A survey of (mostly) disappointing films this holiday season.
‘Tis the season of so many movies you may have no idea where to start.
I’ve seen most every hyped thing this year except for the last big one: James Cameron’s “Avatar Too: My Blue is Your Blue,” which I will be seeing as a paying audience member with my family next Friday. Expect word on that and Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which I’ve seen but can’t yet discuss, next weekend.
Spoiler alert: most of the following movies suck! Stay home! Eat cookies! Go to live theater! Take refuge at the Criterion Channel! Read a book! Don’t abuse exclamations points! We’ll be talking more about the year in general a couple of weeks from now in my final piece of the year.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (dir. Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson)
Someone please tell Guillermo del Toro that “fairy tales … with real-life fascism!” isn’t the flex he seems to think it is, especially since he’s relied on that gimmick three times previously to greater effect. In this stop-motion film, co-directed with Mark Gustafson, del Toro sets the story against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise in Italy. Geppetto’s son is killed by a stray bomb and the gods turn his half-carved puppet into an animated figure out of theoretical mercy. Del Toro loses much of the sugar of the 1940 Walt Disney classic, though he tosses the baby out with the bathwater. The stop-motion is agreeably artisanal, and Ewan McGregor makes for a fine cricket, but this “Pinocchio” is creepy, lifeless, and brutally overlong. The dealbreaker is actor Gregory Mann, who turns Pinocchio into an insufferable little prick. (In theaters now, available on Netflix soon.)
See instead: Phil Tippet’s miraculous stop-motion horror epic “Mad God,” which is on streaming and Blu-ray now.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Rian Johnson)
If you loved “Knives Out” and Rian Johnson’s work in general, by all means see “Glass Onion,” as it’s been shrewdly curated to earn your approval. If, however, you think Johnson is one of the most self-satisfied of American filmmakers, excelling at all the things that don’t much matter, you’re advised to skip this one. It’s so stuffed with meaningless twists, set decoration, and cameos that one loses sight of not only the murderer and his or her motivation, but the murder itself. Of course, it also has a fashionable “eat the rich” thematic, as all Hollywood films must now, though it’s as gaudy a display of unchecked wealth as anything ostensibly under Johnson’s microscope. Parodying Elon Musk is easy, how about parodying a smug hypocrite who’s parodying Elon Musk? Daniel Craig and Janelle Monáe exhibit moments of human feeling, though they’re lost in the shuffle. (Available on Netflix soon.)
See instead: The sexy coming-of-age noir “Murina,” which is currently streaming.
“White Noise” (Noah Baumbach)
A half-admirable failure but a failure nonetheless. The verbose and acerbic Baumbach is a curious fit for Don DeLillo’s writing to begin with, but more curious is the filmmaker’s decision to turn the author’s spare, devastating novel into a maximalist smorgasbord of 1980s-era nostalgia, disaster film, horror film, consumerist satire, and absurdist musical, all topped off with bizarre, occasionally moving performances by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as a couple plagued by American ennui. Did the “White Noise” novel move Baumbach, or did he see it as a vehicle to broaden his filmmaking toolkit? Did he sense that a change of pace was in order after making perhaps the definitive old-school Baumbach film with “Marriage Story?” One ponders such questions as distraction from the fact that his “White Noise” doesn’t add up to much. All this effort to tell us consumerism is bad? Hectoring Hollywood filmmakers do realize that they benefit from consumerism, right? (In select theaters and available on Netflix soon.)
See instead: Baumbach’s wry and absurdly underseen 1990s movie, “Mr. Jealousy.”
“Empire of Light” (Sam Mendes)
In 1980s Britain, with hate crimes on the rise in the Thatcher era, Olivia Coleman’s old maid in the making learns a special lesson in tolerance from a May-December fling with Stephen (Micheal Ward), a Black usher at the theater she manages. Mendes, a specialist in prestigious movies that leave your mind the moment Oscar season ends, has fun fashioning images in the key of Edward Hopper with cinematographer Roger Deakins. The film looks impressive, but it’s drab and humorless and none of the characters make any sense. It’s basically “The Shape of Water” with Stephen in place of del Toro’s Gill Man. Toby Jones has a good, hammy moment as the projectionist, though “Empire of Light” has shockingly little to do with “magic of cinema.” Given how many times cinema’s magic has been celebrated this year, that omission may be a small mercy. (Now in theaters.)
See instead: Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” a documentary that mixes pathos and dawning political awareness far more skillfully. Currently streaming.
“Emancipation” (Antoine Fuqua)
“Emancipation” offers compelling evidence that Antoine Fuqua schlock-fests, Will Smith vanity projects, and Oscar-bait American civics lessons do not mix. You can have maybe two of those things in a movie, but all three is an ordeal. Smith is a slave on the run to Baton Rouge near the end of the Civil War. The slaves have been freed legally, but Southerners aren’t acknowledging it. In case we miss the point, all the Southerners are grotesque hillbillies, seemingly glowing in a sheen of bacon grease and chewing on their beards and calling the Black men “boys,” and much worse five times a minute. The slaves may be living in hell, but they’re lit in heavenly shards of light that emphasize their suffering and their specialness. Any humanistic point that Fuqua thinks he may be making is compromised by his palpable drooling over the gore: the whippings and hangings and burnings and slicing-n-dicing is lingered over by the camera in tracking shots that suggest we are walking through a slavery amusement park: “12 Years a Slave” as a “Pirates of the Caribbean” exhibit. When he knows he’s making crap, Fuqua’s tastelessness can be amusing, as in “The Equalizer” movies, but his insensitivity is laughable here. (In select theaters and on Apple TV.)
See instead: “A Jazzman’s Blues,” Tyler Perry’s unjustly ignored Southern tragedy, on Netflix.
“The Whale” (Darren Aronofsky)
Though it is adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his play, “The Whale” fits snugly into Aronofsky’s wheelhouse of metaphorical fables about pain freaks who torture themselves until experiencing either transcendence or annihilation, which are indistinguishable for the filmmaker. Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, an online English teacher who weighs 600 pounds, gorging on junk food as penance for a contrived backstory. The “fat suit” is convincing—you keep looking for signs of the hunk from “The Mummy”—and Fraser’s soft, elegantly fragile voice is truly haunting. The film is well-made across the board, in fact, as this is one of the few one-set theater adaptations that flows like organic cinema. Much less organic is the script, with its shrill supporting characters and embarrassing “Moby Dick” metaphor. Movies always want to explain addiction. Can the sheer sensory thrill of indulgence, paired with loneliness, ever be enough? Addiction isn’t supposed to make sense. “The Whale” is moving—it’s so relentlessly weird and unpleasant that it almost has to be—but you may resent the way Aronofsky works you over. (In select theaters, expanding throughout the month.)
See instead: “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky’s one great pain freak fable, or “The Elephant Man,” David Lynch’s poetic rumination of entrapment in flesh. Both widely streaming.
“Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
I’m one of those cinephiles who thinks Fellini’s “8 1/2” is a load of mythmaking crap. I do not believe that the life of any creative or intellectual can be adequately represented by a circus of sensual delights. My experience is that the creative process is quite a bit more ordinary than that. It’s work. No more, no less, but certain artists prefer to see themselves as mythical conjurers. What’s this have to do with “Bardo?” I was afraid of Iñárritu, one of the most overblown and pompous of modern filmmakers, venturing into “8 1/2 “ territory. Believe it or not, this free-associational epic about a journalist-turned-filmmaker in a transitional state is one of the filmmaker’s mellowest, wriest, and most relaxed films—easily his best since his first, “Amores Perros.” Guilt-ridden riffs about Mexican-American relations beget some of the most astonishing imagery of Iñárritu’s career, from a house of sand to a bus that becomes a makeshift aquarium. And talk about flow. The fruit of Iñárritu’s extended, often contrived experimentation with long takes really blooms here. In a dire season of releases, “Bardo” is a surprise. (Available in select theaters. Drops on Netflix at the end of the month.)