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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


In brief: a holiday guide to some better movies


Gerald Schmitz

The commercial side of Christmas seems to arrive earlier every year. So too holiday-themed movies quickly forgotten. There was Almost Christmas out on Remembrance Day and Office Christmas Party a few weeks ago. Fortunately this is also the season when more compelling fare contends for year-end attention. Here are a range of titles to consider.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (

Directed by Gareth Edwards, this new episode in the rebooted Star Wars saga is the biggest blockbuster of all starting Dec. 16. Rebel Alliance heroine and outlaw Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is given a challenging mission by Mon Mothma to steal designs for the Death Star. Can she and her fellow warriors succeed up against the Empire’s military director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)? And don’t forget Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones).

La La Land (

Also in wide release on Dec. 16, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s second music-themed feature after his Sundance hit Whiplash is charming critics and audiences, making it an early favourite for the best picture Oscar and has already garnered eight Critics’ Choice nominations and seven Golden Globe nominations. The central characters are two struggling souls with bigger aspirations who meet and fall in love. Mia (Emma Stone, awarded best actress at the Venice film festival) works in a coffee bar while auditioning for acting roles. Sebastian (Canadian Ryan Gosling) takes gigs as a jazz pianist. Although set in modern-day Los Angeles, their deepening connection is choreographed to the tune of sparkling sound-and-dance numbers that conjure up a golden age of Hollywood musical romances. What’s not to love?

Nocturnal Animals (

Adapted from Austin Wright’s 2011 novel Tony and Susan by fashion designer turned director and co-writer Tom Ford, this is another second feature, also set in L.A., which opened Dec. 9. Susan, played by Amy Adams (Arrival), is a gallery owner involved in a provocative art scene. Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an ex-husband from her Texas hometown she left decades ago. The title is that given to an unsolicited manuscript she suddenly receives from him, a Texas crime thriller that begins to play out on screen to bizarre effect as their troubled past returns with a vengeance.

Collateral Beauty (

A high-profile cast star including Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Edward Norton star in this drama by director David Frankel, which opened Dec. 16. Smith plays Howard Inlet, a New York advertising executive who becomes withdrawn after suffering the tragic loss of a child. As friends express concern and try to reach out he embarks on a search for meaning by writing letters to universals — love, time, death — that bring surprising personal responses and a new outlook on the world.

The Space Between Us (

Also in theatres Dec. 16, directed by Peter Chelsom, is this extra-terrestrial story of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first human Martian after his pregnant astronaut mother gives birth shortly after a spaceship lands on the red planet. She dies from complications without revealing the father and he has an unusual childhood to say the least. Growing up to be an intelligent teen he searches for clues about his father and forms an online friendship with Colorado girl Tulsa (Britt Robertson). But on his first visit to earth complications arise as his body cannot adapt to earth’s atmosphere. Can he still find what he’s looking for?

Passengers (

Opening today is another inter-planetary adventure directed by Norwegian Morton Tyldum (The Imitation Game). Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence star as two passengers on the “Starship Avalon” among over 5,000 humans on a 120-year voyage to a far distant planetary colony called “Homestead II.” Jim (Pratt) is a Denver mechanical engineer who paid his way. Aurora (Lawrence) is a New York journalist reporting on cosmic travel. They get much more than they bargained for when a malfunction causes their hibernation pods to open 90 years short of their destination.

Gold (

Opening Christmas Day, this feverish tale is directed by Stephen Gaghan, whose last feature, Syriana, was 11 years ago. Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey headlines as Kenny Wells, a down-at-the-heels businessman who teams up with a geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramirez) in search of gold in the Borneo jungles of Indonesia. Striking it rich is only the beginning of a wild ride.

Fences (

Also opening Christmas Day is this drama of 1950s African-American life directed by Denzel Washington who stars in the lead role of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who has been reduced to working as a garbage collector and struggles to provide for his family. Viola Davis plays his wife, Rose. The screenplay by August Wilson is adapted from his eponymous play which had a 2010 Broadway revival with Washington in the same role. Strong performances suggest the Oscars will not be “so white” this time around.

Why Him? (

Another Christmas week release, this one walks on the silly side. Directed and co-written by John Hamburg from a story by Jonah Hill, it stars Bryan Cranston as Ned Fleming who, with wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and teenage son Scott, gets a lot more than expected on a holiday visit to daughter Stephanie, a student at Stanford University with an unconventional Silicon Valley billionaire boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Ned gets pushed way out of his comfort zone as he battles Laird’s efforts to prove he is marriage material. Who will get the last laugh?

Sing (

A family-friendly choice for Christmas is this animated feature directed by Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet, the latest in a parade starring the animal kingdom (Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Ice Age: Collision Course, The Secret Life of Pets, Storks). No humans intrude on the proceedings as a koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) seeks to revive a struggling theatre. Moon’s optimistic gambit is to stage the world’s greatest singing competition. Picture an Animal Idol of finalists: a mouse, an elephant, a mother of 25 piglets, a gorilla, and a porcupine. Can a song turn things around?

The Founder (

Following up acclaimed roles in Birdman and Spotlight, Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc in this biopic about the ambitious Illinois salesman who built up the McDonald’s global fast-food empire after manoeuvring to take over a California hamburger restaurant operated by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald in the 1950s. Laura Dern plays his wife, Ethel Fleming. The story behind those golden arches won’t be in wide release, however, until Jan. 20.

Live By Night (

In limited release Christmas day is this violent offering from director and co-writer Ben Affleck, based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Set in 1920s Boston during a Prohibition era of illegal booze, organized crime and corruption, Affleck also plays the main character of Joe Couglin, son of a police captain who has gone over to an underworld high life where nothing and no one can be trusted. Opens wide on Jan. 13.

Jackie (

Directed by Chilean master Pablo Larraín, this December release tells an intimate story of the Kennedy assassination and aftermath as seen through the eyes of First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. As Jackie, Natalie Portman gives one of the year’s best performances. Written by Noah Oppenheim (best screenplay at the Venice film festival), it draws on Theodore H. White’s Life magazine interview with JFK’s widow. The winner of the Toronto festival’s Platform prize could be an Oscar favourite.

Also deserving mention is Larraín’s Neruda, a biopic of the great Chilean poet starring Gale Garcia Bernal in the role. It premiered at Cannes and went into limited release Dec. 16. Other noteworthy Cannes selections set to arrive in North American theatres include: Ken Loach’s Palme d’or winner I, Daniel Blake (U.K./France/Belgium), Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (Germany/Austria), Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Iran/France), and Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta (Spain), based on an Alice Munro short story.

Lastly, there is at least one film with deep spiritual content to watch for — Martin Scorsese’s Silence ( about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan. An epic passion project that had its world premiere at the Vatican on Nov. 29, it expands next month from a very limited end-of-year release.