It’s the most wonderful time of the year…almost. But it is spectacular if you love movies. We’re getting a number of high-profile end of the year releases. Some will drop today, some on Friday and some on Sunday. I’ve had a chance to preview most of the big new releases and I have my thoughts below, as well as my take on a return to Pandora! If you’d like to see more of my scores for films and thoughts, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd here.
Avatar: Way of the Water (Theaters)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Cliff Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, and Kate Winslet
Synopsis: It’s been 13 years since James Cameron brought the world of Pandora to the big screen. The first Avatar was a film that was a hit with audiences—becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time—and with critics, earning a number of award nominations. Now, we get a return to the world. This is another envelope-pushing technical masterpiece. It’s also a much better film. While I appreciated the ground-breaking effects in the original film, the story was just OK. This time around, the return to the world is even more engaging and breath-taking than before, but it’s also a rich story of family, belonging and fathers-and-sons that really drew me in. We pick up with Jake (Worthington) still living among the Na’vi. Years have passed and now he’s the father to four children. When the sky people return, with the spirit of Col. Quartich re-birthed in an avatar all his own, Jake is forced to flee to protect his family. They join with the sea tribe and learn a whole new way of living. But they can’t avoid trouble forever. Soon, Jake is called to defend his family and his new home. The visuals here are stunning. The film runs more than three hours, but it doesn’t feel that long as you get pulled into this rich new world. The battle sequences are never my favorite part, but this one felt like it had more weighty, emotional stakes. I appreciated Worthington in the lead role and Lang does a fine job as the primary antagonist. My one quibble would be that it seems like the film leaves their future clashes open-ended, and at some point it would be nice to see that part of this story draw to a close. Still, this is a remarkable and engaging film, one that I enjoyed more than I expected.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.
Starring: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva
Synopsis: One of the biggest releases to close the year is this new film from Damien Chazelle, the writer/director behind La La Land. It opens on Friday, sending the action back to Hollywood in the 1920s as films are moving from the silent era to talkies. It’s an interesting period and fertile ground for the kind of sprawling and larger-than-life tale that Chazelle wants to spin. Pitt stars as Jack Conrad, a big star of the silent era who is about to hit a crossroads. Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, who is trying to break in as the film opens and make her mark as the star she knows she is. Meanwhile, Manny (Calva) is there watching it all, trying to make a name for himself in the magic land of Hollywood. From the jump, Chazelle’s film crackles. The opening salvo sets the stage, as much of the first act takes place at a Hollywood party that sets the tone for the film and introduces all the players, including a horn player (Jovan Adepo) and a powerful gossip columnist (Jean Smart). The film spans years and follows the careers of the central players, their highs, lows and challenges as they come to grips with a changing industry. The score from Justin Hurwitz is magic, and befits this tale. It’s much wilder than Chazelle’s previous films, exploring a more debaucherous era of Hollywood. The performances as solid, particularly from Robbie and Calva, whose characters lead the production. A number of fun actors show up in smaller roles and cameos. I was particularly amused by Tobey Maguire, who shows up well into the films more than three-hour run time. Those expecting something tonally similar to La La Land will find this jarring, but those that want to see someone making the most of a big vision and an even bigger story will enjoy the ride. I found myself in the latter category, appreciating the artistry and performances even if I didn’t always know where the story was headed.
Rating: Rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language.
Starring: Vicky Krieps
Synopsis: The official entry into the Academy Award competition from Austria is Corsage, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in theaters on Friday. The film centers on Empress Elizabeth of Austria. The film begins on Christmas Eve as she turns 40 years old and follows about a year of her life. The fictional tale focuses on the monarch, renowned for her beauty, grappling with age and her public image. Krieps plays the Empress and gives her all in a film that runs the gambit of emotions and situations. Some of it works and most of it is meant to be playful. At times I thought the story was too dry and a bit too niche, especially for those not familiar with Elizabeth, her family and her reign. It’s an engaging portrait at times but one whose story doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (Theaters)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Harvey Guillen, and Florence Pugh
Synopsis: It’s been 11 years since Banderas’ solo film as Puss in Boots, a character her originated as part of the Shrek animated franchise. Since then, Puss has appeared in a short and a series, but now he gets another crack at a feature film, which opens Wednesday just in time for the Christmas holiday. This one finds Puss down to his last life. Facing the threat of dying for real, he retires. But when the chance to go on a quest that could end with a wish that would restore his lives presents itself, Puss springs back into action. He teams with former flame Kitty (Hayek) and a lonely dog (Guillen) to try and get to the wish before Goldilocks (Pugh). This film was more fun and had more heart than I expected. I was particularly taken with Guillen’s Perro, who had some fun lines but also some of the best heart moments. Banderas and Hayek are great together and this one has a story that moves at a good clip and has a fun arc. In the end, this turned out to be one of the better animated releases of the year and one that should be a heck of a lot of fun for the whole family.
Rating: Rated PG for action/violence, rude humor/language, and some scary moments.
The Whale (Theaters)
Starring: Brenda Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, and Samantha Morton
Synopsis: This film from director Darren Aronofsky opened in limited release earlier this month and is due to open wide on Wednesday. It features Fraser as a 600-pound gay man who lives as something of a recluse since the death of his boyfriend. His only friend is Liz (Chau), a nurse who is worried that Charlie will soon succumb the myriad health issues for which he refuses t seek treatment. In addition to serving as an online English professor for college kids, Charlie tries to re-connect with his teenage daughter (Sink) during what might be the final week of his life. This is a film that touches on a lot of weighty subjects. It looks at religious fundamentalism, bigotry, body image issues, the weight of grief and difficult family relationships. And it tries to tie it up all in a neat little bow. That works sometimes but not always. The script from Samuel D. Hunter feels both personal and uneven, while touching on some issues that Aronofsky has explored before. What works, when it does work, is the performance of Fraser and Chau. Both have some impassioned scenes and both make the most of the script and film they’ve been handed. In the end, I was moved at times but troubled at times. And, ultimately, I’m not sure what I’m meant to take away from this story. It had potential and has some beautiful moments but it doesn’t quite come together.
Rating: Rated R for language, some drug use and sexual content.
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.