Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Mind Games

Taraji P. Henson gets inside guys’ noggins, but there’s not much there

WHAT MEN WANT

What Men Want
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Richard Roundtree & Tracy Morgan
Directed by Adam Shankman
R

It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world, according to James Brown’s hit single from 1967.

And that still rings all too true for Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, the star of TV’s Empire), a go-get-’em sports agent for an elite corporation repping the upper crust of NFL, NBA and MLB superstars. But Ali’s gone about as far as she can go within the ranks of the male-dominated, bro-centric culture of her company.

She can take the off-color humor, the “locker-room talk” and the constant stream of chest-puffed, testosterone-fueled camaraderie. But when she’s passed over—again—for a promotion to full partnership, she blows a gasket.

“How am I supposed to fight a system that’s rigged against me?” she rails to her father (Richard Roundtree), a boxing coach. Roundtree knows a thing or two about fighting a rigged system. As the prototypical black detective in Shaft, back in 1971, he fought the system, the Man, the black mob and the white mob to find a crime lord’s kidnapped daughter.

But Ali finds her answer at a bachelorette party, where she drinks a fortune teller’s funky tea, then falls and bonks her head. When she wakes up, she discovers she can hear men’s thoughts. At first, it totally freaks her out. But then she realizes she can use her new “gift” to get inside guys’ noggins to get a real leg up on her competition at work—particularly to woo aboard a new young basketball hotshot (Shane Paul McGhie) and his helicopter dad (Tracy Morgan).

Director Adam Shankman, whose previous films include the musicals Hairspray and Rock of Ages, plus the comedies The Pacifier with Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories, pours on the yuks. But he doesn’t seem to have much of a feel about how to make this raunchy comedy about workplace inequality much more than a broad, lazy swipe at an easy, timely target.

The f-bombs fly. There are jokes about gays, Christians, farts, various styles of sex and all kinds of body parts. In a movie like this, when you hear “nuts,” you can assume it’s not a reference to Super Bowl munchies. There are inflated phalluses, phallus necklaces, a bong shaped like a phallus. We get it: Ali is “surrounded” by phalluses. When she “accidentally” calls her boss “Dick” instead of his real name, Nick, it’s supposed to be really funny.

The movie, a gender flip on the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, presents almost everything as a punchline. But if a human resources director could hear the “thoughts” Ali hears when she walks through a thicket of her male coworkers—well, it would probably be more “actionable” than laughable.

WHAT MEN WANT

Shaquille O’Neal

There are sports figures peppered throughout. Former Seattle Seahawks star Brian Bosworth plays Nick; there’s a high-stakes poker game with NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, former NCAA All Pro player Grant Hill, Minnesota Timberwolves player Karl-Anthony Towns and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

A subplot involves Ali’s gaggle of girlfriends (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lisa Leslie, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones) and how her ability to hear the thoughts of their husbands and boyfriends isn’t always such a good thing. A wedding scene becomes a raucous free-for-all when Ali decides she can no longer hold in the truth about the men in the wedding party.

WHAT MEN WANT

Pete Davidson

Singer Erykah Badu hams it up as the kooky shaman who cooks up the concoction that expands Ali’s mind, and you’ll see a host of other familiar faces—most notably Josh Brener from HBO’s Silicon Valley as Ali’s swishy man Friday, Brandon; Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson; Max Greenfield of New Girl; The Detour’s Jason Jones; and Kellan Lutz, best known as Emmet from the Twilight movie series, as a hunky-hot neighbor.

What do men want? “To get paid and get laid,” says Ali. Seems like she’s after the same thing, especially when she’s in the hay doing the wild thing with Will (Aldis Hodge, who starred on TV’s Leverage). But maybe she wants something more, like a serious relationship, and perhaps a family…

Ali’s widower father, we find out, wanted a son, instead of a daughter. And he named her Ali after his favorite fighter, Mohammed Ali. We see a photo of the legendary prizefighter in the very first shot of the film, behind Ali as she’s working out on a treadmill, barking orders into her cellphone, swatting down text messages, sweating up a storm.

We get it: She’s a fighter.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—that’s what Muhammad Ali said. Too bad this featherweight movie, too focused on easy, cheap laughs, is only content to float above the serious issues, at a very serious time. It skirts toxic workplace environments, racism, sexism, and wage discrimination and bias without ever sinking a flag into a solid statement about any of them.

Muhammad Ali knew you could dance around, but you had to land the punch, especially the big one. What Men Want has no such sting.

In theaters Feb. 8, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Pieces

M. Night Shyamalan’s star-packed superhero saga is more letdown than showdown

Film Title: Glass

Glass
Starring Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson & Sarah Paulson
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG-13

What if comic book superheroes are real?

That’s the question director M. Night Shyamalan poses in Glass, which brings together characters from two of his previous movies.

Bruce Willis is David Dunn from Unbreakable (2000), the lone survivor of a train crash who emerged virtually indestructible and with the ability to see bad guys’ hidden evil deeds. James McAvoy starred in the horror-thriller Split (2016) as the psycho Kevin Crumb, whose “horde” of multiple personalities included the murderous, feral-like Beast.

And the movie takes its title from the character of wheelchair-bound Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), whose brittle bones break, like glass, with the slightest pressure.

If you’re a fan of Shyamalan movies, you’ll likely know how all these characters connect. You’ll know that, and know why, Price caused the wreck of the train on which Dunn was traveling. You’ll remember that McAvoy’s character(s) in Split kidnapped three girls, killing and partially devouring two of them. And you’ll understand why Dunn—now a hooded vigilante dishing out justice to street thugs—wants to find Crumb before he can harm any more young women.

Glass gets off to a rousing start but stalls when the drama settles in at the psych ward of a Philadelphia mental hospital, where Dunn and Crumb are brought when they’re apprehended. Guess who’s already there? That’s right, Mr. Brittle Bones himself.

“First name: Mister, last name: Glass,” Price later says. Well, excuse me.

Film Title: Glass

Sarah Paulson

At the hospital, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) tries to convince all three men that they are suffering from a very specific mental disorder. “I specialize in a particular kind of delusion of grandeur,” she says. “Individuals who believe they are superheroes.”

The core of the film is a long, windy counter-argument for superheroes, comic books and how gods have always walked among us. Of course, Dr. Staple tries to shatter and smother this idea, particularly in the movie’s centerpiece, a gaudy “group therapy” session with all three characters lined up in a pink room. She dismisses Price as crazy but brilliant, Crumb as an anarchist with dissociative identity disorder, and Dunn as “the reluctant hero.”

“She even has explanations for Dunn’s super-strength and his second-sight mental abilities, and how Crumb’s “Beast” can climb vertical walls and not be harmed by shotgun blasts. She hasn’t got Price quite figured out yet; he’s kept so heavily sedated and confined to his wheelchair, no one knows what’s going on inside his head, behind his blank stare. Is he totally out of it, or just biding his time, waiting until he can hatch a mastermind plan?

What do you think?

Film Title: Glass

Ana Taylor-Joy with McAvoy

Anya Taylor-Joy, whose character was the only one of the girls who didn’t get killed and cannibalized in Split, returns to help Dr. Staple. As a sexually abused child, she can connect with the adolescent trauma—the “brokenness”—that caused Kevin Crumb to split into a multitude of some two dozen distinct personalities, many of which come out to “play” in the course of the movie.

Glass is Shyamalan’s Avengers, his Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, his ultimate, geeky intersection of comic book culture, superhero backstories and pop mythology. It all builds to a showdown, but it’s more of a letdown—a shoving, heaving smashing-bashing match on a lawn that, well, dents a cargo van, pins a SWAT cop underneath his shield and busts a portable water tank. Yawn.

Shyamalan, whose other films include The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs and The Visit, obviously knows how to make a solid movie, and this one certainly has some nice touches. He’s still a master of ratcheting up the tension and scaring you more by showing you less. The atmospheric soundtrack, which sometimes sounds like an animal screeching or growling, adds to a building sense of dread.

Film Title: GlassAnd I loved a quick shot of a magazine cover about the world’s tallest new building, which becomes a plot point. The headline reads, “A True Marvel,” a nod to the name of the iconic comic-book company that gave the world Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, Thor and dozens of other famous superheroes and villains.

But this Glass is only half full, a tumbler stocked with misfit characters, capable actors and innovative ideas, but lacking the juice and seasoning to make a blockbuster cocktail. The pacing is often dull, the dialog is hopelessly clunky, and fans waiting for Shyamalan’s “gotcha” twist ending—his trademark—will likely come away feeling a bit underserved, if not cheated.

“If superheroes exist, why are there only three of you?” Dr. Staple asks her three patients. Glass asks us to consider if there are more. Hollywood certainly has an answer—Captain Marvel opens March 8, Shazam! and the next Avengers arrive in April, and there’ll be a new X-Men adventure in June.

Looks like Dr. Staple could have her hands full.

In theaters Jan. 18, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

Con Job

The chemistry of Hart & Cranston can’t warm up the sentimental sap of this predictable, recycled comedy

the upside 6 (72)
Starring Bryan Cranston & Kevin Hart
Directed by Neil Burger
PG-13

What do the Statue of Liberty, croissants and Kevin Hart’s new movie have in common? They all came from France.

The Upside, a remake of a hit 2011 French film, stars Bryan Cranston as Phillip, a rich white paraplegic, immobilized from the neck down, who hires black ex-con Dell (Hart) as his personal caretaker, or “life auxiliary.”

“White people got a name for anything,” says Dell, who thinks he’s being interviewed for a janitorial position when he shows up at Phillip’s luxury Manhattan penthouse apartment. Much to his surprise, as completely unqualified as he is, Dell lucks into the job.

THE UPSIDEThere’s not a lot of other surprises in The Upside, however, which follows a pretty standard Hollywood buddy-movie template and clicks off many character stereotypes with which audiences are very familiar. Phil is white, successful, super-rich, buttoned-up and bitter. Street-smart Dell is a quippy, zippy, quick-witted sprite from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum.

They’ve both got problems and issues and holes in their souls. But guess what? They help each other fill them, at least superficially. Phil introduces Dell to kumquats and opera, gives him some hefty paychecks and lets him drive his garage full of sweet sports cars; Dell turns Phil on to weed, buys him a hooker (!) and introduces him to the soul-sister grooves of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Nicole Kidman plays Phil’s Harvard-educated business manager, Yvonne, whose long-sublimated affection for her boss remains at a low simmer for most of the film. Dell’s ex (Aja Naomi King, who plays Michaela Pratt on How to Get Away With Murder) has given up on him and his missing child-support payments. Julianna Margulies (star of TV’s Dietland and The Good Wife) has one scene as the mystery woman Phil decides to meet in person after a long courtship by mail.

the upside 7

Nicole Kidman

It’s no coincidence that a subplot revolves around a rare copy of the book Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s classic 1885 tale, about a runaway slave and his young traveling companion floating away to freedom down the Mississippi River, is today heralded as a scathing confrontation of American racism and slavery.

The Upside doesn’t come near any issues like that, but it certainly suggests that it’s built on same foundation—one in which a white businessman, such as Phil, can build a towering financial empire, but a black man, like Dell, can’t get out of the projects (or break the cycle of crime and prison) unless he’s rescued…by someone like Phil.

The movie is much more interested in the low-hanging fruit of easy jokes and the quick splash of sappy sentiment. Dell thrashes and squawks as a high-tech, computerized shower in Phil’s apartment blasts him with gushing jets of water and talks to him in German. Phil drools to fake an epileptic fit to get Dell out of speeding ticket. A scene in which Dell tries to get the all-business Yvonne to laugh seems tailor-made for Hart to cut loose on his comedy skills.

Another scene, in which Dell has to change Phil’s catheter, is played strictly for laughs at Dell’s unease. It’s all routine for Phil, but for Dell, it’s extremely uncomfortable—to not only pull down another man’s pants and touch his private parts, but to even say the word “penis.” The scene is uncomfortable for other reasons—because of Hart being back in the news recently about his homophobic tweets and comments and how he wasn’t going to host the Academy Awards, after all.

THE UPSIDE

Hart, of course, is best known for his laugh-out-loud roles in ribald comedies including Ride Along, Night School, Get Hard and The Wedding Ringer. He provides plenty of laughs in The Upside, but the movie also shows he can hold his own in something other than a wall-to-wall yuk-fest. It would be interesting to see him in a straight-out drama.

Cranston, the former TV star of Breaking Bad, has done a variety of later movie work, but this had to be one of his most challenging parts. For a character who can only work the screen with his face, and his voice, he holds his own with Hart, who splays all over the place. They make a good yin and yang.

Good, but not quite great. The Upside offers a pleasant, warm thaw from the January cold. But it can’t quite overcome the downside of stereotyping, clichés and an overlay of hokey, jokey sap that coats it in a veneer of gloppy, predictable Hollywood goo.

At least it ends on an up note—a soaring tune by Aretha Franklin. “The Queen,” notes Dell, “makes everything better.”

As they say in France, Oui, indeed.

In theaters Jan. 11, 2019

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.

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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

Hit the Road

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

GB_poster (72)

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

Ready for a road trip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Nov. 21, 2018

Green Machine

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

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

Directed by Scott Mosier & Yarrow Cheney
PG

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Friday, Nov. 9, 2018

Disney Dud

New ‘Nutcracker’ is an Overcooked Christmas-Movie Meatloaf

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

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

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

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

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

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

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Mackenzie Foy

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

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

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

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Morgan Freeman

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

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Misty Copeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he’s no nutcracker.

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

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

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

Rock Show

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

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

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

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

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

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Malek with Gwilyn Lee as Queen bandmate Brian May.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018