We all feel a little grinchy sometimes. When holiday cheer becomes particularly oppressive, when we feel lonely in a crowd, when we would rather rain on someone’s parade than admit defeat, Dr. Seuss gave us a way to describe that feeling with his classic holiday children’s book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The universality of the emotion is why the tale endures, and why we’re now on our third film adaptation of the story. Benedict Cumberbatch steps into the role as the Grinch in “The Grinch,” but fortunately for him, there’s no prosthetic makeup involved — this is all computer animation.
The new animated version brings us closer to the 1966 TV movie starring Boris Karloff. The film, written by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow, directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, is faithful to the book, particularly in the visual style. The animation, by Illumination Entertainment, is stunning, detailed down to the fleece on a jacket, the fur on the Grinch and the snow in the village of Whoville.
The story about the Grinch stealing Christmas and his heart growing three sizes is padded out with a bit more backstory for Miss Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely). Cindy Lou has a Christmas wish she badly needs to speak about with Santa. She’s hoping her frazzled single mom, Donna (Rashida Jones), catches a break, as she works all night as a nurse and spends all day taking care of Cindy and her twin baby brothers.
This is an adaptation of a children’s book that’s about finding the true spirit of Christmas in community and connection, about learning to let go of old hurts and old ways and reaching out to neighbors. It’s about love and kindness prevailing over everything else. It’s just odd this would be the backstory the writers chose for Cindy Lou’s mother. However, it is relatable for American audiences.
The Grinch’s issue is he’s felt rejected by the Whos since he was an orphan, and Christmas is his trigger. You know the old tale — he enlists his loyal dog, Max, to steal all the Christmas gifts, and the film gets into the logistics. There are necessary additions to the story to be made, but anything that isn’t directly from Seuss’ book simply feels like underwritten fluff. Cumberbatch does elevate the material, but don’t expect to hear any of his dulcet English tones. He goes for a higher, more nasally American accent, but it’s a wonderful voice performance. Kenan Thompson is also a standout as Christmas-obsessed Bricklebaum.
“The Grinch” is beautiful to look at, and diverting enough. The material written to fill out the story is entertaining, but it doesn’t resonate. You can’t top what Seuss wrote, especially the poignancy of the Grinch realizing Christmas can’t be stolen, because it isn’t a thing. It’s an idea, a spirit, a song. That’s always going to be a good reminder for us every holiday season.
(PG, 2½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 30 min.)
– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’
Claire Foy's Lisbeth doesn’t have the fierce fragility of Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” or the Nordic flintiness of Noomi Rapace, who played the character in the Swedish film trilogy. Foy’s Lisbeth is passionate and compassionate, despite her severe styling and frosty demeanor. Early on, her famed dragon tattoo is sliced open in an attack, and for the rest of the film, despite superglue and staples, it seeps blood. It’s the perfect encapsulation of this Lisbeth Salander, a bleeding heart whose wounds have never closed.
“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the fourth book in the Millennium series, and the first not written by Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004. David Lagercrantz wrote the new installment, which has been adapted by director and co-writer Fede Alvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu. Alvarez made a splash a couple of years ago with his high-concept horror flick “Don’t Breathe,” wherein a blind man stalks a trio of teens who broke into his house. Those self-imposed limitations served his cinematic storytelling well, and with all restrictions lifted in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” chaos reigns, though it’s not all that compelling.
The plot is a classic “thingamajig” story, which bedevils the “Bond” franchise, the “Mission: Impossible” films and most superhero movies, so it’s somewhat appropriate a soft reboot/sequel to a film about a distinctive crusader would fall prey to this scenario. Lisbeth has to keep a (insert world-ending device here) out of the hands of (insert nefarious criminal organization here). It’s a tale as old as cinematic time, edged-up with facial piercings, unfortunate bangs and light lesbian action.
The twist is the nefarious criminal organization has a deeply personal connection to Lisbeth’s past, and her quest rips open deep, old emotional wounds. Lisbeth’s status as a survivor of sexual assault has always been a huge part of her story, and in “Spider’s Web,” that is brought to the forefront, asserting that rape is what makes women bitter and violent. The film wants to deal with old trauma and the consequences of not facing that, but the way it’s deployed here is reductive, particularly with regard to Lisbeth and her sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who is only defined by her past pain.
But for all of the film’s shortcomings, which include an overly complicated, uninteresting plot, baffling fight scenes shot from completely insane angles and, most egregiously, the complete waste of Vicky Krieps and Claes Bang, Foy is truly doing the work. She is both meticulous and earnest as Lisbeth, giving the character a big, beating heart underneath her black hood and creative eye makeup.
Lisbeth loves women, reveres womanhood and tortures men who hurt women. She’s the kind of hero we need right now, and her return to the screen is welcome. It’s a shame this story sends her skittering off chasing encrypted laptops and not true bad guys. Maybe next time.
(R, 2½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 57 min.)
– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’
In America, Disney and “The Nutcracker” have a long history together, almost as long as “The Nutcracker” and Christmas itself. Back in 1940, Disney’s “Fantasia” included an animated segment based on the Russian ballet — an ahead-of-the-curve choice. Not for many years would “The Nutcracker” became a seasonal favorite known for keeping American dance companies financially solvent. Next time you see a local production, remember: Disney got there first.
What a shame, then, that Disney’s latest version, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” is a near-total disaster. The story of a 14-year-old girl, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), who discovers a magical world. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” cobbles together bits of the Tchaikovsky-scored ballet, the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale that inspired it and just about every fantasy film ever made, from “The Wizard of Oz” to the “Narnia” films. The script is by Ashleigh Powell, but this “Nutcracker” is so utterly generic and bizarrely random that it could have been generated by bots.
To wit: Set in Ye Olde London, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” begins in earnest when Clara receives a Christmas Eve present left by her dead mother: a silver egg with a missing key. The egg was created by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who might have magical powers, if his pet owl, eye patch and Smithsonian-size laboratory are any indication. After their talk together, Clara somehow winds up in a Narnia-like winter wonderland.
Clara is busy chasing Mouserinks, a rodent who has the key to her egg. Mouserinks leads her to the nutcracker soldier Phillip (a mumbly Jayden Fowora-Knight), who in turns leads her to a kingdom where Clara’s very own mother was once queen. Now it’s up to Clara to battle Mother Ginger, a 30-foot-tall ventriloquist’s dummy that contains Helen Mirren.
Intermission! Here’s Misty Copeland, of the American Ballet Theatre, to dance-splain the history of the realms. It’s beautiful and baffling. Back to the movie.
Directed first by Lasse Hallstrom and then by Joe Johnston, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” continues on its way, a blur of spooky forests, fireflies, tin soldiers and computer-generated mice. Only a saucy Keira Knightley, as Sugar Plum Fairy, keeps us even vaguely interested.
(PG, 1 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 39 min.)
-- Rafer Guzmán, Newsday
There’s a lot riding on “Beautiful Boy,” the first major awards season contender for Timothée Chalamet after the phenomenon that was Call Me By Your Name. The film, a combined adaptation of the addiction memoirs Beautiful Boy and Tweak by father and son David and Nic Scheff, is the first English-language film for Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, whose Broken Circle Breakdown was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2014.
All of the elements are there to make “Beautiful Boy” an incredibly moving piece of work. Steve Carell stars as David Scheff, the endlessly supportive father, a journalist trying to get to the bottom of his son’s inexplicable and devastating addiction to crystal meth and heroin. Timothée Chalamet is perfectly cast in the role of Nic, the tortured young man who idolizes Bukowski and other beautifully addicted and depressed artists. With a moody Northern California setting and lauded European director, the result should be a winning equation.
However, director Felix Van Groeningen modulates the flow of the story too carefully, never hitting the highest highs or lowest lows; rather, meandering around the torturous journey that this family has to undergo while their loved one is deep in the throes of addiction. In that way, “Beautiful Boy” is devastatingly realistic—as much as you might try, you can’t fix someone; they have to choose to fix themselves. That’s an impossible position for a parent who has spent a lifetime caring for and being responsible for the needs and safety of their child, and this is illustrated painstakingly in the story, and in Carell’s tormented performance.
And yet, there’s something about “Beautiful Boy” that just doesn’t quite come together. The film holds you at arm’s length, never quite letting you all the way in, never fully showing the ugliest or rawest moments, perhaps because it privileges David’s point of view. Though this film ostensibly combines the memoirs of David and Nic, David is largely the center of the story. As a journalist, he wants to be able to explain, research and investigate his son’s addiction, until he realizes that he’ll never understand it.
Van Groeningen takes an extremely granular approach to non-linear storytelling that works until it doesn’t. Almost every scene is intercut with a flashback, and often flashbacks are nested inside of flashbacks until we’re unsure of what timeline is the present, offered only breadcrumbs of time to mark the way. These flashbacks can be used to great effect, especially memories that David has of Nic as a young boy. As he strokes his 20 year-old son’s hair while he sleeps on the floor of a New York City hotel room, fresh out of Bellevue Hospital after an OD, David is struck by the memory of stroking Nic’s hair and singing him to sleep with the John Lennon song “Beautiful Boy.” It’s the same boy that he loves and cares for, even if he doesn’t even feel like he knows who this person is at times.
But the flashbacks and non-linear structure become increasingly confusing and unnecessary. We also have no idea of who these characters are outside of their addiction. We have some understanding of the things that Nic likes: the music, writers, and sports that he’s into, though those are superficial. But that focus could be a comment on how addiction operates and affects everyone that this disease touches, with identity subsumed by this beast, this dark cloud.
Chalamet is predictably great, though his best is yet to come. He ably captures the charm, shiftiness, and desperation of an addict, but there’s something elusive about the character, something unseen that evades our understanding, which may be a reflection of film’s focus on David’s perspective. Therefore, Carell is more affecting in this role, as we follow the ebbs and flows of his journey in more detail, moving from controlling father to letting his son go on his own journey, alone.
“Beautiful Boy” is a lovely but often frustrating film, withholding what it promises through storytelling choices that don’t always work. For some it will hit home deeply. Others may be left cold.
(R, 2½ of 4 stars, 2 hr.)
-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
If the setting of “The Guilty” couldn’t be simpler, its immaculate execution by first-time director Gustav Möller couldn’t be more gripping and involving.
A disturbing Danish psychological thriller and a real-time police drama that’s equal parts provocative and emotional, “The Guilty” wrings complex drama out of its minimalist physical trappings.
“The Guilty” is a single-location film that consists almost entirely of a series of telephone conversations that get increasingly complex and unexpected.
Working with co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, Möller has set his film in the police emergency services control room of a large city — unnamed, though presumably Copenhagen.
The first sounds we hear, not surprisingly, are ringing phones. The first image we see in Jasper Spanning’s taut cinematography is the close-up of an ear with a telephone earpiece firmly in place.
On dispatcher duty this evening is officer Asger Holm, played with an impact that gradually overpowers you by top Danish actor Jakob Cedergren.
Asger, it’s clear almost immediately, is not business as usual as a dispatcher. When people call in for help, he is as likely as not to give them a sarcastic hard time for getting drunk or being in the red-light district in the first place as he is to send help.
Cedergren has given Asger a stern, rigid visage, presenting him physically as well as verbally as an uncompromising moralist with a sense of mission, someone who has no doubt he knows right from wrong.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he can’t be disturbed or unsettled, as he is by a call on his personal mobile from a journalist who asks him if he has any comments on his court date the following day.
What becomes clear is what we could have guessed: dispatcher is not Asger’s regular beat. He has been temporarily assigned there pending the outcome of that legal proceeding, the cause of which we gradually learn more about.
All this is merely the setup for the main event. The phone rings again and on the line is no disoriented drunk but someone whose situation will change the nature of Asger’s night, maybe even of his life.
The caller is Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a woman who sounds like she is talking to her young daughter.
Asgar quickly catches on that Iben is talking to him in a kind of code, trying to convey that she is in trouble without coming out and saying it, and he helps her along by asking a series of yes or no questions about her situation.
What he discovers is that Iben is in a car being driven by her ex-husband and being taken somewhere very much against her will.
Alive to all the grim possibilities a kidnapping presents, the moralist in Asger tries to piece together what is going on, bending heaven and earth to do the right thing for this endangered woman.
One of “The Guilty’s” more potent elements is its emphasis on Asger’s genuine passion for police work. “We’re protection, we protect people who need help,” he says on the phone at one point, and his sincerity is never in doubt.
How that belief, that sense of purpose, interacts with the real world in this twisty story — and whether things will work out the way those on the screen or in the audience expect — is the heart of this very fine film. It’s a heart that beats as strongly as anyone could hope for.
(R, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 25 min.)
– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
If you think you already know everything you need to — or want to — about what remains the world’s most iconic night club, the evocative, deep-dive documentary “Studio 54” has news for you.
Viewers inclined to hustle back to the sex-drugs-and-disco-ball late 1970s will find this immersive and entertaining new look at a short-lived but wildly influential New York institution jam-packed with a fascinating wealth of archival visuals, emotional insight, candor and echoes of the kind of ill-fated hubris that exemplified the story’s freewheeling, hedonistic era.
Director Matt Tyrnauer presents a fairly straightforward (not a bad thing) retelling of how Studio 54 came to be — thanks to visionary college friends and Brooklyn boys Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. For a few shining years, the flashy club helped propel the age of celebrity and served as a safe haven for gay and transgender people as well as for the rich and famous who wanted to party down.
The loquacious and outgoing (and mostly closeted) Rubell, who died in 1989 at age 45 of AIDS-related complications, is kept alive throughout the film via a plethora of vivid TV news and interview footage, clips and photos of the impresario working the starry crowds both inside and outside Studio (as it was called for short), and a recently shot chat with Rubell’s seemingly close brother, Don.
But the film greatly benefits from having the more introverted Schrager still around to provide firsthand insight, with the luxury of 40 years of reflective perspective, into the inner workings of his and Rubell’s legendary creation.
Tyrnauer has decidedly avoided latter-day interviews with the myriad of living celebs who made regular, much-documented appearances at Studio 54: Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Mick Jagger, Calvin Klein, Elton John, Diana Ross, Cher, Grace Jones and on and on. Given how much these A-listers show up in the doc’s archival bits, current meet-ups with a few of them wouldn’t have hurt.
Ultimately, “Studio 54” proves a nostalgic, sometimes wistful, other times unsettling look back at a singular period of time: those post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-AIDS-crisis years when glitz, glamour and excess moved to the disco beat and, for a flash, it seemed like the party would never end. But boy, did it ever.
(Not rated, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 38 min.)
– Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times