*** Solo (Pictured Above)
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.
**** Mary Shelley
Elle Fanning continues to emerge as one of our most versatile screen actors in this biopic of the woman who defied gender roles to write Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. (FULL REVIEW)
**** Die Hard (1988)
Most of us just knew Bruce Willis as Cybill Shepherd's sidekick on TV's Moonlighting — until he took us all by surprise in this over-the-top action thriller set in a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve. As New York cop John McClane, Willis wedded his wise-guy TV persona with a touch of John Wayne and a pinch of Jackie Chan. It appears he'll be making Die Hard sequels until he actually dies, but Willis earned that right with this indelible original.
*** Avengers: Infinity War
Fans will get what they pay for in this epic accumulation of every Marvel hero, all of them doing battle with the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin, all made up for Halloween). For the rest of us, the film plays more like a lot of big-name stars jockeying for screen time.
**** Bobby Kennedy For President On Netflix
"He was the saddest man I ever saw," says one old acquaintance in Dawn Porter's exhaustive and heartbreakingly intimate portrait of JFK's younger brother. RFK emerges as a man who at first reveled in his life of privilege — then saw it as a mechanism for helping the underprivileged find their footing in a frequently cruel society. Porter mined more than 1,000 archival sources for her film and sound clips, and the four-hour format allows her to let Bobby's complex personality unspool with uncommon subtlety.
*** Book Club
The main reason to see this unwieldy buddy comedy is the presence of its legendary stars: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen. Granted, they’re not given much of substance to do in the story of four old friends whose monthly book club meetings have been going on since college — and who are scandalized (in a supposedly good way) by their latest selection, Fifty Shades of Gray. The script and direction by Bill Holderman clunk along at an awkward pace as the four giggle and snort at Gray’s spicier passages and then attempt to apply its anything-goes worldview to their own lives. One can only imagine what other literary monuments this easily influenced foursome have digested over the past decades, and shudder at how they may have bent themselves to conformity with them. Still, no one spits out a punchline with more acid than Bergen, or evokes easy charm more glowingly than Keaton. On the other hand, Steenburgen is given a thankless role as a sex-starved housewife and Fonda, her body as hard as her glare, ends up being arm candy for a remarkably well-preserved Don Johnson.
*** Borg vs. McEnroe
Swedish star Sverir Gudnason brings haunted intensity to the role of tennis ace Bjorn Borg, facing his personal demons while squaring off against 1980s bad boy John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). Despite their personality differences, the film implies, the two were very much the same. Stellan Skarsgard is outstanding as Borg's father figure coach.
Director John Curran's account of the night Ted Kennedy (Jason Clark) left Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) for dead in a submerged car depicts the tragedy as something of a character-building experience. By the final fade-out, we're left wondering just what kind of character gets built on a foundation of entitlement and rationalization.
***** The Death of Stalin
As dark as a comedy gets, and possibly as profound, this account of the frantic repositioning that accompanied the death of Russia's brutal dictator is mercilessly co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep). His superb cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin, bring performances that drip with deadpan doom. (FULL REVIEW)
** Duck Butter
It's hard to imagine that a film about two young women (Laia Costa and Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) who vow to have sex with each other every hour for 24 hours would at least be interesting. But director/co-writer Miguel Arteta has managed the seemingly impossible: After a half-hour with this self-absorbed pair, we'd prefer twin vows of celibacy — and silence.
*** A Fantastic Woman
In this closely observed tale of a Chilean transgender woman, Daniela Vega plays Marina, a waitress who finds herself on the outside looking in when her live-in lover (Franisco Reyes), dies suddenly. Director/co-writer Sebastian Lelio seems a bit too quick to demonize those who find themselves confused by Marina. It all adds up to a d distressingly dark vision of a world that may simply need to take a deep breath of two before extending a wholehearted embrace.
***** First Reformed (Pictured Above)
The power of restrained filmmaking is in full force in writer/director Paul Schrader’s quietly compelling story of the minister at a small Upstate New York church (Ethan Hawke) facing a Job-like series of crises involving his faith, his health, and his relationships. He’s approached by a sad-eyed, pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband (Philip Ettenger) wants her to have an abortion rather than raise their child in an ecologically doomed world. The pastor makes a house call, and for a full 10 minutes the two men engage in a discussion that brilliantly links the ethereal with the earthly, the divine with the decrepit. It’s just one wondrous scene in a film that offers thoughtful surprises — some shocking, others sublime — from the first frame to the last. The superb supporting cast includes Cedric Kyles (better known to you as Cedric the Entertainer) as a megachurch pastor trying to figure the angles between serving God and mammon. The characters struggle not so much with the existence of God, but with their understanding of God’s nature, and His relationship with his creation. Schrader — whose Hall of Fame writing credits include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — has a keen ear for the hard questions believers ask when chirpy reassurances of God’s love and compassion start to ring a little hollow.
From Israel comes the quirky, funny and tragic story of a couple (Lior Askenazi and Sarah Adler) who get the worst possible news about their soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) — but then find out it was all a horrible mixup. It turns out Jonathan is alive but not necessarily well as he toughs it out at a remote and decrepit border checkpoint. (FULL REVIEW)
**** Game Night
Clever, playfully convoluted and featuring an endlessly appealing cast, it’s hard to imagine a movie being more fun. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a married couple who get together with friends every week for game night. Then then one week his jet-setting brother comes to town and sponsors an epic game night that may or may not involve an actual murder mystery. Writer Mark Perez mines the best elements of films like Date Night, After Hours, and David Fincher’s little-seen 1997 thriller The Game, starring Michael Douglas. But mostly, co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein let their stars roll the dice, scampering from scene to scene with frantic enthusiasm.
**** The House of Tomorrow
Ellen Burstyn stars as a former acolyte of architect/philosopher Buckminster Fuller — raising her grandson (Asa Buttrtfield) in a dome home while desperately trying to shield him from the corrupting outside world. But she doesn't figure on his unlikely friendship with a teen punk rocker (Alex Wolf). (FULL REVIEW)
**** How To Talk to Girls At Parties
Director and co-writer John Cameron Mitchell’s supremely imaginative tale of three teenaged punk rock pals encountering a colony of space aliens in 1977 Croydon, England, surprises and delights at every turn. His appealing cast is headed by Alex Sharp (evoking a young Hugh Grant) and Elle Fanning, whose doe-eyed luminescence draws even the most skeptical viewer into the film’s improbable yet engrossing story. (FULL REVIEW)
**** Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-action animation lacks the bite of his first (Fantastic Mr. Fox), but he fills his screen with meticulously designed sets and set pieces. It's the kind of film you'll want to see a second time, just to make sure you didn't miss anything first time around (and believe me, you did!).
*** Life of the Party
If Melissa McCarthy makes you laugh, then see it. If you don't mind that she and screenwriter/hubby Ben Falcone are lazily recycling the same story (Loudmouth With a Heart of Gold Finally Fits In) then be our guest. The woman would make an obit page hilarious; we just wish she'd find something better to do with her talents.
**** More Art Upstairs
What if there were an American Idol for visual artists, like painters and sculptors? That’s the idea behind this delightful and inspiring documentary. Each year, the entire city of Grand Rapids, Michigan turns out to judge works by major artists, then votes on who will win a half-million-dollars in prizes — the largest cash award in the art world. Director Jody Hassett Sanchez introduces us to a handful of the contestants, then keeps them — and us — on pins and needles until the winners are announced.
**** A Quiet Place
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.
**** Ready Player One
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)
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.
**** Tully (Pictured Above)
Charlize Theron continues to surprise, this time as a late-30's mom, overwhelmed by life, who finds solace in the person of a night nanny played by Mackenzie Davis. But because this film is written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), you know this ain't no Mary Poppins.
**** What Haunts Us
When director Paige Goldberg Tolmach learned that six of the 49 boys who graduated from her high school class have committed suicide over the past 35 years, she became determined to find out why. Her devastating and infuriating documentary, fueled by the filmmaker's personal anguish, gets to the awful truth that involves (inevitably, it seems), pedophilia and the willfull ignorance of those in charge.