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7/10
Quirky British humor meets Hollywood-style sports movie
28 May 2019
Ome excellent casting and the work of a quirky comedic writer lift up what might have otherwise been a formulaic family sports drama in "Fighting with My Family" -and body slam it. Stephen Merchant, British actor, writer of the U.K. "The Office" and creator/producer of the U.S. version, offers the right kind of snark that a story like this desperately needs.

"Fighting with My Family" centers on a working-class family of World Wrestling Entertainment fanatics who run an amateur league and wrestling gym in England. Siblings Zak (Jack Lowden) and Saraya (Florence Pugh) have dreams of the WWE, and their parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) push them for reasons both good and selfish. When they both get a tryout to join the WWE's NXT training program in Miami, it's the opportunity of a lifetime.

Lining up smart British talent (and comedic sensibility) alongside supporting actors like Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson (as himself) creates a film in the mold of traditional Hollywood fare, but with more of an indie flavor. Fans of the latter will be more surprised by this, but there's common ground to be found in this movie between audiences who would choose different films at a movie theater 49 times out of 50.

Narratively, Merchant tells a story that ping-pongs between formula and freshness. The freshness comes largely from the humor it keeps about it and the talent on screen. Frost and Headey are two tremendous talents operating in what are usually just stock parent roles in these types of films. They are also not written to just be any parents, but from the getgo, they give the story a bit of an edge as it unfolds true to form. As for Pugh, the film is lucky to have her before she becomes a major commodity. She embodies the rather straightforward sports drama struggle in a way that's compelling-she generates serious empathy and sympathy for a character who doesn't always deserve it.

Clearly a fan, or at least an admirer of professional entertainment wrestling, Merchant neither glorifies the "sport" nor puts it under a microscope. He's interested in its truths, but also in subverting some assumptions that might be out there about it-that, like anything, it requires hard work and dedication, and a lot of subjective luck. Both the aesthetic and the message should connect with hardcore WWE fans as well as the less indoctrinated.

"Fighting with My Family" doesn't subvert the sports drama or family comedy, but it presents it with enough of a twist and the right talent. Merchant isn't a Hollywood guy, but he's making a Hollywood film, and consequently his movie both succumbs to and overcomes those tropes and pitfalls throughout. In that battle, the character development wins out, keeping our interest in the outcome while supplying a strong amount of entertainment.

~Steven C

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4/10
Lots of distinctive features, but more of the same, plus a tonal mess
14 April 2019
"Ad absurdum" would best characterize the state of Eon Productions' "James Bond" franchise by this point in the mid-'80s. Sir Roger Moore, at age 57, has nothing more to give to 007. He, director John Glen, writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, and even Albert R. Broccoli (though probably unaware of it at age 75 or so) are going through the motions in "A View to a Kill." They just do everything they can to make the same formulaic story look and feel new.

This was also the state of things in 1983's "Octopussy," but the difference is that film embraced its wild, colorful absurdity; there's a chunk of "A View to a Kill" that wants to be a serious action film. Another way of looking at it: the ability of this film to balance humor and wit with espionage is seriously dysfunctional.

The story tries to bring Bond into the technology era with a plot involving a microchip that leads to the second-half action taking place in San Francisco. Although that may be future-minded, Glen's direction continues to feel dated. The amount of implied brutal violence gets taken up a notch, perhaps in recognition of the kinds of action films being made at this time, but there lots of '60s-style fist fights, bad Foley sound and all. "A View to a Kill" has no identity in this sense, offering a stunning Eiffel Tower chase and jump in one scene, and a goofy firetruck getaway in another. Both show an effort to be inventive, but they land so differently.

Moore doesn't phone it in here, but he's got no chemistry with Tanya Roberts, whose character is so unbelievable even if it weren't matched by her terrible performance. One of the underrated choices of "Octopussy" was to cast a female lead in Maud Adams that was at least close to Moore's age (17 years younger) and whose character had some experience. This compares to Roberts (27 years younger), Fiona Fullerton (28 years younger) and Alison Doody (38 years younger). Timothy Dalton should've just been Bond at this point.

Casting an Oscar winner in Christopher Walken as the villain might've gone over well had the character not been all over the map. He's got the personality of every Bond villain rolled into one, with an extra dose of crazy. The script tries to paint him as terrifying because he's unpredictable, but doesn't give him enough to work with. May Day (Grace Jones) is by far the most creative and risky of all the evil sidekicks cast in the series over the years, and she's exciting to watch, but ultimately she's just a henchwoman in a "Bond" movie-the formula doesn't allow that much wiggle room.

"A View to a Kill" stands out among the "Bond" library for a number of its choices. The Zorin blimp, Christopher Walken, May Day, the Golden Gate Bridge, horseracing-the distinctive features are abundant. Maibaum and Wilson have good ideas, they just keep applying them to the same story structure-probably because that's what they were paid to do. Perhaps out of chronological context, it's no better or worse than most of the Moore era, but watching them chronologically, there's undeniable fatigue. Add that to a film with humor and high stakes that take to each other like oil and water, and there's little arguing that "A View to a Kill" is one of the franchise's biggest misses.

~Steven C

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Octopussy (1983)
7/10
One of the Bond's most colorful and imaginative missions, and just avoids going over the top
11 April 2019
The title alone says a lot about the 13th entry in Eon Productions' "James Bond" franchise. "Octopussy" leans into the camp and silliness that had become associated with the "Bond" brand in the Roger Moore era. It's one of the most colorful and inventive films in the series, brandishing a certain audacity that's as endearing as it might be eyeroll-worthy.

After a clever pre-title sequence sees Bond flying a Acrostar mini jet, 007's latest mission goes into motion due to a fake Fabrege egg and the death of a fellow 00 agent. The trail leads Bond to India, a private island home to a female cult leader named Octopussy (Maud Adams) and even a circus in West Berlin.

Most of the movie takes place in India, allowing the film to include a number of places and people that teeter on the line of offensive these days, but it does achieve the desired effect of imbuing "Octopussy" with its own flair. Compared to 1981's "For Your Eyes Only," which borrowed a lot of concepts from previous "Bond" films and failed to stand out, "Octopussy" offers a lot more visually engaging material, even if both films feel obligated to formula.

"Octopussy" stretches to offer something completely different from past "Bonds" in the form of circus acts, elephant hunts, yo-yo buzz saws, death-defying train and plane chases and even a woman in a position of power. The movie even stoops to dressing Moore in a sad clown outfit. Regular writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson (with George MacDonald Fraser), whether under strict orders of Albert Broccoli or of their own volition, craft the story and events in such a way that it's so obvious what parts of a "Bond" movie are immutable versus where fanciful, creative liberties can be taken. For example, every dashing Bond villain (Louis Jordan) needs a physically imposing or otherwise memorable henchman (Kabir Bedi)-this one has a turban and a curved sword.

There is plenty to groan about in "Octopussy," but it's rarely boring. Even director John Glen steps up his game in this his second "Bond" outing, getting tons of shots that drive home the magnitude of the stunt work and even some first-person perspective. These "wow" moments help to justify the simplistic motivation behind them (let's have Bond hold on to a plane in midair!")

"Octopussy" exposes in a new way the fine line Bond has always walked between clever and cheesy, inventive and outrageous - and in this particular instance, he manages to keep his balance. That said, there's a sense upon finishing this film that there couldn't be much room left for Bond to grow given these formulaic restrictions. Moore is a fabulous Bond, but six films into his tenure (and 55 years old, to boot), perhaps his hanging on was restricting Broccoli and Wilson's vision of what else Bond could be, and that the trajectory that nearly ended cinema's greatest character by the end of this decade had already been set in motion.

~Steven C

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6/10
Bond goes back to basics, and its a little plain
10 April 2019
Ian Fleming's James Bond entered the '80s with a power-ballad theme song ahead of its time, but little else about "For Your Eyes Only" marks a progressive foray into the future for 007. Rather, it's back to basics, which is altogether comforting to Bond fans, albeit a little flat.

"For Your Eyes Only" gets off to a rocky start, teasing the return of Blofeld in an irrelevant helicopter sequence more interested in giving a middle finger to former "Bond" writer/producer Kevin McClory (who won the rights to the character in a court case) than meaningfully entertaining "Bond" fans. The post-opening credits early going is also a little rough in the way it introduces Carole Bouquet as a revenge-driven Bond girl. And composer Bill Conti makes it extremely apparent that John Barry did not score this movie.

The film gets progressively better, sequence by sequence. A ski chase in Cortina improves upon a Spanish road chase in a tiny Citroen. Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson's script doesn't break ground here as Bond (Roger Moore) and Bouquet's Melina chase after the MacGuffin, but its remarkably truer to the espionage Bond world of the Sean Connery era.

So much of "FYEO" is a knee-jerk response to criticisms of "Moonraker," which pushed hard on innovation while losing story and character. For all the ways "FYEO" compensates for that, it loses innovation. So much of the film is a reprisal of concepts executed better in "Thunderball" and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

John Glen, an editor on "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Moonraker" and "OHMSS," takes over for Lewis Gilbert despite no directing credits to his name previously, a sign of Albert R. Broccoli wanting to maintain status quo. Glen is rather brilliant in conducting the Cortina ski chase, but the rest is merely the execution of formulaic beats. Aside from the ending rock-climbing sequence with some phenomenal stunt work, there are few other memorable visual moments.

Production designer Ken Adam is also sorely missed. His set work infused each "Bond" movie with a certain verve, often bringing a gravity to what was otherwise just formula. "FYEO" has some great location shooting in the Italian Alps and mountains of Greece, but globe-trotting is nothing new to this franchise.

Same old, same old isn't a bad thing, but "For Your Eyes Only" has little that it can tout as above, beyond or different from its peers aside from a crossbow-wielding blue-eyed young French woman (playing a Greek woman), a jaw-dropping rock-climbing stunt and Bond turning down a teenager character for sex before ending up with a character played by an actress a whole one year older than her.

It's the vanilla ice cream of the Roger Moore era-you're not going to throw it out, but you're not exactly going to rave about it to all your friends. Strangest of all, it grades out about the same as "Moonraker," but for entirely different reasons.

~Steven C
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6/10
Talk-heavy, fast-paced and an intellectual effort above all else
6 March 2019
Nobody quite knows what Steven Soderbergh is doing, but his projects sure are interesting. "High Flying Bird," shot speedily on an iPhone and released on Netflix, is a dialogue-forward fast-talking business movie set during a pro-basketball lockout. In other words, it's in its own category of "sports movie."

The core of "High Flying Bird" is a verbally sizzling script from Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright known best for turning a drama school project into the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Moonlight" in 2016. McCraney's theatre background will help clarify why 90 percent of "High Flying Bird" is conversations in restaurants and office buildings. The film very intentionally deprives its audience of the kinetic pleasures of a sports movie, choosing to focus on the strategy side, enforcing the common cliché that "sports is a business."

Perhaps a better way to frame the movie is that it wants to focus on athletes as people. To enforce this notion, Soderbergh filmed interviews with a few NBA players, most of whom recently entered the league, asking them about the experiences and lessons learned from their transition to the pros. He divides the story up and fills these interviews in to remind audiences that while the movie is fiction, the scenarios and challenges in it are very real.

André Holland, who had a supporting role in "Moonlight," stars as Ray, a top sports manager who has landed himself the number one overall draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), as a client. With the players association and the league locked out, however, players aren't getting paid, which leads Erick to make some short-sighted decisions that could jeopardize his first rookie contract.

The story begins extremely business-like in its approach to the subject matter and slowly reveals the bigger picture at hand, though it remains intellectual in its primary function as a story. The script hints at more emotional subplots, specifically past traumas of its characters, but empathy is largely in short supply. For as smart as it is, however, it feels rushed. You keep waiting for it to change gears and offer something different, but it has a single tone and pace, one that it does extremely well thanks to Soderbergh's naturally sleek style, but nevertheless, it's singular in vision.

Soderbergh's involvement in the film feels less about his direction and more about getting this project financed. The film has points to make, points that are complex and compelling about athletes and the systems that contain them, but they aren't given a lot of time to sink in.

There's a lot of Aaron Sorkin in this film. Sorkin writes scripts that are intellectually stimulating with a pulsing rhythm, that are on to the next witty exchange before you can appreciate the previous one. It's a film that feels smarter than you, that you have to rise up to meet. That's largely the entertainment factor that we get from "High Flying Bird." The Soderbergh-McCraney pairing has that explosive dynamism to it, but the film consciously limits the breadth of what it can offer audiences.

Steven C

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8/10
Strong writing and acting make the characters of CYEFM a real highlight
26 February 2019
Despite how often Hollywood has tried leverage Melissa McCarthy as a blue-collar comedic tool to make a buck, there's no denying the comic actress is one of the greatest talents to emerge from the 2010s. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" rounds out her incredible decade with a more dramatic, down-to-earth role that shows that her talent comes from a deep, not merely surface-level/physical place.

A master at amplifying on-screen chaos and manifesting razor-sharp comedic daggers from thin air, McCarthy has mostly showcased her ability to improvise a scene into another stratosphere, but "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" proves she's just as capable working off a script. And this is a darn good one. Nicole Holofcener ("Enough Said") and first-time writer Jeff Whitty craft playful and poignant dialogue as they bring to life the desperate and sad life (and criminal activity) of biographer Lee Israel.

As a single, unkempt, alcoholic, misanthropic cat lady, Lee Israel easily fits the mold for McCarthy's countless comedic roles, so no leap of belief is required. Conversely, she could easily have delivered on only the humorous, stereotypical notes of her character. Instead, she reaches down to grab hold of the authenticity of Israel's situation and experience. The crux of her performance is the ease with which she wields the humor and the bitter truth she puts behind each swing.

The entire film lives in an unusual space between fanciful crime comedy and sad pathos. Marielle Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl"), a rising director, seems to excel in the uncomfortable place between humor and truth. Israel, a one-time best-selling biographer seemingly at the end of her rope, turns to a life of forgery when she realizes she's somewhat adept at writing fake correspondences from famous literary figures and there's a huge market for them. Along the way, she reconnects with an old acquaintance named Jack (Richard E. Grant), a boisterous gay drug dealer in a similar place, in whom she confides and forms a mischievous partnership.

That Grant goes toe-to-toe with McCarthy on all accounts says everything about his performance. The longtime character actor has always had a certain panache, but he comes alive on the wings of this script, and like with McCarthy's role, there's space for powerful honesty to emerge at various moments. Both parts are just expertly conceived and constructed, and Heller clearly knows how to work with comically gifted individuals: she helped coax Kristen Wiig's best dramatic performance to date in "Diary of a Teenage Girl."

There's a bit of a simplicity to "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" but it's not boring. Rather, the appeal is in the writing and performance, less so premise and visuals. Few characters were better realized on screen in 2018.

~Steven C

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7/10
A music movie that doesn't get larger than life
29 January 2019
Music and film have always had a tender chemistry, and independent cinema has-as of the last decade at least-also had a strong interest in examining relationships through music (think "Once" and some of the films it inspired). In "Hearts Beat Loud," filmmaker Brett Haley widens that focus from romantic relationships to interfamily ones, in this case between a father and daughter.

The film's greatest strength is its depiction of the song creation process. Not the nuts and bolts, but the vulnerability of creation and sharing, and its precisely that act of emotional exposure that allows Frank (Nick Offerman) and Sam (Kiersey Clemons) to connect despite their inability to speak their emotions directly. The film feels most alive in its musical moments thanks to strong editing, and Haley and his co-writer Marc Basch succeed most at showing how music creation provides them each their own needed release as well as a shared catharsis.

Story-wise, Haley and Basch keep it simple. Sam is a majorly smart kid taking pre-med classes her summer before attending Stanford. Paying her tuition is a big piece of why single dad Frank is going to close his Red Hook-based record store. After Frank nudges her to jam with him, he posts their track to Spotify and it gets attention-much to Frank's delight and Sam's chagrin. Meanwhile, Sam's found her first love (Sasha Lane) and Frank is trying to figure out what's next, with some nudging from his landlady (Toni Collette).

All this to say, the conflict in the movie is mostly interpersonal. It's a lot of moments of connection and discovery (mostly through music). Not much happens in the way of surprises. Instead, Haley steers well wide of melodrama, creating a low-key, contemplative vibe. Consequently, the music scenes, featuring interesting, layered alternative pop music by Keegan DeWitt, feel like the movie's action sequences. All the music is also performed on set, and that kind of authenticity proves critical in a film this intimate.

Whether it's Offerman preforming a song that's not as musically tight or the authentic breaks in Clemons' voice in which you can tell she's belting out the words as best she can, most films don't expose themselves or their performers musically in this way, but there aren't the same expectations of performance that you have with a movie-musical. We also get sequences that play like music videos, such as when Frank picks up the guitar out of pure need to make music, which is cut with Sam taking a big risk for the first time. It's a beautiful weaving together of two different responses to the same emotional stimulus, reminding us that music is about something deeper.

"Hearts Beat Loud" will give viewers more of a mellow musical buzz than a rush of music-driven emotion, but in the movie musical's typical tightrope walk between authenticity and clichéd whimsy, so often filmmakers fall to the larger-than-life side, and "Hearts Beat Loud" is a nice counterbalance.

~Steven C

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Toy Story 2 (1999)
8/10
Scope widens on Pixar's toy universe
25 January 2019
These days we're not so surprised when an animated sequel lives up to or surpasses the original, especially when it's made by Pixar, but it was an unusual feat for 1999 when "Toy Story 2" did it. Although a bit more repetitive and fan-serving than boundary-pushing, the film's ingenuity, commitment to its characters and emotional themes made it a loveable continuation of the groundbreaking work of the original.

The story sees Andy going away to cowboy camp, during which his mom holds a yard sale. Woody, during a valiant attempt to save an old toy penguin named Wheezy (Joe Ranft), is unexpectedly stolen by a greasy toy collector (Wayne Knight), forcing a rescue team comprising Buzz, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky (Jim Varney) and Potato Head (Don Rickles) to find and save him.

With Andy swept aside, most of the action takes place out in the world, widening the scope of "Toy Story" and creating exciting new scenarios for the characters. By the same token, it loses a little bit of the realism that made the initial concept special. Toys sneaking across major city roads hiding under traffic cones is closer to slapstick than wonder-inducing. In the first film, when Woody and Buzz sneak about Pizza Planet in fast food containers, the same idea is in place, it just feels more high stakes and believable than in this movie, which blows the lid off the toy chest.

Getting a little overly imaginative is a small knock on a film that nurtures a deeper love of its characters and furthers their story. Woody discovering his origins and meeting other characters in cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), horse Bullseye and Stinky Pete the prospector (Kelsey Grammar) introduces the concept of collector's items into the "Toy Story" universe, while Buzz, free of existential crisis, finds the tables have turned from where he was opposite Woody in the last movie. The story aims to enrich its original themes with new notions that speak to the purpose of toys in our lives.

The film's most poignant moment comes accompanied by - yet again - a beautiful Randy Newman song performed by Sarah McLachlan, which reveals an obvious truth to the audience but one that's painful for toys: abandonment. The song puts the larger story into perspective, in addition to making you cry and feel guilty for any toy you ever moved on from.

Preposterous as it gets, Pixar's crew has a ton of fun with "Toy Story 2" and it shows. Having fun while keeping characters at the center and employing genuine themes that go deeper than kid-friendly morals, they strike gold yet again for all ages.

~Steven C

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8/10
Robert Redford rides off into the sunrise in this artsy take on a cops-and-robbers story
25 January 2019
"The Old Man & the Gun" feels like it was constructed for Robert Redford to not only go out on a high note, but also do so in a way the epitomizes his career and most iconic roles. It could've been a bank heist movie tailored to empty the pockets of the retirement crowd with its based-on-a-true-story and remarkable foursome of Redford, Tom Waits, Danny Glover and Sissy Spacek. But it turns into something unexpectedly poetic (unless you are familiar with David Lowery's work, in which case that's no surprise at all).

Lowery's film is more beautifully shot than it is fun, but there's a certain delight and whimsy to it, just of a softer kind. And he certainly makes Redford look like a golden god on screen. Pitting him opposite Casey Affleck, both actors are doing what they do best, and Lowery's script has their characters bouncing off of each other in unexpected ways. The premise suggests entertainment over craftsmanship, but those who let go of bank heist film expectations will surely take to Lowery's artistic vision.
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9/10
A skater doc with a deep emotional core, or the other way around?
3 January 2019
Bing Lu's "Minding the Gap" is more than a sleek skateboarding doc that dives into alternative culture; in fact, it might not even be that at all. What probably began as an exercise in Lu turning the camera on himself and his friends blossomed into portrait of middle-American working-class life, specifically three young men who process hardship and deep emotional wounds best while on a skateboard.

Lu, his friend Zack and their younger friend, Kiere are the main subjects of the story, each passionate skaters trying to get by in their hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Piecing together that skating is symptomatic of something deeper between them, Lu decides to probe Zack and Kiere, gently pushing them toward emotional honesty. What he uncovers is a troubling and all-too-true reality that each of them is enduring, a revelation that transforms the entire viewing experience.

The film is full of these subtle, unexpected surprises. Most documentaries make an assertion or hypothesis that the filmmakers explore in depth, and the stories have an intuitive arc to them. "Minding the Gap" takes place over the course of many years and even includes footage from several years earlier, but that's not immediately apparent. Our perception of the story, along with its scope and impact, changes the longer the movie's timeline gets. Essentially, Lu's patience with his story pays off tremendously; letting these characters' lives play out deepens and enriches everything.

Time factors in the most in Zack's tumultuous relationship with Nina. She's pregnant when we meet them, and as their baby boy, Elliott, begins to grow, their lives and their relationship struggles take on a different urgency. Lu captures lots of critical moments in their journey (usually from either his or her perspective separately), which proves vital to the film because so much of the rest is reflective, specifically on Lu and Kiere's childhoods. The Zack-Nina relationship is, in effect, a microcosm of so many of the obstacles, struggles and themes of all the characters' lives.

As personal as the film gets, however, it's also a technical accomplishment. Lu conveys not just the cool, but also the zen of skateboarding that these characters experience through excellent action shots. He and co-editor Joshua Altman nail those movement sequences on top of powerfully stitching together so many different moments and stories. The film sometimes gets so deep into the characters' emotional lives that skateboarding feels irrelevant, but the extent to which skateboarding provides escape and "therapy" as one character puts it sinks completely in by the end.

Here are these men who will gladly risk every limb to land a trick yet are reticent to take emotional risks. Only Lu's close relationship with these subjects allows them to open up. His own sense of an imperative to ask them the tough, honest questions and blur his role between filmmaker and friend/relative creates the film's most powerful material. At a few points, subjects ask him if they should pretend he's not there or talk to him like they're having a conversation, suggesting the strong influence of his dual-role in his film.

Yet "Minding the Gap" is far from self-centered and self-serving. Rather, it is indicative of how some stories can only be collected and recorded by the people who live them. We'll need more brave filmmakers like Lu in order to discover these stories and let their truth find the eyes, ears and hearts of those who identify with and need them most.

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6/10
May it please the crowd, "On the Basis of Sex" feeds the RBG legend more than it peels back its layers
21 December 2018
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's catapulting from venerated Supreme Court Justice to cultural icon and patron saint of liberalism has unsurprisingly led to the release of two films about her in 2018, the documentary "RBG" and now the feature film "On the Basis of Sex." Both films mirror the public's fascination with the now-85-year-old and offer evidence that RBG warrants the obsessive adoration, but "On the Basis of Sex" feeds into the legend.

The film begins with Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), in their newlywed law school days in which Ruth was one of nine women in her Harvard Law class of nearly 500, establishing context for the sex-based discrimination that she would fight in her career and the equal rights crusader she'd become. Yet Daniel Stiepleman's script incidentally positions the film as a career-spanning biopic this way, when in fact most of the film takes place close to 15 years later.

That's a surprise more than a flaw, as many of the film's best moments come out of a deep intellectual dive into the case of Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and what Ruth, Marty and the ACLU's Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) believed they had to say and do to convince three white male appellate judges to change the course of history. That's fascinating, but it's definitely not the advertised story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how she became a Supreme Court Justice.

When the film's not awash in legalese, it's trying to portray Ruth in a way that lives up to the "hype." There are lots of "ooh" and "ahh" moments as a character says something really sexist and Ruth has the perfect response, a device that kills it in a crowded theater but plays more into the myth of Ginsburg than the humanity. Jones, an outstanding actor, is left with the responsibility of trying to ground this prophetic character with a script that's lacking subtlety. Fights with her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), for example, happen instantly to blatantly serve the purpose of the story, or Jane behaves in this perfectly feminist way that convinces her mother to solider on, punctuated by the camera holding on Jones so she can convey a moment of epiphany. It's the stuff of lesser biopics to be sure.

Nevertheless, "On the Basis of Sex" conveys the key details of Ruth's story and the social importance of her work and Moritz case. (It also can't be given too hard a time for taking liberties; Stiepelman is Ginsburg's nephew and she reviewed his script for accuracy.) In particular, the film captures the importance of Ruth and Marty's relationship. Even though Hammer is far too dreamy to play a tax lawyer, the film is clear yet not over-the-top in conveying the equality of their partnership and the support they provided to each other. Jones and Hammer are terrific actors, but director Mimi Leder deserves some credit for facilitating their chemistry the right way.

The film also succeeds in communicating the scope of sex-based discrimination in the U.S. as recently as the early '70s and the amount of cases that Ruth examined as director of the ACLU's Women's Right Project. The Moritz case was the first of a series of strategic moves to slowly change the legal precedents in sex discrimination cases, and the seriousness of changing minds and ultimately engrained beliefs about gender is not lost on the film and factors into much of the conflict as Ruth, Mary and Mel strategize how to frame their appeal.

Buried within their hero's crusade is an unheralded performance from character actor Chris Mulkey as Charles Moritz, the bachelor denied tax breaks to take care of his sick, dependent mother because as a man the law did not consider him a caregiver. Every so often during the verbally superfluous court scene, Leder will peak back at Mulkey, whose eyes remind us that what matters here is not about when a man or woman should or shouldn't be allowed to do, but what a human should be entitled to to take care of another human who can't take care of themselves.

"On the Basis of Sex" needs more graceful moments like this to complement its big picture, high stakes, "history in the making" focus. But while it somewhat settles for raising up the legend of RBG (again), it deserves credit for shining a strong spotlight on what it took to tip the scales of equal rights for women closer to justice and the woman who -- in supporting partnership with her husband -- dared to make the first push.

~Steven C

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Searching (III) (2018)
8/10
"Searching" offers new thrills with solid storytelling behind it
7 December 2018
Gimmicky concept films such as "Searching" -- a mystery that takes place "entirely on a screen" -- bravely put themselves out there. They aim to be the first to uncharted cinematic territory while opening themselves up for scrutiny. Aneesh Chaganty's feature film debut dares to be a pioneer in the category of films that reflect our digitized lives, and while it will take a lot of deserved fire, it does a few things exceptionally well.

"Searching" stars John Cho as the father of a high school senior gone missing (Michelle La), who sifts through all manner of virtual clues to piece together what may have happened to her. Yet that's not where the film begins, which is the first clutch call of the script written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. They give the Kim family a tragic back story and chronicle that digitally at the beginning of the film, adding a layer of depth that is both non-essential to the plot yet essential in so many other ways. Think of it like the digital age version of the tear-inducing montage in Pixar's "Up."

A missing person thriller doesn't need that element, but it adds so much emotional depth to the story (and provides some misdirection in mystery, but that's secondary), helping pull some focus away from the screen gimmick. Like a better version of an Apple or Facebook commercial, Chaganty serves us a reminder of the way our devices have captured and chronicled our lives and lets that simmer in our brains as we watch the rest of this entertainment-focused film unfold.

There are holes to poke in this mystery like so many mystery-driven films before it, yet Chaganty and Ohanian have found a crisp, clean means of hooking their audience. Watching the film feels akin to that high you get when you are hunting for answers through Google and find them, or dare I say stalking someone on social media and discovering the key details about them.

The story follows David running his own digital investigation alongside the detective on his case (Debra Messing), setting David up as the audience's mirror in a way a character hasn't ever really done before. In a way, "Searching" is the closest the genre has come to merging pure fiction with a choose-your-own adventure mystery. We experience the illusion of being in control of the story because David's ideas of where to look next or what guesses to make so closely resemble the choices we'd make on our own under the same circumstances. Even watching David figure out how to get into Margot's various accounts, working his way backward, is a familiar experience to so many yet not one we've ever seen reflecting in a movie before. That's a unique thrill and Chaganty nails it.

Between offering such a fresh viewing experience and its unexpected emotional angle, "Searching" overcomes the ploys put in place to keep the whole story happening on a screen and any issues one might have with the core mystery. They are obvious but forgivable in service of some really thoughtful, smart writing and craftmanship that ventures into new forms of storytelling.

~Steven C

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7/10
"Fantastic Beasts" series still looking for its footing, but remains interesting
30 November 2018
The second film in the "Fantastic Beasts" series, "The Crimes of Grindelwald" gives us a clearer sense of where "Harry Potter" author-turned-screenwriter J.K. Rowling intends to go with this supposed five-film prequel arc. The first installment, 2016's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," took us to a whole new corner of Rowling's universe - 1920s New York City - and tried to charm fans with the same imagination while introducing a whole new cast of characters. With audiences a little warmer to these names and faces, "Crimes of Grindelwald" goes for a wider scope with more ties to the original "Potter" series, and it proves very audacious for a second step.

"The Crimes of Grindelwald" isn't especially simple to follow. After Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes prison, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) returns to London and at the urging of his old professor, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), becomes part of a four-way manhunt in Paris to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who was not only not destroyed in the last film, but also believed to be the last of a line of pureblood wizards.

That sounds clearer and more concise than it is - Rowling's script feels as though it was adapted from the book she should've written to tell this story. The plot, and the characters especially, don't have the breathing room on the screen that a novel would allow. Consequently, outside of Newt, the core hero group of Jacob (Dan Fogel), Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Tina (Katherina Waterston) have still yet to win us over, and the events of "Crimes of Grindelwald" rely on that, which is challenging.

Getting transported back into the Wizarding World, it turns out, counts for something, but not everything. Part of what made the "Harry Potter' series magical was experiencing the story through the Harry, Ron and Hermione's coming of age. The heroes here are complicated adults, or worse - adults who seem complicated, but we don't understand why, so we aren't sympathetic. Audiences will likely remain curious about the characters as they did after the first film, but still not feel the emotional connection.

Newt remains, however, a critical exception. His authentic awkwardness makes him a unique and special protagonist, one more interesting that Harry himself, and the kind of hero that only the Wizarding World could support given the kindness and inclusion of Rowling's universe. He can't carry this film given the sheer size of the ensemble, which also includes Newt's brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who's an auror, and Theseus' fiancé and Newt's old flame Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) not to mention the suitcase full of endearing magical creatures.

Depp's Grindelwald is the next most interesting. Depp exercises a healthy measure of restraint, which is shocking given he's playing the villain. Even with a preachy monologue that screams for him to chew scenery, he largely channels the attention he gets in this role into a calm and mysterious charisma. His measured performance might even be enough to coax those disappointed with "Crimes" into seeing at least the next installment. Similarly, Depp's counterpoint in Law's performance as Dumbledore also had the right amount of gravitas without trying too hard.

As making Grindelwald the title character would suggest, "Crimes" differs most from the first "Fantastic Beasts" in tone. Whereas that first film was a bit more fanciful, there's a darker vibe to "Crimes of Grindelwald" that is much more reminiscent of the last four "Potter" films, which were also directed by David Yates, a fact that serves him well here. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between "Crimes of Grindelwald" and "Order of the Phoenix" in particular, not just aesthetically, but even in terms of the story and plot.

"Order of the Phoenix," however, was the fifth installment, and here we are at the end of Round 2 of "Fantastic Beasts." The carriage is way before the thestral. Although some will declare this as evidence that Rowling's magic has run out, "Crimes of Grindelwald" still carries enough of the curiosity, wonder and a terrific hero to give her another chance, but she unquestionably needs to dial back on plot to give us a chance to really invest in these new characters. She must find a way to tell the rest of this story in a way more suitable for the screen, or the only audience she'll have left by the end of these films are the Potteriest of Potterheads.

~Steven C

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Green Book (2018)
8/10
Two knockout leading roles put "Green Book" on the level of similar uplifting Civil Rights-era movies
26 November 2018
We have no shortage of challenging/feel-good educational films about the Civil Rights era and Jim Crow South. That puts "Green Book" in the position to prove its salt, and while it doesn't necessary exceed the accomplishments of the prestige films of its ilk, it does enough to belong in the conversation among this frequented sub-genre's best thanks to a couple of outstanding lead performances.

The title refers to a guidebook published in the decades leading up to and during the Civil Rights era that listed lodging and other businesses friendly to African-Americans in a time when travelers might not know what to expect while traveling the country. In the instance of this story, it's a helpful resource to Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), the hired driver and bodyguard of renowned classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who embarks on a concert tour of the South. Although incredible educated, talented and acclaimed, Shirley is nevertheless a black man, and the framework of segregation (maddeningly) applies.

Shirley is strangely not the main character of "Green Book" - Tony is - but this makes sense given that the story was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony's son. We consequently experience the story through the eyes of this classically Italian-American nightclub bouncer from the Bronx, eyes that are of course a bit prejudiced and short-sighted, but clearly capable of seeing the truth.

The producers could've found any number of actors capable of playing a working-class Italian with a penchant for competitive eating, so the casting of Mortensen is both conflicting, because Mortensen isn't the slightest bit Italian, and brilliant. Seeing him take on a transformative role with a blue-collar comedic bent is a big part of the film's entertainment value. He's not always hilarious, but he's fun to watch and he can of course hit all the dramatic notes.

Humor is, of course, the specialty of director Peter Farrelly, who with his brother Bobby is best known for "Dumb and Dumber," "There's Something about Mary" and other low-brow comedies popular in the '90s and 2000s. Farrelly proves he's capable of more than gags with this effort, but there's a fair share of scenes whose purpose is solely laughs and that tactic proves hit and miss. In general, the weaving of lighter scenes depicting an unlikely friendship and the dramatic moments brought to bear by the cultural and historical context develops into a fairly obvious pattern.

Again, acting comes to the rescue. Don Shirley is already a distinctive character for a film of this kind given his wealth, education, taste and social status. Ali brings additional nuance to the role that highlights the unique difficulties of a man who doesn't even identify with or fit in with most other black people economically and socially yet faces discrimination from white people all the same. Ali shows us that loneliness while also conveying Shirley's courage and conviction.

These performances bolster a film that otherwise fits squarely in the mainstream mold of Civil Rights comedy/dramas. "Green Book" could easily be downplayed for never veering too far from the path of these inspirational Hollywood movies, but Mortensen and Ali insure the film's dimension and complexity enough that the cheesy uplift feels earned.

~Steven C

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Toy Story (1995)
9/10
Pioneering in every way, and remains a great film in its own right
15 November 2018
"Toy Story" came out when I was in third grade and it remains the most revolutionary film of my lifetime. Outside of Pixar's offices, who would've predicted that in 1995, at the at the height of Disney's 2D animated musical resurgence, that the course of animated family films had just been changed forever.

And it wasn't just the technology. "Toy Story" undoubtedly deserves to be heralded until the end of time for being the first computer-animated feature film, but so many other forces contributed to it becoming the year's box-office champion, chief among them - story.

Pixar's first concept exemplifies all the incredible storytelling they've done in the last 20-plus years: What do our toys do when no one is watching? Children's imaginations have infused their toys with life ever since there were toys, and "Toy Story" plays out that fantasy for kids while evoking profound nostalgia for the parents.

This "hidden world" notion, with stories that explore little universes hiding in plain sight, has been Pixar's secret story sauce. Just take a look at the movie's credits to see how that concept influenced future classics: Pixar father (and the film's director) John Lasseter ("A Bug's Life," "Cars"), Pete Docter ("Monsters Inc.," "Up," "Inside Out") and Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo," "WALL-E").

But even a brilliant concept needs anchoring in real, universal human themes, and that's the real reason Pixar has been the cream of the crop ever since November 22, 1995. In "Toy Story," that boils down to the characters of Woody and Buzz. There's Woody, who has the whole being a toy thing figured out and enjoys his cozy little "spot" as Andy's favorite. Then there's Buzz Lightyear, the shiny new novelty who hasn't had the existential realization that he's not a space ranger yet. It's a storyline for these two leads born out of something that happens all the time: kids' tastes change and they're always moving on to the next cool toy. Woody's jealousy and Buzz's naivete are relatable to kids and adults alike.

That takes us to the crowning touch on "Toy Story" - the voice acting (no, not Randy Newman, but he's crucial to the film's complete aesthetic). Only with the casting of Robin Williams as the Genie in "Aladdin" a couple years earlier had there even existed the notion of casting big-name actors in animated films. Even then, like Williams, the name parts were given to comedians in the comic relief roles. Getting Tom Hanks to play the lead role was a total coup, and when "Toy Story" made bank, animation studios immediately began putting together cast lists of name actors that could barely fit on a movie poster.

Hanks' Woody still deserves to rank as one of the best voice-acting performances. He's the emotional signpost keeping young viewers in tune with how they should feel at each moment (though Buzz's botched flight attempt is the emotional apex of the movie to be sure). Hanks isn't merely lending his voice to the film, he's playing the role of Woody, and it makes all the difference.

During my many childhood viewings, "Toy Story" always felt like an exhaustive multi-chapter journey, especially once Woody and Buzz leave the confines of Andy's room, so on this revisit it's funny to realize that the film remains Pixar's shortest. That's how much dimension Lasseter and team pack into this movie and a large part of why it endures. Any notion that "Toy Story" was a "cute" first attempt by a studio that would go on to vastly improve upon it is missing the point. Yes, Pixar would get more visually advanced, build even more intricate worlds and tell even more emotionally deeper stories (and all in the "Toy Story" series alone), but all those elements in this film still stand strong on their own. It's a classic, and one that set the bar upon which all those films were left with no choice but to strive for.

~Steven C

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Eighth Grade (2018)
9/10
Adolescent years have never seen a more painfully true big-screen depiction
15 November 2018
You've never experienced your middle school years thrown back at you with the same acne-covered-skin-crawling authenticity as Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade." Maybe the film's insane relatability factor doesn't climb up to the oldest-living branches on our family trees, but awkward is awkward whether you're a digital native or walked five miles in the snow to get to school.

Burnham's standup comedy background surely isn't enough on its own to make a good movie, let alone one that connects so deeply to the collective human experience of adolescence, but great comedians have a way of reflecting the world back at us in a way we inherently understand but haven't yet articulated. "Eighth Grade" could have easily started out as a comedy bit that just became too real not to flesh out in greater depth.

The story focuses on Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in her last week of eighth grade as she grits her teeth through these last moments of being the person she has been (voted "most quiet" by her fellow students) and starts to imagine the person she can be in high school. It's an emotional battle she chooses to go at alone rather than turn to her single father (Josh Hamilton) for any support.

What a 28-year-old man can say about what it's like to be a 14-year-old girl today is a fair thought worthy of an eyebrow raise, but from the very beginning of the film, Burnham gives Kayla ownership of her story. She's a video blogger, giving advice to her viewers from her personal experience, a construct that the adults watching will recognize as her way of processing her emotions. Burnham's best script device is interrupting the dramatic flow with audio from Kayla's next video in which she's giving advice that clearly synthesizes the scene we are currently witnessing or just watched. All this preserves Kayla's voice as a character. Never does it feel as though Burnham is speaking to us instead except when he's conveying humor.

Fisher has a lot to do with this success. Like any middle-schooler, we can empathize with Kayla just as easily as we can be annoyed at her attitude and lack of perspective. Thankfully we get more of the former; her performance has a way of making us emotionally travel back to a time when we were in her situation, feeling misunderstood, anxious and mad at the world.

Burnham doesn't completely swerve away from the cliches we get from movies about middle school, in fact he leans into some of them, but good observational standup comedy works the same way. Similarly but on the serious side of things, the necessity of the of the film's darkest scene will surely be a point of debate. We're used to seeing moments like it in other coming-of-age films, which is reason why you might say it doesn't work - "Eighth Grade" isn't otherwise like those other movies.

Watching "Eighth Grade" you realize the ways most coming-of-age films endear us but reflect a more nostalgic perspective on teenage years. Suddenly those films seem too glossy and polished. And they're made by adults who make assumptions about the younger generations. Burnham could've fallen into that trap, but he's smarter than that. He even takes a number of digs at adults who, for example, think using contemporary lingo is going to resonate with these kids. He celebrates the vulnerability and yearning for authenticity that actually lies behind this new generation's Snapchat and Instagram compulsions. It's simply a different iteration of these timeless truths about the trials of adolescence.

~Steven C

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8/10
Another soft, subtle but deeply emotional effort from Debra Granik
9 November 2018
The fast-paced technology-driven world we live in is reason enough for filmmakers to gravitate to stories of detachment. There's strong thematic appeal in characters not only stripping themselves of these dependencies, but also completely removing themselves from society. Yet that's not what director Debra Granik appears to be after in "Leave No Trace" despite that very setup.

Instead, Granik is far more interested on the central relationship of a father and teenage daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie) living out in the woods near Portland, Oregon. All is well and good off the grid until they're discovered, forcing social services to get involved, uprooting them from their home and way of life.

Those who remember Granik's last film, the Oscar-nominated "Winter's Bone," which she also adapted from a book with co-writer Anne Rosellini, will understand immediately why she was inspired to make this her first feature film in eight years. Both stories involve strong but vulnerable young women, focus on familial responsibility, and depict life beyond the urban horizon -- remote areas populated by folk with a simple way of life. And she tells both stories with the same lack of frills.

On the dramatic spectrum, over-the-top melodrama is at one end and Granik is at the other. She goes about her filmmaking with a quiet, reflective lens, treating her characters like portrait subjects and staying open to the beauty of the locations she captures. As for conflict, not much exists, especially in "Leave No Trace," and it stays at a simmer that's no less dramatic for not having exploded in verbal anger or physicality.

Such a mild-mannered approach places great responsibility on the actors to convey the weight of their feelings without much to stand on. Foster, a long-underrated talent, and McKenzie, an unknown, somehow convey a parent-child dynamic whose foundation is unlike any other.

As the easier character to empathize with, McKenzie has the stronger emotional tie to the audience and she gives Tom a remarkable combination of poise, fear, curiosity and compassion. That she shows a lot of promise as an actor is no surprise; this is, after all, the same director (and casting duo, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee) who launched Jennifer Lawrence's career.

Foster, however, has the difficult task of portraying a war veteran who is shaken but also non-emotive and living in denial. His character could easily be cold and mean, or a giant pity party, and Foster toes that line right along with the script.

In general, "Leave No Trace" is so subdued that its emotional moments will come as a surprise. One could just as easily give up on watching it as be moved to tears by the end. That's Granik's power as a filmmaker -- to deliver catharsis not by squeezing the tube, but patiently rolling it up from the bottom. There's a realism she brings to storytelling that the escapist viewer won't have the patience for, but she's proven the payoff for those who can focus and be open to the less noticeable elements of filmmaking beyond forced dramatic stimulus is well worth it.

~Steven C

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4/10
Gotta love 'em, but these pitches have run out of steam
25 October 2018
If "Pitch Perfect 2" was a care-free, money-making victory lap for the writers/producers who managed to strike comedy gold the first time they made a movie about collegiate a cappella, what does that make "Pitch Perfect 3?" Choreographed singing and dancing on the grave of what was once a funny, charming and original 2013 comedy, perhaps.

As with any franchise three films deep, those who endeavor to watch "Pitch Perfect 3" have formed an attachment to the characters to the extent that satisfaction comes merely from seeing them again, or in this case, finding out what they've been up to since college. The Bellas are all struggling to adapt to post-college life with no jobs or cruddy ones, when Aubrey (Anna Camp) pulls a plot out of thin air and says she has a military connection that will allow the group to reunite for a brief USO tour.

The storylines that develop on said tour are all recycled or preposterously fabricated, with the group feeling threatened by the other acts on the tour that "use instruments" and Fat Amy's father (John Lithgow, with a delightful Aussie accent) dropping in unannounced. The musical numbers-once again the bright spots of this series-get artificially inseminated into the story, including a head-scratching "battle" with the theme of "artists you didn't know were Jewish."

Writer Kay Cannon had stayed involved with all three scripts, and she's kind of phoned it in on this one, even with the help of a solid collaborator in Mike White. If the story had stayed with these struggling post-college Millennials rather than swooping them off to Spain, France, etc. something good could've come of it. Instead, the ignorable plot puts more pressure on the humor, which like "Pitch Perfect 2" is hit or miss, with a lot of the same bits and tired jokes about each of the Bellas resurfacing.

That said, Cannon has always kept the spirit of these films as fairly self-aware, even at their lowest points. Director Trish Sie, who made her name directing a few viral OK Go videos including the famous treadmill dance, recognizes that irreverent spirit, but doesn't add any creative ingenuity, opting instead to follow the template set before her. Considering the musical scenes generally stand alone, there's no reason there couldn't be a few knockout music video-esque concepts baked in as diversions from the poor story.

The music is great, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins could banter all film long and I'd eat it up, but the storylines and characters have been stretched as far they can go. It's an aca-awesome ride that will mercifully come to an end.

~Steven C

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6/10
Chazelle's debut brings together indie filmmaking and movie musical elements
20 October 2018
Damien Chazelle's debut feels somewhere between a Jim Jarmusch indie and an Astaire-Roger musical. Here's a filmmaker with a deep love of the movie musical trying to make it work on a shoestring budget. The musical genre begs for rich production, so Chazelle tries to circumvent it with a nontraditional script; the central relationship is told in undefined fragments and almost exclusively in the less-sexy aftermath of their love. The musical elements are instead used as flourishes - sometimes daydreams, sometimes as breaks from the story. It's a mess, but one with its charms.

Chazelle's directorial strength is in detail shots and closeups that evoke a tenderness and the vulnerability of the characters. The film excels in these little character moments far more than it does in telling a complete story. Despite Chazelle's decision not to build the characters from the ground up, every so often he strikes a deeply familiar chord with just a few well-executed shots that it becomes possible to connect to Guy, Madeline and Elena's emotions.

The centerpiece of the film though is Justin Hurwitz's score, which feels timeless yet not overly cliche and predictable. The quality of the music, including what was presumably Jason Palmer's (Guy) own trumpet playing, puts the score in a class that the movie's visual quality can't keep up with to the point that you might assume Chazelle just purchased or borrowed professional music.

It's always nice to see how a now-esteemed director pulled together a project with minimal resources. Chazelle wanted to tell a love story that married jazz and musicals and he finds a way to do it, even if the finished project is rough around the edges and a little defiant of mainstream tastes.
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7/10
'Ant-Man' continues its run as Marvel's smart change of pace
15 October 2018
If you're sick and tired of all the Marvel movies, who could blame you? The formula is abundantly clear by now, and the pace of 2-3 films a year is exhausting. Yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so smartly realized that it even has its own antidote-the "Ant-Man" series.

Every Marvel movie has a sense of humor, but "Ant-Man" is that humor at its broadest. Paul Rudd's choice to play Scott Lang as "the superhero who is just happy to be a superhero" works delightfully better than it ought to, and director Peyton Reed has found ways to let Rudd's energy trickle to the rest of the cast and other elements of both productions-2015's "Ant-Man" and now "Ant-Man and the Wasp."

The creative choice behind these films has painted Ant-Man as the black sheep of the MCU, making this sequel the perfect follow-up to the devastatingly self-serious "Avengers: Infinity War." The investment level is much lower for this movie and its ambitions ant-sized in comparison. Too some extent, it might even be too light and breezy.

"Ant-Man and the Wasp" sees Lang under house arrest following his excursion to Germany during "Civil War," but he's soon plucked out of it by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) when the two realize that Lang's time in the Quantum Realm in the last film might be the key to allow them to locate Pym's wife/Hope's mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the realm decades earlier.

Although the trio finds its plans in jeopardy due to some competing interests, the plot being a voluntary mission takes a lot of the stakes out of the film. We have no attachment to Janet Van Dyne, even if we can empathize for why Pym and Hope would want to find and rescue her. And given finding her requires a machine built inside of a size-changing MacGuffin that runs on suspension of disbelief, the script requires some artifice to stay interesting.

In other words, the story that the joyride of "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is built upon (which saw contributions from two writing duos plus Rudd) isn't all that solid or interesting, which doesn't derail the viewing experience so much as generate indifference. The fun to be had lies mostly with the size-changing gimmick, which continues to be smartly deployed as it was in the original "Ant-Man." The heist conceit that powered that film, however, gave it more of a foundation and a focus that this movie is missing.

So the relaxed attitude of the film is both a strength and a limitation. The strong group of main characters, bolstered by Lilly's expanded role (even if she feels an awful lot like Black Widow), keeps it engaging, though the fun, humor and creativity seems to have an obvious ceiling. That's a shame, because Ant-Man feels like a character with a lot more potential than a light change of pace.

~Steven C

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8/10
An emotional celebration of Rogers' life, career and beliefs at a time when we need reminding of them
18 June 2018
It's incredible to think that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was broadcast to family television sets for three decades. Multiple generations of children were charmed by Fred Rogers' leisurely musical demeanor, abounding love and positivity and belief in the power of make-believe. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" celebrates Rogers' life, career and moral framework in an extremely moving way while tapping into some of the foundational ideas of child development.

The documentary style is one known for pulling back the curtain on people or issues and revealing new truths. But with Rogers, what you see is what you get. He grew up in a well-to-do home and was on the path to becoming a minister when he saw the power of television as an educational tool before most anyone else. The way he "preached" through the TV show was the way he lived, pure and simple - the film just proves it.

To the naked eye, Rogers living his values doesn't seem all that remarkable or documentary-worthy, but the film touches on the backlash among more conservative-minded and intolerant individuals, in addition to wide public speculation into Rogers' sexuality. There's a psychological phenomenon that all this highlights - our unflattering tendency as humans to doubt and look for scuff marks on public figures who present as infallible. This is far from the film's central purpose, however, and director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") only gives this notion brief exposure.

Neville is instead more interested in conveying the essence of Rogers and his belief system, including where it came from and what it meant to him. The more intellectual meat of Rogers' story presents itself in compelling ways, but then Neville often quickly veers to something else. "Neighbor" glides just below the surface taking fewer deep dives into larger questions, keeping the focus on Fred and the show.

And Neville does so with grace and aplomb. He weaves together clips from the show, interview footage, behind-the-scenes footage, footage of Rogers in the "real world" and present-day interviews, most of which is set to classic "Mister Rogers" piano music. The clips from the show are thoughtfully selected and poignant. They are given to us as gifts, presented without interruption in some instances, so the emotion can just wash over us. They are also teed up with context, so we understand the intention Rogers truly put into every part of the show.

Fairly early on, one of the interviewees poses the question of whether America has learned anything from Rogers. It's difficult to believe that with the platform he had for 33 years that he didn't leave the world full of more compassionate, kind and emotionally well-regulated people than when he started, but much of the experience of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is recognizing ways in which our world hasn't changed and how Rogers' ethos is needed more than ever. He would be heartbroken over the divisiveness of today's partisan culture. That said, he'd also be blown away by how his ethos has been foundational to the worldview of liberalism, which is rooted in Rogers' core belief, that there is good inside of everyone that deserves to be nurtured and loved.

~Steven C

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8/10
Simple, pure, emotional and well-told story
15 June 2018
A 2D-animated story taking place in the real world with no princesses? A hard sell these days. "The Breadwinner," based on the book by Deborah Ellis, runs completely counter to the CGI-photorealism, elaborate world-building and talking animals of Disney, DreamWorks and Illumination. Yet that's precisely what makes it a pleasure to watch, just not in the absent-minded "how do I entertain my kids for a couple hours?" way.

Simply animated, softly spoken and not trying to crack jokes all the time, there's an endearing purity to "The Breadwinner" that becomes rather immediately apparent. The drawing style lack gritty details, and yet the characters are all extremely expressive, especially the big green eyes of protagonist Parvana (Saara Chaudry), a young girl living in Kabul, Afghanistan whose father is jailed by the Taliban for more or less talking back.

Of course, losing your patriarch in a strict Muslim patriarchal society in which women must stay indoors or be accompanied by a man (and covered head to toe) is a problem, especially for Parvana, her mother, older sister and baby brother. Without any means to provide for themselves, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to sell goods and reading/writing services at the market, while also trying to make cash on the side to buy information about how she can rescue her father from prison.

Interspersed throughout the narrative is Parvana telling a very long, traditional-sounding fairy tale, first to little brother Zaki, then to a girl her age who is also disguised as a boy and lastly to herself. The story of Sulayman, who went on a quest to retrieve his village's precious seeds from the evil Elephant King, gets told in a paper-cut animated style but is actually the most sophisticated element of the movie. One expects the tale of Sulayman to reveal an obvious moral parallel to Parvana's story, but this side narrative has much deeper and complex relationship with the main story.

Despite the animation's technical simplicity, director Nora Twomey ("The Secret of Kells") builds an extremely vibrant Kabul. The film is never lacking for setting or context and certainly offers more of an authentic perspective on life in Afghanistan under the Taliban than any contemporary American war film audiences are used to. The realities of living under terrorist rule and being a Muslim woman are also extremely accessible to children Parvana's age (11) and older.

Focusing on a traditional story of familial struggle, "The Breadwinner" manages to hit all its emotional marks and immediately root itself in viewers' hearts. It's so genuine, authentic and not flashy, which makes it an ideal tool for the emotionally mature child, not so much the easily distracted, younger variety.

~Steven C

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Tomb Raider (2018)
5/10
A fresh and interesting Lara in a predictable, unoriginal early 2000s story
12 June 2018
Hollywood is not giving up on "Tomb Raider." Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander dons Lara Croft's signature shorts and tank top in this reboot of the popular video game franchise that was abandoned in the early 2000s by Paramount Pictures when its second Angelina Jolie-led effort flopped. Despite 15 years and new minds at MGM and Warner Bros. taking over, the new "Tomb Raider" still feels an awful lot like a 2000s movie.

Based on the 2013 video game reboot of the franchise, "Tomb Raider" is a Lara Croft origin story. The approach to revive the character feels extremely similar to the "reboot" MGM did with the "James Bond" films when Daniel Craig came aboard - make it grittier and character-focused.

That's where "Tomb Raider" does succeed. Vikander gives Croft a total makeover from tall, busty sex-appeal action hero to petite, scrappy, tough and independent heroine. Vikander makes Lara infinitely more human, taking cues from some of the best action hero performances by struggling and experiencing pain and anguish. She's just working in an extremely stale, cliché story.

Seven years after her father's (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara is living a troubled life, scraping by as a mail courier and still unable to accept her father's death. Right as she's about to sign the papers acknowledging his death in absentia, she receives a clue that leads her to the lost Japanese island where he went missing while in search of the tomb of an ancient Japanese queen with supernatural powers, and she goes there looking for answers.

Nothing in "Tomb Raider" wasn't covered by "Indiana Jones," "The Mummy" or even "National Treasure" franchise and that's where it fizzles. The riddle- and puzzle-solving, discovering hidden sites, and power struggles over finding the power at the center of it all - these are all tropes of other movie franchises that have gone out of style. Although they are true to the "Tomb Raider" games and there's a reason so many movies have used them, it's a decade later and story writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet (who also wrote the screenplay) and Evan Daugherty ("Snow White and the Huntsman") bring nothing new to the mix. Even the much-improved handling of Lara comes with a too-familiar daddy-issues back story.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug does a capable job bringing some grit instead of shiny, stylized video game action to this series, though the script really pushes the extent to which we can believe Lara can survive the jumps, falls and bruises. Generally, however, the action is suspenseful and watchable and not at all the issue.

Despite being an origin story, the film generates not much more than indifference toward the plot and Lara's personal journey. Her street life and decision to journey out in search of closure is constructed on hollow clichés and we can sniff out exactly the way her story will turn out, turning her into the classic Lara fans know and love by the film's end. Even the most compelling performance by an Oscar-winning actress is only so interesting when the story deposits her into old, well-worn situations.

The good news is that I could watch Vikander's Lara Croft again in a better, more original story, but it doesn't seem like the box office numbers will give her the chance.

~Steven C

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Game Night (I) (2018)
8/10
Fresh premise, clever dialogue and a fun blend of comedy and thriller elements
7 June 2018
Good comedies come down to good premises with fresh ideas and "Game Night" offers exactly that. Something of a comedic version of David Fincher's 1997 thriller "The Game," a group of friends who get together for regular game nights agree to up the stakes with a kidnapping mystery that suddenly becomes a little too real.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein wrote another one of the more original comedies of the decade in 2011's "Horrible Bosses" and though Mark Perez ("Accepted") gets sole credit for the script, they clearly did rewrites: "Game Night" shares a similarly playful yet dark tone. In fact, bouncing between a breezy comedy and a high stakes thriller is their huge accomplishment with this movie.

No one needed another Jason Bateman-led upper-middle class comedy, but the ultra-competitive Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) slightly tilt from the norm. Their in-between newlyweds and parents stage of married life in which they host game nights and try to avoid telling their odd neighbor (the impeccable Jesse Plemons) about them has a high relatability factor. Although the trend is more strategy-based table top games these days as opposed to charades and Pictionary, the spirit is in the right place that the social dynamic at play feels familiar.

The action starts when Kyle Chandler comes into town as Max's "legendary" older brother and convinces the crew to get behind the lifelike mystery. After the kidnapping occurs, Perez recognizes the audience is completely aware of the main conceit of his film: figuring out what's a game and what's real. Wisely, he toys with us, giving the story some unexpected and fun turns.

"Game Night" jumps in and out of violence and levity, with Daley and Goldstein finding creative ways to give some juice to the action sequences, including a game of "hot potato" that appears to be done in a single take and some ordinary contextual shots done in closeups to create a humorous intensity (like shots Edgar Wright used in "Shaun of the Dead"). They also use these overhead/distance shots that make the characters and setting look like a gameboard and pieces.

These little touches don't make the film a better comedy, but they bring a creativity films like this often need. There also several references to games and movies that also contribute to its unique energy. Casting all that aside, however, the dialogue is tight and clever and that humor drives "Game Night" too. Not every character is as well-realized and acted as Plemons' Gary, but the ensemble has enough of the right pieces to play the comedy game competitively, especially compared to most of today's comedies

~Steven C

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8/10
Two behemoths of their respective crafts, PTA and DDL, deliver more fine art
6 June 2018
Paul Thomas Anderson films are always such a joy to watch. Ok, maybe not a "joy" in terms of being a pleasant and easy to ingest, but a "joy" as far as observing fine craftsmanship.

Anderson is as assured in his visual storytelling as ever in "Phantom Thread," which teams him with the most assured actor working today (or now retired?) in Daniel Day-Lewis. The film doesn't offer much in terms of plot but serves as a portrait of a master dressmaker, his operation in vaguely 1950s England, and the woman who becomes the focus of his admiration and desire.

Yes, "Phantom Thread" is still a love story despite missing all the obvious trappings. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a self-proclaimed confirmed bachelor completely dedicated to his craft but capable of being entranced by the right woman for periods of time. He meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) when she serves him a robust breakfast at a restaurant and she quickly becomes his muse. Alma carefully weaves herself into the fabric of Reynolds' work and personal life, even navigating his tight bond with his sister (Lesley Manville). She soon discovers, however, that she must reckon with his controlling, abrasive ways.

There's an elegance to "Phantom Thread" that's more inviting to audiences, though it's a sharp contrast from Anderson's usual California-set stories and American narratives. That elegance goes beyond the film's focus on fashion - though that's certainly part of it - and pervades the entire aesthetic including the camera movement and another exceptional Johnny Greenwood score. Plop Day-Lewis in a frame like that and you immediately have a riveting visual. In fact, these components are enough that Anderson can get away with a loose narrative containing many related scenes but no distinct arc.

Day-Lewis makes anything more interesting and he's in top form here. You get the sense that his role feels lived in - there's a verisimilitude to this and most of his performances that blurs the line between actor and character (which admittedly is kind of the point of method acting). Day-Lewis does give us a bit of a trademark of his in the volatility of Woodcock's temperament, but the grace and his professional demeanor belong to the character.

Acting opposite Day-Lewis and Manville would be a frightening prospect for nearly any actor let alone an unknown like Krieps, but the Luxembourgian actress proves her salt, balancing Alma's naivete, elegance, shrewdness and determination. Although at first presented as the precious doe who is bound to make the same mistakes as Woodcock's past lovers, we see an unexpected fearlessness as their relationship becomes about power dynamics. Krieps is extremely well-cast and it will be curious to see what directions her career goes beyond such a well-suited part.

Although the third wheel, Manville also deserves recognition for bringing refreshing dimension to the part of the shrewish older sister. Usually that role is immediately dislikable, but there's something in the calm of Manville's performance that both complements Day-Lewis and opens us up to idea of Cyril as a human.

Somewhat of a chamber drama, "Phantom Thread" proves nothing is beyond the scope of Anderson's skill set. Certain story pieces and characters can be equated to those in other films, but you might assume at a quick glance that some one-time "Downton Abbey" director made this film, not an American. Do not assume the fashion component and period element is just a chance for Anderson to play dress up - they are well-researched, well-realized and integral to the story being told.

~Steven C

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