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WONDER: CYNICS NEED NOT APPLY

Wonder is a beautiful movie, and Stephen Chbosky was a perfect choice to direct and co-write it. The author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, who directed his own screen adaptation, isn’t afraid of honest emotion. What’s more, he is clearly in touch with his younger self. That alone would make him a candidate to translate R.J. Palacio’s best-selling young-adult novel to film. Wonder is a tearjerker that earns our tears by drawing us into its world and giving us a deep connection to its leading characters. Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has had 27 operations by the time we meet him, at the age of 10. He suffers from craniofacial syndrome, which causes everyone who sees him to stare—in horror, disbelief, or in some cases pity. He knows this…

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MUDBOUND: REAL LIFE, NOT SO LONG AGO

Mudbound is easy to admire but tough to watch at times. It tells a truthful tale from America’s not-so-distant past, contrasting the lives of two families—one black, one white—struggling to eke out an existence as sharecroppers in Mississippi during the 1940s. No one has it easy in this hardscrabble life. In adapting Hillary Jordan’s best-selling novel, director Dee Rees has tried to avoid the obvious but can’t sidestep the inevitable. Her film takes place at a time of segregation, injustice, and blind hatred. It is also a period of coexistence, but that uneasy détente hangs by a thread. The versatile Jason Clarke plays the head of the white family, a stubborn man who’s not very bright but still has what Rees calls the “currency” of his…

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JUSTICE LEAGUE: HEROES WORTH IDOLIZING

There is something intrinsically compelling about a gathering like this. At its best, Justice League is a lot of fun–the kind of fun I look for in a comic-book superhero movie. It even removes the unpleasant aftertaste of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice–and for that alone I am grateful. In fact, the film makes a concerted effort to rebuild the image of Superman as an object of awe and the ultimate superhero.  I grew up with that character and he still holds a special place in my heart, and when he stands strong as part of the Justice League I revert to my boyhood feeling of hero-worship. The core of the story by Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder (with a screenplay credited to Terrio and Joss Whedon) is…

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh likes to mess with us. The results can be disarming (In Bruges) or distressing (Seven Psychopaths), but in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he explores new dramatic territory. Who else would present us with a protagonist we are bound to root for—then have her indulge in wildly extreme and dangerous behavior? He does the same with the ostensible villain of the piece, a hot-headed, racist deputy…but in reverse. How does he expect us to respond? I surmise that he is trying to show that no individual is entirely good or entirely bad. While that may seem simplistic, it’s rare to find such contradictory characters in mainstream American films. It definitely helps to have actors as gifted as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and…

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THE OLD DARK HOUSE, T-MEN, AND THE BIG KNIFE SPARKLE ON BLU-RAY

The Criterion Collection remains the Gold Standard for the treatment of films old and new on Blu-ray…but lately, several other distributors are making efforts to emulate Criterion. That’s a win-win for film buffs. Cohen Media, for instance, has just issued a visually stunning edition of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). For decades, this tantalizing title has only existed in substandard prints. The new Blu-ray is simply breathtaking, and it includes bonus features that were prepared more than twenty years ago for its laserdisc debut: a charming commentary by costar Gloria Stuart, an informative one by Whale biographer James Curtis, and a recollection by director Curtis Harrington of how he prodded Universal Pictures to save its 35mm material even though they no longer owned rights to…

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THOR RAGNAROK: IRREVERENT FUN IN THE MCU

Marvel has a gift for repeatedly giving its fans the unexpected. Who would have dreamed that Thor, one of their most stoic characters, would star in one of the studio’s goofiest films? Thor Ragnarok opens with the mighty warrior in smartass mode, spewing wisecracks at a hellish fire monster. What’s more, Chris Hemsworth is fully up to the task. This sets the stage for a wild and woolly adventure that has the fingerprints of its director, Taika Waititi, all over it. Eric Pearson, Chris Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost are the credited screenwriters, but the Kiwi filmmaker and performer who made Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (in which he also starred) is the dominant force behind this singular entry in…

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LADY BIRD: A TRUTHFUL TEENAGE PORTRAIT

Greta Gerwig has made an impressive debut feature as writer and director with Lady Bird. It isn’t every day you see a film so attuned to the outsized drama of adolescent life. The film is bursting with life and rich in observations both large and small. Saoirse Ronan plays a Catholic high school senior in Sacramento, California who has given herself the name Lady Bird. She “hates” her home town, but what she actually hates is living on the wrong side of the tracks and being an outsider at school. She and her mother (played with heartbreaking honesty by Laurie Metcalf) are almost always at loggerheads. She knows her mom truly loves her, but she’s too wrapped up in herself to care about the struggles of…

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LAST FLAG FLYING: THREE GREAT ACTORS AT WORK

It’s a pleasure to watch Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne bring their disparate characters to life in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an actor’s vehicle if there ever was one. The year is 2003: George W. Bush is in the White House, the U.S. has invaded Iraq, and mobile phones are all the rage. But for three Vietnam vets who haven’t seen each other in decades, life has taken them on widely divergent paths. Cranston is a cocky wiseguy who owns a rundown bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Fishburne has become a pastor at a Southern church, with a loving and supportive wife. Carell has the saddest story to tell: his wife died of cancer not long ago and his son has just been…

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FOUR NEW DISNEY BOOKS

INK & PAINT: THE WOMEN OF WALT DISNEY’S ANIMATION by Mindy Johnson; foreword by June Foray (Disney Editions) The size and weight of this volume is matched only by its scope. Disney scholar Johnson, whose previous book detailed the history of Tinker Bell, has outdone herself this time around. I daresay no one knows, or fully appreciates, how many women figured in Walt Disney’s early career (like his first distributor, Margaret J. Winkler) or how many played a significant part in the continuing development of his studio. To place all of this in historical context, Johnson provides a timeline of women’s roles in American society, decade by decade. Fortunately, her reach does not exceed her grasp. This is an exhaustive study that even acknowledges women…

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FOCUSING ON ‘JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD’

There aren’t many documentaries about writers, past or present, but actor and filmmaker Griffin Dunne had unique access to author Joan Didion because she is his aunt. The result is a highly personal and revealing film that chronicles Didion and the times she chronicled from the 1960s to the present. Like the late Nora Ephron, Didion believes that everything is fodder, whether it’s the zeitgeist of a particular period like the hippie era in San Francisco or more personal matters like grieving for the loss of her husband and daughter. This has led to a series of acclaimed books including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The Year of Magical Thinking (which earned her the National Book Award). Didion also had…

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