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Olivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac

“LIFE ITSELF” My rating: C- (Opens wide on Sept. 21)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Having conquered the world of episodic television with the emotion-wringing family drama “This is Us,”  writer/director Dan Fogelman turns to the big screen with “Life Itself.”

Things don’t go well.

As the title suggests, Fogelman is here attempting nothing less than a God’s-eye view of human lives, all of them entangled — though at first that’s not obvious.  While “This is Us” appeals directly to big laughs and big tears, “Life Itself” is curiously muted, as if we’re observing the characters across vast distances.  Those looking for a good cry will probably leave looking for something to punch.

The film is perversely curious, for Fogelman has given us nothing less than a humanistic, non-violent parody/homage of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” Like that film, “Life Itself” is broken into specific chapters and employs a time-leaping narrative (something with which Fogelman is familiar…see “This is Us”). At one point characters attend a party dressed like John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction’s”  famous dance contest; at least twice in “Life Itself” the movie slows down so that characters can deliver long Tarantino-esque monologues. Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson even pops up in an extended cameo so weird it defies description.

So what’s the movie about?  Well, let’s break it down by  chapters.

  • In the opening sequence the bearded, unkempt Will (Oscar Isaac) is getting therapy from a shrink (Annette Bening). We gradually learn that his beloved wife Abby has left him (in flashbacks she’s played by Olivia Wilde).  We see their romantic meeting, their growing love, their relationship with Will’s parents (Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart), their anticipation of the birth of their child. We discover that Will’s therapy was court-mandated after a suicide attempt and a few months in a mental ward. Eventually we discover what happened to Abby.
  • The next segment follows the childhood of Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who is raised by her widowed grandpa and grows up to be a smart/rebellious punk rocker, though tormented by the loss of the parents she never met. Continue Reading »
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Chloe Sevigny

“LIZZIE” My rating: C+ (Opens Sept. 21 at  Tivoli, Glenwood Arts and Barrywood)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “Lizzie” the infamous story of Lizzie Borden — the young Massachusetts woman accused in 1892 of giving her parents “40 whacks” with a hatchet — gets a very modern, feminist (sort of) spin.

Writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Macneill adhere closely to the known facts of the case…and use their imaginations to fill in the unexplored gaps.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is trapped. A spinster (unmarried at the age of 32), she lives in the household of her wealthy and domineering father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan).

Andrew is an old-style patriarch so cheap he has refused to wire his home for newfangled electricity. His  wife Abby (Fiona Shaw),  Lizzie’s stepmother,  is his colorless appendage; his older daughter Emma (Kim Dickens) is obedient and personality deficient.

Lizzie, though, is rebellious — though whether that is the result of an admirable strength of character or mental illness is up to the viewer. Early on she defies her father’s edict against going out unaccompanied, attends the theater, and has an epileptic fit in the powder room.

She’s the weird daughter Andrew would like to keep locked in a tower.

Life in the sedate Borden household shifts imperceptibly with the arrival of Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), a new housemaid. She’s quiet and hard working…and before long Andrew is raping her on a regular basis.

At the same time, Bridget and Lizzie are entering into their own love affair, a desperate reaction to the misogyny of Andrew’s home.

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Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce

“THE WIFE” My rating: 

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

By the time “The Wife” delivers its big reveal, it should come as no surprise.  The film has been telegraphing its intentions all along; only the most inattentive viewer will be taken aback.

Happily, plot is one of the least important elements in Bjorn Runge’s film (adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel). What we’ve got here are some terrific acting and a portrait of a marriage in which both partners have struck a deal with the devil to ensure their continued success.

We first meet novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) in the dead of night. Joe can’t sleep, knowing he’s a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Joan finally submits to septuagenarian sex to calm him down.

When in the early a.m. the phone call from Stockholm comes, the two celebrate by jumping up and down on their marriage bed like a couple of preschoolers.

But there are signs that not all is well in the Castleman household.  Joe, we learn, is an inveterate philanderer.  And while their pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) seems well-adjusted, their son David (Max Irons) is a slow-boiling cauldron of resentment and hurt, not the least because he is an aspiring writer and desperately wants the approval of his famous father…approval which Joe won’t give.

The scene quickly shifts to Stockholm and the swirl of Nobel Week.  Joe attempts to take all the attention in stride, while Joan looks on. In fact, all this hubbub  — and Joe’s obvious infatuation with the pretty young photographer (Morgane Polanski) assigned to record his visit for posterity — is rubbing Joan the wrong way.

Her mood isn’t improved by Nathanial (Christian Slater, in one of his best performances), a sort of literary leech who wants to write Joe’s authorized biography.  Equal parts charm and smarm, Nathanial spends an afternoon drinking with Joan and suggesting that perhaps she’s the one who should be getting the Nobel. Continue Reading »

Matthew McCaughnahey, Richie Merritt

“WHITE BOY RICK” My rating: C+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It’s easy to see why the real-life tale depicted in “White Boy Rick” got Hollywood’s attention. Here’s the story of a 15-year-old white Detroit kid who back in the ’80s infiltrated a black drug ring for the FBI, survived an assassination attempt, became a cocaine kingpin and ended up serving a long prison sentence.

It practically screams “Movie!”

Yet “White Boy Rick” is a surprisingly limp affair, perhaps because the screenwriters (Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller) and director Yann Demange cannot decide what to make of their offbeat protagonist.

And if they don’t know, those of us in the audience are even more in the dark.

The basics are these: Back in ’84 Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) was helping his bottom-feeding, gun-dealing dad (Matthew McConaughey, in full character actor mode with pot belly and greasy mullet) peddle illegal homemade silencers to Detroit’s gangbangers.

Cornered by a couple of manipulative  and openly amoral FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane), Rick agrees to go undercover if the feds will leave his old man alone. He starts by buying at local drug houses, ostensibly on behalf of his crackhead sister (Bel Powley), and gradually becomes accepted by the crew of a local drug lord (Jonathan Majors).

Before long he’s dropped out of school and is sporting expensive track suits and gold bling (he’s so thick he buys a gaudy Star of David necklace, not realizing it represents Judaism) and doing all sorts of services both for the gang and for his FBI handlers.

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“PICK OF THE LITTER” My rating: B 

81 minutes | No MPAA rating

Even if you’re not a dog lover, “Pick of the Litter” has an AWWWWW factor that’s off the charts.

But canine-generated sentimentality aside, this documentary leaves the viewer deeply impressed by the effort that goes into training a Guide Dog for the Blind, and by the sacrifices of dozens of humans who are behind each animal that completes the program.

Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman’s film begins with the birth of five puppies and follows their growth and training over two years as they prepare to join the ranks of what used to be called “seeing-eye dogs.”

It starts out cute — few things are as heart-melting as a wriggling newborn Labrador retriever — and gradually works its way into some surprisingly territory.

We’re told up front that only three out of every eight dogs bred by the California-based Guide Dogs for the Blind will graduate from the program.  Which means that of our five littermate subjects — the staff names them Potomac, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot and Phil — only two should be expected to make the final cut. And even that’s not guaranteed.

Most will at some point be “career changed,” meaning that they’ll be scrubbed from the program for reasons ranging from intelligence to excitability to the ability to focus on the task at hand.  One of the more intriguing issues raised centers on how much of the failure is due to the individual animal’s nature and how much to the shortcomings of  its human handlers.

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“AMERICAN CHAOS” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every liberal -minded American should see “American Chaos.”

Good luck with that.

Because however insightful it may be, Jim Stern’s documentary about Trump supporters is almost too painful to watch.

The film begins with a montage of Presidential campaign newsreel footage, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and ending with Donald Trump.

Stern then goes on to describe himself as growing up in a classic Kennedy Democrat household in Chicago. He still reveres Bobby Kennedy, whom he describes as generating “a feeling of empathy so deep it was infectious.”  Not until Obama did he feel a similar level of enthusiasm for a Presidential candidate.

But shortly after the beginning of the 2016 race Stern noticed something different about Trump and his adherents, something that bothered him so much that he grabbed his camera and spent several months crisscrossing America to interview Trump  voters.

The resulting documentary doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard elsewhere, but it’s interesting /frightening to hear these citizens explain their support.

Stern went into these conversations knowing that he wasn’t going to debate with his subjects, make snide comments or even speak disapprovingly of Trump (which doesn’t mean you can’t catch him biting his tongue on numerous occasions). He genuinely wanted to know what these folks believed…and why.

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Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley

“OPERATION FINALE” My rating: B

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Israel’s 1961 show trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has spawned several documentaries, a hit stage play (Robert Shaw’s “The Man in the Glass Booth,” later filmed) and numerous other movies. Particularly noteworthy was 2012’s “Hannah Arendt,” about the political philosopher who covered the trial for The New Yorker and was so unimpressed by Eichmann’s demeanor that she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.”

With “Operation Finale” first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “A Better Life”) have tackled the Eichmann saga and in effect given us two films.

The first is a suspenseful procedural about Mossad agents who track down the “architect of the Final Solution” in Argentina, risking life and limb to spirit their kidnapped prey back to Israel and a final judgment.

But wrapped in the middle of that thriller is an equally absorbing drama, a psychological duel between Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and the Jewish agent (Oscar Isaac) who must somehow bend the will of this egocentric anti-Semite.

Much of the film’s first half is devoted to planning the mission. Like many of his fellows, the first inclination of agent Peter Malkin (Isaac) is to simply pop a bullet into Eichmann, who under an assumed identity has been working as a foreman at a Buenos Aires auto plant and devoting his spare time to nurturing an underground Nazi movement. (Under Juan Peron’s fascist leadership Argentina was already halfway Nazi; Eichmann and his goose-stepping pals had plenty of friends in politics and law enforcement.)

But Israeli bigwigs very much want Eichmann alive.

The skillfully depicted abduction goes as planned — but there’s a hiccup.  The El Al plane that is supposed to whisk the agents and their captive to Israel is delayed by red tape.  Eichmann and his guards must spend a week in a safe house, keeping a low profile as outraged Argentine law enforcement launch a citywide manhunt. (Here’s a bit of irony…15 years after the war we have a houseful of Jews still hiding from right-wing thugs).

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John Cho

“SEARCHING” My rating: B 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us spend too much time staring at screens. So why has it taken so long for Hollywood to deliver a feature film that tells its story exclusively through Internet images?

In Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” a single father sets out on a desperate quest to find his missing teenage daughter. We never see or hear him — or any of the characters — except via some sort of electronic device …especially a computer monitor or a smart phone.

Initially it would seem that this approach — it’s a kind of variation on the “found footage” gimmick –would be limiting, both narratively and visually.

But that’s not the case. Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian find ingeniously inventive ways of telling their story. Often we’re looking at a computer screen overflowing with various windows between which our eyes flit…at least at those times when the filmmakers don’t employ editing and zooms to focus us on a particular bit of business.

The movie opens with a montage of home videos featuring David Kim (John Cho), his wife and daughter. Through these we see the family in good times and bad — the Missus is eaten away by cancer over years. The heart-grabbing effect is not unlike the brilliant photo album introduction of Pixar’s “Up.”

Post-tragedy, David and daughter Margot (Michelle La) appear to have a more or less normal relationship. We see them exchanging texts and communicating over FaceTime. He’s a concerned parent, but in no way smothering.

Which may be his big mistake.  One night Margot goes to a friend’s house for a late-night study session.  It’s almost 24 hours before David realizes she never came home and is no longer answering her cell phone.

He starts tracking down and calling Margot’s friends. They know nothing (they’re not really friends…more like acquaintances); worse, David begins to realize that his girl had a private life to which he wasn’t privy. For years he’s been giving her $100 a week to pay for her piano studies; now he discovers that she abandoned those classes months ago, but has continued to collect the cash.

The panicked father contacts the cops and Detective Vick (Debra Messing) takes the case. Despite her admonitions that he should leave the investigating to the professionals, David cannot help digging ever deeper into Margot’s digital history. What he finds is starting to look like a parent’s worst nightmare.

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Henry Golding, Constance Wu

“CRAZY RICH ASIANS” My rating: C

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Crazy Rich Asians” is an utterly conventional and largely indifferent wedding-weekend rom-com made noteworthy by just one thing:

It’s the first Hollywood movie since who-knows-when to feature Asian actors in virtually every speaking role.

Culturally speaking, this is a step forward.  Artistically it’s dead in the water.

Jon M.  Chu’s film centers on Rachel (Constance Wu), a professor of economics at Columbia University in a deepening romance with Nick (Henry Golding), a Singapore citizen of Chinese descent who works in finance.

What Rachel doesn’t realize is that Nick is the heir to one of the biggest family fortunes in Asia.  The Youngs own real estate, hotel chains, you name it (if you think Trumpism with all its attendant tackiness, you’re not too far off the mark). But Nick has kept all this from Rachel; he wants to be loved for himself, not his staggering wealth.

Once in Singapore to attend the nuptials of one of Nick’s many cousins,  the secret is out.

Rachel is stunned by the display of unfettered prosperity before her.  “Crazy” in the case of this film means wildly profligate, for the Youngs are not shy about parading their buying power, from vast estates surrounded by a private army to a wedding ceremony in a church decorated to look like a jungle complete with running stream through which the bride wades to meet her groom.

The big problem, though, is less about money than about cultural prejudice.  The Young clan — especially Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) — cannot conceived of an outsider joining their ranks. Thus Rachel is targeted for humiliation and alienation initiated by aunties and cousins who at first seem civil and even friendly but who are just waiting the opportunity to pounce.

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“BLACKkKLANSMAN” My rating: B-

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As confirmed by the six-minute standing ovation it received at May’s Cannes International Film Festival, Spike Lee’s “BlackKKlansman” is the right movie at the right time.

The film so effectively punches certain cultural hot buttons, so taps into the current political zeitgeist that it takes an hour of its 145-minute running time to realize that as drama it’s pretty weak stuff.

Based on the real story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective in Colorado Springs who in the late ’70s infiltrated and even joined the Ku Klux Klan, the film is an uneasy melding of suspense, liberal uplift and  satire in which every element — performances, writing, pacing — is subservient to the delivery of a political message.

I’m down with that message. The film opens with a 50s-era “educational” film in which a eugenicist (Alec Baldwin) rants against the threat posed by race mingling. It closes with news footage of neo-Nazis marching last year in Charlottesville VA (and President Trump giving them a pass).

Even so, the movie (Lee co-wrote the screenplay with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz  and K.U. teacher and filmmaker Kevin Willmott) is notably heavy handed. Yeah, today’s audiences haven’t much use for subtlety, but even so…

We encounter Stallworth (John David Washington…Denzel’s son) when he applies to become the first black officer on the Colorado Springs force.  He’s warned by the Chief (Robert John Burke) that he’ll have to have a Jackie Robinson-level of tolerance for abuse.  It’ll come at him not just from the public but from  his fellow officers.

But Stallworth is ambitious. So when Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael is booked to address African American students at a local college,  the department’s sole black cop jumps at the chance to go undercover. He’s assigned to attend the rally and report back on Carmichael’s speech (the activist was long a target of Hoover’s FBI).

The fallout from the event is considerable.

First, Stallworth exhibits his value as a plainclothes officer, leading to his elevation to the rank of detective.

Second, he meets and eventually falls for Patrice (Laura Harrier), the student activist who organized the event — although it will be some time before he confesses that he’s one of the “pigs” she so despises.

Third, he finds himself unexpectedly inspired by Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), whose message of black pride/power hits hard. But did Lee really have to punctuate this scene with artsy montages of young black faces transformed by the speech? Aren’t Carmichael’s words powerful enough?

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Pooh, Ewan McGregor

“CHRISTOPHER ROBIN” My rating: C- 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Few moviegoing experiences are as disheartening as the film that aspires to the whimsical and charming but instead falls flat on its boring face.

Welcome to “Christopher Robin,” Disney’s ill-conceived live-action (mostly) fantasy about the adult life of the little boy who used to play with Pooh, Piglet and the other animals in the Hundred Acre Woods.

Unlike last year’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which was a loose biography of Pooh creator A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne, this new effort from director Marc Forster unfolds in an alternative universe in which Milne and the Pooh books don’t exist (although the movie opens with animated versions of the famous book illustrations by E.H. Shepard…so you can be forgiven if you’re confused).

In a prologue little Christopher Robin (his first name is Christopher, his last Robin) says goodbye to his toy companions as he prepares for boarding school.  Pooh and the others — rendered in what appears to be a combination of puppetry and computer effects — are left behind to mourn the loss of their human friend.

In a montage we see the grown Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) meet and marry Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), go off to World War II and become a father to young Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  By now he’s all but forgotten his childhood companions; he’s up to his neck in troubles as a middle manager at a London luggage company on the verge of bankruptcy. Christopher is so consumed by business woes that he’s alienating his wife and child.

And then one day — tah DAH — Pooh uses a magic portal (in a tree) to come to London to look for his old friend. The harried businessman spends a day back in the Hundred Acre Woods, slowly getting back in touch with his childhood self.

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Tom Cruise

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT” My rating: B-

147 minutes| MPAA rating: PG-13

The latest “Mission: Impossible” is being hyped as possibly the greatest action film of all time.

Well, there’s no arguing that “Fallout” has some of the best conceived and executed action sequences ever, with star Tom Cruise appearing to risk life and limb to deliver the thrills audiences expect. (Of course, in this age of seamless CGI moviegoers can’t even be sure that a simple sunset is the real deal. Probably best to take the Cruise heroics with a grain of salt.)

Here’s the downside.  In his effort to deliver bigger, better stunts (he’d already set the bar impossibly high with 2015’s “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation”) writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has jettisoned just about every other dramatic element.

Character development?  Hah.

Coherent plotting? You need a flow chart and a PowerPoint demonstration to make sense of it all.

Emotional content?  Gimme a break.

No, this latest “M:I” is essentially a perpetual motion machine careening from one splashy sequence to the next.  The connective material — the moments when the film slows down enough to explain what’s going on or to establish who’s who —  is actually kind of irritating.  It’s like being told to eat your peas before you can have some ice cream.

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“THE INCREDIBLES 2” My rating: B 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“The Incredibles” (2004) always was too good for kids.

Youngsters may have made up the bulk of ticket buyers, but so much of Brad Bird’s yarn about the Parrs, an urban family with superpowers, was directed at adults — especially boomers with a collective memory of James Bond films and early ’60s kitsch.

The long-in-coming “Incredibles 2” is more of the same.  Far from being a radical departure from the original film, it picks up precisely where the first one left off (with the arrival of the John Ratzenberger-voiced Underminer and his gigantic burrowing machine); you could watch the two films back to back as one big story.

Once again, Bird’s screenplay pits the family against a villain — in this case a mysterious figure known as the Screenslaver who uses the world’s TV sets  as  invasive hypnotic devices. And the sequel continues the earlier film’s plot thread about a worldwide ban on superheroes, which forces our protagonists to operate mostly in secret.

All well and good. But the real theme of “Incredibles 2” is gender roles.

Because of its early ’60s setting, Bird can dabble in bad-old-days male chauvinism, particularly as it affects the marvelous Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), who finds herself more or less working solo to fight the Screenslaver.

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George MacKay, Amanda Stenberg

“WHERE HANDS TOUCH”  My rating: C

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Initially intriguing but ultimately ineffective, “Where Hand Touch” is an odd blend of “Romeo and Juliet” romance and “Pianist”-style Holocaust horror.

Its heart is in the right place. Alas, good intentions aren’t enough.

While the film mines a real-life situation rarely recognized by the arts or the history books — the plight under the Nazis of mixed-blood Germans whose mothers were Aryan  and fathers African — “Where Hands Touch” is tough going. And not just because of the downbeat subject matter.

Writer/director Amma Assante rarely opts for subtlety when a heavy hand can be employed. The result is a film that, in theory anyway, should move us deeply.  Except that it doesn’t.

Sixteen-year-old Lenya (Amanda Sternberg) comes to Berlin with her mother (a dowdied-down Abbie Cornish) and little brother (Tom Sweet) in the hopes of becoming lost. Back in their provincial burg the authorities are looking for Jews and mixed-race children. Perhaps Lenya, whose father was an African soldier with the occupying French at the end of WWI, can hide her racial heritage among the city’s masses.

The irony here is that Lenya considers herself 100 percent German…and so does the law, which defines citizenship as being passed down from mother to child.  But mixed-race children are widely viewed as a blemish on the Reich, so Lenya must be very careful where she goes and who she sees.

It’s a small miracle, then, when she is befriended by Lutz (George MacKay), a blonde Hitler Youth who is not only prejudice free but romantically taken with his exotic new neighbor.

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