Ella Taylor

What is known for sure about American military scientist Frank Olson is that on November 28, 1953, the bacteriologist and father of three plunged to his death from the 13th floor of the Statler hotel in New York City, not long after he was secretly drugged with LSD on the orders of his CIA superior. Whether Olson was pushed, or jumped, or was nudged into committing suicide remains unclear.

In the family drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes, in theaters this week, the warmly maternal actress Jennifer Garner plays a mother from hell. Not that her Sandy Mason is one of those ubiquitous gorgons who have eaten friends and family for dinner since movie time began, from Bette Davis's coldly bullying mater in 1942's Now, Voyager through the ice- queens in two incarnations of The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004), all the way to (coming December 8th!) a wickedly funny and scary Allison Janney as Tonya Harding's monster mom in I, Tonya.

A guy walks into an Alaska bar at night. The bar is called Chums, and his two pals are deep in heated discussion about an upcoming election and the fabulous age of business dominance to come in its wake. The dialogue is not played for winks at the audience, and Sweet Virginia is not, now or later, one of those jokey neo-noirs that keeps poking the genre in the ribs. Next thing you know, a stranger — young, good-looking, intense — comes in demanding the Early Bird Special.

"Can we please stop with the remakes of Murder on the Orient Express?" I ask upon exiting Kenneth Branagh's fatally tepid new reading of the Agatha Christie classic.

Having cut an audacious path through any number of film genres, from Dazed and Confused to the animated Waking Life, the wonderfully gabby Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trio all the way to his acclaimed Boyhood, Richard Linklater lands another smart one with Last Flag Flying.

When God's Own Country, a superb feature debut from British writer-director Francis Lee about a love affair between two male farmhands, drew wide acclaim at film festivals, it spawned comparisons with Brokeback Mountain. They're understandable but misleading, and not only because the time and place are different. God's Own Country is set in the West Yorkshire wilds where Lee grew up and still lives, and where sex is organic to the everyday flow of lives surrounded by animal activity.

In a scene of startling beauty in Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, a group of refugees huddles together, with light bouncing off golden insulation blankets handed out by workers to warm them up as they arrive off a boat in Europe. Ai's work is often meant to provoke, but the shot isn't meant to plunder suffering for art's sake. It's a moment of noticing, in a gorgeous-looking documentary that never spares us the ugly, unspeakable miseries of forced migration.

Una, an intelligently talky, properly claustrophobic chamber piece directed by Benedict Andrews and adapted by Scottish playwright David Harrower from his 2005 stage play Blackbird, revisits a middle-aged man's past sexual abuse of a precocious adolescent when the victim confronts him many years later. In form and subject, if not in tone, the film recalls David Mamet's 1994 Oleanna, a stridently partisan polemic adapted from Mamet's play about a college professor's alleged sexual assault of a female graduate student.

Victoria & Abdul is not the first movie to show the Queen of England cavorting with the help. And you don't have to be a cynic to read Stephen Frears' new film as a brazen attempt to piggyback on the runaway success of 1997's Mrs. Brown.

It's an oft-told tale, in Hollywood: A good man wracked by his envy of others he deems more successful than he at scoring the usual American-Dream jackpots of money, status, and fame. He eats himself alive over this at self-defeating length that's both funny and sad. At the climax other, mostly female, not-rich salts of the earth swoop in to persuade him that, OMG, it's a wonderful life just as it is.

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