Holiday Movie Guide Part I

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The holiday season is prime time for Hollywood to dump a seemingly infinite amount of movies into our local theaters. These include everything from hopeful awards contenders, comedies, and family films but with all the choices, which ones are worth your hard earned dollar? Here’s part one of a break-down of all the new movies expected to hit the Charlotte area!

If there’s any reason to see the latest biopic on Winston Churchill, it’s arguably the stellar performance from Gary Oldman that lies at its center. Often times the problem with Hollywood biopics is that we simply get a Wikipedia summary of a person’s life or the film is so dutiful toward its subject that you walk away without any real understanding of who they were as a human being. “The Darkest Hour” winds up falling somewhere in the middle, if every so slightly peeling back the mythic image that surrounds the man to reveal someone with his own doubts and insecurities. A large part of this comes through Oldman, who is largely unrecognizable underneath a mound of prosthetic makeup. However, it is hard at times to escape the “awards bait” quality of the movie, namely a scene toward the end on a train that’s one of the cheesiest I’ve seen all year. Still, there’s enough great acting and stylish direction, from an unusually scaled back Joe Wright, to make this a decent enough viewing, despite the feeling it’s on its knees begging to win something.

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You go through much of “Downsizing”, the latest comedy from writer/director Alexander Payne, wishing it could just be…more. The film stars Matt Damon as a mid-western man who agrees to undergo a bran new procedure with his wife, Kristen Wiig, that shrinks humans down to a height of five inches in order to cut down on over-population. Of course, the real reason most agree to go forward with the outrageous procedure is that it allows them to live like kings a queens, considering their money can now go further by consuming less resources. The movie takes a turn when Wiig’s character backs out at the last minute, leaving Damon to face this brave new world by himself and hopefully get a chance to find new purpose in his life. Payne has received glowing praise over the last couple decades for his melancholic comedies such as “Sideways” or “The Descendants”; however, “Downsizing” feels like a return to the more satiracle work he churned out in the 90s. Yet, “Downsizing” lacks the bite of these early film’s, such as the excellent “Election”. The movie wants to comment on everything from our impact on the environment to the way poverty continues to exist despite our best intentions to eliminate it but all these ideas wind up lacking any bite. Plus, it doesn’t help that Damon’s character is largely uninteresting; he’s usually great at playing an every-man but here just comes across as bland. While there is some visual imagination, especially in the film’s first third, showcasing the procedure of downsizing and the ways people live at five inches tall, the overall movie feels static and uninteresting.

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It’s possible there is some kind of audience out there that can find merit in “The Greatest Showman”. Those people would likely have to be fans of overly cheerful musicals with bubble-gum pop show-tunes and over-produced dance numbers. It’s an experience that feels more like “High School Musical” filtered through Baz Luhrmann, with an almost intentionally glossy CG look to the sets and locations. The movie is being marketed as the big follow up project of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, two song writers who this year won Oscars for writing the music to “La LA Land” and a Tony for the musical “Dear Evan Hanson” on Broadway. It also displays an all star cast including Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, and Zendaya. You have to give some props to Jackman, who subverts the Wolverine persona and reminds us why he used to be a Broadway star of his own. However, it’s a shame he had to pick a musical such as this as his big return to the genre. Hands down the only reason to see the movie would be the songs, though even here your mileage may vary. What’s barely there in terms of characters or a story is only loose string to tie these song-and-dance numbers together. Compare this to last years infinitely better “La La Land”, which gave us to charismatic stars whose chemistry and romance was the main focus of the story, the songs were just there to service their emotions. In “The Greatest Showman”, the construction is just the opposite; paper thin story and characters only meant to prop-up an eye-rolling variety special.

Rating: ★ 1/2

There were few people out there asking for a sequel to the 1995 movie “Jumaji”. Thank god, at least, what we get is actually halfway decent. This time around, the cursed jungle game takes the form of an old Nintendo console and sucks an unsuspecting group of teens into the game, where they take the form of their chosen avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black). Johnson gets to once again play on his smoldering hero persona and still has excellent chemistry with Hart. Odly enough, it’s Jack Black who stands out among the group, playing the popular girl at school who now finds herself in the body of…well, Jack Black. The result is a family adventure comedy that’s just entertaining enough to keep you satisfied. Sure, you’re likely to forget about most of the movie the next day, but the largely charismatic cast make this a decently fun movie going experience.

Rating:  ★ 1/2