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Articles by Diana beechener

Obsession, compulsion and love are stitched together in this fascinating drama

       Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis: Lincoln) is a creature of habit. He gets dressed in a precise ritual. He eats breakfast in silence, working on sketches and preparing for the day. He depends on praise and adoration to fuel his creativity. 
        Reynolds’ quirks are tolerated because he is the genius behind House of Woodcock, a fine London couturier. His workers are the finest seamstresses in Europe, and his designs are sought by heiresses and royalty. Woodcock is the first name in fashion.
        Women line up to serve as his muse and lover. They take his tantrums, accept his indifference and pray they can keep his attention long enough to get a custom dress and a share of notoriety. It’s a callous system but one tolerated by all.
       Until Alma (Vicky Krieps: Gutland)
        She’s has the ideal shape for his designs. She adores him. She accepts his demands with a benevolent smile. But there’s something beneath her calm surface. She begins to push back. She enjoys doting as he primps and fusses, but she won’t allow him to control her story or the relationship.
        What follows is a battle of wills that puts the fun in dysfunction. 
       Gorgeously shot and performed, Phantom Thread is a quiet, chilling look at how relationships bring out the best and worst in us. Its title comes from invisible threads sewn into our garments. Woodcock takes to hiding messages and talismans in his clothing, and this obsession with the hidden truths we all wear drives the film. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) is in fine form crafting a thriller out of what could be a staid relationship drama. Shots are high contrast, filled with shadow, to help build unease. Woodcock is often glancing around corners and framed off center in doorways, increasing the sense of something slightly off kilter.
        Anderson is a master of exploiting little moments for massive emotional tension. Fraught looks turn sinister, and power dynamics are turned on their head. Sound design amplifies the scrape of a knife against toast, so you hear why Woodcock cannot start his day with such a racket.
       In his final performance before retirement, Day-Lewis is astounding. He crafts a fascinating combination of ticks and peculiarities into a fully fleshed man who remains an emotional child.
       As Alma, Krieps arguably has a more difficult job than Day-Lewis. She must be the picture of benevolence and calm obedience under which a sinister current runs. She conveys so much with a flick of an eye or the slight rise of a brow that she manages to steal several scenes. A woman who knows what she wants and how to achieve it, Alma may be better at playing gender role games than Woodcock. 
      Sumptuous clothing, claustrophobic interiors and stunning performances combine to make Phantom Thread the must-see relationship horror movie of the season. It’s well worth the ticket to check out this bravura farewell from one of cinema’s most respected stars.
Great Drama • R • 130 mins.
 
New this Week
 
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
       As a boy, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) wanted to become a famous warrior. When he and his sister are captured and enslaved, Bilal changes his mind. Instead, he uses his singing talent to earn his freedom and improve his world.
       Inspired by a true story, Bilal is an animated feature from the Middle East that gives life to a legend. If you and your family are tired of typical animated fare, this one offers a new culture and storytelling style. 
Prospect: Bright • PG-13 • 105 mins. 
 
Winchester
       After losing her husband and child, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) feels cursed. The heir to the $20 million Winchester rifle fortune believes that the souls of all the people killed by her husband’s weapons are haunting the family. 
       To confuse and trap the spirits, Sarah begins an elaborate home with stairwells that lead nowhere and doors that don’t open. There may be more to her story than a grieving woman’s paranoia. Is the Winchester mystery house keeping the family safe? Or are the spirits still finding a way to torment them? 
      Based on the real-life construction of the so-called Winchester Mystery House, this movie postulates real spirits were driving Sarah. With Mirren adding classically trained acting to jump scares, this one should be worth the ticket.
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 99 mins.

Humanity is the danger in this depressing western

      Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale: The Promise) is an Indian fighter. He knows the tribes, customs and languages. He’s made a career of tracking, moving and culling them from U.S. territories. He’s committed atrocities, and been paid back in kind.
       Ready to retire with his demons, he gets a last assignment before riding off into the sunset. Imprisoned Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi: Empire of the Heart) is dying of cancer, and a modestly repentant president allows him to return to his ancestral lands to die. Blocker’s task is to escort Yellow Hawk safely to the Valley of the Bears, now in Montana.
        Along the way they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike: The Man with the Iron Heart), whose family was killed by Comanches.
         A dour film that wishes it were deeper than it is, Hostiles is overlong and a surprisingly unnuanced film. Director Scott Cooper (Black Mass) crafts a superficially beautiful western. Untamed society, human cruelty and the search for redemption are lightly touched. Every character is a type, and each gets off too easily. The ending is ridiculously trite.
         Odd that a film seeking to indict the American treatment of Native tribes does so little to develop native characters. A fantastic character actor, Studi is called to do no more than look stoically toward the horizon. Yellow Hawk and his family get no chance to express their outrage, but they are quick to offer clothes and comfort to the traumatized Rosalie, as Cooper perpetuates the noble savage characterization. 
       Native characters aren’t the only short-changed actors here. Many wonderful character actors — including Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet and Adam Beach — do little more than die on Cooper’s bloody journey through the west. Only Rory Cochrane (The Most Hated Woman in America) gets an arc that includes pathos and character development. 
        Rosamund Pike, a fine actress with an Oscar nomination, swings wildly from soap opera hysterics to catatonic staring.
        Redeeming this bleak western, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shoots the wilds of America with a style reminiscent of John Ford. Vistas are vast and beautiful as the group traverses them. Actor Bale helps, too, with a performance leagues better than any of his costars is allowed. 
        Beautiful, bleak and shallow, Hostiles is a frustrating film for a western fan. 
Fair Western • R • 134 mins.
 
 
New this Week
 
Maze Runner: The Death Cure
       Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) has survived the maze trials only to fight the evil WCKD government again. At issue this time as Thomas and his band of survivors try to navigate the labyrinth of the Last City are cruel medical experiments, staying alive and saving the world. 
        Skip this last in the Maze Runner saga unless you’re caught up with the other films. Bleak, dystopian and full of teen whining, this should follow in the same steps as Hunger Games and Divergent. Pretty kids will beat the mean old adults, find love and learn they were the real grownups all along. 
Prospects: Dim • PG-13 • 142 mins.

This tale of Olympic-level tragedy earns the gold

       Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie: Suicide Squad) is a far cry from the ice princesses who dominated American media coverage throughout the 1980s and ’90s. The atypical Olympian comes from meager means. Her costumes are gaudy and hand-sewn. She performs to heavy metal instead of Chopin. She shoots guns and goes muddin’ in trucks for fun.
      Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney: Mom) is an abusive alcoholic who makes a habit of tearing Tonya down. To escape, Tonya marries the first boy who shows an interest, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan: Logan Lucky), who continues the cycle of violence.
       For all that, Tonya is an exceptional skater. She’s the first American to land a triple-axle in competition. She’s got power and height to make her jumps thrilling. But execution isn’t the only point of evaluation. Finding Tonya a poor representative for American skating, judges look for reasons to mark her down.
       Seeking acknowledgement, Tonya tries to make herself into the image to which she aspires. She hides her bruises with makeup and plasters a smile on her face. When her husband suggests a plan to help her win the top spot in American skating, she pays no attention.
       What follows is a tragedy so shaped by stupidity and outlandish behavior that it’s funny. Finally in the spotlight, Tonya learns that infamy isn’t so satisfying as fame.
       Based on the true story of the 1990s’ scandal, I, Tonya is a fierce, hilarious look at Harding and the media circus that made her a star. Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) shows you the story of her meteoric rise and spectacular fall from the perspectives of each of the principals.
        Narrators are frequently unreliable. Events skew depending on who is telling the story. Characters speak to the camera in interview format or break a scene to let the audience know that they disagree with an interpretation of events. The fascinating technique forces audiences to weigh the information they’re given and decide who to trust.
       The movie is also an indictment of the media and its popular consumption. A media sensation at the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, she was hounded by tabloid reporters hungry for a scoop. Their sin is shared with the audience that consumed such stories.
       For his predominantly unreliable narrators, Gillespie needed a cast capable of seeming both trustworthy and unhinged — sometimes in the same scene. These actors are gold medal worthy. As the center, Robbie is brilliant, counterbalancing Harding’s tackier aspects with heart-rending vulnerability. This woman desperate for acceptance finds instead differing forms of violent rejection.
       Janney is so snarling and fearsome a mother figure that she could scare Joan Crawford. Making it her mission to show Tonya she’s a disappointment, LaVona throws things at her and pays people to heckle her at competitions.
       You need not remember the ­Harding/Kerrigan scandal to find I, Tonya a winner. 
Prospects: Great Dramedy • R • 120 mins.
 
New this Week
 
12 Strong
       After the Twin Towers fell, America was in shock. As the nation reeled, the army sent a team of Special Forces soldiers into Afghanistan against a warlord. Starting the Bush administration’s War on Terror with extremely limited resources, these soldiers rode into battle on horseback.
       Filled with patriotic imagery and awe for our military prowess, 12 Strong is meant to lift spirits and instill pride. Don’t look for an examination on our motives for the war in this love letter. 
Prospects: Flickering • R • 130 mins. 
 
Den of Thieves
      A band of violent, brilliant bank robbers is embarrassing the police and terrifying the citizens of Los Angeles. To combat them, the LA County Sheriff’s Department empowers an elite unit, no questions asked.
       Meanwhile, the heisters are planning the ultimate job: robbing the Federal Reserve. 
       It’s January, the month studios dump movies that have no chance of making money or earning recognition. This latest by Gerard Butler follows that tradition. 
Prospects: Bleak • R • 140 mins. 
 
Phantom Thread
       Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is London’s most famous ­couturier. He and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) have run the city’s fashion scene for years, dressing starlets to royals. 
       Reynolds has a reputation with women outside of dressmaking. He cycles through them, abandoning them as soon as they fail to inspire him. His newest muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), refuses and creates a new set of standards. 
      Director Paul Thomas Anderson adores twisting social norms and playing with power dynamics. The rumored final film in Day-Lewis’ storied career, The Phantom Thread promises to be a triumph. 
Prospects: Bright • R • 130 mins.

Intrigue at the highest levels in politics, journalism and gender

      In 1971, a secret study exposing the futility of the Vietnam War was leaked to the New York Times. Printing it reveals decades of deception. The Pentagon Papers, as the explosive revelations were known, shook the American people’s trust in their government and infuriated the Nixon administration.
      Nixon sued. The Times was barred from further revelations while the Supreme Court deliberated on the paper’s First Amendment rights to print.
That’s the true backstory of the lively political drama The Post.
       With the Times silenced, papers around the world await the decision.
Except The Washington Post, whose executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks: The Circle), wants to break the silence, raising his paper’s national prestige.
      Standing in his way is the Post’s owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep: Florence Foster Jenkins), a Washington socialite close with LBJ and Bob McNamara.   Graham is in fact struggling to keep her paper alive and to be taken seriously in a man’s world. If she prints the Pentagon Papers and the Supreme Court rules against the Times, she can lose her paper. If she doesn’t, she risks irrelevancy.
       Their conflict adds another layer of drama to a newspaper movie that is both thrilling and, in the current political climate, timely.
       The Post manages to be two very interesting movies in one. Bradlee and his dogged quest to print the Pentagon Papers plays out like a political thriller and prequel to All the President’s Men. Graham’s is the timely story about a woman finding her place in the working world and asserting herself as the men at the table dismiss her.
      Hanks makes Bradlee a man guided by his principles and both driven and driving to get the scoop. His half of the movie is filled with research and breathless phone calls.
         Graham’s half of the story is more nuanced. Streep is excellent as a woman used to being unobtrusive. She gossips with the ladies at her parties rather than talking politics with the men. She allows herself to be cowed by the panel of men who are supposed to advise her. In framing Streep in her scenes, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (The BFG) has a man looming above or crowding into her frame, making her seem small and pressed.
       The Post is a bit heavy-handed due to director Steven Spielberg, who can never resist making his point in the most obvious way and repeating it. Speeches about how hard it is to be a woman in a changing society are back-to-back. A shot of Graham walking past every female stereotype is so groan-inducing that you may need to resist the urge to throw popcorn at the screen.
       Still, The Post is a welcome reminder about the role the press plays in keeping the executive branch honest — and about women finding new ways to embrace power in the face of male domination. 
Good Drama • PG-13 • 115 mins.
 
New this Week
 
The Commuter 
       Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) follows a mundane routine. So he’s surprised to be pulled into a conspiracy on his daily train commute. Following the instructions of a mysterious woman on the train (Vera Farmiga), he’s told, or people will die and he’ll be blamed. 
         On a speeding train with no way to signal for help, he must try to outwit whoever is attempting to ruin his life. 
      Neeson has made an odd turn late in his career, from dramatic actor to action movie hero. The Commuter looks to be one of those typical action flicks, featuring him growling menacingly and quickly walking with purpose through small spaces.
       If you’re a fan of Neeson’s particular set of skills, this film should be fairly thrilling. Setting the movie on a train keeps the action claustrophobic and the tension high. If you’re looking for a well-thought out plot, however, you may be disappointed.
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 104 mins.
 
Paddington 2
       Now an official member of the Brown family, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is a bear on a mission. He wants to buy a spectacular present for his aunt’s 100th birthday. He works many odd jobs to earn enough money to buy something wonderful, only to have his money stolen.
        Paddington and the Brown family must work together to find the thief and save Aunt Lucy’s birthday surprise.
      This sequel to the surprisingly loveable Paddington movie promises more delight. Brimming with recognizable British character actors and cuddly critters, Paddington 2 should be fun for young and old alike.
Prospects: Bright • PG • 103 mins. 
 
Proud Mary 
       Hitwoman Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is the go-to assassin for the biggest crime family in Boston. Then a hit goes awry. Will she take on the whole of the Boston mob to protect a boy she barely knows?
     Taraji P. Henson is one of the most charismatic actresses working today, so it’s wonderful to see her lead an action movie. Styling and plot follow Pam Grier’s blaxploitation classics, featuring powerful no-nonsense women fighting for good. If the plot is weak, Henson’s charm and talent are strong.
Prospects: Flickering • R • 89 mins.

A teen discovers love’s bliss and pain

The year is 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet: Lady Bird) is a precocious 17. His professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg: The Shape of Water) and translator mother (Amira Casar: Night of 1,000 Hours) have raised him on poetry, music and philosophy.
    Despite his familiarity with culture and the arts, he hates his family’s annual summers in Italy. Each year, his father brings along a graduate student, who’s always a suck-up and who takes over Elio’s room.
    This year’s student, Oliver (Armie Hammer: Cars 3), breaks the pattern. Handsome, confident and only mildly ingratiating, Oliver attracts Elio’s interest. He delights in their intellectual sparring and craves the older man’s company.
    Feeling the building tension, Elio slowly realizes that he is feeling not dislike but longing. As he tumbles into sex and love for the first time, Elio discovers that he doesn’t know it all.
    Sensual, beautiful and impeccably acted, Call Me By Your Name is the sort of sweeping pastoral romance that stays in mind long after the credits roll. Based on a bestselling book brilliantly scripted by James Ivory, it’s about the heady joys and bone-deep aches of love. Think of it as a bodice-ripper for literature majors.
    Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) uses lush visuals of nature coming into bloom as both metaphor and message. Elio is burgeoning, and nature inspires his character to self-discovery and happiness. Like the slow-building passion between the lovers, pacing is unhurried, with long shots and sweeping landscapes.
    Speaking three languages, playing piano like a prodigy and falling in loving with a man when homosexuality was taboo, Chalamet masters every challenge. Yet his articulate, vulnerable Elio can’t find the words to tell Oliver his feelings.
    As Oliver, who comes from a far more conservative family, Hammer is charming. He makes it easy to see how Elio — and half the sleepy Italian town — fall for his easygoing smile. Despite Oliver’s appearance of confidence, Hammer shows layers of loneliness and sweetness as he tries to do the right thing for both the teen and his family.
    Call Me By Your Name is an endearing, honest portrayal of first love, where the only real villain is time. It will make you smile, and it’s likely to make you cry. Expect its excellence to garner award nominations for both Chalamet and Hammer.

Great Drama • R • 132 mins.

A young woman aspires to rhyme her way out of her dying town

      Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald: The Rachels) spends her waking hours serving drunks in a dim bar in the bowels of New Jersey. When she’s not being harassed by customers, Patti must wrangle her mother, a hopeless alcoholic who uses the karaoke nights at Patti’s bar to relive her dreams of singing professionally. In her free time, Patti is the primary caregiver for her grandmother, who has accrued enough medical bills to keep Patti and her mother in debt for life.
     Though things look bleak, Patti has a dream: She wants to be a rapper. She spends her free time writing rhymes and practicing her flow. She shows promise, but Patti struggles to find support from fellow rappers, who dismiss her as a pathetic, fat white girl. 
     The game changes when Patti meets a mysterious man who plays subversive Goth death metal. Patti forms a ragtag crew that includes her grandmother, and the group cobbles together a few tracks for a CD, hoping to find fame and fortune. 
     Director Geremy Jasper makes his feature debut with a film that doesn’t push many cinematic barriers. The plot is predictable, you’ll know exactly where it’s going almost the moment the film begins. Jasper does manage to make the small Jersey town its own character, its tagged edifices and grimy interiors offering insight into Patti’s desperate need to get out. 
     Jasper stretches a little bit during Patti’s fantasy sequences, toying with light and effects to display the vivid interior of Patti’s mind. It’s a great contrast to the drab exterior world that she’s stuck in. 
     Patti Cake$ surpasses a hackneyed story thanks to the strength of its leads. As Patti, Macdonald is a revelation. She manages to make Patti’s dogged quest for recognition both relatable and sweet. She spits rhymes well and offers enough quiet desperation that the audience really roots for her to find her dream.
     As Patti’s alcoholic mother Barb, Bridget Everett (Saving a Legend) is brilliant. She is a sad shell of a woman, who bounces from bad choice to bad choice. She’s content to let Patti take care of her and her mother, but viciously lashes out whenever Patti tries to curb her destructive behavior. Still, when she performs, there are glimpses of the woman she was. Her powerful voice and magnetic performing style help explain why Patti loves a woman who clearly wasn’t a nurturing force in her life. 
     Patti Cake$ has a ton of heart and a cast that offers wonderful performances. If you’ve ever felt stuck in your life, or have a love for quirky tales of underdogs, this movie will be well worth the trip. 
Good Dramedy • R • 108 mins.
 
New this Week
 
Tulip Fever
     In the 17th century, Eurpoe was enthralled by a flower. The tulip had taken the world by storm, and Amsterdam built a lucrative industry around the culturing of the bulbs and blooms. 
     Merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) has made his fortune on the tulip trade and uses his prosperity to buy a pretty, young orphan bride. Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is little more than a bauble to her much older spouse and is prepared to live a life of opulent misery. That all changes when Cornelis hires a painter to capture his prized possessions — his wife and his tulips. 
      Sophia and the painter begin a torrid affair. He promises to steal her away, but Sophia knows her husband will spend all his money to track her down. Can the lovers come up with a plan to evade Cornelis?
     Based on the bestselling book, Tulip Fever is an historical romance with a pedigree. Legendary playwright Tom Stoppard penned the screenplay, which means the dialogue and character work should be beautifully detailed.
Prospects: Bright • R • 107 mins. 
 
Unlocked
      CIA interrogator Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is the only thing standing between the city of London and a biological terror attack. She can’t trust anyone as she attempts to neutralize the threat, including her own government. Her only hope is an unorthodox MI:6 agent (Orlando Bloom) who may be the key to stopping the attack. 
      Think of this film as a season of 24 condensed into two hours. Rapace is an excellent actress, but there’s only so much she can do to make such unoriginal plot points interesting. It is nice to see a woman fitted into the typical male savior role, but without anything new or interesting to say, this film feels like a rehash. 
Prospects: Dim • R • 98 mins. 

No scares, but plenty of philosophic pondering

Death comes calling on the ordinary life of M (Rooney Mara: The Discovery) and C (Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea). C dies in a car wreck, leaving M alone in the world.
    Only she isn’t alone.
    C has followed M home. Covered now in an autopsy sheet, C is witness to M’s mourning, grief and eventual acceptance. Clearly, he is seeking closure with his wife. Yet when M moves, C stays behind.
    Now alone in the house, C passes the time chatting with the ghost next door, who has been at it so long its human name is forgotten. As he waits, other people move into the house. C sometimes tries to interact with the families, other times ignores them. Decades sail by.
    Is C doomed to haunt a shell of a home until he can remember nothing of his own existence?
    Borrowing from director Terrence Malick, writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) creates spectacular visuals and an obscure, metaphoric story in which concept dominates performance and plot. Centering a movie on a man under a sheet is a bold cinematic choice.
    C is basically a silent observer, a witness to the passage of time and the lives of others. In spite of the title, this is not a typical ghost story. The dread that builds here is existential, as C learns how inconsequential his life was. Expansive vistas demonstrate the miniscule place humanity holds in the vastness of the universe.
    Lowery is committed to languid pace and tone, and his Ghost Story takes a while to get going, with long stretches of silence and scenes that seemingly go on forever. For the first 20 minutes, you sit in a soundless theater, watching Mara gorge on a pie or Affleck stare sullenly. Expect awkward laughter from some audience members and perhaps a few glances at your watch.
    But the film eventually finds its feet, and if you’re willing to put in some mental effort, you’ll be rewarded. A Ghost Story reflects on our place in the universe, our need to be remembered and the billion joys and tragedies that unfold over the years in the same space. Don’t expect anything simple, including answers.

Good Drama • R • 92 mins.

Brilliant action in this new take on the storied retreat

In 1940, the outlook was bleak for the Allied Forces. The German army had driven British and French troops all the way to the beaches of France, trapping them against the sea. In Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers waited for evacuation from France, scanning the seas for British destroyers as the Germans approached.
    German planes swoop over the massed troops, dropping bombs and spraying bullets. German U-boats sink vessels carrying troops from the slaughter on the beaches. England faces the reality that the war could be lost.
    To save at least a fraction of the army, England calls upon its people, conscripting small vessels to cross the English Channel to Dunkirk. Saving even 30,000 would arm the nation when the Germans inevitably invade.
    Amidst these calamitous circumstances, three men will meet their fates.
    Tommy (Fionn Whitehead: Him) is a private who will do anything to survive. When life or death are the choices, he understands that the drive for survival can make monsters of men.
    Farrier (Tom Hardy: Taboo) is one of three RAF pilots tasked with defending the ships and troops from German assault. In a skirmish with German fliers, his fuel gauge is damaged. He must decide whether his presence in the skies makes a difference in the face of overwhelming odds.
    Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance: The BFG) is determined to help the soldiers at Dunkirk. Setting out in his small boat with his son and another boy, he crosses waters littered with bodies and downed ships.
    Featuring nail-biting action and gorgeous cinematography, Dunkirk stuns with scope and beauty. A master of visual storytelling, writer/director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) excels at staging and action. Dizzying camera work in the aerial battles captures the precariousness of the planes’ and crews’ existence.
    Nolan doesn’t depend on graphic violence to show the horrors of war. There’s plenty of violence, but he is more interested in psychological wounds. He shows the anonymity of war. Officers coolly calculate who, in essence, to spare and who to save. Soldiers swirl amid chaotic, random violence. Despondent men wade into the sea, swimming home to England their only chance at survival.
    In focusing on scope, Nolan sacrifices humanity. He spends little time mining for character moments in the middle of battle. As a result, we remain unconnected as these men go through hell.
    Heart aside, in both performance and production Dunkirk is one of the better war films of the past decade.

Good War Movie • PG-13 • 106 mins.

A love story so funny it has to be true

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani: Silicon Valley) is trying to live both American and Pakistani dreams. His parents want him to be a devout Muslim, choose an honorable profession like the law and agree to an arranged marriage with a nice Pakistani woman. Kumail pretends to buy into these goals, but his dream is making a living as a comedian.
    When Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan: The Monster) at a club, he is smitten. They date, though Kumail knows that if his parents learn his secret, he’ll be disowned. Then Emily’s illness forces Kumail to reevaluate his double life.
    Heartfelt, hilarious and beautifully performed, The Big Sick is a near-perfect romantic comedy. Kazan and Nanjiani are both likeable performers, so even when they make terrible decisions, we want them to succeed. Director Michael Showalter (Grace and Frankie) blends the romantic storyline seamlessly with Kumail’s comic review of the conflicting messages of his upbringing. Standup darlings Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant pop up with great supporting performances.
    It helps that the story is true.
    Najiani wrote the script with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who really did fall into a coma while they were dating. Yes, this news gives away this story’s ending. But starry-eyed endings are not what this movie is about. See it to learn how a man comes to balance familial and romantic love as Kumail falls in love not only with Emily but also with her parents.
    Conflicts are handled deftly and without villains. Kumail’s parents want what they believe is best for him. Kumail loves them, even when he disappoints them.
    The Big Sick is both full of heart and uproariously funny.

Great Romantic Comedy • R • 120 mins.

After three tries, Marvel gets it right

Peter Parker (Tom Holland: The Lost City of Z) hoped his internship with Stark Industries would lead to more excitement than neighborhood watch duty. The high-schooler is recruited by Ironman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: Captain America: Civil War), to fight against Captain America, then sent back to school and allowed to use his new powers, and his neat Stark-industry suit, only to stop small crimes.
    After fighting superheroes, Parker gets no thrill from AP Chemistry.
    Strong enough to stop a car with his bare hands, smart enough to create a tensile web that can hold his weight or immobilize a bad guy, the teen chafes. He ditches class to hunt for big criminals.
    His mistake is choosing a weapons dealer who is combining alien technology with human artillery. The firepower is deadly, and so is the dealer,
Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton: The Founder).
    Should Parker have gotten his learner’s permit before taking on a supervillain?
    The latest addition to the Marvel comic pantheon features a likeable lead who plays a believable teen — plus action, humor and heart.
    At this point, you probably know that Parker was bitten by a spider. If you’ve read the comics or watched the movies, you’ve seen it happen. In a smart decision, director Jon Watts (Cop Car) spares you seeing it again.
    Casting is excellent. As Parker, Holland is the first Spider-Man in two decades who is both physically right for the role of a teenage boy with superpowers and actor enough to make the teen likeable. Holland communicates Peter’s decency and childish over-eagerness in ways that make his poor choices understandable, even endearing.
    As the foe Peter must face to become a real hero, Keaton turns in a great performance. Marvel villains tend to be one-dimensional, with only vague motivation for their misdeeds. Watts and Keaton craft a more complex adversary. Toomes begins as a decent man who out of desperation turns to crime. He is both charming and menacing as he spars with Holland.
    Spider-Man: Homecoming is the rare origin story that pleases both comic book novices and persnickety fans. It took Marvel three tries to hit on the perfect tone for Peter Parker.

Great Superhero Movie • PG-13 • 133 mins.