Us **** (Pictured Above)
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.
Dragged Across Concrete ****
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play a pair of down-on-their-luck cops who rationalize their way into making one illegal score, and they make an intriguing, dead-eyed couple. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler specializes in graphic, hyper-violent storylines — but he tempers our revulsion by creating complex, conflicted characters who speak with a lyrical, almost hypnotic sort of street poetry. Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, Dragged Across Concrete is positively operatic in its over-the-top set pieces. But it seldom seems to drag, thanks to intense, reflective performances by a fine cast. (FULL REVIEW)
Out of Blue ****
Infused with cosmic questions about black holes, parallel universes and quantum mechanics, Out of Blue clearly 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)
The Aftermath ***
A year after the end of World War II, a no-nonsense British officer, played by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), is assigned to oversee the recovery of Hamburg. The city was virtually leveled by Allied bombs and people are literally starving in the streets, still the officer brings along his breathtaking wife (Keira Knightley) to take up residence in the mansion of an impossibly handsome German architect (Alexander Skarsgård). Then he promptly heads out of town on official business — leaving the two to steam up the windows of the lavish estate. The Aftermath is a potboiler of the first magnitude, with pretty people and a lavish locale. History? Don’t worry, there’ll be no quiz afterward.
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)
If Beale Street Could Talk ***** (Pictured Above)
By all rights, the story of a passionately devoted Harlem couple torn apart by racism and hatred should leave its audience stupefied with despair. But in his triumphant screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1973 novel, visionary writer/director Barry Jenkins harnesses Baldwin’s ear for the poetry of everyday life to create a film that miraculously manages to be an affirmation of the human spirit. (FULL REVIEW)
Mary Poppins Returns *****
Remember at the end of Mary Poppins, when Bert the Chimneysweep gazes into the windy London sky and says, "Goodbye, Mary Poppins! Don't stay away too long!" For 9-year-old me, that line started the clock ticking for what I considered the inevitable sequel to Walt Disney's instant 1964 classic. That wait proved to be longer than I expected, but happily, Mary Poppins Returns is well worth the wait; every bit as good as the original and in some ways better. As Ms. Poppins, Emily Blunt lacks Julie Andrews' soaring voice, but she makes up for it in embodying the smoky mystery that surrounds the magical nanny. With her chin tucked down, her eyes peering out mischievously from under her wide-brimmed hat, Blunt's Poppins is a lilting invitation to embrace the unexpected. We're told early on that her old pal Bert — played by Dick Van Dyke lo those many years ago — is off on a world tour. But we thoroughly enjoy the company of his great-nephew, a lamplighter named Jack (played with back-row-reaching enthusiasm by Hamilton creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda). The film closely follows the template of the original, with a fantastical leap into a bubble bath sea and a visit to a comically quirky relative (Meryl Streep, singing her little heart out). Master musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago) lends this film a masterful continuity that the original Poppins lacked, but he never loses sight of the film's essential mission: To entertain all ages while splashing happily in the puddles of childhood fantasy. (FULL REVIEW)
Fanboy **** (On Amazon Prime)
Director Gillian Greene (Murder of a Cat) fashions the madcap story of a South Carolina video store clerk (Fran Kranz) who heads to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. Like most TinselTown newcomers, he bangs his head against one wall after another — but Krans never lets down his amiable mask of boundless optimism. Plus, he gets to meet an all-star cameo cast including J.K. Simmons, David Paymer, Grimm's Reggie Lee, Grown-Ish's Emilly Arlook and director Sam Raimi.
Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, nightmarish, perversely enthralling film about a French dance troupe tripping out on LSD is definitely not for everybody — and maybe not for anybody. Still, there’s no denying the director’s diabolic skill at ushering his audience from one circle of Hell to another…and in fact sparking anticipation of what new awful, can’t-unsee-it spectacle is lurking just around the next dark corner. (FULL REVIEW)
Nicole Kidman may well be the first performer to deserve Oscars for both Best Actress and Best Supporting actress — for the same role in the same movie. In this gritty, violent, yet deeply emotional crime drama, Kidman stars as a Los Angeles detective in two life stages: as a young cop in over her head during an undercover operation that goes horribly wrong…and years later, spiraling into a hell of heartbreak and booze as a result. The little-known supporting cast is splendid, but Kidman — nearly unrecognizable in the skeletal, dark-eyed latter role — is a force of nature as she rages against the bad guys, the universe, and herself.
Writer/director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) plays his audience like a fiddle with this old-fashioned, twisty thriller with plenty of jumps, scares, and a supremely satisfying wrap-up. Isabelle Huppert is galvanizing as a seemingly sweet “old lady” (and it’s got to be the first time anyone has ever called her that), who becomes obsessed with a young Manhattan woman (Chloe Grace Moretz). (FULL REVIEW)
The Hummingbird Project ***
You can choose to watch this techno thriller in one of two ways. On one hand you can marvel at the technical and logistical challenge of digging a perfectly straight trench between Kansas and New York City, laying a fiber optic cable in it, and then hooking it up to a computerized stock-buying program that enables traders to stay a millisecond ahead of their competition. Or you can just sit back and enjoy watching Jesse Eisenberg do his insecure genius thing, stuttering and stammering as his character battles impossible odds and a manic ex-boss (Salma Hyek) to complete the project before his impatient creditors slam the door on the project. I prefer the latter: Eisenberg is always fun to watch, Hyek chews the scenery with gusto, and writer/director Kim Nguyen helps us not to feel too dumb.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase **** (Pictured Above)
Captain Marvel may be the most powerful superhero in the Marvelverse, but this screen incarnation of America’s favorite teenaged detective gives us permission to celebrate a world where the only superpowers anyone needs are intelligence, curiosity, compassion and kindness.
Nancy is played with homespun good humor by Sophia Lillis, America’s latest It Girl — which is to say she was the girl in the Stephen King thriller It. After spending her earliest years in the Big City, our hero has been transplanted as her lawyer dad (True Blood hunk Sam Trammell), still grieving the recent death of Nancy’s mom, sets up shop in the sleepy town of River Heights.
Actually, the town only seems sleepy — until restless Nancy gets to work solving the mystery of a seemingly haunted house, owned by an eccentric but lovable former burlesque dancer (Linda Lavin, who we can never get enough of). As a bonus, the weird goings-on might also be linked to the shadowy figures who have been threatening Nancy’s dad over his opposition to a train line plowing through town.
Don’t look for too many startling twists in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase — the plot faithfully predates the present era’s demands that young adult fiction churn with angst and burn with post-apocalyptic menace. (FULL REVIEW)
On the Basis of Sex ***
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.
Stan & Ollie ****
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 Upside ****
Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart make a delightful odd couple in this based-on-fact buddy picture. Cranston stars as a bitterly depressed Manhattan businessman who’s been paralyzed in an accident. Verging on suicidal, he hires a decidedly unqualified ex-con (Hart) as his caregiver, half-hoping the guy will accidentally kill him. Of course they get off to a rough start, but also of course they become the best of friends, learning from each other that life brings rewards no matter how the odds are stacked against you. Nicole Kidman flits in and out as the long-suffering, Harvard-educated executive assistant who clearly has a thing for her oblivious boss. Yes, the critics will howl that this is just another in a long line of Hollywood "Magic Negro" films, in which a benign Black character rescues a socially superior White person from himself while allowing the audience to wallow in self-deceptive pseudo-tolerance. To that I say pshaw. And balderdash. The Upside is about friendship, finding it in unexpected places, and surrendering to its irreplaceable charms.
By the time Christian Bale finally released his grip on me at the end of this breathless, irreverent biography of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, I understood how audiences must have felt after seeing George C. Scott star in Patton: This was not just a performance; this was a landmark moment in movie history. Bale doesn't just disappear into the role of the growling, scowling VP; he embodies an entire era of American culture. Hijacking the Presidency of George W. Bush (brilliantly inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who was born for the part), Bale's Cheney follows an internal compass whose magnetic north is his own ambition, tempered somewhat by his devotion to his wife (a brilliant Amuy Adams) and daughters. Writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short) brings his usual bag of narrative tricks to bear, but he can't overshadow Bale's monumental performance. Opposite any other leading man, Steve Carell would have stolen the show as Cheney's smiling, savvy mentor, Donald Rumsfeld.
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