Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
The audacity of a far-fetched plot in the latest remake of The Invisible Man (B) all but vanishes under the steady direction of Leigh Whannell and spellbinding central performance of Elisabeth Moss. The H.G. Wells story and classic films have been modernized with a strong woman at the center and a streamlined narrative about recovering from manipulation and abuse. Aldis Hodge is also fantastic as the heroine’s policeman friend; and while his role is somewhat “transparent,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes an impression in the title role, a controlling husband and Silicon Valley magnate who has invented an optical illusion suit allowing him to be fully invisible. The film is more thriller than horror film, despite the sense of dread in its first half. The stunts and visual effects are pretty nifty, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is sufficiently macabre, with ostinati aplenty. The film was a little too much like 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy at times, but the twists and turns dialed up the novelty. Moss, who is seen in virtually every scene, delivers richly here and makes the entire enterprise fresh and believable. It’s nice to see popular entertainment with a smidgen of topicality so wonderfully packaged.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Don’t judge a talented ensemble by its misbegotten digital feline fur cover. Once you get past the regrettable and slightly creepy augmented Snapchat aesthetic, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats (B-) hits some pretty nifty notes. Ardent evan-Jellicles of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic tuner based on T.S. Eliot’s poems about ragtag whiskered strays vying for redemption will find there’s a terrific theatrical bravura and a deft, often dreamlike showmanship beneath the layers of the bizarro production design. After a high-energy and effective opener, there are admittedly a few comedic clunkers (I’m looking at you, Rebel Wilson and James Corden!) before the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan and even Taylor Swift put their impish imprint on some rather well sung, elaborately staged and choreographed kitty ditties. Some of the scale and CGI effects defy logic, but you’ve got to suspend belief a bit anyway since you’re watching a fantasy about crooning human/cat hybrids after all. This material has never been known for having a cogent plot; in fact, Hooper shapes and improves the narrative though-line a bit from its stage origins with a sense that the characters are caught up in an actual contest. Ballet impresario Francesca Hayward is divine as the spirited protagonist, as are talented dancer/singers Robert Fairchild and Laurie Davidson in some of the less star-driven roles. Jennifer Hudson does a helluva “Memory,” and the new Lloyd Webber song “Beautiful Ghosts” (sung by Hayward, lyrics by another T.S., Ms. Swift) provides a lovely contemporary counterpoint. The film’s feral spirit can lull you right into its bonkers universe; and even though not every sequence lands on its feet, the film will undoubtedly bring joy to many as it survives multiple derisive deaths to at last experience safe harbor in the loving protection of cult fans.
J.J. Abrams returns to the helm for the final entry of the legendary Jedi v Sith sequel cycle, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (B), a populist pretzel twisting space and time to conclude a myriad of loose plot points while pouring on salty nostalgia in generous doses. This space opera saga finale works best when its trio of next-generation heroes Rey, Finn and Poe embark on snappy adventures together, less in a murky subplot involving a villainous blast from the past and even less in its introduction of new characters to an overstuffed narrative. Abrams scores a propulsive and often thrilling first hour and gets the humor right with fan-pleasing quips and gags but finds himself a bit tangled when trying to shoehorn the late Carrie Fisher’s unused footage from past movies into cogent current conversations and striving to make sense of some lapses in lineage for its dueling family trees. Visually, the film is splendid, with a few epic tricks up its sleeves including a pretty Bollywood planet and a deft lightsaber battle on the high seas. There are some clever treasure quests, stunning revelations and a few generally poignant moments, sometimes bookended by an occasionally soggy and somewhat schizophrenic salmagundi. In trying to please his fanboy/fangirl constituencies, Abrams is all too likely to replace originality with more origins. The film is indeed haunted by ghosts, some of the high-spirited variety and others fossilized or zombified with creaky bones of a lumbering legacy. It’s a testament to the acting chops of Daisy Ridley as protagonist Rey and Adam Driver as her frenemy Ren that they acquit themselves admirably amidst some mumbo jumbo logic. The over four-decade series has likely outlasted its ability to surprise, but its mirth and myth making factory still thrills. This frenzied film hyperdrives to a generally smooth landing.
The revelatory performance of Paul Walter Hauser as the mild-mannered titular character of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (B) is the primary draw of the historical procedural movie. While the director plays a bit loose with the story elements surrounding the man wrongfully accused of masterminding the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Eastwood successfully conjures a trio of fine performances, including Hauser’s nuanced protagonist, Kathy Bates as his classic Southern mom and Sam Rockwell as a wry, supportive lawyer. Less successful are Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde whose stock characters as an FBI agent and reporter, respectively, at the center of Jewell’s false narrative tend to ring false. The film is taut in its re-enactment of the inciting incident and intriguing in its examination of how easy it is to cajole a hapless man into a corner. It has flashes of humor and pathos as its themes come into focus. The story is told in a minor key evocative of its central subject and is above average entertainment even if not astonishing.
Waves (B), written and directed with a whirling dervish ferocity by Trey Edward Shults, tells an epic story of a contemporary Floridian family experiencing a variety of trials on a journey to redemption and recovery. While ultimately hopeful, it careens head-first into a Requiem for a Dream level fever pitch for some time before transitioning into a more contemplative second act. The ensemble is uniformly exquisite, led by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as well-meaning parents to Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, also a wonder as thoughtful teen siblings facing a coming tide of turmoil. Although his film is often lovely to behold, Shults employs too many cinematic tricks with an elliptical structure that weighs down the movie’s thin storyline. At times, despite good intentions, the film feels a bit like an after-school special greatest hits episode. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is tense and tantalizing, and the bursts of nighttime and maritime colors are gorgeous, even if occasionally too evocative of the superior Moonlight, set in a similar milieu. The themes about savoring every moment and taking steps to heal emotional wounds are quite resonant, but sometimes the film goes to alarming lengths to administer its balm.
If writer/director Rian Johnson prepared your holiday turkey, it would be overstuffed, but the cinematic chef gleefully loads up his wily whodunit Knives Out (B) with impeccable ingredients: a cavalcade of sassy stars, a labyrinthine manor, cunning clues, red herrings, mousetraps and sinewy twists. A spry Daniel Craig (with a vexing Foghorn Leghorn accent) and relatable Cuban actress Ana de Armas are the closest things to protagonists in the sprawling ensemble as detective and central caretaker, respectively. This duo provides sympathetic touchstones in a universe of rather despicable suspects. Everyone in the story has a connection to a mystery novelist patriarch played by Christopher Plummer, and they all display sharp edges in oddball humor and acerbic dialogue. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans and Michael Shannon are among the prominent players. Although it would have been charitable to accomplish the story with fewer partisan jabs, less projectile vomiting and more character interactions, it is efficient in its intent and durable for its duration. It’s a rare entry into a fun genre by a filmmaker who may have met his match.
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.