2 Guns (2013) *** Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington only want us to enjoy the gunplay and buddy banter. What's wrong with that?
10 Minutes Gone (2019) *
I guess this qualifies as a movie: There must have been a camera present, and the people in front of the camera seem to be saying words that were prepared for them. And there's editing: one minute we're looking at one person talk, and then we see someone else talking. Often they're talking on the phone. Plus, someone brought guns. Lots of guns. And ammo. No one seems to be having much of a good time, though. Two guys — I'm guessing Bruce Willis and Michael Chicklis — seem to be thinking mostly about how they're going to spend the money they're getting for a day or two of work. There's a director listed in the credits, a guy named Brian A. Miller. He is most notable for having directed five prior action movies. Their Rotten Tomatoes scores are — in order of appearance and rated on a scale from 0-100 — 5, 0, 4, 0, and 11. I guess the general trend is upward. I'll give it a 12.
12 Years a Slave (2013 )*****
Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery leads a powerful cast. Movies from Rootsto Django Unchained have shown us the evils of slavery: 12 Years a Slave makes us feel the lash.
The 15:17 to Paris (2017) **
Clint Eastwood is legendary for drawing compelling performances from his actors. But his choice to cast in this thriller the actual men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train is misguided from the start. It's amateur night at its worst.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013) ****
A stand-up-and-cheer documentary about the backup singers who make music’s biggest stars sound their best.
20th Century Women (2016) **** Annette Bening gives her finest performance as a single mom in 1970s Santa Barbara.
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie (2018) ****
As a college student in Boulder in Colorado in 1970, young Lee Aronsohn became enthralled with a local folk rock group called Magic Music. But despite their obvious talent, they never made it big – never even cut a record. Aronsohn went on to become one of TV’s most successful writers — he co-created Two and Half Menand writes The Big Bang Theory. But he never forgot that band. In his fascinating, tuneful documentary, Aronsohn not only seeks out each band member to find out what happened to them — he also brings them back to Boulder for their first concert in 40 years. (FULL REVIEW)
About Time (2013) ****
We’d watch the delightfully quirky Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) if he were handing out food samples at Costco. Here he has to tell his son (Domhnall Gleeson)that the men in the family can travel through time. With Nighy on board, what starts out as a silly rom-com blossoms into a tall tale with some very grownup lessons.
Absolutely Fabulous (2016) *** The long-running sitcom’s fans will find lots to love in this big-screen version
The Accountant (2016) **** Ben Affleck and J.K. Simmons anchor a brainy thriller.
Across The Universe (2007) ***
Julie Taymor's love letter to the 1960s and the Beatles bristles with psychedelic imagery and earnest performances by Evan Rachel Wood and James Sturgess as star-crossed lovers Lucy and Jude (get it?). The music is the main draw, of course, and besides the actors there are novelty performances by the likes of Bono, Joe Cocker, and Eddie Izzard. As with most jukebox musicals, the story barely holds together, making the film more of a concert performance best seen and heard in the biggest theater possible.
Adult Life Skills (2016) ****
Writer/director Rachel Tunnard's gentle comedy is a film as quirky and unpredictable as its main character, a young woman approaching her 30th birthday who lives in her mother’s shed and refuses to conform to the demands of adulthood. Jodi Whitaker — who also happens to be starring now as the first female Dr. Who — plays Anna, who would rather stay at home and make whimsical finger puppet videos than deal with her uncertain future…and her unhappy past.
The Aftermath ***
A year after the end of World War II, a no-nonsense British officer, played by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), is assigned to oversee the recovery of Hamburg. The city was virtually leveled by Allied bombs and people are literally starving in the streets, still the officer brings along his breathtaking wife (Keira Knightley) to take up residence in the mansion of an impossibly handsome German architect (Alexander Skarsgard). Then he promptly heads out of town on official business — leaving the two to steam up the windows of the lavish estate. The Aftermath is a potboiler of the first magnitude, with pretty people and a lavish locale. History? Don’t worry, there’ll be no quiz afterward.
All The Money in the World *** (2017)
Christopher Plummer stepped in at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey — and he's the best thing in Ridley Scotta's taut drama about the1970s kidnapping of John Paul Getty's grandson.
American Pastoral (2016) *** Ewan McGregor directs and stars in this uneven, dark story of a 1960s family unraveling.
A.C.O.D. (2013) ***
It stands for “Adult Children of Divorce,” and in this comedy Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) is at peace with the long-ago bust-up of his parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara)-until he reunites them for his brother’s wedding. Jane Lynch nearly steals the show as an opportunistic social researcher.
Ad Astra (2019) ****
In perhaps the most expansive cinematic vision of space since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) follows a hotshot astronaut (Brad Pitt) as he seeks out his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) — an astronaut who disappeared on a top-secret and supremely dangerous mission nearly two decades earlier. There are echoes of both 2001 and Apocalypse Now, and if Gray doesn't quite know what to do storywise when Pitt's flyboy comes to the end of his quest, there's no question the trip alone has made it all worthwhile.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) ***
Lovers don’t get a lot more star-crossed than those played here by doomed small-time crooks Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). But director David Lowery has created a visually poetic yarn that recalls 1970s movie visionaries like Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn.
Aladdin (2019) **
If you’re going to remake a classic film, fine. Just give me a reason…one good reason…to do it. Maybe the old film's story has new resonance for a modern generation, as happened with Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe, like the Cohen Brothers felt with True Grit, a filmmaker wants to create a version closer to the original source material. Or perhaps the film's characters benefit from being re-imagined in a different place and time, as Martin Scorsese proved with Scarface. But if the one and only reason you’re remaking a movie is to squeeze more money from the franchise, then count me out. And the CGI-addled Aladdin — bloated to a half-hour in length beyond the original and performed with all the understatement of a middle-school production — reeks of Disney’s moneychangers cynically cashing in their chips. Kids will have fun at Aladdin, but kids are easy to please, and Disney knows that all too well.
All Is Lost (2013) **** Robert Redford has been a movie star for so long it’s easy to forget he’s also a great screen actor. Here it’s all Redford, all the time, wordlessly battling the elements as a lone sailor on an endless sea. He may well win his first acting Oscar for this one.
All Is True (2019) ****
The last days of William Shakespeare have always been clouded in mystery. In the intriguing drama All is True, director/star Kenneth Branagh engages in some heavy speculation as to how the Bard came to shed his mortal coil. We find 51-year-old Will (Branagh, looking uncannily Shakespeare-like) puttering in his garden in 1616, turning away admirers and still grieving over the long-ago death of his young son Hamnet. He does still have two grown daughters (Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson), but they’re not much comfort to him — nor is his long-suffering wife Anne (Judi Dench). You’d expect the script — by longtime Mr. Beanwriter Ben Elton — to be a bit wittier, if not madcap. But as director, Branagh walks us through the story with the patience of a gardener pointing out his favorite flowers — in this case a series of sterling performances, especially by Ian McKellan as an old friend who drops by to trade recitations of Will’s sonnets. All is True may or may not be true, but as the immortal words roll off these two masters’ tongues, the authenticity of Shakespeare’s genius is unmistakable.
American Hustle (2013) ****
You won’t have more fun at the movies than you’ll find here with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Louis C.K. and Jennifer Lawrence as assorted con artists and Feds conspiring to bring down crooked politicians in the 1980s Abscam scandal. “Some of this actually happened,” the title card reads, but we have a feeling writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) made up all the more hilarious stuff.
Anchorman II (2013) ***
Director Adam McCay and star Will Ferrell swore that the sequel to their 2004 comedy wouldn’t recycle any old gags; the only problem with that is the two films’ premise IS the gag. Pompous idiot/news anchor Ron Burgundy is the same old blowhard, and his sidekicks are the same old lovable-as-they-are-clueless posse. Go, have fun, but understand this is just a very welcome addendum to the original.
Aniara (2018) ****
The story of a massive space ship thrown off course while shuttling thousands of Earthlings to Mars is a haunting and harrowing meditation on the course of civilization. Swedish co-writer/co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja set their story on Aniara, the ultimate cruise ship, where passengers alternate between gorging at all-you-can-eat restaurants and shopping at high-end boutiques. Even after disaster strikes, that instinct for accumulation dies hard as the passengers, beyond any hope of rescue, continue to consume the ship’s limited resources. Yes, the themes of Earthly despoliation lurk behind a veil as wispy as a nebula (the captain comments, “We’ve created our own little planet”) — but the film’s fantastic vision and utterly committed cast make this one unforgettable cruise. It’s a one-way trip, of course, ending on a note that there’s always hope for life — if not necessarily life from Earth.
Aquaela (2019) ****
A glacier calves in a cataclysmic deluge…a hurricane roars ashore with terrifying frenzy…a camera glides beneath an ice sheet, capturing an otherworldly vision of blue, green, and white light. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky is the world’s modern master in capturing nature’s most evocative moments and framing them in ways that are reassuringly familiar yet tantalizingly (and sometimes terrifyingly) original. This epic documentary about water in all its forms — shot with state-of-the-art, 92 frame-per-second cameras — doesn’t preach to us about the environment; it simply, and magnificently, re-introduces us to the element that shapes and sustains life on Earth.
Ask Dr. Ruth (2019)****
For most of us, sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born the day she ambled onto the set of Late Night With David Letterman in the early 1980s. But by then she’d already lead a remarkable life: Born in Germany, she was sent to live at a Swiss orphanage for Jewish children, one step ahead of the Holocaust that eventually killed both her parents. Shipped off to Palestine after the war, she trained as a sniper to defend her kibbutz against armed Arabs. She married and moved to Paris, where the Sorbonne offered scholarships to young Jewish people who’d been deprived education by the Nazis. Then it was off to New York, a degree in psychology, a stint at Planned Parenthood — and then, because no one else in her office was willing to do it, a gig hosting a weekly 15-minute midnight radio show focusing on sexuality. The rest, as they say, is history, and director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda) pretty much sits back and lets his chatty subject fill in the blanks. There’s no better company than the 90-year-old professor, largely because she stubbornly sticks to her upbeat persona — refusing to reflect on the tragedies of her life. That makes for fun conversation, but in the end you get the nagging feeling that there are some things Dr. Ruth won’t discuss, no matter how many times you ask.
Austenland (2013) ***
One of the great truisms about grownup movie lovers, at least of the female persuasion, is that they’re nuts for all things Jane Austen. Here, Keri Russell plays a modern woman who, in search of her own personal Mr. Darcy, visits a Jane Austen theme park.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) ***
Fans will get what they pay for in this epic accumulation of every Marvel hero, all of them doing battle with the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin, all made up for Halloween). For the rest of us, the film plays more like a lot of big-name stars jockeying for screen time.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché ****
The men of Hollywood would just as soon you never hear this, but the first person to direct a narrative film was a woman: Alice Guy-Blaché of Paris. Prior to Alice’s arrival, the movie guys — most notably the Lumiere Brothers — only trained their cameras on street scenes. And for audiences, it was quite enough to watch a steam train pull into a station, or a shift of workers exit their factory. But Guy-Blaché, who was working as the secretary to the owner of a camera company, wanted to try storytelling with the camera. In 1895 she got her boss to lend her one — and for the next decade, she was not only perhaps the only female filmmaker in the world, she was a restless innovator. In her 1,000-plus films, she experimented with sound, color tinting, interracial casts and special effects. Jodie Foster narrates this illuminating documentary about history’s most important unknown filmmaker.
Beautiful Boy (2018) ****
Steve Carell embodies every parent’s nightmare as a dad whose son (Timothee Chalamet) plunges into a nightmare of drug abuse. The domestic drug abuse film has become a genre as of late, and movies within it share a certain rhythm: The gut-punch of discovery, the scramble for treatment, the triumphant discharge, the inevitable relapse, and the cycle of successes and setbacks that follows. The chief difference comes in the final chapter, as the filmmaker chooses to close the narrative either on a crest or in a trough. Uniquely, Beautiful Boy is based on a pair of books — one by Rolling Stone writer David Sheff and the other by his son Nic — and perhaps as a result the film does a better job than most at fleshing out the different kinds of hell experienced by drug addicts and those who love them. Carell, along with Maura Tierney as his wife and Amy Ryan (Carell’s old girlfriend on The Office) as his ex-wife and Nic’s mother, bravely explore the helplessness, rage, and lashing out that accompany a child’s addiction. Chalamet, sweet and intelligent when Nic is sober, raging and self-pitying when he’s not, inflicts us with a taste of the frustration parents of addicts must feel, and it doesn’t feel good. Stick around for the credits, when the music stops and Chalamet reads a passage from the poet Charles Bukowski. If the movie didn’t make you cry, this will.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019) *****
Here’s a movie that delivers everything it promises — a nostalgic look at a beloved children’s TV icon, a reminder that the lessons of childhood still have currency long after we’ve grown up — and much, much more. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers, whose Mister Rogers Neighborhood eased the childhood angstof untold millions of toddlers, is a walking Beatitude: the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker. And like the real Fred, the character as played by Hanks draws real power from those attributes: the power to forgive where others can’t — and the power to inspire others to forgive themselves. You may well start tearing up from the first frames of A Beautiful Day, and those weepies will reassert themselves through the final sentimental fadeout. And as you leave the theater, you just might imagine the hand of a certain red-sweatered fellow on your sleeve, gently whispering into your ear, “It’s okay to feel this way.”
Ben-Hur (1959) ****
Best seen on the biggest screen possible, William Wyler’s sprawling epic about a Jewish nobleman (Charlton Heston) thrown into slavery by a former friend (Stephen Boyd) is a reminder of just how big movies can be. The scale of the sets boggle the mind, and Heston, less stiff than he’d been as Moses in The Ten Commandments, embodies the essence of a movie star: handsome and alternately charming and imposing. The famed chariot race remains one of the most thrilling moments in the history of film.
Ben Is Back ****
There have been lots of gritty, harrowing, and challenging movies about opioid addiction recently — and Ben is Back is not one of them. That’s no knock: Millions of moviegoers who would never dream of enduring the starkest visions of drug use on screen will willingly engage with Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges as the concerned mom and her struggling son in this poignant and accessible family drama. Roberts brilliantly employs her trademark smile to portray a mother putting on a happy face when her troubled boy Ben, who has been in a rehab facility for months, unexpectedly arrives home for Christmas. It’s true that writer/director Peter Hedges (About a Boy) has set up a rather arbitrary minefield of temptations and dangerous encounters for Ben, but the film nevertheless effectively portrays the endless small — often nearly imperceptible — triggers and challenges that face the addicts among us.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) ***
Ang Lee’s war drama breaks all the rules in search of something new.
The Birth of a Nation (2016) ****
Nate Parker's beautiful, brutal take on Nat Turner's rebellion.
Birth of the Living Dead (2013) ***
In 1968 George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, and changed the way movies scare us. This entertaining documentary retraces Romero’s shuffling footsteps to midnight movie immortality.
BlacKkKlansman (2018) ****
Spike Lee's thrilling, somber, and funny meditation on race and racism tells the true story of a black Colorado Springs cop (John David Washington) who stumbles into an unlikely membership in the Ku Klux Clan. Leading the Klan members on by using his "white voice" on the phone, he enlists his partner (Adam Driver) to stand in for him at meetings as they try to determine if these hapless racists might be dangerous. As Grand Dragon DAvid Duke Topher Grace is Evil in a three-piece suit; former Blacklist star Ryan Eggold stands out as a Klansman who kids himself into thinking hatred can be kept in a non-violent bottle. (FULL REVIEW)
Black Panther (2018) ****
Chadwick Boseman is rewarded for years of fine film performances (42, Get On Up) with the lead in this groundbreaking superhero flick that creates an elegant mythology and offers characters who really breathe. It's unlike any other Marvel flick — until the third act, when the bad-vs-evil battle becomes a strictly-by-the-numbers affair.
Blindspotting (2018) ****
Taking its place alongside delightfully provocative recent films like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman, this comedy/drama from director Carlos Lopez Estrada and co-writers/costars Rafael Casai and Daveed Diggs ingeniously explores the social chasm between being Black and White America. A black parolee (DIggs) must get through his final three days of probation — but that's not easy when he has to spend those days with his White childhood friend (Casal), a good-natured troublemaker who seems to get away with all kinds of things that would land a Black man in prison. When Diggs' character witnesses a police shooting, all bets are off.
Blue Jasmine (2013) **** If you’re an actress, get yourself directed by Woody Allen: Here he casts Cate Blanchett as a latter-day Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers in San Francisco. Smart, tragic, and funny, it’s Woody and Cate at their best.
Bobby Kennedy For President (2018) ****
"He was the saddest man I ever saw," says one old acquaintance in Dawn Porter's exhaustive and heartbreakingly intimate portrait of JFK's younger brother. RFK emerges as a man who at first reveled in his life of privilege — then saw it as a mechanism for helping the underprivileged find their footing in a frequently cruel society. Porter mined more than 1,000 archival sources for her film and sound clips, and the four-hour format allows her to let Bobby's complex personality unspool with uncommon subtlety.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) *****
Who knows if the story the classic rock band Queen really went down the way it's depicted in this sprawling, song-filled epic — and who cares? With a towering performance by Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as frontman Freddie Mercury, adrenaline-pumped direction from Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher and a musical score for the ages, the film is a perfect specimen of the Hollywood biopic done right. It begins with the tightest of focuses: an immigrant kid with big dreams, toiling as a baggage handler at Heathrow...and a struggling band, playing closet-sized pubs, waiting for the voice that will shoot them to stardom. Fate puts them together, and a rock and roll sound unlike any other is born. Despite all the big hair and throbbing melodies, Bohemian Rhapsody is a decidedly old-fashioned music biography, in the mold of 1940s classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Rhapsody in Blue: Each chapter and trauma in the protagonist's life results in a Greatest Hit, a conceit that can't possibly be true yet one that propels the plot at the speed of sound. Songs like "We Are the Champions," "Love of My Life" and "We Will Rock You" give Bohemian Rhapsody its drive; the performance by Malek as Freddie — infuriating, heartbreaking, exhilarating — provides the heart. The film smartly relies on actual Queen recordings for the soundtrack, culminating in a breathtaking 15-minute rocket ride as Queen punches a hole in the sky above Wembley Stadium at the 1985 Live Aid concert.
Book Club (2018) ***
The main reason to see this unwieldy buddy comedy is the presence of its legendary stars: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen. Granted, they’re not given much of substance to do in the story of four old friends whose monthly book club meetings have been going on since college — and who are scandalized (in a supposedly good way) by their latest selection, Fifty Shades of Gray. The script and direction by Bill Holderman clunk along at an awkward pace as the four giggle and snort at Gray’s spicier passages and then attempt to apply its anything-goes worldview to their own lives. One can only imagine what other literary monuments this easily influenced foursome have digested over the past decades, and shudder at how they may have bent themselves to conformity with them. Still, no one spits out a punchline with more acid than Bergen, or evokes easy charm more glowingly than Keaton. On the other hand, Steenburgen is given a thankless role as a sex-starved housewife and Fonda, her body as hard as her glare, ends up being arm candy for a remarkably well-preserved Don Johnson.
The Book Thief (2013) ***
Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech) and Emilly Watson (War Horse) play the foster parents of a spunky young girl (Sophie Nelisse) who develops a passionate love for books during the dark days of Nazi Germany. The era’s oppressive atmosphere fills the screen like smoke. But it is Rush, in perhaps the most tender performance of his career as the kind-hearted housepainter, who gives this movie its soul.
Borg vs. McEnroe (2018) ***
Swedish star Sverir Gudnason brings haunted intensity to the role of tennis ace Bjorn Borg, facing his personal demons while squaring off against 1980s bad boy John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). Despite their personality differences, the film implies, the two were very much the same. Stellan Skarsgard is outstanding as Borg's father figure coach.
Born in China (2017) ****
Cute pandas, playful monkeys, majestic snow leopards: Master Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan captures them all in this surprisingly edgy Disneynature documentary.
Born to be Blue (2016) ****
Ethan Hawke has his ups and downs as trumpet legend Chet Baker.
The Boss (2016) ***
Melissa McCarthy stars as a blowhard with a heart of gold.
Boundaries (2014) ****
There seems to be no stopping Christopher Plummer these days — even at 88, he just keeps finding one engaging new role after another. This time he stars as Vera Farmiga’s rascally old dad in a charming new road comedy written and directed by Shana Feste. Plummer plays a guy whose nose for a good scam made him an absentee father to his daughter – but now he’s asking her and her son to drive him all the way down the Pacific coast from Washington State to Los Angeles. Ostensibly it’s to move in with his other daughter, played by the always delightful Kristen Schaal. But as always dad’s got ulterior motives, one of which is to drop in on an old pal — played by the reliably quirky Christopher Lloyd. Boundaries may be a shaggy dog story about a shady old dog, but the lively cast makes it one fun ride. (FULL REVIEW)
Boy Erased ****
There’s never any question as to which side Boy Erased will take in the long debate over sexual orientation conversion therapy. The story of a gay Arkansas teenager named Jared (Lucas Hedges) whose distraught parents send him for conversion treatment at a shady facility is heartbreaking and infuriating from the moment that door shuts behind him. The film's big surprise is the sensitivity it shows for the boy's parents, (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe), portrayed as confused, heartbroken, but ultimately loving parents who really think the best thing for their son is a stint under the harrowing tutelage of a too-tightly wound conversion therapist, chillingly played by director Joel Edgerton. (FULL REVEIEW)
Brewster McCloud (1970) ***
Not one of those movies that gets better with age, Robert Altman's second feature film comes off as a self-consciously quirky tale of a young man (Bud Cort) who lives in the basement of the Houston Astrodome, where he is obsessed with constructing a feathered contraption that will enable people to fly. With his over-the-top characters and overlong set pieces, Altman seems to be making points about American society, but the jumbled mix comes off as a chaotic patchwork of ideas. Plus, the scene where he kills sweet Margaret Hamilton — wearing Dorothy's ruby slippers, no less — is just mean.
Brian Banks (2019) ****
It's been 12 years since we've seen a feature film from director Tom Shadyac, who ranks as the highest-grossing comedy director of all time (The Ace Ventura movies, Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almightyand more). He returns with the dead-serious, thoroughly engrossing true story of Brian Banks, a young black man unjustly imprisoned who emerges to pursue his dream of NFL stardom. Shadyac's got a terrific leading man in Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, Hidden Figures), embodying a man who not only overcomes injustice, but is positively fueled by it. Shadyac deftly handles the drama, but here's hoping he'll return to the comedy genre. If the story of Brian Banks tells us anything, it's that society needs to lighten up.
Cabin Boy (1994) ****
Understand, please, that those four stars for Chis Elliott's little-seen comedy are not ex cathedra — I totally understand if you're not along for the ride on this one. But if you are an admirer of Elliott's off-kilter, poker-faced brand of absurdity, this tale of a clueless pansy boy named Nathaniel Mayweather who finds himself on a doomed fishing boat expedition will, as Nathaniel might say, tickle your fancy. Look for Elliott's legendary dad Bob as Nathaniel's father, and David Letterman, in his one and only film role, playing a salty old seaman.
Café Society (2016) ****
Jesse Eisenberg channels Woody Allen in the director’s bittersweet comedy about longing and regret.
Call Me By Your Name (2017) ****
Screenwriter James Ivory became the oldest Oscar-winner ever for this lushly told tale of a teenager finding first love in 1980s Italy. The actors are beautiful to look at, but the real star here is Lombardy, Italy, vividly photographed by the Thai cameraman Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.
Calling All Earthlings (2018) ***
Once upon a time in the California desert (of course!) a man named George Van Tassel built a wooden domed structure he called The Integratron — based on detailed instructions given to him by visitors from the planet Venus. If that gets your attention, then this jauntily quirky documentary by Jonathan Berman will certainly tickle your itch for the paranormal. Berman introduces us to numerous Van Tassel devotees — endearing eccentrics all — who, decades after his sudden death, still flock to the igloo-like retreat that Van Tassel insisted was a portal to immortality and time travel.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) ****
Melissa McCarthy confirms what her fans always suspected — there's a top-drawer actor hiding behind that crassly comic exterior. She stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful biographer who fell onto hard times in the early 1980s. To make ends meet, Israel began forging correspondence from legendary literary figures like Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman, then selling them to unsuspecting collectors. Like the compulsively guarded Israel, McCarthy jealously conceals her character’s emotions. When she does betray a quiver of the mouth, a tear in her eye, even the hint of a smile, as an audience we feel almost like voyeurs, witnesses to a forbidden moment. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) magically draws us into caring deeply about a character who, were we to meet her on the street, would just as soon knock us over as exchange a pleasantry. Richard E. Grant, lovable and tragic as Israel's only friend, threatens to steal each scene he’s in, but then gallantly hands the focus back to the star. And as a meek bookseller who engages in a brief, ultimately shattering relationship with Israel, Dolly Wells brings a much-appreciated note of wide-eyed innocence. Mostly, though, the film is a breakthrough for its star. Melissa McCarthy will certainly make us laugh again, yet we will never see her in quite the same way. (FULL REVIEW)
Captain Fantastic (2016) ***
Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen saves this gimmicky tale of a quirky family trying to assimilate in society.
Captain Phillips (2013) ****
Tom Hanks gives his best performance in years as the captain of a cargo ship overrun by Somali pirates-but the real revelation is Somali actor Barkhad Abdi. He stands toe-to-toe with Oscar-winner Hanks, who generously allows his unknown costar to unfold a complex, surprisingly vulnerable character.
Cats (2019) **
I've been seriously trying to figure out why the screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage classic fails so miserably. It's not just because Judi Dench, as the wise old cat Deuteronomy, bears a distracting resemblance to Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. And it's not just because Jennifer Hudson, while belting out the show-stopping "Memory," has two globs of snot dripping from her nose. And it' snot just that the cats seem to shift in scale from normal size to three inches or less, depending on their digitally created environment. More than that, I think Cats' live theater audience appreciates the fact that a stage full of actors willingly undergoes hours of daily transformation — for union scale — and then spends hours gallantly trying to infuse this feather-light fare with some sort of gravitas. The movie's cast, a bunch of big-name, top-dollar stars gathering before a movie studio green screen, simply don't earn our emotional investment.
Chappaquiddick (2018) ****
Director John Curran's account of the night Ted Kennedy (Jason Clark) left Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) for dead in a submerged car depicts the tragedy as something of a character-building experience. By the final fade-out, we're left wondering just what kind of character gets built on a foundation of entitlement and rationalization.
Charlie Says (2019) ***
Fifty years after Charles Manson’s “family” traumatized the world with the Tate/LaBianca murders, director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has found a surprisingly relevant way to revisit the grisly events: Through the eyes of the women Manson somehow hypnotized into carrying out the slaughter. Set three years after the 1969 murders, the film follows a graduate student (Nurse Jackie’s Merritt Wever) who’s been assigned to teach women’s studies classes to three of Manson’s former acolytes, now serving life sentences in a California prison. The women — Leslie Van Houten (Game of Thrones’Hannnah Murray) Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) — are still blindly devoted to “Charlie.” But the instructor is determined open their eyes to the awful implications of what they’ve done — even if that means shattering their blissful delusions and dooming them to a lifetime of crippling guilt. Former Dr. Who star Matt Smith seems an odd choice to play Charlie in the film’s difficult-to-watch flashbacks, but he admirably avoids revisiting the over-the-top Manson portrayals we’ve become used to. Smith’s Manson is disarmingly gentle and alarmingly reassuring as he woos these aimless young women into his orbit — and even when his black hole of evil becomes evident, this Manson remains undeniably charismatic.
Chef (2014) ****
John Favreau stars in the tasty tale of a cook who takes his act on the road.
Christopher Robin (2018) *****
You don't have to be a longtime lover of the A.A. Milne's overstuffed "bear of very little brain" to find yourself bawling like a baby as director Marc Forster guides you through this gentle, reflective, visually enthralling Winnie the Pooh update. As a grown-up version of Pooh's human pal Christopher, Ewan McGregor brings a tired resignation that can only be lightened by a visit from his childhood friends. In many ways, Christopher Robin more faithfully evokes the languid spirit of Milne's books than Disney's sometimes slapsticky 1960s cartoons ever did. But Forster wisely involves voice actors who faithfully recreate the originals, especially Jim Cummings, doing double duty as Pooh and Tigger — wonderfully evoking the spirits of the immortal Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell. (FULL REVIEW)
Chuck (2017) ****
Liev Schreiber is a knockout as Chuck Wepner, the New Jersey nobody who nearly went the distance against Muhammad Ali in 1975—and inspired a kid named Sylvester Stalllone to write Rocky. Philippe Falardeau's film pulls no punches when it comes to the heavyweight case of hubris that led to Wepner's downfall. The fine supporting cast includes Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan.
Climax (2018) ***
Gasper Noe’s harrowing, psychedelic madhouse of a psychological horror film involves a French dance troupe, gathered for rehearsals in a remote facility, who discover someone has spiked their sangria with LSD. Spiraling into a frenzied mania, the dancers turn alternately violent and amorous toward each other or else plummet into self-obsessed terror. Not everyone gets out alive, and some of those who do may wish they hadn’t. Simulating his character’s psychological descent, Noe’s filmmaking becomes nearly incomprehensible toward the end – but worth the price of admission is the opening dance number: Sweeping and swirling, his camera stalks the cast for 10 minutes of throbbing, unedited energy.
Closed Circuit (2013) ***
Briskly paced and smartly directed by John Crowley (Boy A), this political thriller is propelled by its ripped-from-the-headlines premise – terrorism and over-the-top government surveillance – and undeniable chemistry between stars Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall.
The Comedian (2017) **
A humorless script foils Robert De Niro’s best efforts as an over-the-hill standup comic.
*** Crazy Rich Asians
Once you get past the novelty of seeing an all-Asian cast run through the motions of a standard rom-com plot, all that's left is disdain for the obscenely excessive lifestyle the film seems to worship. Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) plays an NYU professor who discovers, improbably, that her handsome boyfriend (Henry Golding) is one of he world's richest bachelors. He schleps her off to visit Singapore, where his truly awful friends and family reject her for not being a) rich enough and b) Chinese enough. You'd hope the script would help these horrible people somehow develop a set of true values, but by the end it's clear if their bank accounts were suddenly cleaned out, each and every one of them would, lemming-like, drown themselves in the Singapore Strait. The filmmakers want us to hope the heroine will find acceptance from this despicable crew — we just want her to catch the next jet home. Two sequels are coming; after that, let's hope the extremely appealing stars will find something better to do.
Creed (2015) ****
Stallone's Rocky sequel offers a poignant changing of the guard.
The Current War ****
So, if I told you The Current War is a historical drama about a titanic face-off between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, battling over whether America’s electrical system should be wired AC or DC, would you stand up, throw your head back and declare, “Count me in?” Eh, probably not. But trust me, The Current War is at times positively enthralling, and the stars — Benedict Cumberbatch as boyish, blustery Edison and Michael Shannon as the reserved, ruminative Westinghouse — provide the juice to make this history lesson shine. (FULL REVIEW)
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