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VICTORIA & ABDUL: A PERFECT SHOWCASE FOR JUDI DENCH

James Barrie defined the word ‘charm’ by writing, “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.” Victoria & Abdul has it in spades, thanks in large part to the inimitable Judi Dench. Some older actors coast on the good will they have accumulated with audiences over the years, but this is not a “cute” performance. Playing Queen Victoria at age 81, she brings to life a weary monarch who is bored with her routine. She hates the protocol of her household and consequently does as she pleases. When a handsome young Indian visitor (Ali Fazal) catches her eye she pounces: here is a breath of fresh air in a life…

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KINGSMEN: FOOLS GOLD

For Matthew Vaughn, too much is never enough. Excess, hand-in-hand with bad taste, marks most of his films, even when they’re entertaining. We can debate the merits of Kick-ass, but there’s not much to discuss when it comes to Kick-ass 2. It was bereft of ideas and existed for no other reason than to bilk moviegoers out of the price of admission.The same must be said for this inevitable sequel to Kingsman. There’s no reason why it should run nearly two and a half hours, and even less justification for wasting the considerable talents of its cast, with thankless parts for Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, and Halle Berry. I didn’t enjoy watching the great Julianne Moore playing a perky (but deadly) villain or Emily Watson…

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NEW AND NOTABLE FILM BOOKS: SEPTEMBER 2017

    OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU: THE SHADOW CINEMA OF THE AMERICAN ‘70s by Charles Taylor (Bloomsbury) Taylor opens a door to one of the richest periods of American filmmaking—not just the 70s but the “disreputable” 70s. “Most of the movies in this book did what they set out to do: make money fast,” he writes in his introduction. “Some are good, solid pieces of moviemaking, and some are shrewdly put-together junk. Outsized claims for their greatness would only falsify their grungy, visceral appeal. But I believe these movies do share something with eth A-list pictures of their time, something almost entirely missing in today’s commercial American cinema. In the 70s’s the gritty and somewhat pessimistic nature that has always been characteristic…

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WHY ‘MOTHER!’

Lesson for today: never marry an artist, especially a poet. There! I’ve just saved you two hours. To be clear, I would never discourage anyone from seeing a film that interests them, especially someone who admires Darren Aronofsky’s work. I run hot and cold with this bold writer-director; I liked his daring debut feature Pi but have had problems with many of his subsequent films. For instance, I was not a fan of Requiem for a Dream, although it had many supporters. If you are one of them and you want to relive Ellen Burstyn’s acid trip on a larger scale, then by all means check it out. The movie’s strongest asset is its always-watchable star, Jennifer Lawrence, whose tightly-photographed face carries much of the weight of this allegorical…

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HOME AGAIN: COMEDY IN THE COMFORT ZONE

Critics are gunning for first-time writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer. They’ve often attacked her mother, Nancy Meyers, for making highly-polished romantic comedies with good-looking actors who live in even better-looking houses (Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, et al). Meyers-Shyer has stayed in that comfort zone with her mother as producer, but she has a not-so-secret weapon in her arsenal: leading lady Reese Witherspoon, who is immensely likable in Home Again. In the film, Witherspoon’s late father was a famous moviemaker—a not-so-inside joke underscored by the casting of Candice Bergen as her mom. (We even see pictures of a young Bergen in the main-title montage). Now she’s a sharply funny grandmother to Witherspoon’s two daughters, and it’s fun to watch her tossing off one-liners; frankly, I wish she had more…

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN: ALL IT KILLS IS TIME

I didn’t believe a single moment in American Assassin. That’s a shame, because it arrives in theaters with a solid pedigree. Based on a prequel in the late Vince Flynn’s popular series of spy novels, its screenplay is credited to Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Director Michael Cuesta has top television credits like Homeland and Dexter on his résumé, but he started out making terrific indie films like L.I.E. and 12 and Holding. Then there’s the cast, led by former teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, from Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner series. He’s younger than the novels’ Mitch Rapp, perhaps too young to pull off this hard-bitten character—a likable guy who lashes out at the world after a sudden tragedy. The always-welcome Michael Keaton plays his maverick CIA mentor who’s seen it all and…

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MUSEUM HONORS ANIMATOR AND SPECIAL EFFECTS WIZARD

When I was a kid a strange black & white movie turned up on a local television channel: The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). I’d never seen anything like it before. I came to learn that there was a reason: it was unique. It sprang from the imagination of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who combined live-action, animation, fancifully designed sets, forced perspective and other techniques to achieve his amazing visuals. The film was dubbed into English and received wide U.S. release in theaters before going to television, as did his subsequent feature, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961). Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Jan Švankmajer, Wes Anderson, and even Ray Harryhausen have been influenced by Zeman’s work, which has often been compared to the pioneering “trick films” of George Méliès. Film historian George Sadoul wrote, “He is justly considered…

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MOVIE HIGHS AT TELLURIDE

The Telluride Film Festival is the only event I know where I could come away raving about a 1929 silent-film discovery and getting a tantalizing taste of the fall movie season. Festival directors Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy offer a feast of riches that no one can possibly digest in its entirety. As much as I love this weekend it is fraught with frustrating choices (a first-world problem, I know). I would have loved to take in more of the hot new movies; it’s exciting to see them fresh and hear their creators speak. It’s that heady blend of past and present that attracts the world’s leading directors, journalists, and movie lovers to this beautiful Rocky Mountain town year after year. This year, my family…

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LOGAN LUCKY: NOT AS GOOD AS ITS CAST

Logan Lucky is a likable-enough redneck heist movie set behind the scenes at a NASCAR championship event. At two hours it’s longer than it ought to be and takes too much time recapping how the central caper was executed at the end of the picture. Director Steven Soderbergh and first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt set things up for us to cheer at the finish line but the movie never rouses that kind of enthusiasm. Logan Lucky’s ace in the hole is the casting of Daniel Craig as a sly, tow-headed Southern convict named Joe Bang, who’s spirited out of prison in order to help Channing Tatum and his crew pull off a daring racetrack robbery. Craig seems to be having fun in this lively supporting role and he…

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CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER: EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

I am a sucker for this kind of film. California Typewriter celebrates the durable, once-ubiquitous device that computers put out of business and the grass-roots spirit that drives people like Tom Hanks, John Mayer, and the late Sam Shepard to do their writing on these venerable machines. It also tells the parallel story of an Oakland, California typewriter repair shop and the uncertain future it faces, along with its resident fix-it genius, Herbert Permillion II. It’s one thing for someone like Hanks to collect vintage typewriters (he has 250) and extoll their virtues. It’s another for someone to eke out a living paying rent for a storefront that serves as home base for a man who knows typewriters inside out. Is there really a future for such…

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