‘Bathtubs Over Broadway’ Film Review: Ebullient Doc Sheds Light on Musicals Aimed at Corporate America


If Dava Whisenant’s joyous documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway” served only to spotlight the occluded corner of American musical history known as the “industrial musical,” it would be perfectly entertaining in its own right. But in its portrayal of one man’s unusual journey, the film has much to say about turning ironic amusement into unalloyed appreciation.

And if you don’t know what an “industrial musical” is, relax — we were never meant to see them in the first place. Starting in the 1950s, these shows were crafted to entertain and inspire the sales reps from companies like Xerox and General Electric. Expensive and elaborate, they were often performed only a few times, at conventions or sales meetings, and they mostly exist now on souvenir soundtrack recordings (of shows with names like “Diesel Dazzle” or “The Bathrooms Are Coming!”) that weren’t intended to be shared with the general public.

Decades later, “Late Night with David Letterman” writer Steve Young began stumbling upon these albums as he started collecting bizarre bits of vinyl effluvia for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment of the show. While Letterman dismissed a song called “My Insurance Man” as being “more annoying than listening to my insurance man,” Young found himself hooked.

A self-described comedy casualty — someone who’s been working in the field so long that almost nothing funny provokes a response anymore — Young started tracking down these “For Internal Use Only” records, a trek that put him in touch first with other collectors (including punk legends Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and Don Bolles of The Germs) and then with the performers and the composers behind these unusual, unknown extravaganzas.

The industrial musical wound up being a fertile training ground for Broadway; we see some big names-to-be listed in the liner notes, and “Bathtubs” gets Chita Rivera, the late Florence Henderson, Martin Short, Tony-winning director Susan Stroman and “Fiddler on the Roof” co-creator Sheldon Harnick to sit down with Young to discuss their participation in these shows. Stroman shares how dealing with dancing beer cans shaped her later direction of hits like “The Producers,” while Short remembers the industrials as a desirable gig, with great pay and good hotel rooms.

The genre being examined here is a fascinating one, and you’d be surprised how hummable songs like “22 Slices of Bread” or “My Bathroom” can be. Whisenant, who also edits, loops in tantalizing archival footage of these shows, with beaming singers extolling the virtues of AB Dick copy machines and Purina Dog Chow’s incentives to grocers. One could hardly accuse these performers of “selling out”; they might be performing at the behest of corporate America, but these kids are clearly giving it their all.

But just as fascinating is Steve Young’s journey from someone with no hobbies and seemingly no friends outside of his immediate family to a dogged cultural anthropologist who grows close to his fellow fans and to the artists who never thought anyone would ask them about that show they wrote about tractors. We see Young get close with singers and writers, and particularly two composers; he winds up collaborating with one — Dion Beebe, the man behind “Diesel Dazzle” — and delivering a eulogy for another. As you might imagine from a pair of Letterman veterans (Whisenant was an editor on the show), the interviews with Young’s co-workers and family express a deadpan astonishment at his area of interest; thankfully, the movie loves and respects creatives like Patt Stanton Gjonola (the singer of “My Bathroom”) and Beebe as much as Young does.

And while the film never specifically connects these dots, “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is about what happens when admiration replaces snark. Letterman (who executive produced and is interviewed here) and his show represented a sort of Ground Zero for a specific kind of Generation X hipper-than-thou humor, and to see one of his writers evolve from mocking these corporate shows to unabashedly adoring them provides a road map for lovers of kitsch who want to take the “guilty” out of “guilty pleasure.”

“Bathtubs Over Broadway” is pure pleasure, both in its exploration of a hidden and uniquely American corner of show business and its portrait of the charmingly nerdy Young and his singular path toward rescuing this sub-sub-sub-genre while many of its executors are still alive to tell their stories.

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‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ Film Review: Zombies, Musicals and Christmas Make a Merry Mash-Up


We’re accustomed to horror movies using creativity and artistry to cover up their low budgets; a filmmaker can create plenty of scares with one set and a cast of four. The low-budget musical, on the other hand, is expected to provide splashy razzle-dazzle and grandeur with the same economy of means, and it’s a tougher genre to make succeed on a dime. That said, if you’re willing to overlook a little scruffiness at the edges, it’s a Christmas miracle that the Scottish import “Anna and the Apocalypse” works so well as both a horror movie and a musical.

And “Christmas miracle” should be taken literally, because this is a holiday movie as well. And if you don’t think the undead mix well with musical numbers and gaudy Yuletide decor, “Anna” might be the movie to change your mind.

It’s a film that the protagonist of “Heathers” might call “teen angst with a body count”: High-school senior Anna (Ella Hunt), mourning the death of her mother, has put off telling her father, Tony (Mark Benton, “Eddie the Eagle”), that she wants to go to Australia rather than heading directly to university. Anna’s best pal John (Malcolm Cumming) pines for her despite those feelings not being reciprocal. Newspaper editor Steph (Sarah Swire, who also choreographs) has been dumped by her girlfriend and abandoned by her vacationing parents for the holidays.

All these mini-dramas get shoved to the background, of course, when the zombies emerge. And while “Anna and the Apocalypse” doesn’t rewrite the rules of any of its genres — Anna and John sing the upbeat “Turning My Life Around,” oblivious to the carnage unfolding behind them, in a scene very reminiscent of “Shaun of the Dead” — it’s got a real spark of joy, even when the story turns grim. And while this might be a comic and tuneful zombie saga, it doesn’t mean that every likable character is going to make it to the final fade-out.

As musicals go, “Anna” is closer to “La La Land” or “The Last Five Years” than to “Moulin Rouge!”: There’s only one elaborate moment of group choreography (“Hollywood Ending,” a song about adolescent disappointment), with most of the songs involving just a handful of performers. But plenty of tonal flavors are represented, from upbeat (the aforementioned “Turning My Life Around”) to the yearning (“Break Away,” “Human Voice”).

Anna’s ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) gets to fancy himself a “Soldier at War,” as the zombie outbreak lets him put his bullying to practical use, and there’s even a saucy holiday song, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You,” which ups the innuendo ante from “Santa Baby.” (The music and lyrics are by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly.)

The main cast (including Marli Sui and Christopher Leveaux as a pair of high-school sweethearts) nimbly balance the film’s multitude of tones; Hunt, in particular, makes a forceful and empathetic leading lady, while Cumming charmingly steals scenes as the goofy BFF who’s never going to be the BF.

But Paul Kaye (“Game of Thrones”) goes overboard as the school’s power-mad headmaster, shooting for the kind of grand grotesque usually played by “Rocky Horror” creator Richard O’Brien. Compared to the rest of the performers, he appears to have wandered in from the Christmas panto show next door.

There’s a fascinating story-behind-the-story to “Anna and the Apocalypse”: Filmmaker Ryan McHenry, the man behind the viral “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” clips, made a “High School Musical”-inspired short called “Zombie Musical,” but he tragically died of bone cancer before he could make the feature.

His friends took up the cause, hiring John McPhail to direct the film; for someone working with limited means, and shooting on locations rather than sets, McPhail brings the film a cohesive look, less slick than “High School Musical” but more along the lines of songs breaking out in the midst of a European “Degrassi” knock-off.

Those charitable enough to watch a musical that doesn’t feature overhead cameras sweeping over hundreds of chorines may enjoy “Anna” for its humble charms. And if those assembly-line Hallmark flicks made you think there was nothing new in the world of Christmas movies, get ready for a breath of fresh air — one that smells like both pine needles and blood.

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Stan Lee Appreciation: Marvel Comics Mogul Was Interactive Long Before the Internet


No doubt many of today’s creators of film, TV, music, comics and video games wax nostalgic about the days before Twitter and Reddit and comments sections, when there was something of a wall between fans and artists, when members of the public had to sit down and write a letter to the people who were ruining “Star Wars” and who should stop talking about politics.

But if that wall existed in the 1960s through the 1980s, before every home had a personal computer connected to the internet, Stan Lee installed a window, interacting directly with fans before interactivity was cool. To be a reader of Marvel Comics was to enter a sanctum — a Sanctum Santorum, if you will — where in every issue Lee would write a full-page letter plugging the new titles, yes, but also cracking wise, sharing opinions, fostering inside jokes and generally making fans feel like they were in on something.

To be a comics reader in the 1970s, as I was as a child, was about as far from cool as you could get, and yet somehow Stan Lee made you feel like you belonged. He would address Marvel’s “True Believers,” assigning nicknames to the company’s legendary line-up of writers and artists (e.g. “Jolly” Jack Kirby, “Joltin'” Joe Sinnott, etc.), and award “no-prizes” to hardcore fans who caught errors of logic or continuity in the books. (The “no-prize” was exactly what it sounds like, but to be bestowed one in the pages of a Marvel book was a sought-after achievement nonetheless.)

While I didn’t get to read comics every month (you kids with your comic-book shops will never know the difficulty of trying to follow sequential issues when you buy them off a spinner rack at a 7-Eleven), I got hooked on Lee’s welcome-to-my-club prose style in the books he published in the 1970s that provided background on the company’s biggest stars. “Origins of Marvel Comics” was followed by “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics” and “The Superhero Women!” These tomes provided the origin stories for various heroes — the Fantastic Four’s cosmic rays, Peter Parker and that radioactive spider — as well as the behind-the-scenes stories as to how these various characters came about.

Lee, of course, placed himself squarely at the center of every great idea Marvel Comics ever had, which historians will no doubt continue to debate, but his style was a unique blend of aw-shucks modesty, canny exploitation of the product, and it-was-all-my-idea braggadocio. No one else in show business could pull off his purple prose, like this example from the prologue of “Origins of Marvel Comics”: “Marvel Comics. Let us savor the sound of those heart-warming words. Let us bask in the glow of the pleasure they promise. Marvel Comics. Not so much a name as a special state of mind. Not so much a group of magazines as a mood, a movement, a mild and momentary madness.”

What comics-loving kid could resist? On a rare trip to New York City from my home in Atlanta in 1978, I convinced my dad to take me to the Marvel offices in Manhattan. I was hoping for rooms bustling with artists and writers, and perhaps Stan Lee with his sleeves rolled up offering encouragement and enthusiasm; what I got was a friendly, very patient receptionist who sent me on my way with a handful of comics. But I remained a fan, as did millions of others. (It’s telling that when Kevin Smith graduated from low-budget indies after the success of “Clerks,” one of his very first big-shot moves was to get Lee to make a cameo appearance in Smith’s sophomore feature, “Mallrats.” As legions of moviegoers would discover in the decades to follow, the camera loved Stan Lee almost as much as Stan Lee loved the camera.)

If I stopped reading superhero comics as an adult, it was out of a dearth of time but never a lack of love for the medium. And had you told me in 1978 that Marvel Comics’ creations would become one of the most dominant forces in 21st century popular culture, I probably would have rolled my 11-year-old eyes in disbelief. But belief in himself, and for what Marvel represented, always drove Stan Lee, and it made him an ambassador to fans around the globe until his death this week at age 95. And as Lee himself would always end his letters from the publisher: Excelsior!

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‘Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch’ Film Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Helps Make Third Time Charming


While researching the history of Christmas movies, I watched 22 different adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” and even that felt like just scratching the surface. So if Ebenezer Scrooge can be subject to myriad interpretations — even when some fans are convinced that one version or other is the “definitive” one — why shouldn’t the Grinch?

That’s an easier argument to make now that we have “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” as an example of how to revisit the material, particularly since the 2000 live-action take was such a grim and overblown piece of Yule-sploitation. That version no doubt led many to dread this latest one, from “Minions”-makers Illumination Entertainment, but this new animated feature is bright, both in its color palette and in the wit and liveliness of the storytelling.

You know the tale: the curmudgeonly Grinch (now voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives high atop Mount Crumpet with his devoted dog Max, hating the Whos down below in Whoville, and especially loathing their annual celebration of Christmas. This year he decides he’s going to steal the holiday by dressing up as Santa Claus and pilfering all their presents and trees and wreaths and decorations. (Alas, this version gives us no Who-Cardio-Shnook, although there are plenty of other visual representations of Seussian doodads.)

Unlike many other movies that stretch and warp a lovely children’s book beyond recognition by dragging it into a three-act structure — looking at you, “The Polar Express” — this “Grinch” builds on the source material without distending it past the point of the original’s charm. We get a tiny bit of Grinch back-story (he grew up alone in a Dickensian orphanage, and Christmas cheer and singing feels to him like a personal affront), but the script by Michael LeSieur (“Glory Daze”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Snow Dogs”) doesn’t dwell on his origin story the way the Ron Howard version does. (They also very skillfully write Seussian rhyming couplets for narrator Pharrell.)

The other additions to the Seuss tale — hyper-friendly, decoration-loving Who Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson); the reason why Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely, “The Greatest Showman”) desperately wants to meet Santa; even an actual reindeer who gets briefly drafted for sleigh-pulling service — all serve the plot and never feel like padding. And while this Grinch isn’t the complete misanthrope that Seuss created (and Boris Karloff cemented in the popular imagination), he’s still a mean one: a young Who who makes the mistake of building a snowman in the Grinch’s path sees his handiwork vandalized before getting a snowball in the face for good measure.

Cumberbatch isn’t trying to channel Karloff (or, thank goodness, Jim Carrey); his Grinch is snarly and embittered, but you see glimmers of kindness, even if they’re only directed occasionally at Max. That doesn’t make his eventual heart-grows-three-sizes redemption any less satisfying, though. He’s backed up by a talented voice ensemble that includes Rashida Jones and, in an all-too-brief cameo as the mayor of Whoville, Angela Lansbury.

Where “The Grinch” really shines, often literally, is in its presentation of Whoville itself. Directors Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets”) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer) have created a lovely holiday bauble: the town is a glimmering pop-up croquembouche-cum-diorama festooned with lights and garlands and snow, and it’s a dream of a fantasy Christmas village. As characters sled through it (there’s lots of swooping going on here, no doubt to attract the 3D audience), it feels like visiting the inside of a magical snowglobe.

There are some missteps here, to be sure, having mostly to do with the music choices. Tyler, the Creator’s hip-hop-flavored take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is bound to age badly, along with the film’s bag of adult-contemporary holiday chestnuts from the likes of Buster Poindexter and The Brian Setzer Orchestra. (Nat King Cole and Run DMC, however, fit nicely into this stocking.)

Purists may balk about revisiting this tale, but “The Grinch” earns its laughter and its sentiment, both of which are plentiful. It’s a full-throated Fah-Who-Foraze.

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‘Nobody’s Fool’ Film Review: Tyler Perry Makes Tiffany Haddish Do All the Work


Tyler Perry loves to torture rich characters and female characters who put career over love and family, so just one look at the New York apartment of rising ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter, “Southside With You”) in “Nobody’s Fool” makes it apparent that the writer-director has put two targets on her back.

Her high-rise two-bedroom has the kind of Manhattan square footage usually reserved exclusively for oil sheiks and media heiresses, and it’s furnished with the soullessness of a Wayfair.com commercial. It also boasts the phoniest skyscraper views this side of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” although the latter film made them obviously fake on purpose.

I mention the apartment because it makes no sense, which makes it the perfect avatar for “Nobody’s Fool,” a comedy that, even by Tyler Perry’s notoriously lax standards, has very little internal logic or narrative drive. The movie is ostensibly the story of Danica learning to loosen up and love her own flaws, and those of other people, but it’s really a delivery device for Tiffany Haddish as Danica’s sister Tanya.

Where Danica is hard-working, focused and soft-spoken, Tanya is her exact opposite: she’s just gotten out of jail after five years, announces inappropriate opinions at full volume, and cuts through other people’s B.S. so they can stop kidding themselves and start living better lives. In short, she’s this movie’s Madea, and boy does it need one.

The plot involves Danica taking Tanya in post-release, and as Tanya gets back on her feet by working at a coffee house owned by nice-guy Frank (Omari Hardwick, “Power”), a budding relationship between Frank and Danica is stymied by her long-distance boyfriend and by the fact that Frank doesn’t fit all the items on Danica’s literal list of attributes she wants in a man; he has a child with another woman (we see this kid once before he disappears from the movie), is a recovering addict, and has been to jail, even though he’s obviously gotten his act together.

(Whoopi Goldberg, sporting a wig and an indoor marijuana farm that make her this movie’s Aunt Bam, pops up occasionally as Tanya and Danica’s mom in Jersey to dispense advice and toughlove.)

If a rumor started going around that Perry and his cast were just making up the movie as it went along, that would be a credible story. The plot galumphs around from idea to idea: the issue of whether or not Danica is being catfished by her long-distance man prompts the appearance of Nev and Max from MTV’s “Catfish” (MTV is the Viacom sibling of BET, and BET Films produced this movie), and Danica spends lots of time working on an ad campaign in scenes that indicate that Perry learned everything he knows about the world of business from the Hallmark Channel.

When most of Haddish’s scenes end with one of her co-stars breaking character and laughing, it’s clear that Perry just turned the cameras on and let his comedic leading lady go wild. And while Haddish is certainly gifted enough to run with this flimsy material, she would have benefited from someone at the helm paying attention. Poor Sumpter, saddled with this uptight character who exists to embarrass herself and to learn lessons, is game but overwhelmed, while Hardwick makes his character into one of Perry’s more interesting Flawless Rescue Studs. (The FRS is critic Witney Seibold’s male counterpart to Nathan Rabin’s legendary Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.)

Perry puts some talented comic performers at the margins — Amber Riley, Missi Pyle, Jon Rudnitsky — but they’re mainly stuck either reacting to Haddish or sucking in the huge pockets of dead air in this movie’s comedic timing. It’s interesting to see Perry risk alienating his conservative fans by working in the R-rated sphere (between Haddish’s improvisations and those of a legendary comedian who turns up well into the film, there was probably no way to edit them to PG-13), but given that this is the auteur’s 20th theatrical feature film, there’s no longer any excuse for the pacing issues, the scenes that don’t end and the general flaccidness of his direction.

After Haddish’s star-making turn in “Girls Trip,” many of the internet’s more enthusiastic voices started saying, “Put her in everything!” Perhaps they should have been more specific.

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‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ Film Review: This Sugarplum Is Rancid


Between now and doomsday, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a movie that will defile the work of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffman more than 2010’s “The Nutcracker in 3D,” the movie that took the classic story and ballet and added Holocaust metaphors, Tim Rice-penned hip-hop lyrics, and a bizarre turn by Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein. But while it may not be quite as terrible, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” earns runner-up status on the list of worst cinematic “Nutcracker” misfires.

Maybe it was the massive reshoots — directorial credit is shared by Lasse Hallstrom, who shot the first go-round, and Joe Johnston — or perhaps the script by first-timer Ashleigh Powell was always muddled and convoluted, but the results are singularly dispiriting. Rather than harken back to an elegant, whimsical earlier period of history, this “Nutcracker” calls to mind the early 2010s, when the success of “Alice in Wonderland” led to a spate of fairy-tale characters being given swords and marched off to war with hordes of CG creatures.

By the time seven-foot-tall automaton tin soldiers attack a 30-foot robot woman whose skirts are a circus big top, all semblance of humanity or empathy has escaped the film, but the movie’s soul starts leaking out pretty early. The opening is promising enough: young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, “Interstellar”) hides in the attic studying physics and building Rube Goldberg-ian mousetraps as a way of dealing with her grief over her mother’s recent death. On Christmas Eve, her bereaved father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives the children presents that mom left for them; Clara gets a locked music box, but no key.

At a ball that evening, Clara ducks out to find Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who built the box. Later that night Drosselmeyer has the children follow strings around the house to find their presents; Clara’s string takes her into another dimension where she learns that her mother was a queen of four realms, each one ruled by sweet Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), flower-covered Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), icy Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). As Clara arrives, the latter seems to be waging war with the other three realms, and it’s up to Clara to fix the situation.

The movie then spends a sizable chunk of its real estate trying to explain its own premise. There’s a giant machine built by Clara’s mother that brings toys to life but can also turn people back into toys. Sugar Plum demonstrates — for no reason other than to explain how Clara can have adventures yet still return to Drosselmeyer’s party on time — that time moves much more quickly in the Four Realms than it does back on Earth. (Maybe this movie needed Einstein in it instead.)

Clara gets a tour of the realms (one made of candy, one of flowers, one of frost) that serves little purpose but to give costume designer Jenny Beavan, unquestionably the film’s MVP, a chance to shine. And then the movie stops dead in its tracks for Misty Copeland to do a dance about Clara’s mother, but even this dance doesn’t quite explain if Clara’s mother created this world, or discovered it, or what exactly.

Stopping the movie, at this point, is actually a kindness, and would that Copeland could have just starred in a more literal adaptation of the ballet. Her contributions are glorious and all-too-brief, but this interjection of dance and music at least gives her a moment to shine, alongside conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who appears in silhouette with his orchestra in a moment that seems right out of “Fantasia.” (That’s not the film’s only quotation: We open with a dizzying, aggressively artificial birds-eye swoop through Victorian London that is so obviously a piece of animation that it could have come directly from Robert Zemeckis’ awful motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”)

The “child travels to a magical land and learns things” trope has been the basis of many beloved stories, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Phantom Tollbooth” to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But it’s not a foolproof device, particularly when the magical land in question never makes much narrative sense; besides, how can the Four Realms be magical when the London where Clara already lives is so obviously a cartoon? Both the “real” world and the fake one are ugly, overdone, and lacking any visual connection to gravity let alone reality.

Also not helping matters are the barely sketched-in characters. Knightley scores at least a few fun moments as a bubbly pixie miles away from her usual dramatic leading ladies of literature, but Grant and Derbez are stuck letting their costumes do all the work, never mind that they provided some of this year’s finest comedy work in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “Overboard,” respectively.

If there’s a ballet company anywhere near you, they are most likely staging “The Nutcracker,” and they are no doubt hoping that the profits from this crowd-pleaser will get them through the rest of the year. Support them with the money you might otherwise have thrown at this misbegotten assault on the eyes.

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Film Review: Queen Bio Won’t Exactly Rock You


An object example of how a film can be entertaining and even exhilarating without being particularly good, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has the driving energy of a stadium anthem and the fizzy meaninglessness of a bubblegum pop song.

As a biopic of flamboyantly theatrical gay frontman Freddie Mercury, the movie frequently falls short, but it does provide interesting origin stories for many of the hits created by Mercury’s band Queen. Wisely, the movie wraps everything up with a rousing recreation of Queen stealing the show at 1985’s Live Aid, providing the equivalent of a band making you forget a mediocre set by performing a dazzling encore. The end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” marks the first (and no doubt last) time that I was brought to tears by “Radio Gaga.”

Very much an “authorized” biopic — band members Brian May and Roger Taylor are credited as “Executive Music Producers” — the film is a rather rote road-to-stardom tale: In 1970, a Heathrow baggage handler named Freddie Bulsara (Rami Malek) meets dental student Roger (Ben Hardy, “Only the Brave”) and astrophysics student Brian (Gwilym Lee, “Midsomer Murders”) and informs them that they need to make him their lead singer. Add bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and Queen is born.

The group quickly gets label attention, due mainly to the vocal chops and stage presence of their lead singer, who has redubbed himself “Freddie Mercury,” much to the chagrin of his Parsi parents. Queen battles with EMI over the “A Night at the Opera” album, particularly over “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which gives the eponymous film one of its most rapturous segments, as the band pieces together this complicated, elaborate, genre-defying pop single. (The casting of Mike Myers as BMI exec Ray Foster is amusing, given the connection between the song and “Wayne’s World,” but the movie overplays its hand by having Foster say that kids in cars will never bang their heads to the song.)

In his personal life, we see Freddie fall for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”), to whom he would propose, compose love songs for, and repeatedly refer to as the love of his life. But when Queen goes on the road, Freddie enjoys a series of quick and anonymous liaisons with men. Upon his return, she confronts him about the cracks in their marriage; “I think I’m bisexual,” he finally confesses, which Mary shuts down with a firm: “Freddie. You’re gay.”

There was concern in some quarters that the film would tamp down Mercury’s homosexuality, and to its credit, it’s right there on screen from the get-go. (Moments before he catches Mary’s eye for the first time, he cruises a handsome young man.) And for a movie that literally opens with an HIV-positive Mercury coughing — letting us know early that subtlety will not be on the menu — the film does handle its protagonist’s issues with AIDS-related complication respectfully, if fleetingly.

It’s worth noting, however, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” also goes out of its way to create a hissable gay villain: manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, “Downton Abbey”), presented here as an old-school Devious Queen, all but twirls his ’70s-clone mustache as he drives a wedge between Freddie and the band, leading to an unsuccessful solo career and a schism that will have to be healed in time for Live Aid, even though most biographical accounts of Queen seem to suggest that this parting and reuniting is pure fiction. (Mercury’s first solo album under his own name didn’t come out until 1985, the year that Live Aid took place.)

The film offers interesting glimpses into how hits like “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” came to be, while leaving out other moments that fans might want to see, from triumphs (“Flash Gordon,” recording “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, opera-lover Mercury’s duet with legendary diva Monserrat Caballé) to debacles (“Body Language”). Screenwriter Anthony McCarten is no stranger to biopic contrivance (he previously wrote “Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything”), but he outdoes himself in the third act of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which disparate emotional arcs in Freddie’s life are all resolved en route to Wembley for Live Aid. Here’s hoping that chauffeur got a hefty tip for all that dramatic reconciliation.

But admittedly, that Live Aid sequence so thrillingly captures what is considered both a high point in live rock performance and a historical moment in Queen’s career that it justifies making and seeing the movie. Malek doesn’t always nail the off-stage Mercury — he struggles with the dental prosthetic he’s been given to match the singer’s legendary overbite, as though it had been thrust into his mouth for the first time seconds before cameras were rolling — but with a microphone in his hand and lip-synching to Mercury’s vocals, Malek captures the electricity of a rock god at the height of his powers. It’s a moment where everything the movie has to offer and everyone who worked on it — particularly cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“Drive”) and editor John Ottman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) — are firing on all cylinders.

As an inducement to dig into the Queen back catalog, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an unqualified success. But when it tries to be a genuine biopic of a groundbreaking band and its singular lead singer, it’s more like a little silhouette-o of a man.

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‘Stan & Ollie’ Film Review: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly Capture Laurel & Hardy Onstage and Off


In the hilarious movie comedies of the immortal Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, many of the laughs come from watching the duo teetering on the brink, unaware that they’re about to crash their car or to have a floor give way under them or to drop a piano down a very tall flight of stairs.

“Stan & Ollie,” which explores the duo’s career in its final stages — as well as their ongoing off-screen relationship — does a lot of teetering on its own, although luckily it never topples. It’s a story about the serious side of comedians that never indulges in sad-clown sentimentality. It calls upon modern actors to recreate iconic film moments without falling prey to the many potential embarrassments of such restagings. And it intelligently explores the limitations of working partnerships, not to mention the elusive line between partnership and friendship, in a way that neither canonizes nor excoriates its famous subjects.

In other words, there are many moments in which “Stan & Ollie” could have, but doesn’t, drop the piano. It’s a testament to the extraordinary performances by Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (as Oliver Hardy), as well as the screenplay by Jeff Pope (working from A.J. Marriot’s book “Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours”) and the direction from Jon S. Baird (“Filth”), that this funny, moving film becomes that rare show-biz biopic that doesn’t bury its subject in an attempt to praise it.

Not that it’s really a biopic: the film does begin at the Hal Roach Studios in 1937, where Laurel and Hardy are the hottest comic duo in Hollywood. Even amidst their success, however, Stan thinks they’re being mistreated by Roach (Danny Huston); he considers playing hardball in their contract renegotiations or maybe even taking the duo to another studio, but the more easy-going Ollie — currently racked with debt after a string of failed marriages — would rather go along and get along.

The story then jumps ahead to the 1950s, where the heyday of Laurel and Hardy is now a fond memory. The two men embark on a tour of the United Kingdom, in the hopes of stoking a British producer’s interest in making a Robin Hood parody that Stan spends all his time rewriting. Oliver’s a lot heavier than he used to be, making the pratfalls and the dancing difficult, and at first, they’re chagrined that their tour manager Bernard Delfont (an amusingly oily Rufus Jones) has booked them in third-rate music halls and even sketchier hotels.

But as the duo commits to publicity stunts for the newsreel cameras, the audiences show up and the venues and the accommodations improve, and by the time they get to London, they’re playing the Victoria and staying at the Savoy, just in time to greet their wives — Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) — who have traveled from the States to meet up with them. A former script girl and retired dancer, respectively, Lucille and Ida have a hilariously prickly chemistry; there could be a whole movie of Henderson and Arianda as a comedy duo of their own, getting on each other’s nerves but ultimately having each other’s backs.

Those British audiences still love Laurel and Hardy, but that affection is very much tinged with nostalgia; every fan they encounter says something along the lines of “I can’t believe you’re still doing these old routines.” And while that producer continues to dodge Stan’s calls, and Oliver’s knee bothers him more and more, things finally come to a head after their London opening night, in which the two old comics have the kind of brutal, cutting confrontation that only people who’ve worked together for decades can have: Stan reveals he still feels betrayed that Oliver didn’t stand by him in the fight with Roach, and Oliver responds that while Stan has always loved “Laurel & Hardy,” he’s never been much of a real friend.

Moments like this land because Coogan and Reilly have managed to make these screen legends into life-size human beings; they recreate the vintage comic bits perfectly, from Hardy’s wails of pain and huffs of exasperation to Laurel’s rubberfaced expressions and wide-eyed silliness, but it’s in the offstage, relatable moments that these characters truly come alive. (Makeup artist Mark Coulier and his team deserve praise for giving Reilly prosthetics that make him look like a much heftier man and not like an actor who is swathed in putty.)

For film lovers, it’s a particularly excruciating brand of torture to watch inept modern-day mimicry of cherished cinematic moments, so it’s worth spotlighting the grace with which Coogan and Reilly perform, and Baird directs, classic Laurel and Hardy shtick. The film even suggests that Stan and Oliver would reflexively fall into performance mode as part of their daily life without hitting us over the head with it, and the current actors nail the timing and the physicality throughout.

Cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Overlord”) scores an impressive tracking shot early on as Stan and Oliver make their way past showgirls and centurions as they go from their dressing room to the set of “Way Out West,” but the film tends toward TV levels of brightness, even when the characters are in a damp boarding house or crumbling theater. Rolfe Kent’s score segues from silent-movie sprightliness to more somber themes, but like the rest of the film, it never overplays the more dramatic moments.

“Stan & Ollie” sees screen legends being cued to exit whether they want to or not, but it manages to do so without being dreary or lachrymose, like so many other films about fading Hollywood stars. It gives Steve Coogan one of his finest screen roles to date and for Reilly, it’s another triumph right on the heels of “The Sisters Brothers.” Whether you adore Laurel and Hardy or have never seen them in action, this film celebrates both the artist and the tenacity it takes to remain one.

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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Film Review: Melissa McCarthy Forges Strong Performance


It’s not uncommon for up-and-coming writers to imitate the voices of influential authors in the process of creating their own style, but biographer Lee Israel took the process a step further by faking letters by literary legends for her own illicit profits. Portraying Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, Melissa McCarthy captures the thrill of successful mimicry, although her screen performance is quite unlike anything she’s done before.

Like many great comic creations, McCarthy’s earlier roles have often contained a core of barely-concealed rage, allowing her to blast through a world that barely knows how to handle her. Here, the character is subsumed with such misanthropy that she can barely make it to her local gay bar to knock back some scotch-and-sodas.

Other McCarthy films – particularly the ones she co-creates with her husband, actor-director Ben Falcone – often call for her character to weepily atone for her obstreperousness. (“Tammy,” “The Boss” and “Identity Thief” could also have been called “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” for those contrition scenes alone.) In this movie, the breakdown feels more earned and not as a repudiation for the actress playing women who dare to be as bold, brash and lacking an inside voice as her male comedy counterparts.

When we meet Lee Israel, she’s hard-up for cash, with previous books sitting on remainder tables and her agent (Jane Curtin) telling her that no one wants to read Lee’s proposed biography of Fanny Brice. But it’s in the Brice research that she discovers a personal letter from the vaudeville star, tucked into a biography. When she goes to sell it, the dealer tells her it’s less valuable than Lee’s apology note from Katharine Hepburn, which reflects more of the celebrity’s personality.

A light goes off above her head, and Lee starts buying old typewriters and forging fake notes from the likes of Noel Coward and Edna Ferber. (“I write a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” Lee boasts at one point.) The money starts rolling in, and she can pay her back rent and veterinarian bills. The authorities, eventually, start closing in, but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is less about this literary caper and more about Lee Israel herself.

Her one friend in the world is a rascally gay coke dealer played by Richard E. Grant as a charming rogue who would set off most people’s trouble-alert at ten feet. He becomes her accomplice — despite not knowing any of the people whose identities Lee is faking — and he’s the one person to whom she can open up about her life and shortcomings. At one point, she admits to breaking up with an ex because “she wanted me to listen to her talk about her feelings, and get closer to her friends, and s–t like that.”

The film is an impressive showcase for McCarthy, giving her a role that tests her dramatic chops without being humor-free, and that puts her in a precarious situation of her own making without ever turning maudlin about it. Director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (“The Land of Steady Habits”) and Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) never shy away from Lee’s bitterness while portraying how her inability to schmooze is hampering her career as a writer. Curtin, reminding us that she should be in everything, gets a great toughlove monologue in which she lays out why Lee isn’t making Tom Clancy money and what steps she would need to take to do so.

The script is populated with characters who make an impression, even in just a scene or two, and casting director Jennifer Euston (“Camping”) has populated the film with throngs of talented New York actors to play them, including Anna Deveare Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Michael Cyril Creighton. Grant has a blast with one of his most wastrel-ish characters since “Withnail and I,” and Dolly Wells is heartbreaking as a bookstore owner smitten with Lee.

The act of recreating the voice of others, albeit illegally, ultimately empowered Israel to write the well-received memoir on which this film was based. And the act of playing Lee Israel will, with any luck, empower more filmmakers to think of Melissa McCarthy as an actress whose gifts range beyond broad comedy.

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‘The Hate U Give’ Film Review: Teen Drama Unflinchingly Examines Racism


In 2015, The New York Times posted a video called “A Conversation with My Black Son,” which discusses the fact that black parents in this country have to talk to their children about what to do and how to act when pulled over by the police. “The Hate U Give” begins with that same talk, as Maverick (Russell Hornsby, “Fences”) and Lisa Carter (Regina Hall) explain to their tween son and daughter that they are to put their hands on the dashboard, fingers spread, and answer all of the officer’s questions politely and directly.

It’s very practical advice when several years later, teenage Starr (Amandla Stenberg) sees a childhood friend shot and killed by a cop when the policeman mistakes the victim’s hairbrush for a gun. But even before this tragedy occurs, that opening scene makes its presence felt throughout the entire film. “The Hate U Give,” adapted by Audrey Wells (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) from the popular YA novel by Angie Thomas, often has the trappings of a teen movie — stolen kisses, prom dates — but the threat of random, uncontrolled violence at the hands of the police weighs down on everything.

That opening speech put a knot in my stomach for the entire running time of the film, and while that knot is a pale approximation of the ongoing PTSD many black Americans experience as a result of racial discrimination, the film’s narrative power is such that what could have been merely a message movie is something larger, an empathy-driven family drama about people living in a fractured country that is all too recognizable.

The shooting affects Starr in many ways, mainly by forcing a collision between the two worlds she travels through by constant code-switching. At her exclusive (and mostly white) prep school, she’s “Starr 2.0,” shrugging off casual racism, being overly pleasant and amenable, and never using any slang that a rapper would. At home in her working-class black neighborhood, she hides in plain sight in a hoodie and has no real intimate friends outside her family, although she does hang out with Kenya (Dominique Fishback, “The Deuce”), the half-sister of Starr’s half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson, “Kings”).

Kenya takes Starr to a party where she runs into her old pal Khalil (Algee Smith, “Detroit”). As children, Starr and Khalil pretended to be “Harry Potter” characters, but now he’s supporting his addicted mother and cancer-stricken grandma by dealing drugs for King (Anthony Mackie), a local crime lord. When a fight breaks out at the party, Khalil whisks Starr out for a drive, but when they get pulled over and Khalil gets shot, she’s the one witness to the murder. Does she testify, jeopardizing her best-little-girl-in-the-world status at school and drawing King’s ire upon her and her family? Or does she remain quiet, allowing Khalil to be just another unarmed black teenager cut down in his prime without consequence?

This isn’t a “who do I take to the prom” dilemma, and director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Soul Food”) understands the ramifications of Starr’s plight, from police harassment of her family to the fact that her school friends (including K.J. Apa of “Riverdale” as her boyfriend) don’t always know what to say or how to respond to the shooting. (At one point, her classmates stage a walkout to protest police violence, but they mainly treat it as an opportunity to cut class.)

And while so many movies about race operate in a way to make as many viewers as comfortable as possible — usually by setting the story safely in the past, and presenting racism as the acts of select mean people rather than the result of endemic, structural, institutionalized oppression — “The Hate U Give” doesn’t provide that level of comfort. (Apa’s well-meaning character, while mocked for actually saying “I don’t see color,” is ultimately presented as not beyond redemption.)

“The Hate U Give” is one of the most emotional viewing experiences I’ve had in a long while, but it’s by no means a perfect movie. The big climax is overplayed, and the movie wants to eat its cake and have it too when it comes to the police and the prison system, opting for a compromise stance that will probably please neither the #BlueLivesMatter crowd nor those calling for more radical reforms of the criminal justice system.

These elements are far overshadowed by the film’s many triumphs, from the unilaterally excellent cast — Stenberg, Hall and Hornsby are heartbreaking, and Smith charms us with a character we only just get to know — to the sense of zeitgeist that permeates every frame. We’re universes away from the sanitized suburbia of so many adolescent dramas; this feels like the world outside our windows, with the same stakes and dangers.

This certainly isn’t the first movie to tackle the subject of police shootings; in recent years, there have been noteworthy narratives (“Fruitvale Station,” “Monsters and Men”) and hard-hitting documentaries (“Whose Streets,” “13th”) on the subject. But “The Hate U Give” is opening on more screens, and aiming younger, than anything that’s come before it. It’s powerful, provocative and devastating, blending the incisive power of dramatic emotion with the immediacy of the evening news.

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‘Venom’ Film Review: Tom Hardy Gets Buried in CG Goo, as Does the Plot


If you replaced Tom Hardy for Steve Martin in “All of Me,” and switched out Lily Tomlin for a wad of chewed-up black licorice, you’d have “Venom.” The difference being that “All of Me” is a charming screwball comedy, and “Venom” is the kind of comic-book movie that people who hate comic-book movies think that all comic-book movies are like.

Leaping from plot point to plot point without the hindrance of logic or characters, this big-screen return of the legendary Spider-Man nemesis — last seen in the franchise-hobbling “Spider-Man 3” — is aggressively loud and stupid without being much fun at all. It exists as a waste of time (although, one hopes, a sizable payday) for some very talented actors, and it’s proof that even Marvel doesn’t always get it right.

Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a motorcycle-riding investigative reporter who tools around San Francisco uncovering city corruption and investigating unsolved murders. (Why someone who covers a local SF beat works for a national news network is never explained, but “Venom” is not the kind of movie that rewards pulling at loose threads.) He gets fired when he turns a puff-piece interview with billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) into a gotcha piece, based on intel that Eddie stole from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). She also gets canned from her job, and breaks off her engagement to Eddie in the process.

Six months later, we see that Drake is working with alien specimens recovered from his science-lab spaceship that crashed at the beginning of the movie. The idea is to meld these extraterrestrial symbiotes with human beings so that people will gain the ability to live on other planets; if a bunch of homeless people die in the clinical trials, well, that’s just the price of science. Except for Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), who thinks Drake has gone too far, and she reaches out to Eddie to blow the whistle on the experiments.

Long story short, the alien Venom (voiced by Hardy) winds up inside Eddie’s body, and while Drake and his goons (led by Roland Treece, played by Scott Haze) chase Eddie down, Anne and her new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott, “Veep”) try to figure out how to remove this alien parasite that is killing Eddie.

Or is it? “Venom” posits that even human hosts that can tolerate the alien symbiote will eventually suffer organ failure, until that idea gets jettisoned. Venom tells Eddie that he plans to lead an invasion of the Earth by his species, until he decides not to and helps Eddie fight alien Riot, who has jumped into Drake’s body. The neither-here-nor-there plotting is matched by the wispiness of the characters, who rarely seem to have clear-cut motivations or anything resembling depth.

And that’s what makes this film such an egregious misuse of a fine ensemble. Hardy is always mesmerizing, even when the material is less so, but in “Venom” he’s finally found a project he can’t overcome by sheer talent. (The fact that he’s telling press that his favorite half-hour got cut out by director Ruben Fleischer might have something to do with all the film’s problems. Maybe we’ll get to see that version three Blu-rays from now.)

Williams gets stuck with a role that’s mostly The Girl, although she does occasionally get to step up (after accepting the Venom situation in record time), and Ahmed and Slate give what may be their first bad performances, respectively overplayed and tentative. Heck, even Haze, who had a breakout turn in James Franco’s “Child of God,” can’t turn his character into anything but a grimacing henchman.

As for the big set pieces, they’re so chockablock with CG animation that they never pop in the material world. A car chase devolves into explosions and excessive cutting, offering none of the thrills of Black Panther zipping through the streets of Busan, while the climactic showdown between Venom and Riot looks like Michael Bay directing a battle between two gobs of phlegm after visiting a Jackson Pollock exhibition. (And for a movie loaded with people getting stabbed and beheaded by pointy alien extremities, all the violence remains resolutely, bloodlessly PG-13.) There’s one thrilling moment of Venom running up — and Eddie sliding down — the Transamerica Pyramid, but it’s over all too quickly.

One interesting bit of trivia: At one point, Anne notes that certain audio frequencies are Venom’s “kryptonite,” which means that DC Comics exist in this corner of the not-the-Marvel-Cinematic-Universe. Unfortunately, this film also proves that the bad decision-making that has plagued so many recent DC productions can happen to the Marvel shingle as well.

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‘Assassination Nation’ Review: Verve Carries the Day in Scattershot Satire


Its story couldn’t be more contemporary — what happens to a small community when people’s online secrets start getting exposed — but “Assassination Nation” is clearly the product of artists with a deep background in old movies. The plotline recalls “Le Corbeau” (that 1943 Nazi-occupation classic about a French village torn apart by poison-pen letters) by way of “Jawbreaker,” and the red, white and blue split-screens will tickle both fans of Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.” and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.”

And even if the somewhat scattershot “Assassination Nation” might not wind up being as well remembered in cinema history, audiences may nonetheless forgive the film’s shortcomings because of its sheer verve and chutzpah. Whatever faults lie in the script by writer-director Sam Levinson (“Another Happy Day”) get swallowed up by the flash and dazzle of his direction and the editing by Ron Patane (“A Most Violent Year”).

For popular girls Lily (Odessa Young, “A Million Little Pieces”), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef, “Mapplethorpe”) and Em (Abra), all is as it should be in their quaint suburb of Salem (Yes, Salem.) They’ve got students and teachers alike wrapped around their finger, and adult men stare agape when they walk down the street in formation.

But early on in the film, someone hacks into the mayor’s computer and releases all his personal info, revealing that this conservative “family values” candidate likes cross-dressing and having sex with other men. He responds to this revelation by shooting himself at a city council meeting.

The next victim is Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo, “Fear the Walking Dead”), a sympathetic figure who nonetheless gets hounded out of his job after the release of some unkind emails and his online porn choices. The revelations keep coming, turning friend against friend and revealing all manner of indiscretions — including Lily’s sexts with her married babysitting client Nick (Joel McHale) — and by the time Lily is accused of being the hacker, Salem gets whipped up into a paranoid frenzy, with everyone wondering whose secrets will be revealed next.

“Assassination Nation” certainly has style to burn, from the wardrobe color choices to the intensity of the action. (There’s a heart-stopping moment in which Em’s mom Nance, played by the great Anika Noni Rose, fends off a home intruder as cinematographer Marcell Rév (“White God”) shoots entirely through the windows from the outside.)

But Levinson has still created such a recognizable-enough reality that when the story goes to extremes, it feels like the movie’s going off the rails. An evil sheriff tells the girls that the FBI traced the hacking from Lily’s house, and when Em quite rightly asks, “Then why aren’t they here?” the film never has an answer, since that would get in the way of mob frenzy and vigilante justice.

The central quartet of actresses is terrific, carving out individual characters even in a film that’s often more interested in them for their visual iconography than for their inner lives. (It’s notable that even when they are surrounded by chaos, these women always have each other’s backs.) Nef’s Bex, in particular, is the kind of teen we haven’t seen much yet in the movies: a transgender character played by a trans actress, Bex is completely self-possessed and utterly comfortable with both her gender and her sexuality. She might have to deal with the mercurial and unreliable nature of the teen-boy libido, but Bex is nobody’s victim.

It’s always apparent what “Assassination Nation” is going for, and it more often than not fulfills its ambitions, and the hits more than make up for the misses. It’s not going to tell audiences anything they don’t already know about human nature and social media and hidden inner lives, but it explores all of those ideas with visual ferocity.

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‘Smallfoot’ Film Review: Fun Ideas Get Buried Under Avalanche of Mediocrity


Producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have generally kept a wide berth between their kid-friendly projects (“Storks,” “Cats & Dogs”) and their more adult material (“Bad Santa,” “I Love You Phillip Morris”). The best parts of “Smallfoot” see them finding a middle ground, espousing plot points and messaging that you don’t usually find in family fare.

Lurking within this animated tale of yetis and humans are such forward-thinking notions as, “Question everything, including religion,” “Governments use public safety as an excuse for misleading the populace when they really just want to control people,” and “Tribalism benefits people in power more than the communities they claim to want to protect.”

Heady stuff for a mainstream cartoon, but unfortunately “Smallfoot” can’t bear the weight of its big ideas, saddled as it is with fairly mediocre animation, mostly forgettable songs and a resolutely by-the-numbers screenplay by director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) and Clare Sera, adapting Sergio Pablos’ book “Yeti Tracks.”

The story begins high, high up the Himalayas, where a village of yeti peacefully coexist, each member of the community doing his or her job to wake up the giant bright snail that travels across the sky (other civilizations know this as the sun) or to make ice orbs to cool down the mammoths that hold up the earth. Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), like most of the rest of his yeti comrades, never asks too many questions, choosing instead to tamp them down deep inside, just like the elder Stonekeeper (Common) instructs.

Migo hopes to inherit the family business of waking up the snail by flying headfirst into a gong every morning, and he’s apprenticing to his once-tall father Dorgle (Danny DeVito). But when Migo misses the gong and catapults over the village wall, he encounters a flying metal object that comes crashing down. And inside that object: a mythical Smallfoot. (Other civilizations know them as human beings.)

The village isn’t receptive to this news, since it contradicts the Stonekeeper’s version of events, and if one stone isn’t true, maybe none of them are. Migo is banished from the village, but he encounters other yeti who suspect that the Stonekeeper isn’t telling them everything, and maybe even that Smallfoots are real. Among this group is the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee (Zendaya), on whom Migo has always had a crush.

At the foot of the Himalayas, desperate animal-show host Percy (James Corden) is trying to get his producer to put on a yeti costume so they can create a viral video and boost his ratings. So when Percy encounters Migo — who has been lowered from the mountain by his pals in the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society — he doesn’t run screaming. By the time Migo drags Percy up to the village, it’s time for yetis and humans to acknowledge each other’s existence, but the Stonekeeper has some hard truths for Migo, ones that force him to have to decide whether maintaining his society’s myths and legends is more important than speaking the truth.

Kudos to any movie where the female lead is a scientist and seeker of the truth — Zendaya gets the film’s one good song, “Wonderful Life,” that’s all about asking questions and not settling for conventional wisdom — but “Smallfoot” undoes its best features by being so aggressively bland. For the most part, the characters are neither visually nor narratively compelling, and the voice work by Tatum and Corden isn’t nearly dynamic enough, considering how much of the film is devoted to them.

To the movie’s credit, there’s a funny running gag involving how yetis hear humans (speaking in a high-pitched series of squeaks) and vice versa (fearsome monster yowling), and there’s a scene involving Migo and a suspension bridge that’s one of the best bits of sustained physical comedy since the china-shop sequence in “Ferdinand.”

Still, for all its deviation from kid-movie norms in terms of its moral lessons — “Smallfoot” is closer to Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” than the usual you-can-do-it pep talk — there’s a lot of familiarity here, from the inevitable climactic chase scene to Migo’s opening number, which has more than a whiff of the “Everything Is Awesome” world-building of “The Lego Movie.” (Speaking of that opening number, can we please retire songs that involve ukuleles and whistling, since those accompaniments can now be heard in pretty much every TV commercial for healthy breakfast products?)

“Smallfoot” provides more complex food for thought than most mainstream animation, but the overall results are still disappointingly bland.

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Burt Reynolds Appreciation: A Classic Movie Star With a Modern Sense of Humor


Much has been written about the New Hollywood of the 1970s and how it was formed by a group of bearded film-school grads who grew up on a diet of cinema and broke the hidebound rules of the studio system. But there’s no talking about American film in the Me Decade without discussing the impact of Burt Reynolds, the iconic star who encapsulated so much of the era’s freewheeling attitudes and post-modern sensibilities.

Unlikely the falsely humble stars of yore, Reynolds clearly reveled in being a movie star, whether he was yukking it up on Johnny Carson’s couch or mugging through silly all-star extravaganzas like “The Cannonball Run.” He had the cool of the Rat Pack, but in a way that seemed more attainable to a country mired in recession; Reynolds’ public vibe always leaned closer to a six-pack and a Trans Am than to martinis and limousines.

He was one of the first male sex symbols of the women’s liberation era, a beefcake stud who understood that he was subject to the female (and even gay male) gaze when he bared all for Cosmopolitan magazine. And yet, within all of this, he was a talented performer and filmmaker, with a string of box-office hits matched by few in the entire history of Hollywood. And if the Cosmo centerfold cost him an Oscar nomination for “Deliverance,” as some argued at the time, Reynolds just smiled and kept going.

Born in 1936, Reynolds was a promising college football star before injuring both knees his sophomore year. He made his way into acting, first on Broadway (opposite Charlton Heston in a revival of “Mister Roberts”) and eventually in Los Angeles, where in the 1960s, he joined the cast of the long-running hit “Gunsmoke.” In 1972’s “Deliverance,” he impressed audiences as a macho suburban adventurer who runs afoul of denizens of the deep woods while on a weekend rafting trip. He starred in an eclectic mix of films immediately thereafter, from Southern-tinged action like “White Lightning” and “Gator” to old-Hollywood nostalgia pieces like “Lucky Lady” and “At Long Last Love,” working with seemingly everyone from Woody Allen (“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex”) to Catherine Deneuve (“Hustle”).

“Smokey and the Bandit,” released in 1977, catapulted Reynolds to the top echelon of film stardom. The CB radio craze and his chemistry with co-star and then-girlfriend Sally Field helped, but “Smokey” pretty much lives and dies on Reynolds’ charisma, and the film launched his long stretch as a box-office champ. During this time, he also doubled as director, most notably on the sexy cop thriller “Sharky’s Machine” (1981). At his best – in, say, Alan J. Pakula’s “Starting Over” — he demonstrated the principal talent of any great movie star: comedy, drama, or musical, he made it all look easy and graceful.

His presence as a standard of masculinity became so ubiquitous that in Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking personal documentary “Sherman’s March,” wherein the filmmaker travels through the South looking for love, Burt Reynolds becomes a leitmotif, an object of obsession of several women that McElwee meets. (Reynolds even briefly appears in the documentary for a few seconds before his bodyguards intervene.)

The 1980s were less kind to Reynolds; starting with 1984’s exceedingly phoned-in “Cannonball Run II,” he served up a string of duds – “City Heat,” “Stick,” “Heat” (1986), “Malone,” “Rent-a-Cop” – that put the kibosh on his reign as Hollywood’s king. But even if Reynolds’ career never quite had a second act, he enjoyed a series of epilogues that overshadow most show business careers, whether it was occasional subtle work for interesting directors (Bill Forsyth’s “Breaking In,” Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the latter role garnering him his sole Oscar nod), his four-season sitcom hit “Evening Shade,” or even his support of theater students through his donations to the University of Florida and his creation of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Fla., which hosted some 116 productions before shuttering.

Reynolds was lucky enough to live to see his legacy carry on – his brand of good-humored cocky machismo lives on as a recurring touchpoint on the animated series “Archer” (on which the actor guested as himself in 2012), and as seemingly the last legend of the 1970s not to be cast in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the auteur finally gave him the role of the Spahn Ranch’s owner in the upcoming Manson movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

And once upon a time in the real Hollywood, there was a Burt Reynolds, whose like we may never see again.

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‘The Sisters Brothers’ Film Review: John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix Saddle Up for an Extraordinary Western


“The Sisters Brothers” gallops onscreen with a lot of ambitions, and it fulfills them all. It’s a sprawling Western that’s also an intimate character piece; it has moments of wit but also devastating tragedy; it delves into larger themes like the impact of fathers upon sons, and how greed and industrialization lead to environmental devastation, and yet it offers the hope of redemption.

In the pantheon of English-language debuts from international filmmakers — it’s directed by Jacques Audiard, the Frenchman behind “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” “Dheepan” and “The Beat My Heart Skipped” — it’s a notable one. And it’s also a reminder that while the Western may never regain the massive cinematic popularity it once enjoyed, it’s also a genre that will never die so long as talented artists still find ways to use it to tell new and interesting stories.

It’s got all the wide-open spaces you expect when a European shoots on U.S. soil for the first time, and enough shootouts and campfires and horses and prairies to satisfy purists, but Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain (“Racer and the Jailbird”), adapting the novel by Patrick Dewitt, include plenty of psychological complexity and deadpan humor in the mix. This is a Western for people who think they don’t like Westerns, but it’s also for fans of John Ford and Budd Boetticher alike.

The eponymous brothers — Joaquin Phoenix is Charlie, John C. Reilly is Eli — are killers-for-hire working for the powerful Commodore (Rutger Hauer) in the mostly untamed Oregon in the early 1870s. We see their first gunfight from a distance, sparks of gunfire lighting up an otherwise pitch-black night. The Commodore promotes Charlie to “lead man” of the two, but despite his bravado, we soon learn that Eli is the smarter of the two, not to mention the kinder and more conscientious. Hot-headed Charlie is fearless but, like their hated father, he drinks too much.

The Commodore sends them off to rendezvous with another in his employ, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been sent to track down one Hermann Kermit Worm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly taken something of great value from the Commodore. Morris is to let the Sisters know of Worm’s location and then hand him over to be killed.

Nothing goes according to plan, of course, and the true intentions of both Worm and the Commodore throw the entire mission into question. Eli yearns to give up this life, while Charlie can imagine no other. Worm dreams of establishing a utopian commune, but when he mentions he wants to build it in Dallas, we know his ambitions are as doomed as Eli’s horse, who gets mauled by a bear.

Juggling all the tones and ideas of “The Sisters Brothers” is no easy feat, but Audiard and Bidegain manage it with the help of this talented central quartet of actors. Usually a top-billed marquee attraction, Gyllenhall takes a secondary role here, and while all four are engaging and empathetic, it’s Reilly who’s the standout here. Perhaps no role since “Magnolia” has allowed him to simultaneously display both his comic and dramatic chops, and he takes a character who at first seems like an oafish sidekick and makes him achingly human and unforgettable.

(Among the supporting players, we get some satisfying scene-stealing from greats Carol Kane and Allison Tolman, the latter playing a saloon girl who’s stunned by Eli’s sweetness when he requests, essentially, the Girlfriend Experience.)

Composer Alexandre Desplat does some of his best work here; it’s challenging for any film scorer to summon the spirit of the West without aping Elmer Bernstein or Sergio Morricone, but his grasp of the material never wavers into pastiche. And while cinematographer Benoît Debie (“Spring Breakers”) clearly revels in the rolling clouds and the expanse of snowy mountain peaks, he too serves the genre while always prioritizing how the characters are framed within this glorious setting.

We seem to be in a resurgence of films that are satisfyingly old-fashioned in the best sense; movies like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “First Man” and “A Star is Born,” that keep the craft and the pleasure of studio-era Hollywood and imbue them with contemporary ideas and artistry. Add to their company “The Sisters Brothers,” a film that delivers what we want from a Western without being afraid to ask hard questions about the men who made the Old West – the ethics of the rich and powerful, and the consciences of those who followed (or defied) their bidding. The title promises a goofy lark, but this is one of the year’s best films.

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‘Suspiria’ Film Review: Luca Guadagnino’s Misguided Horror Remake Falls Flat


It was impossible not to have high expectations for Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria.” Dario Argento’s original is, after all, a one-of-a-kind horror freak-out, the kind of mesmerizingly bizarre cinematic experience so sui generis that any remake would have to represent an aggressive reimagining.

And who better to take on this seemingly impossible assignment than Guadagnino, coming off the impressive troika of “I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash” and “Call Me By Your Name”? The cinema’s greatest sensualist wasn’t going to make us smell the rosemary or taste the apricot juice this time; the idea of his gifts being applied to blood-drenched horror promised a uniquely terrifying experience.

So what does Guadagnino’s version convey? Boredom, mostly, with confusion and a dollop of disappointment and irritation.

The original was set at a creepy dance academy in 1977 Berlin, so Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich (“A Bigger Splash”) have decided to lean into that time and place: There is constant discussion on TV about terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof group, and one of the plot points revolves around lingering survivor’s guilt in the post-Nazi era. What do either of these ideas have to do with a dance academy that’s a front for a coven of witches? The new “Suspiria” doesn’t seem to know.

(It’s not unlike Jonathan Demme’s decision to remake the early-’60s classic “Charade” as the nouvelle vague-influenced “The Truth About Charlie,” since the French New Wave was happening in Paris as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn strolled by the Seine. An interesting idea on paper, perhaps, but historical context only works in a remake if there’s an actual point to it.)

The 1977 setting also allows the filmmaker (and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “Call Me By Your Name”) to go hard on the Fassbinder kitchen-sink miserabilism, which certainly could, in other circumstances, make a great, grim backdrop to an atmospheric horror movie. But the result here is to put an unappealing visual sheen on an already dreary film.

Dakota Johnson stars as Susie, a young woman raised by Mennonites but longing to dance with Berlin’s Helena Markos Dance Company. She travels to Berlin, and her first audition blows away choreographer and former lead dancer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who accepts her on the spot.

There’s an open room in the dormitory due to the disappearance of another dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). Some whisper that she has run off to join the terrorists, but the film opens with her in a ranting panic, telling her psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf) that the Markos instructors are witches who plan to destroy her.

Klemperer at first dismisses her fears as a delusion, but after Patricia disappears, he begins to investigate more closely, even though he’s got his own problems; years after the end of the war, he still holds out hope that his wife, from whom he was separated as they tried to flee Berlin, will return to him safe and sound. Meanwhile, Susie quickly climbs the ranks, and Madame Blanc selects her to take the lead role in the company’s most famous dance piece, “Volk.”

The actual performance of “Volk” immediately ranks alongside “Goddess” in “Showgirls” and the fertility dance from “Lost Horizon” as one of the screen’s most unintentionally hilarious pieces of choreography. The ludicrous terpsichorean display isn’t helped by the costuming; the dancers all wear bright-red ropes tied in what appear to be Japanese Shibari bondage knots, a provocative choice undercut by the big white granny panties that they sport underneath.

To be fair, there’s at least one legitimate scare to be found here; as Susie learns the new dance steps, her motions are mirrored in the basement of the studio, where an unseen force pillories a young woman to near-death using the exact same moves. But by the time “Suspiria” reaches its blood-soaked, all-of-them-witches climax, I was suppressing church giggles. The frights aren’t frightening, the political subtext never connects with the rest of the movie, and even Guadagnino’s generally unfailing visual sense isn’t enough to put this over.

Swinton (playing more than one role, for no apparent reason) and Johnson give the material more than it deserves, but even they can’t put helium into a lead balloon. The other ballet instructors are played by a fascinating ensemble of performers (including 1970s Euro-stars like Fassbinder’s wife Ingrid Caven, German New Wave icon Angela Winkler, and onetime Paul Verhoeven leading lady Renée Soutendijk, as well as Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek), but they’re given very little to do.

It’s tempting to say that Guadagnino treats them like furniture, but in one of his better movies, he would actually shoot the furniture in a meaningful way.

As for Thom Yorke’s score, it’s decidedly unobtrusive, which for some is the mark of good film music. Apart from a song under the opening credits and another under the closing credits, very little of it announces its presence. Given how little subtlety “Suspiria” otherwise displays, that’s an admirable sign of restraint.

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‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Film Review: Coen Brothers Western Anthology Makes for an Uneven Binge


The Coen Brothers turned their anthology TV series into an anthology feature film, so it’s only natural that this forced-binge experience will be premiering on Netflix.

And while the Coens claim in the press notes for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” that they were inspired by “those films made in Italy in the ’60s which set side-by-side the work of different directors on a common theme,” they were apparently so inspired that they made an anthology movie as wildly uneven as the ones they’re aping. (The 1968 “Spirits of the Dead” gave us Fellini’s sublime “Toby Dammit,” yes, but no one ever talks about Roger Vadim’s silly contribution “Metzengerstein.”)

None of the Coens’ tales of the Old West is an outright dud, but the movie never matches the eponymous opening sequence, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a white-hatted singing cowboy with a tune in his heart, a kind word for everyone he meets, and an exceedingly itchy trigger finger. It’s like the collaboration Gene Autry and Sam Peckinpah never made, and it captures the Coens at their best: self-reflexive, absurdist, witty and outrageous.

The rest of the film struggles to match this opening bit’s delightful energy, but there are delights to be discovered along the way: James Franco’s would-be bank robber cheats death, only to have death cheat back; a traveling theatrical producer (Liam Neeson) reaches a crossroads with his unusual but talented orator (Harry Melling, “The Lost City of Z”); a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits, who can do “grizzled” with one hand tied behind his back) makes a discovery and must protect it; an unmarried pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan) tentatively explores romance with the wagonmaster (Bill Heck, “Pit Stop”) on her way to Oregon; a quintet of passengers (including Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek) take a stagecoach to an uncertain destination.

The fact that these vignettes were originally conceived as discrete TV episodes comes through pretty clearly, as there don’t seem to be many unifying themes or ideas at play, except maybe for a running gag that randomly inserts a French person into almost every story for no apparent reason. Some of them make the case that the American West was settled almost entirely by rogues, thieves and murderers, while others contradict that notion.

The change in perspective does allow the Coens to explore different facets of their own interests in Westerns as a genre; the wagon-train sequence calls to mind John Ford, while the James Franco tale (mainly a shaggy-dog story that builds to a nifty punchline) has more of the spiky humor of Sergio Leone. And they’ve perhaps never leaned into the grandeur of nature as they do with the prospector story, laden with big sky and tall trees and rushing rivers.

The Coens and casting director Ellen Chenoweth (“Suburbicon”) skillfully blend familiar faces with relatively new ones. Among the names to remember here are Melling (giving a great performance as a performer, and you’d never guess he used to play Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” movies) and Heck, as well as Irish actor Jonjo O’Neill (“On Chesil Beach”), who plays Gleeson’s business partner; he’s got a skill for that specific brand of Coen acting — almost but not quite overdoing it, invisible pivots from comedy to menace — that suggest they’ll be using him again soon.

Not that the marquee names aren’t terrific as well. Daly and Rubinek (and Chelcie Ross, as an eccentric old trapper) have a hilarious anti-chemistry, made all the more amusing by the close quarters of the stagecoach. And Kazan has perhaps never been better, playing a woman unafraid to venture deeper into the untamed West because she reckons it can’t be any worse than what she’s leaving behind.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” will be, at best, a charming footnote in the Coens’ career, a project they enjoyed doing, and possibly even more enjoyed turning into a film so they can keep their résumé free of episodic television. As Netflix binges go, it’s a pretty good one, but be ready to love some episodes more than others.

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‘A Star Is Born’ Film Review: Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Reinvigorate a Classic


For all the reasons that a fourth iteration of “A Star Is Born” — fifth, if you count the 1932 drama “What Price Hollywood?” whose DNA is in every “Star” — shouldn’t and wouldn’t work in 2018, it’s an extraordinary surprise that this new version packs such a wallop.

This is “A Star Is Born” for people who never saw a previous version, for people who love any of the previous versions, and even for those who think the property is moth-eaten and old-fashioned. This is “A Star Is Born” that takes the characters seriously, in their passions and pathologies, their addictions and ambitions. And in an age where “Mamma Mia” and “The Greatest Showman” pass as hit musicals, it’s an exciting reminder of what the genre can be.

You know this story, but you don’t this story, at least not the way that screenwriters Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper are telling it: Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a roots-rock icon whose personal life is falling apart from too many pills, too much booze, and too fraught a relationship with his brother and minder Bobby (Sam Elliott). (The fact that Cooper’s speaking voice as Jackson seems to impersonate Elliott’s is distracting at first, but it later becomes a plot point.)

After a gig, Jackson heads to the first bar he can find, which happens to be a drag joint. He’s blown away by Ally (Lady Gaga), the one performer in the club who doesn’t lip-sync, belting out a heartfelt “La vie en rose” that’s more Piaf than Grace Jones. The two get to know each other on a bar-crawl: She punches a cop who violates Jackson’s personal space, he takes her to an all-night grocery store to get frozen peas for her swollen knuckles, she regales him in the parking lot with a song she’s working on.

The next night, she finds herself on stage with Jackson, who has worked her fragment into a full song, and wouldn’t you know it: A star is born. But her climb is mirrored by Jackson’s descent, and not even her abiding, clear-eyed love (Ally may be the least enabler-y of the “Star Is Born” heroines) is going to be enough to save him from his own abyss.

Over the years, “A Star Is Born” has been a Hollywood story (the 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), a Hollywood musical (1954, Judy Garland and James Mason), and a rock musical (1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). This new version hews closest to the plot of the most recent remake, but there are bits of the others scattered in as well. (When Ally talks about being rejected because of her nose, that’s not just a Streisand shout-out; Garland’s character is told by the studio makeup men that “[her] nose is all wrong.”)

But throughout the course of the film, Cooper goes out of his way to update, change or at least reconsider what we expect as the plot beats of the story. Jackson does embarrass Ally at an awards ceremony, yes, but not in the exact way his predecessors do. We don’t have to see an on-the-decline Jackson screw up a corporate gig; the lead-in to the scene tells us exactly what’s going to happen, and we can fill in the rest ourselves. Kudos to the sound designers as well; “A Star Is Born” is that rare film to acknowledge that a rock concert sounds different to the people onstage than it does to the ones in the audience.

Cooper and Lady Gaga are dynamite together; this is a story that lives and dies by the central relationship and the instant chemistry that must blossom between them, and these two have it in spades. The musical numbers take immediately catchy songs and present them in an electrifying way; I rate Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away” as one of the all-time great musical performances on celluloid, so I mean it as high praise when I say that while none of the numbers in this version surpasses that moment, some of them come shockingly close.

The film’s rightful concentration on its central couple, by necessity, takes focus away from its ensemble; if the trailer has you thinking Dave Chappelle plays a major character, expect otherwise. Still, Elliott carves out several powerful scenes, and casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu populate the screen with an interesting mix of scene-stealers like Greg Grunberg and Andrew Dice Clay, to say nothing of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” dropout Willam Belli, who has a great time flirting with Cooper in the drag-bar sequence.

I do wish the film’s final moments packed the gut-punch for which Cooper is so clearly aiming; the response from other audience members at the Venice press screening suggests I might be in the minority in thinking so. But in any event, “A Star Is Born” never shies away from big emotions or stirring romance, mixing old-Hollywood sweep with modern-day sophistication. Between Bradley Cooper (as a filmmaker) and Lady Gaga (as a big-screen lead), the title applies to both of them.

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‘Non-Fiction’ Film Review: Olivier Assayas Comically Mourns the Death of Literature


It’s difficult to ask hard questions about change and technology and progress — particularly to consider whether “progress” is actually progress or not — without sounding like a cranky old man, but writer-director Olivier Assayas has now done it twice. 2008’s “Summer Hours” contemplated a world in which new generations seemed uninterested in preserving art history and cultural treasures of the past, and now a decade later, with “Non-Fiction,” he asks similarly pointed questions about the future of books and literature in the internet age.

That he does so with a minimum of breast-beating and a surfeit of sparkling wit no doubt helps the message go down, particularly since it’s clear that he’s not offering answers but instead merely asking the questions.

The film introduces us to a group of friends, lovers and colleagues, all of whom engage in spirited conversations about the state of writing, acting and politics, areas that have been forever changed by online habits. Alain (Guillaume Canet, “Tell No One”) runs a venerable publishing house, trying to weigh the benefits and consequences of pivoting to digital. He’s having an affair with Laure (Christa Théret), the woman running that digital transformation, even though she has extreme ideas about what counts as literature (she equates tweets with haiku) and about the extinction of books and libraries.

Alain’s actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), spinning her wheels on a police drama, knows he’s cheating and rekindles a fling with author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne, “The Innocents”), whose latest manuscript Alain does not want to publish. Léonard is infamous for writing novels that are merely thinly-veiled accounts of his own life and love affairs — he insists it’s “auto-fiction” — and Selena lobbies for the publication of his book even though she inspired one of the characters. (It’s telling that Alain seemingly never notices this.)

“Non-Fiction” is Assayas’ talkiest film to date, but it’s also probably his funniest. (There’s a running gag about a movie-theater sex act and Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” that keeps paying off brilliantly.) Assayas seems to be channeling the spirit of Éric Rohmer and his marathon dialogue-fests, but this is smart, insightful talk, delivered by an exemplary ensemble of performers (which also includes Nora Hamzawi as Léonard’s girlfriend, who works for an idealistic politician).

Assayas is undoubtedly snobby about popular culture — the bit we see of Selena’s cop show looks as dreadful as the superhero movie that Binoche goes to see in “Clouds of Sils Maria” — but he’s never overly precious about the topic at hand.

Books are, of course, wonderful things, but when Laure and other characters make a case for cheaper, more accessible e-books, the movie doesn’t necessarily disagree. “Non-Fiction” makes just as many barbs at the current state of the book industry, where authors sell books via controversy caused by writing barely-concealed roman à clefs about their real lovers and enemies.

Unlike Rohmer, who favored long takes and frequently locked down his camera, Assayas keeps these many conversations vibrant with the help of editor Simon Jacquet, who keeps each scene vibrant without ever overplaying his hand, as well as cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“A Bigger Splash”), who captures the warmth of the characters’ bourgeois surroundings but also clearly had a blast faking that cop show.

As with “Summer Hours,” “Non-Fiction” traffics in ideas and concerns without handing out leaflets; first and foremost, this is an empathetic and charming character piece, featuring top-notch actors (Binoche revels in a rare opportunity to be funny) enjoying richly clever dialogue. And if it encourages viewers to support their local indie bookstore afterward, then so much the better.

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‘The Favourite’ Film Review: Emma Stone Plays an 18th Century Eve Harrington in a Twisted Historical Farce


In the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, sex, love, friendship and familial duty all exist only in their relation to the power they give people over each other. So while “The Favourite” stands apart from his best-known films (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Dogtooth”) by being a period piece, as well as his major feature that he did not write or co-write, it very much fits the intimate jockeying and gamesmanship on display in his earlier work.

Written by first-timer Deborah Davis and Aussie TV writer Tony McNamara, “The Favourite” plays like “All About Eve” as filtered through “The Draughtman’s Contract,” where women in bustles and corsets hopelessly outmaneuver men in wigs and breeches, and where everyone from the servants to the queen herself is playing the game and manipulating others to get what they want.

The queen in question is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), ensconced in the estate of her lifelong friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah has the queen’s ear — among other vital organs — and works with prime mister Godolphin (James Smith, “In the Loop”) to convince the queen to raise the taxes on the landowners in the country to fund the country’s war against the French, much to the consternation of parliamentarian Harley (Nicholas Hoult).

Into this den of intrigue comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), an aristocrat fallen on hard times; her father lost her in a card game when she was 15, before eventually setting the family home (and himself) on fire over whist debts. Abigail arrives literally flecked with dung after falling out of her carriage — the first of the film’s many chapters is entitled “This Mud Stinks” — but the seemingly sweet and kind Abigail wastes no time making herself indispensable, first to Sarah and then to Anne, in the hopes of raising her station.

Can Abigail outflank Sarah’s long history with Anne? Will the ambitious and duplicitous Harley fatally underestimate Abigail? Will this war of wills leave the battlefield with many losers but no winners? Part of what makes “The Favourite” such nasty fun is that it’s never clear who’s going to come out on top.

Watching these three fiercely intelligent women, played by a trio of powerhouse actresses, is endlessly fascinating, as the goalposts constantly shift and their true selves become more apparent. While Abigail goes from wide-eyed poor relation to brilliant schemer, we simultaneously get to know Anne, as the script (and Colman) slowly reveal her layers of vulnerability beneath her wildly petulant exterior.

Colman may steal the show, but Weisz and Stone are hardly bystanders. Their characters live in a world of excess — where lords bet on duck races and, for unexplained reasons, delight in pelting a naked man with tomatoes — but these performances are spare and strict, with hidden meanings camouflaged by a cocked brow, a side glance or a meaningful stare. Their weaponized dryness plays perfectly against Colman’s royal hysteria, and her all-too-human frailty.

And while “The Favourite” is certainly an acting showcase, Lanthimos brings the skewed vision that makes his films simultaneously enthralling and off-putting. The score (which is uncredited, for whatever reason) veers between grandiosity and minimalism but it either draws us in or keeps us at a distance as need be. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“The Meyerowitz Stories”) boldly but efficaciously uses swish pans, fish-eye lenses and long tracking shots to accentuate the ridiculously large rooms and corridors enjoyed by the aristocracy. The way Ryan shoots scenes like Weisz and Joe Allwyn’s absurdist gavotte on a checkerboard floor calls to mind the great Sacha Vierny’s work on Peter Greenaway’s films, particularly “The Baby of Mâcon.”

Filmgoers of the “But who do I root for?” school may find themselves adrift in all this psychological warfare, but the sight of Colman, Stone and Weisz carving out their own agency amidst a male-dominated culture creates the kind of wincing pleasure that make Lanthimos’ films such spiky delights.

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‘Roma’ Film Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Intimate Epic Proves Less Is More


“Tell me, why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to perceive one moment of reality?” asks Wallace Shawn in “My Dinner with Andre.” “I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!”

There are no cigar stores in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” but after zipping us through a future dystopia in “Children of Men” and all of outer space in “Gravity,” the director takes us through a far more quotidian version of reality in his gorgeous new film. And it did, admittedly, blow my brains out.

Shot in 65mm black-and-white — please, Netflix, let audiences see this movie projected in 70mm before it hits your streaming service — the film remains mostly housebound to tell us the story of a bourgeois family in Mexico City in the 1970s, mostly as viewed by their housekeeper, Cleo (first-timer Yalitza Aparicio). And whatever “Roma” lacks in terms of pyrotechnics or visual-effects splendor (relatively speaking, anyway), it more than makes up for with emotion and humanity.

There are, to be sure, impressive set pieces and powerful scenes, but it’s the quiet, quotidian moments that give the film its power. Having seemingly mastered the Hollywood blockbuster, Cuarón appears to be setting his sights on a more intimate kind of filmmaking along the lines of the cinema’s great humanists, like Yasujiro Ozu or Lucretia Martel. (The interactions between Cleo and her employers suggest a kinder take on the latter’s 2001 debut film, “La Ciénaga.”)

Set in the early 1970s, the film opens with a lengthy sequence of Cleo scrubbing the driveway, the water reflecting the jets that fly overhead. She’s cleaning up the prodigious amounts of poop created by the family dog, and his despoiling of the carport is one of few constants for her employers over the course of the year. In 12 months, the master of the house will move out, Cleo will be seduced and abandoned by her boyfriend, and she and her employer alike will face the fallout from these events.

Among Cuarón’s many accomplishments here is his ability to weave his cinephilia into the story in a way that’s organic and never self-conscious. The local movie palace plays a key role in the characters’ lives, whether it’s a pregnant Cleo being betrayed by her boyfriend as the closing scenes of “Monte Carlo or Bust!” play out on screen or one of the family’s children witnessing something he shouldn’t before walking in to see “Marooned.”

And while the title “Roma” is never explained, it could certainly serve as a shout-out to Fellini, whose film of the same name probably played in that same movie theater the year after this one is set; the Italian maestro would definitely approve of beautifully off-kilter moments like a New Year’s Eve party where wealthy landowners drink and sing while the campesinos extinguish a forest fire, or a scene of Cleo trudging through the muddy streets of a poor neighborhood while, in the background, a political rally features a human-cannonball act.

The press notes say that the film is Cuarón’s salute to the women who helped raise him, and “Roma” explores the strangely symbiotic relationship that can develop between employer and household servant; the mother (the impressive Marina de Tavira) often refers to Cleo as “a member of the family,” and the film lets us see the ways that this is actually true (they take care of her during her pregnancy) and the ways that it is not (she and another maid share a tiny room up a tall staircase, above that carport).

The ensemble is well cast throughout, with even the performers in the smallest roles making an impact. Ultimately, this is Aparicio’s show: She communicates both in Spanish and an indigenous dialect known as Mixteca, but she’s got the expressive eyes of a silent-film goddess. One of the film’s most wrenching scenes is just a hold on Cleo’s face, and Aparicio turns the moment into the screen’s most powerful close-up since Nicole Kidman in “Birth.”

(There’s a doctoral thesis waiting to be written about motherhood in Cuarón’s films, both in terms of absence (“A Little Princess,” “Great Expectations”) and presence (“Children of Men,” “Gravity”). Throw in a colon and a reference to “Y Tu Mamá También,” and the title writes itself.)

“Roma” offers plenty of Cuarón-ian flourishes throughout — from a violent street protest that bursts into a placid furniture store to long tracking shots of busy, period-dressed Mexico City streets — but keeping the camera on Yalitza Aparicio is all the director needs to do to hold our attention. Whether or not Netflix audiences will respond to this film’s subtle delights on a small screen, Alfonso Cuarón has created a heartfelt masterpiece of mood and nostalgia, one that reminds us that his gifts as a storyteller and an interpreter of the human experience are not dictated by scale of production.

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