“MOANA”: The latest Disney animation smash offers high adventure and fun laughs from the voiced character of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but its mostly lackluster songs prevent it from being a classic. Still, DATEWORTHY.
“THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN”: This gem of a film about an outcast teenage girl dealing with true love, lust, the loss of a parent and much more is handled with both sensitivity and great humor, making it perhaps my favorite film of the year. DATEWORTHY.
“NOCTURNAL ANIMALS”: The powerhouse combo of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal ties three intricately woven and very dark tale of lost love and greater loss into one powerhouse punch. DATEWORTHY, but be aware it opens with a bizarre title sequence of full nudity from three older, extremely obese women on display at an art show, and its main plot is intensely nerve-jangling. Read the full review before deciding.
“BAD SANTA 2”: If you couldn’t tell already that this tired and pointless sequel is filled with wall-to-wall vile “humor” and occasional outright blasphemy, you also believe in Santa. But this is one red-suited guy to avoid.
The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas marks the busiest time of the year for moviegoers, as every studio in town tries to make amends for the mindless blockbusters they’ve released all year long. Combining a flood of awards contenders with holiday-themed comedies, there are easily four or five major flicks hitting the multiplexes this weekend, and this week I’m spotlighting three cinematic gifts and one you’ll likely want to return for a refund.
“Moana” is the latest smash hit from the Disney animation factory, having opened to a tremendous $81 million this past weekend. In the recent tradition of Disney cartoon hits like “Frozen” and “Tangled,” it serves up a healthy dose of girl power as the eponymous heroine is a teenage Hawaiian girl, while also including a guy-friendly angle through her sidekick, a burly Samoan demigod named Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
They team up on an adventure to reclaim a lost sacred stone that can restore vitality to her dying island. Facing off against coconut-shaped pirates and a giant crab in an ocean-based fortress, as well as natural disasters like storms, the fast-moving tale has action to spare, but only a couple of songs seem destined to be breakout sing-along classics.
Being a Disney cartoon, this is suitable for all ages without question.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is the real knockout here, and perhaps my favorite movie of the year so far. Starring Hailee Steinfeld (who earned an Oscar nomination in 2010 for “True Grit”) as Nadine, an outcast 17-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her detested yet perfect twin brother starts a relationship with her best (and only) friend, the film has wise and witty things to say about young love and lust, troubled parent-child relationships, how kids cope with the death of a parent and much more.
It may sound like a run-of-the-mill teen-angst film, but Steinfeld’s performance is easily Oscar-worthy in what may be the most three-dimensional teen character ever committed to film. Sound like overly high praise? Then consider that the script by debuting writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is so good that it inspired legendary filmmaker James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment,” “As Good As It Gets”) to come out of retirement and be a producer for the first time in six years. Highly recommended for adults and mature teens, this will likely foster some valuable parent-child discussions.
“Edge” deals with its teens’ first relationships, and lets one couple that’s obviously having premarital sex seem blissfully happy. But Nadine has a highly complicated encounter with a guy who is obviously bad news, enabling the film to show outright promiscuity as a mistake.
The film leaves most of the sexual activity offscreen, with no nudity shown. The happily portrayed couple is seen kissing in a bed together for a literal split-second, and Nadine’s negative encounter is handled perfectly.
There is some foul language sprinkled throughout the film, but not enough to shock anyone familiar with today’s teens. Where the movie scores its best points is in showing Nadine’s road to emotional health and a positive relationship with her mother after years of tension following her dad’s untimely death.
If you’re looking for something darker and far more adult, look no further than the powerhouse starring combo of Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams in “Nocturnal Animals.” The second film by famed fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford, “Nocturnal” ingeniously interweaves three storylines into one hell of an overarching narrative that packs a haunting punch.
The main plot focuses on Susan (Adams), a high-end art dealer trapped in a loveless second marriage in which her husband is cheating on her. She receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) containing a novel called “Nocturnal Animals” – a reference to how Susan describes herself due to her inability to sleep well.
Edward has dedicated the novel - which is about to be published - to Susan, but it’s no love story. Rather, it tells a harrowing noir-style tale of a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal, a highly effective way of showing how Susan becomes immersed in the novel), who is driving across a deserted Texas highway in the dead of night with his wife and teen daughter when three creeps force them off the road.
These cretins kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter while abandoning him, and as Tony begins his desperate quest to find them and seek justice, Susan finds herself flashing back to the conflicted emotions of her past with Edward. As Edward sends her an email inviting her to see him for the first time in 19 years, Susan’s fictional and real-life worlds come to an intense head.
“Nocturnal” is a masterpiece of mood and style, but it thankfully has a dark heart beating strongly under its surface. If Gyllenhaal doesn’t score a nomination and possibly the win for the three intense pieces of his performance, then the Best Actor Oscar race is one more significant vote that will appear to be rigged this year.
“Nocturnal” opens with an unsettling slow-motion opening titles sequence in which a few older, extremely obese women are shown dancing fully nude at an art gallery opening. If you can get past that – a stark metaphor for the depraved and empty art world Susan is trapped in as a gallery owner – the rest of the film is mostly a moody thriller with the limited but creepy violence either shot in a haze.
Overall, “Nocturnal Animals” is an outstanding film artistically but should be approached with extreme caution and only be seen by adults.
Finally, there’s also a movie that’s a must to avoid. It’s almost impossible to believe that a film as utterly tired and pointless as “Bad Santa 2” would be foisted upon crowded multiplexes at a time of such high ambitions, but this lump of cinematic coal is indeed taking up space.
Billy Bob Thornton returns in what must be a career low (not to mention a lost bet) as Willie Soke, a hopeless alcoholic and lifelong thief who pulled off a hilarious heist while dressed as a mall Santa in the first “Bad” film, back in 2003. This time, he’s been tricked by his dwarf sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox) to come to Chicago to rob a crooked children’s charity, but problems ensue when Willie finds that his estranged and utterly vile mother Sunny (Kathy Bates) is the real engineer of the new job.
Nonstop clashes and highly offensive jokes ensue, but “BS2” is severely hurt by the fact that this go-round is lacking Willie’s nemeses from the first film, played by the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac. The film is also in different hands than its original’s writer-director team, rendering the plotline boring and threadbare.
Thornton looks like he’s in a state of bored agony throughout, but Brett Kelly returns to steal what little is worth taking as the now-adult Thurman Murman, a complete oddball kid whom Willie befriended in the first film in his only glimmer of decency. Unfortunately, one key element being good can hardly prop up a disaster, and any theatre screen showing this one is a must to avoid.
“Bad Santa 2” is as corrupt as it gets, filled with crass humor, foul language, blasphemy, drunkenness and sexual situations failingly passed off as humorous.