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Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer

“CALL ME BY YOUR NAME” My rating: A- (Opens wide on Jan. 19)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Call Me By Your Name” could be categorized as a coming-out story, but that’s oversimplifying things… like saying “Citizen Kane” is a movie about the newspaper business.

Director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash”) and screenwriter  James Ivory (yes, the director of “Howards End,” “A Room with a View” and the Kansas City-lensed “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”) are painting on an intimate canvas here, yet their adaptation of Andre Caiman’s novel is an epic of mood and emotion.

It’s about youth, sexual awakening, family love and the warm glow of summers past. It’s enough to make you swoon.

Set in the summer of 1983, “Call Me…” chronicles a lazy but significant six weeks for 17-year-old Elio (an unbelievably good Timothee Chalamet).  The son of an American father and an Italian mother, he’s been raised in Italy with all the intellectual stimulation he can handle. He’s smart, multilingual and maybe some sort of musical prodigy.

Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), the American grad student hired by Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) for a summer of research on Roman statuary. Oozing a big grin, Yankee self-confidence and nonchalant studliness, Oliver makes a big wave among the town’s young women.

Initially this visitor strikes Elio as arrogant. But Oliver also stirs something else in Elio. Not that Oliver seems at all receptive…if anything he appears oblivious.

Interestingly enough, it’s Elio’s father and mother (Amira Casar) who first notice the slow-burn sexual sizzle that’s been introduced to their household…not that they comment on it directly. But their sidelong looks speak volumes. (They must be the most understanding movie parents of all time. Atticus Finch could take lessons from them.)

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Daniel Day-Lewis

“PHANTOM THREAD” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 19)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Phantom Thread” is an exquisite love story.

“Phantom Thread” is a cynical black comedy.

That both of these statements are accurate suggests the complex mix of ideas, emotions and impulses percolating through Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film.

That “Phantom Thread” also features what is allegedly Daniel Day-Lewis final screen performance (he and Anderson collaborated earlier on “There Will Be Blood”) makes it a must-see event.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is the premiere dress designer in ’50s London. He caters to the rich and titled; his fashions are elegant and controversy-free.

His effete manner and rep as a lifelong bachelor might suggest to some that the graying Reynolds is gay, but they’d be wrong. Reynolds enjoys women on the physical level.  In fact, as the film begins he indicates over breakfast to  his sister-collaborator-facilitator  Cyril (Leslie Manville) that his current paramour has worn out her welcome.

It falls to Cyril to deliver the bad news and escort the rejected young woman from the premises; a great artist like Reynolds cannot be bothered with such mundane duties.

“Marriage would make me deceitful,” he says, as if using and discarding women somehow makes him honest.

Anderson’s screenplay follows Reynolds on a side trip to his family’s seaside cottage.  At a local tearoom he encounters  Alma (Vicky Krieps), an Eastern European immigrant waiting tables. She’s a woman with a real physical presence, not one of those wraithlike models he’s used to dealing with, and she knows nothing about Reynolds or his work.

Her lack of guile, non-glamorous appearance and forthright emotional bearing appeal hugely to the jaded dress designer. He brings her to London, installs her in his household, looks to her as his creative muse  and, finally, marries her: “I feel like I’ve been looking for your for a very long time.” Continue Reading »

Robert Forster, John Hawkes

“SMALL TOWN CRIME”  My rating: C+ (Opens Jan. 18 at the Screenland Tapcade)

91 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ex-cop Mike Kendall is a “shit heel” according to one of the other characters in “Small Town Crime.” It’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Mike is an alcoholic who’s usually wasted by noon. He drives his souped-up car like an irresponsible teen; one morning he awakens to find his ride parked in the front yard amongst the wreckage of a picket fence.

Mike has been jobless since the unfortunate incident that led to the death of a fellow patrolman. To keep getting unemployment benefits he goes through the motions of applying for jobs, but should a prospective employer actually show an interest, Mike scotches the deal by confessing to being a hopeless drunk.

The good news is that Mike, as played by the great John Hawkes, isn’t a mean drunk. He loved being a cop and has a hopeless dream of once again wearing a badge. And despite his maddeningly childlike behavior, he’s just charming enough that you can’t hate him.

This noir drama from siblings Echo and Ian Nelms finds Mike thrust back into the game when he discovers a young woman dying in a roadside ditch. His cop instincts kick in, and despite warnings from his old colleagues on the force, Mike starts poking around into her death.

Posing as a private detective, he contacts the girl’s rich grandfather (Robert Forster), who is infuriated by the cops’ sloppy handling of the case (“To them she’s just another toe tag”). Despite his granddaughter’s self-destructive history of drug addiction and prostitution, he’s ready to spend big bucks to find out how and why she died.

Mike’s dogged digging eventually reveals a murderous conspiracy.  Before it’s over, other young prostitutes are being murdered and Mike is himself a target.  Not to mention his “sister” (Octavia Spencer), with whom he grew up in foster care, and her husband (Anthony Anderson) and their kids.

 

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Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Tom Hanks

“THE POST” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Jan. 12)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Steven Spielberg’s powers as a storyteller are so secure that not even the miscasting of one of “The Post’s” two leads can do much damage to the narrative.

This sprawling effort — it begins with a firefight in Vietnam and winds down with a firestorm over the Second Amendment — hits the ground running and rarely slows down for a breath. It’s like a Spielberg master class in taking a complicated story and telling it cleanly and efficiently.

And like other major movies about real-world journalism — “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” especially — “The Post” could hardly be more timely.  With a president who shows every indication that he’d love to roll back freedom of the press, this film is so relevant it hurts.

The subject, of course, is the 1971 scandal over the Pentagon Papers.  That massive study, commissioned by LBJ’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, looked at American involvement in Vietnam going back to the Truman administration. It revealed that the experts had always known a land war in Vietnam was unwinnable — but had plowed ahead anyway, sacrificing billions of dollars and countless lives on what amounted to political face-saving.

The papers showed that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress so as to continue the war.

McNamara suppressed the study; the public only learned of its existence when one of its authors, Rand Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), made an illegal copy of the top secret document and passed it on to The New York Times.

Today  The Washington Post sits at or near the top of American newspapers (thanks to its reporting on the Watergate Scandal in 1972-’73).  But in 1971 The Post was at best a regional paper…and not a very good one.

Its new editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), was pushing it toward greatness, but still felt himself outclassed by the journalistic aces at The Times. He was particularly concerned about rumors that The Times was about to scoop The Post (and every other news outlet) with a major story.

That big story was the Pentagon Papers. No sooner had the first in a series of articles been published than a federal judge — at the behest of the Nixon administration — enjoined The Times from printing additional material.

Bradley’s Post, however, was under no gag order. Working back channels Bradley got his hands on another copy of the papers and prepared to publish even more revelations on the pages of The Post.

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Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

“I, TONYA” My rating: A- (Opens Jan. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse, Town Center and Glenwood Arts)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Everybody knows that spunky figure skater Tonya Harding was behind the plot to smash the knee of  her teammate and strongest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. Right?

Well, maybe not. The astounding “I, Tonya” suggests that Harding  may not deserve her rap as the poster girl for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Based on irony free, widely contradictory, totally true interviews” with the major participants (under the closing credits we see some of the actual news and police interview footage), this savage and breathtakingly entertaining black comedy from Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) is also a powerful dramatic and emotional experience, one that forces a total reassessment of the Harding/Kerrigan affair.

By the time it’s over you don’t know whether to laugh or weep.

Along the way it gives Aussie glamor girl Margot Robbie the opportunity to display world-class acting chops as Tonya, while cementing Allison Janney’s reputation as the cinema’s greatest bad mother (we’re talking a perf that leaves “Mommie Dearest” in the dust).

Steven Rogers’ screenplay (a huge step up from his usual stuff…”Hope Floats,” “Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”) centers on a series of recreated interviews with the main characters, illustrating their memories with flashbacks.

The tone is set early on with Janney’s appearance as LaVona, the stage mother from hell. She’s like a human skull beneath a Beatles wig with an ever-smoldering cigarillo. In the present-day interview scenes she always has a parakeet on her shoulder.

LaVona is a foul-mouthed waitress and (mostly) single mother who motivated her little athlete with psychological and occasional physical abuse. (“She skated better when enraged.”) She practically crows at the memory of  Tonya wading out onto the rink for the first time and blowing away the privileged little girls who had been at it for years. (“Those bitches didn’t know what hit them.”)

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Kristen Wiig, Matt Damon

“DOWNSIZING” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 22)

135 minutes | MPAA rating:

There’s a work of genius lurking inside “Downsizing,” one that struggles to make itself heard and ultimately loses steam and dribbles away.

Bottom line: The first half of Alexander Payne’s sci-fi/fantasy satire/end-of-the-world warning is pretty wonderful. After that, things get iffy.

In the film’s first moments we’re introduced to the concept of “downsizing” — not corporate layoffs but rather the shrinking of human beings to the size of Barbie Dolls.

Downsizing could be the answer to, well, everything.  An ear of corn could feed a dozen people for a week.  Tiny homes require almost no power to heat and cool efficiently.  Moving around is easy — downsized citizens ride in shoebox-sized containers that can fit easily in a bus or airplane’s overhead rack.

Omaha residents Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) are initially bemused by this new technology.  But after a decade of hand-to-mouth living they come to the conclusion that downsizing is the key to a prosperous future — especially when it is explained to them that after downsizing their modest savings will translate into millions of dollars.

So they contract to live in a downsized community (a glass dome offers protection from predatory birds). This mini-metropolis takes up only a couple of acres of real-world real estate but, in shrunken form, is the size of greater New York City. Their built-to-order mansion awaits.

The actual process of downsizing is cleverly laid out in Payne and Jim Taylor’s screenplay…and it’s a techno-nerdish wonder. Once sedated, the client’s dental fillings are removed (only organic tissue can be shrunk…a ceramic filling could cause the client’s head to explode).  All body hair is shaved (again, hair follicles are not alive…only the roots).

Once downsized, the comatose clients are moved about on spatulas, like burgers on a short-order grill.

It’s all very amusing, yet weirdly plausible.

Just one problem. Upon awakening Paul learns that Audrey got cold feet at the last minute. She now wants a divorce from her tiny husband and most of  their savings.

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

“THE GREATEST SHOWMAN” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Dec. 20)

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.

Zendaya

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+ (Opens wide on Dec. 15)

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 »

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

“DARKEST HOUR”  My rating: B (Opens wide on Dec. 22)

A confession.

I’ve often found Gary Oldman  a shameless scenery chewer. Villainous roles were especially problematic; you could actually see Oldman twirling his mustache, metaphorically speaking.

2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” gave us a more settled, thoughtful Goldman, who portrayed John LeCarre’s good gray spookmaster George Smiley with an admirable degree of restraint.

Now, in  “Darkest Hour,” Goldman tackles the iconic role of Winston Churchill, and it’s a match made in heaven.  Sir Winston was, after all, no slouch at scenery chewing; yet Oldman’s performance here is subtle and balanced, a deft blend of  bombast and inner activity.

It’s a performance of such insight and power — abetted by David Malinowski’s spectacularly effective makeup design — that it immediately propels Goldman into the front ranks of this year’s Oscar contenders.

Joe Wright’s film centers on one month, May of 1940, when the long-out-of-favor Churchill was elected Prime Minister after the collapse of Neville Chamberlain’s ineffectual government.

The P.M. is faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. The Nazis have taken over much of Europe and are pounding the British army at Dunkirk. If those 300,000 or so soldiers are captured or killed, it will leave Great Britain defenseless.

Voices within his own party are urging Churchill to sue Hitler for peace. It’s the only way to escape a bloodbath and an armed invasion.

Churchill doubts that Der Fuhrer is in any mood to grant concessions. If only he can save the troops waiting on the French coast, galvanize public opinion, and overnight turn his country’s prevailing ethos from dovish to hawkish. Continue Reading »

Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill

“STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI” My rating: C (Opens wide on Dec. 15)

152 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

Over the last 40 years “Star Wars” films have thrilled and delighted (the original “A New Hope”) and occasionally pissed off and dismayed (the George Lucas-directed prequels).

But until now I’ve never been bored.

We’re talking I-don’t-know-if-I-can-keep-my-eyes-open bored.

It’s not that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is terrible. It’s just that writer/director Rian Johnson is so handcuffed by the franchise’s mythology that there’s no hope of actually delivering anything new and unusual.

A “Star Wars” movie is now like a giant hamster wheel. We keep loping along but the scenery never changes. The same narratives, motifs and tropes play out over and over again. The filmmakers may tinker with small details, but there’s no way they can give this series the swift kick in the narrative ass it needs.

Actually, Johnson (“Loopers,” “Brick,”  “The Brothers Bloom”) delivers a flash of hope early in “Last Jedi” when the pompous General Hux (Domhnail Gleeson) delivers one of those vituperative “rebel swine” declamatory speeches, only to be phone pranked by rebel pilot Poe Dameron who cuts in on the imperial cruiser’s radio frequency.

It’s a refreshingly gonzo sequence, one that not only re-establishes Dameron as the new Han Solo but  acknowledges the cardboard villainy that has always been the hallmark of “Star Wars” baddies.

Alas, that moment passes, never to be repeated. Yeah, there are a couple of mildly amusing flashes still on tap.

“If they move, stun ’em” one of our heroes says of captives, a clear nod to “The Wild Bunch’s” “If they move, kill ’em.” And we get a throwaway glimpse of an imperial dreadnaught’s laundry room where all those fascist uniforms are being starched.

But for the most part “Last Jedi” takes itself very, very seriously. It needs a lot more finger-in-the-eye subversiveness.

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James Franco as Tommy Wiseau

“THE DISASTER ARTIST”  My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 7)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: R

2003’s “The Room” has been widely heralded as one of the worst films ever made, a screen-splattered mess of bad writing, clumsy direction, incompetent acting and grandiose (and totally unfulfilled) ambitions.

All true. But here’s the thing: “The Room” is also wildly entertaining, an  extravaganza of unintentional comedy. Which is why over the last decade it has become a cult favorite, beloved by midnight audiences who know every inane line by heart.

“The Disaster Artist” is director/star James Franco’s retelling of how “The Room” came to be made, and unlike its source material, this film is intentionally hilarious.

Wha we’ve got here is a comic masterpiece inspired by a dramatic monstrosity.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on actor Greg Sistero’s memoir of making the film with friend and all-around bizarre human being Tommy Wiseau.

The two meet in a San Francisco acting class where Wiseau (James Franco) — a droopy eyed, long-haired wraith with an elusive slavic accent, a malapropism-heavy grasp of English and a borderline creepy personality — stuns his fellow students with a rendition of Marlon Brando’s “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that ends with him doing a passable imitation of a grand mal seizure.

Sistero (James Franco), whose desire to be an actor is undercut by his unassertive personality, is fascinated by Wiseau, a guy who marches to his own out-of-sync drumbeat — for example, doing high-volume scene readings over breakfast in a crowded restaurant. A sort of sensei/grasshopper relationship develops, and Wiseau invited Sistero to move with him to L.A. where he has an apartment he rarely uses.

(In fact, Wiseau has apartments in several cities and a seemingly inexhaustible checking account. The source of his wealth remains a mystery, as does his age, nationality and personal history. Did he strike a Faustian deal with the devil? Did he materialize on Earth fully formed?)

Neither man has any discernible acting talent, and after weeks of futile auditioning Wiseau decides to go pro-active. He’ll write a script for a movie that he will direct and finance. He and Sistero will star in it.

They hire real professionals (Seth Rogen, Paul Scher) for their crew and desperate actors (Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutchinson) for their cast and get to work.

 

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Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 1 at the Glenwood Arts)

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

“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” My rating: A- 

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 »

“COCO” My rating: B

109 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

As they did with 2015’s “Inside Out,” the animation geniuses at Pixar are again pushing the narrative envelope. With “Coco” they deliver a tale so dense with visual and thematic elements that by comparison most live-action films seem simplistic.

Taking as it starting point the traditions and mythology of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration, the film emerges as an epic family drama that resolves with a deeply satisfying emotional coda.

But as was the case with “Inside Out,” the film’s ambitions are so grandiose that it sometimes comes off as overwritten and unnecessarily complicated. Too many  digressions threaten to derail the yarn.

In a brilliant opening sequence that harkens back to the photo album introduction to Pixar’s “Up,” a family’s history is told in papel picado, the colorful hand-cut Mexican tissue flags.

Our narrator, young  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), relates how his great-great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise her daughter Coco alone. (Coco is still alive, an ancient creature lost in silent dementia and cared for by her extended family.)  Nevertheless she established a family-run shoemaking enterprise which endures to this day.  She also banned music from her household.

This poses a real problem for Miguel, who loves music, plays it in secret, and worships the memory of Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), a legendary guitar-strumming troubadour from the 1930s who starred in a series of perennially popular black-and-white movies.

In fact, Miguel comes to believe that Ernesto de la Cruz — who died years earlier in an on-stage accident — is his great-great-great grandfather, about whom no one in the family will reveal anything.

All this coincides with the Day of the Dead celebration, where photos of deceased family members are displayed in a household shrine. On this one night of the year the dear departed are invited to cross over from the land of the dead to hover around their living descendants in a sprawling cemetery lit by thousands of candles and featuring tables of food to be shared by the living and, symbolically anyway, the ghostly visitors. Continue Reading »

Saoirse Ronan

“LADY BIRD” My rating: B+ 

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Saoirse Ronan gives an Oscar-worthy performance in “Lady Bird” is expected. She is, after all, perhaps the greatest actress of her young generation. (Exhibit One: “Brooklyn.”)

What’s really surprising about this funny/furious coming-of-age yarn is the voice behind the camera.  “Lady Bird” is the first feature soley written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the actress known as indie filmdom’s go-to gal for slightly ditzy heroines (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”).

Gerwig gives us not only a first-rate dramedy about a young woman’s growth from cranky teen to independent woman, but also the most incendiary mother/daughter movie relationship since “Terms of Endearment.”

Combining savage wordplay, satiric insights into adolescent life and a genuine sense of family dynamics, “Lady Bird” is simultaneously familiar and fiercely original.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior (the year is 2002) and  pissed off about nearly everything. Her general dissatisfaction may be behind her decision to change her name to Lady Bird…or to at least demand that her parents, friends and teachers call her  that. A new name may lead to a new life, right?

In the film’s first scene Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are reduced to tears while driving down the highway listening to a book tape of The Grapes of Wrath.  It’s a rare moment when mom and daughter are on the same page; seconds later Lady Bird’s temper flares and she impulsively bails from the moving car. (She will spend much of the movie with a cast on one hand.)

The source of the argument is college.  The two are returning from a scouting trip to regional universities, but Lady Bird has her heart set on something back east, a place with “real culture, like New York…or Connecticut.” Marion, a glum financial harpie, warns that there isn’t any money for an Ivy League education.  A small state college the next town over will have to do.

This is the film’s central conflict: a smart, ambitious and somewhat spoiled adolescent versus her penny-pinching, essentially joyless parent.  (Lady Bird’s dad, played by Tracy Letts, is a laid-back  noncombatant who offers moral support to both mother and daughter but not much else, having been downsized from his tech job.)

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“DUNKIRK”  My rating: B

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Largely jettisoning character development and conventional exposition in favor of a you-are-there immersion, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is clearly a descendent of “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s massive 1962 recreation of the D-Day invasion.

It moves swiftly and explains little, weaving together three story lines in a chronologically jumbled narrative that covers a week’s worth of history as the British nation rallies to rescue more than 300,000 troops trapped by Germans on the French coast in the early years of World War II.

Nolan’s unconventional storytelling is simultaneously confusing and compelling.  It’s disconcerting to jump back and forth between a daytime aerial dogfight and a nighttime sea illuminated by fires and explosions. Don’t expect an explanation of what’s going on.

But by eschewing a linear narrative Nolan is able to ramp up the tension, zigging and zagging between cliffhanger moments as various characters fight to survive.

The first of these tales is set among the soldiers crowded on the beach, sitting ducks for the German pilots who seem to control the sky.

A British naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) desperately coordinates an evacuation that relies on the Mole, the sole pier in water deep enough to accommodate a large ship.

Most of this sequence centers on a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperate to save himself. He poses as a stretcher bearer, hoping to get aboard a medical ship being loaded with the wounded. He’s fortunate enough to take refuge in an evacuation ship, but it is torpedoed and he must return to shore. He eventually joins another unit taking refuge in the hold of a beached trawler…they’re hoping for high tide to take them to sea while the boat becomes a target for Nazi marksmen.

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Dick Van Dyke, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam

“WAIT FOR YOUR LAUGH” My rating: B+ (Opening Jan. 5 at the Tivoli)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most of us remember Rose Marie, who died last week at the age of 94, as the wise-cracking comedy writer Sally Rogers on TV’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

But that was only one stage in a show-biz career that lasted nine decades and was crammed with dozens of firsts.

“Wait for Your Laugh,” Christina Tucker and Jason Wise’s loving documentary, covers Rose Marie’s remarkable life, in the process delivering a pretty comprehensive look at the evolution of entertainment in the 20th century.

Based on a series of filmed interviews with the still-sharp-as-a-tack Rose Marie — as well as with colleagues and friends like Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Tim Conway and Peter Marshall — the film reveals a remarkable life.

Rose Marie Mazzetta became a child star at age 4, winning a talent contest by belting out songs in the style of Sophie Tucker.  This led to radio appearances as Baby Rose Marie. When listeners refused to believe that a child could sing like that, she hit the vaudeville circuit in its final days. Audiences couldn’t deny their eyes and ears.

Al Capone and other gangsters (“the boys”) treated little Rose Marie as an adopted daughter, offering protection. They could’t protect her from her father/manager, who siphoned off millions before she was old enough to declare her emancipation. (The old man was arrested 128 times for violation of child labor laws.) Continue Reading »