybe not, but I think it's absolutely
worth finding out.

December 22 - The Post

Steven Spielberg's upcoming film about the long road journalists from The
Washington Post and The New York Times took to get the Pentagon Papers
declassified and published. So here, Lyndon Baines Johnson makes his second
appearance in this season's slate of movies, right?

A new Spielberg film is always noteworthy, and I think we can trust him to
deliver a compelling film. But films about politicized issues like this can
easily go wrong. Is it even possible to be objective about wars and secret
government operations in a primarily emotional medium? But this is a matter
to take up after we see the film, not before.

December 29 - The Greatest Showman

This original musical chronicles the story of P.T. Barnum and the invention of
the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was a revolutionary idea at the time, and
remarkable, when you think about it, that a single English word, "circus," now
instantly conjures up vivid images of a specific form of 1800s entertainment.
Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, which will hopefully offer an outlet for his
sorely underused musical talents.

Barnum was a complicated and controversial figure, one constantly reevaluated
through modern lenses for better and worse. But how many people really know
what he did and how he did it?

The trailer for the film does suggest that it scratches far beneath the
surface of the archetype of a genius with a dream. But in a musical, that's
probably appropriate. And what better way to celebrate the birth of a
spectacle than in a genre built upon spectacle? It's not a stretch to say
that musicals were born out of the same vision that circuses were, and that
carry the same appeal. Now both of those entertainment forms have fallen out
of the mainstream, and it's special effects movies that quench our thirst
for spectacle. Fortunately, the old forms are not dead. We continually
revive them now and again, as here.

December 29 - Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain is still (I say still, because although she only burst into
the spotlight six years ago, that's forever in show business) maybe the most
interesting actress working today. I'll watch her in anything, especially
in roles like this one, where she plays a tough-as-nails type. My most
dominant memory of Zero Dark Thirty? Not the controversial use of torture
to attempt to learn of terrorist activity. Not the adrenaline rush of the
intense operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. It was Jessica Chastain delivering,
with intimidating power, the answer to the question "How sure are you?"
How sure was she? "100% he's there. Okay, 95%, 'cause I know certainty
freaks you guys out, but it's 100."

In Molly's Game, she's in a similar mode, though playing a very distinct
woman. She plays Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who operated an
exclusive high-stakes poker game (frequented by a number of big celebrities,
among other high rollers), taking on the Russian and Italian mobs in
the process, until she was finally shut down by the U.S. government -- though
it's unclear, at least to me so far, if she had really broken any laws.

The film was written by Aaron Sorkin and marks his directorial debut, so if
nothing else you know the actors will have great, sharp dialogue to work with.

December 29 - Phantom Thread

This is a 1950s-era London-set romance between a dressmaker and his muse. If
it sounds like that tells you enough, let me add that it's directed by Paul
Thomas Anderson. If you know that name, you now know you don't have any idea
what this movie is going to be like. This is the guy that made an Adam
Sandler comedy: Punch-Drunk Love, still the oddest, most off-brand entry
in Sandler's filmography. More recently, he made the lunatic neo noir,
Inherent Vice, but he's better known for There Will Be Blood, The Master, and
Boogie Nights.

The trailer suggests very little, except that it seems totally immersed in its
world. Visually, it portrays post-war London with a cold glamour.

January 12 - The Commuter

Liam Neeson plays a businessman who stumbles into a criminal conspiracy during
his commute home. See what happens when you get into January? All those
prestige pictures tumble away, and you get Liam Neeson thrillers.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra is quietly making a career of great thrillers,
most with Neeson. His last film was The Shallows, which was superb, and I'm
going to go ahead and call Unknown -- not Taken -- as the best thriller in
the neo-Neeson era.

January 12 - Paddington 2

The first Paddington was a surprisingly solid adaptation of the British
children's show, but I'm not expecting a sequel to get as lucky. Still,
it's interesting to see a children's property that a lot of people have
nostalgia for not totally falling flat on its face when taken out of its
original time and visual form. Does anybody, for example, who as a kid
loved The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks, care even the least little bit
about the recent movies?

January 12 - Proud Mary

1970s blaxploitation may not have given us many good movies, but it
sure gave us a great genre. Some great characters, too: people remember
Shaft and Foxy Brown as better movies than they really are, because how
indelible are those title characters? And how great is the music, the
clothes, the vibe? But blaxploitation star Pam Grier's best movie is Jackie
Brown, not Foxy Brown or Coffy. And now, 20 years after Jackie Brown, we
get Proud Mary, a title that probably should have been used back in the early
70s but got missed. The trailer and the movie poster make it clear this is
an homage to the classic films of the genre. And wow, does Taraji P. Henson
look great in it or what?

January 26 - Maze Runner: The Death Cure

With the conclusion of The Hunger Games and Divergent film series, the
young adult post-apocalyptic fad seems to have disappeared as quickly as it
arrived. But The Maze Runner is still quietly doing its thing. This
episode, the third and final, wraps up the story. It was never as
conspicuous as those other two series, but it didn't need to be: it did
gangbusters business on a modest budget. And it was good enough that I'd kind
of like to see how it ends.

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