As the box office braces for “Avatar,” a slew of very different tricks and treats settle in for a December release.
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It’s the week before “Avatar” week, and the box office is absolutely abuzz with, well, plenty of non-“Avatar” tricks and treats. Festival heavy hitters like “The Whale” and “Empire of Light,” holiday trifles like “Something from Tiffany’s,” a brand-new “Pinocchio,” and…a knockoff Grinch horror film! Holly jolly, etc.
Each film is now available in a theater near you or in the comfort of your own home (or, in some cases, both, the convenience of it all). Browse your options below.
Week of December 5 – December 11
New Films in Theaters
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautionsprovided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.
“Empire of Light” (directed by Sam Mendes)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Where to Find It: Theaters
Despite being set in the early 1980s (its story spanning from “The Blues Brothers” to “Being There”), Sam Mendes’ scattershot and moribund “Empire of Light” is a movie born out of two simultaneous but unequal reckonings that erupted in the summer of 2020: The Black Lives Matter movement, and the existential threat to the future of movie theaters. Looking at those phenomena through the (not particularly nostalgic) lens of his teenage years in “there’s no such thing as society” England — a time when racism and cinema were both thriving in popular culture — Mendes strives to tell a plaintive yet poignant little story about the simple power of community.
It’s a story about a magical where light and dark mesh together to create magic, and where people can enjoy the pleasure of being surrounded by strangers without fear of being watched. As Nicole Kidman might put it: “Even the Margaret Thatcher era feels good in a place like this.” Merciful as it is that “Empire of Light” stops just short of suggesting that AMC might be our secret weapon in the fight against white nationalism, Mendes’ rear-projected view of the modern world is still too clumsy and stilted to offer any heartbreaking insights of its own. All it manages to leave us with is a warm breakthrough performance from Micheal Ward, a twinkly new score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and a fantastic clip of Olivia Colman shouting “To fuck, or not to fuck, that is the question!” while the “Chariots of Fire” music hums behind her in the background. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“The Mean One” (directed by Steven LaMorte)
Where to Find It: Select Regal theaters
Dr. Seuss’ children’s story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” has likely withstood the test of time because of its simple yet effective message: The Christmas season has more to do with community than material items. There’s also its eponymous villain, whose grouchy “Bah! Humbug!” spirit in the face of borderline-oppressive seasonal cheer is as understandable as his eventual redemption. The fable has been adapted to the big and small screen numerous times, from the lovely 1966 animated TV film directed by Chuck Jones to Ron Howard’s misbegotten eyesore starring Jim Carrey as a live-action Grinch. The source material’s bare plot and ubiquitous imagery make it a malleable text ripe for a wide range of interpretations, the latest of which is “The Mean One,” an unauthorized slasher parody starring David Howard Thornton, aka the man behind Art the Clown in the “Terrifier” films.
Director Steven LaMorte cheekily repurposes Seussian iconography into a low-budget horror / Lifetime holiday movie mashup that strains for the B-movie camp of Syfy’s “Sharknado” series. Cindy You-Know-Who (Krystle Martin) from the mountain town of Newville — do you see where this is going? — witnesses a green-skinned monster (Thornton) dressed as Santa murder her mother as a child. Twenty years later, Cindy returns to Newville to sell the family home, only to discover that the monster still terrorizes the town. After the beast gruesomely kills Cindy’s father, Cindy tries to warn the town that they’re in danger, but her concerns are summarily dismissed by the sheriff (Erik Baker) and the Trump-like mayor (Amy Schumacher). To avenge her parents, she must kill the creature herself once and for all. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” (directed by Matthew Warchus)
Where to Find It: Select theaters, streaming on Netflix in December
It’s been a widely accepted fact since 1988 that Matilda Wormwood is not a normal girl. She is clever — stupidly clever — and kind, and can also make use of psychokinetic powers whenever she needs to. Her world is a fantasy and a horror at once, trapped by cruel parents and misunderstood by a tyrannical headmistress at her school (Crunchem Hall) and buoyed by her freakishly powerful brain. It is wonderful, but also quite weird.
This was the world written by Road Dahl, the unsentimental and exceptional children’s author who always placed greater trust in young minds to handle dark humor than most other storytellers. It was exciting — and it felt true, in the same way that kids barely tall enough to reach the counter would always assure cinema ushers they were definitely, definitely old enough for this horror movie that was in development when they were in diapers. Some are just wise beyond their years. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“The Whale” (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
Where to Find It: Theaters
There are two things to be a little worried about and one thing to be extremely excited about when coming into “The Whale.” The first element of concern is director Darren Aronofsky, who admittedly has made exceptional films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” and gotten career-defining performances out of his leads in “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.” But his last two films, “Noah” and “mother!,” succumbed to all his worst instincts, creating bloated self-indulgent nonsense that was actively painful to sit through.
In “The Whale,” also slightly worrying is the use of “fat suits,” which contemporary audiences are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with. Much of the use of these so-called fat suits has been to create fat-phobic jokes, particularly by turning thin movie stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Courteney Cox into walking punchlines. Even when the usage itself is fat-phobic, in the case of Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in “American Crime Story,” there’s also the consideration that heavier actors who often struggle to get roles aren’t getting the opportunity to play fat parts. Read IndieWire’s full review.
Also available this week:
“Christmas Bloody Christmas” (directed by Joe Begos)
Distributor: Shudder/RLJE Films
Where to Find It: Select theaters, plus streaming on Shudder
“I Am DB Cooper” (directed by TJ Regan)
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Where to Find It: Select theaters, plus various VOD platforms
New Films on VOD and Streaming, Including Premium Platforms and Virtual Cinema
“Emancipation” (directed by Antoine Fuqua)
Where to Find It: Streaming on AppleTV+
“Emancipation” is based on the true story of Gordon (here referred to as Peter), a man whose keloid-scarred image was captured on a series of carte de visite photographs that were taken at a Union camp in Baton Rouge after he escaped from a plantation some 40 miles away and survived a 10-day trek across deadly swampland; the sight of his mutilated back was then used to help the abolitionist movement convey the atrocities of slavery to a disbelieving world.
The unrelentingly brutal film that Antoine Fuqua has made about him aspires to have the same effect on modern audiences, whose imaginations might struggle to comprehend the most visceral sins of the 19th century, and/or recognize the very real perils that America’s unresolved prejudices continue to pose as we move deeper into the 21st. That’s a noble ambition for a movie to have, but it’s not an ambition this movie was built to achieve. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (directed by Guillermo del Toro) — IndieWire Critic’s Pick
Where to Find It: Streaming on Netflix
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” reimagines the classic fantasy tale through the most beautifully-made stop-motion animation in years, a powerful and life-affirming father-and-son story about acceptance and love in the face of pain, misery, and fascism, and the filmmaker’s love of monsters in what is easily his best film in a decade.
The film is set in 1930s Italy, as fascism is sweeping the nation. We see how dangerous ideologies spread quickly and quietly at first, and what starts with just the town’s blacksmith being a bit too obsessed with uniformity and order gives way to hordes of fanatics screaming for Il Duce, kids being sent to boot camps, and everyone who is different being excluded – or worse. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Something from Tiffany’s” (directed by Daryl Wein)
Where to Find It: Streaming on Prime Video
Twenty-eight-year-old actress Zoey Deutch was either born at the wrong time to star in romantic comedies, or at the perfect time to redeem them. If only it were both. If only people were still making rom-coms worthy of the light and lovability that Deutch — who previously flirted with the genre in Netflix’s “Set It Up,” between spikier roles in the likes of “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Not Okay” — is more capable of bringing to them than just about anyone this side of Meg Ryan.
But they’re not, and nowhere is that more obvious than in a warm but weak-spirited holiday trifle like “Something from Tiffany’s,” which gives Deutch a chance to shine at full-wattage during a movie that can hardly muster the energy to power a string of Christmas lights. I guess it’s fitting that her character is more of a Hanukkah kind of girl, because the fire she brings to the role is almost strong enough to keep this contrived love story burning (at the lowest of simmers) for 83 minutes. Read IndieWire’s full review.
Also available this week:
“Boy Scout’s Honor” (directed by Ash Patino)
Where to Find It: Various VOD platforms
Check out more films to watch on the next page.
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