Solo: A Star Wars Story, PG-13
Since we know Han Solo will make it out of this film alive and find his way to that cantina on Tatooine, enjoying this Star Wars prequel comes down to the charm and charisma of its characters, who are … adequate. As the hero, Alden Ehrenreich hits the right notes, but nothing about his performance screams “Movie Star” the way Harrison Ford’s did 41 years ago, when he beat Christopher Walken and Tom Selleck for the part. Donald Glover brings plenty of moxie as Lando Calrissian, a role created by Billy Dee Williams, and Woody Harrelson, 56, helpfully shepherds Ehrenreich along as Solo’s mentor Tobias Beckett. The best things about Solo are its gorgeous set design and invigorating John Williams score. It’s worth seeing — if only to witness the moment long, long ago when Han Solo and Chewbacca met, and instead of killing each other became pals for life.
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If you liked the grueling, God-and-sin-haunted Taxi Driver, you’ll probably like First Reformed, a searing art-film hit about a tormented clergyman (Ethan Hawke), the pregnant wife of his eco-terrorist parishioner, and the wicked polluter industrialists who finance his church. It’s the most grownup role yet for Hawke, 47, and a titanic comeback for Paul Schrader, 71, who wrote and directed this instant classic under the influence of his idols Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and also of Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote at 26 when he was a broke, suicidal alcoholic living in his car, very like Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle. With its midlife hero, First Reformed is like Taxi Driver for grownups. FULL REVIEW
Like Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Michael Moore, Wim Wenders, 72, was an aspiring minister turned film director, which makes Pope Francis his ideal subject. Wenders, whose documentaries Pina and Buena Vista Social Club are must-sees, captures the pope wowing crowds at a Roman refugee camp, a Holocaust remembrance, the United Nations, a U.S. prison and an African hospital. Wenders uses director Errol Morris’ famous Interrotron camera, which permits him to film the pope talking straight into the camera with unique intimacy. Francis' charm and wisdom are inspiring, and he’s funny, as when he speaks of family feuds: “Sometimes plates can fly, and children bring headaches. I won’t talk about mothers-in-law.”
Still in Theaters
British poet Philip Larkin wrote, "Sexual intercourse began in 1963" — too late for the sexually ignorant 1962 newlyweds (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) in this gorgeously sensitive adaptation of an Ian McEwan novella that might have been titled, No Sex, Please, I'm British. As the excruciatingly celibate bride, Ronan is even better than in McEwan's Atonement, but this story is less epic, more constricted, a minor work by major artists. Still, it takes you back to another time, and Emily Watson, 51, is tops as Ronan's scary mom.
Book Club, PG-13
A delightful comedy starring Jane Fonda, 80, Diane Keaton, 72, Candice Bergen, 71, and Mary Steenburgen, 65, as friends who read Fifty Shades of Grey in their book club, triggering earthquakes in their love lives, lots of laughs, and a moving lesson in how to refuse to be like, as one character puts it, “the people who stop living before they stop living.” It’s 50 times better than the Fifty Shades flicks, if so formulaic in its wish-fulfillment fantasy that cynics will hate it. FULL REVIEW and FULL CANDICE BERGEN INTERVIEW
Nicole Rivelli/Sony Pictures Classics
The Seagull, PG-13
Annette Bening, 59, has the role of a lifetime as a famous actress and egomaniac in an exceptionally lively adaptation of the classic Chekhov play, magically transformed into a movie with a concise new translation and romantically kinetic direction by the auteur of the sexy Broadway smash Spring Awakening. It's a romantic roundelay that plays like a clockwork farce, casting vast, tragic shadows, both funny and heartrending. And it's packed with dazzling performances: Brian Dennehy, 79, as Bening's bachelor brother, who only ever wanted to be married, Dunkirk's Billy Howle as her often-suicidal son, Elisabeth Moss as the son's unrequited lover, and Mare Winningham, 58, as another casualty of romance. FULL REVIEW
Juliette Binoche, 54, one of the world's best actors, has played lonely women before, but never one as poignant as the one in this utterly French movie by Claire Denis, 72, who got a nomination for France's Oscar equivalent for her debut film, Chocolat, and a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for this mature work. Following Binoche’s Isabelle through highly intimate serial trysts — with an arrogant, married banker, a hard-drinking actor, a poor bohemian from the countryside, and her ex-husband — the film invites us into a deeply felt examination of loneliness and longing, with her quick tempo keeping the film from bogging down in misery. The closing scene, with French legend Gerard Depardieu, is one of the most memorable in recent years.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, gets the star treatment in this charming documentary (though conservatives in the film who call her "vile" and "wicked" won't be applauding). We see her ascend from a ladylike, blue-eyed young beauty traumatized by Harvard Law School's sexism to a crusading attorney winning case after case for women's rights before the court, and finally joining it thanks in part to the superb lobbying of her husband, of whom their daughter said, "Daddy does the cooking and Mommy does the thinking." Warm and funny, the film also sheds substantive light on the collision of legal ideas and personalities that shape our nation. FULL REVIEW
Avengers: Infinity War, PG-13
For a movie with dozens of superheroes battling in half a dozen war-torn worlds, Marvel's penultimate epic is remarkably orderly, though way less coherent than Black Panther, whose world it invades. The series is a gift to grownup performers like Mark Ruffalo, 50, as the Hulk and Robert Downey Jr., 53, whose Iron Man gets to tell youngster Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to pipe down while the adults (he and Benedict Cumberbatch's enchanting Dr. Strange) are talking. Peter Dinklage plays a giant, but he's dwarfed by Josh Brolin, 50, as the sad bad guy who thinks he must kill half of humanity to save the rest. The fights are impressive, the superhero collisions clever and funny, but the cliffhanger ending is so shameless that viewers at one preview shouted, "That's it?" Bet they'll watch the sequel, though.
A survey just found that 41 percent of American adults and 66 percent of millennials have no idea what Auschwitz was, so the timing is excellent for Jon Kean’s documentary featuring six women who entered the Nazi camp at ages 18 to 23 and made new lives in America, from a fashion designer to a Hollywood deli owner. Going home in Eastern Europe was a bad idea — not only did locals refuse to give back homes they stole from Auschwitz victims, they dragged Jews through the streets. Los Angeles became the promised land, and this is an unusually upbeat Holocaust film.
The Rider, R
Last year’s Cannes Film Festival hit The Rider is a cowboy movie. But it’s also emotional, personal, a portrait of manhood in contemporary rural South Dakota that steers clear of melodrama and allows a breadth of complexity to Brady Blackburn, a rodeo star forced off the circuit by a grisly brain injury. Brady Jandreau, who really had such a head injury, brilliantly portrays his slow recovery, battling isolation and his difficult yet loving father and sister (played by Jandreau’s real family). Slow, quiet and sensitive, the film mixes intimate close-ups with gorgeous wide-open landscapes. In his debut, Jandreau's soft, understated performance gives him the presence of a screen veteran.
Jon Hamm, 47, scores his best post-Mad Men role yet as a hard-drinking diplomat trying to save a kidnapped CIA chief in war-torn Beirut, 1982. A fictional spy story inspired by the real-life 1985 murder of the CIA’s Beirut chief during the civil war that drove a million Lebanese into exile, the film was written in 1991, shelved until 2012’s hostage-drama hit Argo won three Oscars, and made on a budget by director Brad Anderson, 53, and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, 61, who also wrote four Bourne thrillers, Rogue One and George Clooney’s Michael Clayton. FULL REVIEW
Fearless writer-director Lynne Ramsay and star Joaquin Phoenix won top awards at the Cannes Film Festival for this grueling, ripping yarn about a PTSD-tortured suicidal war veteran caring for his ill mom and supporting her as a hit man. When a state senator’s teen daughter gets kidnapped by wealthy pedophiles, he takes off the kid gloves. Upsetting, dreamlike, original and beautiful in a horrible way, it scored the year’s second-best per-screen gross in a limited New York and L.A. debut, and now it’s on the Oscar campaign trail.
Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures
A Quiet Place, PG-13
In his directing debut, actor John Krasinski (The Office, 13 Hours) seems like an old pro. A Quiet Place is a master class in how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats without gross-out imagery. Krasinski and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, play parents who inhabit a place where mysterious creatures attack anything that makes a sound, so silence is survival. Krasinski does an excellent job of establishing the rules of this world, building suspense through visual cues — when you glimpse a toy rocket, you know its noise spells trouble — and despite minimal dialogue, the character development is strong. Teen star Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) is especially praiseworthy as the family’s deaf daughter. It’s a scary movie lover’s dream, not horror so much as the fun kind of scary — a thriller that will keep you on your toes for days, waiting for loud noises.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Ready Player One, PG-13
The latest pop-culture-saturated sci-fi film from Steven Spielberg, 71, is set in a dystopian Ohio of 2045, when people live in vertical trailer park ghettoes and spend their free time in a virtual reality world called the OASIS, where their heroic avatars hop into Back to the Future’s DeLorean and battle King Kong, Jurassic Park dinos, Chuckie and countless 1980s pop-culture icons. Their goal: to solve computer-game clues left by the nerdy OASIS inventor (Mark Rylance, 58), who’s like a nicer Willy Wonka, and win ownership of the OASIS itself, before an evil capitalist (Ben Mendelsohn, 47) can enslave everyone. The VR world feels like watching someone play a multiplayer game, but it’s action-packed, incredibly skillfully done, and often wonderful, as when the hero finds himself in 1980’s The Shining.
Isle of Dogs, PG-13
In Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation hit, some of the top dogs in the voice-acting business enact a funny fable about house puppies exiled to an island of trash in an imaginary Japan by an anti-canine mayor. There, pooches voiced by Bill Murray, 67, Bob Balaban, 72, Jeff Goldblum, 65, and Edward Norton, 48, join a revolt by stray dog leader Bryan Cranston, 62. Human Greta Gerwig lends a hand. Good fun to see with teenage grandchildren, but not too eccentric for younger kids to follow. FULL REVIEW
Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s bestselling children’s novel is a stunning, colorful gem of a film. It follows 12-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid), who, along with her adopted little brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin, travels across the universe to find her father, trapped on a distant planet. They’re helped along the way by three astral travelers — Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, who's especially wonderful in this role). The movie is filled with moments of rapturous joy and breathtaking beauty, offering a definitive blueprint of how to adapt a children’s book into a wondrous film for both young people and the young at heart.
Armando Ianucci won an Emmy for Veep and an Oscar nomination for In the Loop, but now he’s found a richer target for his merciless satire of morality-free politicians: Russia in 1953. When Stalin has a stroke, his henchmen are seized with terror. Who will succeed him? Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a clotheshorse with no taste or brains? Self-effacing buffoon Molotov (Monty Python’s Michael Palin)? Or conniving Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who feels very sorry for himself? The chaos is darkly hilarious, and true enough that Russian authorities raided, then sued a theater that dared to screen it.
Black Panther, PG-13
Even if you hate superheroes, Black Panther is a must-see event for grownup viewers. This ripping yarn has important ideas, insanely great production design, a heart, characters with believable motives, a brainy script and action scenes where you actually know where the fighters are in physical space. It's an exhilarating, history-making film. FULL REVIEW