Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. Recently capping off an eleven-year stretch as Iron Man in the obscenely lucrative Marvel films, in which he reportedly earned $75 million for his Endgame role alone, he could seemingly do whatever he’d like at this point. Given that, it’s downright bewildering that he would follow up the iconic superhero era of his career with Dolittle, a slapdash CGI trainwreck that’s as mindless as it is misguided. It’s neither thrilling nor funny, which is problematic for a film that purports to be an adventure comedy, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone over the age of the average kindergartener will get much from this bloated mess of a movie.
Mangling an untraceable South African/Scottish/Welsh accent, Downey plays Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive veterinarian who’s holed up in a mystical manor where he communicates with a menagerie of animals. When he gets word that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen deathly ill, he climbs atop his sassy ostrich and hightails it to Buckingham Palace alongside his companion creatures. He arrives to find that the Queen has been poisoned and that the cure can only be found on a remote island on the other side of the world. With his new human apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett) and animal friends by his side, Dolittle sets out on a journey to retrieve the precious antidote.
Atop the heap of beguiling creative decisions behind Dolittle is the choice to have Stephen Gaghan, the mind behind hard-hitting political dramas like Traffic and Syriana, direct and co-write this would-be family entertainment. Besides 2016’s Gold, he hasn’t directed anything since Syriana back in 2005 and nothing in his previous work would indicate that he would even be a close fit for something this toothless and juvenile. He and his three co-writers strain hard for laughs that, aside from a misjudged Godfather reference, are aimed squarely at youngsters. Even though the story is ostensibly set in 19th century England, the animals interject frequently in 21st century American vernacular, as when an octopus warns Dolittle “snitches get stitches.”
The depressingly overqualified voice cast, which includes recent Academy Award winners like Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, does their best to give life to their lifeless CG counterparts. Spencer, whose duck character is actually named Dab-Dab, is saddled with anachronistic clunkers like “do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?” It’s difficult to imagine what could have compelled this many talented actors to sign up for this freak show in the first place. Most of the film is so on-the-nose obvious about what it’s trying to do and who it’s trying to appeal to, it plays out like one of the parody trailers that opened the Downey-starring Tropic Thunder.
The film’s peaks far too early with a lovely, hand-drawn animated prologue outlining Dolittle’s long-lost love and I would have much preferred watching a story carried out in this style. Instead, we have to bear the sight of Downey mugging against computer-generated cacophony with at least half of his lines sounding like they were re-recorded in post-production. With a $175 million budget, you may come in expecting Marvel-level visual effects but the fantastical creations here are much more dubiously rendered; other non-animal shots, like one in which Stubbins leaps from one part of a bridge to another, are equally unconvincing. Tepid and tedious, Dolittle is an endless parade of wasted talent both on and off-camera.
Score – 1/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam, is the latest action caper from Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie about a British drug lord attempting to sell his empire to a group of Oklahoma billionaires. The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, is a supernatural horror update on “The Turn of the Screw” about a newly appointed nanny who looks after two disturbed orphans in a haunted Maine estate.
Another year, another weird number of Best Picture nominees. At least this year we get 9, which is one more than last year. Of course, that means that plenty of deserving films like The Farewell and Knives Out got boxed out for that #10 spot. At this point, we seem to be in a three-way tie between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 1917 and Parasite, which all hit me very differently in terms of quality. Hollywood is the current favorite and I’m inclined to agree; look no further than the fact that it has “Hollywood” in the title. Indeed, the Academy does love to love movies about Tinseltown and this year looks to be no exception, unless 1917 pulls a Moonlight.
My Prediction:Once Upon a Time in Hollywood My Vote: Marriage Story Overlooked: The Farewell
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Todd Phillips – Joker
Sam Mendes – 1917
Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
This category looks to be much more difficult to call. With the exception of Phillips, you could make a case for any of the other 4 directors to take home the statue. My current gut feeling is towards Mendes, given how technically impressive his faux one-take war epic is. Bong Joon-ho, who helmed one of the most audacious and wildly enjoyable films of the year, would be my personal pick. Certainly a shame that Gerwig wasn’t represented for her terrific work in Little Women. Even though she was nominated previously for Lady Bird, her vision for Alcott’s classic novel deserved to be recognized here.
My Prediction: Sam Mendes My Vote: Bong Joon-ho Overlooked: Greta Gerwig – Little Women
A surprisingly competitive field for Best Actor this time, especially in comparison to last year. Previous Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix seems to be an almost certainty for his undeniably great work in Joker. Great to see Adam Driver get recognition even though he won’t win; I’m sure he’ll have more chances down the road. As sleepy as The Two Popes was, Jonathan Pryce did reliably great work in it and Leonardo DiCaprio was hilarious as Hollywood‘s washed-up actor. Pain and Glory is one of the few titles nominated in a major category that I haven’t seen but I endeavor to do so before the big show.
My Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix My Vote: Adam Driver Overlooked: Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems
Probably my most frustrating category, as there were many brilliant female performances this year and yet, it looks very likely that the trophy will predictably go to Renée Zellweger for her admirable Judy Garland impression. I would much rather any of the other four actresses, especially Johansson, win the award and it looks like Charlize Theron has the best shot to upset. Still baffled that previous Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o got snubbed for her mesmerizing dual role in Us. The Academy did a great job at not ignoring Get Out two years ago, even though it came out early that previous year, and it’s a shame they didn’t give the same treatment to Peele’s follow-up.
My Prediction: Renée Zellweger My Vote: Scarlett Johansson Overlooked: Lupita Nyong’o – Us
My Prediction: Laura Dern My Vote: Florence Pugh Overlooked: Thomasin McKenzie – Jojo Rabbit
Strong supporting categories this year, especially Supporting Actor. Aside from the current favorite Brad Pitt, every other Supporting Actor nominee has won previously. I love Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, despite the disturbing lack of Pittsburghese in his performance, but my personal preference would be towards Pesci for his quiet commanding work in The Irishman. It’s good to have him back.
Like Pitt, Laura Dern is similarly a lock in the Supporting Actress field. I’m obviously a huge Marriage Story fan, so I’m happy with any awards that film can gather, even if Dern’s role wasn’t as challenging as some of her competitors. Willem Dafoe and Thomasin McKenzie are obvious snubs for me but I also would’ve loved to have seen a nod for 10-year-old Julia Butters, who more than holds her own against Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In the heart of Oscar season, two popular genres tend to dominate the multiplex: hard-hitting legal dramas and issues movies meant to provoke discussion about a hot-button topic. Destin Daniel Cretton’s JustMercy happens to fall narrowly in the middle of both of those categories. As this is the case, it tends to be doubly as familiar in some ways but also doubly as admirable in its successes, given the baggage of expectations that it carries on its shoulders. The issue at the center of the movie, the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and its staggering rate of error, has been examined on film previously but Cretton pursues slightly different avenues to shed new light on the subject.
Our story starts in 1987 Alabama, where Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is hastily tried and convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old girl with almost no evidence. Catching wind of the case, Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) travels south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative with social worker Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). The EJI’s aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, specifically for those on death row, and McMillian’s case becomes the focal point of Stevenson’s efforts. His investigation draws the ire of many in the community who firmly believe in McMillian’s guilt, like the hot-headed district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), but Stevenson persists among the multitude of obstacles thrown his way.
Just Mercy plays out about how one might imagine. There’s the terse initial meeting between McMillian and Stevenson, in which an incredulous McMillian turns Stevenson away, even though we know the plot will of course hinge on the two working together. There are the multiple run-ins with sweaty bigoted members of Alabama’s law enforcement, desperate to take Stevenson and his team down at any costs. We have the procedural feel throughout the investigation, in which pages of law books are shuffled through in order to clear McMillian’s name in court. Yet, these recognizable story beats still resonate because of the conviction of the performances on-screen and the direction off-screen.
Where Cretton finds new direction in this harrowing true tale is in the relationships between McMillian and his fellow inmates. Often in capital punishment movies, the injustice of the system is the sole focus and while this film certainly accentuates that aspect, it also focuses on the human interactions and brotherhood behind the bars. Hope and inspiration are precious commodities on death row and the modicum that can be found are uplifting to behold, even in fleeting moments. As good as Foxx and Jordan are, supporting players like O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan are even better in roles that allow them to deeply humanize prisoners who know they may not get a second chance themselves.
At a stout 136 minutes, the movie does suffer from pacing issues and may overstay its welcome even for those who are interested in the material. Despite her real-life significance, I’m not certain that Brie Larson’s character even needed to be included in the film, much less given as much screen time as she is since her role in the case is relatively minimal. It’s reasonable to believe that Larson, who worked with Cretton previously in the excellent Short Term 12 and terrible The Glass Castle, was recruited post-Captain Marvel success to add another familiar face to the cast list. Despite its shortcomings, Just Mercy is a sobering and earnest examination of a broken system and the victims left in its wake.
Score – 3/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Bad Boys For Life, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, caps off the buddy cop trilogy about two reckless police detectives who reunite once again to take down a Romanian mob boss. Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jessie Buckley, retells the story of a renown doctor who surrounds himself with a myriad of wondrous creatures with whom he can communicate. Playing at Cinema Center is Parasite, the current Oscar front-runner for Best International Feature Film about a lower-middle class family who slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family.
The harrowing new World War I film 1917 opens on two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, getting some much needed rest. Little do they know, it’s the only bit of respite that they’ll get for the next two hours. After they’re awoken and given a mission by their General, played by Colin Firth, the pair is thrust into no man’s land to deliver a message with orders to call off an ally’s pending attack. Along the way, familiar faces from Benedict Cumberbatch to Mark Strong pop up to help our protagonists in their treacherous journey. What makes the experience different than almost any other war movie, however, is that we follow the action in real time as the film is presented to appear as one continuous shot.
This impressive technical feat, a collaboration between director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, has been attempted several times in other non-war films. Hitchcock’s Rope was the first to approach the gimmick back in 1948 and recent films from Birdman to Son of Saul have used disguised cuts to appear as a single take. Even more rare are the films that are truly one unbroken shot, like the mind-boggling 140-minute heist film Victoria. Though Mendes does implement a few cuts from the action — particularly the most notable one separating day from night at the film’s midpoint — the effect is as arresting and sensational as the director intended. The level of coordination and timing on display within these lengthy long takes is simply unheard of, particularly for this genre.
Mendes wisely re-teamed with his Skyfall cameraman Deakins to carry out such an expansive experiment. Deakins, who won a long overdue Oscar a couple years ago for his work in Blade Runner 2049, is in line for another nomination and hopefully a win for his nimble and virtuosic cinematography. Whether his camera is skimming across shallow water to follow our heroes or pedaling back as a wounded German plane comes careening to the ground, the action is framed flawlessly in every sequence. Even more minor shots, like the claustrophobic one in the back of a crowded truck where a camera crew couldn’t possibly fit, highlight a level of preparation and commitment that is inspiring, to say the least.
If there’s disappointment in 1917, it’s that the story and character work simply doesn’t match the ambition and ingenuity of the technical aspects at play. We follow the primary soldiers as they doggedly trek through a series of perilous circumstances but we learn very little about them in the process. Nearly every other character is only on-screen for a few moments total and, perhaps by necessity, their roles are underdeveloped and unmemorable. Despite its technical excellence, the film dips into self-indulgence in certain stretches and at times, the film doesn’t seem to exist for any other reason than to show us how difficult it was to make.
Nevertheless, the behind-the-camera aspects, including a rousing and riveting music score from Thomas Newman, will deservedly draw attention in the upcoming award season. One area that will likely be ignored is the work by the two lead actors, particularly by MacKay. Acting is easier when one can rely on multiple takes upon which to cobble together the most optimal performance but the pressure on the performer is much higher when they have to be “on” for 45 consecutive minutes at a time. 1917 isn’t quite the all-time great that it wants to be but it’s a visceral and thrilling exploration of warfare from an audacious new perspective.
Score – 3.5/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, tells the true story of a civil rights defense attorney who takes the case of a wrongly condemned death row prisoner in 1980s Alabama. Like a Boss, starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne, is a comedy set in the cosmetics world about two entrepreneurs who start a beauty company but are hindered by a greedy benefactor. Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, is a spin on the Alien formula about a crew of underwater researchers who are left stranded when an earthquake wrecks their subterranean laboratory.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig follows up her breakout debut Lady Bird with Little Women, an enchanting and exquisite modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel. It’s a daunting task taking on such a well-known work, one that has now been adapted to film eight times now, but Gerwig has committed to creative choices that distinguish this iteration from its ilk. In the best way, this feels like a “remix” of the original source material, focusing on tone and theme more than adhering strictly to the narrative as it’s laid out in the book. Bolstered by lush camerawork and a first-rate ensemble cast, this is a delightful and supremely entertaining take on a coming-of-age classic.
Set in 1860s New England, the story centers around the March family as Marmee March (Laura Dern) looks over her four daughters while Father March (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. There’s Jo (Saorise Ronan), the rambunctious aspiring writer who captures the affection of the devilishly charming next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). There’s Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of a life on the stage with a suitor waiting in the wings. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest whose jealousy and selfishness tend to get the best of her. Finally, there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose sweet and reserved disposition is reflected in her beautiful piano playing that warmly fills the March residence.
Gerwig’s boldest artistic direction, in conjunction with editor Nick Houy, comes in how she approaches the chronology, beginning the film with Jo as an adult pitching a pulp novel to the incredulous Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). From there, we flash back six years to Jo’s childhood in the lively March household and then we flip back and forth in time to follow not only Jo’s journey but also the stories of the other three sisters as well. As is tradition for retellings of this tale, Jo remains the focus but Gerwig expands the scope of the character work by allowing us to spend more time with the rest of the March family. For example, Amy has been more crudely drawn in other adaptations but through Pugh’s performance and Gerwig’s writing, she’s a fully fleshed-out character.
The dream cast, which also includes venerable veterans like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, is perfectly realized in both major and minor roles. Rekindling their pre-existing partnership from Lady Bird, Ronan and Chalamet showcase an effortless charm and chemistry that brings out the very best of the actors’ sensibilities. Pugh caps off her breakout year with another winning performance that cements her as one of the most magnetic young actresses working today. Also carried over from Lady Bird is Letts, who scores some big laughs as a cynical publisher who playfully picks apart Jo’s pending novel, peppering in pieces of advice like “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”
Bringing the whole package together are some terrific contributions from behind the camera. The elegant cinematography from Yorick Le Saux makes beautiful use of natural light in every scene, book-matching the opening and concluding shots of the film with transcendent symmetry. Musically, Alexandre Desplat’s stately yet spritely score adds the perfect notes of sophistication and whimsy for a period drama such as this. Little Women is proof that with the right combination of ingenuity and intelligence, it’s possible to make even the most well-worn stories feel fresh once again.
Score – 4.5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: The Grudge, starring Andrea Riseborough and John Cho, is a remake of a remake about a spooky house cursed by a vengeful spirit who haunts and kills all those who enter it.
Adam Sandler disappears into another dominant dramatic role in Uncut Gems, a frenetic and fraught character study of a hopelessly degenerate gambler with his back perpetually against the wall. Benny and Josh Safdie, who also helmed 2017’s similarly frenzied Good Time, have perfected a brand of controlled chaos that’s designed to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension throughout. Playing out like a two-hour panic attack, the film captures a seedy subsection of New York where nothing ever seems to slow down and everyone is constantly grinding for the next big score. It’s unquestionably a stressful world to inhabit, so much so that audiences will likely have to catch their breath after they leave the theater.
We first meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy, a rare moment when he’s not in motion. To say that Howard has problems would be a massive understatement. He owes money to bookies all over the city, whose enforcers seem to lurk behind every corner. We see Howard make bets with money that he shouldn’t have in the first place and pawn merchandise from his jewelry store to cover his losses. His only saving grace comes in the form of an uncut Ethiopian opal that he smuggles into the country, which he intends to put to auction but makes the mistake of showing it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) first. This throws Howard’s plan completely out of orbit and sets off a chain of events that make his situation even more desperate than it already was.
Uncut Gems finds a totem that encapsulates its protagonist perfectly in an early scene when Howard shows off a blinged-out Furby necklace to Garnett and his entourage. With its creepy smile and manic shifty eyeballs, it perfectly symbolizes who Howard is and what gambling addiction has done to his life. And it’s not as if he’s unaware either; “I’m so stressed out,” he laments to his mistress as she offers a consolation cuddle. That he can’t see a way to rise above his problems is obviously tragic but the more we get to know Howard, the more we come to understand that he is likely the source of almost all of his misfortune. After all, he’s morally reprehensible, brazenly tactless and about as egomaniacal as one could be.
Despite this, we somehow still root for Howard in his escalating endeavors and almost all of that credit goes to Sandler in a role that may have been fully intolerable had another actor been involved instead. We’ve gotten tastes of his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love and more recently in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) but here, he raises his game even higher than he has in the past. As we all know, Sandler has done loads of terrible comedies in the past and he will almost certainly commit to more in the future. My feeling is that if that’s what he needs to do for us to get a performance as revelatory as the one in this film, then it might all just be worth it.
The Safdies have proven yet again that no one makes films that are quite as propulsive and unnerving as their own. They push our expectations for just how stressful a situation can become and how much worse things can get for our protagonist. While there are brief moments of respite and release, anxiety permeates nearly every fiber of the film. Uncut Gems is like a domino set if the dominos were replaced with sticks of dynamite, where every interaction and obstacle is calibrated for maximum impact.
Score – 4/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, starring Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, brings the nine-part “Skywalker saga” to a close as Rey and Kylo Ren battle for the fate of the universe. Cats, starring James Corden and Taylor Swift, is a big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical from Tom Hooper, the director of 2012’s Les Misérables. Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, centers around the true story of three female Fox News reporters and their allegations against its founder Roger Ailes.
89-year-old Clint Eastwood continues his string of competently-made biopics with Richard Jewell, an occasionally inspiring but largely listless docudrama about the vilification of an everyday hero. Like his Tom Hanks-starring Sully from a few years back, Eastwood once again examines how the government and media conspired together to take a second look at a newly proclaimed national hero. Though it tackles the same themes, Jewell is over 30 minutes longer than Sully and doesn’t feature any scenes as harrowing as the famous landing on the Hudson. Most striking, though, is the relatively leisurely pace and overall lack of urgency that go into telling this story.
Our titular hero (Paul Walter Hauser) may be familiar to those who had their finger on the pulse in the mid-90s. It was at the 1996 Summer Olympics that the Atlanta security guard stumbled upon a suspicious package, a bundle of pipe bombs that only exploded after Jewell and fellow officers cleared the area. His moment of glory in the national spotlight begins to darken when FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and rambunctious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) craft a narrative implicating Jewell in the attack. With his bullish lawyer (Sam Rockwell) and caring mother (Kathy Bates), Richard fights back to prove his innocence in the mounting trial by the media.
Set at the intersection of cynicism and heroism, Richard Jewell seeks to investigate the impulse by the general public to quickly turn on innocent figures for instant gratification. Eastwood’s choice to depict a sea of concert-goers dancing mindlessly to the “Macarena” seems to reinforce the idea that the masses will go along with just about anything if the tune is catchy enough. The problem, then, is that we don’t get insight into how the “song” against Richard Jewell was created. I went into the film expecting to see how the initial hit piece by the Atlanta Journal Constitution was written or what kind of evidence the FBI had against Jewell but the movie is oddly devoid of much of this insight.
If the narrative isn’t as exciting as it should be, things are carried along nicely by the talented cast led by the exceptional Paul Walter Hauser, who gave memorable performances over the past couple years in BlacKkKlansman and I, Tonya. Here, he imbues our protagonist with the quiet dignity and underdog spirit to make it nearly impossible to root against him. He keeps most of his emotions under the surface but when bouts of anger do spike up, they’re more heartbreaking than alarming given everything the character is put through. Elsewhere, Rockwell and Hamm turn in reliable work as aggressive men trying to get the job done while Wilde out-hams Hamm in a juicy role as a promiscuous reporter.
With its mistrust of government officials and depiction of “fake news” before that was even a term, the film unquestionably has a political subtext if one seeks it. Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to read the film without it and engage with the story no matter where you lean politically. Frankly, I would have been more than okay with Eastwood making things even more political if it had resulted in a more interesting movie as a whole. Thanks to cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the film always looks great and is a huge step-up from the shoddy camerawork in Eastwood’s The 15:17 To Paris from last year. As is, Richard Jewell works best as a quiet character study and may disappoint those looking for the tightly-edited thriller that the promotional material suggests.
Score – 2.5/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: Jumanji: The Next Level, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black, brings the gang of video game avatars back for another adventure that will take them all across the digital landscape. Black Christmas, starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes, is a remake of the 1970s slasher movie about a group of female college students who are being stalked during their Christmas break. Waves, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown, tells the harrowing story of a suburban family as they recover together in the aftermath of an unspeakable loss.
Six years after the box office smash and cultural phenomenon that is Frozen comes its follow-up Frozen II, a fine and safe sequel that mimics the features of its predecessor to mostly positive results. Marrying state-of-the-art animation with catchy musical numbers and a storyline packed with mythology, the film should delight the legions of fans who made the original the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, even if it doesn’t convert many non-believers in the process. According to my five-year-old niece Daphne, it isn’t quite as good as the first film and given her affinity for all things Frozen, I’m inclined to respect her opinion on the matter.
We revisit the kingdom of Arendelle, where the recently coronated Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) celebrates the changing of seasons with her beloved sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Playing charades with Anna and her boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) one evening, Elsa is drawn to a distant siren call that seems to be the product of ancient elemental spirits and sets out to find its source. All three, along with their peppy snowman friend Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s amiable reindeer Sven, journey along and find themselves at the Enchanted Forest, whose magical fog bank has not only kept others out for many years but also trapped forest dwellers in its grasp.
The opening ensemble song “Some Things Never Change” both reintroduces us to our main characters and also serves as a bit of a mission statement for the film as a whole. The sentiment of finding comfort in the familiar seems to be the filmmakers giving themselves license to retread numerous narrative tricks from the first Frozen. Though they’re working with tried and true tropes like a magical forest and a heroine’s quest into the unknown, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee make a hash of the already murky mythology. I tracked with the broad strokes of the story but there were quite a few moments that I struggled to make sense of the movie’s needlessly complicated plotline.
The music, written by returning team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, doesn’t feature a powerhouse hit as potent as “Let It Go,” even though “Into the Unknown” is certainly trying its hardest. Having said that, there are still some gems in this batch of new tunes. Olaf giddily offers up “When I Am Older”, a charming ode to impending maturity, while Kristoff belts out the cheekily self-aware power ballad “Lost in the Woods” with a trio of harmonizing reindeer. But it’s Anna’s feature “The Next Right Thing”, an immensely moving statement on overcoming hardship and grief, that may be the best song in the Frozen franchise.
While the tone and themes are decidedly darker this time around, there is still time afforded for moments of lightheartedness and self-referential humor. While witnessing flashbacks from her life, Elsa winces as she sees herself belting out her signature tune, indicating that she’s about as fed up with “Let It Go” as we are after hearing it ad nauseam. The film’s funniest scene finds Olaf catching new characters up with a zippy summary of the events of the first film, skewering its expositional heft in the process. When it’s all said and done, I probably would have preferred Olaf’s retelling of this film to the experience of watching the whole thing but as is, Frozen II is a serviceable holiday treat.
Score – 3/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, finds a corporate defense attorney taking on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution. Playmobil: The Movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Anya Taylor-Joy, follows in the footsteps of the popular Lego Movie franchise as a secret agent goes on a mission to recover citizens from a shadowy organization. Opening at Cinema Center is In Fabric, starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hayley Squires, which is a horror comedy set in a department store as a cursed dress makes its rounds from one person to another.
Writer/director Rian Johnson follows up his divisive Star Wars entry The Last Jedi with Knives Out, a venomous and vivacious modern update on the classic whodunnit genre. Indebted equally to the work of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, this throwback murder-mystery is packed with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep audiences guessing while still keeping things relatively plausible. Not only does the film wield the most qualified cast of any movie this year but it provides each actor and actress a role suited perfectly to their capabilities and strengths as a performer. Add in bits of scathing humor and (mostly) incisive social commentary and you have one of the year’s most purely enjoyable spectacles.
The day after his 85th birthday party, the lifeless body of prolific mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his labyrinthine mansion. While it initially appears to be a suicide, renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects there’s more to the story and calls back the guests from the previous evening for interrogation. That includes an eccentric ensemble of family members: Harlan’s sardonic eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his meek youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) and free-spirited daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), among others. Also called for questioning is Harlan’s faithful caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), whose perspective outside of the family may hold the key to solving the case.
The Thrombey clan, which also includes Harlan’s haughty grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) and his shifty son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), is filled with the fiendish motives and shaky alibis that we’ve come to expect from this type of story. Kicking off with a superbly edited sequence that introduces us to each of the players, Johnson uses subjective narration and conflicting claims to keep us on our toes as we try to keep track of the constantly moving pieces. His script, which crackles with sharp-tongued dialogue that suits each character perfectly, also includes enough red herrings to throw even the most astute viewers for a loop.
The performances from the excellent ensemble cast are consistently stellar, mainly because each performer seems to be have so much darn fun with their respective roles. Coming across as Hercule Poirot by way of Colonel Sanders, Craig’s peculiar PI postulates with a ridiculous Southern drawl that recalls his madcap character in 2017’s Logan Lucky. Now in the post-Captain America phase of his career, Evans is freed up to channel a devious energy that gives the film most of its biggest laughs. Even in a more straight-laced heroine role, Ana de Armas gives her protagonist the grace and soulfulness to make her sympathetic from the start.
If there’s disappointment in Knives Out, it’s that we don’t get to spend quite enough time with each of the sharply-drawn characters, especially in the third act as the web of lies and deceit becomes untangled. The stacked cast tends to shine brightest as they’re shuffled between questioning at the outset but their presence becomes more sparse as the clues start to narrow on just a few suspects. Still, each of the actors get their licks in as they vie for screen time; even Frank Oz shows up as Harlan’s beleaguered lawyer who heads up a spirited reading of the mogul’s will. Knives Out is yet another successful attempt of genre experimentation from one of our most earnestly passionate filmmakers.
Score – 4/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, is a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde story about a couple who go on the run after a minor traffic violation leads to the shooting of a police officer. Playing at Cinema Center this weekend only is the cult classic Dial Code Santa Claus, a French thriller that came out a year before Home Alone but shares a similar plot about a child staving off a burglar on Christmas Eve. Coming to Netflix is the long-awaited Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, about an aging mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
Tom Hanks dons the famous hand-knit sweaters of Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a tender-hearted and touching tribute to the television icon and the countless people that he inspired. Rather than go the traditional biopic route of covering the subject’s entire life and career, director Marielle Heller details the profound impact that Fred Rogers had on one person’s life to symbolize his larger cultural influence. As a companion to last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this narrative feature further explores the philosophy and worldview of a man who did everything he could to heal the world and make humanity just a little bit kinder.
The film’s true story centers around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a hard-hearted Esquire journalist who seems to have met his match when he’s tasked with profiling the altruistic TV star Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is at first shocked by the news, then leaves him with one request as he jets off to Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh: “please don’t ruin my childhood.” From the moment he sets foot on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set, Vogel seems committed to staying emotionally unattached while interviewing his subject but as he spends more time with the soft-spoken Rogers, his cynical exterior slowly begins to erode.
When it was announced early last year that Tom Hanks would be portraying the legendary television star, the news almost seemed too good to be true. The pitch-perfect casting pays off early and often; as soon as Hanks steps onto the TV set singing the spritely theme song, there is no doubt that he is Fred Rogers. Hanks continually threads the needle between impression and caricature, channeling Rogers’ calm and soothing cadence without overplaying things. Rhys is also terrific as the peevish counterpoint to the benevolent Rogers, unveiling years of pain and personal turmoil within each conversation.
If Hanks as Rogers is the film’s headline, then the comparatively underrated aspect of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is the imaginative and unconventional direction by Heller. Amid the film’s emotionally poignant tale, she adds playful touches like implementing miniature sets in the style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to draw us closer to the fantastical world created by the film’s main character. Heller also works with editor Anne McCabe to recreate the patient and thoughtful pacing of Rogers’ landmark show. A quiet scene late in the film, a meditative and magical moment that I won’t dare spoil here, is one of the most captivating of the year.
With such a divine and seemingly infallible central figure at its core, there is a concern going into the film that it may try to uncover negative aspects of Rogers’ life. Those fears are allayed quickly as Heller certainly doesn’t seem interested in throwing mud on his legacy and instead, she humanizes him while bolstering his gracious persona at the same time. Above all, the movie seems utterly sincere in its depiction of both a hurting soul and the opposing force determined to heal it. Full of warmth and wisdom, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood showcases the simple power of human connection amid increasingly turbulent times.
Score – 4/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: Frozen II, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, continues the journey of Elsa and Anna as they set out across an enchanted land to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom. 21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller, is a police drama about an NYPD detective who puts all of New York City on lockdown in order for him and the authorities to defeat a pair of cop killers. Playing this weekend at Cinema Center is a documentary double feature of Pollinators, which follows migratory beekeepers and their truckloads of honey bees and Fantastic Fungi, which explores the burgeoning market of fungi-based products.