There’s no place like home on a stage as a fantasy respite from a troubled life. Rupert Goold’s Judy (B) is the anticipated biopic with Renée Zellweger playing actress/ songstress Judy Garland in the fading fog of a salvage effort for money and maternal rights while in residency at a London concert hall. The story is slight, and the supporting characters make very little impression, but “Judy via Z” is a brass band of a performance. Ms. Zellweger finds the soaring voice (literally) and stirring humanity in a tragic real-life legend gone too soon. Through the haze of booze and pills, under puckered makeup and vice-grip hair and in poignant backlot flashbacks of being a controlled child performer in the Hollywood Studio System, there’s a stunning character portrait here. Goold conjures warm nostalgia amidst the melancholy and even captures some witty moments of acerbic humor. The music numbers don’t quite achieve the pulse of the moments in the margins, but you won’t want to miss a trip over the bittersweet rainbow with this talented woman of incomparable smarts, heart and courage.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of Mark Twain, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
Director Jon Watts follows up his Marvel Universe reboot of the web-slinging series with the returning, utterly charming Tom Holland conveying convincing spectacle in the title role of Spider-Man: Far from Home (B), a worthy but overly busy Spidey sequel. This installment finds our hero mourning the loss of a fellow superhero while juggling a high school European field trip in which he’s looking for a romantic hook-up with MJ played with sass by Zendaya and battling emerging supervillain Mysterio, a mixed bag of a Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The teen angst is the best part; the set-up for the epic action in an augmented reality showdown is curiously half-baked. Holland’s Peter parkours, trapezes, amazes and teases through it all and makes this episode worthwhile viewing. The film is fast, funny and occasionally tender.
There’s more pleasure than guilt in enjoying this guilty pleasure as director Tate Taylor collaborates with Octavia Spencer, his muse from The Help, for a memorable, against-type, unhinged performance in the psychological thriller Ma (B). When a lonely veterinary assistant starts opening her basement to a quartet of partying teens, it becomes clear something sinister is afoot in her drug and alcohol crazed makeshift speakeasy. In the spirit of Misery, Carrie or One Hour Photo, there’s a disturbing backstory to the central character’s plight and a method to the madness. Spencer nails the macabre mood swings of a character who longs to fit in with the in-crowd, and she brandishes a smartphone and ruthless cunning as weapons of choice. For every routine resolution, there’s also a disturbing detour, including some surprising props and prosthetics; and the sometimes preposterous story works as perverse entertainment largely because of the subversive nature of Spencer’s unflinching presence. The film practically begs for the call-back, “No. She. Did Not.” The teen actors including Diana Silvers and Gianni Paolo are authentic and engaging, and so are Spencer’s contemporaries including Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Juliette Lewis, the latter of whom has some satisfying echoes of her Cape Fear role. The chocolate icebox pie Taylor and Spencer served eight years ago has aged into a new mocha bonbon, a dish of revenge served cold by a woman scorned. By the time the film reaches its delicious denouement, you may find yourself grinning from the thrill and audacity of it all.
Dexter Fletcher is the director who finished filming Bohemian Rhapsody after its filmmaker was dismissed and further flexes his love of musical storytelling in the Elton John biopic Rocketman (B-), a motion picture whose blissed-out protagonist is rather hard to get to know, even after a whole film about his life has unspooled. Taron Egerton is convincing and charismatic in the lead role, and Jamie Bell is also enjoyable as Bernie Taupin, the musician’s longtime lyricist and friend. The story, told in both the musical style of characters breaking out into song and sequences reenacting live performances, gets glowing support in terms of flamboyant costumes, buoyant choreography and Bryce Dallas Howard in a juicy role as the musician’s mum. Unfortunately the plot is inert, and stock characters like the agent/love interest played by Richard Madden are crocodiles who fail to rock. Many of the jukebox musical numbers come to brilliant life with delightful orchestrations, especially “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” However, some favorites from the catalogue are oddly missing or marginalized, and John’s character choices are mainly muddled in a drug and alcohol fog. Much more bittersweet than celebratory, the film is crying out for a drying out, and the ultimate detoxifying denouement is begging for an audience still standing by the end, but sorry seems to be the prevailing word.
The kaijū film genre, marked by fantastical creatures storming world cities, gets epic treatment in Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (B-), the third in a proposed quartet of “Legendary MonsterVerse” films (preceded by 2014’s Godzillaand 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). This movie is wall to wall action around the globe featuring a clash of spectacular Titans – the titular beast, the flying Rodan, the multi-headed King Ghidorah and the exotic Mothra. Grounded in a domestic drama at its core but absolutely unleashed in terms of glorious effects, set pieces and apex predator showdowns, this is as exciting and thrilling as a Hollywood disaster and destruction blockbuster gets. Kyle Chandler sinks his teeth into the monster-hunting leading man role in psychological battle with Vera Farmiga, who harbors a belief that the colossal creatures may help restore the earth from mankind’s foibles. Exploring all the strangest things firsthand, Millie Bobby Brown is solid as their conflicted offspring. Bradley Whitford provides coy comfort in the situation room, and Ken Watanabe steals the show a scientist turned soldier hellbent on maintaining the balance and safety of all living things. There may actually be too much packed into this creature feature as the momentum rages on a bit too long. Sometimes the sheer spectacle crowds out promised characterizations, but this film delivers the goods in terms of action and intrigue.
Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom coms in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying.
Joe and Anthony Russo’s sprawling and satisfying superhero ensemble Avengers: Endgame (B+) is likely the most emotional of the Marvel series. It comes after the previous film’s conceit of killing off half the world’s population, and much of this installment addresses how people grieve and marshal the will to move forward. Two favorite characters have some stunning physical transformations which are subjects of consistent humor. Characters’ witty jabs at each other are a franchise hallmark, and these too are in ample supply. Action sequences are rare but quite CGI heavy and almost seem perfunctory in a film more centered on human bonds. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth get many of the highlights in a sometimes overstuffed narrative. Come for the action; stay for the interaction.
A fun hybrid of Big and The Goonies, the DC Universe gets a lively dose of life and levity with the introduction of David Sandberg’s Shazam! (B). The film’s teen protagonist is grappling with new powers which cause him to toggle back and forth between awkward adolescence and transforming into a full-fledged adult superhero just as he joins a foster family with a bunch of precocious step-siblings. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are superb and funny as the boy and his adult alter ego, respectively, and the film’s family includes Jack Dylan Graser as a cunning sidekick and Cooper Andrews as a lovable lug of a foster dad. The movie is aimed squarely at a family audience, despite a few early scares courtesy of Mark Strong’s viciously one-note villain and a bunch of beguiling CGI monsters. It’s a touch overlong, but the comedy, action and surprises pile high with fairly consistent success, and there are even a few moments of genuinely moving domestic drama. The movie creates characters for whom the audience can truly cheer in an environment largely well imagined. Expect the origin stories explored here to bring further marvels to DC.
Anyone who’s ever fantasized about having a twin has probably not seen many horror movies, because doppelgänger-dom is typically hell one earth when your double turns out to be trouble. In telling the suspenseful story of a privileged family facing off with unfortunate duplicate “others,” Jordan Peele’s Us (B+) peels back lots of layers about Modern America and reveals a complex and fascinating motion picture experience. The terror – set largely in West coast enclaves near a lake and a beach amusement park – is taut and the tone of unease singularly stirring, but the imaginative writer/director overreaches at times in his ambition to top Get Out with this unsettling sophomore effort. Lupita Nyong’o is simply fabulous in two distinct and challenging performances, but the problem with all the players is that allegorical characters aren’t that fundamentally interesting. Winston Duke doesn’t fare quite as well with a ho-hum husband character who can only be described as not wearing the pants much, literally or figuratively. Peele’s parade of timely topics spans from red state politics to the digital divide, from defanged authority figures to upper class malaise as clones endeavor to claw their way into the mainstream. A viewer could enjoy the fresh and breathless action without absorbing all the creative points of view the auteur is trying to convey. Ultimately although everything doesn’t add up in this creative piece of speculative fiction, film fans and horror enthusiasts will relish the journey. Peele’s undeniable style and subversive commentary about a country of haves and have nots is sly and smart.
Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.