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

Film Title: Cats

Taylor Swift appears in ‘Cats.’

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

Hello, kitty!

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

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

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

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

Film Title: Cats

Francesca Hayward

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

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

Film Title: Cats

Judi Dench

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

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

It’s all just…weird.

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

Film Title: Cats

Jason Derulo

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

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

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

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

Big Deal

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

Little Women 1 (72)

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

Little Women has always been a pretty big deal.

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

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

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

Little Women 5

Laura Dern (top right) plays Marmee.

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

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

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

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

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

Ronan with Chalamet

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

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

Or, as Jo exclaims, he’s “capital!

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

And oh, it’s capital!


Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

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

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

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


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


Theron as Megyn Kelly with Lithgow as Roger Ailes

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

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

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

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

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

Bombshell 2

Margot Robbie with Kate McKinnon

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not So Funny

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

U Gems 2 (72)

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hopes.

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

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

Uncut Gems_Idina

Idina Menzel

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

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

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

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

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


The ‘game is afoot’ in the year’s sharpest, funniest, most entertaining movie puzzle

Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson & Toni Collette
Directed by Rian Johnson

Somebody’s dead, it looks like a murder, and everyone’s a suspect.


That’s been the setup and the starting line for many a movie, and sure enough, that’s how this one begins. But this insanely clever, thoroughly original all-star caper is full of razor-sharp surprises, and not the least are its wily, witty twists on the murder-mystery format.

For starters, we find out the “who” in the whodunit pretty early on—but, as you might expect, almost nothing in Knives Out is what, or how, you think it is. And the “who” is only the beginning of an even bigger mystery.


Ana de Armas & Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig trades his dapper James Bond British cool for a big ol’ slice of Southern-fried country ham to play Benoit (Ben-wah) Blanc, a private detective hired (but by whom?) to investigate the mysterious death of a wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, who reappears repeatedly in flashbacks). Thrombey was found one morning a week ago by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson), bled out in his bed, his throat slit with a blade in his hand.

Was it suicide…or was it murder?

“Everyone can lie,” says Blanc, often wrapping his loquacious drawl around puffs of a cigar. “Well, almost everyone.” He’s referring to Thrombey’s longtime caretaker and confidante, Marta (Ana de Armas), whom Blanc discovers has a “regurgitative reaction to mis-truthin’.” In other words, when Marta lies, she throws up.

Blanc and Marta—a puke-prone lie detector—become the movie’s central axis around which it spins the rest of its delightfully prickly tale, but to reveal much more would give far too much away. (It is nice to see Craig and de Armas working together in a preview of their next team-up, in April’s No Time to Die, the 25th official James Bond film.)

This is the kind of movie where you need to pay close attention to everything—everything everyone says, everything that happens, and everything you see. Chances are, it will all come back around. Like the big coffee mug in the foreground of the opening shot—“My House, My Rules,” it reads. It may seem like just a cutesy coffee mug, but you’ll see it again, and it will mean something even…more.

You could call this a “family” film, in a way—because writer/director Rian Johnson (whose impressive resume includes the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the sci-fi mind-bender Looper and several TV episodes of Breaking Bad) has made everyone in Harlan Thrombey’s family a possible accomplice to his murder, naturally. Or at least they get drawn, in some way or another, into its tangled web, as Blanc and a pair of police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) spend days conducting probing interviews and combing through Thrombey’s maze-like country manor, full of hidden stairways, secret doors and promotional-oddity props—like a massive throne of blades—commemorating his murder-mystery novels. “Look around: This guy practically lived in a Clue board,” says one of the cops.


Everyone in the big, bright ensemble cast seems to be having a ball playing squabbling siblings, imploding in-laws and grousing grandkids. Jamie Lee Curtis is Thrombey’s real-estate mogul daughter, Linda, who remembers how fond her father used to be of writing cryptic notes and engaging her in games. Don Johnson is her husband, Richard, and the father of Ransom (Chris Evans), a slick, jaded playboy—and the only family member who skipped the funeral. Michael Shannon is Thrombey’s youngest son, Walt, steamed that his dad never gave him control of his $60 million publishing empire. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a hippy-dippy lifestyle guru; her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), was getting her substantial college’s expenses funded by Thrombey’s monthly checks. Everyone thinks grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a weirdo, if not a neo-Nazi internet troll.

Almost everyone, Blanc finds, seems to have some kind of axe to grind, a secret to hide, some sort of reason they might conceivably have for wanting a piece of Harlan Thrombey’s sizeable fortune.

And when they all come together with the family attorney (Frank Oz) for the reading of Harlan’s will, that’s when the knives really come out.

Blanc seems so close to solving the mystery, but something about it continually baffles him. All the pieces are there, but something is missing; something just doesn’t fit. “A strange case,” he tells Marta. “A case with a hole in the middle—a doughnut.” At one point, even the doughnut hole seems to have another doughnut, with another doughnut hole, inside it.

MORNING BELLKnives Out is great, galloping, fast-paced fun, and it harkens back to classic murder-mystery tropes that stretch across the decades. But it also launches a timely, pointed contemporary message in Marta’s character and her immigrant family, which becomes an important subplot—and a running gag of scathing social commentary as the Thrombeys, who claim to love Marta as one of their own, can’t ever recall which South American country she’s from. Is it Uruguay? Or Paraguay, or Brazil?

One scene offers a telling glimpse of a rerun of Angela Lansbury in the 1980s TV series Murder: She Wrote, overdubbed in Spanish. This is a movie that has quite a bit more than just murder and mystery on its mind.

“The game is afoot,” says Blanc, clearly relishing the challenge of digging into the Thrombey puzzle. You’ll relish it, too. The most entertaining movie puzzle of the year, it’s also a film with some of the sharpest edges where you least expect them.

And like the coffee mug suggests, it plays by its own rules. Whodunit? Oh, you’ll find out. But you’ll have even more fun filling in the doughnut holes.

In theaters Wed., Nov. 27, 2019

All Hail the Ice Queen

Disney’s coolest royalty returns for strong showing of sisterhood & girl power  

nullFrozen II
Starring voices by Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad
Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

When it comes to Disney royalty, you can’t get much cooler than Elsa and Anna.

The plucky ice queen and her spunky little sis were, of course, the stars of 2013’s Frozen, the animated musical blockbuster that took home two Oscars and broke worldwide box-office records. It set off an earworm bomb with “Let It Go,” its soaring signature song. And its success has now led to Disney’s first-ever theatrical sequel to an animated “princess” film.

Even though it’s been six years, Frozen fans won’t have any trouble picking up the storyline. For one thing, the gang’s all here, just where we left them in their mythical, fjord-shore Scandinavian-like hamlet of Arendelle. Idina Menzel returns to voice the now young-adult Elsa, still dealing with her mystifying powers to create and control ice and snow. Her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) didn’t get any magical gifts, but she proves herself indispensable in other ways, as she did in the first movie.


Olaf buddies up with Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven.

And of course, there’s Olaf (Josh Gad), the goofball snowman, and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Anna’s loveably bumbling suitor.

When Elsa hears a haunting, song-like voice calling from the distant northlands—the forbidding, mist-shrouded Enchanted Forest—the group sets off to find out where it’s coming from, and why. Maybe it’s a clue to Elsa’s mysterious magical abilities. Maybe it will lead them to answers about what really happened to Elsa and Anna’s parents, said to have perished in a shipwreck. Maybe it will be an opportunity to right some long-time political, cultural and historical wrongs.

Maybe the journey will set up several big musical numbers!

The plot gets a little thick and tricky, especially for younger viewers, who may get somewhat antsy and bogged down in the slower parts and just want to see Elsa and Anna do their sisters-united thing, or belt another big song, or see something slap-sticky funny. Some of the moments can be dark and gloomy and confusing. “Why is she crying?” asked one tyke in a seat behind me to her mommy, during one particularly somber scene. “Where’s Olaf?”

But mostly, Frozen II certainly fills the bill, especially for fans who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a frosty follow-up. It’s big, even epic-feeling, especially once our travelers enter the Enchanted Forest, where they encounter powerful nature spirits, a race of indigenous people, a time warp and exotic creatures—including a tiny, cute, combustible salamander and towering “earth giants” the size of mountains.

Listen for a few new voices, including Evan Rachel Wood (taking over for Jennifer Lee as Elsa and Anna’s mother, Queen Iduna, from the first movie); Sterling K. Brown as a loyal Arendelle soldier; Martha Plimpton as the leader of the tribe the travelers encounter; and Jason Ritter as Ryder, a young tribesman who befriends Kristoff.


Returning Frozen directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee create some spectacular scenery and segments. Nudging the seasons just a bit, from winter to fall, gives the film’s pallet a striking new color shift—beyond ice and snow—to explore. You can tell there’s a lot of money on the screen, in expensive, extensive computer animation, like an impressive nighttime sequence when Elsa lights up a raging ocean with streaks and bursts of florescent colors to tame an elegant, translucent “water horse.” Or when Anna awakens the lumbering earth giants, taunts them into chasing her, hurling massive boulders—and doing exactly what she hoped they would do.

And not surprisingly, everyone gets a song. Just like in the original film, composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who also won an Oscar for the score for Disney’s acclaimed Coco) wrote seven new tunes for Frozen II. And while, alas, there’s probably not a new “Let It Go” singalong among them, all of the songs are expertly crafted, sturdy Disney-musical showpieces. Menzel, the Tony-nominated Broadway star from Rent, Wicked and If/Then, knocks anything she sings out of the park, so it’s no surprise Elsa is given some big, soaring ballads, like “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself.”

Anna/Bell belts out “The Next Right Thing,” another ballad, and everybody joins in on “Some Things Never Change,” a peppy Broadway-style opener which sets the stage for things to come, as does the soothing lullaby, “All is Found,” sung by Queen Iduna to her two young daughters.

But a true standout goes to Groff, as Kristoff, who sings “Lost in the Woods” as a campy, ’80s-video-style power anthem, compete with a background chorus of oohing and ahhing reindeer. Groff, also Tony-nominated for his Broadway work (he was King George III in Hamilton) and known for his starring role on TV’s Glee, delivers the goods while the intentionally cheesy visuals play like a clip of vintage Bryan Adams on MTV. Kids might giggle, but mom and dad will totally dig it. It’s a trippy Frozen II treat.


Anna and Olaf take a trip on an ice boat.

And Gad, who provides running comic relief as the hyperactive, babbling magical snowman Olaf, is a font of commentary on practically everything, including how he’s become more self-aware. Or, as he puts it, “the ever-increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” (In one cluelessly cheeky moment, he offers a critique of Elsa’s singing. “She’s a bit pitchy,” he observes.) Olaf’s whimsical “When I Am Older” is also a highlight, in which he walks through a “haunted” section of the forest, and all sorts of boo-riffic oddities keep popping and poofing up around him.

While not quite as fresh as the original, Frozen II still stands tall with its own proto-feminist message of strong girl power and sisters doin’ it for themselves—and each other—in a fantasy fairy-tale world where magic is real, the past shapes the present, memories have power and “lands and people” can be “connected by love.”

It’s a message that little girls, in little Elsa crowns and little Anna dresses, will soak up like little sponges—and one that we all need to hear, no matter who’s doing the singing.

In theaters Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

D.C. Drama

Adam Driver drives home timely message in true tale of Washington corruption

TTR_0542.dngThe Report
Starring Adam Driver & Annette Bening
Directed by Scott Z. Burns

The Report is a crackling political-intrigue thriller about how the U.S. Senate spent years dogging the CIA about the agency’s covert use of torture to extract information from detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a true story, and it centers around a young Senate staffer, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), and his painstaking, five-year crusade to comb through more than six million online documents for a study that the CIA—not surprisingly—did everything it could to quash.


Annette Bening is Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Working under the direction of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) in a windowless, bunker-like basement office, Jones and his small team discover a web of deceit, deception and cover-up. It’s all linked to the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT), an outsourced paramilitary program of extreme human-rights abuse, including waterboarding, sexual humiliation, mock burial, sensory deprivation, beatings and enemas. The agency used the techniques in attempts to force “confessions” from more than 100 Middle Eastern men whom it suspected might have ties to the 9/11 terrorism, or information about upcoming attacks.

When Jones completes his nearly 7,000-page report, it concludes that not a single one of the detainees coughed up any credible information—and one died, in effect tortured to death. Not only did the CIA violate time-honored, international Geneva Conventions principles about human rights and treatment of prisoners, but its multimillion-dollar EIT program failed to produce any useful information, contrary to everything the agency had told—and sold—the public about its so-called “War on Terror.”


Jon Hamm plays the White House Chief of Staff.

The head of the CIA (Ted Levine) does everything he can to discredit Feinstein, Jones and the report. The White House chief of staff (Jon Hamm) isn’t really interested; he has bigger election-year fish to fry. And Jones finds himself the target of criminal charges when the CIA turns the tables in a nasty twist that illustrates just how down-and-dirty Washington politics can be.

Matthew Rhys, channeling some of the stealth he cultivated playing a KGB spy on six seasons of TV’s The Americans, has a couple of scenes as a New York Times political reporter who cautions Jones about going public with his findings. “Some people will think you’re a hero,” he tells him, “and some will probably think you’re a traitor.”

Fans of TV’s Dexter will enjoy seeing Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, as a toe-the-line CIA staffer, along with The Affair’s Maura Tierney. Tim Blake Nelson plays a military physician with objections about the abuse he’s witnessing. A high-end lawyer friend (Corey Stoll) gives Jones some free advice, telling the young Senate staffer that he can’t even begin to afford the super-expensive legal help he’s going to need.

But the real star of the show, clearly, is Driver. After a string of solid roles—in films including BlacKkKlansman, Logan Lucky, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lincoln, Frances Ha, Paterson, as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise, and a heart-rending co-lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s acclaimed Marriage Story—he’s now a sturdy leading mainstream man. With no car chases, foot races, spaceships, explosions or gunfire, the “action” in The Report often plays out in the features on Driver’s expressive face, a long, oval pallet—the glowering intensity of his dark eyes, the scowling frown of his lips—for the dueling cross-currents of passion, fatigue and frustration that defined a trying half-decade of Daniel Jones’ life.

TTR_1308.dngAfter crafting top-notch screenplays for other fact-based films, including The Informant! and Contagion, plus The Bourne Ultimatum, Scott Z. Burns—who also wrote this screenplay—makes his major-feature directing debut, and it’s a zinger. He builds a dense, immersive drama out of real-life characters and events from the not-so-distant past, cracking into the maddening machinations of Washington to unravel a chronic chain of corrosion and corruption under the George W. Bush administration—and he doesn’t let W’s successor, Barack Obama, completely off the hook, either.

The Report is a movie about big issues that matter, things that resonate beyond the scope of its story—about “who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be,” to quote from a clip the movie uses from the late Sen. John McCain. And it’s impossible to miss its connections to contemporary events, especially given all the drama, controversy and constant news churn created by the current White House administration. When the movie gets around to whistleblowers, blocks of blacked-out, “redacted” text, elected officials who act not because of right or wrong, but because it’s what they think will help them win votes and elections… As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

“You ever wonder why history repeats itself?” asks Bening’s character, Sen. Feinstein. “It’s because we don’t listen the first time.”

History may repeat itself, but The Report suggests that, hopefully, there will always be someone, like Daniel Jones, to remind everyone the importance of listening, remembering—and never giving up in the fight for what’s right, especially against a system that seems impossibly stacked, packed and racked against them.

“You can’t torture people, lie about it and hide it from history,” Jones says. Thanks to his report, this story didn’t end that way. And thanks to The Report, we have Adam Driver in a great movie that shows just what a finessed, finely tuned, focused—and perhaps award-winning—actor he’s become.

In select theaters Nov. 15, 2019

A New Mob-Sterpiece

Director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, epic, all-star gangster’s paradise 

Irishman 1 (72)

The Irishman
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci & Al Pacino
Directed by Martin Scorsese

The old man in the nursing home doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s a stone-cold killer.

Or at least he used to be. He’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who gave up a job driving a meat truck to work for the mob, and now he’s outlived—literally—everyone he used to know.

That’s the terrific opening—a brilliant, extended tracking shot, scored to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—of director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new gangster opus The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and featuring a who’s who of other mobster-movie all-stars.

Scorsese, of course, is the maestro of mob cinema, from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. This one marks his ninth collaboration with De Niro, and his third with Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to work again with the Oscar-winning director and with De Niro, his frequent costar.

Pesci plays Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, who takes a liking to Frank as a younger man and ushers him into his crime family in the 1960s, beginning with smaller jobs that eventually lead to bigger—more dangerous, and more deadly—assignments.

The story is based on Charles Brant’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually a biography of Sheeran’s life of crime. The phrase is mob shorthand for inquiring about hiring a hitman, without actually having to come right out and ask him to kill someone. Frank becomes Russell Bufalino’s “house painter,” spattering walls, sidewalks and other surfaces bright red with blood.

Irishman 4

Al Pacino (left) plays Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) becomes his right-hand man in the powerful Teamsters Union.

The movie itself spans some five decades as it unspools the story of Frank, Russell and their intersection with the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it pertains to the powerful Teamsters Union and its bombastic president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s two-time Godfather royalty, but—amazingly—never until now worked with Scorsese). Things start to get tense when Hoffa and the Teamsters begin to get sideways with the mob, and Frank—himself a Teamster, who’s been anointed Hoffa’s bodyguard and confidante—is caught in the squeeze.

Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975 was one of the biggest news events of the decade, especially since his body was never found and it was widely presumed that he was murdered. Brandt’s book—and The Irishman—have a tidy answer for what happened, but I won’t give it away here.

At three and a half hours, The Irishman fills out its epic proportions with epic performances and some of Scorsese’s best, most profound filmmaking—the signature cinematic touches of a master coming home again, working in his gangster-paradise element, and finding new depth, emotional richness and insightful resonance in old, familiar themes. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino—you’ll never see these four lions roar like this again. This is Scorsese’s mobster-movie masterpiece, and a masterpiece in general. There’s no question it’s the year’s big-event movie.

This mob-life master class has it all, from quick, bloody, spasmic bursts of violence to long-game extortion squeezes; we learn the infrastructure of organized crime from the ground up. But the bloodshed is never gratuitous; it’s always “business.” One “hit” we see takes three minutes to explain and set up, in narration, and less than five seconds to execute. Most of the “house painting” is over in one, two or three quick, clean pops.

But make no mistake about it. These wise guys may be “businessmen,” they may be family men with wives and kids, they may cross paths with priests, politicians and even presidents. But they’re doing profane, down-and-dirty work, and they’re living in the shadowy underbelly of society, where it’s only a matter of time before the end comes for them, one way or another.

The movie has no less than three scenes of baptism, one wedding, and one scene that’s a symbolic “communion,” when Frank and Russell break bread, dip it into glasses of wine—and seal what will become their lifelong bond. But make no mistake about it: Theirs is an unholy bond, and nothing good can ever come from it.

You’ve probably heard about the high-tech, computerized and highly complicated “de-aging” technology that allows the actors to play themselves across the years, or the decades. It’s pretty amazing, but after a while you stop thinking about it—it’s just the magic of the movies.


De Niro and Pacino (right) with Jesse Plemons (left) and Ray Romano as their character react to news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The cast also includes a bunch of other recognizable—non-de-aged—faces, including Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston. Anna Paquin plays Franks daughter, Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina). Peggy has very few lines, but her disapproving, disappointed eyes broadcast a spectrum of emotion about the chasm that eventually comes between her and her father over his violent lifestyle.

The other females in the movie aren’t given much to do, or say, either—because the film, like the mob it depicts, was a man’s world. And The Irishman shows us that the men who choose to live its life of crime—though it may be “glamorized” in the movies—have a high job-related mortality rate. People who paint houses often end up covered in paint. Those who live by the sword, as the saying goes, often die by it.

Unless, against the odds, they live to face another fate—old age, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, last rites, nursing homes. They may play wheelchair bocce ball in a freezing courtyard, or remember fondly how much they liked someone they had to murder, or dip pieces of cheap prison bread in grape juice—in a melancholy bookend moment to that “communion” scene earlier.

But still, the Grim Reaper will surely come, to paint his own house, and all they can do is wait, and wait, and wait on the creeping darkness of the night, and hold on to whatever sliver of light is left, in a world they’ve help to make all the darker.

In select theaters Nov. 1, 2019 (and on Netflix Nov. 27)

Freedom Fighter

From postage stamp to the big screen…and it’s about damn time.


Starring Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn & Janelle Monáe
Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Maybe you’ve seen her on a postage stamp. Now you can watch her on a movie screen.

Harriet is the first major theatrical biopic about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed herself as well as hundreds of her fellow slaves, led an armed regimen in the Civil War and became an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.

British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance as Tubman, who was born into slavery—as Araminta “Minty” Ross—on a Maryland plantation. When her sadistic young master (Joe Alwyn, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Favourite) separates Minty and her husband (Zackary Momoh), she knows she’s about to be sold “down the river,” to the deeper South and a much harsher life, one from which she’ll certainly never return. So she makes a daring dash for freedom, 100 miles across the border to the north and Philadelphia.

Joe Alwyn

It’s a perilous, arduous journey, but Minty makes it, indeed, following the beacon-like light of the North Star, staying ahead of baying, scent-sniffing bloodhounds and trusting in her steadfast faith. At one point, she jumps off a bridge into the rushing waters of the Delaware River, rather than surrender to slave hunters who’ve hemmed her in on both sides. “I’m gon’ be free or die,” she defiantly proclaims, plunging over the side.

That’s how the movie begins, in 1849, but—of course—there’s much more to come.

In Pennsylvania, black abolitionist organizer William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) takes Minty under his wing, and she’s given room, board and a paying job by a glamourous free-born black boardinghouse proprietor (Janelle Monáe). Told that many former slaves shed their old names and take new ones to reflect their newfound freedom, Minty gladly does so, joining together her mother’s first and her husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman.

After a few months, she begins to feel alone, especially when she thinks about all the people still living in misery, hardship and fear in the South. But it surprises everyone when Tubman says she’s going to do the unthinkable: leave the safety of her own freedom and begin making secretive return trips to bring back other slaves, starting with members of her family.

“We’re gonna need a bigger cart,” says Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a scrappy young free black Maryland wheeler-dealer dandy who comes aboard to help Tubman’s cause. Eventually, Tubman’s plucky raids siphon so many slaves off her former plantation that it drives the manor’s toxically racist Southern-belle matriarch (country singer Jennifer Nettles) toward a nervous breakdown.

The rest is history, as they say, and the movie does a stirring job of depicting the unbridled heroism of one of America’s real heroes. There’s simply no one who did anything like Tubman did, risking her life repeatedly, putting herself in harm’s way time after time for others, committing herself to a fiercely audacious lifetime loop of extraordinary courage, bravery and flinty resolve.

Director and cowriter Kasi Lemmons (whose previous work includes Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity and Talk to Me) tends to lapse at times into some clumsy, distracting craftsmanship—like jarring, confusing, black-and-white flashbacks, and swells of soundtrack music that rush in to flood scenes with emotional cues instead of letting what’s happening onscreen hammer the drama home. But those are minor criticisms for such a major moviemaking milestone.


Cynthia Erivo isn’t exactly a marquee name, but she’s already won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy—all for her starring role in The Color Purple on Broadway—and appeared in the movies Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Harriet makes great use of her tremendous singing talent by integrating it into scenes that show how songs were part of the fabric of slave communities, and how Tubman sang as “code” to communicate.

The movie also shows how Harriet “communicates” with God—or at least thinks she does. Were her fainting spells really some mystical kind of divine premonitions, blackout moments during which she received heavenly direction and instruction? Or were they the results of long-term, seizure-like brain damage from getting her skull cracked open by a cruel plantation master as a child? The movie never takes a definitive side, but it does depict Tubman as righteously, rigidly religious, unwavering in her belief that something from above was literally guiding her life below.

On her first exuberant footsteps into freedom, across the open border to Pennsylvania, her chaperone—a gentle Dutch farmer—asks if she’d like him to accompany her. No need, she says, “I walk with the Lord.”

While not as intense in its depiction of the atrocities of slavery as 12 Years a Slave (2013), Harriet pointedly reminds us again of the wretchedness of an institution that—once upon a time in America, and not so long ago—legalized the treatment of a group of people as property that could be bought, sold, starved, beaten, abused, even killed.

And it reminds us of the amazing, intensely inspiring accomplishments of a woman who’s already made her mark in the history books—and, since 1978, on postage stamps. (But in 2017, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot down plans to put her on the $20 bill.) Some things take time, as Harriet Tubman knew—maybe a lifetime, maybe even more. But Tubman’s remarkable achievements will live forever, and Harriet finally, fittingly frames her story in the big, oversized Hollywood dimensions it has long deserved.

“God has shown me the future,” Tubman decrees. “And my people are free!

Amen to that!

In theaters Nov. 1, 2019

Hot Wings

Angelina Jolie rises from the fairy-tale train wreck of new ‘Maleficent’ 

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Starring Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer & Elle Fanning
Directed by Joachim Rønning

It’s good to be bad—at least that’s what Disney is hoping as it sends Angelina Jolie into the air once again for the sequel to her 2014 twist on the legend of Sleeping Beauty.

But Jolie’s Maleficent—a sexpot flying sorceress with wings like a condor, towering antlers, gleaming fanged teeth, piercing, oversized green eyes and jutting, chiseled cheekbones—isn’t really evil, just tragically misunderstood. All that stuff about the deep-sleep death hex she put on Sleeping Beauty—well, see the first movie. That all got worked out and patched up.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.Now, several years later, things are hunky-dory in the magical fairy kingdom of the moors. Maleficent is the godmother of the former Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning), who’s now the fairy Queen Aurora, wide awake and getting ready for a big wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The prince is from the adjoining, over-the-river kingdom of Ulstead, where his father, peace-loving King John (Robert Lindsay), is excited about a union that will finally officially unite the kingdoms of fairies and humans.

But Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other ideas. A lifelong fairy hater, she has sinister plans to crush Maleficent and the fairies forever.

That’s what sets the story in motion, and there’s a lot of story—and other things—moving around. The screen is often teeming with flittering, skittering fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle), lumbering tree-like gnomes and magnificent “dark fae,” an ancient, proud race of bird-like fairies forced to live in exile due to human persecution. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein look pretty good with big ol’ sets of wings.

There’s a wedding going on, a war heating up, a genocide in the works and some other meaty issues swirling about—love, loyalty, prejudice, racism, exploitation, death and why it’s always better to sow seeds of kindness rather than fan the flames of hatred. As tribal drums set the beat and nighttime campfires illuminate a peaceful, idyllic scene, the movie asks us to ponder the (timely) idea of an advanced, heavily armed civilization invading a “primitive” country, pillaging its treasures, murdering its people. It challenges us to be defined “not by where we’re from, but by who we love.”

Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) deep dives into the special-effects toybox, putting CGI creatures and creations just about anywhere and everywhere. A huge slice of the movie’s budget had to be spent on the nearly wall-to-wall FX, which at times completely overwhelms the more human elements—especially in an extended, exhausting, bombastic battle sequence.


That white gold: MIchelle Pfeiffer

I wish the movie set aside some of the computer-generated hoo-hah for a few more scenes like the delicious dinner-table snark-fest between Ingrith and Maleficent. In a story about a “war of the worlds” between characters played by two world-class, veteran actresses like Jolie and Pfeiffer, what a waste—and a shame—to only give them one real opportunity to face off and play off against each other.

The sets, gizmos and getups feel like a pixie-dust smash-up of Shakespeare, steampunk and The CW—when the movie’s not recalling moments from other films, like Avatar or The Wizard of Oz. It’s all over the place, and it’s all just a bit too much. Maleficent the winged witch may not be bad, but her movie just isn’t very good. It’s a big, overwrought, hot-mess fairy-tale train wreck—but guess who rises, Phoenix-like, from the rubble?

Of course: Angelina Jolie. This is her flick, and she owns it. She’s the big bird, the hot wings, the OG witchy woman. In this revisionist, fem-forward fairy tale—part two—Jolie soars, rising regally above the overly fussy fairy-fray to remind fans of her secure place in the Disney pantheon of live-action superstars.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil won’t win any awards, and it won’t change the world. But it might inspire a lot of little girls for a super-cool Halloween costume this year.

In theaters Oct. 18, 2019