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Schultz reviews: ”Bombshell," "Little Women" and "Spies in Disguise"

Schultz reviews: ”Bombshell," "Little Women" and "Spies in Disguise"

Carl Schultz

 

“Bombshell” Distributed by Lionsgate Pictures, 108 Minutes, Rated R, Released Dec. 13:

 

Strong performances and a sharp, incisive script by “The Big Short” co-writer Charles Randolph are among the strengths of “Bombshell,” a mostly-factual account of the genesis of the #MeToo Movement, turning what might’ve become a lurid, routine and forgettable docudrama into intelligent and compelling motion picture entertainment.

 

It’s 2016, and life at the partisan and controversial Fox News Channel is anything but tranquil.  Engaged in a war of attrition with leading GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, fighting the larger and more balanced news networks for a share of the national audience, the “nostalgia machine for lost America” fires its premier newscaster, former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, for being out of step with the channel’s ultra-conservative agenda and practices.

 

Prohibited by her contract from filing a lawsuit against the network, Carlson instead sues Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment — enduring Ailes’ swinish abuse is practically a professional rite of passage for female employees at the network. But the success of Carlson’s lawsuit depends on the courage of other Fox News employees, including rising star Megyn Kelly, to place their own professional careers at stake by coming forward with their own accounts of gender-based mistreatment at the network.

 

Briskly directed by Jay Roach, best known as the filmmaker behind such comedies as the Austin Powers pictures and “Meet the Parents,” “Bombshell” scores a bullseye by explaining to its audience the nuances of a transformative era in history. While much of its publicity and advertising suggest “Bombshell” is a political satire or a topical social comedy in the tradition of 1970’s “M*A*S*H,” the picture instead turns out to be a brilliant human drama, of enormous importance to practically every American during a time of change.

 

In the pivotal role of Gretchen Carlson, the Academy Award-winning Nicole Kidman opts away from performing an impersonation of the well-known author and television journalist, electing instead to portray her in more human terms as a professional woman in a modern workplace, juggling career responsibilities with a personal life as a wife and mother. In filing the lawsuit against Ailes, Kidman’s performance illustrates clearly that the payoff is not career prestige or a megabucks payoff, but the look of approval and pride in her young daughter’s eyes.

 

As the fictional rookie Fox News employee Kayla Pospisil, Margot Robbie crafts another vividly effective characterization in a career, which already has ranged in scope from roles as diverse as Queen Elizabeth I in 2018’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” actress Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” earlier this year, and an over-the-top turn as comic book villain Harley Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” During the heartbreaking scene when Robbie’s Kayla is forced to stand before the smarmy Ailes and lift the hem of her skirt as a means of promoting her onscreen television career, any viewer who’s not simultaneously sickened, outraged and deeply offended must be devoid of a soul.

 

Buried in mountains of prosthetic makeup and a fat suit as Roger Ailes, John Lithgow contributes the most uncharacteristic performance of his career. Usually cast as the sunniest personality in 10 counties, Lithgow portrays Ailes as a subhuman oil slick, a loathsome slug unburdened by morality or conscience. At one point, Lithgow’s Ailes tells an employee he’s been unfavorably compared with Jabba the Hutt, but in reality Lithgow’s characterization is closer in spirit to Charles Laughton’s performance in 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a Captain Bligh with kinks in his cable.

 

But Charlize Theron’s performance as Fox News’ rising star Megyn Kelly does beyond acting and solidly into territory usually described with the word “alchemy.” To say Theron nails the characterization is insufficient praise. Aided by prosthetic makeup that’s nothing short of astonishing, Theron inhabits Kelly so fully that by all appearances the actual television personality is onscreen, playing herself. One small criticism: Does Megyn Kelly really speak that way all the time? Employing her “news voice” when she’s at home with her family becomes a distraction in an otherwise brilliant performance, more reminiscent of a drill sergeant barking orders to a platoon of Marine recruits.

 

“Bombshell” is earning respectable but disappointing reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 67% from Rotten Tomatoes, against a similar weighted average of 65% from Metacritic. The consensus at Rotten Tomatoes reads that the picture “benefits from a terrific cast and a worthy subject, but its impact is muffled by a frustrating inability to go deeper than the sensationalistic surface.” The actual Megyn Kelly following a private screening acknowledged that viewing the picture was “an emotional experience,” but noted some inaccuracies.

 

With cameo appearances by Malcolm McDowell as media mogul Rupert Murdoch, familiar comedy actor Richard Kind as a toadying Rudolph Giuliani, and an unrecognizable Allison Janney as author and legal scholar Susan Estrich, “Bombshell” is rated R for sexual material and language throughout.

 

“Little Women” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 135 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Dec. 25:

 

The March sisters — Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth — are closer than most sisters, living with their sensitive and supportive Marmee in 1860’s New England during the era of the American Civil War while their father’s away supporting Mr. Lincoln’s Republic as a member of the Union Army. But during a time when a woman’s station in life is determined by how well she marries, the headstrong and obstinate Jo wants to accomplish the unthinkable — to forge an independent path in life and establish a career ... as a writer.

 

The eighth film version of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal 1868 novel is arguably the best, with strong performances from a veritable who’s who of the best and brightest talent currently working in American film. Besides strong and imaginative direction from Greta Gerwig and a cast which is practically perfect, the picture benefits from realistically overlapping dialogue, a sweeping musical score by Alexandre Desplat, and an unconventional narrative structure which augments the emotional impact of formative moments in the lives of the sisters by switching back and forth between scenes depicting them as children living together and seven years later, as adults living apart.

 

“Little Women” might seem at first thought an unusual choice of material for writer/director Greta Gerwig, generally acknowledged as the vanguard of modern independent film, especially since the cutting-edge “Lady Bird” in 2017 established her firmly on the map of mainstream popular culture. But Louisa May Alcott’s original novel was considered radical and revolutionary when it was first published shortly after the American Civil War, and has influenced and inspired entire generations of young people. “Little Women” has never been out of print. Writers who cite Alcott’s novel as a major influence on their careers include Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, performance artist Patti Smith and Gerwig herself.

 

A brilliant Saoirse Ronan stands out in the picture as the definitive Josephine “Jo” March — charismatic, passionately impulsive, playing within the expectations of contemporary society but firmly pursuing her own path just the same. Jo is necessarily the tale’s main character--it’s her reminiscences which form the narrative foundation of the story. But in Gerwig’s retelling, all the sisters have more or less equal parts ... and equal opportunities to shine for the performers playing them. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are just as persuasive as Ronan in the less-showy roles as Meg and Beth, as is Laura Dern in the key supporting role as their wise, loving, and patient mother, affectionately called Marmee.

 

Among the men in their lives, the fey Timothee Chalamet is equal parts loyal, indolent and noble as Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, the spoiled rich kid conducting an unconventional romance with the reluctant Jo. A bemused Bob Odenkirk appears late in the tale as the girls’ father, and a kindly and crinkly-eyed Chris Cooper seems to be channeling Mark Twain as Laurie’s megarich curmudgeonly uncle, who lives next door to the Marches. Actor and playwright Tracy Letts is also caustically funny as the jaded Mr. Dashwood, Jo’s publisher, during the scenes which frame the picture’s main narrative.

 

But if there’s a breakout star of this “Little Women,” it’s Florence Pugh. A solid and dependable presence in international film since her performance in “Lady Macbeth” put her on the map in 2016, Pugh enjoyed a formative year in 2019 with breakout performances as WWE professional wrestler Saraya “Paige” Bevis in the delightful “Fighting With My Family” and as the troubled Dani Ardor in Ari Aster’s controversial and polarizing horror film “Midsommar.” As the temperamental and artistic sister Amy in “Little Women,” Pugh consolidates her success and confirms her place as a premier character actor of this generation. Look for this performance in particular to be prominently mentioned during awards season.

 

Equal parts poignant, happy, heartbreaking, funny and always moving, to call “Little Women” a labor of love for Gerwig tells only part of the story. Alcott’s brilliant novel is as vivid and timely as ever when read in 2019. And the highest praise for Gerwig’s brilliant new film version is not that the picture is one of the best movies of the year and the definitive motion picture version of the classic tale, but that it’s among the very best American films of all time, and deserves a place on the bookshelf alongside Alcott’s novel.

 

Meryl Streep contributes a customarily studied character performance to the film as the girls’ Aunt March. She’s as brilliant as always, but her presence here feels more like a blessing over the project than a real characterization. Beautifully filmed by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux on authentic locations in Concord, Boston, and Harvard, Massachusetts, with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum standing in for Paris, “Little Women” is rated PG for adult situations and thematic elements.

 

“Spies in Disguise” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 102 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Dec. 25:

 

In the animated “Spies in Disguise,” Lance Sterling, an agent for HTUV (that’s Honor, Trust, Unity, and Valor) and “the world’s greatest spy” is inadvertently transformed into a pigeon by the agency’s hyper-intelligent new gadgets designer, a teenaged MIT graduate named Walter Beckett. Working together, Sterling and Beckett labor to return the agent to his human form while simultaneously preventing a bionically-enhanced megalomaniac cybernetic terrorist villain from destroying the world.

 

More silly than funny, with a fairly obscure and out-there premise milked in equal measures for both chuckles and groans, “Spies in Disguise” is tied together, wrapped up with a bow, and delivered for Christmas by its superb and imaginative animation and an enormously likable cast of voice characterizations, led by the ubiquitous Will Smith as the vainglorious super-spy Lance Sterling and Tom Holland as his child prodigy quartermaster.

 

Smith and Holland are both enjoying genuinely unique entertainment careers: Smith seems to spend half his time reinforcing his image as both a viable dramatic actor and superstar matinee idol and the other half mining his image for laughs in the grand Hollywood tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Burt Reynolds. And Holland, turned into a household name as the current screen incarnation of the Marvel superhero Spider-Man, despite his overwhelming success in the comic book role is much more likable in his non-Spider-Man movie roles ... or at least less abrasive.

 

Directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno from a script by Lloyd Taylor and “Arrested Development” writer and director Brad Copeland, “Spies in Disguise” is receiving encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval score of 73% from Rotten Tomatoes and a somewhat lower weighted average of 52% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of A-minus.

 

Released on Christmas Day to 3,502 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Spies in Disguise” was projected by distributor 20th Century-Fox to earn up to $23 million during its five-day opening weekend. The picture ended the period on the mark, with $22.1 in North American box office totals and $16 million overseas, finishing in fifth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind the returning megahits “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in first and “Jumanji: The Next Level” in second. The new “Little Women” occupied third place with $16.525 million in earnings, slightly ahead of Disney’s “Frozen II” with $16.5 million in its sixth week of release.

 

“Spies in Disguise” is rated cartoon action and violence, and for the customary rude humor.

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