BOX OFFICE: “Fantastic Beasts” $69, “Widows” and “Instant Family” underwhelm

deppWhatever box office clout Hollywood musicals still have, it’s still big budget juvenalia that is the surest best to BO success.

A fall that has seen “Venom” and “Grinch” and “Halloween” blow up, adds “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” to its list of smash hits, as the Wizarding World sequel may approach $70 million on its opening weekend.

That’s based on pre-sales, Thursday night and all-day Friday numbers. Saturday, being the big family-goes-to-the-movies day, could push that up or down.

I think it’s the worst movie to ever have J.K. Rowling’s name attached to it, and reviews overall reviews overall have been weak to mixed.

Conversely, the critically-acclaimed “Widows” isn’t catching the same wave. An R-rated heist thriller for adults, it’s only managing $13-14 million, well below the already lowballed expectations ($18+) pushed out there by the studio and movie marketing experts.

“Instant Family” seemed like a no-brainer, a Mark Wahlberg comedy with kids and cussing? Those things sell themselves. But “Daddy’s NOT Home” this time. Unless Saturday brings in the bacon, this sweet, rude farce about adoption, which is opening to pretty good reviews, isn’t going to clear $12 million. If every review was like mine, noting the harsh language the film uses for laughs, it might be that this hard PG-13 cursed itself out of a goldmine.

It’s not yet Thanksgiving, the kids aren’t out of school, so Friday’s haul was big for “Grindelwald” and decent for the rest, but not huge.

“Grinch” will manage $31 and “Bohemian Rhapsody” another $16 or so, which means “Widows” and “Instant Family” will be fighting for fourth place.


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Movie Review: Oscar winners Firth and Weisz learn that sailing solo is the way to madness in “The Mercy”


“Around alone.”

Even armchair sailors can feel the queasy fear those two words summon up. Sailing solo around the world is one of the great tests the world still offers the adventurous. Because there are no lifesaving Sherpa guides in the middle of the ocean.

“Around Alone” refers, typically, to the solo sailboat race that has gone under many sponsor names over the decades. The London Sunday Times sponsored the first back in 1968, and thanks to Donald Crowhurst, it stands out as the most notorious.

Crowhurst was a weekend sailor most at home taking his wife and three children out on coastal jaunts on their 20 foot day sailor/catboat in Teignmouth, England. But the tinkerer, inventor and entrepreneur talked himself into entering that first “Around Alone,” poetically asserted the added romance of his “amateur” status and set out — late — in a trimaran (three hulls) of his own design.

And once at sea, he realized how out of his depth (literally) he was.

“The Mercy” is a beautifully-mounted telling of the Crowhurst story, luring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz into playing the Crowhursts, Donald and Clare, and the formidable David Thewlis as Rodney Hallworth, the publicist retained by Crowhurst who made him famous long before he became infamous.

Director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion,” “The Informant”) give this story a grave foreboding with sprinklings of English pluck, forbearing and wit. And Firth, Weisz and Thewlis give it heart and pathos and remind you why each is heralded as among the finest crop of actors the U.K. has ever produced.

We meet Crowhurst as he’s hawking his electronic direction finder at a boat show in the pre-GPS 1960s. He may not have many buyers for the ingenious Navicat, disappointing his two sons, who idolize him. But he himself is inspired by a speech given by Sir Francis Chichester (Simon McBurney, a terrific cameo). Chichester was made a Knight of the Realm for becoming the first official “around alone” sailor, a man who made but one stop along the way.

“A man alone on a boat is more alone than any man alive,” he says, reminding us of the poetic turns of phrase a different generation could manage. “To only do what has been done before is to live in the shadow of other men

He’s there to announce The Sunday Times solo sailboat challenge, a race doing basically what he accomplished, but with no stops and for a £5000 prize. No, Sir Francis won’t take part.

“Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back to the sinister Southern Ocean,” he says, where “the waves there are not measured in inches and feet, but in increments of fear.”

Crowhurst hears “the siren call of the sea,” talks his local travel-trailer dealer (Ken Stott of “The Hobbit” movies) into underwriting him, designs a boat he figures will be the fastest and hires a former reporter now “press agent” (Thewlis) to drum up more sponsors and interest from the British press and the BBC.

You’re a dreamer, he’s told. “Dreams are the seeds of action,” he pontificates.

You’re not really a sailor, another suggests. “It seems to me the act of sailing makes one a sailor.”

Firth’s Crowhurst is impulsive, mercurial, a bit of a blowhard, but endlessly quotable. It’s no wonder the press fell in love with him, “the amateur” taking on this insanely dangerous quest.

Weisz, as subtle an actress as the cinema has ever produced, gets across Clare’s pragmatism and stiff-upper-lip stoicism more with her eyes than with her words. She hides her shock at Donald’s abrupt announcement to friends about entering the race, and swallows her growing fear about what is facing him, and what will become of her and their three children while he is away, assuming he comes back safe.

There’s a lot of wonderful detail that underlies the dread that the Crowhursts, husband and wife, begin to show as deadlines pass, Donald doubles down on his gamble-with-his-life-and-life-savings bet and compromises are made to get this amateur-designed two-masted/three-hulled boat ready.

Firth lets us see the pressure starting to overwhelm Crowhurst before the Teignmouth Electron, his boat, ever hits the water. There are canned soup, rum and beer sponsors, his main investor to placate, his pressure-building press agent to please.

And the boat “just isn’t ready.” He tries to back out, and for the first and certainly not the last time, realizes he cannot.

Firth’s tentative first steps, as Crowhurst, on a floating boat he hasn’t had time to test and familiarize himself with will alarm even a non-sailor watching “The Mercy.” He has no sea legs.

The chaos that greets him below (unfinished wiring and uninstalled gear, food and alcohol stored in piles) would depress anyone.

And the BBC and the whole damned town turn out for his departure. Pressure? No, none at all.


The bulk of “The Mercy” is necessarily set aboard a small boat, just Firth below decks, stowing and then dashing for the companionway hatch, seasick, or above decks, bailing out this leaky barge which doesn’t sail as he’d anticipated and takes on water in a way that tells him the aptly-named “Roaring 40s” (the Southern Ocean) are no place for this “Electron.”

He makes radio calls, detailing his depressingly slow progress, shoots a little film, and records tapes for the BBC — “Everything on this boat is wet. Not damp. Wet.” A man alone at sea “explores his weaknesses with a penetration very few other occupations can manage.”

We see that Crowhurst is competent but overwhelmed, and Firth gives us glimpses of the grim realizations he comes to. He’s brave enough to climb his mast to attempt a repair in mid ocean (daunting as hell). But he’s figuring out that neither he nor his boat can make it around the world. He cannot proceed, and he can’t go back.

“Honor” is never spoken aloud, but it figures into what we see him thinking. Thewlis, as the skeptical Hallworth, justifies taking the job of promoting Crowhurst by declaring that he “sees a part of England that has been lost, the intrepid part” that Churchill and other heroes of the realm had. Crowhurst’s celebrity and the expectations he and Hallworth have ginned up mean he cannot afford to quit, cannot survive any further South and cannot save face in any way he can imagine. Until he starts to consider cheating. Surely all that booze on board hastened that decision.

Marsh’s film lets us see the magical solitude of sailing, surrounded by dolphins or whales, the peril of sailing bare-poles (sails down) during a mid-sea tempest. The sea passages are intercut with flashbacks, mainly snippets of Crowhurst or his wife giving BBC interviews before departure. The most beautiful moment might be a hallucination, Crowhurst remembering explaining to his children what “The Horse Latitudes” are, and visualizing the horror that pretty phrase hides.

Firth doesn’t overdo the whole “going mad alone at sea” thing, letting his growing hair and beard and sad eyes tell us the calculations going on inside the man’s head.

Marsh gives it just enough scale to be an intimate epic, but Burns’ script gives the players the latitude to make something memorable out of a tale many of us already know the ending of.

It’s an old fashioned story, perhaps too conventional for some tastes. But writing this review from the cabin of my cruising sailboat, I have to confess that I loved “The Mercy.” It’s one of those limited-release films that few will see, with acting so compact and contained that everyone who loves great screen acting should.

Weisz, Firth and Thewlis give us understated, unfussy performances that lift “The Mercy,” a wonderfully tragic story with a hint of magnificence about it.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis

Credits:Directed by James Marsh, script by Scott Z. Burns. A Lionsgate/BBC Films release.

Running time: 1:42

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Next screening? “The Mercy,” with Firth and Weisz and Thewlis a fateful sailboat race

Love Rachel Weisz. And Colin Firth. David Thewlis I’m quite fond of.

And every sailor (including me) loves the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, sailing around alone and going mad while doing it. I don’t get psyched for a lot of genres, but a movie with boats and Oscar winners in it? “The Mercy” is, as we say, right in my wheelhouse.

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Preview, Matthew Broderick as a stoner Jethro Tull fan/biology professor, “To Dust”

“On the nose casting” means you need look no further when looking for an actor to play a community college biology teacher who likes pot and Jethro Tull (Overlapping interests?) than Matthew Broderick.

He’s gone to seed in a tweedy way, and that works in “To Dust.”

Géza Röhrig playd Shmuel, an Orthodox cantor obsessed with what happens to his wife’s body after death.

Feb. 8, this melancholy comedy about death and decay comes our way, and frankly I can hardly wait. No. Seriously.

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Preview, Penelope and Javier face the past that comes back to haunt them in “Everybody Knows”

Spain’s Oscar winning Pelicula Power Couple team up for this February thriller.

Penelope Cruz plays an expat who returns to Spain with her kids for a wedding, when one of them is grabbed. And the past catches up to them all.

The Iranian director of “A Separation” and “The Past” reaches toward the mainstream with this multi-national production. Will they use the Leonard Cohen song of the same time in it? Because I’m hearing it in my head. Feb. 8 we find out. 

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Preview, the new “Dumbo” trailer is here, permission to cry

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WEEKEND MOVIES: “Grindelwald” opens huge but “Widows” has the best reviews



Dan Folger, left, and Eddie Redmayne in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” (Warner Bros.) is reporting a $7 million Thursday night pre-opening opening for “Fanastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

That’s about 20% below the nearly $9 million that first “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” debuted to a couple of years back. The film is opening worldwide at the same time and figures to do $250-275 this weekend, planet wide. In the U.S. and North America it won’t match the $74-75 the first film pulled in, if Thursday night is any indication.

Box Office Mojo is expecting a $65-69 million opening weekend for this latest spin in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.

Reviews aren’t helping this one. Critics have been indifferent to the murky muddle that Rowling scripted and David Yates filmed in the dark. I think it’s the worst film of the Potter and Post Potter Picture Parade.

“Instant Family” is another pre-Thanksgiving “holiday hit” in the making. And for a Mark Wahlberg and his “Daddy’s Home” team comedy, PG-13 thanks to adult themes and loads of profanity and a bit of violence, it didn’t make out badly with critics. I think Rose Byrne makes it. 

It should manage $18 million this weekend, says Box Office Mojo.

That will allow the comedy to edge the best reviewed film of the weekend, Steve McQueen’s TV show-inspired heist thriller “Widows.” It opens on a lot of screens and should clear $17 million.

Will “Grindelwald” suck away most of the second weekend business from “The Grinch?” Universal could get another $35-40 million out of the Mean One. Maybe less.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” should pull in another $18-20, and will close the gap on “A Star is Born” about as much as it ever will. $185-188 for “Star” by Sunday night, $130+ for “Bohemian.”

“Green Book” opens in limited release, “Boy Erased” and “A Private War” open wider but still on too few screens to crack the top ten, unless “Nobody’s Fool” collapses altogether.


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Documentary Review: “American Street Kid”


“American Street Kid” is a bracing, revealing and almost co-dependent film about homeless teens living on the streets in what has to be the Homeless Teen Capital of North America — Los Angeles.

Filmmaker Michael Leoni got to know his subjects, swapped cell numbers and became a part of their lives — thus the “co-dependent” label. The kids grew to trust him, depend on him (“I tried to feed every kid we interviewed.”). He broke the cardinal rule about “Not getting too close” to his subjects. He’d spend evenings phone calling his way through bureaucracy to try and get this or that one in a shelter, a “transitional living” home or even hotel rooms or his own house, just to get them off the street.

Ordinarily, I grimace a little at filmmakers who make themselves too much a part of a story they’re trying to objectively tell. It’s self-serving, and with a subject this emotional, self-righteous.

But Leoni, at the time a Los Angeles stage director, experiences first-hand the difficulties that come AFTER a teenage boy or girl has given you their version of how they ended up on the street, when they last ate and how much money they have in their pockets.

Easy solutions don’t exist, and the hard ones are depressingly inefficient, inadequate or even simply inappropriate. Only somebody who has crossed the lines that Leoni does, frantically trying to track down a boy who “is using meth again,” a pregnant teen experiencing pains that may not be simple hunger pangs, responding to late night calls from kids running from someone assaulting them, could make this story this personal.

Leoni did a play about street kids and noticed two such kids in his audience, more than once. Seana and Raven showed up time and again and identified with the actors playing young people like them in “The Playground.” Leoni got to know them, even videotaped interviews with Seana.

“Every night she left the theater, I knew her life was in danger,” Leoni says in the film. “And I didn’t know how to help her.”

Shortly after that, they both died. Raven, a teen prostitute, was murdered.

So Leoni set out to shoot a public service announcement about the plight of children just like them. But it took time to find homeless teens who would talk to him. And by the time he did, as he ingratiated himself with them, a two minute PSA morphed into his feature length documentary, “American Street Kid.

He introduces us to two 15 year-olds, Kiki and Akira, to Nick from Mississippi and the kid who likes weed so much he took the street name “Greenz.”

Crystal was named after meth by her meth-head dad and who was, at the time of filming, pregnant herself.

There’s Ryan from Arizona and singer/songwriter Ish, “the rock star of the street” from Kansas City.

They have stories of “bad parenting” or being “the son of a pimp and a prostitute” or of being “raped when I was nine.”

They gravitated to LA, the Dream Factory, for who knows what reasons. But here they are, and Leoni hits them with questions that are simple and to the point.

“What put you on the street? ” “How much money do you have in your pocket right now?” “If you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?”

“A home and a family,” Ryan answers.

Leoni doesn’t just question them on video. He gets involved. He tries to make those dreams come true.

We see him struggling, over long periods of time in most cases, to get through to kids who are often stoned when he tracks them down. They’re articulate but young, without life skills or impulse control or the ability to reason their way past delusions. School, a shelter, “a program” seems too much for them to handle.

Leoni tries to show Crystal how her “I’m gonna give (her child) what I never got as a child” cannot happen without giving her baby up for adoption, lectures prospective dad Ryan that “You can’t take of a kid when you can’t take of yourself.”

Leoni gets reality checks from veterans of the child homelessness problem, chief among them outreach worker Stacia Fiore, who cautions him and as she puts to rest the notion that “kids choose to live like this.”

“You can’t make that decision at 9,” she says. You can’t know how awful what they’re on the run from can be, or the nature of the addictions they’ve developed that sent their lives into a tailspin.


And as we see and hear Leoni get deeper into these lives, filmed as he does it, we start to get it. Who wouldn’t be haunted, wouldn’t be tempted to intervene — directly — to take a child sleeping under a shrub into someplace safer, even your own home?

There is genuine drama to “American Street Kid” and little melodrama. The “kid robbed me blind after I brought him home” scenario never plays out. Maybe he was just lucky in who he picked as his subjects (a couple of boys he hires to run effects on a stage show), but these kids are more a danger to themselves than others, and none appear so far gone that they’d prey on anyone within reach.

Panhandle? Sure. But none are violent.

Yeah, he’s in his film too much for its own good and yes, maybe his ideas for solutions — informed as they seem — feel naive. The kids who flee halfway houses and the like miss “their family” on the street, so they say. Not drugs?

But perhaps getting this close was the only way to see the good in every child, to make portraits this intimate, to personalize a problem this widespread — 1.8 million kids are homeless in the US, and 13 of them die on the streets every day.

And maybe taking his best shot at “saving” all these kids is the best way to illustrate how difficult solutions are. Because his success rate, even with the best “the system” can offer as help, is more depressing than you’d hope for such an upbeat guy and film.


MPAA Rating: unrated, drug use, frank discussions of sexuality and crimes, profanity

Cast: Jesus Fonseca, Wolf Anderson, Kassandra Alvarado, Jesse Arkhipova, Lindsay Clayton, Lorenzo Burton, Stacia Fiore

Credits: Written and directed by Michael Leoni. An 11.11 Experience release.

Running time: 1:44













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Movie Review: “Shoplifters” pass it down, generation to generation in this Japanese drama


“Shoplifters” is an award-winning Japanese drama about a little seen corner of that country’s culture — the working poor. And by “working,” I mean day labor in construction, sex club performer or ironer at a dry cleaners.

But as the title suggests, this extended family, three generations living in the hovel that used to be a nicer house where grandma still lives, steal. That’s their side hustle. Food in the market, toys in the local convenience store, “Just wear it out” department store clothes, fishing gear, chips in a slot machine casino — if they don’t want to pay for it, the Shibatas don’t.

Just as we’re making up our mind about them, with the patriarch (veteran character actor Lily Franky) giving hand signals to beautiful but cagey tween Shota (Jyo Kairi) so that they can loot their local supermarket, something happens to alter that perception.

A little girl (Miyu Sasaki) is all alone, weeping in a house. No, she doesn’t know where her mommy or daddy are. Yes, she’s hungry.

“Send her home,” wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) gripes. “We’re not an orphanage…can’t get involved.”

But Grandma (Kirin Kiki) dotes on the five year old. “You’re covered in scars,” she notices. And when Mom and Dad try to return little Yuki to her house, the screaming brawl echoing through the windows melts even unsentimental Nobuyo’s heart.

“You don’t grow up to care for others” in this world, Nobuyo admits. But she does.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Our Little Sister”) cleverly uses Yuki as our access to this world, letting her observe the techniques father has passed to son, and the working lives of everyone here.

Dad gets hurt on his day-labor job, Mom faces layoffs at the dry cleaning plant — beginning with “work share” schemes.

“So everybody gets a little poorer.”

And then there’s Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), grandma’s favorite and Mom’s sexy sister. She’s bubbly fun and she brings money in by working as a “hostess” at those infamous Japanese sex clubs — putting on a schoolgirl’s uniform and putting on a show for lonely, damaged men sitting on the other side of a window, up-selling them on more personal contact for “chat.”

Dad makes it his business to instruct the kids on the family business. He grouses about the price of a window-cracking hammer to his boy — “Very expensive…if you pay for it.”

Someday, we’re going to see what he needs that hammer for. At some point, the new daughter’s “missing girl” status becomes a problem. Reluctant Dad is going to be pulled back into a sex life he’d lost interest in.

And that’s when Koreeda starts unraveling our first AND second impressions about this family, with relationships explained, motives upended as the walls of society — police, social services and others — close in around the Shibata clan.

Details stick with you — Shota teaching Yuri how to unplug the security detector at the door so he can pilfer fishing gear, Grandma revealing her own propensities as she nimbly lifts chips at a casino or grifts the children of her late husband’s later marriage. The elderly shop owner sees the older “brother” bringing baby sister into the game, and guilts him with free popsicles.

“Don’t make your sister do it,” he says (in Japanese, with English subtitles).

The cynicism of one and all is obvious long before Dad hobbles home after his injury. Workman’s comp? “It’d be better if you BROKE it, not just cracked (his ankle) it,” his wife complains.


“Shoplifters,” winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is a film acted with great sensitivity, a rough story delicately told. Koreed discretely keeps injuries, arrests and other “big moments” just off camera, allowing the natural drama of the milieu and the characters inhabiting it to carry the film.

That allows “Shoplifters” to transcend its Grifting: How It’s Done genre conventions and make its larger statement with ease. Not all parents give birth, and even the sketchiest upbringing can get across the Big Life Lessons every child needs to learn.

MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content and nudity

Cast: Jyo Kairi, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka

Credits: Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreed. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:01

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Movie Review: “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Disney repeats itself


You’ve seen the best moment from “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the sequel to Disney’s charming, “Wreck it Ralph,” an homage to vintage video games in a post-arcade world.

It’s the scene with all the anachronistic but ready-to-be-empowered Disney princesses and you probably caught it on, you know, the Internet. 

Nothing else in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” comes close to the giddy joy that seeing the Mouse mess around with the ways it princess-spoiled generations of American girls via “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “The Little Mermaid,” etc.

That’s the knock on this covers-much-the-same-ground sequel, an hour and 50 dullish but watchable minutes surrounding its best gag. It’s a movie that deprives us of the curiosity that Sugar Rush racer-girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) describes when she realizes her game in the aged Litvak Arcade is busted and may be unfixable, “that not knowing what comes next feeling.”

It’s a film whose best jokes are sight gags, but sight gags visualizing what eBay, Snapchat and Youtube look like from inside the web, mocking Internet Economics and the sorts of web content that lands “likes” and “shares.” These are plainly aimed at adults.

Kids, especially ones tested by the nostalgia and video game visualizations of “Wreck it Ralph,” are going to find this a chore.

Vanellope’s Sugar Rush game controller breaks at a point “just when my life was perfect,” Ralph (John C. Reilly) complains, thinking only of himself. Vanellope? She’s still glitchy, but she was getting kind of bored. Winning every race will do that.

With Old Man Litvak about to unplug the machine for good, the arcade’s odd couple access wifi and hit the Web — Ralph, to find and over-bid (on eBay) for that busted wheel, Vanellope to find new adventures, maybe even a new home.


Gal Gadot voices Shank, a hellion driving stolen cars in a “Grand Theft Auto” knock-off, Taraji P. Henson voices Yesss, who can help Vanellope and Ralph figure out how to make money on the Internet (spam and pop-up “Wanna get rich playing video games?” come-ons get their due) to buy what they need to go home.

“Are you the Al Gore?”

“I’m the ALgorhythm!”

There’s a fun cheap shot at Pixar’s “Brave,” a dark dive into the room where “comments” on your content (web videos) dwell and a third act that outstays its welcome.

Not every movie that comes out needs to be shorter, but animated films for kids do and “Ralph” definitely does. More princesses, less Internet, I say.

“It’s so big,” Vanellope complains of the visually dazzling World Wide Web. “It just goes on forever and ever.”

As does their kids’ movie about it. I mean, I got the jokes and laughed at them. But I’m not 9, and even I was thinking “Enough already.”



MPAA Rating: PG for some action and rude humor

Cast: The voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Mandy Moore

Credits:Directed by Phil Johnston, Rich Moore, script by Phil Johnson and Pamela Ribon. A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 1:52

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