What to watch during the holidays

What to Watch During the Holidays

From ‘Wonder Woman’ to movies filled with A-Listers like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Chadwick Boseman and Tom Hanks, the holiday movie season is on

By Ellen Gamerman and John JurgensenDec. 2, 2020 3:00 pm ET

Like so many rituals this year, Hollywood’s holiday rollout is happening mostly online. From big-budget movies to lure families over Christmas, to serious-minded films to attract award nominations, they’re appearing on digital platforms, often at the same time (or soon after) they debut in theaters.

It’s a tradeoff for filmmakers who know fewer people will see their movies in the ideal setting they had envisioned. “The movie plays much better on a big IMAX screen,” says director Patty Jenkins, whose “Wonder Woman 1984” is hitting theaters and IMAX screens wherever they’re open on Christmas Day, the same time it arrives in living rooms on HBO Max. “Certainly the experience is far better the bigger the TV and the better the sound. It hurts a little bit to think of people watching it on their phone, but they do inevitably anyway.”

Even with concerns about the future of the theatrical experience, there is convenience—and a broad selection of projects from some of Hollywood’s biggest talents. Below, some highlights from the films and TV series coming over the holiday entertainment season.

‘Sound of Metal’

In theaters; Amazon, Dec. 4

In “Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed plays a metal musician who abruptly loses his hearing on tour, then washes up in a halfway house for recovering addicts who are deaf.

Mr. Ahmed learned drums and sign language to play the drummer, Ruben, who struggles to cope. “Everything I thought I loved and everything that gave me meaning is gone, so who am I now?” the actor said in an interview, summing up his character’s state of panic and anguish.

Director Darius Marder says the sounds in the film—and the distortion and absence of them—needed to be as immersive as Mr. Ahmed’s performance. Supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker, who helped craft the soundscape of space in “Gravity,” used stethoscope microphones to record Mr. Ahmed’s breathing, swallowing and other interior noises that become more pronounced as Ruben’s hearing recedes.

The use of captions (including one that gives the movie its title) is intended both for deaf viewers and those who can hear, Mr. Marder says: “Captions bring hearing people closer to their awareness of sound itself and what we take for granted.” The director laments that the majority of the movie’s audience won’t experience it in cinemas designed for superior sound. He suggests that unless viewers have top-notch home-theater sound at home, they should watch “Sound of Metal” while wearing headphones.

‘Mank’

In theaters; Netflix, Dec. 4

Herman J. Mankiewicz had a long career in Hollywood before co-writing the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane.” He is credited with dreaming up one of the best special effects in movie history, when black-and-white Kansas turns to color in “The Wizard of Oz.” Yet he battled doubts about his own seriousness. “Citizen Kane” was his bid to change that. “Mank” shows the alcoholic screenwriter dictating the first draft of a script—co-authored by Orson Welles—that would bring new literary subtlety to moviemaking.

Director David Fincher and his late father Jack Fincher, who wrote the script for “Mank,” related to the notion of an artist whose best work had not yet been required of him. In the early 2000s, as his father battled cancer, Mr. Fincher brought up the screenplay on their drives to chemo appointments. “It harkened to more normal times,” he says. “It was pretty clear he was not going to survive this and see it.”

Years later, after his father died, Mr. Fincher was finishing his work on the Netflix series “Mindhunter” when a top Netflix executive asked what he wanted to do next. “Mank” was his answer. The movie idea he had batted around for 30 years had finally found a home.

‘A Suitable Boy’

Acorn TV streaming service, Dec. 7

Director Mira Nair was shooting “A Suitable Boy,” an adaptation of a Vikram Seth historical novel set in 1951, when she mentioned to her brother that she was staging an erotic dream sequence. “He said, ‘Erotic dream? But it’s a period film,’” recalls Ms. Nair. “Like we’re in straitjackets and chastity belts.”

The BBC One production is Ms. Nair’s first TV miniseries. It is based on a huge novel—even “War and Peace” is thinner than this 1,488-page paperback. “I have carried a torch for the novel since the day it was brought into the world,” says Ms. Nair, an Indian-American filmmaker whose movies include “Monsoon Wedding.” “It was a portrait of a time when we as a country had to find ourselves.”

The saga of four families is set four years after India’s bloody partition and independence from the British. It revolves around a mother’s search for an appropriate match for her last unmarried daughter. The six-part series features a Hindu-Muslim romance whose kissing scene against the backdrop of a temple recently outraged politicians in India. “At its foundation is an eternal question,” Ms. Nair says. “Is it possible to be happy without making others unhappy?”



‘The Prom’

In theaters Dec. 4; Netflix, Dec. 11

The story is set in the angst factory of high school, where Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) has been barred from taking her girlfriend to the prom. A gang of self-absorbed Broadway performers led by Meryl Streep and James Corden are desperate for good press. They take up Emma’s cause, storming small-town Indiana like the troops at Normandy.

“We are liberals from Broadway,” announces Trent (Andrew Rannells) after bursting into the school gym in a “New York City” t-shirt. “We are here to open your hearts and your minds,” says Angie (Nicole Kidman). They’re supposed to be ridiculous, but so too are locals who boo them.

‘Wolfwalkers’

In theaters; Apple TV+, Dec. 11

For viewers used to the computer-generated polish of Pixar and other animation giants, the work of independent studio Cartoon Saloon might look surprisingly—perhaps refreshingly—raw. The directors of “Wolfwalkers,” the studio’s latest hand-drawn feature film, use words like “scratchy” and “hairy” to describe the line work for certain characters who inhabit the bodies of wolves and humans.

Set in 1650, the story pulls from the mythology of Ireland, where Cartoon Saloon was founded 21 years ago and went on to produce Oscar-nominated films such as “The Secret of Kells.” Main character Robyn is an English girl who follows her father on his mission to hunt down wolves outside their walled city and tangles with a shapeshifter her own age. Unlike the marauding werewolves in monster movies, the wolfwalkers embody the rebellious spirit of a land that English colonists are trying to tame.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

In theaters; Netflix, Dec. 18

The death of Chadwick Boseman looms over the release of what turned out to be the “Black Panther” star’s final performance on film. He’s Levee, a cocksure trumpeter who ratchets up the tension during a recording session in Chicago, 1927. Viola Davis plays the tough title character, a blues singer in a standoff with Levee and white record-company men (played by Jonny Coyne and Jeremy Shamos) over control of her music.

The power of Black artistry and the exploitation of it are themes of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The film follows 2016’s “Fences” as part of a 10-play cycle by August Wilson, with plans for more adaptations from producer Denzel Washington and Netflix.

‘One Night In Miami’

In theaters Dec. 25; Amazon, Jan. 15

Huddled together in a motel room in 1964, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X are not yet icons of history. They’re four men hashing out their commitments to a civil rights struggle at a critical juncture, along with their own feelings of ambition, duty, anger and fear.

“One Night In Miami” is the first feature film directed by Oscar-winning actress Regina King, who says she tried to humanize the characters by zeroing in on their vulnerabilities. “That’s a word that you don’t hear used in relation to these men, these luminaries,” she says. “They just dropped their last names for me.”

‘The Midnight Sky’

In theaters in December; Netflix, Dec. 23

In a post-apocalyptic tale fit for our social-distancing moment, miles of physical and emotional space separate the characters of “The Midnight Sky.” An eminent scientist portrayed by George Clooney is desperate to prevent a space crew from returning to Earth, which has been ravaged by an unexplained tragedy. Terminally ill and isolated in an abandoned Arctic station, Mr. Clooney’s Augustine also must care for a mysterious girl he discovers there.

Astronauts played by Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo are a couple with a baby on the way, but they keep their relationship at a remove as they try to figure out what happened to humanity back home. Ms. Jones’s character was not pregnant in the screenplay, but while shooting the actress announced she was going to have a baby. After considering digital face-replacement and body doubles, Mr. Clooney, who directed the film, decided to change her character’s story arc to include her pregnancy.

“The film demonstrates how fragile we are, how fragile the planet is, how fragile life is,” says Mr. Oyelowo. “It speaks about connection being one of the only things of real value that we have. To have a film that reminds us of that when so much is being stripped away is not a bad thing.”

‘Wonder Woman 1984’

In theaters and on HBO Max, Dec. 25

The sequel to the 2017 hit “Wonder Woman,” this time set in the 1980s era of big hair and breakdancing, is arriving in theaters and simultaneously on HBO Max, a coordinated release that marked a milestone for a major action movie. “Wonder Woman 1984” is one of the season’s only would-be blockbusters that has not put off its premiere to 2021.

In the follow-up to “Wonder Woman,” which grossed more than $821 million worldwide, Gal Gadot returns as the Amazon warrior of the title. She is reunited with love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who appeared to meet a fiery end in the first movie. Newcomers include Kristen Wiig as a villain who transforms into a cheetah.

‘Soul’

Disney+, Dec. 25

The animation wizards at Pixar consulted everyone from scientists to spiritual gurus during the development of their exploration of life’s essence. “Soul” centers on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) a middle school band teacher whose big break as a jazz pianist is still eluding him in middle age. Just as Joe’s about to get his shot he dies. Or close to it, launching the movie into cartoony speculation about what happens to us before, during and after our time on Earth.

The existential journey of “Soul” covers a range of visual styles. From the realism of Joe’s big hands moving along a piano keyboard, to a netherworld of abstract shapes and cute munchkin souls on their way to or from life. A cranky one trying to avoid existence (Tina Fey) gets tied to Joe, leading to odd-couple comedy.

Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, directed the movie with help from co-writer Kemp Powers (who also wrote “One Night In Miami”). For families who seek out the Christmas Day release on Disney+, “Soul” could spark some interesting, possibly awkward, conversations about people’s purpose in life.https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOsLIiBStEs?hd=1&rel=0&autohide=1&showinfo=0

‘Bridgerton’

Netflix, Dec. 25

The new eight-part series from executive producer Shonda Rhimes uses some sleight of hand to mash 1800s England with 2020 culture. Are the empire-waist dresses from Jane Austen’s closet or an aspirational Instagram feed? Classical instruments play music that, on closer listening, turn out to be pop hits. And society accepts an intermingling of Black and white royalty and coupledom without any Regency Era gasps.

Instead, the heaving bosoms of “Bridgerton”—and there are many—are saved for the stuff of early 19th-century marriage markets. Women are property, men are rakes and everybody wants what they can’t have. Then the plot twists.

“For us, the fun was the idea of an inclusive version of history,” says Betsy Beers, an executive producer of the series, based on the romance novels by Julia Quinn. Some period touches felt too dowdy for the show even if they would have been accurate. “There are no bonnets in the world of ‘Bridgerton,’” says series creator Chris Van Dusen. “These characters were chic, they had the swagger and the style, they were the celebrities of the time. When someone is watching the show, we wanted them to look at these characters the way the characters would be looking at themselves.”

‘News of the World’

In theaters Dec. 25; streaming on demand in January

Civil War veteran Capt. Kidd (Tom Hanks), who travels the country reading newspaper stories to rowdy crowds for a living, is a master of early infotainment. He also is a broken person in need of healing, which begins when he helps an abandoned white girl who had been kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe of the Great Plains.

The Kiowa people asked that only members of their tribe play Kiowa characters in “News of the World,” and that their endangered language be featured in the movie, says director Paul Greengrass. The young actress playing the orphan studied Kiowa. “There are about 300 living fluent speakers,” says Paulette Jiles, who wrote the 2016 novel on which the film is based. “It’s not only endangered but probably extinct. I was hoping if people heard Kiowa in the film they would get some interest in helping save the language.”

Universal Pictures, which is committing heavily to theatrical debuts, is releasing the movie in cinemas on Christmas Day. It won’t stream until January. “They want to put a flag in the sand,” Mr. Greengrass says of the studio. “At a certain point, you can’t be in the theatrical motion-picture business without releasing films. Do you make as much money releasing a movie in theaters in the middle of a pandemic as you would in normal times, well of course you don’t, but on the other hand, people do want to go to the cinema.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com and John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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