Where'd You Go, Bernadette? **** (Pictured Above)
Cate Blanchett stars in this life-affirming film version of Maria Semple's best-seller. It's billed as a comedy, but co-writer/director Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise) is less interested in laughs than in contemplating the countless ways the ways life is funny — the way our meticulously planned decisions go haywire, the way our oddest quirks become our most endearing qualities, the way wildly misfired trajectories can land us precisely where we need to be. Blanchett stars as an ingenious architect named Bernadette who walked away from her skyrocketing career in a fit of pique and a wave of agoraphobia. Now she lives in a majestic — if crumbling — former girl’s school with her adoring, if somewhat distracted, husband (Billy Crudup) and her best-pal daughter (newcomer Emma Nelson, whose voiceover provides the films narration). The significance of the title becomes clear well past the film's midpoint, when an exasperated Bernadette skips off to Antarctica — and re-asserts the film's premise that surprisingly often the things we need most are found in the places we'd look last. (FULL REVIEW)
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am ****
In a lifetime of dramatic accomplishments, you'd expect nothing less of Toni Morrison than to exit this world virtually the same week a new documentary about her was released. You don’t need to have read a word of Toni Morrison’s novels — nor even seen Beloved, the 1998 drama based on her Nobel Prize-winning book — to become enraptured by the drama of her life, and her special brand of good-natured genius. Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (PBS’s The Black List) enlists pals like Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, and Fran Lebowitz to sing the author’s praises.But it’s Morrison herself, regal and witty, who inspires with her tales of growing up in Ohio, where the landlord set fire to their home — and the family responded by laughing at him. That smile in the face of hatred enlivens this heartfelt portrait.
Rapid Eye Movement ****
This nifty, efficient thriller follows a New York DJ (Francois Arnaud) as he tries to stay away for 11 straight days in a glass booth located smack dab in the middle of Times Square. He's hoping to (mostly) save his career and (as an afterthought) raise a little money for charity — but the ante is upped considerably when a caller vows to kill him if he doesn't raise an impossible $5 million. Director Peter Bishai makes the absolute most of his sharp cast and his unmatched locale, taking his audience along for the ride as the possibly doomed DJ swirls down the drain of sleep-deprivation-driven madness. (FULL REVIEW)
David Crosby: Remember My Name ****
There are nostalgic marvels aplenty in this searching biography of the man who, aside from perhaps Art Garfunkel, possessed the sweetest voice of the 60s. But for Crosby Stills and Nash fans, the most heart-stopping moment comes when David Crosby points to a modest dwelling and says, “That’s the house ‘Our House’ was written about.” Now 77, Crosby has survived three heart attacks and a crippling cocaine habit. He looks frail and his voice is thin — except when he steps on stage or into a studio, when the decades seem to melt away. It’s clear that everyone around him senses any day could be David Crosby’s last, and that makes this glimpse into his troubled, tuneful life all the more delicately beautiful.
Brian Banks ****
It's been 12 years since we've seen a feature film from director Tom Shadyac, who ranks as the highest-grossing comedy director of all time (The Ace Ventura movies, Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty and more). He returns with the dead-serious, thoroughly engrossing true story of Brian Banks, a young black man unjustly imprisoned who emerges to pursue his dream of NFL stardom. Shadyac's got a terrific leading man in Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, Hidden Figures), embodying a man who not only overcomes injustice, but is positively fueled by it. Shadyac deftly handles the drama, but here's hoping he'll return to the comedy genre. If the story of Brian Banks tells us anything, it's that society needs to lighten up.
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood ****
No one has ever before linked the term "sweet" with the films of Quentin Tarantino, but there's disarming appeal to spare in his love letter to 1969 Los Angeles — in the moments before Hollywood's glitter was forever tarnished by the Manson family's Sharon Tate murders. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading TV western star who remains best friends with his old stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, his chiseled features settling in nicely to a middle-age comfort zone). Together they ramble the lightly trafficked streets of LA, like The Green Hornet and Kato, seeking professional renaissance while living off former glory. From afar, Cliff envies his next-door neighbors, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, wishing with all his being he were in their expensive boots. Meanwhile, Cliff becomes acquainted with one of Manson's acolytes, a free-spirited waif named Pussycat (The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley). A visit with her to the Manson Family's digs on the Spahn Movie Ranch convinces him that, as he might say, "Them people just ain't right." The film seems a tad long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, but Tarantino works hard to earn every second of our attention, lavishing the screen with period details and the soundtrack with not only vintage songs, but also plentiful AM radio station air checks that will spark vivid memories for anyone who tooled the streets of LA 50 years ago. The sprawling supporting cast plays a who's who of real-life Hollywood figures, including Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Bruce Dern appears as ranch owner George Spahn — a role Burt Reynolds was slated to play before his sudden death (the characters of Rick and Cliff are reportedly based largely on Reynolds and his longtime pal, stuntman/director Hal Needham). Tarantino, no shrinking violet when it comes to blood and guts, shows studied restraint throughout the film, but that only serves to set the table for the film's hyperviolent, yet undeniably satisfying, finale.
Wild Rose ***
American country music has its roots in the songs of Old World balladeers, and the folks across the Pond have never forgotten it — just get a load of Ringo Starr belting out Buck Owens’ ‘Act Naturally.’ Wild Rose, the tuneful, uplifting tale of a single British mom with dreams of making it big in Nashville, brings that relationship full circle. Jessie Buckley, with a winsome smile and megaton voice, brings star-is-born power to the role, and two-time Oscar nominee Julie Waters (Billy Elliot, Educating Rita) is transfixing as the Taylor Swift wannabe’s conflicted mom. The dance-inducing soundtrack features songs written by Country royalty including John Prine, Emmylou Harris Anna McGarricle and Hank Snow.
A glacier calves in a cataclysmic deluge…a hurricane roars ashore with terrifying frenzy…a camera glides beneath an ice sheet, capturing an otherworldly vision of blue, green, and white light. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky is the world’s modern master in capturing nature’s most evocative moments and framing them in ways that are reassuringly familiar yet tantalizingly (and sometimes terrifyingly) original. This epic documentary about water in all its forms — shot with state-of-the-art, 92 frame-per-second cameras — doesn’t preach to us about the environment; it simply, and magnificently, re-introduces us to the element that shapes and sustains life on Earth.
All Is True (2019) **** (Pictured Above)
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. Beanwriter 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.
The Lion King ***
The trouble with Disney's live-action remakes of its classic animated films has always been a simple one: Each has lacked, through no fault of its creators, the initial spark of genius that infused the original works. There's a unique energy that is born of audacity, and it's evident in every frame of films like Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, and, yes, The Lion King: a cartoon that combined elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a particularly violent episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. On the heels of Disney's recent Dumbo debacle, the studio had nowhere to go but up with its Lion King remake, and this new version of the 1994 movie offers an undeniably lush vision. But technological wonders only get you so far, and the film ends up not so much a re-imagining of the first take as a lavish hack job. I'm happy to report James Earl Jones is back to lend his rolling tones to the voice of Mufasa — but as much as I like Billy Eichner, this update gets nothing but raspberries for failing to bring back the great Nathan Lane as Timon.
Through sheer determination — often of the most reckless kind — 24-year-old Tracy Edward in 1989 became skipper of the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round The World Race (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race). Through old home movies, director Alex Holmes introduces us to Edwards as a surly, rebellious teenager who escaped a troubled home life by becoming a cook on private yachts. An aimless existence seemed guaranteed for her until, inspired by a chance meeting with King Hussein of Jordan, Edwards became obsessed with the notion of showing the male-dominated world of yacht racing that women could do a lot more than rustle up grub for macho sailor men. The rampant sexism of the era is reflected in news clips (“How will they avoid cat fights?”) and in the dismissive comments of male counterparts. That condescending tone barely softens even after the crew survives a harrowing passage near Antarctica, but the women mostly refuse to take the bait: They plug along, eyes on the horizon, through seas both smooth and scary. Edwards and her cohorts, interviewed for the film and looking ready to set sail again on a moment’s notice, provide the film’s heartfelt narration.
Mike Wallace Is Here ****
For more than four decades, few things struck fear into the hearts of corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen more than the words, “Mike Wallace Is Here.” That’s the name of this eye-opening new documentary from director Avi Belkin, who goes way, way back into the archives of early TV to create this sometimes stark, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of the man who invented the hard-hitting TV interview. There's a wealth of striking footage from 60 Minutes, the newsmagazine he launched with cohost Harry Reasoner in 1968 and which, he candidly recalls, "No one thought would last." And vintage footage from his gritty 1950s New York City interview show reveal he was honing his interviewing skills long before that. But perhaps most striking are clips of Wallace as a a cheery, chatty 1950s game show host, happily handing out prize money to delighted contestants — or chirpily pitching everything from cigarettes to refrigerated pie crusts. It's at those moments we realize Wallace at some point sat down and, through sheer calculation and determination, invented the steely-eyed reporter that defined his career.
The Quiet One ****
The Rolling Stones were the Bad Boys of the British Invasion, but while Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards cranked up the sexual energy onstage and fueled their happy hedonism with drugs and booze, off to the side stood tall, serene Bill Wyman, plucking away at his bass guitar, staring off into the distance beyond the screaming fans, and heading home to his country house where he doted on his young son. That, at least, is the narrative posited by this music-packed documentary that draws upon Wyman’s exhaustive collection of home movies, interviews, and concert footage amassed during his 31 years as a Stone (he retired from the band in 1993).
We find him in the present day, hunched over a computer screen scanning old photos, surrounded by shelves of cameras, props, costumes, and gold records. Wyman is an amiable tour guide through the Stones’ story, and he comes off very much like a kindly grandfather regaling his grandkids with outrageous war stories. There’s rock-and-roll bombast aplenty in the film, but the best moment is one of the quietest, when Wyman tries to tell about the night his hero, Ray Charles, invited him to play bass on his next record. “I turned him down,” says Wyman, fairly bursting into tears. “I told him, ‘I’m not good enough.’”
The Spy Behind Home Plate ***
There’s an old Borsch Belt joke: What’s the thinnest book ever written? Why, Jewish sports heroes, of course! But you could rustle up a pretty thick volume about Mo Berg, a journeyman baseball catcher who roamed from team to team in the 1930s, then slipped into Europe during World War II on behalf of the U.S. government to enlist defections from rocket scientists. Paul Rudd played Berg in last year’s The Catcher Was a Spy; now director Aviva Kempner has created an exhaustive documentary that enlists both athletes and historians to strip away the mythology surrounding Berg. What emerges is the portrait of a brilliant Princeton grad whose genius for language and strategy served him on the ball field and his country on the battlefield.
Sword of Trust ****
Writer/Director Lynn Shelton has produced some of the sharpest comedy on TV (Fresh Off The Boat, New Girl, Madmen) but she loosens up considerably in this ever-surprising improvisational comedy. Jillian Bell plays a woman who inherits a seemingly worthless antique sword from her Alabama grandfather — but when she and her partner (Michaela Watkins) take it to a pawnshop, they become embroiled with an underground network of Southern “truthers” who believe the sword proves the Confederacy won the Civil War. Marc Maron, disheveled and determinedly downbeat, is brilliant as the pawnbroker, and the entire ensemble plays together like a well-oiled — if wildly off-kilter — machine.
This Changes Everything ****
When Geena Davis made Thelma & Louise with Susan Sarandon in 1991, just about everyone in Hollywood crowed, “This changes everything! Finally we’re going to see more female buddy films!” And when Davis’ next movie, director Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, was a runaway smash, pundits raved, “This changes everything! Now we’re going to see lots of women’s sports movies and big-budget films directed by women!” Nearly three decades later, those hopes ring hollow — so hollow, in fact, that Davis signed on to be executive producer of this often-infuriating documentary. Through interviews, news clips, and visually clever analysis of legal documents, filmmaker Tom Donahue crystalizes Hollywood’s dirty secret: It’s not that movies by women, about women can’t be successful at the box office — it’s simply that the industry’s all-powerful boys’ club is determined to keep women out of the driver’s seat. Donahue gets some of Hollywood’s most famous women to step forward on behalf of those who struggle daily against the male-dominated entertainment industry. The likes of Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, Sandra Oh and Reese Witherspoon make their indisputable case, but the real hero is Davis, whose nonprofit foundation uncovered groundbreaking statistical proof that women aren’t just underrepresented when it comes to directing, producing and writing films — they are downright invisible.
Toy Story 4 ****
Toy Story 3 was such a perfect wrap-up of what we all assumed was a trilogy, it's hard not to on some level resent the appearance of a fourth installment. Yes, it's nice to spend another hour and a half with Woody and Buzz & Co., and Pixar's mastery of computer animation continues to push the boundaries of the miraculous. But there's an air of desperation here, especially in the frayed storyline, which spins off in too many directions with no clear destination — a radical departure from most Pixar films, which are models of streamlined storytelling. First we find Woody stashing himself in the backpack of the toy gang's new owner, a little girl named Bonnie, as she heads of for her first day of Kindergarten. There she creates a new "toy" — really just some googly eyes pasted on a spork and a pair of pipe cleaner arms. Delightfully voiced by Tony Hale (Veep), Forky would have been a perfectly sufficient focus for the film as he learns that even though he's trash, he's loved by a little girl, and that's enough. But no, soon we're off on a road trip in a motor home, and through some incredible coincidence Woody happens to spot Bo Peep, his old flame from the original Toy Story, in an antique store. But that reunion only leads to a dark tale of a creepy talking antique doll who rules over a small army of hideous ventriloquist dummies. Then there's a made chase through a carnival, etc. etc. The whole thing resembles an explosion in a writers' room — yet there's no denying the moments of visual bliss, and the endearing qualities of the characters, old and new.
Yesterday **** (Pictured Above)
Nearly sixty years after they burst onto the scene in the early 1960s, the music of The Beatles is the stuff of elevator music and supermarket soundtracks. Director Danny Boyle's new musical fantasy takes advantage of that universal familiarity with the group's songs, but it also captures something that those of us who were around in those days have all but forgotten: The sheer exhilaration of discovering The Beatles. Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling British musician who wakes up one day to realize he's the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles, or any of their songs. As he strums out tunes like "Yesterday" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" — first for his friends, then for an ever-growing audience — he is hailed as the greatest singer-songwriter of all time. Pulling off a conceit like that would be a high wire act for any filmmaker, but Boyle wisely doesn't dwell on any sort of explanation for this surreal case of global amnesia (a delightful running joke has Jack casually discovering a selection of other things missing from this alternate reality). Instead, he lets his appealing cast, and more than a dozen timeless songs, sweep us along with the whimsical narrative. Jack does need to deal with conflicting pangs of guilt over making his fortune on the shoulders of others — but some sly musical references note that pop music has been doing just that ever since John Lennon and Paul McCartney first started jamming together. A poignant episode near the end drives home the film's familiar but timeless message: There's a price to be paid for getting everything you ever wanted.
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