Category Archives: Movie Reviews

High Hopes & Hoop Dreams

Basketball drama gives Ben Affleck his most personal role yet

THE WAY BACK

The Way Back
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins & Janina Gavankar
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
R
In theaters Friday, March 6, 2020

In this hoop-dreams underdog tale, a washed-up former high-school basketball star comes back to his old alma mater to coach its ragtag team. Can he turn these losers into winners—and shake off the ghosts of his own troubled past?

OK, ok, ok—you’ve seen this movie before, right? But you really haven’t.

The Way Back sounds like a sports cliché. And it is, in a way that’s pretty unavoidable—especially for any movie that dares to step into the long shadow cast by the iconic Hoosiers (1986). But it’s actually structured around something else, a stirring human drama that transcends its basketball story.

Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, whom we meet on his dead-end construction job in Los Angeles. The first thing we learn about Jack is that he drinks—a lot. He sips during his lunch break. He pops a top in his pickup for the drive home. He gets hammered at a local back-alley pub with his buddies every night. He drinks in the shower as he scrubs off the grime of his job.

We learn that Jack’s sister (Michaela Watkins, who plays Delia on TV’s The Unicorn, and Ali on Get Shorty) is worried about him, his isolation and his excessive drinking; so is his ex-wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, from The Morning Show).

Then we learn what a hotshot basketball player Jack used to be, back in the 1990s, when he played for a local Catholic high school and took them all the way to the state championship. That’s why he gets a phone call from the parish priest (John Aylward—remember him as Dr. Donald Anspaugh from TV’s ER?) asking him to come back as coach when an emergency leaves the school in a lurch just days before their first game.

TORRANCEJack doesn’t really want to take the gig; he tries to talk himself out of it in half a dozen ways one evening before running out of excuses (and beer), then showing up, somewhat reluctantly, the next morning for the job. That sets the movie’s wheels in motion, and we meet the capable, likeable assistant coach (comedian/actor Al Madrigal), and the team’s chaplain, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin), who’s soon fighting a losing battle trying to reign in Jack’s salty language and his intensely competitive courtside behavior.

The team is a mixed bag, with barely just enough players to fill out the bench. Kenny (Will Ropp) is a smooth ladies’ man with the cheerleaders; the cocky Marcus (Melvin Gregg, from TV’s Snowfall) has chops, but an attitude that gets him in trouble; Brandon (Brandon Wilson) is held back by a situation at home that affects his performance on the court.

Where this is all headed won’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever watched any sports-themed movie. But again, this movie is about more than basketball. It’s about how Jack finds something—well, himself—on a journey that takes him back to a place where he started, which happens to be his old high school and its basketball court.

TORRANCE

Janina Gavankar plays Jack’s ex-wife, Angela.

Why does Jack drink? What dark, almost bottomless emotional hole is he trying to fill? Why did he and Angie divorce? Why did Jack turn down a lucrative, full-ride basketball scholarship, walking away from the game that he once loved?

You’ll find out, eventually. And what you find out will probably dig deeper, and pull harder, on your heartstrings than you’ll likely see coming.

Director Gavin O’Connor worked previously with Affleck for The Accountant (2016), and he found the tender soul of the gritty martial-arts brother-vs.-brother boxing drama Warrior (2011), with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. And he directed the rousing Miracle (2004), about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets. Here he has a feel not only for basketball—the scenes of high school games look raggedly authentic and genuine, instead of staged and overly dramatic—but also for the bigger, more personal, much more somber drama surrounding it. His early shots of Los Angeles depict a hazy, sprawling, faceless metroplex, which reflects the fog of Jack’s solitude and his booze-saturated apathy.

This is a very personal movie, as it turns out, for Affleck, who has been very forthcoming about his own struggles with alcohol and recovery over the past three years. He was in rehab, in fact, when the film was in pre-production. To say his performance feels authentic, honest, sometimes painful and lived-in is an understatement.

“We can’t change the past, Jack,” a counselor tells him. “What we can do is change how we move forward.”

The Way Back feels like an old-fashioned sports movie, a step back in a way, but also a step forward for a widely accomplished actor—who’s already won two Oscars, for directing (Argo), and screenwriting (Good Will Hunting)—with a statement about who he is, where he is now, and the kind of grownup, emotionally nuanced movies he’s interested in making.

It’s a movie that reminds us that life—like a basketball game—is almost always moving, sometimes very fast, that small decisions can often be the difference between losing and winning, and that little things matter greatly. Jack spurs his team—usually from behind—by telling them to keep up the pressure, that every little thing adds up, and to always be chipping away, chipping away.

“You worked hard to be here,” Jack tells the players at one point, just before a big game. “You earned this.” So has Ben Affleck, and it shows, perhaps in his most personal—and most personal-feeling—movie, and movie role, ever.

The #MeToo Monster

Elisabeth Moss Puts a Timely Gender Flip on Classic Bogeyman Tale

nullThe Invisible Man
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge & Storm Reid
Directed by Leigh Whannell
R
In theaters Feb. 28, 2020

Now you see him, now you don’t.

That’s how it is with The Invisible Man, a tale that’s been floating around for more than 120 years, ever since British novelist H.G. Wells originally published his sci-fi yarn about a scientist who figured out how to make himself “disappear.”

The invisible man from Wells’ novel reappeared, so to speak, in the classic 1933 “horror” movie and its 1940 sequel, and then numerous times over the decades in other film and TV adaptations. Kevin Bacon put a sinister twist on the see-through saga in the 2000 movie Hollow Man.

In director Leigh Whannell’s chilling new mind-bending update of The Invisible Man, a woman escapes from her abusive, perversely controlling boyfriend one dark and stormy night. But then she begins to be menaced by something she cannot see—and she’s convinced it’s his “invisible” presence.

But, wait now—everyone knows he just committed suicide just a couple of weeks ago, right? Right???

The woman is Cecilia, played by Elisabeth Moss in a powerful, gut-punch performance that reminds you why she received an Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale, provided such a pivotal role as Peggy Olson on the acclaimed Mad Men, and received raves for her edgy, elemental performances in films like That Smell, The Kitchen and The Square.

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Aldis Hodge

Hiding out in the house of a cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge, from TV’s Leverage), and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), the frightened Cecilia also reaches out to her estranged sister (Harriet Dryer) and tries to get on with her life. But odd, disturbing, spooky, creepy things keep happening. Things that rattle Cecilia, things that mess with her, hurt her, manipulate her—just like her boyfriend used to do.

Cecilia’s senses tell her that somehow, it’s still her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). “He’s not dead,” she says. “I just can’t see him.”

“Aid will haunt you if you let him,” James tries to reassure her. “Don’t let him.”

In a timely gender shift of how things typically focus in mad-scientist movies, Cecilia—not Adrian, the tech-billionaire founder of a groundbreaking optics company—is the cog at the very center of this one, the nexus of its story. And Moss makes you feel every flayed ounce of her frustration, brokenness and pain, especially when no one will believe that Adrian can still be stalking her, sight unseen.

After all, there’s an urn containing his ashes in the office of his loathsome lawyer brother (Michael Dorman).

It’s no spoiler to say that things go from bad to worse, as the “invisible man” makes Cecilia’s life unbearable, pushing her to the breaking point—and Whannell ratchets up the tension scene by scene, showing off the chops he fine-tuned collaborating with horror maestro James Wan on the Saw and Insidious franchises, and then directing Upgrade (2018), an under-appreciated, futuristic sci-fi action thriller.

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And I won’t reveal any of the straight-up shocker-surprises and twists, but there are a couple of doozies, especially as Cecelia learns she’s going to have to take matters into her own hands, and then does. It’s a monster movie for the #MeToo movement, a creep show about toxic masculinity and how abused women are often told they’re crazy—and to blame for their own scars, both inside and out. It’s a fine-tuned freak-out with a timely twist, gender-flipped in perfect synch and step with the real-world parade of women who are just now, finally, getting their day in court—and their vindication—with disgraced movie magnate Harvey Weinstein.

Pay close attention to everything you see on screen, because it all pays off in the end.

With a less-is-more filmmaking approach, director Whannell gets maximum jolt-age out of minimum effects, relying instead on the primal fear of the unknown—and the power of the unseen. There are some bust-up, knock-about fight scenes with the invisible assailant, including one in which he impressively dispatches an entire hall full of security guards.

James’ nickname for Cecelia is “C,” which sounds, of course, like “see.” It’s a subtle little inverted twist on what she can’t do—see what’s watching her, what’s tormenting her. And no one else can see it, either. And seeing, after all, is believing.

Cecelia and Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man make for a gripping golly-whopper psycho-thriller of a horror show, one in which a woman finally makes everyone else “see”—and believe—what’s she’s known, and felt and experienced, all along. Ain’t it the truth?

Hustles & Bustles

New version of Jane Austin classic is dizzily entertaining pre-Tinder rom-com 

E M M A .

Emma.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth & Johnny Flynn
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
PG
In theaters Friday, Feb. 21, 2020

A precocious young woman meddles in matchmaking, causing several romantic misadventures. Sound familiar?

It certainly should, especially if you’ve seen many movie rom-coms—or read any Jane Austen. The roots of this particular rom-com go back more than 200 years, to Austen’s social satire Emma, the last novel the British author published before her death in 1817.

Austin didn’t get much acclaim for her work during her lifetime, but her six main novels—including Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—have been part of the pop-cultural mainstream for decades. Emma, which went on to become one of her most popular books, has been adapted for TV miniseries and films half a dozen times since 1948.

This latest version stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the 20-year-old Emma, the indulged, beautiful, somewhat spoiled but good-hearted mistress of Hartfield manor, where she lives with her father, the perpetually perturbed Mr. Woodhouse (veteran British actor Bill Nighy), and a host of scurrying servants. As the movie opens, Emma is preparing for the wedding of her live-in governess, a romantic match-up she’s convinced she made happen.

E M M A .

Bill Nighy

As she and her father head to the church, Mr. Woodhouse cautions Emma about continuing to meddle in others’ romantic affairs. “You must not make matches,” he tells her, “or foretell things.”

Emma barely pays him any attention. “It’s a great amusement,” she says.

It’s certainly a great amusement to watch as Emma continues to meddle and muddle things for her friends and neighbors, and herself.

First-time feature director Autumn de Wilde—whose background is mostly in still photography and music video—certainly knows about the importance of visuals. The movie is a hyper-stylized, sumptuously watchable parade of vibrant colors, ornate excess and preening, extravagant fashions and customs of Britain’s Regency era, especially as it slices into the upper-class comedy of manners of Emma and her social circle. It also takes some of the pomp out of the pomp and circumstance of the times, showing characters emerging occasionally from behind stiff, starched collars, from underneath their fluffy, puffy gowns, out of skin-tight breeches and tailcoats, or in other private moments to reveal glimpses their true selves.

And in moments like that, you realize that some things about romance—and people in general—never change, whether it’s in England centuries ago, in America today, or anywhere, everywhere, at all levels of society.

E M M A .

Johnny Flynn

It’s terrific to see Taylor-Joy—best known for the horror flicks The Witch and Split—shine in a sunnier role where she’s not fighting for her life, terrified half to death or making an unholy pact with the devil. She’s surrounded by a tapestry of colorful supporting characters. Mia Goth is Harriett, a wide-eyed student at a local boarding school whom Emma befriends and mentors; Harriett adores Emma, soaks up her advice and views her as something of a goddess on a pedestal—quite literally, at one point. There’s the handsome heartthrob neighbor Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, who played young Albert Einstein on TV’s Genius) and the ever-elusive bachelor Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), due to inherit his aunt’s vast estate, perhaps sooner rather than later. Josh O’Connor (he was Prince Charles on The Crown) is the local pastor.

Miranda Hart plays blabbery Miss Bates, the town matron who can’t seem to stop talking, especially about her talented niece (Amber Anderson).

Who’ll hook up with whom in this 19th century English-countryside version of OKCupid, this pre-Tinder tale of bonnets, bustles, pretty boys, manors and maidens?

Like the novel on which it’s based, Emma. (styled, with a period at the end) intends to satirize—not particularly glamorize—its subjects and its time period, an era in which society and people were starkly divided into haves and have-nots, and one in which a young woman’s highest aspiration often was to find a well-off husband. It’s whimsical without being campy, witty but never wacky, fluffy instead of stuffy and romantic with just enough bite to leave a mark.

Perhaps the period in the title is meant to remind us that it is, after all, a period-piece—a fanciful film based on a story set in a specific time period, about characters who look, think and act the way they do because they’re products of that time and place. The characters in this movie certainly fit that description; they’re wealthy white “landed gentry,” most of whom don’t have to worry a bit about money. In that era, in that environment, it’s easy to see how Emma could turn out to be the way she is, become who she is.

“I’ve been unpardonably vain and insufferably arrogant,” she says at one point, after thoughtlessly wounding someone with a careless comment. Love can hurt, and the carriage ride to romance can be bumpy, leaving you shivering alone in the winter snow or slobbering in the summer sun with a bloody nose. Even good-intentioned matchmaking can sometimes make a real mess of things.

But it all works out—and gets sorted out, with laughter as well as tears—in the end. It has for years, across time and through all the other versions of Jane Austen’s well-worn tale, and it does once again in this delightfully snazzy, dizzily entertaining, snappy-looking period-piece rom-com.

Guns, Gangs & Ganja

Director Guy Ritchie returns with salty, swaggering British-bad-boys comedy crime caper

Toff_Guys_Day_24_173.ARW

Matthew McConaughey & Michelle Dockery star in ‘The Gentlemen.’

The Gentlemen
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery & Colin Farrell
Directed by Guy Ritchie
R
In theaters Jan. 24, 2020

Movie lovers who love gangster flicks will love this British-bad-boys action comedy caper from director Guy Ritchie, returning to the hyper-stylized, street-tough London criminal underworld that kicked off his movie career in Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

That was before Ritchie went on to direct such mainstream, family-friendly films as Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s live-action Disney reboot of Aladdin. He seems to be having a terrific time back on his old stomping grounds, stirring up a salty, swaggering tale of vice and villainy, predators and prey and the fine, shifting lines between gentlemen and gangstas, the thin membrane separating thugs and entrepreneurs.

And he’s working with an all-star cast that certainly looks like they’re having a ball, too. The need for weed drives the story, as a group of characters coalesce around suave Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat who planted the seeds for what would become his eventual marijuana empire when he was a college student at Oxford. Hugh Grant is Fletcher, a private-eye snoop trying to expose Pearson and his illegal operation for the editor of a sleazy tabloid (Eddie Marsan). An aggressively ambitious young enforcer (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians) for a Chinese drug lord, and a Jewish-American billionaire businessman (Succession’s Jeremy Strong), are competing—and maybe even conspiring—to buy him out.

You’ll probably recognize Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy (he also starred in Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). He gets a lot of screen time as Pearson’s right-hand-man, Raymond, because much of the story unfolds as a “dialogue” between Fletcher and Raymond as the tabloid flack pitches his entire story on the marijuana mogul, framing it as a possible movie—with flashbacks, subtitles, rewinds and suggestions on how it might end.

Michelle Dockery busts out of her buttoned-up, Downton Abbey period-piece properness to play Pearson’s wife, Rosalind, “the Cockney Cleopatra to Mickey’s cowboy Caesar,” as Fletcher puts it. She’s as sharp as her stiletto heels—and just watch how she can turn a desktop “paperweight” into a lethal weapon.

Gentleman 1 (72)

Henry Golding, Charlie Hunnam, McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Dockery & Hugh Grant

And Colin Farrell rips things into a completely new comedic gear as a dapper, fashion-plate bulldog of a boxing coach who enters Pearson’s orbit to pay off a debt incurred by some of his unruly gym students. And psssst: Don’t ever try to pull a knife on him!

There’s a swirl of menacing Russian oligarchs, slum junkies, street gangs, sexy car mechanics and fight-porn rappers. There are bullets, blood spatters, big guns, little guns and bestiality blackmail (don’t worry, you don’t see it). If you haven’t already figured it out, this movie’s not for kids.

But it’s actually a lot of fun. Ritchie, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly working in his element and back in his groove, back in “the filth and the grime and the grub in the tub,” as Raymond notes, setting up one particularly grimy, grubby scene that ends up having all the touchstones of a classic Guy Ritchie flick—terse, loaded conversation, explosive action, dark humor, a ripping street chase and gunfire.

The dialogue zings, the action pops; it’s zany and stylish and quick-witted, and often brazenly, gleefully profane and audaciously off-color. If you take out all the, ahem, c-words—which British slang employs quite broadly as terms of disparagement—the movie would probably be about 45 minutes shorter.

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Farrell and Hunnam take a look in the trunk.

And it’s sorta Tarentino-esque, especially in the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, the flashbacks and the cinephile-like salutes to other movies, including a nod to the trunk-POV scenes from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, mentions of Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather (and his 1974 conspiracy thriller, The Conversation), and even a passing shot of the movie poster of Ritchie’s own The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This is another movie for people who love movies—especially a certain kind of movie.

And this is that kind of movie, a gritty, gonzo gangster-flick parable about alpha dogs, lions, silverback gorillas and law of the jungle on the mean streets of London, where it’s high times for lowlifes, and “gentlemen” can be a relative term.

Based on how The Gentlemen wraps up, looks like a sequel might be possible. Count me in. I wouldn’t want to live there, but Guy Ritchie’s riotously raw ganja-gangland fantasy world sure is a great-escape movie getaway.

Bad Boys to Men

Will Smith & Martin Lawrence reunite and reignite buddy-cop action franchise 

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith,

Bad Boys for Life
Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

Directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilali Fallah
R
In theaters Jan. 17, 2020

Will Smith, you’re making us feel old.

First, in last year’s Gemini Man, his previous movie, he confronted a younger version of himself, a clone who outruns him, outguns him, outthinks him and generally reminds him just how many less miles than him he’s got on the odometer.

Now, in this sequel to a sequel—for which Smith also serves as one of the producers—the specter of advancing years again comes into play.

The Fresh Prince, after all, is now 51 years old.

In Bad Boys for Life, which comes 25 years after the original Bad Boys (1995) and 17 years after its follow-up, Bad Boys II, Smith reteams with Martin Lawrence as an inseparable Miami buddy-cop duo whose glory days—as well as their teamwork—may finally be at an end. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is a new grandfather, counting the days to his retirement with his family. Lone-wolf Mike Lowrey (Smith) has been reassigned to a new high-tech AMMO division, a “young guns” group of millennials with whom he has little in common.

Over drinks celebrating his imminent retirement, Burnett asks Lowrey why he doesn’t think about settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work. “Mike, we’ve got more time behind us than in front,” Burnett says.

But settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work wouldn’t make for much of a movie, would it?

What would make for a movie is a ruthless young Mexican cartel mob boss (Jacob Scipio) suddenly springing into action with a bloody revenge plan that leads back to something Lowrey did years ago. Frenetic car chases, a sniper who never seems to miss, a south-of-the-border sorceress, a long-ago secret, and enough ballistic, bombastic boom-boom to shake the salt off your popcorn—now that makes a movie. Just let yourself go and let the bullets flow.

Photographer Select, Will Smith,

At least it makes this movie, a high-spirited, action-packed blowout reunion that plays to the comedic strengths of its two marquee stars while giving them plenty of room to roam, lots of things to blast or blow up and a flowing stream of bickering-buddy humor. Michael Bay, the big-budget, blockbuster director (Armageddon, the Transformers series) who steered the first two Bad Boys flicks, did not return for this one, and Belgian filmmaking collaborators Adil El Arbi and Bilali Fallah try hard to please.

But their technique often feels all over the place; they love both super slo-mo and frenetic, high-speed time-lapses. The story unfolds in a herky-jerky mix of melodrama and mirth; it’s a movie melding sitcom silliness, overwrought Spanish telenovela excess and prime-time TV-procedural connect-the-dots. And the way the camera never seems to stop moving, even in extreme closeups, made me feel like I was always free-floating through every scene, like a teeny observer in a miniature Bad Boys hot-air balloon.

Charles Melton, Photographer Select, Vanessa Hudgens, Will Smith,

Smith with Charles Melton & Vanessa Hudgens

Veteran actor Joe Pantoliano reprises his role from previous Bad Boys as harried Capt. Howard, and younger audiences will enjoy seeing a couple of familiar faces (Vanessa Hudgens, and Charles Melton, who stars as Reggie on TV’s Riverdale) in the mix. Hulking Alexander Ludwing, from Vikings, seems to have fun, playing a decidedly non-Viking role as a mild-mannered hacker.

Let’s be real, though. Nothing else really matters about this movie other than the comeback of its two stars—who, in their two previous Bad Boys pairings, helped push its franchise past the $400-million mark. Smith, once one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, and Lawrence, a standup comedian who—like Smith—successfully made the leap to TV and then movies, have undeniable chemistry and for-real movie mojo. Their banter is loose, lively and juicy with quippy, R-rated digs, disses and jive that audiences will love.

Everything tends to loosen when they’re apart, but it tightens and brightens whenever they’re together, especially when they’re roaring down streets, careening around curves or ripping up the asphalt in Lowrey’s 992-Generation Porshe, a motorcycle and sidecar or any other vehicle that’s handy. One particularly funny conversation happens in an airplane.

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Photographer Select,And this movie has heart, especially as Lowrey and Burnett reaffirm their bond of Bad Boys brotherhood, the movie’s larger theme of family expands to something wider than you might at first imagine, and Burnett grapples—in a way that’s ultimately played for laughs—with a spiritual issue.

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” That’s the tag to the song by the Jamaican reggae band Inner Circle, which became the theme to the movie franchise. You’ll hear it several times in this film.

And you’ll probably hear it in the next movie, Bad Boys 4, currently in the planning stages.

The “boys” of Bad Boys may be full-grown men now, but whatcha gonna do? You’re gonna want to see what high-octane hijinks Smith and Lawrence are up to this time, and probably the next time, too.

Cosmetic Comedy

Tiffany Haddish & Rose Bryne find the funny in off-color makeup romp

LIKE A BOSS

Like a Boss 
Starring Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne & Salma Hayek
Directed by Miguel Artela
R
In theaters Jan. 10, 2020

Two lifelong-bestie business partners find their friendship as well as their enterprise tested in the ribald and rollicking chick-flick comedy Like a Boss.

Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as Mia and Mel, two friends since kindergarten who’ve grown up to take their love of makeup from a hobby to a business. But now their storefront cosmetics shop is in major financial trouble, almost half a million dollars in the hole. Good thing a local beauty mogul, Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), wants to come to their rescue, pay off their debt and buy controlling interest in their company, right?

Hold on to your eyeliner—not so fast.

Not so fast, because this movie has to get where it’s going—and it has to touch all the bases, including stopovers for scenes of sisterhood solidarity; a steady, raunchy river of R-rated zingers; a cast of buffoonish supporting characters; and comedic interludes about an infant child inhaling smoke from a doobie, men being repeatedly stuck in their privates and a product inspired by copulating dogs.

That’s not to say it’s not sometimes very funny. Haddish is a live wire who’s quickly proving there’s almost nothing she can’t do—TV spots for Groupon, yukkin’ it up with youngsters hosting ABC’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, spewing raw hilarity on her Netflix comedy specials, and commanding just about whatever role she gets whenever she steps in front of a movie camera.

And Byrne, the Aussie actress from Bridesmaids, Spy and Neighbors, is more refined, but just as valuable in finding the funny. Often seen in second-banana roles, it’s great to watch her here, playing a character who gets to expand beyond the sidelines.

Director Miguel Artela is no slouch. His filmmaking resume dates back to the 1990s, and includes The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day and Cedar Rapids, an underrated 2011 gem starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver. Like a Boss has a certain sass, spark and spunky, feisty, grrrl-power vibe, but never quite rises out of a predictable, formulaic comedy zone and feels like it might have been written with the broad strokes of a mascara brush and highlighted in lipstick.

LIKE A BOSS

Billy Porter

It’s definitely meant for a girls’-night-out kind of audience; the testosterone content can be measured by the teaspoon. Broadway performer/singer/actor Billy Porter (from TV’s Pose and American Horror Story) hams it up as Mel and Mia’s gay assistant; Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley) and Ryan Hansen (he was Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars, and Andy on 2 Broke Girls) play a duo of snarky cosmetics developers also hoping for Claire Luna’s sponsorship.

LIKE A BOSS

Salma Hayek

Hayek, the Mexican-American actress who became known in Hollywood in such movies as From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado and Frida (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), plays Luna as a walking, talking cartoon, a florescent gust of orange hair, gravity-defying breasts and blindingly white teeth.

Brandishing a golden golf club as a further power affectation, she tells Mia and Mel that they need to be “fiercst,” adding a “t” sound to the word in a nonsensical mangling that becomes a running joke.

Will Haddish’s Mia, who wants to earn some big bucks and live large, get the big payoff? Will Byrne’s Mel, who has for years so carefully watched the company’s bottom line, figure out a way to still come out on top? Will that bunch of hot peppers Mia accidentally eats become a barf bit—and then a diarrhea gag? Is there a surprise appearance by an instantly recognizable actress from an iconic ’90s sitcom? Will a rockin’ version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” bring it all home?

No spoilers from me.

Like a Boss isn’t great, and sometimes isn’t even very good, but like a lot of movies in January, it suffers by comparison—to all the big, Oscar-bait films that just got unloaded into theaters in November and December. It’s like when Mel and Mia tell Claire that she doesn’t have to “worry her pretty little head” about them, and Claire replies, “Oh, my head isn’t little—it’s just that my breasts are humongous.” It’s all in the comparison, and the proximity. This little cosmetics comedy caper is no Little Women, no Bombshell, and it certainly won’t end up on anyone’s awards list for this year.

But if you and your girlfriends want some straight-up, grownup laughs with a couple of “badass babes” who get “fiercst” with a makeup-mogul takeover queen, Like a Boss can add some (off) color to your winter blues.

The Great War (Movie)

Gripping WWI drama is also a masterwork of moviemaking

Film Title: 1917

1917
Starring George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman
Directed by Sam Mendes
R
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.

Me-Ouch!

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

Film Title: Cats

Taylor Swift appears in ‘Cats.’

Cats
Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Robbie Fairchild, James Corden, Rebel Wilson & Jennifer Hudson
Directed by Tom Hooper
PG
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
PG
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!

Ka-Boom!

Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

LD_D21_04710.dngBombshell
Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman & Margot Robbie
Directed by Jay Roach
R
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.

Ka-boom!

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.

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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.