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Nicolas Cage

“211” My rating:

86 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“211” is less interesting as a film than as a commentary on the failing fortunes of Nicolas Cage.

In the last five years the Oscar winner (for 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas”) has starred in nearly 20 movies, only one of them (“Joe”) of more than passing interest. “211” is more of the same.

York Alec Shackleton’s action/crime drama is a mashup of “Die Hard” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” with Cage playing a beat cop (he’s about to turn in his retirement papers, of course) who finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery and hostage situation.

Curiously, Cage’s cop, Mike Chandler, is but one of a dozen characters of more or less equal importance.  Shackleton’s screenplay attempts to approach the situation from multiple perspectives.

Thus you’ve got Mike’s partner and son-in-law (Dwayne Cameron), as well as the black teen (Michael Rainey Jr.) who for disciplinary purposes has been required to do a police ride-along.  While pinned down the kid comes up with a MacGyver-ish way to communicate with the outside world.

Meanwhile his mother(Shari Watson),  the head of the hospital E.R., contends with a flood of casualties of the mayhem.

There’s also an Interpol cop (Sapir Azulay) who for months has been tracking the criminals, a band of former U.S. special forces soldiers turned murderously mercenary. These baddies are the least-developed of the characters, delivering curt orders in cliched militaryspeak.

“211” (police code for an armed robbery) has been competently made, with a couple of furious action sequences (and a disturbingly high civilian body count) but it really never adds up to much. Cage doesn’t embarrass himself here, but there’s only so much anyone could do with these cut-and-dried characters.

| Robert W. Butler

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Ethan Hawke

“FIRST REFORMED” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“First Reformed” doesn’t always work, but even as a partial failure it packs more mind- and soul-shaking punch than any other film yet released this year.

This simultaneously beautiful and desolate drama from Paul Schrader isn’t shy about borrowing from its antecedents, foremost among them Ingmar Bergman’s early ’60s religious trilogy (“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence”) and Robert Bresson’s 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest.”

But thanks in large part to what may be Ethan Hawke’s finest performance, “First Reformed” finds its own voice, one that uncomfortably weighs conformity against concern for God’s creation.

Our protagonist, Reverend Toller (Hawke), is pastor of First Reformed Church in a picturesque New England Town.

Established before the American Revolution, First Reformed has hardly any parishioners; its doors are kept open through the financial support of a local megachurch whose ambitious and charismatic preacher (an excellent Cedric the Entertainer) views it as a curiosity, a sort of historic religious theme park.

It’s immediately obvious that Toller has hit bottom. A former military chaplain, he urged his son to enlist; when the boy died in combat Toller’s wife left him.

Now he spends his days writing sermons nobody hears and scribbling in a journal — he calls it “a form of prayer” –that he hopes will provide insight into the tailspin that has become his life (“When writing about oneself one should show no mercy.”)

Physically he’s slowly becoming a wraith, thanks to digestive issues — cancer? — which limit him to a diet of bread and broth.

Occasionally, though, he actually does a bit of ministering. He’s approached by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests counseling for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).  Mary is pregnant and Michael wants her to abort the baby.

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Toni Collette

“HEREDITARY” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No one expects world-class acting from a horror movie. So when you get precisely that, it comes on like a sucker punch.

“Hereditary” is a ghost story — I think — featuring Toni Collette in an emotional performance that will leave audiences limp and exhausted.

Writer/director  Ari Aster’s film is hard to pin down…it may be about ghosts, or it may be a psychological study of mental and spiritual anguish manifesting in very creepy ways.

As the film begins Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her mother, from whom she was estranged for years before finally taking in the old lady at death’s door. Annie isn’t sure whether to react with sobs or cartwheels…Mom was a notoriously difficult personality.  (In her eulogy, Annie says she’s gratified to see so many new faces…she didn’t know this many people cared about her mother. It’s the film’s first subtle clue that Mom had a secret life.)

In the wake of the funeral Annie and her family try to get back to normal.  Husband Steve  (Gabriel Byrne) is an understanding intellectual type. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a teen pothead. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is something else again, an elfin misfit who, unlike other members of the family, really loved her grandma. In fact, she starts seeing apparitions of the dear departed.

One cannot say much about the plot of “Heredity” without ruining some major surprises.  Let’s just say that Grandma’s death is only the first tragedy to befall the clan; a far more traumatic one is yet to come.

And in the wake of that an emotionally shattered Annie finds herself turning first to a grief support group and then to a fellow mourner (the great Ann Dowd) who claims to have found a way to communicate with the dead.

Aster plays his cards very carefully,  dealing big plot points so matter of factly that it’s only in retrospect that we understand their importance.  There’s no big reveal until the end (and even then it’s a bit ambiguous); mostly he builds a nerve-wracking tension from small moments and observations. (Although there is a dramatic seance scene guaranteed to make every hair on your body stand up and salute.)

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“THE RIDER” My rating: B 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With “The Rider” it’s nearly impossible to say where real life ends and art begins.

In Chloe Zhao’s film Brady Jandreau portrays Brady Blackburn, a South Dakota rancher’s son who has suffered a near-fatal head injury during a rodeo competition.

Basically Jandreau is portraying himself…he suffered precisely that sort of head injury when thrown by a bucking bronc. His real-life father and sister (Tim and Lily Jandreau) portray his cinematic father and sibling.

And his real-life best friend, quadriplegic former bull rider Lane Scott, plays himself.

You can’t say this film lacks authenticity.

We first meet Brady just hours out of the hospital, where he spent a week in a coma before awakening and checking himself out against all medical advice. He’s got a new plate in his head and a set of stitches worthy of Frankenstein’s monster.  Frustrated, he uses a pair of pliers to pull the medical staples out of his skull.

The scar will eventually heal.  More problematic is what Brady will do with himself.  He’s been told that just riding a  horse — much less  climbing onto 600 pounds of angry bronco — could prove fatal.

His widowed, hard-drinking, barmaid-chasing father tells him to tough it out: “Play the cards you are dealt. Let it go.”

But Brady — who looks a bit like Josh Hartnett’s country cousin — feels utterly incomplete without his legs wrapped around a horse. Essentially “The Rider” is about whether for the sake of staying alive he can give up an essential part of himself.

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Joonas Suotamo, Alden Ehrenreich

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: B- 

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

For one who has felt smothered by the solemn pomposity of recent “Star Wars” releases, the prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a palate cleanser, an origin yarn about two of the franchise’s most beloved characters in which the words “The Force” are never uttered.

Yeah, it’s overlong. And as is par for the course for “Star Wars” films,  and the plot is mostly a series of mini-quests providing plenty of opportunity for f/x and action overkill. But at its best “Solo” reminds of why we fell in love with a galaxy far, far away in the first place.

Directed with assurance if not much personality by veteran Ron Howard (taking over after “Lego Movie” creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed…who can tell who directed what in the final cut?), “Solo” follows Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) from his youth through his first big adventure(s).

Along the way father-and-son screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan take the opportunity to fill in seminal but never-before-seen moments from Han’s bio:  How he got his last name in an “Ellis Island” moment, his first encounter with the towering Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon and that distinctive blaster in the low-slung holster, and his early partnership/rivalry with gambler/smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Our yarn begins on a planet where young Han and his girl Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are among the orphans in the gang controlled by Lady Proxima, a huge caterpillar voiced by Linda Hunt (think “Oliver Twist’s” Fagin.) Already a conniver, Han absconds with a vial of a priceless energy source called coaxion, a few ounces of which should allow him and Qi’ra to bribe their way off the planet.

But things go bad and Han finds himself on his own, vowing to return for Qi’ra.

He enlists in the Imperial Air Force with dreams of piloting his own ship, but a few years later is a mere grunt knee-deep in trench warfare on a mud planet.  There he encounters not only Chewbacca, but crosses path with a band of mercenaries run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who at the behest of the shadowy criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn steals materiel from the Imperial forces.

Pushing his way into Beckett’s group, Han participates in the film’s action highlight, the highjacking of a freight train speeding through a mountainous ice planet.  A mashup of “Snowpiercer” and a “Mad Max” movie, this sequence finds Beckett’s band battling not only the train’s Imperial guards but a rival crew of bandits intent on stealing their prize. Continue Reading »

Juliette Binoche

“LET THE SUNSHINE IN” My rating: B+

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies about privileged people who can’t stop moaning about their boring, unfulfilled lives generally give me a throbbing keister ache.

Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In” is the exception, a profile of unhappiness delivered with such care, insight and actorly magnificence that you can forgive the self-absorption exhibited by most of the characters.

We stick with the ironically titled “…Sunshine…” because it’s an almost perfect vehicle for Juliette Binoche, one of France’s greatest actresses, here at the peak of her powers.

A confession: I’ve always admired Binoche’s thespian skills, but have long been perplexed by her status as a great beauty.  I  never saw it…until now. The older Binoche gets, the sexier she becomes. Go figure.

Here she plays Isabelle, a middle-aged artist (abstract expressionism, naturally) who in the wake of a divorce has been cast upon emotional and sexual shoals. Denis’ screenplay (written with Christine Angot) follows Isabelle’s ever-rebounding relationships with a half dozen men, none of whom seem capable of providing what she wants.

Of course, Isabelle may not know what she wants. There’s more than a little neurotic neediness in Binoche’s performance…after a while you may come to the conclusion her unmistakeable neediness is a big part of the problem. (Even her clothing sends weird messages…she’s big on mini-skirts, go-go boots and plunging necklines that have a hookerish feel.)

As the film starts she’s breaking off her affair with Vincent (Xavier Beauvoir), a burly banker who bitches about his dull world of commerce and finds her artistic endeavors quite erotic. “You charm the pants off me,” he says, though it’s likely he’d lose the trousers whether Isabelle  was charming or not. Problem is, Vincent can’t help exhibiting the alpha-male assholery that is key to his profession.

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Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams

“DISOBEDIENCE” My rating: B 

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Disobedience” is being described as a lesbian love story. Admittedly, it’s shot through with erotic yearnings

But that label is too limiting. This latest effort from Chilean auteur Sebastian Lelio (whose “A Fantastic Woman” won the foreign language Oscar this year) is more accurately about breaking away from an unfulfilling past to face a future of uncertain possibilities.

Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) has already made that break.  The only child of the rabbi of an uber-orthodox Jewish community in London, Ronit years earlier fled that insular world and the likelihood of an arranged marriage, moved to New York, changed her name to Ronnie Curtis and launched a career as a fine arts photographer concentrating on society’s fringes.

Upon receiving the news that her widowed father has died, Ronit goes to a nightclub, drinks and dances and ends up having sex with a man in the restroom.

Everyone grieves in their own way.

Flying to London, Ronit is met with varying degrees of compassion and suspicion. Some members of the religious community shun her; the newspaper obit states that her father “had no children.”  But she’s given a room by her father’s long-time student/disciple David (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). The three were friends during their teenage years.

Ronnie begins to question the wisdom of returning. Her father’s will gives all his possessions, including his house, to the synagogue. And she’s perturbed that Esti, who as an adolescent shared her dissatisfaction with life in a strict religious community, is now the wife of the man who stands to become the new leader of that community.

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