The Old Man And The Gun (2018) ****
The aging bank robber at the center of writer/director David Lowery’s film is defined by his easy charm, his winning smile — and a unique genius for his chosen profession. You could say precisely the same thing about the man who plays him, Robert Redford. Based on a New Yorker piece by David Gramm, this funny and thrilling caper flick also boasts Sissy Spacek, melting every heart in sight as Tucker’s sweet and trusting girlfriend, and Casey Affleck as the cop hot on Tucker’s trail. Affleck manages to get us rooting for him, despite our growing affection for his prey.
On Chesil Beach (2018) ****
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle star in a soul-searching and sad story of mismatched love. Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay based on his novel about a naïve couple on their honeymoon. It’s a moody masterpiece, capped by haunting performances. What begins as charming awkwardness descends into blind panic, and soon we’re learning just how incompatible this adorable but doomed pair is.
On the Basis of Sex (2018) ***
What a tease! This movie isn't sexy at all — it's about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's first court case, a 1970s sex discrimination suit. Felicity Jones is suitably adorable as Ginsberg, displaying the whip-smart impishness that has endeared the real thing to millions. As her adoring and endlessly supportive hubby, Armie Hammer has every woman in the audience poking at her man's ribs and whispering "Why can't you be more like him?" And Kathy Bates has a nice cameo as a groundbreaking civil rights lawyer, the woman who inspired the woman who today inspires millions of women. Performances and timeliness aside, On The Basis of Sex is clumsily scripted, with characters often stopping in their tracks to deliver impromptu speeches about inequality or, more egregiously, utter impossibly prescient observations that speak directly and awkwardly to the country's current political environment. First-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman's script sounds like a first draft from Aaron Sorkin, but at least Sorkin, an over-writer of the first rank, has an ear for the poetry of language.
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019) ****
No one has ever before linked the term "sweet" with the films of Quentin Tarantino, but there's disarming appeal to spare in his love letter to 1969 Los Angeles — in the moments before Hollywood's glitter was forever tarnished by the Manson family's Sharon Tate murders. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading TV western star who remains best friends with his old stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, his chiseled features settling in nicely to a middle-age comfort zone). Together they ramble the lightly trafficked streets of LA, like The Green Hornet and Kato, seeking professional renaissance while living off former glory. From afar, Cliff envies his next-door neighbors, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, wishing with all his being he were in their expensive boots. Meanwhile, Cliff becomes acquainted with one of Manson's acolytes, a free-spirited waif named Pussycat (The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley). A visit with her to the Manson Family's digs on the Spahn Movie Ranch convinces him that, as he might say, "Them people just ain't right." The film seems a tad long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, but Tarantino works hard to earn every second of our attention, lavishing the screen with period details and the soundtrack with not only vintage songs, but also plentiful AM radio station air checks that will spark vivid memories for anyone who tooled the streets of LA 50 years ago. The sprawling supporting cast plays a who's who of real-life Hollywood figures, including Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Bruce Dern appears as ranch owner George Spahn — a role Burt Reynolds was slated to play before his sudden death (the characters of Rick and Cliff are reportedly based largely on Reynolds and his longtime pal, stuntman/director Hal Needham). Tarantino, no shrinking violet when it comes to blood and guts, shows studied restraint throughout the film, but that only serves to set the table for the film's hyperviolent, yet undeniably satisfying, finale.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band (2020) ****
In Daniel Roher’s fond and tuneful rockumentary, The Band’s lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson steps in as the unofficial chronicler of the five-member combo’s early struggles, sudden rise, and eventual diffusion. Sparked by indelible tunes like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, the film approximates a stimulating and at times cantankerous living room discussion about The Band’s influence — that is, if your houseguests happened to include, among others, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel and Van Morrison.
Othello (1952-55) ****
Strapped for cash and squeezing shoots between acting gigs, Orson Welles and his cast convened over the course of three years in Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, and Rome to create this supremely cinematic version of Shakespeare's tale of bigotry and greed. Make a double feature of this and Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1965) — a brilliant and similarly patched-together blend of five Shakespeare plays — and you'll understand why enthusiasts consider Welles the Bard's premier screen adaptor.
Out of Blue (2019) ****
Infused with cosmic questions about black holes, parallel universes and quantum mechanics, Out of Blueclearly wants to be something more than a murder mystery. But an intriguing plot, a moody New Orleans setting, and superb performances from a cast headed by Patricia Clarkson keep tugging this excellent film noir back to Earth — and that’s all for the best. Clarkson plays a hangdog homicide cop named MIke who's seen too many bodies and the bottoms of too many bottles of gin. But something about the murder of an astrophysicist (Mamie Gummer) in her rooftop observatory sets Mike on edge. The murder seems to mimic those of along-ago serial killer. Methodically, Mike begins questioning Jennifer’s colleagues — a collection of eggheads who insist on placing the astrophysicist’s death within the context of arcane scientific theories. In earlier years, movie detectives hearing this sort of stuff would have rolled their eyes — one can imagine Dirty Harry or Sam Spade growling out some disdainful rejoinder like “The only parallel universe I see is the one where you’re frying in the electric chair, Buddy.” But Mike takes the notion to heart.
Clarkson is, as always, riveting as the cop. And writer/director Carol Morley has assembled a superb supporting cast including James Caan, Jacki Weaver and Toby Jones. (FULL REVIEW)
Out of the Furnace (2013) ***
Christian Bale and Casey Affleck duke it out for acting Oscar nominations in this flint-edged story of two brothers raised in a Pennsylvania steel mill town. When a stab at backwoods boxing goes horribly wrong for one of them, the other stumbles to the rescue, encountering along the way a truly scary hillbilly, played with restrained sociopathic finesse by Woody Harrelson.
Pain and Glory (2019) ****
Few filmmakers infuse their films with more personal touches than Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education), but never has he colored inside the lines of autobiographical filmmaking more boldly than he does here. Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador, a Madrid film director who tries to reconnect with an actor from his earliest triumphs (Asier Etxeandia) — a man with whom he initiated a bitter split decades earlier. It's no accident the director is played by Banderas— with whom Almodóvar parted ways very publicly when the star decided to pursue success in Hollywood — nor that most of the movie's action was filmed in Almodóvar's real-life Madrid apartment (which, truth be told, is as strikingly bold as any movie set). The reunited men engage in a heroin-fueled reverie, during which Salvador is transported back to his impoverished childhood, cared for by his adoring mother (Penelope Cruz, channeling Sophia Loren in The River Girl). In these idyllic passages — the ravages of poverty seen through the innocent filters of a child — young Salvador is played by newcomer Asier Flores with a wide-eyed wonder that recalls the miraculous Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thieves. Pain and Glory is about memory, but it's also very much about living in the present: Salvador is nearly crippled by the pain of arthritis, his artistic senses dulled by narcotics. Only when he learns to live with the physical pain of his present and the emotional pains of his past can he move forward. As for Almodóvar, with this remarkable film he takes one more step toward being recognized as one of the singular directors of our time.
Paint It Black (2017) ***
Janet McTeer is chilling as a mother who blames her son's suicide on his grieving girlfriend (Alia Shawkat) (FULL REVIEW)
The Painted Veil (2006) ***
Edward Norton and Naomi Watts star as a mismatched British couple fighting a cholera epidemic in China. With Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber and lush cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
The Paper (1994) ****
Folded somewhere between The Post and The Front Page, Ron Howard's slam-bang story of a big-city editor (Michael Keaton) trying to do an end run around his paper's penny-pinching owner (Glenn Close) sparkles with fun nostalgia for the golden era of "Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!" Two decades later, it's an aching reminder of a time when print journalism was the heartbeat of every town in America.
Paranoia (2013) ***
A by-the-numbers plot ultimately foils this would-be thriller, but there’s still some fun to be had in watching Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford (in a skull-baring buzz cut!) go mano a mano as big business rivals.
Is it possible that Get Outwriter/director Jordan Peele and Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) are in a trans-Pacific competition to create the most socially significant horror movies of our time? With his latest film, Bong drills deep into the cultural and economic divides that are apparently as caustic to Korean society as they are to ours. Parasite introduces us to the poverty-stricken Kim family, living in squalor. But soon, through resourcefulness and downright deceit, they insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family, essentially taking over their lives. Things turn ugly, but no uglier than the real-life chasms that threaten to tear civilized society apart at the seams.
Paris Can Wait (2016) ***
Diane Lane is adorable as the wife of a much-too-busy movie producer (Alec Baldwin, sans orange hair for once!), who entrusts her to the care of a French pal (Arnaud Viard) for a one-day drive from Cannes to Paris. But this is France, so that quick hop turns into a multi-day romantic whirl as the two take in the country's most beautiful countryside and fantastic food. Directed by Eleanor Coppola, the 80-year-old wife of Francis Ford—making her first-ever feature film.
Parkland (2013) ***
This sometimes disjointed docudrama follows a slew of Dallas folks-famous and infamous-on the day JFK was shot. Marcia Gay Harden and Zac Efron play staff at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the President was rushed; Paul Giamatti is Abraham Zapruder, creator of the most famous home movie of all time; Jacki Weaver plays the mother of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) *****
Every film school nerd has marveled at the expressionist artistry of director Carl Dreyer and the transcendant performance of Renee Falconetti in this evocative account of St. Joan's final hours. Astonishingly modern yet hauntingly Medieval, this film created an entire volume of new cinematic language. Criterion Collection's new disc includes three musical scores and a new digital restoration.
Patti Cake$ (2017) **** The latest missive from that cauldron of suburban angst, New Jersey: Danielle McDonald is a revelation as white rapper Patricia Dumbrowski, a.k.a. Killer P., a.k.a. Patti Cake$. She dreams of stardom mostly as a way to escape her humdrum hometown. The film echoes Saturday Night Fever and 8 Mile, but McDonald and writer/director Geremy Gasper (Hillsdale, NJ's favorite son) bring a fresh cadence.
Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018) ****
First-rate performances propel this historical drama about the Apostle Paul (Game of Thrones' James Faulkner) and Gospel writer Luke (Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel). The two characters play off each other so effectively — discussing faith and fear within the confines of Paul's Rome prison cell — that we begin to resent the passages when co-writer/director Andrew Hyatt pulls us out into the light to show Paul's eventful life in flashback.(FULL REVIEW)
The Perfection ****
Director/cowriter Richard Shepard (Matador, Girls) borrows from all the right people in this mind-bending thriller about two young cello players (Allison Williams and Logan Browning) whose common bond is an unhealthy history with their musical mentor (Steven Weber). You'll hear and see echoes of Jordan Peele's Get Out, David Cronenberg's Crash, Todd Browning's Freaks and even Hitchcock's Vertigo. But mostly you'll be riveted to a Grand Guignol tale of smart, talented women who go to unhealthy — if necessary — extremes to break free of a male-dominated culture. It's #MeToo meets #You'reNext. On Netflix.
Personal Shopper (2016) ***
There are many eerie delights in Olivier Assayas' spooky story about a young woman (Kristen Stewart) haunted by the death of her twin brother. But nothing will prepare you for the truly harrowing scene in which Stewart's character finds herself texting with a possible ghost. Try not to jump each time the phone goes "bloop!"
Philomena (2013) ****
Judi Dench gives the performance of a lifetime as the title character, a woman seeking the son she gave up as a child. Steve Coogan, who also wrote the film’s moving and disarmingly funny script, costars as the investigative reporter who helps unravel the tangle of deceit and corruption that very nearly choked off the truth behind Philomena’s quest. Based on a true story.
Pirates of Somalia (2017) ****
Consider it Captain Phillips: The Rest of the Story. Writer/director Bryan Buckley, Oscar nominated for a short film set in Somalia, returns to that embattled nation with this true tale of a struggling writer (Evan Peters), who decides to make his own big break by heading to Somalia as a freelancer. He pursues a story about local pirates who commandeer cargo ships for ransom and discovers a human element he'd never dreamed of. Peters is extraordinary as an innocent who finds himself thrust into a lawless land where long history and current desperation mix. And Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for an Oscar as a Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips, brings authenticity to the role of the young man's guide through this little corner of Hell.
Poms (2019) **
The crime here is first-time feature director Zara Hayes has assembled a dream cast of accomplished actors — including Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Rhea Perlman, and Pam Grier — and trapped them in a slapdash, shockingly unfunny comedy about residents of a senior home who start a cheerleading team. Such a premise is fraught with the danger of infantilizing its main characters and trivializing the courage it can take to grow older gracefully — and film walks into each trap with blissful disregard.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) *****
A landmark in the ongoing revolution of female filmmakers, French writer/director Celine Sciamma’s story of a 19th Century portrait artist and the woman she is commissioned to paint brings a soft, feminine passion seldom captured on screen. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, with haunted round eyes and exquisitely calibrated performances, bring to their roles portraits of studied desperation, crushed beneath centuries of societal expectations. (FULL REVIEW)
The Post (2017) ****
Meryl Streep is Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, Tom Hanks is editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, and Steven Spielberg is the director — and that's about all you need to know about this dynamite newspaper saga. We find Graham facing twin, intertwined crises: Her editor wants to take on the Nixon administration by excerpting the notorious Pentagon Papers right at the moment when she's trying to take the family-owned newspaper public. In the course of the ordeal, Streep's Graham transforms from an uncertain CEO bullied by her male board members into a full-voiced authoritarian who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to get some ink on her hands to make it happen. Meanwhile, Hanks' Bradlee is an ambitious but pragmatic newshound who's equally at home dealing with both extremes of his boss's personality spectrum. Best of all, Spielberg evokes the slam-bang spirit of old-time newspaper work, from the looming once-a-day deadlines to the pneumatic office tubes to the rumble of a giant press in the basement, signaling the end of one news cycle and the start of another. (FULL REVIEW)
Prisoners (2013) ****
This gritty crime drama stars Hugh Jackman as a distraught Georgia dad who kidnaps the guy he believes abducted his 6-year-old daughter. It’s the old vigilante dad story, all right, but get a load of the rest of the cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Paul Dano.
A Private War (2018) ***
Anyone who has made the acquaintance of a dedicated foreign war correspondent will recognize the pathologies at work in A Private War, the true story of legendary Times of London reporter Marie Colvin. As played by Rosamund Pike — her voice lowered to the point where it seems to be coming from the bottom of a dry well — Colvin is addicted to the horrifying thrills of the battlefield the way so many other film characters these days are hooked on opiates and booze. Yet long after her heart has let up pumping gallons of adrenaline to her extremities, the debilitating effects of PTSD set in, haunting her dreams both sleeping and waking. Pike's is a pulse-pounding performance. Unfortunately, it's embedded in a film that offers no real story arc but simply takes the character from one living hell to another. Colvin hurls herself headlong into an endless series conflicts, endangering not only herself for everyone around her. When she's not dodging bullets, she's haunting hotel lobbies and hobnobbing with fellow war scribes — bedding many of them with battlefield-like fury. It's a deadly, exhausting cycle that offers little reward for the viewer other than a cavalcade of atrocities leading to an inevitable, tragic conclusion.
Puerto Ricans in Paris (2016) ***
Luiz Guzman and Edgar Garcia don't quite translate as New York cops on the Seine (FULL REVIEW)
Pure Country, Pure Heart (2017) ***
This gentle, music-infused family drama follows two Tennessee teens (Amanda Detmer and Kaitlyn Bausch) as they try to learn family secrets about their dad, who died a hero in Afghanistan. The drama is heartfelt and the music (by the girls and costars Ronny Cox and Willie Nelson) goes down easy.
The Quiet One **** (2019)
The Rolling Stones were the Bad Boys of the British Invasion, but while Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards cranked up the sexual energy onstage and fueled their happy hedonism with drugs and booze, off to the side stood tall, serene Bill Wyman, plucking away at his bass guitar, staring off into the distance beyond the screaming fans, and heading home to his country house where he doted on his young son. That, at least, is the narrative posited by this music-packed documentary that draws upon Wyman’s exhaustive collection of home movies, interviews, and concert footage amassed during his 31 years as a Stone (he retired from the band in 1993). We find him in the present day, hunched over a computer screen scanning old photos, surrounded by shelves of cameras, props, costumes, and gold records. Wyman is an amiable tour guide through the Stones’ story, and he comes off very much like a kindly grandfather regaling his grandkids with outrageous war stories. There’s rock-and-roll bombast aplenty in the film, but the best moment is one of the quietest, when Wyman tries to tell about the night his hero, Ray Charles, invited him to play bass on his next record. “I turned him down,” says Wyman, fairly bursting into tears. “I told him, ‘I’m not good enough.’”
A Quiet Passion (2017) ***
Cynthia Nixon beguiles as Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ portrait of the poet, whose steadfast self-assurance utterly scandalized the upper crust of 19th century Massachusetts.
A Quiet Place (2018) *****
Writer/director/star John Krasinski (The Office) weaves a taut web of terrror in this sci-fi drama about a family being stalked by viscious alien creatures drawn by the sound of their voices. Krasinski and Emily Blunt are heroic as the parents; as their children deaf actress Millicent Simmonds (so wonderful in Wonderstruck) and Noah Jupe are heartbreakingly brave.
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