Pixar’s John Lasseter: Another Hollywood “Inappropriate” Hugger?

cocoWhen I saw the trending headline “Lasseter Takes Leave of Absence Over Missteps,” my first thought was “On no, Disney/Pixar’s pre-releasing testing suggests it’ll flop.”

And then, of course, the mind runs to how that could be? It’s their best film in years. Sure, you could pummel John Lasseter over the cynical toy-selling “Cars” movies — entirely his baby — the weak sequels, the general “Pixar’s lost its touch” over the last few movies. Or maybe Disney’s market research suggested nobody wants to take the kids to watch a sympathetic cartoon about Mexicans in Trump’s America.

But that is skipping past the obvious. Lasseter, it seems, is another Hollywood mogul whose position of power allowed him (he thought) the privilege of “inappropriate” hugs of employees and others in his presence.

The Hollywood Reporter broke this latest scandal, tipped that Lasseter has a habit of holding hugs, whispering in ears and “invading the space,” which sounds a lot more power trippy than sexual.

“I especially want to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form,” he writes. “No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected,” Lasseter wrote in an internal email The Reporter obtained.

A Disney spokesperson said in a statement, “We are committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work. We appreciate John’s candor and sincere apology and fully support his sabbatical.”

The memo has arrived at the same time as an investigation by the Hollywood Reporter into complaints about Lasseter’s behavior. “You’d hug him and he’d whisper in your ear, a long time,” a former insider said. “He hugged and hugged and everyone’s looking at you. Just invading the space.”

That’s a bit vague. Strong-arming, threatening men? Women? Coming on to either?

The scuttlebut has been that actress/writer Rashida Jones, working with a partner on scripting “Toy Story 4” (Ugh, really?) quit the film over Lasseter’s grabbing/groping behavior. She denies it, but it’s out there.

“Coco” opens tomorrow, and is delightful. But like everything else out of America’s movie capital, it opens under a cloud. Lasseter didn’t direct it, but he OKs everything Pixar touches. Including his own touching, apparently.

Lasseter’s appearance on this season’s “Jay Leno’s Garage” TV show had me wondering if he was looking at retirement — just in terms of how he presented himself there (a train collector, like Walt, an animation with a great legacy, like Walt, etc).

Now this.

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Movie Review: “The Disaster Artist” Gives His All, and Still makes an Awful Movie

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Everything James Franco has done with his life, his work and his fame up until now reveals its purpose in “The Disaster Artist.”

Backing into stardom, passing himself off as a polymath — acting, writing fiction, directing, taking classes here, teaching classes there — the posse of pals he’s stayed friends with, even the coy games Franco plays with his sexuality, all bear fruit in this deftly-executed appreciation of the film that would replace “Plan Nine From Outer Space” as “the worst film ever made.”

Franco directs, stars and rounds up legions of Hollywood friends and acquaintances for this comic dissection of how Tommy Wiseau‘s “The Room” was made — and why. And he concocts an impersonation of the mysterious, delusional fanatic who wrote, directed starred-in and financed that fiasco that is so spot-on, he dares compare scenes from “The Room” with his recreations for “The Disaster Artist” before the closing credits.

The genius of Franco’s performance, capturing the off-camera bravado, the refusal to listen to reason from cast and crew, the bullying on the set and the tin-eared English-as-a-second-language screenwriting, is that Tommy was the only one who didn’t see any of this.

And watch the other actors playing the awful actors in the film — Josh Hutcherson, Dave Franco, Zac Efron and especially the leading lady of “The Room,” played here by Ari Graynor. They cannot tamp down their skill-set to hide their camera-wise charisma.

Franco as Wiseau? He just lumbers on, a man of undetermined age, origins or finances, a clueless fool who has to be told how to embrace his fiasco and profit from it, as if he was in on a multi-million dollar joke he accidentally played on himself all along.

“Disaster Artist” captures the relationship between Wiseau and his co-star and pal, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). They meet in acting class, where Sestero is challenged, “Do you even WANT to be an actor?” by the teacher, played by a testy Melanie Griffith. But Wiseau, long dyed-black locks flowing over his multi-belted marching band uniform (with pirate shirt) jacket and leather rocker pants, harbors no doubts. Dressed like a cast-off from Prince and the Revolution, he is “fearless.”

And he is truly awful. To hear him “do the Shakespeare,” to howl through Stanley Kowalski’s “Stelllaaaaaaaa” from “A Streetcar Named Desire” (by “The Tennessee Williams”) is to know terrible acting on sight.

Tommy and Greg become inseparable. Greg’s best efforts are getting him nowhere, despite his good looks and ready smile. Tommy, told he’s “a natural villain” by one teacher (Bob Oedenkirk), isn’t hearing it. He has to be shouted down during an attempted mid-dinner “audition” for a producer (Judd Apatow, wickedly mean), who informs him that “Just because you want it, doesn’t mean it will happen” for him.

“Not in a MILLION YEARS!”

Tommy isn’t dissuaded.

“And after that?”

He will hurl his way-over-40 body and Slavic accent at a movie that he and Greg will make together. He will write, direct and produce and star in it. The equipment rental company (Hannibal Burress and Jason Mantzoukas) cannot talk him into doing the smart thing, renting the gear he’ll need for the film. No, Tommy will buy it.

Casting the actors and hiring the crew (Seth Rogen is the sarcastic, “Whatever dude” script supervisor who becomes de facto assistant director) with demented how-to-play-the-scene instructions and simple gut feelings isn’t smart either.

“I have VISION!”

And playing a part in a romantic melodrama without knowing the vernacular of film or American English well enough only deepens our sense that he’s disconnected from reality. With all the money he seems to have to throw at this, he’s too nutty to spend it wisely, his reasons for doing the whole project boiling down to trying to impress his American actor friend.

What Franco and friends were going for here is another “Ed Wood,” but “Disaster Artist” isn’t about sweet but untalented people living in a collective delusional dream. Tommy seems to be the only one truly lost on his “planet.”

One Hollywood spin on the story is the way the crew is presented in this film about a film. They’re as professional as the situation will allow, especially in the early days of the shoot — arguing, shouting down his bad behavior but still taking his money.

Watch “The Room.” tell me you cannot feel the contempt of the crew, the greed of the equipment folks (who also rented him soundstages) in every frame. It’s an ugly, incompetent film, and their “I’ll take this idiot’s money” hatred is only diluted by their certainty that this garbage will never see the light of day.

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It’s not touching the way “Ed Wood” was, and slapping a handful of stars (Kristen Bell) and Hollywood heavyweights (J.J. Abrams) in the opening,  singing the praises of the warped vision of “The Room,” distances us from the characters as much as the lengthy closing-credits scene-by-scene comparisons of “The Room” and Franco & Co.’s detailed recreation of those scenes.

It’s more clever than brilliant, more respectfully mocking than affecting, and it allows us to step back and consider the wisdom of the whole enterprise — hurling legions of stars and lots of Hollywood cash at a movie about making a really bad — though not the “worst ever made” — motion picture.

But as with “The Room,” Franco lets us believe that his Tommy, the director and star, is utterly convinced of the worthiness of the cause and utterly sold on telling this, the greatest story that should never have been told.

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(Read Roger Moore’s review of “The Room” here.)

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson

Credits:Directed by James Franco, script by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:43

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HBO Documentary Review — “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee”

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It’s hard to make any movie about newspapering these days without it feeling like a wallow in nostalgia.

So with “The Newspaperman,” the new documentary about Ben Bradlee, the iconic editor of The Washington Post, director John Maggio doesn’t even try. His portrait of Bradlee, a giant from the Watergate era Washington Post, captures the windswept romance of a swaggering crusader who oversaw the newspaper that brought down what we used to regard as the corrupt presidential administration in American history.

The film, premiering on HBO Dec. 4, has memories of “The Good War” and the glamour of Camelot and the tension of exposing the military’s cynical desire for and conduct of the Vietnam War by publishing “The Pentagon Papers,” also the subject of this Christmas’s feature film, “The Post.”

Maggio, a mainstay of the PBS documentary series “American Experience,” may have taken the easy way out, building his film around Bradlee reading his own memoir “A Good Life” (he died in 2014). But how else was he going to capture the chain-smoking, fast-talking champion of “the truth?” Why NOT let him narrate his own story?

I mean, Jason Robards, who spun Bradlee into a crusty, cocksure icon for Democracy in the classic real history thriller “All the President’s Men,” died 17 years ago, so he wasn’t available.

A native Bostonian of middle class roots, like FDR a polio survivor, a Navy veteran who fell for Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” and proceeded to make himself one (for Newsweek), Bradlee married three times in an age when that just wasn’t done, expressed the barest hints of remorse at the children and families he left behind, sized-up his reporters and kept them on task and focused as the Post went after “The Watergate Plumbers” and every tainted member of the Nixon Administration who had a hand in their hiring, creation and cover-up, all the way to the president himself.

“I don’t think he ever had a moment’s guilt in his life,” PBS veteran Jim Lehrer opines.

Maggio was interested in Bradlee’s college-years attachment to a 20 year psychological study of Harvard men like Bradlee, how he could have been identified, straight out, as a stereotypical “alpha male,” a man the Navy taught “I liked sizing other men up.”

But the director, like the rest of us, is most fascinated by Bradlee’s years-long attachment of John F. and Jackie Kennedy, hobnobbing with them from the time Kennedy was new to Congress and Bradlee was finding his place, then with Newsweek in Washington.

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Like the rest of reportorial Washington, Bradlee had some knowledge of Kennedy’s personal failings. But like most other reporters of his day, he kept his fellow Bostonian’s secrets, at least until Kennedy was president, and then assassinated.

His peers, his employees (Woodward and Bernstein are here, David Remnick, Bradlee’s widow Sally Quinn, Tina Brown, Henry Kissinger) and others talk about how “utterly inappropriate” that connection was — vacations together, sailing excursions. But different times, different mores, different rules. The documentary’s fixation on this era throws it somewhat out of balance, and having Bradlee give so much of “his” version of his life via the audio book readings undercuts the film at times.

It wasn’t until a few years after the Kennedy assassination that Bradlee was given the reins of the Post, “a second-rate provincial newspaper” in an age when the D.C. air “was thick with lies,” and turned it into the Washington institution it remains to this day.

Not that his hubris didn’t knock the paper down several pegs in the ’80s. The Janet Cooke made-up-stories debacle was merely the most public. I distinctly recall him brushing off criticism during a 1980s NPR interview with Bob Edwards, using his seat-of-the-pants hiring of a new movie critic (of course I’d remember that) with an “I think he’s terrific.”

The very young critic was quietly shoved out the door, under a cloud (using his journalistic access to peddle his scripts) within the year.

But the personality traits that the W.T. Grant Foundation study identified, “ability to adjust to changing realities” served Bradlee well enough through it all.

With “Newspaperman,” Maggio has given us an old school blustery, brilliant, competitive and righteous icon in the flesh, and not just the caricatures popular culture (J. Jonah Jameson and Perry White in comic books) has long fed us.

How are you going to truly understand the upcoming Oscar contender “The Post” (Tom Hanks plays him there, too nice?) without watching “The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee”? Here is something like the full measure of the man without Hollywood spin.

Bluff, arrogant, self-righteous, sure. But when your mistress is “the truth,” how could you be otherwise?

Which is why even though he didn’t live to see it or have any say over its coinage, you have to figure the truth-hunting Bradlee would love the Post’s new motto — “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It’s just his style.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, adult themes

Cast: Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tom Brokaw, Sally Quinn, Jim Lehrer

Credits:Directed by John Maggio, script by Benjamin C. Bradlee. An HBO Films release.

Running time: 1:29

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Movie Review: Germany’s Best Foreign Language Oscar contender, “In the Fade”

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If it weren’t for the subtitles, you might be fooled into waiting for the usual Hollywood twists and turns tailored for an American audience.

But “In the Fade” is German, a terrorist thriller, courtroom drama and soul-searching plunge into grief, and Germany’s selection for contention in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race.

Hollywood twists and Hollywood endings don’t figure into it.

Diane Kruger, the German actress whose best work is often far way from Hollywood (She was Helen in “Troy”) is Katja, a woman we meet on her wedding day.

She’s got her share of tattoos and piercings. More than her share. And the fellow she’s marrying? He’s in prison. But love finds a way.

And Katja and Nuri (Numan Acar) build a life, after his sentence. A Turkish Kurd, he’s a professional translator in a country with a lot of Turkish ex-pats. And she raises their beautiful little boy.

Until that fateful day when a bomb goes off at Nuri’s office. Their son was there with him. And Katja’s cries notwithstanding, the police warn her away. “They’re no longer people,” they assure her (in German, with English subtitles). Just “body parts.”

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The shock of this loss is quickly shoved aside, ever-so-politely, to make way for the investigation. She is stunned at how quickly her husband and their lives together become suspect.

“Was he Muslim? Was he ‘politically active?'”

Nein and NEIN, Katja insists. He wasn’t dealing drugs again, either. “Nazis” did this. And eventually, the cops agree.

The film’s second act is the trial of the young Aryans accused of committing the crime, a showcase for the differences between German justice and American (the victim and her attorney sit with the prosecution, and participate, for starters).

And the third act is about the aftermath of that trial, Katja’s struggle between grief and rage, all to try and fill the vast empty spot the murderers — called terrorists everywhere but perhaps in the current White House — left in her heart.

Denis Moschitto, as a sympathetic but steely attorney, and the scary Johannes Krisch (as counsel for the Nazis) impress. But it’s Kruger’s picture, riveting as a character drowning in despair — sometimes, literally. She slashes her wrists at one awful moment and the where she might slip beneath the water turns crimson with her blood. Kruger gives Katja moments of fury, but many more of deflated despair.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin, who did the German culinary comedy “Soul Food,” treats the material in the most straightforward manner imaginable. He doesn’t let technique get in the way of the rising rage of losing someone, only to be put on the defensive by police willing to leap to prejudiced conclusions. Still, the picture plays as a bit dull and frustrating, at times. It could have used more pizzazz, a few bigger twists.

The surprises come in the investigation, in court and in that aftermath, where “Hollywood” twists present themselves as possibilities, but are never submitted to.

Like life after a murder, there is no “happy” ending, no thrilling feeling of justice served. “In the Fade” is that rare thriller which finds more to mull over in the culture clash — within Germany, within the Turkish expatriate community, and between German justice and American expectations, between German storytelling and Hollywood endings.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, profanity

Cast: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch

Credits:Directed by Fatih Akin, script by Fatih Akin and Hark Bohm. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:45

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Preview: “Incredibles 2,” a teasing first look

Here you go.

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Movie Review: Bad Hair is a REALLY Big Deal in 1980s Rural Va. in “Permanent”

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Warm in all the most predictable ways, edgy and surprising at times, and always willfully quirky, “Permanent” is an old-fashioned coming-of-age-in-the-hell-of-high-school comedy with a few new twists.

It’s about bad hair in a place (suburban Richmond, Va., THE SOUTH) and time (the early 1980s) when that could be a social death sentence for a white American teenage girl.

That’s Aurelie Dixon’s plight. Kira McLean brings gawky, wimpy Aurelie to life in a breakout performance that will feel oh-so-lived-through for generations of female filmgoers.

The Dixons are new to town, freshly arrived from Washington, D.C. But that’s not going to stand her in good stead at her new high school, even though she could play “the big city sophisticate” card, even though her dad (Rainn Wilson) served three U.S. presidents, and has the autographed photos to prove it.

Dad is retired from the Air Force, but was a steward during his entire enlistment. He was a glorified waiter to presidents, diplomats and potentates. All he has to show for it is a toupee, and a scholarship to a small Christian college where he can begin his pre-med studies, starting over in his 40s.

Aurelie needs something to cling to, some sort of signature, heading into the school year.

“I’m ugly and I feel bad about myself!”

It’s not going to be her odd, ridiculous and taunt-worthy name — “ORALLY?”

She can’t change that.

And it’s not going to be fashion, partly because it’s 1982 (ick), partly because she has no fashion sense and mostly because, as her mother reminds her — CONSTANTLY — “We’re poor. Working poor!”

But long-suffering, fried chicken joint waitress and family breadwinner mom (Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, in top form) hears that “all the OTHER girls look like Farrah Fawcett” complaint once too often and finds a low-cost answer to Aurelie’s request — a small-town “beauty school” run by, well, the only gay in the village.

Before you can say, “My GOD, what have you done?” the drawling klutz who does the deed hollers, “Come check out this permanent I just done did!” And Aurelie’s woes are just beginning.

Writer-director Colette Burson of TV’s “Hung” must know whereof she speaks, because what follows is a spot-on spoof of the upper South fifteen years removed from The Civil Rights Movement, on the cusp of MTV.

Overt racial name-calling has subsided, but the only black girl in this school (amusingly sullen newcomer Nena Daniels) is “stuck in with the RE-tards” by teachers uninterested in her intelligence, and yet not so ostracized that she can’t reject the new kid’s “I’ll be your FRIEND” pleas. Lydia lives every school day in barely-contained rage.

The girls are all bullies, the boys freshman vulgarians.

And at home, Aurelie’s mom is out of patience with her bald-and-fooling-no-one husband, whose sex drive ended with his Air Force career, a dork (as only Rainn Wilson can play him) with an indulgent side he shows their daughter and an ineptly self-important one he shows everybody else.

There’s temptation outside the marriage, small-town imitations of Big City “group counseling,” competent but not top-flight teachers with stock answers/ WRONG solutions to every social woe in the school and the hint of ways Aurelie and Lydia might stand out from this mob. If only they can learn to stick up for themselves.

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The ending is entirely too pat, considering what’s come before. But Burson has channeled her dark memories of freshman year into something that occasionally touches and often tickles, but stings with familiarity, start to finish.

Yes, a bad perm will “relax” and eventually go away. And once the trauma has worn off, someday you’ll look back on it and laugh. Just give it 20-35 years or so.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for crude sexual references, language and thematic elements

Cast:  Kira McLean, Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Nena Daniels

Credits:Written and directed by Colette Burson. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:33

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“Justice League” might not hit $100 million on opening, Suicide Watch at Warners

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OK, I kid. And what do we say? We kid because we love.

I was chatting with a couple of theater managers today about Thursday night’s and Friday pre-sale numbers for “Justice League,” and one said and I quote, “OK, but it’s not like WE KNOW this movie is opening because of the crowds. Not like ‘Star Wars,’ where the place is just packed and buzzing.”

So. Multiply that by a few thousand cineplexes, and damned if “Justice League” didn’t manage a Thursday night and daytime Friday that points to a $93-96 million opening.

Considering the projections from Box Office Mojo and others were $110 million, well, no champagne at the WB this weekend. Maybe Korbel. But not the good stuff.

I saw it as roughly on a par with the spectacularly successful and grossly over-rated “Wonder Woman.” Folks, these movies are long past the point where they share an original idea. “Wonder Woman” was “The First Avenger” — War, Germans, a bomber that “must be stopped.” Seriously.

“Justice League” has a great Jason Momoa take on Aqua Man, a nebbishy spin on The Flash. And that Israeli model Gal Gadot is back as Diana, the “adult in the room” over all those superheroes. Light in tone, utterly generic in plot (structure, villain, etc).

These aren’t serious movies, they’re serious money-makers and the best “Avengers” is not that much better than the worst “Justice League.” So, as Abraham Lincoln once said in a review, “Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

He used that because “I laughed, I cried,” was taken.

On the other hand, “Wonder” is selling out evening showings, my manager friends told me. Sure enough, Deadline.com confirms it’s headed towards a spectacular $27 million plus opening.

“Nobody” is going to see “The Star,” my cineplex folks tell me. Maybe $9 million nationwide by Sunday midnight.

And “Lady Bird,” on just 240 or so screens, cracked the top 10. “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” is in there, too. Quality and Oscar contending is a selling point, too.

One thing working against “Justice League”  which nobody is talking about? Rotten Tomatoes withholding critic-linked reviews of the film until Thursday afternoon, to allow two critics that they’re promoting on a TV show/webcast as their…whatevers.

Warners, part owners of RT, might have been down with hiding reviews for a movie after the “Batman vs. Superman” debacle (which I rather liked for its tone and the fact that is was “about something”), and “Suicide Squad,” where all the reviews (mine was one of the first posted) nuked it.

Remember, fans were raging at RT for killing “Suicide Squad” by simply aggregating all the reviews, which were bad, or at least somewhat negative. RT doesn’t determine what real movie critics say. The new folks on their payroll? Jury’s out on that.

You could go to the much more nuanced and selective (fewer fanboy “critics”) Metacritic and get an accurate take on “Justice.” Not terrible, not at all.  Weak, but workable. Not every movie buff checks Metacritic, though. The fools.

And RT’s “Justice” stunt made it look like they were helping WB hide the film from ticket buyers.

Who, if my staggering readership numbers are an indicator, simply clicked on Metacritic (lots of referral links in my metrics) and saw the movie wasn’t terrible.

RT gave the film the air of something worth hiding. They punched a hole in “Justice League,” just for a chance to launch two young, telegenic nobodies nobody has ever heard of on a TV show where they share their five years of moviewatching experience.

Sorry, sometimes you feel like poking the bear.

Anyway, maybe Saturday will fix this shortfall, maybe Sunday will push those numbers up. Stay tuned. Here.

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Preview: No Wallace, no Gromit, just Aardman doing Cave Women and Men in “Early Man”

Second trailer, fun clash between primitive man and Bronze Age Man.

Great voices (Eddie Redmayne, Oscar winner), Maisie Williams, Tom Hiddleston,  Richard Ayoade, Timothy Spall.

Watch for the “Jurassic Pork” gag.

Feb. 15 for this one. 

 

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Preview: An Infamous moment in Sailboat Racing is re-staged for “The Mercy”

“Around Alone” is a solo sailboat race around the world that’s gone under a variety of names over the decades.

But one name stands out in its history, Donald Crowhurst. And not because he was a winner, either.

Oscar winner Colin Firth and Oscar winner Rachel Weisz plays the Crowhursts — the solo sailor with a lot of bravado and not much else, and the woman who says “Promise me you’ll come home.”

Not sure when “The Mercy,” “The Mercy,” which probably started life as Oscar bait, will see the light of day in the U.S.

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Movie Review: “Wonder” is a Weeper That Earns Its Tears…up to a point

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Tear-jerkers are always manipulative movies, and “Wonder” is no different. But tear-jerkers (weepers, if you prefer) that earn those tears honestly are a cut above mere manipulation.

And “Wonder,” through depictions of the burdens shouldered by its characters, through jolting displays of childhood cruelty and heartfelt moments of compassion, earns that reach-for-the-handkerchief. I’m no ashamed to say it got to me, here and there.

And I’m not above also pointing out that much of the goodwill its touching reality engenders is undercut by a drawn-out, melodramatic “participation medal” of a third act.

Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are the upper-middle-class parents of young August (Jacob Tremblay), our hero and narrator. He’s about to leave the comfort of home-schooling for fifth grade in a private prep school. But “Auggie” is, as he narrates, “not an ordinary 10 year-old.” Not at all. “I just don’t LOOK ordinary.”

A problem birth, which he relates as “hilarious,” left him nerve damage and facially deformed. Twenty-seven operations later, and his scars show, his ears barely look like ears and there’s no symmetry to his face. But hey, his hearing, sight and mind are fine, thank you.

All he’s got to do is deal with peers, for the first time. And that’s got Mom blurting out a prayer to Dad as they drop him off.

“Dear God, please let them be nice to him.”

That turns out to be a bit too much to ask of “them.” “What’s the deal with your face?” is the nice version. “Darth HIDEOUS” (he’s into “Star Wars”) and “Freddy Krueger” are merely the movie fan-friendly putdowns.

“Wonder” presents this story with a team of competent, compassionate adults — parents, and teachers led by the principal (Mandy Patinkin), who knows a good elementary school joke on himself when he hears it.

“I’m Mr. TUSHman. You can LAUGH at that.”

But the children, almost to a one, have an intuitive cruelty that this odd-looking shrimp in their midst brings out. One of the wonders of “Wonder” is the way the movie sets this up, and then slowly makes that wall of hostility and bullying crack.

Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky, who wrote and directed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” knows the way to strum the heartstrings — by casting well, and putting good actors in huge, subtle, underplayed closeups.

The novel twist to this “‘Mask’ Before Middle School” is how the adults fade into the background, and we’re given chapter back-stories on not just Auggie, but on others impacted by his life, starting with his older sister, Via (Izabella Vidovic, a revelation). She’s entered high school, and feeling the pain of losing touch with her best friend.

Because in her house, Auggie sucks up all the energy and attention. She’s sensitive to this, but sensitive enough to see that her parents could not bear the burden of one instance of trouble from her. She’s low-maintenance, and great at being a big sister.

“You can’t blend in if you were born to stand out.”

She’s just lonely. Others who deal with Auggie get the benefit of a little back-story, too. This is a movie (based on an R.L Palacio novel) that, in the lessons the teachers impart, the reminders from the ‘good’ parents and the gentle lectures the principal gives not-so-good parents, errs on the side of kindness.

As the old saying goes, “Everybody’s dealing with something.” “Wonder” lets us marvel at that, exult in that “first friend” breakthrough and wince at the ways peer pressure and a popular bully make things hell for those who aren’t ordinary.

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It goes on a little too long, and goes a little astray as it does. Auggie imagines “Star Wars” characters escorting him through school, and being a science and space buff, hides under a space helmet when he’s feeling particularly vulnerable.

But “Wonder” gives us empathy for a little boy with a huge weight to carry, and for those who figure out that to be “the bigger person,” they should help him with his burdens.

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MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Izabella Vidovic, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin

Credits:Directed by Stephen Chbosky, script by Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne based on the novel by R, J. Palacio. A — release.

Running time: 1:53

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