Sunday, December 4, 2016

Movie Preview: December 2016

The holiday season is in full swing and so is Hollywood with their major holiday releases. November wasn't the biggest November at the box office in recent memory, but it did carry with it several huge hits with Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moana and Trolls all finding major success. Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge also experienced healthy box office runs in their own right. All eyes will be on Disney in December as their first experimental Star Wars movie will hit theaters right in the middle of the month with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, despite all the focus being on more Star Wars, there's certainly plenty of other studios that will be fighting for everyone's attention as this will be a crowded as usual Christmas season. Not only will we have plenty of Blockbuster hopefuls hoping to provide counter-programming to Rogue One during the season, which did work for several movies last year during The Force Awakens domination, but it's also Oscar season! Plenty of movies have already hit the festival runs and screened early for awards voters and will now be making their theatrical runs to be officially eligible. So in addition to discussing the wide releases, I'll touch on the major highlights in the awards races as well. Let's begin!

December 2nd - 4th-

The opening weekend of December is one that big studios always avoid like the plague for some reason. As such, Moana is looking to easily take the title for a second straight weekend after being praised by critics and audiences alike and will probably play really well throughout the season. Following behind Moana will be Fantastic Beasts, Allied, ArrivalDoctor Strange, Trolls, Hacksaw Ridge, Almost Christmas and Bad Santa 2. It's only after all of those movies where our only wide release will land and that is the horror movie Incarnate. It's been a great year for horror as The Conjuring 2, Don't Breathe, Lights Out and The Shallows being horror movies that all finished above $50 million domestically. Incarnate won't be one of those. Instead it will follow last month's Shut In, which opened to $3.6 million in 2,058 theaters and September's The Disappointments Room, which opened to $1.4 million in 1,554 theaters. Incarnate is opening in 1,737 theaters and is tracking right between those two movies. Incarnate is about a boy being possessed by a demon and a scientist who can enter the subconscious of a person to try to stop it. Aaron Eckhart stars and Brad Peyton (San Andreas, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) is the director.

Sneaking into 639 theaters and thus looking to make even less than Incarnate is Releasing's Freestyle Releasing's Believe. As you could probably tell from the title, this is another small faith-based film. There's plenty examples of movies from this genre doing great at the box office, but more examples of small faith-based films that sneak into a handful of theaters and picking up a few bucks before heading to DVD in order to appeal to a more niche Christian audience. This movie fits into that latter category. Believe is about a business owner who is looking to save the Christmas pageant in his small town.

On the Oscar front, best picture hopefuls such as Moonlight, Loving, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals and Lion are the major Oscar contenders that either opened or played well in November that will continue to expand and play throughout December with awards season being upon us. Adding to that mix this weekend will be Jackie. The Critics Choice Awards nominations recently came out and Jackie was almost completely left off of that list outside an acting nomination for Natalie Portman. Fox Searchlight will hope that that's not a sign of things to come. The movie is about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy and how she handled things following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Natalie Portman stars as Mrs. Kennedy and is getting a lot of overall praise for her role and will be looking for her third Oscar nomination. She previously won for Black Swan.

December 9th - 11th-

There's also only one wide release on the second weekend of December and that is Office Christmas Party. It's entirely possible that Moana could three-peat this weekend at the box office, depending on how well it holds and how high Office Christmas Party opens. Office Christmas Party is the third Christmas-themed comedy of the season following Almost Christmas and Bad Santa 2. Almost Christmas performed decently two weekends before Thanksgiving with a $15.1 million opening while Bad Santa 2 flopped hard on the weekend of Thanksgiving with only a $6.2 million opening. It seems fairly clear that Office Christmas Party will be the go to Christmas comedy of this season and will outgross both of those two movies. The big sell here, outside the obvious Christmas-themed setting, is the cast, which includes Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon and Rob Corddry. The movie is about a CEO who is trying to close her brother's branch and he throws a giant Christmas party to cover that up and impress a potential client.

While Office Christmas Party will be the only wide release, five theaters this weekend will be graced by the presence of the best picture frontrunner in La La Land. An expansion will follow in the upcoming weeks as this looks to play very well throughout awards season following almost unanimously strong praise during a successful festival run. This is director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2014 film Whiplash, which received a best picture nomination and a best supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons. With La La Land, Chazelle hopes to bring back the magic of the Golden Age musical while implementing modern themes focused on following your dreams and the positive and negative consequences that come with that. The movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles, who both do all of their own signing, dancing and performing. Stone plays an aspiring actress while Gosling plays an aspiring jazz musician. The two cross paths one day and start a relationship and have to figure out how to balance their very different lives.

December 16th - 18th-

And now right in the middle of the month will be the big movie that everyone is looking forward to with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This will be the first time that the Star Wars movie universe will stray away from the Skywalker story that has dominated all previous seven Star Wars movies. Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and company's story will continue next year. Right now we're taking a break from that to experience our first Star Wars spin-off movie. This first spin-off centers around the story behind the opening crawl in A New Hope, wherein it states that "Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR." So you can technically call this another prequel, although spin-off is still probably the best designation. Leading the charge in this movie will be Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso with Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn being among those going along for the ride. The big question here is how well will this do. With this being the first Star Wars spin-off, there's no historical comparison or precedence to look at. Spin-offs in general don't do quite as well as the main story arcs, but if this performs well enough, you can count on there being Star Wars movies of some sort until the end of time since this is Disney in control and there are a lot of stories in the galaxy far, far away waiting to be told.

There's only one movie directly challenged Rogue One this weekend and that will be Collateral Beauty. Before you scoff at Collateral Beauty for attempting this, note that last year Daddy's Home, Sisters, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Joy all performed well during the holiday season despite the presence of The Force Awakens. So there's plenty of money to go around during the Christmas season. Collateral Beauty seems to be an interesting mix of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Will Smith plays a man that has gone through a major tragedy and retreats from life, writing letters to Love, Death and Time. He unexpectedly receives personal visitations from these three who come to knock a bit of sense into him, much like Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey in the aforementioned movies referenced. In addition to Will Smith, this movie also features Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Naomie Harris, Helen Mirren and Michael Peña.

December 21st - 25th-

This is where things get really crowded and a bit complicated. We have a whole slew of movies getting released around Christmas and on several different dates. I'll start here with the movies released right before Christmas, either on Wednesday the 21st or Friday the 23rd. Opening wide on the 21st are three movies. The first of these is Passengers, our annual big-budget space movie. Not counting Star Wars that is. I'm referring to Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and The Martian in 2015. Being that this is in the same genre as Rogue One, this has the potential to be hurt most by Rogue One, but it has enough going for it that it should be fine. Two of Hollywood's biggest stars will be side by side in this with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. You can't go wrong with those two right now. Having them together is a huge win. In Passengers, Pratt and Lawrence are two passengers on a spacecraft traveling to a distant colony. With the journey being long, the passengers on the ship are in some sort of hibernation mode. Due to a malfunction, Pratt and Lawrence are woken up 90 years early. The movie is directed by Morten Tyldum, who recently directed The Imitation Game, movie that eight Oscar nominations including best picture, best director and multiple acting nominations.

Next up is the latest movie from an animation studio that is on fire right now. That's Illumination's Sing. At this point Illumination definitely deserves to be included in the conversation with the big boys of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks when it comes to animation as they have now accomplished something that none of those other three have ever accomplished. Have three straight movies earn over $300 million at the domestic box office. Illumination's last three movies have all done that with Despicable Me 2, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets. With the phenomenal success of The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination proved that they are more than just a one trick pony with their Despicable Me franchise, so at this point until they experience a huge disappointment, it's hard to bet against them. The fact Sing is the only family-aimed movie to be released in December should only help it's case as its only direct competition will be the month-old Moana. The best way to describe Sing is that it is a fictional, animated version of American Idol but with animals instead of people. While this sounds strange, it also has a monster voice cast of actors and singers that includes Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johannson, John C. Reilly, Teron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Leslie Jones, Jennifer Saunders and Jennifer Hudson.

The movie from December 21 that has the biggest uphill battle to climb will be the highly anticipated Assassin's Creed. Warcraft and Assassin's Creed were the two huge video games this year that essentially held the future of video game movies in their hands. If these two succeeded then more would surely follow. If they failed, then perhaps Hollywood would less enthusiastic about continually trying with this genre. It's hard to judge the success of Warcraft. It flopped miserably in the states and was panned by critics. Warcraft fans seemed to be the only people who liked the movie. But then you have China where the movie earned $220.8 million, which was more than The Force Awakens made over there by $100 million. The Assassin's Creed video game franchise is one of the most popular video game franchises out there. But will it translate? This will probably depend solely on reviews. If they are positive, this could be a hit. If they are negative, then this could be our Christmas flop. Working in the movies favor is a cast led by Michael Fassbender and Marion Collitard.

The one wide release deciding to join the party late this weekend by coming out on Friday the 23rd is Why Him? This is the second R-rated comedy of the month following Office Christmas Party. While there is enough space between the two movies for both of them to be a success, the disadvantage of Why Him? is that due to Office Christmas Party's Christmas theme it could still be playing fairly well this weekend and split fans of the genre. Why Him? is not Christmas-themed, but is about a father who is unhappy that his daughter has chosen to date a wild, party animal. This is Bryan Cranston vs. James Franco as Cranston plays the father while Franco plays the boyfriend. Franco is a comedy veteran at this point, which is an advantage for the movie. Sisters proved last year that a raunchy comedy during Christmas is good counter-programming for a Star Wars movie, so that's another potential advantage.

Three major limited release movies will also hit theaters right before Christmas. The goal with these movies is to officially submit their eligibility for awards season with a limited release, but due to a crowded market will wait till January to expand and shoot for box office success. I'll talk about these more in my January preview more in-depth since there's already been plenty to talk about here, but the first of these three is Silence. This is the latest film from Martin Scorsese and is about two Jesuit priests in the 16th century who travel to Japan to search for their mentor in a time where Christianity in Japan was outlawed. Patriot's Day is Peter Berg's latest film adaptation of a recent news story starring Mark Wahlberg, the first two being Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon. Patriot's Day is a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the ensuing hunt to find the bombers. A Monster Calls was supposed to be released in October, but decided to do the festival run instead and thus postponed it's release to December, then again decided to go for a limited run first and expand later. It's about a tree monster who helps a young boy deal with his mom's terminal illness. A Monster Calls will expand January 6, Patriots Day on January 13 and Silence to be determined.

December 25th - January 1st-

On Christmas Day there will be one wide release and two major limited releases. There's actually no new wide releases on the weekend of December 30th through January 1st, which is why I dated it the way I did. Anyways, the one wide release on Christmas is a big one in terms of the awards races and that is Denzel Washington's Fences. This is based on the popular play that was written by the late August Wilson in 1983. Fences won the 1987 Pulizer Prize for drama and the 1987 Tony Award for best play. It's set in the 1950's and follows an African-American father struggling with race relations in the United States while trying to raise a family. This movie adaptation of the play is directed and produced by Denzel Washington, who also stars in the film alongside Viola Davis. This is Denzel's third directorial effort following Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007). Fences is set to get a long list of Oscar nominations and right now is positioned as the biggest competitor for La La Land for the coveted prize of best picture. Denzel should double up in the director and actor categories.

Two more major limited releases will hit theaters this weekend. However, for these two movies their expansions will depend on how well they play in limited release as well as how many Oscar nominations they get, neither of which is guaranteed with these two. I'll talk briefly about both. The first is 20th Century Women. This is the story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California in the late 1970's. Those three women are played by Annette Benning, Elle Fanning and Gretta Gerwig. There's a good chance a gold trophy is heading Annette Benning's way for this role. One is certainly heading Elle Fanning's way in the future with all the major roles she's being cast in, but now is not the time. A bigger uphill climb will be in the future for Hidden Figures, our other major limited release. This is about a team of African-American women who provide NASA with important mathematical data to launch their first successful space missions. This seems to be bubbling under in several major categories, but could wind up with nothing on Oscar nomination morning. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and/or Janelle Monáe hope to play spoiler.

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