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What to Watch at the Movies

Vanessa Redgrave in 'The Aspern Papers,' Bryan Cranston struggles to find the 'The Upside' and more

 The Aspern Papers, R

In debut director Julien Landais' gorgeous literary adaptation of Henry James' 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, mother-daughter duo Vanessa Redgrave, 81, and Joely Richardson, 54, offer an acting master class. They play fading expatriate Juliana Bordereau and her fragile-flower niece Miss Tina, who fall prey to duplicitous Morton Vint (Jonathan Rhys Meyers struggling to maintain a Boston accent). The American editor arrives in Venice intent on separating Bordereau from her youthful passionate correspondence with Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern, patterned on Percy Shelley. While mired in stilted voiceover and perfume-ad sensuality, the drama features opulent production design (the floral arrangements!), providing ample eye candy for fans of period movies. —Thelma M. Adams (T.M.A.) READ VANESSA REDGRAVE, JOELY RICHARDSON INTERVIEW

Also New This Week

Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart in

David Lee/STX Films

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star as a quadriplegic and his caretaker in The Upside.

 The Upside, PG-13

Bryan Cranston, 62, stars as Phillip, a billionaire quadriplegic with a death wish who hires smart-mouthed unemployed ex-con Dell (Kevin Hart, 39) as his live-in caretaker. Remade by Neil Burger from the 2011 French feel-good hit Les Intouchables, this odd-couple dramedy struggles with an uneven screenplay replete with sex-organ jokes. Cranston compels even when only acting from the neck up, but Hart seems to be desperately underwater for most of the movie. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW


Still in Theaters

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

Felicity Jones (center) stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex."

 On the Basis of Sex, PG-13

The holidays are a great time for good movies, and if you want one that makes you feel good, too, this workmanlike, old-fashioned biopic about the future Ruth “Kiki” Bader Ginsburg should hit the spot. Like a superhero origin story, it shows how RBG became a legal star. One of nine women in her Harvard Law class, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm, so she taught instead. Then her extraordinarily supportive tax lawyer husband (Armie Hammer) — who beat a 95 percent fatal cancer in a brief, real-life subplot — helped her make history with the 1972 case Moritz v. Commissioner of the IRS, about a man denied a deduction for his mother’s caregiving. Lawmakers couldn’t imagine a male could be a caregiver, and the Ginsburgs fought that idea to the Supreme Court. RBG’s win did for sexual equality what Brown v. Board of Education did for racial equality, and eventually led to her becoming a justice. Sam Waterston, 78, is tops as Harvard’s sexist dean and Kathy Bates, 70, as the ACLU’s sole female board member, but the film’s heart is the Ginsburgs’ highly romantic love story. The documentary RBG is better, but this one’s good enough.  — Tim Appelo (T.A.)

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly dancing in Stan and Ollie

Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics

Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy in "Stan & Ollie."

 Stan & Ollie, PG

Nostalgic and bittersweet, this biopic about the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy is distinguished by the superb skills of Steve Coogan, 53, as the skinny one, Laurel, and John C. Reilly, 53 (who’s on a huge 2018 career roll), in excellent plump prosthetics as the rotund Hardy. The thrill of their 1937 heyday is conveyed in a great early tracking shot of them striding through the Hal Roach Studios back lot while they discuss dumping their oppressive boss Roach (Danny Huston, 56, as fine an actor as his dad, John Huston). Cut to Laurel and Hardy’s attempted U.K. comeback tour in the 1950s. As they perform classic routines like the bowler-hat-switching bit that Samuel Beckett stole for Waiting for Godot, there’s an existential sadness, and old feuds are revived. “We’re getting older, but we’re not done yet,” Hardy says — and the film has a noble autumnal glow. —T.A.

 Destroyer, R

You never saw Nicole Kidman, 51, look scarier than she does as an undercover cop in this grim film noir. She looks like 10 miles of bad road, which her character's life has been for the 15 years since she infiltrated a gang and failed to nab the bad guy — who’s back in her gunsights now. There's good, tense action set in a nasty-looking L.A.: a pulse-pounding bank robbery, violent confrontations with crime lords and lowlifes, an execution on the concrete bank of the L.A. River. In flashbacks to better days, she looks like Nicole Kidman. But now she’s skeletal, with bitter, bloodshot eyes, terrible skin, a voice like 24-grit sandpaper and a booze-battered liver. She sleeps in her car and sometimes stuffs useful witnesses in the trunk. The storytelling is cumbersomely twisty, but it basically works. What really works like gangbusters is Kidman’s transformation, as startlingly accomplished as Charlize Theron’s in Monster—T.A.

Mary Poppins Returns

Jay Maidment/Disney

Emily Blunt stars as Mary Poppins

 Mary Poppins Returns, PG

You can take grandchildren to the blockbuster Mary Poppins sequel and please them, but it’s really made for us grownups still humming those 1964 tunes. Nearly every song (by Hairspray’s composers) updates one in the original. Though most are merely catchy, not immortal earworms, there’s a rousing dance-hall number and the still-dancing Dick Van Dyke, 93, sings a supercalifragilistic one: “When they tell you [that] your chance to dance is done, that’s the time to stand, to strike up the band and tell them that you’ve just begun!” The plot — Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is almost bankrupt thanks to his late wife’s medical bills, so a wily banker (Colin Firth) means to evict his family — is only a mild distraction from the high-stepping musical fun afoot. Emily Blunt makes a magical airborne nanny, more wry and acerbic than Julie Andrews, and takes a larky plunge with her charges into a bathtub’s undersea world and the cartoon universe inside the family china. Meryl Streep (as cousin Topsy) romps with the kids in her upside-down house, and Angela Lansbury does the climactic “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” equivalent. As Mary’s fond lamplighter pal, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is no Dick Van Dyke, but he’s tuneful, and the reboot adds Broadway brio to the original’s blend of actors and animation. And Van Dyke’s British accent has improved since 1964.  —T.A.

Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Welcome To Marwen

Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Steve Carell and Leslie Mann in "Welcome to Marwen."

 Welcome to Marwen, PG-13

In 2000, artist Mark Hogancamp got stomped by thugs for wearing women’s shoes. Brain damage erased his drawing skill. For therapy, he built a miniature Belgian WW II village, peopled it with dolls of Nazis, himself, and sexy female freedom fighters based on his friends, and staged amazingly realistic photos of Nazis getting stomped. His art landed him a New York gallery exhibit and a must-see documentary about his life, Marwencol. Sadly, Robert Zemeckis’ Hogancamp drama starring Steve Carell is a hot mess. The Nazi-stomping scenes are innovative stop-motion animation worth seeing, but their stories are weirdly lame, and unconvincingly connected with his real life. Hogancamp's story is oddly inspiring even in this flawed film, but watch the documentary instead. —T.A.

Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Angela Wright

Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

From left: Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Andrea Wright as Laura Busch.

 Vice, R

The best thing about this biopic about Dick Cheney is Christian Bale’s startlingly perfect metamorphosis into the most powerful veep in history — with 40 extra pounds and eerily accurate mannerisms, you can’t believe it’s Bale. This is the sort of performance Oscars were created to recognize. But this bitterly political satirical film won’t even please many Cheney enemies. Though Bale gives a sense of Cheney’s turbulent inner depths, the movie as a whole is silly, jokey and chaotic, reducing complicated situations and historical events to scattershot skits. Steve Carell plays Cheney’s mentor-turned-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a giggling power freak with no real ideological convictions — a stretch no matter how you feel about him. Still, with performances like Bale’s and Amy Adams’ as a Lynne Cheney who may be more like Lady Macbeth than the real Mrs. Cheney, it’s worth seeing for connoisseurs of acting.  —T.A.

 The Mule, R

Clint Eastwood, 88, is wonderful as a 90-year-old horticulturalist who goes broke and becomes the Mexican Sinaloa cartel’s most successful drug runner. An unlikely tale based on a true story, it’s the most ambling DEA versus druggies movie ever, less focused on the thrill of the chase than on the life of the hero, whose obsession with daylilies (and the many young women he charms into bed on the road) alienates his neglected family. The script’s sentimental lesson about valuing family over work is way too on-the-nose, but Eastwood directs the heck out of it, and it’s gratifying to see him outwit the young by exploiting their condescending prejudices about oldsters. It would make a fine double bill with Robert Redford’s fact-based senior criminal film The Old Man and the Gun —T.A.

Stephan James, KiKi Layne in

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

 If Beale Street Could Talk, R

Harlem in the '70s has never looked so gorgeous as it does in this dreamy, poetic, heartbreaking adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel about a false rape charge and the families it traumatizes. Director Barry Jenkins made 2017's best picture Oscar winner Moonlight and hasn't lost his artful touch. In a strong ensemble cast, Regina King, 47, stands out as the fiercely protective mother of the accused man's fiancée (KiKi Layne). The cinematography is swoonily beautiful, with a strong spine of storytelling. —T.A. FULL REVIEW 

 Mary Queen of Scots, R

Saoirse Ronan is marvelous as the fiery-eyed Mary Stuart, the 16th-century Catholic British queen whose Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), cost her the throne (and her head) in this historical epic penned by Oscar and Emmy nominee Beau Willimon (House of Cards). It could score Ronan’s fourth Oscar nomination and Robbie’s second, with its sumptuous period atmosphere and timely feminist theme — when men try to put a husband in charge of her, Mary snaps, "If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry!" But the story meanders and the frenemy monarchs don’t dramatically connect (in reality, they never physically met). It’s intermittently terrific, but a nastier Brit historical film, The Favourite, will stomp it at the Oscars. —T.A.

Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges in Ben is Back

Mark Schafer; LD Ent./Roadside Attractions

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are a mother and son trying to reconnect after his battles with addiction.

  Ben Is Back, R

No thriller is more tense than this story of a doting but no-nonsense mom (Julia Roberts, 51) struggling to keep her addict son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), home from rehab on Christmas Eve, safe from relapse. Roberts isn't just America's sweetheart anymore, she's a grownup whose career is on a roll. And she hasn't had a role this impressive since Erin Brockovich, which it in some ways resembles. —T.AFULL REVIEW

Donald Sutherland in

Shinehouse Group

Donald Sutherland plays a judge whose kidnapping and "trial" is live-streamed in the horror/thriller American Hangman.

 American Hangman, NR

 Yes, this low-budget thriller is derivative of Saw, only sillier and less gory. But the setup is intriguing: A psychotic with a terrible haircut (Vincent Kartheiser, sounding like his peevish Pete Campbell character on Mad Men) has a mysterious connection to a homicide case. So he kidnaps its judge (Donald Sutherland, 83, whose long, swept-back hair is gorgeous), ties him to a chair, accuses him of executing the wrong suspect, stages a trial and streams it on the internet, so people can watch and vote to execute or free the judge. Sutherland is wonderful as the sage voice of age, softly correcting the young madman on points of law, as we learn more about the crime and the original trial, and the clock ticks down to a crowdsourced life-or-death decision and authorities ineptly race to save him. The script isn’t up to Sutherland’s talent, but his superbly intelligent acting is a joy to watch.—T.A.


Mali Music, Revival!

TriCoast Worldwide

 Revival!, PG

If you liked the John Legend-starring Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and The Wiz, check out this black-cast musical of the Gospel of John written by Harry Lennix, 54 (The Blacklist), who also plays Pilate. Michelle Williams is Mary Magdalene, and Chaka Khan, 65, is Herodias. It's a sassy hybrid, with onstage song and dance, location shoots, animation and CG. In one great continuous scene, Lennix's Pilate strides from a modern corporate boardroom to a World War I battlefield to the Bolshevik Revolution to Jesus' day — he changes costumes, but corrupt authority never changes. —T.A. INTERVIEW WITH HARRY LENNIX

 The Favourite, R

Olivia Colman, 44, takes over for Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s hit The Crown in 2019, but as 18th-century Queen Anne in this faster, funnier, infinitely nastier best picture Oscar contender, she’s a far more interesting person. Decadent, depraved, grief-stricken, she binges on cake and the manipulative, two-faced wooing of her lady-in-waiting, Sarah (Rachel Weisz, 48). The real Lady Sarah, ancestor of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, was described by the Telegraph as “the world’s most ambitious woman.” But into the palace of intrigue comes Sarah’s rival, her wide-eyed yet equally ambitious cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, 30), who’s broke thanks to her gambler dad. Sarah thinks she’s got two women under her thumb now, but she’s never seen All About Eve — Abigail can’t wait to replace her as royal favorite. Even the impulsive queen is a schemer. When she says, “I have sent for some lobsters — I thought we could race them and then eat them,” she might as well be talking about Sarah and Abigail. —T.A.

Roma

Netflix

 Roma, R

Even though it’s in black and white, in Spanish, and it has no stars you ever heard of, this touching story inspired by the childhood of director Alfonso Cuarón, 56, could win more Oscars than his outer-space smash Gravity. Yalitza Aparicio is irresistible as an indigenous Mixtec woman who becomes a domestic worker for a middle-class family in Mexico City and a second mother to the kids. It’s on Netflix starting Dec. 14, but its gorgeous photography and stunning sound design are better savored in a theater. —Thelma Adams (T.M.A.) FULL REVIEW

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis hugging in a scene from

Twentieth Century Fox

In "Widows," Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) leaves his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), a multimillion-dollar mess to clean up when he dies.

 Widows, R

Nimbly written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Widows is like Ocean’s 8 for smart people, a heist movie about a gang of widows whose robber husbands died in a $5 million heist they must now complete (or be killed by the mob that wants that $5 million). It's got the girl-power mojo of Ocean's 8 and a far more pulse-pounding and brilliantly photographed thriller plot, and it's also about Chicago's corrupt political gangs at war, both white and black. Liam Neeson, 66, is great as the robber husband of Viola Davis, 53, who takes over after he's lost in the fatal first-scene shootout, and Robert Duvall, 87, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya are superb as criminals with political gifts. But this movie is all about Davis' crew (Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez), who swiftly master the heist trade. Adapted from a 1991 British series by the maker of Prime Suspect, which made Helen Mirren a midlife star, it will make Davis a bigger star than ever. —T.A.

Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book.

 Green Book, PG-13

Lord of the Rings’  Viggo Mortensen, 60, gained 30 pounds to play Tony Lip, the Mafia nightclub bouncer who was a bodyguard, chauffeur and lifelong friend of piano genius Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, 44) on his perilous concert tour of the South in 1962 — when black visitors were wise to carry The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate places where they’d be safe-ish. It’s a true story and a heartwarming Oscar magnet. No surprise Ali is tops, but who knew Viggo could play Italian American mob comedy? Or that director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) could direct a smart, only partly funny, socially conscious drama perfect for our times? T.A. FULL REVIEW and Q&A WITH VIGGO MORTENSEN

Gwilym Lee, Rami Malek in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox

 Bohemian Rhapsody, PG-13

This biopic glorifying and sanitizing Queen is a pleasant enough parade of champion hits and behind-the-music cliches. Rami Malek captures lead singer Freddie Mercury’s polymorphously perverse magnetism, and he didn’t need those prosthetic buck teeth (which people falsely call the secret of Mercury’s distinctive sound — voice scientist Christian Herbst’s 2016 study proved it’s actually his oddly irregular vibrato). Even the true parts of the film seem as fake as those teeth. Mary Austin, whom Mercury called his common-law wife, really did stay in his life (though not bed) after he confessed to being gay, and he willed her about $50 million (versus less than a million for Jim Hutton, whom he called his husband). Mary was likely the “mama mia” who has to let him go in his coded coming-out anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But fine actors Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker can’t make Mary and Jim feel real in this infinitely artificial screenplay, and the Queen guys are all ciphers, too.  —T.A. FIVE MORE MOVIES NAMED FOR POP SONGS

Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe in BOY ERASED

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are parents who send their son to a gay conversion camp in "Boy Erased."

 Boy Erased, R

Director Joel Edgerton (Star Wars' Owen Lars) directs himself as the ruthless director of a boot camp that tries to terrorize gay youths straight in an adaptation of Garrard Conley's memoir about "ex-gay conversion therapy." As the therapist's victim, skyrocketing young star Lucas Hedges is solid, as is Russell Crowe, 54, playing his kind yet uncomprehending Baptist minister dad, but they're outdone by Nicole Kidman, 51, as the patient's mom. A flamboyant, flashily dressed and coiffed Arkansan, she's rooted in religious traditionalism, yet torn by loyalty to her son and a dawning realization that the therapy is quackery. Really, the film is about her coming of age as a grownup. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

Melissa McCarthy plays writer-turned-forgery-artist Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant is her accomplice in the true story of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

 Can You Ever Forgive Me?, R

Recent AARP cover subject Melissa McCarthy, 48, is Oscar-buzzed for her performance as the actual celebrity biographer Lee Israel, whose books stopped selling, so she started forging and selling letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward (400 of them, so cleverly conceived she got away with it for a while). Her character is outrageous, sometimes nasty, way too preoccupied with cats and alcohol, yet still somehow charming. But even better is Richard E. Grant, 61, as her shady bar buddy. A brilliant, bitter comedy and a classic New York story. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW

Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carrell in

Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios

Timothée Chalamet (left) plays a son battling addiction and Steve Carrell is his strugglig father in "Beautiful Boy"

 Beautiful Boy, R

Based on memoirs by David Sheff and his recovering addict son, writer Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is an acting duel between Steve Carell, 56, and Timothée Chalamet as the troubled son — and the audience wins. The film takes us from Nic’s dazzlingly promising youth to the ghastly day when David must coldly refuse Nic’s desperately sweaty request for money. You wince at the flashback of late-teenage Nic talking David into sharing a joint — hey, he’s a Rolling Stone writer — unaware that it’s a spark for tragic dynamite. Maura Tierney, 53, is winning as Nic’s stepmom (and Amy Ryan, 50, is an Oscar maybe as his mom), but Carell’s performance, tightly wound but powerfully emotive at moments of crisis, is the news here, a banked fire of helpless rage facing a child blazing out of control. The soundtrack (Nirvana, John Lennon, Bowie) is the year’s best, a greatest-hits collection of genius addicts’ tunes. —T.A.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sitting on the ground with palm trees in the distance.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga play Jackson and Ally in 'A Star Is Born.'

 A Star Is Born, R

Lady Gaga and star-director-writer Bradley Cooper will clean up at the Oscars for their electrifying update of the famous story of an unknown talent who becomes a singing star, while her alcoholic mentor (Cooper) flames out. The first hour is a sensational skyrocket ascent — who knew Gaga could act and Cooper could sing? Or what she looks like with her real hair and face? The final hour and 15 minutes are slightly less superb, but still better than the 1976 hit Barbra Streisand version. Sam Elliott, 74, as Cooper’s brother-manager-rival, and Andrew Dice Clay, 61, as Gaga’s papa deserve best supporting actor nominations. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

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