As if the holiday season weren’t busy enough on its own, Hollywood decided to cram four big new movie releases and six Oscar-contenders at us. Merry Christmas!
Wednesday, December 21st
Three biggies and one limited release take stage ahead of the others. The widest release is Universal/Illumination’s ‘Sing‘. The studio has had several huge successes over the last few years thanks to the ‘Despicable Me’ movies, the ‘Minions’ spinoff and this summer’s ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ – but I think that’s about to come to end. Musical challenge-based TV series are losing popularity, yet the studio’s latest is an animated tale about a group of animal characters attempting to win an ‘American Idol’-like competition. From what I’ve heard, it plays out like a movie made for adults that just-so-happens to be animated. It’s said that none of the comedy panders to the movie’s core demographic: children. Sound off.
After that is ‘Passengers‘, the new sci-fi tentpole starring Hollywood’s hottest young actors, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Set in the distant future, a spaceship cruising at half the speed of light is filled with 5,000 humans set to colonize a distant planet. At that rate, it will take the ship 120 years to get there, so all are sound asleep in special pods. The movie kicks off with a pod malfunction that wakes one of the sleeping passengers after only 30 years. When no one else wakes up, and with no way to get back to sleep and 90 more years of travel to go, he starts to lose his mind. Feeling suicidal after a year, he finds hope: a gorgeous girl still asleep (Lawrence). With no one to shake a finger at him, he stalks her by doing loads of research on her. In the process, he falls head over heels for her. In a moment of weakness, he tricks her pod into malfunctioning too – despite knowing that he’s dooming her to a lifetime aboard the sleeping ship – just so he won’t be alone anymore. Consisting of mostly character build-up, the first half of the movie is actually pretty strong. When the second half takes a turn with weak external conflict, it goes downhill. For me, the strength of the first half and the ending far outweigh the flimsy climax, but I can see how that won’t be the case for some. I recommend giving it a shot even if you wind up hating it because it stars two gorgeous actors who play likable characters.
Next comes yet another failed videogame adaptation. As a big fan of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, I was looking forward to ‘Assassin’s Creed‘, but the stiff action movie left me very disappointed. The story follows two groups of ancient allegiances that have been warring since the dawn of time. One possesses a heavenly object of power that should never be used, while the other direly wants to use if for their own power. Fassbender plays the distant relative of a protector of the object who’s imprisoned and, with the use of technology, made to experience his ancestor’s life so he can obtain the location of its hiding place. Boring, joyless and extremely over-indulgent, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is easily one of the weakest movies of 2016.
Opening on seven screens is Peter Berg’s second film of the year, ‘Patriots Day‘. Like ‘Deepwater Horizon’, Berg tells a touchy true story, this one revolving around the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. The events are told through many eyes, but mostly those of the Boston-area police. The ensemble includes Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, John Goodman and Kevin Bacon. I recommend checking out the intense film, but for most, ‘Patriots Day’ won’t be accessible until it expands in January.
Friday, December 23rd
Friday brings one wide release and two that are limited. The big one is the new R-rated ‘Father of the Bride’-ish comedy ‘Why Him?‘. James Franco and Lea Thompson’s daughter (Zoe Deutch) play a young couple whose relationship has gotten serious. Bryan Cranston is the father who didn’t know that his daughter was dating anyone. When the family spends Christmas at her college town, they’re introduced to the sweet yet completely unfiltered and rough around the edges tycoon boyfriend. Wackiness ensues. While it’s technically pretty stupid, ‘Why Him?’ is at least laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end.
Although it’s been playing overseas for months, ‘A Monster Calls‘ will finally hit four U.S. cinemas. Based on a popular novel, it tells the story of a child who copes with his single mom’s terminal cancer with help from an imaginary tree monster. Through the telling of the monster’s tales, by the time his mom (Felicity Jones) passes away, he should be prepared to handle it. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell co-star and Liam Neeson voices the monster in this visually gorgeous and emotionally stirring drama.
Also opening on four screens is Martin Scorsese’s passion project, ‘Silence‘. Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson star in this 160-minute drama about two 17th Century priests who travel to Japan to preach Catholicism, which was illegal at the time. This is the one astounding-looking awards contender that I haven’t yet seen and am dying to.
Denzel Washington’s ‘Fences’ also expands this day.
Sunday, December 25th
Mike Mills showed his writing and directing capabilities with ‘Beginners’. He’s now back with ‘20th Century Women‘, a small indie drama about a teenage boy in the late 1970s and the women (and man) that have the most influence on him. Annette Bening plays his single mother. Elle Fanning plays his best friend and love interest. Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup play outsiders who rent rooms from their large home. The movie tells a simple story, but it’s sweet and tender.
Likely to earn Oscar actor nominations, ‘Hidden Figures‘ is a historical drama that plays by the numbers, yet is made with actual filmmaking quality and integrity. The story follows three black female NASA employees from the early 1960s who did amazing things despite the gender and racial inequality of the time. Don’t be surprised if you see Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe each earn nominations. Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons co-star. An expansion date is already set for early January.
Ben Affleck has written, directed and starred in another film, but this one isn’t getting the love that it deserves. Based on the book by Dennis Lehane, ‘Live by Night‘ follows a 1920s gangster intimately. Instead of telling the story of the crimes that he commits, it tells the story of him. With revenge on the mind, he takes his Mob lifestyle down to sunny Florida with the long-term plan of destroying the Mob boss who previously ruined his life. If you’ve ever wondered what a war between the Mob and the KKK would look like, that dichotomy is played out here – and it’s awesome. The supporting cast includes great performances from Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller and Chris Messini. Feeling like a three-hour movie condensed to two, here’s hoping that a director’s cut will follow. It’s not yet a masterpiece, but if it’s anything like ‘Once Upon a time in America’, then a future full cut may prove it to be one. It definitely has that potential.
I’ve never played an ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game, so I had no expectations for the film version. I know a lot of people had high hopes for it to redeem the videogame film subgenre and many reacted well to the trailer. It just never looked good to me. I hated the director’s ‘Macbeth’ film and thought the trailer looked really dull. All the bad reviews just solidify my decision to never see it.
On the other hand, I was looking forward to ‘Passengers’. It has a really good setup that could be mined for some heady exploration of the nature of relationships. The trailer gave me fears that it would go full ‘Sunshine’ and descend into hysterics in its third act, but the reviews all seem to suggest it somehow does even worse than that. Disappointing. I’ll still check it out, although it might end up being rental now.
It looks like ‘La La Land’ will probably the film I go see after Christmas.
A Monster Calls is one of the very best children’s books I’ve ever read….heck, one of the best books period. The Impossible and The Orphanage were both FANTASTIC movies. I expect nothing less then greatness for this one