Breaking News
More () »

Movie Reviews: From Depression to Death - are we sure this is Christmastime?

These films could tug at your heartstrings, but maybe not in the way you'd expect for the holiday season.
Credit: Focus Features


Empire of Light

Sam Mendes has given us such terrific movies as "American Beauty" and "Skyfall." Now comes one of my favorite movies of the year, "Empire of Light."

It's the 1980s. Oscar-winner Olivia Colman tops herself again as Hilary, who's a manager of the art-deco style Empire theater on the English coast. She's made to be subservient to her boss (Colin Firth) in the most demeaning way. In walks Stephen, a younger Black man (Micheal Ward) looking for an usher job, and the world lights up for her. She has a sense of self. We also learn Hilary is medicated for bipolar disorder and witness when she goes off her meds. Meantime, Stephen is stalked by skinheads and realizes his future is not in this town, but how to tell the smitten Hilary?

Mendes based this, in part, on his own mother's mental illness and his absolute love for cinema. It is gorgeously shot by master of cinematography, Roger Deakins. I'm not sure why critics aren't warming up to this one. I would urge you to give it a chance, and I think you'll be richly rewarded.

(Searchlight Pictures. Rated R. Running Time 1 hr. 59 mins. In Theaters Only)

Spoiler Alert

Who wants to see a handsome young man dying of cancer at Christmas? The strange timing of this movie can be explained by the fact that Christmas was the favorite time of year of the guy on whose memoir it's based. That would be Michael Ausiello, an entertainment journalist. His movie version is played by Jim Parsons. His parents have passed, but he remembers his mom as if they were in an 80's sit-com. He also has body positivity issues (and a thing for Smurfs), so when a handsome young man named Kit (Ben Aldridge) meets him at a club and sparks fly, he's a bit shocked. They settle into a long-term relationship. Kit even comes out to his parents (Sally Field & Bill Irwin). Then the big 'C' rears its ugly head. The two had actually taken a timeout by then, but they grow closer as Kit's days grow numbered.

Yes, it's a sad movie to see if you're looking for holiday cheer, but it's also a very nice, well-acted love story that might give you a greater appreciation for the loved ones you're lucky enough to gather with at this time of year.

(Focus Features. Rated PG-13. Running Time 1 hr. 52 mins. In Theaters Only)

Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio

Wow! This is stunning stop-motion animation work. It's a story Del Toro has been working for decades to make... and it would have literally taken years to do so, if he didn't have 60 soundstages going at the same time. (Look online for a behind-the-scenes featurette, and you'll understand the level of work.)

This is far from Disney's "Pinocchio." It's a dark telling of the story of Geppetto who loses his beloved son, Carlo, when a church is bombed. In a drunken stupor, Geppetto makes another boy out of a pine tree. Living inside the tree, and so the puppet, Cricket, voiced (and sung) charmingly by Ewan McGregor. To get even darker, the movie is set against the backdrop of post-World War I fascist Italy. So, there's that! There's also a scary blue fairy (voiced by Tilda Swinton) who reminds Pinocchio that his chance for mortality comes as a cost. But we all know, he wants to be 'a real boy.'

This movie is not for young children. It is for anyone who appreciates art, love and spirituality.

(Netflix. Rated PG. Running Time 1 hr. 57 mins. Now Streaming)


"Emancipation" is Will Smith's follow-up to his Oscar-winning role in "King Richard" (and we all know what happened after that!) He plays a Haitian-born Civil War slave immortalized in the photograph 'Whipped Peter' - his back slashed with scars. It was such a brutal representation, it helped lead to abolition, though in this movie, the photo was taken after slaves were declared free. 

We meet Peter as a loving father and husband on a plantation, who's taken away to work on a railroad. He overhears the news of Lincoln's declaration and, along with three other slaves, decides to make a run for Lincoln's army in Baton Rouge. Chasing after him, his labor camp boss played by Ben Foster, as well as some of his Confederate cronies and a pack of dogs.

Not knowing the before or after of 'Peter's' life story, director Antoine Fuqua and his screenwriter decide to make him an alligator-wrangling action hero, placing the story's emphasis on the escape. Smith is very good. He might have even gotten some Oscar attention if he hadn't ruined it for himself. But this movie feels like if could have been so much more.

(Apple TV+. Rated R. Running Time 2 hrs. 12 mins. In Theaters and Streaming)

Something From Tiffany's

Ladies, we all love a little 'something from Tiffany's,' don't we? 

In this New York-based holiday rom-com, Rachel (Zoey Deutch) is a spunky baker/entrepreneur living with a non-committal boyfriend (Ray Nicholson). We also meet an aspiring writer, Ethan (Texas native Kendrick Sampson), who intends to propose to his beautiful girlfriend (Shay Mitchell). Each man buys jewelry at Tiffany's, but in a mishap in front of the store, the blue bags get mixed up, and the wrong girl gets the wrong gift (earrings vs. engagement ring). Their paths cross with unexpected changes of heart. Is it fate? Oh, I think so! 

If you're sick of Hallmark movies, this is a very cute option. Reese Witherspoon's production company is behind it, with Deutch also executive producing with her mentor. Wrap it up in a little blue box.

(Amazon Studios. Rated PG. Running Time 1 hr. 27 mins. Now Streaming)

Before You Leave, Check This Out