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Last Christmas (review)

Last Christmas (review)

Emilia Clarke enchants with her bright smile, as a woman who’s sweetly struggling with her life. She works in a Christmas store, auditions for parts and goes from friend to family for a place to sleep. One day she meets an appealing man (Henry Golding) who helps her find herself. What seems like a sweet, but not especially special romantic comedy does manage to turn things around before it’s over. Screenwriter Emma Thompson has fashioned a mildly cute comedy, but none of the characters are especially memorable (except her own role as the Hungarian mother). Director Paul Feig has kept it seasonably bright, but doesn’t add much comic charm. While not without appeal (and a soundtrack featuring the songs of George Michael), this might warm hearts seeking a holiday trifle.

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

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Midway (review)

Midway (review)

Midway was the area in the Pacific where the Americans took on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, marking a turning point in WWII. In an attempt to add a human slant to this battle-chocked war movie, the story is populated stories of several actual heroes. Director Roland Emmerich is known for his big disaster flix and this one has plenty of firepower…however, the CGI isn’t always convincing. Despite all of the action, much of the drama feels like a throwback to 50s war movies replete with corny dialogue and bad acting. History buffs might enjoy the ride and anyone who likes watching dive bombers and big explosions may be thrilled. Those hoping for much more will likely endure a failed mission.

 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

 

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Doctor Sleep (review)

Doctor Sleep (review)

It’s not necessary to know much backstory from Stephen King’s THE SHINING, but it helps to know the basics for this sequel. Ewan McGregor plays the adult version of the little boy who was scarred by the events in the original movie. He’s still coping with the ghosts (literally) from that time, when a teenager appears who also has extrasensory powers. They embark on a search to stop a truly merciless group who prey on the pain of children (the most brutal scene in the film). This story takes 2.5 hours to unfold and doesn’t even get to the fateful hotel until the final 30 minutes. Through it all, there’s a sense of dread, accompanied with some cool visual effects and ominous sound design. The pace never quickens and there aren’t any big scares, but the compelling story and Mike Flanagan’s engrossing direction create a continual level of tension.

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Pain and Glory (review)

Pain and Glory (review)

Unlike many of Pedro Almodóvar’s early films, this semi-autobiographical reminiscence takes a more understated approach. Frequent star of his early films, Antonio Banderas, plays a director in his later years…without work and suffering for a litany of physical and mental challenges. He reconnects with a number of people from his past career and early childhood (via memory). There are some beautiful moments of recollection and reconciliation with Banderas making a quiet impression in every scene.  While this film never gets especially dramatic in its revelations, the images of restrained regrets and gentle acceptance paint a subdued portrait of an artist coming to terms with his life and art. (Criterion Cinemas only, in Spanish with subtitles)

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Jojo Rabbit (review)

Jojo Rabbit (review)

This film starts as an almost rollicking satire of Nazi soldiers, especially Hitler youth, where the title character faces humiliation during his training (and earns his nickname). As he spends more time at home, he discovers that his mom (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish teenager in their house. Before it’s over, this narrative turns into a touching look at innocence, love and war. The actor playing Jojo is simply spectacular, deserving an Oscar for his nuanced and utterly charming performance. Director Taika Waititi (who also plays the boy’s imaginary friend Adolph Hitler) has crafted another twisted look at the absurdities of life (he’s also hilarious as the Fuhrer). Even though there’s plenty of Waititi’s twisted sense of humor, this movie evolves into a sweet and ultimately touching wartime drama.

 

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

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Harriet (review)

Harriet (review)

After Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) escaped from slavery, her dedication to freedom took her on a remarkable journey that saved hundreds of others. Erivo is in almost every scene, driving the story with earnest resolution. The rather prosaic script and no especially inspired direction turn this into a somewhat staid history lesson. It lacks an urgent power that might have driven it into great drama. An inspiring story of strength and dedication, but not an inspiring movie. (Shot around Richmond, it’s fun to look for local faces in the cast.)

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Terminator: Dark Fate (review)

Terminator: Dark Fate (review)

This sequel takes place 20 years after Sara Connor (Linda Hamilton) saved the world. This time there’s a new target for a new terminator to eliminate. Toss in another savior from the future (Mackenzie Davis) and a terminator from the past (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and you have a team ready for battle (interestingly, mostly female). As expected (and shown in the trailer), there are superfast fights on land, in cars and even in the air. People and objects fly around in a dizzying blur of action. So much so, that after a while, it lacks punch (pun intended). While the movie is acceptably entertaining and a fitting resolution/continuation of the original plot, it never manages to be much more.

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

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Motherless Brooklyn (review)

Motherless Brooklyn (review)

Edward Norton plays a private detective in 50s New York, who also happens to have Tourette Syndrome. Other than the expected twitches and outbursts, it didn’t add much interesting to his character. What was especially weird was that everyone in the movie freely accepted it (in the 50s!). Considering that he also wrote and directed, it’s pretty apparent that he was looking for an Oscar-bait showcase (remember Rain Man?). He’s learned a few things about making a movie, but sadly, his script rambles too much and his direction creates little emotional connection for him or any of the other relationships. The plot revolves around corrupt politicians and a scheme to displace black citizens for the sake of “progress.” The film does manage to capture some of the darker elements of film noir, but still lacks much stylistic punch. At 2.5 hours, the slow unraveling of the mystery has no real shocking revelations and lacks interesting depth. This is more a curiosity than an updated extension of the genre.

 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

 

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Parasite (review)

Parasite (review)

The Park family is struggling financially, when the son gets a job teaching English to the daughter of the rich Kim family. In a short time, he brings his parents and sister to work for them…then things take a very dark turn. The film is a bit slow in the first 3rd (maybe straining to make sure the financial inequality theme is clear), but once the twists start, it departs into unexpected areas (literally and figuratively). Director Bong Joon Ho (best known for Snowpiercer) continues to showcase his skills at creating unique and disturbing storytelling. The combo of humor, suspense and violence lends this film an intelligent, yet visceral quality that’s sure to stimulate and surprise. (Korean with subtitles)

 

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

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The Lighthouse (review)

The Lighthouse (review)

The director of “The Witch” (my review) has created another weirdo mood piece. Willem Dafoe plays the crusty old lighthouse keeper who continually farts and berates his young new partner (Robert Pattinson). Their relationship becomes ever more twisted and dark, as their isolated existence bears down on their souls. Both actors get plenty of opportunity for excess (especially Dafoe) with grand statements and sometimes confusing period dialogue. The square aspect ratio and dramatic black and white cinematography add to the artistic look, while the ominous soundtrack continually invades the action with a heavy hand. As things become more bizarre, it reminded me of the detached weirdness of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Some will find this film’s peculiar, creepy vibe mesmerizing, while others will think it’s a pretentious, over the top exercise in self indulgence. I’m in the middle… appreciated it more than loved it.

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Black and Blue (review)

Black and Blue (review)

Naomie Harris plays rookie police officer who stumbles upon some dirty cops and happens to record their illegal actions on her body cam. The rest of the movie scrambles her all over her former gang-ridden neighborhood trying to stay alive (with the help of an old friend played by Tyrese Gibson). Although there’s not much subtle about the script’s messages and there are some flaws in the logic, director Deon Taylor has created a tense drama with more suspense coming from the chase and interactions than from violence (although there is some of that). Harris and the rest of the cast do a good job of helping make what could have been a trite corrupt cop flick into a dark and compelling drama.

 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

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Zombieland: Double Tap (review)

Zombieland: Double Tap (review)

After a hiatus of 10 years, the original director, 2 writers and the main cast are all back, but the thrill is gone. Even though the chemistry is still there and there are plenty of snarky comments, the magic is missing. Primarily, because the action takes a back seat to relationships (yawn). The main quartet splits up several times, as they cope with new breeds of zombies and their own personal issues. Some fresh faces pop up, but Thomas Middleditch is the only one who adds any fun. There aren’t even many fight scenes and most of the killings aren’t clever or original. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good zombie chop, but “The Walking Dead” does a lot better job of that. My review of the first movie called it “pure popcorn pleasure,” but this one rates as a high-spirited but ultimately tired retread. NOTE: Stay thru the credits for an additional gag.

 

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

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