Monthly Archives: December 2018

Smashing

Nicole Kidman De-Glams as a Gritty, Wrecked, Wracked L.A. Detective

Destroyer_IMDB-2

Destroyer
Starring Nicole Kidman & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Karyn Kusama
R

She’s one of the most strikingly beautiful women in the movies, but in her latest flick, Nicole Kidman looks like a wreck.

The star of TV’s Big Little Lies and such box-office hits as Moulin Rouge, Far and Away, Days of Thunder and The Stepford Wives de-glamorizes to the extreme in Destroyer as a damaged-goods L.A. detective whose life was derailed after a deep-cover sting operation took a very wrong turn.

Now Erin Bell is a hollowed-out shell of her former self, haunted by the tortured trauma of her past, when she receives an unexpected reminder of the very thing that ruined her life.

“Do you really want to go back down that hole again?” asks one of her fellow detectives.

Kidman here is something to see—because you’ve never seen her looking anything like it. Rail thin, with dark, sunken eyes, blanched skin and drab clothes that look like they’re hanging off a scarecrow, Erin Bell doesn’t appear to have bathed, brushed her teeth or combed her hair in weeks, maybe months. And it probably took a lot of Hollywood makeup to make it look like makeup isn’t something she’s thought about for a long, long time. As she squints and shuffles in the scorching, searing L.A. sun, she’s a piece of walking beef jerky. And she’s certainly just as tough. This beef jerky can bite back.

Destroyer_IMDB-4

Kidman & Sebastian Stan

Some 17 years ago, Bell was a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy recruit assigned to a dangerous assignment with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) that involved infiltrating a ruthless criminal gang with a thing for robbing banks. But one big heist went horribly wrong, the gang’s murderous, cultish leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), got away, and Erin’s never been the same.

Now, apparently, Silas has resurfaced, and she’s driven to find him and finish the job.

As she burrows into L.A.’s seedy, seamy underbelly looking for people and clues, we’re taken into the cracks and crevices where criminals crawl like vermin. We meet an illegal gun merchant, a dying jailbird, and a cocky, money-laundering lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who reminds the battered, burned-out detective that she’s already fought this battle before—and it didn’t turn out so well.

“You chose to play cops and robbers, and you lost, big-time,” he smugly tells her.

Exactly what happened, and what was lost, is explained in back-and-forth flashbacks. Director Karyn Kusama—whose previous films include Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez, AEon Flux with Charlize Theron and Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox—has created a stark, tense, bleak-looking film-noir crime-mystery character study that challenges viewers with multiple layers and tricky time-shift changes, especially as things bear down into the home stretch.

It also challenges its audience with a character whose “appeal” is in the sympathy it generates for her being so doggedly unappealing. She’s bitter, morose, wracked with guilt and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world—at least not anymore.

Detective Bell can’t even get her rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) to have a civil conversation. Her exasperated ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) longs for the life they might have had together. Her cop co-workers practically hold their noses when she walks by.

She does whatever it takes to do what she has to do—bashing heads with a gun barrel or a soap dish, bartering a sexual favor for a dollop of information, beating a bank robber to a bloody pulp then tossing her into her car trunk. It’s a Hollywood double standard that we’re accustomed to seeing guys—and guy cops—behave this way, but rarely women. It’s a down-and-dirty walk on the wild side that few actresses ever take.

Destroyer_IMDB-3

This isn’t really a movie to enjoy so much as to appreciate—for the skill of its storytelling, the craftsmanship of its filmmaking, and the performance and physical transformation of Kidman into something, and someone, eaten away from the inside by a cancer of regret, self-loathing, grief and an all-consuming need for vengeance.

You’ll probably feel a bit grimy and worn-out when it’s over, especially after the twisty-turn at the end that loops back on everything that’s come before. You may not be wrecked, but you could be due for a realignment.

Destroyer is no holly-jolly Christmas ride on the holiday express. But if you’re up for a gritty, grueling dive into a pummeling puzzle of bumps, bruises, gunfire, gristle, twists, turns, thumps, thwacks, slaps and surprises, climb on board.

Just be sure to bring your own soap, makeup and toothbrush.

In theaters Dec. 25, 2018

Advertisements

All Hail the New Mary

Emily Blunt Soars as Disney’s Magic Nanny 2.0

MPR6 (72)Mary Poppins Returns
Starring Emily Blunt & Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Rob Marshall
PG

If you’ve been waiting for your movie Christmas present, here it is: Walt Disney’s super-nanny is soaring again.

Mary Poppins Returns, the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 crown-jewel classic, is an eye-popping charmer of song and dance with an all-star cast, cascades of old-school, feel-good warmth, audaciously entertaining showmanship and massive dollops of Disney enchantment.    

All hail Emily Blunt as the new Mary, floating down from the sky on a kite, like a Disney deity, to sprinkle her mesmerizing mojo on a new generation. She’s not Julie Andrews, of course, who won an Oscar for the role—one of five Academy Awards bestowed on the original Mary Poppins, now enshrined in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance.

But Blunt is a pitch-perfect 2.0, fresh and familiar at the same time as she drops in as moviedom’s most famous nanny on 1930s Depression-era London—some 25 years after the events of the first film. She’s come to help the now-adult Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), the siblings who were tykes in the original and have now aged into adulthood.

Now they’re grownups with grown-up problems. Michael is a widower raising three precocious young children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) with the help of Jane and a harried housekeeper (Julie Walters). But there’s a wolf at the door of the beloved Banks home on Cherry Tree Lane: the dastardly banker (Colin Firth) who won’t cut them any slack on their dangerously overdue mortgage.

Mary Poppins ReturnsBroadway’s award-winning Hamilton virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda is a singing, dancing dynamo as Jack, the plucky street lamplighter whose street smarts include knowing all about Mary. The great Meryl Streep has a (goof)ball in her scene as the ditzy, over-the-top Topsy, Mary’s gypsy-like cousin in her flippity-flopped fix-it shop. Angela Lansbury fills the sky with colorful balloons and a buoyant message of optimism.

Dick Van Dyke, the only star from the original Mary Poppins, makes a very special VIP character appearance. He’s 93, still hoofing and hamming!

But the heart and soul of the movie belongs to Blunt as the lovely, mysterious, magical Mary, who first appeared in the novels of P.L. Travers beginning in 1934. After starring in the gritty Sicario, the mystery-thriller The Girl on the Train and alongside her director-husband, John Krasinski, in his acclaimed horror chiller A Quiet Place, she’s now in a role where the sky’s the limit, quite literally.

null

Meryl Streep

Fans of the original Mary Poppins will have a lot of fun connecting the nostalgic dots in the movie all the way back to 1964—the kite from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the dancing cartoon animals (those penguins!), the eccentric, canon-firing neighbor, Admiral Boom (David Warner), among many other things.

But audiences will be most excited about what’s new, particularly the slate of terrific all-new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray)—from wistful ballads (“The Place Where Lost Things Go”) to full-on Broadway-style production numbers (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”). There’s a zippy, zany comedic nugget, “Turning Turtle,” and a rousing finale, “Nowhere to Go But Up.” Listen closely and you’ll catch wonderful wafting notes of classic Sherman Brothers’ songs from the original film woven into the background score.

Nannies are hired for children—remember, Jane and Michael Banks were kids in the first movie. Mary’s message has always been about how adults so easily lose their childhood joys: play, imagination and the boundless embrace of life before it becomes such a burden, drain and drag. “Grownups forget—they always do,” says her talking, flying umbrella, its head shaped like a parrot.

She knows that sometimes you have to turn back time to recapture that feeling. Mary reminds us—and encourages us—that it might be as simple as flying a kite, singing a song, engaging in a bit of silliness or holding the string on a balloon and wondering about where it might take you.

nullIn one scene with unmistakable retro overtones of classic Disney, Mary, Jack and the kids are transported onto the glazed decorative surface of a cracked china bowl, where they talk with animals and find themselves on a daredevil “runaway-train” adventure. In another, Mary draws a bath for the children that becomes an amazing nautical escapade.

Director Rob Marshall (who also directed Streep and Blunt in the fairy-tale musical Into the Woods) draws heavily on Miranda’s Broadway chops. The show-stopping song-and-dance sequence for “A Cover is Not the Book” is a surprisingly cheeky, somewhat bawdy dancehall bit with Blunt which suggests that prim-and-proper Mary might have been reading something other than Wuthering Heights in her time off.

nullSpeaking of which, where does Mary go when she leaves? What does she do when she’s there? Where does her magic come from? We never find out. But so what? “One thing you should know about Mary Poppins,” Jack says. “She never explains anything.”

We don’t need to know—it’s enough that Mary Poppins has returned, she’s still got it, whatever it is, and Emily Blunt brings it. So don’t ask questions. Just sit back, soak in the wonder, the music, the sights, songs and magic of Mary Poppins Returns—and Mary’s timeless, Disney-delight spirit of uplift, optimism, imagination and positivity, a message that never grows old, no matter how old we get.

“I never thought I’d feel this much joy and wonder all over again,” Michael Banks says. “Thank you, Mary Poppins.”

Yes, thank you, Mary Poppins!

In theaters Dec. 19, 2018 

A Wide New Web

Worlds Collide in Spidey’s New Animated Bedazzler

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali & Kathryn Hahn

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman
PG

Superhero flicks just got a whole lot more super, a bit more crowded—and much more inclusive.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features not just one Spider-Man, but several—and not just Spider-men, but, well…

The latest entry into the Spider-film franchise is an eye-popping, animated bedazzler in which a young Brooklyn Afro-Latin teenager, Miles Morales (voiced by rapper-actor Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gets juiced with some freakish powers.

He doesn’t realize it at first, but he’s awkwardly on the way to becoming a new Spider-Man.

Of course, everyone knows—even in this movie—about Spider-Man. He’s been the subject of umpteen films and TV shows, a spectrum of merchandise and, of course, thousands of comic books and spin-offs stretching back to the 1960s. But in Miles’ movie world, Spider-Man (and his real-life alter-ego, Peter Parker, voiced by Chris Pine) meet an unfortunate demise, which makes big headlines—also sets this film into action by making a rip in time-space and plunking other Spider-People, from parallel dimensions, into Miles’ world.

And none of them had any idea they weren’t the only one, until—WHAM!—their worlds collided.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSEMiles is surprised, to say the least, when he meets another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson, who plays Nick Miller on TV’s New Girl). This one is Peter B. Parker, who’s lived a completely different but parallel life in his other dimension. Peter B. has been out of action for a while; he’s got a bit of a paunch, he’s divorced from Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) and his spandex pants don’t quite fit anymore.

Peter B. becomes Miles’ mentor as the younger Spidey gets up to speed on his skill set, and they both set about shutting down the super collider that caused the quantum-physics conundrum. If it starts up again, it could be really, really, really bad.

They’re joined by Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), an acrobatic Spider-Woman. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a talking pig; anime schoolgirl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) fights inside her high-tech transformer spider-bot; the black-and-white, trench-coat-wearing Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage) speaks like a character from a vintage Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney film.

They’re all up against the familiar old Spider-Man nemesis Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who’s willing to tear apart the universe to get back something he lost a long time ago.

Listen for Mahershala Ali as Miles’ uncle, Aaron; Lily Tomlin as May Parker, Peter’s kindly aunt; Kathryn Hahn as a scientist with a secret; and Lake Bell as Vanessa Fisk, the wife of Kingpin. And there’s a very special tribute cameo by Marvel’s late founder, Stan Lee, who died just weeks before the movie was released.

Miles Morales in Sony Pictures Animation's SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE.It’s full of fun, driving with energy and pumping with heart. There’s a lot of bang, swoosh and boom, but it packs a pretty substantial emotional wallop, as well, with themes of family, friendship, loyalty, decision and choices, and leaps of faith.

It helps to be somewhat versed in Spider-lore to catch all the riffs in the movie, which is rich in characters and references to things that have come before in movies and comic books. (The character of Miles Morales, the first Spider-Man of color, was introduced in a Marvel comic line in 2011.)

But you don’t have to be a Marvel geek to marvel in the film’s groundbreaking stylistic pizzazz, which makes scenes feel like they could easily pop off the screen and into your lap. An exhilarating rush of imagination, ingenuity and sheer kinetic exuberance, it’s a dizzyingly colorful palette of comic-book excitement electrified by an army of animators with an array of techniques and a passion for graphic storytelling. It makes most other animated movies this year look, well, like cartoons.

This cross-generational, multicultural Spider-Man is a game-changer in another way, too. The timely tale, of more than one Spider-Man, clearly suggests that anyone, of any gender, color or even species, can “wear the mask.” Anyone can be a superhero, even you or me.

Young Miles buys his first Spider-Man outfit, a kid’s costume, over-the-counter. In a scene suffused with significance I wouldn’t dare spoil, he asks if he can he bring it back if it’s not the right size.

Don’t worry, the clerk reassures him: “It always fits—eventually.” Heroes grow into the jobs they know they have to do.

Those are words of assurance to a world in need of heroes, superheroes, do-gooders and wrong-righters of every shape, size, form and fashion—especially in a time when it feels like our planet may not have super-collided, but it certainly is in need of some super-mending.

In theaters Dec. 14, 2018

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