January is a strange time in the world of movies, as it brings a mix of the very worst and best. Releases this month are either holdovers from the end of the year that pushed to be seen in New York and LA in time for awards season and are now in wider release, or films so bad the ”winter of their discontent” is the only time the studios would place them.
You need know little more than that we had three major releases this week that opened “cold,“ meaning they were not screened for critics. A trip to the multiplex on opening day gleaned this writer the repeated experience of ticket holders finding their patience tried and walking out within 30 minutes of the start.
With clunkers like Mortdecai, The Boy Next Door and Strange Magic, we could all spend time reflecting on what has happened to Johnny Depp’s career or the wisdom of an animated film using the tagline “from the mind of George Lucas,” but perhaps it’s better we just leave these films alone after a blanket three-word review for the three movies:
“Save your money.”
All is not lost, however. Three of the most talked about, lauded and potentially awarded movies of 2014 — Whiplash, Boyhood, and Birdman — have something in common. They were all premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which always takes place in January.
That means this week all film industry eyes are on Park City, Utah, where Sundance 2015 is taking place, amid swirling gossip and conjecture about what films may become this year’s big surprise hits or awards darlings.
You want to know before anyone else does what flicks to seek out or chat about at the water cooler, hipster-like, don’t you? We can do that. Cinema Siren says ”You’re welcome.”
The festival has only just gotten underway, so it is hard to predict what the real winners or losers will be, and sometimes big distribution deals don’t result in big box office numbers, as Chris Rock’s Top Five will attest. However, the fact that little in the way of successful movies came out of the Toronto Film Festival last year suggests that indeed Sundance is the place for boutique distributors to acquire the hottest new Indies.
Before the fest started, several movies were already snapped up, and the feeding frenzy is only beginning.
- Slow West, Scottish writer/director John Maclean’s Western starring Micheal Fassbender (X-Men) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) about a young man trying to find his lost love with the help of a mysterious stranger, got picked up by A24 Films.
- Magnolia bought writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s Results, which stars Colbie Smulders (Avengers, How I Met Your Mother) and Guy Pearce (Memento) and Kevin Corrigan (The Departed) about a lonely divorcee who joins a gym, makes friends with the owner and his trainer, and life gets complicated.
- Last week Lionsgate bought the North American rights to Don Verdean, from director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) which stars the always-compelling Sam Rockwell (Moon) as a biblical archeologist who scours the globe for artifacts but has to get inventive when he gets pressure to deliver something substantial. A great ensemble cast includes Danny McBride (Pineapple Express) and Will Forte (Nebraska). It premieres Jan. 28.
- Opening night brought the anticipated raunch-com The Bronze, co-written and starring Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) about an embittered former Olympian who tries to derail a rising gymnastic star stealing her hometown thunder. It was met with less than stellar reviews, with some noting it was uneven and too mean-spirited.
- The biggest buzz is about the film Z for Zachariah that sounds very similar to or at least inspired by 1959’s The Word, The Flesh, and The Devil but is based on a novel from 1971; it stars Chris Pine (Star Trek) Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave). The story of three people who may be the last alive on Earth, it has a bleak hopeless quality, though, which may not play to a larger audience outside of the festival even if it is praised there.
There are a number of other films that hold potential for success.
- Digging for Fire: This could go nowhere or could be a big surprise. Directed by Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), it boasts a great ensemble cast and a sort of The Big Chill for the Millennials vibe. It features Jane Adams, Mike Birbiglia, Orlando Bloom, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Elliott, Jake Johnson, Brie Larson, and Sam Rockwell, among others, and takes place over a weekend of housesitting where a couple’s discovery of a bone and a gun lead to separate adventures.
- Last Days in the Desert: Another example of a film that could be a great success or a disaster, this movie stars Ewan McGregor as both Jesus Christ and the Devil. DIrected and written for the screen by Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment), it attempts to put a unique spin on Jesus’ fasting and praying in the desert, along with his struggles with the Devil. If that sounds like picket lines and a train wreck waiting to happen, it might also mean there’s something artistic and inventive to be discovered there as well.
- Stokholm Pennsylvania: Writer/director Nikole Beckwith guides ever rising star Saoirse Ronan (The Best Budapest Hotel) Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) in film about a girl returning to her parents after being abducted 17 years earlier. She has to deal with a completely new life and reconcile herself to letting go of her captor, on whom she has been completely dependent. This movie has the makings of something great if it separates itself from the tabloid sensibility so often a part of these stories, and the three stars are all undervalued gems who may make use of each other to stunning effect.
- Strangerland: Not to be outdone in the bummer-land department by the plot of Stokholm, Pennsylvania, or any other dark storyline, this first-time feature by Australian director Kim Farrant is about a couple (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) who have two teenagers that disappear from their town just before a massage dust storm. Part thriller, part psychological drama, the quality and success of Farrant’s offering hangs on compelling performances of its leads, who have shown themselves more than capable in the past.
- The End of the Tour: If stars Jason Segel (Muppets, How I Met Your Mother) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) bring their A game, this story based on a five-day interview between writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky should be rife with intensity and emotion. The interview was never published and five days of audio tapes were packed away, but used for Lipsky’s memoir following Wallace’s suicide in 2008. James Ponsoldt, who helmed the under-appreciated Indie The Spectacular Nowdirects.
Many more films are being premiered or finding a spotlight in Park City this week, and after all the deals have been made, the micro-brewed beer has been drunk, and the dust and snow settles, we will have a much better idea of whether any great releases will be coming our way later in the year. I’ll give you a heads up about where these films can be seen, especially in my upcoming video series that will guide you all to Indie films available on demand in your own homes and in the theaters.
Until then, stay warm and don’t waste good time on a bad movie.