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.
Not since Dr. Lecter coerced Clarice Starling to confront her deep rooted fears has a movie character so successfully invaded the human psyche. Come hell or high puppet, this engrossing supporting character is going to get in your head. A tale of a life transformed by iconic child advocate Fred Rogers, Marielle Heller’s sentimental, sensational and occasionally subversive A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (B+) is a relatively conventional drama played magically in a lower key than expected. Matthew Rhys should get more credit than he will for his excellent portrayal of a cynical investigative journalist tasked with interviewing a veritable patron saint of optimism. Tom Hanks is a marvel as Mr. Rogers, channeling the gentle giant with peculiar perception. Heller frames the film with delightful miniatures from the iconic television show and chronicles an effective domestic drama with strong performances from Chris Cooper and Susan Kalechi Watson as the reporter’s estranged father and bright wife. There’s one moment of potent uplift that will have each viewer using imagination to inventory emotions with stunning clarity. It’s an ideal Thanksgiving release with a message to embrace one’s singular station and particular burdens and help build community one person at a time.
Months after Jordan Peele’s Us explored the haves and have nots duking it out in a surreal version of contemporary American society, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (A-) elevates class warfare to a whole new milieu via a dark comedic story of the extraordinary denizens of a blissed-out South Korea metropolis. The visionary director introduces viewers to a lower-class family of four rising to roles in a posh home tutoring, cooking for and driving the domicile’s privileged occupants. Is this jaw-dropping story a searing supernatural thriller or a ghost tale, dramatic chess game or upstairs/downstairs allegory? With shifting mixed-genre shenanigans, it’s all these and more. The film is fierce, frisky and funny as it makes salient points about the underbelly of society with inhabitants clawing for a way out of the funk of a bunker mentality. Favorite characters in this twisty treat are the resourceful sister played by Cho Yeo-jeong and the prideful and practical father portrayed by Song Kang-ho. The mansion at the center of the narrative is a fantastical fixture almost as labyrinthine as the pulpy plot points. Aside from some silly pratfalls and a lugubrious epilogue, expect consistent shock and awe from this inventive cinematic import.
With a Hitler youth and his imaginary friend Adolph as central protagonists, it’s stunning that Taika Waititi’s WWII-set black comedy Jojo Rabbit (B-) gets its satiric tone right even some of the time. Blending what could only be described as a Wes Anderson aesthetic with a coming of age story (oh, that was already done in Moonrise Kingdom?), Waititi writes, directs and even plays a sassy version of the make-believe Nazi mastermind with acerbic aplomb. While marquee stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson lend deft performances, it’s really the kids on center stage: the staunch ten-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds his mother (Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic during the waning weeks of the war. A grab bag of gags and droll set-ups give way to somewhat unearned sentiment. By far, McKenzie is the VIP here as the teen who’s largely the only grown-up in the room. Waititi disarms viewers with his unusual point of view and waltzes just a bit toward schmaltz. Still, it’s daring, occasionally funny and sometimes insightful. I expected more hop and less garden variety, more revisionism and less requiem. This will likely be the only movie remotely like this getting a rather wide release.
This hypnotic, hallucinatory horror-type tall tale is a keeper for sure! Director Robert Eggers casts an absolutely enchanting and unsettling spell in the gothic black and white square aspect ratio wonder The Lighthouse (A-). Set on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, a career-redefining Robert Pattinson joins a startlingly gifted Willem Dafoe in a cunning and claustrophobic battle for supremacy. These dynamic co-leads are on high alert in the acting department, with some King Lear-level soliloquies and super-trippy visuals. Each of the two “wicks” harbors secrets, and it’s a game of oneupmanship to see who will rule the rock. It’s not always clear where this narrative will take you, but the film pulses with the verve and variety of a pulpy novel. And oh, that gorgeous camera work! Like There Will Be Blood, this is a film sure to shake and spark discussion.
Director Kasi Lemmons crafts an exquisite glimpse at American hero Harriet Tubman in the historical epic Harriet (B+) about the successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who escapes slavery in Maryland and helps others on an exodus to Philadelphia freedom. Cynthia Ervio is perfect in the title role and displays her character’s faith and fearlessness with a mastery rarely seen when propelled to leading actress status. Ervio gets to display her beloved character’s physical and emotional strength as well as use her vocal chops in singing which punctuates the movie and appears in rousing form over the closing credits anthem. Lemmons keeps the story propulsive and the characters intriguing, which is always a challenge with filling in the contours around real-life historical events. Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe shine in small but exuberant roles in Tubman’s newfound freedomland, while Joe Alwyn’s one-note slaveholder character feels a shade underdeveloped, although it’s easy to dislike him. The use of “visions” when Tubman experiences spells or premonitions isn’t one hundred percent effective, but the art direction is continually surprising and authentic. The film is adventurous and illuminating and does justice to an important and urgent chapter in U.S. history.