Thursday, November 6, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: November 2014

It may be because awards season is starting to peek out from around the corner, but the movies are kicking it into high gear this month. For the first time in awhile, I’ve gone through the roster of upcoming releases and not only been amazed at the sheer number of them, but have found something genuinely compelling about each one and have wanted to include everything here.

But since that would defeat the purpose of making this a curated list, I’m picking the handful that stood out most (note that while I am bouncing off the walls in anticipation for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, releasing November 21, it will not be a part of this roundup in the interest of keeping things slightly off the commercial path. It’s clearly doing well enough for itself in the promotions department anyway). It’s going to be a good November at the theaters.

Elsa & Fred
Release Date: November 7
Director: Michael Radford
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Shirley MacLaine, Marcia Gay Harden

What’s the story? The remake of a 2005 Argentinian film. Fred is a soft-spoken widower who has lost direction after the death of his wife. But when he meets the spunky Elsa, a hopeless romantic who dreams of her own Fellini-esque love story of La Dolce Vita proportions, they both learn that life—even in its twilight years—can be full of surprises.

My take: I highly doubt this film is going to come with some profound message we haven’t heard before. But who said every movie has to be a cerebral mind-twister to be considered good? And it’s Captain Von Trapp, you guys! Aside from the fact that no film he does will make me think of him as anyone other than the pitch-perfect patriarch, I have faith that he and Maclaine can at least take it back to old fashioned romance here, rather than the melodramatic teenage stuff we’ve been subject to of late.* I’m pegging it as this month’s feel-good factor.

Release Date: November 14
Director: Jon Stewart
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy

What’s the story? Television host, modern muckraker, and all-around funnyman Jon Stewart turns writer/director with his debut feature, an adaptation of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s book retelling his own arrest, interrogation, and 118-day imprisonment while covering the nation’s 2009 presidential elections.

My take: Stewart’s passion for both comedy and politics collide in this at-times lighthearted, at-times intense portrait of one man’s solitary confinement—and according to feedback, his unique blend of satirical reporting is both the film’s strength and it’s flaw.  While audience and critic responses have been inconsistent, Rosewater nonetheless seems like an earnest endeavor to celebrate the spirit of honest journalism, and to highlight the volatile energy of Iran’s changing social landscape. Plus, I never have to be arm-twisted into seeing anything Stewart or Bernal do. Team them up, and they’re sure to be worth a watch.

Release Date: November 14
Director: Bennet Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

What’s the story? The biography of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, whose desire to break out from under his older brother’s athletic shadow leads him to pursue training under multi-millionaire coach John Du Pont, with harrowing and irreversible consequences.

My take: I know, I know. A film that includes three A-listers can hardly be considered “off the beaten path.” But the buzz around this movie has been deafening for months, and it would be plain foolish to brush of a film that nabbed Miller the Best Director award at Cannes and was a nominee for the zenithal Palme d’Or honor simply because of its blingy starcast. Stories based on real-life sports figures are seldom unwatchable, the best of them tapping into to the corners of our psyche where competitiveness and morality converge. I’m not just intrigued to witness Steve Carell’s embodying of a downright disturbing character, but also legitimately excited to see how Tatum takes on the part of a young sportsman careening down a spiral of misplaced ambition–without a doubt, his most demanding, substantial role to date (no, a striptease to the tune of “It’s Raining Men” did not count).

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Release Date: November 21
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

What’s the story? Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut centers on the dark and dismal ghost town of Bad City in Iran, in which residents are unknowingly being stalked by a vampire.

My take: Given my previous experience with the genre, never in a million years did I think I’d ever go around actually recommending a vampire romance. But favorable reviews for it across the board have me thinking that this one may just be different; not least because of the director’s apparent focus not so much on plot as on auras and aesthetics (if that sounds too loopy for you, I don’t blame you—but give it a shot anyway). Throw in the fact that it’s set in Iran, and is (very randomly) produced by Elijah Wood, and there are just too many unlikely elements coming together here to not be curious.

The Imitation Game
Release Date: November 28
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

What’s the story? Another cinematic take on a biography, this time with a computer scientist rather than a wrestler at its center. The Imitation Game reflects on the life and achievements Alan Turing leading up to and throughout his critical involvement in the decrypting of Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during World War II, as well as the prosecutions that followed surrounding his homosexuality.

My take: Two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. I should think that’s explanation enough, but for those of you who aren’t quite as captivated by the inimitable specimen that he is, there are other reasons to look forward to The Imitation Game, whether its Keira Knightley marking her promising return to her comfort zone of period films, or writer Graham Moore’s exalted, four-years-in-the-making screenplay. The combination of British talent, a wartime setting, and a hero who is an intellectual genius but a social underdog tend to work with viewers (most recent case in point: The King’s Speech), an assumption further validated by the seven Audience Choice awards its swept up during its festival circuit. There’s no reason not to believe the hype.

Before I Disappear
Release Date: November 28
Director: Shawn Christensen
Starring: Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman, Paul Wesley, Fatima Ptacek

What’s the story? Troubled 20-something Richie is minutes away from attempting suicide when his sister calls, desperate for him to look after her pre-teen daughter that evening. The babysitting job turns into a wild nighttime ride as Richie and his niece traverse from one end of Manhattan to the other, creating unexpected bonds through their unlikely shared experiences.

My take: The feature-length version of Christensen’s Oscar-winning short, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear seems to be more of what its 2012 precursor offered, and from the praise I’ve heard so far, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Admittedly, suicide isn’t the most uplifting of topics, but I’m keen to see how Christensen has developed Richie’s emotional journey, especially with an eleven-year-old girl beside him. Apparently, in between shots set in quintessential New York locations, we can expect glimpses of magical realism and even a choreographed dance sequence (and yet, it’s not Bollywood!). Sounds like something I can get on board with.

*Fully aware of how ancient that sentence makes me sound, but I’ve long since made peace with many of my medieval traits.