Falling **** (Pictured Above)
Viggo Mortensen has spent his career fashioning vivid portraits of conflicted, complex characters—now he has written and directed a film that provides uncannily rich roles not only for himself but also a truly gifted ensemble. In Falling, Martinsen stars as John, a Los Angeles urbanite who returns to the family farm—a place to which he long ago cut his emotional ties. He’s there to relocate his estranged father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), who is in the early stages of dementia. The old man’s stubborn resistance, born of a hardscrabble life in the Heartland, is made no easier by the fact that John arrives with his husband and daughter. Martinsen’s gentle script humanely guides his characters through their various self-discoveries—but by far the biggest surprise here is 80-year-old Henriksen, veteran of some 260 movies and TV shows, who bursts onto the screen as a where-have-you-been-all-our-lives revelation.
At the same time many of us were thrilling to the exploits of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. every Sunday night on The F.B.I., the actual Federal Bureau of Investigation was imposing the power of a surveillance state on leaders of America’s Civil Rights movement—most notably its spiritual and political leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In this, the most infuriating documentary of the year, director Sam Pollard (Four Little Girls) mines recently declassified records to build a profound cinematic indictment of J. Edgar Hoover and his long line of White House enablers. Few directors are as nimble combining historic footage with vintage film clips and contemporary interviews. The hanging question: Just how far removed are we from those bad old days?
The Dig ***
Few screen actors reward your attention more reliably that Ralph Fiennes, and he’s charming company indeed in this based-on-fact historical drama, set in late-1930s England. He plays Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist who’s hired by landowner Edith Pretty (Carrey Mulligan) to excavate a strange-looking mound on her property. Mulligan, displaying the intelligent charm that swept us all away in An Education, holds the film’s center as a woman whose unquenchable curiosity drives one of history’s most significant archaeological discoveries.
Malcolm & Marie ***
Movies and TV are taking on what I’m starting to call a distinctive “COVID-19 Look:” Films made during the pandemic tend to focus on a minimal number of characters, and an awful lot of filming seems to be done through telephoto lenses—particularly group shots, in which the lens foreshortens the image, making everyone seem a lot closer together than they really are. The result fools the eye, but the result is a flat, almost claustrophobic look. For this black-and-white snapshot of one night in a troubled relationship, writer/director Sam Levinson (TV’s Euphoria) makes splendid use of the medium’s temporary limitations, creating a domestic drama that is at once timeless and of the moment. Malcolm (BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington), a movie director, has just returned home with Marie (Euphoria’s Zendaya) after a glorious night on the red carpet. But when the black-tie finery comes off, so do the pretenses surrounding their relationship. In tone and look, the film conjures favorable comparisons to Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?”
Wild Mountain Thyme ***
Its got a poster that virtually plagiarizes the defiantly soapy The Notebook; its quirky triangle of could-be lovers is played by the endlessly appealing Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan and John Hamm; its script has been populated with a sweetly oddball family from John Patrick Shanley, the guy who wrote Moonstruck—and it’s got Christopher Walken adapting his trademark cadences to an Irish brogue. If this isn’t a movie made for your Date Night, maybe Date Night’s just not your thing. Look for our old friend Dana Delany playing in the pub band.
Some Kind of Heaven ****
In his take-no-prisoners deep dive into the life and times of The Villages in central Florida, documentarian Lance Oppenheim offers this poignant cinematic reassurance that many of us made the right choice in retiring here instead of there. Lured by promises of latter-day Nirvana, the sprawling retirement community’s golf cart-driving denizens seem unusually susceptible to letting others get under their briefcase-like skin. There’s drug abuse, there’s marital discord…and there’s the guy who’s living in his van waiting to find just the right rich widow to take him in.
Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words ***
It would seem impossible that, on the heels of the worshipful 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary RBG and the adoring biopic On The Basis of Sex, there would be much more to say about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on screen. Still, making use of rare film and audio clips, five-time Oscar-nominated documentarian Freida Lee Mock has nurtured a distinctively intimate portrait of the late justice. What’s more, pushing beyond Ginsburg’s own compelling narrative, Mock spends thoughtful time with women whose lives would have been, quite simply, unthinkable without Ginsburg’s pioneering career.
The Little Things ***
Denzel Washington is barely making a movie a year these days, so when he plays an amalgam of the oldest tropes in the cop movie genre—a burnt-out, play-by-his-own-rules veteran who returns from exile to help solve that one murder case that got away from him—we know there’s no way this is going to spin out like some 1980s B-movie. And we’re right: Washington’s soft-spoken, easy-smiling officer with a growing paunch and an explosive temper is a bundle of contradictions, a crime solver driven by demons known only to himself and a handful of long-ago co-conspirators. As he proved in his Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic pilot in Flight, Washington is the kind of actor whose demeanor allows us to think we’re reading his character’s mind. Then he pulls back the curtain to reveal that, while we may have been half-right, we were also somehow all wrong. FULL REVIEW
Penguin Bloom ***
Seriously, if you cannot find it in your heart to draw enjoyment from the sweet-natured true story of a profoundly depressed woman who rediscovers joy thanks to a wounded magpie she nurses back to health, there is some dark hole in your soul that needs attending to straight away. Naomi Watts, as serious a screen actor as you will find, brings undeniable weight to the role of Sam Bloom, an Australian woman who was paralyzed form the waist down following an accident. With little planned for her future other than to spend the next 50 years or so cursing at the world that betrayed her, Sam finds purpose in caring for a feathery fluff ball discovered, abandoned and sickly, found by her three young sons and named Penguin. Sometime after the rest of us have all grasped that Penguin is a feathery allegory for her own situation, Sam begins to rediscover the supremely human dynamic of needing others while simultaneously being needed. FULL REVIEW
Visually sumptuous, intellectually complex and endlessly entertaining, Disney/Pixar's latest tackles nothing less than the question of whether the ultimate nature of our true self is determined by our personal passions or our conscious relationship to the world around us. Huh? Relax. There’s also a wisecracking sidekick and a funny cat.
Joe (wonderfully voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle aged middle school music teacher who has never lost his burning ambition to be a full-time jazz pianist. But as life would have it, on the very day he finally gets his big break he falls down an open manhole and finds himself on a conveyor belt to Heaven. Or someplace like Heaven. Luckily for us, he doesn’t quite get to the Afterlife, as he bolts from the belt, plunges into a dark abyss, and lands in a cottony, colorful realm that is best described as the Beforelife, where souls dally before being born. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Orpheus and Eurydice, Soul is a round-trip of mind-bending fantasy. FULL REVIEW
The Court Jester (1955) **** (Pictured Above)
I'm beginning to fear we might lose Danny Kaye. Among the most natural entertainers of his era, a consummate song-and-dance man and physically reckless clown, his talents best served those of us lucky enough to see him on his Peabody Award-winning 1960s variety show or, better yet, live on stage. As similar talents like Carol Channing and Nathan Lane would learn decades later, the movies richly reward those who know how to establish intimacy with their audience—but often don't know precisely what to do with singular talents that seem determined to grab viewers by the throat and throttle them into submission. Kaye made some good movies (my favorite being The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and there are many who consider 1955's The Court Jester—now available on Blu-ray for the firs time—not only his best film, but also one of the top movie musicals ever made. It's a Kaye vehicle from the first frame: The star, in a jester's outfit, sings a humorous patter song during the opening credits, making in-jokes about how songwriters Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine (Kaye's wife) should split up their credits, and poking fun at the fact that the film has two directors (frequent collaborators Norman Panama and Melvin Frank). Then it's off to the races with a complicated story about Kaye's nebbishy character, a humorous sidekick to a dashing Robin Hood-type bandit, who rises to hero status himself as he helps defeat a cruel king who is determined to murder a baby, the sole heir to the throne he usurped in a bloody coup. And that's just a thumbnail summary. There's also a running gag about hypnotism and a birth mark on a baby's butt. Basil Rathbone, years removed from his defining role as the Sheriff of Nottingham opposite Errol Flynn, seems to be having a great time as the villain. Shot primarily on a studio set, The Court Jester has a decidedly high school musical feel about it, albeit one that employs one of the century's great performers, an angelic young Angela Lansbury, and an army of small actors who seem to be attending a Wizard of Oz reunion.
The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (1990-2020) ****
Sixteen years after his masterpiece, The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola got most of the band back together to pay one more visit to the Corleone family—not so much to push the Godfather saga into another chapter as to reflect on the themes of the first two films. Critics were lying in wait, like Peter Clemenza lurking in the back seat of Michael Corleone's car to garrote Carlo Rizzi. But Godfather III was never a bad film, and now Coppola has made it even better, trimming the slow-moving opening, rearranging some scenes, and doing away with the gold "nostalgia" haze that distracted from the masterful cinematography of Gordon Willis. FULL REVIEW
Nomadland ***** (Pictured Above)
A Grapes of Wrath for the 2020s, writer/director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland offers a strikingly intimate portrait of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman picking her way through the harsh — yet surprisingly rich — subculture of older American transient workers. The film never seeks sympathy for its hardscrabble subjects; instead, it embraces the human yearning for something more than mere survival, finding beauty in the mundane; heroism in the day-to-day. The authenticity of Nomadland’s universe is heightened by director Zhao’s decision to cast genuine modern nomads to play themselves. But if Nomadland bears the marks of real lives being lived before our eyes, Zhao’s lush cinematic vision serves as a constant reminder that we are in the hands of a master filmmaker. Her collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards not only evokes the visual language of John Ford and Terrence Malick, it stands beside those directors’ very best work. FULL REVIEW