It doesn't help matters that the best skyscraper thriller of all time, Die Hard, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. Dwayne Johnson has much of the same hero-with-a-soft-heart quality that Bruce Willis did, but smirking, balding Bruce was a decided underdog in his battle to save his wife from the clutches of a high-rise hijacker. On the other hand, when bad guys, buildings, and even the laws of physics go up against Rock-hard Johnson, it hardly seems like a fair fight.
*** Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti
French star Vincent Cassel does a nice job inhabiting the hedonistic hulk of the artist Paul Gauguin, who spent most of his final years painting, sculpting, and cavorting in French Polynesia. As a director, Edouard Deluc has a fine eye for beauty in both details and broad swaths. As a screenwriter, though, he seems to have a gaping blind spot, glossing over the sad facts that Gauguin abandoned his family to pursue a life without boundaries in the tropics — and that he took a 13-year-old girl as a lover. Omitting those essential (and frankly interesting) facets of the main character's life renders the film a pretty picture in need of a frame.
***** A Quiet Place (Pictured Above)
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
*** The Leisure Seeker
There are modest pleasures aplenty in this road trip flick, following a long-married couple (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) as they take one last drive to Florida in their beloved but dilapidated motor home. He's slipping into dementia, she's in the grip of serious illness. Still, the film is not about the ravages of age, but the ultimate and inevitable triumph of marital devotion. (FULL REVIEW)
*** 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.
*** 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.
There seems to be no stopping Christopher Plummer these days — even at 88, he just keeps finding one engaging new role after another. This time he stars as Vera Farmiga’s rascally old dad in a charming new road comedy written and directed by Shana Feste. Plummer plays a guy whose nose for a good scam made him an absentee father to his daughter – but now he’s asking her and her son to drive him all the way down the Pacific coast from Washington State to Los Angeles. Ostensibly it’s to move in with his other daughter, played by the always delightful Kristen Schaal. But as always dad’s got ulterior motives, one of which is to drop in on an old pal — played by the reliably quirky Christopher Lloyd.
Boundaries may be a shaggy dog story about a shady old dog, but the lively cast makes it one fun ride. (FULL REVIEW)
***** First Reformed
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.
Ideal Home ***
He's cashing bigtime pay checks playing Ant Man, but thank goodness Paul Rudd still knows how to apply his easy charms in lovely small films like this one, an Odd Couple for our time. Rudd and Steve Coogan play Paul and Erasmus, a sadly mismatched, constantly bickering, but hopelessly in love couple, living a self-indulgent lifestyle in Santa Fe New Mexico. Erasmus is a basic cable TV star, something of a gay Martha Stewart, and Rudd is his ever-exasperated producer. Into their glittery universe drops Coogan’s grandson, whose ne'er do well dad has just landed in prison. Ideal Home has all the expected Hollywood messages regarding the true meaning of family, but the two stars bring so much goodwill to their characters it's easy to forgive the film's predictable trajectory.
*** Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
When Steven Spielberg revealed his mind-bending world of breathing , galloping dinosaurs in his 1993 classic, we were as astonished as the film's characters. More than two decades later, despite the best efforts of a likable cast and the finest digital dinos money can buy, the series suffers from one fatal flaw: Spielberg & Co. simply have nothing new to show us.
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.
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.
*** Woman Walks Ahead
A paint-by-numbers script labors mightily to sink this sprawling story of a New York portrait artist (Jessica Chastain) who braves the perils of the Wild West to paint Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) — but thanks to earnest performances by a splendid cast and some truly spectacular photography, the film becomes, if not a must-see, at least a wonder to behold. (FULL REVIEW)
**** Won't You Be My Neighbor? (Pictured Above)
Director Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for his documentary 50 Feet From Stardom, says he was a little worried when he embarked on making a film about children’s television legend Fred Rodgers. His greatest fear: That Rodgers, who died in 2003 after a lifetime of showing children the virtue of kindness, would turn out to have been something less than what he appeared to be. He didn’t need to worry: Won’t You Be My Neighbor confirms that Fred Rodgers was, in fact, virtuous in ways that transcended his kid-friendly TV character. In an culture that worships anti-heroes both on screen and in real life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor celebrates the fact that it is, indeed, possible to be both nice…and interesting.