In the Bleak Midwinter

Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges anchor drama in stirring family addiction tale

_DSC9362.ARWBen is Back
Starring Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges
Directed by Peter Hedges
R

In the opening scene, we see and hear a church choir singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” rehearsing for an upcoming Christmas Eve performance.

The midwinter setting of this movie is pretty bleak, indeed, as a family wrestles with the addiction of their teenage son after he returns home unexpectedly from rehab for the Christmas holiday.

Mom Holly (Julia Roberts) is delighted to see Ben (Lucas Hedges). But wary younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, who plays Claire Novak on The WB’s Supernatural and Abigail Carlson on HBO’s Big Little Lies) isn’t so sure. And stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is downright uptight.

Ben is, after all, still an addict—and it turns out he’s done some pretty dreadful things. Some of those things have followed him home.

“If he were black,” Neal tells Holly, “he’d be in jail right now.”

In the bleak midwinter, indeed.

BIB_4 (72)As tensions mount, a Christmas Eve break-in kicks things into gear for the film’s second half. Ben sets out into the night to hopefully make things right, and his mother follows on a desperate pursuit as he descends into a dark, dismal den of drug dealers, users and other rough reminders of his dangerous past.

At 21, Hedges has already made a career of playing troubled, conflicted teens, beginning with his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and continuing through terrific performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Lady Bird (2017) and this year’s Boy Erased and Mid90s.

He’s the best thing about Ben is Back—believable, raw and real.

Roberts, of course, is Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman and the Runaway Bride—a whole spectrum of high-wattage comedy-drama movie memories wrapped up in one actress. She’s intense as Ben’s fiercely loving, hyper-protective mother, and grounds her performance in the way an agonized parent might authentically behave when in fear of losing her child.

“I was friends with your mother!” Holly unloads on one wasted addict, recognizing him as a childhood friend of Ben’s. “I used to change your diapers!”

Julia doesn’t go all Halle Berry in Kidnap or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween—two other 2018 movie moms who lashed out with vengeance and violence when their kids were in trouble. That’s what Hollywood typically does (and mainstream audiences want to see) when movies “swing into action”—slam, bam, bang, bang. But Ben is Back raises the dramatic stakes without so much as ever showing a gun, knife, crossbow, ninja star or any sort of weapon, which is somewhat of a miracle for a contemporary R-rated flick.

_DSC8585-2.ARWThe writer-director, Peter Hedges, is actually Lucas’ father, which gives everything a much more personal edge—one that cuts deeper when Holly goes on a mini-tirade against pharma, government services and insurance, or berates a family physician for over-prescribing prescription painkillers that she feels started Ben down his road to addiction.

The movie’s not perfect, and sometimes feels like a timely, B-minus family drama with an A-plus cast. Especially in the home stretch, things get a little loose and sloppy—like when a crucial, life-or-death cross-town delivery, incomprehensibly, turns out to be both from and to the same character.

Drugs are a serious problem, and the movie drives that point home again and again. Tony Award-winning stage actress Rachel Bay Jones makes a poignant appearance as a morose mother whose daughter was lost to an overdose, and Australian actress Alexandra Park (Princess Eleanor on the E! series The Royals) has a pivotal scene as a recovering addict.

But Ben is Back is the Lucas and Julia show all the way. Ben may be back, but Roberts never left, and Hedges wraps up a tremendous year with another powerful, gut-punch of a performance.

The midwinter may be bleak, but his future is looking brighter than ever.

In theaters Dec. 7, 2018

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Hit the Road

‘Green Book’ is Gold-Plated, Feel-Good Holiday Road Trip 

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Green Book
Starring Mahershala Ali & Viggo Mortensen
Directed by Peter Farrelly
PG-13

Ready for a road trip?

A Hollywood staple for decades, road movies feature characters who get closer as they travel farther along.

The delightful Green Book is a road movie about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a cultured black classical pianist who leaves his palatial home in New York City to embark on a two-month concert tour throughout the deep South in the early 1960s. For a chauffeur, he hires Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, a mouthy Italian-American muscleman temporarily out of work from his job as a nightclub bouncer.

When this odd couple hits the road in their big, bright turquoise Ford Fairlane, they’re guided by the publication for which the movie takes its title. The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a pocket travel atlas—published from the late 1930s though the mid 1960s—created to assist black motorists with information on restaurants and lodging in the South during a time of widespread discrimination and segregation.

The last stop on the tour is Dec. 23 in Birmingham. Will Tony and Don make it home for Christmas?

GB 5This Green car is full of gold—Oscar gold. Ali won the Supporting Actor trophy last year for Moonlight, and Mortensen’s been nominated twice, for his outstanding star turns in Captain Fantastic (2017) and Eastern Promises (2008). Both are pitch-perfect in their roles here, and the buzz is that either could be a strong contender again this season for more awards.

Mortensen packed on 30 pounds to play Tony, a beefy palooka with entry-level mobster ties—and his own casually racist attitudes to overcome. He tries to understand why Don isn’t more connected to his “own” culture, including the popular music of Chubby Checker, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. “C’mon, Doc,” he says, “these are your people!” He’s a little bit Archie Bunker, a little bit Joe Pesci, and a movie-meatball wonder to behold.

Ali nails both the isolated genius and the anguished rage of Don, who’s performed at the White House, plays black-tie concerts at ritzy recital halls and entertains lily-white patrons in their mansions—but he’s not allowed to use their bathrooms or eat alongside them. He’s torn between worlds, but feels like a misfit in both. “I’m not white enough, I’m not black enough,” he says. “What am I?”

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Linda Cardellini plays the wife of “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).

The movie lives and breathes as Don and Tony get to know each other. Tony steps in with his formidable fists when situations get dicey. Don coaches the nearly illiterate Tony on writing romantic “lettahs” back home to his wife (Linda Cardellini), and teaches him that the name of the classical composer was Chopin, not Joe Pan.

Green Book marks the flying-solo debut of director Peter Farrelly, best known for the yucky, gross-out, bro-fest comedies he made with his brother, Bobby—Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary. This is much more “grown-up” than any of those dopey, goofball romps, but there’s still plenty of genuine funny business as the initial comic friction between Tony and Don turns to true friendship.

The ugly truth of the times is always present—the film never shies away from the fact that it’s set in a place, and during a time, when racism was ragingly real. But Farrelly has a light touch that keeps an upbeat focus on his characters, even as the dark shadows of their situation remind us of scars that are still raw and bleeding today.

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It’s based on a true story—and the real Tony went on to become a real actor who had roles as mobsters in Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and HBO’s The Sopranos. The real Tony and the real Dr. Shirley, who really did become lifelong friends, both died within four months of each other in 2013.

A rousing crowd pleaser, Green Book shows us two characters who feel the distance between them—and their differences—warm and dissolve as they travel the highways. The sugar-sweet, homecoming-high ending might make some cynics sneer. But hey, at a time when it feels like bad news is the only news and people are more polarized and farther apart than ever, give me another bouncy ride with Dr. Don and Tony any day.

GB 4 (72)At one point, Tony shows Don with typical gusto how to dig into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while rolling down the road. You gotta get greasy, he says, not worry about the crumbs and just toss the bones out the window. “Whatever you do,” Tony says, “do 100 percent.”

Green Book does it for me, 100 percent, and I’m ready to roll again and feel the miles melt away with two of the most unforgettable characters from one of the best feel-good films of 2018.

In theaters Nov. 21, 2018

Green Machine

New Animated ‘Grinch’ is Groovy Green Kickoff to Holiday Movie Season

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The Grinch
Starring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson & Cameron Seely

Directed by Scott Mosier & Yarrow Cheney
PG

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

The perennial holiday pest has been a part of our pop culture since 1957, when Dr. Seuss introduced him in the storybook that quickly became a children’s classic. He’s been the star of a TV Christmas special (1966) narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff, a movie starring Jim Carrey (2000) and a Broadway musical (2006).

The latest version is a brisk, crisp, charming, 90-minute computer-animated romp from Illumination Entertainment, the same folks who gave us the Despicable Me franchise and the critically lauded The Secret Life of Pets. A groovy, green movie kickoff to the Christmas season, it will delight children and remind grown-ups why Dr. Seuss (author/illustrator Theodor Geisel, who died in 1991) still rocks.

Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice of the Grinch, the grumpy, green grouch with a lifelong Yuletide bone to pick: He absolutely hates Christmas. He lives with his loyal dog, Max, otherwise alone in a craggy mountain lair above the teeming town of Whoville. And it’s really ruffling his fur that, down there, the merry folks are hustling, bustling, smiling and singing as they prep for yet another happy holiday.

The Whoville mayor (Angela Lansbury) has proclaimed that this year’s celebration will be three times bigger than ever before. That means a bigger tree, bigger ornaments, and more of everything. Grrrr—it also means the Grinch will have to come up with an even bigger plan to somehow ruin Christmas for everyone in Whoville.

Film Title: Dr. Seuss' The GrinchCo-directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney keep things brisk, light and lively, fleshing out the familiar storyline with visual flair, additional characters and witty details that hew closely to the wildly creative imagination of Dr. Seuss’ curiously surreal illustrations and the spirit of inspired anarchy that ran throughout all his work. When the Grinch tells Max about his new “gizmos and gazmos,” he’s not kidding—and he uses them all in the nifty Christmas-stealing sequence as he sweeps, siphons and stows away every scrap of Christmas from every home in Whoville.

Film Title: Dr. Seuss' The GrinchAnd of course, it wouldn’t be a story about the Grinch without Little Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely, who played Helen, the young daughter of P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman). The precocious tiny tot hatches a plot of her own—a ploy to trap Santa Claus on Christmas Eve—that accidentally provides a twisty, fateful encounter with the Grinch.

That’s Rashida Jones as the voice of Cindy Lou’s harried, overworked mom, and Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson gets plenty of chuckles as the boisterously cheerful, lumber-jack-like Bricklebaum, who would certainly be a contender if TV’s The Great Christmas Light Fight ever rolled into Whoville.

DSTG_6Max the dog is a real scene-stealer, as is Fred, the extremely rotund reindeer the Grinch corrals to pull his sleigh. “Santa had eight,” the Grinch grumbles, sizing up Fred. “He looks like he ate the other seven.”

Grammy-winning musician and producer Pharrell Williams narrates, informing us that one of the reasons the Grinch is a frosty frump is because his “heart is two sizes too small.”

For several generations that grew up with the original TV version of the Grinch, there are a couple of musical touchstones—like when the Whos gathering around the (massive!) Christmas tree and lifting their voices in “Welcome Christmas,” or the theme song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” this time a new rap version by Tyler, the Creator, performed over the end credits.

New musical spices include the Grinch’s alarm clock, which pesters him each morning by playing snippets of holiday wake-up songs like “Feliz Navidad,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Listen for Buster Poindexter’s “Zat You Santa Claus?” and some rockin’ Christmas cuts from the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Max has a daydream to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.”

The movie’s big feat is finding the funny in the Grinch’s frumpiness. He’s a character who’s impossible to hate, especially when you get to know him—and learn the heartbreaking reason he’s the way he is. Kids will laugh, a lot, at his “childish,” sometimes slapstick antics, and be touched by the way he comes around—moved by the innocence and goodwill of a little, big-eyed girl—to embracing Christmas, family and friendship by the end of the movie.

And everyone’s heart, like that of the Grinch, will grow three times bigger by the time the Grinch gives a toast to “kindness, love and the things we need most.”

He may be green, but turns out he’s not so mean, after all.

In theaters Friday, Nov. 9, 2018

Disney Dud

New ‘Nutcracker’ is an Overcooked Christmas-Movie Meatloaf

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley & Helen Mirren
Directed by Lasse Halleström & Joe Johnson
PG

Only in Hollywood can li’l vampires become Disney darlings.

Mackenzie Foy stars in this lavish House of Mouse retooling and respooling of the beloved Nutcracker holiday musical. You might remember her as the child who played the half-vampire, half-human spawn of Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) in two Twilight movies.

In the time-warp-y Interstellar, she was Matt Damon’s young daughter, who grows up to be Jessica Chastain.

So as an actress, Foy, 17, is certainly no stranger to strange things happening.

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Mackenzie Foy

In The Nutcracker and The Four Realms, based on the Tchaikovsky ballet—and mainly on the book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which inspired it—she’s Clara, a young British lass who discovers a hidden parallel kingdom crawling with colorful, wacky characters and divided by old grudges.

It turns out that Clara’s late mother was actually the queen of the Realms, making Clara a princess—a Disney princess!

Clara’s on a quest for a key to unlock a musical egg, a cryptic Christmas gift from her mother. The same key may also be essential to saving the Four Realms. Interesting! If only she can retrieve it from that pesky rodent, Mouserinks, known far and wide as a scampering scallywag—and stay away from the Mouse King, an oversized beast of a creature that’s actually thousands of teeming, swarming mice.

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Morgan Freeman

Keira Knightly is a winged, pixie-fied delight as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with a wad of cotton-candy hair, a sweet tooth, an agenda of her own—and a soft spot for big tin soldiers. Morgan Freeman has a couple of scenes as Clara’s godfather, a wise, one-eyed inventor and tinkerer who points her on the path into the Realms. Helen Mirren plays Mother Ginger, the “banish-ed” Queen of Amusement now reigning over an abandoned circus and some super-creepy, somersaulting harlequins.

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Misty Copeland

There’s also the icicle-covered Shiver, King of the Snow Realm (Richard E. Grant), and the Flower Realm King, played by superstar Mexican actor and filmmaker Eugenio Derbez.

Acclaimed pro ballerina Misty Copeland, the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, performs an elegant classical number in the movie’s only real tie to theatrical productions of The Nutcracker.

A princess, a castle, a cute critter or two, beauty, a beast, music and magic dust—that’s pretty much been Disney’s bread and butter for decades. But The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels more like a snack than a meal, a Disney diversion instead of a main course.

It looks sumptuous, with lavish sets, extravagant costumes and whimsical designs—that don’t really add up…to much of anything. It’s a hodgepodge, a beloved holiday musical based on a musty book from 1816; a shoehorned ballet performance; fantasy elements that feel drawn from a variety of other sources, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Babes in Toyland. Sometimes the clever, plucky Clara seems like a cross between Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Victorian London’s smartest STEM student. She can jailbreak clockwork doodads, plop down a rope from a castle tower, scale across rocky cliffs, crawl through massive churning waterwheels and even—yes—build a better mousetrap.

It’s all “science, mechanics and a bit of luck,” she says.

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But you’ll be out of luck if you come to this Nutcracker wanting to see actual nutcrackers—you know, those ornamental, toy-soldier dolls people unbox at Christmastime. The nutcracker in this Nutcracker is a real person, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, a British actor in his first major film role. He’s a handsome guard who’s around for most of the movie, but he doesn’t get a lot to do.

And he’s no nutcracker.

Swedish director Lasse Halleström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, Safe Haven, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) passed the baton to Texan Joe Johnson, whose resume includes Captain America: The First Avenger, The Wolfman and Jurassic Park III, when rewrites and reshoots were required last year. That’s usually a signal of some kind of trouble—just like Princess Clara finds in the Four Realms. This overcooked, Texas-Swedish Christmas-movie meatloaf is a Disney dud that just doesn’t quite measure up.

Not every Disney princess can be Cinderella, and not every Disney movie can be a classic. This one will probably leave most Disney fans hungry and waiting for the next one, when Mary Poppins sweeps down in December to remind everyone what the good ol’ Disney magic is all about—and how it’s done.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

Rock Show

Rami Malek Rules Royally Rockin’ Queen Biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Bohemian Rhapsody
Starring Rami Malek, Gwilyn Lee, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton & Allen Leach
Directed by Bryan Singer
PG-13

“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing for the other misfits hanging together in the back of the room,” explains Freddie Mercury to a record company exec in an early scene of this royally rockin’ biopic about the British band Queen.

As we see, the “rooms” Queen played got bigger and bigger, as the band became one of the most successful, acclaimed arena acts in the world—and Mercury became the most flamboyant, theatrical, front-man “misfit” in all of rock music.

Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning star of TV’s Mr. Robot, pops in a set of prosthetic teeth to play Freddie, who is clearly the star of this show as well. To cop a line from one of Queen’s hit songs, he…will, he…will…rock you!

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Malek with Gwilyn Lee as Queen bandmate Brian May.

Bohemian Rhapsody, titled after the group’s epic, progressive, majestic, multi-layered sonic soufflé from their 1975 album A Night at the Opera, traces Mercury’s timeline from the early 1970s, when he first met the other musicians who would become his band mates.

In an alley outside a London club where he’s just watched them perform, Freddie convinces guitarist Brian May (Gwilyn Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to let him replace the recently booted lead singer in their band, Smile, dazzling them with a quick vocal audition. “I was born with four additional incisors in my mouth,” he explains. “More space means more range.”

Mercury’s impressive range becomes a movie metaphor for the expansive effect he has on the group—he changes their name to the universally regal-sounding Queen and widens their horizons to a recording contract, international touring and worldwide hit records. He transforms them into a band that doesn’t sound like any other band anywhere, at any time, a unique performing and recording ensemble that doesn’t fit into anyone’s idea of a rock group, a pop act or anything else.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYHe tells the head of a record company that Queen wants to make “a musical experience rather than just another record.”

Mercury loved entertaining, experimenting in the studio, and living with his cats—and he loved other men, a fact that he discretely kept secret from the public. The movie is delicate—although direct—about how it addresses this part of his life (and lifestyle), even as it becomes the thing that leads to his eventual death from complications due to AIDS, in 1991.

The film is dramatically bookended by the band’s triumphant reunion appearance at the Live Aid charity event in 1985, culminating in a monumental, masterful, moving recreation of the concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, where Queen performed their greatest hits in front of a rapturous crowd of more than 70,000 people. It was watched worldwide on television by an audience estimated to be nearly 2 billion, the biggest ever for a TV event, much less a rock show.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

You likely know some, or perhaps even a good deal, of Queen’s music. You may even be a super-fan who knows a lot about the band itself. But you’ve probably never been where this movie takes you, particularly as it depicts the home life of teenage Freddie as he was “becoming” Mercury. Before that, he was Farrokh Belsara, the son of Parsee Indian parents who had immigrated to London after a revolution. One of the film’s most emotional parts is Freddie’s relationship with his father, who disapproves of his musical career—and his homosexuality—and who tells his son his mantra should be “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

And you may not know about Mercury’s romantic relationship with his early girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Their enduring bond, even beyond heartache and heartbreak, stirs one of the movie’s most tender undercurrents.

Allen Leach (he was Tom Branson on Downton Abbey) plays Paul Prenter, Mercury’s duplicitous manager. A truly delicious treat is the inside joke of casting Mike Myers as a flummoxed record exec who can’t see why his label should release “a six-minute quasi-operatic dirge” when the band brings him their latest project, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” One of Myers’ best known comedic bits, of course, is the scene in his movie Wayne’s World where his character rocks out to that very song.

Director Bryan Singer layers on the musical detail, and a parade of characters. (Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, capably played by Joseph Mazzello, unfortunately seems to disappear into the much more colorful swirl all around him.) Aaron McCusker, who played astronaut Wally Schirra in the 2015 TV series The Astronaut Wives Club, portrays Jim Hutton, Mercury’s life-mate and partner during the final seven years of Freddie’s life.

It’s a kick watching recreations of the band’s classic hits germinate and blossom, in the studio or on a piano bench, from the stomp-stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You” to the experimental rehearsal noodlings that eventually coalesce into the funky “Another One Bites the Dust.” An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink studio session—an amp swinging through the air on a rope, loose coins buzzing on a timpani head, a tambourine inside a piano—hints at how far the band wanted to push the norms of conventional pop music.

And Mercury’s rousing “Day-Oh!” chant, which could captivate massive arena crowds, also becomes shorthand for a much more private, poignant personal moment.

BH-1-72Malek struts like a peacock through Mercury’s constantly churning fashion evolution, from skintight catsuits to leather military jackets, glittery glam-rock capes and finally the iconic white tank top he wore at Live Aid. His immersive acting—and the grand, sweeping arc of the story—is the kind of thing that makes Oscar voters perk up, take notice and dole out little golden men.

He doesn’t do his own singing—what you hear coming out of Malek’s toothy mouth is a combination of Marc Martel, a professional Queen tribute singer, and actual Mercury tracks isolated from Queen master recordings. But the illusion, and the performance, are perfect, Hollywood movie-music magic at its finest. Close your eyes for a moment—but just a moment, because there’s so much to see—and it’s almost impossible to detect the difference, to convince yourself that what you’re hearing, and seeing, is really a quasi-Queen with a faux Freddie.

And at the center of it all, at the apex of this magnificent, music-packed movie tribute, is Malek. His remarkable, spellbinding performance reminds us of what we had, what was lost, and of the band, the songs and the singer who once made the whole world sing and clap and stomp along.

“We are the champions,” Mercury and Queen sang. And yes, day-oh, they were.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

The Kids Are All Right

Jonah Hill Moves Behind the Camera for Coming-of-Age Skateboard Drama

 

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Mid90s
Starring Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges & Katherine Waterston
Directed by Jonah Hill
R

Jonah Hill has made us laugh in raunchy comedies including Superbad, 21 Jump Street and its sequel, This is the End and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He played Moneyball with Brad Pitt, howled with Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and voiced dragon trainer Snotlout Jorgenson in two animated How to Train Your Dragon flicks.

Now he’s taking us skateboarding.

Mid90s, which marks his first feature as a director and screenwriter, is a poignant, grittily realistic depiction of kids growing up in working-class Los Angeles circa 1994.

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Sunny Suljic

Sunny Suljic (recently in The House with a Clock in Its Walls) stars as 13-year-old Stevie, who admires his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea), even though Ian is an abusive, loutish bully. Ian slams back orange juice by the gallon, works out obsessively, collects sports apparel, plays videogames—and pummels Stevie whenever he finds out he’s been poking around in his bedroom, which is often.

Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is too distracted, self-absorbed and caught up in her own life to notice them, or whatever they’re doing.

With no anchor at home, Stevie drifts—and is drawn into a group of high school slackers he sees on a street corner, razzing a local shop owner, talking smack and showing off with their skateboards.

Stevie “trades up” his kiddie board for a real skateboard and is gradually assimilated into the group, given the affectionate nickname “Sunburn” (because of a comment he makes that amuses everyone). Almost everyone in the group has a nickname—except Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the oldest, and wisest, of the bunch, who dreams of “going pro” with his formidable skilz; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), closest to Stevie’s age, who initially takes the youngster under his wing and schools him on what’s cool…and what’s not.

“Listen to me,” Ruben tells him. “Never say ‘Thank-you.’ People will think you’re gay.”

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The camera loves “F—ks—t” (Olan Prenatt), a shaggy-blonde screw-up whose profane nickname comes from his favorite expression. The group gave “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) his moniker as a knock at his limited vocabulary; but he’s an aspiring filmmaker who documents everything with a handheld camcorder.

Hill grew up in upper-class L.A., and this isn’t his autobiography, by any means. But he clearly has an affectionate feel for these dead-end kids. Rich with textures and details of its era and its place, Mid90s is a confident coming-of-age slice of characters and situations that will resonate with anyone who was around during the time—even if you never set foot on a skateboard, or weren’t anywhere near Southern California.

The soundtrack—a mixture of tunes from a diverse slate of artists, from the Mamas and the Papas to A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill, mixed with original sonic-scapes from Oscar-winning Trent Reznor and fellow former Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross—sets a tasteful, moody, meandering backdrop, especially for scenes of young ‘boarders drifting breezily down the middle of a freeway at sunset, or teeming like lemmings all over a local park, then scattering and skittering away from “Five-O,” the cops.

It might shock some viewers when young Stevie and his friends talk scatological trash, or do things that push the film toward the far edges of its R rating. They smoke. They drink. And they have sex…sort of. (That scene actually quite accurately presents teenage “sex,” its prelude and its aftermath, as an awkward spectrum of emotions, from both sides of its young gender gap.)

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Alexa Demie & Sunny Suljic

The slightly older teenage girl (actress-singer Alexa Demie) who takes Stevie into a bedroom at a party is one of only two female characters in the whole film (the other is Stevie and Ian’s mom). This movie is about the boyz in the ’hood, and they’re mostly played by unknown actors; sometimes it feels like a documentary—maybe the one Fourth Grade is shooting throughout the actual movie itself.

These youngsters flirt with injury and danger; it’s part of the “lifestyle.” Stevie throws himself into it, partly to show he’s a scrapper who’s got what it takes, but also because he’s been tempered by the beatings of his older brother. Learning to master his skateboard, he repeatedly falls off. Later, he accidentally skates off the roof of a building. And later still, he’s involved in a much more serious incident.

“You literally take the hardest hits of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Ray tells him.

Bumps, bruises and broken bones aside, the movie is kinda sweet, often dreamy, and ultimately a tribute to a type of camaraderie among young, outlier, outsider friends of any stripe, anywhere, anytime. These kids have found each other, even if they haven’t found—and aren’t interested in—a place where they fit in the larger, grownup world.

Mid90s has an edgy, indie feel, and it probably won’t make a big splash with a big audience. It’s a small movie about a small group of friends, a scrappy “family” of wayward L.A. kids who live to “push on a piece of wood” on wheels. But it’s a formidable debut from a first-time director that announces his official arrival into a new filmmaking circle.

And its big accomplishment is heralding that Jonah Hill has found a place, another place, where he fits—and that’s behind the camera.

In wide distribution Oct. 26, 2018

Trick or Treat

New ‘Halloween’ Marks Fresh, Frightfully Fun Return to Franchise

Film Title: Halloween

Halloween
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer & Andi Matichak
Directed by David Gordon Green
R

Trick or treat!

It’s that time of year—and Halloween is that kind of movie.

It’s certainly a treat seeing Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode, slasher cinema’s most celebrated scream queen, in the role she created back in 1978.

And it’s a bit of a trick what this movie does with its own franchise, a hefty collection of 10 reboots, sequels and revisions by various directors, dozens of other actors and wildly divergent plot lines. This Halloween basically pulls a disappearing act on all of them, except the original, wiping the movie slate clean and operating as if all the events that came before, in all those other films, never happened.

Poof! They’ve vanished.

All orange and a-glow with fresh, new thrills, chills and edge-of-your-seat jolts, this frisky, frightfully fun return to the franchise is full of tense, taut, pulse-pounding scares, enough slashing, stabbing, skull-smashing and impaling to provide some gristle for the gore-hounds happy, and terrific nods to the movie that started it all. (The original’s director, John Carpenter, is one of the executive producers, along with Curtis.)

The new one picks up where the first left off, in Haddonfield, Ill., 40 years after masked, mute Michael Myers went on the horrific Halloween-night killing spree that came to be known as the “babysitter murders.” One resourceful sitter, Laurie Stroud, escaped—but grew up forever traumatized by the experience.

Michael was locked away in a looney bin for endless psychiatric probing. And Laurie became Haddonfield’s local paranoid crackpot, living in a fortified compound with an arsenal of weapons, floodlights on her roof, multiple locks on her doors—and the certainty that Michael would come back to hunt, and haunt her again someday…or some night.

Maybe Halloween?

And she’d vowed she’d be ready for him, even if everyone else thought she was crazy.

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Judy Greer (left) with Jamie Lee Curtis

Laurie’s obsession has alienated her now-grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), despite the entreaties of Karen’s own teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), a high school senior who begs her grandmother to let go of Michael “and get over it!”

Of course, Michael (played by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle, reprising his role from 1978) does escape, he does come back to Haddonfield and he does zero in on Laurie. The body count again rises as he blends in, hiding in mostly plain sight among the costumed ghouls and goblins on the sidewalks and streets on Halloween night. But another “trick” of the movie is how it sets up three Stroud women this time to ultimately confront him. Now, 40 years later, the world has changed in many ways, and the boogeyman meets a #MeToo generation with more than one score to settle.

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Andi Matichak

Director David Gordon Green collaborated on the screenplay with Danny McBride—and that’s another trick. The pair is much better known for their rollicking, ribald comedy team-ups for TV’s Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, in which McBride also starred. But give them a masked killer, some sharp knives, a fireplace poker or a tire tool and a shotgun and they can certainly deliver the goods. The opening credits sequence—a reverse time-lapse of a rotten jack-o’-lantern coming back to its original, freshly carved state—sets the stage for their agile horror romp that deeply honors its hallowed roots, “reversing” the outright awfulness of some of its other so-called sequels, while notching its own crisp, definitive design into the iconic tale.

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Gas station bathrooms…yuck!

A couple of scenes are consummate, tip-the-hat homages to the original, and others are smart, stylish new additions to the horror-film canon, blending tension, dark humor and shocking crimson splashes, spatters and smears of blood. Some gas-station bathrooms are yucky enough already, but you may never want to go inside another stall after…well, it’s never good when someone leans over the door and drops someone else’s teeth on the floor. And I’ve always thought those motion-activated backyard security lights were a bit creepy; kudos to the filmmakers for finally exploiting their horror potential.

The movie dabbles a bit in predator-vs.-prey psychology, and whether Laurie might actually “need” Michael, live her life for him, around the idea of him—and look forward to confronting him again.

“He waited for this night,” she says. “He waited for me. I waited for him.”

Just like this is a movie that Halloween fans have been waiting for—like kids anxiously wait for Halloween itself, its candy, its costumes and its frightful fun.

Trick or treat!

In theaters Oct. 19, 2018

Blast Off

Ryan Gosling personalizes Neil Armstrong in moving, masterful moon-mission movie

Film Title: First Man

First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling & Claire Foy
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon.

Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the focus of First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s monumentally intimate portrait of the former U.S. Navy aviator and engineer who became famous forever for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everything in the movie leads toward that climactic moonwalk moment; as one of the most documented events in modern history, we know it happened and we know it’s coming. But wow, is it ever an emotional journey getting there.

As space movies go, First Man isn’t a rousing character romp like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, nor a far-out cosmic mind-bender like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more sobering, introspective, contemplative and calculated in its depiction of Armstrong and the nuts and bolts of getting men into the great beyond.

The movie (based on Armstrong’s official 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen) makes you understand just how difficult, dangerous—and sometimes deadly—it was.

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Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous, immersive and often rapturous, a technically brilliant and sometime sublime bit of moviemaking that puts the audience inside the space program, and alongside the astronaut who would become the commander of Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land two people on the moon.

We’re inside cramped, claustrophobic cockpits with Armstrong and other space jocks, surrounded by analog dials, panels jammed with buttons, flip switches and read-out gauges of primitive 1960s computers. We hear the whoosh and hiss of rocket fuel through pipes, the rattle and racket of metal, the monstrous rush and roar of the combusting engines. We feel—or at least think we do—the nauseating, violent, skull-jarring shaking, spinning and rolling.

And the void of space is a majestic, unfathomable symphony of silence.

In the opening scene, we watch Armstrong—then a test pilot—guide an experimental X-15 rocket plane up, up, up, until he perches on the cusp of space. For one beautiful moment, he hovers there, savoring the awesome beauty, gazing at the spectacle of the thin, blue sliver of the atmosphere on the horizon against the vast, endless blackness of the cosmos.

But then he has a bit of trouble re-entering, of getting turned around and returning to Earth. For him, shooting into space is the easy part. Coming back down is hard.

Film Title: First Man

Claire Foy

Reuniting with director Chazelle from last year’s Oscar-winning La La Land, Gosling portrays Armstrong as silent, withdrawn, nearly expressionless and emotionally distant. He feels much more at ease in space than he does at home, with his wife Janet (an excellent Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown) and their two young sons. Perhaps some of that stems from the tragic death of their young daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, an event which haunts him—and also spurs him on.

First Man is about getting to the moon, but Armstrong’s “small step” required a sequence of many, many other steps ahead of it. We see some of the details, like the rigors of preparation (hang on for the “Multi-Axis Trainer,” a vomit-inducing beast that looks like cross between a giant gyroscope and a crazy carnival ride). We get an understanding of the prodigious engineering feats as well as on-the-fly, make-or-break decisions that go into missions—and the many things that can go wrong. We learn of the fatal setbacks, and the public opposition to such high-dollar, risky science.

Film Title: First Man

Jason Clarke

There’s a pack of other astronauts swirling around as NASA scrambles to gets its Gemini and Apollo programs off the ground (literally) ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Corey Stoll is motor-mouthed Buzz Aldrin. Lukas Haas portrays Michael Collins, and Shea Whigham is Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of solo astronauts. Kyle Chandler is Deke Slayton, also a Mercury 7 alum, now promoted to head NASA’s astronaut program.

And all are there to shore up the story around Gosling, who internalizes everything and distills it into an epic hero’s journey. Chazelle’s stupendous space saga—about America’s most significant astral achievement of all time—is grounded in a down-to-earth, existential tale of a man struggling to connect with his wife, his family and their children and his earthly life, even as—especially as—he zooms off to the moon.

The spectacular recreation of the lunar landing sequence, and Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, is punctuated with an immensely moving personal touch you never saw on TV. And the poignant ending of First Man suggests that sometimes, even when your job takes you on a trip of 478,000 miles, the journey you face when you return may be even longer, and much harder.

Like Chazelle’s La La Land, the lingering overtones of First Man aren’t celebratory, but something much more somber, reflective and meditative. It may not be the rah-rah, American-pie, flag-waving, space-race victory lap everyone’s expecting, but Chazelle and Gosling’s masterful moon movie is an out-of-this-world blast in a class all its own.

In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

Star Maker

Lady Gaga Shines in Bradley Cooper’s Sensational Directorial Debut 

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A Star is Born
Starring Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga
Directed by Bradley Cooper
R

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

What’s that sound?

It might be the early Oscar buzz for this film, which has already wowed audiences and critics at key film festivals that often point the way to the Academy Awards.

With A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper makes the leap to directing, as well as starring in the soaring, song-filled saga about a ragged superstar musician (Cooper) who falls for a younger, much greener singer-songwriter, played by Lady Gaga.

That “sound” might also be the tinnitus, the ringing in the ears of Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character. Combined with raging alcoholism and drug use, it’s put a serious drag on his once-thriving career—at the very moment he happens to meet Ally (Gaga), performing in an East Village drag bar, where Jackson has ducked in to get even more sloshed after a show.

Their eyes meet, their hearts sync and pretty soon they’re making music together, in more ways than one.

The sound you’re hearing could also be the songs—elemental, essential building blocks of the movie. But Cooper’s A Star is Born isn’t a musical; it’s a character-driven drama about two people who live and breathe music. The songs—almost all of them written originally for the film, and some by Gaga herself—become passionate, purposeful swaths of the story.

A-Star-Is-Born-5-72And Gaga, in her knockout debut leading movie role, sings the heck out of them. Cooper gives much of the spotlight to her, and she shines in a spectacular, rags-to-riches performance. We watch Ally emerge (we see her in the opening scene, literally, strolling past trash dumpsters in an alley) from her lowly street life to a become a dazzling, media-sensation pop princess.

Gaga built a real-life entertainment career out of being a popster chameleon, and part of the bedazzlement of her portrayal of Ally here is seeing her “bare,” with all that artifice and masquerade stripped away—down to her talent, her voice.

In one early scene, Jackson, fascinated by her fake eyebrows, wants to peel them off to reveal the real her. She tells him she’s always been self-conscious of her looks, in particular her big nose. “Your nose is beautiful,” he says, delicately caressing it with his finger.

In the movie’s many gorgeous, sweeping close-ups of Jackson and Ally’s faces, you see plenty of that beautiful nose—plus their lovely eyes, and their tears, when it comes to that.

Because, of course, what good is any love story that doesn’t give a good ol’ yank to the heartstrings? And this one has at least one major yank some folks might know is coming, especially if they’re familiar with how it’s been told before. A Star is Born was originally a movie in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1955 (Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

As Ally’s star rises and burns brighter and hotter, Jackson’s flickers and falters. Will her success eclipse his? Can their love survive? Is there a way she can save Jackson on his road of self-destruction?

A STAR IS BORN

The movie gets so many of the modern musical details right, from backstage scenes, limo rides and private airplanes to songwriting and recording sessions and live performances. It drills down into the business of music without ever losing the human touch around which the story evolves and revolves.

As an actor-director, Cooper shows particularly strong promise, with an eye for solid craftsmanship and visual detail and a willingness to let his co-stars shine. A scene at an awards show is a particular standout, when a drunken Jackson stumbles onto the stage to join Ally, accepting her trophy, in front of a giant, pixelated screen image of themselves.

We all knew Lady Gaga could sing; she’s sold more than 27 million albums, recorded and toured with Tony Bennett, performed at a Super Bowl halftime show and won six Grammys. She’s got some serious pipes. And if you saw her in her role as the Countess on the FX series American Horror Story: Hotel, you won’t be surprised to find out she can act. But A Star is Born is aptly titled—she has arrived. A movie star is born.

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Sam Elliott plays Billy, the brother of Cooper’s character, Jackson.

There are some outstanding supporting performances as well, including Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father), Dave Chappelle (as Jackson’s buddy) and Sam Elliott, who provides a meaty layer of backstory family drama as Jackson’s older brother, Bobby, a former musician.

There are only 12 notes on the musical scale, Bobby says. Every song ever written uses those same tones, just arranged a different way. “It’s the same story told over and over, forever,” he tells Ally.

Watch A Star is Born and you’ll see a dynamic, dramatic spin on an old, forever love story, a sensational, stupendous, star-making performance by Lady Gaga, and a super-impressive directorial debut by Bradley Cooper—and you’ll hear what everyone else has been buzzing about.

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

Moms, Martinis & a Missing Person

‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Pitch Perfect’ Stars Plunge into Fun, Twisty Tale

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A Simple Favor
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
Directed by Paul Feig
R

Something small and seemingly insignificant turns into something huge, tangled and terrifically complicated in this tale of a missing person…who may not be so missing at all.

Oh, sure, that sounds familiar. But you’ve never seen it played out quite like this—with a former Gossip Girl (Blake Lively) and the perky Pitch Perfect darling (Anna Kendrick) plunging deep into the murky, steamy noir.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, an over-achieving, work-from-home mommy blogger who develops an unlikely friendship with Emily (Lively), a glamorous, mysterious PR exec for a Manhattan designer.

Their young sons go to the same school, but they’re on totally opposite sides of the mommy spectrum; Emily wears stilettos to the playground, Stephanie shops for bargain socks by the bundle at Target. But they bond nonetheless over stiff martinis, French songs swirling on the stereo, saucy girl talk and spilled secrets in Emily’s bedazzling mansion.

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When Emily calls Stephanie one day and asks her for a “simple favor,” to pick up her son after school and keep him for the afternoon, it’s no big deal. But when Emily doesn’t come home that day, or the next, or even the next, Stephanie starts to worry that something may be wrong…

And boy, is she right!

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Henry Golding

Emily and Stephanie’s hunky writer-turned-professor husband, Sean (Henry Golding, hot off his other hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians), bond in their search for answers. But can she trust him—or resist his charms—especially after she catches him cozying up with one of his female students?

“Are you trying to Diabolique me?” Stephanie asks Sean at one point, a reference to the classic 1955 French film about a wife, a mistress and a murder—and a perfect alibi.

Stephanie puts on her Nancy Drew sleuthing hat and goes on the hunt, and one clue leads to another—a $4 million insurance policy, a crazy woman (Jean Smart), a wrist tattoo, a dead body in a lake, a massive nude painting, a struggling artist (Linda Cardellini), an old T-shirt, an heirloom ring, a burning house, a fatal car crash.

And especially in a movie like this, things aren’t always as they seem and the truth can be a slippery subject. There are certainly shadings of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and other films where a woman has “disappeared” and the story is presented to the audience by an “unreliable narrator” who doesn’t have all the information. Like those movies, this one is also based on a best-selling novel, in this case by Darcey Bell.

ASF_D02_PI_00245.CR2Those kind of movies are typically pretty heavy and dark, but this one is definitely not—thanks to the spark, sizzle and snap of Kendrick and Lively, and to director Paul Feig, who brushes everything with brisk, confident comedic stokes honed from his previous work on Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat and Spy. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when Kendrick is given room to romp—like scenes when she encounters a robotic office receptionist, gets “stuck” in one of Emily’s slinky dresses, or rocks out to a rap song in her car. She’s the feisty firecracker that makes this film pop with wit as well as wile.

A SIMPLE FAVORLively has appeared in several movies (The Deep, The Age of Adeline, All I See is You, Café Society) after Gossip Girl went off the air in 2012, but this role is her juiciest yet. Emily is beguiling, manipulative, dangerous, damaged, sexy, sad and seductive—and Lively seems to relish every moment she gets to explore each luscious, plum angle of her character’s personality.

Andrew Rannells (Elijah on TV’s Girls) has a campy part as a dad in Emily’s school moms group, and Bashir Salahuddin (referee Keith Bang on GLOW) plays a detective who pops into a couple of scenes. “I’m just following breadcrumbs wherever they lead,” he says.

Follow these breadcrumbs to your local theater and see A Simple Favor—a deliciously, deliriously twisty tale of moms, martinis and a far-out gone girl that’s way more fun than you’d likely ever expect.

In theaters Sept. 14, 2018