Mike at the Movies

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13) *****

This film, like its predecessors, overwhelms you early with a powerful musical score, visuals and the action but, unlike most of today’s special effects spectacles, it keeps you riveted until the last credits roll. Make no mistake: This picture belongs to the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. They are both aged, of course, and Leia gets banged around a lot by her nemesis, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who is Darth Vader’s grandson. Daisy Ridley as Rey is sturdily charming and tough and lives several lives in combat with Ren.

Those new to the series may need some preview work: The First Order is on a mission to destroy the Resistance once and for all and they do a pretty good job of it. Even Luke agrees that it’s time for the Jedis to close up shop and die and he keeps trying to do so. Rey spends most of her time trying to convince him to come back as a sort of superhero to save the embattled Resistance. A lot of old favorites reprise their roles: Yoda comes back in a semi-whimsical role, C3PO is back as well as BB-8, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. Benicio Del Toro has a good time chewing scenery as DJ, a guy with secret code information (maybe) and old cast members Kelly Marie Tran (Rose) and John Boyega (Finn) come back as well. In fact, Rose and Finn have almost half the film, fighting their own battles against the First Order and General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) and his minions.

There are, of course, many spectacular scenes in the film, but the topper may be one of the last: A battle is fought on a white surface that turns blood red when stepped on or scratched. As the Resistance mounts ancient fighters to attack the command vessel of the First Order, they are forced to go most of the way not in the air, but on the ground, leaving red trails wherever they go. It makes for fantastic footage.

This is just spectacular filmmaking by people who know their business and have high standards. It deserves its status as a blockbuster. Go see why.

Molly’s Game (R) *****

If you love great acting, great scripts, great directing and lots of tension, you must see this film. Molly (Jessica Chastain) becomes real in the space of two hours and is perfectly believable as an Olympic-quality skier, party girl, poker game runner and brilliant person. After an injury knocked her out of skiing, she sat in as manager of a game for Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) and, by watching and listening, learned all there was to learn about various games of poker and used her innate skills as an accountant and organizer to make $4 million in one year from tips. She moved her game to New York where she made about the same money but eventually ran into the Mob, got beat up, robbed and arrested by what is portrayed as a dirty FBI. First, they took all her money, and then they started to charge her penalties for not paying money back on phony charges.

Molly befriends a Hollywood type, played by Michael Cera and called Player X (in real life Toby McGuire) who gets her into trouble by loaning money to bad poker players to keep them in the Game. Throughout, Molly refuses to cooperate with the Feds because she ran a straight game and to protect the lives of her players and their families.

The highly intelligent, witty and fast-moving script is by Aaron Sorkin who also makes his directorial debut with the film. He does both brilliantly. If you’re making a list of films to see this holiday season, put this at the top and leave the kids at home. It is brilliant stuff.

The Greatest Showman (PG) *****

This is one of the finest musical films I have ever seen. After a spectacular opening scene, it efficiently takes us through P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) life and ends with Barnum getting a $10,000 loan with sunken ships used as collateral. That was pretty much the story of Barnum, who was a noted fabulist and man who put sensation before practicality and made a good living out of it.

The film glosses over a lot of Barnum’s failures and creates a phony love affair with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). The outstanding feature of the film from start to finish is its choreography, done by Ashley Wallen. The dancing is top-notch but the props that are used and flung across scenes almost become dancers themselves. The only jarring note in the film was the insistence on having Jenny Lind sing pop-style songs. She was one of the great sopranos in history and Barnum was using her to establish a legit reputation. Why have her sing pop stuff?

Barnum’s wife reminds him: “You don’t need everyone to love you,” but in this film you will. Jackman may have been Wolverine but his singing and dancing chops are incredible in this wonderful musical. Take the kids. They will love it as you will.

All the Money in the World (R) ****

The film is becoming famous for the last-minute re-shoot to include Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty, replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey. I liked Spacey but didn’t miss him: Plummer is perfect as the detestable “richest man in the world.” It’s 1973 in Rome, in the midst of various terrorist groups looking for ways to make easy money to fund their fanatical attacks on capitalism. The Calabrian Communists in Italy figure that kidnapping a member of the family of Getty can get them millions of dollars the easy way: ransom. Their number is $17 million.

Paul Getty, 16, is happy to be in Rome, ogling the girls and celebrating youth. The terrorists toss him into a van and take him to a remote village where they put him in a cell. His mother, Gail Harris Getty (Michelle Williams), immediately thinks of the boy’s grandfather who, when asked by reporters how much he would be willing to pay to ransom Paul, famously answered, “Nothing.” The movie shows him refusing to pay any ransom, shortly followed by his $1.5 million purchase of a painting of questionable provenance—a symbol of his disregard for humans in general, but family specifically.

Enter Mark Wahlberg as former CIA agent Fletcher Chace. Chace is a go-to man for Getty, doing both open and shady deals for the old man. He is assigned to Gail, who tries everything she can think of to pry loose some money from the cantankerous Getty.

The ransom is lowered to $7 million, which Gail still can’t raise, and eventually four is the figure. Seeing himself as Emperor Hadrian, Getty goes about planning a copy of Hadrian’s palace, the results of which you can see if you go to Getty’s estate in California.

The most famous event in the tenure of the kidnapping is the grisliest scene in the movie: To prove his identity, the captors cut off Paul’s ear and send it to a newspaper. There are a lot of facts that are not facts in the film—Getty did not die the day his grandson was released—and other shadings of truth, but he was irascible and incomprehensibly cheap: He agreed to pay $2 million of the ransom only because that was the amount that could be deducted from his taxes.

The film is brutal, fairly fast-paced and colorful. It helps if you can forget the miracle of re-shooting that allowed Plummer to play Getty. Leave the kids at home and read the acceptable facts about the tragic and complex Getty family. It’s awful but human history.

The Post (PG-13) ****

I was not as crazy about this film as perhaps I should have been. Perhaps it was because I knew many of the people in the film and read about them daily. Perhaps it was because the drama of the film, based as it is on actual events and actual people, was diluted by the fact that I remember those days so well. The film is largely a formula-film, too. It is the story of a great newspaper almost destroyed by its strength: its firm insistence on principle.

What did excite me about the film was the way it concentrates on the character of Kay Graham, its late owner (Meryl Streep). In one particular scene with her daughter, Lally (Alison Brie), she voices her resentment over the way she has been treated by other newspaper owners, editorialists and members of her own staff, most notably Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), a member of the board at the Post and almost insufferably condescending toward Graham.

Part of the struggle at the time was the fact that the Post was looking to increase its financial base. The stock had just been offered on the NYSE and some members of the board were leery of anything that might negatively affect the bottom line. The Pentagon Papers case, opened by The New York Times, threatened the existence of the Post and the Times. There was an injunction against the Times that caused them to stop publishing the Papers; the Post, using Ellsberg as its source as well, got a copy and, though it was not complete, published what they had.

The Supreme Court eventually decided, on a 6-3 vote, that the papers could be published. The decision of Graham to go ahead was indeed courageous and was endorsed by a number of the country’s leading papers, which rapidly reprinted the Post’s material. This, in the face of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s threat to Graham: “If there’s a way to destroy your paper, by God he (Nixon) will find it!”

The relatively recent death of her husband by suicide and the financial challenges to the Post make Graham’s decisions even more noteworthy. See the film. Streep is convincing and the movie good history.

Ferdinand (PG-13) ****

This is wonderful stuff for those kids who are either too young or too disinterested to go to “Star Wars.” The old Munro Leaf story is animated well, the voiceovers are fine, and Ferdinand still loves flowers more than fighting. “Can I be the champ without fighting, maybe?” he asks plaintively early on. He is aided and abetted by the always-entertaining Kate McKinnon as a loopy goat named Lupe, Lily Day as the charming and loyal Nina, his hostess at the farm where he eventually settles, and various other voices. Peyton Manning even fills in as Guapo, a bull who doesn’t have the right stuff and is shipped off to the butcher early on. Sort of a forced retirement? There is a lot of mostly unnecessary slapstick and chase material that keeps the youngest ones interested but not much for grownups to grasp unless they want to hear once again that boys need not be bullies to be successful.

Jumanji-Welcome to the Jungle (PG-13) ****

This is a totally silly movie for the holidays that makes you feel as if you are playing a part in a video game. All the other movie characters are, so you might as well go along.

Through the magic of an old video game, four teens are turned into other characters.Nerd Spencer (Dwayne Johnson) is turned into the hulk that is his video character. He has zero weaknesses other than the three lives he is given at the start of the game. All the others are given three lives also. Kevin Hart is Fridge, a monster football player who loses all his height and bulk in joining the game. Jack Black plays Bethany, a Valley Girl spoiled phone freak. And the remarkable Karen Gillan is Martha, the bookworm who turns into a martial arts expert with a heart-stopping physique.

Nick Jonas makes a late entry as pilot Alex who has been in the game for 20 years and just wants to get out. The necessary villain, Van Pelt, is played perfectly by Bobby Cannavale. Overall, this is a very funny spoof of lots of things, being teenaged mainly.

The plot follows the usual video game program: lots of danger, a couple of “deaths,” lots of laughs, snakes, hippos, and other killer animals and the final jaguars that must be conquered somehow in order to replace the jewel and leave the game. This is a kids’ movie. The ones in the theater with me didn’t miss a beat and were still laughing about it afterward. Silly and fun, this film is perfect for a family outing.

Downsizing (R)***

This is a movie that couldn’t make up its mind. Comedy? Domestic drama? Environmental screed? Science fiction? So, they decided to make it all of the above and result is a film that wanders aimlessly for a good part of its 2:15 running time, wastes Kirsten Wiig, but does manage to expose us to a new and graceful talent, Hong Chau. This is her big-budget debut as Ngo Lan Tran, a Vietnamese Small Person who escapes prison in Vietnam after losing the lower part of a leg. She becomes the inevitable love interest of Matt Damon (Paul Safranek) after his wife (Kirsten Wiig) dumps him instead of getting downsized like he did.

“Downsizing,” making humans 2000 times reduced in proportional size, is a process born in Norway, designed to save the environment by creating a smaller footprint. To demonstrate this, a scientist walks on stage holding a plastic bag containing four years of Small Person waste! Paul, an Omaha Steaks occupational therapist, is enraptured by the idea of downsizing and taking his $152,000 in assets into a society that will convert to $12.5 million in Leisureland, the Small community. Things get weirder and weirder from there on out, and we descend into sci-fi predictions about the end of the world, saving the world by moving underground and other theories of how the human species can survive.

They lost me before we reached the end of the world and I left, disappointed that somebody couldn’t or wouldn’t make the choice of which movie to make. By the way, for those of you picking movies by trailers on TV, the one running for “Downsizing” is totally misleading, using many scenes that never made it into the movie. Beware!

Father Figures (R) **

Owen Wilson (Kyle Reynolds) and Ed Helms (Peter Reynolds) partner in this road movie. The two are fraternal twins, trying to find their father. Their mother is Glenn Close (Helen) but she’s no help. “Monogamy was not big in those days,” she said of the ‘70s).

First father option is Terry Bradshaw as himself. No luck though lots of hope. Ving Rhames remembers Helen extremely well, but is not a father suspect. J.K. Simmons is a con man but eliminates himself. The brothers run into a hitchhiker who almost steals the show. Katt Williams, as the hitchhiker, has a real adventure, including a train wipeout of the boys’ car and is generally as confused as the boys are. Peter finally has some reward for being Peter by having “a pure one-night stand” with Sarah O’Callaghan (Katie Aselton) who, it turns out, may be their sister. All those questions are explored during a very funny fight scene at the O’Callaghan funeral, and we wind down from there to veterinarian Walter Tinkler (Christopher Walken) and a twist ending.

It sounds funny and sometimes is, but when it tries to become a brother-bonding movie it turns into something different and schmaltzy. Not as funny as it could have been and not the best of the holiday movies.

Pitch Perfect 3 (PG-13)*

What was a cute franchise with great vocal arrangements for female a cappella singers turns into a loud rock-fest with no sensible plot and not much humor. The Bellas are somehow reunited for an audition for the USO and DJ Khaled, played by himself and showing no acting skills whatsoever. Ruby Rose plays Calamity, the lead singer on a competing group but it turns out—SURPRISE!—that Khaled wants only Beca (Anna Kendrick) to headline his world tour. You can figure out before you go how that turns out. Anna Kendrick was cute and playing down in the first two versions of the Bella’s adventures, but in this final edition it appears that she’s embarrassed to be with inferior talents. Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy does her best to bond with Beca but it seems phony to the very end. Wilson does her usual potty mouth routines and has an attempt at reconciliation with her father, John Lithgow with an Aussie accent, and he, too, seems to be condescending to act with his inferiors.

There is so much in this film to ignore because it is either a cliché or a wrench that there is not much left to like. Milking the franchise is old hat by now and wise filmgoers should tell them “NO!” by refusing to go along with this one.

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