The Comfort of Strangers ( Paul Schrader – 1990) C+

Christopher Walken is great as always, the setting is excellent for this type of movie yet I cannot say this was a movie I really enjoyed. It’s all style but little soul or substance. I did like the overarching feeling of it, of a pair of spiders (Walken and Helen Mirren) weaving their web to capture the pretty British couple played by Rupert Everette and Natasha Richardson. They are vacationing in Venice and on a fateful night, they get lost and they “accidentally” run into Robert (Walken). Where it goes is both predictable and stylishly shocking.

1917 (Sam Mendes – 2019) A

Every so often we get to see something really spectacular at the movies. The film opens on Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield in a field, one resting on a tree, the other lying on his back in the grass. It’s a beautiful day. It’s 1917 and they are in the field during World War I. When the film wraps up they are in the same positions, more or less, but several miles away across German front lines. We stay with them as they go on their assignment, to alert another regiment that they are going to be walking into a trap. The film is made to seem like the whole adventure is one continuous shot. This style is both an amazing trick, a beautifully choreographed technical marvel. It is more than an exercise though, it adds so much pressure and intensity to the movie. It never lets up. When one of our two corporals is mortally injured we have to stay with him, we know we will have to be there until the last breath because, well, the other one has to be by his side. There really is no false steps in Mendes’ movie. I loved every minute of it and especially the final 10 minutes or so as we get hope, futility, heroism and friendship all up there on the screen back to back.

Free Solo (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi – 2018) A-

This is a documentary about a guy who wants to free solo climb El Capitan, a sheer rock wall that stands 3000 feet or so in Yosemite park. Free solo means he is going to climb the thing with no ropes. Just upper body strength, chalk, grip and a whole lot of practice. It’s a stunning, terrifying and nerve-wrecking experience. At any moment, as his crew/friends are filming, Alex can fall from the frame to his death. If a bird flies out from the mountain it could cost him his life. One wrong step, one blast of wind…I am not ever going to understand the psychology of what drives someone like Alex. Whether he succeeds or fails at this is only half the experience, the intense drive and practice to excel is the other half.

Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer – 2019) B+

I had never heard of Mr. Dolemite aka Rudy, the person who might or might not have invented rap. I’m not even sure how accurate this movie is or how true to life it is. Least of all did I expect it to be a movie about the making of a movie! Then I was so pleasantly surprised with how good Murphy is playing the role of Dolemite. This is a delightful vulgar romp that is both funny and sweet and is so much fun.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro – 1993) B

His monsters, he loves his monsters. I got around to seeing Del Toro’s debut movie finally. It involves a man called Jesus Gris (interesting name…) who stumbles on a device that can extend his life indefinitely. He’s a good guy, living with his granddaughter and wife in Mexico City. Of course the device comes with a bloody price tag and it is being pursued by a dying rich guy and his violent nephew, played so well by Ron Perlman. We expect that Jesus Gris will become slowly more evil, his granddaughter freaked out by him after he “returns” and so on. Del Toro is much more interested in the humanity of the monster that Jesus turns to though. Even the little girl is not horrified and still sees her beloved grandpa under the skin.

Widows (Steve McQueen – 2018) B+

The widows are the wives of the crew lead by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) whose latest heist goes horribly wrong and they are all killed in a hail of bullets by the Chicago PD. Since Henry had stolen $2M from another Chicago gangster, Jamal, (played really well by Brian Tyree Henry) in Jamal’s eyes his widow, Veronica (Viola Davies), now owes him a cool 2 million dollars. She sets about recruiting the other widows and is intent on executing Harry’s last plan that he documented in his journal. Jamal is also running for alderman of his district against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and everything is sort of connected in obvious and not so obvious ways. Chicago setting, corrupt politics, a heist gone wrong. A good combo in a well-made genre film in the hands of a very capable director.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin – 2008) A-

The Vuillard family is an interesting one but not really that dysfunctional. That somehow makes this drama more interesting. They have the black sheep, the estranged, the cold mother and sweet father. The catalyst that brings them all together in the family home is the news that the mother (Catherine Deneuve) has cancer and needs a marrow transplant. Everyone, even the youngest grandchild, is getting tested to see if they are a match. It’s also Christmas so why not get together as well and spend a few days together? It’s mostly subtle in how old grievances (and new ones) and not-so-hidden secrets start coming out. It’s a really good Holiday movie…maybe not an entirely feel good Holiday movie but a good one.