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Grierson and Leitch’s December Movie Round-Up

The best (and the rest) coming to theaters in the last weeks of the year.

David Lee / Paramount Pictures

The month of December is notoriously the most labor-intensive for film critics. Not only do you cram in every movie you missed throughout the year so you can finish your Top 10 List (coming next week!), but it’s also the month where a ton of movies are dropped on us last minute. Any one of these films would have gotten its own full-length review had it been released any other month, but for now we’re giving you capsule reviews.

Assassin’s Creed

Where most movies based on videogames are joyless neo-noirs (Max Payne), joyless Tolkien rip-offs (Warcraft), or joyless car chases (Need for Speed), give Assassin’s Creed credit for enlivening its dourness with some inspired, visionary nonsense. Michael Fassbender plays a violent convict who discovers he’s related to a ruthless fifteenth-century assassin, while Marion Cotillard is part of an evil tech company that transports Fassbender into his ancestor’s body for possibly nefarious purposes. Oscar-winners and nominees dot the ensemble—Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling show up for no good reason—but director Justin Kurzel (who made Macbeth last year with Fassbender and Cotillard) has an incredible eye for operatic action sequences. Assassin’s Creed is total junk that’s impossible to follow, but it carries itself with such confidence you’re almost convinced that cast and crew know what they’re doing. (C+) —Tim Grierson


Fences gives you what you’re coming to the theater for—Very Important Acting from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both of whom will knock you over—but it doesn’t give you much more than that. Based on the 1983 August Wilson play, Fences is little more than a filmed version of the 2010 Broadway revival, which earned Tony awards for both Washington and Davis. (It all but throws up house lights during intermission.) You’ll be happy to see Davis win the Oscar she’s about to win, but really, you should have just gone to see the play. At least this is cheaper. (B) —Will Leitch

A Monster Calls

In Rogue One, Felicity Jones does the best she can to bring life to a character with a nonsensical backstory, but she’s got better material to work with as a mother dying of cancer as her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) attempts to deal with his impending loss. Conor ends up conjuring the eponymous monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) to navigate his grief and the terrors of teenage life. At its best, the movie evokes some of the magical realism of a Pan’s Labyrinth, but A Monster Calls doesn’t have that film’s imagination. The film is a bit emotionally manipulative—it sure can wring the tears out of you—but you still probably won’t be able to resist it, or Felicity Jones. (B+) —Will Leitch


Not quite deserving of the critical pummeling it’s received, Passengers nonetheless proves why Jennifer Lawrence is a star and why Chris Pratt isn’t, no matter the number of big-budget films he headlines. Pratt plays Jim, an engineer onboard a spaceship to a distant planet who is accidentally awakened 90 years too early. Slowly going mad from cabin fever, he falls in love with Aurora (Lawrence), who, like everyone else on the star cruiser, is in suspended animation. Jim’s decision to wake her up—and then pretend it was a ship malfunction—sets the stage for a dark, pointed look at the secrets and lies that form the foundation of so many seemingly happy romances. Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) pilots this sci-fi drama into safer, feel-good terrain, denying the cruelty of the film’s premise to instead find a way for Jim to win over Aurora. Squint your eyes and you can see the bold film that Passengers could have been. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Pratt doesn’t bring much to this flawed lunk of a guy, while Lawrence effortlessly elicits our empathy. (C+) —Tim Grierson


Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and, well, that’s pretty much it. This is one of Jim Jarmusch’s patented hangout movies, in which we meet Paterson and watch him over the course of several days. But it’s also Jarmusch, so this is a universe you won’t want to leave. Paterson spends his time working out his poetry on the pages of a notebook and making his way through a strictly moderated, oddly pleasant routine. Driver is terrific as someone who is both living his life and also standing just outside it. (A picture of Paterson in military uniform on the dresser hints at a darker backstory the movie wisely lets hang there.) The film is about the act of creation and the art of observation, and it couldn’t embody both more perfectly. (A-) —Will Leitch 

Patriots Day  

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg—who previously made Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon together—are back with another film based on a true story, this time the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Berg’s latest could be seen as a further fine-tuning of the riveting, fact-based inspirational drama that’s become his specialty: Wahlberg plays a disgraced cop who becomes part of the law enforcement team (John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and others) on the hunt for the terrorists, leading to several gripping, stripped-down action sequences. Patriots Day is Berg’s Heat, and as with his previous movies, the director is fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts work of regular guys trying to do their jobs well. Berg can do this kind of action-thriller in his sleep, but his ruthless efficiency exacerbates the film’s autopilot patriotism and cookie-cutter characterizations. (C+) —Tim Grierson 


Martin Scorsese has been talking about making a film based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel for decades, and the finished product suggests the obsession and anguish that’s surely been consuming the director during that time. Set in Japan in the seventeenth century, Silence stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Portuguese Jesuit priests in search of their wayward mentor (Liam Neeson). Was he killed in a land where practicing Christianity is outlawed? Did he renounce his religion? The journey to find out is long and grueling—both for the priests and the viewer—and it’s no slight to say that Silence is sometimes an impossibly demanding experience. That pain is part of Scorsese’s plan; the characters’ self-doubt and torment, which is sometimes carried out by their Japanese captors in the form of torture, is a path to hard-earned enlightenment. Silence has its share of stumbles, but it’s also the kind of swing-for-the-fences epic that’s just about impossible to evaluate after only one viewing. Still,  the film is worth wrestling with; its final section feels like Scorsese’s closing statement in an oeuvre that’s been filled with characters grappling with their wavering faith. (B+) —Tim Grierson 

Toni Erdmann

A father-daughter drama as screwy as its titular character, Toni Erdmann refuses to comply with audience expectations—and that includes a protracted running time that stretches over two-and-a-half hours. But Everyone Else writer-director Maren Ade needs every one of this film’s 162 minutes to chronicle the thorny relationship between Ines (Sandra Hüller), a workaholic German living in Bucharest, and her jokey embarrassment of a father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). After dopey, uncouth Dad shows up in Bucharest and makes a fool of himself, he retreats, mysteriously, only to return to Ines’s life a few days later wearing a goofy wig and fake teeth and introducing himself to her colleagues as professional life coach Toni Erdmann. Cringe comedy for the art house, Toni Erdmann is moving and unwieldy, overlong and intimate, but most of all it continues Ade’s pattern of dissecting the fragile bonds between loved ones. The filmmaker boldly takes big risks—awkward apartment sex, show-stopping Whitney Houston covers, the most uncomfortable work brunch ever—to question how we find our way back to the people who, like it or not, know us best. (A-) —Tim Grierson

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site