Reading the falling (tea) leaves

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Likewise, the Indian Ocean of Tom Hanks' Somali pirates movie "Captain Phillips" (Oct. 11) and the endless space of "Gravity" (Oct. 4), as well as the vast interstates of Alexander Payne's black-and-white "Nebraska" (Nov. 22), should bring austerity and purpose, leaving no room for padding.

Judgment: Good omen.

The (not yet a) movie star

Everyone starts somewhere. And the ground floor is the most interesting.

Call me trusting, but there's something comforting about Disney backing a WikiLeaks-Julian Assange movie, "The Fifth Estate" (Oct. 18), carried by an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch. Even better: Fox distributing "12 Years a Slave" (Oct. 18), a film from somber-somber Brit filmmaker Steve McQueen, adapted from the true story of a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Oh, and Cumberbatch is in one that, too, opposite star Chiwetel Ejiofor. McQueen's film also features Michael Fassbender (Magneto in the "X-Men" reboots), who also headlines the Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy drug thriller "The Counselor" (Oct. 25). Even Chris Hemsworth, who returns to the Marvel-verse for "Thor: The Dark World" (Nov. 8) and is not quite a major star, feels like more of an incentive to see "Rush" than Howard.

Judgment: Good omen.

Lit adaptation

Prestige has little to do with quality (and vice versa).

The biggest disconnect of any fall movie season is the lack of imagination brought to the adaptations of works that once stirred imaginations. Unless Mike Newell's "Great Expectations" (November) brings new energy, what's the point? Is it me or do you get the feeling that filmmakers dive into, oh, "Romeo and Juliet" (Oct. 11) again because they like saying the title? As though a little bit of the work's status rubs off?

Similarly, what would any dutiful adaptation of "The Book Thief" (Nov. 15), Markus Zusak's 2006 Holocaust tale, offer to movie audiences beyond a recognizable Oscar hunger? More promising is "Big Sur" (November), the second Jack Kerouac adaptation this year and, hopefully, the less cowered (if you can sit still as an earnest Kate Bosworth shouts, "Why can't you follow though with what your heart knows is best and true?"). "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (Nov. 22), though, will work. Why? Jennifer Lawrence has the confidence to make it her own.

Judgment: Bad omen.

Laid low by excess

What a nice surprise when a movie season feels of-the-moment relevant.

Say what you will about Leonardo DiCaprio but, on the heels of "Django Unchained" and "The Great Gatsby," his latest, Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (Nov. 15), about a real-life securities fraud schemer, completes a tidy little trilogy on class. That's a quietly thoughtful thing: Income disparity should be the great contemporary subject of the arts, as it's certainly become the great contemporary preoccupation of its audiences. Indeed, if there's a larger theme here, playing out in curious ways this fall, it would be excess and the comeuppance of responsibility: There's "Don Jon" and "Thanks for Sharing" (the latter with Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow, Sept. 20), both of which are about men addicted to sex — and both are romantic comedies. Then there's "Delivery Man" (Nov. 22), with Vince Vaughn as a cash-strapped guy who learns his sperm donation resulted in 533 children. It looks sincere. And, yes, it stars Vaughn. Everyone grows up sometime.

Judgment: Good omen

Filmmaker's track record

There's nothing sweeter than watching filmmakers at their peak.

Before you quickly dismiss a trailer this season, Google the director's credits. Of course, do this every season, but during autumn you'll find more surprises than usual. For instance: that seemingly unnecessary remake of "Carrie" (Oct. 18)? It's directed by serious-minded Kimberly Peirce, best known for "Boys Don't Cry," another film about growing up female and different. The seemingly minor "All Is Bright" (October), starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti as French-Canadian Christmas tree salesmen? It's the first feature in eight years from Phil Morrison, who made a beguiling splash with "Junebug" (which gave the world Amy Adams), then kind of disappeared.

And "Enough Said" (Sept. 20), that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini comedy that looks like a Nora Ephron leftover? It's from director Nicole Holofcener, a fairly incisive observer of contemporary living who has never made a bad movie (and is best known for "Friends With Money" and "Lovely and Amazing").

In fact, I can think of two other new films this fall from directors who have never really made a bad film: "Gravity," from Cuaron, the director behind "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien"; and "Captain Phillips," from Paul Greengrass, whose "Bourne Supremacy" (and "Bourne Ultimatum") redefined the action movie.

That's decent insurance.

Judgment: Good omen.

cborrelli@tribune.com

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