Grim Fairy Tale

Pulpy little crazy-train thriller asks: Who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

GRETA
Greta
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz & Isabelle Huppert
Directed by Neil Jordan
Rated R

Folklorists tell us that fairy tales once had a practical component at a time when the world was a much darker, more dangerous place. They were cautionary yarns that carried warnings for children to steer clear of wild animals, keep out of the forest and avoid strangers—who might bamboozle them, harm them, steal them or even kill them.

The world is still a dangerous place, as we know.

In Greta, a young woman named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) reminds us all again when she innocently returns a left-behind purse she finds on a New York City subway to its rightful owner, a lonely older widower named Greta (French actress Isabelle Huppert) who lives alone in a big, old back-alley apartment, loves classical music—and desperately wants a new friend.

How desperately?

Well, let’s just say it doesn’t take long before things start to become desperate, indeed. Frances, a recent transplant to the Big Apple, tries to be friendly at first. She visits Greta again, helps her cook, assists her in picking out a new shelter dog.  

GRETA

Maika Monroe and Chloë Grace Moretz

Frances’ spunky flatmate, Erica (Maika Monroe), can’t believe just how quickly Frances—who’s recently lost her own mother—has let herself become entangled with Greta. “You’ve like, totally adopted this woman—and you hardly know her!” Erica says. “She’s not your mother.”  

And soon enough, it becomes clear that Greta has a screw—or two—loose. She calls, she texts—and she stalks. She shows up where Frances works, at an upscale restaurant, making a scene. She sends Frances flowers, keeps popping up in the hallway of her apartment building, and follows her roommate. Cops tell Frances they can’t really do anything. “Ignore her,” one policeman tells Frances. “She’s just looking for attention.”

Of course, attention isn’t what Greta’s looking for, as we—and Frances—find out.

Greta feels, in many ways, like a modern-day fairy tale. Greta’s home—dark, forbidding, off the “beaten path” of a busy street—is like the lair at end of a windswept woodland trail. I halfway expected to see Hansel and Gretel, or the Three Little Pigs, peeping around the potted plants beside the front door.

Greta is the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Stepmother and the Wicked Witch, all rolled into one. And when she sits at her ancient upright piano and plays Franz Liszt, or puts Chopin on the turntable, those Euro maestros sound more creepy than classical—especially when they mask the muffled thumps and thuds coming from the wall behind the piano.

And Frances is a contemporary Red Riding Hood, down to her hood-ie (although it’s gray), and her ride is a bicycle as she ventures to Greta’s house. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Frances is, and her fear turns out to be completely justified. Greta is a monster.

Irish director Neil Jordan won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for the gender-bending The Crying Game back in 1992. Greta’s no award winner, I’m afraid, but it is a tight, pulpy, nasty little crazy-train psychological thriller that takes a sharp turn into something even nastier in the home stretch. You won’t be shocked, or really even surprised, when this fairy tale goes “grim.”

But for all its campy craft, there’s a somewhat serious thread running throughout about grief, loss and what drives people to madness. The Evil Queen who bedeviled Snow White may have had some serious psychological or environmental issues that turned her into a cold, cruel, vain, jealous sorceress with a magic mirror and a poisoned apple—but we never hear about them.

GRETAAt only 22, Moretz already has more than 60 movie and TV roles on her resume, including last year’s horror film Suspiria, the 2013 remake of Carrie and the 2016 comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Here she’s certainly believable as a smart, sensible “good girl” trying to do the right thing, who quickly gets sucked into a situation that turns icky, then ugly, then downright dangerous and dire.

Monroe, who plays Frances’ apartment mate and old college roomie, best known for the breakout 2014 horror flick It Follows, is the audience surrogate for the film—the voice of reason, question and doubt. Believe me, you’d want her as your best friend, too.

And Huppert, the international screen, TV and stage veteran who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Elle in 2016, camps it up as Greta, nimbly nibbling around the edges of craziness before diving in fully and chewing up the scenery. She dances, she screams, she purrs, she wipes up a puddle of blood, she pulls out a hypodermic syringe, she slams the lid—and locks the hasp—on a big, wooden, coffin-like box filled with toys, stuffed animals and…

So—who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

In theaters March 1, 2019

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Dragon Tales

A heartwarming end to a high-flying, two-decade franchise

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Kristen Wiig & Jonah Hill
Directed by Dean DeBlois
PG

Ever seen a dragon fly?

They crop up all along our pop-cultural pantheon—there’s Smaug from The Lord of the Rings, Peter Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and the magnificent airborne beasts in Game of Thrones.

And there’s Toothless, the sleek, black “Night Fury” first introduced in DreamWorks’ acclaimed, animated How to Train Your Dragon back in 2010. Now the third and final installment of Toothless’ tale comes to the screen with most of the original vocal cast again aboard, and new visual wonders to behold.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois, who also directed and wrote the first two films, returns as well, giving the movie and its characters a sense of seamless continuity, even though the “trilogy” and its timeline are spread out across nearly a decade.

The Hidden World is a warmhearted, high-spirted, coming-of-age adventure about the young Viking-heir chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon, living in the dragon utopia that Hiccup and his clan have built on the island of Berk. Vikings—as fans of the franchise know, and other viewers are quickly brought up to speed—once feared and fought dragons, but now coexist with them in peace and harmony.

Hiccup has taken on his leadership role since the death of his kindly father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, seen in flashbacks). Other characters who flock and flitter around him for support (and a steady, mead-like flow of comedy) are his mother (Cate Blanchett), the hulking blacksmith Gobbler the Belch (Craig Ferguson); his strong, confident, warrior-sidekick sweetie, Astrid (America Ferrera); and his fellow dragon-riding Viking buds Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Eret (Kit Harington) and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).   

Everyone rallies when Berk comes under attack by the villainous dragon slayer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), who sees Berk’s “toxic notion” of dragon domestication as “the undoing of civilization.” Grimmel especially wants to capture—and destroy—the Night Fury, Toothless, the last of its kind, and he “baits” him with another dragon, a female.

The pure white “Light Fury” is the exact opposite of Toothless—bright where he is dark, day where he is night, yin where he is yang. Guess what? Toothless falls in love.

Most of the story has to do with Hiccup’s decision to vacate Berk and seek a new home—the so-called “Hidden World,” the legendary origin of all dragons, as rumored to exist in ancient mariners’ myths. There they’d be safe forever from Grimmel and other dragon-haters. But there’s also an overriding, unmistakable, bittersweet theme of growing up and letting go, as both Hiccup and Toothless embrace the emotions that come with being older, wiser and ready for the next stages of their lives.

The film is awash in color, texture and eye-popping computer-generated effects, immersing viewers in an explosively imaginative world of wildly creative locations, creatures and characters. A “courtship” ritual between Toothless and the Light Fury is both humorous and heartfelt, and their romantic night flight, through the heart of a thundercloud and across the shimmering sea, hits emotional and visual high notes.

The movie—and the entire franchise—belongs to Hiccup and Toothless, but props have to be given to the bite and bile F. Murray Abraham puts into Grimmel, the maleficent dragon slayer. In a make-believe movie—and one intended, in large part, for a younger audience—he creates a character with chilling, very grownup undertones of the constant threat of hate in the real world, be ye Viking, dragon or otherwise.

And the ever-dependable Kristin Wiig gets to shine especially for few knockout moments in a spotlight scene when the constantly chattering Ruffnut is taken prisoner by Grimmel—but only temporarily. It’s a reminder about just how impressive her comedy chops are, even when it’s only her voice, coming through a character that it took an army of illustrators and visual-effects artists to bring to lanky life.    

But the thing that might impress you most about all the impressive things, in this most impressive movie, full of modern, high-tech movie magic and dynamic digital mojo, is how you might find yourself dabbing a very real tear or two away from your eyes when it’s over.

Just keep reminding yourself: It’s only—sniff—a movie about dragons, after all. And dragons aren’t real…are they?

For the final, closing, soaring chapter of this popular, successful franchise about a Viking boy and his faithful, flying dragon, the third time is definitely a charm—and a charmer.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 22, 2019

The Dead Zone

Death comes to us all—sometimes in a big, goofy baby mask and a hoodie, again and again again

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Happy Death Day 2U
Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard & Phi Vu
Directed by Christopher Landon
PG-13

So you think you’re stuck in a same-old, same-old kind of rut?

Consider the Sisyphean circumstances of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a young coed who not only can’t seem to get out of college, but who keeps dying—murdered, to be exact—on her birthday, over and over and over again.

Bum-mer.

That was the premise of Happy Death Day, a modest little horror hit in 2017. In that movie, Tree kept waking up on her birthday anew, reliving its experiences Groundhog Day-style, each day capped by another unfortunate encounter with the Grim Reaper. This was her fate, repeatedly, until she figured out who was behind her murder(s), and why, and how she could finally break the sequence.

It was a taut, wickedly engaging funhouse puzzle with a unique twist on the time-honored genre of “attractive young women in peril.”

And we know that Hollywood can’t let a good thing just slip away.

In this frightfully fun, cheekily self-aware sequel, when one of her campus mates, Ryan (Phi Vu), has a freak-out deja-vu “death” experience, Tree (Jessica Rothe, reprising her role) knows exactly what’s happening—her birthday curse has somehow returned. And it’s spread to other people now. The killer again wears the creepy, snaggle-toothed, big-baby mascot mask of their university, which makes it easy for him (or her) to hide, disguised, in plain sight.

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Jessica Rothe with Israel Broussard—and a quantum time machine

Tree discovers that the cause of all the trouble is a quantum time machine, a thesis project built by Ryan and some of his fellow science-nerd students. (Ah, those meddling scientists!) The Big Bang Theory-ish doohickey is a cooling reactor that slows down time on a molecular level and allows multiple dimensions to overlap and interloop.

That “explains” why people keep getting killed over and over again—they’re stuck in a multi-dimensional loop. “Do I look like I know what a multi-dimension is?!” asks an exasperated Tree, when one of the science students attempts to enlighten her.

Eventually Tree gets stuck in the loop again, too, and has to work with Ryan to find a way to stop the killer, close the loop and end the die-wake-repeat cycle—and tie up a couple of other loose ends with her family, her boyfriend (Israel Broussard) and her sorority pal (Ruby Modine).

Director Christopher Landon, who also returns to the job, stirs a brisk streak of send-up humor, and outright comedy, into the killer mix—this isn’t a bloody slasher film, by any stretch. It’s more Scooby Doo than Scream, and it’s also got a potent undercurrent of real emotion, as Tree has to make some hard decisions and choices about her past, present and future. “Every day is a chance to be someone better,” she says.

HDD2U 4Death can be a drag, but when it’s an everyday thing, you might as well get some laughs out of it, right? In in one darkly whimsical montage sequence, Tree takes matters into her own hands, causing her own demise in several creative ways to explore various loops—seeking the “right” one to close—without having to wait to be murdered.

Look her up on IMDB and you’ll see that the actress who plays Tree was one of the roommates of Emma Stone’s character in the Oscar-sweeping La La Land. They all sang and danced together in the big go-out-on-the-town number, “Someone in the Crowd.”

That’s the way it is in Hollywood, and in life. One day you’re singing and dancing and painting the town, the next you’re gleefully diving headfirst into a wood chipper or getting chased off the top of skyscraper, plunging to the pavement below.

As Happy Death Day 2U impishly reminds us, life is rich and rewarding, but death comes to us all—and if you’re Tree Gelbman, it just keeps coming, in a big, goofy baby mask, with a big, shiny knife, again and again and again.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 15, 2019

 

Mind Games

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

WHAT MEN WANT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT MEN WANT

Shaquille O’Neal

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

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

WHAT MEN WANT

Pete Davidson

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

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

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

We get it: She’s a fighter.

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

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

In theaters Feb. 8, 2019

 

In Pieces

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

Film Title: Glass

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

What if comic book superheroes are real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Title: Glass

Sarah Paulson

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

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

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

What do you think?

Film Title: Glass

Ana Taylor-Joy with McAvoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks like Dr. Staple could have her hands full.

In theaters Jan. 18, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

Con Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the upside 7

Nicole Kidman

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

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

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

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

THE UPSIDE

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

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

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

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

As they say in France, Oui, indeed.

In theaters Jan. 11, 2019

Smashing

Nicole Kidman De-Glams as a Gritty, Wrecked, Wracked L.A. Detective

Destroyer_IMDB-2

Destroyer
Starring Nicole Kidman & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Karyn Kusama
R

She’s one of the most strikingly beautiful women in the movies, but in her latest flick, Nicole Kidman looks like a wreck.

The star of TV’s Big Little Lies and such box-office hits as Moulin Rouge, Far and Away, Days of Thunder and The Stepford Wives de-glamorizes to the extreme in Destroyer as a damaged-goods L.A. detective whose life was derailed after a deep-cover sting operation took a very wrong turn.

Now Erin Bell is a hollowed-out shell of her former self, haunted by the tortured trauma of her past, when she receives an unexpected reminder of the very thing that ruined her life.

“Do you really want to go back down that hole again?” asks one of her fellow detectives.

Kidman here is something to see—because you’ve never seen her looking anything like it. Rail thin, with dark, sunken eyes, blanched skin and drab clothes that look like they’re hanging off a scarecrow, Erin Bell doesn’t appear to have bathed, brushed her teeth or combed her hair in weeks, maybe months. And it probably took a lot of Hollywood makeup to make it look like makeup isn’t something she’s thought about for a long, long time. As she squints and shuffles in the scorching, searing L.A. sun, she’s a piece of walking beef jerky. And she’s certainly just as tough. This beef jerky can bite back.

Destroyer_IMDB-4

Kidman & Sebastian Stan

Some 17 years ago, Bell was a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy recruit assigned to a dangerous assignment with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) that involved infiltrating a ruthless criminal gang with a thing for robbing banks. But one big heist went horribly wrong, the gang’s murderous, cultish leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), got away, and Erin’s never been the same.

Now, apparently, Silas has resurfaced, and she’s driven to find him and finish the job.

As she burrows into L.A.’s seedy, seamy underbelly looking for people and clues, we’re taken into the cracks and crevices where criminals crawl like vermin. We meet an illegal gun merchant, a dying jailbird, and a cocky, money-laundering lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who reminds the battered, burned-out detective that she’s already fought this battle before—and it didn’t turn out so well.

“You chose to play cops and robbers, and you lost, big-time,” he smugly tells her.

Exactly what happened, and what was lost, is explained in back-and-forth flashbacks. Director Karyn Kusama—whose previous films include Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez, AEon Flux with Charlize Theron and Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox—has created a stark, tense, bleak-looking film-noir crime-mystery character study that challenges viewers with multiple layers and tricky time-shift changes, especially as things bear down into the home stretch.

It also challenges its audience with a character whose “appeal” is in the sympathy it generates for her being so doggedly unappealing. She’s bitter, morose, wracked with guilt and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world—at least not anymore.

Detective Bell can’t even get her rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) to have a civil conversation. Her exasperated ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) longs for the life they might have had together. Her cop co-workers practically hold their noses when she walks by.

She does whatever it takes to do what she has to do—bashing heads with a gun barrel or a soap dish, bartering a sexual favor for a dollop of information, beating a bank robber to a bloody pulp then tossing her into her car trunk. It’s a Hollywood double standard that we’re accustomed to seeing guys—and guy cops—behave this way, but rarely women. It’s a down-and-dirty walk on the wild side that few actresses ever take.

Destroyer_IMDB-3

This isn’t really a movie to enjoy so much as to appreciate—for the skill of its storytelling, the craftsmanship of its filmmaking, and the performance and physical transformation of Kidman into something, and someone, eaten away from the inside by a cancer of regret, self-loathing, grief and an all-consuming need for vengeance.

You’ll probably feel a bit grimy and worn-out when it’s over, especially after the twisty-turn at the end that loops back on everything that’s come before. You may not be wrecked, but you could be due for a realignment.

Destroyer is no holly-jolly Christmas ride on the holiday express. But if you’re up for a gritty, grueling dive into a pummeling puzzle of bumps, bruises, gunfire, gristle, twists, turns, thumps, thwacks, slaps and surprises, climb on board.

Just be sure to bring your own soap, makeup and toothbrush.

In theaters Dec. 25, 2018

All Hail the New Mary

Emily Blunt Soars as Disney’s Magic Nanny 2.0

MPR6 (72)Mary Poppins Returns
Starring Emily Blunt & Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Rob Marshall
PG

If you’ve been waiting for your movie Christmas present, here it is: Walt Disney’s super-nanny is soaring again.

Mary Poppins Returns, the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 crown-jewel classic, is an eye-popping charmer of song and dance with an all-star cast, cascades of old-school, feel-good warmth, audaciously entertaining showmanship and massive dollops of Disney enchantment.    

All hail Emily Blunt as the new Mary, floating down from the sky on a kite, like a Disney deity, to sprinkle her mesmerizing mojo on a new generation. She’s not Julie Andrews, of course, who won an Oscar for the role—one of five Academy Awards bestowed on the original Mary Poppins, now enshrined in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance.

But Blunt is a pitch-perfect 2.0, fresh and familiar at the same time as she drops in as moviedom’s most famous nanny on 1930s Depression-era London—some 25 years after the events of the first film. She’s come to help the now-adult Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), the siblings who were tykes in the original and have now aged into adulthood.

Now they’re grownups with grown-up problems. Michael is a widower raising three precocious young children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) with the help of Jane and a harried housekeeper (Julie Walters). But there’s a wolf at the door of the beloved Banks home on Cherry Tree Lane: the dastardly banker (Colin Firth) who won’t cut them any slack on their dangerously overdue mortgage.

Mary Poppins ReturnsBroadway’s award-winning Hamilton virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda is a singing, dancing dynamo as Jack, the plucky street lamplighter whose street smarts include knowing all about Mary. The great Meryl Streep has a (goof)ball in her scene as the ditzy, over-the-top Topsy, Mary’s gypsy-like cousin in her flippity-flopped fix-it shop. Angela Lansbury fills the sky with colorful balloons and a buoyant message of optimism.

Dick Van Dyke, the only star from the original Mary Poppins, makes a very special VIP character appearance. He’s 93, still hoofing and hamming!

But the heart and soul of the movie belongs to Blunt as the lovely, mysterious, magical Mary, who first appeared in the novels of P.L. Travers beginning in 1934. After starring in the gritty Sicario, the mystery-thriller The Girl on the Train and alongside her director-husband, John Krasinski, in his acclaimed horror chiller A Quiet Place, she’s now in a role where the sky’s the limit, quite literally.

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Meryl Streep

Fans of the original Mary Poppins will have a lot of fun connecting the nostalgic dots in the movie all the way back to 1964—the kite from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the dancing cartoon animals (those penguins!), the eccentric, canon-firing neighbor, Admiral Boom (David Warner), among many other things.

But audiences will be most excited about what’s new, particularly the slate of terrific all-new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray)—from wistful ballads (“The Place Where Lost Things Go”) to full-on Broadway-style production numbers (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”). There’s a zippy, zany comedic nugget, “Turning Turtle,” and a rousing finale, “Nowhere to Go But Up.” Listen closely and you’ll catch wonderful wafting notes of classic Sherman Brothers’ songs from the original film woven into the background score.

Nannies are hired for children—remember, Jane and Michael Banks were kids in the first movie. Mary’s message has always been about how adults so easily lose their childhood joys: play, imagination and the boundless embrace of life before it becomes such a burden, drain and drag. “Grownups forget—they always do,” says her talking, flying umbrella, its head shaped like a parrot.

She knows that sometimes you have to turn back time to recapture that feeling. Mary reminds us—and encourages us—that it might be as simple as flying a kite, singing a song, engaging in a bit of silliness or holding the string on a balloon and wondering about where it might take you.

nullIn one scene with unmistakable retro overtones of classic Disney, Mary, Jack and the kids are transported onto the glazed decorative surface of a cracked china bowl, where they talk with animals and find themselves on a daredevil “runaway-train” adventure. In another, Mary draws a bath for the children that becomes an amazing nautical escapade.

Director Rob Marshall (who also directed Streep and Blunt in the fairy-tale musical Into the Woods) draws heavily on Miranda’s Broadway chops. The show-stopping song-and-dance sequence for “A Cover is Not the Book” is a surprisingly cheeky, somewhat bawdy dancehall bit with Blunt which suggests that prim-and-proper Mary might have been reading something other than Wuthering Heights in her time off.

nullSpeaking of which, where does Mary go when she leaves? What does she do when she’s there? Where does her magic come from? We never find out. But so what? “One thing you should know about Mary Poppins,” Jack says. “She never explains anything.”

We don’t need to know—it’s enough that Mary Poppins has returned, she’s still got it, whatever it is, and Emily Blunt brings it. So don’t ask questions. Just sit back, soak in the wonder, the music, the sights, songs and magic of Mary Poppins Returns—and Mary’s timeless, Disney-delight spirit of uplift, optimism, imagination and positivity, a message that never grows old, no matter how old we get.

“I never thought I’d feel this much joy and wonder all over again,” Michael Banks says. “Thank you, Mary Poppins.”

Yes, thank you, Mary Poppins!

In theaters Dec. 19, 2018 

A Wide New Web

Worlds Collide in Spidey’s New Animated Bedazzler

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali & Kathryn Hahn

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman
PG

Superhero flicks just got a whole lot more super, a bit more crowded—and much more inclusive.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features not just one Spider-Man, but several—and not just Spider-men, but, well…

The latest entry into the Spider-film franchise is an eye-popping, animated bedazzler in which a young Brooklyn Afro-Latin teenager, Miles Morales (voiced by rapper-actor Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gets juiced with some freakish powers.

He doesn’t realize it at first, but he’s awkwardly on the way to becoming a new Spider-Man.

Of course, everyone knows—even in this movie—about Spider-Man. He’s been the subject of umpteen films and TV shows, a spectrum of merchandise and, of course, thousands of comic books and spin-offs stretching back to the 1960s. But in Miles’ movie world, Spider-Man (and his real-life alter-ego, Peter Parker, voiced by Chris Pine) meet an unfortunate demise, which makes big headlines—also sets this film into action by making a rip in time-space and plunking other Spider-People, from parallel dimensions, into Miles’ world.

And none of them had any idea they weren’t the only one, until—WHAM!—their worlds collided.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSEMiles is surprised, to say the least, when he meets another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson, who plays Nick Miller on TV’s New Girl). This one is Peter B. Parker, who’s lived a completely different but parallel life in his other dimension. Peter B. has been out of action for a while; he’s got a bit of a paunch, he’s divorced from Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) and his spandex pants don’t quite fit anymore.

Peter B. becomes Miles’ mentor as the younger Spidey gets up to speed on his skill set, and they both set about shutting down the super collider that caused the quantum-physics conundrum. If it starts up again, it could be really, really, really bad.

They’re joined by Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), an acrobatic Spider-Woman. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a talking pig; anime schoolgirl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) fights inside her high-tech transformer spider-bot; the black-and-white, trench-coat-wearing Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage) speaks like a character from a vintage Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney film.

They’re all up against the familiar old Spider-Man nemesis Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who’s willing to tear apart the universe to get back something he lost a long time ago.

Listen for Mahershala Ali as Miles’ uncle, Aaron; Lily Tomlin as May Parker, Peter’s kindly aunt; Kathryn Hahn as a scientist with a secret; and Lake Bell as Vanessa Fisk, the wife of Kingpin. And there’s a very special tribute cameo by Marvel’s late founder, Stan Lee, who died just weeks before the movie was released.

Miles Morales in Sony Pictures Animation's SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE.It’s full of fun, driving with energy and pumping with heart. There’s a lot of bang, swoosh and boom, but it packs a pretty substantial emotional wallop, as well, with themes of family, friendship, loyalty, decision and choices, and leaps of faith.

It helps to be somewhat versed in Spider-lore to catch all the riffs in the movie, which is rich in characters and references to things that have come before in movies and comic books. (The character of Miles Morales, the first Spider-Man of color, was introduced in a Marvel comic line in 2011.)

But you don’t have to be a Marvel geek to marvel in the film’s groundbreaking stylistic pizzazz, which makes scenes feel like they could easily pop off the screen and into your lap. An exhilarating rush of imagination, ingenuity and sheer kinetic exuberance, it’s a dizzyingly colorful palette of comic-book excitement electrified by an army of animators with an array of techniques and a passion for graphic storytelling. It makes most other animated movies this year look, well, like cartoons.

This cross-generational, multicultural Spider-Man is a game-changer in another way, too. The timely tale, of more than one Spider-Man, clearly suggests that anyone, of any gender, color or even species, can “wear the mask.” Anyone can be a superhero, even you or me.

Young Miles buys his first Spider-Man outfit, a kid’s costume, over-the-counter. In a scene suffused with significance I wouldn’t dare spoil, he asks if he can he bring it back if it’s not the right size.

Don’t worry, the clerk reassures him: “It always fits—eventually.” Heroes grow into the jobs they know they have to do.

Those are words of assurance to a world in need of heroes, superheroes, do-gooders and wrong-righters of every shape, size, form and fashion—especially in a time when it feels like our planet may not have super-collided, but it certainly is in need of some super-mending.

In theaters Dec. 14, 2018

In the Bleak Midwinter

Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges anchor drama in stirring family addiction tale

_DSC9362.ARWBen is Back
Starring Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges
Directed by Peter Hedges
R

In the opening scene, we see and hear a church choir singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” rehearsing for an upcoming Christmas Eve performance.

The midwinter setting of this movie is pretty bleak, indeed, as a family wrestles with the addiction of their teenage son after he returns home unexpectedly from rehab for the Christmas holiday.

Mom Holly (Julia Roberts) is delighted to see Ben (Lucas Hedges). But wary younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, who plays Claire Novak on The WB’s Supernatural and Abigail Carlson on HBO’s Big Little Lies) isn’t so sure. And stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is downright uptight.

Ben is, after all, still an addict—and it turns out he’s done some pretty dreadful things. Some of those things have followed him home.

“If he were black,” Neal tells Holly, “he’d be in jail right now.”

In the bleak midwinter, indeed.

BIB_4 (72)As tensions mount, a Christmas Eve break-in kicks things into gear for the film’s second half. Ben sets out into the night to hopefully make things right, and his mother follows on a desperate pursuit as he descends into a dark, dismal den of drug dealers, users and other rough reminders of his dangerous past.

At 21, Hedges has already made a career of playing troubled, conflicted teens, beginning with his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and continuing through terrific performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Lady Bird (2017) and this year’s Boy Erased and Mid90s.

He’s the best thing about Ben is Back—believable, raw and real.

Roberts, of course, is Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman and the Runaway Bride—a whole spectrum of high-wattage comedy-drama movie memories wrapped up in one actress. She’s intense as Ben’s fiercely loving, hyper-protective mother, and grounds her performance in the way an agonized parent might authentically behave when in fear of losing her child.

“I was friends with your mother!” Holly unloads on one wasted addict, recognizing him as a childhood friend of Ben’s. “I used to change your diapers!”

Julia doesn’t go all Halle Berry in Kidnap or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween—two other 2018 movie moms who lashed out with vengeance and violence when their kids were in trouble. That’s what Hollywood typically does (and mainstream audiences want to see) when movies “swing into action”—slam, bam, bang, bang. But Ben is Back raises the dramatic stakes without so much as ever showing a gun, knife, crossbow, ninja star or any sort of weapon, which is somewhat of a miracle for a contemporary R-rated flick.

_DSC8585-2.ARWThe writer-director, Peter Hedges, is actually Lucas’ father, which gives everything a much more personal edge—one that cuts deeper when Holly goes on a mini-tirade against pharma, government services and insurance, or berates a family physician for over-prescribing prescription painkillers that she feels started Ben down his road to addiction.

The movie’s not perfect, and sometimes feels like a timely, B-minus family drama with an A-plus cast. Especially in the home stretch, things get a little loose and sloppy—like when a crucial, life-or-death cross-town delivery, incomprehensibly, turns out to be both from and to the same character.

Drugs are a serious problem, and the movie drives that point home again and again. Tony Award-winning stage actress Rachel Bay Jones makes a poignant appearance as a morose mother whose daughter was lost to an overdose, and Australian actress Alexandra Park (Princess Eleanor on the E! series The Royals) has a pivotal scene as a recovering addict.

But Ben is Back is the Lucas and Julia show all the way. Ben may be back, but Roberts never left, and Hedges wraps up a tremendous year with another powerful, gut-punch of a performance.

The midwinter may be bleak, but his future is looking brighter than ever.

In theaters Dec. 7, 2018