With the Oscars now history, a slew of new movies has arrived. Queen to Play costars Oscar winner Kevin Kline as a grumpy American living in Corsica. His cleaning lady is portrayed by luminous Sandrine Bonnaire, whose husband, a construction worker, is finding work going badly. Their rebellious teenage daughter is involved in a doomed love affair, and the mother realizes that there's more to life than cleaning apartments and waiting on tables, her other job.
Slowly, a relationship develops between the woman, named Helene, and Kline's character, named Kröger. Not in the bedroom, mind you, but across a chess board. She'd seen a couple in another apartment she'd cleaned, happily playing the ancient game on their patio, and her curiosity was sparked. Using the electronic chess set she'd given to her uninterested husband, she practices alone at night in her kitchen, honing her skills. Kröger eventually urges her to enter a local chess contest.
This is as much about class distinction as it is about a lonely woman trying to find some meaning in her life. The Corsican backdrop and Bonnaire's ability to convey emotion through expression make this an absorbing, intelligent drama with rich, poignant characters.
In another movie, long-ago music takes the place of unspoken words as the focal point. The Music Never Stopped is based on a real-life case study involving a son with a long-untreated brain tumor. Lou Taylor Pucci plays an aspiring rock musician who revered the Grateful Dead but who was forbidden to attend one of their concerts in high school. J. K. Simmons, one of the most ubiquitous character actors in films and television, gives one of the best performances of his career. After brain surgery, the son can hardly speak, and his father tries to reconnect through the music his son loved 20 years earlier.
Julia Ormond, an actress seen too infrequently in movies in recent years, costars. She portrays a music therapist who also tries to reconnect with the son, overcoming the distant patient's lack of short-term memory and trying for a breakthrough. Cara Seymour is compassionate as the boy's mother, putting on a brave face through it all. This inspiring movie is made even more compelling by the fact that it's based on real events.
Winter in Wartime is a Dutch film based on a semi-autobiographical novel. In January 1945, a British flier is shot down near a village, where a boy, determined to resist the Germans, helps hide him. The boy's father, the town's mayor, coddles the occupiers, but his uncle, whom he idolizes, is in the Resistance. With its shocking denouement, this could be one of the year's best.
Trophy Wife stars the luminous, ageless Catherine Deneuve as the rich wife of a factory owner who is, at first, nothing but an adornment. But she's thrust into her husband's business, asserts herself, reunites with a long ago lover, and emerges a strong, independent woman. This charming, funny movie set in 1977 is a superb light comedy.
A very different coming-of-age story is Meet Monica Velour, about a hopelessly naive nerd worshipping at the shrine of a seventies porn star he finally gets to meet. It's written and directed by little-known Keith Bearden, and stars TV actor Dustin Ingram as the geekiest geek you've ever seen. High school is coming to an end. Living with his cantankerous widower grandfather, played by Brian Dennehy, and with his only friend, a 12-year-old, his life has no direction. His only interest outside his small Washington state town is his infatuation with the X-rated actress.
Kim Cattrall, in a very courageous performance, is the title player. By the time her wide-eyed fan gets to meet her, she's washed up and reduced to living in a trailer home and pole dancing in a run-down strip joint in rural Indiana. But the undaunted young admirer is determined to become a part of her life. Part stalker, part innocent, he comes to that town to sell his garish hot dog truck to a collector of American kitsch. This is a sad, touching tale of a lonely but determined young man who learns that life often isn't as it appears in the movies, especially old X-rated films starring a woman who is no longer 23.
Source Code is a fast-paced action thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an Army veteran who, while riding a commuter train toward Chicago, suddenly can't remember who he is, how he got there or the identity of the woman sitting opposite him who seems to know him. Michelle Monaghan is the puzzled woman, and Vera Farmiga is an Army officer sitting at a distant computer, somehow able to hurtle him back in time a few moments, hoping to avert an explosion about to destroy the train.
This sci-fi yarn uses the visual trick of repeating several different versions of events. It's at times absorbing, but the movie ultimately relies on gimmick rather than substance to carry it.