SCREEN GRABS There’s a rather large number of films we didn’t get (and/or want) to see in advance opening this week, including Once Upon a Deadpool (a recut, more family-friendly re-release of Deadpool 2 from earlier this year); YA fantasy Mortal Engines; The Mule, a crime drama starring and directed by Clint Eastwood that, unusually for him, hasn’t gotten any awards push at all; and Mary Queen of Scots, with Soairse Ronan as that ill-fated monarch and Margot Robie as Elizabeth I in a purportedly handsome but problematic costume epic.
Not made available for critics was Lars von Trier’s already-notorious The House That Jack Built, a long, gory serial killer tale opening in an R-rated version toned down from the unrated one that played U.S. theaters for just one day a couple weeks ago.
Never fear, there’s a lot more opening this week, much of which we did pre-screen for your benefit. All the below open Friday, unless otherwise noted:
Roxie Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Liyana
The Roxie has turned into a hub of international animation of late, with two new features arriving this weekend that reflect that programming trend. Never Ending Man is about Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned master of the hand-drawn ‘toon form (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, et al.) whose announced retirement in 2013 at age 72 was an occasion for mourning for many. But despite his prior resistance to computer-generated imagery, he found himself drawn back into a new project by a group of enthusiastic young animators. Originally a Japanese TV special, Kaku Arakawa’s non-fiction feature chronicles Miyazaki’s somewhat tortured return to the creative hot seat.
Playing just Saturday and Sunday is Amanda and Aaron Kopp’s Liyana, which combines documentary and computer animation to depict S. African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe’s collaboration with five Swaziland orphans—and the original “fairy tale” they concoct. Roxie. Never Ending: Opens Fri/14, more info here. Liyana: Sat/15-Sun/16, more info here.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Though arguably the most ridiculously over-milked superhero in the whole comic-book-movie universe, Spider-Man turns a new page with this justifiably praised new animation feature that wreaks playful havoc both with his mythological conventions, and with the boundaries between his familiar stomping-ground media. Toying with all kinds of imagery, from graphic-novel panels to the truly psychedelic, this semi-satirical, kinda-post-modernist new adventure is definitely a “marvel” (sorry) in design terms. It’ll be a dream come true for fanboys (and -girls) of all ages. However, if you’re not really much of a Comic Book Guy at heart, you may find its very busy two hours too much of a good (but still somewhat hollow) thing. At area theaters.
2015 Norwegian hit The Wave revived 1970s disaster-movie tropes with admirable success in a straightforward tale of a tsunami hitting a small town. In this sequel, the first film’s ignored whistleblower (Kristoffer Joner) is revealed as since having become a recluse, torn by guilt over not saving more people even though he did manage to rescue his family. Now he realizes a major seismic event is about to hit Oslo. Of course, once again no one heeds his warnings until it’s too late, and his family members all find themselves in possibly lethal individual perils.
Directed by John Andreas Andersen (replacing the original’s Roar Uthaug) this is just as good as the prior movie, in exactly the same ways: If you can get through a tolerably talky buildup to the point where crisis strikes, there are fine cliffhanger setpieces with ripping FX. It’s not a particularly sophisticated kind of thriller, but it’s better-crafted and more pandering than your average Hollywood equivalent these days. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Good fun for musical theater addicts as well as general aficionados of the weird, Dava Whisenant’s documentary trains focus on a subterranean showbiz strata that is largely forgotten now, and eluded popular notice even at its peak. For several decades there existed a whole “alternative Broadway” of revues created for corporate conventions—original shows designed to entertain visiting businesspersons of a particular industry (whether agricultural, home-appliance, or whatever), then never be heard of again. In some cases limited “original cast recordings” were made as souvenirs for the attendees; very rarely, someone shot some footage of the act.
Yet these throwaway “musicals” celebrating the joys of wheat, toilets, copy machines, and such often attracted top theatrical talent, lavish production budgets, and future stars (like Chita Rivera and Martin Short, both interviewed here) at the start of their careers. In fact, some musical-theater types wound up spending years in these shows, whose employment could be more dependable (and even lucrative) than Broadway itself. Structured as a sort of detective story, driven by latterday collectors who scour the Earth for the few remaining artifacts of these singing, dancing industrial oddities, Bathtubs is a hoot. Opera Plaza. More info here.
Ben Is Back
The breakout star this year most likely to have a very long career ahead of him—after all, he’s just turned 22—is Lucas Hedges, whom most people first met as the nephew in Manchester by the Sea. Last year he appeared in Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His good taste in projects was further underlined by three 2018 movies, all of which he was excellent in: As the bullying older brother in the lamentably under-appreciated Mid90s; as the evangelical family scion dispatched to a “gay conversion therapy” program in Boy Erased; and now as a teen struggling to stay sober in his father Peter Hedges’ (Pieces of April) new feature.
When Ben shows up unexpectedly on his mother (Julia Roberts) and stepfather’s (Courtney B. Vance) for Christmas, he sparks as much worry as welcoming: Did he really get permission to leave his rehab facility? After numerous prior failures, can he really be trusted to stay off drugs?
Ben Is Back arrives just weeks after the thematically very similar Beautiful Boy. Comparisons are inevitable, and not all that flattering: Boy is flawed but feels organic in a way that the earnest but more contrived Ben does not. Writer-director Hedges errs in pushing the initially strong, intimate psychological study towards a half-assed sort of crime melodrama in its second half. Worse, he’s over-tailored it to his star—not son Lucas, but Roberts. She’s fine, but eventually the movie feels rigged so her character can run the gamut of Oscar-worthy histrionic emotions, from brave smiles to anger to hysteria and so forth.
The result is a film whose many strengths end up undermined from within. But it’s still worth seeing for Lucas Hedges, who is the real deal, and who never hits a false note in a quiet, anguished turn that might easily have been geared towards showy acting bravado. At area theaters. More info here.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Kevin Costner was bad enough, but the recent flop Robin Hood was so painfully, clumsily “revisionist” (Matrix-style costumes? Jamie Foxx as Little John?!) that you could feel all Sherwood Forest wilting in despair. Ergo it’s a particularly good time to revisit this arguably best of all such cinematic representations—rivaled only by Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version. It was certainly the best role for Errol Flynn, a limited actor but a figure of athletic joie de vivre who could actually make those green tights seem kinda dashing.
The Technicolor 1938 hit, Warner Brothers’ most expensive project to date at the time, remains a jaunty delight, with a peerless support cast: Olivia De Havilland as love interest, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as bad guys, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale among the “merry men,” Una O’Connor a very merry woman, etc. Its co-feature is a little obscurity from four years later called Casablanca, also directed by Michael Curtiz. Grab these good times at the Castro while you can: The following three days of its calendar are occupied by Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the worst (if also most popular) movies of 2018. Sat/15, Castro. More info here.
There have been a lot of Yuletide-themed horror movies since, most of them heavily tongue-in-cheek. But Lewis Jackson’s feature was somewhat pioneering in 1980, and it remains a quirkier, better deadly-Santa movie than the more widely seen slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, which arrived four years later. Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) is a sad sack, an insecure child-man obsessed with Christmas to a degree inappropriate for a grownup. Duly employed at a toy factory, he’s ridiculed by coworkers, abused even by the brattier local children. When Harry’s tether finally snaps, he dons his Santa suit and doles out some serious consequences to those who are more naughty than nice.
A black comedy “fairy tale” with a sad misfit center, this John Waters-endorsed cult film was the final feature for Jackson, whose prior ones were lowly sexploitation obscurities. It was originally released as Better Watch Out—a title more recently used by another good Christmas horror comedy worth digging up, Chris Peckover’s 2016 Australian/U.S. film. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.