In a normal year, this next week would be the biggest time for moviegoers. The time isn’t right, but the big movies are here anyway. Most start Christmas Day, and it’s not always announced yet how and where. But read on: There are so many, you’re bound to find something.
News of the World: 4 stars
The Midnight Sky: 3
Wonder Woman 1984: 3
The Witches: 2½
Promising Young Woman: 3½
Chicago 10: 4
Wild Mountain Thyme: 2
NEWS OF THE WORLD: You can always rely on Tom Hanks to bring you something worthwhile. Here he’s working again with one of the best directors these days, Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, the Bourne movies) and with a special co-star: 12-year-old Helena Zengel, the German girl who was so brilliant in System Crasher, which came around earlier this year. Her character was traumatized and unmanageable, and she won major awards. She performs distress again, as a girl who was captured and raised by Kiowa people, can’t speak English and only remembers a bit of the German she used to know. So she says very little in this film but conveys lots with looks, expressions and movement. Hanks gradually figures out how to communicate with her.
He’s a former soldier who, after the American Civil War, makes his living visiting frontier towns and, for a small admission fee, reads from the newspapers he brings along. Texas opposing constitutional changes. A meningitis epidemic. Stories like that. On the way, he finds the girl near a crashed horse cart and a lynched Black man, can’t get the army to take her and agrees to transport her to an uncle and aunt. It’s a trip through a rough land, with dangerous people about, and as divided as it seems to be today. That comparison is intentional as Greengrass expands on the lore of the Old West that Paulette Jiles evoked in her novel. (She’s from Missouri and now Texas and lived for a time in Toronto and here in Nelson, B.C.) Greengrass sees it as a call to get back to some kind of unity, and who better to convey that than Hanks? He’s relaxed and sincere. And the western land looks as beautiful as it used to in the movies. There’s a terrific chase sequence and a gunfire pursuit in the crevasses of some imposing rock formations. This is a very good film. (watch for a streaming date — “only in theatres,” it says, but that doesn’t mean much in Canada right now) 4 out of 5
THE MIDNIGHT SKY: It’s a stretch, but this science fiction tale with a familiar plot takes on extra meaning these days. The Earth has suffered some sort of calamity. George Clooney (as a character named Augustine) and a young girl named Iris may be the only ones left alive. There’s no talk about or sight of anybody else. The two are in an observatory in the Arctic, and he is trying to message a crew on a spaceship not to come home.
The crew (Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir and Tiffany Boone) have their own problems. An asteroid storm has damaged the radar and another device. They have to go outside to fix it, a common space movie event. Also, they can’t hear Augustine’s transmissions properly and Felicity’s character is pregnant. The film looks great on the screen, showing the challenges at both sites. During the repair, the characters float upside down and over while the camera is swooping around them. Down on Earth, Clooney and the girl walk through a snowstorm to another station for better radio transmission. He loses her for a time. Clooney directs and does far better than in his previous efforts. And he gets across the message, a wistful yearning for “a pristine planet” and “clean air.” It’s from a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, and though you’ve seen things like it before, it is engrossing as a film. (Netflix) 3 out of 5
WONDER WOMAN 1984: For months, we’ve been alerted to every change of release date for this sequel to the massive hit from three years ago, and now that it’s here, well, it’s a little disappointing. It starts well and then, by the end, loses its way. There’s a terrific opening — a race that the young Diana competes in — and then a huge leap in time to the Reagan-era ’80s. Adult Diana, again played by Gal Gadot, works as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and now and then takes time out to battle bad guys as Wonder Woman. In a second great action sequence, she saves a young girl in a shopping mall. There are more to come, and you’ll wish you could see them on a big screen. Patty Jenkins and her aides have directed them with verve and colour and tension.
It’s the story that falters. A huckster financier steals a museum artifact because it can make any wish come true. Unlike so many comic book villains, he’s not out to destroy the world or control the universe. He just wants no taxes, regulations or rule of law. He looks like a young Donald Trump, a connection that is surely not unintentional, especially since in one scene he speaks to the entire world from that White House podium with the presidential seal behind him. He’s played by Pedro Pascal, who you may have seen in Game of Thrones or starring in The Mandalorian.
Kristen Wiig also uses the special stone. She plays an insecure curator at the museum who wishes she was as strong as Diana, gets that and wishes again to be “an apex predator.” That turns her into a cheetah and sets up a silly-looking fight with Wonder Woman. Chris Pine benefits from the stone. He’s Diana’s boyfriend, who died last film, and when she wishes he was back, he soon is. Somehow, all this turns into a fable with the moral that only the truth matters. Getting there is convoluted and the film suffers. Watch for an extra cameo in the closing credits. (available to rent from the Cineplex Store and other digital retailers for $29.99 for 48 hours) 3 out of 5
SOUL: The latest animation from Pixar, its 23rd feature, has everything you expect from the studio: a good story, great animation and oodles of imagination. Not quite the charm you’re used to, though, because the themes become elusive. Pete Docter, who directed and co-wrote the story and the screenplay, evoked emotions far better in two previous films: Up and Inside Out. But this one is entertaining and definitely worth your time.
A music teacher who wants to be a jazz musician (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is given a chance by a combo leader (Angela Bassett) but has an accident on his way there. He ends up on a ramp with thousands of people on their way up to “the Great Beyond.” He’s not ready to give up, though, pushes his way back down against the crowd and meets up with a toy-like creature called 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) trying to get to “the Great Before.” That’s apparently where living things find the soul they’ll have all their life. The two of them get down to Earth and his attempt to join the band. Problem: His soul and voice are in her body; and hers in his. You can imagine the difficulties that follow, and they all do. And more. There are surreal representations of the forces that run the Great Beyond and a clutter of story elements, including a pirate ship, a vortex and what’s called the space between the physical and spiritual. Mom speaks the truth: “You can’t eat dreams for breakfast.” OK, but they can be fun in a movie even if you don’t understand them all. (starts Friday on Disney+) 4 out of 5
THE WITCHES: I love the mordant wit of Roald Dahl, mostly from his short stories, and so was looking forward to this adaptation of one of his most popular novels. It has already been made into a movie (by Jim Henson), and there have been radio and TV versions and even an opera. This time, Robert Zemeckis got at it with, I hoped, the same impact as his best-known films, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future and others. My reaction? He did all right with it, but only that. Though it is entertaining and will probably be very popular, it’s not as scary as it could be (though it will probably unsettle younger children) and not as funny as it should be. Instead, it relies on being campy.
That’s chiefly thanks to Anne Hathaway, who has a great time emoting the role of the Grand High Witch with an accent that sounds like Transylvania via Norway. She hates children and, under the guise of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, wants to get rid of them. First step? Turn them into mice. One overhears the plot but, along with two others, is turned into a mouse anyway. He’s an orphan whose grandmother (Octavia Spencer) takes him to a fancy hotel just as the witch and her crowd also check in. The skirmishes, near-misses and machinations that follow are quite involving, but mild in suspense and excitement. The story was transposed from England to Alabama, and Chris Rock narrates. But oddly, some allusions to race issues are only mentioned with no elaboration. (also on digital platforms for $29.99 rental) 2½ out of 5
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN: If you’ve now had enough sweetness in your holiday movies, how about a revenge fantasy? For rape. No, it’s not at all Christmas-y, but it’s a strong, committed film written and directed by Emerald Fennell. She played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown and wrote some of the hit TV series Killing Eve about clashing women spies. So you know she has got the chops, and they’ve succeeded in this film. It debuted at Sundance, has been winning critics’ awards and arrives to chill the season. Or maybe rouse it for you.
Carey Mulligan plays a young woman who dropped out of medical school (we learn why later on) and is now a nighttime vigilante. She pretends to get drunk in bars, attracts men who think she’s an easy mark and attacks when they try to rape her. She has been damaged by what happened to a longtime friend of hers and is doing payback. Mostly against any men who come on to her, and then, as the story progresses, one specifically: An upright citizen about to get married but hiding a foul history. Strong acting and a committed purpose make this a chilling tale with a sunny look but toxic overtones. (opening in theatres on Christmas Day, they say, with a video-on-demand streaming date coming soon) 3½ out of 5
CHICAGO 10: We got the same story, entirely dramatized, in The Trial of the Chicago 7. That’s one of the best films of the year and often very funny. This one is a worthy companion piece because it adds details and, with riveting news footage from a huge number of sources, lets us see more of what happened that night in August 1968. While Democrats held their convention, anti-Vietnam War protesters were beaten and tear-gassed by police and their leaders were arrested.
The trial itself is shown in animated sequences. It became a circus as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin mocked the proceedings, Bobby Seale protested and was gagged and chained, and Judge Julius Hoffman flung tactless rulings and contempt citations about. Actors like Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo and Roy Scheider speak the lines taken directly from the transcript and the outrage comes alive again. One of the most memorable add-ons here is a local TV news report from the time about boys playing cops versus demonstrators. (streaming at The Impact Series) 4 out of 5
WILD MOUNTAIN THYME: When the trailer for this appeared, there was an explosion of derisive laughter on the internet. Now that the whole film is here, it’s clear that the laughers and scorners were right. It’s full of stereotype images, people and attitudes about Ireland. The fields are green, the sheep graze, Guinness is the drink of choice and the whole pub sings along with the title song. And Christopher Walken narrates in a wandering Irish brogue. He’s a farmer and already dead, he says, although we see him much alive, probably sometime before, resolving to cut his son (Jamie Dornan) out of his will. He proposes to sell the land to a nephew in the U.S. (played by Jon Hamm), who arrives later to establish the traditional contrast between placid village life in Ireland and big ambition in New York.
Emily Blunt is caught in between as Jamie’s longtime girlfriend. She wants him; he can’t see it, and the visiting American cousin seems a threat. This is all from a stage play written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck. He has relatives in Ireland and should stay away from the trite impressions he passes along here. And making his main character say he thinks he’s a honeybee. Yes, it’s in there. At least it’s a jolt of twisted fun in this sea of treacly green. (now available digitally and on demand) 2 out of 5