“NOVEMBER” My rating: C+ 

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

“November” walked away with top cinematography honors at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and just minutes into this Estonian production you’ll understand why.

This is one astonishingly beautiful movie, a black-and-white evocation of a ghostly, semi-primordial past filled with haunting images. Director of photography Mart Taniel has created a visual masterpiece.

In other regards “November” is a rough slog.

Based on the book by Andrus Kivirahk — the biggest-selling novel by an Estonian writer in the last two decades — the film unfolds in a rural community in what appears to be the early 19th century. It’s a world of unwashed peasants, decaying hovels, mist-shrouded landscapes and everyday interactions between humans and the supernatural.

The novel was less a fully plotted story than a series of vignettes revealing the life (and afterlife) of a particular neighborhood over the course of one wintry month, and in transferring the narrative to the screen writer/director Rainer Sarnet has been unable to provide an emotionally engaging through story.

The film is a collection of sometimes arresting moments, but after a while the weirdness gets a bit numbing. In this regard it resembles the bizarre efforts of famed Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”).

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Daniela Vega

“A FANTASTIC WOMAN” My rating: A- 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

What Daniela Vega delivers in the Oscar-winning (for foreign language film) “A Fantastic Woman” is less a case of acting than of being.

As a trans woman portraying a trans woman in a film scripted for her by director Sebastian Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza, the Chilean actress so blurs the line between fiction and fact that the picture unfolds in a rarified realm of  ultra-realism (this despite a few moments of deliberate magic realism).

In a tale bursting with emotion and meaning,  Vega doesn’t have to push her performance. Simply by being here and reacting honestly to the screenplay’s situations she delivers a devastating, deeply moving message.

Marina (Vega) is a waitress with a part-time gig singing in a Santiago night spot. As the film begins she and her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), are preparing to celebrate with a bit of foreign travel.

But it’s not to be.  In the middle of the night Orlando has a stroke and falls down a flight of stairs.  Marina rushes him to a hospital, but it’s too late.

Most of “A Fantastic Woman” unfolds in the week leading up to Orlando’s funeral, when Marina must deal not only with her own grief but with the indignities heaped upon her by an uncaring system and Orlando’s disapproving family.


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88 minutes | No MPAA rating

The tragedy of Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) is that of a brilliant intellect trapped in a gorgeous body.  “People never got past her face,” laments one of her children.

That’s the premise, anyway, of “Bombshell,” a documentary biography by first-time director Alexandra Dean that explores Lamarr’s dual careers:  She was a big star but a crappy actress who became the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White and D.C. Comics’ Cat Woman; behind the scenes she was an inventor whose pioneering work led to today’s cellular age.

Along the way she became an enigma, a woman of so many different aspects, according to her son, “that even I couldn’t understand her.”

Even as a child the former Hedy Kiesler went her own way.  Her  parents treated her to the intellectual and artistic riches of their native Vienna. But she was no young deb…at age 16 she was posing for nude photographs;  at 19 she starred in the film “Ecstasy,” shocking and titillating moviegoers with a naked swimming scene and what appeared to be an on-screen orgasm.  (Hitler banned the film, not for the sex but because the actress was Jewish).

Young Hedy quickly married one of Austria’s richest men, a fascist-friendly and extremely jealous munitions magnate, then fled in a maid’s uniform to London where she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, the American movie producer who was signing up talent eager to escape the Nazis.

Renamed Hedy Lamarr, she proved fantastically popular with American moviegoers, not for her limited range but for her gob-smacking gorgeousness.

She appears to have been indifferent to the whole business of acting — it was just a way to earn a living — reserving her real passion for tinkering (as a child she dismantled and reassembled a wind-up music box).  With the advent of World War II she decided to do something for the Allied cause.

Teaming up with composer George Antheil, she developed a method for steering a torpedo via radio waves.  To avoid jamming by the Germans, she and Anthill came up with “frequency hopping,” a system in which the torpedo and its remote operators were synced to an ever-changing series of radio frequencies.

Lamarr received a patent for the system, which she urged the military to consider.  But the Navy wasn’t impressed…though there is considerable evidence that years later, after the patent had expired, the Pentagon exploited it. Eventually frequency shifting became an essential element in the creation of cellphones, GPS, wifi and military satellites.

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Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz

“THE PARTY” My rating: B

71 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a running of time just over an hour, Sally Potter’s “The Party” plays like a classic one-act play, filled with slamming door exits, fiercely funny wordplay and wonderfully brittle, self-delusional characters.

Potter,  the British creator of films like “Orlando” and “The Tango Lesson,” specializes in gender issues and anti-establishment politics.  “The Party” embraces all that while remaining bitterly hilarious.

In the film’s first shot a frantic looking woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) yanks open her front door, stares momentarily at the visitor on her stoop (the camera takes the vantage point of the guest) and points a pistol at us.

We then flash back 70 minutes.  That same woman, Janet, is busily futzing around the kitchen, preparing to entertain some old friends. Her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits in the living room, wine glass in hand, deejaying old blues and experimental jazz LPs. He has the look of a  shell-shocked combat vet.

One by one the visitors arrive and we gradually learn what the celebration is about.  After years of struggle as a party faithful, Janet has been named head of the country’s Ministry of Health. She is constantly interrupted by congratulatory phone calls, including several heavy-breathing text messages from an unidentified lover.

The deliciously catty April (Patricia Clarkson) is allegedly Janet’s best bud. As an American she takes a withering outsider’s view of Brit politics…but then she’s withering on just about every subject. Asked to evaluate if Janet’s new job has transformed her in any way, April observes that her friend now is “slightly ministerial in a post-modernist, post-feminist sort of way.”

She’s even harder on her boyfriend, a blissed-out, New Age-y German life coach named Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) who so adores her that he puts up with a constant stream of abuse. April announces that she intends to dump Gottfried that very night: “Tickle an aroma therapist and you find a fascist.”


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Natalie Portman

“ANNIHILATION” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Feb. 23)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given the runaway artistic and commercial success of his 2014 debut, “Ex Machina,” it’s hard not to see Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” as a case of sophomore slump.

“Ex Machina” was an almost flawless blend of performance, tension and social inquiry (Garland’s subject was artificial intelligence) that transcended the usual sci-fi parameters.

By comparison “Annihilation,” based on Jeff VanderMeer’s bestseller, feels less original and more conventional.

Plus, it has the built-in issue of being based on the first book of a trilogy — which no doubt is why at the end of nearly two hours the yarn seems unfinished.

And yet “Annihilation” has real strengths, including a mostly-woman cast dealing with a pressure cooker situation, a couple of fine action sequences and enough creeping tension to generate mucho spinal tingles.

Biologist  Lena (Natalie Portman) is in mourning. A year earlier her soldier husband Kane left for one of his black ops missions and hasn’t been heard from since. The authorities aren’t cooperative.

And then, miraculously, Kane appears in their home. He’s an emotional blank, with no memories of where he’s been.

Oscar Isaac

Before long the couple are snatched by commandos in black and taken to a top secret military base outside “the shimmer,” an area along the Carolina coast subject to bizarre anomalies.

As psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains, a few years earlier a meteor (or something) struck the area creating a “bubble” that is slowly expanding.  Numerous military teams, drones, even trained animals have been sent beyond the shimmer, but so far only Kane has returned.  And now he’s in a coma and on life support.

(How the authorities have kept the shimmer a secret for several years is one of those mysteries possible only in movieland.) Continue Reading »

“BLACK PANTHER” My rating: B- 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some films are noteworthy for their artistry.

Others earn a niche in the history books for their cultural footprint, for staking out sociological territory at just the right moment, for tapping into the zeitgeist.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” leans heavily toward the second category.

Narratively this is a  typical Marvel release, a superhero origin story that, as all Marvel movies must, ends with an extended fx-heavy smackdown.

But  there’s far more to “Black Panther.”  The first Marvel movie starring a black superhero, featuring a predominantly black cast and backed by with a heavy presence of African Americans in key creative roles,  the picture arrives at a moment when America’s oppressed groups — galvanized by an onslaught of alt-right rhetoric and rampant assholism — are asserting themselves with renewed determination.

Last year  “Wonder Woman” introduced a whole slew of female issues into the superhero universe; in retrospect it feels like a calling card for the “Me Too” movement.

“Panther” does pretty much the same thing for African Americans.  Think of it as Black Pride on steroids.

Based on the character created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the yarn introduces us to Wakanda, an African nation that to all outward appearances is pretty much your Third World backwater.


Thanks to the nation’s supply of vibranium — an element brought to Earth in a meteor — Wakandans live in a high-tech paradise.  The clothing, artwork and architecture may be right out of “The Lion King,”  but behind the scenes vibranium provides unlimited energy, healing power and weaponry. Invisible aircraft, even.

What’s more, in conjunction with tribal spirituality, vibranium imparts to the Wakandan king  superhuman abilities, transforming him into the all-but-invincible Black Panther.

All these wonders are hidden behind a shimmering energy wall which protects Wakanda from the outside world  (also the case with the Amazonian homeland in “Wonder Woman”). By keeping to themselves the prosperous and happy Wakandans ensure that  vibranium never falls into the hands of weapons-crazy Westerners who, it’s obvious, are their inferiors in just about every category worth measuring. Continue Reading »

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his band of oddities


105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The most memorable utterance attributed to P.T. Barnum — “There’s a sucker born every minute”  — appears nowhere in the original film musical “The Great Showman.”

This is understandable. The quote is thick with contempt/condescension for the everyday idiot.  Michael Gracey’s film, on the other hand, is all about openness and a childlike sense of wonder.

Ostensibly a biography of the 19th-century con man and entertainment entrepreneur, “The Greatest Showman” is a passion project from Aussie actor Hugh Jackman, who has long wanted to tackle the role. (Aside from subject matter, the film is in no way related to the fine 1980 Broadway musical “Barnum.”)

The real Barnum was a wart of a fellow and a self-proclaimed “humbugger,'” certainly not the dashing charmer we get in this production. But then “The Greatest Showman” has been conceived and executed not as history or actual biography but as a colorful commentary on dreaming big and embracing diversity.

The characters are paper thin and the historic details iffy (there appear to be electric lights in a house in the 1850s, the women’s costumes are all over the place).

But it is undeniably entertaining, especially in several of the musical numbers and in a garish presentational approach that reminds of Baz Luhrmann’s work on “Moulin Rouge,” with maybe a touch of Bob Fosse-inspired choreography thrown in for good measure.


We follow the rise of Jackman’s Barnum from struggling shipping company clerk to national prominence. He woos and wins a wealthy young woman (Michelle Williams), in the process alienating her family, who find his work very low class.

He buys a run-down museum in NYC and goes on a world-wide hunt to stock it with human and animal oddities. Before long Barnum can claim among his attractions the world’s smallest man, Tom Thumb, a bearded lady (Keala Settle), Siamese twins, the Dog Boy, the Tattooed Man and  a fellow with three legs.

Far from presenting Barnum as an exploiter of these unfortunates, the film depicts him as a father figure who creates an outcast clan whose members band together for mutual support in defiance of a cruel world.

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Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones

“THE SHAPE OF WATER” My rating: B+

122 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Blend the whimsey of “Amelie” with the sci-fi fantasy of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” wrap it all up in Cold War paranoia, and you’ve got Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” an interspecies love story that will leave you swooning.

Horror and beauty are never far apart in del Toro’s cinema; what’s noteworthy about this picture is that the horror is generated not by the fantastic creature at its heart but by human fear and loathing. This time around we’re the monsters.

Set in early ’60s Baltimore, where it’s always raining and everything is tinted bottom-of-the-sea green, “The Shape of Water” opens with Elisa ( Sally Hawkins) awakening from a watery dream and getting ready for work. Elisa is mute and communicates through sign language (we get subtitles); she works the night shift mopping floors at a top-secret government research station that looks and feels like a giant concrete mausoleum.

Michael Shannon

The scientific staff is all agog over their new acquisition, an amphibious creature captured in a river in South American, where the natives worshipped him as a god. The current condition of this beautiful/disquieting creation (that’s frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones under the spectacular prosthetics developed by Legacy Effects) is anything but god-like; he’s in chains and is the subject of the sadistic cattle-prod attentions of Strickland (Michael Shannon), a malevolent CIA type who can’t wait to vivisect this new species.

Using her passkey to gain entrance to the creature’s prison, the empathetic Elisa brings hard-boiled eggs and a portable phonograph player with a collection of jazz LPs. This frog/man may not be able to speak, but he digs eggs and music.

Elisa soon discovers that the captive is not a mindless beast; before long they’re conversing in sign language. And and as her affections for this scaly  newcomer deepen, Elisa hatches a plan to spirit the amphibian man out of the lab before he can be vivisected. He can live in her claw-footed bathtub.

She is abetted in this quest by her co-worker, the mop-swinging Zelda (Octavia Spencer),  by her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a mild-mannered commercial artist, and by one of the scientific eggheads, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who wants to preserve this great discovery at any cost. Continue Reading »

Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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Frances McDormand


115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Frances McDormand gives what may be her greatest performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

But then the film scores a trifecta of sorts by also containing best-ever perfs of both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

Add to that the fact that the latest from Irish auteur Martin McDonough (“In Bruges”) is the funniest movie ever about grief, and you’ve got a serious — and seriously hilarious — moviegoing experience.

Not a perfect one, though.  Granted, the first hour of “Three Billboards” is just about flawless. In the latter going McDonough abandons the brilliant character study he’s been presenting and tries to woo us with iffy melodrama.  Still…

The title refers to three billboards on the road near the Ozarks home of Mildred (McDormand).  Almost a year earlier Mildred’s teenage daughter Angela was raped, murdered and her body set afire.  The local cops have hit a dead end and the angry, acid-tongued Mildred decides to jump start the investigation through shaming.

She calls at the local advertising firm and soon those three billboards read like a grim set of Burma Shave signs: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests.”  “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

This is a full frontal assault on the local police led by Chief Willoughby (Harrelson).  By all accounts Willoughby is a decent guy who has exhausted all leads. DNA collected at the crime scene doesn’t match anyone in the data base, and Willoughby rejects Mildred’s demand that the authorities collect samples from every boy and man in the county.

Willoughby reveals that he’s dying of cancer, apparently in the mistaken belief that this will soften Mildred’s wrath and she’ll take down the billboards. She’ll have none of it: “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?”

Woody Harrelson

Mildred may be the toughest, most uncompromising and prickly character of McDormand’s uncompromising and prickly career. You may not like her (she commits an unconscionable and, frankly, ludicrous act of arson against her perceived enemies), but you can’t take your eyes off her as plows through the town’s irate citizenry like a vengeful bulldozer. (One may look at the actress’s excellent work in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” as a sort of test run for this film.)

Her attitude even comes through in her choice of clothing. Nothing feminine about Mildred’s garb…she wears a blue jumpsuit and a Rambo-style headscarf, looking like Rosie the Riveter with a “can-fuck-you-up” attitude. (In one of the film’s slyer jokes, Mildred operates the Southern Charm Gift Shop — which thanks to her attitude is utterly devoid of  charm.)

Mildred’s contempt for the cops has its basis in more than just personal grief.  Deputy Dixon (Rockwell) is both astoundingly stupid and overtly racist and Mildred has no problem in calling him on his proclivities: “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?”

Dixon’s answer is that nowadays it’s “the person-of-color-torturing business.” (One of the iffier aspects of McDonough’s screenplay is that an honorable man like Willoughby employs a vicious asshat like Dixon; we’re led to believe that the Chief feels sorry for this moron and actually sees some potential in him. This strains credulity, but sets up later questionable developments in the Dixon subplot.) Continue Reading »

Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Stefan Konarske


118 minutes | No MPAA rating

Few things are as noncinematic as a bunch of intellectuals arguing economic theory — which puts the makers of “The Young Karl Marx” on the defensive from the get-go.

Their solution is a sort of mutation on “Shakespeare in Love” in which Marx and his cohort Friedrich Engels rail at the status quo while outrunning the police and creditors, finding time to vigorously roger their ladyfolk. Along the way they establish the international Communist movement and get to work writing Capital.

Raoul Peck’s film (his last outing was the excellent James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”) begins in the early 1840s with unfortunate peasants being routed by cudgel-waving horsemen for having the effrontery to pick  up fallen tree limbs for firewood on a private estate.

Then we cut to young Marx (August Diehl) arguing with the writers and editors of their recently-banned newspaper; he criticizes his colleagues both for intellectual laziness and for a lack of resolve in opposing the establishment. (The film finds  Marx often insufferably arrogant…but he’s arrogant because he’s right.)

The scene ends with the entire newspaper staff hauled off to prison.

Meanwhile in Manchester England Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is appalled at the inhuman conditions imposed by his father on workers at the family’s textile mill. When the proles protest by damaging a loom, Engels Pere fumes that “Machines are expensive…not like labor.”  His son leaves in disgust.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about how these two giants of economic reasoning got together, discovering their shared styles and common interests.  We also meet Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day Lewis’ love interest in “Phantom Thread”), a member of the French aristocracy who gave it all up for love and the workers of the world.  Then there’s Engel’s squeeze Mary (Hannah Steele), an Irish factory lass who takes no guff from anyone.

There are, of course, endless discussions of Marxist theory.  Some of these get heated when the talk turns to the boys’  sincere belief in  violent revolution.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about as well acted as it can be…it’s just that it plays more like a history lesson than a viable drama.  Good production values, though…even if most of what we see are gloomy garrets, dirty factory floors and dimly-lit taverns.

| Robert W. Butler

Sam Keeley

“THE CURED” My rating: C+

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The new Holy Grail — at least as far as the makers of horror films are concerned — is a fresh take on zombies.

In recent years titles like “Maggie,” “Life After Beth,” “The Girl with All the Gifts” and “Warm Bodies” have sought with varying degrees of success to refresh the whole undead flesheater bit.

“The Cured” offers some intriguing ideas, but can’t sustain the drama when things fall back into the same-old same-old.

At the heart of David Freyne’s Ireland-lensed effort is the idea that zombies can be cured.  Whether or not that’s a good thing is basically what the movie’s about.

Months before the beginning of the film a bug called the Maze Virus swept Europe, turning everyday folks into snarling cannibals.  A vaccine has been developed that brings the infected back to their normal state…with the downside that they can recall all the ghastly things they did while under the virus’ influence.

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Rita Hayek, Adel Karam

“THE INSULT” My rating: B-

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Private words generate national repercussions in Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” the Lebanese film nominated for the foreign language Oscar.

When we first see Tony (Adel Karam) he looks like nothing so much as a caricature of a Rust Belt Trump voter…baseball cap, goatee, plaid shirt over a sleeveless wifebeater. He’s attending a rally of Lebanon’s far right Christian Party, listening to a speaker harangue the Palestinian refugees who have been an uncomfortable part of that country’s social fabric for decades.

Meanwhile Yasser (Kamel El Basha), one of those Palestinians, is foreman of a construction crew working across the street from the apartment Tony shares with his pregnant wife Shirine  (Rita Hayek).

A dispute erupts  over a gutter that sends dirty water draining off Tony’s balcony onto the heads of the workmen. Yasser fixes a pipe to eliminate the problem; the improvements are torn out by Tony, furious that a Palestinian has been messing with his home.

At the urging of his boss, Yasser shows up at Tony’s car repair shop to apologize. Instead he’s told: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.”

An enraged Yasser punches Tony, breaking a couple of ribs.  Days later Tony aggravates the injury, piercing a lung and ending up in the hospital. Shirine goes into premature labor.

The mechanic decides to sue Yasser for damages.

Doueiri’s screenplay (written with Joelle Touma) is basically in two parts.  The film’s first half lays out the political and social tension creeping through all levels of Lebanese society.  Tony’s Christian Party members are rankled at a setup that allows Palestinians to live in refugee camps where the law can’t touch them. Meanwhile Yasser refers to himself and other refugees as “the niggers of the Arab world.”

In these early passages “The Insult” does a good job of describing the complex cultural and religious animosities that linger a quarter-century after the end of Lebanon’s devastating civil war. Particular effective are brief glimpses in the background of army tanks and the occasional stroller with an automatic weapon, reminders that civil unrest is a constant threat.

The film never makes the case of one man over the other; both Yasser and Tony have moments when they see, if only for a moment, the other guy’s point of view.  They regret the ugly turn things have taken and are tempted to call the whole thing off.

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