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7/10
Well Made But Not Especially Exciting
19 March 2019
"Call Northside 777" is one of those late 1940s police procedural films that often get lumped in with films noir but isn't one really. It looks like one because it's in gritty black and white and it's primarily set in jails and police and newspaper offices. But really this is just a crime drama about the efforts of a journalist to prove a man's innocence, reluctantly at first and then with more and more conviction as the weight of evidence begins to overcome his cynical doubts.

That journalist is played by James Stewart, and of course he's terrific in this, as he was in everything. He alone elevates this from something you could easily miss to something worth seeing. Also standing out in the cast is Betty Garde as a boozy slattern. She only gets a couple of scenes but one of them late in the film is a real doozy. Lee J. Cobb plays Stewart's boss and for once manages to keep himself subdued -- I'm used to Cobb shouting and blustering in everything he's in.

"Call Northside 777" isn't especially exciting. Like many films of its kind, it almost seems more like a semi-documentary about the technology behind forensics and police work. We get a whole scene devoted to an explanation of the mechanics behind polygraph machines, and the climax of the film hinges on whether or not a photo can be blown up enough to unmask a crucial detail. Interesting in its own way, but not exactly the stuff of nail-biting suspense.

Grade: B+
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Wonder Park (2019)
3/10
Lame
19 March 2019
Lame animated film that feels like it was created by committee, because it probably was. No cliche is too cliche to be included, while not a single joke or sentiment in the film is one you haven't seen a hundred times before in much better films. It's movies like "Wonder Park" that give "movies for kids" a bad name. The thing is, kids have standards too, and mine gave this stinker a thumbs down.

Grade: D
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Eating Raoul (1982)
7/10
Guess Who's Coming for Dinner
19 March 2019
Goofy cult classic about a square, morally righteous couple living in L.A. who fall on hard financial times and decide to solve their money problems by luring perverts to their apartment, killing them, and stealing their money. Who Raoul is and how exactly he gets eaten you will have to find out for yourself, because I don't have the energy to explain it here.

I found it pretty hilarious that this couple who sleep in separate beds and cuddle with stuffed animals have absolutely no compunction about offing any number of people. The film is delivered dead pan all the way through, and I suppose you might have to be in a certain mood in order to enjoy it. It's one of those movies that's best watched on a total whim late at night when the last thing you want is something you have to think too much about. It could have been funnier if the people who made it had really decided to go for it. As it is the execution is a bit too tame for the outrageous premise it sets up. But I can see why this turned into a cult hit.

Grade: A-
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Burning (2018)
7/10
Too Languorous for Its Own Good
19 March 2019
"Burning," to stick with the heat metaphor, builds itself to a low simmer and gradually turns up the heat until the whole thing boils over in the film's last moments. But I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't risk losing me along the way.

If you can't handle enigmas, stay away from this film, because that's all it is. It's fascinating to a point, and I enjoyed its refusal to easily hand over its secrets to its audience. In fact, many of the questions the film poses don't get answered at all, or at least you have to make up your own answer if you want the satisfaction of closure. It's stylish too, I'll give it that. But it's also very slow and languorous, almost too much so, and it ultimately feels like the pay off isn't quite worth the time invested.

Grade: B+
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5/10
Sanctimonious
14 March 2019
I recorded TCM's airing of "The Corn Is Green," but the recording crapped out on me with about 15 minutes left. I was mildly irritated that I invested that much time in a movie I wasn't able to finish, but mostly I didn't care that much because I was barely able to stay awake for what I was able to watch.

"The Corn Is Green" has a sanctimonious tone that grated on me. I usually like Bette Davis, but her uptight ram rod of a character and her never varying fussy, clipped diction wears thin pretty quickly. You know exactly how the movie is going to play out the second it starts, and while I appreciated its themes of valuing education and the broadening of the mind that education brings, the film is so preachy in making its points that it turned me off.

I was drawn to this film to see the performances of John Dall and Joan Lorring, both receiving 1945 supporting acting Oscar nominations in their respective categories. Neither is especially memorable. I'd never heard of Lorring and I've never seen her in anything else, but Dall gives a much more award worthy performance in a less noble but way more fun movie from a few years later, "Gun Crazy."

Grade: C
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9/10
Spectacular
14 March 2019
I always go into these old time literary adaptations hoping for the best but more often than not disappointed. Movies from this time period based on classics were frequently too respectful, too stodgy, too preachy, too self aware of their own prestige. But how fun it is, then, to come across one that isn't any of those things and is instead wildly entertaining.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," William Dieterle's spectacular adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, is one of these. It's energetic, creative, fun, and above all cinematic, something other movies of its kind so frequently were not. Charles Laughton gives an impressively physical, primarily non-verbal performance as the eponymous Quasimodo, and Maureen O'Hara is unbelievable but no less fetching as the gypsy woman who he falls for. Indeed, I had just seen O'Hara in the dull "The Black Swan" from 1942 and had just about decided that I don't much care for her. This movie changed my mind and made me instead believe that she could be a good actress with the right direction. Edmond O'Brien, crazy young in the role of another man smitten with O'Hara, is a bit of a weak link in the acting department.

The film looks amazing, Dieterle using recreations of the Notre Dame cathedral to great effect. The movie is also unexpectedly relevant. In the first ten minutes, we're treated to conversations about immigrants, educating the masses, and the Earth being flat instead of round. For a moment, I wasn't sure whether this was a 1939 movie set in 17th Century France or a movie about the America of today.

Grade: A
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6/10
Good Enough to Make Me Wish It Was Better
14 March 2019
"Support the Girls" is just good enough to make me wish it was better.

Regina Hall shines as the manager of a Hooters-type sports bar. Condescended to by the bar's owner for being a black woman while serving as den mother to the young ladies (some more on the ball than others) who make up the waitress staff, she creates a portrait of a woman who's kept acutely aware of the ways (some major, some minor) in which women and minorities have to deal with a constant flow of disrespect and dismissal.

The film goes off the rails a bit toward the end, when frustrations come to a head and the film lurches awkwardly into female empowerment territory. I didn't have a problem with the message but rather with the clunky execution. It's one of those movies that feels like a man's best guess at what female empowerment feels like rather than the real thing.

Grade: B
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Widows (2018)
6/10
Feel Bad Movie of 2018
7 March 2019
Good grief, say "hello" to the feel-bad movie of 2018.

Come to think of it, this film's director, Steve McQueen, also brought us the feel-bad movie of 2013, "12 Years a Slave." Does he need to get laid? It's rather ironic that someone named Steve McQueen should have trouble getting laid.

Anyway, "12 Years a Slave" felt necessary, so at least there was a point to making us all feel bad. We SHOULD all feel bad about something like slavery. But "Widows" could have been a slick, entertaining little genre exercise, which is what it's crying out to be, had McQueen and his writers not decided to strive for the Woketopia seal of approval. As it is, they throw in every conceivable issue even remotely related to the treatment of either minorities or women in America, whether or not they organically spring from the material. You name an unfair societal ill perpetuated by white men, and you'll find it in this movie. Though to be fair, African American men don't come off looking much better. This is a movie where all white men are corrupt politicians and all black men are gangster thugs. Meanwhile, all women are victims in some form or other -- cheated on, beaten up, exploited. I knew we were in trouble when, in an early scene, a mom, played by Jacki Weaver as a caricature of a New York mafia moll (despite the fact that we're in Chicago), encourages her daughter to prostitute herself because "women should be taken care of by men." And in the tackiest and most exploitative nod to "wokeness," the film throws in a shooting of an unarmed black youth by police. This plot isn't developed in any way, mind you. It's just a footnote tossed in to check off a politically aware box and a cheap tactic to reap the reward of our outrage without having to earn it the hard way.

And the movie is just. so. ANGRY. I get that these characters are desperate and that cracking jokes might not be their top priority. But it is possible to make a movie about desperate, humorless people without the movie itself being humorless and surly. The catch is that It takes creativity and a deft touch, which McQueen as a film maker has not yet shown evidence of having.

So why did I rate this even as high as I did? Because for all of my complaints, there is quite a bit to like about this movie. Get past its preposterous need to feel relevant and progressive, and the film making itself isn't half bad. McQueen knows how to direct action scenes, and he also knows how to build tension. And the acting throughout is very good, especially from Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, and Elizabeth Debicki. Viola Davis, who anchors the film, is fine but her character is so one note -- and such a dour one note at that -- that she's not given much opportunity to shine. The only misfire in the acting department comes from, of all people, Robert Duvall, who does his best Uncle Leo from "Seinfeld" impression.

A wildly uneven movie at best, but not a total wash.

Grade: B
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4/10
The World Did Not Need This Movie
6 March 2019
I'll admit that the only thing that got me to watch "At Eternity's Gate" was the fact that Willem Dafoe received an Oscar nomination for playing Vincent Van Gogh. Otherwise, I was all "Do we really need yet another Van Gogh biopic?" The answer, if this film is any indication, is "no, we do not."

Julian Schnabel tries to make this one different from other versions, like the square "Lust for Life" and the marvelous "Vincent and Theo," by picking a visual style that tries to recreate how Van Gogh experienced the world. I like the idea, but not the herky-jerky execution. Dafoe is pretty good I guess, but he sort of fades into the background despite being in nearly every frame of the movie. Instead, Schnabel's meandering, ruminating aesthetics take center stage, making this film a pretty package with nothing at its center.

With Oscar Isaac as this version's Paul Gaughin.

Grade: C-
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The Guilty (2018)
8/10
The Guilty
6 March 2019
"The Guilty" is one of those one-man show movies that revolve around a single character in a single location working through some sort of dramatic situation. In this film, the character is a cop who's been put on 911 call center duty while he awaits trial for misconduct on the job. The way he handles the emergency that falls into his lap and the way he goes about making decisions, most of them bad ones, tells us a lot about him and how he probably ended up on trial in the first place.

Movies like this are always going to feel to a certain extent like gimmicks and will have to deal with the distractions that come with that (How will it maintain dramatic tension? How will it remain visually engaging?) This one uses a plot twist that serves to both throw the audience for a loop and reveal much about our main character, namely that he makes a whole heap of assumptions when dealing with a crisis scenario, not the best attribute for a police officer.

A slick, effective little thriller that's well worth your time.

Grade: A-
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Boy Erased (2018)
7/10
Boy Erased
6 March 2019
"Boy Erased" is one of those "preaching to the choir" movies. Those who will bother to watch it will already agree that programs designed to erase homosexuality from young people are stupid and wrong. Those that still need convincing will never watch the movie in the first place.

So, as one who need not have been convinced, I will say that I was pleased that actor/director Joel Edgerton takes a restrained approach and avoids the sentimental histrionics that might have tempted another director. Lord help us all if Steven Spielberg had gotten his hands on the same material. But perhaps, given my lukewarm emotional reaction, the film is a bit too restrained? A cast of good actors, including Lucas Hedges as the titular boy, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents, and Edgerton himself as leader of the program (who ends up being a closeted case himself, a development anyone could see coming from a mile away), all turn in thoughtful, intelligent performances. But the film itself stubbornly remains solidly competent rather than something special. I was never bored, but neither was I ever really moved.

Grade: B
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7/10
Lesser Known "My Man Godfrey"
25 February 2019
"Merrily We Live" is a lesser-known screwball comedy that shares much in common with "My Man Godfrey." Rich society family takes in bum and finds out he's not who they think he is. This one starts out with verve and energy, sags a bit in the middle, and then rebounds at the end with some truly funny physical comedy.

Brian Aherne stars as the "bum" and Constance Bennett as the oldest daughter and love interest, but it's Billie Burke (Oscar nominated as the ditzy matriarch) and Clarence Kolb as the dad who get the lion's share of the film's laughs. Kolb especially is deft at pratfalls.

"Merrily We Live" received a lot of attention from the Academy. In addition to its Best Supporting Actress nomination for Burke, the film scored noms for its art direction, cinematography, sound recording, and its warbly title song, none of which is remarkable. But these were the days of up to a dozen nominees per category and studios were allowed to put forward films for guaranteed nominations, so they're not necessarily indicative of quality.

Grade: B+
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First Man (2018)
4/10
Who Knew Space Was Such a Slog?
25 February 2019
Seriously, is the space program really this dreary?

Ok, so Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind director who wowed everyone with "Whiplash" and "La La Land," didn't want to make an astronaut movie in the traditional Hollywood mode of films such as, say, "The Right Stuff." Fair enough. Neil Armstrong was a bit of a reluctant hero, shy of fame and press and motivated more by internal reasons (according to this film, at least) than by the glamour of the space program. Indeed, this movie seems to be saying that the glamour highlighted in other movies is largely a fiction, and that the real story is one of hard and thankless work, drudgery, stress, anxiety, loneliness, you name it. I believe that that's true. But is any of that reason to inflict such a gloomy slog of a movie on us? Was Neil Armstrong really the blank-faced automaton as portrayed by Ryan Gosling? Do we have to drain every ounce of excitement and wonder out of the story just to make it more authentic? Because even if it's not as exciting or dramatic as "The Right Stuff" makes it look, still, space travel is pretty cool, and we should be allowed our sense of awe at seeing a man walk on the moon for the first time.

And Chazelle's directorial choices are irritatingly claustrophobic throughout this film. I get that he wants us to perceive events from the perspective of the astronauts, which accounts for the tight and shaky frames and limited viewpoints, but he sticks so rigidly to his aesthetic that he makes it literally difficult to see what's going on, which just becomes aggravating after a while.

The movie does have one thing going for it, which is Justin Hurwitz's wonderful score. It's the only thing about the film that comes close to being rousing, and it deserves a better movie.

No wonder this one bombed.

Grade: D
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Unsane (2018)
5/10
Unsane
25 February 2019
A decent premise begins to sag and ultimately collapse under the weight of the implausibilities heaped upon it in this low-budget thriller from Steven Soderbergh.

Claire Foy unwittingly commits herself to a loony bin when she seeks counseling for the stalker anxiety that's consuming her life. The main hook of the film is the ambiguity between fact and fiction -- how much of her character's obsession is justified vs. how much exists in her head? A better film would have teased its audience much more with this is-she-or-isn't-she dynamic, but instead this movie devolves into an unimaginative, literal, and -- worst of all -- ridiculous stalker horror film. Things aren't helped by the fact that Foy makes her character incredibly unsympathetic and unlikable, so I didn't much care what happened to her. That the movie isn't a total loss is due probably to the talents of its director, but at the same time one can't help but wonder why someone who has made such good and provocative films as Soderbergh is peddling in stuff like this.

If this had been a first film by a bunch of people new to the medium, I might have been more generous and given it credit for being a slick if flawed genre piece. But as it is, it felt like Soderbergh and his company were messing around one weekend with a camera (or in this case, iPhone) to see what they could come up, without really caring all that much about a final product. Fun for them, maybe, but not so much for their audience.

Grade: C
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8/10
The Hate U Give
19 February 2019
There were a lot of movies this year about racism, a couple of them ("BlackkKlansman" and "Blindspotting" come to mind) sharper edged than "The Hate U Give." But I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Its passion about its subject matter and its enough-is-enough attitude help it to rise above its overly-earnest after school special trappings and its determination to look at the topic from too many different points of view. It especially starts to unravel in its final moments, as if the makers of it couldn't figure out how to resolve everything in a way both dramatically satisfying and cinematic, and its roots as a book show most starkly. But otherwise it's a very engaging film with some very good performances, most notably by its young star, Amandla Stenberg, who has the daunting task of carrying the entire film on her young shoulders. She proves herself equal to the task, though, and any immaturity she might have as an actress is used to the benefit of the character, a young lady who's thrust to the center of events she might not feel emotionally ready for.

One of those movies that flew under the radar but that people should seek out.

Grade: A
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9/10
Funeral Parade of Roses
14 February 2019
An unsettling and astonishing Japanese film that introduced me to the Japanese New Wave movement.

"Funeral Parade of Roses," like many of the best works of art, defies description or categorization. It dives into the Japanese gay sub-culture of the 1960s, and specifically young gay men who dress and act like women. It blurs the line between fact and fiction; at times, the actors in the movie become actors in a movie within the movie, and the movie itself becomes a documentary about the making of a movie about gay Japanese youths. If you can follow that sentence, then you're on the way to having the right sensibility to enjoy this film.

It's a shocking movie too, going places most other films at the time, and certainly few American movies, would dare. The only big American movie I can think of from that time period that comes even close to tackling subjects that general audiences would find equally unsavory is "Midnight Cowboy," and this film makes that one look like a Doris Day romp in comparison.

Grade: A
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8/10
Jewison Returns to the Heat of the Night
6 February 2019
"A Soldier's Story" plays like a 1980s version of "In the Heat of the Night," the 1967 Best Picture winner directed by Norman Jewison, who also directed this film. But that's not to take anything away from "A Soldier's Story." It's a very good film in its own right, and if it borrows some of the sultry southern vibe of that earlier film, it goes "Night" one better in remaining first and foremost a movie about black identity rather than a movie in which blacks exist to teach bigoted whites a lesson.

In 2018, the film world was astounded that a black-driven superhero movie could become one of the biggest hits of the year. Hey, news flash, movies about and starring black people can be good too! It's really remarkable to me then that this film came out in 1984. That anyone cared enough to make it or thought there'd be an audience for it. Despite being nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it's not a well known movie, and I hope more people find it.

The film's set up is a murder mystery staged in a military barrack during WWII. But the movie is really much more about blacks struggling to find their place in a country that is happy to have them die for it but won't treat them like equal citizens. And within that, the film is more concerned with the interactions of blacks with each other and their differing opinions about the best way to gain respect and how much of their culture it's ok to efface in order to gain it. As with any stage to screen adaptation, no matter how much the director tries to open up the film, its stage origins show. But it's so well adapted, directed, and acted that it remains pretty engrossing nonetheless.

Adolph Caesar received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing the murdered soldier, and his is a fascinating creation. The film also features Howard E. Rollins, Jr. as the investigating officer, probably the film's weakest link, and a young Denzel Washington.

In addition to Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, playwright Charles Fuller received an Adapted Screenplay nomination.

Grade: A
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Cold War (2018)
6/10
Not Much Chemistry
6 February 2019
A musician and his muse carry out an on-again-off-again romance in the two decades following WWII.

"Cold War" left me feeling like my lack of understanding about Poland and post-war Polish identity prevented me from fully appreciating this movie. The whole time I was watching it, I felt like there was something I was missing. But I have to judge a movie based on my personal reaction to it, and this one left me cold. The two leads have little chemistry, and the movie doesn't make a compelling case that these two damaged souls can't live without each other. We're just told they can't, but we're never shown. Because I didn't care about their relationship, and I didn't much care for them as individuals (we never learn very much about either of them), I never felt vested in anything happening and I couldn't care less about whether they ended up together, apart, alive, or dead.

The film has some rapturous followers, so I'll have to just live with the fact that I missed the boat on this one.

Nominated for three Oscars at the upcoming 2018 Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film (Poland), Best Director (Pawel Pawlikowski), and Best Cinematography.

Grade: B-
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The Sellout (1952)
5/10
Talky and Slow
6 February 2019
A slow, talky, noirish drama that's pretty light on the noir and pretty heavy on everything that makes movies not very interesting. I was drawn to this by the promise of seeing Audrey Totter, one of my favorite noir actresses, but unfortunately she plays a good girl in this one, which is nowhere nearly as fun as when she's playing a femme fatale, and she's sadly underused. With all due respect to Walter Pidgeon and John Hodiak, if Totter is in the film, it's her face I want to see, not theirs.

Grade: C-
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8/10
Great Performances
6 February 2019
A murder thriller that could have felt stage bound instead proves to be pretty gripping thanks to the marvelous performances of the three leads. Robert Montgomery plays the killer, May Whitty the wretched old lady who befriends him, and Rosalind Russell, frumped up to resemble a bookish school marm, the one who's got his number. The suspense isn't of the "did he or didn't he?" variety, since we know early on that he did, but rather in seeing whether or not Russell's character, who both wants to see him get his and is enticed by the sexy danger he arouses, will end up being his accomplice or executioner.

Montgomery received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and Whitty was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category. It's a shame room couldn't have been made for Russell as well.

Grade: A
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RBG (2018)
6/10
Lazy Hero Worship
5 February 2019
If you already adore Ruth Bader Ginsberg and want nothing more than to spend a couple of hours idolizing her, you will love this movie, as it's nothing more than hero worship. If you're looking for a more complex look at this remarkable woman, you won't find it here. The film doesn't elaborate much on the struggles Ginsberg faced, either personally or professionally, beyond quick outlines. I was left with so many questions about her that went unanswered. "RBG" is a lazy documentary capitalizing on anti-Trump and MeToo sentiment. It doesn't earn its stripes. RBG deserves better.

Grade: B-
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4/10
Dull Swachbuckler
5 February 2019
A pretty dull swashbuckler, mostly because it has two wooden actors, Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara, at its center. It never works up anything even resembling excitement, and it's almost distasteful from a modern-day perspective watching O'Hara getting forced into believing what she wants more than anything is to be ravished by a buccaneer. The swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn, like "The Sea Hawk" (which set the gold standard) and "Captain Blood" are much better.

"The Black Swan" is notable for fans of movie trivia for winning the 1942 Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography. It was the first of four awards to be won by Leon Shamroy, who to this day shares with Joseph Ruttenberg the record for most honored cinematographer. The film was also nominated in the categories of Dramatic or Comedy Score (Alfred Newman) and Best Special Effects.

Grade: C-
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7/10
Mental Illness
5 February 2019
Movies about mental illness are a dime a dozen, and it's hard to find one that has a take on the subject that hasn't already been done, but "Madeline's Madeline" comes pretty close. It's a very experimental film in some ways and one that will likely frustrate some viewers. I will admit to finding my patience tested at times, but overall I will say that the movie rewards sticking with it until its ambiguous end.

Madeline is a young woman whose acting talent either encourages her illness or gives her an outlet for it, depending on your perspective. Certainly her mom, played by Miranda July, is suspect of Madeline's troupe of acting friends and especially her acting teacher, but whether this suspicion arises from a mother's natural instinct for managing her daughter's fragile mental state or the threat that her control over her daughter might be jeopardized is not made entirely clear. Perhaps it's a bit of both? Certainly she has some reason to be concerned, because Madeline's teacher has no qualms about exploiting her illness for what it brings to the vague theater project she's working on. I've always only half-jokingly believed that the very best artists the world has produced are always a little bit crazy, and "Madeline's Madeline" seems to suggest that the fine line between sanity and artistic brilliance is a fuzzy one.

The chaotic film making, with its abrupt cuts, jumpy camera, and disorienting whirls and spins can be read as a visual representation of Madeline's disassociated mental state, but I wished the director would have calmed down a bit.

Grade: B
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5/10
Best Picture Nominee of 1935
5 February 2019
I gave "Naughty Marietta" a try because I'd never seen a moving pairing Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and I knew what a famous movie pair they were in the 1930s. This one also has the distinction of being one of the Best Picture Academy Award nominees from 1935, so I figured this would be a good one to pick. Hmmmm......not for me. That warbly singing, yuck. The inconsequential story....boring. Why should I care about any of it?.....I didn't.

Did I like anything about it? Yes....Frank Morgan and Elsa Lanchester, who I always like no matter what they're in or what they're doing.

Won the 1935 Oscar given for Sound Recording, which went to the MGM studio sound department under the direction of Douglas Shearer.

Grade: C
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Blindspotting (2018)
8/10
Hidden Gem
5 February 2019
"Blindspotting" flew under the radar in 2018, but it turned out to be one of the better overlooked movies I saw this year.

Daveed Diggs plays a man with three days left to go on his parole who's determined to fly straight and avoid going back to jail. Making that difficult is the entire world in which he lives as a black man with a record, and more specifically his best friend, a white thug wannabe played expertly by Rafael Casal, who threatens to drag him back into his old ways.

"Blindspotting" is one of several movies to come out this year that illustrate what it's like being a black person living in white privileged America. I've liked all of them and have thought each one has had a unique way of making its point to an audience that will never completely understand what it's like to be black. What "Blindspotting" gets most right is the difference between being an actual black man who's been pigeon holed as a thug vs. a white man who has appropriated black thug culture. As Diggs' character tells Casal's at one point, the white guy can break all the same laws as the black guy, but when the cops show up, it's the black guy who's more likely to get shot.

Another plus of "Blindspotting" is that it's really very funny. It's got serious points to make and it makes them well, but it does so with a laugh.

Grade: A-
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