Movie Review Archive J-L

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Movie Reviews For People Who've Lived A Little

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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.


Jenny (1970) ***

Marlo Thomas shook up her squeaky clean  That Girl image with this little drama, playing a pregnant single woman who marries a guy (Alan Alda), so he won't be sent to Vietnam. It's a little talky, but the late-60s New York scenes are interesting, and it's fun to see two of the most beloved figures in TV sitcom  history play it straight. 


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. 


Jojo Rabbit (2019) **** 

“When I make fun of Nazis in The Producers,” Mel Brooks once told me, “I rob them of their power.” In his astonishingly inventive and daring dark comedy about a young boy living in wartime Germany, writer/director Taika Waititi takes his cue from Brooks — but layered atop his burlesque of the Third Reich are poignant, supremely human moments of kindness and everyday heroism. When we meet young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) he has already been fully indoctrinated into Nazi philosophy: He proudly wears his Hitler Youth uniform, is practicing his heil Hitler salute — and his imaginary friend, his one and only confidante, is none other than the Fuhrer himself, played with blue-eyed, childlike enthusiasm by Waititi. But Jojo, bullied mercilessly by his peers, isn’t the Master Race prototype he aspires to. When he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johannson, the heart and soul of the film) is sheltering a Jewish girl in the attic, Jojo reacts first with revulsion, but soon with fascination and, much to his surprise, affection. The film turns almost unbearably bleak in the last half-hour, the laughs echoing like voices down a dark, sinister cave.  


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)


 Jojo Rabbit **** 

“When I make fun of Nazis in The Producers,” Mel Brooks once told me, “I rob them of their power.” In his astonishingly inventive and daring dark comedy about a young boy living in wartime Germany, writer/director Taika Waititi takes his cue from Brooks — but layered atop his burlesque of the Third Reich are poignant, supremely human moments of kindness and everyday heroism. When we meet young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) he has already been fully indoctrinated into Nazi philosophy: He proudly wears his Hitler Youth uniform, is practicing his heil Hitler salute — and his imaginary friend, his one and only confidante, is none other than the Fuhrer himself, played with blue-eyed, childlike enthusiasm by Waititi. But Jojo, bullied mercilessly by his peers, isn’t the Master Race prototype he aspires to. When he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johannson, the heart and soul of the film) is sheltering a Jewish girl in the attic, Jojo reacts first with revulsion, but soon with fascination and, much to his surprise, affection. The film turns almost unbearably bleak in the last half-hour, the laughs echoing like voices down a dark, sinister cave.


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. 


Just Mercy (2019) *****  

Blood, sweat, and tears stain every frame of this relentlessly powerful screen version of Civil Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book, a scathing indictment of America’s legal system.   As Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) bristles with indignant compassion as he toils to rescue unfairly sentenced Death Row inmates from Louisiana's electric chair. More importantly, his performance traces the young lawyer’s exodus from an idealistic neophyte who sees himself as the principled outsider/savior of these men to a profoundly changed, intimate participant in their personal tragedies. As an innocent man wrongly placed on Louisiana’s Death Row, Jamie Foxx reclaims his place as one of the screen’s most thoughtful actors. Hollow-eyed, physically and emotionally depleted, Foxx brings heartbreaking immediacy to the role of a man who has relinquished all hope of escaping execution — and who at first views Stevenson with justified skepticism.   

Like the real-life hero at its center, Just Mercy sees what is happening in America’s legal system and asks the question: “How can you not take this personally?” 



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Keep the Change (2018) ****
Writer/director Rachel Israel's first feature checks off all the boxes for a classic romantic comedy — but her story about two New York people with autism finding love touches on heartstrings you didn't know you had. (FULL REVIEW)


The King of Jazz (1930) ****
The movies had only been talking for two years, and Technicolor was in its infancy, but Universal combined both elements for this lavish musical, the likes of which audiences had never seen. It's just a glorified vaudeville show, but what a show it is: Paul Whiteman conducts "Rhapsody in Blue" and a big-eared youngster named Bing Crosby croons like a rosy-cheeked schoolboy. 


Kong: Skull Island (2017) ***
Everybody's favorite big ape is back and ape-ier than ever in the umpteenth reboot of the classic monster franchise. As you'd expect, computer imagery has advanced to the point where it can detail every hair on Kong's body, which this time is preposterously huge, even bigger than Dino De Laurentis' 1976 version. But because this edition focuses only on the first half of the original story — an overblown elaboration on the discovery of Kong on his cloud-shrouded South Pacific island — we never get to the part that even DeLaurentis knew was the ultimate payoff: "When the monkey die, people gonna cry." 


The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) **  The performances by stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are first-rate, but unfortunately they're in the service of an off-the-wall story by director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) that involves a troubled young man (Barry Keoghan) forcing a heart surgeon (Farrell) to choose which member of his own family to kill. The roles are played with the same bloodless detachment Farrell evoked in Lanthimos' Lobster, leaving us with little empathy for the main characters and lots of misgivings about the film's narrative, which is best described as Sophie's Choice played for laughs. (FULL REVIEW)


Knives Out ****  

The cinematic equivalent of comfort food, Knives Out is a classic murder-in-a-locked-room whodunit, complete with an eccentric detective (Daniel Craig), who calls a final drawing room assembly of the all-star suspects — including Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Continuing his Southern sojourn that began in Logan Lucky — in which he played a good ol’ boy named Jim Bang — Craig here makes his last NASCAR pit stop before returning to the role of 007. This time he drawls his way through the role of Benoit Blanc, a detective whose name conjurs up Hercule Poirot but whose accent sounds more like Sheriff Andy of Mayberry. The resolution isn’t quite the out-of-left-field surprise you might have hoped for, but writer/director Rian Johnson keeps his audience sufficiently off-balance to make things interesting. Christopher Plummer — dashing, funny, and ageless — serves as the film’s victim/provocateur.  


 

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La La Land (2016) ****
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone channel Fred and Ginger (FULL REVIEW)


Lady Bird (2017) *****

Writer/director Greta Gerwig's flawless study of a teenager (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) strikes one true note after another. For a parent, it's like Gerwig has been hiding in your hall closet for 10 years. 


Lady MacBeth (2017) ****
At first you're totally in the corner of young Katherine (Florence Pugh), a Victorian-girl given in a loveless marriage. Even when her plucky sense of rebellion eventually turns murderous, you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. By the time she's sunken to the level of unspeakable violence, it's too late: you're an accomplice. Director WIlliam Oldroyd masterfully guides us down the film's slippery slope.


The Last Word (2017)  ***  
Shirley MacLaine saves the day as a retired businesswoman who hires a newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) to write her obituary (FULL REVIEW)


Last Year At Marienbad (1961) *****

Proudly flaunting all the oddball conventions of French art films—the incongruous dialogue, the lingering takes, the hyper-composed shots—Alain Resnais tells the story of a couple who reunite for a tryst at a chateau, one year after they first met. Or maybe they’ve never met before. Or maybe someone got killed. They wander the mirrored halls and lavish gardens debating it all, under the suspicious eye of a tall thin man who may be her husband, or perhaps her lover, or maybe her murderer. You'll never understand what it's about — even Resnais isn't sure — but if this is a waking dream, you never want to wake up. The film has been available on Blu-ray for years, but seize this chance to see it on the big screen, in all its black-and-white glory.


The Laundromat (2019) ****  

Steven Soderbergh sometimes dabbles in complex caper films (the Ocean’s Eleven series, Logan Lucky) and often helms dramas that explore ripped-from-the-headlines social issues (Contagion, Erin Brockovich). In The Landromat he jumps into both genres with two feet, working for the better part of two hours to explain to us the nasty, soul-crushing nuances of international finance. Our guides for this tutorial are a pair of smooth-talking money men (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas), who explain the rules of money, all of which can be reduced to, “You are getting screwed.” Our entré  to the story is Ellen, a Maine housewife (Meryl Streep) who, in a harrowing early scene, loses her husband in a freak pleasure boat accident. It’s when she tries to collect an insurance settlement that she begins to realize the entire financial establishment is aligned to prevent her from getting anything. Of course, the feisty woman won’t give up easily, and she follows the no-money trail all the way to a financial services office in Panama City. But screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum and the upcoming 007 film No Time to Die) doesn’t linger on Ellen’s quest for long — the script soon begins bouncing us among any number of stories about any number of everyday folks who are getting cheated by the moneyed establishment. Some are more sympathetic than others — like a pair of clueless tourists (Will Forte and Chris Parnell) who run into a Mexican drug lord with very bad results. It all gets distractingly episodic, but happily we are eventually brought back to Ellen, whose persistence pays off unexpectedly and gives rise to the sort of supremely satisfying surprise ending that only the great Streep could pull off.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) ***
The title might have worked better as Forest Whitaker Is the Butler, or maybe Oprah Winfrey Is the Wife of the Butler. No matter; audiences flocked to see Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.  


The Leisure Seeker (2018) ***

There are modest pleasures aplenty in this road trip flick, following a long-married couple (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) as they take one last drive to Florida in their beloved but dilapidated motor home. He's slipping into dementia, she's in the grip of serious illness. Still, the film is not about the ravages of age, but the ultimate and inevitable triumph of marital devotion. (FULL REVIEW)


Life Itself  (2018) ***

A central character gets flattened by a bus in the opening minutes of this sprawling family saga from This Is Uscreator Dan Fogelman — but that hardly qualifies as a spoiler since the entire endeavor curdles from the start. Fogelman, who has mastered the art of manipulative episodic TV, tries to cram a season's worth of twists and teardrops into two hours, and the result is not so much exhausting as numbing. Still, he's got a game cast — including Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Olivia Wild and Mandy Patinkin — who do their best  to tow this Titanic into port.  


Life of the Party (2018) ***
If Melissa McCarthy makes you laugh, then see it. If you don't mind that she and screenwriter/hubby Ben Falcone are lazily recycling the same story (Loudmouth With a Heart of Gold Finally Fits In) then be our guest. The woman would make an obit page hilarious; we just wish she'd find something better to do with her talents. 


The Lion King *** (2019)
The trouble with Disney's live-action remakes of its classic animated films has always been a simple one: Each has lacked, through no fault of its creators, the initial spark of genius that infused the original works. There's a unique energy that is born of audacity, and it's evident in every frame of  films like Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, and, yes, The Lion King: a cartoon that combined elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a particularly violent episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. On the heels of Disney's recent Dumbodebacle, the studio had nowhere to go but up with its Lion King remake, and this new version of the 1994 movie offers an undeniably lush vision. But technological wonders only get you so far, and the film ends up not so much a re-imagining of the first take as a lavish hack job. I'm happy to report James Earl Jones is back to lend his rolling tones to the voice of Mufasa — but as much as I like Billy Eichner, this update gets nothing but raspberries for failing to bring back the great Nathan Lane as Timon. 


Literally, Right Before Aaron (2017) ***
In the latest coming-of-age film to take its marching orders from The Graduate, Adam (Justin Long) is another unfocused young man who turns up at the wedding of his ex-galpal (Cobie Smulders) and proceeds to sabotage it. Walking a comedic tightrope, writer/director Ryan Eggold (he’s the guy who plays Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) pulls off a neat trick: Even though Adam is a hopeless narcissist, we grow reluctantly fond of him because as difficult as it is to endure him, we can see it’s a lot harder to be him.  


Little Women *****

I came kicking and screaming to the latest screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, the story of four Civil War era sisters, each carving their unique life path in 1860s Massachusetts. One needn’t be a literary historian to sense the importance of the novel, still, that didn’t mean I needed to subject myself to two hours of flouncing teenagers, disapproving parents and callow courtiers. But now writer/director Greta Gerwig has gone and forced the issue, creating an artful, impeccably acted and unexpectedly thrilling film that has stubbornly elbowed its way to the top tier of my favorite films of 2019.  Gerwig’s casting is perfect from the top down:  especially Saoirse Ronan — she of the transparent blue eyes and ice princess face — as Jo March, the first among sisterly equals; a free-spirited writer who sets the tone of rebellion, no matter how subtle, in the March household. Ronan makes Jo a force to be reckoned with — or simply acceded to. For the remaining sisters, Gerwig smartly enlists a powerful lineup: Emma Watson (the Harry Potter series), prim and lovingly critical as eldest sister Meg; Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth), reclusive and endlessly observant as youngest sister Amy; and Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects), fragile yet infuriating as the sickly sister Beth.  Laura Dern plays the girls’ mother, Marmee, a product of her era, watching with distracted bemusement as her daughters rise up against the social norms that have defined her lot in life. Dern’s is the most challenging of the film’s roles — Marmee clearly shares many of her daughters’ sentiments, but she’s so institutionalized her daughter Jo is blown away when she calmly confesses, “I’ve been angry almost every day of my life.” It’s one of Little Women’s quietly shocking moments, and Dern handles it with effortless sleight-of-hand. The dreamlike cinematography of Little Women is courtesy of Yorick Le Saux, providing the unique brand of otherworldly beauty he’s brought to haunting films like Personal Shopper and I Am Love. Add the sumptuous touch of Alexandre Desplat’s splendid score, and Little Women winds up a practically perfect film. (FULL REVIEW)


The Letters (2015) ***

Juliet Stevenson's performance as a young Mother Theresa is heavenly, but the hagiographic script is hellish (FULL REVIEW)


Life Itself  (2018) ***

A central character gets flattened by a bus in the opening minutes of this sprawling family saga from This Is Uscreator Dan Fogelman — but that hardly qualifies as a spoiler since the entire endeavor curdles from the start. Fogelman, who has mastered the art of manipulative episodic TV, tries to cram a season's worth of twists and teardrops into two hours, and the result is not so much exhausting as numbing. Still, he's got a game cast — including Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Olivia Wild and Mandy Patinkin — who do their best  to tow this Titanic into port.  


Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019) ****

For 35 precious years, the world reveled in the lilt of Linda Ronstadt’s voice — and then it was gone. This tuneful, sometimes melancholy documentary is packed with classic performances, adoring testimonies, and intimate home movie moments, but you can’t walk away without the sense that although Ronstadt’s career ended too soon, no amount of success would have given the infinitely insecure singer peace of mind.


Logan (2017) ****
The most thoughtful superhero flick in memory. Marvel mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), facing old age and extinction of the X-Men, finds a young girl who might have special powers of her own. 


Logan Lucky (2017) ****
Director Steven Soderberg may have a new Ocean's 11 franchise on his hands — albeit one that mixes the ingredients of a classic heist flick with a Cohen Brothers movie. For this breezy heist movie set at a NASCAR race track, he's assembled a dream cast including Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes and, best of all, 007 star Daniel Craig as a good-old-boy safecracker named Joe Bang. (FULL REVIEW)


The Lost City of Z (2017) ****

Writer/director James Gray drinks lustily from the cup of master epic-maker David Lean in his sweeping true story of Percy Fawcett, the British explorer who made multiple trips to the Amazon in the early 1900s seeking what he called The Lost City of Z. Charlie Hunnan brings a Peter O'Toole-like obsession to the role, but his long-suffering wife, played by Sienna Miller, remains a cipher. Which goes to show, from a man's perspective, that compared to the complexities of women it is easier to explain why a guy would spend three years at a time fighting off piranha and picking leaches from his legs   (FULL REVIEW) 


Love and Friendship *** (2016)
Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star in this fast-paced version of a Jane Austen novella (FULL REVIEW)


Love, Gilda (2018) ****
If you fell in love with the Gilda Radner of TV and film in the 1970s and '80s, you'll be enraptured by the real-life Gilda revealed in this hilarious, heartbreaking documentary from Lisa D'Apolito. Besides clips from Gilda's Saturday Night Live heyday, the film draws from  the comedian's own home movies as well as hours of audio recordings she made while working on her autobiography. Gilda is a breezy tour guide to her life story; if not fearless to the end, then at least infinitely human.  


Love the Coopers ** (2015)
Diane Keaton and John Goodman unwrap a very unmerry Christmas gift (FULL REVIEW)


Love Wedding Repeat (2020) ***

Madcap and smart, this British romcom follows the frantic efforts of a loving brother (Sam Claflin) to give his little sister the perfect wedding day — while trying to woo the girl of his dreams (Olivia Munn), who happens to be an unexpected guest. Thanks goodness for us everything goes wrong — countless times over. (FULL REVIEW)


Loveless (2017) ****
On its surface, Loveless follows a bitterly feuding soon-to-be-divorced couple, Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) who are so consumed by hatred for each other (and burning lust for their lovers) that they fail to notice that their young son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) has been missing for an entire day. But the pair’s circular pursuit of the immediate at the expense of what really matters is for Zvyaginstev a microcosm of the relentless cycles of self-destruction that consume not only people, but also nations.(FULL REVIEW)


The Lovers (2017) ****
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts spring one deilghtful surprise after another as a long-married couple headed for divorce...until they fall in lust with each other. (FULL REVIEW)


Loving (2016) ****

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star in the human story of a landmark court case  (FULL REVIEW)


Loving Vincent (2017) *****  
One of the most extraordinary animated films ever made utilizes 65,000 oil paintings to illuminate the last days of Vincent Van Gogh. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman reference numerous famous Van Gogh images, but every frame is infused with the spark and danger of the painter's genius. It takes about five minutes to get used to this singular experience; after that you are utterly along for the ride. 


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