Film Reviews

The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern reviews films weekly in the paper and on KCRW.


  • Hail Satan?

    Apr 20 2019

    The title is “Hail Satan?”—but with a question mark at the end and it may look like a mockumentary, but it’s not. It’s a fascinating documentary about ragtag political activists making serious mockery with lots of media savvy. It’s about jiu jitsu as performance art—turning an opponent’s outrage to one’s advantage; about deadpan as dramatic technique, and about the damnedest strategy you could imagine, summoning up Satan as a champion of religious freedom. This new film by Penny Lane follows a ...more

  • Hellboy

    Apr 13 2019

    How bad can a movie be? “Hellboy” expands the possibilities. It’s brain- numbing and head-splitting (literally the latter, since the cleaving of skulls is a recurrent motif). It’s a seemingly interminable succession of decapitations, dismemberments, amputations and impalements interrupted every now and then by semicoherent pieces of story in which pieces of a 5th century sorceress figure significantly—her name is Nimue, aka the Blood Queen, and she’s embodied—more about her body in a moment—by...more

  • Shazam!

    Apr 06 2019

    The most obvious thing that “Shazam!” lacks is gravitas. And grimness. Also bleakness, darkness and relentless self-seriousness. In other words, it’s terrific fun, and none of the things that were threatening to turn DC Entertainment into the cinematic equivalent of a black hole. Just when the world needs a superhero with a gift for silliness, here he is in a movie whose best superpower turns out to be a good heart. Comic book fans will remember “shazam” as the magic word Billy Batson uttered t...more

  • Dumbo

    Mar 30 2019

    Disney’s new “Dumbo” is one ponderous pachyderm. This is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic, but with a grim tone and a dead soul. It’s astounding that Tim Burton could have created such a downer from a long-beloved source of delight. Instead of a fantasy about a baby elephant who defies the law of gravity, “Dumbo” redux is a confirmation of Murphy’s law. The circus was originally a charming and modest backdrop for the primal tale of a baby ripped from the tender grip of his moth...more

  • Us

    Mar 23 2019

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a polytonal slasher saga with more undertones, overtones, intricate themes, elusive mysteries and scary images than anyone could absorb in a single viewing. I’ve only seen it once, so all I can tell you for now is that it’s compulsory seeing for everyone who loves the horror genre, the movie medium and the notion of saying sage things about contemporary life without straying from entertainment’s twisty path. Connoisseurs of sensational trailers already know something ab...more

  • The Mustang

    Mar 16 2019

    “The Mustang” starts with a good idea and makes it better—an incorrigible prison inmate learns to tame his own wild rages by taming, and training, a wild mustang. This is a debut feature by a French filmmaker, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who’s clearly at home in the United States. However many films you may have seen about the bond between humans and horses, here’s one that will move you anew, and deeply. The premise is grounded in fact. Over 100,000 mustangs still roam free across the West. Th...more

  • Captain Marvel

    Mar 09 2019

    It takes a long time for “Captain Marvel” to focus its force fields. And for Brie Larson’s fearless pilot, Carol Danvers, to find her true identity, her authentic superpowers and a reason for us to want to watch her. As the jumble shop of a plot starts to unfold, she thinks she’s a Kree warrior in training—the Kree are an advanced civilization on a far-off planet. When she’s sent on assignment to our humble globe—where the year is 1995—she hurtles down from outer space, crashes through the ro...more

  • Apollo 11

    Mar 02 2019

    One of the things we learn from the wonderful documentary “Apollo 11” is that at lift-off from Kennedy Space Center in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong’s heart rate was a mere 110 beats per minute. It was also 110 during the lander’s descent to the lunar surface, although it got up to 156 at the moment of touchdown; good to know that the first member of our species to walk on the moon allowed himself some excitement. Your own pulse will pound often and hard during Todd Douglas Miller’s film, which o...more

  • Roma

    Feb 23 2019

    Every year at Oscar time I do a kind of two-pronged prognistication that runs as part of the Journal’s Oscar package. I try to guess who’s going to win in the major categories, and I also say who or what should win. My gifts as a handicapper are seriously flawed. Every year I get at least one category wrong because, I don’t know, I haven’t kept up with all the backlashes to the backlashes. And every year I cling to my convictions about the shoulds and tell myself it’s not about the horse race bu...more

  • Alita: Battle Angel

    Feb 16 2019

    The cyborg heroine of "Alita: Battle Angel" is just a slip of a girl with huge eyes in a face shaped like an inverted teardrop. When she puts an urgent question to a boy she really cares about, you hope he comes up with the right answer. "Does it bother you that I'm not completely human?" she asks shyly. "You are the most human person I have ever met," he replies. Love may not always be blind, but sometimes it suffers from selective sight. Who can blame him, though? Alita does have a human br...more

  • Cold Pursuit

    Feb 09 2019

    "Cold Pursuit” finds Liam Neeson once again in avenger mode—it’s a given that he’s recapitulating the spirit of “Taken.” A preface opens with an epigram from Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” This comedy thriller means to cause happiness in audiences by showing so many stupid killings of stupid people that laughter is the only response. But it’s not. Unhappiness is permitted too. The stupidity lacks smarts in the script department, and the joke wear...more

  • Arctic

    Feb 02 2019

    The situation is simple to describe and hard to resolve in Joe Penna’s debut feature “Arctic,” with Mads Mikkelsen in the only speaking role. A pilot has crashed his single-engine plane in the middle of a snowy nowhere. The film tells us nothing about the man except his name—it’s Overgård, according to a patch on his parka. And it shows his struggle to stay alive entirely in the present tense. No flashbacks or cutaways, just him there, in a solo survival saga in the tradition of “Cast Away,” “...more

  • The Kid Who Would Be King

    Jan 26 2019

    In a surreal shot of an English newsstand, the front pages of the tabloids trumpet gloom and doom. Literally. One paper’s headline is “Gloom,” another’s is “Doom.” A doomy-voiced narrator laments a “divided and leaderless land.” Is this the realm of Theresa May as Brexit nears its climax? No, it’s the homeland of a kid named Alex, who’s played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, in “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Pursued by schoolyard bullies, Alex finds a sword stuck in a stone at a construction site, yank...more

  • Glass

    Jan 19 2019

    After 19 years M. Night Shyamalan’s has given us “Glass” -- it’s a sort of a climax to a kind of a trilogy that began at the turn of the century with “Unbreakable” and includes “Split,” which was released in 2016. The concept is intriguing but the emotional payoff is negligible, the surprise ending is feeble and the whole enterprise resembles a recycling bin. Still, the film clarifies what Shyamalan has been doing, with variable results, ever since he made his spectacular breakthrough in 1999 ...more

  • On the Basis of Sex

    Dec 29 2018

    “On the Basis of Sex” is a fictionalized account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s formative years as a lawyer and law professor. The film is informative, in a dutiful way, but it’s a skin-deep celebration of someone who’s never settled for superficiality in her life’s work. Hints of her future self appear, but only in flashes. Mostly the production takes its cues not from real life but from film clichés. The fateful flaw isn’t hard to locate. It’s the script, which was written by Daniel Stiepleman. F...more

  • Mary Poppins Returns

    Dec 22 2018

    At the beginning of “Mary Poppins Returns” we’re told that the story takes place, quote, “in the days of the great Slump.” Meaning the Depression, of course, except that the elation merchants at Disney avoided the word out of concern that it might be depressing. Rather than run the same risk, I’ll simply note that I found this sequel deeply slumping. The misuse of talent is what slumped me the most. To say that Julie Andrews has been replaced by Emily Blunt would be perpetrating consumer frau...more

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    Dec 15 2018

    I watched “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” in a state of cross-eyed bliss. Then I found myself thinking about, of all things, studio notes. They’re the suggestions, admonitions, objections and flat-out demands that movie executives present to filmmakers at various stages of a film’s development. All too often these notes are destructive, negative anddemoralizing, along the lines of “No, this is too subtle,” or “No, that’s too smart.” Or “Explain it,” and “explain it again.” So what comment...more

  • Vox Lux

    Dec 08 2018

    The trashy pop star at the center of Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux” is named Celeste. She’s played with exuberant brassiness by Natalie Portman, and has no illusions about herself. “I’m pretty sure,” she says, “that every year my videos keep getting worse and worse, but they’re doing better and better.” It’s a bizarre treat to watch Portman singing—very well—and strutting her stuff in a black sequined gown like a cross between Madonna and a Roomba Robot vacuum gone rogue. But the movie makes Celeste...more

  • Anna and the Apocalypse

    Dec 01 2018

    After the cult classic “Shaun Of the Dead” came out, someone asked the star and co-writer, Simon Pegg, why the zombies in his film walk so slowly, instead of running like the ones in “28 Days Later.” “Because,” he famously replied, “death is not an energy drink.” I thought about that during “Anna and the Apocalypse,” a zombie musical with a high-school setting. These new zombies have a perfect right to mope around in slowish-motion. The problem is youthful exuberance running riot. Unchanneled ...more

  • Roma

    Nov 24 2018

    There’s no other way to say it than to say it: “Roma” is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most moving. If Norma Desmond had been able to see it she wouldn’t have worried about the pictures getting small. Alfonso Cuarón’s love poem to the nanny of his Mexico City childhood is majestic in scale. The time is the early 1970s. The heroine, Cleo, is played by Yalitza Aparicio, and what’s discovered through her soft gaze and gentle spirit is nothing less than a time-capsule panora...more

  • Widows

    Nov 17 2018

    One of the many things you may learn from “Widows” is that cemeteries don’t have gravediggers anymore; backhoes do the job. Burials figure early in the story after a big heist goes south and the crooks come to an untimely end. That leaves their widows to dig themselves out from under a mountain of debt and decades of male domination. Their solution is to stage a heist of their own, so this clearly qualifies as a heist film, and a hugely entertaining one. But Steve McQueen’s fourth feature—he d...more

  • The Girl In the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

    Nov 10 2018

    The title of this week’s film is a mouthful, so let me get it out of the way right now. It’s “The Girl In the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story.” That’s a reference to the terrific series that started years ago with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the girl being a wounded and vengeful Swedish hacker named Lisbeth Salander. The central character in the new installment has the same name, but she’s changed and a lot around her has changed, none of it for the better. Early on Lisbeth is ...more

  • The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

    Nov 03 2018

    Lot of foods these days carry warnings that they were made in a facility also used for processing nuts. Be forewarned that Disney’s latest holiday offering has reprocessed nothing but bits, pieces, slivers and chunks of Nutcrackery into a colorful, sumptuously produced confection with no detectable nutritional value. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is an entertainment machine jam- packed with machinery. Its young heroine, Clara, is played by Mackenzie Foy. She loves science and complicated ...more

  • Border

    Oct 27 2018

    The pleasures of “Border” border on the indescribable, but I’ll try to describe this Halloween-season shocker all the same. “Border” is a small-scale Swedish feature that sneaks up on you but isn’t scary so much as amusing, then intriguing, then, by degrees, unsettling, troubling, frightening, honest-to-badness horrifying and enthralling. The heroine—that’s not quite the right name for her, but it will have to do—works as a customs agent at a Swedish border station. Her name is Tina, and she ...more

  • Wildlife

    Oct 20 2018

    “Wildlife” is just plain wonderful, and I’ll explain the plain part in a minute. This coming-of-age drama is the directorial debut of the actor Paul Dano; he and Zoe Kazan adapted the screenplay from the novel by Richard Ford. The time is 1960, the place is Montana and the hero, a lonely 14-year-old named Joe Brinson, is trying to understand the ways of the world through his suddenly fractured family. He’s played with great tenderness by Ed Oxenbould, who has an open, expectant face that recal...more