DALLAS — For so many among us, it's a cherished tradition to head to the movies with your family on Christmas Day. That in mind, here's a look at five just-released films vying for your attention this holiday season. I am a huge fan of Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" and "La La Land," the latter which won him the 2017 Oscar for Best Director. But as he told me, "if 'LaLa Land' is a love letter to Hollywood, then 'Babylon' is a poison pen letter!" He couldn't be more correct.
Chazelle has been working on "Babylon" for some 15 years -- since way before the others. It looks at the early days of movie-making as it transitioned from silent films to talkies. The glamour is stripped away to expose all its decadence and depravity... because, after extensive research, Chazelle came to realize that Hollywood of the Roaring 20s was really the Wild West.
So he took a wrecking ball to the dreamscape. Among those who jumped in to play: Margot Robbie as a starlet on her way up in the business, and matinee idol Brad Pitt, who's on his way down. Then there's Mexican actor Diego Calva, who plays an ambitious guy who goes from running errands to running a studio. The movie's opening scene involves a defecating elephant on its way to a massive Hollywood party where the music and dance flow along with unbridled hedonism.
Yeah, you quickly know what you're in for here, and there's nothing subtle about it. All three leads are great. So is Jean Smart as a Hedda Hopper-style gossip columnist. A scene where Robbie can't hit her mark on a soundstage is one of the funniest in any film, and a side storyline about a Black musician's entry into the film business is enlightening. Where "Babylon" comes up short is in cohesiveness. Despite the ties between the characters, there's an odd disconnect.
A strong thread, like in "LaLa Land," is the Justin Hurwitz score, but even that is not as memorable. I wanted to love "Babylon" more than I did. Maybe it needed a little more finessing before it was ready for its closeup. (Paramount Pictures.
Rated R. Running Time 3 hrs. 8 mins.
In Theaters Only) The Brandon Fraser performance we've heard so much about is finally here for us to see -- and it does not disappoint. Fraser plays online English professor Charlie, who loves to teach about "Moby Dick" -- thus the film's title. In class, Charlie's camera is always off. That's because he doesn't want his students to know that he's a 600-pound recluse.
He's also suffering from congestive heart failure and wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter (Sadie Sink from "Stranger Things") before his inevitable death. But his daughter doesn't want anything to do with him. Why? Because, years ago, he abandoned her and her mother (Samantha Morton) for a gay relationship that didn't last. It's that loss that sent Charlie into an emotional and physical tailspin. A visiting nurse, Liz, looks after him in his declining health.
She's played with both compassion and humor by Dallas' Hong Chau ("The Menu") , who also has ties to his former lover. Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") directs the film adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own stage play.
And it often feels like a play, especially given the claustrophobic setting of Charlie's apartment. It's accompanied by a distracting score that adds to the melodrama. But this movie is all Fraser. Aronofsky waited years to find the right actor to play his lead, and it paid off.
Fraser brings such humanity to Charlie. When he says: "I need to know that I have done one thing right with my life," you'll cry right along with him. (A24.
Rated R. Running Time 1 hr. 57 mins.
In Theaters Only) It's been almost eleven years since Whitney Houston lost her battle with drugs, and "The Voice" was silenced at only 48 years old. To my mind, there was only one Whitney, and she's best celebrated by listening to her music and maybe seeking out a documentary. But her uber-music producer Clive Davis and some family members thought her life story should be a feature film, and so here we are with a big screen biopic. It goes from her young days singing in church to her closeted lesbian relationship with Robyn Crawford and her discovery by Davis to her glory days, her marriage to Bobby Brown and her descent into darkness. Yup, it's all there, including the music, which is wisely lip-synched.
Casting Houston had to be an almost impossible task. Producers arrived at British actor Naomi Ackie, which... I gotta give it to her, she nails the lip-synching, as well as the mannerisms and the spunk of Whitney.
But she doesn't look a thing like her. Then again: Who does?! Stanley Tucci is terrific as Davis and, because he's a producer, he figures heavily into the story. But the movie is emotionally hollow. Think of it like her song title, "Didn't We Almost Have It All." We did.
It's gone. May she rest in peace. (TriStar Pictures.
Rated PG-13. Running Time 2 hrs. 26 mins.
In Theaters Only) "Puss in Boots" sharing a communal cat litter box? Say it isn't so! The swashbuckling, animated cat has had so many close calls, he's used up eight of his nine lives, and after an encounter with the fairy tale equivalent of the Grim Reaper (a.k.a Big Bad Wolf), he ends up at a retreat run by a cat lady (thus the litter box). Soon Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and The Three Bears are after him, along with not-so-little Jack Horner (John Mulaney). They're all searching for a special star in the Dark Forest that will grant its finder a big time wish. So, Puss springs back into action -- but who will succeed in the star search? This is the second feature-length "Puss in Boots" movie, which, if you remember, was a spin-off of the "Shrek" franchise.
Antonio Banderas' remains irresistibly perfect in voicing the title role. And, in a feline match made in heaven, Salma Hayek Pinault returns to voice his sometimes partner 'Kitty Softpaws.' It's hard to believe it's been 11 years since the first stand-alone "Puss in Boots" movie. I'm glad they had another one in them.
(DreamWorks/Universal Pictures. Rated PG. 1 hr.
40 mins. In Theaters Only) Now to a real cat: "Wildcat" is a surprisingly emotional documentary about a young British veteran named Harry who's suffering from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. He decides the best way to make himself whole again is to head to the Peruvian rain forest and work with a wildcat rescue organization. There, he meets Sam, a beautiful researcher running the rescue.
But their relationship is not the one to focus on here. Harry has a real talent for working with abandoned baby ocelots. In a bit of irony, the veteran must teach them how to kill so they can make it on their own in the world. His bonding process, followed by the need to set the cats free, is incredibly heartwarming and heartbreaking.
And we can't leave out Harry's own emotional growth and setbacks. This is the first documentary feature for Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost, and they have just the right touch. And Harry is an engaging, though reluctant, hero. (Prime Video.
Rated R. Running Time 1 hr. 46 mins.
In Theaters Only. Streaming on Dec. 30)