Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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 »

Advertisements

Chelsea Lopez, Michael Patrick Nicholson

“ARE WE NOT CATS” My rating: C+ (Opening Feb. 23 at the Screenland Tapcade)

78 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Are We Not Cats” is a slacker love story.

Or maybe it’s a horror yarn centering on the human equivalent of a cat’s hairball.

The answer is up to the individual. Some viewers will be weirdly moved by writer/director Xander Robin’s short (only 78 minutes) debut feature. Others will be totally grossed out and repelled.

The film’s first half hour centers on Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson),  a hapless twentysomething adrift in the scuzziest corners of New York City.

In short order Eli is rejected by his girl, loses his job as a trash hauler and is abandoned by his parents, who unceremoniously decamp to Arizona. He’s reduced to sleeping in the ramshackle delivery truck which is his sole means of making money.

Even if we hadn’t seen Eli’s world imploding around him, we’d know he was in the grip of a big-time existential dilemma. His unkempt hair, untended chin bristles and haunted eyes announce a dude in crisis. Told he looks tired, Eli can only shrug: “This is what I look like.”

Desperate for cash, he takes a job driving a massive truck motor to a customer upstate. Along the way he gives a ride to Kyle (Michael Godere), who takes him to a sort of underground nightclub for rural punks and introduces him to his girl, Anya (Chelsea Lopez), a naifish beauty with black lipstick and a wig concealing her bald pate.

Cancer patient?  No. Anya suffers from trichotillomania and trichophagia — she is compelled to pull out her own hair and eat it.

Nonetheless, she and Eli drift into a semi-romantic relationship…at least until the massive hairball in Anya’s intestinal tract creates a health crisis that requires improvised surgery.

The film’s title references not only the line chanted by the animal men in the classic horror movie “The Island of Lost Souls” (“Are we not men?”) but to Anya’s unhappy hairball.

In a sense this is two movies. The first is a sort of deadpan ashcan comedy as Eli drifts through a world of crumbling buildings and rusting, abandoned heavy machinery.

Then the oddball romance kicks in, only to be twisted inside out by one of the most gruesome scenes in recent movie memory.

| Robert W. Butler

Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner

“THE LODGERS” My rating: C+ (Opens Feb. 23 at the Screenland Tapcade)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Atmosphere trumps just about everything else in the Irish-lensed “The Lodgers,” a ghost story as ephemeral as “The Turn of the Screw.”

Brian O’Malley’s yarn unfolds in the early 1920s on a decaying Irish estate.  Twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) live alone, the last of their once-wealthy family.

They’re going slowly mad, living by arcane rules (for instance, they must be in bed by midnight) that make no sense.  Edward is further down the head-case highway than his sister and acts as the enforcer of these edicts; Rachel is quietly defiant and looking for a way out of her situation.

As is so often the case in these stories, the real conflict arrives with an outsider. Sean (Eugene Simon) has returned from the Great War with a wooden leg and the scorn of the local louts, who consider him a traitor for fighting side by side with the hated Brits.  But Sean spots Rachel on one of her rare trips to town and, well, he gets interested.

David Turpin’s screenplay is bigger on weird moments than well-developed characters, and the deep generational secrets that keep the twins in virtual bondage are predictable if improbable (incest, anyone?).

But coherent storytelling takes a back seat to director O’Malley’s visual flourishes: a stagnant pond that erupts in disturbing visions, a trap door in the floor that oozes viscous liquid, a blue/gray palette that cloaks everything in twilight dimness.

Don’t expect “The Lodgers” to provide any kind of  coherent statement. But its dank/dark visuals are compelling in their own right.

| Robert W. Butler

“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.

Ha.

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 »

2017 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B (Opens Feb. 9 at the Tivoli)

“DEAR BASKETBALL” (USA, 5 minutes)  A-

Having pretty much ruled the world of sports, NBA great Kobe Bryant now seems bent on dominating the world of arts.

Directed by Glen Keane, “Dear Basketball” is based on a prose poem written and read by Bryant and animated through spectacularly effective pencil/charcoal illustrations.

It’s a love letter from Bryant to the sport that inspires him and made him world famous: “I did everything for you. That’s what you do when someone makes you feel as alive as you do.”

This isn’t some sort of ego rant; it’s a deeply personal meditation on Bryant’s inevitable retirement and his belief that while the body may take a beating the spirit keeps on ticking.

Grown men will weep.

And having a soaring John Williams musical score doesn’t hurt, either.

“NEGATIVE SPACE”  (France, 5 minutes) B

Animating what appear to be stop-moition papier mache figures (most likely they’re computer generated), Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s short centers on a father-son relationship built around packing suitcases.

A father who travels often bonds with his son over the fine art of packing; the kid gets so good that Dad allows him to prepare his suitcase before departing on a business trip.

As the boy grows into manhood the ritual of efficient packing becomes a major factor in his life.  Some fathers pass down religious faith or a love of baseball; why not folding clothes to create negative space?

“LOU”   (USA, 7 minutes) B

The schoolyard bully is a familiar trope in film and literature, but we’ve never seen a take like that offered by Disney/Pixar’s “Lou.”

Directed by Dave Mullins and Dana Murray, the dialogue-free film centers on a big kid — think a mini Jack Black — who makes life miserable for the other kids in his class.

But this dorky bully gets a pointed lesson from a fantastic creature that assembles itself from items in the lost-and-found box.

Sounds weird, and “Lou” is almost impossible to describe with words. But in the end it reveals what we already knew: behind most bullies there’s a hurt and lonely kid blindly striking out.

“REVOLTING RHYMES” (UK, 29 minutes) B

Roland Dahl’s book of poems offering a sort of “Fractured Fairy Tales” approach to Mother Goose is the basis for this amusing but overlong effort from Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer.

It’s all very British, beginning with an encounter between a proper woman and a trench coat-clad wolf in a quaint suburban tea shop.

This episodic entry throws together characters from various yarns — Snow White and Red Riding Hood, a family of wolves, and a pack of pigs who operate a banking institution.

Dahl’s wordplay is as clever as ever, but the storytelling runs out of steam about halfway through.

“GARDEN PARTY” (France, 7 minutes) B+

The camera drifts through what appears to be a posh California home, but something’s wrong.

The swimming pool is full of leaves and debris, a meal sits uneaten and decaying on a table, and there appear to be bullet holes in the marble columns flanking the entryway.

The only living things in Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon’s wordless effort are the frogs and toads that have taken over the place.

What the hell is going on?

“Garden Party” provides and answer — well, sorta — but the real attraction here is the unbelievably detailed photorealistic animation. It’s flabbergasting.

| Robert W. Butler

2017 OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS  Overall rating: A- (Opening Feb. 9 at the Tivoli)

“DEKALB ELEMENTARY” (USA, 20 minutes)  B+

It’s a torn-from-the-headlines concept that could have been exploitative.  Instead Reed Van Dyk’s “DeKalb Elementary” his all the right humane notes.

The office of an elementary school is invaded by a young man (Bo Mitchell) with an assault rifle.

“This is for real,” he tells the office lady (Cassandra Rice) behind the counter. “We’re all going to die today.”

The next 19 or so real-time minutes are both hair-raising and wrenching. The shooter takes a few potshots at the police who have converged on the school, but mostly he’s freaking out. He says he’s a mental patient with nothing to live for.

The desk lady immediately gets to work proving him wrong, calling him “Sweetie,” dispensing maternal comfort and carrying on a telephone conversation with the cops.

Tensely paced and powered by two wonderfully subtle performances, “DeKalb Elementary” will stick with you.

“THE SILENT CHILD”  (UK, 20 minutes) A-

Chris Overton’s “The Silent Child” is like “The Miracle Worker” condensed to 20 insightful minutes.

Libby (an astounding Maisey Sly) is an adorable 6-year-old living with her parents and teen siblings in England’s rural midlands. But she’s deaf, and over time she’s figured out how to use that to pretty much get whatever she wants.

Overworked and time strapped, her parents hire a therapist, Joanne (Rachel Shenton, who also wrote the screenplay), to spend days in the home, preparing Libby for public school.  The girl quickly picks up the basics of sign language; not unexpectedly, she bonds with Joanne, the only other person with whom she can fully communicate.

But their relationship spawns new problems. Libby’s mother Sue (Rachel Fielding) and other family members are too busy to learn signing; rather than make that effort they want  to emphasize lip reading as Libby’s main communication skill. And then there’s old-fashioned jealousy, as it dawns on Sue that she’s losing her daughter to another woman.

“The Silent Child” is in a sense propagandistic. Shelton is an advocate for the hearing impaired, and the film is intended to educate and change minds.

But that cannot diminish its effectiveness as drama.   This is a quiet heartbreaker.

“MY NEPHEW EMMETT’   (USA, 20minutes) A

One of the most shocking and horrific episodes of the Jim Crow era comes wrenchingly to live in Kevin Wilson, Jr.’s “My Nephew Emmett.”

The subject, of course, is the torture murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicagoan visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he reportedly whistled at a white woman.

The focus here is less on young Emmett (Joshua Wright), who is seen only fleetingly at the beginning and end of the film, than on  his uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), a preacher who learns too late of his nephews unthinking transgression, and spends a soul-shaking night standing guard with a shotgun, awaiting the redneck posse that will surely come for the boy.

The film has been impeccably mounted and perfectly acted. Special kudos to Jasmine Guy (yes, the “A Different World” star) as the preacher’s wife and Dane Rhodes as the profane and intimidating leader of the lynching party.

Prepare to be shaken.

“THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK”  (Australia, 13 minutes) B

Derin Seale and Josh Lawson’s “The Eleven O’Clock” plays like a classic Monty Python sketch, an absurd situation fueled by delightful wordplay.

Here’s the setup:  An 11 a.m. appointment in a shrink’s office.  The doctor’s new patient is a megalomaniac who believes himself to be a psychiatrist.

The problem facing the viewer: We don’t know which of these two pomposities (played by Lawson and Damon Harrison) is the mental patient, and which the M.D.  Both insist they are the psychiatrist. This leads to spectacularly gnarly exchanges like this one:

“I don’t think it’s healthy for a doctor to pretend to be a patient for a patient who thinks he’s a doctor. Wouldn’t you agree?

“I would…except you’re not a doctor talking to a patient. You’re my patient who thinks he’s a doctor talking to a patient who thinks he’s a doctor indulging the illusions of a patient who thinks he’s a doctor.  Is that clear?”

Perfectly.“WATU WROTE / ALL OF US” (Germany, 22 minutes) A-

The brotherhood of man gets a brief but intense examination in Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen’s “Watu Wrote/All of Us.”

Based in real events of a few years ago, this moral thriller unfolds on a bus ride from Nairobi, Kenya, through the civil war-torn borderland with Somalia.

A young woman (Adeline Wairimu) keeps to herself. She is a Christian, and as such is a target for the Islamic militants who ravage the countryside. At one point she reveals that her husband and child were murdered by a militia; she is only taking the risk of returning to her home town because of her mother’s failing health.

Understandably paranoid, she bristles when approached by a Muslim teacher (Abdiwali Farran) heading north for the birth of his fifth child. But when the bus is stopped by trigger-happy militants and the Muslim passengers are ordered to identify their Christian fellow travelers, the result is an I-am-Spartacus moment that hammers home themes of personal bravery and shared humanity.

Technically proficient and brimming over with slowly-building tension, “Watu Wrote / All of Us” sticks with the viewer long after the lights come up.

| Robert W. Butler

OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 9 at the Tivoli)

“TRAFFIC STOP” (USA, 30 minutes)  B+

Breaion King doesn’t look like a candidate for a roughing up by the police.

She’s an elementary school teacher (a good one, if the footage we see is to be believed), a churchgoer, a dancer and singer.

Of course, she’s also black, which may trump all of the above.

In 2015 King was stopped for speeding by Austin, Texas, police officer Bryan Richter. She questioned whether he had stopped her properly, then asked him to hurry up in writing the ticket.

The confrontation and violence that followed were captured by Richter’s dash cam.

Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s thought-provoking doc (it debuts Feb. 16 on HBO)  balances harrowing police footage of the arrest  (and King’s subsequent squad-car conversation with one of the officers) with scenes from her daily life.

Although she had never been in trouble with the law, King said that when she now Googles her name, she mostly gets hits connected to her arrest: “You get over the physical. It’s about getting over the spiritual and the mental.”

Her lawsuit against Officer Richter is pending.

“HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405”  (USA, 40 minutes) A-

Frank Stiefel’s “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405” is a celebration of the fantastic art of Mindy Alper.

It is also among the cinema’s finest depictions of mental illness.

Alper is a brilliant artist specializing in line drawings and monumental papier mache sculptures. From childhood, though, she has suffered from depression and other mental/emotional issues which are only kept at bay (sometimes not successfully) by a daily regimen of antipsychotic drugs.

Alper tells her own story here, often in a peculiarly slurred voice (the result, possibly, of extensive shock therapy) and employing bizarre linguistic tics (especially when it comes to numbers…she describes 40 as “four circle”).

But while Alper sometimes struggles for words (at one point she didn’t speak for nearly a decade), there is no mistaking her fierce intelligence. She may have mental issues, but she is no fool. She recognizes how disquieting a presence she offers, but can’t do much about it.

And yet her inner light bursts through in her transcendent art.

“EDITH + EDDIE”   (USA, 29 minutes) B+

Beautiful, sad, infuriating and gut-wrenching, “Edith + Eddie” is a heartbreaker about late-in-life romance and honest-to-God death-by-broken-heart.

The widowed Eddie and Edith met playing Lotto. It was love at first sight. They married at ages 95 and 96 and live together in the house Edith and her first husband bought in 1960.

But now their lives are threatened by a family squabble.  Edith’s daughter Patricia, who has power of attorney (Edith has a mild case of dementia), wants to take her mother to her home in Florida, several states away.

Edith protests, saying that in the past Patricia’s husband has abused her. Eddie, who has never flown, refuses to go. He will be left behind.

Meanwhile Edith’s other daughter, Rebecca, who has cared for her mother for years, suspects this is all a plot to vacate the house and sell it.

Oh, and did I mention that Eddie is white and Edith is African American?

Laura Chaeckoway’s hankie-grabber concentrates on the old couple’s last days together: going to church, putting in their dentures, sitting in lawn chairs and watching the world go by.

The legal issues that are tearing the two apart are somewhat vague, but the emotion coursing through this film is inescapable.

“HEROIN(E)” (USA, 39 minutes) A

“Heroin(e)” plays like an episode of “COPS” in which all the macho has been replaced by compassion.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s profoundly disturbing and deeply moving look at the opioid epidemic in Wilmington, W. Va. centers on three women dedicated to saving lives and helping others get clean.

Patricia Keller is a drug court judge who mixes tough love and an achingly humane approach in an effort to keep offenders on the straight and narrow. She’s so empathetic that even when she sends a relapsed user back to jail, she assumes the persona of a mother sending a misbehaving kid off to bed with the hope that tomorrow things will get better.

Necia Freeman is, quite literally, a church lady who once a week cruises the streets handing out free lunches to addicted prostitutes. Trying to understand heroin’s pull, she queries a user and gets this response:  “For you it would be like kissing Jesus.”

Especially there’s Jan Rader, a fire department official through whose eyes we experience the epidemic.  These are mostly working class people who were injured, got hooked on pain pills and then turned to heroin. Five or six times a day she responds to an overdose emergency.  Once or twice a week she arrives too late.

“Hopelessness. Unemployment. Lack of education. It’s a recipe for disaster,” she observes. “I fear we’ve lost a couple of generations.”

“KNIFE SKILLS” (USA, 40 minutes) B+

Building a world-class French restaurant from scratch sounds like tough going.

Staff it almost entirely with recently-released prison inmates — and teach them how to cook, serve and pour in just the six weeks leading up to the grand opening — and  you’ve got the makings of a fiasco.

Except that Brandon Chrostowski’s Edwin’s Restaurant in Cleveland pulled it off.

Thomas Lennon’s film cross cuts between a handful of  ex-cons struggling to change their lives — they spend their days studying at Edwin’s culinary institute, then return at night to halfway houses and Salvation Army hostels — and Chrostowski, an aggressively upbeat mentor who as a teen faced a 10-year-sentence and has been working ever since to do the right thing. In one revelatory scene we see just what an emotional price Chrostowski has paid for his participation in this idealistic crusade.

Edwin’s opened two years ago to solid reviews and steady business, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.  Of the original class half dropped out, were re-arrested or were dismissed for infractions.  Those who hung on, however, got a second chance at life.

| Robert W. Butler

Fanzine Harduin, Mathieu Kassovitz

“HAPPY END” My rating: C+ (Opens Feb 9  at the Glenwood Arts)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It’s got several auteuristic moments and a bevy of solid performances.

But “Happy End” never decides what it’s all about.

At first glance one might assume that this latest effort from director Michael Haneke mostly avoids the extremes of human behavior that mark so many of his titles (“Funny Games,” “The White Ribbon,” “Amour”).   Of course even in a seemingly mundane setting Haneke finds undercurrents of perversion and corruption.

To the extent that “Happy End” has a central character it is 13-year-old Eve (Fanzine Harduin), a dour/stoic kid who in the film’s opening segment makes a cell-phone video of her hamster succumbing to an overdose of Mom’s antidepressants. Hmmm.

Shortly thereafter Eve’s mother dies after a long bout with mental illness and the girl relocates to the mansion occupied by her father, the surgeon Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz), his second wife, their newborn son, and other members of the extended Laurent family.

Among these are Eve’s aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who operates the clan’s construction business and is currently occupied with a fatal on-site accident.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) — Eve’s cousin — is second-in-command and being groomed to take over the business, but it’s pretty obvious he lacks the head or the instincts for the job. He’s depressed.

Jean-Louis Trintignant

Hovering in the background  is wheelchair-bound grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who may be slipping into dementia and who has his heart set on suicide…though he can’t get anyone to cooperate in his quest for self-destruction.

There’s considerable ugliness percolating beneath the bourgeoise surface of the Laurent clan.  For example, the tech-savvy Eve discovers  that her Papa has been writing explicit erotic emails to a mistress. The girl accepts this with a shrug.  It’s pretty hard to shock her…she oozes the seen-it-all ennui  of a 50-year-old.

And Pierre seems to be totally losing it. He shows up at the wedding of his mother and her English beau (Toby Jones) with a half-dozen African refugees, demanding that they be given a table at the reception.

Haneke’s handling of all this is bleakly comic…but never actually funny.

Making “Happy End” worthwhile is the performance of young Harduin, whose Eve is both compelling and creepy. Whatever genetic sins the family possesses seem to have found their way into her small frame; she radiates a cool pathology that you can’t quite put a name to.  Let’s just say that in some regards “Happy End” bears a resemblance to “The Bad Seed.”

Christian Bale

“HOSTILES” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Jan. 26)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Westerns have always been a guilty pleasure (violent melodramas aimed at little boys and grown men who still think like little boys), but one cannot recall another Western that so openly oozes guilt as does “Hostiles.”

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace,” “Black Mass”) and based on a 20-year-old manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart (“Missing” and three of the Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan films), this revisionist oater unfolds in 1892 when the Indian wars are winding down and the frontier is giving way to civilization.

But not quite yet.

Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) rounds up renegade Indians.  His methods are matter-or-fact brutal. He nurses a slow-burning racial hatred fueled by the ugly deaths of comrades over the years and the atrocities he’s witnessed.

So he’s furious when for his last mission before retirement he’s ordered to accompany Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying Cheyenne war chief, from a New Mexico prison to his tribe’s hunting grounds in Montana. No sooner does their little expedition get out of sight of the fort than Joe claps irons on the old man, less to prevent escape than to humiliate the cancer-riddled warrior.

Wes Studi

Joe is, of course, a direct descendant of Ethan Edwards, the Indian-hating antihero of John Ford’s great Western “The Searchers.” Both films are about a character on a moral and geographical journey.

The difference is that everyone in “Hostiles” is being eaten alive by hate or regret.

Joe’s second-in-command is Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), who’s been diagnosed with “melancholia” but more accurately is being consumed by his conscience after decades of dogged persecution of Native Americans.  Then there’s Corporal Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), a black buffalo soldier who found acceptance in the white man’s world by hunting down another minority.

A young lieutenant (Jesse Plemons) straight out of West Point is about to get a crash course in frontier justice. And then there’s the military convict being taken to another outpost for hanging after butchering a local family. An old colleague of Joe’s, the prisoner (Ben Foster, naturally) wonders why he’s going to swing when he’s seen Joe do worse.

Finally there’s Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), traumatized almost to insanity after witnessing her husband and children slaughtered by renegade Comanches in the brutal episode that opens the movie.

Continue Reading »

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.)

Continue Reading »

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 »

Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Tom Hanks

“THE POST” My rating: B+ 

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.

Continue Reading »

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

“I, TONYA” My rating: A-

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.”)

Continue Reading »

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

“THE GREATEST SHOWMAN” My rating: B-

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.

Continue Reading »

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 »

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

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.

Continue Reading »

James Franco as Tommy Wiseau

“THE DISASTER ARTIST”  My rating: B+ 

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.

 

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.

Continue Reading »

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.)

Continue Reading »

“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.

Continue Reading »