Movies with Milan 9-15-21


THE ALPINIST--Fans of 2018's thrilling mountain-climbing documentary "Free Solo" are the target audience for Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen's doc about another daredevil: Canadian alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc. ("Free Solo" star Alex Honnold turns up to offer affectionate color commentary about Leclerc and his derring-do antics.) Not having been familiar with Leclerc before seeing the film, I was unprepared for the tragic turn it takes at the end. Spoiler alert: the 25-year-old died during a 2018 climbing expedition in Juneau, Alaska. (B.)

BEST SELLERS--Michael Caine has a ball playing a reclusive author--think a British-accented J.D. Salinger, but even less prolific--who grudgingly agrees to do a book tour for his first novel in fifty years. Accompanying him is Aubrey Plaza, the in-over-her-head daughter of his publishing company's CEO. In her feature debut, director Lina Roessler somewhat overdoes Caine and Plaza's bickering banter. Fortunately, they're both such gifted farceurs that the effect is more endearing than annoying. Even the sentimental ending sort of works. (B MINUS.)

BLACK WIDOW--The titular Marvel super heroine finally gets her own standalone vehicle, and it's one of the best in the billion-dollar Disney Corp. franchise. Much of the film wittily plays as an extended family therapy session as Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff reconnects with her kid sister (Florence Pugh), mom (Rachel Weisz) and dad (David Harbour). The fact that none of them are actually blood relations--although they're the only family Natasha has ever known--doesn't make the impromptu reunion any less Freudian. As the movie's Big Bad Russian oligarch, Ray Winstone is an utter hoot: sort of Vladimir Putin after a vodka bender and too many carbs. The action setpieces are dependably terrific and, unexpectedly for Marvel, a lot more intimate/personal which greatly enhances their emotional impact. Director Cate ("Lore," "Somersault") Shortland's background in art cinema gave little indication that she'd be a natural fit for tentpole filmmaking, but her surprise triumph is Marvel's victory as well. "Avengers" fans rejoice. (B PLUS.)

BLUE BAYOU--Justin Chon directed, wrote and stars as a Korean husband/father living in Louisiana who's faced with deportation despite having lived in the U.S. since he was three years old. As Chon's wife and daughter, Alicia Vikander and Sydney Kowalske (who look so much alike they really could be mother and daughter) are heartbreaking, as is the movie. While the flashback/dream sequences don't really work--they're initially confusing and ultimately extraneous--this is a deeply felt, beautifully acted/lensed film that deserves to find as large and appreciative audience as 2020 Best Picture nominee "Minari." (A MINUS.)

BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER--Scholarly bio-documentary about the late British actor who became a Hollywood legend after playing the monster in James Whale's 1931 "Frankenstein." Karloff's sixty-year career is recalled by co-workers (including Roger Corman and Peter Bogdanovich who, respectively, produced and directed Karloff's last major film, 1968's "Targets") and fans (directors Guillermo del Toro, John Landis and Joe Dante all provide effusive commentary). The judiciously chosen clips from Karloff's movies and TV appearances are terrific, and Thomas Hamilton's doc serves as a fitting memorial to one of the all-time greats. (B.)  

CANDYMAN--Clive Barker's short story--previously filmed by Bernard Rose in 1992--has been reimagined by producer/cowriter Jordan ("Get Out") Peele for the Black Lives Matter era, and it's both a corking good genre flick as well as a thoughtful treatise on race in 21st century America. Yahya Abdul-Manteen (Bobby Seale in "The Trial of the Chicago Seven") plays an artist who moves into Chicago's newly gentrified Cabrini Green district and makes the fatal mistake of using the Candyman mythology as inspiration for his work. Costarring "WandaVision" breakout Yeyonah Parris, the currently ubiquitous Colman Domingo and original "Candyman" Tony Todd. (B PLUS.)

THE CARD COUNTER--Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, an ex-con Army vet whose poker skills enable him to live a peripatetic existence, traveling from one podunk casino to the next, pocketing modest paydays along the way. It isn't until meeting gambling agent Tiffany Haddish that he decides to up his game, aiming to make a "Big Score" then retire. When the son (Tye Sheridan) of a fellow soldier who committed suicide enters William's life, they begin hatching a plot to kill the sadistic military contractor (Willem Dafoe) who trained him to interrogate prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Paul Schrader's cold-as-ice film plays like a "Greatest Hits" clip reel. There's a soupçon of "Taxi Driver" anti-hero Travis Bickle (which Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese); a generous helping of "American Gigolo" (written and directed by Schrader); et al. So dramatically inert and sluggishly paced that not even a shocking "twist" ending can rouse it from its self-induced stupor. (C.) 

CINDERELLA--Was there really a crying need to make another live-action "Cinderella" when Kenneth Branagh's perfectly dandy 2015 Disney reboot is still so fresh in our collective memory banks? Sadly, "Blockers" director Kay Cannon's half-hearted stab at putting a contemporary spin on the oft-told tale--e.g., renaming the storybook heroine's Fairy Godmother "The Fab G.," and having the role played by an African-American male ("Pose" Emmy winner Billy Porter)--never makes a convincing case for its existence. The songs (yes, it's a musical) are pedestrian and there's precious little romantic chemistry between Cinder (newcomer Camille Cobello in an inauspicious debut) and Prince Charming (the fatally bland Nicholas Galitzine). Broadway vets Porter and Idina Menzel as the wicked stepmother are the only genuinely bright spots here, but neither gets enough screen time to salvage a movie that never really catches fire. Originally slated for theatrical release, the Sony production is instead premiering on Amazon Prime at no additional cost to subscribers. (C MINUS.)

COPSHOP--To elude Gerard Butler's contract killer, con man Frank Grillo gets himself arrested and jailed in a podunk Nevada town. Things get dicey, however, when Butler pulls the same scam and winds up in an adjacent cell. And I haven't even mentioned the rival assassin (Toby Huss) who wants to cancel both their tickets. Director Joe ("Narc," "The Grey") Carnahan's flashy, trashy homage to John Carpenter's 1976 termite movie classic "Assault on Precinct 13" is over-extended by a good 15-20 minutes, but fitfully amusing grindhouse/drive-in fare for undiscriminating audiences. Probably not worth leaving the house for, though. (C PLUS.) 

CRY MACHO--91-year-old Clint Eastwood not only directed, but stars in this agreeably mellow tale of an ex-rodeo rider (Eastwood) who agrees to escort his former boss' 13-year-old son (Eduardo Minnett) from Mexico City to Texas. In the process, the grizzled old sodbuster teaches the kid a few things, including what it truly means to be a man ("the macho thing is overrated"). The script is a little pat and not all of it is particularly subtle, but Eastwood somehow manages to keep it from veering into Afterschool Special terrain. And he delivers a first-rate performance as well. (B.) 

DON'T BREATHE 2--The "you-just-knew-they-were-gonna-make-it" sequel to the 2016 horror sleeper with Stephen Lang reprising his role as the blind recluse with a checkered past who has an uncanny ability to attract delinquent teenagers to his crumbling abode. Written and directed by Rodo Sayaques Mendez who scripted the original "Don't Breathe," it's basically the same movie. That's fine if you're one of those people who love rewatching their favorites ad nauseam on Netflix. But for anyone looking for something--anything--appreciably new or original, it's about as exciting as a meal of Saturday leftovers on Thursday. (C MINUS.)

EMA--Chilean auteur Pablo ("Jackie") Larrain returns to his native country for this aggressively strange film about the lengths to which the titular anti-heroine (Mariana Di Girolamo, a knockout) goes to retrieve the adopted son (Christian Suarez) she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) returned to the orphanage after experiencing adopter's remorse. The performance scenes with Ema's dance company eat up too much screen time, but the wickedly perverse ending is a whopper, and very much worth waiting for. (B.)  

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS--Depressingly inevitable sequel to the 2019 sleeper reunites that film's director (Adam Rabitel) and stars (Taylor Russell and Logan Miller) for a somewhat more extravagant, if no less sadistic regurgitation. This time, Zoey and Ben join other former winners from "Escape Room" challenges in New York City at the behest of the sinister Minos corporation. It's all feels very familiar and borderline-tedious, and Russell--so terrific in "Waves" and "Words on Bathroom Walls"--is much too good for this type of YA schlock. (C MINUS.)

F9: THE FAST SAGA--The dumbest, lamest Hollywood franchise of the 21st century--and yes, I'm counting the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Resident Evil" movies--continues apace with this ninth installment, a staggeringly lame-brained entry even by idiotic "F&F" standards. What little plot there is concerns John Cena's attempt to settle a score with his squinty-eyed, chrome-domed brother (Vin Diesel's terminally dim Dom). Not even the welcome return of late-to-the-party "A" listers like Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Kurt Russell can make this more than an arrested adolescence endurance test. By the time a Pontiac Fiero starts flying in space (I kid you not), it becomes eminently clear that returning director Justin ("Fast + Furious" and "Fast + Furious 6") Lin has gone postal, totally jumping the proverbial shark. The only thing missing from this bloated farrago is Richard Kiel as Bond heavy Jaws. (D MINUS.)

THE FREE GUY--If "The Truman Show" and "Ready Player One" had a baby with ADD, it might be Shawn ("A Night at the Museum") Levy's frenetic and ultimately fatiguing farce. As a video game avatar with identity problems, Ryan Reynolds is his usual charming self, but this non-gamer had a hard time following the overheated action from setpiece to setpiece. If you're making what is essentially a live-action cartoon, it would have been helpful if the director had an aptly 'toon-like visual sensibility. (Either the late Frank Tashlin or "Gremlins" auteur Joe Dante could have made a minor masterpiece from the convoluted scenario.) Journeyman Levy, however, clearly wasn't up to the task. (C.) 

FREELAND--Krisha Fairchild plays an aging pot farmer/dealer whose business is jeopardized when cannabis becomes legal in California. Former documentarians Mario Furloni and Kate McLean's impressive narrative debut has such a naturalistic, lived-in quality that it's easy to believe the characters are real people rather than fictional constructs. Fairchild, best known for her remarkable performance in Trey Edward Shults' 2015 masterpiece "Krisha," is again extraordinary, and Lily ("Certain Women") Gladstone and Frank Mosley provide stellar support. (B PLUS.) 

THE GREEN KNIGHT--Visionary director David ("A Ghost Story," "The Old Man and the Gun") Lowery's fanciful riff on Arthurian legend stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain who embarks upon a heroic quest to prove his mettle by besting the titular--yes, he's literally emerald-hued--knight. The supporting cast includes heavy-hitters like Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (in a dual role) and Joel Edgerton, but the real stars are Lowery's exquisite mise-en-scene and his deft touch with FX. It's that rare effects-centric film that doesn't feel weighed down by pixels. (B PLUS.)

JUNGLE CRUISE--The latest Mouse House attempt to develop a big-screen franchise out of one of their theme park rides is at least better than Eddie Murphy's woebegone "The Haunted Mansion." Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt gamely try to ignite some Bogey/Hepburn, "African Queen"-y sparks, but the leaden script is pure boilerplate: you'd swear Disney just dumped "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "National Treasure" into a Cuisinart. The supporting cast (including Edgar Ramirez, Paul Giamatti and an amusing Jesse Plemons as the Teutonic "Big Bad") helps elevate the formulaic material by virtue of sheer professionalism. Like director Jaume Collet-Serra's previous Liam Neeson actioners ("Non-Stop," "Unknown," et al), it's watchable enough without being remotely memorable. Also puzzling is the fact that subtitles aren't offered for major swatches of Spanish and German language dialogue. (C PLUS.)

LITTLE GIRL--Although she was born male, 8-year-old Sasha identifies as a girl. Thanks to understanding parents and siblings--and despite unsympathetic school teachers/administrators--she's been allowed to live her true self. Director Sebastien Lifshitz's non-sensationalist documentary is an affecting portrait of transgender youth, although it inevitably raises concerns/questions about her parents' willingness to have their (and Sasha's) lives documented for the world to see. (B.)

MALIGNANT--The latest Blumhouse "things that go bump in the night" flick is as generic as its title. After a home invasion that caused her to have a miscarriage, Annabelle Wallis begins seeing spooky visions. Are they nightmares, or some kind of alternate reality? A bat**** third act is so over-the-top ridiculous that it's almost impressive, but it's a safe bet that director James (who helmed the first "Saw," "Insidious" and "Conjuring" films) Wan won't be launching another horror franchise with this flatliner of a movie. (C MINUS.)  

THE NIGHT HOUSE--Despite collecting dust on Fox-Searchlight's shelf since premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, director David Bruckner's haunted house movie is a fairly stylish, moderately entertaining affair. Rebecca Hall plays a recently widowed schoolteacher who foolishly elects to remain in the spooky lakefront home her late husband built. She soon discovers that hubby--who committed suicide--had a secret life involving occultism and other, uh, supernatural proclivities. Some of it is fairly muddled and it's hardly the most original premise for a thriller, but Hall is so good that she single-handedly makes it worthwhile. (B MINUS.)

THE NOWHERE INN--Supremely grating mockumentary starring St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) as herself on a concert tour. Director Bill Benz had the cutesy notion of making the film-within-the-"documentary" helmer (Carrie Brownstein from "Portlandia") the actual star of his movie. As likable a screen presence as Brownstein is, she can't redeem this thinly-veiled ego trip masquerading as a...whatzit? Dakota Johnson turns up briefly as St. Vincent's faux lover. Unlike me, she must be a St. Vincent fan. (C MINUS.)  

OLD--A family on vacation discovers a secluded beach where they begin to mysteriously age. M. Night Shyamalan's first literary adaptation--it was based on the 2010 graphic novel "Sandcastle"--is also one of his best films to date, chilling and thought-provoking in equal measure. It doesn't hurt that he's working with some very fine actors (Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff and Thomasine McKenzie as the family), all of whom make their plight as terrifying as it is inexorably moving. (B.)

PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE--Maybe this cheapie 'toon based on the Nickelodeon tube series will wow them in daycare centers. But as a pay-as-you-go multiplex attraction it's sorely lacking in anything (wit, imagination, competent animation) you'd expect from a major studio theatrical release. Director Cal ("Arctic Dogs," "The Nut Job 2") Brunker is Kryptonite to animated films. (D MINUS.) Available at no extra charge on Paramount+.

THE PROTEGE--After her mentor/surrogate father Samuel L. Jackson is killed, hired assassin Maggie Q goes on the warpath to enact vengeance. And when a slippery mystery man (Michael Keaton) begins playing a potentially lethal cat-and-mouse game with her, the stage is set for an interlocking series of "John Wick"-y action setpieces that make up in savagery what they lack in originality. Slickly directed by Martin Campbell whose career peaked with 2006's "Casino Royale," it's formula filmmaking that manages to hold your interest while still being instantly forgettable. But a live wire like Keaton helps brighten what might have otherwise been a thoroughly moribund enterprise without him. (C PLUS.)

REMINISCENCE--As a Florida private investigator who specializes in helping people access their lost memories (who knew there was money in that?), Hugh Jackman brings more gravitas to this preposterous, largely incoherent farrago than first-time feature writer/director Lisa Joy deserves. As a recent client whose disappearance sends Jackson down the proverbial rabbit hole, Rebecca ("MI: Rogue Nation") Ferguson brings her usual class and sophistication to a barely-written role. Considering the fact that Joy is one of the house directors on HBO's infuriatingly opaque "Westworld," it's not surprising that her film is both confusing and inordinately tedious. (C MINUS.)   

RESPECT--2021's second Aretha Franklin biopic--the first was the National Geographic Channel's miniseries, "Genius: Aretha," with Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul; "Respect" stars Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson--is a haphazard affair that never fully engages with its subject. First-time feature director Liesl Tommy's leisurely, ambling, let's-try-anything approach never finds a distinctive POV, and at 145 minutes it's also egregiously overlong. Not surprisingly, "American Idol" alumnus Hudson excels during the performance segments. She's less adept at crafting a coherent characterization from the scraps supplied by a script that never met a biopic cliche it didn't try to recycle. As Franklin's minister father and domineering first husband, Forest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans do what they can with underwritten roles. My favorite performance was by Marc Maron (solid as uber-producer Jerry Wexler), and Mary J. Blige blows the roof off the joint in one terrific scene as Dinah Washington. (C.)   

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS--Marvel Corp.'s first Asian-centric superhero movie is nearly as affirmative and potentially game-changing as "Black Panther" (Marvel's first Afro-centric superhero flick). Charismatic newcomer Simon Liu plays Shawn (or Shang-Chi), the prodigal son of thousand-year-old Wenwu (longtime Wong Kar-Wai muse Tony Leung in a smashing Hollywood debut), whose humdrum existence as a San Francisco parking valet gets violently upended when he's tasked with saving the world. (Something involving the titular rings which look an awful lot like George Lucas' lightsabers.) A dandy supporting cast--Awkwafina; Michelle Yeoh; Meng'er Zhang; Florian Munteanu--adds spice to an already tasty package. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, none of whose previous credits (including Brie Larson's career-launching "Short Term 12" and Michael P. Jordan starrer "Just Mercy") hinted at a flair for blockbuster productions with elaborate action setpieces, handles his tentpole duties in expeditious fashion. (B PLUS.)

SNAKE EYES--Billed as a new "G.I. Joe" origin movie, this sleekly produced (if needlessly complicated: Japanese ninjas are involved) action flick has no discernible connection to Channing Tatum's big-screen "Joe" iterations from a decade or so ago ("The Rise of Cobra" and "Retaliation"). But thanks to two attractive leads ("Crazy Rich Asians" star Henry Golding and "Ready or Not" breakout Samara Weaving), it's at least easy on the eyes. The script, however, has about as much nutritional value as bubble gum. (C.) 

SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY--LeBron James plays, uh, LeBron James in this belated. and at times deeply strange, follow-up to the 1996 live action/animation hybrid. James and gamer son Dom (Cedric Joe) surf the WB serververse ruled by Don Cheadle's Machiavellian algorithm, climaxing in--what else?--a basketball game featuring Looney Tunes luminaries like Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner and Porgy Pig (who, ugh, raps). Weirdest of all are the IP WB characters in the audience, among them the cretinous droogs from "A Clockwork Orange," "It" killer clown Pennywise," various "Matrix" and "Mad Max"-ites and even some deranged nuns from Ken Russell's "The Devils." Like I said, "deeply strange." (C MINUS.)i

STILLWATER--Matt Damon has his strongest role in years as Bill Baker, an unemployed Oklahoma roughneck who comes to France to help get his daughter (Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine" all grown up) released from prison after she's convicted for the murder of her lover/roommate. Tom McCarthy (director of Oscar-winning 2015 Best Picture "Spotlight") is more interested in characterization than plot mechanics, and his film is all the stronger for that. As the French woman who becomes Bill's European helpmate, Camile Cottin comes close to stealing the movie. But at two-hours-plus, it's maybe 20 minutes too long. The performances--and McCarthy's low-key, naturalistic approach to potentially melodramatic material--help maintain interest, though. (B.)

THE SUICIDE SQUAD--More a reboot than a sequel to David Ayer's critically-derided 2016 DC blockbuster, James ("Guardians of the Galaxy") Gunn's "R"-rated iteration is so raucously entertaining and nimbly cast that its 132-minute run time practically flies by. Hard-nosed government operative Viola Davis (one of the few holdovers from the original "SS") recruits a band of convicts from a federal prison--including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Peacemaker (John Cena) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney)--for a top-secret mission on Corto Maltese island. Because this is DC rather than Marvel, the tone is predictably darker, even borderline nihilistic. But Gunn's witty, tongue-in-cheek approach makes it improbably light-hearted, even laugh-out-loud funny much of the time. Of course, I enjoyed Ayer's "Suicide Squad," too. (B PLUS.)

WIFE OF A SPY--Prolific Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa won the Best Director prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival for this compelling true story of a husband and wife (Issay Takahashi and Yo Aki Satoko) whose 1941 attempt to defect to America was foiled when they were arrested, jailed and summarily executed. Kurosawa's superbly crafted period film packs a surprisingly emotional punch, especially considering its (uber Japanese) discretion/rectitude. (A MINUS.)


AILEY--Boilerplate, PBS-esque documentary about legendary African-American choreographer, Alvin Ailey. Director Jamila Wignat does neither Ailey or nonfiction filmmaking any favors with her movie which crosscuts between preparations for a 2018 performance in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and blandly assembled archival footage/talking heads interviews with Ailey friends/colleagues. If you're interested in celebrating Ailey's life/art, there are numerous biographies available on (C MINUS.)

AMERICAN TRAITOR: THE TRIAL OF AXIS SALLY--The true story of Ohio-born Mildred Gillars (aka Axis Sally) who, after broadcasting Nazi propaganda to American servicemen during WW II, was arrested and put on trial for treason in 1949. Michael Polish's film has a Classics Illustrated quality--he works in broad strokes; subtlety doesn't seem to be one of the colors in his Crayola box--and isn't helped by Meadow Williams' bland lead performance. Fortunately, Polish enlisted Al Pacino to play Gillars' lawyer, and that wily old pro brings a much-needed spark of energy to an otherwise somnambulant production. Also very good are Swen Temmel as Pacino's eager beaver co-counsel and Thomas Kretschmann--icily exuding a subtle menace--as Joseph Goebbels. After this and last year's trashy "Forces of Nature," it's clear that Polish's days as an indie director of provocative films like "Twin Falls, Idaho" and "Northfork" have long since passed. (C.)

ANNETTE--Surrealist extraordinaire Leos ("Holy Motors," "The Lovers on the Bridge") Carax's cockeyed rock opera (scored by Sparks!) won him the Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. There's certainly never been anything like it. Chronicling the idyllic courtship and stormy marriage of a confrontational performance artist (Adam Driver channelling Andrew Dice Clay at his most offensive) and superstar soprano ("La Vie en Rose" Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), it's a movie where most of the dialogue is spoken-sung (think Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady"). And once baby Annette enters the equation--mostly played by a really creepy puppet-doll--things get even stranger and more fascinating. Even though it runs 140 minutes, there isn't a single dull or even remotely "ordinary" moment in the entire film. The whole thing is so terrifically outre/weird, and so stunningly assured, that it feels like an instant cult classic. (A.) Available at no additional charge to Amazon Prime subscribers.  

ARMY OF THE DEAD--Zack ("Justice League," "Batman vs. Superman") Snyder takes a welcome break from his usual DC mythologizing to helm a (relatively) unpretentious walking dead (not "Walking Dead") flick about a group of Vegas hooligans (led by Rock 2.0 Dave Bautista) who decide to pull a heist during a zombie apocalypse. As a return to Snyder's roots with his 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake, it's not half-bad if egregiously overlong at two-and-a-half-hours. And with zombies occupying so much cable real estate thanks to AMC, it also feels kind of irrelevant. Premiering in (some) theaters prior to its May 21st Netflix bow. (C PLUS.)

ASHES AND DIAMONDS--Martin Scorsese's all-time favorite movie is reissued by the Criterion Collection in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration. (Criterion previously released Andrzej Wajda's 1958 masterpiece in 2005.) Set in a small Polish village on the last day of World War 11, the story pivots on anti-Communist resistance fighter Maciek (a magnetic Zbigniew Cybulski, frequently described as Poland's Marlon Brando and/or James Dean) who's tasked with assassinating a visiting Russian commissar. Maciek's plans are derailed, however, when he meets a comely barmaid (Ewa Krzyewska) who makes him reconsider his kamikaze mission. Stunningly shot in deep focus b&w by Jerzy Wojcik (Gregg Toland's legendary cinematography for "Citizen Kane" was Wajda and Wojcik's primary influence) and breathlessly paced, the final chapter of Wajda's "war trilogy" (following 1955's "A Generation" and 1957's "Kanal") feels stunningly modern (or "modernist"). Much of the credit for its contemporaneity goes to Cybulski who's such a hip cat in his omnipresent sunglasses that he could serve as the template for Jack Nicholson's star-making performances a decade later. Extras include a 2004 audio commentary with critic Annette Insdorf; a new video essay by Insdorf discussing the film's historical import; a 2005 video ("Andrzej Wajda: On 'Ashes and Diamonds'") with Wajda, second unit director Janusz Morgenstern and critic Jerzy Plazewski; archival footage on the making of the movie; and an essay by Western University film professor Paul Coates. (A PLUS.) 

AZOR--In 1980 Buenos Aires, a Swiss banker and his wife (Fabrizio Rongione and Stephane Cleau) arrive to clean up the mess left by an enigmatic colleague who vanished without a trace. Director Andreas Fontana tackles a lot of weighty themes--colonialism, high finance, Argentina's "Dirty War"--in a refreshingly lucid manner. Unfortunately, his dryly analytical approach to potentially pulpy material makes his film more clinical than truly compelling. (B MINUS.)

BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR--Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo play the titular BFFs who, after losing their jobs, decide to splurge on a vacation at a Florida resort. In the process, they wind up getting involved in the nefarious plot hatched by a megalomaniac albino (Wiig in a dual role) to exterminate the residents of Vista Del Mar with killer mosquitos. For anyone hoping that Wiig and Mumolo (who cowrote the screenplay) were reteaming for another "Bridesmaids" (also penned by the duo and which Wiig starred in), the fact that their follow-up vehicle is a lame "Austin Powers"-y spoof will be a crushing blow. I know it was for me. Sure, there are a few stray laughs--and Jamie Dornan gives a good-sport performance as a spy with mixed loyalties--but it's easy to see why this sat on the shelf for more than a year. (C MINUS.)

BARBARA LEE: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER--Lee, a congresswoman from California's 13th district since 1998, is the focus of Abby Ginzberg's unremarkable, but still worthwhile documentary. If you're unfamiliar with Lee--the only elected official to vote against war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks--the film will serve as a worthy introduction. Among the luminaries singing Lee's praise in talking-heads interviews are "Color Purple" author Alice Walker, Cory Booker, the late John Lewis and Danny Glover. (B MINUS.) 

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ--This isn't Rainer Werner Fassbinder's same-named 15-hour magnum opus--although made for German television in 1980, it's considered one of the benchmarks of modern cinema--but a perfectly satisfying and remarkably lucid modern translation of Alfred Doblin's fabled novel. As a refugee from Guinea-Bisau living in Berlin who becomes a drug kingpin in his adopted country, Welket Bungue is fantastic, as are Albrecht Schuch and Jella Haase as, respectively, his sociopathic criminal cohort and prostitute girlfriend. Director Burhan Qurbani's film may not be high art like the Fassbinder masterpiece, but it's a terrifically entertaining movie-movie in the tradition of Brian DePalma's "Scarface." If this were streaming on Netflix, audiences would probably demand a sequel. (A MINUS.)

THE BIRTHDAY CAKE--Almost "so bad it's good," this Scorsese-besotted Italian-American mob drama follows Gio (Shiloh Fernandez who cowrote the film) as he attempts to deliver his widowed mom's titular cake to an uncle's house for a party in honor of his late father. Director Jimmy Giannopoulos clearly has a lot of industry pals, hence a cast littered with familiar faces: Lorraine Bracco, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, William Fichtner, Emory Cohen, Penn Badgley and, in possibly the strangest role of his screen career, Ewan McGregor as the parish priest who narrates the movie (in fits and starts anyway). Credit for making the film as watchable as it is--while still being patently ridiculous, nearly from start to finish--is Fernandez who makes Gio an appealing, if somewhat inscrutable audience surrogate. The bat**** crazy ending will make your jaw drop; if you can stop laughing long enough, that is. (D PLUS.)

BLITHE SPIRIT--A misguided #MeToo update of the Noel Coward chestnut, previously (and memorably) filmed in 1945 by David Lean with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. The hapless Dan Stevens stars as a down on his luck screenwriter whose marriage to Isla Fisher grows increasingly, uh, complicated when a psychic (Judi Dench's Madame Arcati) inadvertently summons up the ghost of his vengeful dead wife (Leslie Mann). Because Fisher, Mann and (of course) Dench are such gifted farceurs it's only natural there would be a few isolated giggles. But this p.c. redo of Coward's greatest stage hit reeks of bad faith and creative desperation. (C MINUS.)

BOOGIE--On paper, first-time director Eddie Huang's high school basketball saga sounds fairly boilerplate. An inner city high school basketball phenom strives to be the best on the court to please both his demanding immigrant parents and win a college scholarship. But Huang's movie is about so much more than "The Big Game." Among other things, it's about race (Boogie is Asian-American and his girlfriend is African-American), class and the immigrant experience. Basketball is merely the springboard Huang uses to address those hot-button themes. He brings a vivid sense of place to the film--it was shot entirely on location in New York City--and his skill with actors, many of them newcomers, would be enviable in veteran directors. Running a taut 89 minutes, there isn't an ounce of flab here. Everything serves a purpose and, thanks to Huang and his cast, everything matters.(B PLUS.)

THE BOSS BABY: FAMILY BUSINESS--Disposable, but generally amiable sequel to the 2017 DreamWorks 'toon sleeper in which estranged brothers Ted (Alec Baldwin) and Tim (James Marsden) reunite thanks to an intervention staged by Tim's baby daughter (Amy Sedaris). After taking a magic formula returning them to infancy (don't ask), they embark on a top-secret Baby Corp. mission to foil the Machiavellian plans of an evil charter school principal (Jeff Goldblum). A little too busy for its own good, but smart vocal casting (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmell voice Tim and Ted's parents!) helps make the overly generous 107-minute run time go down smoothly enough. (C PLUS.)

BROKEN DIAMONDS--After the death of their father, an aspiring writer (Ben Platt) ditches his plans to move to Paris in order to be the primary caregiver for his mentally ill sister (Lola Kirke). Director Peter (2014's "Camp X-Ray") Sattler's intimate drama is essentially a two-hander between Platt and Kirke, both of whom rise to the challenge with exemplary performances. The movie's intrinsic, unadorned modesty is its most appealing feature. (B MINUS.)

BUCKLEY'S CHANCE--A New York City kid (promising newcomer Milan Burch) lost in the Australian outback is befriended by the dingo he rescued from a trap in director Tim Brown's amiably scenic family flick. As the boy's curmudgeonly grandfather, Bill Nighy is as dyspeptically droll as usual, and Victoria Hill makes a nice impression as Burch's widowed mum. While watching the movie, I couldn't help picturing a 1963 Disney version of the same screenplay with Kevin Corcoran, Burl Ives and Maureen O'Hara in the lead roles. And it's precisely that cozy/nostalgic vibe that makes this unpretentious programmer so unexpectedly enjoyable. (B MINUS.) 

THE CAPOTE TAPES--The second Truman Capote documentary of 2021 ("Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation" was the other) is a treasure trove for Capote devotees. Besides immaculately preserved archival footage and audio interviews with Capote intimates (including Dick Cavett. Lee Radziwell and Norman Mailer), Eps Burnough's film offers a fascinating glimpse behind "Answered Prayers," Capote's legendarily unfinished roman a clef. (B PLUS.)

CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING--Jacques Rivette's greatest--and most purely pleasurable--film finally receives the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release fans have been clamoring for, and this 2-disc set proves to be have been worth the wait. One of the most magical and enchanting movies ever made, it blithely encapsulates the entire history and ethos of the French New Wave in one 193-minute masterpiece. I hadn't seen "Celine and Julie" since 1978 when it received its belated U.S. theatrical release four years after premiering at the New York Film Festival. Manhattan was blanketed under more than a foot of snow, yet I bravely trekked from my NYU dorm room to the Upper West Side to see what J. Hoberman had raved about in that week's Village Voice. I can still remember walking out of Dan Talbot's Cinema Studio Theater that afternoon: the sun had finally returned, and I was so giddy with cine-euphoria that I could have literally flown back to the Village. As the librarian and her magician gal pal who get involved in a serpentine haunted house mystery that's like Nancy Drew Meets Roland Barthes, Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto are utterly beguiling audience surrogates for Rivette's psychotropic immersion into candy-colored chaos theory and pure moviemaking magic. Extras include a 2017 audio commentary featuring Australian film critic Adrian Martin; Claire Denis' two-part 1994 documentary, "Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur," whose coup de grace is a far-ranging interview with Rivette conducted by French critic Serge Daney; recent interviews with frequent Rivette collaborators Bulle Ogier and filmmaker Barbet Schroeder; a chat between critic Pacome Thiellement and Helene Frappat, author of Cahiers du Cinema's invaluable "Jacques Rivette secret compris;" archival interviews with Rivette, Ogier, Berto, Labourier and Marie-France Pisier; an essay by film/theater critic Beatrice Loayza; and a playful 1974 article by Berto originally commissioned for the movie's press kit. (A PLUS.)

CENSOR--In Thatcher-era London, a censor (Nimah Alger) working for the British Board of Film Classification becomes fixated on an actress (Sophia La Porta) who reminds her of the sister who vanished years earlier and was ultimately declared dead. Could there be a connection? First-time director Prano Bailey-Bond's arthouse shocker is one of the better horror flicks of recent vintage, appealing to both gorehounds and cinephiles. Enjoy! (B PLUS.) 

CHAOS WALKING--A spaceship crash lands on a planet populated solely by men whose inner thoughts--"The Noise"--are audible to anyone within earshot. Because the new arrival is a woman (Daisy Ridley from the "Star Wars" movies), it creates a power imbalance that rattles the patriarchy. "Amazing Spider-Man" Tom Holland is entrusted with the newcomer's safety, and the pair flees to a distant town only to discover that everything they (and the audience) believed was a lie. Doug ("Edge of Tomorrow," "The Bourne Identity") Liman's sci-fi/western hybrid has a fairly ridiculous premise ("The Noise," duh) that no one ever found a satisfactory way of depicting onscreen. Maybe that's why the film was stalled in post-production for three years. (Subtitles, loud whispering and streaks of CGI pixie dust floating through the air grow old pretty quickly.) Yet the second half--once Holland and Ridley reach a matriarchal society run by "Harriet" Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo--actually works pretty well, especially when Big Bad Mads Mikkelsen shows up and an internecine battle for gender supremacy erupts. Based on Patrick Ness' YA trilogy although it's doubtful we'll be seeing a sequel (let alone a Part III) anytime soon. (C.)

CHARMING THE HEARTS OF MEN--First time writer/director S.E. DeRosa was clearly shooting for "The Help 2.0:" a period flick set in a small Southern town with a bifurcated, "Upstairs, Downstairs" narrative focusing on both white folks (played by Anna Friel and Kelsey Grammar as a bachelor congressman) and their African-American servants (Pauline Dyer and Aml Ameen). Despite strong performances, the movie lacks focus and its scattershot approach makes it hard to get fully invested in either of the dueling storylines. (C PLUS.)

CHERRY--Tom Holland reteams with his "Avengers" directors Joe and Anthony Russo to play a former Army medic whose PTSD leads to an opioid addiction that he finances by becoming a serial bank robber. Pretty much what you'd expect when Marvel guys attempt to make a Millennial "Deer Hunter." Over-directed, over-written and (generally) over-acted, it's like being trapped in a room with somebody yelling at you for two-and-a-half hours. Exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. Partially shot in Cleveland if that rocks your boat. (D PLUS.)

CITY OF LIES--Brad ("The Lincoln Lawyer," "The Infiltrator") Furman's film about the investigation into the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. is surprisingly watchable for a movie that sat on the shelf for five years. Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker (both very good) play a retired L.A.P.D. detective and the veteran crime reporter whose grunt work helped uncover some jaw-dropping criminal conspiracies and inspired "Labyrinth," Randall Sullivan's well-regarded non-fiction book which served as the basis for Christian Contreras' script. Worth seeking out, even if you're not a rap aficionado. (B MINUS.)

CODA--The runaway audience and critical hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival--it won four awards including the Grand Jury Prize, and sold to Apple for $25-million--is the kind of feel-great flick that nobody seems to want to make anymore. "Locke & Key" breakout Emilia Jones plays Ruby, a 17-year-old high school senior who's the only speaking member of a deaf family (her mom, dad and older brother are played by Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, all terrific). Even though Ruby dreams of leaving home to attend a Boston music conservatory, her parents' overreliance on her (to serve as translator to speaking people among other things) stifles her aspirations. While you pretty much know where it's headed from the opening scene, director Sian Heder's remarkably assured handling makes it a pleasure every step of the way. There's something tremendously satisfying--and, yes, old-fashioned--about a story with recognizably human characters/situations and a vivid sense of place (in this case, a small New England fishing village). Available at no additional charge on Apple TV+. (A.)  

COLLECTION--Director Mariana Palka's over-heated melodrama squanders an attractive cast on a howlingly awful script about BFFs (Alex Pettyfer and Mike Vogel) whose shady Alabama debt collection agency is headed on a collision course with a Mexican drug cartel. As a single mom and her convict husband, Shakira Barrera and Joseph Julian Soria turn in the best performances. But like everything else here, their character arcs are woefully contrived and borderline risible. (D.) 

THE COMEDY OF TERRORS; THE LAST MAN ON EARTH; THE RAVEN--Three 1960's A.I.P. cult movies have been lovingly restored by Kino-Lorber, and it's a good bet they look better than they did on drive-in screens back in the day. 1964's "Terrors," directed with tongue firmly in cheek by auteurist favorite Jacques Tourneur (best known for his Val Lewton classics "Cat People" and "I Walked With a Zombie"), features an all-star cast (Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone) and is more funny than scary. Karloff, Price and Lorre also teamed up a year earlier for Roger Corman's "Raven," one of the B-movie impressario's justly famous Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Like "Terrors" it has more laughs than chills, but is so stylish (on a budget, natch) that chances are you won't mind. (Be on the lookout for Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.) "Last Man" (1964), arguably the best of the trio, was the first screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's sci-fi novel "I Am Legend" (subsequently remade as "The Omega Man" in 1971 and again with Will Smith in 2007). Director Sidney Salkow creates a haunting mood thanks to sepulchral mise-en-scene and one of Price's finest screen performances as a (possibly mad) scientist seemingly immune to a virus that's turned everyone into vampires. Not only a first-rate horror flick ripe for rediscovery (or discovery if you've never seen it), it's also one of the most prescient horror flicks ever. Its influence--both visual and thematic--can be felt in everything from George A. Romero's zombie cycle to AMC's "The Walking Dead" franchise. ("The Comedy of Terrors," B; "The Last Man on Earth," A; "The Raven," B PLUS.)

COMING 2 AMERICA--This long-delayed sequel to John Landis' 1988 blockbuster reteams Eddie Murphy with his "Dolemite is My Name" director Craig Brewer, but it's a half-hearted affair on every count. The "plot"--Murphy's Akeem returns to New York to meet the grown son he never knew existed--almost feels like an afterthought. You get the sense that everyone involved felt all they needed to do was repeat the same jokes from the first movie. Leslie Jones and Wesley Snipes are the best things here--and be sure to stick around for John Legend's song mid-credits. (C.)

THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT--Husband and wife Christian ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are back on the case, this time investigating a 1981 murder committed by a young man (the suitably haunted-looking Ruairi O'Connor) who uses demonic possession as his defense. While not great--none of the "Conjuring" movies really are--it's at least a step up from director Michael Chaves' previous film, 2019's mediocre "The Curse of La Llorona." And despite the jokey title, Flip Wilson's Geraldine doesn't make an appearance. (C PLUS.)

THE COURIER--Benedict Cumberbatch plays English businessman Greville Wynne who became a courier for British Intelligence and the CIA during the Cold War build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Wynne's Russian contact, Merasb Ninidze brings a soulfulness to the film that effectively cuts against its stiff-upper-lip facade. Director Dominic Cooke does a neat job of balancing the home lives of his spy protagonists with their skullduggery, and "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" star Rachel Brosnahan and Jessica Buckley--seen last fall on FX's "Fargo" and in Charlie Kaufman's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"--provide stellar distaff support as, respectively, Wynne's CIA handler and his long-suffering wife. A ripping good yarn for anyone with a yen for true-life cloak and dagger stories. (B.)

CRUELLA--Craig ("Lars and the Real Girl," "I, Tonya") Gillespie's live-action prequel to Disney's "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" is an unalloyed delight. As fantastic as Emma Stone is playing the young Cruella de Vil, an ab-fab Emma Thompson handily steals the movie as Cruella's mentor/arch nemesis. I wouldn't be surprised if Thompson wins 2021's Best Supporting Actress Oscar, even though her role is actually a co-lead. It's a better super villain origin story than "Joker," but probably won't be recognized as such because it's a femme-centric (vs. uber male) film. Some of the song choices seemed a tad odd (Rose Royce's "Car Wash" for a scene where Cruella's criminal minions kidnap Thompson's dalmatians?), and the mid-credits sequence setting up the 1961 cartoon felt an awful lot like radical revisionism. Maybe they'll explain it in the sequel. Despite the length (137 packed minutes), I was never bored for a moment. (A MINUS.)

DATING + NEW YORK--Dopey rom-com about a Millennial couple who broker a "friends with benefits" contract after their one-night stand. As the cynical, romantically-challenged duo, Francesca Reale and Jaboukie Young-White are both so resolutely charmless that the film is easily stolen--for what it's worth--by Brian Muller and Katherine Cohen as their BFF sidekicks. Co-produced by "Entourage" alumnus Jerry Ferrara who narrates and has a supporting role as Cohen's doorman. (C MINUS.)

DEMONIC--Onetime South African wunderkind Neill Blomkamp set the industry on fire with 2009's "District 9" which defied the odds and became one of the few genre movies to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. None of Blomkamp's subsequent films (2012's underrated "Elysium" and 2015's deserved flop "Chappie") recaptured the "D9" mojo, and he seemed to fall off the radar. Because I was one of many fans rooting for a comeback, it pains me to report that Blomkamp's latest--a shot-in-British-Columbia exorcism schlock-fest being released by boutique indie IFC--is a disaster on nearly every level. The performances all have the flat, blandly anonymous quality one associates (unfairly or not) with Canadian thespians; the script is pure claptrap; and the final thirty minutes are so egregiously underlit it's like looking at a black screen. Even a Screen Gems throwaway like April's "Exorcist" knock-off "The Unholy" had better acting, a more coherent storyline and provided audiences with a (much) better time. (D PLUS.)

THE DIG--For anyone nostalgic for tony Merchant Ivory literary adaptations like "Howards End" and "A Room With a View," Netflix's new British period flick should prove irresistible. Carey Mulligan--in a far cry from her "Promising Young Woman" role--plays a widow in 1939 England who invites archeologists Ralph Fiennes and Lily James to excavate a fabled sixth century Anglo-Saxon ship buried on her property. Based upon a true story, Simon Stone's gorgeously lensed film is structurally ambitious and brimming with reflections on class, history (and who gets to write it), gender inequality, et al. While it's a heady brew that moves at a rather stately pace, Stone and his terrific cast make it accessible and richly entertaining. (B PLUS.)

DOGS--Although it premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Bogdan Mirica's debut feature is just now receiving its U.S. theatrical release. Roman (Dragos Bucur, best known as the star of Corneliu Porumboiu's "Police, Adjective") plays a man who wants to quickly sell off his late grandfather's large chunk of land situated on the Romanian/Ukranian border. Standing in the way are a group of squatters--led by the menacing Vlad Ivanov who played the shady abortion doctor in the Palme d'Or-winning "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"--who worked for his crime boss granddad. This is a slow-burning neo-western that doesn't really ignite until the second half. But once it kicks into gear, Mirica makes sure that you won't forget its desolate beauty. (B.)

DREAM HORSE--A middle-aged barmaid (Toni Colette) rallies friends and neighbors into investing in a racehorse (Dream Alliance) that winds up competing in--and winning!--the Welsh Grand National. Based on the same true story previously chronicled in the splendid 2015 documentary, "Dark Horse," director Euros Lyn's underdog dramedy is very much in the mode of Brit-accented feel-good movies like "The Full Monty" and "Calendar Girls." But it's so beautifully done and charming that you won't mind the occasional nudge-nudge manipulation. It's that rare entertainment that can be enjoyed by all ages--and which doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. What a concept. (B PLUS.)

THE DRY--Eric Bana plays a federal cop who returns to his (literally) dusty hometown--it's in the middle of a year-long drought--for the funeral of a childhood friend suspected of killing his wife and son in a murder/suicide. Deciding to stick around for a spell, he begins some pro bono detective work to unravel the truth about his friend's death, and the murder of a teenage girl 20 years earlier which may be related. Robert Connolly's intelligent suspenser hearkens back to Australian New Wave bulwarks like "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "Breaker Morant," and features Bana's best performance in years. (B PLUS.)

ENEMIES OF THE STATE--Executive produced by Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck's documentary tells the story of Matt DeHart who was arrested by federal agents for soliciting/possessing child porn on his computer; and for leaking state secrets onto the internet (he worked with WikiLeaks and the hacker group, Anonymous). But thanks to the public relations campaign waged by his parents, DeHart became a martyr to civil liberties organizations who compared him to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Was DeHart a socially maladjusted man-child with a predilection for underage boys, a well-intentioned whistle-blower...or both? Kennebeck's deliberate ambiguity feels a bit like a softball pass, and maybe even a tad disingenuous. My takeaway was that DeHart was guilty on both counts, and that his Evangelical, ex-military parents were simply covering for what they perceived as his "perversion." (C PLUS.)

THE EVENING HOUR--In a potentially star-making turn, Philip Ettinger plays a twentysomething nursing home aide who supplements his income by selling pain killers. Braden King's adaptation of Carter Sickels' 2021 novel about the impact of opioids on a tiny West Virginia mining town is buoyed by outstanding performances from some very good actors (including Lili Taylor, Tess Harper and Kerry Bishe). And as Ettingerr's childhood frenemy newly returned to town--and hoping to make a fast score--Cosmo Jarvis is utterly riveting. (B.)

THE FATHER--As an elderly man riddled with dementia who desperately tries to make sense of his surroundings and the people in his life, Anthony Hopkins delivers one of the greatest performances of his career. Florian Zeller's directorial debut is among the most emotionally harrowing films I've ever seen: painful and lacerating, yet infused with so much humanity and compassion that it never becomes oppressive. It's a tour de force for both Hopkins and Zeller who uses the camera to navigate time, space and memory in ways that quietly take your breath away. "The Favourite" Oscar winner Olivia Colman is extraordinarily touching as Hopkins' daughter/primary caregiver. (A.)

FINAL ACCOUNT--Luke Holland's clear-eyed documentary is comprised of interviews with the last surviving German and Austrian citizens who played an active role in Hitler's Third Reich. Questions about complicity, responsibility and guilt are frequently met with denial and belligerence, but the litany of haunted faces speak an unimpeachable truth. They're a living embodiment of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." At a fleet 93 minutes, this is more of a Holocaust primer than a full meal, and would make a fitting gateway to Marcel Ophuls' "The Sorrow and the Pity" and Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah." (B.)

FINDING YOU--New Yorker Finley (Rose Reid) takes a semester abroad where she meets and falls for the hunky star (Jedediah Goodacre) of a "GOT"-style franchise. While clearly aspiring to be a YA update of the 1999 Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant smash "Notting Hill," this touristy rom-com doesn't quite make the cut due to Brian ("I'm Not Ashamed") Bough's pedestrian direction and a middling script too enamored with cliches and treacle. But thanks to its engaging young leads and a predictably wonderful supporting turn by the great Vanessa Redgrave, it suffices as a pleasant enough diversion. Bough gets great scenic mileage out of his bucolic Irish locations even if he seems determined to turn the Emerald Isle into an Orlando theme park. (B MINUS.)

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI--Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1998 masterpiece is so dreamy and gorgeously, sensuously tactile that it feels more like a film by Hou's Asian New Wave compatriot Wong Kar Wai instead. (It even stars Wong muse Tony Leung Chau-wai.) Set against the backdrop of Shanghai brothels in the late nineteenth century--the titular "flowers" are the courtesans who work there--the film casts an intoxicating spell that transports you back to a time and place that feels as ethereal as it is inexorably haunting. Hou's films ("The Puppetmaster," "The Flight of the Red Balloon," etc.) have traditionally been more grounded in poetic naturalism; this one soars into a heightened realm in which poetry supersedes realism. It's a heartening affirmation of cinema in its purest form. Unlike the bare-bones Winstar DVD from twenty years ago, the Criterion Collection's newly released Blu-Ray features a wealth of extras. Among them are an introduction by critic Tony Rayns (who also did the subtitle translation); Daniel Raim and Eugene Suen's documentary ("Beautified Realism") about the making of the film with interviews and copious behind the scenes footage; excerpts from a 2015 Hou interview, recorded for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' oral history project; an essay by Stanford University film professor Jean Ma; and UCLA Chinese cultural studies professor Michael Berry's 2009 interview with Hou. (A.)

THE FOREVER PURGE--What would happen if the one-night-a-year Purge became a 365-day loop of mayhem and murder? The fifth chapter in a franchise that began in 2013 posits that scary theorem--and it's a doozy. Josh Lucas plays a Texas rancher who teams up with immigrants (Ana de la Reguera and Tenoch Huerta) to save himself and his pregnant wife (Cassidy Freeman) by crossing over into Mexico which is offering sanctuary for gringos fleeing the Purge. Everardo Gout's provocative film is the most blatantly political "Purge" yet, and maybe the best. It also speaks to this particular moment in American life more powerfully than any "serious" movie I can think of. (B PLUS.) 

FOUR GOOD DAYS--Unlike recent male-oriented addiction dramas like "Ben is Back" and "Beautiful Boy," director Rodrigo ("Mother and Child," "Nine Lives") Garcia's film tells the story of a tough-love mom (Glenn Close) trying to help her grown daughter (Mila Kunis) kick heroin. Although Garcia isn't reinventing the wheel here, the bruising, lived-in performances of his two leads make this an eminently worthwhile endeavor. Based on a true-life story that was chronicled by Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow. (B MINUS.)

FRENCH EXIT--If you've been jonesing for a new live action Wes Anderson movie (hard to believe, but it's been seven years since "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Azael ("Terri," "The Lovers") Jacobs' charming new dramedy--based on Patrick DeWitt's well-regarded novel--should satisfy your craving. Michelle Pfeiffer (fantastic) plays a newly destitute New York socialite who impulsively moves to Paris with her grown son (Lucas Hedges) and a cat who may, or may not be, the reincarnation of her late husband. A stellar ensemble cast--including Valerie Mahaffrey, Isach De Bankole, Danielle Macdonald and Imogen Poots--comprise the dispossessed New Yorkers' de facto "family" unit, and their sparkling screwball banter is echt Anderson, as is the meticulously composed mise-en-scene. A nonpareil delight with a bittersweet kicker that I found unexpectedly moving. (A MINUS.)

FULLY REALIZED HUMANS--Joshua Leonard and Jess Wexler cowrote and star in an aggressively quirky indie about parents-to-be who embark upon a self-help program to make them--you guessed it--fully realized humans. Although it starts promisingly enough with a baby shower from hell, things grow increasingly discomfiting, even borderline unpleasant with Leonard channelling "Fight Club" and Wexler buying a strap-on to spice up their sex life. The whole thing is just a tad "TMI" for its own good. (C PLUS.) 

THE GATEWAY--Nonpareil character actor Shea Whigham (best known for playing Steve Buscemi's cop brother on the late, great "Boardwalk Empire") gets a rare starring role as a social worker who cares too much in director Michele Civetto's mildly schizophrenic urban drama. Olivia Munn and Taegan Burns play a single mom and her tweener daughter whose lives are imperiled when Munn's psychotic ex (Zach Avery) is released from prison. Whigham's efforts to help them wind up backfiring, and the movie's body count rises exponentially. Frank Grillo (a local crime boss) and Bruce Dern (Whigham's estranged dad) are both good in support, and the film is mildly compelling up until a berserk final scene that should have probably been left on the cutting room floor. (C PLUS.) 

GEORGETOWN--Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz's directorial debut very badly wants to be another "Reversal of Fortune"--and Waltz himself plays what is essentially the Claus Von Bulow role of a sociopathic social climber who murders his socialite wife--but it's a pretty wan affair all around. Too bad Waltz didn't ask his "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" director Quentin Tarantino for helming tips. As Waltz's wife, Vanessa Redgrave is fantastic, though, and reason enough to check out the movie. The wonderful Annette Bening fares less well as Redgrave's cluck-clucking daughter; it's a pretty thankless role. (C PLUS.)

GODZILLA VS. KONG--Adam Wingard graduates from smart, small-scaled genre flicks like 2011's 'You're Next' to this (much) larger-scaled, not-so-smart CGI fest. It is what it is, but I had a much better time watching this "Battle of the Titans" than I did with any of the preceding MonsterVerse movies (including 2019's somnambulant "King of the Monsters"). Wingard brings a much zestier kick to the proceedings: his pop-savvy sensibility and winking appreciation of the absurdity of the hokey premise makes all the difference. Rebecca Hall and Alexander Skarsgard play scientists tasked with relocating Kong to his new home, but the film is handily stolen by Brian Tyree Henry who brings some welcome humor to the role of a conspiracy-theorizing podcaster hot on the dynamic duo's trail. The FX are pretty groovy (I dug Kong's new beard and the Transformers-like Mechagodzilla makes a welcome appearance), and Wingard keeps things pacy enough that you won't notice--or even mind--some gaping plot holes in the third act. (B.)

GULLY--While clearly aspiring to be a New Millennium answer to "Boyz n the Hood" or "Menace 11 Society," Nabil Elderkin's episodic film about an eventful 48 hours in the lives of three childhood friends (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Charlie Plummer and Jacob Latimore, all of whom are infinitely better than their material) is overwrought, wildly pretentious and borderline-incoherent. It's also actively unpleasant with intimations of child sexual abuse and two creepy home invasion scenes that make the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence from "A Clockwork Orange" seem like child's play. (D PLUS.)

HABIT--If June's rock 'em/sock 'em "Zola" had been a meretricious piece of attitudinizing trash, it would have been this godawful indie-exploiter. After getting into hot water with a drug kingpin, LA party girl Bella Thorne dons a nun's habit and goes into hiding at a rich blind lady's house. Accompanying her are BFFs Libby Mintz (promiscuous and drug-addled) and Andreja Pejic (a transgender with major diva attitude). Witless and shrill, first-time director Janell Shirtoliff piles on one faux outrage after another in a desperate attempt to keep the audience from falling asleep. (D MINUS.) 

HERE TODAY--Billy Crystal stars, directed and cowrote this lachrymose, tone-deaf dramedy about a veteran comedy writer succumbing to the indignities of Alzheimer's. As the itinerant singer he strikes up an unlikely friendship with, Tiffany Haddish is OK although she can't sing a lick. Nothing about it--including Crystal's emotionally fraught relationships with grown children Penn Badgley and Laura Bernati--rings true or feels remotely genuine, and the entire film has a synthetic, disingenuous quality that feels particularly disappointing coming from the same studio (Sony Pictures) that released "The Father" with Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning performance as an elderly man battling the ravages of dementia. Embarrassing cameos by Kevin Kline and Sharon Stone. (C MINUS.)

THE HITMAN'S WIFE'S BODYGUARD--Director Patrick Hughes, bodyguard Ryan Reynolds, hitman Samuel L. Jackson and titular wife Salma Hayek reunite for a fitfullly amusing follow-up to their 2017 sleeper. Con woman Hayek is the one in need of the bodyguard's protection this time (mostly from a Greek megalomaniac amusingly played by Antonio Banderas). Giddily hopscotching from Tuscany to Zagreb without batting an eye--or making a lick of sense--the film is as much a scenic Euro travelogue as it is an ultra-violent buddy/action comedy. In other words, something for everyone. (C PLUS.)

HOLLER--After her addict mom (Pamela Adlon from FX's "Better Things") goes to jail, Southern Ohio high school senior (Jessica Barden, best known as the breakout star of Netflix's "The End of the F***ing World") begins working at a not-strictly-legal scrap metal start-up with her older brother (Gus Helper). Nicole Riegel's grim and gritty regional drama is reminiscent of Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," but not nearly as memorable. For starters, it lacks a central performance as dynamic as Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar-nominated turn. Barden is solid enough, but doesn't provide the emotional anchor required to make us genuinely care about these hardscrabble lives of not-so-quiet desperation. (B MINUS.) 

HOW IT ENDS--Made during pandemic social distancing requirements last summer, Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein's melancholic doomsday comedy manages to do a lot of things very well under clearly difficult circumstances. Lister-Jones plays a thirtysomething singleton who spends her last day on earth--NASA has alerted the world that a comet will strike at 2 A.M., wiping out life as we know it--navigating the streets of her Los Angeles neighborhood. She reconnects with old friends and lovers (Olivia Wilde and Logan Marshall Green), makes amends with her estranged parents (Helen Hunt and Bradley Whitford) and even meets friendly strangers like Fred Armisen and Nick Kroll. What makes her Candide-like journey especially interesting is that she's accompanied by her younger self (winningly played by Cailee Spaeny), adding a metaphysical wrinkle to the film. While it could have gone deeper with such emotionally fraught material, Lister-Jones and Wein manage to make an end of the world movie that feels weirdly upbeat. (B.)

IN THE HEIGHTS--"Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu's irresistible film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning 2008 Broadway hit is the most ebullient New York-lensed movie musical since Nancy Walker's "Can't Stop the Music." It's also the much-needed lift "gotta sing/gotta dance"-loving audiences have been craving since "La La Land." The wildly charismatic Anthony Ramos plays bodega owner Usnavi whose Washington Heights store serves as the fulcrum of his close-knit Latino community. Naturally there's a woman involved (Melissa Barrera as social-climbing fashionista Vanessa), but it's the exhilarating production numbers you'll remember. While hardly perfect--in every sense it feels like a dress rehearsal for the multi-cultural triumph Miranda would later achieve with "Hamilton"--yet it's so much fun only spoilsports will kvetch. (A MINUS.)

THE IRISHMAN--The third Netflix original to get the Criterion Collection treatment (their previously released 'flix films were "Roma" and "Marriage Story") is Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half-hour mob drama magnum opus that ranks among the finest work of America's greatest living director. Suffused with a Proustian density and the kind of emotional weight and reflectiveness that only comes with age, it both demands and rewards multiple viewings. Fantastic performances by Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, et al., too. The extras offer a groaning board of additional cinephile pleasures, including a 2019 roundtable conversation with Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci; "Making 'The Irishman'" featuring Scorsese, producers Irwin Winkler, Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and various cast/crew members; critic Farran Smith Nehme's "Gangsters Requiem," a video essay contextualizing "The Irishman" within Scorsese's oeuvre; an inside baseball-y exegesis by Scorsese of the movie's Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night sequence; "The Evolution of Digital De-aging," a fascinating 2019 short on how the visual effects were created; 1999 and 1963 interviews with, respectively, Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa; and "The Wages of Loyalty," an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien that takes a deep dive into the film. (A PLUS.)

JOE BELL--As a follow-up to 2018's provocative "Monsters and Men," director Reinaldo Marcus Green's latest work suffers from the dread sophomore jinx. Although based on a true story and made with the noblest of intentions, it mostly plays like a glorified After School Special. Mark Wahlberg (who also produced) plays Joe Bell, the father of a 15-year-old gay son (Reid Miller) who committed suicide due to schoolyard bullying. In an attempt to spread a message of acceptance and inclusiveness, Bell embarks upon a cross-country walk from Oregon to New York City. (Spoiler alert: it didn't go well.) Only one scene--a heart-to-heart chat between Bell and the Midwestern sheriff played by Gary Sinise that he meets along the way--rings true emotionally. The rest is woke window-dressing. Sadly, it was cowritten by "Brokeback Mountain" scenarists Larry McMurtry and Dianna Ossona without evincing an iota of that Ang Lee masterpiece's sensitivity, subtlety or insight. (D PLUS.)

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH--The true story of F.B.I. informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who was indirectly responsible for the 1971 assassination of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton ("Get Out" Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya). Stanfield and Kaluuya are both superb, and director Shaka King brings a real epic sweep to the historical material. Although a period film set 50 years ago, it still manages to seem bracingly, depressingly contemporary in the Black Lives Matter era. (A MINUS.) 

THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS--Clayne Crawford (late of CBS' "Lethal Weapon" series) plays a blue collar dude (uneasily) separated from his wife (Sepideh Magfi) and the mother of their four children. When she begins dating a squirrely co-worker (Chris Coy), his already precarious equilibrium breaks. Writer/director Robert Macholan's gorgeously shot and superbly acted indie is probably too derivative of Terrence Malick for comfort (only Malick can properly do "Malick"), but I was shaken and stirred by Crawford's palpable desperation. It's a film that's likely to pick up an ardent cult following akin to the one that developed around Derek Cianfrances thematically similar "Blue Valentine." (B.)

LAND--Robin Wright directed and stars in this mournful, pensive drama about a middle-aged woman (Wright) who, after suffering the loss of her husband and child in a mass shooting, decides to move to a desolate cabin in Wyoming and live off the grid. As the local widower who teaches her important survival skills, Demian Bichir brings a much-needed warmth and humanity. His scenes with Wright are the heart of a very good, beautifully lensed movie that, regrettably, has the misfortune to be opening almost simultaneously with the thematically similar Oscar front-runner, "Nomadland." (B PLUS.)  

LANGUAGE LESSONS--Oakland widower Mark Duplass' online Spanish lessons take a personal turn when he develops an unlikely Zoom friendship with his Costa Rican teacher, Natalie Morales (who directed and co-wrote the movie with Duplass). Another indie made under strict Covid conditions, it has an intrinsic sweetness that helps circumvent the occasional didacticism. And Duplass and Morales are both terrific--which helps. (B MINUS.)

LANSKY--Harvey Keitel plays infamous Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky in his Florida dotage (the excellent John Magaro from Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow" plays the younger Lasky in flashbacks which comprise half the film) and "Avatar" star Sam Worthington is a down-on-his-luck journalist contracted to write his autobiography. Director Eyton Rockaway's surprisingly compelling gloss on the halcyon days of American organized crime when syndicates like Murder Inc. ruled the roost boasts superior production values and better-than-average performances. It won't replace "The Godfather" in anyone's mob movie pantheon, but it's a pretty solid addendum just the same. (B.) 

LEONA--A young Jewish woman (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) living in Mexico City freaks her friends and close-knit family out when she begins dating a non-Jewish man (Christian Vazquez). Eventually bowing to peer and familial pressure, she eventually breaks it off and starts seeing a more "acceptable"--i.e., Jewish--suitor (Daniel Adissi). In the process, she grows a backbone and determines to begin living life on her own terms. Set against the exotic backdrop of Mexico's insular Syrian-Jewish community, first-time director Isaac Cherem's romantic dramedy is buoyed by Gonzalez Norvind's buoyant performance. She's utterly charming, and so is the movie. (B.)

LIMBO--A lovely, gentle and ultimately life-affirming blend of Bill ("Local Hero") Forsyth and Aki ("The Other Side of Hope") Kaurismaki, this Scottish film depicts the experiences of a group of refugees living in a new, and not terribly welcoming, country. The lead character, Omar (Amir El-Masry), is a Syrian musician who fled his country's long-running military conflict. His best friend, Farhad (the wonderful Vikash Bhai), is a closeted gay man who idolizes Freddy Mercury. Director/writer Ben Sharrock's deft touch with the hot-button topic of immigration prevents it from ever becoming preachy, cloying or merely "woke." Instead it's a very human, deeply empathetic dramedy that ranks among the very best films of this still new year. (A MINUS.)

THE LITTLE THINGS--After this and his revisionist 2019 Bonnie and Clyde movie "Highwaymen" which starred Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as lawmen on the trail of the infamous bank-robbing duo, it's pretty clear that writer/director John Lee Hancock's days of helming feel-good movies like "The Blind Side" and "The Rookie" are officially kaput. In this serial killer procedural, Denzel Washington plays a veteran deputy sheriff who teams up with a hotshot LAPD detective (Rami Malek) to track down the psycho responsible for a series of grisly murders. Good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as David Fincher's genre classics "Se7en" and "Zodiac," it casts a haunting spell that's hard to shake long after it's over. Washington is dependably great and, as the cops' prime suspect, Jared Leto is utterly chilling. The teasingly ambiguous ending is guaranteed to launch pro and con (not to mention, "Did he, or didn't he?") debates for years to come. (A MINUS.)

LONG WEEKEND--An emotionally fragile aspiring writer (Finn Wittrock) meets a kooky free spirit (Zoe Chao) at an L.A. rep house. Soon they're falling in love over the course of a magical weekend that's slightly marred by some early warning signs: e.g., she's carrying a huge wad of cash and doesn't own a cellphone. First-time director Stephen Basilone's rom-com is an implausible, but irresistible blend of "Before Sunrise" and "Back to the Future," a highly original, immensely charming two-hander buoyed by appealing performers and a snappy screwball pace. (B PLUS.)

THE LOST LEONARDO--First-rate documentary about the discovery earlier this millennium of "Salvador Mundi," the first painting by Leonardo daVinci discovered--at a shady New Orleans auction house, where it sold for $1,175!--this millennium. Watching the machinations of art brokers once they realized what they had in their possession (and how much money was to be gained) is as fascinating as it is mortifying. The fact that the painting, who's authenticity was never fully confirmed, adds another queasy layer to this study of avarice and greed. Not surprisingly, the ultimate buyer was Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudia Arabia. Apparently his deep pockets didn't balk at the ultimate $450-million price tag. (B PLUS.)

LUCA--Minor, if lightly likable Pixar 'toon about Luca, a young sea monster (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who, like Pinocchio, yearns to become a real boy. To achieve that end, Luca swims to a small fishing village on the Italian Riviera where, after morphing into temporary human form, he befriends another reconstituted sea monster (Jack Dylan Grazer from HBO's "We Are Who We Are"). Enrico Casarosa's debut effort is beautifully crafted--it's Pixar after all--but lacks the universal appeal and emotional layering/complexity that separates classic Pixar like last year's Oscar-winning "Soul" from a mere place-holder. Available at no extra cost on Disney +. (B.)

MAMA WEED--After stealing a shipment of Moroccan hashish, a widowed French-Arabic translator for the Paris police department's anti-narcotics unit becomes an overnight drug kingpin. Although the initial goal was simply to raise some cash to pay her mom's nursing home bills, Mama Weed shrewdly uses inside knowledge--and a retired police dog that she adopts--to become a veritable mini-industry. Director Jean-Paul Salome was very fortunate to have enlisted the services of the great Isabelle Huppert to play his bodacious entrepreneur. Without Huppert's fierce commitment to the role, his featherweight movie might have come across as too cutesy and sitcom-broad. (B MINUS.)  

MANDABI--"A lie that unites people is better than the truth," someone says in Ousmane Sembene's fable-like 1969 film, and for a brief moment I thought they were referring to America's former president. Rest assured, this second feature by the godfather of African cinema--and the first ever made in the African language--has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Adapted from Sembene's own 1966 novella, the movie tells the story of the nightmarish problems that befall an unemployed layabout after he receives a money order for 25,000 francs from a nephew currently living in Paris. The bureaucratic chutes and ladders Sembene's holy fool protagonist is forced to navigate while trying to cash the order approaches a near (Samuel) Beckett-ian level of comic absurdity. Biliously funny and properly indignant, it paints a scathing portrait of a society whose colonial roots of greed and corruption continue to fester long after the French usurpers officially departed. While future Sembene works like "Ceddo," "Xala" and "Moolade" would be more ambitious and fully realized, "Mandabi" (which translates as "money order") remains one of his most purely enjoyable films. Extras on the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray include an introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sangoo; a conversation between author/screenwriter Boubacar Boris Diop and feminist activist Marie Angelique Savane; "Praise Song," a video essay on Sembene's life and art featuring outtakes from the 2015 documentary "Sembene!;" the director's 1970 short, "Tauw;" an essay by Columbia University professor Tiana Reid; excerpts from French critic Guy Hennebelle's 1969 interview with Sembene that was originally published in "L'Afrique litteraire et artistique;" and the Sembene novella on which the film is based. (A.)

MASCULINE FEMININE--"The children of Marx and Coca Cola" are wittily--and indelibly-- embodied by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Chantal Goya in one of the greatest films by one of the greatest living filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard). "Masculine Feminine" practically defines the JLG ethos: whiplash jump cuts, intellectual navel-gazing, an exhilarating Pop sensibility. Like Godard's best 1960's work, it's a dizzying sensory experience that demands a lot from audiences while amply rewarding them with the unbridled passion of a born filmmaker working at the peak of his creative powers. Sadly, when I showed it to my Y.S.U. class a few years ago, the Gen Z-ers were more bored than enthralled; a far cry from the '60s when college kids thought Godard was the grooviest cat under the sun. The newly issued Criterion Collection Blu-Ray merely recycles the extras from their 2005 DVD release, but they still constitute an impressive addendum to Godard's timeless masterpiece. Among them are a 1966 interview with Goya; 2004 and 2005 interviews with Goya, cinematographer Willy Kurant and frequent Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin; a 2004 discussion of the film with critics Dominique Paini and Freddy Buache; Swedish television footage of Godard directing the movie's justly famous "film within a film" sequence; an essay by Australian critic Adrian Martin; and French journalist Philippe Labro's 1966 on-set dispatch. (A PLUS.)

MATERNA--David Gutnik's small scale, if laudably ambitious indie wants very badly to be an American equivalent to Krzysztof Kieslowski and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Lopez "everyone/everything is connected" slice-of-life mosaics, but his ham-fisted approach to drama sorely defeats him at every turn. Four New York City woman with mommy issues (Kate Lyn Sheil, Jade Eshete, Lindsay Burdge and Assol Abdullina) cross paths during a violent incident on a subway train. While some of the individual narrative threads have emotional resonance (Burdge and Abdullina's in particular), they never cohere to a meaningful or satisfactory degree. (C.)  

THE MAURITANIAN--Tahar Rahim is brilliant as Mohamedou Ould Slahi who, after being arrested by the U.S. military in the wake of 9/11, is detained and imprisoned for more than a decade at Guantanamo Bay without ever having been officially charged with a crime. Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley play his defense team, and Benedict Cumberbatch is the military prosecutor who becomes an unwitting hero after experiencing a change of heart about the case. Based on a true story, director Kevin ("The Last King of Scotland") Macdonald's film is exceedingly powerful and, despite the downbeat subject matter, ultimately (improbably?) life-affirming. (B PLUS.)

MIDNIGHT IN THE SWITCHGRASS--Dumb, but watchable serial killer thriller about the combined efforts of an FBI agent (Megan Fox) and a Florida cop (Emile Hirsch) to capture the psychopath who's been abducting and murdering young women. A bored-looking Bruce Willis shows up for a few scenes as Fox's tsk-tsk-ing boss, but the most memorable performance is turned in by Lukas Haas who's utterly chilling as the murderer. The first film helmed by veteran producer Randall ("The Irishman") Emmett, it's better-directed than it is written. (C PLUS.)

MINARI--A family of Korean immigrants (led by "The Walking Dead" alumnus Steve Yeun) struggle to make a go of it as farmers in 1980's Arkansas. Director Lee Isaac Chung's warm, audience-friendly movie has the sort of universal, humanistic appeal that seems awfully quaint in the current climate. Which is probably why it's so darn irresistible, and has already been designated as a potential awards season spoiler The ensemble cast--including Will Patton, Yeun Yari Han, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho and Yuh-jung Youn as the family's lovably gruff matriarch--is unimpeachable. (A MINUS.) 

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES--During a family road trip to deliver their first-born to college, the Mitchell family (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph provide the voices of mom and dad) find themselves smack dab in the middle of a robot apocalypse. (Beware smart phones and Furbys!) A fun and frisky animated film hatched by the comic braintrust of Chris Miller and Phil Lord who practically reinvented modern animation with "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" and the great LEGO movies. Directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe follow ably in their mentors' footsteps, and the result is that rare 'toon adults will enjoy as much as their wee bairns. (B PLUS.)

MORTAL KOMBAT--Because my only previous exposure to the phenomenally successful "Mortal Kombat" videogame franchise were the two pretty meh '90s big-screen spin-offs, I'm hardly the best judge of this new iteration. But taken on its own terms as an ultra-violent 21st century actioner, it's not bad. An origin story (of sorts), it's poorly acted and indifferently (often incoherently) written, but director Simon McQuaid stages the frequent action setpieces with bloodthirsty elan. Which, I suppose, is all that anyone really wants from a movie called "Mortal Kombat," isn't it? (C.)

MY SALINGER YEAR--Margaret Qualley is enormously appealing as an impulsive young woman who drops out of Berkeley to move to New York in the mid-'90s and work for an imperious literary agent (Sigourney Weaver, terrific) whose most illustrious client is the legendary J.D. Salinger. Among her many tasks, Qualley's new assistant is responsible for answering the dozens of Salinger fan letters that come into the office on a weekly basis. It turns out to be the sort of transformative experience that alters the direction of her life. Director Philippe (2012's Oscar-nominated "Monsieur Lazhar") Falardeau does a nice job with his actors--and disguising the fact that much of the film was actually shot in Montreal. (B.)

NANA--Based on an Emile Zola novel, the second film by Jean Renoir--revered by many as the greatest director who ever lived--is a mixed bag, but hints at future Renoir masterpieces like "The Rules of the Game" (1939) and "The Golden Coach" (1954) which would bring its themes and settings to full artistic fruition. Catherine Hessling (Renoir's then-wife) plays Nana, a failed actress who becomes courtesan to a series of wealthy and influential men (including "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" star Werner Krauss's Count Moffat). The mise-en-scene is more memorable than the creaky dramaturgy--or Hessling's overly broad performance which overdoes her character's coquettishness--but Renoir completists will surely want to check out his first major work. (B.) 

NEWS OF THE WORLD--Although somewhat encumbered by a hushed solemnity, Paul ("United 93," "Captain Phillips") Greengrass' slow-burn revisionist western has a physical beauty--courtesy of virtuoso cinematographer Darius Wolski's painterly images--and moral authority that makes it compelling even when you're on the verge of dozing off. Tom Hanks plays a former Civil War captain tasked with escorting a young girl (Helena Zengel) to her only living relatives after having spent the past six years living with the Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her after murdering her family. It's sort of a cross between John Ford's "The Searchers" and "True Grit" (the John Wayne original or the 2010 Coen Brothers reboot: take your pick) with a soupçon of "Paper Moon" thrown into the mix for good measure. (B.)

NINE DAYS--If Pixar's Oscar-winning "Soul" had been a pokily-paced, ponderous and dull live-action film, it might have resembled first-time writer/director Edson Oda's 2020 Sundance Film Festival hit which is finally making its way into theaters. Winston Duke plays a somebody-or-other tasked with choosing which unborn souls deserve a shot at life on earth. The title refers to the time allotted for each candidate to prove their mettle (Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard and Tony Hale are among the applicants). There's a lot of navel-gazing philosophizing that might have wowed Herman Hesse-loving undergrads in the '60s, but which sounds an awful lot like eye roll-inducing blather today. (C MINUS.)

NOBODY--If you put "John Wick," the original 1974 "Death Wish," "Straw Dogs" (Sam Peckinpah's, not Rod Lurie's), and the first and best "Die Hard" into a cinematic Cuisinart, you'd have Ilya ("Hardcore Henry") Naishuller's instant cult classic: a kickass action flick that "boys" (and "girls") of all ages will be endlessly quoting for years to come. Bob ("Better Call Saul") Odenkirk plays a mild-mannered office drone/family man whose inner ninja is released after a failed home invasion. Soon he's going mano a mano with a Russian oligarch (Aleksey Serebyakou), and wracking up a prodigious body count that would make Rambo blush. A throwaway line near the end--"A bit excessive, but glorious"--beautifully captures its gonzo sensibility. I just hope they don't ruin it with a sequel. Or sequels. If any movie can bring people back to multiplexes in droves, it's this one. (A.)

NOMADLAND--Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose for Fern (Frances McDormand) in Chloe ("The Rider," "Songs My Brother Taught Me") Zhao's magnificent new film. After the death of her husband, Fern buys a van and drives across country, living a nomadic, hand-to-mouth existence with zero attachments. As a portrait of the disenfranchised and dispossessed barely surviving in the 21st century gig economy, Zhao's masterpiece feels like the most quintessentially "American" movie of recent years. Except for David Strathairn as the equally rudderless guy Fern meets on the road, the cast is largely comprised of non-professionals, all of whom are essentially playing themselves. Zhao's seamless blending of scripted/improvised material is as breathtaking as it is skillful On the basis of her first three films, Zhao has quietly emerged as the most distinctive new cinematic voice since Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino in the 1990's. (A.) 

NO SUDDEN MOVE--In 1954 Detroit, a ragtag crew of small-time criminals (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin) are hired by a shady Brendan Fraser to steal a top-secret document from David Harbour's house. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as it turns out. Steven Soderbergh's second film for HBO MAX after last year's equally terrific "Let Them All Talk" is a gritty urban noir blessed with a dream cast (Matt Damon, Ray Liotta, and Jon Hamm round out the Tiffany-plated cast), all of whom seem to be having a ball. You will, too. (A.)

ON BROADWAY--Oren Jacoby's superficial, but mildly entertaining documentary limits its focus on New York theater from the mid-'70s onward (which is part of its problem). The section on "A Chorus Line" pales in comparison with 2007's terrific making-of doc "Every Little Step," and Jacoby's over-emphasis on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney theme-park mega-musicals is depressing. Talking heads interviews with Hugh Jackman, Helen Mirren, Alec Baldwin and Ian McKellan (among others) are fun, but they're as skin-deep as the movie. (C PLUS.)

OUR FRIEND--When a young wife/mother (Dakota Johnson) becomes fatally ill, a family friend (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold to become her de facto caregiver while her journalist husband (Casey Affleck) is traveling for work. Director Gabriela ("Blackfish," "Megan Leavey" ) Cowperthwaite's deeply moving, splendidly acted new film is reminiscent of the sort of character-driven pieces ("Terms of Endearment," "Ordinary People," etc.) that used to be the bread and butter of Hollywood studios. In today's franchise-crazy, CGI-besotted universe, it feels positively revolutionary. For anyone hankering for a cathartic movie cry, you won't do any better than this. (A.)

PAPER SPIDERS--Lili Taylor is heartbreaking as a paranoid schizophrenic who makes life a living hell for her teenage daughter (newcomer Stefania LaVie Owen) in writer-director Inan Shampanier's affecting family drama. Besides the wonderful Taylor, LaVie Owen and Ian Nelson as a high school friend are both letter-perfect. Sometimes the best movies come in the smallest packages. (B PLUS.)

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE--A Saudi female doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) decides to run for local office in order to fix the dilapidated roads leading to her backwoods hospital. In the process, she becomes a community lightning rod, both reviled (mostly by the patriarchal hierarchy) and championed (largely by disenfranchised women like herself). A subplot dealing with Maryam's widowed musician dad feels like window-dressing, but director Haifaa Al-Mansour ("Wadjda," "Nappily Ever After") has crafted a rousing feminist parable that favorably recalls the best, most accessible films from the New Iranian Cinema. And the sensational Al Zahrani is a star in the making. (B PLUS.)

PETER RABBIT 2: THE RUNAWAY--A sequel to the 2018 kidflick that reunites the original director (Will Gluck) and cast to generally amiable effect. After Bea (Rose Byrne) publishes her first illustrated children's book about Peter and his pals, the bad boy bunny vows to clean up his act and quit being such an incorrigible brat. But when a disreputable pal of his late dad shows up, Peter is recruited to participate in the heist of a local Farmer's Market.What's a rabbit to do? A sunny, light-hearted lark (James Corden, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki once again supply the voices for Peter, Flopsy and Mopsy) with just enough wink-wink meta humor to amuse accompanying grown-ups. If it's not up to the exacting artistic standards of the "Paddington" franchise, it's still a pretty good time. (B.)  

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET--Pulp auteur extraordinaire Sam ("The Crimson Kimono," "Shock Corridor") Fuller's greatest noir finally receives the Criterion Collection treatment fans have been dreaming of. In one of his signature screen roles, Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who gets roped into an FBI scheme to foil some Communist "infiltrators" (it's 1953 and Joe McCarthy's America after all). The film practically drips of hard-boiled cynicism--Widmark's Skip McCoy is no more interested in helping the Feds than he is in taking down the Commies: his three-time convict just wants to avoid more jail time--and is so relentlessly, exhilaratingly propulsive you could get a contact high watching it. The extras, per the Criterion norm, are abundant and delicious. There's a new interview with "In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City" author Imogen Sara Smith; Richard Schickel's 1989 interview with Fuller; a 1982 French TV interview in which Fuller discusses the making of the film; a 1954 "Hollywood Radio Theater" adaptation featuringThelma Ritter who costarred in the movie; a potpourri of trailers of classic Fuller films; essays by critic Luc Sante and director Martin Scorsese (a hardcore Fuller buff); and a chapter from Fuller's posthumously released, impishly titled 2002 autobiography, "A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking." (A PLUS.)

PIG--Nicolas Cage has appeared in so many crappy movies this Millennium that when he occasionally--seemingly accidentally--knocks one out of the park, it's a reminder of what a powerful actor he can be. In Michael Sarnoski's stunning directorial debut, Cage is as extraordinary as the film itself. Cage's Robin, a scruffy hermit living in the Oregonian wilderness with his beloved truffle-hunting pig, becomes unmoored when his porcine BFF is kidnapped. To help retrieve the hog, Robin teams up with the yuppie (Alex Wolff) who's been buying his truffles and selling them to upscale Portland restaurants. The mystery of Robin's past--he was a venerated four-star chef before going off the grid after a personal tragedy--is tantalizingly teased out, and the brilliance of Samoski's movie is how the (vast) layers of Robin's identity help inform his quixotic actions. The ending is so bleakly beautiful it will take your breath away. I was shaken and stirred. (A.)  

PINOCCHIO--Italian fabulist Matteo ("Gomorrah," "Tale of Tales") Garrone's live action rendering of Carlo Collodi's kid-lit perennial is a feast for the eyes: a veritable children's storybook come to magical life. As Geppetto, Roberto Benigni has considerable more success than he did playing the titular role in his 2002 disaster. Unfortunately, U.S. distributer Roadside Attractions is releasing the movie in a dubbed rather than subtitled version which means that everyone sounds like they're performing in a cheesy Japanese Godzilla flick. For shame. ("A MINUS" for the visuals; "C MINUS" for the soundtrack.)

PROFILE--Undercover British journalist Amy (Valene Kane of AMC's new hit series "Gangs of London") stealthily infiltrates an Islamic website where she quickly makes a connection with ISIS recruiter Bilel ("Star Trek Discovery" breakout Shazad Latin). Soon Amy is booking a flight to Amsterdam to meet Bilel and making plans to travel to Syria with him. Is she still "on the job," or has she fallen (hard) for this swarthy religious zealot's seductive mind games? The genius of Timur (best known for his kick-ass 2008 Angelina Jolie action flick "Wanted") Bekmambetov's heart-stopping thriller is that it keeps you guessing right up until the shocking climax. Shot in just 9 days (!) and filmed entirely on virtual screens (Facebook, text messages, Skype, etc.), it tops even Aneesh Chaganty's 2018 screen-capture sleeper "Searching." (A MINUS.)

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN--Carey Mulligan gave the best female performance of 2020 in first-time director Emerald Fennell's remarkably accomplished, terrifically enjoyable black comedy that has the larkish Guignol spirit and flamboyant visual style of vintage Brian DePalma ("Carrie," "The Fury, "Body Double," et al). It also benefits from Fennell's diabolically clever script that keeps pulling out one surprise after another from of its considerable arsenal of narrative tricks. The fact that you're never entirely sure where it's headed makes the journey as exhilarating as it is (frequently) shocking. (A.) 

QUEEN BEES--Screen legend Ellen Burstyn plays a widow who temporarily moves into a retirement community while her house is being renovated. But since this is a formulaic geriatric rom-com (think Diane Keaton's woebegone 2019 flop "Poms"), that "temporary" stay eventually becomes permanent. As Burstyn's fellow seniors, James Caan, Jane Curtin, Christopher Lloyd, Loretta DeVine and the forever-young Ann-Margaret are so clearly superior to their sub-"Golden Girls" material that you're likely to pity them. I know I did. (D.)

A QUIET PLACE 2--Picking up 14 months after the events chronicled in the 2018 sleeper, this somewhat pacier sequel is still riddled with gaping plot inconsistencies. But taken as a hot-weather thrill ride, it's satisfying enough--as long as you don't try to parse the whys and why-nots of alien cosmology. Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe and the wonderful Millicent Simmonds reprise their roles as the imperiled Abbott family (since his character was killed off in the original film, John Krasinski is only a presence behind the camera this time as director/ screenwriter), and Cillian Murphy is a welcome addition as the family friend who joins them on the road. (B MINUS.)  

RAGING FIRE--Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen plays a cop who goes mano-a-mano with the ex-cop (Nicholas Tse) turned criminal he testified against many years ago. Director Benny Chan got his start working as an assistant director to HK genre ace Johnnie To, and his movie--a tad overlong at 126 minutes, but reasonably stylish and diverting--definitely shows traces of To's signature style. And John Woo's and Michael Mann's as well. The plot is pretty boilerplate, but the execution is unstintingly slick. (B.)

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON--If "Mulan" and "Kung Fu Panda" had a CGI baby, it would look something like this latest Disney 'toon. Fortunately, it's also much better than that reductive description would suggest. Directors Don ("Big Hero 6") Hall and Carlos ("Blindspotting") Lopez Estrada have crafted a great-looking movie with engaging characters, an easy-to-track storyline and a girl power message that seems more timely than ever. Awkwafina voices the titular dragon and she steals the show. (B.)

RIDERS OF JUSTICE--"Another Round" star Mads Mikelsen is terrific as an ex-soldier who, with the help of some techno nerds, plots revenge on the mobsters responsible for his wife's murder. Anders Thomas Jensen's terrifically entertaining film works as both a superb genre movie in the avenging daddy mode (think the "Taken" or "Death Wish" franchises), as well as a mordantly funny dark comedy. I'd be shocked if someone doesn't snatch up remake rights and turns it into a Hollywood blockbuster. (A MINUS.)

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT--An affectionate look back at the life and career of show biz veteran Moreno. While I would have liked more screen time devoted to Moreno's greatest (and Oscar-winning) triumph, 1961's "West Side Story," and less to her present-day #MeToo proselytizing, it's still a lot of fun, although maybe not worth paying to see in a theater since it will be available for free on PBS later this year. (B MINUS.) 

ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN--Morgan ("Won't You Be My Neighbor?," "20 Feet From Stardom") Neville's deep dive, warts-and-all bio-documentary about the late chef/author/cable TV star Anthony Bourdain is as fascinating as it is shockingly confessional. Although he committed suicide in 2018, Bourdain is a huge presence in the film via remarkably candid archival footage/interviews. Among the chef luminaries who provide telling anecdotes about their friendship with Bourdain, David Chang and Eric Ripert are particularly insightful. While Neville doesn't find a smoking gun to explain Bourdain's passing, he etches a revealing psychological portrait that helps explain what made him tick--and why he was so tormented even at the peak of his celebrityhood. (A MINUS.) 

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE--The second Martin Scorsese Netflix movie released by the Criterion Collection in as many months is another masterful Scorsese music documentary (see "No Direction Home," his fantastic 2005 Dylan bio-doc). "Rolling Thunder Revue" incorporates (frequently rare) archival footage/interviews, generous clips from Dylan's undeservedly obscure 1978 mega opus "Renaldo and Clara" and more (much more) in the service of something altogether unique and largely unprecedented in music film annals: a playful, occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny meditation on time, memory, "truth" and illusion, and the tricks a brilliant director can wring from the so-called historical record. Set largely against the backdrop of Dylan's legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue--essentially a traveling counterculture caravan featuring Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez among other Baby Boomer icons--the movie is consistently surprising, often revelatory and enormously entertaining. Extras include interviews with Scorsese, editor David Tedeschi and writer Larry Sloman; restored footage of heretofore unseen Rolling Thunder Revue performance footage (including a new, extended cut of "Tangled Up in Blue"); a nuts-and-bolts demonstration on how the original footage was digitally restored for the film; an essay by novelist Dana Spiotta; and "Logbook Entries" by Sam Shepard, Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. My only disappointment is that "Renaldo and Clara"--which has been notoriously difficult to see since its truncated theatrical release 40+ years ago--isn't included among the disc's bonus features. (A.) 

SAINT MAUD--If Lars von Trier had directed Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" between "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark," it might have looked something like first-time director Rose Glass' smashing religious horror flick. As hospice nurse Maud who makes it her mission to save the soul of her newest patient, Morfydd ("His Dark Materials") Clark is utterly chilling, and the wonderful Jennifer Ehle matches her every step of the way as Maud's terminally ill charge. Viscerally creepy and deeply haunting, it's one of the best scary movies in recent memory. (A MINUS.)

SEPARATION--After her mom (Mamie Gummer) is killed in a hit and run accident, 8-year-old Brooklynite Jenny (Violet McGraw) helps recover with the aid of her beloved puppets. But when those marionettes come to life and begin, uh, acting out, things quickly escalate from creepy to homicidal. The latest kid-centric horror flick by William Brent Bell (2016's "The Boy" and its 2020 sequel) is disposable junk, but at least it gives some good actors (including "Succession" patriarch Brian Cox and "Homeland" alumnus Rupert Friend) a paycheck. (C.)

SETTLERS--In the not-too-distant future, a family of settlers (Jonny Lee Miller, Sofia Boutella and "Florida Project" discovery Brooklynn Prince) find their Martian outpost threatened by a menacing stranger (Ismael Cruz Cordova). This debut effort by writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller is gripping lo-fi sci-fi, anchored by some very fine performances: Cordova and Neil Tiger Free as Prince's teenaged incarnation are the standouts. Proof that all genre films don't have to be brain-dead FX orgies. (B.)

SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT--Cross-dressing stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard is egregiously miscast as an undercover British Intelligence agent foiling a Nazi plot at the cusp of World War II in director Andy Goddard's arthritic bid at an Old School Hitchockian suspenser. Judi Dench turns in the best performance as a boarding school headmistress with mixed loyalties, but the estimable Jim Broadbent is wasted in a glorified cameo. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the movie--allegedly based on a true story--that a different lead and snappier filmmaking couldn't have fixed. But what's onscreen is, unfortunately, a bit of a snooze. (C.)

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR--Another movie where the bonafides of blue collar white dudes are signified by chain-smoking, frequent use of the "f" word and thick regional accents (in this case, New Hampshire). Adapted from his play by director/star John Poltana, the film stars Shea Whigham and Jon Bernthal as boyhood friends of Poltana who reunite to help the ex-con enact grisly revenge against the Boston preppie (Josh Holmes) responsible for his teenage daughter's suicide attempt. (She's currently in a coma.) It's a screechy indictment of toxic masculinity that's pretty toxic itself. Egregiously overacted by nearly everyone in the cast. (D PLUS.)

SOUL--The best Pixar 'toon since "Inside Out," maybe "Up," makes a case for why living--even in our supremely imperfect world--is still worth fighting for. In a year when many of us have struggled with sundry existential crises on a daily basis, that message feels both tonic and reassuring. Jamie Foxx plays Joe, a failed jazz musician trying to return to earth after dying in a freak accident. As soul-in-training #22, Tina Fey provides the inner voice of Joe's "spirit." It's a match made in comic heaven, and the film is heaven-sent, too. (A.)  

THE SPARKS BROTHERS--Alternately described as "your favorite band's favorite band" and "the best British group to ever come out of America," the cultish, if somewhat obscure California-based Sparks may seem like an unlikely subject for a two-hour, twenty-minute documentary. But Edgar ("Baby Driver," "Shaun of the Dead") Wright's wildly inventive, spectacularly entertaining new film will make a convert out of you--even if you've never heard of "Sparks Brothers" Ron and Russell Mael before. The Maels have been making music together for more than 50 years, but never crossed over into the mainstream. Wright's fantastic movie could finally help them turn the corner. (A.)

SPIRAL--Police detective Chris Rock and rookie partner Max Minghella investigate a string of grisly murders eerily reminiscent of the notorious Jigsaw killings in this reboot of the "Saw" franchise. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman--who previously helmed three "Saw" movies, none of them any good--it has more wit (thanks to Rock who seems to have improvised much of his own dialogue: a "Forrest Gump" riff is alone worth the price of admission) and mercifully less viscera than the earlier films. But not even the always welcome Samuel L. Jackson as Rock's retired cop dad makes me hope this spawns a new torture-porn series. Life's too short. (C.)

SPIRIT UNTAMED--Another femme-centric CGI animated film, but a plodding and generally underwhelming one. Motherless Lucky (Isabela Merced) goes to visit her railroad titan dad for the summer and falls under the spell of Spirit, a wild mustang who prevously resisted all attempts to tame him. Naturally they become BFFs. And it's up to Lucky--along with some ethnicity-box-checked gal pals--to rescue him after dastardly ex-cons steal Spirit and his equine family. I have no idea why Jake Gyllenhaal and Julianne Moore signed on for vocal duties (as the kid protagonist's dad and aunt respectively), but I hope they were well paid for their labors. For anyone keeping score, this isn't a sequel to DreamWorks' superior hand-drawn 2002 'toon, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." (C MINUS.)

SUBLET--While on assignment in Tel Aviv, a middle-aged New York Times travel writer (John Benjamin Hickey) sublets an apartment from a young film student (Niv Nissim). The generation-spanning friendship that develops between these two radically different gay men is consistently surprising, often humorous and frequently touching. And the performances by Hickey and Nissim are so beautifully naturalistic they seem more like people you might actually know than fictional characters. Directed by cult Israeli auteur Eytan ("Yossi and Jagger," "Yossi") Fox. (B PLUS.) 

SUMMER OF 85--Former enfant terrible--and now revered elder statesman of post-New Wave French cinema--Francois ("Swimming Pool," "8 Women") Ozon's delicately hued memory film tells the story of a star-crossed summer romance between two teenage boys in mid-'80s France. Alexis (Felix Lefebvre, very good) falls under the spell of the slightly older David (Benjamin Voisin, really nailing his character's charismatic cocksureness) after he rescues him from a minor boating accident. Soon the pair become inseparable and--ultimately--lovers. But there's heartache around the bend, and the affair ends tragically. Curiously for a film set at the cusp of the AIDS epidemic, the disease is never mentioned (surely a deliberate choice on Ozon's part). Accordingly, the movie feels timeless and could be taking place at any period in history when teen hormones raged and common sense was jettisoned. (A MINUS.)

SUMMER OF SOUL--Roots drummer Questlove's exhilarating, ebullient documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival--often referred to as "The Black Woodstock"--artfully combines present-day interviews with fest attendees and participants with gorgeously restored archival footage of the event itself. There's literally something for everyone here: Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, the 5th Dimension, Moms Mabley and B.B. King were among the "A" list performers. And the film's reminder of how important the event was in bringing civic/racial pride, unity, great music, progressive politics and Afro-centric culture to an underserved Harlem community--at a time when few actually believed that Black lives mattered--is incredibly powerful. (A.) 

SUMMERTIME--Carlos Lopez Estrada's follow-up to 2018's excellent "Blindspotting" is excruciating: a failed experiment in form and style that dies on the screen like a piece of rotting fruit. 27 "characters"--female, Black, gay, Korean, straight, Latinx, lesbian, et al--traverse the streets of Los Angeles reciting and occasionally singing (very badly) spoken word poetry. A few of the loosely structured vignettes overlap, but to no discernible point or purpose. Estrada was clearly aiming for a "Slacker"-style roundelay, but his execution is so slapdash--and most of the performers so grating--that it's merely embarrassing. (D.)

SUPERNOVA--Longtime companions Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) take a road trip from London to England's Lake District in director Harry Macqueen's touching character drama. Because Tusker is suffering from young-onset dementia, the journey has the bittersweet flavor of a "farewell tour" for both men. The level of delicacy and restraint that Macqueen brings to his film is admirable, and Firth and Tucci born turn in well-nigh career performances. (A MINUS.)

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD--Survival expert Angelina Jolie must protect juvenile murder witness Finn Little from two assassins (Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen) in the midst of a raging Montana forest fire in Taylor Sheridan's new action thriller. While lacking the moral complexity and thematic gravitas of past Sheridan films like "Hell or High Water" and "Sicario," it's a good, old-fashioned suspenser, one that's best appreciated on a big screen.(B PLUS.)

THREE FILMS BY LUIS BUNUEL--The Criterion Collection's first box set of 2021 contains the final three films directed by the late Spanish surrealist extraordinaire, made during the greatest creative period of a decades-long career that stretched back to the silent era. Except for 1964's "Diary of a Chambermaid," I was never a particularly big Bunuel fan until 1967's "Belle de Jour." Sure, like everyone I dug "Un Chien Andalou" when I saw it as part of a midnight movie program in college. But Bunuel "masterpieces" like "The Exterminating Angel" and "Viridiana" left me strangely cold. The symbolism felt obvious, trite even, and the patches of dark humor seemed jejune. "Belle" turned the corner for me, and my enthusiasm continued unabated with "The Milky Way," "Tristana" and the trilogy (of sorts) that comprise this set. 1972's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is possibly my favorite Bunuel, and one of the most perfectly realized--and funniest--comedies ever made. 1974's "The Phantom of Liberty" ranks among Bunuel's most undervalued works: hopefully it will pick up new devotees thanks to this Criterion release. And 1977's "That Obscure Object of Desire" remains among the greatest swan songs of any pantheon director. Befitting the Criterion norm, the extras are suitably bountiful. Included are "The Castaway of Providence Street," a 1971 Bunuel homage made by friends and fellow directors Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castaneda; the 2000 documentary, "Speaking of Bunuel," about the filmmaker's life and career; a 2011 television special about the making of "Discreet Charm;" interviews from 2000 with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere about his many collaborations with Bunuel; archival interviews on the three films featuring actors Fernando Rey, Michel Piccoli and Stephane Audran; a 1985 documentary about Serge Silberman who produced five of Bunuel's final seven movies; film scholar Peter William Evans' deep-dish analysis of "Liberty;" 2017 documentary "Lady Doubles" which features actresses Carole Bouquet and Angelina Molina who (jointly) played Conchita in "Obscure Object;" excerpts from a 1929 silent ("La femme et le pantin") based on the same 1898 Pierre Louys novel that Bunuel and Carriere would later adapt for "Obscure Object;" "Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker: Luis Bunuel," a 2012 documentary with cinematographer Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary; scholarly essays by critics Gary Indiana and Adrian Martin; and Bunuel interviews from 1975 and 1977 conducted by Mexican film critics (and Bunuel confidants) Tomas Perez Turrent and Jose de la Colina. (A PLUS.)

TOGETHER--James McAvoy and Sharon O'Horgan play a couple forced to quarantine together in the early days of the Covid pandemic despite the fact that their relationship is clearly on the rocks. Director Stephen ("Billy Elliott," "The Reader") Daldry's movie feels more like theater than cinema, and not very good theater at that. O'Horgan and (especially) McAvoy bring more to the material than it probably deserves, but somebody should have told Daldry that not every movie that plays like one long bitch-fest isn't necessarily "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Maybe it would have worked better on stage. (C.)

TOGETHER, TOGETHER--Ed Helms plays a middle-aged Silicon Valley techie who hires twentysomething barista Patti Harrison to be the surrogate mother to his child. During the course of the pregnancy, these two social misfits develop a nurturing, but not romantic (thank heavens) relationship thanks to their forced intimacy. Writer-director Nikole Beckwith does such a nice job with her actors (including a scene-stealing supporting turn from Julio Torres as Harrison's gay coworker) that it's regrettable she felt the need to throw in some gratuitous Woody Allen bashing--and ends the movie on such a flat, inconclusive note that you'd swear the producers ran out of money and just scrapped the last few pages of Beckwith's script. (B MINUS.)

TOM AND JERRY--The origin story of Hanna-Barbera's onetime Saturday morning tube staple is a fairly seamless blend of CGI animation and live action. Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse) are joined in fitfully amusing adventures by Chloe Grace Moretz, Michael Pena and SNL news anchor Colin Jost. While clearly aiming to be a New Millennium "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," journeyman director Tim ("Barbershop," "Ride Along") Story's kidflick has limited appeal for grown ups--unless they're inveterate '60s nostalgists. (C.) 

12 MIGHTY ORPHANS--The best, "based-on-a-true-story" high school sports flick since "Hoosiers" is currently rankling some progressives because it doesn't hew to fragile 21st century "woke" sensibilities. (They conveniently overlooked the fact that it's set in 1938 Texas where nobody was dutifully checking inclusivity boxes.) Luke Wilson plays Rusty Russell, a WW I veteran still suffering from PTSD, who leaves a cushy job to become a teacher and football coach at Ft. Worth's Masonic Home and School for orphans. With the help of assistant coach Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), Russell somehow managed to bring his ragtag squad to the state finals. In the process, the "Mighty Mites" became a national phenomenon--even FDR was a fan--who gave the Depression-fatigued country underdogs to root for. Treat Williams, Vinessa Shaw, Jake Austin Walker and Robert Duvall (reunited with Sheen for the first time since "Apocalypse Now") turn in memorable supporting performances. A beaut. (A.)

TWIST--Middling and utterly gratuitous update of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" casts Rafferty Law (yes, Jude's son) as the titular orphan who hooks up with Michael Caine's Fagin on the streets of modern-day London. Bill Sykes is now butch lesbian "Sikes" ("GOT" alum Lena Headey) who's got her hooks in Twist's fellow orphan crush (Sophie Simnett). The plot--something to do with an art gallery heist--is needlessly complicated, and some of the dialogue is truly wince-inducing. Law proves a chip off the old block, though. He's got his dad's mid-'90s-era beauty and effortless charisma. (C MINUS.)

UNDINE--Memorably played by Paula Beer, the titular character is an architectural historian working as a Berlin museum guide. After breaking up with her two-timing boyfriend (Jacob Matschenz), she quickly hooks up with a hang-dog industrial diver (Franz Rogowski). But their idyllic love affair is jeopardized when Undine unexpectedly disappears: it turns out that she's actually a mermaid! Director Christian ("Barbara") Petzold, the most accomplished Teutonic filmmaker since the halcyon days of the German New Wave, has crafted a hypnotic, teasingly enigmatic love story/character study, and Beer and Rogowski--reunited from Petzold's 2019 masterpiece "Transit"--make an unforgettable couple. (A.) 

THE UNHOLY--First-time director Evan Spilotopoulos' adaptation of James Herbert's best-selling novel fits neatly into the "PG-13" religious horror groove that's been Screen Gems' bread and butter dating back to 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." "The Walking Dead" Big Bad Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a disgraced tabloid reporter (isn't that an oxymoron?) who finds a chance at reviving his career after meeting a formerly mute teenage girl (appealing newcomer Cricket Brown) who claims the Virgin Mary cured her. Soon her small New England town is overrun with the faithful, all praying for their very own miracles. But when spooky things start happening, the journalist begins to wonder if an evil spirit might be afoot. (Cue "Tubular Bells.") Until going on mumbo-jumbo auto-pilot in the final 20 minutes, this is a reasonably diverting, decently crafted (and acted) Saturday night entertainment for the Clearisil set. (C PLUS.)

THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY--An electrifying Andra Day blows a hole through the screen as the titular blues legend in Lee ("Precious," "The Butler") Daniels' Brechtian biopic. Starting in 1947 and focusing on the last decade of the singer's life, the movie is a dialectical, unabashedly political sensory blur, and all the stronger for its unconventional approach. As Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger whose relentless pursuit of Holiday contributed to her death, Garret Hedlund makes a more vivid impression than Trevante Rhodes (rather wan as the undercover agent who, curiously, wound up becaming Holiday's most trusted confidante after setting her up for a bust that resulted in a lengthy prison sentence). Less romanticized and more emotionally bruising than Diana Ross' guilty pleasure 1972 Holiday biopic, "Lady Sings the Blues," and the music, of course, is fierce. (B PLUS.)

VAL--Ting Poo and Leo Scott's feature documentary about the strange life and even stranger career of mercurial Method actor Val ("Top Gun," "Tombstone") Kilmer is disarmingly intimate and highly entertaining. Rare footage of Kilmer having "creative differences" with his "Island of Dr. Moreau" director John Frankenheimer is alone worth the price of admission. (B PLUS.) 

THE VIRTUOSO--Overwrought, pretentious thriller about a contract killer (Anson Mount) who has a crisis of conscience while on his latest job in a sleepy little town. The only thing that gives this generic throwaway a shred of distinction is that it features Anthony Hopkins--with a risible stab at an American accent--in a glorified cameo role as Mount's boss. There's a quasi-neat twist at the end involving Abbie Cornish's diner waitress, but it's not enough to salvage Nick Stagliano's thoroughly pedestrian film. Hollywood's continued inability to find worthy post-"Hell on Wheels" roles for the gifted Mount continues to astonish and depress me. (D PLUS.)

VISIONS OF EIGHT--Maybe it was the pall left by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, but this omnibus documentary about the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games sank without a trace when released a year later, and has been tough to see ever since. Like most anthology films, it's a mixed bag with some segments (e.g., Milos Forman's light-hearted look at decathalon competitors, wittily scored to both beer-hall oompah music and opera) inevitably outshining others (e.g., Michael Pfleghar's vaguely condescending nod to female athletes or Juri Ozerov's boilerplate "introduction" to the Games), but the whole thing is immensely watchable. Arthur Penn's thrilling ode to pole vaulters made me think of the advertising tagline from Richard Donner's "Superman" ("You'll believe a man can fly") and John Schlesinger's mournful elegy for the loneliness of long distance runners is extraordinarily touching. Even Claude Lelouch's paean to Olympic losers--a segment that was dismissed by most critics at the time--proves unexpectedly trenchant. The Criterion Collection's 4K digital restoration is predictably gorgeous, and the supplemental features are a smorgasbord of riches. Among them are an audio commentary by podcasters Sean Fennessey, Amanda Dobbins and Chris Ryan; a retrospective documentary featuring Lelouch, supervising editor Robert K. Lambert and Olympics historian David Clay Large; George Plimpton's 1973 Sports Illustrated essay about the movie; excerpts from producer David L. Woper's 2003 autobiography; and contemporary musings about the film by novelist Sam Lipsyte. (A MINUS.)

VIVO--Lin-Manuel Miranda voices the titular rainforest mammal and wrote 11 original songs for Kirk ("The Croods") DeMicco's sprightly new CGI 'toon. "Hamilton" fans won't be surprised that Miranda aces both jobs. Kinkajou Vivo makes the perilous journey from Havana to Miami in order to personally deliver a love song to the unrequited crush of his late owner in time for her farewell concert. (Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins truly earns his "visual consultant" credit for the film's dazzling Everglades sequence.) Like Sony's "The Mitchells Vs. the Machines" from earlier this year, this is a far better animated film than most of the kiddie drivel that's made it into theaters during the Covid era. Yeah, I'm looking at you, "Spirit Untamed." (B PLUS.)

VOYAGERS--Neil ("The Upside," "Limitless") Burger's dystopian YA sci-fi meller about a 2063 expedition to colonize a distant planet squanders a good cast (including Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp and Tye Sheridan) on hackneyed material and dreary execution. The only amusement comes from identifying all the sources it borrows from: a little bit of "Alien;" a soupçon of "Gravity;" some "Maze Runner" and "Divergent;" et al. At least the ending doesn't tease a sequel, proving that even the filmmakers weren't deluded into thinking this long-delayed turkey was going to be a hit. (C MINUS.)  

WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING--While sheltered in their bathroom during a hurricane, a dysfunctional family (Pat Healy, Vanessa Shaw, Sierra McCormick and John James Cronin) find themselves trapped when a fallen tree prevents their escape. Could teenage daughter Melissa (McCormick) be responsible for the natural cataclysm thanks to a witchy spell she helped cast with the aid of her wiccan girlfriend? In a promising feature debut, director Sean King O'Grady keeps you guessing as one disaster after another befalls this nuclear family in abject crisis mode. Proof that sometimes all you need to make an effective thriller is (essentially) one location and some very good actors. (B.)

WEREWOLVES WITHIN--A new forest ranger Finn ("Veep" alumnus Sam Richardson) quickly deduces that something isn't kosher in the seemingly bucolic New England village where he's been reassigned. Could a werewolf be responsible for the recent spate of bloody murders? Because every kook in town is a suspect, Finn sequesters them all in a cabin, "Knives Out"-style, to try and suss out the culprit. Based on Unisoft's VR game, director Josh Ruben's slapdash movie aspires to "horror spoof," but is neither particularly funny or remotely scary. Instead it plays like an interminable Saturday Night Live skit--the kind that usually turns up around 12:53 A.M.--that refuses to end. (C MINUS.)

WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT--Based on Judith Kerr's best-selling 1971 autobiographical novel, Oscar-winning director Caroline ("Nowhere in Africa") Link's splendidly realized adaptation is the kind of subtitled "Tradition of Quality" period drama that used to be bread and butter for domestic arthouse audiences. Now it seems positively quaint, if no less satisfying. The film is told mainly through the eyes of nine-year-old Anna (Riva Frymalowski in a remarkable kid performance) when her Jewish family is uprooted from Berlin by her journalist dad (Oliver Masucci) after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Their journey takes them (briefly) to Zurich and Paris (for a more extended stay), before finally setting up permanent roots in England. The production values are luxe, the performances superb (besides Frymalowski, Carla Juri is particularly good as her mom who retains a chic veneer even when hopscotching across the European continent) and the occasional sentimentality is both well-earned and deeply affecting. (A MINUS.)

WHIRLYBIRDS--Matt Yoka's new film is essentially two documentaries in one. The fascinating first half details the helicopter reporting company started by Bob and Marika Tur in 1980's Los Angeles which basically revolutionized television live news coverage. (Among the Turs' many coups, glimpsed here in archival footage, were the 1992 L.A. riots and O.J. Simpson's freeway chase.) Less compelling is the section devoted to Bob's transitioning into a woman (he's now "Zoey") in 2013. MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, daughter of Bob/Zoey and Marika, is featured in present-day interviews which are among the most compelling moments of the film. The fact that she still refers to Zoey as "dad" is particularly revealing. (B MINUS.)

WILD INDIAN--It's unfortunate that one of the few films directed by a Native American (Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.)--and featuring a largely Native American cast--would be so inept, dreadfully acted and atrociously written. Childhood friends Mawka (Michael Greyeyes) and Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) share a traumatic secret from their past which (violently) resurfaces in adulthood. I'm not sure what Corbine Jr. was aiming for here: an earnest character study about the lingering effects of child abuse, or a sketchy procedural about a closet sociopath. Co-produced by Jesse Eisenberg who briefly pops up as a coworker of Greyees, it's a movie that deserves an "A" for effort, but a "D" for actual execution. Watch any single episode of "Reservation Dogs," Hulu's terrific new series about Native Americans, instead.

WITHOUT REMORSE--Michael B. Jordan plays Tom Clancy's John Clark in a serviceable actioner directed by "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" helmer Stefano Sollima and cowritten by the great Taylor ("Hell or High Water," "Yellowstone") Sheridan. Jordan's Clark is a Navy SEAL out for revenge after his wife (Lauren Lender) is killed by Russians. Aiding his stealth mission are another SEAL (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a CIA agent (Jamie Bell). The fate of the world--it's Clancy Country after all--is at stake as escalating global tensions serve as topical backdrop for Clark's vendetta. (B MINUS.) 

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW--Joe ("Atonement," "Darkest Hour") Wright's adaptation of A.J. Finn's best selling novel is perfectly cast (Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, oh my, expertly crafted, intelligently written (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright--and character actor extraordinaire--Tracy Letts penned the taut screenplay) and just the type ofsatisfying, medium-budgeted adult movie that Hollywood stopped making years ago. Although originally slated to be a theatrical release last fall, Netflix stepped in at the last minute, so it's now a streamer vs. theatrical premiere. Netflix's gain is multiplexes' loss. (B PLUS.)

THE WORLD TO COME--In 1865, two unhappily married farm women find themselves inexorably drawn to each other in director Mona Fastvold's gorgeously tactile lesbian romance. As the women in love, Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby (most recently seen in the shattering "Pieces of a Woman") are very good, as are the always welcome Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott as their respective spouses. It's unfortunate that the film is opening so soon after "Ammonite" and "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," two other period same-sex love stories. Through no fault of its own, Fastvold's movie can't help but feel a tad second-hand. (B.)

WORTH--Based on the true story of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, director Sara ("The Kindergarten Teacher") Colangelo's well-intentioned drama never shakes the essential glumness of its subject matter. Some very good actors (including Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan and a terrific Michael Keaton as D.C. lawyer Kenneth Feinberg) are handicapped by a script that feels more like a series of position papers than compelling drama. How much is a life truly worth? That's a question nobody involved with this film ever comes close to answering. (C.) 

WRATH OF MAN--As a follow-up to his best film to date (last year's firing-on-all-cylinders "The Gentlemen"), Guy Ritchie's latest actioner falls a bit short. It's closer to middling director-for-hire Ritchie assignments like "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." or "A Game of Shadows" than, say, "Rock 'N Rolla" or "Snatch." Jason Statham--reteaming with Ritchie for the first time since their 2005 disaster "Revolver"--plays mystery man H who goes to work as a security guard for an L.A. armored truck company. His true mission is supposed to be the movie's raison d'être, but it's eminently predictable if you've seen the tell-all trailer. Some good actors (including Holt McCallany and Jeffrey Donovan) drift around the margins, but it's Statham's show all the way. (C.)

YAKUZA PRINCESS--Based on the cult graphic novel, Vicente Amarim's stylish, Sao Paulo-set action flick stars Japanese-American singer Masumi as titular protagonist Akemi, the only surviving daughter of an international crime family whose members were killed in a 1999 massacre by rival factions. With the aid of an amnesiac hit man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), she uncovers the secret of her identity that kendo teacher Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima) concealed from her for decades. The ultimate showdown between Akemi and Big Bad Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) over possession of a magical sword is as predictable and silly as it is fun to watch. (B MINUS.)

ZOLA--Detroit waitress Zola (star-in-the-making Taylor Paige) impulsively hits the road with a shady customer (Riley Keough's Stefani) to earn some extra cash dancing at a Tampa strip club. Accompanying them are Stefani's (sort of) boyfriend (Nicholas Braun from "Succession") and (kind-of) pimp ("Walking Dead" MVP Colman Domingo). Nothing--literally nothing--goes according to plan, and director Janiicza Bravo's bold, bracing, gleefully transgressive and frequently laugh-out-loud comedy has the feel of an instant cult classic. While it may ruffle some p.c. sensibilities, Bravo's unapologetically rude and lewd social satire deserves to become a summer sleeper. While it's not part of a multi-billion dollar corporate franchise--and may lack the marketing bucks of, say, "Black Widow" or "F9"--it's the best time I've had at a movie all year. (A.) 

ZONE 414--"Westworld" meets "Blade Runner" (or is that "Blade Runner 2049"?) in a pre-fab sci-fi/action hybrid about a private dick with emotional baggage (Guy Pearce playing the sort of role that normally goes to Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or John Cusack in straight-to-DVD flotsam) hired to find tech mogul Travis Fimmel's missing daughter. Aiding him is a humanoid A.I. (Matilde Anna Ingrid Cuts) with suicidal tendencies. Ironic that a movie populated with robots is so utterly synthetic, seemingly cobbled together from disparate parts stolen from a slew of better films. (C MINUS.)

---Milan Paurich

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