Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Loud & Clear

All-star cast presents a searing drama about a homespun #MeToo movement

Women Talking
Starring Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy & Ben Whitshaw
Directed by Sarah Polley
Rated PG-13

In theaters Friday, Jan. 6, 2023

An all-star ensemble cast tackles a thorny subject in director Sarah Polley’s powerful presentation of a 2018 novel about the traumatic aftermath of horrific sexual abuse. 

The book was based on actual events that happened in Bolivia, when men in an ultraconservative religious community were arrested and eventually imprisoned for raping women and young girls after drugging them with animal tranquilizers. The film imports the story to America, as a small group of the victimized women—Mennonites in the book, but not noted in the film—meet in a barn during a tense two-day period to decide their fateful course of action for when the men return, out on bail.

There are indelibly potent performances by Roonie Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and others as the besieged women huddling on haybales to debate faith, forgiveness, justice, morality and mortality, and craft their dreams for a better future. Suffering for years under the heels of a repressive patriarchy that has kept them apart from the “civilized” world and denied them access to education and technology, the women are barely literate. But, with the clock ticking and their attackers returning, they realize the importance of choosing one of the three options before them—staying and resisting, leaving forever, or simply doing nothing.

Ben Whitshaw plays a mild-mannered, college-educated Mennonite who has returned to the colony as a schoolteacher; he’s the only male the women trust, and he’s been asked to take the minutes of the meetings, to create a record. Significantly, he’s the only adult male in the movie that we ever fully see, or whose voice we hear—the lone sympathetic soul in a seemingly soulless place where the other males are either faceless sexual predators, abusive beasts, or enablers of a male-dominated culture that has fostered such toxic, repressive masculinity.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in ‘Women Talking.’

The discussions are fraught with weighty consequences. In this authoritarian religious microcosm, male leaders have told the women that the horrors they’ve experienced are only the fertile stuff of dreams and nightmares, the results of the hyper-active female imagination—and those pregnancies, well, they’re the work of ghosts, or even Satan. And if they ever, for whatever reason, deign to leave the colony, women will forever forfeit their ticket to all heavenly afterlife rewards.

It’s stylish and solidly theatrical, intimately small and intently focused in both scope and setting; it’s filmed in muted, monochromatic colors to underline the somber overtones and the seriousness of the situation. These are women at a breaking point, pushed to life-altering choices about what to do with their lives, how to move forward to ensure the safety of their daughters. As they grapple with the details of their homespun #MeToo movement to move out from underneath a gaslight toward true light, viewers are compelled to consider the wider, larger real-world connections—to women everywhere, anywhere, anytime, who bravely confront injustice and abuse.

Although there’s little action, in a conventional movie sense, there’s plenty of drama as the women do what the title suggests: They talk. They also sing hymns, quote Scripture, shout, and sometimes laugh—and let fly an f-word or two. A familiar Monkees hit, blaring from a car, is a bittersweet intrusion of the “forbidden” outside real world popping—for just a moment—their insular little bubble. There’s even a shoutout to gender fluidity, represented by a young female character who decides—after her rape and miscarriage—that she simply doesn’t want to be a girl anymore.  

It’s not Top Gun or Avatar, by any stretch. Nothing blows up, no one gets shot, and the only high-velocity moment is when a horse-drawn buggy veers off into a field. But Women Talking is explosive in other ways, including how it presents a group of women facing choices that could very well blow up the only world they’ve ever known. As the rest of America is being “counted,” against the film’s backdrop of the 2010 national census, these women are also making their presence known.

A late entry as a contender for one of the year’s best movies, it’s a monumentally consequential, timelessly important film. How important? Frances McDormand (who has a small role as one of the women) and Brad Pitt (who doesn’t) are among the producers, believing in the film enough to put their movie muscles into it.

It quietly, vividly, simply and surely sears its way into your soul, a bold, thought-provoking testament to the revolutionary power that can start with women talking, then mapping the way for themselves and future generations to navigate the world.  

Party On! ‘Babylon’ Movie Review

Margot Robbie cuts loose in spectacularly profane ode to Old Hollywood debauchery

Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart & Diego Calva
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Rated R

See it: In theaters Friday, Dec. 23

A sweeping, swaggering, spectacularly saucy salute to old Hollywood, Damien Chazelle’s new Oscar-bait period-piece epic spins a sprawling, gloriously seedy tale about the deep-dish decadence of a bygone era.

Drugs? For sure. Sexual kink? Plenty of that! Excessive nudity? Oh, yeah. Hard-partying depravity? Check.

This big, boisterously sleazy ode to Hollywood’s baser instincts of yore clocks clocks in at just more than three hours, spanning several years in the intertwined lives of its ensemble of characters, from the late 1920s into the early ‘50s. Among other, more salacious things, it’s a looking glass into the moviemaking machinery and the process of those “golden years,” from suffocatingly hot studio soundstage sets to chaotic, wide-open on-location spectacles, with hundreds of extras running into (and over) each other and multiple movies filming at once, racing the setting sun before the productions run out of light.

Brad Pitt

The all-star cast is anchored by Margot Robbie, and you can expect her name in the conversation as a Best Actress contender. She’s the “face” of the movie as Nellie LeRoy, an aggressively eager starlet, hungry to climb up the Hollywood food chain. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a dashing former superstar watching his leading-man legend fade as movies transition from silent films to “talkies.” Diego Calva played a drug lord in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, and here he makes his movie-mainstream debut as Manny Torres, a lowly Mexico-born film assistant working his unlikely way to becoming a big-shot studio exec. Jean Smart of Hacks is a Hollywood hack, the been-there-seen-that gossip columnist who watches it all from the sidelines.

Jean Smart

Hey, look! There’s Tobey Maguire (he was Spider-Man!), Lukas Haas (the grownup kid from Witness!), Olivia Wilde (she directed Don’t Worry Darling and Booksmart!), Katherine Waterson (her dad is Law & Order star Sam Waterson!), Eric Roberts (Julia’s brother!), and Flea (the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers!). A jazz trumpet player (Jordan Adepo) and a lesbian torch singer (Li Jun Li) are also along for the boisterous, bumpy ride through crazytown.

This outrageously excessive, cocaine-fueled romp depicts a time when Hollywood was itself outrageously excessive, often living up (and down) to its hedonistic reputation—and its nickname, lifted from the ancient cradle of civilization that became Biblical shorthand for evil and immorality. You get a good idea about the why the movie is called Babylon in the Fellini-esque bacchanalia buffet of rampant debauchery that opens the film, half an hour before the movie’s title even appears onscreen. 

Director Chazelle made his mark with the Oscar-winning Whiplash and his smash 2016 musical, La La Land. That movie, too, was set in Hollywood, but it seems like a soft, gentle breeze of a lullaby compared to the roaring hurricane of tawdry behavior in Babylon, which depicts a Hollywood gone wild, yet to be reined in by a “morality code” or restricted with movie ratings. If you think Charlie Sheen was a baaad boy and Lindsey Lohan the poster child for wasted excess, well, they can’t hold a candle to this.

It’s not a true story, but it is true-ish, and characters are amalgams of certain Hollywood screen idols of yesteryear—Pitt’s character represents a cross between the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the seductive, big-screen suavity of Clark Gable. Robbie’s Nellie LeRoy follows the career trajectory of Clara Bow, a former Brooklyn flapper who became one of filmdom’s first “sex symbols” in the Twenties—and whose abrasively nonconformist lifestyle didn’t exactly help Hollywood transcend the widespread perception of movies as cheap, disposable “low art.”

Margot Robbie

Bawdy, extravagant, explosively vulgar and sometimes salaciously savory—it’s all that and more, and you’ll probably not see another movie this holiday season with explosive pachyderm diarrhea, phallic-shaped pogo sticks, a subterranean lair full of freaks and geeks, and a conversation discussing the, ahem, dimensions of Charlie Chaplin’s manhood. And Margot Robbie fights a rattlesnake. Yes, Margot Robbie fights a rattlesnake.

But it’s also funny, sad, sometimes quite poignant, and heart-achingly human, depicting a place of towering artifice teetering on a foundation of vanity and fever dreams, on the cusp and the cutting edge of sweeping innovation and change, with characters watching their own fortunes rise and fall along the wayside. The end sequence, which takes place (fittingly enough) inside a movie theater, is a dazzling, almost hallucinatory salute to the durability of film, the magic of an art form that will ultimately outlast the lives of all who ever work in, on or for it.

Fame and fortune can swell and soar, as did the Tower of Babel in the ancient city of Babylon—before it all came crashing down. Nothing lasts forever. And like the resplendently tawdry, off-the-rails Hollywood depicted in Babylon, every party comes to an end, one way or another…no matter how many drugs or how much booze, how many naked starlets, trumpeting elephants or hissing vipers.

Big Blue Blockbuster

How much movie can $350 million buy you? See the new ‘Avatar’ and you’ll see

Avatar: The Way of Water
Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana & Stephen Lang
Directed by James Cameron

See it: In theaters Friday, Dec. 16

Thirteen years after the sensation that was the original Avatar (2009), director James Cameron returns to the fantastical world of Pandora, the far-out celestial home of the peaceful blue-hued humanoid creatures known as the Na’vi. They’re about 10 feet tall, towering over mere humans, but still small fries compared to the all-out epic-ness of this mega-movie spectacle that cries out for the biggest screen possible. It’s a towering cinematic achievement of visceral emotion, slam-bang action and jaw-dropping special effects that show just how far a budget of some $350 million can stretch.

All the money is “showing” in this 3-D saga that moves the story from the lush primordial floating forests of the first film to a more “tropical” island setting, where a group of green-skinned Na’vi have evolved to live for extended periods underwater. (Their tails are thicker, for steering as they swim, and their skins adorned with what look like Mãori tattoos, a distinctively Polynesian touch.) It all looks amazing, richly detailed, hyper tactile and mesmerizingly real, even though you know what you’re seeing is enhanced hi-tech fakery—CGI, created from extensive motion-capture performances by the actors. See it in 3D and you’ll swear things are floating right in front of your face.

Cameron loves the water; his seafaring disaster drama Titanic (1997) was an unqualified smash, the most commercially successful movie ever made, and The Abyss (1989) took a really, really deep dive into oceanographic, extraterrestrial sci-fi. There are swooshy echoes of those previous movies in this galloping golly-whopper, which continues the original Avatar’s themes of cultural coexistence, ecological awareness, the evils of colonization and the atrocity of genocide. Savvy moviegoers will detect other strands of its wide-ranging movie DNA, including cowboys-and-Indians Westerns, Pacific war flicks, chomp-chomp dinosaur romps, robotic dystopias and even Moby Dick.

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana return to their original roles—as Jake Sulley, the former human earthling who became a Na’vi hybrid through a process of avatar-ization, and his mate, the Pandora homegirl Neytiri. They’re both scrappy fighters when they must be, but mostly they enjoy the laid-back life on Pandora as a happy blue family. Their three kids may have grown up on a distant moon on the other edge of a distant galaxy, but nonetheless are well versed in teen ‘tude, smack-talk and using expressions that sound like they spilled forth from almost high-school hallway in America, like “bro,” “bitch,” “cuz” and “perv.” I guess teen lingo is a truly universal language.

When earthlings—the “sky people”—return to Na’vi to again plunder its bountiful resources and thin out “the hostiles,” they’re led by the menacing Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the macho paramilitary commander from the first film. He’s become an avatar now, too, for Na’vi infiltration purposes, and he has a longstanding grudge to settle with Jake. Quaritch’s vendetta forces the Sullys to flee to a far-flung islandic refuge of the “sea clans,” where they are taken in by the protective leader of the reef people (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant, holistic wife (Kate Winslet).

But wouldn’t you know it, trouble comes a-callin’.

Jack Champion as Spider

A couple of characters bridge the old with the present and point the way toward the future. (Cameron plans three more Avatar movies in the coming years.) Sigourney Weaver, who also starred in the original, returns as a new character—the daughter of her old character, in a way that makes sense only in the Avatar-verse. And young Jack Champion (he was the “kid on bike” in Avengers: Endgame) plays Spider, an “outsider” human teen who’s bonded with the Na’vi; he’s clearly queued up for a pivotal role in wherever Avatar goes next. Spider is somewhere on the wild-child spectrum between the “Feral Kid” in Road Warrior and the mouthy runt Tanner in The Bad News Bears—a scruffy, scrappy side dish that becomes essential to the bigger menu. 

Sigourney Weaver

Cameron, one of the most bankable directors of all time, certainly knows how to build a blockbuster. And this blockbuster-to-be busts out all over the place, in the air, across expanses of blue Pandoran sea and far underneath the ocean waves. It’s a thing of movie wonder, filled with amazing sights, magnificent creatures, fearsome mega machines, a big beating heart and some bone-rattling, Dolby kaboom. A full-on immersion for the senses unlike almost anything else you’ve ever seen, it’s the studio’s big-ticket bet for luring audiences back into theaters. Safe to say it will do just that, and it’s a shoo-in for Oscar nominations in several categories, especially for visual effects and maybe even Best Picture.

Cameron even came up with a new motion-capture innovation, allowing him to shoot extended sequences underwater. Winslet, who also starred in his landmark movie Titanic, set a record for holding her breath while submerged for a scene in The Way of Water (more than five minutes!), besting the previous title holder, one Tom Cruise, renowned for doing his own stunts. Mission Not-So-Impossible, right, Tom?

If you’ve been holding your breath, treading water for more than a decade for another big-screen Avatar adventure, well, your wait is over. You can breathe again, and dive into this splashy Christmas present for anyone who likes their movies super-sized in every way.

As one character says, “The way of water has no beginning and no end.” It sure seems that way for this big blue franchise, which will undoubtedly keep rolling along—and rolling in the green.   

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Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: “Nanny” Movie Review

When motherhood is a dream that becomes a nightmare

Anna Diop has dreams of drowning in the psychological horrors of ‘Nanny.’

Starring Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan & Morgan Spector
Directed by Nikyatu Jusu
Rated R

In theaters Dec. 16, 2022

Motherhood can be a tough gig. It certainly is for Aisha, a young immigrant mom in New York City trying to scrape together money to bring her son to America from their homeland of Senegal. So, she lands a job as a nanny for an upper-class family, serving as a surrogate mom to someone else’s daughter. Decent pay, long hours, but great gig, right? Well, yes and no.

That’s the setup for this masterfully mesmerizing psychological horror drama rooted in African mythology and the wrenching emotions of having, and raising, a child. Getting a wider release after wowing film festival audiences, it’s a knockout breakthrough role for Anna Dopp as the nanny, whose reality becomes blurred with troubling visions and panic-inducing nightmares. Maybe that black mold growing on the ceiling of the bedroom, which has been provided by her employers, is an omen. Every little boy she sees reminds her, for a halting, haunting moment, of her son. And those creepy-crawly spiders, that slithering snake in her bed, and the fish-tailed mere-creature that glides through her dreams of drowning… well, they can’t be leading to anything good.

Director Nikyatu Jusu, making a mightily impressive debut, masterfully shifts the lines when what’s bothering Aisha begins to bleed into her reality. Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector play the white Manhattan couple for whom she toils, working overtime as caregiver to their preschool daughter (Rose Decker) while they’re occupied with their jobs. But they’re stingy with pay, and their fractured marriage isn’t nearly as picture-perfect as it might seem.

Sinqua Walls & Anna Diop

It’s a tough job and a tough situation, and it’s not made any easier with the mind-mucking Dark Continent hoodoo that seems to be bewitching Aisha. A budding romance with the apartment-building doorman (Sinqua Walls) seems like a sweet distraction…until it turns into something of a lifeline. Things don’t get any easier for Aisha when her employer finds out her nanny has been making unauthorized dietary choices for her picky-eater munchkin, or hears through the nanny grapevine that one day on the playground, Aisha became momentarily separated from her daughter. (Geesh, the nanny network has eyes everywhere.) Losing track of a child, even for a few seconds, can be traumatic, and here it portends something even more distressing.

The great singer-actress Leslie Uggams has a small but significant role as a mystical grandma, who suggests to Aisha that her dark episodes are due to unseen forces that have bigger plans for her.

The film touches on issues of white privilege and the struggle of many immigrants trying to build new lives, especially if separated from family, friends and culture. But it’s really about what happens when one mother’s American dream becomes a living, waking, walking nightmare. The effectively unsettling Nanny may very well haunt your dreams, too.

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Daddy Issues: “The Son” movie review

Hugh Jackman stars in heart-wrenching family drama

The Son
Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern & Vanessa Kirby
Directed by Florian Zeller
Rated PG-13

See it: In select theaters Dec. 16, 2022

French director Florian Zeller’s previous film, The Father, inventively took viewers into a disorienting world of an older man’s dementia. Now The Son plunges audiences into a drama about a teenager’s descent into the darkness of depression, and his exasperated father’s earnest efforts to reach and rescue him.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a super-busy New York City corporate lawyer with his steady eye on a plum spot as a political consultant in Washington. He’s thrown off-course, however, when his teenage son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath), comes to live with him and his partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their new baby boy.  Laura Dern plays Nicholas’ mom, Kate—Peter’s ex—who realizes something’s unsettled with their child. “He’s not well,” Kate says. “He scares me.”

Peter can’t understand why Nicholas is skipping school, why he doesn’t seem to have any interest in anything, why he’s let all his friendships go and why he says life is weighing him down. Why does he say his head is about to explode? Why are there cuts up and down his arms, and a knife under his mattress? Why is he so listless, so numb to everything, so zoned out? For Peter, there must be a reason, an explanation, a cause and effect. After all, Pete’s an upper-level exec who sees things as situations that need to be turned around, from loss to profit, red to black, lose to win. He’s blind to the signs that his son is suffering from something more serious, and far more complicated, than ordinary teen angst—something that can’t be amended by Peter sternly telling Nicholas his perplexing behavior is forbidden.

Nicholas’ parents are slow to realize their son is drowning in depression. And when they do, well, things just get worse, and more fraught with raw emotion, from there.

This gut-punch slice-of-life tale reinforces its central father-son characters with a couple of highly symbolic objects. For Peter, it’s the sleek elevator in his office building, a clean, efficiently vertical channel that you’re either riding up, or you’re going down; that’s how his legal-eagle world operates. Nicholas is represented by the sloppy, choppy churn of a washing machine—his mind is a swirling, topsy-turvy tumble of a mess, with everything constantly twisting and collapsing on itself, round and round, wadded up and going in circles, but also going nowhere.

Anthony Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins, who won as Oscar (his second) for his formidable, foundational role in Zeller’s The Father, reappears for one scene here, loosely connecting the two films. (Both The Father and The Son were originally written for the stage by the director.) Hopkins plays Peter’s father, a cold and aloof Washington political lion who doesn’t have any patience for reflection, soul-searching, indecision, mistakes…or Peter’s struggles with Nicholas, and his out-of-control life. “Just f__king get over it, for God’s sake,” Peter’s pop snaps at him, the equivalent of a resounding slap across the dinner table.

There’s certainly a slap of seriousness in this family drama about a family in crisis and a son’s desperate cry for help, and how fathers don’t necessarily have all the answers nor always do the right thing.  (“Sometimes love isn’t enough,” a psychiatric doc tells Peter.) How guilty should Peter feel? After all, Nicholas blames him for leaving his mother, and for causing his maladjustment in the world.

But it’s by no means an easy, comfortable, entertaining watch, and when it reaches its heavy-handed climax, it’s shocking, but hardly surprising. The talented cast struggles against the shortcomings of the gloomy, manipulative script, and an ever-downward spiral that eventually strands them on a teary, heart-wrenching shore littered with regrets.

This tale about depression is quite depressing itself. Its message about the understanding and addressing mental illness may be an important one, but The Son is certainly no fun.

Guillermo de Toro’s Pinocchio

Deliciously dark new take on the classic folktale takes you far beyond Disney

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Voices by Gregory Mann, Ewen McGregor, Christoph Waltz & Finn Wolfhard
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Rated PG

See it: On Netflix Friday, Dec. 9

Guillermo del Toro has always had a soft spot for monsters and misfits.

The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and Nightmare Alley puts a deliciously dark, fantastically original spin on the enchanted tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy.

This isn’t the Pinocchio you grew up with, particularly if your baseline is the beloved Disney version from 1940, or even Disney’s ambitious hybrid (computer animation plus live action) from earlier this year, featuring Tom Hanks as Pinocchio’s creator,  Geppetto. With a vision rooted in the source material, the 1883 fantasia novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi, del Toro gives the fable a boldly creative, explosively imaginative retooling of magical enchantment, grotesque beauty, mythological mysticism, sweeping human emotion and existential wonder.

This Pinocchio has an eye-popping wow factor that’s practically off the charts. Visually resplendent and bursting with detail, its magnificent stop-motion animation (courtesy of Mark Gustafson, whose other work includes Fantastic Mr. Fox) elevates the craft far above cartoon-y kids’ stuff and into the rarified upper echelons of high art.  Resetting the story in 1930s Italy (as opposed to the vague, 19th century “once upon a time” of earlier versions), it uses the rise of brutal far-right fascism in Italy—dictator Benito Mussolini even makes an appearance—for a real-world, pre-World War II militaristic backdrop that becomes an integral part of its tale…and a callout to today’s unsettled modern world.

Ewan McGregor provides the voice of the movie’s narrator, Sebastian Cricket.

There are all-new songs (with a resplendent original soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Alexander Desplat) and other enhancements to the familiar tale, including a recurring afterlife setting with grousing, poker-playing black rabbits, and a poignant backstory to the pine tree that provides the wood for Pinocchio. (And pinecones become a potent symbol of life, rebirth and regeneration.) Jiminy Cricket is now Sebastian Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a dapper bon vivant who lives in a knothole in Pinocchio’s chest—quite literally, inside his heart.  The glowing, translucent, blue-hued wood sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton), peering into Pinocchio with hundreds of inscrutable eyes, is an otherworldly, awe-inspiring winged serpent that bestows Geppetto’s creation with life—and grants Sebastian Cricket a single, significant wish.

As for the puppet boy (evocatively voiced by young Gregory Mann), he’s a gangly, twiggy, wobbly oddity of a creature with more than a passing connection to another “unnatural” being, Frankenstein’s monster. And he has a fascination with yet another wooden creation, the life-size Jesus on the crucifix Geppetto makes for the village church. Pinocchio is puzzled why villagers adulate the somber figure on the cross, heaping high praises to him in song, but they hurl cries of “monster” and “demon” at him. “Why do they like him, and not me?” PInocchio asks Geppetto.

And like a crucified Christ, Pinocchio also rises again, in yet another twist to the story. The puppet boy discovers that since he’s not really “alive,” in a human sense—he’s made of wood, after all—so he can’t really die. At least, not for long: He keeps bounding back from various mishaps that turn him into heaps of splintered wood scraps. But there’s a difference, he finds out, between existence and truly experiencing life.

Like many “boys,” Pinocchio is full of energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and spunk. As a newcomer to the world of the living, he has a lot to learn—that hot chocolate is yummy, fire can burn, and other creatures—other creations—have feelings. He learns empathy. He stands up to the cruel carnival master (Christoph Walz) abusing his monkey assistant (Cate Blanchett), and he offers to work at the carnival’s puppet show, in a kind of indentured servitude, to keep his father out of a crippling debt. His infectiously sunny personality disarms a young village boy who starts out as his tormentor, turning him eventually into a friend and ally.

The A-list vocal cast also includes David Bradley as Geppetto, the lonely woodcarver who longs for Pinocchio to fill the aching hole created by the untimely death of his young son. Finn Wolfhard is Candlewick, the son of the town’s sternly militaristic podesta (Ron Pearlman), who sees the “stringless puppet” as an ultimate soldier who can’t be killed, conscripting him as fodder for the nation’s war machine. (Instead of a wild-boy romp Pleasure Island, there’s a major scene in a “youth camp” where Pinocchio and Candlewick are forced to compete in a high-stakes war-game exercise.) John Turturro is the village padre, a priest under the thumb of the oppressive regime.

This finely refashioned fairytale is a story of outsiders and nonconformists, imperfect boys and imperfect fathers, the heartbreaking burden of loss, about learning to love, and accepting people (and puppets) for who they are, not who, or what, we want them to become. It’s a reminder that no one lives forever but life goes on, that some rules—like telling the truth—aren’t absolute, and everyone “must try to do their best—and that’s all anybody can do.”

Even after nearly 150 years, this little puppet still has a few things he can teach us. And Guillermo del Toro has created one of his best, a film that spins magisterial new magic into an age-old folktale.

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Will Power: ‘Emancipation’ movie review

Can Will Smith’s epic slavery tale drown out his infamous Oscars slap?

Will Smith and Ben Foster star in ‘Emancipation.’

Starring Will Smith & Ben Foster
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R

See it: In select theaters now; available on Apple TV+ Friday, Dec. 9

This grueling drama doesn’t flinch from depicting the scourges of slavery. Will Smith (who’s also one of the film’s producers) wants us to remember and reflect on a not-so-long-ago time in America when Black men, women and children were bought and sold, tortured, treated as less than animals and worked to death.

But Smith would also like us to not remember—or hopefully forget—something more recent: the slap.

Ah, yes, the slap—at the 94th annual Academy Awards in March, when he stomped on stage and smacked host Chris Rock for making a wisecrack about his wife. For his assaultive outburst, Smith lost his membership in the Academy and was banned from attending the Oscars for the next 10 years. His spasm of lash-out, bad-boy behavior made him an overnight Hollywood pariah, an emblem of toxic masculinity. 

So…does the public now have any appetite for a Will Smith movie? Even an “important” one, like Emancipation? Have moviegoers forgotten what happened nine months ago, or will they continue Smith’s double-secret-probation banishment by turning away from his most recent work, a showy, $120 million wannabe blockbuster? Or could this movie, in a most dramatic sideways twist, reward him with another Oscar nomination, perhaps even another Oscar win?

Emancipation is a mostly solid piece of moviemaking (director Antione Fuqua has already won an Oscar, for Training Day), but it doesn’t feel like Oscar material to me. It’s a somewhat hammy, heavily dramatized, uneven mix of pulpy, pumped-up survivor action and hellish slavery horrors as Smith’s character—known as Peter—flees from his captivity into the swamps of Louisiana, following the kabooms of “Lincoln’s canons,” hoping his desperate bid for freedom will intersect with the approaching Union army.

Ben Foster, who’s so good at playing bad, is the film’s other central character, a cold-hearted runaway-slave tracker obsessed with finding Peter…and with making sure all Black people remain under white America’s heel.

Peter is driven by his determination to see his wife and children again, bolstered by an unwavering faith in God, and girded by memories of the agonizing abuses he’s endured. It also helps that he, somehow, knows how to navigate the murky dangers of the swampy bayou, like an antebellum-era version of TV survivalist Bear Grylls, evading bloodhounds, dodging bullets, climbing trees with lemur-like skills, self-treating life-threatening wounds and even besting an alligator in an underwater wrestling match. 

He’s super-handy turning field implements into lethal weapons, and just wait until gets ahold of a gun.

It’s a muddy, bloody tale, especially in a prolonged opening sequence filled with deeply unsettling reckonings of the manifold cruelties of slavery, stirring a dismal abyss of history with searing detail. The movie takes place during the waning year of the Confederacy, in 1884, but it looks like the Dark Ages when you see slaves’ decapitated heads on pikes or watch a captured runaway tortured with a branding iron.  

There are echoes of other films, like D’Jango Unchained, Glory and—in one epic battle scene—even Saving Private Ryan. Emancipation joins a long line of movies that have found high cotton in the turbulence of the Confederate South, including 12 Years a Slave, Antebellum and Harriett. But if you’re looking for Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, well, they’re long gone, pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam of a more enlightened entertainment era.  

The film does have some impressive stylistic flourishes, like a scene at a plantation house being destroyed by fire, a symbol for a nation “going down in flames,” demolished in the partisan furnaces of the Civil War. Everything is filmed in a monochrome patina, making things look like authentic daguerreotype photos of the era.

And speaking of photos… It’s all based on a true, widely circulated story about a slave—nicknamed “Whipped Peter”—who escaped and joined the Union forces. A photo of Peter’s back, a shocking lattice of welts and scars from countless lashes of the whip, was published in Harper’s magazine and seen by people nearly everywhere, making the brutality of human bondage impossible for anyone in the Northern states to continue to ignore, deny or accept—particularly anyone under the delusion that the “forced labor” of slavery was a just a necessary and normalized component of the South’s money-making machinery.

Emancipation has a message about deeply engrained racism and the scars—like the vicious mutilations across Peter’s back—from a shameful, painful chapter of America’s past. And Smith’s intense, committed performance brings to the screen an impassioned tale of survival and endurance.

But is it enough to drown out a slap heard (and seen) round the world?

Hammer Time: “Violent Night” movie review

Santa Claus comes to the rescue in ferociously entertaining home-invasion Christmas action-comedy

Violent Night
Starring David Harbour, Beverly D’Angelo, John Leguizamo & Leah Brady
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Rated R

See It: In theaters Friday, Dec. 2

Here comes Santa Claus, pissed off and swinging a sledgehammer. In the inventively wicked, ferociously entertaining Violent Night, a world-weary St. Nick (David Harbour) comes to the aid of a New England family when a gang of ruthless mercenaries overtakes their home on Christmas Eve. They’re looking for millions in stashed loot, but the bad guys soon find something else—all their names on Santa’s naughty list.

This home-invasion action-comedy romp is a head-bashing, face-smashing holiday highball as Santa turns a Christmas tree topper, ice skates and candy canes into lethal weapons, then uses a tool shed sledgehammer to channel some of his murky past as a Viking plunderer, raider and warrior.

Harbour, best known for playing the sheriff in Stranger Things, has a ho-ho-ho hoot as the grizzled, tattooed Kris Kringle, who loves beer, misses his wife when he’s away and laments the greed, ingratitude and crass commercialization of the holiday. It’s enough to drive a saint to drink, which he does. (This Santa also has a muddy, bloody back story that may even connect him to a certain legendary Norse god.) And the Christmas magic that lets him zip up a chimney or endlessly pull presents from his bottomless bag? He admits that even he doesn’t quite understand it. The mojo just comes with the gig.

John Leguizamo (right) plays a bad guy on Santa’s naughty list.

Veteran actor John Leguizamo has some juicy, grinch-y glee as the hiss-ably villainous leader of the thieves. Beverly D’Angelo (from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and other flicks in the Vacation franchise) plays a flinty, foul-mouthed, filthy-rich matriarch. Young Leah Brady is as sweet as a homemade Christmas cookie as the little girl who really, truly believes in Santa Claus and Christmas—and becomes Santa’s little helper with a thing or two she’s learned from watching another Christmas movie, Home Alone.

Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola previously turned Nazis into zombies (Dead Snow) and made the fairytale couple Hansel and Gretel into swaggering witch hunters. So maybe it’s no surprise that he’d put a similarly gonzo, gutsy spin on Santa. It’s hyper-violent, caustically funny and a million mayhem-ic movie miles away from the genteel balms of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf or A Christmas Story. But Violent Night certainly has its own kind of unfathomable Christmas magic; you just have to believe, and steer clear of that sledgehammer. If you miss it in theaters, you better not pout, and you better not cry—because it’s likely going to become a cable/streaming perennial, a ballsy antidote to the sugary overdose of other Christmas programming. So, ho, ho, holy sh*t—I’m a believer.

Fine Young Cannibals: “Bones and All” review

They’re just a couple of kids in love…who love eating other people

Bones and All
Starring Taylor Russell & Timothèe Chalamet
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Rated R

See it: In theaters Wednesday, Nov. 11

Lee and Maren seem like a lot of young couples. They drive around, listen to music, have some tiffs with their parents. And when they grab a bite, well, it’s likely not from Chic-fil-A.  

You see, they’re cannibals. Yes, they eat people.

On one level, this insanely, savagely original young-love story is about a couple of outsiders in a harsh world that doesn’t understand or accept them. We can all relate to that, right?

What sets Maren and Lee apart, though, is the compulsion—the craving—they have for human flesh. It’s an acquired taste, we learn, one that’s rooted in both heredity and environment. They find out they’re not alone; they’re part of a gritty, grimy subset of other cannibals. They’re all outcasts, society rejects who refer to each other as “eaters.” The most, ahem, committed of eaters talk of going all in, dining on “bones and all.”

And Lee and Maren feel desperately fated, destined for a life that makes their road a rough, hardscrabble—and often horrific—one.

It’s a weird movie, crazily and often conversely beautiful and romantic, about two 1980s kids living outside the norms of convention—way outside. There’s blood and guts, as you might imagine, but that’s only one element of the bigger story, about a pair of ruggedly attractive castaways wrestling with who they are, and why. And Lee and Maren aren’t particularly happy about what they’re driven to do. But the rush it gives them—like a drug—is a hard habit to kick.

Taylor Russell (who played Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of the space sci-fi series Lost in Space) is Maren, abandoned by her father (Andre Holland) after she turns 18. On a quest to learn more about her family, particularly the mother she never knew, she hooks up with a lanky drifter (Timothèe Chalamet), and off they go in search of answers…and their next meal.  

The movie reunites Chalamet—who’s received acclaim (and awards nominations) for his work in Lady Bird, Little Women and Dune—with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who directed him inCall Me by Your Name. Guadagnino is a “painterly” director, known for his lush visuals, and the movie even begins with a series of oil renderings depicting serene pastoral scenes that we’ll later see in the film. They “paint” the way for Lee and Maren’s journey, seeking some peace in their unsettled—and unsettling—lives, like the tranquility in those picture-perfect paintings. But they’ll always be outsiders looking in, hunted and haunted.

Rebels on a road trip—if James Dean had a copious amount of blood soaked into his white T-shirt, plus a quirk of dining on carnival workers in an Iowa cornfield, well, he might have fit right into this cannibal club.

It’s a wild ride, for sure. Mark Rylance (below right) is an older, creepy cannibal who teaches Maren how to use her nose to sniff out fresh food. Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green play a pair of odd-couple “eater” buddies. Chloë Sevigny has a shocker of a scene, as a patient in a mental institution.

Maren, especially, contemplates the larger complexities and the implications of feeding her eating habit. Even cows in a slaughterhouse, she notes, have family, and maybe even friends. She advocates no-kill meals, dining on people who have already died. It may sound like a small distinction, but hey, some cannibals have principles.

The movie doesn’t really have a message, as such. But its depiction of cannibalism as addiction, as fate, as a consumptive lifestyle “appetite” alongside other hungers, like sex, lust and love…well, let’s just say I’ll never hear “Lick It Up” the same way again after watching the way that rockin’ KISS hit animates Lee.

Riding a wave of film-festival praise, Bones and All gnaws its way into theaters the day before Thanksgiving. It’s probably not exactly what most people have in mind for a celebratory family feast. But if you’ve got an appetite for the unusual, the unsettling, and for a gutsy spin on being young, angst-ridden, adrift in America and in love, well, lick it up.

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Whodunnit? “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” movie review

Daniel Craig’s Southern-fried detective returns for another delightfully fun romp

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Starring Daniel Craig, Janelle Monet & Edward Norton
Directed by Rian Johnson

See it: In theaters Nov. 23, on Netflix Dec. 23

Daniel Craig’s master detective, Benoit Blanc, returns to the screen in this frisky, twisty, turn-y followup to the 2019 whodunnit hit. It’s murder mystery time again, as a new group of characters assembles on a zillionaire’s posh private Greek island for a weekend retreat of shocks and surprises—and Benoit is there to sort out the dishy, devilishly clever details when things take a deadly detour.

A multi-layered, whiz-bang gizmo of a movie, this one stars Ed Norton, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Janelle Monae, Outer BanksMadelyn Cline, and Game of ThronesJessica Henwick. And of course, everyone becomes a suspect—well, almost everyone, except the victim.

Or the victims.

Director Rian Johnson returns behind the camera, engineering another delightfully fun, deliciously detailed romp as Blanc pieces together a mosaic of puzzling clues to a real murder mystery inside a fake one. Or is it a fake one, inside a real one? Maybe it’s both. Don’t worry: You’ll eventually be led to the truth, motives will be revealed, character flaws become exposed, and Benoit (pronounced Ben-wah) puts it all together. There’s even a McGuffin, a red herring, to distract and misdirect, and a hefty dose of social satire, skewering mega-rich one percenters, clueless celebrities, loony megalomaniacs, macho gun clods and self-serving politicians.

It all owes a big nod, sure, to Agatha Christie, the queen of the murder mystery who developed the time-honored template for the format in her many novels. But this is world-building a modern world away from the Brit-centric manners of Christie’s classics. Glass Onion glitters with snappy celebrity cameos by Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant and Serena Williams. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the star of one of director Johnson’s other films, Looper) isn’t seen, but he’s heard—his voice is the booming, recurring “dong” of a chiming clock. Jeremy Renner might not have his own brand of hot sauce, and Jared Leto’s “hard kombucha” might not be a real thing, but here, they’re part of the movie’s rich tapestry of pop-culture in-jokes. CNN’s Anderson Cooper also gets named-checked; supposedly, he throws some wild, way-out parties.  

Craig, recently retired from playing James Bond in the latest chapters of the super-spy franchise, settles into his new role—as the “world’s greatest detective”—with smooth, comedic ease, flexing hammy chops of loquacious, Southern-fried, cigar-smoking hokum that were never part of his arsenal as OO7. It’s easy to imagine a wider Knives Out world, more movies revolving around the dapper Blanc, who lives for the game, the hunt, the thrill of a mystery just begging to be solved. Soaking in a bathtub, holed up in his COVID bubble, playing online games with Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne and Stephen Sondheim, just doesn’t cut it for Benoit. He longs to be out there, doing his thing, connecting the dots, cracking crimes. Hopefully he’ll get to do even more of it.

And what do a cocktail napkin, the world’s most iconic painting, rhinoceros-horn boner pills, Google alerts, sweatshop sweatpants, a Bach fugue, old-school fax machines and a glittering crystal of pure, clean energy have to do with it all? Look into the layers of this Glass Onion, as the Beatles song instructs, and oh, yeah—what was complex becomes clear, and you might find what was always there, hiding in plain sight.