Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Great War (Movie)

Gripping WWI drama is also a masterwork of moviemaking

Film Title: 1917

Starring George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman
Directed by Sam Mendes
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Sure, you’ve seen war movies. But you’ve never seen one like this.

Director Sam Mendes’ astonishingly immersive World War I drama, set in one 24-hour period, is filmed in what appears to be a “single shot” as the camera follows a pair of young soldiers on a perilous mission across enemy lines.

It’s much more than a gimmick—it’s epic, grandiose, spectacular filmmaking, which matches the story it’s telling: The two British lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who played young king Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay) are dispatched by their general to deliver a message to warn unsuspecting front-line battalions about a German ambush set for the next day. It’s practically a suicide mission—lone soldiers sent across territory occupied by the German army. But if Blake and Schofield fail, some 1,600 troops will walk into a massacre.

And Blake’s big brother will be one of them.

Film Title: 1917

The camera technique of following the doughboys makes you feel like you’re also along on their sometimes absolutely harrowing odyssey as they make their way across muddy battlefields, strewn with corpses of horses, buzzing with flies; crawling across bloated bodies of fallen soldiers; barely escaping with their lives from a booby-trapped German bunker; or dodging the crash-landing of a German Fokker, coming down in flames and headed right for them.

They never know what they’re going to find, or what’s going to find them, or even if they’re going to make it. And neither do we.

The single-shot technique is a marvel of craft, timing, coordination, prep and moviemaking (even though there are obviously a couple of editing “splices,” especially since a period of one day, then a night, then another day elapses in the space of a two-hour film). But it’s a jaw-dropping wonder to behold, and it absolutely hammers home the horrors, the terrors and the details—from maze-like, fortified foxholes to uniforms that appear totell their own battle-weary tale in their very threads and tatters—of what its characters go through. This is a war movie, yes, but also a gripping human drama, a bracing history lesson, a bruising survival saga and a blowout adventure yarn, and its production pedigree is impeccable. Mendes won an Oscar, for American Beauty, and directed two ripping James Bond movies, Spectre and Skyfall. Director of photography Roger Deakins is probably the best in the business. And Thomas Newman, who composed the original music, has been honored with 14 previous Oscar nominations, including his work on the soundtracks for Saving Mr. Banks, WALL-E, Finding Nemo and The Shawshank Redemption. In 1917, they gave out medals; for 1917, I predict Hollywood will be doling out other kinds of recognition, to honor this movie that dazzles on several fronts.

Film Title: 1917

Colin Firth

Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong have small roles. But the movie belongs to its two young stars, especially MacKay in his breakout leading part, who shows the spectrum of raw emotion—including the wrenching beauty of selfless compassion—that the theater of war can produce, as well as the terrible toll it can extract.

As Schofield and Blake banter, one of the things that comes up is Christmas, and hopes of getting home in time for the holiday. It’s a theme that connects many a wartime film. Some 40 million people never made it home for Christmas—or anything else—from the so-called Great War, and 1917 masterfully reminds us of how something that happened so long ago can, and should, still hit so crushingly, achingly, painfully, movingly close to home.


Weird ‘Cats’ is part-human, part-pussycat faux-feline Hollywood hairball 

Film Title: Cats

Taylor Swift appears in ‘Cats.’

Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Robbie Fairchild, James Corden, Rebel Wilson & Jennifer Hudson
Directed by Tom Hooper
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019

Hello, kitty!

In case you’ve been living under 20 feet of Meow Mix, you likely know that Cats, the smash Broadway musical, is finally hitting the big screen.

The Jellicle junkyard cats from the long-running Andrew Lloyd Weber stage fantasia get an all-star Hollywood makeover from British director Tom Hooper, who previously turned the stage musical Les Misérables into a 2012 movie starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.

Any way you come at it, Cats is weird. Weber’s production—which played 18 years on London’s West End and 21 in New York City, where it set a new Broadway record—was a gonzo mash-up of musical styles based on a collection of strung-together verses by the poet T.S. Elliot, with only the slightest strand of a pop-theological narrative thread holding it all together: something about the cats wondering which lucky one would be chosen to ascend, at the end of the night, to the Heaviside, something like kittycat heaven.

Cats, the movie, didn’t exactly come in on little cat feet. The first trailer, released in July, caused an uproar when critics flipped out at seeing the actors bedecked in “digital” fur—making them appear with smooth, cat-hair feline bodies and cat heads, topped with the faces of Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellan and James Corden.

Film Title: Cats

Francesca Hayward

Francesca Hayward, the principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet, is the movie’s top cat. Now making her film debut, she plays Victoria, the white kitten who becomes the story’s central character, often paired with Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, the tabby tomcat leader of the Jellicles.

As it turns out, the digital-fur effect is—ahem—somewhat jarring, indeed. With musicals, you pretty much just have to “go with it,” accepting the improbable, and a big part of that means music is going to swell and people are going to burst into song in the middle of the Swiss Alps, on a freeway in L.A., a rain-soaked street or beside a bale of hay in a Kansas barnyard. But Cats breaks ground on a new kind of film freaky when the singing—and the talking—is by dozens of cat creatures with human arms and human legs and human torsos, slinking around with celebrity faces on oversized sets, so the characters will appear “cat” size in comparison. It’s like watching a mad movie scientist’s DNA-splicing experiment come disturbingly to life.

Film Title: Cats

Judi Dench

And sorry, Cats lovers—the rest of the movie just doesn’t make the leap from stage to screen with the grace, agility and wowza you’d hope for such a big-deal project. The choreography often looks cheesy, a bit spooky and just plain odd, with cat-skinned people shimmying and strutting and swishing their tails, wiggling their ears, writhing and hissing and prissing and nuzzling, sometimes moving around on all fours and sometimes bi-pedaling on two legs, like humans. The dialogue is full of cheap cat puns—“Look what the cat dragged in!” “Cat got your tongue?” “Don’t mess with a crazy cat lady!”—but little true wit.

And I still can’t get over how Dench’s character, Old Deuteronomy, the ancient, revered leader of the Jellicles, looks like she could easily be the grandmother of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Same gene pool, right?

It’s all just…weird.

Don’t worry about following the story—there’s not much of one. Might as well sit back and watch the spectacle. The performances—some 20 tunes from the Broadway original, plus an all-new song—are all big and brash and splashy and flashy. But the movie is so stacked and packed and stuffed and puffed, no celeb gets much more than one turn in the spotlight. Corden, as the roly-poly, upper-crust Bustopher Jones, vamps through a back-alley garbage-can buffet for his number; Wilson does her Rebel Wilson thing as the housecat Jennyanydots, who gets a cabaret-style blowout with dancing mice and marching cockroaches. The hip-pop singer Derulo rocks the grooves of “The Rum Tum Tugger,” lays down some smooth street moves and a brings it all home in a sexy finale for adoring kitties in a milk bar. As on Broadway, “Mr. Mistoffelees,” performed by the tuxedo cat of the same name (Laurie Davidson), is a “magical” highlight.

Film Title: Cats

Jason Derulo

Saving one of its biggest draws for last, the movie holds Swift, one of the world’s most successful pop stars, for an appearance toward the end. Appearing as the regal “red queen” Bombalurina, she descends in a moon-shaped hammock for a burlesque-like song and dance to hail the notorious criminal Macavity (Elba), who has a nefarious scheme for getting into the Heaviside.

If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll certainly notice the tweaks the movie adds, like the new tune “Beautiful Ghosts,” written by Swift and Lloyd Weber for Hayward and Dench’s characters to perform. (Swift sings the song in full over the credits.)

And of course, there’s the movie’s mega-signature centerpiece, “Memory,” performed by Hudson as shabby Grizabella, the former “glamour cat” who’s become a pariah to the other Jellicles for her stray-cat fall from grace. Grizabella sings it first in melancholy snippets, then in one long, single-camera-shot performance in the film’s second act. It practically blows you out of your seat, and reminds you why, after nearly four decades, that song is still so powerful; it’s been covered by Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand and nearly 150 other acts, and according to Nielsen, the original London and Broadway recordings of “Memory” have been streamed a whopping 2.7 million times this year alone.

“Let the memory live again,” goes one of the lines in the song. A lot of fans of the Broadway or London shows—or countless local or regional productions—will find fond memories of the stage sensation rekindled by seeing Cats again, this time on a movie screen. But a lot of other folks may find this part-human, part-pussycat, faux-feline Hollywood hairball something of a me-ouch.

Big Deal

Director Greta Gerwig put a feisty new twist on an all-American classic 

Little Women 1 (72)

Little Women 
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep & Laura Dern
Directed by Greta Gerwig
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Little Women has always been a pretty big deal.

The beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott was a coming-of-age smash from the get-go in 1868, a commercial success that spawned a couple of sequels and got the attention of Hollywood almost as soon as “motion pictures” became a thing. The first (silent) film version of the book came out in 1917, followed by a steady stream of nearly a dozen other big-screen and TV-movie adaptations over the years.

Director Greta Gerwig’s new version puts a fresh, lively, sumptuous, all-star spin on the story about the four March sisters in 1860s New England during and immediately after the Civil War. Bursting with life, pulsing with emotion and swirling with themes that resonate far beyond its period-piece setting, this Little Women is a thoroughly engaging blend of rich nostalgic detail, lively contemporary wit and sometimes heart-wrenching, timeless sadness. If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, or even if you haven’t, this “Little” one stands tall and on its own.

Saoirse Ronan stars in the lead role of Jo March, a passionate fledgling writer who values her personal and creative freedom and whose own novel-in-progress parallels Alcott and Little Women—especially when Jo spars with a publisher (Tracy Letts) over the rights to her work.

Little Women 5

Laura Dern (top right) plays Marmee.

Gerwig—who also wrote the screenplay—and Ronan worked together previously in Lady Bird (2017), which was nominated for five Oscars, including Directing, Actress and Screenplay (for Gerwig). Clearly, they’re a winning team, and if there were ever any doubts about Gerwig having arrived as a major-league filmmaker—especially one able to helm a “major” motion picture—this will put them to rest once and for all. Little Women is going to be huge this Christmas, and the awards buzz is already humming.

Jo’s sisters are Meg (Emma Watson), a budding stage actress who really just wants to marry, settle down and start a family; Amy (Florence Pugh), a frustrated artist; and the quiet, piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Everybody gets plenty to do, especially when the rich, waggish boy-next-door, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), enters the picture, along with his handsome tutor (James Norton), a really bad case of scarlet fever comes around, and jealousy and vindictiveness break through the sisters’ stong bonds of affection.

Laura Dern is mom Marmee, a big-hearted social worker giving her all to the Union’s war effort, and waiting for the return of her husband (Bob Odenkirk) from the battlefield. Meryl Streep is Aunt March, who tries to point her young nieces’ down the time-honored path of tradition; she cautions them against pursuing any course other than finding husbands. But these girls, these “little women”—with dreams of music, the stage, literature and drama—aren’t all convinced, especially the rebellious Jo. “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts,” she says.

Gerwig scrambles the timeline by going back and forth across the years; it can be a bit confusing at first, but it does allow us to observe how events and characters overlap and interweave, and how certain “small,” seemingly insignificant interactions later become significant, indeed. And she gives the story a twist and a bold, delightful, dramatic meta flourish at the end, one different from the novel and all the other versions, that underscores the movie’s ultimate message of Jo’s rousing independence.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig' LITTLE WOMEN.

Ronan with Chalamet

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but the crux of this sisterhood saga belongs to Jo and Amy, and Ronan and Pugh are galvanizing in their roles as their characters grow, evolve and mature. Throw in Chalamet—maybe you caught his buzz in Call Me By Your Name and, also with Ronan, in Lady Bird—for a real New England heart-bruiser of a slow-burn romantic triangle.

The movie’s also a visual delight, with more costumes than a three-week Las Vegas Cher extravaganza, and a parade of splendid settings, from parlors to festive balls, bustling city streets, New York City carriage rides, a play-filled day at the beach, winter ice-skating and leafy fall strolls. At just outside a stuffy soiree, Chalamet gets to bust a move or two that might not be 100 percent authentic to the Civil War era, but hey, he and his wrap-around porch groovin’ are awesome cool.

Or, as Jo exclaims, he’s “capital!

So is Gerwig’s Little Women. This handsome, heartwarming holiday treat is a reminder that some classics are, indeed, classic for a reason—and now it’s been relaunched by one of Hollywood’s top female filmmakers and a sterling female cast, reworking a familiar, old story with vibrant new zing and zest, and a celebratory message that will resonate anew with women of all ages in today’s modern world.

And oh, it’s capital!


Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman & Margot Robbie
Directed by Jay Roach
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019

It’s an explosive title for an explosive movie about an explosive story.

The first major mainstream Hollywood film dealing with high-profile sexual harassment in the media, Bombshell dramatizes how a group of female employees brought down the head of Fox News in 2016.


With a supernova female trio as the axis of its ensemble cast, it’s anchored by Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman as real-life Fox News on-air personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as Kayla, a fictional character who’s recently come aboard the news crew with bright-eyed ambitions to become the network’s next on-air star.


Theron as Megyn Kelly with Lithgow as Roger Ailes

As Kayla soon learns, everything at Fox revolves around the company’s blustery, bloated CEO, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who rules the archly conservative network with an iron fist—and treats his female employees like eye candy. Among the rank and file, he’s known as the Leg Man, and camera angles, glass desks and wardrobe choices—no pantsuits allowed—all support his fetish.

News needs to lean hard right, and women have to be “bombshells.”

“This is a visual medium,” he reminds attractive new female hires when he calls them into his office for private interviews. “Stand up and give me a spin.”

Of course, there’s more than standing and spinning going on, and Kelly, Carlson and Kayla gradually put their individual stories, and histories, together into a tapestry that reveals a much broader, deeper pattern of exploitation, harassment and perversity by Ailes and other higher-up rotten apples.

The movie weaves real news and TV clips with the actors’ performances, integrating with the story and the timeline—then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ongoing spat with Kelly, sparked by his comments about her menstruation; Carlson appearing with her cohorts on the morning show Fox & Friends. Many of the scenes take viewers behind the scenes at the network, as characters break the “fourth wall” and talk to the camera, or have conversations to each other to explain what’s going on, who’s who and what’s what.

Bombshell 2

Margot Robbie with Kate McKinnon

The film is rich with an outstanding supporting cast, including Saturday Night Live all-star Kate McKinnon as a Fox staffer who doesn’t fit the expected stereotype; Connie Britton as Ailes’ wife, Beth; and Mark Duplass as Kelly’s supportive husband. Mom’s Allison Janney plays a lawyer assigned the challenging job of defending Ailes, alongside Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind). Watch for Jennifer Morrison (from TV’s Once Upon a Time and This Is Us) as a Fox staffer trying to drum up support for their boss.

Theron almost completely disappears into her role as she makes the remarkable transformation into Kelly, the story’s central character, Fox’s then-rising superstar who’s conflicted about her feelings about Ailes—he’s a monster, but also her mentor. Kidman is outstanding as well as Carlson, the network’s long-time anchor and host whose controversial views have led to faltering ratings; how long can she hang on to her job? But Robbie, the real heart and soul of the whole film, gets the movie’s most pivotal scene; when she’s alone with Ailes in his office, he goes into full creep mode, and you watch the golden glow of her enthusiasm drain away from her body as he asks her to pull the hem of her skirt higher, higher and higher.

It’s that time of year, and there could be an Oscar in the wings for Theron or Robbie.

Director Jay Roach is best known for his comedies, including Meet the Parents and Dinner for Schmucks. But working from a script by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for his sharp, savvy screenplay for The Big Short, he’s crafted a powerful, punchy, driving, dynamite drama that chronicles a pivotal moment in modern history, when a group of women rallied and rose up—at major risk to their jobs and careers—lighting the way for the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements.

Ailes had warned his female anchors that their “likability” was the main thing that mattered to viewers. “I don’t care that you like me,” Carlson tells a pair of attorneys. “Only believe me.”

They did. We did. We do. Bombs away. Ka-boom.


Not So Funny

Adam Sandler proves he’s no goofball doofus in gritty character drama

U Gems 2 (72)

Uncut Gems
Starring Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel & Julia Fox
Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie
In select theaters Friday, Dec. 13; wide release Wed., Dec. 25, 2019

Think “Adam Sandler movie” and your mind probably goes to one of his memorable comedies, like Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Waterboy or Grown Ups. Those were some funny films, for sure.

But there’s nothing funny—certainly not that kind of funny—in his latest, a dark, gritty, almost grimy slice-of-life character-drama crime caper about a small-time New York City hustler looking to score his next big moneymaker.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the owner of an appointment-only jewelry showroom in the Big Apple’s teeming diamond district. And Howard’s life isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as it may sound. His shop is one of many, many places where people come to barter, banter, bark, pawn and fawn over precious gemstones, pricey wristwatches and glittery, bling-y bric-a-brac. It’s a buzzing beehive of buying, braying and selling.

But it’s not enough for Howard, a compulsive, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing gambler who’s dangerously deep in debt, when we meet him, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. How so? We don’t know exactly. The movie, delirious with its own crazy momentum and nervous energy, barely pauses for breath, and we never really find out.

Thugs confront him at his store, rough him up, warning him to pay up, or else. They grab him by his legs, dangle him out an open window, hundreds of feet above the street, threatening him with his life. Howard yaks his way out of the jam, tells them he’s got a plan. He doesn’t tell them, but it’s a massive black opal from the mines of Ethiopia, a “million-dollar” rock pulled from the bowels of the earth, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. When this potato-sized, uncut gem arrives, his ship will finally come in, it will be the bonanza of a lifetime, and it will make the world right.

He hopes.

Uncut Gems is the latest from the filmmaking Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, best known for their edgy, artsy, propulsive 2017 film-fest favorite Good Time, with Robert Pattinson, about a botched bank robbery and a twisted neon-lit overnight odyssey through the criminal underbelly of New York. This movie is also edgy, twisty and propulsive, with a din of people constantly yelling and selling, an ever-churning undertow of scheming that you can’t imagine possibly ending well and a throbbing, synth-heavy, ’80s-tinged soundtrack that keeps pushing tensions higher and higher. It’s like a crazy, illegal party that could get busted at any moment—if someone with a gun and a grudge doesn’t make something much worse happen even sooner.

There’s not much to like about Howard. He’s a disreputable businessman, and also a heedless adulterer who’s having a torrid affair with one of his employees (newcomer Julia Fox, making a fiery debut) under the resentful glare of his long-suffering wife (Broadway star Idina Menzel, many movie miles away from her soaring vocal work as the Frozen franchise’s Queen Elsa) and the disappointment of their two children.

Uncut Gems_Idina

Idina Menzel

But it’s impossible not to totally admire the gut-punch, in-your-face performance from Sandler, who finally smashes through the comedy ceiling of the stunted man-child schlub roles that have mostly defined his acting career. Festooned with gleaming white false choppers, a dyed El Diablo goatee, tinted wire-rim glassed and tiny diamond pierced earrings, he plays Howard as a puffed-out blowfish splashing around in an ocean ruled by ruthless, cutthroat sharks. Sandler dives deep, and he bites down hard—but Howard is also a schlub, and he’s a dangerous, desperately deluded one, an addict controlled by dark passions and desires, driven by money and greed, an omnivore whose driving hunger can only be sated by the next big score.

Will that score work out the way Howard wants it—the way he needs it?

The plot gets thick with characters and cameos. Fans of the 1970s TV series Taxi will enjoy seeing Judd Hirsch as Gooey, a member of Howard’s big, extended Jewish family. John Amos, who has more than 100 TV and movie credits, has a 10-second appearance as Howard’s next-door neighbor, where he’s noted for his starring role on the sitcom Good Times. Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) plays a customer “wrangler” for Howard’s shop, who becomes the middleman when a superstar basketball player (former NBA power forward Kevin Garnett, playing himself) covets Howard’s prized rock, believing it to be a talisman of good fortune on the court. Pop singer The Weeknd also appears as himself, causing a flareup of friction when he gets a bit too close to Howard’s workplace squeeze.

Uncut Gems isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s punchy, provocative and intentionally unsettling. Any movie that takes you along, as the camera goes deep inside a claustrophobic mining shaft, later just as deep into a character’s colon, then into the oozy opening of a bullet hole—well, you can certainly say it’s a wild, woozy ride.

But it’s one worth taking to watch Adam Sandler polish up a part to reveal there’s much more to him than being a genial, feel-good goofball—even in a movie that’s more slime than sunshine.