After a mostly dreadful year at the multiplex, Christmas is coming early this weekend with the debuts of two terrifically entertaining new movies. “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Bad Moms Christmas” may both be sequels, but both show that filmmakers and actors can still bring their A-game to what might seem like B-movies.
I’ll spotlight “Bad” first because for me, it was the bigger surprise of the two. Building off the surprise summer 2016 hit “Bad Moms,” the film picks up on the adventures of Amy (Mila Kunis), Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell) as they deal with the pressures of putting on a perfect Christmas with their respective moms visiting for the holidays.
The first movie centered on the three as harried suburban moms who became fed up with the pressure of comparisons to other PTA-dominating mothers and decided to cut loose with their approach to parenting and life in general. The new film shows their new approaches in full swing but having to contend with Kiki’s mom Sandy (Cheryl Hines) being way too clingy, Amy’s mom Ruth (Christine Baranski) being a domineering perfectionist and Carla’s mom Isis (Susan Sarandon) being an unpredictable hellcat.
Over the course of the six days leading into Christmas, they fall into a rapid-fire series of misadventures that are alternately sweet and raunchy, but always clever. This new edition tones down the excesses of the first “Moms” just enough to be more broadly palatable, while showing a surprising amount of heart.
I literally didn’t think there was any genuine way that this film could fit in as a Christmas flick, but writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (reprising their jobs from the first film) genuinely care about their characters and that shines through in every moment. Being authentic to their quirks and foibles also helps to make them universal and thus eminently relatable and all the more funny.
The entire cast is winning, but Hahn is a comic force of nature who deserves superstardom at the level of Melissa McCarthy, and yesterday. Comedies have suffered at the box office for the past couple of years, but that’s because they have generally been too crude or not funny enough. “Bad Moms Christmas” delivers on every level and should be a rich source of laughs throughout the holiday season.
Meanwhile, “Thor: Ragnarok” serves up the third set of cinematic adventures for the Marvel superhero (Chris Hemsworth), this time teaming him to great comic effect with the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The movie opens with Thor chained inside a cage as he humorously explains his predicament to the audience, but after a quick and impressive battle, he’s back in his home at Asgard, where he finds that his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been disguising himself as Odin (Anthony Hopkins), their father.
But before they can argue too much, the brothers learn that they have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), aka the Goddess of Death. She destroys Thor’s hammer and strives to steal control of the throne in Asgard, with the brothers having to overcome their constant bickering to bring her down.
Yet the two brothers wind up on the planet of Sakaar, where Thor is forced to engage in a gladiatorial competition against the Hulk. After a hilarious and exciting battle royale, the two team up and flee back to Asgard to bring down Hela while accompanied by colorful allies.
Some Marvel fans balk at the level of humor brought into play in the “Thor” trilogy, but the comedic aspects bring a fresh energy to a genre that’s been overwhelmed with seemingly dozens of epics. How Hemsworth isn’t a superstar both inside and out of the “Thor” franchise is beyond me, because he pairs looks with admirable action skills to craft a distinctive persona that radiates off the screen. And Blanchett is an eminently worthy adversary, bringing fierce humor and fury to her role as the villainous Hela.
“Ragnarok” also benefits from the fresh perspective of director Taika Waititi, who moves up to the big leagues here after two highly original New Zealand comedies in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” Marvel is showing an admirable willingness to find unique voices and fresh approaches that its rival DC — largely bogged down by director Zach Snyder and his utterly depressing style and pacing — would do well to emulate.
“Bad Moms Christmas”: Grade: A
“Thor: Ragnarok”: Grade: A
Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac
Length: 104 minutes
Directed by: George Clooney
One of the year’s most disappointing films, this is a muddled satire mixed with a mystery and a thriller, about a suburban town in 1959 that has riots when a black family moves in. The film mostly centers on the young son of a creepy, angry dad played by Damon, as the boy unravels dark secrets after his mom is killed by intruders. It has an inventive look and a few good laughs, but the tone and characters are utterly unpleasant. Grade: C
HAPPY DEATH DAY
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rudy Modine
Length: 96 minutes
Directed by: Christopher Landon
This funny twist on slasher films is best described as “Scream” meets “Groundhog Day,” with Rothe in a breakout role as a self-absorbed sorority girl who keeps waking up to find that she’s reliving the day in which someone keeps trying to kill her, and has to become a better person in order to stay alive. Loads of fun and highly recommended. Grade: B
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Sean Baker
This Sundance Film Fest favorite follows an aimless summer in the lives of a group of young kids in Orlando who live in a cheap motel without much supervision except from the motel manager, played by Dafoe in an amiably winning performance. A ramshackle slice of life that shows you a side of American society rarely depicted in films. Grade: B
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Stars: Taran Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum
Length: 141 minutes
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
This sequel to the 2015 surprise hit spy comedy “Kingsman: The Secret Service” tries to follow the idea that “bigger is better” but comes up somewhat short. Big names like Moore and Tatum are added to the cast but do almost nothing, and there’s a long middle stretch without any action, but the parts that work are great enough to make this worth the watch for action comedy fans. Grade: B
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Leberher, Finn Wolfhard
Length: 135 minutes
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel finally hits the big screen in the first of a planned two-part adaptation, mixing plenty of inventive scares with an affecting and funny group of 13-year-old outsiders in 1980s small-town Maine who have to team up to battle a demonic clown that’s killing children. Muschietti avoids exploiting the gruesome moments, making this a fun ride as much as it is a scarefest. Grade: A