MOVIE REVIEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO'VE LIVED A LITTLE
D-Day: Normandy 1944 (2019) ****
With their emphasis on you-are-there cinematography, IMax movies tend to suffer a bit on the home screen. Still, there's no denying the power of this definitive primer on the massive Allied invasion that turned the tide of World War II. Narrated by Tom Brokaw, official spokesman of the Greatest Generation, the film employs breathtakingly restored footage and innovative graphics to spell out how the invasion was planned, how the Allies were forced to improvise, and how hundreds of thousands of soldiers summoned up uncommon courage in the cause of freedom. Required viewing prior to any screening of Saving Private Ryan or, for that matter, The Longest Day.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013) ****
At the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a tough heterosexual Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) gets the dread diagnosis – then sets up a lucrative business smuggling alternative anti-AIDS drugs into the state. McConaughey, rising from beefcake idol to accomplished actor, won an Oscar for his compelling performance.
David Crosby: Remember My Name (2019) ****
There are nostalgic marvels aplenty in this searching biography of the man who, aside from perhaps Art Garfunkel, possessed the sweetest voice of the 60s. But for Crosby Stills and Nash fans, the most heart-stopping moment comes when David Crosby points to a modest dwelling and says, “That’s the house ‘Our House’ was written about.” Now 77, Crosby has survived three heart attacks and a crippling cocaine habit. He looks frail and his voice is thin — except when he steps on stage or into a studio, when the decades seem to melt away. It’s clear that everyone around him senses any day could be David Crosby’s last, and that makes this glimpse into his troubled, tuneful life all the more delicately beautiful.
The Day After (1983) ****
If you were watching ABC the night of November 20, 1983, then you recall being scared out of your socks by this graphic depiction of all-out nuclear war. The fine cast, including Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg and John Lithgow breathe life into the nerve-jangling account of the tension-filled weeks prior to an attack on the U.S. — and the harrowing aftermath.
The Day I Lost My Shadow (2018) ****
In this spellbinding film from Syria. A young, single Damascus mother leaves her young son at home to go buy a can of propane gas — and through a harrowing series of events ends up stumbling across the bleak countryside with two companions, trying to get back to town without being shot by government troops or rebels. The stark realism of the film takes on a mystical tone when the mother realizes she sees some people who cast no shadows — which comes to mean they are going to experience some devastating misfortune.
Deadpool (2016) and Deadpoool 2 (2018) ***
Ryan Reynolds stars as the foul-mouthed, R-rated superhero that every 8-year-old desperately wants to see. The engaging Reynolds may be the only actor around who could pull off the trick of being so simultaneously repulsive and endearing.
The Death of Stalin (2018) *****
As dark as a comedy gets, and possibly as profound, this account of the frantic repositioning that accompanied the death of Russia's brutal dictator is mercilessly co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep). His superb cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin, bring performances that drip with deadpan doom. (FULL REVIEW)
Death Wish (2018) **
This update of Charles Bronson's 1974 revenge drama isn't really inferior to the original, but it's a victim of its time: As Bruce Willis takes to the streets to avenge the murder of his wife, we just can't bring ourselves to share his fury against street thugs. These days, we're most likely to fear that one guy with a gun in his hand and a chip on his shoulder. And in this movie, the guy who resembles him the most is Bruce Willis.(FULL REVIEW)
Destroyer (2018) ****
Nicole Kidman may well be the first performer to deserve Oscars for both Best Actress and Best Supporting actress — for the same role in the same movie. In this gritty, violent, yet deeply emotional crime drama, Kidman stars as a Los Angeles detective in two life stages: as a young cop in over her head during an undercover operation that goes horribly wrong…and years later, spiraling into a hell of heartbreak and booze as a result. The little-known supporting cast is splendid, but Kidman — nearly unrecognizable in the skeletal, dark-eyed latter role — is a force of nature as she rages against the bad guys, the universe, and herself.
Die Hard (1988) ****
Most of us just knew Bruce Willis as Cybill Shepherd's sidekick on TV's Moonlighting — until he took us all by surprise in this over-the-top action thriller set in a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve. As New York cop John McClane, Willis wedded his wise-guy TV persona with a touch of John Wayne and a pinch of Jackie Chan. It appears he'll be making Die Hardsequels until he actually dies, but Willis earned that right with this indelible original.
The Dinner (2017) ****
Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall shine as they share a meal—and a terrible secret.
The Disaster Artist (2017) ****
Director/star James Franco gives himself a great big meaty bone to chew on, playing the larger-than life film director Tommy Wiseau, creator of what many consider the worst film ever made, 2003's The Room. Dave Franco is endearingly enabling as a young actor who gets himself mixed up in both Tommy's film and hodgepodge personal life. The film is propelled by the contagious urgency of its star, and the improbable fact that this outrageous Hollywood story is absolutely true.
Dog Days (2018) ****
This episodic rom-com, built around people who find love thanks to their four-legged buddies, has nothing to recommend it except a consistently appealing young cast and some truly adorable pooches, all immersed in a spirit of goodwill. So, what's wrong with that?
The Dog Doc (2020) ****
Meet Dr. Marty Goldstein, an upstate New York pet doctor who specializes in integrative veterinarian medicine, which combines traditional methods with with holistic approaches to treatment including spinal manipulation, acupuncture, nutrition, physical therapy and rehabilitation, Pet lovers will have a hard time keeping a dry eye as they witness the good doctor tackle puzzling pet ailments — many of which might otherwise be considered hopeless.
Dolemite Is My Name **** (Theaters and Netflix)
Did you forget that Eddie Murphy is a comic genius? I know I did. It’s been over a decade since he made a straight-up comedy (the awful Norbit), and in the years since he’s muddled through a couple of lame family heartwarmers. But he’s struck gold in this screen bio of Rudy Ray Moore, who before he became the king of blacksploitation films in the 1970s released a super-successful series of comedy “party” albums, the contents of which made Redd Foxx sound like Mr. Rogers warm-up act. As Moore, Murphy is even more freewheelingly obscene, overwhelmingly scatological, and transcendingly crass than he was in his Rawdays. Yet as he traces Moore’s single-minded ambition to succeed — from strip clubs to Hollywood —Murphy exudes the subversive likability that endeared him to Saturday Night Live audiences 40 years ago. Murphy’s Moore is no scattershot comic; he’s an artist from the start, taping homeless black men in Los Angeles alleys and adapting not only their stories, but also their rhyming cadences and their gloriously vulgar word pictures and placing them in the mouth of a character he creates: an ostentatious, cane-wielding pimp named Dolomite. There are those who say Moore was the father of rap — and Snoop Dog, in a cameo role, more or less confirms it. “Why can’t you be like that nice young Bill Cosby fellow?” Moore’s worried aunt (Luenell) asks. “He’s so polite.” That’s the story of Rudy Ray Moore in a nutshell: It’s better to be authentic. And it’s a lesson Eddie Murphy seems to have learned, as well. (FULL REVIEW)
Don Jon (2013) ***
Writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt also stars in the story of Jon, a guy whose addiction to online porn is ruining his real-life relationships. The superb supporting cast, includes Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, and Glenne Headly. Unfortunately, the film seems a tad too comfortable wallowing in the sexual excesses of the Web.
Downton Abbey (2019) ****
Downton Abbey the movie is not so much an encore as a seamless continuation of Downton Abbey the TV series. Aside from the fact that this time around the screen is bigger and the popcorn tastes better, everything else seems exactly as it should be. Set barely a year after the series ended, Downton Abbey is a reunion in the best sense: Nearly two dozen characters, all of whom found varying levels of affection in the hearts of millions of devoted viewers worldwide, each get a welcome moment in the spotlight; some to say apparent goodbyes, others to leave tantalizing hints of yet another return as the clouds of the Second World War gather on the Hampshire horizon. (FULL REVIEW)
Dr. Sleep (2019) ****
Writer/diretor Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) has done the impossible: He's reconciled Stephen King's long-awaited sequel to The Shining with Stanley Kubrick's radically different vision of that first book. Little Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) is all grown up now, and he still shines with the best of them. But now he's trying to help a young girl with similar powers (Kyliegh Curran) who's on the run from a cult that collects — and kills — kids like her. The best news here: All roads lead back to the Overlook Hotel.
Dragged Across Concrete (2019) ****
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play a pair of down-on-their-luck cops who rationalize their way into making one illegal score, and they make an intriguing, dead-eyed couple. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler specializes in graphic, hyper-violent storylines — but he tempers our revulsion by creating complex, conflicted characters who speak with a lyrical, almost hypnotic sort of street poetry. Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, Dragged Across Concrete is positively operatic in its over-the-top set pieces. But it seldom seems to drag, thanks to intense, reflective performances by a fine cast. (FULL REVIEW)
As gentle and sweetly endearing a film as you will ever see, director Andrew Ahn’s tale of a lonely 8-year-old boy (Jack Caleb) who befriends the elderly Korean War vet next door (Brian Dennehy) is defiantly positive; a big wet kiss on the lips of a world that normalizes cynicism and celebrates conflict. We meet young Brandon as his single mom (Big Little Lies’ Hong Chau) is driving from their Wisconsin home to Upstate New York, where she must settle the affairs of her late sister. What they find is appalling: The sister was a pathological hoarder. It will take months to clean the place out and get it ready for sale. Observing the process from the porch next door is Del, an octogenarian widower who becomes pals with Brandon largely because he has little else to do. The seasoned filmgoer will start writing his own script as the setup unfolds: Of course Del will be a grumpy old racist who rails against these new Asians invading his neighborhood, especially after he spent his youth fighting them in the jungle. But we saw that movie (it was called Gran Torino, and it starred Clint Eastwood). It turns out Del is a gentle soul, and if he’s taken note of his young neighbor’s race, he doesn’t let on. He is immediately helpful, as are the rest of the neighbors. The local kids are a bit rambunctious, but not bad. Del’s daughter turns up to convince him to move to Seattle with her, but she’s not pushy about it. The fact is, without exception the characters in Driveways would certainly be able to drum up reasons to be unhappy, or bitter, or angry — but each and every one of them makes a conscious decision to resist the temptation. Not since Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has the company of genuinely good people, facing life with optimism and open hearts, seemed so compelling.
Duck Butter (2018) **
It's hard to imagine that a film about two young women (Laia Costa and Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) who vow to have sex with each other every hour for 24 hours would at least be interesting. But director/co-writer Miguel Arteta has managed the seemingly impossible: After a half-hour with this self-absorbed pair, we'd prefer twin vows of celibacy — and silence.
The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbo is as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick. First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes. Are we having fun yet? (FULL REVIEW)
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things ****
Aside from the fact that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t love Ella Fitzgerald, this joyous, adoring documentary is a long-overdue testament to an artist who revolutionized not only popular music, but the way white America interacted with musicians of color. Veteran director Leslie Woodhead — whose 50-year body of work has primarily focused on shadowy corners of history like the battle of Srebrenica and the JFK assassination — unleashes a tuneful torrent of clips, newsreels, and worshipful testimonies from the likes of Patti Austen, Smokey Robinson and Tony Bennett.
Elliot The Littlest Reindeer (2018) ***
The story of a miniature horse (voiced by Hunger Games hunk Josh Hutcherson) who wants to join Santa’s team of reindeer scatters its charms over a 90-minute run time that makes us yearn for the days of half-hour TV Christmas specials. The film boasts a stellar voice cast — including Samantha Bee, John Cleese and Martin Short — and that nearly makes up for its straight-to-video animation quality. (FUILL REV(EW)
Emma. (2020) ****
Do we really need another Jane Austen adaptation? Well, yes, yes we do. Director Autumn de Wilde has frothed up all the humor in the author's oft-told tale of a spoiled twenty-something (Anya Taylor-Joy) who specializes in complicating other people's lives — but she's also preserved the novel's underlying sense of romantic urgency. Taylor-Joy is irresistible, but the real treat is Bill Nighy as Emma's hypochondriac father.
Enough Said (2013) ****
We’ll never forget the late James Gandolfini as the conflicted mobster of The Sopranos, but in this romantic comedy he’s positively cuddly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman who discovers that the man of her dreams (Gandolfini) is the ex-hubby of her new close friend.
The Equalizer II (2018) ***
There's never a good reason NOT to go see Denzel Washington on the big screen, even when he's in this frenetic yet somehow tired action movie sequel. As before (and as in the vastly superior Edward Woodward TV series on which the films are loosely based), Washington plays a loose-cannon former government operative who, while living under the radar, goes about defending the innocent and powerless against the evil and powerful. The gunplay and explosions proliferate alarmingly, but Denzel, cool as ever, saves both the day and the film.
The Etruscan Smile (2020) ****
Scottish treasure Brian Cox (Churchill) brings a big, gruff heart to this family drama about a cantankerous old Scot who is dragged, kicking and screaming, from his remote island to San Francisco for medical treatment. There, he has to move in with his estranged son and his family.
Extra Ordinary (2020) ****
A richly dark horror comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead, this Irish import stars Maeve Higgins (The National Lampoon Radio Hour) as a psychic driving instructor whose daughter is the target of the Satanist next door (Will Forte).
Extraction (2020) ***
Wouldn't it be fun if Chris Hemsworth's new action movie, Extraction, were about a mild-mannered dentist who doubles as an international mercenary? Sorry — this by-the-numbers action flick isn't interested in anything remotely that subversive. Still, there's some guilty pleasure to be had here. Burt Reynolds' old pal, the late Hal Needham, proved that former stuntmen could take plotless material and turn it into action movie gold (Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run). Now first-time director Sam Hargrave, a stunt veteran of 80 films and TV shows, has taken up Hal's mantle with this utterly stupid, wildly unbelievable — and occasionally fun thriller. Hemsworth's mercenary, named Tyler Rake (!), is hired to rescue the young son of an Indian crime lord from the clutches of a rival gang. Turns out Rake is good at his job because he has a death wish born of a personal tragedy. Sort of like Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon — but no one is asking Hemsworth to deliver that kind of emotional punch. In fact, no one seems to be risking anything here other than a bruised rib or two.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, And Vile (2019) ****
Director Joe Berlinger already has a wall covered with Oscar and Emmy nominations for his outstanding documentary series Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper. Now in his first feature film — based on a book by Liz Kendall, the girlfriend of serial killer Ted Bundy — Berlinger proves to be a crack narrative director, as well. He’s aided by outstanding performances from a cast that's full of surprises. Former kid star Zac Efron (High School Musical) is an inspired choice to play Bundy, who used his boyish charms to lure at least 30 women to their deaths. Lily Collins, who played Snow White opposite Julia Roberts’ wicked queen a few years back, is all saucer-eyed and credulous as sweet, lovesick Liz. Berlinger, who plays a small role himself, sweetens the pot by offering familiar faces in pitch-perfect cameos. Watch for Haley Joel Osment, another former child star, as a truly decent co-worker who has a crush on Liz…Big Bang Theory superstar Jeff Parsons as the prosecuting attorney…and especially John Malkovich, with laser eyes and a perfectly modulated voice, as the judge. Malkovich gets the film's best lines and he makes the most of them, particularly when pronouncing sentence. That's when he gets to describe the essence of Bundy with words that serve as the film’s title: “Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile.”
Eye in The Sky (2016) ***
Helen Mirren stars as a military officer in charge of a controversial drone attack. Much chin stroking ensues as the brass try to decide whether or not to take out a target while a little girl sits outside.
The Fall Of The American Empire (2019) ***
With a title like The Fall of the American Empire, you’d expect Oscar-winning writer/director Denys Arcand’s drama to be sweeping in scope. Instead, it’s the finely focused tale of a meek deliveryman who stumbles upon millions of dollars following a botched robbery. Arcand, who’s Canadian, seems to wa nt to say a lot about the chasm between the rich and the poor, and about redistribution of wealth. But his message gets tangled in a loopy plot in which everyone seems to make all the wrong choices at all the wrong times.
The Family (2013) **
Neither comedy nor nail-biting action flick, this story of a mobster and his family relocated to France under the Witness Protection Program catches stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in the crossfire. Director Luc Besson seems to be going for something new: cruel whimsy. As the French would say, c’est tres terrible
The Family Fang (2016) ****
Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman (who also directs) are deeply affecting as a brother and sister scarred by their self-absorbed parents (Christopher Walken and Maryanne Plunkett) (FULL REVIEW)
Fanboy (2019) ****
In this surprisingly rich short film, director Gillian Greene (Murder of a Cat) fashions the madcap story of a South Carolina video store clerk (Fran Kranz) who heads to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. Like most TinselTown newcomers, he bangs his head against one wall after another — but Krans never lets down his amiable mask of boundless optimism. Plus, he gets to meet an all-star cameo cast including J.K. Simmons, David Paymer, Grimm's Reggie Lee, Grown-Ish's Emilly Arlook and director Sam Raimi.
Fantastic Fungi (2019) ****
Yes, it's a movie about mushrooms. And yes, the film's time-lapse images of mushrooms doing their fungi thing are as breathtaking as any CGI special effects Hollywood can muster. Director Louie Schwartzberg believes 'shrooms and their kindred fungi are the answer to most, if not nearly all, of humankind's ills both physical and mental. For 81 magical minutes, it's easy to believe him. Through engaging interviews with lots of very enthusiastic scientists and mycologists (fungus experts to you and me) and poetic narration from Brie Larson, Schwartzberg excavates the deepest secrets of the mushroom underground — most notably, the existence of a mind-blowing Internet-like network of fungi tendrils that connect virtually every plant of a forest.
A Fantastic Woman (2017) ***
In this closely observed tale of a Chilean transgender woman, Daniela Vega plays Marina, a waitress who finds herself on the outside looking in when her live-in lover (Franisco Reyes), dies suddenly. Director/co-writer Sebastian Lelio seems a bit too quick to demonize those who find themselves confused by Marina. It all adds up to a d distressingly dark vision of a world that may simply need to take a deep breath of two before extending a wholehearted embrace.(FULL REVIEW)
Farewell Amor (2020) ****
Walter, a mild-mannered New York cab driver, has driven to JFK airport countless times, but today is different: Today he is picking up his wife and daughter, neither of whom he has laid eyes on in 17 years since he left them in Angola to lay the groundwork for a new life in the United States. In her breathtakingly human drama, writer/director Ekwa Msangi gives the film’s father/husband (The Chi’s Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), mother/wife (Zainab Jah) and daughter (Jayme Lawson) equal time as we experience not only the family’s experiences getting used to their new country — and each other — but also how they internally perceive their behavior, which is often quite different from what others see. The cast is flawless, playing together in sublimely human three-part harmony, unafraid to hit powerfully discordant notes.
Fatima (2020) ***
Italian director Marco Pontecorvo frames his telling of the 1917 miracles of Fatima — a series of reported appearances of the Virgin Mary to three peasant children — with the oldest child, now an elderly nun (a stoic Sônia Braga), being questioned by a skeptical author (Harvey Keitel, in excellently grumpy form). He’s hard-nosed; she’s stubbornly devout — and that encapsulates the filmmaker’s tricky tightrope walk between the worldly and the divine. Primarily an accomplished cinematographer (he shot John Turturro’s streetwise Fading Gigolo and 2010’s picturesque Letters to Juliet), Pontecorvo brings an artist’s eye to the story, effectively recreating a Portugal torn from centuries of isolation by a world war, frantically seizing on the possibility of Heavenly intervention via the visions of a trio of children. Faith and history travel on parallel paths, the film tells us, and occasionally bend to meet with galvanizing consequences.
The Favourite (2018) ***
With eyes the size of pheasant eggs, Emma Stone mesmerizes in this 18th Century costume drama as a fallen aristocrat who insinuates herself into the life of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). Her ascent in the court is cause for alarm for the Queen’s current favored lady (Rachel Weisz), who declares the upstart will succeed over her dead body — a threat that comes perilously close to fruition. History tells us the two women parried for the Queen’s political favor; the film also insists the pair also jockeyed for prime access to Anne’s bed. As my friend and critic Arch Campbell says, history is always more fun when everybody sleeps together. (FULL REVIEW)
Fences (2016) ****
With costar Viola Davis, director Denzel Washington paints a painful family portrait. Based on August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play (FULL REVIEW)
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (2019) ****
Fiddler on the Roof has been performed somewhere on the planet every single day since it opened on September 22, 1964. As if to prove that claim, director Max Lewkowicz travels the world to film casts belting out Fiddler standards like “Tradition” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” Best of all, he sits down with octogenarian Israeli star Topol, who played Tevye in the 1971 film. Lewkowicz also interviews Broadway legend Joel Grey, who directed the all-Yiddish version of Fiddler now selling out in New York.
Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (2017) ****
Annette Bening is poignant and profound as 1950s movie sexpot Gloria Grahame, years removed from her glory days and scraping out a living in small-city stage plays. She flies into an irresponsible romance with a young man (Jamie Bell), but the match turns out to be just what each of them needs. Greene, an Oscar winner who is all but forgotten today, could get no higher compliment than to be played with such tender reflection by one of the screen's most versatile artists. (FULL REVIEW)
Final Portrait (2018) ***
Stanley Tucci, who wrote the script, directs Geoffrey Rush as the painter Alberto Giacometti and Armie Hammer as the art critic James Lord. Giacometti convinces Lord to sit for a portrait in his Paris studio, but an afternoon posing stretches into weeks, and it seems the artist will never finish. Final Portrait is at times an intriguing glimpse at the mind of a genius, and Tucci’s cast is perfect. But the story rambles, no one seems to learn anything, and at the end we’re left with a movie much like one of Giacometti’s portraits: The semblance of life set surrounded by hollow darkness. (FULL REVIEW)
The Finest Hours (2016) ***
Chris Pine and Casey Affleck save everybody in this true tale of a high seas rescue off Cape Cod (FULL REVIEW)
First Cow (2020) ***
No, it’s not a political satire about a bovine moving into the White House—director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) has created a shambling, leisurely paced buddy movie about two outsiders in 1820s Oregon (John Magoro and Orion Lee) trying to balance good old-fashioned free enterprise with a touch of larceny. The pair have the unlikely dream of becoming bakers in the American West, but their success depends on a daily supply of milk stolen from the only cow in the territory, owned by a British businessman (Toby Joes). It’s the slightest of storylines, yet Reichardt, her frequent co-writer Jonathan Raymond and her able cast weave a tale of intrigue, peril, humor, and, most importantly, friendship.
First Man (2018) ****
Neil Armstrong’s journey to the Moon began as a test pilot in the California desert — and on that score you could also call Damien Chazelle’s new film The Right Stuff, Part 2. But while that big-screen version of Tom Wolfe’s book took a broad view of the Mercury program’s early days — and the lives of all seven original U.S. Astronauts — First Man focuses on Armstrong, a painfully shy and obsessively private family man who remained haunted by the death of his young daughter from brain cancer. Ryan Gosling captures the contradictions of Armstrong, cautious and quiet in his private life; driven to the point of recklessness by his professional ambition. (FULL REVIEW)
First Reformed (2018) *****
The power of restrained filmmaking is in full force in writer/director Paul Schrader’s quietly compelling story of the minister at a small Upstate New York church (Ethan Hawke) facing a Job-like series of crises involving his faith, his health, and his relationships. He’s approached by a sad-eyed, pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband (Philip Ettenger) wants her to have an abortion rather than raise their child in an ecologically doomed world. The pastor makes a house call, and for a full 10 minutes the two men engage in a discussion that brilliantly links the ethereal with the earthly, the divine with the decrepit. It’s just one wondrous scene in a film that offers thoughtful surprises — some shocking, others sublime — from the first frame to the last. The superb supporting cast includes Cedric Kyles (better known to you as Cedric the Entertainer) as a megachurch pastor trying to figure the angles between serving God and mammon. The characters struggle not so much with the existence of God, but with their understanding of God’s nature, and His relationship with his creation. Schrader — whose Hall of Fame writing credits include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — has a keen ear for the hard questions believers ask when chirpy reassurances of God’s love and compassion start to ring a little hollow.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) ****
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant make sweet music in the true story of a talentless New York songstress (FULL REVIEW)
The Florida Project (2017) *
Like his breakthrough film, Tangerine, Sean Baker's story of a precocious preteen girl (Brooklynn Prince) roaming the streets of Orlando with her fellow street urchins is an ordeal in self-absorbed dysfunction. Baker seems to expect us to embrace this borderline delinquent and empathize with her essentially sociopathic mom because, well, they're poor. Sorry, but Jean Valjean Mom is not (and while I wouldn't wish the fate of Eponine upon the film's young heroine, she could perhaps benefit from a night or two on the barricades).
For Love of Ivy (1968) **
Not Sidney Poitier's finest moment, but this light romantic comedy about a bachelor gambler (Poitier) who is coerced into romancing a sweet housekeeper (Jazz great Abby Lincoln) offers a glimpse of Hollywood as it struggled to find ways to feature Black stars in mainstream films. Costarring a young Beau Bridges and a pre-All In The Family Carroll O'Connor.
Ford v Ferrari ****
If you opened the hood of the Fast and Furious movies and dropped in a brain, you might come up with something like Ford v Ferrari, a film with all the screeching tires and howling engines of that simpleminded street racing series, but with engaging characters and a refreshing dose of history set in a universe that is, unlike the F&F franchise, observant of the actual laws of physics. It’s 1966, and Italian car maker Enzo Ferrari has just humiliated the mighty Ford Motor Company: He led Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to think he’d be willing to sell his boutique nameplate to Ford, then abruptly pulled the rug out. Ford determines the best way to repay Ferrari’s insult is to humiliate him on the racetrack — specifically the 24 Hours of LeMans, of which Ferrari is the undisputed king. He hires America’s greatest race car driver and designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to whip up a car that will outpace Ferrari’s lineup at LeMans, less than four months away. Shelby asks just one thing: That he get to hire his own driver, a roughneck, ragged-edged fellow named Ken Miles (Christian Bale), known as much for his hot temper and habitual insubordination as for his mastery of the race driving arts. The film’s best scenes come when Damon and Bale let the chemistry of their characters jell together, opposite personalities filling in each other’s blanks to create an irresistibly appealing pair. The guys love and fight like brothers — especially in a particularly delicious scene outside the driver’s house, beating each other up with such affectionate frenzy Miles’ wife can only pull up a lawn chair and enjoy the WWF-like spectacle. (FULL REVIEW)
The Foreigner (2017) ***
Jackie Chan brings surprising empathy (and his usual kickass acrobatics) to the role of a businessman seeking revenge for the death of his daughter in a terrorist attack.
The Founder (2017) ****
Michael Keaton’s version of McDonald’s burger king comes with a side of greed (FULL REVIEW)
For the Birds (2019) ****
Richard Miron spent years filming the twisting, tortured story of Kathy Murphy, a woman who could never have enough ducks, chickens, roosters, and turkeys squawking around. When we meet Kathy and her long-suffering husband Gary, their Upstate New York trailer home has become a glorified coop for some 200 flapping, fighting, defecating fowl. “You have to have something that you believe in,” she explains, sitting in the trailer — the smell of which we can only, thankfully, imagine. “Something that gets you up in the morning.” Soon some very nice people from a animal control and a local animal preserve arrive. Miron follows the ensuing legal tussle, casting a sympathetic eye on one and all — especially Kathy’s husband. Eventually Kathy comes to terms not only with the prospect of losing her beloved birds, but also the support of the man she married. In time, the couple’s unfolding personal tragedy begins to eclipse the avian apocalypse that precipitated it.
Foxtrot (2018) ****
From Israel comes the quirky, funny and tragic story of a couple (Lior Askenazi and Sarah Adler) who get the worst possible news about their soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) — but then find out it was all a horrible mixup. It turns out Jonathan is alive but not necessarily well as he toughs it out at a remote and decrepit border checkpoint. (FULL REVIEW)
Framing John DeLorean (2019) ***
The two directors and two writers who concocted this hybrid documentary/drama about the notorious 1980s auto hustler John DeLorean deserve marks for trying something different. On one hand they piece together DeLorean’s story through plentiful clips and compelling interviews with coworkers, friends and family. On the other, they dramatize the most pivotal moments, with Alec Baldwin playing DeLorean and Gotham’s Morena Baccarin as his third wife, supermodel Cristina Ferrare. So far so good, but there’s a third hand at play here: Much time is spent with Baldwin, getting in and out of makeup and standing around the set, holding forth on his views about DeLorean (although they never met) and how he makes his decisions on how to play him. That’s one hand too many, and the film gets pretty muddied as it flits among the three elements. One other needless distraction: The talking heads spend much time lamenting the fact that no one has yet made a feature film about John DeLorean, which is demonstrably wrong: Driven, with Lee Pace nailing the part, opened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.
Frankenstein 1970 (1958) ***
The title was supposed to infuse audiences with expectations of a monster-y future, but director Howard W. Koch (who would go on to produce most of Neil Simon's movies) offers a decidedly nostalgic take on the Frankenstein legend. A film crew travels to the castle of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Boris Karloff, old, stooped, and spectacular) to film a documentary about his brilliantly insane ancestor — an ends up providing spare parts for a new monster. Karloff could chew scenery like no other, and here he has the backdrop for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late-night snack.
Frankie (2019) ***
French treasure Isabelle Huppert and an appealing cast — including Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear — amble across the Portuguese countryside and do a lot of talking in this family drama from co-writer/director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Little Men). Despite everyone's best efforts, though, Frankie is all talk and little heart. Huppert plays an international movie star who, facing a serious health crisis, has summoned her family to a seaside resort for a weekend of revelations and repercussions. That results in lots of fervid pulled-by-the-elbow conversations as the large cast pairs off in various combinations. Just as I've never been a fan of rock songs about how much it sucks to be a rock star (I'm looking at you, Axl "Get In the Ring" Rose), I've never cared for movies about the trials of being a movie star (Sunset Boulevard excepted). I mean, if it's that tough, I hear they're hiring over at Pier One Imports. Frankie is populated with privileged characters who, surrounded by some of the planet's most lovely scenery, trudge along baring their souls in ways they clearly never did before the camera started rolling. The net effect is something of a Woody Allen film without the laughs, or insight. Ordinarily, Sachs is a screenwriter with an almost magical knack for providing everyday characters with dialogue that seems to come directly from their souls. It's an unhappy experience to see him fritter those talents on this chi-chi group. In Frankie, whatever authentic sentiments Sachs provides go swirling into a black hole of self-absorbtion.
Free Solo (2018) ****
Even after spending an hour and a half with daredevil cliff climber Alex Honnold, you won’t understand him. And perhaps that’s the whole point of this spellbinding documentary, which follows Honnold as he tries to become first-ever person to scale Yosemite’s 3000-foot-plus El Capitan without ropes. We get some clues: A perfectionist mother, an emotionally distant dad — even the results of an EKG which show his brain doesn’t register nervous excitement the way most people’s do. But then we see him dangling by chalked fingertips a half-mile up a wall of sheer rock, and it all becomes quite simple: Man versus the law of gravity isn’t really a fair fight. As we nervously search our memory banks to recall whether or not we heard about this guy dying in this attempt, and as the National Geographic Films cameras tip forward to reveal the abyss below, we’re tempted to follow the example of Honnold’s sweet and impossibly understanding girlfriend: Close our eyes and hope for the best.
Free State of Jones (2016) ***
Matthew McConaughey rages against the Confederate machine, leading slaves in a bloody revolt (FULL REVIEW)
The Front Runner (2018) ****
Australian Wolverine star Hugh Jackman is a revelation as Gary Hart, the sure-shot 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee whose self-destructive behavior rendered him a political footnote. A philanderer of the first magnitude, the randy politician famously dared reporters asking about his womanizing to follow him around — and was utterly destroyed when they took him up on the challenge. Jackman disappears into the meaty role, fuming with self-righteous anger when the press and public seem to prefer invading his privacy over listening to his policies. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t really explore Hart’s inner life — why he did what he did and how he rationalized it — and even an actor of Jackman’s talent can’t conjure up sympathy for a enigma. Still, The Front Runner is a poignant and at times thrilling account of the historic moment when the tide turned against politicians who thought their private lives were nobody’s business but their own.