This holiday season, there’s a movie for everyone, wherever you are.
Watch Neo and Trinity fight the machines from your couch, or the Sharks dance battle the Jets at a real theater.
Or go big, really big, and root for Spidey against the Green Goblin on Imax.
Here’s our roundup of the best — and worst — Christmas movies for your cozy viewing pleasure.
‘Sing 2’ review: Good tunes, but movie is sorely lacking
It’s no secret that little kids love talking animals. But is it too much to ask that there be a stated reason why a koala, elephant, porcupine and pig live happily in the same urban city and all have a passion for music?
That’s the crux of the so-so “Sing” movie series — tales of a showbiz zoo in which someone’s status as a turtle is hardly ever mentioned. In the sequel, “Sing 2,” there are more Hollywood inside jokes about Scarlett Johansson’s singer character not getting the same pay as her male co-star than mentions about the fact that she’s a porcupine.
Perhaps this is supposed to preach acceptance. If wolves and iguanas can get along, so can we — using mammals to impart a moral like some soft-hitting “Animal Farm.” More likely, though, it’s meant to be cute and sell merch.
Whereas the first film was smartly about a singing contest, the new one has theater impresario and aforementioned koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) wants to take his enthusiastic troupe to the next level. So, he invites an agent to his variety show, “Waiting for Guffman”-style. When she decides they’re not ready for the big leagues, he shops around a sci-fi musical to Jimmy Crystal, an entertainment exec/wolf, and he decides to produce it.
Most of the movie is an oddly savvy glimpse into rehearsals. Is Jimmy’s daughter Porsha (Halsey) the musical’s star/pig Rosita’s (Reese Witherspoon) Eve Harrington? Is choreographer/German monkey Klaus Kickenklober (Adam Buxton) a mean old-school backstage type we shouldn’t tolerate anymore? It’s the TV show “Smash” with sheep and lions.
What makes “Sing 2” enjoyable are the tunes. And writer-director Garth Jennings assembles a characteristically quirky mixtape. An audition montage includes, among many more, such unexpected numbers as “She Bangs,” “Cake by the Ocean” and “Abracadabra.” Taron Egerton croons Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” as a heartthrob gorilla. And why not?
Who knows if 5-year-olds enjoy Burt Bacharach’s “I Say A Little Prayer?” But I do!
‘The King’s Man’ review: A depressing, long ‘Kingsman’ prequel
It’s hard to quit the “Kingsman” series, though they’re seemingly trying to force us out.
That’s because the first film in 2014, “The Secret Service,” was a near perfect action-comedy that revitalized the spy spoof genre. Funny, suspenseful and sexy, it made a star out of Taron Egerton who then — out of left field — went on to sing “Tiny Dancer” as Elton John in “Rocketman.”
Then came the mediocre second entry, “The Golden Circle,” which grabbed hold of the humor and amped it up to a ludicrous level. An example of the no-holds-barred crazy: Julianne Moore played an international drug lord named Poppy, who, as it would happen, took Elton John as her prisoner.
And now here’s a dreary prequel (aren’t they all?), “The King’s Man,” which is almost totally laugh-less, lacks a charismatic lead (Egerton’s character isn’t born yet) and is bogged down by the trench warfare misery of World War I.
Writer-director Matthew Vaughn, who’s helmed all three, needs to either call it quits or hand over the reins to someone with some self-control. The formidable talent of Ralph Fiennes can lift his movie some, but the man’s not Hercules.
The prequel’s premise was set up by Colin Firth in the first film, when he described Kingsman as an independent spy agency created by aristocrats during the war who were wary of the UK’s leadership.
So “The King’s Man” functions both as the story of how the fake organization was built and revisionist history about how WWI got started. The Duke of Oxford (Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) are sitting in the Sarajevo carriage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he’s shot — don’t remember that bit from history class — sparking the conflict.
The shooter, Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman), is a part of a group of shadowy figures who sit around a long table atop a mountain like Spectre in James Bond plotting global destruction. They also include Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl).
Why does their boss, an anonymous evil Scotsman (the final revelation is lame), want to incite an international calamity? To get revenge on the British monarchy for what they’ve done to Scotland over the centuries. That’s a hard motive to buy into in a comedy, and his “Muwhahahah!” machinations walk a weird line between Monty Python and legitimate seriousness.
As Oxford, his servant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Conrad’s tutor Polly (Gemma Arterton, irritating) — attempt to stop World War I from getting out of control, he goes off to the trenches. Those battlefield sections are B-side “1917.”
The most amusing scene is with Rasputin, who Ifans interprets as disgusting and magical, and also a skilled dancer and swordsman who enjoys the company of younger men. In a deeply uncomfortable moment, he feverishly licks Oxford’s bullet wound to cure it. Very strange, however it’s the liveliest part of an otherwise funereal, overlong film.
By the end, you’re absolutely certain — the secret sauce of “Kingsman” is Egerton.
Miserable ‘Matrix Resurrections’ is the worst sequel so far
In 1999, Morpheus said to Neo in “The Matrix,” “I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In 2021, I say, “Must you, Morphy? I’ll take the blue pill, please.”
The fourth movie of the needlessly prolonged franchise, coming 18 years after the horrendous “The Matrix Revolutions,” is “The Matrix Resurrections,” a descent not so much into Lana and Lily Wachowski’s ever-fascinating dystopian reality as our own madness.
Beyond the initial satisfaction of seeing Keanu Reeves, whom we regularly watch in plenty of much better movies anyway, and Carrie-Anne Moss return as sunglasses-lovin’ power couple Neo and Trinity, “Resurrections” is aimless, vocabulary-filled, talky tedium.
It’s set after the events of “Revolutions,” which had Neo pull a Jesus and sacrifice himself for the greater good while the Matrix — a digitized world that humans, trapped by machines, confuse for real life — is rebooted. These days, Neo is a video game designer who’s famous for creating one called — get ready to hurl — “The Matrix”!
The cringey self-awareness doesn’t stop there.
“Our beloved parent company Warner Bros. has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy,” says his boss Smith (Jonathan Groff, likably evil) in a line right outta “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
When his team tries to recreate the success of their earlier creation, another designer points out, “We need a new ‘bullet time,’ ” referring to the pioneering 360-degree slow-motion technology made famous by the original film.
Still, Neo, whose real name is Thomas, has a sneaking suspicion his memories of the Matrix, Trinity and the hidden human city of Zion might be real. He’s even been discussing it with a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), whose black cat is named Deja Vu. When that feline moniker is revealed, you silently scream into your popcorn.
Turns out Neo was right. One day Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) shows up in the office bathroom and gives him the alternate-reality lowdown, only Morpheus no longer looks like Laurence Fishburne and also moonlights as one of the villainous agents. This change-up is confusingly explained in calm, condescending technobabble, like a cult leader telling why it’s obvious that aliens are on their way to pick us up.
Then, with the help of a new character named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in one of those gross human pods all over again with one goal: Bring back Trinity.
No “Matrix” movie has ever matched the forceful simplicity of the first one (we are prisoners to machines and need to be free), and “Resurrections” is a full-on lecture at MIT.
As we flip through Lana Wachowski’s syllabus, there’s more talking than a 24-hour marathon of “The View.” The chatter problem began in “Reloaded,” as too many characters with perplexing motivations and silly names were thrown into the mix — the Merovingian, the Keymaker, the Architect — that made the story too video-game-like. Then “Revolutions” added the Trainman and Sati for good measure. The new movie shoves in yet more people who blather on about metaphysics and philosophy and attempt to advance plenty of underdeveloped plot lines.
We are quickly told, for instance, that the machines are now at war with each other on occasion, and Bugs and her crew (all unmemorable) have metallic machine pals who are in the shape of sweet animals.
So, who’s the villain? Sort of Smith, who explains that he is the old Agent Smith but also isn’t. But a bigger, profoundly unsatisfying baddie is revealed later on.
The best part is Moss, whose eyes still burn and whose outward gentility conceals a grave threat, but she’s not in it enough. Jada Pinkett Smith is given ridiculous old-age makeup as the leader of the humans.
With Lana Wachowski returning to direct, we at least hope for the visual dazzlement and boundless creativity of the fight scenes that made the first two films great. Sorry, guys. The fourth flick looks dollar-store cheap and during the battles, you’ll wish you were watching “John Wick” instead.
After two lousy sequels, here’s a pitch for Warner Bros.: “The Matrix Retirement.”
‘Nightmare Alley’ review: Bradley Cooper’s best performance ever
The last time Guillermo del Toro directed a movie, 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” he won the Best Picture Oscar.
His latest, “Nightmare Alley,” probably won’t, but it is nonetheless a far more entertaining and satisfying film than its overrated science-fiction predecessor. The sinister carnival sideshow look is alluring, a perfect match for subversive del Toro. A long list of major stars are doing exciting work. And, most importantly, there are no sea-monster sex scenes.
In a career-best performance, Bradley Cooper plays Stanton, a lost soul who winds up working at a circus after helping the owner (Willem Dafoe) get rid of a violent “Geek.”
Stanton becomes a barker for a medium, Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), and she teaches him the sneaky tricks of the trade. Her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) wrote a guidebook on how to swindle gullible onlookers by, say, having your assistant adjust the tone of her voice to feed you information on the marks.
A charismatic natural, Stanton takes over the act and soon runs away with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose special carny skill is surviving electrocution. Slap that one on a résumé.
The smitten duo tours hotels, and go from shabby farm clothes to tuxedos, gowns and Champagne. During a sold-out performance, Stanton meets steely seductress Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a skeptical psychiatrist who probes his past trauma and becomes his woman on the side. The stern, sexy, spooky character is Blanchett’s bread and butter.
The biggest piece of advice Pete (Strathairn, commanding yet brittle, is excellent) gave Stanton back at the carnival was to never lower himself to a “spook show,” which means that you pretend to channel the dead. You might, he warned, start to believe in your own bunk magic powers.
The dummy doesn’t listen, and a dangerous local millionaire named Ezra (Richard Jenkins) pays Stanton top dollar to summon his dead daughter.
If you don’t know the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that the film is based on, all the plot developments right up to the movie’s final seconds come as a surprise. The last half-hour steamrolls into a thriller.
The script is not unfunny, but del Toro takes the blighted lives of the freaks and Stanton’s wealthy pawns very seriously. It’s a refreshing change from the flippancy of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and the miserable musical “The Greatest Showman.”
Alcohol, for instance, is a major force here. Pete guzzles it at night, and Stanton, for secretive reasons, refuses to touch the stuff. Chicken-biting Geeks, we learn, are both paid in and controlled by booze. Dark, scary stuff.
And Cooper sells it all like a seasoned carny. After “A Star Is Born,” I figured the fresh-faced boy of “Alias” was far behind him, replaced by a forever-bearded auteur. Well, del Toro got him to shave, and his journey from innocence to self-destruction is more powerful because of it. In Cooper’s case, a star is re-born.
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ will shock fans — and not for the reason you think
In Tom Holland’s third solo outing as Spidey, a Spider-Boy becomes a Spider-Man.
You’d figure the Brit had crossed that bridge by now after the death-of-his-mentor pain he endured in “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” or his first go-around saving New York from Vulture in “Homecoming.”
But it’s the gargantuan and deeply satisfying “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in which the former Billy Elliot proves he’s more than a teen idol with a perfect American accent. This time, his Peter’s got gravitas, emotional oomph, brutality, believable love, an anguished scene in the rain! The movie is the actor’s best performance yet, in anything, Spandex or no.
Jon Watts’ Spidey reboot series, which shrewdly re-envisions the web-slinger’s adventures as old high school comedies, still delivers on the jokes, only it’s starting to nix the constant cute and instead embraces the mythic power that pulsed through Sam Raimi’s aughts films. There’s a healthy dose of seriousness here that Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has, for the most part, given The Blip.
And newfound dramatic weight isn’t the only element from the older films at play in “No Way Home.” (Don’t worry, spoiler paranoiacs, I’m not going to reveal anything in this review that’s not clearly visible from readily available movie trailers that you’ve watched 2 million times.)
Watts likes to aggressively shake up his films’ circumstances, so at the start, the vanquished Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) has revealed that Spider-Man’s true identity is Queens high school student Peter Parker. The media — led by the Daily Bugle’s editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) — descend on his apartment and condemn the poor kid as a villain. “The web-headed war criminal!” Jameson screams.
Peter’s controversy causes MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be rejected by MIT, so the guilt-stricken teen asks magical Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to make everyone forget he was ever Spidey. But, wouldn’t you know, the spell backfires and the Multiverse is ripped open.
The Multiverse, I’m 80 percent sure, is an infinite number of realities where bizarro Spider-Men and Mary Janes live and make totally different choices. However, they don’t all look alike or even have the same name.
Villains from the past films that featured Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield start pouring into New York. Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and the greatest Marvel actor ever, Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, all collide in the same place and time.
Dafoe remains exquisite as Norman Osborne, by the way, and sinks his teeth into the Jekyll and Hyde shtick like a Wendy’s Baconator. He’s surely way more fun to play than Vincent van Gogh.
Watts’ ending is bold. You’ll have never left a Marvel film with so much uncertainty as to what comes next. In the best possible way, it feels like the director is saying, “Try getting rid of me now, suckers!”
A lot of folks will dismiss parts of his pathologically enjoyable movie as “fan service,” an irksome and overused phrase that’s dismissive of, you know, pleasing paying audience members. It’s true that some of the reunion banter between the baddies is forced, and Peter’s choices in the lead-up can be quizzical.
But if, like me, you were 12 when you saw 2002’s “Spider-Man,” 22 when you were somewhat less taken by “The Amazing Spider-Man” and — ugh, you do the math — at “No Way Home,” you’ll be thankful you have a dumb mask to conceal your ugly emotional face when the credits roll.
‘West Side Story’ review: Spielberg’s take on musical not as bad as you’d think
The best part of Steven Spielberg’s new film of “West Side Story” isn’t the dance at the gym, or the Sharks and Jets’ scuffle in the prologue, or Tony and Maria’s love duet.
Oddly enough, it’s the jazzy song “Cool” that’s performed ahead of the rumble. “Got a rocket in your pocket. Keep coolly cool, boy!” the antsy Jets sing before their battle with their rival Puerto Rican gang.
This is show-queen blasphemy, I know, but the jolting number tops Jerome Robbins’ iconic original choreography and Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning 1961 film.
It’s absolutely ferocious.
Spielberg transplants the sparky scene to a decrepit dock by the river — it has the bleak look of the final scene of “On the Waterfront” — and choreographer Justin Peck has Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Riff (Mike Faist) fight in glorious dance over a loaded gun.
Those shifts in locale, subtly updating the tunes’ drives and motivation, are what make Spielberg’s very good adaptation of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ musical memorable. It’s the “ET” director’s most visually exciting film in a zillion years.
Still, it’s not gonna become a classic in the way the 1961 original movie adaptation did. Where this “Story” occasionally walks into West Side Highway traffic is screenwriter Tony Kushner’s many needless additions to the script. The “Angels in America” scribe has never met a plot he couldn’t stretch out like a medieval torture victim.
Now, young lover Tony is an ex-convict. Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) parents are dead (clearly to avoid any implication that they’re absent). There’s a gentrification subplot about how the neighborhood is about to be demolished to build Lincoln Center and the streets are covered in rubble. It’s too much.
Getting uber-specific and justifying every single choice that dumb teens make saps the story of its magic and universality. There’s no ironclad equation for why we fall in love or why we hate.
There is a gorgeous line in the 1957 show that’s naturally been cut. Doc admonishes the boys and tells them, “You make the world lousy.”
“That’s the way we found it, Doc.”
A lot more compelling than blaming a construction project, no?
Kushner doesn’t totally derail the movie, though, which is a great pick to bring your family to over the holidays. Ninety percent of it is the “West Side” you know and love.
It’s the classic tale based on “Romeo and Juliet” — Did Shakespeare tell us the reason the Capulets and Montagues are feuding? Nope! — in which Polish Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria, the little sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
So begins a whirlwind romance that, over the course of just one day, has its leading man sing, “Always you, every thought I’ll ever know! Everywhere I go, you’ll be!” That’d be a dating red flag in 2021, but here it makes your heart soar.
Or it’s supposed to. Unfortunately we don’t fall in love with Elgort like we should. There are a lot of choices an actor can make with Tony — puppy dog, sexual, obsessive, whatever — but Elgort, who was excellent in “Baby Driver,” picked “stoner needs a nap.” “Maria” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written in a musical, yet here it’s a shrug. That’s a shame, because Broadway audiences were briefly treated to Isaac Powell’s interpretation in 2020, which was as good as it gets.
The mood is instantly lifted, however, when Elgort meets up with the wonderful Zegler on a fire escape. Smart Spielberg locks it, so there is a sexy barrier between them. Zegler shows us her sweet singing voice and radiating goodness that evokes Maria the singing nun.
It’s the ensemble that wows most, though. Faist makes an unusually spindly Riff, yet he is scarier than any I’ve seen. Bernardo, the best role in the show, is given real intensity by David Alvarez, and Ariana DeBose dances the dickens out of “America” as Anita.
And then there’s Rita Moreno. The original Anita plays a new role, Valentina, the owner of Doc’s Drugstore. The late Doc was her husband and she takes Tony in as a tenant. At 89, there is pathos and tenderness in every word, breath and note. In the song “Somewhere,” she sings “there’s a place for us.”
Be glad Spielberg found a place for her.
‘Licorice Pizza’ review: The best movie of the year
We never could have imagined that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper’s freshman performance would be one of the best of the year in what is easily the best film of 2021, Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant “Licorice Pizza.”
This wonderful kid should be in the Oscar race, but we’re too predictably infatuated with big names. Let’s fix that.
“Licorice Pizza” is a movie you will cherish for a long time after the lights come up. It’s a totally unique and endlessly surprising coming-of-age tale that is carefully sentimental and knock-down, drag out funny.
Hoffman plays Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old Cyrano de Bergerac/Harold Hill/Doogie Howser mix in 1973 California. He’s a charming old soul who acts in tiny film roles and uses the money to start weird side businesses. For instance, he runs a p.r. firm for local restaurants and opens a water bed shop.
One day at school, Gary meets 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim, wonderful), a yearbook headshot photographer, chats her up and manages to get her number. And so begins one of the most memorable and complex on-screen romances in years. On paper, you raise your brow at the pair’s age difference. However, it’s our mixed feelings about the gap and the actors’ incredible chemistry that make the movie so riveting and sneakily powerful.
“Being the Ricardos” review: Nicole Kidman crushes her haters with amazing Lucy turn
Nicole Kidman is doing the finest work of her career in the role of Lucille Ball
She nails the off-camera Lucy in her prime: the acidic tongue, her dream of a normal suburban home life, disdain for mediocrity and especially the unparalleled power she wielded as a woman in showbiz in the 1950s. Cross Lucy at your peril.
We’re gripped by her offscreen marital and career struggles. It’s deeply relatable when she questions her husband Desi Arnaz’s (Javier Bardem) fidelity and infuriating when a studio exec tells her she’s not hot enough for the screen and suggests radio instead. Ball, not one to be kept down, then turns that desperate voice gig into the most iconic sitcom of all time.
Aaron Sorkin’s film is not a traditional biopic in the sense of us seeing her as a little girl or witnessing her early days on Broadway. We don’t. Aside from a few flashbacks, it’s set during one tricky week in 1952 as Ball’s life and career dangled over the side of a cliff.
Lest you think “Ricardos” is all drama and no fun, don’t worry — the movie also succeeds as a terrific comedy.