Going to the movies is expensive. Back in April, The Wrap reported that the national average was $8.12 a ticket—and that was before the summer movie season, when IMAX and 3-D prices surely drove that number up. Factor in concessions, transportation to and from the theater, and—for some moviegoers, anyway—inflated babysitting rates, and seeing films on the big screen becomes a pretty costly pastime. It’s no wonder audiences often take a movie they didn’t like personally: They gambled their hard-earned cash on a night of entertainment and went bust. How is a film lover on a budget supposed to invest their money wisely?
That’s where we come in. In an effort to save you, dear readers, from going bankrupt on bad cinema, The A.V. Club has taken a long and hard look at close to a hundred of the biggest movies opening between now and New Year’s. Our goal: to separate the safe bets from the big risks, helping you make an educated choice as to how to blow your paycheck at the multiplex this fall. Some of these upcoming releases we’ve seen on the festival circuit, and can hence reliably assess. The rest we’re simply speculating about, using a highly unscientific system of pedigree analysis. In both cases, we’ve broken the movie in question down into a best- and worst-case scenario, before determining if it’s worth risking your precious $8.12 to see. (Legal note: The A.V. Club is not responsible for any money lost on a movie you didn’t like. Yes, even if it’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan.)
Today, we go all Mad Money on the major releases of September and October. Check back tomorrow for financial advice on the upcoming films of November and December. And if you want some moving pictures to go with our guide, we’ve assembled a YouTube playlist of trailers for the films discussed below (those that have trailers, at least).
The details: A long-gestating adaption of a book by the American-born, U.K.-based travel writer Bill Bryson about his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail upon returning to the U.S. after decades living abroad. Robert Redford stars as Bryson, with Nick Nolte as his recovering alcoholic buddy Stephen Katz—a role originally intended for the late Paul Newman.
Best-case scenario: Redford applies his charismatic presence to comedy for the first time in decades, bolstered by a strong supporting cast—including Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, and Kristen Schaal—and the light touch of TV veteran Ken Kwapis, whose small-screen resume includes The Office, The Larry Sanders Show, and Freaks And Geeks.
Worst-case scenario: Kwapis’ big-screen directing resume, on the other hand, includes Dunston Checks In, The Beautician And The Beast, and License To Wed.
Worth the risk? Given Kwapis’ less-than-stellar feature track record, no one should expect much, though seeing Redford loosen up a bit might be worth the price of admission.
The details: With Jason Statham otherwise occupied, possibly on projects that didn’t lowball his salary, The Transporter becomes the latest film series to receive the premature-reboot treatment, with a younger (and, disconcertingly, less bald) Frank Martin (Ed Skrein) on yet another hard-driving courier mission where he’s supposed to stay dispassionate and detached but winds up involved and possibly looking for revenge.
Best-case scenario: The new film announces replacement Transporter Skrein as a new action star, much the same way the original 2002 film introduced Statham to many of his fans.
Worst-case scenario: It turns out like most of the other non-Statham action movies produced by Luc Besson’s oft-underachieving EuropaCorp.
Worth the risk? Unlikely. EuropaCorp has a habit of turning movies that ought to be delightful trash into over-edited slogs. Without Statham, a new Transporter no longer seems like the exception to that rule.
The details: A bronze-colored Chinese production that casts Adrien Brody as a villainous Roman commander who follows the Silk Road all the way to China, only to meet resistance from a local leader (Jackie Chan) and a defector (John Cusack) who’ve joined forces to raise an army against him. Expect plenty of anachronisms, less-than-convincing digital effects, and miscasting; Daniel Lee, a specialist in big-budget historical fantasies, directed from his own script.
Best-case scenario: Dumb fun, with a wild-eyed Brody chewing sand-covered scenery as the bad guy.
Worst-case scenario: Just dumb, with Chan—now past 60, and no longer the clownish athlete he was in his prime—cast in another over-serious role.
Worth the risk? Sure, if you like khaki-colored landscapes and watching guys scowl from underneath dirty helmets while shooting CGI arrows at each other; the trailers don’t seem to suggest that there’s much else to Dragon Blade. We’ll let you decide whether that’s enough to sustain over two hours of movie.
The details: Richard Gere, who generally plays wealthy businessmen and other professionals, takes on the role of a homeless man in the third feature directed by Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger). It’s perhaps the most experimental film of Gere’s long career, with a focus on grueling experience rather than traditional narrative.
Best-case scenario: You witness a powerful, moving portrait of life lived in the margins of society, and come away with a better understanding of the deeply wounded human beings who approach you on the street, begging for change.
Worst-case scenario: You’re bored into a coma by the film’s repetitive nature, and realize that while homeless people deserve our compassion, that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to observe their every routine for two solid hours.
Worth the risk? Tough to say. Time Out Of Mind received plenty of critical acclaim on the festival circuit last fall, but its plotlessness will drive many viewers batty. And while Gere commits himself fully to his empty husk of a character, on some level his casting feels like a stunt.
The details: M. Night Shyamalan returns to the horror genre for the first time since The Happening with this apparently found-footage chiller about city kids on an ill-fated jaunt to their grandparents’ house. The trailer frames it as a modern gloss on Hansel And Gretel, with Grandma asking if the kids would please get in the oven to help clean it. Originally titled Sundowning, The Visit is rumored to be about a murderous form of hallucinatory dementia, which could make for a scarily plausible horror movie, or else a rankly exploitative one. The imprimatur of Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum suggests that whatever its ethical implications, The Visit will push as many genre-movie hot buttons as possible.
Best-case scenario: The handicam aesthetics suit Shyamalan’s talent for intimate, claustrophobic staging, and the film gets the same mileage out of creepy realism as Paranormal Activity.
Worst-case scenario: Remember in The Happening when that guy gets his hands bitten off by lions and we see it on someone else’s phone? Well, what if this whole movie is like that? (Answer: It will be the funniest movie of all time).
Worth the risk? We’re cautiously optimistic that Shyamalan is still capable of making an effective thriller. Either way, the curiosity factor with this one is off the charts.
The details: Another go at bringing back the domestic and erotic thrillers of the 1990s, this time set within the black upper-middle class. Sanaa Lathan stars as a political lobbyist who rebounds from a bad breakup by getting involved with a handsome and seemingly super-cool new guy (Michael Ealy), who—per the traditions of the genre—turns out to be a violent creep. Morris Chestnut rounds out the cast as the protagonist’s ex.
Best-case scenario: A entertaining, trashy thriller with a good home invasion set-piece (hinted at in the trailer) as the climax.
Worst-case scenario: A bad-but-not-so-bad-it’s-good attempt at a ’90s throwback, marred—as these things often are—by a moralizing tone.
Worth the risk? A PG-13 rating for a traditionally R-rated genre doesn’t bode well. On the other hand, this is the first screenplay Tyger Williams has gotten produced since 1993’s Menace II Society, which contributes to the curiosity factor. We’d probably go see it.
The details: Years after taking each other’s virginity in college, two serial cheaters (Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis) reunite and become fast friends, vowing to keep it platonic to preserve the good thing they’ve got going. If that sounds a little like every romantic comedy to be released in the wake of When Harry Met Sally, take solace in the fact that the second feature written and directed by Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) actually earns the comparison. It also has a terrific ensemble cast, including Adam Scott, Andrea Savage, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, and Amanda Peet.
Best-case scenario: The film is a major hit, inspiring a renaissance of genuinely worthwhile rom-coms and helping the talented Headland get more projects off the ground.
Worst-case scenario: Alison Brie admirers spontaneously burst into flames during the ecstasy dance scene. You’ll know the one when you see it.
Worth the risk? Unless you’re squeamish about frank sex scenes, there’s no risk here—Sleeping With Other People gives its much-maligned genre a good name.
The details: Destructive romantic relationships are commonplace on-screen, but few films have explored the hazards of a truly toxic friendship. This intense French drama, directed by actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), observes the fallout when an impressionable teenage girl comes under the sway of a charismatic emotional sociopath.
Best-case scenario: Laurent (whose directorial debut, The Adopted, was never released in the U.S.) gets added to the short list of actors who’ve successfully made the transition behind the camera. Though she’s won multiple awards for her performances, this may be the best work she’s ever done.
Worst-case scenario: The film’s sheer intensity causes someone in the theater to hyperventilate. They keel over onto the floor, gasping for breath. The projector is stopped, and nobody present gets to finish watching one of the year’s best films.
Worth the risk? Yes. It’s not really that intense, but it is among the year’s finest, exploring a destructive imbalance of power within an arrestingly unusual context. As a director, Laurent is the real deal. Get in on (or at least near) the ground floor.
The details: Mommy has come home from the hospital with her head swaddled in gauze, but it’s what’s behind her eyes that’s worrying her twin sons. Over the course of a long convalescence from a mysterious accident, she seems to have lost her mind (or maybe she’s not Mommy at all). A critical hit at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, this slick Austrian film adopts the shape of a modern fairy tale, right down to its spasms of brutally grim(m) and incongruously comic violence. Not since the early days of Michael Haneke has a foreign thriller so gleefully played such funny games.
Best-case scenario: Fans of gory foreign imports glom on to this extremely accomplished thriller, which delivers the requisite shocks to the system while retaining a detached, sardonic edge.
Worst-case scenario: We get a toothless Hollywood remake in the next two years.
Worth the risk? Not for the faint of heart or those with phobias of having body parts forcibly glued together. Everybody else will enjoy themselves.
The details: The next wave of Christian propaganda films keep coming and keep attracting bigger-name talent. Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, and Dwight Yoakam anchor this latest effort in spreading the good word, an adaptation of the 1989 bestseller recounting the ostensibly true story of a man who was pronounced dead after an automobile accident. The kicker, obvious from the title, is that he awakes 90 minutes later, claiming he had been in heaven. Michael Polish (The Astronaut Farmer, Big Sur) wrote and directed this film, which hopes to follow in the footsteps of Bible-thumping successes like God’s Not Dead.
Best-case scenario: Polish is hit or miss as a filmmaker, but even his lesser efforts tend to feature moments of elegantly composed beauty.
Worst-case scenario: That this is exactly the same level of quality as most other Christian films. That ramrod-stiff voiceover by Christensen in the trailer isn’t promising.
Worth the risk? Not even if the alternative is a 90-minute sermon.
The details: The key characteristic of the Cold War is that it could turn anything into a political competition—even chess, which frequently garnered intense media attention during the period when the Soviet Union was popularly seen as dominating the game. Scripted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), this Edward Zwick-directed Bobby Fischer biopic is centered on 1972 match that pitted Fischer (Tobey Maguire) against world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Though some have balked at the casting of Maguire as the tall, gaunt Fischer, the trailers at least indicate that the movie won’t be sanding down the paranoid chess legend’s mental instability, or ignoring his virulent anti-Semitism—an obsession made all the more bizarre by the fact that Fischer was himself Jewish.
Best-case scenario: A Beautiful Mind sans sappy uplift.
Worst-case scenario: A poor man’s A Beautiful Mind.
Worth the risk? It’ll be interesting to see the soft-spoken, baby-faced Maguire—who’s too old to play Fischer in his prime, but doesn’t look it—try his hand at chewy, capital-A Acting.
The details: Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, the infamous South Boston criminal who was the loose inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. This isn’t a Scorsese movie—the director is Crazy Heart’s Scott Cooper—but it’s sure cast like one, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, and Corey Stoll all turning up for a piece of the decades-spanning gangster action.
Best-case scenario: Depp silences the tedious carping about his recent work with a reminder of his eclecticism and charisma, while Cooper delivers on the promise of Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace with a movie that has a bit more swagger and style than those two well-acted but unremarkable dramas.
Worst-case scenario: Depp’s big comeback plays like decade-old Scorsese, warmed over, with negligible roles for a lot of talented actors.
Worth the risk? Yes. The trailers have been crisply propulsive and the cast is stacked. If nothing else, Depp’s latest transformation doesn’t look particularly whimsical.
The details: Last year’s not-bad big-screen adaptation of James Dashner’s dystopian YA novel The Maze Runner has spawned a sequel, based on the second book of the series, The Scorch Trials. The new film picks up not long after the explanations and surprise twists that ended the last one, and sends the hero Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) out into a ravaged post-apocalyptic landscape, where he and and fellow Maze-escapees try to get to the bottom of a global conspiracy, while dealing with storms, monsters, and rival survivors.
Best-case scenario: The Scorch Trials follows in the footsteps of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and outdoes the action, intensity, and mythological resonance of its predecessor.
Worst-case scenario: The movie is more like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 and spends two hours setting up the next chapter.
Worth the risk? Why not? September is light on escapist, youth-oriented entertainment, and director Wes Ball showed a lot of promise with The Maze Runner (which was his first feature).
The details: A pack of charismatic actors follows Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur up a big hill for a 3-D recreation of an infamous 1996 mountain-climbing tragedy, which was previously the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air. Everest stars Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, and Keira Knightley (plus Michael Kelly as Krakauer). The movie obeys the first rule of tragedy: If you have to watch people die in the snow, they should at least be attractive people.
Best-case scenario: Everest honors the people who lost their lives, and gives audiences two hours of sweaty palms.
Worst-case scenario: Idiots watch this film and immediately book a trip to Nepal, convinced that they could best this mountain.
Worth the risk? A vertigo-inducing 3-D wilderness adventure seems like an exciting way to pass the time. Then again, that kind of thinking got these mountaineers into trouble 20 years ago.
The details: A morally upright FBI agent (Emily Blunt) gets tasked to accompany a CIA operative (Josh Brolin) and a mysterious “consultant” (Benicio Del Toro) across the Mexican border in this superlative drug-war thriller, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners). To say that she gets more than she bargained for would be putting it mildly.
Best-case scenario: Viewers recognize that Sicario isn’t really “about” the drug war. Rather, it’s a deeply despairing portrait of realpolitik, demonstrating how difficult it can be to do the right thing even when one is wholeheartedly committed to truth, justice, and accountability.
Worst-case scenario: Viewers don’t pick up on or appreciate the film’s darker themes, and merely enjoy it as a magnificent exercise in sustained white-knuckle tension, featuring top-notch work from its three leads (especially Blunt, who’s terrific in a tricky role that’s intentionally diminished over the course of the film).
Worth the risk?: Absolutely. Sicario was among the best films to premiere at Cannes earlier this year, and even naysayers (who place too much emphasis on what the film is or isn’t “saying” about the drug war) tend to concede that it’s gripping as hell.
The details: In this fact-based drama, widow, single mother, and recovering drug addict Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) is taken hostage in her apartment by fugitive Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo), who’s on the run after escaping police custody en route to a court appearance and killing four people. During the seven-hour ordeal, Smith bonds with Nichols about mistakes she’s made and their mutual desire to be better people.
Best-case scenario: It’s hard to be optimistic about this one. Mara and Oyelowo are fine actors (and the supporting cast includes the always-welcome Michael Kenneth Williams), but the film—based on Smith’s book, Unlikely Angel—was adapted by Brian Bird, best known for schlock like Touched By An Angel and Step By Step (and for being Michael Landon’s partner and co-founder of Believe Pictures). Speaking of schlock, director Jerry Jameson helmed Airport ’77, Raise The Titanic, and a bunch of TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. So, best-case scenario, it might be good to kill a couple of hours with the family at the holidays when it’s available on demand?
Worst-case scenario: Smith read to Nichols from evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life during her ordeal—the book is all over the trailer—and she fervently re-embraced her faith afterward. (“The person who runs my life now is not Ashley; it’s Jesus,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Unlikely Angel was unsurprisingly a hit with Christian audiences, and considering the leaden touch of Bird and Jameson and all the God talk in the trailer, it’s probably another “white lady uses God to help black man” story.
Worth the risk? Nope.
The details: No, it’s not another Ray Charles biopic or the inevitable cinematic revival of Everybody Loves Raymond. Purchased by the Weinsteins back when it went by the even-more-generic title Three Generations, this earnest-looking indie casts Elle Fanning as transgender teen Ray, formerly Ramona. Naomi Watts is her supportive mother, Tate Donovan is her estranged and unsupportive father, and Susan Sarandon is her eccentric lesbian grandmother.
Best-case scenario: Fanning delivers a typically excellent, emotionally expressive performance, shining a light on the transgender experience for folks whose knowledge of the subject is limited to whatever they’ve read about Caitlyn Jenner.
Worst-case scenario: Harvey Weinstein has pulled a Weinstein, either acquiring the kind of middlebrow pap he buys in bulk or dicing up an interesting film into a less interesting one.
Worth the risk? See best-case scenario. The trailer hints that About Ray might be more well meaning than well made, but we need movies like this right now.
The details: It turns out, the answer to the question “Who could kill a child?” is “Anyone, as long as that child is infected with a virus that transforms them into flesh-eating monsters.” A school’s teachers find themselves trapped in the building when tainted food transforms their young charges into bloodthirsty animals, and the surviving grown-ups have to figure out a way to survive. Oh, and murder a bunch of vicious killer tots. The high-pedigree cast includes Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Nasim Pedrad, and Jack McBrayer.
Best-case scenario: Featuring a script by Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Saw), the film delivers the horror-comedy goods with smart performances and knowing send-ups of horror clichés. Plus, you get to see a bunch of demonic little moppets get whacked.
Worst-case scenario: Yet another misfire in the notoriously difficult-to-pull-off horror-comedy genre.
Worth the risk? The film got some positive press coming out of Sundance, and looks to be in the vein of Zombieland. We feel good about this one.
The details: The latest film from French director François Ozon (8 Women, Young & Beautiful) tells the story of a woman (Anaïs Demoustier) who falls in love with her best friend’s widower (Romain Duris)—but only after discovering that he likes to dress in his dead wife’s clothes.
Best-case scenario: The film’s sincere efforts to invest this scenario (adapted from a novel by Ruth Rendell) with complex emotion make it play like a cross-dressing riff on Vertigo, with one lover trying to shape another in a dead person’s image.
Worst-case scenario: You concur with people who saw the film on the festival circuit last fall and complain that it’s too eager to play its transgender character for cheap laughs, as if Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time had never happened.
Worth the risk? Probably. The film is less insensitive than just muddled, unsure whether it’s an empowerment story or something much thornier and darker. But there’s more than enough of the latter to keep it interesting.
The details: After the events of the previous animated monster movie, agreeable doofus Johnny (Andy Samberg) has fathered a child with Mavis (Selena Gomez), the daughter of Dracula (Adam Sandler). But when his grandson doesn’t display any vampire traits yet, Dracula enlists a bunch of his monster buddies (voiced by Sandler’s real-life non-monster buddies) to help the kid along.
Best-case scenario: The first Hotel Transylvania wasn’t especially funny, but it was animated with expressive zig-zaggy energy. Maybe returning director Genndy Tartakovsky and returning co-screenwriter Robert Smigel have been allowed more creative leeway on the follow-up, to come up with jokes to match the movie’s style and iconic characters.
Worst-case scenario: The pervasive laziness of late-period Sandler somehow infects hundreds of animators, resulting in more listless slapstick without a cause.
Worth the risk? For discerning animation fans, probably not. Parents with kids might be willing to take the gamble.
The details: A young CEO (Anne Hathaway) takes on an internship program that includes a senior citizen (Robert De Niro) who—get this—doesn’t know much about computers, e-commerce, or today’s crazy casual young-person wardrobes. But surely he has the wisdom and intelligence that really counts; Nancy Meyers, the self-consciously retro writer-director behind It’s Complicated, The Holiday, and Something’s Gotta Give, sure seems to think so.
Best-case scenario: Meyers may be the poor woman’s Nora Ephron, but she does, at least, have a knack for taking her material seriously. Her movies err on the side of sincere drama with light comic elements, rather than hacky comedy that goes soft in the final 15 minutes. As such, it’s entirely possible that she’ll treat both the De Niro and Hathaway characters with affection and respect.
Worst-case scenario: That affection and respect spills over to the people behind the camera, and the movie traffics in the same toxic self-regard as other Meyers movies (including at least one scene where characters compliment each other on the witty lines provided for them by the filmmaker).
Worth the risk? Probably not. Nancy Meyers at her best is still pretty much Nancy Meyers.
The details: Blockbuster action director Roland Emmerich works small for a change, recreating New York’s 1969 “Stonewall Riots”—a pivotal moment in the gay-rights movement, which signaled that the LGBT community would no longer let a fear of public exposure prevent it from standing up to police harassment. Jeremy Irvine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, and Ron Perlman help tell the story. But while both Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz are openly gay, Stonewall has already been the subject of controversy, due to a reported lack of representation for lesbians and transgender women.
Best-case scenario: An important piece of American cultural history is exposed to a wider audience.
Worst-case scenario: It’s a Roland Emmerich film.
Worth the risk? Maybe see it for the potential trainwreck factor.
The details: It’s been over 30 years since Robert Altman’s California Split, so the time is ripe for another seedy story of the dangerously symbiotic relationship between a pair of congenitally reckless gamblers. Ryan Reynolds plays the smooth operator, with Ben Mendelsohn as the professional loser he befriends.
Best-case scenario: You’re forced to leave early, and just assume that the film’s lived-in authenticity—a hallmark of its writer-director team, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar)—continues until the very end, along with the superbly spiky rapport between Reynolds and Mendelsohn.
Worst-case scenario: You arrive extremely late, miss the consistently enjoyable road-trip and gambling sequences (which genuinely do recall Altman’s classic), and are left with the film’s disappointingly pat finale as your strongest memory.
Worth the risk? Yes. Mississippi Grind ends weakly, which is a shame, but it’s generally a return to form for Boden and Fleck after the entirely underwhelming It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. The overall grittiness and weary pathos register more strongly than the climactic copout.
The details: A Wall Street for the Florida real-estate industry, 99 Homes casts Andrew Garfield as a destitute construction worker and father taken under the wing of the same crooked broker (Michael Shannon, making General Zod look like Kal-El) who booted him from his property. It’s another ode to America’s working class from writer-director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart), who inches further into the mainstream with this star-powered drama.
Best-case scenario: The film’s righteous anger trickles down to viewers, who then…well, do something about those greedy scoundrels.
Worst-case scenario: Bahrani never makes anything as small and vital and naturalistic as Chop Shop ever again.
Worth the risk? Don’t miss a mortgage payment to catch it on opening night. But if you can tolerate some grandstanding, 99 Homes will get the blood boiling good.
The details: Eli Roth’s addition to the long-dormant cannibal subgenre emerges from distribution purgatory to revolt and amuse midnight-movie fans. Riffing on Italian gut-munchers like Cannibal Holocaust, the Hostel director places a group of young activists in the clutches of a flesh-eating Amazonian tribe. There’s less animal slaughter and more stoner humor in Roth’s version.
Best-case scenario: You show up an hour late, missing the endless don’t-these-ugly-Americans-suck portion of the evening, and arrive just in time for the first big kill—the film’s one and only memorable set piece.
Worst-case scenario: You’re an impressionable, budding backpacker and leave this anti-travelogue convinced that it’s better to not see the world, which is full of dangerous locals looking to go hog-wild on any Americans who dare leave the comfort of their home country.
Worth the risk? Not unless you’ve loved all of Roth’s other films, which differ from this only in specific locations you are advised to never visit. Otherwise, hold out for Knock Knock, the director’s other film coming to theaters this fall. It’s much better.
The details: Douglas Tirola’s documentary tells the story of the humor magazine National Lampoon, which in the 1970s introduced a style of comedy—part sophisticated irony, part smartass vulgarity—that influenced everything from Saturday Night Live to Hollywood movies like Animal House and Caddyshack. Through interviews with the likes of Chevy Chase, P.J. O’Rourke, Judd Apatow, and John Landis, Tirola traces the publication’s rise and fall, as well as what happened to major contributors like Doug Kenney and Michael O’Donoghue.
Best-case scenario: In hipping a new generation to the flippant brilliance of the old Lampoon, the documentary inspires a renaissance in take-no-prisoners satire.
Worst-case scenario: The movie is little more than 90 minutes of self-congratulation, glossing over the problems with the magazine’s “smug white upper-middle-class male” POV.
Worth the risk? Absolutely. These kinds of breezy pop-culture histories are usually a lot of fun, and this one delighted audiences at Sundance with its fast pace and animated interludes.
The details: On August 7, 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth between the twin peaks of the World Trade Center on a thin cable. This feat of death-defying courage—and the heist-like scheme that had to be pulled off in order to get Petit up there—was previously chronicled in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire. Now Robert Zemeckis has directed an IMAX-ready dramatization of the same events, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the French daredevil taking a long walk off a short ledge.
Best-case scenario: This inherently exciting true story becomes even more thrilling through the magic of narrative filmmaking. Man On Wire, after all, couldn’t actually put viewers out there on the wire with the man, allowing us to stare down into the gaping abyss beneath his feet.
Worst-case scenario: Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne unnecessarily embellish the story—or worse, they rely too heavily on CGI, making the titular stunt look like a phony special effect.
Worth the risk? You have to wonder if anyone asked Petit that question. But yes, this seems like one blockbuster worth splurging to see in IMAX.
The details: Circa 1958, a young German prosecutor (Alexander Fehling, from Inglourious Basterds) stumbles upon concealed evidence of Nazi war crimes, and starts making waves when he begins to pursue former Third Reich officials who returned to their pre-war lives.
Best-case scenario: It joins this year’s terrific Phoenix on a growing list of German films that honestly, provocatively tackle the nation’s postwar era and strategy of denial.
Worst-case scenario: It joins a much longer list of films that exploit the Holocaust for cheap pathos or melodrama.
Worth the risk? Yes. The fascinating story and knotty ethical questions of this era of Germany history, combined with some strong early reviews, make it easy to recommend.
The details: Alien director Ridley Scott heads back to outer space, where no one can hear you scream, for an adaptation of the bestselling debut novel by Andy Weir. Matt Damon, in a role not so different from the one he played in Interstellar, is an American astronaut forced to “science the shit out of” his bleak surroundings when he’s marooned on Mars. For a film about a dude alone on a big, empty planet, the thing sure does have an enormous cast, with supporting roles for Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig, and more.
Best-case scenario: Alien and Blade Runner gain a new sci-fi companion on the lonely planet of Ridley Scott masterpieces.
Worst-case scenario: Prometheus gains a quasi-sequel before the real one we didn’t ask for.
Worth the risk? Yes. Scott going celestial is always worth a look, the book is a good read, and did you see that cast?
The details: Tom Hardy plays a dual role as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the identical twins who became London’s most notorious gangsters in the 1960s, hobnobbing with the famous and powerful and eventually becoming tabloid celebrities in their own right. This is hardly the first film about the Krays, who loom large in British popular culture, but it’s easily the most promising, even if it is being helmed by Brian Helgeland, director of A Knight’s Tale and The Order. To be fair, Helgeland also wrote Mystic River, co-wrote L.A. Confidential, and wrote and directed Payback.
Best-case scenario: Hardy—a very gifted actor and a consistently interesting screen presence—gives two very different, but equally strong performances, bolstered by a strong sense of atmosphere and period flavor.
Worst-case scenario: Heath Ledger didn’t get interesting as an actor until he stopped appearing in Brian Helgeland movies. Could Hardy actually lose his charisma under the guy’s guidance? (Probably not.)
Worth the risk? Helgeland’s direction has always been spotty; his last film was the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, distinguished only by a bizarre supporting performance from Harrison Ford. But we’re willing to take the risk on this one, seeing as it gets him back to a milieu he’s always done well with. Plus, Hardy is the kind of actor who gives interesting performances even in bad movies.
The details: Director Peter Sollett has only made two feature films so far, but both 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas and 2008’s Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist were appealingly stylish and sweet. Now Sollett and Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner tackle a dramatization of Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary short “Freeheld,” about a cancer patient (played here by Julianne Moore) who fights with her local government to get her domestic partner (Ellen Page) designated as the beneficiary of her police pension. Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, and Steve Carell round out the cast.
Best-case scenario: Julianne Moore wins her second consecutive Best Actress Oscar.
Worst-case scenario: Nothing but preachiness and straw men, as far as the eyes can see.
Worth the risk? The subject matter seems better suited to a doc than to an awards-bait drama, but the cast is fantastic and Sollett’s presence is intriguing. Movie buffs will want to pay close attention to the buzz after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
The details: This is the latest film clandestinely made by Jafar Panahi (This Is Not A Film), the Iranian director who is officially banned from filmmaking, but keeps doing it anyway. Panahi made his last two films while under house arrest; this time, he ventures into the streets of Tehran, having gotten a hold of a cab and outfitted it with hidden cameras. In a nod to fellow countryman (and onetime mentor) Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, the entire film—which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival—plays out in the car, with Panahi behind the wheel and a cast of anonymous non-professionals as his passengers.
Best-case scenario: An unusual road movie that also functions as a master class in creativity and self-expression despite personal danger and seemingly impossible odds.
Worst-case scenario: 82 minutes stuck in a cab with a driver who won’t stop talking about art and politics.
Worth the risk? Though Panahi’s post-conviction work has brought him long overdue acclaim, the truth is that none of his has measured up to the heights of earlier films like Crimson Gold and The White Balloon—nor could it, given the constraints under which he’s been forced to live and work. Still, advance word on Taxi is strong, with many critics finding Panahi re-energized following the sputtering self-reflexivity of Closed Curtain.
The details: Jesus, how to describe Guy Maddin’s latest exercise in anachronistic madness? Inspired by the plots (and in some cases merely by the titles) of numerous actual movies that were made but no longer exist, The Forbidden Room is a Russian-doll nest of stories within stories, each one crazier than the last.
Best-case scenario: You’re a Maddin fan, in which case the onslaught of shape-shifting absurdity—lovingly crafted to look like footage that’s been moldering in a vault somewhere for much of the past century—will constitute a nonstop delight.
Worst-case scenario: At a little over two hours, The Forbidden Room may be too much of a good thing for some viewers. The narrative resets itself every few minutes, as a character in one story, who’s part of a flashback from the previous story, starts relating yet another bizarre tale; it can occasionally be wearying.
Worth the risk? Nobody who’s ever enjoyed one of Maddin’s singular pictures will want to miss what is perhaps his most ambitious project to date. For the curious newbie, taking the plunge can’t hurt—if one story isn’t working, another will be along shortly.
The details: The reboot-ification of popular culture continues apace with this latest attempt to retell a familiar story by going back to before the beginning. In Pan, newcomer Levi Miller plays a preteen Peter Pan, who encounters the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and a young, as-yet-noncommissioned James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). Joe Wright directs, with what looks to be his usual visual flair—at least judging by the trailer.
Best-case scenario: Wright’s dynamic style and screenwriter Jason Fuchs’ fresh approach to tired material launches a new franchise.
Worst-case scenario: When the film flops, the producers decide it didn’t go back far enough, and get started on a new story about Peter Pan as a baby.
Worth the risk? This is a tough call. Fuchs’ script did make the prestigious “Black List” of unproduced screenplays… but then again, so did The Judge and Grace Of Monaco. The real X-factor here is Wright, who’s prone to excess but capable of reinvigorating the classics, as proven by his Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina.
The details: Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs biopic that has been in the works for years and left a trail of lead actors and at least one director in its wake—probably because of the long shadow cast by Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs biopic, Jobs—has at last arrived, with Michael Fassbender playing the brilliant asshole who made Apple the most valuable company on Earth. Instead of going full biopic and cramming Jobs’ long, complicated story into one film, Steve Jobs focuses on its subject before three product launches, ending with the iMac in 1998.
Best-case scenario: Danny Boyle proves an even better directorial match for Sorkin’s writing than David Fincher or Bennett Miller. Seth Rogen flexes some real dramatic muscle as Steve Wozniak. The rest of the cast, which includes Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, knocks it out of the park, too.
Worst-case scenario: When Sorkin is off, his writing is insufferable, and Steve Jobs could descend into overly talky melodrama. Fassbender neither looks like Jobs nor sounds much like him in the trailer, which could be distracting.
Worth the risk? A film with a long, troubled history like Steve Jobs offers plenty of risk, but Fassbender is an excellent actor, Boyle a fine director, and the prospect of Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ involvement makes it a risk worth taking.
The details: Just two weeks after The Green Inferno finally opens in theaters, here’s another new Eli Roth movie. This one is actually a change of pace for the Splat Pack veteran: a dark comedy about a family man (Keanu Reeves) who invites two comely co-eds into his home one dark and stormy night, tragically unaware that he’s starring in an Eli Roth movie. Mayhem of a (comparatively) restrained variety commences.
Best-case scenario: Everyone skips The Green Inferno and sees this instead, signaling to Roth that it’s officially time to shut the doors to the hostel and keep trying new things.
Worst-case scenario: We’ve died and gone to hell, where every movie of the fall movie season is directed by The Bear Jew.
Worth the risk? Actually, sort of. Like most of Roth’s work, there’s a faint stench of misogyny to the film. But comedy suits the director, and Reeves is very funny as a man caving to, then cursing, his lecherous desires.
The details: Forget the bland title and the prestige-pic subject matter (about the diplomatic crisis that occurred in 1960 when a U.S. spy-plane was shot down over the Soviet Union). The big deal here is that Bridge Of Spies is Steven Spielberg’s first film in three years, and has a script polished by Joel and Ethan Coen. Tom Hanks leads a cast that also includes Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda, while Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is behind the camera, and Thomas Newman fills in for an ailing John Williams as the soundtrack’s composer.
Best-case scenario: After a brief lull, Spielberg starts another streak of excellence to rival his Saving Private Ryan/A.I./Minority Report/Catch Me If You Can/War Of The Worlds/Munich run.
Worst-case scenario: The Coens’ touch is no more evident here than it was on Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, and Spielberg’s heavy hand outweighs his talent for thrillingly cinematic set-pieces.
Worth the risk? It’s hard to imagine a film geek whose pulse doesn’t quicken after reading the list of names in the credits.
The details: Writer-director Guillermo Del Toro returns to his horror roots with a gothic 19th-century ghost story, set in a spooky English mansion. The cast includes Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Jim Beaver, Charlie Hunnam, and Doug Jones—though judging by the early footage, the real star here may be the 3-D effects, and how Del Toro creatively deploys them to generate maximum anxiety.
Best-case scenario: Crimson Peak is a new horror classic, reinventing the haunted house picture and dominating the box office all the way through Halloween.
Worst-case scenario: It’s a murky muddle that keeps Del Toro from getting to complete any of the dozens of other exciting-sounding projects he’s been attached to in recent years.
Worth the risk? Picture us saying, “Helllll yeeeeeeessssss,” in a ghostly fashion.
The details: Rather than adapt just one entry in R.L. Stine’s wildly popular series of kid-lit horror novellas, the makers of this would-be family blockbuster have found a meta way to combine a bunch of them: Jack Black plays Stine himself, safeguarding his life’s work, lest someone accidentally unleash the monsters within. Of course, that’s exactly what happens, and soon a couple of plucky teen heroes are running around town, trying to herd an evil dummy, an abominable snowman, and other imaginary terrors back into the books that spawned them. “From the writers of Ed Wood” inspires confidence. “From the director of that Jack Black version of Gulliver’s Travels” does not.
Best-case scenario: Black revives his hilarious School Of Rock shtick for some good ol’ Spielbergian entertainment, the filmmakers drawing inspiration from the scarier tomes in Stine’s library. It’s like a kid-friendly Ghostbusters or an all-ages Cabin In The Woods!
Worst-case scenario: Empty nostalgic pandering and awful CGI buffoonery rule the day. It’s like Night Of A Museum, but with a bunch of Jurassic World-style winks to ’90s kids.
Worth the risk? Look, your 10-year-old selves shelled out a lot of allowance on the Goosebumps series. Might as well drop a few more dollars to delight and/or torture them.
The details: Remember back in 2004, when Dan Rather left CBS over that disputed report about George Bush’s military records? Truth offers a star-studded dramatization of those events, with Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, who was fired over the whole kerfuffle. Considering that the film is based on Mapes’ own memoir, Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power, don’t be surprised if the main characters look more like heroic martyrs than professionals who may have (in TV Guide’s words) blundered.
Best-case scenario: Writer-director James Vanderbilt comes even closer to a modern All The President’s Men than he did with his screenplay for Zodiac. Redford’s involvement could help with that.
Worst-case scenario: The whole thing is a two-hour lecture on the nobility of muckraking journalists. Redford, who made the preachy Lions For Lambs, could help with that, too.
Worth the risk? Again, Vanderbilt wrote Zodiac. That buys Truth some trust.
The details: Based on the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, Beasts Of No Nation follows a young orphan (Abraham Attah) forced to be a child soldier in an unnamed African country under the watch of a brutal commandant (Idris Elba). Netflix bought the film for $12 million in March and plans to release it theatrically and on its platform the same day (which caused the nation’s four major theater chains to boycott it).
Best-case scenario: Iweala’s novel drew acclaim for its unflinching look at life as a child soldier. Director Cary Fukunaga showed a deft hand with bleak subject matter when he directed the first season of True Detective. Elba is an excellent, magnetic actor. The whole proves greater than the sum of these promising parts.
Worst-case scenario: It’s graphically violent misery porn anchored by a scenery-chewing Elba.
Worth the risk? Yes, though Netflix subscribers won’t have to risk a dime to give it a look.
The details: Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien tackles wuxia—the classic Chinese genre of martial arts and chivalry—in his first feature in eight years. Set in medieval China, The Assassin stars Hou’s on-and-off muse, Shu Qi, as an enigmatic killer tasked with taking out a powerful lord to whom she was once engaged. With its sparse dialogue and strikingly beautiful, color-saturated imagery—almost all of it framed in boxy, anachronistic Academy ratio—the movie doesn’t really look or sound like any martial arts flick ever made, offering an original and idiosyncratic take on one of film history’s most durable genres.
Best-case scenario: You’re mesmerized by Hou’s vision of a mysterious lost world of pure values—a mythic past rendered even more remote by stylized performances and painterly camerawork.
Worst-case scenario: You have absolutely no idea what’s going on, but at least have something consistently gorgeous to look at for 105 minutes.
Worth the risk? The Assassin was our favorite movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and won Hou a much deserved Best Director prize. Even if the elliptical and cryptic isn’t your thing, you at least owe yourself the experience of seeing it.
The details: You winced through the meticulous recreation of the Stanford Prison Experiment in this summer’s The Stanford Prison Experiment. Now check out that other Sundance drama about a famous (infamous?) academic research study. Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early ’60s, including one that tested just how far ordinary people were willing to go for the sake of obedience to authority. (The answer: pretty damn far.)
Best-case scenario: Psychology students the nation over get a movie day. Psychology professors the nation over get a free 90 minutes to grade papers.
Worst-case scenario: Some impressionable kids try the Milgram experiment at home, only with a real electric shock. They learn the true power of authority when their parents find out.
Worth the risk? Yes. Experimenter turns into something of an information dump in its second half, but the experiment scenes are fascinating and director Michael Almereyda (Hamlet) directs the hell out of it, finding room for such abstract visual touches as a literal elephant in the room.
The details: In the grand tradition of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, and Bad Words, along comes another comedy about a foul-mouthed, irresponsible role model behaving, well, badly in front of impressionable minors. Here, the role model is a washed-up Olympic gymnast (Melissa Rauch from The Big Bang Theory) who agrees to train a wholesome teenager (Haley Lu Richardson) poised to replace her as hometown hero. Naturally, it’s money that convinces Bad Gymnast to help out. Just as naturally, she’s not as heartless as she initially seems.
Best-case scenario: The film’s release was delayed from July to October in order to give the filmmakers time to almost completely reshoot it. So it’s a totally different movie than the one that played at Sundance.
Worst-case scenario: It’s totally the same movie that played at Sundance.
Worth the risk? Not really. Though The Bronze isn’t as bad as many of the first reviews suggested—it’s a mediocre raunchfest, not an affront to senses of humor everywhere—you’d be better off just waiting for its best moment, a hilariously acrobatic sex scene, to leak onto YouTube.
The details: The ever-eclectic Irish director Lenny Abrahamson follows up his quirky, heartbreaking alt-rock musical Frank with an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Room, a sensitive suspense story about a child who’s been held captive with his mother for his entire life. Brie Larson plays the mother, while Sean Bridgers plays the creep who’s held her hostage for years. Donoghue wrote the screenplay.
Best-case scenario: The movie captures the book’s mix of pathos, poignancy, and tension, showing a small world through the eyes of a boy who’s never known any other.
Worst-case scenario: The audience will start to feel like they’ve been trapped in the theater for as long as the heroine and her kid have been locked up.
Worth the risk? Abrahamson has a propensity for making remarkable films out of questionable-sounding material. We’re excited to see what he can do with a story this strong.
The details: The Paranormal Activity franchise comes to a close in what Blumhouse Pictures head Jason Blum swears will be the last installment of the found-footage franchise. Like previous Paranormal Activity movies, this one centers on a family of bargain-seeking home buyers (that house’s market value must have fallen over the years, right?) who discover a box of spooky VHS tapes and an unusual camcorder in the basement of their new home. Turns out that camcorder has the ability to record spirits of the dead, and the house—as the audience already knows—is crawling with them. Not only that, but they’re targeting the family’s young daughter.
Best-case scenario: The trailer for The Ghost Dimension leans heavily on callbacks to earlier Paranormal Activity movies, which, combined with Blum’s stated intent to “not… grind this horror franchise into the ground,” could mean an ending that wraps up all the series’ mysteries and allows fans to walk away satisfied.
Worst-case scenario: Maybe seeing a rough cut of this movie is what made Blum pull the plug on the whole thing.
Worth the risk? Depends. How badly do you need to know why those tapes are haunted?
The details: An immortal witch hunter (Vin Diesel) hunts down a coven in modern-day New York with the help of—no!—a witch (Rose Leslie). Breck Eisner, spawn of Michael, who seems to be making genre movies at five-year intervals, returns to the director’s chair for a fantasy-action-horror film for which Diesel seems to hold franchise hopes (and he does seem capable of turning those hopes into actual movies).
Best-case scenario: Diesel has become remarkably savvy in managing his brand, having helped course-correct both the Fast & Furious and Riddick series, seemingly in large part out of love. He’s also a confirmed Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd, so Last Witch Hunter could merge Diesel’s two signature franchises into some kind of Super Diesel, or at least a decent genre workout. Eisner certainly delivered one with his 2010 remake of The Crazies.
Worst-case scenario: Diesel goes the wrong kind of retro, plugging his undershirted Dominic Toretto persona into an ill-fitting fantasy movie à la Babylon A.D.
Worth the risk? Probably. Riddick and Fast Five were both unlikely propositions at some point, too.
The details: The ’80s Saturday-morning favorite gets a 21st-century, live-action re-imagining. In this version, Jerrica Benton is a teenage songwriter whose bedroom recordings go viral on YouTube, landing her and her gal pals/backing band a recording contract, a manager played by Juliette Lewis, and legions of adoring fans. But as Jerrica’s alter ego Jem begins to take on a Ziggy Stardust-style life of its own, Jerrica, with the help of Synergy, a sort of nostalgia-bot created by her late father, must decide where her priorities really lie.
Best-case scenario: Although the trailers for Jem And The Holograms bear little resemblance to the original cartoon, the fun ’80s-inspired fashions and female empowerment message could strike a chord with young viewers. And Juliette Lewis usually picks good projects. Usually.
Worst-case scenario: Heavy-handed attempts to appeal to a millennial audience, combined with a lack of female talent behind the scenes of this “girl power” story, could leave critics truly, truly, truly outraged.
Worth the risk? A “realistic” take on an ’80s cartoon about a record executive who turns herself into a rock star with the help of magic holographic earrings? Probably not.
The details: Formerly called Adam Jones—only a slight improvement from its even more boring original title, The Chef—Burnt stars Bradley Cooper as a chef known more for his assholery than his culinary gifts. Exiled from the Paris dining scene where he came up, he relocates to London and plots his comeback.
Best-case scenario: No one pulls off the “troubled asshole” archetype better than Bradley Cooper, and the setting in the world of high-end dining could offer plenty of drama and great food porn. The cast also features Uma Thurman, in her first feature role since 2013’s Nymphomaniac, though it doesn’t look like she’s in the film much. The script was written by Steven Knight, who also wrote Eastern Promises, which could bode well.
Worst-case scenario: Bradley Cooper is an asshole in need of redemption (and an Oscar nomination). Again.
Worth the risk? Definitely, if you’re a foodie who loves prestige pics. It looks pretty safe for everyone else, too.
The details: Bill Murray plays a Bill Murray-type music manager dumped by his last client (Zooey Deschanel). Stranded in Afghanistan, he happens upon a girl with an amazing voice and endeavors to get her on Afghan Idol. Along the way, he runs into a whole bunch of stars who could stand to turn up in a good movie, including Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, and Danny McBride. Barry Levinson directs from a script by Mitch Glazer—who, based on Scrooged and Passion Play, seems to have Murray’s undying trust.
Best-case scenario: Levinson rediscovers his ’80s and early ’90s mojo and delivers the kind of slightly old-fashioned but satisfying star vehicle he once gave Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Tom Cruise.
Worst-case scenario: The Humbling, Man Of The Year, Jimmy Hollywood—all worst-case Levinson pictures, and all have elements in common with this one.
Worth the risk? Murray manages risk perfectly; he might give a great performance in a great movie, and if he doesn’t, he’ll almost certainly be enjoyable to watch.
The details: The early British feminist movement is dramatized in Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep as real-life suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst, Helena Bonham Carter as real-life militant feminist Edith New, and Carey Mulligan as Maud Lancaster, a (fictional) factory worker who joins up with their cause. When their peaceful protest actions fail to achieve real progress, the women become radicalized, turning to vandalism and violence in a desperate attempt to be recognized as equals in the eyes of the law.
Best-case scenario: Meryl Streep + Carey Mulligan = Awards gold.
Worst-case scenario: The characters’ historical significance is celebrated at the expense of their humanity, resulting in something stiff, overly reverential, and frankly rather boring.
Worth the risk? If you’re already planning to make a “Helena Bonham Carter blows up a mailbox with a pipe bomb” GIF, then hell yeah.
The details: Christopher Landon, writer of Disturbia and the last few Paranormal Activity films (not to mention pulling double duty as a first-time director on Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) returns with an original tale of Boy Scouts and zombies. But there’s no found-footage conceit here: The film recounts the tale of three scouts preparing for their last campout, who instead find themselves battling to save their town from zombies.
Best-case scenario: The hard R rating, combined with some actual teenagers in the lead roles, could make this a nice throwback to the era of dark Amblin movies, where audiences didn’t feel like the movie was sanitized for their protection.
Worst-case scenario: Another damn zombie movie mining the last scraps of comedic potential from the premise, like a bargain-basement Detention Of The Dead.
Worth the risk? This seems tailor-made for a lazy Sunday afternoon with Netflix sometime next year.
The details: David Gordon Green goes prestige-picture with this adaptation of a 2005 documentary about American campaign strategists involved in Bolivia’s 2002 presidential election. Sandra Bullock leads an eclectic cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan, and character actor favorites like Scoot McNairy and Ann Dowd.
Best-case scenario: Green adds satire to his increasing portfolio of skills and infuses it with his signature lyricism and offbeat humor, helping Sandra Bullock continue her late-career streak of actually appearing in good movies.
Worst-case scenario: The project turns out like a number of Clooney productions and/or fiction-film remakes of documentaries: dutiful, well intentioned, kinda lifeless. In fact, the Clooney-produced misfire The Men Who Stare At Goats even shares screenwriter Peter Straughan with this film.
Worth the risk? Definitely. Even Green’s broadest comedies have plenty of his personality; he seems constitutionally incapable of making dry awards bait.
The details: Edgar Allan Poe gets the cartoon treatment in this anthology film, which offers animated retellings of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit And The Pendulum,” “The Fall Of The House Of Usher,” “The Facts In The Case Of Mr. Valdemar” and “The Masque Of The Red Death.” The voice cast includes Christopher Lee (in one of his final performances), Julian Sands, Guillermo Del Toro, Roger Corman, and—presumably through some sort of vampire hex—Bela Lugosi.
Best-case scenario: Poe’s writing comes alive on-screen as it never has before though the black magic of animation.
Worst-case scenario: The film’s supposed courting of an adolescent demographic robs the source material of its macabre power. How can you do “The Pit And The Pendulum” for kids?
Worth the risk? For fans of the author, almost certainly. The various animation styles look appropriately stylish, and the little-seen Fear(s) Of The Dark proved that “cartoon horror anthology” isn’t such a crazy idea. Anyway, it can’t be worse than The Raven.
The details: Alice Rohrwacher’s deceptively gentle drama about a Tuscan family struggling to maintain a traditional way of life was a surprise prizewinner at Cannes in 2014, and it’s taken its time getting to North American theaters. Where so many acclaimed contemporary Italian films prize style over substance, The Wonders is modest and controlled: Its vision of tough, self-sustaining coastal folk (their farm produces honey) has a documentary quality. This earthy stuff is all just showbiz to the big-city interlopers who plan to stage a glitzy reality-TV tribute to the region; their tacky production (which includes a glamorous hostess played beautifully by Monica Bellucci) gives The Wonders a serrated satirical edge that pierces its lyricism.
Best-case scenario: In a crowded art-house market, viewers attuned to a subtler sensibility will seek out The Wonders on the strength of its uniformly excellent reviews.
Worst-case scenario: In a crowded arthouse market, Rohrwarcher’s subtlety will turn out to be a self-defeating virtue.
Worth the risk? Hopefully its American distributor will think so.