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Four October movies you should see this month

Two of the movies that won over Monitor film critic Peter Rainer this month are the latest version of 'A Star Is Born' and the South Korean entry for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Neal Preston/Warner Bros./AP
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in 'A Star is Born.'

During the month of October, Monitor film critic Peter Rainer was impressed by movies that included a film adaptation of the life of Lee Israel and the story of a police dispatcher attempting to help a woman he believes has been the victim of domestic violence. Here's the full list of his top picks.

Melissa McCarthy turns to drama in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

It is unexceptional for a comedic actor to excel in drama, a truism demonstrated yet again by Melissa McCarthy in the marvelous “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” McCarthy plays the real-life author Lee Israel, who was a successful celebrity magazine profiler and bestselling biographer in the 1970s and ’80s until readers' tastes turned trendier. 

Lee’s brittle misanthropy, and not-so-quiet desperation, is everywhere evident. This could all seem drearily Dickensian except that McCarthy gives Lee’s loneliness a spikiness that rescues it from pathos.

Through happenstance she discovers that a thriving market exists for signed letters from famous authors and actors. Utilizing a multiplicity of old typewriters, she proceeds to forge highly readable and witty letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and many others. Eventually she took on an accomplice, the flamboyant and aptly named Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant with perfect desiccated panache. Jack, like Lee, is gay, and he is even more of a con artist, and even more down on his luck, than she is. Once again the filmmakers defy our expectations: This is not a cute caper about two rascally rogues. Beneath Jack’s brio, his loneliness is just as palpable as Lee’s. Grade: A- (Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.)

In ‘The Guilty,’ a police dispatcher races against time

“The Guilty,” Denmark’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film, is set entirely inside the grubby, low-lit confines of a police station and focuses almost entirely on the workings of its lone protagonist, Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), an emergency dispatcher who is racing against time to rescue a woman he believes has been abducted by her estranged husband. Despite, or perhaps because of, these constraints, it’s one of the most cinematically alive movies of the year.

Gustav Möller, in his feature film directorial debut (he also co-wrote the film with Emil Nygaard Albertsen), has such an assured style that I never for a moment had that cooped-up feeling that often descends on me while watching movies set in a single enclosed location. (It helps that the film’s running time is a brisk 85 minutes.) From the standpoint of craftsmanship, the film is a textbook example of how much can be done with so little. 

None of this would matter much if the actor who is in almost every frame was not a spellbinder. Möller is smart enough to let Cedergren’s hard-edged face carry the action. Because Cedergren is so good in this movie, I’m not sure we needed the back story about Asger’s own fraught past. But this is the only pretentious note in a movie otherwise pretension-free. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)

'Burning' is discursive, unsettling

“Burning,” directed by Lee Chang-dong, is a discursive, unsettling movie that is all the more so for being essentially undefinable. (It’s the South Korean entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.) Is it a murder mystery, a study of class conflict, a political allegory, a love story, a fantasia? In a sense, it is all of these things, all at once.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has a chance encounter with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a former grade school classmate he once teased for being “ugly” but is now far from it, leads to a casual romance until she embarks on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi returns, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich slickster with an indeterminate source of wealth. Ben’s appearance transforms the scenario into a kind of romantic triangle; Hae-mi’s subsequent disappearance morphs the film into something stranger.

Lee is adapting a short story, “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami, which, of course, echoes William Faulkner’s story of the same name, and he also layers in references to such films as “Vertigo” and “L’Avventura.” Ben is clearly a Jay Gatsby figure. With all these obvious cultural points of reference, “Burning” is nevertheless very much its own creature. It builds slowly, and, at almost 2-1/2 hours, it occasionally drags. But it’s worth the time. This is a very knowing movie about the ultimate unknowability of people. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

‘A Star Is Born’ returns to the big screen

The new version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the fourth iteration of this old warhorse. The surprise is that, at least for its first half, this newest “A Star Is Born” is so powerfully fresh. Cooper doesn’t only costar; he collaborated on the screenplay, does his own singing, and also makes an auspicious directorial debut. After Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rock superstar who at this point in his career requires liquor more than adulation, is captivated by a waitress, Ally (Lady Gaga), singing “La Vie en Rose," he takes Ally on tour with him. 

It’s not altogether believable that Ally would be so selfless in her devotion to Jackson as he slides ever downward; any resentment Jackson might have for Ally’s success likewise barely registers. In spite of all this, the matchup works because in this love story, the love really hits home. As opposed to the earlier versions of this story, alcoholism is really delved into here as a disease. Because it’s more psychologically articulated, Jackson’s descent is more emotionally compelling than Ally’s ascent, which is too rapid and generic.

Cooper’s performance, with its dark depths and hollows, comes as something of a surprise. (So does a great cameo from a low-key Dave Chappelle as a rocker buddy of Jackson’s who gave up the business.) It should not, however, come as a surprise that Lady Gaga is as good as she is here. I’m not sure how she pulled it off, but Lady Gaga manages to create a character who is believably both tough-minded and tenderhearted. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse.)

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