“In Time.” “The Three Musketeers.” “Footloose.” “Johnny English Reborn.” These are among the films now playing in multiplexes across the country. I find this roster to be strange and unsettling, as I have apparently been laboring under the misapprehension that we were supposed to be smack-dab in the middle of awards season. Silly me.
It seems that true prestige pictures are in short supply this season, and I don’t know about you, but the constant barrage of second- and third-rate wide releases is really taking a toll on my movie-going spirit. And unfortunately, the holiday movie schedule for the next couple months doesn’t promise much relief — 2011 may well end up as one of the most lackluster years in recent memory, which is quite a startling feat considering the steady decline of Hollywood’s output these past few years.
Still, you know me — I like to look on the sunny side of life, and dream of a brighter future in which discriminating adult audiences have reasonable moviegoing options and aren’t compelled to see slapdash teenie-bopper fare simply because there’s nothing else playing. (It’s not a big dream — it’s just a little dream.) Thankfully, there are at least 10 films on the horizon that promise to fulfill that dream, and you can bet I’ll be first in line for all of them.
Here’s a brief preview, along with a look at Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which I had originally intended to dissect during its theatrical release but never got around to it. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and should be considered mandatory viewing for anyone serious about film as a medium for personal expression. And never fear: Regular reviews will return next week with the lowdown on “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” Until then, happy viewing — and try to stay sane.
“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” (Nov. 4, wide) — “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” is one of the worst sequels ever made. (That there’s a fact — you can look it up.) Still, I’m holding out hope that with this second sequel the filmmakers can once again tap into the sense of low-key, good-natured zaniness that made the original a modern classic. More weed-smoking antics and fewer rape jokes are really all that’s needed to get this series back on track.
“J. Edgar” (Nov. 11, wide) — I’ve always found Clint Eastwood’s directorial talents to be overblown and woefully uneven, but I’m on board for this Hoover biopic for one reason: Leonardo DiCaprio, who at this point must be considered one of the most naturally magnetic and consistently impressive performers of his generation. With any luck, he’ll finally win the Oscar he should have gotten years ago.
“A Dangerous Method” (Nov. 23, limited) — I’m digging the “new” David Cronenberg, and have enjoyed his last two releases (“A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”) more than anything else in his varied filmography. This chamber drama — featuring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung — looks like a bit of a return to the director’s older, less “mainstream” sensibilities, and good or bad, you know it will at least be intensely interesting.
“Hugo” (Nov. 23, wide) — Martin Scorsese, animated and 3D aren’t words I ever thought I would use in the same sentence, but life is full of surprises. Admittedly, I was a bit put-off by the trailer for this adaptation of “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret,” but if there’s one filmmaker I trust implicitly, it’s Marty.
“The Muppets” (Nov. 23, wide) — Jason Segel was an inspired choice to oversee the launching of The Muppets into the 21st century. And if the parody trailers we’ve been seeing these past few months are an indication, this “modernized throwback” should prove to be a hoot and a half. Even as a card-carrying cinephile, I must confess that there’s nothing on this list I’m even half as excited about.
“Shame” (Dec. 2, limited) — It’s been called this generation’s “Last Tango in Paris,” and you’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical of such hyperbole. But even if Steve McQueen’s follow-up to “Hunger” fails to redefine cinema as we know it, I’ll be content with another smoldering turn from Michael Fassbinder, who is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Dec. 9, wide) — Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) directs this adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel, with Gary Oldman heading an all-star cast as an MI6 agent trying to root out a mole. This will probably be one of the major Oscar contenders, and in any case I’ve been antsy to see more from Alfredson.
“Carnage” (Dec. 16, limited) — Yes, Roman Polanski is a dirty old man who should be rotting in a prison cell. But it’s not my fault that we live in a diseased world with no sense of justice, so I’ll begrudgingly continue to enjoy his work — and this film about a schoolyard fight that extends to the children’s parents looks like the sort of slow-burn psychological drama he does best.
“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (Dec. 16, wide) — Normally, I wouldn’t be too excited by the prospect of a new “Mission: Impossible” outing (I’m a Tom Cruise fan, but that only goes so far). But considering that Pixar’s Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) helmed this fourth entry, I’m keeping an open mind.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Dec. 21, wide) — If you’ve seen the trailers, as everyone should have by now, then nothing else needs to be said: David Fincher is gonna rock our world.
Is there a more enigmatic figure than Terrence Malick in all of cinema? After establishing himself as a major player in the 1970s with “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” the famously reclusive filmmaker abandoned the director’s chair for 20 years before staging a comeback with 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” and has made only two more films since: the lyrical, awe-inspiring Pocahontas tale “The New World” and, now, “The Tree of Life,” which is perhaps his most ambitious film to date. It has made him this year’s cause celebre in Hollywood, with filmmakers from Christopher Nolan to David Fincher falling over themselves to heap praise upon his inspiring vision. As of this writing, Malick already has another film in the can and is slated for three more in the next few years.
I won’t pretend to fully understand Terrence Malick, the man or his works. He specializes in a distinct kind of cinema, a free-form manifestation of loosely connected philosophical thoughts held together by breathtaking images that are themselves only vaguely associated with the plot. In fact, terms like “story” and “plot” hold virtually no meaning in Malick’s world — his films encourage stream-of-consciousness thought and meditation on Big Ideas rather than an adherence to traditional story structure. I have heard “The Tree of Life” described not as a film at all, but as a sort of prayer. It is a deeply personal, at times nigh-impenetrable essay on life, the universe and everything, and even if Malick at times errs on the side of ridiculous self-indulgence (the infamous 10-minute “creation of the cosmos” sequence is awesome but simply doesn‘t belong in the film), what he has accomplished here is entirely unique.
The film is comprised of dream-like snippets from the adolescence of Jack O’Brien (played by Hunter McCracken, with Sean Penn portraying the adult Jack in the “present day” bookends that lend the film some degree of structure), a child of the ’50s who is forced to contend with the destructive influences of his imposing father (Brad Pitt, in a fine, understated performance). Jack’s father isn’t a bad man -- he loves all his sons, in his own way, and wants only for them to grow into strong, independent men. Still, the man simply doesn’t know how to love, and his personal demons have a lasting, devastating effect on the entire family.
Though writer/director Malick uses this story as a microcosm for all of existence, his goal is not to reveal the Meaning of Life. Rather, he is simply probing what makes us human: the shared experiences; the quiet solitude of inner reflection; the competing influences of Nature and Grace; the ability, quite simply, to love. Even as an avowed cynic who finds Malick’s life philosophies to be a bit naïve, I was completely enraptured by the experience. Even if the film doesn’t quite qualify as the masterpiece it’s been touted as, it is still unquestionably one of the most hypnotic and involving films you will see all year.