An Oscar-worthy lead performance, an animated, finicky feline on a quest, a decadent saga about early Hollywood and a sly mystery with a cast to die for are all on your holiday cinematic menu this week.

Here’s what’s worth watching.

“The Whale”: Brendan Fraser’s phenomenal performance — one of the best of 2022 — elevates Darren Aronofsky’s heartfelt and emotional but sometimes overdone adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s brilliant stage play. Fraser taps into the beauty and warring demons of Charlie, an obese and gay online writing teacher who struggles to make amends with his angry and bitter daughter (Sadie Sink) in a critical few days that find him being visited by his enabling caregiver (Hong Chau), an alcoholic ex-wife (Samantha Morton) and a missionary (Ty Simpkins). But can anyone save the broken Charlie, who is inching closer to death? Aronofsky knows well how to convey the perils and stranglehold of addiction (“Requiem for a Dream”) and he creates a claustrophobic and suffocating environment for Charlie. Unfortunately, a rather clumsily executed use of CGI to make Charlie larger intrudes as a visual distraction in what is, in essence, a very human story about a sensitive, still-grieving person who inexorably realizes that he can’t escape from his past or his present. Details: 3½ stars out of 4; in theaters Dec. 21.

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”: Every year there’s that late surprise (think “Encanto”). DreamWorks’ hilariously entertaining sequel to the 2011 stand-alone Puss in Boots film is such a treat. The fractured fairytale comes from the fertile “Shrek” universe and brings back Antonio Banderas as the commitment-phobic feline who craves the spotlight. Puss, this time out, faces a kitty crisis when he learns that his adventure-seeking exploits have gobbled up eight of his nine lives. To get some back, he ventures into the Dark Forest to find the elusive Wishing Star. But others want to get Star as well, including the maniacal Goldie (Florence Pugh) and her Three Bears Crime Family (voices of Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo); the voracious Jack Horner (John Mulaney) and the menacing judgment-day Wolf (Wagner Moura). Directed with comedic gold by Joel Crawford and written with sass rather than snark by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, this Puss features a scene-stealing orphan canine who impersonates a cat, a character who furthers the themes that a “family” isn’t always made up of blood relations. Details: 3½ stars; in theaters Dec. 21.

“Babylon”: Even when it’s at its most unwieldy and excessive, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s extravagantly wild, bold and spectacular take on how the talkies destroyed both dreams and the dreamers of the silent-film era rambunctiously entertains and enthralls. Aggressively over-the-top and ecstatic, Chazelle’s film dive-bombs into the dark, depraved side of the movie biz. And it’s reflected through various, blood-stained eyes, mostly, from three main characters: the unhinged and dirt-poor Nellie LaRoy (a sensational Margot Robbie), the can-do-anything Mexican American film assistant and romantic Manny Torres (Diego Calva, making a big splash) and the wild-boy alcoholic actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). But with a movie this large and lavish (it clocks in at over 3 hours) there are numerous other larger-than-life secondary characters, including gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart, who has one of the film’s best exchanges, with the fading star Pitt), a Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and a singer leading a double life Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). Jam in a wild, hard-R rated, coked-up opening party sequence a guest appearance from Tobey Maguire as a mob boss with horrific teeth, massive set pieces featuring gads of extras, a “Singin’ in the Rain” tribute and you’re in for one of the most outlandishly energetic, sinful and ambitious cinematic experiences of this year. The score by Justin Hurwitz could well land him another Oscar. Details: 3½ stars; in theaters Dec. 23.

“Wildcat”: There’s a large canon of documentaries and narrative features illustrating the emotional, life-changing connection we have with animals, both domesticated and wild.  That bond gets movingly related in directors Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost’s lovely yet hard-hitting nonfiction account of how a once-suicidal Harry Turner, a British war veteran who served in Afghanistan and is in his early 20s, forms a kinship with a baby ocelot named Keanu in a Peruvian rain forest. Lesh and Beck don’t turn the camera away when the handsome, heavily tatted Turner spirals out of control and lashes out, much to the worry of Samantha Wicker, who runs the wildlife and rehabilitation center and enters into a relationship with Turner. “Wildcat” relates a poignant story about two wounded entities who become more whole once their paths cross. Details: 3 stars; in theaters Dec. 21, on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 30.

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”: Better than the first delicious mystery, this sly bamboozler finds detective Benoit Blanc (played to the nines by a vamping Daniel Craig) again investigating murders most foul. Annoying, full-of-himself tech titan (Ed Norton) initiates the backstabbing by inviting former chums/now frenemies to his lavish digs on a Greek island. With not-so-hidden secrets, beefs between friends and skimpy swimwear galore, the suspects (Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Kathryn Hahn, Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr. and so on) disembark into an Agatha Christie-like mousetrap where dead bodies happen. Leave it to screenwriter/director Rian Johnson to give us the perfect holiday after-dinner aperitif, a sparkler worth imbibing more than once with family and friends. Details: 3½ stars; available on Netflix Dec. 23.

“The Holiday Sitter”: If you’re still lacking holiday spirit, the Hallmark Channel — which is airing nothing but holiday movies through the holidays — is ready to ring your jingle bells. The network’s first gay Christmas rom-com brings welcome good cheer even if you know exactly what is going to happen five minutes in. But really isn’t that why we watch these mood adjusters? The simple concept finds perpetually single career New Yorker Sam (Jonathan Bennett) summoned to care for his niece and nephew as his sister and her husband prepare to bring home a new child. Devoutly opposed to creating a family, Sam falls for Jason, the cute guy next door played fittingly by George Krissa, who agrees help Sam out. Wonder what will happen next?  Director Ali Liebert gives it all a light, bright touch and both leads are utterly charming. Details: 3 stars; available on Hallmark Channel.

“High Heat”: In this awards season, where movies clock in at over three hours, there’s reason to rejoice over Zach Golden’s lean, tidy and efficient comedic spy thriller. Set mostly during a restaurant’s opening and its bullet-riddled aftermath, James Pedersen’s jewel of a screenplay presents Olga Kurylenko and Don Johnson roles that play to their strengths while allowing them to have as grand a time as we do watching them. Chef Ana (Kurylenko) along with her in-debt to the mob hubby Ray (Johnson) become targets of loan collectors along with former KGB agents from Ana’s past. What brings “High Heat” to a boil are the performances — including Kaitlin Doubleday and Chris Diamantopoulos as feuding married agents/parents — along with a quick-witted screenplay and taut direction. Details: 3 stars; available on Vudu, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].


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