The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

A Gilded Box

The pedigree of Nocturnal Animals made it a movie I wanted to see. Writer/Director Tom Ford had made his mark as a fashion designer and creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before making the well-received movie A Single Man, for which Colin Firth received a Best Actor nomination. I hadn’t seen that film, but the trailer for Nocturnal Animals marketed it as film noir, a genre I truly love. It was reasonable to expect Ford would bring a wonderful sense of style to the film.

The cast, too, was a selling point. Amy Adams is one of the best actresses in film, and I’d just been mesmerized by her performance in Arrival. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in anything he does. His performance in last year’s Nightcrawler was on par with De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Add to that a rich supporting cast that includes Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Arnie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Michael Sheen.

Let me say that Ford and the cast deliver what you would expect from them. But a key point for any film is the script, and that’s where Nocturnal Animals fails. Instead of being the kind of movie that you can chew on, it’s an empty box, gilded with gold and encrusted with jewels, but with nothing on the inside.

The problem is the source novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. As one reviewer put it, Wright was “the epitome of the academic as novelist.” The book was published in 1993 and received great reviews, but its sales were spectacularly underwhelming. Wright tried a twist on thrillers to invest it with meaning and foreshadowing between the real world and the made-up world. He aimed for meaningful; he hit pretentious and vapid. Ford has embellished the externals of the story in the adaptation, but has kept the basic plot, and so has grafted the book’s weakness into the film.

Susan (Adams) has been married to Hutton Morrow (Hammer) for twenty years. Morrow is a successful businessman, though he’s going through a rough patch, while Susan runs a gallery and is active in the Los Angeles art scene. Out of the blue she receives an advance copy of the debut novel by her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal). Alone in her house for a long weekend, Susan reads the book, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.”

The majority of the movie is actually the adaptation of that interior novel. Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) sets out with his family on an overnight drive through Texas. In the wee hours of the morning in the empty western part of the state, they’re set upon by three men in what begins with a game of chicken and escalates to the brutal murders of Hastings’ wife and daughter. Police detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) warns Tony that it may take years to find the trio, but that he’ll keep looking.

Ford blends in the backstory of Susan and Edward’s early relationship, and uses the camera to juxtapose Susan and Tony, but the conceit of the novel is the interior thriller is a veiled reference to the earlier marriage and how it ended. That’s set up throughout the film, but it’s never paid off. On top of that, it’s not that compelling of a mystery. It’s like Wright knew the ingredients for a hard-boiled crime thriller, but he didn’t know how to mix them or the proportions to use, and it definitely wound up undercooked. All the style that Ford brings to the story and the competence of the cast can’t overcome that fundamental weakness.

One other factor for a good noir movie is a strong melodic line for the theme music. You can’t think of Otto Preminger’s Laura without hearing the theme music, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was strongly supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score. Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski has crafted a score that fits the bill.

If only the film itself had been better.

The Mountain Wins Again

In a little over 8 months, it will be the 20th anniversary of one of the great disasters in the annals of mountain climbing. On May 10th, 1996, several climbing parties attempting to summit Mt. Everest got caught on the mountain when a storm raced in. It dropped visibility to almost nothing while hurricane-force freezing winds ripped at the climbers’ bodies. Eight people lost their lives, their bodies lost or unrecoverable from the 29,000 foot peak. (There are now over 150 permanent residents on the mountain.) The story was told in the bestseller by Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air.” Now it’s been made into the movie Everest.

As the movie opens, text tells how after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest in 1953, 40 more climbers attempted it in the next few decades, with one in four losing their lives in the attempt. But then two companies turned climbing the mountain into a commercial venture, charging a hefty price to take climbers to the top of the world. While there’s a certain amount of hubris in thinking an inherently deadly activity can be commercialized, the companies were able to operate without any fatalities for the first few years. That changed on May 10th.

Everest focuses on the leader of one of the commercial climbs, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), whose company Adventure Consultants had 8 clients for the climb, including Krakauer who had contracted to write about the experience for Outside magazine. Others in the group included Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose climbing put a strain on his marriage to his wife Peach (Robin Wright); Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a postman who’d tried to summit before but had to turn back; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who’d climbed 6 of the 7 highest mountains in the world and was trying to complete the septet.

Hall’s wife Jan Arnold (Kiera Knightley), a climber herself, was back at home in New Zealand expecting their first child in July. Hall’s base camp team included camp manager Helen Winton (Emily Watson) and Dr. Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki). The leader of Mountain Madness, the other commercial company, was Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), with a more laid back attitude towards the climb. Two other teams, one from South Africa and the other making an IMAX movie about the mountain, were planning like Hall and Fisher to summit on May 10th, which created a traffic jam on the narrow points on the route to the summit. There’s only a small window in May when the summit has the best weather conditions and it’s only -4 F at the summit, rather than the average -31F. The winds are also less severe at that time. Everest is so high it protrudes into the jet stream; winds have been clocked at 175 mph, faster than a Cat 5 hurricane.

Icelandic director/writer/producer Baltasar Kormakur is mostly known to US audiences for directing 2013’s 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Walburg, but he’d also made other films in his native country, including The Deep, a based-on-a-true-story tale of a fisherman trying to survive after his boat capsizes in the freezing ocean. Along with screenwriters William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Kormakur has created a remarkably faithful account of the disaster as well as a story of survival against huge odds for some of the mountaineers.

It helps that the movie was partially filmed in Nepal as even with the special effects available today it’s hard to recreate the spectacle of the Himalayas and the Nepalese landscape. Before the showing at the Flix Brewhouse where I saw Everest, they screened clips of movies starring actors from the feature or films that have similar themes. One clip was from 2000’s Vertical Limit that supposedly takes place on K2, the second highest mountain and the neighbor of Everest. Comparing it to the visuals of Everest is like comparing a gangster movie from the 1930s filmed on the studio backlot with Goodfellas – the point being, there is no comparison. Visual effects were used to recreate Everest’s summit, but director and crew did an incredible job matching it to pictures that have been taken of the actual route.

The film doesn’t delve deeply into the characters, particularly in the case of Scott Fisher, but it does draw you in and has a definite emotional power. If you’ve read “Into Thin Air” or some of the other accounts of the events, Everest is visually illuminating and clarifying. It’s hard to turn real life into reel life, but the makers of Everest have done a commendable job.

Local

In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network, a poison pen letter to network news that was also prescient in its predictions of where the medium was headed. In 1976 it was a satire; today it’s very close to history. A bit of the spirit of Network is present in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s first project that he’s also directed, Nightcrawler, which casts a jaundiced eye at local news. Rather than satire, Gilroy has crafted a creepy thriller. Like the proverbial train wreck, Nightcrawler is mesmerizing so you can’t turn away, even as it turns your stomach.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a walking/talking compendium of self-actualization programs. While he has huge dreams, he lives in a tiny studio apartment and watches TV by splicing into a neighbor’s satellite signal. He makes what money he has by stealing copper wire, manhole covers, and chain-link fence that he sells to scrap metal companies. By chance one night he happens upon an accident just after it occurs and watches as two CHP officers save a woman from a burning car. Within seconds a van pulls up and Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) hops out. Loder is a stinger for local LA news who chases down police radio calls to get footage that he then auctions off to the local outfits. Louis is entranced by Loder’s work and tries to talk himself into a job, though Loder shuts him down and races off to a new call.

While he has no experience, Louis has a singular focus on a goal and no restraints on doing whatever he can to accomplish it. He manages to hustle up a camera and a police scanner to set himself up as a stringer. At first he’s pathetically bad, but soon he get bloody footage of a carjacking victim. He takes it to Channel 6, where he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the overnight news editor. Nina buys the footage and gives Louis some suggestions on how to improve his work.

Louis becomes an exclusive stringer for Nina and Channel 6, which has been mired in last place in the ratings. He takes on an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to help with directions while driving and filming the stories. Louis isn’t above moving a body to make a shot more compelling, and as he becomes more successful he takes greater risks. His success causes friction with other stingers like Loder. But you really don’t want to get on Lou’s bad side.

Writer/director Gilroy is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote “The Subject was Roses” and “The Only Game in Town.” He’s recently had successes with Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia), Gilroy gives the viewer the best view of night-time Los Angeles since Collateral. The movie is a family affair, as Dan’s older brother Tony, a screenwriter and director himself (The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton; screenwriter for the other three Bourne movies), serves as a producer, and Dan’s twin brother John edited the movie. John had also edited Miracle and Michael Clayton, among others.

Another family connection is that for 22 years, Dan Gilroy has been married to Rene Russo. After an incredibly busy 1990s, Russo had only done a couple of minor projects in the 2000s. She came back as Thor’s mother in 2011, and got to kick some butt in Thor: The Dark World last year, but with Nightcrawler she’s back in the form she demonstrated in Outbreak, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are wonderful, especially as she slowly realizes she’s made a deal with the devil.

But the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal. He lost twenty pounds for the role so that Louis Bloom would physically look like a hungry predator. At first he’s the socially awkward hustler, but as the movie progresses you see the sociopath beneath. Yet you can’t look away. Gyllenhaal is an actor who took risks in early films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. After a one-time misstep with the failed big-budget Prince of Persia, he’s been on a roll with his roles, with solid work in Source Code, Prisoners, and End of Watch, among others. Nightcrawler shows the earlier risk taker is still there, and the result is mesmerizing.

As the local anchors in the movie often say when introducing Bloom’s footage, viewer discretion is advised. This is an intense and often bloody thriller. It’s also a fascinating character study as well as a cautionary tale. As Bloom points out in the course of the film, local news now devotes about 20 seconds on average to community news, politics, etc., but crime stories – preferably in nice neighborhoods where homeowners are threatened by outsiders – now command 5 minutes of every local news half-hour broadcast. Take out the commercials and that’s about a third of the available time.

Maybe it is time to turn away from the train wreck – if we still can.

 

In A Dark Gray Place

The new movie Prisoners goes to very dark places, but it doesn’t take the usual paths, creating both a thriller and a meditation on guilt and punishment.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a carpenter as well as a survivalist; “Pray for the best but prepare for the worst” is the way he sums up his attitude. He and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) join their friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving. Both couples have a teenaged child: the Dover’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and the Birch’s daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul Borde). They also have young daughters, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons). Early in the day when Anna and Joy ask to go outside, Keller insists that Ralph and Eliza accompany them. While walking through the neighborhood, they come upon an old RV and the girls start playing on it. Ralph stops them and as they’re walking away they hear music coming from the RV. Someone’s inside.

After dinner Anna wants Joy to help her look for a whistle she lost in her house. Keller assumes the older kids will accompany them again, but when he starts looking for the girls later he finds Ralph and Eliza downstairs watching TV. They didn’t know the girls had left. The girls aren’t at the Dover house, and the parents begin to search of the neighborhood as their fears grow. Ralph tells Keller about the RV incident, and the parents call the police.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having his Thanksgiving alone at a Chinese Restaurant when he receives the call about the disappearance, and the police soon find the RV. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is brought in for questioning but there’s no evidence that the girls were in the RV. Alex’s aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), whom he lives with, says he wouldn’t hurt anyone, but Keller has a run-in with Alex that convinces him Alex knows where the girls are.

The original script by Aaron Guzikowski has the complexity and twists of a novel all the way through to the last frame. Its one weakness is its portrayal of Loki. Early in the movie Loki tells a distraught Keller to calm down, something the real police are trained not to do because of its confrontational nature. His captain also tells Grace Dover that Loki’s never had an unsolved case. Any detective would say that’s unrealistic – they usually have a stack of open case files on their desks – but even if it were true, telling a victim that would create unrealistic expectations. However, Gyllenhaal’s intense, buttoned-up performance glosses over those minor problems with the script.

The acting throughout is outstanding. Jackman gives one of the best performances of his career as a man driven to do unconscionable things to try to find his daughter. Bello, Davis, and Howard each inhabit their characters beautifully, as do the other supporting characters.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made the Oscar-nominated film Incendies in 2010. Prisoners is his first English-language film, and he’s able to maintain the tension of the story throughout its 2 ½ hour running time. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men, A Beautiful Mind) creates a cold, wet world of grays and shadows as the background for the film.

This film was in development limbo for a number of years, with actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Chastain, and Mark Walberg rumored to be attached to the project. Directors Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua were approached about helming the movie as well. The good news is that the team that eventually made it got it right.

To Serve and Protect

David Ayer burst onto the movie scene in 2001 when he wrote two of that year’s major hits: The Fast and the Furious, which has spawned 4 sequels (and counting), and the gritty Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar.  Ayer grew up in the South Central area of Los Angeles where both movies were set, the most active patrol area for cops in L.A., and likely in the nation.  A policeman may draw his weapon more times in South Central in a week than an officer in another area would draw it in their career.  While Training Day was a hit movie, it’s considered by cops to be one of the least accurate depictions of their lives and work ever made.  In his new movie, End Of Watch, Ayer has made up for Training Day with one of the most accurate and compelling films ever made about patrol cops on the streets.

The movie sets its tone from the opening frame.  A voice-over narration states “I am the police.  And I am here to arrest you.  You have broken the law.  I did not write the law.  I may even disagree with the law.  But I will enforce it…”  This is spoken by Jake Gyllenhaal in a matter-of-fact voice as a dash cam records a high-speed chase through the L.A. streets.  The chase ends when the patrol car P.I.T.s (pursuit intervention technique) the fleeing car so it crashes into a fence.  The car’s two occupants come out with automatic weapons blazing.  “I bleed, I think, I love,” the narration continues as the gunmen are cut down by the carefully-aimed fire of the two pursuing officers.  “And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who are the same as me.  They will lay down their lives for me, and I them.”  Welcome to their world.

The two officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), return to patrol after an investigation of the shooting clears them of any wrongdoing.  As part of a class he’s taking in movie production, Taylor carries a digital video camera to record his day.  The camera irks Officer  Van Hauser (David Harbour) who complains to the patrol sergeant (Frank Grillo), but that doesn’t stop Taylor’s filming his days.

Taylor and Zavala patrol the roughest neighborhoods, where a complaint about mail service ends up with Zavala in a knock-down, drag-out fight, and a noisy party call leads to a confrontation between Taylor and a gangbanger known as Big Evil (Maurice Compte).  One night they’re the first on the scene of a house fire and run inside not once but twice to find three small children whom they bring safety to their crying mother.  Another day they find a horrible incident of child abuse.

They have their off-duty lives as well.  Zavala and his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) are expecting their first child.  The single Taylor has been dating extensively, but now he thinks he might have found his special woman in Janet (Anna Kendrick).  (When he tells Zavala about Janet, his partner’s first question is if he “ran” her – checked her record.)  These two men interact on and off the job with constant needling and teasing, but it is based in a partnership that’s as deep as the closest family.  As the opening narration states, they would die for each other.

 

When they pull over a truck they’ve watched pick up a large pot at Big Evil’s house, Zavala gets a gun thrust into his face by the driver.  The driver’s quickly disarmed and cuffed, and Taylor and Zavala find drugs and money hidden in the pot, as well as a lead on another location.  When they check out that address, they step into the middle of a federal investigation into the Mexican cartels.  The cartels think nothing of killing anyone who gets in their way and are moving into the Los Angeles area for drug distribution as well as human trafficking.  An ICE agent tells the officers they need to back off, that they do not want the cartel coming after them.  But a subsequent, seemingly innocuous call puts Taylor and Zavala in the crosshairs of the cartel’s sight.

Both Gyllenhaal and Pena give flawless performances that transcend the stereotypes.  In preparation for their roles, the actors rode along with the LAPD for several weeks, studying officers as they went about their work, and they bring that experience to the screen.  The details are right, even down to handling sunglasses.  There are times of boyish pranks and of sardonic humor, mixed in with the intensity of their patrols.  These characters are fully-realized people that you come to care about deeply.

Gyllenhaal and Pena are matched in their performances by Kendrick and Martinez.  As with the men, showy acting flourishes are jettisoned in favor of realism.  Kendrick does have a wonderful speech where Janet “borrows” Taylor’s camera and records a message for him, though it’s done with maturity.  The promise she showed in Up In The Air is bearing results.

There is a high level of violence, which is a fact of life in South Central.  This is the region of drive-by shootings and of gangs preying on each other without a thought for anyone who might get caught in the crossfire.  It does portray automatic weapons properly – a lot of noise and power, but impossible to aim when on full auto.  As the writer and director, Ayer draws the audience into this world.  He shoots the film mostly with hand-held cameras, and also blends in the footage that Taylor shoots, forcing the audience to experience patrol from a point-of-view perspective.  Ayer has crafted a tour de force story that feels like cinema verite.

When it comes to patrol cops, they’ve mostly been relegated to television series, while movies concentrate on detectives.   On the small screen, you’ve either had the stiffness of the old Adam 12 series, or the over-the-top fantasy of T.J. HookerEnd Of Watch corrects that oversight.  It’s a powerful, poignant, and thrilling depiction of police work that gives the audience an appreciation for those who have sworn to protect and serve the public.

Coming Attractions – Fall 2012

The fall movie season has begun, which also means it’s Oscar season since most of the movies that win awards are released in the fall.  Two different things with this year’s fall preview: 1) it’s in chronological order by release date, and 2) there’s a notation by the title if this movie is an Oscar Contender (for major awards, not best makeup or best sound editing).  So, here goes…

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower  The successful Y.A. novel comes to the screen, with the author in the director’s chair, which means it should stay close to the story.  The movie boasts Emma Watson in her first major role after graduating from Hogwarts, playing Sam, one of two older students who help the hero, Charlie (Logan Lerman).  (September 14th)

The Master(Oscar Contender) This movie is not about Scientology – it’s about a charismatic science fiction writer in the 1950’s who creates his own religion.  Yeah, right.  However, that really doesn’t matter.  This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams.  (September 14th)

Arbitrage (Oscar Contender) This could be Richard Gere’s ticket to the Oscar stage, or at least one of the seats in the front row for the nominees.  He plays a billionaire whose world is threatened when he makes a mistake with his hedge fund.  Susan Sarandon plays his wife.  (September 14th)

End of Watch  David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, wrote and direct this movie.  He returns to the streets of LA, though this time his focus is two uniform cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena).  The actors spent months riding along with the LAPD in preparation for their roles.  (September 21st)

Trouble With The Curve  (Oscar Contender) Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams – that’s enough to get me into the theater.  After directing himself for two decades, Eastwood agreed to take the lead role for first-time director Robert Lorenz.  Lorenz was Eastwood’s producer for those two decades, and also did Assistant Director work on Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, among other movies.  The movie also has Justin Timberlake, who’s become a fine actor, and it’s sort of about baseball.  (September 21st)

Looper  Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be…Bruce Willis.  Oh, it’s science fiction.  Gordon-Levitt has reunited with Rian Johnson, with whom he made the well-received Brick in 2006.  In the future, the Mob has found a better place to dump people than New Jersey – in the past, where assassins (called Loopers) are waiting to kill them.  But what happens when Joe, a Looper, finds he’s been tasked with killing his older self?  (September 28th)

Taken 2  The original Taken was a sleeper hit that turned Liam Neeson into an action hero.  He had done “action” movies before, but they were usually historical and/or literary, including Rob Roy and John Boorman’s Excalibur.  In the first movie Neeson’s character, Brian Mills, used his “particular set of skills” to wipe out the Albanian mob in Paris.  Now Brian’s in Istanbul, visiting with his family, and the Albanians (the few left after the previous movie) want revenge.  (October 5th)

Argo (Oscar Contender) tells a bizarre but true story that was kept classified for fifteen years.  When the Iranian embassy was overrun in 1979, a half-dozen staff members who weren’t in the compound at the time of the takeover found shelter with the Canadian ambassador.  To get them out, the CIA mounted a mission under the cover of a Canadian movie director scouting for locations in Iran for a sci-fi movie called “Argo.”  Ben Affleck both directs and stars in the movie, with a strong supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston. (October 12th)

Alex Cross  James Paterson’s detective has previously been embodied by Morgan Freeman, who’s a great actor but is about 30 years older than the character.  This time it’s Tyler Perry filling Cross’s shoes, under the direction of Rob Cohen, who made the original The Fast and the Furious.  It will likely be a more energetic portrayal.  (October 19th)

Not Fade Away  David Chase returns to New Jersey, where his HBO series The Sopranos was set.  This time, though, it’s for a bit of nostalgia, looking at a group of three teens who form a band after seeing the Rolling Stones on TV during the group’s first US tour in 1964.  He does have one holdover from The Sopranos.  James Gandolfini plays the father of one of the bandmates.  (October 19th)

Killing Them Softly  I enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, even though few people saw it.  It was a very rare breed – a historically-accurate western.  Now its writer/director Andrew Dominik is back with a contemporary thriller of a hitman tracking down two losers who rob a mob poker game, with Brad Pitt as the hitman.  (October 19th)

The Sessions  (Oscar Contender) This movie won the Sundance Festival’s Audience Award, and stars two excellent actors: John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Helen Hunt.  It’s the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist, who’d spent much of his life in an iron lung because of polio.  In his late thirties, he decides he wants to lose his virginity, and hires a therapeutic sex surrogate (who’s a married soccer mom).  Also in the cast is William H. Macy.  (October 26th)

Cloud Atlas This one is a “maybe” for me.  It has a strong cast – Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving – playing multiple roles that span centuries, but it could be a case of too many cooks.  There are three directors, and they wrote the script together.  Andy and Lana Wachowski did The Matrix, one of those films that changed how the movies after it were filmed.  But they also did the two sequels, which were confusing and self-indulgent.  Tom Tykwer made the exceptional Run Lola Run.  Can they make a coherent movie? (October 26th)

Wreck-it Ralph  This animated movie has Ralph, a classic video game bad guy, having a crisis of conscience after 30 years and going on a voyage of self-discovery through the video-game world.  It was directed by Rich Moore, who’d worked on both Futurama and The Simpsons, with the vocal talents of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, and Jane Lynch.  (November 2nd)

Flight  Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action movies after his so-so adventures to motion-capture animation.  He’s taken on a lower-budget movie ($30 million) telling the story of a pilot who heroically lands his stricken plane, saving the passengers, but then is alleged to have been drunk at the time.  While the budget is low, he attracted a first-rate cast with Denzel Washington as the pilot, supported by Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman.

Lincoln (Oscar Contender) When you have Daniel Day-Lewis as the star of a movie, Oscar Contender is pretty much a given.  When you have Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair, with David Strathairn, Sally Field, John Hawkes and Joseph Gordon-Levitt filling out the cast, and it’s based on the excellent book Team of Rivals, you have the stuff that cinema lovers’ dreams are made of. (November 9th)

Skyfall  Finally, James Bond is back.  The bankruptcy of MGM had put this new entry in the long-running series on hold for a while, giving Daniel Craig time to do The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Now Bond returns in what promises to be a strong movie.  You have Oscar-winner Sam Mendes directing, who had worked with Craig on Road to Perdition, and you have Javier Bardem as the villain (so this could be No Country for Old Spies).  Also in the cast is Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) as an up-and-coming new agent.  (November 9th)

Anna Karenina (Oscar Contender) Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of marital infidelity is coming to the stage and screen.  This version is set in a theater where the actors are presenting the story.  I was lukewarm at first when I heard about the movie, but it is being directed by Joe Wright, who did the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice along with the devastating Atonement in 2007.  He’s also reunited with his star of those previous movies, Keira Knightley.  With that pedigree, it’s definitely worth watching.  (November 16th)

Silver Linings Playbook (Oscar Contender) David O. Russell has a knack with quirky comedy-dramas, having made such movies as Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings.  He also made The Contender, a quirky but heartfelt true-life movie.  His new movie, adapted from the 2008 novel of the same name, has Bradley Cooper as a former teacher who ended up in a sanitarium.  Upon his release, he has to move back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) who are die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans.  Cooper’s character connects with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a young widow.  Plenty of quirk there, and likely plenty of heart as well.  (November 21)

Life of Pi  (Oscar Contender) Adapting a bestselling book that centers on an Indian teen adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger could be seen as problematic.  Several writers and directors were attached to the project, but bowed out.  Finally the producers approached Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  If the trailer is an indication, he’s nailed the story.  The visuals are stunning.  (November 21st)

Hyde Park on Hudson (Oscar Contender) It sounds crazy to have Bill Murray playing FDR, but from the buzz this picture is generating it’s crazy like a fox.  The movie is based on a BBC radio play dealing with a weekend get-together at his home in Hyde Park between the president and King George VI.  It’s 1939, and without the support of the US, things are looking very dark for England as it faces Hitler’s Germany.  The film’s told from the viewpoint of FDR’s niece and confidant, Daisy Stuckley, played by Laura Linney.  (December 7th – an appropriate release date for a film about FDR and WWII)

Les Miserables (Oscar Contender) This is the top of my must-see list.  I’d seen the musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic tale on stage in London with the original cast in 1986, and was enthralled throughout its three hour running time.  I was also in tears several times.  Now it’s come to the screen, with a dream cast of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).  Watch for the Bishop early in the film, who saves Jean Valjean’s soul.  He’s played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Valjean role in London and then on Broadway.  (December 14th)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Oscar Contender) I’m looking forward to this movie, though with a small sense of foreboding.  The original LOTR trilogy is an all-time favorite of mine; once a year I’ll watch the extended versions in one sitting.  This has Peter Jackson directing again, and has several holdovers from the trilogy (Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis).  But this time you have a trilogy coming from one book, filled out with other material from Tolkein’s writing.  I remember another time when a director went back and did another trilogy to fill in the earlier story after making a very successful trilogy – yes, I’m talking to you, George Lucas.  (December 14th)

Zero Dark Thirty (Oscar Contender) Rep. Peter King (R-NY) got his knickers in a twist when this movie, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was announced with a release date before the presidential election.  He wanted to have hearings about whether the filmmakers got access to classified documents.  Later the release date was moved to December.  The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who did 2009’s The Hurt Locker, and stars Jessica Chastain and Joel Edgerton (who did the ethically-challenged detective on AMC’s The Killing).  (December 19th)

Jack Reacher  There’s been a lot made about star Tom Cruise not measuring up to bestselling author Lee Child’s character, who’s about 10 inches taller than Cruise and brawny.  But after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol I’ve a feeling Cruise will bring it off.  The movie’s based on Child’s 2005 book, One Shot, and was adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects.  McQuarrie also directs a cast that includes Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, and German director/writer/actor Werner Herzog.  (December 21st)

The Impossible  This thriller tells the true story of a family who almost died in the 2004 Christmas Tsunami.  It stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents who struggle to survive.  The picture was filmed on location, and most of the tidal-wave was not done with special effects but with real water.  (December 21st)

This Is 40  Judd Apatow has created his newest comedy in an unusual way.  He took Pete and Debbie and their kids, the supportive family who helped Seth Rogan in Knocked Up, and wrote a new movie centering on them facing the milestone of both turning 40.  He also kept the same actors in the roles.  It likely helped that Paul Rudd has worked with Apatow on a couple of movies, Leslie Mann is Mrs. Apatow, and the two kids are Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow (nepotism has its benefits).  The cast also includes Jason Segel, Megan Fox, and Albert Brooks.  (December 21st)

On The Road  Walter Salles directed The Motorcycle Diaries, an excellent road picture dealing with a historic trip taken by a young Che Guevera.  Now Salles is directing the ultimate road book, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.  The main stars are Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, and Sam Riley, but the movie also boasts an incredible slate of actors in smaller roles or cameos, including Kirsten Dunst, Terrance Howard, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Amy Adams.  (December 21st)

Parental Guidance  This Christmas, the gift for movie lovers is the return of several beloved comedic actors in major roles (see following review as well).  Here you have Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as grandparents asked to babysit their three grandchildren for a week.  However, there daughter (Marisa Tomei) is a helicopter parent who doesn’t fully trust her parents.  (December 25th)

The Guilt Trip  After only doing a couple smaller supporting roles over the past 16 years, Barbra Streisand returns in a major role in this road comedy, playing Seth Rogan’s mother.  This will be a Christmas present to all of Streisand’s many and loyal fans.  (December 25th)

Django Unchained (Oscar Contender) Quentin Tarantino has an interesting relationship with history, as evidenced by Inglourious Basterds, where WWII was won by Brad Pitt and his commandos assassinating all the Nazi high command in a movie theater in Paris in 1944.  Now he’s cast his eye at that most American of movie genre’s, the Western, though it’s mixed in with the antebellum South.   In the lead roles, Jamie Foxx plays a slave seeking revenge on plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio.  The best thing to do with a Tarantino film is leave your reason at the movie theater door and just enjoy his crackling dialogue and action sequences.  (December 25th)