The story of a massive space ship thrown off course while shuttling thousands of Earthlings to Mars is a haunting and harrowing meditation on the course of civilization. Swedish co-writer/co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja set their story on Aniara, the ultimate cruise ship, where passengers alternate between gorging at all-you-can-eat restaurants and shopping at high-end boutiques. Even after disaster strikes, that instinct for accumulation dies hard as the passengers, beyond any hope of rescue, continue to consume the ship’s limited resources. Yes, the themes of Earthly despoliation lurk behind a veil as wispy as a nebula (the captain comments, “We’ve created our own little planet”) — but the film’s fantastic vision and utterly committed cast make this one unforgettable cruise. It’s a one-way trip, of course, ending on a note that there’s always hope for life — if not necessarily life from Earth.
Charlie Says ***
Fifty years after Charles Manson’s “family” traumatized the world with the Tate/LaBianca murders, director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has found a surprisingly relevant way to revisit the grisly events: Through the eyes of the women Manson somehow hypnotized into carrying out the slaughter. Set three years after the 1969 murders, the film follows a graduate student (Nurse Jackie’s Merritt Wever) who’s been assigned to teach women’s studies classes to three of Manson’s former acolytes, now serving life sentences in a California prison. The women — Leslie Van Houten (Game of Thrones’Hannnah Murray) Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) — are still blindly devoted to “Charlie.” But the instructor is determined open their eyes to the awful implications of what they’ve done — even if that means shattering their blissful delusions and dooming them to a lifetime of crippling guilt. Former Dr. Who star Matt Smith seems an odd choice to play Charlie in the film’s difficult-to-watch flashbacks, but he admirably avoids revisiting the over-the-top Manson portrayals we’ve become used to. Smith’s Manson is disarmingly gentle and alarmingly reassuring as he woos these aimless young women into his orbit — and even when his black hole of evil becomes evident, this Manson remains undeniably charismatic.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle *** (Pictured Above)
Moody and mysterious, director Stacie Passon’s lovingly crafted thriller about two traumatized sisters and their wheelchair-bound uncle living in the wake of a torturous murder has moments of chilling beauty. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House), the film has a decidedly Victorian feel as the main characters move among the delicately furnished rooms of their gabled mansion. The girls’ parents were killed via arsenic, a murder that was initially pinned on the older daughter (luminous Alexandra Daddario), but which could just as easily have been committed by the younger (nerve-wracking Taissa Farmiga). No matter the culprit, the family has been shunned by the nearby townsfolk, who were already predisposed to hate the family because of their wealth. The movie seems to be saying something about class warfare and society’s blind fear of the Other, but mostly it’s a showcase for Passon, her cinematographer Piers McGrail, her two lead actresses — and especially Crispin Glover as the uncle, desperately trying to make sense of the murders before he slips permanently into dementia.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ***
Terry Gilliam spent 25 years trying to realize his vision of a modern-day Don Quixote still fighting windmills across the rugged landscape of Spain. The final product is, if not a masterpiece on a par with his earlier classics (Brazil, Time Bandits), it’s a story well-told by a superb cast. Adam Driver stars as a TV commercial director named Toby who, through a series of mishaps, finds himself in the company of an old man (Jonathan Pryce) who is convinced he is the legendary Don Quixote. There’s much adventure and misunderstanding, and a few spectacular set pieces that recall Gilliam’s glory days as Hollywood’s most visionary director.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché ****
The men of Hollywood would just as soon you never hear this, but the first person to direct a narrative film was a woman: Alice Guy-Blaché of Paris. Prior to Alice’s arrival, the movie guys — most notably the Lumiere Brothers — only trained their cameras on street scenes. And for audiences, it was quite enough to watch a steam train pull into a station, or a shift of workers exit their factory. But Guy-Blaché, who was working as the secretary to the owner of a camera company, wanted to try storytelling with the camera. In 1895 she got her boss to lend her one — and for the next decade, she was not only perhaps the only female filmmaker in the world, she was a restless innovator. In her 1,000-plus films, she experimented with sound, color tinting, interracial casts and special effects. Jodie Foster narrates this illuminating documentary about history’s most important unknown filmmaker.
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.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, And Vile **** (Pictured Above)
Director Joe Berlinger already has a wall covered with Oscar and Emmy nominations for his outstanding documentary series Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper. Now in his first feature film — based on a book by Liz Kendall, the girlfriend of serial killer Ted Bundy — Berlinger proves to be a crack narrative director, as well. He’s aided by outstanding performances from a cast that's full of surprises. Former kid star Zac Efron (High School Musical) is an inspired choice to play Bundy, who used his boyish charms to lure at least 30 women to their deaths. Lily Collins, who played Snow White opposite Julia Roberts’ wicked queen a few years back, is all saucer-eyed and credulous as sweet, lovesick Liz. Berlinger, who plays a small role himself, sweetens the pot by offering familiar faces in pitch-perfect cameos. Watch for Haley Joel Osment, another former child star, as a truly decent co-worker who has a crush on Liz…Big Bang Theory superstar Jeff Parsons as the prosecuting attorney…and especially John Malkovich, with laser eyes and a perfectly modulated voice, as the judge. Malkovich gets the film's best lines and he makes the most of them, particularly when pronouncing sentence. That's when he gets to describe the essence of Bundy with words that serve as the film’s title: “Extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile.”
Tito And The Birds ****
From Brazilian animators Gabriel Bitar and Andre Catoto comes one of the most magical films of any year, the story of a young boy in a desperate search for the cure to an epidemic. The disease in question is a bizarre affliction that strikes anyone who is seized by fear: They turn into helpless rocks. To make matters worse, fear is running rampant through Tito's country due to the angry rants of the nation's leader, who seems unaware of the trouble he's causing. Yes, it's a cautionary tale, but the animation and characters are so engaging the lessons become secondary to the film's utter charm.
All Is True ****
The last days of William Shakespeare have always been clouded in mystery. In the intriguing drama All is True, director/star Kenneth Branagh engages in some heavy speculation as to how the Bard came to shed his mortal coil. We find 51-year-old Will (Branagh, looking uncannily Shakespeare-like) puttering in his garden in 1616, turning away admirers and still grieving over the long-ago death of his young son Hamnet. He does still have two grown daughters (Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson), but they’re not much comfort to him — nor is his long-suffering wife Anne (Judi Dench). You’d expect the script — by longtime Mr. Bean writer Ben Elton — to be a bit wittier, if not madcap. But as director, Branagh walks us through the story with the patience of a gardener pointing out his favorite flowers — in this case a series of sterling performances, especially by Ian McKellan as an old friend who drops by to trade recitations of Will’s sonnets. All is True may or may not be true, but as the immortal words roll off these two masters’ tongues, the authenticity of Shakespeare’s genius is unmistakable.
Ask Dr. Ruth ****
For most of us, sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born the day she ambled onto the set of Late Night With David Letterman in the early 1980s. But by then she’d already lead a remarkable life: Born in Germany, she was sent to live at a Swiss orphanage for Jewish children, one step ahead of the Holocaust that eventually killed both her parents. Shipped off to Palestine after the war, she trained as a sniper to defend her kibbutz against armed Arabs. She married and moved to Paris, where the Sorbonne offered scholarships to young Jewish people who’d been deprived education by the Nazis. Then it was off to New York, a degree in psychology, a stint at Planned Parenthood — and then, because no one else in her office was willing to do it, a gig hosting a weekly 15-minute midnight radio show focusing on sexuality. The rest, as they say, is history, and director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda) pretty much sits back and lets his chatty subject fill in the blanks. There’s no better company than the 90-year-old professor, largely because she stubbornly sticks to her upbeat persona — refusing to reflect on the tragedies of her life. That makes for fun conversation, but in the end you get the nagging feeling that there are some things Dr. Ruth won’t discuss, no matter how many times you ask.
Emmy-nominated This Is Us star Chrissy Metz proves her big-screen acting chops in this powerful drama based on a true story. She plays Joyce Smith, a Missouri mom whose teen son (Marcel Ruiz of the One Day at a Time reboot) falls through a frozen lake, is fished out 15 minutes later, and still has no pulse over an hour after the accident. Mom’s anguished prayer sparks a blip on the ER heart monitor, and pretty soon even the boy’s doctor (Dennis Haysbert) is using the M word. Director Roxann Dawson, whose work includes episodes of House of Cards and The Americans, draws a poignant picture of a family driven by faith but not immune to the pain of crises.
The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbo is as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick. First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes. Are we having fun yet? (FULL REVIEW)
Gloria Bell *****
Is it too early to start a short list for next year’s Best Actress Oscar? I don’t care—just pencil in Julianne Moore for her 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)
Meeting Gorbachev ****
You know ‘80s nostalgia has really kicked in when you find yourself at a documentary about the Soviet Union’s last president — and sort of longing for the good old days of the Evil Empire. Warner Herzog is an amiable interviewer, sitting down with the then 85-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, who has lost none of the jovial bonhomme that endeared him to his countrymen as well as his geopolitical rival Ronald Reagan. Most striking is footage of the “young” 53-year-old Gorbachev taking his place on the Politboro, a human dynamo compared to the decrepit old men flanking him. It soon becomes clear he will be elevated to the top spot if only because he probably won’t die in the next year or two.
Missing Link ****
An unqualified delight, this stop-action animated film (from the studio that created the splendid Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline) packs endless surprises into its brisk hour-and-a-half, a raucous high adventure buddy comedy about a Victorian era explorer (stuffily voiced by Hugh Jackman) who befriends Bigfoot. There are grownup delights aplenty, from the glorious color palate to the refreshingly angular character design. Best of all is the sparkling voice work of Zach Galifianakis, who breathes humor and innocence into Mr. Link. Writer/director Chris Butler paces his story perfectly, allowing Frost and Link plenty of room to develop a sweet if sometimes combative friendship. (FULL REVIEW)
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.
Red Joan ****
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.
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)
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.
Tolkien *** (Pictured Above)
A strong central performance from Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) can't breathe life into this by-the-numbers telling of the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose traumatic experience during World War I gave rise to the fantastic realms he created in his Lord of the Rings books. Superfans of the Middle Earth novels may delight in meeting the real-life figures on which Tolkien based his characters, and the author's romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) is sweet, but for better or for worse, a trip to the movies these days demands something more than a Masterpiece Theatre gloss .
Writer/director Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out was unlike any other horror movie we’d ever seen — but his new film is in some ways similar to just about every other horror movie we’ve ever seen. And that's not a bad thing.
In Us, you’ll find echoes of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Jaws — and, yes, even Get Out.
Still, Peele is such a skilled storyteller—and his cast is so appealing—that it’s impossible not to be pulled into this creepy tale of a family grappling with the appearance of another family that looks a lot like them — in zombiefied sort of way. As he did in Get Out, Peele again touches on the state of American society— this time he’s warning about the ticking time bomb of America’s growing permanent underclass. But mostly he’s here to scare the dickens out of us. And that he does.
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