Fall/holiday movie season sure to bring a new ‘McConaissance’

09/01/2014 10:00 AM

10/08/2014 12:17 PM

We all could take a lesson in grit from Matthew McConaughey. In late 2013 and early 2014, he thespianed his way from overly tanned goofball to a best-actor Oscar winner, for “Dallas Buyers Club,” and to his current status as a top leading man.

His renaissance was so unusual, it had its own name: the McConaissance.

But the idea need not die with its originator’s re-appearance atop the heap. There’s too much inspiration to be drawn from it – for faded or under-performing stars and the fans who appreciate them – for that.

The 2014 fall/holiday movie season – a.k.a. the awards season – brings with it four candidates for McConaissance-style comebacks: Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Michael Keaton and Shia LaBeouf. All have films on tap that could alter their career trajectories.

Each case is different, which is why they are laid out individually below. In addition, this fall movie preview spotlights “Kill the Messenger,” a thriller with strong Sacramento connections, plus 10 more Oscar-bait films (grouped as “The Contenders”). For those who do not care about awards, there is another list, of 10 popcorn-friendly alternatives (grouped as “Summer Prolonged”). See rundowns of these 20 films below.

And before you ask … all movie musicals are considered lighter fare until proven otherwise – a hard life lesson learned from Russell Crowe’s singing in “Les Misérables.”

Release dates are subject to change. Though all films listed are likely to open in Sacramento, some lack firm dates. In those instances, we use New York/Los Angeles dates.

Ready for a renaissance?

Reese Witherspoon : She is following the McConaughey career-resurgence model to the letter by trading low-hanging romantic comedies (him: “Ghost of Girlfriends Past”; her: “This Means War”) for riskier, character-driven fare.

Witherspoon even acted for McConaughey’s “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée, in “Wild,” (Dec. 5, N.Y./L.A.), which is based on author Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling chronicle of her head-clearing, life-affirming 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Coast Trail.

A memoir from the “Eat, Pray, Love” school, but with a more sympathetic heroine (and more heroin), Strayed’s book detailed her literal and figurative climb back from her mother’s death and unruly behavior that included drug use and sex with strangers.

Strayed took the journey at 26. That Witherspoon is playing her at 38 makes the on-screen trek somehow more interesting. Indiscretions, without “youthful” attached to them, carry more suggestion of pathology and emotional weight.

Judging by the movie’s trailer, it appears this role taps into the naturalism (“The Man in the Moon”) and rawness (“Freeway”) that distinguished Witherspoon’s early career but that “Legally Blonde” and follow-up America’s Sweetheart roles obscured.

Witherspoon has been getting real for us for a few years now via unexpected glimpses into her private life, through that infamous Atlanta disorderly conduct arrest and a recent groove-getting-on in Capri. Professionally, the authenticity she showed in earlier films re-emerged in last year’s “Mud.” She lent a hardscrabble pragmatism, tinged with yearning, to a small role as a woman who drove a man to criminality on her behalf, then abandoned him.

The man, not coincidentally, was played by McConaughey.

Witherspoon also is stacking the deck, McConaughey-style, with three movies coming out during awards season.

As a straight-talking, slightly tacky-dressing American woman who helps young Sudanese refugees and their cause in “The Good Lie” (Oct. 3), Witherspoon also adds dashes of Brockovich and “Blind Side” Bullock.

Witherspoon is part of the ensemble in Paul Thomas Anderson’s (“The Master,” “There Will Be Blood”) “Inherent Vice” (Dec. 12 N.Y./L.A.). In the film, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel set in 1970s Los Angeles, she plays a deputy district attorney and sometime flame of a private eye played by Joaquin Phoenix (Witherspoon’s co-star from “Walk the Line,” for which she won a best actress Oscar).

Multiple projects during awards season reminds voters that hey, it’s not just the one-star vehicle. This person is serious about a comeback.

Steve Carell: To say his career ever was in trouble would be an exaggeration. Despite a few egregious comedy bombs (“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”), he has stayed afloat, thanks to his brilliance on “The Office,” hit animated films and crowd-pleasing if not particularly performance-highlighting romantic comedies (“Date Night,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”).

But consider where he was in 2006, when he followed a wonderfully endearing, wide-eyed-yet-nuanced turn in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” from the year before with a 180 as a suicidal academic in “Little Miss Sunshine.” He has yet to make good on the artistic promise he showed then.

“Foxcatcher” (Nov. 14, N.Y./L.A.) is expected to change that. Carell plays the real-life multimillionaire and patron of mat sports John du Pont. The film received rave reviews at May’s Cannes Film Festival, specifically for Carell’s reportedly immersive performance as the eccentric, unstable du Pont, who opened his Pennsylvania estate to world-class athletes, including 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalist brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), with tragic results. Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) was named best director at Cannes.

Carell’s also doing a bit of an awards-season load-’em-up, by also appearing in the live-action kids film “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” (Oct. 10). Based on Judith Viorst’s kids’ book, “Alexander” is a PG-rated Disney film with indie bona fides: It was directed by Miguel Arteta (“Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl”).

Michael Keaton: His McConaissance film is “Birdman,” (Oct. 17 N.Y./L.A.), thus bringing to mind the phoenix. But the metaphor does not fit precisely, since Keaton’s semi-exile from the spotlight seems self-imposed.

After showing, in the two Tim Burton “Batman” films, that he could be as stoic as he had been manic in previous roles, Keaton walked away from a third Batman film and a big payday. His roles since, most on TV, seem chosen for reasons apart from money or fame.

“Birdman,” from its trailer, appears to be a whirligig of meta whimsy that lets Keaton play off of having once been Batman on screen. His character is an actor known for playing the superhero Birdman. The actor is trying to shed his superhero baggage by mounting a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Keaton’s character in “Birdman” also appears to possess the ability to levitate, and fly, in real life. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, once serious bordering on insufferable (“Babel”), takes an unexpected absurdist turn here. Reports from the Venice Film Festival, where “Birdman” screened, herald Keaton as an early Oscar contender.

His first serious awards mention since a Golden Globe nod for the 2002 HBO film “Live From Baghdad” suggests a McConaissance already in progress.

Shia LaBeouf: He’s hard to root for. He seemed like a truth-teller when he acknowledged the second “Transformers” film was dreck. But then he copied graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ work in a short film, acknowledging the film’s origins only after he was called out on it. LaBeouf then turned his apologies into self-styled performance art.

More recently, LaBeouf was arrested after reportedly disrupting a Broadway performance. He subsequently received treatment for alcohol addiction, his representatives said.

All of which provides an interesting backdrop for the release of his highest-profile film in a few years. In “Fury,” (Oct. 17), he plays a member of a World War II tank platoon led by Brad Pitt. Directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”), “Fury” looks, from its trailer, like a rip-roarer.

It might be just what LaBeouf needs to shake the dirt from his public behavior. And he’s always been a good actor, from the time he was a kid on the Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens.”

The generous, laid-back “all-right-all-right-all-right” philosophy of McConaughey tells us everyone deserves a second chance. Maybe “Fury” will be LaBeouf’s.

The Contenders

“Love Is Strange”: Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a couple of 40 years who finally get married. But when one loses his job, they are forced to sell their New York City apartment and temporarily bunk, apart, with relatives and friends. Sept. 12.

“Tracks”: Reese Witherspoon isn’t the only one hoofing it in a fall film. Mia Wasikowska (“The Kids Are All Right”), here plays an Australian woman who took a 1,700-mile trek across the desert in 1977 and wrote a best-seller about it. Sept. 19 N.Y./L.A.

“The Equalizer”: Denzel Washington plays a quiet home-goods-store employee with secret crime-fighting skills he uses when a young prostitute acquaintance (Chloë Grace Moretz) is beaten up. The film, based on the 1980s TV series, reunites Washington with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua. Sept. 26

“Gone Girl”: The wildly popular Gillian Flynn novel on which this film is based is a beach page-turner, fraught, twisty and delicious. It’s in this category instead of “Summer Prolonged” because David Fincher (“The Social Network”) directed, and Ben Affleck stars, and awards voters pay attention to what they do. Affleck plays a magazine writer turned barkeep and Rosamund Pike the wife who goes missing after they move from New York City to his Mississippi River hometown. (Fincher shot on location in Missouri). Oct. 3

“The Judge”: Robert Downey Jr. plays an ethically dubious defense attorney who must return to his Indiana hometown, and his estranged judge father (Robert Duvall), after his mother dies, and then defend the father on a hit-and-run charge. Sounds contrived, but such things don’t matter when one can see the wired Downey play off the wily Duvall. Oct. 10

“Interstellar”: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) directs Matthew McConaughey, who plays an explorer who ventures into space after water and food run short on Earth. Beyond that, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the film’s trailer. Nov. 7.

“The Theory of Everything”: Eddie Redmayne starts at physicist Stephen Hawking during his Cambridge years. Nov. 7 N.Y./L.A.

“Unbroken”: Angelina Jolie directs this adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction best-seller about Olympian turned World War II crash survivor and POW Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). Joel and Ethan Coen helped write the screenplay. Dec. 25

“American Sniper”: Clint Eastwood directs a beefed-up Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, a real-life Navy SEAL marksman. Eastwood’s December releases (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino” among them) always merit attention, and sometimes draw Oscar nominations. Dec. 25 N.Y./L.A

“Big Eyes”: Amy Adams, who has been nominated for five Oscars in eight years without winning, might be going for gold again as artist Margaret Keane, famous for her paintings of human figures with huge peepers. Christoph Waltz is the husband who took credit for her work. Tim Burton directs. Margaret Keane lives in Napa County. Dec. 25 N.Y./L.A.

Summer prolonged

“This Is Where I Leave You”: Jane Fonda plays a matriarch whose kids (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver are three) come home after her husband dies. Sounds “Osage County”-esque, but it won’t be, because Fey does not do histrionics. Sept. 19

“St. Vincent”: Melissa McCarthy plays a single mother who works long hours and puts her 12-year-old son in the care of her drunk, gambling neighbor, Vincent (Bill Murray). Vincent shows the kid a thing or two about life, like a pregnant stripper (the usually very un-stripper-like Naomi Watts). You had me at Bill Murray. Oct. 24.

“Big Hero 6”: This animated film, inspired by a Marvel comic, involves a young robotics prodigy and his robot and a team of unlikely crime fighters. If that sounds too generically Marvel, how’s this? The setting is San Fransokyo, a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo and the greatest portmanteau since Brangelina. Nov. 7.

“Dumb and Dumber To”: Fans of toilet humor always knew there was a chance Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey would return as dipsticks Lloyd and Harry. Here they are, 20 years later. Nov. 14

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”: Battlefield ace Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) turns reluctant rebel leader in the first film of two based on Suzanne Collins’ third “Games” book. Nov. 21

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”: Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) returns to sun-and-sandals territory. Christian Bale plays Moses. In 3-D. Dec. 12

“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies”: Here’s the point where I usually say how ridiculous it is for Peter Jackson to make three giant-sized movies from a 300-page book. But the first two were good, so more power to him. Dec. 17

“Annie”: Quvenzhané Wallis, the young Oscar nominee from “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” plays the famous orphan. Jamie Foxx is the Daddy Warbucks character, here named Stacks, and Cameron Diaz is straggly alleged Annie caretaker Miss Hannigan. Dec. 19

“The Interview”: “This Is the End” creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg take on international relations. Rogen plays a television producer who, with the show’s star (James Franco), land an interview with Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Before they leave for North Korea, the CIA recruits them to assassinate the dictator. Dennis Rodman gives this project two giant, rebound-grabbing thumbs down (one assumes). Dec. 25

“Into the Woods”: Meryl Streep witches it up in this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical, directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”). Streep and co-stars Johnny Depp (Big Bad Wolf) and Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) already have shown they can sing on screen. Especially Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”). Dec. 25

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