Driven to Succeed

2015 should have been a great year for Edgar Wright. He’d first made his name in British TV, including “Spaced,” a series starring Simon Pegg that was a wildly inventive comedy. Switching to film, he created the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy with Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. Then he got the chance to write and direct Marvel’s Ant-Man, a dream project for Wright that he’d pushed to do for a decade. It would have been a major breakthrough into Hollywood, but “creative differences” led to Marvel replacing him at the start of filming. (He did get story and screenplay credits, but he’s said he’ll never watch the film.) Some people could be broken by the experience. Instead Wright has come back with his best picture ever, and my favorite film of the summer that doesn’t star Gal Gadot. Baby Driver takes the classic crime drama and gives it a nitro-injection that puts it into a new class.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excelance. Atlanta crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) puts together different crews for different capers, but he always uses Baby to drive, almost as a good luck charm. The opening sequence underlines his prowess with a hi-octane race through the streets of Atlanta after a bank robbery executed by Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).

A car accident when he was a child killed his beloved mother and abusive father, and left him with tinnitus that he plays music to cover. Baby lives with his adoptive father, Joseph (C.J. Jones), a wheel-chair bound deaf-mute who doesn’t approve of Baby’s work with Doc. Then Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a coffee shop, and falls hard for her. He has one more job to do to settle a debt with Doc, and then he dreams of getting away with Debora. But getting out isn’t that easy.

As usual, Wright both directed and wrote the original script, and it retains his trademark comedy flair. A robber is told to get Michael Myers/Halloween masks and instead gets Mike Myers Halloween masks. Later, Baby takes Doc’s 8-year-old nephew along while casing a robbery target, and the kid proves better at the job than Baby. He also has a tracking shot during the opening credits that would have made Orson Welles envious (something he’d also done at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead). But in Baby Driver they’re pace points to give the audience a chance to breathe. When Baby’s behind the wheel, that chance is gone. Wright went old school with the action sequences, eschewing green screen and actually choreographing the chases with stunt drivers. You can practically smell the burnt rubber.

While shot mostly in the brilliant sunlight of Atlanta, Baby Driver has the DNA of film noir. Wright creates serious tension with Spacey’s and Hamm’s characters, as well as a lethal Jamie Foxx who comes in midway through the film. It gives a sharper contrast to Baby, who is bothered if anyone is harmed in the course of the capers.

Elgort made a name for himself with YA movies (The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) but here he graduates to an adult, action role and handles it beautifully. Lily James was luminous in Cinderella. In this film she oozes southern charm, even though the south that she’s from is Southern England. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx have a field day with their roles, especially Hamm, though a wonderful discovery is Eiza Gonzalez. Her Darling is a bonny Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde, and she matches the others in lethal intensity.

Wright has crafted an awesome soundtrack for the movie, blending T. Rex, Queen, and Beck with Martha and the Vandellas, Golden Earing, and Barry White. It underpins the movie, and at times even adds commentary to the action. The credits feature Simon and Garfunkel with their eponymously titled “Baby Driver” off of the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

A phrase often tossed about in the face of adversity is “Don’t get mad, get even.” After the experience on Ant-Man, Wright didn’t just get even, he excelled. If you like action, but wish it could be handled in an inventive, fresh way, with deep and interesting characters, this is the movie for you.

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The 10 Best Professional Killers in the Movies

These are the roles to make someone else die for. Ever since the days of Murder, Inc in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the revelations about government involvement in assassination attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, movie goers have seen professional killers portrayed on the big screen. Rather than being a crime of passion or hatred, these killers are like small-business people, motivated by profit, even if some of them are government contractors. I’ve left off some good performances, like Avner (Eric Bana) in Munich, who is more of a soldier in small battles, and Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate, since it wasn’t his conscious choice to kill. While in a couple of the films the character “changes their ways,” they were first people who killed because they chose to do it.

10) Leon in Leon: The Professional (1994)

French director Luc Besson, who most recently did Lucy, has two characters he created on this list. The first is Leon, played by Jean Reno. Leon is a “cleaner” who works for a crime boss in NYC. He’s pretty much illiterate and his only real relationship is with a house plant. That changes when a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) and his team wreak havoc on a family in Leon’s apartment building. The only survivor is 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her movie debut) who seeks shelter with Leon. The two work out a complex relationship – part parent-child, part mentor-student. In the end, when the agents seek to eliminate the only witness to their crime, Leon must use his skills to protect Mathilda.

9) Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

John Cusack co-produced and collaborated on the screenplay for this movie, as well as playing Martin Blank in this comedy about a hit man who winds up at his 10 year high school reunion. The movie features Minnie Driver as Martin’s droll high school sweetheart, John’s sister Joan as his secretary, and Dan Ackroyd as a competing assassin. It’s not exactly black comedy, but it’s definitely dark gray, and Cusack’s a perfect fit for the character.

8) Rowley in Foreign Correspondent (1940)

In this Alfred Hitchcock thriller, there are two instances of casting against type. George Saunders, usually cast as a rogue, plays good guy ffolliot who helps Joel McCrea unearth a Nazi plot right before the outbreak of WWII. The other casting is Edmund Gwen, known mostly these days as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, as the hired killer Rowley. While the movies had shown political assassins and gangster killers plenty of times, this is one of the first hired hit men to be featured in a film.

7) Nikita in Nikita (a.k.a. La Femme Nikita) (1990)

Besson’s second character on this list is from his breakout movie. Anne Parillard plays a nihilistic teen who is captured after a drug-fueled robbery goes wrong. Rather than being sent to prison, Nikita is pulled out by a secret government agency called “The Centre” and trained as an assassin. After her training and her initial hit, she’s allowed to live on her own, but she finds the worlds she’s straddling keep coming into conflict. This movie was remade in the US as Point of No Return, with Bridget Fonda as Nikita, though they make her more of a victim of circumstance. It also spawned two TV series, with Peta Wilson then Maggie Q in the title role.

6) G. Joubert in Three Days of the Condor (1975)

This Sydney Pollack thriller was based on the book “Six Days of the Condor” by James Grady. They picked up the pace for the movie. The main focus is on intelligence operative Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) who tries to figure out why everyone was murdered at the think-tank where he worked. Joe had snuck out the back way because of rain and wasn’t seen by the team of assassins before they struck. The leader of the team is G. Joubert, played with cool aplomb by Max von Sydow. He takes a contract and completes it, but it isn’t personal for him, and if a contract supersedes his original one, that’s fine with him.

5) Vincent in Collateral (2004)

Michael Mann’s movie is a pas de deux between taxi cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hit man hired by South American drug lords to make a government case go away by wiping out the government’s witnesses, informants, and the prosecutor. The movie takes place in classic tragedy style over the course of one long night as Vincent makes his rounds across Los Angeles. In between the hits he spouts his philosophy of life to Max, who must try to find some way to stop Vincent if he is to survive. It’s one of Cruise’s better performances, playing against type.

4) The Bride in Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 (2003-4)

This role began with Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman brainstorming together during down time while making Pulp Fiction and grew into a four-hour .44 magnum opus with Thurman, whose character is only identified as The Bride until midway through the second movie, taking revenge on the team of assassins she once belonged to after they wipe out the participants at her wedding, put her into a coma, and steal her child. (She does have some motivation.) You could give honorable mentions in this category to Vivica A.Fox, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, and David Carradine, each of them assassins in their own right, but to the winner goes the spoils.

3) The Jackal in The Day of The Jackal (1973)

This faithful adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller stars Edward Fox as an English assassin known only as the Jackal. He’s hired by a group of former French military officers to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. The movie begins with a recreation of an actual attempt on de Gaulle’s life in 1962. When it fails, the group behind it decides to bring in a professional. Fox is excellent as the Jackal, operating with ice water in his veins as he pursues his target. Do not confuse this excellent movie with the awful Bruce Willis/Richard Gere 1997 movie The Jackal that purports to be based on the book.

2) Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem deservedly won an Oscar for his performance as Chigurh, a merciless killer – unless you call a coin flip correctly. With his page-boy haircut and deadly shark eyes, he’s riveting to watch. Chigurh’s weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, normally used to kill cows in slaughter houses to eliminate the risk of flying bullets. Bardem’s Oscar win was the first by a Spanish actor over the Academy’s 80 year history at that time.

1) Jason Bourne in The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)

What happens when a contract killer no longer remembers who he is or what he’s done, but retains his skills? The series is based on Robert Ludlum’s bestseller from the 1970s, but in updating the story for the new millennium the screenwriters masterfully reworked the plot. The Bourne Identity, along with Supremacy and Ultimatum, completely changed the thriller genre. Matt Damon is brilliant in the role, convincingly handling the physical action as well as making the audience emotionally involved with the character and his struggles.

If you have other professional killer roles that you’ve think are deserving, please add a comment. I’d enjoy the input.

 

“Two” Steps Backwards

Two years ago, the reboot of the Spiderman franchise was a pleasant surprise. It cut down on the angst that was a weakness of the Sam Raimi version, particularly when it came to Spidey’s love interest, so in the end Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) ignore her father’s request that they stay apart. There was also less of the trash talk on Spidey’s part, and while the plot was fantastic, as is most every superhero movie, it was handled in a more realistic and less cartoony way. There was hope that the sequel would build on this good start. Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 steps backward. It’s well-filmed, the special effects are top-notch, and the chemistry is wonderful between Garfield and Stone, but the problem is the script. It was pounded out by four writers, and they ended up with a clichéd mishmash. At nearly 2 ½ hours, it’s also bloated.

The movie begins with scenes repeated from the first film, when Peter was dropped off with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) by his parents Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz). The movie then shows what happened to Richard and Mary afterward in a scene that involves a plane falling from the sky, though they must have been traveling near the edge of space since the astronauts of the 1960s took less time coming down than does this plane.

In the first set-piece with Spidey, he (along with apparently every NYPD police car) is trying to catch three Russian mobsters, led by Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). The script gives Spidey a constant string of wisecracks that turn the action into a cartoon. Actually, some of the action seems cribbed from the Warner Brothers classics, though Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner did it better. Peter’s also late for his graduation ceremony, where Gwen is the valedictorian. He misses her speech, but arrives just in time to collect his diploma. Even as he’s cracking wise, Peter keeps flashing to visions of Captain Stacy, so the angst rushes back in and Peter must break up with Gwen to honor her father’s dying wish. One giant step backwards right there.

During the chase, Spidey saves dweebish electrician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who’s wandering around the streets carrying multiple rolls of blueprints for absolutely no discernable reason. He’s a male version of Michelle Pfeiffer’s “Selina Kyle” from Batman Returns 22 years ago, but without the sympathy she engendered, or the edge she projected once she turned into Catwoman after being killed by Christopher Walken. Dillon works as an electrician for Oscorp, the evil corporate empire of the Spiderman saga, and is picked on by his manager (B.J. Novak). It’s stated that Oscorp has stolen his design for a power grid, but he shows no resentment against the company, even after the industrial accident they cause that turns Dillon into Electro. Why doesn’t Electro get some revenge against his manager? Apparently the writers forgot about Novak’s character.

Dane DeHaan is Harry Osborne, the role James Franco played in the Raimi films. Harry is written as a black sheep who’s disappointed his father (Chris Cooper in a small, uncredited role) and was shipped off to boarding schools when he was eleven, though somehow he’s still Peter Parker’s BFF. Soon Harry’s old man dies of a genetic disease that he’s lived with for decades, but when Harry begins to manifest symptoms, he acts like he’ll die tomorrow. Eventually he takes on the Green Goblin persona, but it feels like an afterthought. The writers have set up Oscorp as this powerful corporation with strong security and evil henchmen, but it seems like whenever someone needs to get some carefully protected item, they can walk right into the building and pick it up.

When you compare Amazing Spider-Man 2 to April’s superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the problems with Spider-Man become clear. With Winter Soldier, the writers took the Marvel world and stood it on its ear. (I won’t go into how just in case you’re one of the three or four people in the world who haven’t yet seen the movie.) The action always has a purpose, the plotting is deft and it mirrors real concerns in the world that give it a topical edge. The first Captain America was a bit of a period piece (though a very well-done period piece) whose purpose was to set up the character for The Avengers. With Winter Soldier, though, the franchise jumped from afterthought to the level of the Iron Man series, and came close to the quality of The Dark Knight.

In contrast, Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like it was cribbed from the other Marvel movies. The writers even lift a scene from Iron Man 2 where a kid steps in for the hero, though Iron Man did it much better. The Spidey banter is annoying because the writers use it in place of characterization. The film will make money, but if they make a third movie, the filmmakers will have to work hard to get rid of the bad aftertaste this movie leaves in your mouth when it’s finished.

(Note: It’s common now for Marvel movies to have two tags during the credits. This time, though, the only tag is a scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past that comes midway through the credits. It’s almost like the filmmakers are saying, “Yeah, this one stunk, but there’s a good movie coming in a couple of weeks.” There’s no tag at the end.)

Minor Destruction

Roland Emmerich has destroyed Washington, DC more times than anyone. He’s done it via death ray (Independence Day), ice age (The Day After Tomorrow) and flood (2012). With his new movie, White House Down, he underachieves, in that he only destroys parts of the city this time out.

Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a former marine who’s now a Capitol policeman working security for the Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Raphelson helped him get the job as thanks for saving his son while in combat in Afghanistan. Cale dreams, though, of becoming a Secret Service agent. He’s a divorced father whose daughter Emily (Joey King) is a political junkie and supporter of President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). When Cale gets an interview with the Service, he calls in a favor to get his daughter a pass so she can accompany him.

The interview, conducted by the assistant head of the White House security team, Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), doesn’t go well. Finnerty was Cale’s college girlfriend and remembers how he was then. Cale tries to convince her that he’s changed, that he’s become more responsible and serious, but his record derails his quest for the job. Finnerty has just returned from an overseas trip with the president, so the head of the detail, Martin Walker (James Woods) orders her to take the rest of the day off. Walker has been in charge of the protection detail for decades, but is retiring in a few days.

While they’re leaving the White House, Emily spots a tour starting, and prevails on Cale to let them join it. At the same time, a man dressed as a janitor rolls a cleaning cart to the center of the floor beneath the Capitol rotunda and then runs away, escaping the massive explosion that happens moments later. In the White House, a group of repairmen supposedly upgrading the home theater system reveal themselves as mercenaries under the leadership of Stenz (Jason Clarke). They take out most of the Secret Service agents in the building and access the Service’s armory, then use snipers on the roof to shoot the agents on the grounds and cover the entrance of the rest of their team. Emily gets separated from Cale, who’s taken hostage by the mercenaries along with the rest of the tour group. Cale manages to escape and comes looking for Emily, but instead he saves President Sawyer from a traitor in the Secret Service. Cale has to keep Sawyer out of the mercenairies’ hands and somehow save Emily, as well as figure out the reason for the attack.

This is, of course, the second similarly themed movie to be released this year, after Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen a few months back. I’d enjoyed that movie, which had a fairly serious tone. White House Down won me over, though, through its humor and its completely over-the-top plot that keeps the action coming hard and fast throughout. It does owe a lot to the granddaddy of all locked building hostage dramas, Die Hard – it even has a wry computer hacker as part of the mercenary team – but they say mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery. They flatter Die Hard a lot.

Tatum does well in the role of Cale, especially handling the physical aspects of the role. Emmerich does find a way to get him down to his t-shirt, another bit of flattery for Die Hard and a treat for the ladies. There are nods at Obama in Foxx’s portrayal of Sawyer, down to chewing nicotine gum to keep from smoking, and he and Tatum play off each other well. Gyllenhaal has a more cerebral role, but she’s an actress who can communicate that even without saying a word. Her battles are with words and against men in the Pentegon Situation Room.

Movies like this are a race where the director is trying to outrun the audience’s sense of reality. If he can keep both the action and humor coming at the audience rapidly enough, they will ignore reality, and the director wins. That’s the case with White House Down: as you walk out of the theater you know it was completely unreal and over the top, but for the 131 minutes you were sitting in your seat, you didn’t care.

Spaghetti Southwestern

Quentin Tarantino’ encyclopedic knowledge of “B” movies (both foreign and domestic) allows him to create paeans to the genres of these films.  Apparently he watched every film in the video store where he used to work.  As a writer/director, he started with crime stories (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), then did 70’s black-ploitation (Jackie Brown), followed by Hong Kong chop suey (Kill Bill Vols. 1&2), 70’s sex-ploitation (Death-Proof), and WWII flicks (Inglourious Basterds).  Now he’s finally gotten around to Spaghetti Westerns with Django Unchained.

But the paean is only one level of Tarantino’s work.  He’s one of the most literary screenwriters today, with a wicked wit.  His speeches flow off the tongues of his actors with twists and turns of phrase that are rapturous for the ear, a quality one normally finds on stage rather than on screen.  And even as he’s winking his eye at previous movies, he creates his own vision that is both fresh and fascinating.  (And violent – the patron of his movies is St. Peckinpah).

Django Unchained has all of this and then some.  The movie tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who’s been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as punishment for their escape attempt.  He’s “purchased” (I won’t spoil the scene) by a German bounty-hunter and former dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) because he can identify three fugitive brothers for whom Schultz is searching.  Schultz finds slavery appalling and offers Django his freedom (plus $75.00) for his help tracking down the brothers

Schultz is an actor with life as his stage; he’ll play roles to get him close to his targets.  He also prefers jobs where the fugitive is wanted dead or alive, since it’s easier transporting bodies rather than live prisoners.  Django is thrown into Schultz’s lethal role playing before he knows what’s happening, but his cool head helps him learn fast.

Django helps Schultz apprehend the brothers in Tennessee, where they were working as overseers on the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson).  Big Daddy takes exception to this and leads a proto-KKK raid against Schultz and Django.  It goes off with a bang, but not in a good way for the raiders.  While in Tennessee, they find that Broomhilda was sold to the infamous Candieland plantation.  It’s owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who supplements his agricultural production with Mandingo fights.  Rather than an immediate assault, Schultz invites Django to accompany him for a season of bounty hunting in the west, during which Django’s transformation from slave to gunslinger is completed.  Then it’s time to head for Mississippi to save Broomhilda from Candieland.

Setting a western in the antebellum South – in effect, creating a south-western – is a twist that fuels the movie.  Race and westerns have been mixed before, to great delight in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, but also in films from the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s such as 100 Rifles and Skin Game.  One of the films that most influenced Tarantino in 1966’s Django which includes a fight between Mexican bandits and the KKK.  (The star of that film, Franco Nero, has a cameo in Django Unchained where he asks Foxx if he knows how to spell Django.)

Foxx is excellent as always as Django, making the audience believe his transformation into avenging angel.  Christoph Waltz is a natural with Tarantino’s dialogue, which is even more of an accomplishment since he’s working in his second language.  Their first collaboration, Inglourious Basterds, brought Waltz a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  For the first time, DiCaprio has taken on a villain role, which he carries off with aplomb.  The uber-heavy of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s main servant, Stephen.  Jackson’s another actor who’s a perfect match for Tarantino’s crafting of words, as he showed in Pulp Fiction.  Kerry Washington, in a sense, has a dual role, as both the proud but terrified slave and as Django’s idealized vision of his wife.  By the end of the film, those roles have blended together.

Besides Don Johnson and Franco Nero, Tarantino has filled the film with appearances by actors from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, most of whom had appeared in western or semi-western films or TV shows during that time.  You have Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), Tom Wopat (“Dukes of Hazard”), Don Stroud (Journey to Shiloh, “Ironside”), Bruce Dern (The Cowboys – where he killed John Wayne), Lee Horsley (“Matt Houston”) and Michael Parks (“Then Came Bronson”).  Tarantino also has fun having Russ Tamblyn credited as “Son of A Gunfighter,” which was a movie Tamblyn made in 1966, and his daughter Amber Tamblyn credited as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.”  As usual, Tarantino also takes role, one that lets him make an explosive exit.

You don’t go to a Tarantino film for a history lesson, as Inglourious Basterds proved conclusively, and he does play fast and loose with some facets of history while getting others right.  His Mandingo fighting is actually a nod at another movie that was scandalous in its day – Mandingo – but staged fights between blacks did occur.  He mines historic scandal by having Jamie Foxx ride a horse, something no black was allowed to do in the South before the Civil War.  (Foxx is a horseman himself, and used his own mounts in the film.)  While it’s shocking for our ears today, the film also uses the N-word throughout.  However, it’s always clearly tied in with the slave culture of that day as well as the prejudice that held on long after the Civil War.

Django Unchained is a good, effective, entertaining movie, though do be aware that it’s relentlessly violent.  Up in Heaven, St. Peckinpah is smiling.  (There is a brief tag after the credits, as if Tarantino remembered one last cliché of the western genre he had to wink at before closing his story.)

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)