A Private War *** (Pictured Above)
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
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 Day I Lost My Shadow ****
In this spellbinding film from Syria. A young, single Damascus mother leaves her young son at home to go buy a can of propane gas — and through a harrowing series of events ends up stumbling across the bleak countryside with two companions, trying to get back to town without being shot by government troops or rebels. The stark realism of the film takes on a mystical tone when the mother realizes she sees some people who cast no shadows — which comes to mean they are going to experience some devastating misfortune.
The Wind ***
Is it a supernatural thriller or a psychological drama? Director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland try to have it both ways in this stark film, set on a remote Western homestead in the late 1800s. Frontier wife Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) is convinced a dark, demonic presence is lurking on the prairie just outside the flimsy wooden cabin she shares with her husband Isaac Ashley Zuckerman. And the strange goings-on at the homestead of their nearest neighbors (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee) make her even more certain Something is Out There. Tammi creates a truly menacing atmosphere that seems positively claustrophobic despite the setting’s endless horizons. But the story punts when the true nature of the terror should come into focus.
The Meg ***
Name your classic shark movie trope and you’ll find it in this by-the-numbers shark thriller. Panic on the beach? Check. Helpless diver in a shark cage? Check. Need a bigger boat? Check! But when you consider this movie was co-produced by a Chinese company ( nearly half the cast is Chinese) , you have to remember that there are probably a few billion people in China who’ve never seen Jaws, so it's all new to them. In any case, the Chinese cast is easier to understand than British star Jason Statham, who often sounds like he’s got a mouth full of fish and chips.
Spike Lee's thrilling, somber, and funny meditation on race and racism tells the true story of a black Colorado Springs cop (John David Washington) who stumbles into an unlikely membership in the Ku Klux Clan. Leading the Klan members on by using his "white voice" on the phone, he enlists his partner (Adam Driver) to stand in for him at meetings as they try to determine if these hapless racists might be dangerous. As Grand Dragon DAvid Duke Topher Grace is Evil in a three-piece suit; former Blacklist star Ryan Eggold stands out as a Klansman who kids himself into thinking hatred can be kept in a non-violent bottle. (FULL REVIEW)
Christopher Robin ***** (Pictured Above)
You don't have to be a longtime lover of the A.A. Milne's overstuffed "bear of very little brain" to find yourself bawling like a baby as director Marc Forster guides you through this gentle, reflective, visually enthralling Winnie the Pooh update. As a grown-up version of Pooh's human pal Christopher, Ewan McGregor brings a tired resignation that can only be lightened by a visit from his childhood friends. In many ways, Christopher Robin more faithfully evokes the languid spirit of Milne's books than Disney's sometimes slapsticky 1960s cartoons ever did. But Forster wisely involves voice actors who faithfully recreate the originals, especially Jim Cummings, doing double duty as Pooh and Tigger — wonderfully evoking the spirits of the immortal Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell. (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.
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)
Crazy Rich Asians ****
Once you get past the novelty of seeing an all-Asian cast run through the motions of a standard rom-com plot, all that's left is disdain for the obscenely excessive lifestyle the film seems to worship. Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) plays an NYU professor who discovers, improbably, that her handsome boyfriend (Henry Golding) is one of he world's richest bachelors. He schleps her off to visit Singapore, where his truly awful friends and family reject her for not being a) rich enough and b) Chinese enough. You'd hope the script would help these horrible people somehow develop a set of true values, but by the end it's clear if their bank accounts were suddenly cleaned out, each and every one of them would, lemming-like, drown themselves in the Singapore Strait. The filmmakers want us to hope the heroine will find acceptance from this despicable crew — we just want her to catch the next jet home. Two sequels are coming; after that, let's hope the extremely appealing stars will find something better to do.
First Man **** (Pictured Above)
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.
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.
Three appealing stars from TV's Gray's Anatomy — Justin Bruening, Sarah Drew and Jason George — lend fine performances to this based-on-fact story of an inexperienced U.S. Army chaplain (Bruening) thrown into the bloody maw of 2007 Iraq. At first the chaplain and his wife (Drew) view the assignment as something of an adventure, confident their faith and love will make the whole experience more interesting than perilous. But war is Hell (or Heck, as this sweet-natured couple might say), and soon he's pulling dead children from bombed-out cars and she's paying tortured visits to women who've just lost a husband on the battlefield. His return doesn't bring much respite, as PTSD turns him into a sullen loner prone to temperamental outbursts. Ironically, the chaplain finds his way only when a member of his unit (George), who had resisted spiritual guidance while at war, reminds the reverend of his own war zone sermonizing. Unusually for a faith-based film, Indivisible explores the dark relationship between faith and doubt — and raises the stark possibility that faith without doubt is, perhaps, no kind of faith at all.
Johnny English Strikes Again **
There's a moment in Rowan Atkinson's third go-round as the bumbling British secret agent Johnny English when his vintage sports car sputters to a stop, out of gas. A scene like that just begs for some snarky film critic to say the scene is emblematic of how the series is running on fumes, or how there's no way to get any more mileage out of a character who is simply Mr. Bean with a gun, or how Triple-A should tow this clunker to a scrap yard. But that would be cruel. (FULL REVIEW)
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.
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.
Stella's Last Weekend ***
This well-intentioned film about two brothers in love with the same girl is a family drama in every way: The brothers are played by real-life bros Nat and Alex Wolff and their mother is played by the stars' actual mom, Polly Draper, who also writes and directs the film. But wait, there's more: Draper's Jazz musician hubby Michael Wolff wrote the score and there are other Drapers peppered in amongst the production team. Even Draper's family dog has a pivotal role. This is germaine only because writer/director Draper seems to have the germ of a good film here, as well as an appealing cast. But she could have used an unbiased set of eyes to tell her when to end certain scenes, when to dial back the cloying sentiment, and how to make her characters talk like real people. You don't mind spending an hour and forty minutes with these people, but you also feel like they deserve better.
Unbroken: Path to Redemption ****
Angelina Jolie, who directed 2014's Unbroken, is not at the helm of this sequel, nor is the script written by the Coen Brothers. But the life story of World War II hero Louis Zamperini is compelling in anyone's hands, and as a human drama evoking faith and forgiveness the film still has transcendent moments, often punching well above its weight as a faith-based film. (FULL REVIEW)
White Boy Rick ***
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.
Where Hands Touch ***
It’s not hard to imagine a serious film about the plight of black people in Hitler’s Germany, but writer/director Amma Asante (Belle) has instead settled for a typical Third Reich-set potboiler about the teenage daughter of an Aryan woman and an African soldier (Hunger Games’Amandla Stenberg) who falls in love with, natch, a gangly young brownshirt (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay). Both stars are immediately appealing, and besides wishing their characters had an easier time of it, we also long to see them in a movie that doesn’t so blatantly slip into the conventions of young adult fiction.
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.