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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The Entertainment Forecast

Dec. 16 -22

A new ‘Yellowstone’ prequel, Metallica rocks for charity & Mariah Carey at Madison Square Garden

Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton in 1923 streaming on Paramount+ 2022. Photo Credit: James Minchin III/Paramount+

Harrison Ford saddles up as Jacob Dutton for ‘1923,’ the new installment in the ‘Yellowstone’ franchise

FRIDAY, Nov. 16
Love after Lockup
Is there romance after time behind bars? This reality series, headed tonight into its new season, explores couples who met when they were doing time, and what happens now that they’re free (9 p.m., WEtv).

Metallica Presents: The Helping Hands Concert
The iconic, hard-rocking metalheads join with the young Zep-inspired band Greta van Fleet for this charity show to raise funds fighting hunger around the globe (Paramount+).

If you think being an international spy is all glamorous, James Bond stuff, watch this true-story documentary about the 2006 poisoning of Russian agent and the 10-year hunt for his murderer (AMC+ and Sundance Now).

SUNDAY, Dec. 18
The Sound of Music
Lift your holiday spirits with this classic song-filled, Oscar-winning 1965 movie (which has become a Christmas-time TV staple) based on the Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway musical. Sing along with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the cast to “Edelweiss,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and other soundtrack favorites. Fun fact: Plummer intensely detested working on the film, cynically referring to it as “The Sound of Mucus” and describing acting alongside Andrews, his sweet costar, as “like behind hit over the head with a big Valentine’s card, every day” (7 p.m., ABC).

Yellowstone fans, rejoice. Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren star in this new series, the next in the popular franchise, about the origins of the Dutton ranching family in the early 20th Century—an era of the Great Depression, the end of Prohibition and historic drought (Paramount+)

TUESDAY, Nov. 20
Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas to All!
The best-selling female superstar with the five-octave vocal range hosts this concert special from Madison Square Garden, performing festive holiday hits—including, of course, her chart-topping seasonal favorite “All I Want for Christmas is You” (8 p.m., CBS).


Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for that special Game of Thrones fan? Then hie thee to House of the Dragon: The Complete First Season (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment). The bloody-good sequel to the groundbreaking HBO series gets the royal treatment in this 8-disc box set loaded with nine bonus features and all 10 epic episodes.

The family friendly adventure romp Secret Headquarters (Paramount Home Entertainment) stars Owen Wilson as the world’s most awesome superhero, forced back into action when kids discover his lair.

Get on The Staircase (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment), the new DVD and Blu-ray release of the hit HBO Max series about a real-life murder mystery that turned into a media circus. Starring Collin Firth and Toni Collette.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
The dang-near-indestructible espionage all-star is back for season as John Krasinski returns to the role in an action-packed race against time—and on the run from both the CIA and an underground criminal faction chasing him across Europe (Prime Video).

The Letter: A Message for Our Earth
Based on a controversial 2015 letter from Pope Francis reflecting on the precarious state of our planet, this documentary explores how global warming continues to affect people around the world (8 p.m., PBS).


A perfect Christmas gift for all rock fans, Shot! By Rock: The Photography of Mick Rock (Weldon Owen) is a picture-packed coffee-table chronicle showcasing the wide work of the acclaimed London-based photog who “shot the Seventies” in all its rock ‘n’ roll glory.

The Best Man: The Final Chapters
Series based on the Universal film-comedy franchise picks up the lives of its character as midlife crisis meets later-life renaissance, relationships evolve and past grievances re-emerge. Starring Morris Chestnut, Melissa De Sousa, Taye Diggs and Terrence Howard (Peacock).

Top Gun: Maverick
Hit the holidays on a high note with this summer’s megahit Tom Cruise flick—a long-awaited follow-up to the 1986 big-screen smash—as it soars into streaming (Paramount+).

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.

The Entertainment Forecast

Dec. 9 – 15

Top picks for TV, streaming, reading, home entertainment & more

A Christmas tree lights up, the Mormon Tabernacle choir sings & Amy and Maya reunite

Former SNL castmates Maya Rudolph & Amy Pohler host “Baking It” Monday on NBC.

FRIDAY, Dec. 9
Something From Tiffany’s
Reese Witherspoon is a producer of this holiday romcom starring Zoey Deutch (above) as a woman whose life is upended when an engagement ring meant for someone else leads her to the person she’s meant to be with (Prime Video).

Will Smith stars in this new slave drama as a plantation escapee who evades murderous hunters and the swamps of Louisiana on his run for freedom. With Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa, and inspired by the image of a whipped man photographed during a Union Army medical examination (Apple TV+).

Space has fascinated us, from long before we were able to get there. Space Craze (Smithsonian) examines America’s deep attraction to outer space, as fed and nurtured through pop culture (Buck Rogers, toy ray guys, Star Trek, Star Wars), spurred by the Cold War, and eventually stoked by the real-world pioneering of NASA astronauts and modern-day kajillionaires.

Happy Gilmore
This 1996 sports comedy stars Adam Sandler as an unsuccessful ice hockey player who finds he has a new talent—for golf. The scuffle between Sandler’s character and TV gameshow host Bob Barker won an MTV Movie Award for “Best Fight” (11 p.m., TNT).

A Christmas Fumble
What happens when a crisis-management queen (LeToya Luckett) gets a gig handling a breaking scandal for a pro football player (Finness Mitchell)…who happens to be her old flame? (9 p.m., Own).

SUNDAY, Dec. 11
National Christmas Tree Lighting
Yeah, your Christmas tree in the family room is cool. But this one is the national Christmas tree, it’s enormous, and tonight marks its 100th birthday. Light up the holidays with this tradition from Washington, D.C., featuring an all-star lineup of musical performances by Gloria Estefan, Joss Stone, Shania Twain and host LL Cool J (8 p.m., CBS).

Master of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly
Documentary profiles the enigmatic artist behind glass sculptures that float through the rivers of Finland, bob in the narrow canals of Venice and blossom across the ceilings of the Bellagio in Las Vegas (9 p.m., Smithsonian).

MONDAY, Dec. 12
Baking It
SNL alums Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph host this special holiday edition of the baking competition series featuring some of their famous friends (10 p.m., NBC).

TUESDAY, Dec. 13
New drama series, based on the novel of the same name, about a young Black aspiring author (Mallori Johnson) who finds herself pulled back and forth in time, emerging at a 19th century plantation with ties to her “modern” life (Hulu).

Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Tony nominee Megan Hilty and actor Neal MacDonough join the iconic singing ensemble for this Irish-inspired edition of the annual celebration of music and holiday traditions (8 p.m., PBS).

Dog lovers will find their tails wagging with delight at Old Friends: A Dogumentary (MVD Entertainment), an inspiring, paw-some documentary about a Tennessee animal sanctuary specifically for older canines.

George Clooney and Julia Roberts are having a ball in the rollicking romcom Ticket to Paradise (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) as a pair of exes on a mission to stop their lovestruck daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) from making the same matrimonial mistake they did.

A Very Backstreet Christmas
The Backstreet Boys perform songs from their new Christmas album, plus classic hits, in this holiday special (8 p.m., ABC).

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Drama based on the true story of a legendary Japanese soldier who spent 30 years in the Philippine jungle, refusing to surrender because he wasn’t convinced World War II was over. For extra credit, watch the 1965 Gilligan’s Island episode, “So Sorry, My Island Now,” which riffed on the real-world saga (VOD).

The Parent Test
Host Ali Wentworth explores a variety of diverse parenting styles in this thought-provoking new series, based on an Australian TV hit (10 p.m., ABC).

H.E.R. & Josh Grobin headline an all-star anniversary presentation of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration have art Two-hour special honors the 30th anniversary of the beloved Disney animated classic with classic scenes and highlights from the film, new musical numbers and performances by hosts Josh Groban and H.E.R., plus Rita Moreno, Martin Short, David Alan Grier and Shania Twain—as Mrs. Potts! (8 p.m., ABC).

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?

The Entertainment Forecast

Dec. 2 – 8

Top picks for TV, books, music, home entertainment & more

A steamy new take on a romance classic, all hail country music’s king and queen, & celebs play bar games

FRIDAY, Dec. 2
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Steamy new adaptation of the classic D.H. Lawrence novel stars Emma Corwin (above) as the wealthy Englishwoman who finds that love—and marriage—ain’t what it was cracked up to be (Netflix).

Firefly Lane
Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke return to their roles for season two of the drama about lifelong best friends facing the ultimate test of their bond and wanting to nurture the other relationships in their lives (Netflix).

Pentatonix: Around the World for the Holidays
The superstar a cappella group goes on a magical musical whirlwind trip around globe in this streaming special, gathering holiday cheer and inspiration (Disney+).

The Great Holiday Bake War
Can a yummy recipe have all the ingredients for romance? Find out in this original network movie starring LeToya Luckett and Finesse Mitchell as contestants who meet on a holiday baking competition (9 p.m., Own).

SUNDAY, Dec. 4
Fit for Christmas
Amanda Kloots (of TV’s The Talk) executive-produced and stars in this new holiday flick as a Montana fitness instructor who falls for a mysterious businessman, complicating both of their plans (8:30 p.m., CBS).

George & Tammy
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain star in this six-episode saga about the turbulent, often torrid relationship of superstar country music couple George Jones and Tammy Wynette (9 p.m., Showtime).

Home Town
Renovation experts Erin and Ben Napier (left) return for a new season of bringing new life to outdated homes in their own small town of Laurel, Miss. (8 p.m., HGTV).

MONDAY, Dec. 5
Country star Blake Sheldon and buddy Carson Daily are the rowdy ringleaders of this wild new game show, hosted by WWE wrestling superstar Nikki Bella, pitting their celebrity friends against each other in “bar games” at Sheldon’s Old Red nightspot in Nashville. With appearances by

His Dark Materials
Season three of the series, based on the final novel in author Philip Pullman’s award-winning epic fantasy series, finds the prophesized child (Dafne Keen) venturing to a dark place as her father’s war against the Authority edges closer. With Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy (9 p.m., HBO).

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
It wouldn’t feel like the holidays without a viewing of this classic 1966 TV special, featuring the voice of Boris Karloff as the green-goblin Christmas thief transformed by the sweetness of the season (7:30 p.m., TNT).

Tiny Toony’s Christmas Carol
Get in the ha-ha holiday spirit with this Dickens-themed roundup of classic ‘toons from Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Porky the Pig and others, plus vintage holiday shorts rarely seen on broadcast TV (8 p.m., MeTV).

Liam Gallagher: Knebworth 22
Let’s rock! Documentary and full concert chronicles the Oasis frontman’s return to the stage at England’s iconic music venue (Paramount+).

The Goldbergs
In this holiday episode, Erica buys a festive baby toy and Beverly goes full Grinch in an attempt to steal Christmas (8:30 p.m., ABC).

The Great Holiday Baking Special
Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith are the judges, and Ellie Kemper and Zach Cherry host this celebrity-filled holiday special, in which you’re invited “into the tent” for a star-studded competition of whisking, baking and faking (Roku Channel).

CMA Country Christmas
Carly Pierce hosts this 13th annual holiday TV musical special, with performances by Steven Curtis Chapman, Scotty McCreery, Marin Morris, Old Dominion, The War and Treaty, and more, all filmed on colorful Christmas-themed sets in Nashville, Tenn. (9 p.m., CBS).

The Real Housewives of Miami
New season six of the feisty franchise drama turns up new heat in the Sunshine State with its returning high-drama housewives and some new acquaintances (Peacock).

Doom Patrol
Brendon Fraser, Matt Bomer, April Bowlby and Michelle Gomez star in season four of the action-packed series based on characters in DC Comics, about a group of people who all suffered horrible accidents that left them with superhuman abilities (HBO and HBO Max).


Relive the smooth, spiritually-inclined grooves of the 1972 Cat Stevens’ No. 1 platinum album Catch Bull at Four—the best-selling album of his entire career—with this newly remastered vinyl 50th anniversary re-release (AME/Ume). 

The seminal sounds of the Beach Boys can be rediscovered in the new box set Sail On Sailor-1972 (Capitol/Ume). The multi-disc collection, available as both CDs and LPs, includes rarities, remastered versions of original albums from the group’s post-pop period, and a live Carnegie Hall concert.

Sweet indeed! The cast recording of the Broadway smash A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical (UMe) is a tune-filled journey through the iconic singer-songwriter’s catalog of hits, including “Sweet Caroline,” “I’m a Believer,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Solitary Man.”

Legendary former Beatle Paul McCartney sounds as great as ever on The 7” Singles Box, a new-release collection of 80 career-spanning single releases, newly remastered on CD, including “My Love,” “Live and Let Die,” “Band on the Run,” “Silly Love Songs,” plus rare mono recordings of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Too Many People.”


Long before the #MeToo movement, Joyce Chopra was breaking down barriers in Hollywood. Find about how in Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond (City Lights). As this new bio details, among her many other achievements, Chopra produced the first TV-movie adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Blonde—beating the controversial Netflix adaptation (starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe) to the screen by 20 years.

Learn about the rockin’ roots of the music that changed the world in The Birth of Rock & Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records (Wheldon Owen) by noted music journalists Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott. This lavishly illustrated coffee-table showcase details the start of a musical revolution in Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, B.B. King and others churned out an explosive mix of hillbilly boogie, Beale Street blues, Southern soul and juke-joint jump at visionary producer Sam Philliips’ now-legendary studio.

The coolest cat in all of pop culture is the Bat. Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight, by Andrew Farago and Gina McIntyre (Insight Editions), spreads its wings with a lavishly illustrated tour of Batman across the spectrum of entertainment, from comic books and TV to animation and live action, video games and ultimately a franchise of blockbuster movies.


One of TV’s hottest series is now available on Blu-ray. The sixth and final season of Better Call Saul (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) follows star Bob Odenkirk as he dramatizes the last leg of his character’s transformational journey from a former con artist into criminal lawyer Saul Goodman.

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.

The Entertainment Forecast

Nov. 25 – Dec. 1

Top picks for TV, streaming, home entertainment & more!

Omari Hardwick & Marsai Martin star in ‘Fantasy Football.’

FRIDAY, Nov. 25
Fantasy Football
Family sports comedy film, set in a fictional world around the Atlanta Falcons, stars Marsai Martin as a young woman who can magically control the moves of her father (Omari Hardwick) on the gridiron. With Kelly Rowland (Paramount+)

Stepping into the Holidays
Mario Lopez stars as a former Broadway idol who returns to his hometown for Christmas after being fired as the host of a TV dance competition. Can he help the owner of the local dance studio (Jana Kramer) revive the burg’s annual holiday show? What do you think? (8 p.m., Lifetime).

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Chris Pratt, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper and Dave Bautista reprise their movie roles in this merry Christmas adventure about the Guardians’ mission to make this Christmas an unforgettable holiday (Pratt) (Disney+).

Robbie the Reindeer
Animated special about a reindeer in training for the “reindeer games” to determine the coveted spots on Santa’s sleigh team (8 p.m., CBS).

Soul Train Awards
All aboard! This present-day awards event preserves the cultural legacy of the landmark 1970s series with appearances from some of the brightest stars in Black entertainment (8 p.m., BET, MTV2, VH1). 

SUNDAY, Nov. 27
Christmas Cooking Challenge
In tonight’s episode, hosts Ree Drummond and Eddie Jackson oversee talented cookie makers all trying their best to end up on Santa’s good list and go home with a $10,000 prize (8 p.m., Food Network).

A Christmas…Present
After multiple projects for the Hallmark network, Full (and Fuller) House star Candace Cameron Bure branches out as producer and star of this new holiday movie, on a new network, about a harried real estate agent who learns to value the reason for the season (Great American Family).

MONDAY, Nov. 28
The Great Christmas Light Fight
The search is on for season 10 and more homes with extravagant holiday lighting and over-the-top decorations (10 p.m., ABC).

Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin
New installment of the PP franchise stars Adam Levin reprising his movie role as Bumper Allen, now venturing to Germany when one of his songs becomes a big hit there. With Sarah Hyland (Peacock).

Kids Baking Championship: All Star Holiday Homecoming
Hosts Duff Goldman and Valerie Bertinelli welcome back four previous winners to show off their holiday-cheer kitchen skills (9 p.m., Food Network and Discovery+).

TUESDAY, Nov. 29
Reindeer in Here
New animated holiday original—following tonight’s 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—is about a young reindeer and his friends who band together to save Christmas. Of course! (9 p.m., CBS).

Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies
True-crime lovers will love this: For the first time, Casey Anthony sits down to answer questions in this three-part limited-series event, sharing her side of the story about her culture-defining trial for killing her own child—and her subsequent acquittal—11 years ago (Peacock).

Live-action fantasy adventure series—based on the 1988 movie—features an international cast on an epic adventure set in a magical world with brownies, sorcerers, trolls and other mythical creatures—and a young girl destined to unite the realms, defeat an evil queen and bring light to the doom-y darkness (Disney+)

A criminal mediator from Chicago is forced to flee for his life and hide out in a small Australian coastal community while posing as the community’s new reverend. Starring Colin Donnell, PJ Byrne and Ed Oxenbould (Peacock).

New series about a sex and relationship “fixer” (Joyful Drake) who becomes the gatekeeper and problem solver for rich and famous clients who don’t want their between-the-sheets secrets airing out in public (ALLBLK).

Inside the Black Box
New season of the interview series spotlighting artists of color, from producers, directors and writers to musicians, as they reflect on how their complexions have impacted their journeys to success (Crackle).

Zion Morino and Savannah Lee Smith bring the glitter to ‘Gossip Girl.’

Gossip Girl
It’s back to school time tonight for season two of the rebooted series based on the novels of bestselling author Cicily von Giegzesar, about the juicy goings-on at an exclusive Manhattan academy (HBO Max).

Dolly Parton’s Magic Mountain Christmas
The country queen stars in this new holiday special—as herself, putting together a Christmas TV special about the Tennessee “mountain magic” at her theme park, Dollywood. With guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus and more (8 p.m., NBC).

Read all about it in Totally Wired (Thames and Hudson)—author Paul Gorman’s epic account of how once-thriving “music journalism” became a force through magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Melody Maker and a plethora of smaller, niche ‘zines), giving rise to a pop-cultural explosion of writers, photographers and print outlets. 

How powerful is the influence of entertainment? Pretty potent, according to Entertainment Nation (Smithsonian), an engrossing dive into the wide-ranging effects of movies, TV, music and spectator sports. The handsome volume includes 225 photos of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s pop culture collection, including Frank Sinatra‘s bowtie, Cyndi Lauper‘s dress and a costume from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Prepare to enter a suburban dystopia in Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment), a psychological thriller about a young housewife (Florence Pugh) who comes to realize something is seriously wrong with the idealized life she’s made with her husband (Harry Styles). Maybe the creepy CEO of her hubs’ company (Chris Pine) has something to do with it….


Hey, hey, it’s the Monkees! The new Headquarters: Super Deluxe Edition (Rhino) features four CDs and a 7” vinyl. It’s a treasure trove of previously unreleased tracks, early demos, alternative takes and remixes, which provide a soundtrack for the made-for-TV ensemble’s struggle for creative control of their music with their music supervisor, Don Kirschner—and a snapshot of the group’s enthusiastic emergence as a “real band.”