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KNIVES OUT: A SHARP BLEND OF COMEDY AND WHODUNIT

Writer-director Rian Johnson has only made a handful of films, from his high-school noir debut Brick to the most recent Star Wars epic. Now he’s applied his ingenuity to an old-fashioned whodunit. As a longtime Agatha Christie fan he’s called on deep knowledge of the genre to craft his own, original “perfect crime” movie and laced it with humor from the very start. The tone is set by Johnson’s casting, beginning with Daniel Craig as a cocky private eye with an accent one character disparagingly compares to Foghorn Leghorn. Craig seems to be having the time of his life indulging in this role, aiding the mostly-clueless detectives on the case, and the feeling is infectious. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon are the key family…

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THE TWO POPES: ONE OF THIS YEAR’S FINEST

One of the most unpredictable and satisfying films of the year, The Two Popes represents a collaboration of great talents: writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour), director Fernando Mereilles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), and two of the finest actors on the planet, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. The filmmakers disarm us with this sly piece of historical speculation about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in 2012, at an unprecedented moment in history when Benedict announced that he was stepping down, making way for a liberal successor. McCarten’s screenplay is witty and sharply observed. Benedict is under fire for financial improprieties at the Vatican and willful ignorance of the sex scandals that plague the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina…

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THE CURE FOR WHAT AILS YOU: SERIALS

I came of age after Hollywood stopped making serials, but I still got to see a few during the waning days of Saturday kiddie matinees and I’ve never lost my fondness for them. That’s why I’m happy that VCI Entertainment has released a handful of newly-restored serials on DVD and Blu-ray—the same titles that Turner Classic Movies is showing in rotation on their TCM Watch app: Jungle Queen, The Vanishing Shadow, Lost City of the Jungle, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, et al. VCI (www.vcientertainment.com) has long offered public domain titles but I’ve just watched their 2K restoration of The Roaring West (1935) starring Buck Jones and it’s become one of my favorites. Most serial aficionados agree that Republic Pictures made the best chapter-plays, but this Universal…

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QUEEN & SLIM: ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde may be inevitable, but even with its faults Queen & Slim stands on its own. It’s sure to provoke an emotional response, especially from African American audiences. The film reflects a seething anger borne of police shootings we’ve all witnessed or read about—although we always root for the anti-heroes in a story about lovers on the lam, regardless of race. The movie opens simply enough, with two unnamed characters having dinner in a Cleveland coffee shop. This is their first date and they struggle to make conversation. She (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) is an attorney whose client has just received the death penalty. He (Daniel Kaluuya, from Get Out) works at a Costco store and drives a car bearing the license plate TRUSTGOD. Minutes later they…

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FROZEN 2

I may not have been the biggest fan of Frozen but I certainly understood its widespread appeal. It offered not one but two princesses and a significant empowerment message for girls, an endearing comedy figure in Olaf, an unconventional leading man, and an enjoyable score featuring the indelible song “Let It Go.” I didn’t know what to expect from a sequel, especially given that like most fairy tales, this one concludes with everyone living happily ever after. Therein lies the dilemma. How do you invent a story that justifies extending “ever after?” I was hopeful that returning directors Jennifer Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) and Chris Buck would find a way. My 20-something students at USC were eager to see the results and didn’t share my…

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A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Fred Rogers was by any measure a remarkable man. He was the subject of a superb documentary last year that won a large and appreciative audience. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t reiterate the same information and offers instead a canny but irresistible story of its own. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, a magazine writer who gets an unwelcome assignment from his editor at Esquire: a profile of Mister Rogers. He wears his reputation as an investigative journalist like a badge of honor and bristles at the thought of this gig. His first brush with Rogers only confirms what he suspected: the man is too good to be true. This is the key to Neighborhood’s success: Rhys’ character mirrors our own doubts and questions. How on earth does…

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FORD V. FERRARI: THE AUDIENCE WINS

Ford v. Ferrari has no ambition except to entertain, and it does so exceedingly well. That’s not something I take for granted. A great true-life story, a sharply written screenplay, superior production values, and a perfect cast are the basic ingredients, deftly orchestrated by director James Mangold. We’ve come to expect excellence from Matt Damon, who plays celebrated auto designer Carroll Shelby, but we haven’t seen Christian Bale in a lighthearted role for some time, so it’s a special treat to watch him wearing a smile as maverick race car driver and engineer Ken Miles. This is the story of their knockabout friendship as they take on the challenge of producing a car that can compete with Enzo Ferrari’s to win the grueling 24-hour Le Mans…

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