Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Spider-Man, Aquaman, Dick Cheney: It’s a month of heroes and villains at the multiplex

Spider-Man, Aquaman, Dick Cheney: It’s a month of heroes and villains at the multiplex

Photo: Aquaman (Warner Bros.), Mary Poppins Returns (Disney), Holmes & Watson (Columbia), Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

So many movies, so little time. Every week brings a new crop of them, opening in multiplexes and arthouse theaters across the nation, and arriving in increasingly high volumes on streaming platforms like Netflix. How’s a voracious moviegoer to keep up? That’s where The A.V. Club comes in. The first week of every month, we’ll be previewing all the major movies coming to theaters (or laptops or gaming systems or Rokus) near you, helping narrow down these upcoming releases by making educated guesses on whether they’re worth your time and money.

Mary Queen Of Scots

Select theaters December 7

Period pieces about European royalty aren’t exactly in short supply, but Mary Queen Of Scots at least looks to highlight, Elizabeth-style, a less common era of female rule. Saoirse Ronan plays the titular Mary Stuart, who returned to her home of Scotland after being a widowed French queen at 18 and began angling to claim the throne from England’s Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). The film details how intrigue, distrust, and the pervasive influence of good old-fashioned sexism in the courts turned a potential friendship into a rivalry, and eventually war.
Will it be worth your time? Both stars, who competed for the Best Actress Oscar in the spring (and lost to Frances McDormand), deliver strong performances. But Mary Queen Of Scots struggles with its years-spanning time frame and with striking a balance between its two main characters, who it keeps almost completely apart. It’s a handsome but vaguely unsatisfying historical drama.

Vox Lux

Select theaters December 7

Brady Corbet, the actor-turned-director who made The Childhood Of A Leader, approaches malignant narcissism from a more glamorous angle with his new film, the third in an unofficial trilogy of films where Natalie Portman starts to crack under the pressure of standing in the spotlight. (See also: Black Swan and Jackie). Here, Portman plays Celeste, a pop star whose unconventional rise—she became famous for a song she wrote about surviving a school shooting—has set her on a cynical path reflected in the film’s fractured storytelling style.
Will it be worth your time? Vox Lux is designed to make viewers feel uncomfortable, a fact that’s important to know going in. But for intentional discomfort to really work as an artistic strategy, it needs to have a powerful intent behind it—something that can’t be said for the incoherent tangle of nihilism and narrative loose ends left at the end of this film.

Ben Is Back

Select theaters December 7

Just two months after Beautiful Boy, here’s another American drama about a teenage drug addict and the parent agonizing over how to help him. In this case, the title teen is played by Lady Bird’s other boyfriend, Lucas Hedges, from Manchester By The Sea and the recent Boy Erased. The concerned mother role, meanwhile, is occupied By Julia Roberts, in a story that unfolds over roughly 24 hours, as Ben (Hedges) returns home after a stint in rehab to a family that may be officially at wit’s end with his self-destructive behavior. Peter Hedges, father of the star, directs from his own script, which is better, we can safely report, than the one he penned for The Odd Life Of Timothy Green.
Will it be worth your time? Movies aren’t a zero sum game, no matter how much they’re pitted against each other during award season. That being said, if you see only one version of this particular story, maybe don’t make it the one that disappears into a morass of melodramatic developments just when it should be hunkering down with its characters and their conflicts. In other words: Beautiful Boy might still be showing in a theater near you.


Select theaters December 7

In Tyrel, Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton star Jason Mitchell plays Tyler, the only black man at a rural getaway among a bunch of hard-partying bros. If that sounds uncomfortable, consider also that these young men are celebrating the birthday of someone played by Caleb Landry Jones, official scumbag of the modern cinema. Written and directed by Sebastián Silva (Crystal Fairy, Nasty Baby), again working with his muse Michael Cera, the film is being pitched as a fantasy-free Get Out.
Will it be worth your time? “Essentially Microaggressions: The Movie,” as our own Vikram Murthi wrote in his review, Tyrel has a shrewd understanding of its tense social dynamic. But that’s about all it offers; even at a mere 86 minutes, the movie basically hits the same point over and over again, never much developing its cringefest scenario.

Clara’s Ghost

Select theaters December 7

Writer-director Bridey Elliott has turned her debut feature into a true family affair, casting her real-life sister (former SNL player Abby Elliott), father (comedy veteran Chris Elliott), and mother (Paula Niedert Elliott) as her co-stars in this tale of a dysfunctional family coming together for an epic night of debauchery and potentially supernatural confrontation. The siblings play Julie and Riley Reynolds, former child stars reduced to posing on Instagram in an effort to keep their public fame, as they return home to endure the egocentric barbs of their once-famous father. Caught on the outside is his wife, Clara, who begins seeing spirits.
Will it be worth your time? Maybe if your last name is “Elliott.” Despite its haunted-house angle, Clara’s Ghost isn’t remotely scary; it’s mostly just a showcase for the meta squabbling of its biologically related cast—and like most home videos, it’ll hold interest mainly for its stars.

Once Upon A Deadpool

Theaters everywhere December 12

Remember Deadpool, the R-rated mercenary superhero? He’s back, in PG-13 form! Instead of releasing an all-new X-Men movie this holiday season, Fox has opted to recut this summer’s hit X-spinoff Deadpool 2 into a PG-13 romp with a new framing device spoofing recent Criterion Collection addition The Princess Bride, complete with an adult Fred Savage. This sounds kind of funny, for a DVD bonus feature. But Once Upon A Deadpool is apparently a full movie—and possibly a test balloon for how well a PG-13 version of the character might survive if ported into the Marvel Cinematic Universe once Disney’s purchase of Fox is finalized.
Will it be worth your time? Until this is a home-video oddity, almost certainly not—unless your favorite movie is Deadpool 2, your second-favorite movie is Deadpool, and your third favorite is The Princess Bride.

Bird Box 

Select theaters December 13; Netflix December 21

The premise of Bird Box can be rather reductively described in a few simple words: “It’s like A Quiet Place, but with sight.” There are a few complicating factors, however. First, director Susanne Bier’s upcoming Netflix horror movie is based on a novel published in 2014, and it’s been in development even longer than that. Second, Bier’s approach to the sensory-deprived post-apocalypse is markedly different from John Krasinski’s, prioritizing character development over visceral thrills.
Will it be worth your time? Overall, Bird Box plays more like the truncated first season of a TV drama than a horror film. But, on that same note, fans of the ensemble cast—which includes Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, BD Wong, and Lil Rel Howery alongside star Sandra Bullock—will find compelling character moments for each of them scattered throughout the film.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Theaters everywhere December 14

While the MCU figures out how to un-disintegrate its latest Peter Parker and Sony makes more Spidey-less Venom movies, Sony Pictures Animation and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have come through with something that sounds even more complicated: a separate animated Spider-Man movie about fan-favorite Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) meeting up with half a dozen alternate-universe Spider-People. Thanks to a dimensional portal, Spider-Verse sees the cinematic debut not just of Morales but also Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham, among others. A dissolute version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) turns up, too.
Will it be worth your time? Yes. This is one of the best animated movies of the year, a funny, heartfelt, and tripped-out celebration of a superhero that could have easily been played out by now. See it on a big screen.

The Mule

Theaters everywhere December 14

Gran Torino looked a lot like Clint Eastwood’s onscreen farewell; 10 years later, the man of a thousand squints gets in front of a movie camera again to play Earl Stone, a fictionalized version of a real-life octogenarian who had a late-blooming second career as a drug courier. As in 2008, Eastwood is directing himself mere months after his last directorial effort. The Mule is more of an all-star affair, though, as Eastwood is flanked by the likes of Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, and Andy Garcia.
Will it be worth your time? Eastwood hasn’t been the most consistent filmmaker of late, but he does tend to do better when he’s working with a cast of experienced pros, rather than, say, guys with no acting experience playing themselves. At the very least, it should provide a more memorable maybe-finale to his acting career than The Trouble With The Curve. (Then again, that movie had a good cast, too.)

Mortal Engines

Theaters everywhere December 14

Not to be confused with an auto-repair shop in the City Of Bones, Mortal Engines is based on a different series of fantasy novels, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where cities have mobilized into gigantic steampunk machines. London passenger/resident Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) has his world upended even further when he intersects with Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and her plan to assassinate the powerful Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). The old Tolkien-adapting gang of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens wrote this adaptation, too, though Jackson handed off directing duties to protégé Christian Rivers.
Will it be worth your time? The year-old teaser looked like exactly the kind of loopy boondoggle that even Peter Jackson might recuse himself from directing, and frankly it’s a little surprising that this never got pushed into January or February. That it hasn’t indicates at least some level of confidence. Plus, loopy boondoggles can be a lot of fun.


Select theaters now, Netflix December 14

Alfonso Cuarón returns to Mexico for the first time since Y Tu Mamá También with this very personal black-and-white period piece. Set in the early 1970s, Roma stars newcomer Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a young live-in maid and nanny for a cosmopolitan, well-to-do family in Mexico City. The subject matter is autobiographical (complete with a moppet who may or may not be a stand-in for the director himself), but the multiple meanings of the title give some sense of the ambition of Cuarón’s episodic, closely observed narrative: Roma is the name of the family’s neighborhood in the old part of the city, but it’s also amor spelled backwards and a reference to the legendary decadence, social stratification, and decay of ancient Rome.
Will it be worth your time? While Roma brings to mind the classic films of Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien more than the technical marvels (Children Of Men, Gravity) that have distinguished Cuarón’s English-language career, Roma is still a work of impressive craftsmanship. As our own Danette Chavez notes in her review, Aparicio is the key ingredient: “Her guileless performance is marked by shining, incredibly expressive eyes, held so wide that it sometimes feels like we can see the faces and actions of those around her projected onto them.”

If Beale Street Could Talk

Select theaters December 14

When you’ve just made an almost universally revered masterpiece, what do you do for an encore? Barry Jenkins, writer-director of Moonlight, chases his surprise Best Picture winner with another drama about black life in America. Adapting a 1974 novel by the great James Baldwin, Jenkins spins a bittersweet romance between two young lovers, Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), whose plans to start a family in 1970s Harlem are upended by a false accusation and a miscarriage of justice. Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, and Dave Franco co-star.
Will it be worth your time? Don’t go in expecting another Moonlight, which had an expressive, singular power that maybe couldn’t be replicated, even if that were Jenkins’ goal. Larger in scope, with a bigger cast of characters and an ambitious nonlinear structure, If Beale Street Could Talk is its own movie—an often gorgeous and heartbreaking one.

The House That Jack Built

Select theaters and VOD December 14

Lars von Trier lives to court controversy, and the Danish provocateur has outdone himself with his latest, which casts Matt Dillon as a serial killer recounting six incidents from his storied “career.” Scenes of Jack mutilating women, children, and animals sent many sprinting for the exits at the film’s Cannes premiere. It remains to be seen how much of the gruesomeness will make it into the version that’s hitting theaters and On Demand this month, a couple weeks after IFC earned the ire of the MPAA by showing the unedited Cannes cut in more than 100 American theaters. But no matter what The House That Jack Built lost to get an R rating, the film will undoubtedly still push buttons; you can trim the violence from a von Trier joint, but you can’t censor his antagonistic spirit.
Will it be worth your time? If the mere thought of a serial-killer drama from the director of Antichrist doesn’t keep you far, far away, you’re probably the target demographic. But The House That Jack Built is ultimately more unpleasant than it is shocking, and though von Trier is definitely throwing a spotlight over his own sins (murder is blatantly a metaphor for filmmaking), his self-critique comes with a side of trolling: He’s interrogating the accusations of misogyny lobbed at his work while knowingly, sadistically provoking new ones.


Select theaters December 14

Serving a multi-year sentence for a violent crime committed on the streets of Beirut, a hardened adolescent (Zain al-Rafeea) sues his parents for giving birth to him, pleading the case that bringing another child they couldn’t love or protect into the world was an act of criminal negligence. Although it sounds like the stuff of a particularly outrageous Dick Wolf legal procedural, this is actually the premise of the new film from Lebanese actor-writer-director Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?), who’s pivoted away from comedy and into social-issue neorealism.
Will it be worth your time? Capernaum won a jury prize and received a standing ovation at Cannes earlier this year, so plenty were obviously moved by its grueling study of latchkey hardship, seen in flashback and framed by the courtroom scenes. Others might complain, however, that this is garden-variety poverty porn, piling on misfortune by the gallon, and that the strong performances by its young cast can’t compensate for a screenplay that pleads for pity at every opportunity.

Dead Souls

Select theaters December 14

The longest official selection in the history of the Cannes Film Festival will soon be one of the longest movies ever to officially open in American theaters. But this hefty documentary from acclaimed Chinese director Wang Bing runs eight-plus hours for a very good reason. Like the similarly lengthy Shoah, it’s a kind of oral history of genocide, offering firsthand accounts of the Anti-Rightist movement of the late 1950s, when more than half a million members of China’s communist party were deemed “subversive,” forced into “re-education” camps, and left to starve.
Will it be worth your time? Even those with particularly extended attention spans may find their focus wavering occasionally during the marathon running time of Dead Souls. But Bing’s willingness to let just about every talking-head interview play out in its entirety is integral to the historical aims of his project—the attempt to put on record the details of a national tragedy, to make sure that the survivors’ stories don’t die with them. And anyway, theaters will probably be showing Dead Souls in multiple, more manageable parts; that’s how it will screen at Anthology Film Archives in New York, where the film begins its run.

Mary Poppins Returns

Theaters everywhere December 19

Let’s go fly a kite… again. The beloved Disney classic gets a sequel, a mere 54 years later. The original Banks children are all grown up (they’re now played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), and when a tragedy hits the family, their long-absent nanny returns to again take charge of their kids. Emily Blunt dance-steps into the title role, with Lin-Manuel Miranda assuming the duties of resident blue-collar sidekick, now a lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep—though Dick Van Dyke returns for a supporting role as the new chairman of good old Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.
Will it be worth your time? Mary Poppins returns, indeed: From the plot to the trailer, the whole enterprise looks as though Hollywood’s go-to director for musicals, Rob Marshall, is following the J.J. Abrams playbook of how to resuscitate a dormant but fiercely beloved franchise—namely, by aping every beat of the first one. Still, Emily Blunt seems to have aced her Julie Andrews impression, and The National Board Of Review named it one of the 10 best films of the year (though even without critical accolades, it looks like a surefire crowd-pleaser).


Theaters everywhere December 21

The superhero adaptation once most famous as a fake James Cameron project on Entourage finally makes it to real-world movie screens, riding and crashing a stormy series of waves. James Wan’s underwater epic began production a month before Wonder Woman stormed in to save a grim-looking DC movie universe—and finished shooting a month before Justice League re-imperiled it. Jason Momoa, a charismatic highlight of that superhero group hug, has at least one chance to reprise the role in a story that sounds a bit like Marvel’s Thor, with a beefy, rebellious heir to an otherworldly throne pitted against a semi-estranged family member—in this case, Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who seeks to declare war on the surface world. Plus, Amber Heard plays sea queen Mera, the original redheaded sea person.
Will it be worth your time? Could the answer actually be a resounding yeah-uh? Wan’s last big action movie was the surprisingly emotional Furious 7, Momoa and Heard seem well-cast, and something convinced both Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe to sign on, too. On the other hand, the effects look chintzy as hell. But cautious optimism abounds!


Theaters everywhere December 21

After five bombastic installments, the Transformers franchise attempts to scale back its numbing spectacle and maybe also its pummeling cynicism with a period-piece spin-off focusing on the impossibly large robot hiding within a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Back in 1987, Bumblebee gets what looks like kind of an Iron Giant thing going with Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). And if there’s one thing Nike heir, Laika architect, and first-time live-action director Travis Knight has over Michael Bay, it’s that he seems way more likely to have watched The Iron Giant. After the last Bay movie underperformed, the fate of the series may rest in this new director’s hands. In other words, Travis might be the Last Knight!
Will it be worth your time? The good news is, this could easily be the best Transformers movie ever. The bad news is, it could win that trophy and still be kind of bad.

Second Act

Theaters everywhere December 21

Taking a page from ’80s change-of-identity comedies like Trading Places or Taking Care Of Business, Second Act takes a similar high concept and injects it with some commentary on class and age in modern corporate America, albeit with rom-com-style hijinks. The film follows Maya (Jennifer Lopez), a proudly blue-collar worker in a big-box store who finds herself thrust into a glitzy Madison Avenue job after a friend creates a phony upper-class background and résumé to land her a high-paying job. Wacky situations, flush-with-cash montages, and heartfelt life lessons ensue.
Will it be worth your time? Honestly, the trailer makes it look like kind of a mess, toggling abruptly from serious dramedy moments about discrimination in the workplace to uplifting message-movie treacle to lowbrow pratfall comedy. It could potentially come together in a broadly appealing way, but as long as we’re talking résumés, director Peter Segal (Grudge Match, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) doesn’t exactly have the most reassuring one himself.

Welcome To Marwen

Theaters everywhere December 21

Three years ago, Robert Zemeckis made a special-effects-driven biopic, The Walk, out of subject matter previously covered in an acclaimed documentary, Man On Wire. His latest pulls basically the same trick, casting Steve Carell as artist Mark Hogancamp, who worked through a personal trauma—an assault that left him with brain damage and memory loss—by constructing an elaborate, miniature WWII town in his backyard. It’s the same true story covered in 2010’s Marwencol, only now with movie stars (Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, etc.), plus off-putting CGI that brings Hogancamp’s fantasy world to much more literal life.
Will it be worth your time? Unlike Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between towers, Hogancamp’s experiences didn’t necessarily cry out for a state-of-the-art dramatization. And judging from the trailer, the affectingly complex character study of Marwencol appears to have been replaced by a hokey inspirational recovery arc—complete, again, with some truly absurd-looking and even creepy effects. Zemeckis has made some great movies, but this one looks, from the outside, like all his worst instincts crammed together: Gumpian sentimentality in a very uncanny valley.

Cold War

Select theaters December 21

In 1950s Poland, a restless composer (Tomasz Kot) recruits a young, aspiring singer (Joanna Kulig) for his traveling folk collective. The two then fall into a tumultuous love affair that spans decades and countries, playing out a classic “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” romance against the shifting cultural landscape of the Cold War. It’s an epic in miniature, covering years of incident in less than 90 minutes.
Will it be worth your time? As in his last film, the Oscar-winning Ida, writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski has trekked to his native Poland to tell an achingly sad and human story, economical in length and gorgeously filmed in pristine black-and-white. It’s also a very personal film (its main characters are named after Pawlikowski’s parents) that treats the constant flow of bodies across the Iron Curtain and back again as a metaphor for an on-again/off-again relationship—or maybe vice versa. Either way, this is one of the best movies of the year, and shouldn’t be missed.

Holmes & Watson

Theaters everywhere December 25

While Adam McKay is off capitalizing on his Oscar win with another ambitious, politically charged dramedy, his usual responsibilities of wrangling improv masters Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly fall to Etan Cohen, a past Mike Judge associate whose mixed film track record includes Get Hard. He directs Ferrell and Reilly in the long-gestating Holmes & Watson, wherein the Step Brothers stars re-team to play the world’s greatest detective (Ferrell) and the world’s greatest detective’s assistant (Reilly). The mystery involves Buckingham Palace and the dastardly Moriarty (here played by Ralph Fiennes).
Will it be worth your time? For a while, Will Ferrell was pretty reliable even outside of his McKay collaborations, but his last few comedies have been some of his weakest, and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, this movie’s take on its famous characters actually is. But as off-brand reunions between Ferrell and past co-stars go, it looks a lot funnier than your average Daddy’s Home.


Select theaters December 25

Holy shit, is that really Christian Bale under that receded hairline, those glasses, that paunch? The Oscar winner undergoes one of his most impressive physical transformations yet to play the former vice president and Machiavellian manipulator Dick Cheney in a life- and career-spanning biopic from writer, director, and Will Ferrell wrangler Adam McKay, working again in the sardonic infotainment mode of The Big Short. The stacked supporting cast includes Bale’s American Hustle co-star Amy Adams as Mary Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.
Will it be worth your time? That probably depends on your affection for stars slathering themselves in makeup to play real people, glib fourth-wall-breaking humor, and explainer videos. At the very least, though, Vice should serve as an important reminder that, yes, the Bush administration was horrifying and criminal.


Select theaters December 25

Nicole Kidman goes full Serpico in this gritty L.A. cop drama from The Invitation director Karyn Kusama. Kidman stars as Erin Bell, an LAPD detective haunted by her experience going undercover with a High Desert drug gang back in the early 2000s. After receiving a cryptic message from the gang’s leader, Erin re-immerses herself in the case that nearly destroyed her more than a decade ago, putting her body, mind, and relationships on the line while doing so.
Will it be worth your time? Narratively, Destroyer doesn’t reinvent the concept of the “rogue cop playing by their own rules,” but it is an exceptionally well-crafted example of the subgenre. Kusama cleverly plays with the power dynamics of casting a woman in a traditionally male antihero role, and Kidman’s all-in performance is something special.

On The Basis Of Sex

Select theaters December 25

Now that the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary has come and gone, it’s time for a prestige biopic about every left-leaning American’s favorite octogenarian Supreme Court justice. (Sorry, Stephen Breyer.) Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg in her fiery young lawyer days, when she and her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), fought institutionalized sexism both in their professional and personal lives.
Will it be worth your time? Early reviews of On The Basis Of Sex characterize the film as a conventional, formulaic, frequently melodramatic biopic about an American hero who’s devoted her entire life to championing civil rights. But if anyone deserves to dramatically ascend courthouse steps as an orchestral score swells in the background, it’s Ginsburg.

Stan & Ollie

Select theaters December 28

Stan & Ollie is somehow the first biopic of Laurel and Hardy, capturing the famed double act at the twilight of their storied careers. Its main draw is watching two other sizable comic talents—Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly—in the titular roles, recreating famous routines and ribbing each other offstage, though the movie looks to get in plenty of scenes of soft-focus, old Hollywood glamour as well.
Will it be worth your time? With a script by Philomena’s Jeff Pope and direction by journeyman Jon S. Baird, it’s got a mixed pedigree, but looks to be a generally competent and good-natured appreciation of its subject matter.