The annual flood of Christmas movies is upon us, starring ‘Passengers,’ ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ ‘Sing,’ ‘Fences,’ ‘Lion’ … and many more
The year got off to a slow start for the movies, with only Deadpool, The Jungle Book and The Lobster resonating much, but then things started to look up late summer and early fall. Now with the Christmas movie-watching season in full swing, there are practically dozens of new releases (some of which won’t debut locally until 2017) to occupy your post-shopping, post-unwrapping, post-Obama entertainment hours. Some, of course, are better than others…
On the original Muppet Show, a motley assemblage of anthropomorphized creatures — a frog, a pig, a bear, an eagle and something called a Gonzo — struggled to make their oddly-outdated Vaudeville-style theater a going concern each week, despite A-list guest stars to help them wow audiences. But who even knows what Vaudeville is anymore?
That’s the dilemma posed to Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a starry-eyed koala running a once-grand show palace that has fallen on hard times, largely because of his Broadway Danny Rose-esque inability to pick a hit. The keep the bank from foreclosing (echoes of Cher’s Burlesque??), he makes a last-ditch attempt to conduct a singing competition to get butts in the seats … only a typo threatens to tank the deal, and producing something viable seems more daunting than he imagined.
This modern-day Muppet-like adventure — rendered in colorful animation with amazing energy and panache — is the feel-good meta-musical of the year. The audition sequence is jam-packed with hilarious (and occasionally brilliant) vocal performances, from a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Hudson. But as tuneful and fun as it all is, there’s a sweet-natured soul to the film. The characters — from a beset mama pig to a sensitive gorilla trying to break away from his family’s criminal past to a shy elephant with great pipes but debilitating stage fright — are so sharply drawn by director Garth Jennings, you can’t help but cheer everyone on.
Though not a Pixar film — it comes from the folks responsible for the Despicable Me franchise — it has the same slick and savvy understanding of just how far to push a gag while still remaining true to the characters … even characters who shouldn’t exist together in the world. And the selection of songs, including many contemporary pop hits from the likes of Ariande Grande, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, show a knowing understanding of what kids today want to hear. That may be the smartest thing about it. (Now playing in wide release.)
In the future, colonizing new worlds has become so routine that thousands of people pay good money to go to sleep for a century and awake from hibernation on a new planet with a new life. And nothing ever goes wrong… until it does. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from his pod 90 years too soon — an impossibility, but a reality — and with no access to crew and an unhelpful automated customer-service system (it seems not too much has changed in the future), he’s forced to live out his trip alone, with no one but an android bartender (Michael Sheen) for company.
Jim struggles with whether he should awake another passenger — Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he has become infatuated — but of course he does. His sanity demands it. But how do you condemn another person to a lifetime of near-solitude?
You’re never quite sure what direction Passengers is headed — will it become a monster movie a la Alien, a technology-gone-bad thriller (2001), a stir-crazy-in-space mystery (Moon), a problem-solving survival tale (The Martian), a moody secrets-of-the-universe thriller (Sunshine) … or something else, from Planet of the Apes to Event Horizon? So many possibilities, which makes it all the more refreshing that director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) have put together something entirely unexpected: A romantic comedy-drama laden with complicated morality.
Near-future sci-fi traditionally addresses ethical dilemmas, but usually in a cursory way (cloning, for instance, in The 5th Day), but Passengers doesn’t dismiss it like a side dish but makes it the main course: How far would you go to combat your own loneliness? Does your sanity trump someone else’s life? If Jim’s pod could malfunction, is there something bigger at work? And it tells this story with humor and a lot of chemistry among the actors. (Pratt gets two butt-shot scenes — totally value-added filmmaking.)
In just three years, Pratt has gone from the loveable goofball on Parks & Rec to the top buffed-out movie star of the decade, and Passengers continues his trajectory as the approachable-but-sexy hero. The success of this film depends on your willingness to empathize with all of his decisions (from trying to re-hibernate himself to debating the rightness of his choice). And Lawrence needs to seem worth his efforts, which she does. Sheen, though, almost steals the show with his scenes as Arthur the automaton.
I won’t ruin the third-act development and how it impacts the story. Suffice it to say the romance escalates, plateaus and resolves amid some lovely special effects (it’s one of the best art-directed films of the year) that, until the end, you can’t wholly predict. It’s wonderful to be along for the ride.
(Now playing in wide release.)
There’s always something a bit unsettling about seeing A-list actors in crappy B-movies. It’s one thing for Robert Downey Jr. to lead an all-star cast in a big-budget summer tentpole franchise; it’s another to see Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — who paired up last Christmas for Macbeth — slum it in the painfully-scripted, sluggishly-paced, inanely preposterous boondoggle that is Assassin’s Creed. (For the record, I didn’t like their Macbeth, also from director Justin Kurzel, but it had pedigree.)
Unlike Passengers, whose premise is fantastical but which sticks close to the emotional truth of the characters, Assassin’s Creed presents a stupid premise, dumbly executed and impossible to connect with. (It starts with an informational scroll, which hasn’t been anything but lame since Star Wars.) In 1492, a group called The Assassins secretly protected mankind from the efforts of The Knights Templar. The Templars seek the legendary Apple of Eden, which contains a roadmap to mankind’s violent nature; control the Apple, and you end warfare (while simultaneously depriving all humans of freewill).
An assassin named Aguilar (Fassbender) was the last known person in possession of the Apple; now 500 years later, his direct descendant Cal (Fassbender again) has in his DNA the “memories” of his exploits. A Templar scientist (Cotillard) hooks him up to a machine to extract those memories, find the present-day resting place of the Apple and enslave mankind for her father (Jeremy Irons).
Even if you accept the idea with a straight face, it’s muddled and as pure a McGuffin as ever there was one. It plays not as a grand mission but as Dan Brown Lite: A quest that feels pointless and silly, derived in a convoluted way. (If they just wanna know where the Apple is, why start at the beginning of Aguilar’s mission, and not just cut to the chase?) In that way, and many others, Assassin’s Creed feels like a video game (it is, though I didn’t know it until the end credits), and like many games-turned-feature-films, it’s witless and “safe” (tons of violence, but not too much blood — we need that PG-13 rating to bring in the teen boys!). You’ll see more harrowing action and fighting on American Horror Story or The Walking Dead; you’ll feel the grit of Medieval adventure more profoundly in Game of Thrones. If TV does this stuff, and does it better, why venture out to the theater?
To their credit, Fassbender, Cotillard, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleason and Michael Kenneth Williams do their best to invest seriousness into the idiocy; Irons has been slumming it in overwrought sand-and-sandal epics for years, from Dungeons & Dragons to Eragon to The Borgias — he’s adept by now at purring bad dialogue like a pro. But they can’t rescue a plodding, predictable movie like this, one where everyone walks on breezeless roofs when they are supposed to be in hiding. You feel every minute of this murky, dull fiasco.
(Now playing in wide release.)
August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is one of the most monumental achievements in modern theater: Ten plays, written over 20 years (the last just before Wilson’s death in 2005), each set in a different decade of the 20th century, each reflecting something meaningful about the black experience, from jazz to Jim Crow to business and politics. The most acclaimed of these, Fences, was written in the 1980s but set in the 1950s.
It dealt with Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a late-middle-aged garbage collector and his aspirations for personal advancement, but also a good life for his son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy had a shot at a baseball career, but segregation and troubles with the law kept him illiterate and bitter, and he won’t let Cory pursue his dreams of a college football career. That creates a rift between father and son, exacerbated by tension with Troy’s devoted second wife (Viola Davis), his son from a prior relationship (Russell Hornsby) and even a mistress Troy hides from everyone, even his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
Fences as a play is set almost entirely in the backyard of the Maxsons’ tract house in Pittsburgh; the problem with the movie, which Washington also directs, is that it barely breaks free of its stage roots. Washington — who, along with Davis, won a Tony for his performance in the 2010 Broadway production — seems wedded to Wilson’s construct; the screenplay is even credited to Wilson, who died more than a decade ago. That leads to an infuriatingly uncinematic experience, whose scenes feel moved only begrudgingly for the camera.
It also means that the actors play it more like work for stage than film. Washington isn’t the best director of himself, although as a toweringly talented actor, he manages to go big without going home. Davis, though, connects viscerally. There’s a forcefulness to her, a low center of gravity that grounds every word. Her laughter and her tears resonant, and the late-arriving conflict becomes her moment to outshine Washington (much in the way Rose outshines Troy). This is a tour-de-force showcase for actors, underserved by a constricting visual style and too-talky exposition. Rather than worry about what it doesn’t do, however, better to bask in what it does so well.
(Opens Christmas Day at the West Village’s Magnolia Theater.)
Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a 5-year-old boy living a hard but amazingly happy life in the provinces of India, with a caring brother and devoted mother. Then he’s accidentally lost in Calcutta, forced to find his way on the streets — taken in and eventually adopted by an Australian couple who look after him as their own. Saroo lives a good life, but 20 years later, as a young man (Dev Patel) he yearns to find out what happened to his biological family. He sets out on a journey to rediscover his past and give meaning to his future.
Based on Saroo Brierley’s own memoir, this beautiful and emotionally satisfying motion picture never fails to leave a lump in your throat. With great performances by Patel, Pawar and Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adoptive mother, it’s harrowing and hopeful — like the holiday season itself.
(Opens Christmas Day at the Angelika Mockingbird Station.)
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2016.