Fire & Ice

Margot Robbie spins, twists & soars as crushed skating princess Tonya Harding

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I, Tonya
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Craig Gillepsie
R

Truth, like ice, can be a slippery thing.

I, Tonya, the ripping, rollicking tale Tonya Harding—the most colorfully controversial figure in the history of figure skating—begins by explaining that what we’re about to see is based on “wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with everyone involved.

Actually, it’s based on mock interviews with actors portraying everyone involved, and the fake-doc format weaves feisty, she-said, he-said threads into the deliciously dark, twistedly comedic biopic drama that follows.

And it’s all true—depending on what you hear, and from who.

In an absolute knockout performance, Margot Robbie stars as Harding, who was banned for life from professional skating after pleading guilty for her knowledge of a plot to sideline her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading into the 1994 Olympics.

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Allison Janney

Robbie, after a long haul of standout supporting roles—in films like Goodbye Christopher Robin, Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan—finally gets the lead in a movie that she completely owns. She plays Harding beginning in her teens in rural Portland, Ore., where she’d been driven since childhood (and played briefly by McKenna Grace) to rule the ice by her mom (an awards-worthy Allison Janey), a smoke-breathing, cigarette-puffing, profanity-spewing beast who abuses her both physically and psychologically.

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Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly with Robbie as Tonya Harding, early in their soon-to-become-tumultuous relationship.

Sebastian Stan gives a terrific performance as Jeff Gillooly, the older guy Tonya meets and marries. He’s a local loser, a dim-bulb doofus with a mustache, and he abuses her too. They scream, fight and smash up the place. Tonya leaves him, comes back, kicks him out; they break up, get back together, break up again—a toxic circus of domestic co-dependency built on the crumbs of self-esteem from her crushed childhood.

But she channels his rage, her hurt and her bruises into even more focus—and ferocity—in the rink, where she perfects the triple axel, a midair, spinning wonder of aerodynamics. Considered the most technically difficult of all skating maneuvers, it becomes her signature.

And it takes her all the way to the Olympics.

But Harding had never been anyone’s darling, and she has trouble getting her footing on the world stage. She’s a ballsy, world-class skater, for sure, but the judges won’t give any breaks to someone who wears gaudy homemade costumes and does her routines to ZZ Top. In a competition that likes to think of itself as refined and high-class, Tonya is considered low-rent and white-trash.

It’s not just about the skating, one judge reluctantly levels with her. It’s also about “presentation.”

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships leading to the 1994 Olympics in Norway, Gillooly, by now her ex-husband, decides something needs to be done. The movie refers to it as “the incident.” It begins as one thing, but becomes something else, and results in Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) getting whacked in the leg by a thug hired by one of Gillooly’s friends (Paul Walter Hauser from TV’s Kingdom).

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Harding and Gillooly at first feign ignorance and innocence, but soon enough, the whole crazy house of cards collapses, burying them underneath.

Director Craig Gillepsie, whose previous films include the Disney baseball flick Million Dollar Arm and Lars and the Real Girl, juices and gooses this wild joyride along the ripe, rich underbelly of its fractured, funky, fast-paced underdog tale. With dark humor, ruffian violence and doofus characters planning a caper that goes south, it sometimes feels like the Coen Brothers spinning a Fargo riff with Goodfellas seasoning. The camera, like the story and its players, is constantly on the move; as with the truth about what happened, it’s hard to nail down.

And Robbie, as Tonya, is a marvel. She spins, she twirls, she soars. She serves up a magnificently smudged, grandly sympathetic version of a footnote figure in American sports lore that digs deep into the dirty, damaged roots beneath the tabloid headlines that rocked and shocked the world two decades ago.

“America—they want someone to love, they want someone to hate,” Harding tells us toward the end of the movie.

In her triumphant portrayal of the ice princess now frozen forever out of her castle in I, Tonya, we get both—and the truth, too, whatever it is, somewhere in there.

In theaters Dec. 8, 2017

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‘Room’ Mates

Make space for James Franco’s Disaster-piece

DA_121815_00899.dngThe Disaster Artist
Starring James Franco & Dave Franco
Directed by James Franco
R

The “disaster” of The Disaster Artist refers to a movie called The Room.

A massively misguided, famously incoherent mess-terpiece, The Room has been called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and one of the best bad movies ever. An overwrought, completely off-the-rails romantic melodrama that achieved so-awful-it’s-great status soon after its release in 2003, it went on to find an obsessive, Rocky Horror-like cult following and make an unlikely celebrity of its creator, star, writer and director, the eccentric and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.

Director James Franco plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, which is essentially the backstory of how The Room came to be. It’s based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s Room costar, played by Franco’s younger brother, Dave.

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Dave (left) and James Franco

But the movie is also a “buddy story” about the peculiar friendship of Wiseau and Sestero, how the two aspiring actors met and the pact they made—a pinky promise at the crash site of James Dean’s Porsche speedster—to pursue their dream of success in Hollywood.

Actually, success in spite of Hollywood.

Wiseau, as depicted in the movie, is a most peculiar cat. He claims to be 19 but clearly looks to be somewhere far south of 40, and professes to be from Louisiana, although his mangled tin-ear English suggests Slavic roots. Wealthy enough—somehow—to own apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles and drive a Mercedes, he’s also intensely secretive. “Don’t talk about me, to anyone,” he cautions the younger Sestero.

With long, stringy, dyed-black hair, a droopy eye, pasty skin and an accent that often begs for subtitles, Wiseau has trouble convincing anyone he’s Hollywood leading-man material. It’s no wonder Sestero’s younger, hipper actor friends refer to him—only half joking—as a vampire.

PosterMany celebrities are among The Room’s ardent fans, and a lot of them are sprinkled throughout The Disaster Artist. If you bring a scorecard, you’ll have to work fast to check off Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Zac Efron, Lizzy Caplan, Seth Rogen, Nathan For You Fielder, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, J.J. Abrams, Ari Graynor, the real Greg Sestero, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Zach Braff, Hannibal Buress, Randall Park, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, Casey Wilson and more.

In a gusto, go-for-it performance, Franco almost disappears into his role. He gets plenty of laughs as the clueless Tommy, but he also brings a sensitivity and poignancy to his tragicomic depiction of the inscrutable, obsessive fanatic who refuses to let Hollywood—or anyone else—define him, or keep him down.

Franco has nearly 150 acting roles to his credit, and he’s directed 13 theatrical features and several documentaries (plus two episodes of the HBO series The Deuce, on which he also stars—as twin brothers). He’s also written for film and TV, and produced more than 65 movie projects. He knows filmmaking inside and out, and he also knows what it’s like to have a passion to do it all, to give his all, his everything.

He gets Tommy Wiseau.

The difference, of course, is that Franco’s got….well, creative gifts that Wiseau did not. Wiseau is fueled by an unstoppable drive and an unquenchable thirst, but he’s low on talent, high on delusion and oblivious to every obstacle in his path. He simply doesn’t understand why the world won’t accept him; that’s why he creates his own.

The Disaster Artist mixes its humor with heart, empathy with sympathy. It’s amusing—but also painful—to watch Wiseau throw himself into the maws of L.A.’s moviemaking machinery, even after being chewed up and rejected time and again.

“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen,” one bigwig producer (Judd Apatow) tells him. “Not in a million years! And not after that, either.”

And so, The Room is born, as Wiseau and Sestero decide to take fate into their own hands and make their own film—a tale of an all-American (!) guy (Wiseau), his cheating girlfriend, his best friend (Sistero) and a web of deceit and betrayal that eventually ends in tragedy.

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Franco as Wiseau directing, with Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer (background) as as film crew members on the set of ‘The Room.’

“What do you do if it turns out really bad? Really terrible?” Sestero’s bartender girlfriend (Alison Brie) asks him when he frets about Tommy’s lack of control over The Room’s mounting production woes. “Can you take if off your IMDB?”

No one could have predicted The Room—which originally opened in one theater, on one screen, for two weeks—would go on to find such a thriving second life and inspire legions of ardent fans.

Or that James Franco and a gaggle of Hollywood stars would make one of the year’s most riotously enjoyable films, about how a “disastrous” script, inept actors and an incompetent director somehow stumbled into the creation of such an enduring slice of pop culture.

If you’ve seen The Room, you’ll totally dig The Disaster Artist. And if you haven’t, don’t worry—you’ll still appreciate Franco’s audacious high-wire act, a quirky tribute to outsiders everywhere and a celebration of a particularly bizarre moment in Hollywood-outsider footnote history. This tale of a crazy, against-the-odds transformation of trash into treasure is a really good movie about a really bad one.

In theaters Dec. 1, 2017 

Life in the Dead Zone

Pixar’s colorful celebration of family, music & memories

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Coco
Starring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt & Gael Barcia Bernal
Directed by Lee Unkrich
PG

Pixar and Disney head south of the border for their 19th movie collaboration, a festive celebration of Mexican culture with a vibrant intergenerational message of family, heritage and the power of music.

In Coco, a young Mexican boy, Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of playing the guitar and singing, just like his hero—Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a handsome, legendary performer who died young, leaving a legacy of songs, movies and memories. But in Miguel’s family of unassuming shoemakers, the story goes, music is forbidden, ever since his great-great-grandfather—a musician—headed out for a gig and never came back to his wife, the mother of Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco.

As Miguel tells us in the movie’s opening sequence, “we’re the only family in Mexico who hates music.” Miguel’s father wants him to become a shoemaker. But Miguel has other hopes and dreams. He defies his family, making a homemade guitar, watching old videotapes of de la Cruz in secret and blissfully plunking along to his songs, especially “Remember Me,” his signature tune. When his grandmother finds his guitar, she smashes it.

Miguel’s instrument may be shattered, but not his spirit. That fateful night, he runs away. It’s Día de Muertos, Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead, and something crazy happens. Desperate to play at a local talent show, Miguel steals de La Cruz’s guitar from its resting place in his mausoleum. In doing so, he unleashes a curse and is magically to transported to the mythical underworld, the enchanted Land of the Dead.

nullTo return home, he must get his family’s blessing—not an easy task, since Miguel wants to play music, and everyone in his family, on both the living and dead side, is dead-set against it.

Well, almost everyone…

The animation geniuses at Pixar have brought many things “to life” over the years—the cars of Cars, the toys of Toy Story, even the emotions of Inside Out. In Coco, co-writer and director Lee Unkrich, who also directed Toy Story 3, animates the Land of the Dead with dozens of distinctive skeleton characters, spectacular, luminous visuals, splashes of creativity and whimsy, sprawling, eye-candy settings and a story that snaps, crackles and pops with wit and warmth.

And just when you think you might have it figured out, it swerves unexpectedly in another direction and surprises you—tugging your heartstrings along with it.

COCORather than just use Mexico as a starting point, the movie dives deep into Hispanic customs, folklore and visual elements, particularly Día de Muertos, from start to finish. Miguel’s pooch, Dante, is a Xolo dog, the national canine, nearly hairless creatures long thought represent the Aztec god of fire and lightning. Dante, a real goofball at first, becomes much more than just a tail-wagging sidekick. Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), Mexico’s legendary painter, appears as an “afterlife” conceptual artist whose wildly inventive media creations take on thrilling new dimensions in the anything-goes underworld.

Gael Barcia Bernal, who won a Golden Globe in 2016 for starring in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, voices Hector, a netherworld scalawag who helps Miguel discover his true musical calling. Edward James Olmos is Chicharrón, one of Hector’s “forgotten” friends, who’s about to die the final death, “when there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you.”

And listen closely for one line spoken by John Ratzenberger, who continues as the only actor to voice a character in every Pixar movie.

The movie’s brilliant, intense attention to detail is everywhere, particularly the music. When guitarists play their instruments, fingers—flesh or bone—nimbly work the frets and the strings just like real guitarists’ would. Musicians tease, taunt and support each other in the afterlife, just like musicians do in the living world. The writers obviously spent some time hanging around real players.

CocoAnd they obviously spent some time soaking up vibes with real family members. Coco is all about what it means to be a part of a group, a clan, a family. Get your tissues ready for the final minutes. Bring the extra-ply packets, if you’ve got any left over from watching the wrenchingly bittersweet closing moments of Toy Story 3, when Andy says his college goodbyes to Woody and Buzz, or Ellie and Carl’s “flashback” scene in Up.

Miguel’s wondrous adventure to the Land of the Dead transports the audience too, to a place where we’re reminded of the irreplaceable value of those we love, those who love us, and the bonds that endure long after we’re gone—as long as memories remain alive, and something to celebrate.

In theaters Nov. 22, 2017

Scrooged

How the spirit(s) of the season helped Dickens write his Christmas opus

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Dan Stevens & Christopher Plummer

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer & Jonathan Pryce
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
PG

 

You might not think of Christmas as an “invention,” but before Charles Dickens wrote his story about it, it wasn’t much of a holiday—at least not as we know it today.

That’s the idea of The Man Who Invented Christmas, a magical, whimsical journey into the story behind the story of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ classic holiday tale about

Tiny Tim, Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come.

Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast fame, plays Dickens at the youthful age of 31, after becoming an international sensation for Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers. But the author was in financial straits after writing three duds in a row. When he proposes a Christmas yarn, his publishers balk. Why would he want to write about such a “minor holiday”? Dickens decides to sever his ties with his print benefactors and publish the book himself.

TMWIC 0324.tifDirector Bharat Nalluri, who has mostly worked in television, creates a thriving scene of London in the early 1840s, where the upper classes often had to rub coattails with the city’s poor. In an inventive twist, we meet characters in Dickens’ real life who spark his imagination for his book as he struggles to find creative inspiration and wrestle with his own past.

A chance encounter with a miserly old man in a cemetery provides the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), and another provides his signature catchphrase, “Humbug!” The fantastical bedtime stories the Dickens’ new Irish housemaid (Anna Murphy) tells to their children gives Charles the idea for his story’s supernatural framework of ghosts.

Dickens’ flashbacks to his troubled, poverty-stricken childhood, and his negligent father (Jonathan Pryce), add more creative fuel to the fire. His time in the “poor house” left him with a lifelong feeling of charity. His crippled young nephew clearly becomes the inspiration for Tiny Tim.

The heart of the movie is the prickly relationship between Dickens and Scrooge, as the writer retreats to his upstairs study and “conjures” Scrooge to help him create the tale. (A psychologist might watch this and see a textbook case of mental illness, but more artistic types will just chalk it all up to the immortal muse of creativity.) As Scrooge comes for his nightly visits, he’s eventually joined by a host of other characters—Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present—and he takes Dickens on the journey, both physical and spiritual, that becomes the narrative thread of A Christmas Carol.

Dickens’ patient—and pregnant—wife (Morfydd Clark) waits, and listens, downstairs to the commotion above her. She’s one of the gallery of supporting players, all of whom add even more color and texture to the tale. Dickens and his best friend John Forester (Justin Lynch) have some playful moments in the shops and on the streets of London, and crank out some of the film’s best chuckles. Simon Callow plays the haughty illustrator Dickens hires to draw the sketches for his story—on an impossible deadline.

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Jonathan Pryce (left) plays Charles Dickens’ father.

And Pryce, as Dickens’ father, and Plummer, as the king of humbug, practically walk away with every moment they’re onscreen. The two veteran actors provide solid, stately grounding to this holiday tale like a pair of Christmas bookends.

When Dickens’ book was finished and published, it was a smashing success. The movie suggests that it turned the tide of the world toward more spiritual introspection at Christmas, and integrated its ideas about charitable giving and blessings for “everyone” into popular culture.

“Mr. Scrooge, you and I are going to do wonderful things together,” Dickens tells his muse during one of their story sessions. Indeed they were. And this enchanting, heartwarming movie, filled with the goodness of the holidays, fancifully fills in the backstory of a tale that continues to lift the spirits of the season.

In theaters Nov. 22, 2017

Spandex Superfriends

Better luck next time, Batman

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Justice League
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill & Ray Fisher
Directed by Zack Snyder
PG-13

Picking up where Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice ended in 2016, Justice League begins on a somber note.

Superman is buried and in the ground, killed in a colossal battle at the end of the previous movie, and the world mourns its loss. A large “S” banner hangs in memorial from a bridge in Gotham City. Crusading reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has lost her spunk for journalism. Clark Kent’s widowed mother (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm to the bank.

Evil has seeped into the Man of Steel’s absence. Terrorists try to blow up London. A street hoodlum kicks over a vendor’s cart of oranges! And a cosmic mega-threat has come to Earth—an ancient god called Steppenwolf with a major grudge against the planet.

What are the world’s good guys to do?

HARWOOD

Gal Gadot is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

As DC Comics fans know, the Justice League is the union of spandex superfriends formed by some of the top stars of the franchise, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman. The League made its first appearance in the comics in 1960 and has been popping up in pulp, on television and in videogames ever since. But this marks its official, big-screen debut.

As with everything in today’s interlinked comic-book franchise flicks, the seeds for Justice League were planted along the way. Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) all appeared previously in in Batman v Superman, and Gadot starred in her own smash spinoff earlier this year. She’s clearly the franchise’s new superstar.

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Jason Momoa is Aquaman

Justice League is a creative hybrid. Director Zack Snyder, who also steered Cavill’s first Superman movie, Man of Steel, as well as Batman v Superman, had to exit the film (due to the suicide of his daughter) before it was completed. He handed over the reins to screenwriter Joss Whedon to finish. (Whedon is the director of The Avengers, the superhero-team franchise from Marvel Comics, DC’s competitor, featuring Thor, the Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man.) Snyder likes theatrical, lumbering, grandiose pomp, wham and wallop; Whedon prefers his booms seasoned with lighter, brighter shades of snarky, sharp-witted banter and color.

The mixture of darkness and light gives Justice League a certain sputter-y fizz that never quite builds into a full steam. Despite a script full of quips and Whedon’s extra juicing of wit, the movie remains a crowded bombast of effects that overwhelm and swamp the actors, especially in action scenes like the do-or-die horseback romp on Wonder Woman’s home island, a battle royale in a tunnel underneath the Hudson River, and segments when the air is filled with swarms of hissing, fanged, locust-like Parademons—imagine the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz with major weaponry upgrades.

We learn very little about the characters who make up the League other than what we might have known before. Aquaman is a burly, heavy-drinking, ocean-dwelling loner from the ancient kingdom of Atlantis who can do serious damage with his trident. (“You really talk to fishes?” Batman asks him.) Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a former high school football star QB turned into a weaponized cybernetic mutant after an experiment went awry.

HAR_DM_FIRST LOOK RND F04And the Flash steals the show—runs away with it, you might say. He’s zippy and geeky and can’t believe he’s getting to hang with in the Bat Cave with Batman and Wonder Woman, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets his own flick. (2020, in fact.) Aquaman is getting his own movie, too, in 2018.

When a comic book hits the screen, there’s almost always another movie.

We get far too little of J.K. Simmons, stepping into the part of Gotham’s new Commissioner Gordon. He gets to fire up the Bat Signal, but that’s about it. Jeremy Irons returns for more wry commentary as butler Alfred. And while D.C. is handing out movies, why not just go ahead and give one to Wonder Woman’s kick-ass warrior-goddess mom, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen)?

As a villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by the Irish actor Ciaràn Hinds) provides ho-hum, run-of-the-mill CGI menace. With a horned helmet, booming voice and glowing red axe, he looks like something that stepped off a 1980s Molly Hatchet album cover. He wants to collect the three ancient “Mother Boxes” that will let him destroy the world, then rebuild it. Oh, really? Again? Armageddon is getting so yesterday.

If only the Man of Steel were around to help sweep up this mess. Anyone who saw Superman v Batman will recall how that movie ended, with Clark Kent’s coffin moving ever so slightly after all the mourners left the cemetery. Hmmm…

Justice League opens with a cell-phone video of Superman, taken by a couple of kids, in which he explains to them the logo on his chest. It’s not really an “S,” he says, but the symbol back on Krypton, his home planet, for hope. He says that hope is like a lost set of car keys; if you keep looking, you’ll find it.

DC geeks may feel like they’ll find in Justice League what they lost—what faded away in the dark, dismal and roundly drubbed Batman v Superman. But I’m going to keep looking, and keep hoping. Maybe another movie, maybe next time. Because there will be another movie, and there will be a next time.

In theaters Nov. 17, 2017

 

Christmas Dad-o-Rama

Wahlberg & Farrell double down on the doofus dad jokes in sequel

DADDY'S HOME 2

Daddy’s Home 2
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson & John Lithgow
Directed by Sean Anders
PG-13

If two feuding fathers are funny, four’s gotta be even funnier…right?

That’s the movie math behind the holiday hijinks of this sequel to the 2015 comedy, which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a stepfather and a biological dad battling for the attention of their kids.

At the end of the first movie, sweet, sensitive Brad (Ferrell) had rubbed off some of the rough, raw edges of brusque, macho Dusty (Wahlberg) and they had made their peace with each other as “co-dads.” Daddy’s Home 2 opens with a warm, fuzzy scene of the two of them sharing carpooling duties, happily swapping off their kids at the park and chatting about the school’s upcoming Christmas pageant.

Ah, Christmas!

The kids, it seems, love all the presents they get from two sets of parents. But they’re not so happy about being so split apart, shuttled between homes and houses, at the one time of year when families are supposed to be together. So Brad and Rusty come up with an idea: one big “together Christmas” with all the kids and all the parents and stepparents in one house, at one time!

Brilliant! Then both Dusty’s dad and Brad’s dad (Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) show up for last-minute Christmas visits, which really makes it a together Christmas—and kick the movie into high comedy gear.

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John Lithgow plays Don, the father of Brad (Will Ferrell).

Both old pros, Gibson—famed for starring in the original Mad Max franchise, three Lethal Weapon flicks, The Patriot and Braveheart, and for his directing as well—and Lithgow—whose 100-plus acting credits include the acclaimed current Netflix series The Crown, in which he stars as Winston Churchill—are hoots and almost steal the show from the top-billed franchise stars. Gibson’s character, Kurt, is an old-school, sarcastic, alpha-male-bulldog Lothario, a former astronaut who tries to warm up to his grandkids with a joke about dead hookers. And you can certainly see where Brad got all his warmth and thoughtfulness: Don (Lithgow) is yappy, ever-happy optimistic, super-sentimental, always ready with hugs, kisses, corny jokes and a pocket full of homemade cookies.

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Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine

This holiday cocktail of a mismatched family—as dads, stepdads, granddads and step-granddads all learn to get along—also features kids from the first film. Young Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine have their own little step-sib subplot that involves young love, getting into forbidden eggnog and switching up traditional gender roles.

Writer-director Sean Anders also directed the first film (along with Horrible Bosses 2) and wrote screenplays for We’re The Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Dumb and Dumber To and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. He knows funny, and Daddy’s Home 2 has a lot of it. An inventive sequence with a snow blower and Christmas lights ends with a comedic thud that will have a familiar ring to anyone who saw the first movie. Appropriately enough for a comedy about dads jockeying for attention, position and pecking order, a scene with the whole “together” family in a live-nativity manager riffs on who’s going to play Joseph, and how he wasn’t Jesus’ real father.

DADDY'S HOME 2

John Cena

John Cena, who made a surprise appearance at the end of the original film, makes a reappearance as Randy, another stepdad—the uber-cool, muscle-bound, truck-driving hunk Randy. And stay until the very end for another surprise stepdad!

There’s also some commentary about learning to compromise, a surprising venture into gun control and a poignant scene—in a comedy club—in which we find out something heavy, and heartbreaking, about Brad’s dad. And there’s a running joke, with a funny flashback, to the 1984 Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and its all-star cast of international singers, each getting a line.

The wives/moms, Linda Cardellini (of TV’s Bloodline) and Brazilian-born former Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio, don’t really have much to do, except look pretty and deliver an occasional quip—and Ambrosio doesn’t even get many of those. The movie is just too crowded with guys and cute kids.

And in a bit of a Hollywood in-joke, everyone ends up snowstorm-stranded in a movie theater. The big holiday release is an action-family holiday hybrid about Liam Neeson and a bunch of adorable kids traveling with a nuclear warhead cross-country to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. It’s called Missile Tow.

After strings of edgier, R-rated fare for both Ferrell and Wahlberg, the Daddy’s Home flicks let both actors settle into a more-or-less family-friendly, PG-13 groove, and still find a very festive comedic mojo.

This cheery, comical, dads-travaganza of a Christmas carol won’t win any major holiday awards. But it will certainly keep Scrooge at bay—at least until those Christmas bills start to roll in! Then you’ll know it’s Christmas, for sure.

In theaters Nov. 10, 2017

More Humor, Less Hammer

Brimming with wit and comedic energy, the third Thor is an exuberant charm

nullThor: Ragnarok
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo & Tessa Thompson
Directed by Taika Waititi
PG-13

Less hammer, more humor.

That’s the formula for the third flick in the Marvel franchise about the Norse God of Thunder, played in all three by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth.

Marvel learned that laughter was golden in Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, and Ragnarok forgoes gravitas for sheer, exuberant comic energy, even when the story’s stakes are apocalyptic.

The plot whirls around a doomsday event called Ragnarok, the end of days in the mythical kingdom of Asgard, Thor’s home. As Thor tries to prevent it, he comes into contact with a whole cosmos of colorful characters, including his trickster bro Loki (Tom Hiddleston), their dark-hearted sis (Cate Blanchett), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a dear old frenemy, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

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Tessa Thompson

Jeff Goldblum is a supernova smash as a campy character called the Grandmaster, who runs clash-’n’-smash gladiator matches on the planet Sakaar. Tessa Thompson (from HBO’s Westworld) struts as a Valkyrie bounty hunter. Thor’s sage old father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), advises him his hammer “was never your source of power,” it was only a channel for his great strength.

That’s important for Thor to remember—since he loses his tool early in the movie.

Other familiar faces pop up too, including some surprise appearances in a hilarious play—The Tragedy of Loki—on Asgard, where Thor discovers his mischievous brother has deceived everyone into believing he’s a hero, even a savior. And be ready: Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee continues his tradition of making brief, memorable, cameos in every movie based on his pulpy properties. And this one, indeed, leaves a lasting impression.

The seriously fun script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost) crackles with wit, and New Zealand director Taika Waititi (who also made the acclaimed indie hits Hunt For the Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows) gives Thor’s traditional, comic-book core a fresh, zippy new spin. (Waititi also cameos as the voice of a rock-pile revolutionary named Korg, who becomes an important Thor ally.)

Hemsworth is a very funny guy, as he demonstrated in Ghostbusters, and he seems to greatly enjoy flexing his comedic muscles. He sets the cheeky, flip tone right off the bat, as the movie opens with our hero bound in chains, immobile, locked a dark, hellish dungeon.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Oh, no! Thor’s in a cage!”

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Kate Blanchett

There’s so much to see and do—interplanetary trash heaps; day-glo streets; a monstrous wolf dog; a Satyr demon made of fire; Idris Elba as the seer-warrior Hemdall; teeming planetary cities; clashing armies; thrilling aerial battles. As the evil sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, Blanchett is a total scene stealer. With her headdress of devilish black antlers, she’s a sexy, sinister siphon of pure evil, someone you’d never want to meet—but good luck prying your eyes off her.

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Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk)

For a movie packed with so much, it does a great job of keeping everything giddily on track—when the characters zoom through a mean-looking space wormhole called the Devil’s Anus, when Thor and Loki take a business trip to New York City, when Thor and the Hulk face off for a smashing reunion.

There are thorny family and friendship issues to sort out, nonstop quips, explosions, fights scored to Led Zeppelin tunes and lots and lots of laughs.

At one point, Thor and Hela duke it out in the halls of Asgard. Thor is strong, but Hela—she is the Goddess of Death, after all—is stronger, at least momentarily. “To be honest,” she taunts him, “I expected more.”

You can’t expect much more from this. Thor: Ragnarok, the best Thor of the bunch, pretty much has it all.

In theaters Nov. 3, 2017

See Minus

Blake Lively doesn’t like what she sees in this artsy psycho-drama

Stills_All I See Is You

 

All I See Is You
Starring Blake Lively & Jason Clarke
Directed by Marc Forester
R
In Theaters Oct. 27, 2017

The last time we saw Blake Lively, she was battling a monster shark in The Shallows.

In her new movie, she’s fighting the undertow of a collapsing marriage as a blind woman who begins to see a lot of things differently when her sight is restored.

The former Gossip Girl actress plays Gina, who lost her sight in a car crash that claimed the lives her parents years ago. Now living in Bangkok with her husband, James (Jason Clarke), an international insurance businessman, she’s encouraged when a doctor (Danny Houston) tells her she’s a candidate for an experimental cornea transplant and reconstructive eye surgery.

When Gina begins to see again, and her vision becomes clearer day by day, what she sees at first delights her—a spectrum of colors, faces to put with familiar voices, and little mundane details that get easily taken for granted by people with sight.

“I’d forgotten what my name looked like,” she says, pausing to reflect on the letters G-I-N-A spelled out on a sign welcoming her home from the hospital.

Stills_All I See Is You

But her restored vision also reveals the cracks in her marriage. And those cracks are what director Marc Forester probes in this artsy psycho-drama about control, attraction, dependence, micro-aggression, jealousy, dominance, deviousness, secrets and sabotage.

James obviously loves Gina, but it’s clear he now feels threatened by her. He subtly criticizes the way she dresses, asking her to not show so much skin, especially around other guys. And the pressure’s on: They’ve been trying to get pregnant, unsuccessfully. The Spanish firebrand husband (Miquel Fernández) of Gina’s sister ribs James, asking if he’s worried that Gina might leave him for a better-looking, more virile man.

James doesn’t exactly warm to the idea when Gina brings home a friend’s dog to save it from being put down. When James berates it for pooping and peeing on the floor, Gina defends the poor pooch—because James forgot to take it outside for a walk.

And so it goes: The more Gina sees, the less she likes. And the less she likes James, especially—and the more James comes to resent her and miss the way “things used to be,” when Gina couldn’t see, when she depended on him, when he was her world, when she made him feel more like a man, an alpha male.

Ahna O’Reilly (from The Help and TV’s Kingdom) plays Gina’s sister, Carla. Yvonne Strahovski (who stars in the Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale) pops in for a couple of scenes, suggesting that an initially bigger role was edited down to practically nothing. Wes Chatum (Castor from The Hunger Games franchise) plays a hunky, hot, kind-hearted dog owner who… well, he’s not James.

For director Foster, who’s done the zombie apocalypse with Brad Pitt (World War Z) and globetrotted with James Bond (Quantum of Solace), this movie seems like a downshift into indie-arthouse, domestic-drama territory. A dead bird, the rotting cow and repeated shots of fish in the tank—we get it, Gina’s eyes have been opened, but she’s feeling more contained, constrained, stifled and lifeless than ever.

There are explosively beautiful visuals, too, as Gina sees the world again, anew, soaking it all in. At one point, James asks her what she wants to do next, what she wants to see. “More colors,” she says.

The story is a slow-burn simmer that never feels in a rush. It has an almost Hitchcock-ian rhythm as it unfolds, especially as things get twisted and toxic. Foster’s collaborator on the screenplay, Sean Conway, was a writer/director for the gritty Showtime crime drama Ray Donovan.

“You look different than what I had in my head,” Gina tells James when she first comes out of surgery, regaining the sight she had been without for over a decade.

How would the world—specifically your world—look different if your long-impaired vision was suddenly improved? Is our imagination sometimes better than what we see? All I See Is You makes you think about that.

Throughout the movie, Gina works on a song with a guitar. She’ll eventually perform it in full, where its lyrics—about jumping rope, swimming, seeing, loving and living—take on extra emotional heft and give added pang to the ending.

Perhaps Blake Lively was thinking, when she sang, about her last movie, about swimming with—and away from—that great white shark that wanted her for its next meal.

There’s no shark in All You See Is Me, but this fierce little marital fable still draws blood.

In theaters Oct. 27, 2017

Icy Reception

This pulpy winter  tale is a sloggy, sadistic Scandinavian mess 

Film Title: The Snowman

The Snowman
Starring Michael Fassbender & Rebecca Ferguson
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
R

“The great Harry Hole.”

That’s how a colleague refers to the driven, dour detective at the dark heart of this lurid tale based on the central character in the popular pulpy crime novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. In The Snowman, actually the seventh of Nesbø’s 11 Harry Hole adventures but the first to make the big screen, the glum gumshoe is on the trail of a winter wacko who’s carving up women all around Oslo—always leaving a sad-faced snowman as a calling card.

Hole (Michael Fassbender) is supposed to be a brilliant detective; we’re informed that police cadets study his case files in their classes. He’s supposedly a genius at finding clues that everyone else misses. Hmmm… So how did Norway’s most celebrated criminologist end up in such a misguided, muddled, murder-y mess of a movie?

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has spoken about the movie’s troubled production—a rushed on-location shoot that only allowed for part of the script to be filmed. That certainly accounts for some of the movie’s choppy, patchy feel, the sense that characters are only partially formed and the feeling that what’s on screen often just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That’s all the more disappointing given the project’s promising pedigree: an Oscar-nominated director, an all-star, international cast and an executive producer (Martin Scorsese) who certainly knows a thing or two about making a solid movie.

Film Title: The Snowman

Rebecca Ferguson

You might expect a flick called The Snowman to be set in the dead of winter, and “dead” pretty much describes it. Everything is grey, everything looks cold and everything looks lifeless. And many of the people you see—especially the women—will eventually be set free of their mortal coil, and dismembered as well. Heads, fingers, arms and legs get sliced off, blown to pieces and eaten by animals. The Snowman ain’t no jolly, happy Frosty, and this is hardly a holly-jolly corncob-pipe romp around the town square.

Harry and his colleague Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) collaborate—more or less—to track down the serial killer. They’re led to a kinky industrialist (J.K. Simmons) in charge of the city’s Winter Olympics bid; and the uncooperative, secretive husband (James D’Arcy) of a woman whose disappearance may be linked to the most recent murders; and a cold case from several years ago involving another detective (Val Kilmer).

Film Title: The Snowman

J.K. Simmons

There’s also Chloë Sevigny as twins, veteran British actor Toby Jones as another detective, and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who would be better known for starring in the 2013 Lars von Trier movies Nymphomanic: Vol. I and Vol. 2 if anyone had gone to see them—as Hole’s old flame, Rakel.

Rakel is dating Mathias (Jonas Karsson), a physician, and has a teenage son, Oleg (newcomer Michael Yates).

The movie is a Nordic swirl of suspects, victims, red herrings, clunky plotting and confusing editing. It certainly doesn’t help that every scene is the same shade of barren, wintry grey—it’s almost impossible to tell today from yesterday, or know when flashbacks return to the present. Harry and Katrine chase a thread about the killer targeting women of whom he disapproves, and there’s a subplot built on “bad parenting.” This movie’s mommy and daddy issues could easily fill up a fjord.

And the killer must be an evil spirit, a ninja, or both, the way he slips into places noiselessly and invisibly, lurks undetected and appears out of nowhere with his lethal bag of tricks. He’s a gamboling grim reaper, all right, until he steps right into a gaping (literal) plot hole.

Have you ever actually built a snowman? You know it takes the right kind of snow, not too dry, and you can’t just throw one together zippity zap. You’ve got to find something for at least the eyes and mouth—the killer apparently likes coffee beans, and skinny little sticks for arms. He never seems to have any trouble making a snowman anytime, anyplace, anywhere, and he still has time to murder and maim. But how come the killer’s snowmen—intended to strike fear, terror and dread—look like sad practical jokes made by a prop department?

“You can’t force the pieces to fit,” Harry tells a frustrated Katrine as she struggles over the tangle of clues, false leads and dead-end hunches. The same is true of The Snowman, a misfit pileup of talent and material that turns into one soggy, sadistic Scandinavian-flavored slay-belle ride.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017

Forged in Fire

Hollywood loves heroes, and this film offers up a real-life pantheon

Josh Brolin;James Badge Dale

Only the Brave
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly & Taylor Kitsch
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
PG-13

When I was a tyke, I had a Little Golden Book and a record about Smokey the Bear, the forest-fire-prevention mascot who could “find a fire before it starts to flame.”

There’s a bear at the very beginning of Only the Brave, but it’s certainly not Smokey—it’s a blazing, charging beast made out of fire itself, barreling through a hellish nightmare of burning trees.

That bear of fire haunts the dreams of Eric Marsh (James Brolin), the grizzled supervisor of a group of elite firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Marsh calls the burning bear “the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

The beautiful, terrible specter of fire hangs heavy over this rousing true tale, which recounts the heroic exploits of the Prescott firefighters, which lost 19 of its 20-member crew while battling a 2013 wildfire northwest of Phoenix, near the town of Yarnell. It became one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

Hollywood loves heroes, and Only the Brave—based on a magazine article in GQ—offers up a real-life pantheon, one made even more timely and resonant by the wildfires currently ravaging California. Director Joseph Kosinski spends most of his movie building the story of the men who made up the Hotshots, how they became a tight-knit team and the matter-of-fact business of fighting fire. We know the tragic event, which defined the Hotshots’ legacy, is coming—but before it does, there are other fires to put out, in the mountains and at home.

Josh Brolin;Jennifer Connelly

Josh Brolin & Jennifer Connelly

We get to know the firefighters mainly through a handful of central characters in its larger ensemble cast. Brolin has seasoned into a fine actor in almost any role, and he plays supervisor Marsh with a mix of toughness and weariness that reflects the years he’s put into a dangerous, taxing, extremely physical job. The toll it continues to take on his relationship with his wife, Andrea (an outstanding Jennifer Connelly), is obvious.

“Do your John Wayne thing,” she tells him before he packs up once again to head into the hills and face down the fire he calls “the bitch.”

Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a pot-puffing stoner screw-up who enlists with the Hotshots in a last-ditch effort to get his life in gear after he finds out he got a girl pregnant (Natalie Hall—she was young Colby Chandler on All My Children 2009-2011) and he’s about to become a father. The others playfully haze him as the rookie, calling him “Puke” and “Donut,” but he eventually earns their acceptance and their respect.

Taylor Kitsch;Miles Teller

Miles Teller & Taylor Kitsch

Taylor Kitsch plays Christopher McKenzie, whose hapless search for a girlfriend becomes a running joke. As the Prescott fire chief, Jeff Bridges gets to flex his musical mojo in a nightclub scene by singing the classic cowboy chestnut “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Director Kosinski, who demonstrated his expansive visual flair in the sci-fi flicks Tron Legacy (also with Jeff Bridges) and Oblivion (with Tom Cruise), also finds the spellbinding imagery throughout this emotional, character-driven story. Fire races across a mountainside, like an invading army. Blazing trees tumble off a cliff, then explode in flashes of sparks and cinders. A lone deer runs alongside a wall of flame, looking for an escape route. A helicopter hovers in super slo-mo above a swimming pool, siphoning out water. Firefighters in gear move through the trees with military-like precision, looking like a centipede inching its way along.

And the movie shows the hard, dirty work and tools of the trade that go into firefighting—it’s a lot of digging, chopping, cutting and clearing. And much of it is “fighting fire with fire,” setting smaller fires to rob a bigger fire of fuel. But all of it involves putting lives on the line and working in the danger zone, a place where a shift of the wind or a change in temperature can mean destruction—or death.

“There are lots of other things you could do that aren’t so dangerous,” Brendan’s mom tells him.

Indeed there are.

Hollywood loves heroes, and we’re told they’re made, not born. And as this moving, heart-tugging movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots reminds us, sometimes they’re forged by fire.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017