Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to December


Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: December may normally be all about awards season, but this year, the real draw is “Star Wars.” Although there are several major contenders – from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Alejandro González Iñárritu – scheduled for release at the end of the month, the highly anticipated seventh installment in the “Star Wars” film series is what everyone will be talking about during the holidays. For the few people that don’t care about “Star Wars,” there are plenty of great movies to discover this month, but for everyone else, it’s going to be awfully hard to concentrate until after December 18th.


Who: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman and David Koechner
What: A boy who has a bad Christmas ends up accidentally summoning a Christmas demon to his family home.
When: December 4th
Why: Michael Dougherty’s 2007 horror anthology “Trick ‘r Treat” is one of the most underrated movies in the genre, but sadly, it doesn’t look as if “Krampus” will be following in its footsteps. While his directorial debut relied on a smart mix of humor and horror, Dougherty’s new film seems genuinely confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. The trailer doesn’t really establish a definitive tone, swinging from one extreme to the other, and that could ultimately prove problematic for its marketing campaign, which already has the unenviable task of selling a horror movie during the holiday season.

“In the Heart of the Sea”

Who: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw
What: Based on the 1820 event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days.
When: December 11th
Why: It’s not very often that you see a film’s release date moved to a more competitive time of year, but Warner Bros.’ decision to push “In the Heart of the Sea” from last March to December (one week before the release of “The Force Awakens”) speaks volumes of the studio’s confidence in the Ron Howard-directed historical epic. Though Chris Hemsworth has yet to prove himself as a viable leading man without the built-in audience of the Marvel movies, his latest collaboration with Howard promises to showcase what he’s really capable of as an actor, provided the CG-heavy thrills don’t get in the way.

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Movie Review: “Victor Frankenstein”

James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott
Paul McGuigan

Sometimes a bad movie reminds you of how great certain actors are, and that’s definitely the case with “Victor Frankenstein.” For the most part, director Paul McGuigan’s reimagining is just that – a bad movie – but it’s one that’s lucky enough to have James McAvoy in the lead role. McAvoy is a great actor, which he proves here by giving his all as the titular character, in spite of the quality of the end result.

Written by Max Landis (“Chronicle,” “American Ultra”) – although it went through a series of rewrites, as is usually the case on a project of this scale – the film tracks the early relationship between Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and hunchback/surgeon Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe). The hunchback’s real name isn’t Igor; he’s simply taken the identity of Frankenstein’s absentee roommate. After freeing the young man from the circus and curing him of his back problem, Frankenstein offers the lost soul a chance at greatness: to be his partner and create life. Of course, as we’ve learned from past Frankenstein adaptations, that doesn’t work out so well.

“Victor Frankenstein” is a well-intentioned misfire. The film is more about a friendship than monsters running amuck, and McAvoy brings a sense of sadness and manic energy in almost every scene he’s in. The character’s arc and McAvoy’s performance are well rounded. At the end of the film, his sad past and obsessive drive is palpable. It’s a very, very good performance, but even if it was the best performance of the year, it couldn’t salvage the rest of the film.

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Blu Tuesday: American Ultra, Shaun the Sheep and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“American Ultra”

WHAT: After bureaucratic brownnoser Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders the termination of an experimental super soldier program, the CIA agent behind the project (Connie Britton) activates one of its subjects – unambitious stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) – to give him a fair shot at survival. Marked for death and forced to go into hiding, Mike must utilize his newly discovered abilities to rescue his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) when she’s kidnapped by Yates and his team of programmed killers.

WHY: A high-concept movie that’s equal parts “Pineapple Express” and “The Bourne Identity,” “American Ultra” attempts to strike a balance between the pot-driven humor of the former and the super-spy action of the latter, but ends up as a bit of a tonal mess in the process. Though the film works in fits and starts, it never really finds its groove; for every great moment or idea, there are two more that fall flat. The opportunity was certainly there for some biting commentary on the irony of the U.S. government turning a stoner into a stone-cold killer amidst its War on Drugs, but sadly, “American Ultra” doesn’t seem interested in that kind of satire. Thankfully, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have such great chemistry that it saves the movie from being a complete disappointment. Not only do they handle the comedy and action beats with aplomb, but the pair adds an unexpected sweetness to their characters’ romance that you don’t normally find in this type of film. Though “American Ultra” will likely find an audience among the college crowd during late-night showings on cable TV, it’s a half-baked pot brownie of an action-comedy that gives you just enough of a buzz to make you wonder what it could have been in the hands of a more assured filmmaker.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Nima Nourizadeh, there are a pair of production featurettes and a gag reel.


“Shaun the Sheep”

WHAT: Shaun the Sheep decides to take the day off and have some fun, but when his actions inadvertently lead to the Farmer getting injured and deserted in the Big City with no memory, Shaun and the rest of the flock must risk their own safety in order to bring him back.

WHY: Aardman Animation has never been afraid of pushing the envelope when it comes to their stop-motion animated films, but “Shaun the Sheep” is an especially ambitious movie that it doesn’t include any dialogue over the course of its 85-minute runtime. Not even the human characters speak, instead resorting to a type of gibberish that will be very familiar to fans of “The Sims.” Though that might make the animation process a little easier, it’s much more difficult to pull off from a storytelling standpoint, and one that writers/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak do an impressive job of executing. The whole thing plays out like a Buster Keaton silent film, with lots of clever sight gags befitting of Aardman’s trademark humor. Though it could have benefited from a better antagonist than the clichéd animal control officer that chases Shaun and his friends around the city, the movie’s frenetic pacing ensures that there’s never a dull moment. It’s not as great as Aardman’s “Wallace and Gromit” stuff, but it’s a smart and funny animated film that will entertain the whole family.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage of the animation process, character profiles and interviews with the crew.


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Movie Review: “Creed”

Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Ryan Coogler

After garnering critical acclaim for his directorial debut “Fruitvale Station,” the last thing anyone expected from Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated follow-up was a spin-off/sequel to a movie franchise that’s last meaningful installment was released 30 years ago. Coogler is just the latest in an ongoing trend of indie directors (Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank, etc.) who have been plucked by the studios to revive major Hollywood properties despite their lack of experience, though you wouldn’t know it from watching “Creed.” Reuniting with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan, Coogler has created an energizing addition to the “Rocky” series that doesn’t just succeed as a respectful passing of the torch, but as one of the best “Rocky” movies ever made.

Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of former boxing champion Apollo Creed, who was taken in at a young age by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), after bouncing around the foster care system as a kid. Born after Apollo was tragically killed in the ring, Adonis grew up never knowing his father (which is why he goes by his mother’s maiden name), but has chosen to follow in his footsteps. When he gives up a promising job at an investment firm to focus on his boxing career, Adonis leaves Los Angeles for Philadelphia in the hopes of convincing local legend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Though Rocky declines the offer at first, he eventually agrees to take the young Adonis – a self-taught fighter with raw talent, but who’s lacking the refinement of proper training – under his wing. Adonis is adamant about forging his own path without the help of his father’s legacy, but when his secret is revealed and he’s offered a fight against the reigning world champion, he must prove to himself (and his detractors) that he’s worthy of the Creed name.

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Movie Review: “The Good Dinosaur”

Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Peter Sohn

An unsettling trend is starting to appear in Pixar’s work. When the visuals are more eye-popping than usual, it’s a sign that something more important is lacking (see: “Brave”). “The Good Dinosaur” is visually breathtaking, featuring the most lifelike water that has ever graced an animated film. The story structure, however, is one of Pixar’s weakest, feeling more like old-guard Disney than the kind of thing Pixar normally produces. There are valuable lessons for children to learn here, but there is also a fair amount of trauma. Little Arlo gets his ass handed to him early, then spends the rest of the movie trying to survive.

In “The Good Dinosaur’s” universe, the meteor that is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs misses Earth. Fast forward a few million years, and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus of below average size, is born into a family of farmers. Arlo is also timid, and his father’s attempts to get Arlo over his fears come to a head when Arlo is tasked with killing the critter that keeps eating their winter food supply. The creature is caught, and it’s a little, feral, human child. Arlo can’t bring himself to kill the boy and sets it free. Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) insists on chasing the creature, but they lose the trail in a ravine, and then Arlo loses his father in a flash flood while in the ravine. First rule of Disney: kill at least one of the parents, and if possible, do it in such a way that the child feels guilty about it for the rest of his life.

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