Now that ‘Star Wars’ is behind us, every studio in Hollywood has a new movie just in time for the holidays (and awards eligibility). Let’s waste no time getting through them.
The first two of the holiday releases got a head start with Wednesday openings. The widest of the two was ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle‘, a sequel that nobody asked for, but is surprisingly warmly welcome. The movie serves as a direct follow-up to the classic Robin Williams kids’ movie from the ’90s. When the board game was left untouched by a generation of kids who moved onto videogames, the game adapted itself by morphing into a computer game. During after-school detention, a breakfast club foursome find the game and get sucked into the world of ‘Jumanji’ – only this time, the teenagers adopt the bodies of their in-game avatars. The nerd becomes a musclebound beefcake who never fails (Dwayne Johnson); the jock becomes a small, slow and flawed man (Kevin Hart); the hot mean girl becomes an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black); and the insecure girl become the smokin’ badass. What follows is not only hilarious for all ages, but is loaded with some pretty dirty bits that will go right over the kids’ heads… I hope.
If you’re looking for something that’s family-friendly without the innuendo, there’s ‘The Greatest Showman‘. Hinging on the early story of P.T. Barnum, the grand scale PG-rated musical is bound to be the next ‘Moulin Rouge!’. Hugh Jackman stars as the ringleader of New York’s first circus, a spectacular show of talented freaks. From the musical writers of ‘La La Land’ and this year’s big Tony winner ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, the music perfectly carries the upbeat and moral-filled story without becoming slow or preachy. While you wouldn’t think of a P.T. Barnum musical being a big hit, its crowd-pleasing final product sure left me tapping my toes with a smile on my face. The supporting cast includes Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron and Zendaya.
Friday brings three more wide releases, the widest of which is the third entry in a franchise I can’t believe has made it this far. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the poke-fun-of-itself nature of the first ‘Pitch Perfect’. The first sequel had its moments, but was totally unnecessary. As pointless as it was, ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ is a masterpiece compared to ‘Pitch Perfect 3‘. The trailers and ads have yet to hit the right note and, sadly, the movie itself can’t carry a tune either. The opening scene sets the stage for the absurdities that follow. The Barden Bellas are back, and this time they’re entangled in a hostage situation filled with action, explosions and a dangerous getaway. No joke. All of this unfolds while on a USO tour that conveniently brings another competition trope into play. Those with an undying love for the first two ‘Pitch Perfect’ movies may accept this one for what it is, but the rest of us will be wishing Universal could give us our two hours back.
Next is an R-rated comedy that has been collecting dust on the Warner Bros. shelf for quite some time. Originally titled ‘Bastards’ and later renamed ‘Father Figures‘, the brotherly comedy stars Owen Wilson and Ed Helms as two middle-age men who learn that their father didn’t die when they were kids, but is still alive and well. With late onset daddy issues, the two head off on a road trip to meet their father. Glenn Close, Terry Bradshaw, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons co-star.
In Alexander Payne’s odd new comedy ‘Downsizing‘, Matt Damon stars a guy who makes a big decision by utilizing a new service that shrinks him down to the height of just a few inches. I went into this film without seeing a trailer or reading a synopsis. Boy, was it surprising. While the first half excellently explores the new upper-class lifestyle of tiny living, the second half is sadly crushed beneath the weight of a big concept and a screenplay that has no idea where to take it. Even if Damon wasn’t currently in the public spotlight of shame, ‘Downsizing’ still wouldn’t have a chance at being a success. Christoph Waltz co-stars.
Two awards hopefuls are also out in limited release. The most notable is Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post‘. The filmmaker shot the historical drama while ‘Ready Player One’ entered post-production just because he was afraid that the screenplay would be nabbed by another director if he didn’t immediately jump on it. The topical newspaper drama tells the true story of the Washington Post going head-to-head with the White House over leaked Vietnam documents. Meryl Streep stars as the head of the paper, while Tom Hanks co-leads as the editor-in-chief. The excellent ensemble also includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons and David Cross. Although ‘The Post’ is only playing on nine screens, it will open wide in January.
Debuting on three screens is a drama that returns Christian Bale to the Western genre. From the director of ‘Crazy Heart‘ and ‘Black Mass‘, ‘Hostiles‘ is the story of an Army captain (Bale) in 1892 who is ordered to hunt and execute Native Americans. Fueled by hatred, he’s great at his job, which makes his next assignment the hardest yet. As a respect and imprisoned chief nears death and old age, he’s granted permission to return to his homeland for his remaining days. The captain is ordered to accompany the chief and his family through hostile territory where, along the way, they find a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family has been slaughtered. ‘Hostiles’ is a heavy drama, but it not only pays off with great storytelling and character arcs, but with gorgeous cinematography. Also expected to expand wide in January, it’s definitely worth checking out.
In addition to Friday’s new releases, Focus Features has expanded ‘Darkest Hour‘ to 805 screens. (Tip: go see this excellent film, then go home and watch ‘Dunkirk‘. The two go perfectly hand-in-hand.)
Monday, Christmas Day, brings three more noteworthy movies, only one of which is opening wide. Ridley Scott is a pretty big filmmaker, but his new film ‘All the Money in the World‘ is known less for him and more for its once-star Kevin Spacey. Following the sexual assault claims made against Spacey, Christopher Plummer (whom Scott originally wanted for the role) was cast to reshoot Spacey’s entire part. Thanks to movie magic, Plummer now co-stars in what is said to be a seamless post-production actor replacement. Set in 1973, the film tells the true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of the then-richest man in the world who was too greedy to pay the ransom. The cast includes Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and Timothy Hutton.
In limited release, Christmas also delivers Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, ‘Molly’s Game‘. The true – but not all that engaging – story follows Olympic skier Molly Bloom. After suffering an injury that ended her skiing career, she managed to find herself running the most high-stakes illegal gambling ring in history. The narrative tells her story from the beginning following being busted by the FBI, who raided her home in the middle of the night in full tactical gear. Jessica Chastain has gotten stuck as playing tough and uptight roles – which she’s great at – but it’s getting hard to differentiate her characters from one movie to the next. There’s not much of a difference between her role as Bloom and last year’s awards hopeful ‘Miss Sloane‘.
Our last notable limited release is the new drama from Paul Thomas Anderson, ‘Phantom Thread‘. Daniel Day-Lewis leads in what he’s calling his final film before retirement. His character is an eccentric fashion designer in 1950s London. Full of arrogance, he only thinks of himself and his reputation. Unless you’re paying him for something, he’s quite miserable to be around – that is, until he finds a quaint French woman (Vicky Krieps) with, what he calls, the perfect measurements. She falls for the stubborn man just as quickly as he falls for her, and she just might be his perfect match. As you’d expect from a P.T. Anderson film, not much happens, but the character arcs are rich and intriguing. Combined with fantastic direction, perfect performances all around, and a great score, ‘Phantom Thread’ is worth checking out when it expands wide in January.