Movie Review Archive F-J

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Movie Reviews For People Who've Lived A Little

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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 want 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  (FULL REVIEW)


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. For 81 magical minutes, it's easy to believe him.


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)


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 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. 


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.


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. 



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Game Night (2018) ****

Clever, playfully convoluted and featuring an endlessly appealing cast, it’s hard to imagine a movie being more fun. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a married couple who get together with friends every week for game night. Then then one week his jet-setting brother comes to town and sponsors an epic game night that may or may not involve an actual murder mystery. Writer Mark Perez mines the best elements of films like Date Night, After Hours, and David Fincher’s little-seen 1997 thriller The Game, starring Michael Douglas. But mostly, co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein let their stars roll the dice, scampering from scene to scene with frantic enthusiasm. 


Gaslight (1944) *****
In the past couple weeks alone, I've heard two people use the term "gaslight" —  in this case referring to some politician they believed was was trying to make people doubt their grasp on reality by insisting that something demonstrably true was actually false. This 1944 Hollywood classic (along with a 1940 British version) is the genesis of that term — a chilling portrait of an evil husband (Charles Boyer, snake-like yet charming) trying to drive his wealthy wife (tragically vulnerable Ingrid Bergman) stark raving mad. Look for 19-year-old Angela Lansbury, who earned her first Oscar nomination as a bad girl maid.
 

Geostorm (2017) **
Killer satellites are wreaking havoc on our weather! Thousand-foot-high tsunamis! Airliners freezing solid! Tornadoes by the dozen! Only Gerard Butler can save us! So many exclamation marks!


Get On Up (2015) *****
Chadwick Boseman explodes across the screen as James Brown (FULL REVIEW)


Get Out (2017) *****

A black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) visit the remote home of her creepy parents Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) in this whip-smart horror film that’s also an unsettling meditation on race. 


Getaway (2013) ***
Not to be confused with Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 shoot-em-up starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, this action flick has Ethan Hawke as a retired race car driver who steals a sweet Shelby Cobra Mustang (along with its owner, played by Selena Gomez) in the course of trying to save his wife from a cruel criminal, played by the always-interesting Jon Voight.


A Ghost Story (2017) ***
Casey Affleck spends much of the movie under a white sheet, playing a silent specter watching his widow (Rooney Mara) slowly get over her loss. Frustratingly slow, but nevertheless haunting in memory (FULL REVIEW)


The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) ***

After years of domestic sex comedies (and it’s hard to believe that label was ever attached to those now family-friendly farces), Doris Day offered a nod to the spy movie craze with this often-engaging outing. Doris is the daughter of a Catalina Island tour boat captain (Arthur Godfrey, who, dear children, was once one of the most famous men on the planet), often donning a mermaid suit to entertain dad’s customers. She meets “cute” with a handsome visitor (Rod Taylor), and soon becomes involved in an unlikely case of international intrigue. Today the chief joy of The Glass Bottom Boat comes from basking in the sheer star power of Day, who ingeniously balanced girl-next-door perkiness with an almost subliminal sexy streak. The cast is a gallery of familiar ‘60s faces, including Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, Dick Martin, Alice Pearce and, in an amusing cameo, Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn. Directed by Frank Tashlin, drawing heavily on his long experience as a director of Warner Bros. cartoons.


Gloria Bell (2018) ***** 

Julianne Moore gives a heart-stopping performance in this seamless Americanization of the landmark 2013 Chilean film,Gloria. Writer/director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), who created the original, follows lonely Gloria as she looks for love, or at least some level of connection, in a sterile Los Angeles. 

Every supporting player is first-rate, especially John Turturro as Gloria's hapless new boyfriend, Holland Taylor as her mom, Rita Wilson as her best pal, Brad Garrett as Gloria’s put-upon ex-hubby — and Sean Astin in a wordless cameo as a Vegas high roller. Most memorable is the sight and sound of Gloria, driving toward the sunset on Wilshire Boulevard, singing her little heart out to the radio, self-medicating with 80s oldies.   (FULL REVIEW)


Going in Style (2017) ****
Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret are all the reason you need to see this caper flick about three old guys who decide to rob the bank that liquidated their pensions.(FULL REVIEW


Gold (2017) ** 

Matthew McConaughey fattens up to play a portly gold prospector in this true story of greed and boardroom intrigue, but the film doesn't pan out (FULL REVIEW)


The Goldfinch (2019)****

As he did in his previous film, Brooklyn, director John Crowley has made a very quiet film about explosive emotions. In this case Crowley also throws in a literal explosion, — a terrorist attack at a Manhattan museum — although he manages to depict even that catastrophe in his trademark muted manner. It is this thoughtful restraint that makes The Goldfinch as much a work of art as the painting at its center.


The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966) ****
The Blu-ray edition of this, the apex of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Old West cycle, etches Leone's searing vision on your TV screen. Turn up the volume for Ennio Morricone's throbbing theme music.


Good Time (2017) ****

DIrectors Benny and Josh Safdie are accomplished documentary makers, and it shows in this gritty, head-spinning fictional film. Robert Pattinson inhabits the role of a small-time crook desperately trying to break his mentally disabled brother (played by co-director Benny) from police custody after a bank robbery goes wrong. The frantic story unfolds over a single night—and by the time it's all over, we share the characters' anguish and exhaustion. Spoiler alert: The title is ironic. 


Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) ***
I'm pretty sure the Kleenex company is a secret investor in this gauzily sentimental account of how struggling young writer A.A. Milne came to write his beloved Winnie the Pooh books for his young son, Christopher Robin. Domhnall Gleeson is affecting as the mild-mannered author, haunted by the horrors of World War I yet determined to connect with his boy. When fame comes, father and son must deal with the darker elements of fame. 


Grandma (2015) ***
A convoluted tale benefits from Lily Tomlin's crowning performance as a tough-love grandma and Sam Elliott as her still-loving ex (FULL REVIEW)


Gravity (2013) ***
Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are fine and the film’s visual re-creation of a space voyage is breathtaking (especially in 3-D), but cowriter/director Alfonso Cuaron should have launched with a decent script.  


Grease (1978) ****
Olivia Newton John and John Travolta are way too old to be playing high schoolers, but this high-flying big screen version of the Broadway musical became an all-time box office champ on the strength of its energetic cast, breezy score, and boundless sense of goodwill. 


The Great Wall  (2017)**
Get a taste of Matt Damon's tale of a European mercenary helping defend China's Great Wall and an hour later you'll still be hungry for a better movie


Green Book  (2018) *****  

An unbridled delight, this fact-based buddy flick teams Moonlight costar Mahershala Ali as “Doc” Shirley, a distinguished 1960s African American concert pianist, with plumped-up Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, a Brooklyn bouncer hired as his driver. Actually, Doc’s record label wants Tony to do more than just drive: He also doubles as Doc’s bodyguard as they motor through a perilous 1962 Deep South performance tour. After a comically rough start, Doc and Tony — known as Tony Lip — hit it off. Doc shatters Tony’s racist presuppositions about black people…and Tony, ironically, exposes Doc to the marvels of popular black music, including Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. On the road, both learn a lot about the ugly side of humanity as Doc is hit with one indignity after another: Offstage he’s treated like a pariah even by the posh society figures who’ve just given him standing ovations, and the film’s title comes from a motorist’s guide to “Negro Only” motels and restaurants in the South. Through it all, the stars draw us into their characters’ growing alliance as they realize the curses of a cruel world can be repelled with the grace of one true friend. 

  

Greta (2018) ****

Writer/director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) plays his audience like a fiddle with this old-fashioned, twisty thriller with plenty of jumps, scares, and a supremely satisfying wrap-up. Isabelle Huppert is galvanizing as a seemingly sweet “old lady” (and it’s got to be the first time anyone has ever called her that), who becomes obsessed with a young Manhattan woman (Chloe Grace Moretz). (FULL REVIEW)


The Grinch (2018) ***

Dr. Seuss told us how the Grinch stole Christmas in 69 pages. Animator Chuck Jones did it (indelibly) in 30 minutes. Now here comes the second big-screen version of the good doctor's Yuletide yarn, weighing in at a trim 90 minutes, yet despite its translation into 3-D animation, so much flatter than the pen-and-ink originals. Much labor is spent explaining how the Grinch got so Grinchy, and the Grinch himself, despite no visible means of support, seems to have an awful lot of fancy gadgets hanging around. The nasal voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch tends more toward Maxwell Smart than Boris Karloff and the Whos of Whoville — who this time around are stripped of the fanciful qualities Dr. Seuss bestowed upon them — are dismayingly bland. Here's my Christmas tip for parents planning to take their kids: Sit with them through the TV original, then use that extra hour to go outside and build a snowman together.  

  
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) ***
The Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is back with another classic music mix tape. Things blow up; wisecracks ensue.



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Hacksaw Ridge (2016) ****
The brutal truth about heroism haunts Mel Gibson’s war drama, based on the true story of World War II Army medic Desmond Doss (FULL REVIEW)


Hail Caesar (2016) ****
In this love letter to old Hollywood, George Clooney and the Coen brothers explore the stories we tell ourselves (FULL REVIEW)


Hands of Stone (2016) ***
Robert De Niro nearly saves the day as compassionate boxing trainer Ray Arcel (FULL REVIEW)


The Happytime Murders **  
You'll laugh out loud at times during this gross, sleazy, oversexed movie about murderous puppets, but you won't feel good about it. Melissa McCarthy provides the human element, playing an LA cop reluctantly teamed up with her former partner — the first puppet ever on the force — to find out who's killing members of the puppet community in the most grotesque ways imaginable. McCarthy always makes her material better than it is, and here she's clearly biding her time until the release of her Oscar-worthy Can You Ever Forgive Me?  In this case, Melissa, no. No we can't. 


Heaven is for Real (2014) ****
Greg Kinnear lifts the story of a Dad facing a spiritual crisis (FULL REVIEW)


Hello, My Name is Doris (2016) ****
Sally Field proves her adorable quotient has diminished not one whit in this thoughtful comedy about a spinster with an impossible office crush (FULL REVIEW)


Her (2013) ****
What happens if you love your technology just a tad too much? Joaquin Phoenix finds out when he falls hard for the seductive female voice (Scarlett Johansson) in his computer operating system. Writer/director Spike Jonze creates a compelling portrait of a near future when people would rather interact with their machines than each other.


The Hero (2017) ***
Sam Elliott is the best thing—and a very good thing indeed—in the story of a one-time Western movie star who must come to terms with a lifetime of bad decisions.


The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017) ***
For this action/buddy flick about a security expert (Ryan Reynolds) escorting a notorious hitman (Samuel L. Jackson) across Europe while dodging assassins at every turn, director Patrick Hughes seems to have stood his stars in front of the camera and simply said, "Guys, just be yourselves!" Freed of the requirement to actually act, the pair engage in foul-mouthed banter and trigger-happy mayhem, all leading up to a supernova climax.  


Hostiles (2017) ***
Writer/director Scott Cooper's sweeping Western saga is more of a meditation than an action movie. A battle-scarred cavalry officer (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort his sworn enemy, a defeated and dying Indian chief (Wes Studi) on a treacherous trip from New Mexico to the chief's Montana homeland. Between occasional attacks by Indians and White Men, the soldiers and their charges spend lots of time reflecting on the horrors they've visited upon each other. Adding to the pensive mood is the presence of a frontier woman (Rosamund Pike) who has lost everything to the brutal realities of the West. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's breathtaking landscape provides stark contrast to the dark souls trudging across its face.(FULL REVIEW)


The House of Tomorrow  (2018) ****
Ellen Burstyn stars as a former acolyte of architect/philosopher Buckminster Fuller — raising her grandson (Asa Buttrtfield) in a dome home while desperately trying to shield him from the corrupting outside world. But she doesn't figure on his unlikely friendship with a teen punk rocker (Alex Wolf). (FULL REVIEW)


How To Talk to Girls At Parties (2017) ****

Director and co-writer John Cameron Mitchell’s supremely imaginative tale of three teenaged punk rock pals encountering a colony of space aliens in 1977 Croydon, England, surprises and delights at every turn. His appealing cast is headed by Alex Sharp (evoking a young Hugh Grant) and Elle Fanning, whose doe-eyed luminescence draws even the most skeptical viewer into the film’s improbable yet engrossing story.  


The Hummingbird Project  (2019) ***   

 You can choose to watch this techno thriller in one of two ways. On one hand you can marvel at the technical and logistical challenge of digging a perfectly straight trench between Kansas and New York City, laying a fiber optic cable in it, and then hooking it up to a computerized stock-buying program that enables traders to stay a millisecond ahead of their competition. Or you can just sit back and enjoy watching Jesse Eisenberg do his insecure genius thing, stuttering and stammering as his character battles impossible odds and a manic ex-boss (Salma Hyek) to complete the project before his impatient creditors slam the door on the project. I prefer the latter: Eisenberg is always fun to watch, Hyek chews the scenery with gusto, and writer/director Kim Nguyen helps us not to feel too dumb. 


Humor Me  (2017)  ***
Elliot Gould and Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) star in this appealing comedy about a struggling younng playwright who moves in with his dad at a retirement home. 



I


I Called Him Morgan (2017) ****

In this music-infused documentary about Jazz legend Lee Morgan,  Kasper Collin pieces together archival footage and a rare 1996 interview with his widow Helen. Spoiler alert: Helen shot  her husband dead during a 1972 NYC nightclub gig.  


I Think We're Alone Now (2018) ****
Peter Dinklage continues to prove himself an actor who elevates the level of everything he touches in this sci-fi drama that casts him as the apparent last man on earth. A loner at heart, he settles into a contented solitary existence — which is shattered by the arrival of a woman (Elle Fanning). Complications and revelations ensue, and while director Reed Morano (The Skeleton Twins) never lets things get out of hand, the script by Mike Makowsky stumbles into a third act that seems like it's out of another movie. 


I, Tonya (2017) ****
Margot Robbie brings complex layers to the Olympic skater we thought we knew, and Allison Janney is uncannily creepy as her domineering mom. The 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Olympic spectacle is a fading memory for most of us, but director Craig Gillespie (Lars And the Real Girl) makes their rivalry — and its violent climax — seethe with urgency. Tonya emerges as a rough-edged but sympathetic figure, relentlessly pushed by her mother; cruelly rejected by a sport that bitterly resents her humble roots. 


Ice On Fire (2019) ****

The title of this thought-provoking climate change documentary comes from a truly bizarre scene in which researchers punch holes in the ice on an Arctic lake, strike a match — and jump back as five-foot-high jets of flame shoot into the air. It's methane gas, released from the lake floor as the Arctic's permafrost thaws. But after an hour or so of the usual gloom-and-doom about the environment, director Leila Connors does something unexpected: She presents us with a checklist of ways the climate can be saved — and, indeed, how scientists and industry are right now pushing back against rising temperatures. Leonardo DiCaprio provides the heartfelt narration.


Ideal Home (2018) ***
He's cashing bigtime pay checks playing Ant Man, but thank goodness Paul Rudd still knows how to apply his easy charms in lovely small films like this one, an Odd Couple for our time. Rudd and Coogan play Paul and Erasmus, a sadly mismatched, constantly bickering, but hopelessly in love couple, living a self-indulgent lifestyle in Santa Fe New Mexico. Erasmus is a basic cable TV star, something of a gay Martha Stewart, and Rudd is his ever-exasperated producer. Into their glittery universe drops Coogan’s grandson, whose ne'er do well dad has just landed in prison. Ideal Home has all the expected Hollywood messages regarding the true meaning of family, but the two stars bring so much goodwill to their characters it's easy to forgive the film's predictable trajectory.    


If Beale Street Could Talk  (2018) *****
By all rights, the story of a passionately devoted Harlem couple torn apart by racism and hatred should leave its audience stupefied with despair. But in his triumphant screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1973 novel, visionary writer/director Barry Jenkins harnesses Baldwin’s ear for the poetry of everyday life to create a film that miraculously manages to be an affirmation of the human spirit.   (FULL REVIEW)


In The Heart of the Sea (2015) *** 

Ron Howard's version of the true story behind Moby Dick starts out splendidly, then takes on water (FULL REVIEW)


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017) **

Sounding the alarm over global warming In his Oscar-winning 2006 documentary, Al Gore almost came off as one of us. This time, though, he steps off his private jet in tongue-lashing mode, a god descending from on high to browbeat us into doing the right thing. Please. We've got enough people yelling at us. 


The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) **
Lily Tomlin would probably prefer to be remembered for classics like 9 to 5or late-career triumphs like Grandma. But as far as we know, this sci-fi comedy marks the only big-screen appearance of her characters Edith Ann and Ernestine. 


Indivisible  (2018) ***   
Three appealing stars from TV's Gray's Anatomy — Justin Bruening, Sarah Drew and Jason George — lend fine performances to this based-on-fact story of an inexperienced  U.S. Army chaplain (Bruening) thrown into the bloody maw of 2007 Iraq. At first the chaplain and his wife (Drew) view the assignment as something of an adventure, confident their faith and love will make the whole experience more interesting than perilous. But war is Hell (or Heck, as this sweet-natured couple might say), and soon he's pulling dead children from bombed-out cars and she's paying tortured visits to women who've just lost a husband on the battlefield. His return doesn't bring much respite, as PTSD turns him into a sullen loner prone to temperamental outbursts. Ironically, the chaplain finds his way only when a member of his unit (George), who had resisted spiritual guidance while at war, reminds the reverend of his own war zone sermonizing. Unusually for a faith-based film, Indivisible explores the dark relationship between faith and doubt — and raises the stark possibility that faith without doubt is, perhaps, no kind of faith at all. 


Inferno (2016) ***
Tom Hanks in the best of the three (so far) Dan Brown book adaptations (FULL REVIEW)


The Infiltrator (2016) **** 

Bryan Cranston stars as a family man going undercover with a Colombian drug lord (FULL REVIEW)

Ingrid Goes West (2017) ***
Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) salvages this offbeat comedy about a young woman who thinks social media "friends" are actually friends and "likes"  represent real sentiments. An outlook like that will inevitably lead to a nervous breakdown, and so it does for Ingrid. But the film asks a legitimate question: How far off are most social media junkies from similarly unraveling?


Inherit The Wind (1962)  ****

Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly bring megastar wattage to a drama based on the famed Scopes Monkey Trial. Stanley Kramer's version of the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee seems stubbornly stage-bound, and the script definitely stacks the deck in Spence's favor, but the performances are uniformly gripping.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) ****
Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s most balanced movie ever is a fond look at the early 1960s Greenwich Villlage folk music scene-a moment or two before Bob Dylan turned up and changed everything with his blend of folk and rock. Oscar Isaac is irresistibly mopey as the title character, a struggling folkie for whom suffering is an end to itself. But the real treat comes about halfway through, when Llewlyn hitches a ride to Chicago with a blustery, bloated blues musician played with great aplomb by John Goodman.  


The Insult (2017) ****
This powerful Lebanese film about an escalating conflict between a Christian (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian immigrant (Kamel El Basha) explores the dark eccentricities of human prejudice — and the ever-so-slight hope that we can overcome them. 


Isle of Dogs (2018) ****
Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-action animation lacks the bite of his first (Fantastic Mr. Fox), but he fills his screen with meticulously designed sets and set pieces. It's the kind of film you'll want to see a second time, just to make sure you didn't miss anything first time around (and believe me, you did!). 


It (2017) ***
Those who suffer from coulrophobia would best avoid this big-screen adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel, about  a group of young friends decide to track down a supernatural killer clown. 



J

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) *** 

Tom Cruise is in top form as Lee Child’s two-fisted hero (FULL REVIEW)


Jackie (2016) ****
Natalie Portman embodies the shock and sadness of November 22, 1963  (FULL REVIEW)


Jayne Mansfield’s Car (2012) ***
Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and costars in this quiet, shambling story about two families – one from London, another from Alabama – colliding in the South of 1969. Thornton gives himself a meaty role as a disturbed World War II vet, and the rest of the cast, including Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, and Tippi Hedren add extra ingredients to create a tasty family stew.


Jobs (2013) ***
Ashton Kutcher has some genuine moments as Steve Jobs, but this biopic never seems to get the core of Apple’s founder. 


Johnny English Strikes Again  (2018) **

There's a moment in Rowan Atkinson's third go-round as the bumbling British secret agent Johnny English when his vintage sports car sputters to a stop, out of gas. A scene like that just begs for some snarky film critic to say the scene is emblematic of how the series is running on fumes, or how there's no way to get any more mileage out of a character who is simply Mr. Bean with a gun, or how Triple-A should tow this clunker to a scrap yard. But that would be cruel. 


Joker (2019) *** 

Director Todd Phillips’ stylish genesis story for the most iconic villain in the Batman canon is at times extraordinarily tactile. And at its center is a monumental film performance: Joaquin Phoenix attacks the role with what amounts to a two-hour silent primal scream.  

And yet, Joker is a hollow Fabergé egg of a film, crafted with over-the-top artistry on the outside, empty of meaningful context beneath its brittle shell. The story arc of the character Joker— a troubled man who sinks into the depths of violent insanity — is fatally incomplete. It’s not really an arc at all; just a super slide that disappears into inconsequential darkness. It all reminds me of a Goth teenager: He dresses in black, circles his eyes with mascara and mopes around in his room, all the time with no idea what he’s so depressed about. (FULL REVIEW)


The Journey (2017)  **** 

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney are commanding as two Northern Ireland politicians trying to broker a peace pact—but who must first come to terms with each other (FULL REVIEW) 


Joy (2015) ***

The Silver Linings Playbook cast reunited in a quirky family drama (FULL REVIEW)


Judy (2019) ****  

On its lavishly produced and lovingly envisioned surface, Judy is about the last months of Judy Garland’s life — specifically her triumphant yet troubled series be selling out the Palace Theatre for 27 nights. But make no mistake: Judy is emphatically a movie about Renée Zellweger playing Judy Garland, reclaiming the mantle of “serious actor” that marked Zellweger for greatness nearly two decades ago, when in three consecutive years she was nominated for three Oscars and won one. To which I can only add: Mission Accomplished. Zellweger mesmerizes as the singer, capturing that doe-eyed stare, the endearingly awkward mannerisms, the black hole of neediness that seemed to suck at Judy’s life force as surely as did the amphetamines and barbiturates that coursed through her system from her earliest days as a child star. Zellweger bravely sings the songs Judy immortalized, an effort which is, of course, doomed from the start.  If anyone else could sing like Judy Garland, they’d be selling out the Palace Theatre for 27 nights. Still, because Zellweger comes to the role with such fierce determination, those musical numbers remain beyond compelling. Director Rupert Goold fills the screen with Zellweger’s face, putting every lopsided smile and nervous sideways glance under his camera’s electron microscope. (FULL REVIEW)


Juiliet, Naked  (2018)  **** 
A just-about-perfect romantic comedy, based on a Nick Hornby novel, explores not just the foibles of love, but the pitfalls of infatuation, as well. Adorable Rose Byrne plays a frustrated small-town museum curator whose once-hot romance with a college professor (Chris O'Dowd) has cooled to near-absolute zero as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the body of work of a faded  1980s rock icon (Ethan Hawke). After a clever series of events brings the rocker and the lady together, sparks fly — much to the obsessive boyfriend's dismay. The performances are all endearing and director Jesse Peretz pulls off the neatest of tricks: We end up caring about everyone here, even the misguided antagonist. 


Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017) ***
Those of us with fond memories of the 1995 original with Robin Williams and Kirstin Dunst will not be disappointed by this variation on the theme starring an appealing cast including Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart.


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) ***
My, what beautiful dinosaaurs! ROAAARR! Oh, no! Run! Here, give me your hand! Look out! Arrgh! It's right behind us! When will Man learn he can't play God?  The End. 


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