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On the Basis of Sex (review)

On the Basis of Sex (review)

One of last summer’s most popular documentaries was RGB, which chronicled the incredible career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (my review). This biopic dramatizes her marriage and early career up to the landmark case that solidified her crusade as an equal rights activist. Even though Felicity Jones does a decent job of bringing out the character’s strengths and doubts, the whole thing feels a bit like a Lifetime flick. The relationship with her husband (Armie Hammer) is sweetly romantic and the repetitive discrimination borders on message movie. The story plays out interestingly enough, but as the crucial trail gets closer, the movie’s momentum bogs down with legal wrangling. Even so, it’s an interesting and a well-made ode to Ginsburg’s intellect and influence.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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The Upside (review)

The Upside (review)

This remake of a popular French import (The Intouchables) stars Ryan Cranston as a paralyzed billionaire, who hires a round-around-the-edges ex-con as his caretaker (played by Kevin Hart). The seemingly incompatible combo turns out to be perfect partnership of support, humor and friendship. Fortunately, director Neil Burger has managed to rein in Hart’s typical manic frenzy, while still taking full advantage of his comic skills. Every actor is engaging (including a delightful Nicole Kidman) and the film sparkles with a lively attitude and plenty of laughs (although some might fault the easy conflicts and resolutions). Expect to be charmed, touched and entertained. A bonus: this film features Aretha Franklin’s songs and is dedicated to her.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Ben is Back (review)

Ben is Back (review)

While “Beautiful Boy” (my review) examined the relationship between a young addict and a parent over several years, this one approaches the same subject in the span on one nite (and I liked it better). Lucas Hedges play the son, who comes home from rehab to be with his family on Christmas Eve. When things take the inevitable turn, he and his mother (Julia Roberts) set out to right them. The approach is expectedly and relentlessly grim, but it’s made engrossing by the performances and intelligent filmmaking. Hedges creates another nuanced character and Roberts gives her most moving performance, as she embodies a mother’s desperate concern. Writer/director Peter Hedges (yes, Lucas’ father) has crafted the work with a dramatic intensity that creates a compelling examination of addiction, recovery and most importantly, familial love.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Aquaman (review)

Aquaman (review)

This latest origin story comes from the DC Comic hero who’s a hybrid of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and royalty from an underwater kingdom (Nicole Kidman). Jason Momoa takes on the title role with his immense presence and the demeanor of a regular, rough-around-the-edges guy. There’s a plot that so feeble it doesn’t need to be addressed. The underwater kingdom is full of beautiful, imaginative visuals and slightly bizarre creatures. Director James Wan (primarily known for the “Saw” series) brings his skills with action to create some impressive fight sequences, although (like most of these superhero films) the last big battle is too long and too cluttered. Overall, it’s less serious and more fun than many comic book flix. NOTE: Stay thru the closing title sequences for a hint of the sequel.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

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If Beale Street Could Talk (review)

If Beale Street Could Talk (review)

This story is taken from the James Baldwin novel, which revolves around the dedicated, intense love between a young woman (Kiki Layne) and her fiancé (Stephan James). Their idyllic time is challenged when he’s unjustly imprisoned and she must maintain their relationship, while preparing to have their baby. Director Barry Jenkins has infused the film with moments of poetic beauty and touching affection (between the couple and with her family). As lovely as this is, almost every scene revels in its lyric artistry too long, which makes the drama harder to endure. Still, with affecting performances and creative direction, this is a challenging art film with a strong social message.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Mary Poppins Returns (review)

Mary Poppins Returns (review)

After 54 years, her return to the screen pretty much follows the template of the original: sweet children, withholding father, tuneful songs, eye-popping fantasies, and of course, the sassy nanny (Emily Blunt). The situations are Disney sweet (even when times are down), the performers are all fine (Blunt was acceptable, but not outstanding), the flights of imagination are enjoyable and the pleasant tunes feel stylistically like the originals without being memorable. The film hits all of the right notes, just not as wonderfully as the first time. While it’s not without charm and the story never lags, this follow-up doesn’t possess that special magic that made the original a classic.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Bumblebee (review)

Bumblebee (review)

This origin story details how the Transformers ended up on Earth. The first to arrive took the form of a yellow VW bug. Hailee Steinfeld plays the frustrated teen (with convenient mechanical skills) who repairs and befriends him. This approach feels more like “The Love Bug” than it does the previous more robotic iterations. The visual effects make him and the transitions seem much more convincingly real. He’s scrappy (literally, you can see various car parts on his transformed body), but with a sweet personality. Director Travis Knight, who’s had previous success with 3 animated films, has brought his skills to add humanity, humor and warmth to what feels more like Disney’s version of the franchise. NOTE: Stay thru the short credits for one final bit.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Vice (review)

Vice (review)

Writer/director Adam McKay uses the same approach to storytelling that he did for The Big Short. Here are excerpts from that review:

This feels like a Michael Moore documentary with reenactments by a great cast. Director Adam McKay has utilized several cinematic tools to tell a complex and confusing story: entertaining montages, snappy editing, quick scenes and clever comedy. The short-attention-span pacing and McKay’s wildly creative approach (with those absorbing performances) make the film entertaining and ultimately infuriating.

All of this applies to this film. as he takes on Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). He starts with his formative years and moves thru his career to the crucial powers that he wielded as Vice President during the Bush administration. Bale has made a remarkable visual transformation and on top of that, the performance is creepily compelling. The rest of the cast nails it too, often looking surprisingly like their real-life counterparts. This is a piece of masterful storytelling that will shed light on one of recent history’s most Machiavellian personalities. NOTE: Stay thru the early credits for a final scene that brings it all home.

 

4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

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Mary Queen of Scots (review)

Mary Queen of Scots (review)

The titular queen returns to Scotland to claim her rightful crown, but conflict from her cousin Elizabeth in London forms the basis for this drama. There’s also an element of feminism, as both women battle the misogynist attitudes of their court. The narrative sometimes seems confusing, but the basic plot was discernible (and not all that complex). Those who like historical dramas will enjoy the fine performances and period trappings, although there are some liberties taken with accuracy, including color-blind casting and a gay relationship. (Criterion Cinemas only, where they’re showing a teaser for the Downton Abbey movie.)

 

3 Stars (3 / 5)

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (review)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (review)

The latest variation on the popular Marvel hero is animated, but the differences don’t end there. A black/Hispanic teen gets bitten by the radioactive spider. While trying to figure out his powers, several other Spidey versions show up from alternate universes. What makes this fun is the lively energy, self-aware wisecracks and throwbacks to the comic roots (even Stan Lee shows up). While it’s mostly fun and the visuals are flashy, the final fights are cluttered and the ending takes too much time to close. Still, it’s an enjoyable and unexpected addition to the genre. NOTE: Stay thru the credits for the inevitable (wacky) surprise.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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The Mule (review)

The Mule (review)

Director Clint Eastwood also stars as a kindly old man who haplessly ends up transporting drugs for a Mexican cartel. Be warned, this is a gentle drama and not a typical action-filled, guns-blazing drug flick. Eastwood creates a sweet character with flaws: he’s prioritized his job over his family, he’s headstrong and he’s gently-racist. There’s lots of footage of him driving and singing, interacting fearlessly with his new bosses and facing his domestic faults with sometimes tiresome dramatic moments. This will not be a big hit, but Eastwood’s laid back performance is quietly charming and sometimes even amusing.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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The Favourite (review)

The Favourite (review)

You can always expect unusual cinema with director Giorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “Killing of a Sacred Deer”). This time he’s applied his warped sensibilities to the cunning affairs of the heart played out thru the machinations of court. Olivia Colman plays an ailing Queen Anne in 18th century England. She’s attended by her devoted Lady and lover (Rachel Weisz). When a new servant arrives (Emma Stone), they begin a conflict for the Queen’s affection. There’s a beautiful location, lovely dresses and no small measure of absurd slants on royal life. The 3 women are all enjoyable, with Colman being especially enthralling. The film promises absurd satire and peculiar wit, which it delivers with compelling style, but the lagging pace and rambling narrative keep this film from fully realizing its absurd comic impact.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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