Race (2016) ****
Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens, the runner who humiliated Hitler at the 1936 Olympics (FULL REVIEW)
Radioactive (2020) ****
History is always more fun when filmmakers leave the rough edges intact, and Radioactive, the story of 19th Century nuclear chemist Marie Curie, does just that — thanks mainly to the superb work of Rosamund Pike, who thrives on showing those edges in stark, supremely human, relief. (FULL REVIEW)
Radium Girls (2020) ****
Think they treat you bad at work? Consider the subjects of Radium Girls, an infuriating and engrossing drama based on the true story of 1920s factory women who endured deadly radiation poisoning — contracted from the dabs of fluorescent paint they applied to watch faces day after day, year after year. That dark chapter in American labor history is grimly enumerated here by co-directors Lydia Dean Pitcher and Ginny Mohler (Mohler also co-wrote the script with Brittany Shaw), who tell the story through the eyes of two fictional sisters, Bessie and Josephine — heartbreakingly portrayed, respectively, by Joey King (Hulu’s The Act) and Abby Quinn (Little Women). Tentatively asserting their rights in a world where women have been voting for barely a decade, the sisters lean on each other for moral — and at times physical — support. The actresses bring just the right blend of defiance and vulnerability to the roles. For the most part, outrage is the order of the day in Radium Girls; anger that corporate greed could have so callously doomed loyal employees to protracted, painful deaths — and the nagging suspicion that there remain quarters of our world where things have not changed all that much.
Rapid Eye Movement (2019) ****
This nifty, efficient thriller follows a New York DJ (Francois Arnaud) as he tries to stay away for 11 straight days in a glass booth located smack dab in the middle of Times Square. He's hoping to (mostly) save his career and (as an afterthought) raise a little money for charity — but the ante is upped considerably when a caller vows to kill him if he doesn't raise an impossible $5 million. Director Peter Bishai makes the absolute most of his sharp cast and his unmatched locale, taking his audience along for the ride as the possibly doomed DJ swirls down the drain of sleep-deprivation-driven madness. (FULL REVIEW)
RBG (2018) ****
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The U.S. Supreme Court's second woman justice and a quietly dynamic champion of liberal causes, gets the rock star treatment in this engrossing documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Fiercely ambitious, the young Ginsburg finds herself fighting for women's rights in the workplace and at home, riding a crest of her own making all the way to the Supreme Court. Right-leaning folks who think they'll take pass on this film should follow the lead of Ginsburg's closest friend, the eminently conservative Justice Scalia, and open their hearts to one of the most inspiring public lives of the past 50 years.
Ready Player One (2018) ****
Steven Spielberg throws up the usual landmarks in his screen translation of a beloved young adult novel — in which a teenager (Tye Sheridan) competes to win a half-trillion dollars in a virtual reality universe. There are brave, fatherless kids; fanciful-yet-perilous settings, and a soaring musical score that tells you how to feel. The film truly comes alive when it escapes the video game realm entirely and dumps us inside a perfect re-creation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (FULL REVIEW)
Rebuilding Paradise (2020) ****
Ron Howard’s documentary of the 2018 Camp Fire is a real-life crystallization of what he has proclaimed throughout a life on film: In the end, the human spirit will always rise, quite literally, from the ashes. The raw, fearsome power of the fire is harrowingly evoked in the film's opening 15 minutes — the rest of the film introduces us to the indomitable people who refused stubbornly remained in place, perhaps a bit chastened by Mother Nature's reminder of who's in charge. (FULL REVIEW)
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2020) ****
Most people would have dismissed wealthy, reclusive Marion Stokes as a hoarder: Her ritzy Philadelphia apartment was stuffed beyond reason with old newspapers, syrup bottles, and multiple copies of books about Steve Jobs. And there was something even more strange: A bank of VCRs that began recording every minute of Philadelphia TV from the late 1970s until her death in 2012. By the time the machines were unplugged, Stokes had amassed 70,000 VHS tapes spanning the Iran Hostage Crisis to the era of mass school shootings. In this insightful documentary, director Matt Wolf examines the startling prescient motivation behind the lifelong obsession of Stokes, an African American woman who feared America’s political/industrial establishment would somehow erase the true narrative of history, replacing the way events unfolded with favored versions and interpretations. Spoiler alert: If you think the blanket identification of Middle Eastern people as terrorists started on 9/11, you don’t have any recordings of Nightlinefrom 1978.
Red Joan (2019) ****
Those who head for Red Joan looking for a star turn by Judi Dench can be forgiven for feeling they’re victims of a bait and switch: Dame Judi serves mostly as a framing device for a political drama in which her character’s younger self is played by Sophie Cookson (Kingsman). The pair share the role of a British civil servant who in the opening moments is arrested by the government at age 87, whisked off to an interrogation room, and accused of passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets in the 1950s. It’s a true story — although for some reason the character’s real name has been changed from Melita Norwood to Joan Stanley. Dench’s Joan is wonderfully befuddled at the outset — or is she? Through flashbacks, director Trevor Nunn carefully lays out the story of how — and why — Joan betrayed her country while convincing herself she was serving it.
Red Penguins (2020) ***
Remember when the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins owned the Russian National Hockey team? No, neither did I — and that's what makes director Gabe Polsky's documentary so much fun. bankruptcy. It's 1990, and as the Soviet Union collapses the nation's flagship hockey team is on the verge of bankruptcy. To their rescue skate the NHL’s Penguins, who not only buy half the team but infuse the onetime Communist flagship with a decidedly Capitalistic approach to selling sports — including free beer nights, car giveaways, and strippers. Lots and lots of strippers. (FULL REVIEW)
Reflection In A Golden Eye (1967) ****
For this steamy adaptation of Carson McCullers' potboiler saga of love, lust, insanity and murder at a Deep South Army base, director John Huston filmed the entire movie through a relentless golden hue. So in every scene, his brooding superstar cast — including Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith and Julie Harris — glisten as if dipped in fairy dust. The ploy does nothing to clarify the film's impenetrable plot, but the star power of Liz and Brando nearly burns a hole in the screen, anyway. If Huston's golden gambit starts to wear on you, Warner Archive's beautifully restored two-disc set also includes the full-color version that the studio eventually settled on for the film's general release.
Remember (2016) **** Christopher Plummer evokes panic and determination as a man with dementia trying to find a Nazi war criminal before it's too late (FULL REVIEW)
Resistance (2020) *****
One gets the feeling that writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz wanted to keep the true identity of his film's hero under wraps until about a half-hour in — but the distributor's publicity department seems determined to spoil the surprise. So I may as well spill it here: Resistance is based on the true story of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, and how he helped save 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi death camps during World War II. Jesse Eisenberg plays Marceau, a supremely difficult role in that it not only requires him to portray the guy as he morphs from a self-absorbed observer to a selfless Resistance fighter — but also because Eisenberg must tackle the gentle art of mime, a skill that takes a lifetime to master. He's fantastic on both counts, particularly in the nerve-jangling scenes during which Marceau must draw upon his acting chops to pull off one daring deception after another. If you only thought of Marcel Marceau as the man who begat an annoying generation of street performers, Resistance will stun you into silence. (FULL REVIEW)
Richard Jewell (2019) *****
Clint Eastwood's telling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing — and the media frenzy that rushed to blame the hero security guard who found the bomb, then stayed at his post warning bystanders away — is an infuriating indictment of not only a ruthlessly irresponsible press and overzealous law enforcement officers. It's also a broadside against our entire culture's hair-trigger readiness to believe the worst in people — even when they are the best of people. Paul Walter Hauser brings awkward sweetness to the title character, a man whose misfit personality made him an easy target for society's cool kids. Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as Jewell's straight-talking attorney, and Kathy Bates is heartbreaking as Jewell's endlessly supportive (if somewhat smothering) mother. As usual, Eastwood shows how to wed action with ideas in the most artfully expedient fashion. (FULL REVIEW)
Riddick (2013) ***
Director David Twohy (The Fugitive) has helmed all three Riddick movies, starring Vin Diesel as the gravel-voiced interplanetary convict/adventurer. Here we go again with Riddick, well into middle age, still kicking butt like a muscle-bound, bald-pated pro.
The Right Stuff (1983) ***
By the time Tom Wolfe's epic tale of NASA's Project Mercury hit the screen, we were already beginning to suspect the heroic era of space exploration was over. Thirty-five years later, when America lacks even a rocket to take us to the International Space Station, it's a feeling that's hard to shake. So by all means, do revisit this soaring epic and soak in the reflected glory of Sam Shepard as Chuck Yaeger, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, and Ed Harris as John Glenn (and delight in the word games you can play with all those interchangeable names).
Robert The Bruce (2020) ***
It's been 25 years since Scottish star Angus Macfayden costarred as Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson's Braveheart — and now he returns to the role in this sort-of sequel, tracing the Bruce's continuing crusade for Scottish independence in the early 14th Century. On the run with a price on his head, the critically wounded warrior king finds himself in the care of a young boy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mother (Anna Hutchison, The Cabin In The Woods), the widow of a former fellow freedom fighter. More talk than action, despite several fiercely committed performances the two-hour-plus film overstays its welcome by just a bit. Of course, it would have taken a Godfather: Part 2-like miracle to match the power of Braveheart, and director Richard Gray deserves credit for giving it his best shot.
Rocketman (2019) *****
Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is transcendent as Elton John in this lush musical biography. The early 1970s trappings are gritty, and the film earns its R rating with healthy portions of drugs and sex. But director Dexter Fletcher (who anonymously directed much of Bohemian Rhapsody) has a surprisingly (and refreshingly) old-fashioned take on the musical genre. His film echoes All That Jazz, West Side Story, and even Oliver! The cast is uniformly perfect, especially Jamie Bell as Elton's lyricist — and unrequited love — Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh as Elton's good-for-nothing parents, and angelic Matthew Illesley as young Elton.
Roma (2018) *****
As if to make amends for the Oscar-winning cinematic excesses of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón follows it with this positively poetic, unapologetically nostalgic stripped-down masterpiece. Drawing from his childhood in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, Cuarón explores the social hierarchy of 1970s Mexico, contrasting the lives of upper middle-class Mexicans and the domestic workers who served them. Don't be turned off by the political undertones: With his non-professional cast and monochome vision, Cuarón has created a spellbinding work of art reminiscent of Rossellini's street-smart post World War II masterpiece Rome: Open City.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) ****
Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington adds an indelible new character to his portfolio: that of a socially awkward civil rights lawyer who, after years of beating his head against the wall of institutionalized racism, slowly allows himself to be co-opted by the trappings of success. Meanwhile his law firm boss (Colin Farrell), inspired by Roman's initial idealism, finds himself following the opposite route. What results is an actors' fugue of sorts, as the two characters' points of view weave amongst each other to create a rich tapestry of social commentary. Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), whose knack for capturing the seedy side of LA is unsurpassed.
Romeo and Juliet (2013) ***
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes adapts Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers, and Italian director Carlo Carlei borrows heavily from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version. The question is: Why bother?
Room (2015) ****
Brie Larson stars in this claustrophobic thriller about a kidnapped mom and her young son (FULL REVIEW)
Rules Don't Apply (2016) ****
Warren Beatty is funny and heartbreaking as Howard Hughes (FULL REVIEW)
Rush (2013) ***
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are great fun as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, rival kings of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s. Ron Howard, who cut his directing teeth with Grand Theft Auto in 1977, seems right at home depicting the brutal beauty of high-octane racing.
Saint Frances (2020) ***
Kelly O'Sullivan is a heart-stealer in this comedic drama about Bridget, a young woman who becomes a nanny to a rich Evanston, Illinois family — immediately after having undergone an abortion. As tensions grow between Bridget and the mom, a tender bridge grows between her and her 6-year-old charge.
Salinger (2013) ****
Almost everyone has to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and in 1965 all those kids buying all those books enabled its author, J.D. Salinger, to retire to his New Hampshire home and hide from view for the rest of his life. This documentary studies the enigma of Salinger – and the obsession of those who insisted on following him into his solitude.
*** Samson (2018)
Co-directors Bruce Macdonald and Gabriel Sabloff have a supremely appealing leading man in 6-foot-2 Taylor James, who is at once imposing and boyish. He also kicks butt convincingly, wielding a mean donkey jawbone against 1,000 Philistines. But as in too many faith-based movies, the villains make the best company. Samson something of a scold who spends his time glowering, brawling with bad guys, and praying (although only in moments when he needs God to strengthen him, like an Old Testament Popeye looking for his can of spinach). (FULL REVIEW)
Savannah (2013) ***
This big-hearted drama traces the story of a duck hunter (Jim Caviezel) in Savannah, Ga., and his lifelong friendship with a freed slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The terrific supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Hal Holbrook and The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford, but the real star is the lavishly photographed Savannah marsh wilderness, sprawling and lovely as the story itself.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) ****
Tom Hanks is Walt Disney; Emma Thompson is Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this true story about the making of that classic film. (FULL REVIEW)
Scandalous: The True Story of The National Enquirer (2019) ****
Your humble reviewer spent 10 years of his career toiling as a writer for The National Enquirer, so trust me when I tell you Mark Landsman's documentary about the fabled tabloid is as close as anyone's come to capturing the paper's mad pursuit of exclusive gossip, its breathless brand of self-promotion — and its unexpected passion for getting its stories right. (FULL REVIEW)
Scarface (1983) ****
Yep, it's hyperviolent and Al Pacino's performance as a Cuban gangster is so over-the-top the top is out of sight, but Brian Da Palma's remake of the 1932 Cagney classic scores style points from beginning to end.
Scoob! (2020) ***
Every hero needs an origin story, it appears — even a hero who, through hundreds of adventures, has spent most of his time running away from villains, cowering in the dark and wolfing down snacks. Accordingly, some 50 years after Scooby Doo and the gang unmasked their first villain, Scoob! provides the backstory of the goofy Great Dane and his beatnik pal Shaggy (Grandparents, kindly explain to your children what a beatnik is). The all-star voice cast includes Will Forte, Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron and Amanda Seyfried. Best voice casting choice of all: Tracy Morgan as Captain Caveman.
Seberg (2020) ****
You can take your pick of lowlights from J. Edgar Hoover’s long reign of terror at the FBI; Seberg depicts one of the lowest: The agency’s years-long campaign of harassment and slander against Jean Seberg, an actress/activist who took up the cause of civil rights in the late 1960s.
Kristen Stewart, herself something of a Hollywood firebrand, is a perfect choice to play the tragic star, adopting the pixie hairdo and hollow-eyed look that made Iowa-born Seberg the darling of French New Wave Cinema. (FULL REVIEW)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) ****
Director/star Ben Stiller celebrates the mystery of imagination, the wonder of real-life, and the point at which they intersect in this spectacular comedy adventure loosely based on the classic James Thurber short story. Kristin Wiig plays the adorable object of Mitty’s affection, Shirley MacLaine cameos as the hero’s loving mom, and Sean Penn pops up in a brief but pivotal role as a globetrotting photographer.
The Sense of an Ending (2017) ****
Jim Broadbent is riveting as a man haunted by some unfinished business with a long-ago girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling).
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) ****
The world was still mourning the loss of The Beatles (and hoping for that reunion that never came) when rock impresario Robert Stigwood mounted this hodgepodge of Beatles songs draped over a dumb plot about the titular band (The Bee Gees) joining a charismatic singer named Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) to defeat greedy evildoers who want to corrupt the music business (!). The Beatles' own superproducer George Martin did the arrangements, and truth be told the Brothers Gibb are fine vocal stand-ins for the Lads from Liverpool. The movie was worth just two stars when made; now it's an invaluable time capsule of 1970s pop featuring the likes of Aerosmith; Alice Cooper; Earth, Wind & Fire; Billy Preston, and, as Dr. Maxwell Hammer, a wild-and-crazy Steve Martin. George Burns, then enjoying a late-life renaissance, appears as the narrator, and the closing credits boast the greatest collection of music royalty cameos this side of "We Are The World," including Heart, Jose Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Peter Noone, Robert Palmer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Johny Rivers, Monti Rock III, Del Shannon and dozens more.
Shaft (2019) ****
In a season of sequels, here's one that gets the concept right. We get three Shafts for the price of one. There's Young John Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), the nonviolent son of detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), the hard-hitting son of the legendary John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree — the guy who way back in 1971 first appeared as "the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about"). The plot is boilerplate chase-down-the-bad-guys action, but along the way Shaft takes the time to explore matters of family, values, and just how much the world has changed since Richard Nixon was President.
Shakes the Clown (1991) ***
It's nearly a cinch you haven't seen Bobcat Golthwait's pitch-dark comedy about a substance abusing children's party clown, and admittedly it seems at times more of a fever dream than an actual movie. But it has a memorably twisted view of show biz culture, plus cameos by the likes of Adam Sandler, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, LaWanda Page and, as a freaky mime teacher, Robin Williams, working under the pseudonym Marty Fromage. Plus, every film critic who's ever lived has envied the spot-on assessment by Boston Globe reviewer Betsy Sherman: "The Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies."
The Shape of Water (2017) *****
Guillermo del Toro's fairy tale for grownups is part Beauty and the Beast, part E.T., and part Creature From the Black Lagoon. And it's one of the most gloriously assured films of this or any year. Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning woman at a U.S. government compound who stumbles upon a tall, dark, and fishy creature in a squalid holding tank. She brings him food, and ends up giving him her heart. Be forewarned there's some carnal splashing involved, but only a monster would deny this beauty her beast. FULL REVIEW
Shazam! (2019) ***
The special effects are more convincing, but the basic formula for series-launching superhero movies has not changed one bit since Richard Donner's Superman in 1978: The superhero has a painful (often convoluted) origin; then comes to grips with those super powers; then meets up with an eccentric supervillain; then engages in an extended, destructive battle; then braces for the sequel. In this case the hero has an especially charming trait: He's a 14-year-old boy who, simply by announcing the word Shazam, becomes a fully-grown super man who flies, deflects bullets, etc. Zachary Levy (TV's Chuck) brings goofy adolescent charm to the grownup Shazam; if only the writers of these things could come up with a story structure that's not 40 years old. (FULL REVIEW)
Shooting Heroin (2020) ***
Writer/director Spencer T. Folmar has set out to make a vigilante film you can feel good about — and to a large degree he was succeeded. Alan Powell plays a soldier who returns to his rural Pennsylvania home town only to find himself facing the battle of his life: Combating an opioid epidemic that is killing his friends and neighbors at a harrowing pace. The fury, despair, and avarice that permeate America's drug wars are all on display, but Folmar doesn't take the easy Rambo-esque way out. The hero discovers you can't shoot your way out of every national crisis.
Show Boat (1936) *****
There are lots of reasons to celebrate the Criterion Collection's release of this, the definitive screen version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical. The film was all but lost for decades, buried under legal red tape after MGM bought the rights to prevent competition with its inferior 1950s remake. But here is original Broadway star Paul Robeson in all his basso glory, singing "Old Man River" as only he could (plus a second song written for this screen incarnation), and Allan Jones and Irene Dunn warbling "Make Believe," and Helen Morgan wailing about "Bill." Forgive the awful blackface production number; with its savage depiction of racism, Show Boat stands as one of the most progressive movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1930s.
Sid And Nancy (1986) ****
Gary Oldman brings uncanny energy to this factually dubious account of the doomed romance of Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). The pair's descent into drug-induced self-destruction is as hard to watch now as it was 31 years ago, but this new Criterion Collection release reminds us of the sure hand of co-writer/director Alex Cox — whose comfort with the fringes of reality are elsewhere evident in films like Repo Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Silence (2016) ****
Martin Scorsese draws upon his lifetime body of work in this heartfelt story of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. (FULL REVIEW)
The Sisters Brothers (2018) ****
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix bicker and bluster, punch each other out and love each other to bits as a pair of 1850s Old West hit men in this surprisingly engaging buddy movie. The brothers Sisters are notorious throughout Oregon and California, providing lead-loaded muscle for a notorious strongman known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in one of the shortest big-name movie cameos ever). Currently they’re in pursuit of a mild-mannered inventor (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a chemical system for detecting gold in rocky streams. The Commodore wants the invention for himself and the inventor dead. The brothers think the genius is being held for them in a hotel room by an associate (Jake Gyllenhaal), but of course there are complications afoot. The film’s trail dust-choked atmosphere is palpable, and the characters’ sophisticated self-awareness recalls the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, or Gene Hackman’s reflective villain in Unforgiven. But mostly we come to love the brothers — just as they love each other despite themselves.
Sobibor (2018) ****
For as long as movies have been made, Russian directors have never flinched at depicting the horrors of war and the insidious nature of inhumanity. Director Konstantin Khabenskiv’s true story of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi concentration camp does have its triumphant moments, but not before it subjects us to one of the most harrowing depictions of cruelty ever put on screen. One of Russia’s most popular actors (Night Watch), Khabenskiv also stars in the film, playing Alexander Pechersky, a Russian Jew who finds himself imprisoned in the Polish camp Sobibor, where a quarter-million people were gassed to death. Having previously participated in a failed camp escape in Minsk, he is the natural leader for this attempt — which must come before the expected extermination of everyone still alive there. One could argue that Khabenskiv sustains the brutality for too long, particularly in one horrifying scene in which the prisoners are used as “horses” in a macabre chariot race. But Khabenskiv isn’t interested in sparing our sensitivities. If the story of the Holocaust is to be remembered, it must be told in all its grisly detail.
Solo (2018) ***
They’re cranking out Star Wars movies like Model T’s these days, and this genesis story for the series’ beloved character Han Solo comes off the assembly line with a full compliment of bells and whistles. We meet young Han (a pleasingly smug Alden Ehrenreich) as a juvenile delinquent, stealing cars (of the flying kind) and wooing a cute girl (Emila Clark). Circumstances split them up — but not forever, of course. Han tries to carve out a life as a gangster, a career choice that will, alas, never serve him well given his innate goodness. Director Ron Howard floods the screen with echoes of previous Star Wars episodes — and, oddly enough, Stanley Kubrick’s World War I epic Paths of Glory.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) ****
I was going to give this sweet-natured film based on the video game three stars, just because it is so darned satisfied being a gentle tale of friendship, and because Jim Carey is so much fun as the villain. But my grandson loved it so much, and actually went back to see it the next day, that another star is in order.
Song of Norway (1970) **
ABC Pictures and Cinerama probably thought they had another Sound of Music on their hands with this screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical based on the life and tunes of Edvard Grieg. Norse Star Toralv Maurstad plays Grieg; America's sweetheart Florence Henderson swirls through the sumptuous scenery as his lady love. Passing through are the likes of Robert Morley, Harry Secombe, and Edward G. Robinson. It's a film worth siting through for the Norwegian scenery as much as the music, but overall, the great Pauline Kael had it right when she wrote "To criticize this movie is like tripping a dwarf.
Sorry to Bother You (2018) *****
Nothing will prepare you for the off-the-wall — yet utterly engaging — brilliance of first-time director Boots Riley's dystopian comic masterpiece. Lakeith Stanfield plays a sad sack telemarketing guy who finds himself elevated to "Super Seller" — but what he's selling is no set of kitchen knives. The endlessly appealing cast ushers you willingly through the yarn's hairpin plot turns in a film that somehow blends the best elements of Office Space, Get Out, Being John Malkovich...and even Pinocchio. (FULL REVIEW)
Spaceship Earth (2020) ****
How soon we forget: In 1991, few news stories were bigger than Biosphere 2, a purportedly airtight, glassed-in ecosystem in which eight adventurous “biospherians” would live for two full years recycling their air, growing their own food, composting their waste, and generally creating a microcosm of Earth itself. Nearly 30 years later, director Mat Wolf's documentary seems to border on the wildly fictional as he recreates the hoopla that surrounded one of the most outrageous experiments of the 20th Century — part sober science, part Barnum and Bailey. In last year's Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, Wolf got to the heart of a frustratingly private and unnervingly difficult character — and one wishes he could have done the same for this gang. But as he interviews surviving biospherians, they seem to stop inches short of baring their unvarnished selves, instead falling back into nostalgic shakes of the head and thoughtful silences. Still, as a testament to what a group of semi-hippies can do with an unfocused plan and $200 million of someone else’s money, Spaceship Earth is a world of voyeuristic fun.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) ****
Tom Holland is nerdily perfect as the new big-screen Spidey, but the most fun this time around is courtesy of onetime Batman Michael Keaton as his nemesis, The Vulture (which can't help but remind us all of Keaton's Oscar-nominated turn as Birdman).
Spotlight (2015) *****
The Oscar-winning story of the Boston Globe team who broke the pedophile priest scandal. (FULL REVIEW)
Stage Mother (2020) ***
As a conservative Deep South church lady who inherits her son’s San Francisco drag bar, the indomitable Jackie Weaver proves it’s just a short hop from a full-throated Australian accent to a lilting Southern twang. The narrative route of screenwriter Brad Hennig’s script is pre-ordained from the minute the premise is set up, but along the way Weaver and director Thom Fitzgerald keep the audience engaged with moments of sweet self-discovery and big-hearted reconciliation.
Stan & Ollie (2018) ****
The greatest comedians are the ones who are funny in ways no one has been funny before, and that was certainly true of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who took the vaudevillian formula of fat-guy-skinny-guy and elevated it to a realm of ethereal bliss. Stan & Ollie finds the boys past their prime, unable to find movie work and reduced to re-creating their classic bits in decrepit British music halls. But while they’ve lost their adoring public, they still have each other, and despite occasional blow-ups and breakups they cling to that bond like castaways on a floating plank. British national treasure Steve Coogan was probably born to play Laurel, and he is a delight from the first frame, ingeniously incorporating many of the comic’s trademark gestures and expressions into the man’s everyday demeanor. A tougher sell, as the rotund Ollie, is John C. Reilly, performing from under a quivering mass of makeup. It’s the toughest kind of screen acting — mastered only occasionally by the likes of Boris Karloff and Charlize Theron — but Reilly, whose lilting voice and gentle nature get him halfway there, succeeds handsomely.
The Star (2017) **
This animated re-telling of the Christmas Story — told through the eyes of the animals that witnessed it — betrays its promise of gentle Holiday entertainment by devolving quite quickly into a raucous slapstick adventure. Ice Age meets The Nativity, and the result is somewhere this side of Heaven.
A Star is Born (2018) ****
This fourth version of the classic one-star-on-the-rise, one-star-on-the-skids Hollywood potboiler is clearly modeled after the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake. But while Streisand could never quite convince us she was ever a struggling young nobody, Lady Gaga nails the early scenes: Nervous, insecure, in awe of the superstar in her midst. As the film’s costar, Bradley Cooper plays a growling, laid-back country-rock singer, haunted by ghosts; As the film’s director (his first time behind the camera), Cooper plugs his vision into a 10,000-watt dynamo, especially in the frenetic concert sequences which, while as a practical matter mask the fact that he’s probably not really playing those wild riffs, add to the dizzying rush of showbiz that’s about to envelop the leading lady. As much as he brings to the film, Cooper can’t avoid the fact that this story is a Hollywood chestnut that worships at the altar of fame and glamor. The more success the youthful Gaga achieves, with her orange hair and grinding dance routines and arena-size extravaganzas, the more we long for that first hour, when as a struggling young club singer she is filmed relishing the echo of her own voice in an alleyway, or serenading her famous new friend in a grocery store parking lot. On that score, neither character finds a truly happy ending.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) ****
It's the final chapter in the nine-part series that began in 1977, and longtime fans should not be disappointed — director J.J. Abrams and his army of co-writers have delivered a film that covers all the familiar themes of little guys standing up to all-powerful enemies, enduring friendship and convoluted family relationships. Most importantly, Skywalker keeps its word: No cliffhangers at last, and that alone justifies the finale's dancing Ewoks. (FULL REVIEW)
Stay Hungry (1975) ***
So, do you remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger actually won an acting award? Rewind to '75, when in his first sustained screen role — and undubbed for the first time — the future Terminator played a body builder/bluegrass fiddler in this muscular comedy/drama from Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson. Jeff Bridges and Sally Field are the main attractions here, but Ah-nold walked off with a Golden Globe for "Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture." Yeah, this is around the time Pia Zadora also won a Best Actress Globe.
Stella's Last Weekend (2018) ***
This well-intentioned film about two brothers in love with the same girl is a family drama in every way: The brothers are played by real-life bros Nat and Alex Wolff and their mother is played by the stars' actual mom, Polly Draper, who also writes and directs the film. But wait, there's more: Draper's Jazz musician hubby Michael Wolff wrote the score and there are other Drapers peppered in amongst the production team. Even Draper's family dog has a pivotal role. This is germaine only because writer/director Draper seems to have the germ of a good film here, as well as an appealing cast. But she could have used an unbiased set of eyes to tell her when to end certain scenes, when to dial back the cloying sentiment, and how to make her characters talk like real people. You don't mind spending an hour and forty minutes with these people, but you also feel like they deserve better.
Still Mine (2012) ****
James Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential, The Artist) gives the performance of a lifetime as an 87-year-old man who builds a small house for his ailing wife (a radiant Genevieve Bujold) with his own two hands. That is, until local bureaucrats start butting in.
Stockholm (2018) ****
Ethan Hawke is a hoot as a transplanted Texan who holds up a Stockholm, Sweden bank — and in the process wins the heart of one his hostages, sweetly played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). It’s based on a true story — a 1973 heist-and-hostage event that gave a name to the syndrome in which captives become attached to their captors. The mostly Swedish cast is wonderful, and Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl shines as a veteran police chief who, in Sweden’s idyllic little world, has never had to deal with a bank robbery of any kind.
Suburbicon (2017) **
Good News: Director George Clooney got Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac to star in his movie about murder and mayhem in a 1959 'burb. Bad News: He failed to reckon with a scattershot script (co-written by Clooney and the Coen Brothers) that piles social consciousness on top of a whacked-out plot. (FULL REVIEW)
Sully (2016) ****
Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood triumph in this no-frills telling of the "Miracle on the Hudson." (FULL REVIEW)
The Summit (2012) ****
One one day in 2008, 11 adventurers died on the slopes of K2. Using the team’s own videos and new footage, director Nick Ryan takes us along on one harrowing hike.
Sword of Trust (2019) ****
Writer/Director Lynn Shelton has produced some of the sharpest comedy on TV (Fresh Off The Boat, New Girl, Madmen) but she loosens up considerably in this ever-surprising improvisational comedy. Jillian Bell plays a woman who inherits a seemingly worthless antique sword from her Alabama grandfather — but when she and her partner (Michaela Watkins) take it to a pawnshop, they become embroiled with an underground network of Southern “truthers” who believe the sword proves the Confederacy won the Civil War. Marc Maron, disheveled and determinedly downbeat, is brilliant as the pawnbroker, and the entire ensemble plays together like a well-oiled — if wildly off-kilter — machine.