Women Talking Rated PG-13 for sexual assault, mature thematic content, bloody images and some strong language Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90% In Theaters This week we have a couple of powerhouse dramas hitting theaters, starting with the highly anticipated drama Women Talking. The story centers on an isolated group of women from a strict religious community who in 2010, after suffering a tremendous amount of sexual abuse from the men, had to choose one of three options to survive: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Starring Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand and Ben Whishaw, the commune must weigh their choices carefully and the debate is both heated and draining. Written and directed by Sarah Polley, the dialog is intelligent and sharp, and for a movie with mostly talking, the movie still manages to be riveting. Polley, with the help from a marvelous cast, manages to draw you in fast, making you feel like you are in the room, making the decision with them. Sure it is challenging to watch, but the attention it demands and the ways in which the arguments and the story unfolds, creates an empathy that is unavoidable. This one came so close to making my top 10, and I still think it might should have been included. A
Living Rated PG-13 for smoking and some suggestive material Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% In Theaters This quiet little indie, based on the Kurosawa classic, starts Bill Nighy as a quiet, reserved, and rather ordinary man, who, upon news of his impending mortality, chooses to try to do something meaningful with his short remaining time. Sweet and simple, the movie is a tremendous piece of acting on the part of Nighy, who could come up with his first Oscar nomination at the age of 73. And many folks, including myself, are cheering him on in the hopes that this happens. While the film has some sadness on a basic level, it manages to put a smile on your face when it very easily could have been melancholy. For that reason alone, it manages to be the “feel good movie of the year” in a way that is true and honest and not in the least bit manipulative. It puts life and legacy, and all that they entail, in perspective. A
A Man Called Otto Rated PG-13 for suicide attempts, mature thematic material, language Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69% In Theaters This remake of the Swedish hit “A Man Called Ove” stars Tom Hanks as Otto, a lonely and no-nonsense grump who is forced to be social again by his nosy and irritating neighbors. While his original intentions are to leave this world behind (for reasons I won’t get into here), he keeps finding cause to stick around from the most unexpected of sources. With direction by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) and script from David Magee (Life of Pi), the film has an excellent pedigree of filmmakers, who both help Hanks with a compelling project full of laughter and heartbreak. And a quite timely one at that given the social isolation of the last few years. It’s not exactly a family film with this subject matter, but it is warm and fuzzy and all those things that can help you get through a comedy about a suicidal man. Very similar to the Swedish version, the film has its moments of cheesiness that sometimes get in the way of trying to like it, but ultimately the film’s soul wins you over. I especially liked the way that Hanks portrays Otto to be almost on the spectrum, rather than just a sourpuss with a sad backstory. It helps us like him even more and empathize in a way the original doesn’t really convey. B+
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: The Criterion Collection Rated PG Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91% Available on Disc This crazy adventure from writer/director and Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam was met in 1989 with empty theaters yet stellar reviews, and to this day is still considered a cult classic. The strange and unusual fantasy stars John Neville as the German aristocrat Baron Munchausen who goes on a fantastic voyage with a young Sarah Polley (yes the Sarah Polley who just wrote and directed the potential Oscar nominee Women Talking), leaving its audience in doubt of what is real and what is completely contrived. Filled with surprising and surreal images and stories, and also including some crazy cameos from the likes of Robin Williams, Uma Thurman and even Sting, the film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and, lucky for us, classic Gilliam. I remember it as being one of the first films I ever went to see by myself in a theater (because none of my friends were even remotely interested), leaving me in an empty theater that ended up filling my head with joy and wonder. This new 4K restoration only gave me a reminder of that wonderful experience, in vivid and beautiful detail. A
Now that we are at the close of another year, I’ve heard so many of my friends declare that 2022 was yet another disappointing one for Hollywood. I disagree. But it was unusual. In most years, we would see several films released every week, and while many weren’t great, the law of percentages would usually win out and you could find a good one. But after Covid, we started seeing a great reduction in the number of films released Friday after Friday. If you follow my column, you would have seen that in many weeks, I just didn’t have anything new to review. That being said, while there were fewer films to choose from, there were many high quality offerings released throughout the year, as well as a number that were offered up by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. But overall, I thought this was a fabulous year for movies, providing one of my longest honorable mention lists I’ve ever had to create. And the Top 10 here should give you plenty to catch up on before you head back to work and school in early January.
1) Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (Streaming on Netflix). Ever since the first time I experienced this marvelous musical in London (I’ve seen it 4 times since in the U.S.), I’ve been in love with it. The story revolves around a neglected little girl (Alisha Weir) whose special abilities and talents allow her to overcome her obstacles as she takes on her family, her school and especially her evil principal, Miss Trunchbull (masterfully played here by Emma Thompson). I’ve been disappointed with countless musicals that have released throughout the years, but every once in a while they turn out just right, and this is one of those instances. The cast is perfect as is the direction by Tony Award winning director Matthew Warchus, who also directed the original Matilda on stage. It’s a marvelous experience that will largely go without taking home any trophies, due to a lack of promotion by Netflix. But don’t let that fool you. It’s a gem of a film that will leave you with a big smile on your face and a tear in your eye.
2) Everything Everywhere All At Once (Available on Showtime and on paid streaming). Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Temple of Doom) lead this most eclectic of adventures through the multi-verse as a struggling couple who must try to put their family back together again while simultaneously saving the world. The brilliant screenplay works on so many levels that it transcends genre, delivering the biggest action movie, funniest comedy and most heart-warming family drama, all in one two-hour package. It’s fun almost to a fault, making it a blast to watch over and over again, picking up new and exciting moments you missed along the way. Picking up the most Critics Choice nominations this year, it is certain to be an Oscar front-runner in almost every category.
3) The Banshees of Inisherin (Available HBO Max and on paid streaming). This dark comedy by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) focuses on a dissolving relationship between two lifelong friends, played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, from a small Irish community. Here, Gleeson wants to stop being friends while Farrell simply can’t comply, to his and his friend’s detriment and impending doom. The simple story is anything but as the complexities keep adding up, keeping you on your toes as you forget about trying to figure it out and just hope that the story ends on a decent enough note not to leave you miserable. But in the meantime you laugh and dread in equal measure. The film really excels in making you feel like you are part of the town, watching the events take place, hoping that things turn out okay, but knowing that you can’t do anything about it.
4) Tár (Available on paid streaming). Everything about this movie seems pretentious. The title, the running time and the opening hour make you wonder why everyone is talking about what must be just an art-house lovers film and certainly not for the average movie-goer. But stick around and you will unravel why so many love it and why this visionary tale from writer/director Todd Field is so remarkable. Cate Blanchett is absolutely perfect as composer Lyda Tár, a famous conductor for a major German symphony, who finds herself on top of the world, until her world starts to crumble beneath her feet. It is an unforgettable drama, filled with excitement and surprises you could never expect.
5) The Fabelmans (In theaters and available on paid streaming). In Steven Spielberg’s latest, he presents a semi-autobiographical look at his life and how he came to fall in love with movies, through the eyes of young man named Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) whose family and experiences shape him into the man he becomes and the pathway he wants to take in life. It’s not only a superb family drama, but an inspiring and lovely story as well, full of emotion and laughter.
6) Babylon (In theaters). I simply don’t understand the bad reviews and audience scores this film has gotten with its release this week, but I do feel that this is the kind of film that could come back and change people’s minds. La La Land’s Damien Chazelle shows us here a vision of Hollywood from its early days, with all of its decadence and danger. Starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie the film shows us a different world than most would expect, and I can only assume it is a more accurate portrayal than any that have come before it. It is more graphic than most can imagine, but it also comes across with a strong feeling of authenticity. And man the writing and direction are great here, with a terrific score by Justin Horowitz to boot. I believe that someday audiences will revisit this one and wonder why they panned it to begin with.
7) Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Streaming on Netflix). Netflix outdid Disney and Pixar in a huge way with a full slate of fantastic animated fare, with its flagship being this new take on Pinocchio by the master of horror, Guillermo del Toro. Set during WWII and focusing as much on Geppetto as the boy made of wood, the film presents a beautiful and heartbreaking story that at least matches the original Disney film, if not surpassing it. The stop-motion animation artistry on display here is perhaps the finest ever created and the story, while showing the familiar notes you expect, is both exciting and heartwarming.
8) Triangle of Sadness (Available on paid streaming). This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes is this uber dark comedy that follows the guests on board a luxury yacht for the super rich (captained by an unhinged Woody Harrelson) that lands its guests fighting for survival on a desert island when things go horribly wrong. As much social commentary as it is laugh-out-loud comedy, the film attempts to disgust you with human behavior as much as it tries with vomit and sewage upon the yacht. Yes it’s revolting, but more importantly, it is also impactful and truly memorable.
9) Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (Streaming on Netflix). Perhaps one of the most overlooked films of 2022 is this adult-skewing animated film from Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater (Boyhood) which tells the tale of a young boy growing up in Houston during the space race in the late 60s and the impact it had on his life, all told with narration from Jack Black. It’s a nostalgia bomb for those of us with similar experiences that represents all of the magic that most remember from those days. But more than that, it’s an entertaining story that can be enjoyed by all ages.
10) Top Gun: Maverick (Streaming on Paramount+ and available on paid streaming). While Avatar and Black Panther are ruling the end of the year box office, Top Gun: Maverick was the real winner in 2022. Taking place decades after the first Top Gun, this film beats the storytelling and action hands down, providing a rollercoaster of an experience with a power that is hard to deny. And with a U.S. gross of over $700 million, audiences obviously could not get enough of it. I myself saw it three times in theaters and enjoyed it each time. While I still have problems with Tom Cruise as a person, there is no doubt that what he does as an actor puts him and his movies fson a different level.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Aftersun, Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Phone, Bones and All, Elvis, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Hustle, Living, Prey, RRR, Spirited, Thirteen Lives, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, The Woman King, Women Talking
1) Morbius. Sony tried to jump in with one of their few remaining Marvel properties only to give us this incredibly lame vampire thriller that will hopefully not spawn a franchise.
2) Pinocchio. You would think that this live action Pinocchio from Disney starring Tom Hanks as Gepetto and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) would be an easy success, but this huge mess landed with a thud.
3) Firestarter. The original wasn’t great, so you’d think they would try to at least improve upon it, but horrible special effects and atrocious acting made us wish this Stephen King classic would have been left alone.
4) Jurassic World Dominion. Here lies proof that you can throw all the money in the world at a bad project and it won’t make it a good one. This embarrassing outing will hopefully finally shut down the park.
5) Blacklight. Liam Neeson can really be a great actor, but you’d never know it as he keeps making the same lousy film, over and over again, with the same bad results.
Avatar: The Way of Water Rated PG-13 for partial nudity, intense action, sequences of strong violence and some strong language Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83% In Theaters Perhaps the most anticipated movie in several years is this sequel to the 2009 mega hit, Avatar. Written and directed by James Cameron, the film takes place years after the humans were kicked off of Pandora. Jake and Neyteri now have a full family, complete with rebellious teenagers, and even a human tagalong named Spider who was left behind on Pandora to live with the scientists, since babies couldn’t survive space travel. After the events of the first film, it was pretty obvious that the humans would come back with a vengeance, and this they do in order to obtain the precious elements on the planet, no matter what the cost. But revenge is also on the menu and a group of marine avatars are sent specifically to find and kill Jake. Not wanting to risk his people’s lives, he runs away with his family to an island chain, hoping to make new friends and survive peacefully. But that peace is short-lived when the new avatars do not give up on their hunt. Cameron announced that the Avatar universe would be expanding immediately upon the original’s success, but he needed to push the limits of special effects past what was available at the time, which explains the 13 year gap in this release. If this is true, then I would say that it was worth the wait. The special effects are truly the most amazing that have ever graced the silver screen. And to enhance those effects, his use of 3D makes me not want to give up on the add-on, like I had for the quite some time now with other films. So if you are seeing it for the visuals and the overall experience, you won’t be disappointed in the least. Just as in the first, if there is any weakness it is in the story and clunky dialog. As you expect with a Cameron film, there are lots of cheesy lines and retreads from his own and others’ works, but most audiences won’t notice and there’s so many spectacular things going on that these minor items are easy to overlook. The script here is not as ambitious in its messaging as the first, but you still feel the analogies to colonialism and environmental impact throughout. And while I’m always skeptical of films that clock in at over 3 hours, the story feels tight enough that your bladder might notice, but your brain might not. I have a feeling that this one will grow on me, especially given that he has announced several more sequels currently in play, that I can’t wait to see. Thankfully we won’t have to wait another 13 years as the next ones are already in the works and set to release every two years until the first part of the story is complete. A-
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio Rated PG for peril, dark thematic material, brief smoking, some rude humor and violence Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97% Streaming on Netflix Earlier this year we were cursed with Disney’s live-action Pinocchio, which should have been spectacular but ended up delivering a real stinker. This week, though, we are blessed with this visionary stop-motion production from the great Guillermo del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson. In 1940, Disney’s Pinocchio, and all others since, have focused on the puppet who wants to be a real little boy. Here the story shifts its focus to Pinocchio’s father Geppetto who begins the film as a happy old woodcarver with a real son (named Carlo, after the book’s author) who, after a horrific tragedy, finds himself alone and miserable, and in great need of the companionship he desperately misses. Thus Pinocchio comes to life and sets them both off on an adventure. To take such a classic story and spin it on its head in such original ways is pure genius and this movie’s story really shines, in equality to its production. But one look and you will know the production is what people will be talking about. The artistry on display here is possibly the most impressive that stop-motion animation has ever seen, and that is quite a feat. From the vision behind the puppets to the hands that molded and moved them through the elaborate sets, the film is a wonder to behold. If there is anything even slightly negative to say, it would be that, for a musical, the songs are hit and miss. But after seeing the film twice and listening to the soundtrack a few times, even the misses are growing on me. Of course it helps to have the help of Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat at the musical helm, laying his subtle yet lovely melodies down throughout. A big nod must go to Netflix who has really upped their animation game this past year. With 4 of the best animated pics of year in 2022 (Apollo 10 1/2, Wendell & Wild and The Sea Beast) are all potential Oscar noms in the category), they have managed to outplay Disney, Pixar and others at their own game. A
Violent Night Rated R for some sexual references, language throughout and strong bloody violence Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80% at time of writing In Theaters Now that we are done with Thanksgiving, it’s time to start gearing up for Christmas, and this week brings new holiday fare to the moviegoer. Since we all love Santa movies and many think that Die Hard is the best Christmas movie ever made, why not combine the two. Here we find David Harbour (Hopper from Stranger Things) as an drunk Santa who relies on magic he doesn’t understand and reindeer that seem to know the game better than him, in order to get kids their presents. But when he happens upon a house where a family has been taken hostage by a sophisticated two-bit thug (John Leguizamo) he attempts to take on the criminals in uber violent ways in order to save Christmas. This kind of flick isn’t breaking new ground as we’ve seen a slew of violent Santa films in recent years, including the mostly-panned Fatman, starring Mel Gibson. Fortunately, this ones feels different. It has a dark sense of humor that permeates into each and every scene, giving the audience much to laugh about while they grimace at the blood and guts left in Santa’s wake. Harbour is especially perfect in this role as you can really buy into his character and his backstory. Unfortunately, aside from the little girl, played by Leah Brady, the cast is a bit too campy, taking you out of the story throughout its course. But that doesn’t make it less enjoyable, especially when it is being naughty. The death scenes might be gruesome to some, but most will find them hysterical, and the audience I saw it with was roaring so loud that I missed a lot of dialog. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it delivers exactly what you think you are getting, leaving out the guesswork as you unwrap it. B
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91% Streaming on Disney+ Writer/director James Gunn, along with the whole Guardians crew, return in this short and sweet Christmas story where Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) attempt to cheer Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) up by kidnapping Kevin Bacon in the hopes of giving their friend the ultimate Christmas gift. Through a bizarre storyline and a cast that goes all-in, we get a cheery little gift ourselves with lots of laughs and tons of fun. We’ve seen these kinds of things go south in our past (anyone remember the Star Wars Holiday Special?), but this one doesn’t fall into the same traps, delivering a tidier mess that is much more worthy of our time. I was skeptical when I saw this project announced in the first place, but once again, Gunn and Kevin Feige deliver a terrific surprise. A-
The Fabelmans Rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug use, brief violence and thematic elements Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94% In Theaters In this semi-autobiographical movie, filmmaker Steven Spielberg tells the story of a young man (newcomer Gabriel LaBelle) who falls in love with making movies and the journey that he goes on in order to pursue his dreams. From loving yet flawed parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Willams), to frequent moves around the country, to outside forces that helped shape him, the story focuses on all of the things that made him into the legendary figure he is. Since Spielberg is the root cause of my love for movies, I have always been fascinated about what made him into the man he became, so this very personal story makes for a great piece of that puzzle for us. While essentially a sweet family drama about growing up and chasing dreams, the film is transformed into so much more due to its phenomenal production and strong casting. As of right now, the film is expected to perform really well at the Oscars as it leads the race in Best Picture and Best Director. With long-time collaborators like John Williams composing the music and Janusz Kaminski behind the camera, there is little doubt to the pedigree of the art. But probably most impressive here is the script. While many of us lead interesting lives, making a movie about it would, in most cases, be pretty boring. And when you really get down to it, Spielberg’s life would also fit into that category. But here, Spielberg and his favorite screenwriter Tony Kushner breathe life into his story, making it truly magical and inspiring, just like we want it to be. This is a remarkable feat when you really think about it. Rather than a braggadocios and indulgent tale about a respected figure, told by that very figure, you get a narrative that offers reflection on what makes us us. And in that you get a thrilling and uplifting experience that makes you appreciate your own story even more. A
Bones and All Rated R for language throughout, brief graphic nudity, some sexual content, and strong, bloody, violent content Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85% In Theaters Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino re-teams with Timothée Chalamet to tell this dark love story about a young couple (Chalamet and Taylor Russell) who meet and fall in love when they find out that they are both cannibals, surviving on the fringes of society, waiting for their next opportunity to feed on human flesh. Not really the playground for romance, I know, but here it plays out like a darker and much more disturbing version of two vampires experiencing love for the first time. Based on the novel by Camille De Angelis, the story has its brutality and gore, but it is also at times gentle and intoxicating. Like a scary dream that you don’t want to end, the movie will have you both frightened and enthralled in equal measure as you explore the strange world our anti-heroes live in. The cast here is quite amazing with fairly well-known actors playing revolting and nightmarish characters. Especially note-worthy is the horrifying performance by Mark Rylance who plays a fellow “eater” who becomes overly-infatuated with the young girl after he befriends her. It will be interesting to see what kind of audience this picture will drum up. It’s not fast-paced enough to really attract the teenage set, but far to violent and disturbing to attract an older audience. But it is very good and has the potential to to become a cult classic among fans of the macabre. B+
Strange World Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73% at time of writing In Theaters Walt Disney Animation’s big fall release this year is this tale about a family in an isolated mountain society who discover a strange and unusual world while looking deep in the Earth for what is destroying their most valuable crops. Forced to confront long-standing family drama to succeed in their mission, they must come together in order to try to save their civilization and their way of life. If you shut off your brain, there is much to like about this movie. The animation isn’t a huge leap forward, but it is beautiful to look at and the world Disney has created is creative, with a lot of terrific artistry on display. But then comes the story. While the environmental part of the story makes sense and might resonate with audiences, the family story is far less compelling. Also, it feels like Disney just decided to throw subtlety out the window in their attempt to bring gay characters to to a major animated projected. I certainly welcome the inclusion, and I really liked the way Pixar accomplished this earlier this year with Lightyear, but here they wallop you over the head with it, making me think that they did it more for controversy and press than they did for a naturally constructed narrative. It’s like they made the film partially to thrill and partially to purposefully get a rise out of Fox News. Time will tell how well this strategy will work, but either way, I walked out of the theater only partially entertained, which is not what I was expecting going in. C+