December is here and that means we’re getting some bigger movie releases. Below is a look at what I’ve seen this week, including reviews of films that are opening wide on Friday. If you’d like to see more of my scores for films and thoughts, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd here.
Empire of Light (Theaters)
Starring: Olivia Coleman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Michael Ward
Synopsis: Director Sam Mendes returns with a tale set at a cinema in the 1980s. This one centers on the beautiful and classic Empire Theater near the beach, focusing on the people who work there. Chief among them is Hilary (Coleman), a reserved manager who has returned to her post after some struggles. It soon becomes clear one of those struggles is a strange affair with her senior manager (Firth). When a new young man (Ward) begins work at the Empire, she connects. They share secret meetings in the abandoned upper levels of the theater and soon an affair blooms. But it turns out that Hilary’s issues are still present, causing issues for both of them. Mendes is a talented visual filmmaker, and he plies those talents here. There are some beautiful shots that draw you in. The performances are also solid. I enjoyed Ward and I thought Coleman gave it her all during a number of difficult sequences. It’s the story here that doesn’t come all together. Many of the characters lack depth and not enough is fleshed out for the story to hit as meaningfully as it’s meant to hit. I wanted to like the film more, but it just didn’t land. The film has played in limited release and opens wider this Friday.
Rating: Rated R for sexual content, language and brief violence.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (Netflix)
Starring: David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Gregory Mann, Ron Pearlman, Christoph Waltz, and Cate Blanchett
Synopsis: Over the years we’ve seen the story of Pinocchio told many times. In fact, earlier this year Disney re-made the classic film as a live action tale starring Tom Hanks. But it’s fair to say we’ve never seen it done quite like this. Del Toro delivers a new take on the story, this one featuring a unique approach to the narrative and a beautiful animation style. This one finds Geppetto (Bradley) as a woodcarver living through fascist Italy. When his son is killed in a bombing raid during the war, Geppetto is heart-broken. One night, he chops down a tree and decides to fashion a new son, Pinocchio. The wooden boy is brought to life due to magic and meant to keep Geppetto company. Pinocchio becomes a curiosity for many, including a leading party member (Pearlman) and the owner of a circus (Waltz). He goes on many adventures, finally working his way back to his father. Del Toro approaches this story with his own flare, mixing it in with the historical period. We’re used to seeing his darker tales, including many horror films. This is a more family-friendly tale but it’s no less intense. There are darker moments but also some humor. I appreciated the intricate style and detail in this type of animation. It’s one of the most engaging and unique animated films of the year. It feels a bit long at times and sometimes veers into being a bit too eclectic, but overall it was a fascinating visual experience worth seeking out. The film had a short theatrical run but opens on Netflix on Friday, December 9.
Rating: Rated PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking.
Synopsis: This documentary dropped on Friday, focusing on the story of Robert Downey, Jr., and his father. Sr. was a filmmaker as well, and this documentary looks at his career, including interviews with his collaborators and those who knew him. It also looks at his relationship with his son and grandchildren. It’s filmed over a number of years, depicting their relationship and telling stories of their lives. It’s a beautiful and loving tribute to a father from a son, and also shares a lot of information and history about Robert Downey, Sr., his contributions to film and his influence on his son. I enjoyed learning more about the family and the open and honest way the film is constructed. It’s an engaging and enjoyable documentary experience.
Rating: Rated R for language and some drug use.
Violent Night (Theaters)
Starring: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Cam Gigandent, Edi Patterson, Leah Brady, Beverly D’Angelo
Synopsis: We’ve seen a lot of Christmas films over the years but it’s fair to say we’ve never seen anything quite like this. The Lightstone family gathers at their compound for Christmas. Jason (Hassell) is trying to repair the relationship with his estranged wife Linda (Louder) and be there for his daughter Trudy (Brady). Meanwhile his sister (Patterson) and her actor boyfriend (Gigandent) are scheme for their mother’s (D’Angelo) affection and approval. All this family strife is soon interrupted as a group of heavily armed terrorists, led by Scrooge (Leguizamo) invade the compound, kill the security agents and hold the family hostage. He’s aiming to get at the $300 million in the family safe. When Santa (Harbour) drops in to deliver, he soon gets caught in the situation and springs into action to protect Trudy, a true believer who is on the Nice List. If you’ve seen Die Hard which, yes, is certainly a Christmas film, this follows very much in that vein. You have hostages on Christmas eve and a lone man fighting a group of terrorists. The twist here is that fighter is Santa Claus. It’s violent, profane and over-the-top in spots. But it’s also kind of a fun ride at times, mostly due to the strong performance from Harbour. I didn’t love the film. I thought it was a little much with some of the action sequences, especially the over-the-top gore. There also wasn’t as much humor as I’d have liked. Still, it’s an enjoyable piece of Christmas season counter-programming.
Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.