The Second Time Around **** (Pictured Above)
Actress Linda Thorson broke my young heart when she replaced Diana Rigg on The Avengers in 1968, but it’s impossible to hold that against her in this big-hearted story of two people getting a second chance at romance. She plays a distinguished, opera-loving 70-something who lands in a retirement home while rehabbing from a hip replacement. Determined to soldier through and put the experience behind her, she instead finds herself infatuated with a retired tailor played by Stuart Margolin (another longtime TV staple, best-known as James Garner’s street hustler sidekick Angel on The Rockford Files.). The veteran actors not only bring a tender sensibility to their roles, one can almost sense them pouring everything they’ve got into a rare opportunity to portray a big screen grownup romance.
That Way Madness Lies ****
As harrowing and personal a portrait of mental illness as you’ll find, Sandra Luckow’s documentary ostensibly traces her family’s decade-long efforts to provide adequate care for her brother Duanne, who in his 40s suddenly began to descend into schizophrenia. The scenes of Sandra and her fatigued parents struggling against the system — and Duanne’s wishes — are sobering enough. But Luckow also draws heavily from videos Duanne himself made during his decline — which essentially puts us into the mind of the man himself, seeing what he sees, sharing his delusions, and virtually hearing the voices in his head. No film in memory has so compellingly and horrifically portrayed the first-hand experience of going mad.
The Quake ****
In the movies, killer quakes and similar mayhem tend to inflict themselves on megalopolises like L.A. and Paris. Why should little Norway, miss out on the fun? The Quake unleashes a massive tremblor on Oslo — shaking up the genre with a pleasingly taut thriller pleasingly polished with a decidedly European vibe. Kristoffer Joner stars as a scientist who is convinced Oslo — which endured a devastating quake in 1904 — is just about due for another, perhaps stronger, event. Of course, no one believes him, leaving the distraught expert to race against time in an effort to save his family before the Big One hits. When it does, about two-thirds of the way into the film, the film crackles with nifty special effects both big (skyscrapers falling like dominoes) and small (spidery cracks in a window that has suddenly gone horizontal). The city’s small size — at one point entirely contained in the frame for a single harrowing shot — lends The Quake a unique sense of intimacy beyond the characters’ personal travails.
White Boy Rick (2018) *** (Pictured Above)
Matthew McConaughey stars as the father of Ricky Wersche Jr. a kid who in the 1980s was enlisted by Detroit drug enforcement cops to become an undercover informant. As played by teen newcomer Richie Merritt, Ricky is a sullen little punk looking for trouble — and aided by the fact that his dad, a licensed firearms dealer, doesn’t seem to mind his son selling AK-47s on the street for fun and profit. Director Yann Demange doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the kid until he gets sentenced to life in prison, and by then it’s too late.
The Ernie Kovacs Centennial Collection *****
TV was in its infancy when Ernie Kovacs came along and instinctively revealed virtually everything that set the new medium apart from the cinema. Kovacs somehow sensed TV involved an actual electrical link between the performer and his audience, an intimacy that never existed on screen, and not even on the stage. This comprehensive collection, marking Kovacs' 100 birthday, covers all the ground familiar to his admirers (The Nairobi Trio, Eugene, his astonishing Dutch Masters Cigar commercials) and stirs in a lot of pleasant surprises, including clips that reveal how TV brass, aware of Kovacs' genius but at a loss for how to harness it, tried to shoehorn him into roles utterly unsuited to him, including those of morning TV host and game show moderator. Available through Shout! Factory
Ben is Back ****
Julia Roberts pulls all the right heartstrings as the mother of an opioid-addicted teen (Lucas Hedges) in this Holiday-set family drama. The star's familiar ear-to-ear smile is still present, but when she employs it here — trying to mask the tortured mom's anguish — it seems more like a silent scream. Hedges, Hollywood's go-to actor for troubled teens, brings vulnerability to the role of a boy, fresh out of rehab (and a bit too soon, it appears), who just wants to enjoy a normal Christmas with his family. But no sooner does he arrive home than he's faced with one stumbling block after another. (FULL REVIEW)
Beautiful Boy ****
Steve Carell embodies every parent’s nightmare as a dad whose son (Timothee Chalamet) plunges into a nightmare of drug abuse. The domestic drug abuse film has become a genre as of late, and movies within it share a certain rhythm: The gut-punch of discovery, the scramble for treatment, the triumphant discharge, the inevitable relapse, and the cycle of successes and setbacks that follows. The chief difference comes in the final chapter, as the filmmaker chooses to close the narrative either on a crest or in a trough. Uniquely, Beautiful Boyis based on a pair of books — one by Rolling Stone writer David Sheff and the other by his son Nic — and perhaps as a result the film does a better job than most at fleshing out the different kinds of hell experienced by drug addicts and those who love them. Carell, along with Maura Tierney as his wife and Amy Ryan (Carell’s old girlfriend on The Office) as his ex-wife and Nic’s mother, bravely explore the helplessness, rage, and lashing out that accompany a child’s addiction. Chalamet, sweet and intelligent when Nic is sober, raging and self-pitying when he’s not, inflicts us with a taste of the frustration parents of addicts must feel, and it doesn’t feel good. Stick around for the credits, when the music stops and Chalamet reads a passage from the poet Charles Bukowski. If the movie didn’t make you cry, this will.
Boy Erased ****
There’s never any question as to which side Boy Erased will take in the long debate over sexual orientation conversion therapy. The story of a gay Arkansas teenager named Jared (Lucas Hedges) whose distraught parents send him for conversion treatment at a shady facility is heartbreaking and infuriating from the moment that door shuts behind him. The film's big surprise is the sensitivity it shows for the boy's parents, (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe), portrayed as confused, heartbroken, but ultimately loving parents who really think the best thing for their son is a stint under the harrowing tutelage of a too-tightly wound conversion therapist, chillingly played by director Joel Edgerton. (FULL REVIEW)
Bohemian Rhapsody *****
Who knows if the story the classic rock band Queen really went down the way it's depicted in this sprawling, song-filled epic — and who cares? With a towering performance by Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as frontman Freddie Mercury, adrenaline-pumped direction from Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher and a musical score for the ages, the film is a perfect specimen of the Hollywood biopic done right. It begins with the tightest of focuses: an immigrant kid with big dreams, toiling as a baggage handler at Heathrow...and a struggling band, playing closet-sized pubs, waiting for the voice that will shoot them to stardom. Fate puts them together, and a rock and roll sound unlike any other is born. Despite all the big hair and throbbing melodies, Bohemian Rhapsody is a decidedly old-fashioned music biography, in the mold of 1940s classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Rhapsody in Blue: Each chapter and trauma in the protagonist's life results in a Greatest Hit, a conceit that can't possibly be true yet one that propels the plot at the speed of sound. Songs like "We Are the Champions," "Love of My Life" and "We Will Rock You" give Bohemian Rhapsody its drive; the performance by Malek as Freddie — infuriating, heartbreaking, exhilarating — provides the heart. The film smartly relies on actual Queen recordings for the soundtrack, culminating in a breathtaking 15-minute rocket ride as Queen punches a hole in the sky above Wembley Stadium at the 1985 Live Aid concert.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? ****
Melissa McCarthy confirms what her fans always suspected — there's a top-drawer actor hiding behind that crassly comic exterior. She stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful biographer who fell onto hard times in the early 1980s. To make ends meet, Israel began forging correspondence from legendary literary figures like Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman, then selling them to unsuspecting collectors. Like the compulsively guarded Israel, McCarthy jealously conceals her character’s emotions. When she does betray a quiver of the mouth, a tear in her eye, even the hint of a smile, as an audience we feel almost like voyeurs, witnesses to a forbidden moment. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) magically draws us into caring deeply about a character who, were we to meet her on the street, would just as soon knock us over as exchange a pleasantry. Richard E. Grant, lovable and tragic as Israel's only friend, threatens to steal each scene he’s in, but then gallantly hands the focus back to the star. And as a meek bookseller who engages in a brief, ultimately shattering relationship with Israel, Dolly Wells brings a much-appreciated note of wide-eyed innocence. Mostly, though, the film is a breakthrough for its star. Melissa McCarthy will certainly make us laugh again, yet we will never see her in quite the same way. (FULL REVIEW)
Jennifer Aniston is the main attraction in this good-natured comedy about the Texas beauty pageant subculture, but the heart of the film beats in the oversized body of Danielle McDonald, who plays her daughter. Mom, it seems, is a legend on the Texas beauty circuit — first as a champion contestant, and currently as the organizer of a leading pageant. Now her rebellious daughter Willowdean, round and feisty, is entering her mother's pageant, much to Mom's chagrin. At first it's all for spite, but of course as the pageant preliminaries proceed, Willowdean — who has for her entire life endured the nickname, coined by her mother, Dumplin' — begins to think "Hey, maybe I can pull this off!" Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Guilt Trip) never really finds a rhythm, and the characters' changes in attitude seem to come out of nowhere. But Aniston is always fun to watch — especially when travels to a pageant in a form-fitting dress that requires her to lie down in the back seat of the family car — and her lesser-known costars manage make us root, even when the script fails to explain precisely why we should.
The Favourite ***
With eyes the size of pheasant eggs, Emma Stone mesmerizes in this 18th Century costume drama as a fallen aristocrat who insinuates herself into the life of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). Her ascent in the court is cause for alarm for the Queen’s current favored lady (Rachel Weisz), who declares the upstart will succeed over her dead body — a threat that comes perilously close to fruition. History tells us the two women parried for the Queen’s political favor; the film also insists the pair also jockeyed for prime access to Anne’s bed. As my friend and critic Arch Campbell says, history is always more fun when everybody sleeps together. (FULL REVIEW)
First Man ****
Neil Armstrong’s journey to the Moon began as a test pilot in the California desert — and on that score you could also call Damien Chazelle’s new film The Right Stuff, Part 2. But while that big-screen version of Tom Wolfe’s book took a broad view of the Mercury program’s early days — and the lives of all seven original U.S. Astronauts — First Man focuses on Armstrong, a painfully shy and obsessively private family man who remained haunted by the death of his young daughter from brain cancer. Ryan Gosling captures the contradictions of Armstrong, cautious and quiet in his private life; driven to the point of recklessness by his professional ambition. (FULL REVIEW)
Free Solo ****
Even after spending an hour and a half with daredevil cliff climber Alex Honnold, you won’t understand him. And perhaps that’s the whole point of this spellbinding documentary, which follows Honnold as he tries to become first-ever person to scale Yosemite’s 3000-foot-plus El Capitan without ropes. We get some clues: A perfectionist mother, an emotionally distant dad — even the results of an EKG which show his brain doesn’t register nervous excitement the way most people’s do. But then we see him dangling by chalked fingertips a half-mile up a wall of sheer rock, and it all becomes quite simple: Man versus the law of gravity isn’t really a fair fight. As we nervously search our memory banks to recall whether or not we heard about this guy dying in this attempt, and as the National Geographic Films cameras tip forward to reveal the abyss below, we’re tempted to follow the example of Honnold’s sweet and impossibly understanding girlfriend: Close our eyes and hope for the best.
Green Book *****
An unbridled delight, this fact-based buddy flick teams Moonlight costar Mahershala Ali as “Doc” Shirley, a distinguished 1960s African American concert pianist, with plumped-up Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, a Brooklyn bouncer hired as his driver. Actually, Doc’s record label wants Tony to do more than just drive: He also doubles as Doc’s bodyguard as they motor through a perilous 1962 Deep South performance tour. After a comically rough start, Doc and Tony — known as Tony Lip — hit it off. Doc shatters Tony’s racist presuppositions about black people…and Tony, ironically, exposes Doc to the marvels of popular black music, including Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. On the road, both learn a lot about the ugly side of humanity as Doc is hit with one indignity after another: Offstage he’s treated like a pariah even by the posh society figures who’ve just given him standing ovations, and the film’s title comes from a motorist’s guide to “Negro Only” motels and restaurants in the South. Through it all, the stars draw us into their characters’ growing alliance as they realize the curses of a cruel world can be repelled with the grace of one true friend.
The Grinch ***
Dr. Seuss told us how the Grinch stole Christmas in 69 pages. Animator Chuck Jones did it (indelibly) in 30 minutes. Now here comes the second big-screen version of the good doctor's Yuletide yarn, weighing in at a trim 90 minutes, yet despite its translation into 3-D animation, so much flatter than the pen-and-ink originals. Much labor is spent explaining how the Grinch got so Grinchy, and the Grinch himself, despite no visible means of support, seems to have an awful lot of fancy gadgets hanging around. The nasal voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch tends more toward Maxwell Smart than Boris Karloff and the Whos of Whoville — who this time around are stripped of the fanciful qualities Dr. Seuss bestowed upon them — are dismayingly bland. Here's my Christmas tip for parents planning to take their kids: Sit with them through the TV original, then use that extra hour to go outside and build a snowman together.
Love, Gilda ****
If you fell in love with the Gilda Radner of TV and film in the 1970s and '80s, you'll be enraptured by the real-life Gilda revealed in this hilarious, heartbreaking documentary from Lisa D'Apolito. Besides clips from Gilda's Saturday Night Live heyday, the film draws from the comedian's own home movies as well as hours of audio recordings she made while working on her autobiography. Gilda is a breezy tour guide to her life story; if not fearless to the end, then at least infinitely human.
The Old Man And The Gun ****
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, and if The Old Man and the Gun is, as advertised, Redford’s big screen swan song, he could have found no better role in which to tug on the brim of his fedora, flash that boyish lopsided smile, and wave goodbye. Not since John Wayne signed off in The Shootist — a role that encapsulated his own legendary career and framed it within the context of his larger-than-life persona — has a star gifted his generations of fans with a more satisfying farewell. What’s more, The Old Man and the Gun, based on a New Yorker piece by David Gramm, is as funny and thrilling as any film you’ll see this year. Sissy Spacek melts every heart in sight as Tucker’s sweet and trusting girlfriend, and as the cop hot on Tucker’s trail, Casey Affleck manages to get us rooting for him, despite our growing affection for his prey. But mostly there’s Redford, who in recent years has pretty much limited himself to playing poker-faced elders (Dan Rather in Truth) and straight men (opposite Nick Nolte in A Walk in The Woods). As Affleck’s cop interviews one bank teller after another in The Old Man and the Gun, they all tell him the same thing: Tucker left them with a smile. Happily, Robert Redford has done the same for us.
A Private War ***
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
As if to make amends for the Oscar-winning cinematic excesses of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón follows it with this positively poetic, unapologetically nostalgic stripped-down masterpiece. Drawing from his childhood in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, Cuarón explores the social hierarchy of 1970s Mexico, contrasting the lives of upper middle-class Mexicans and the domestic workers who served them. Don't be turned off by the political undertones: With his non-professional cast and monochome vision, Cuarón has created a spellbinding work of art reminiscent of Rossellini's street-smart post World War II masterpiece Rome: Open City.
The Sisters Brothers ****
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix bicker and bluster, punch each other out and love each other to bits as a pair of 1850s Old West hit men in this surprisingly engaging buddy movie. The brothers Sisters are notorious throughout Oregon and California, providing lead-loaded muscle for a notorious strongman known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in one of the shortest big-name movie cameos ever). Currently they’re in pursuit of a mild-mannered inventor (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a chemical system for detecting gold in rocky streams. The Commodore wants the invention for himself and the inventor dead. The brothers think the genius is being held for them in a hotel room by an associate (Jake Gyllenhaal), but of course there are complications afoot. The film’s trail dust-choked atmosphere is palpable, and the characters’ sophisticated self-awareness recalls the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, or Gene Hackman’s reflective villain in Unforgiven. But mostly we come to love the brothers — just as they love each other despite themselves.
Vox Lux ** (Pictured Above)
The first 15 minutes of this drama — depicting a school shooting from the harrowing perspective of inside the classroom — is as gut-wrenchingly compelling as anything you'll see at the movies this year. But the moment writer/director Brad Corbet begins to focus on the lives of two survivors — a pair of sisters who write a hit song about the experience — Vox Lux becomes an unfocused meditation on how much it sucks to be a celebrity. Pretty soon we're flashing ahead 20 years or so to find that one of the sisters (Natalie Portman) has become a Madonna-like superstar. She is resented by the other sister (Stacy Martin), who has been pushed into the background to raise the singer's daughter (Raffey Cassidy, who confusingly also plays the Natalie Portman character in the first part of the film). With a Guys and Dolls Noo Yawk accent and pronounced swagger, Portman's character is supremely annoying. Worse, the songs that have supposedly made her a superstar (written by the Australian singer Sia) are no good at all, despite the fact that everyone in the movie keeps insisting they're fantastic. (FULL REVIEW)
Heist movies generally work best if you have good reason to root for the crooks, and that usually involves infusing them with charm and humor (The Sting and Ocean’s 11 and its progeny come to mind). For Widows, a big-budget, big-name caper flick, director Steve McQueen approaches the feather-light material with much the same sort of gravity he lavished upon 12 Years a Slave. Viola Davis stars as a Chicago socialite whose hubby (Liam Neeson) has been supporting their lavish lifestyle for decades through scores of high-profile burglaries. When one goes horribly wrong with lethal consequences, she and the widows of the heist team’s other members find the plans for the guys’ next heist — and decide to pull it off themselves. Wouldn’t that be fun directed by James Cameron and starring, say, Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa McCarthy? Sorry; instead we get a needlessly complex, subtext-heavy slog that manages to waste even Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall — plus leaves us with the uneasy moral that mean old racists deserve to be shot to death in their pajamas.
The Wife ****
Fans of great screen acting can’t ask for more than Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as a long-married literary couple whose lifetime of shared secrets catches up with them. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, the film explores how even mutually agreed-upon marital ground rules can mess up life’s later chapters. Close' performance is one of those rare gems that pay dividends for watching them a second time. Annie Stark, Close's daughter, plays the younger version of her mom’s character.