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WHAT SHE SAID: A VALUABLE DOC ABOUT PAULINE KAEL

Believe it or not, there was a time when film critics were widely discussed and debated, none more so than Pauline Kael during her long tenure at The New Yorker. Equal parts essayist, crusader and provocateur, she famously championed emerging talents and held them to account when they disappointed her. Rob Garver’s valuable documentary will serve as a primer for those who don’t know about Kael and an evocative reminder of what she meant to those of us who grew up reading her. Using home movies, talk show clips, flashes of vintage films, and interviews with friends and admirers like Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is stimulating and informative. I learned about Kael’s struggle to get by as a…

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LITTLE WOMEN: AS GOOD AS IT GETS

I love the 1994 version of Little Women written by Robin Swicord and directed by Gillian Armstrong, and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the 1933 adaptation directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn. I didn’t think either one could be topped or even equaled, but now I have to eat my words. Actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig has done the seemingly impossible: in a troubled world beset by cynicism she has created a Little Women that is physically and spiritually beautiful. The primary requisite to pull off such a feat is inspired casting, and Gerwig has made impeccable choices: Saoirse Ronan is a perfect Jo, the intellectual tomboy who serves as ringleader for her three sisters. We first meet her as a forthright young woman…

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STAR WARS: VARIATIONS ON A THEME

I saw Star Wars in 1977 at the Loews State Theater in Manhattan, now long-gone. Little did I know that the universe George Lucas created would still be alive and well decades later. Diehard fans have a singular attachment to this series, and right after the new installment’s premiere I overheard debates arguing the pros and cons of what we’d just seen. I can only speak for myself. I had a good time watching J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, even though I felt sucker-punched more than once. The filmmaker knows that this is the last time he (or possibly anyone) will get to play with George Lucas’s original concept and characters and his giddiness gets the better of him. Without spoiling any surprises, let’s just…

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CATS: MUSIC MINUS MAGIC

Some things shouldn’t be tampered with. I enjoyed Cats onstage, where the theatrical experience worked its magic to great effect. The new film never swept me up as I hoped it might; for all its rich ingredients it felt like a soufflé that wouldn’t rise. It isn’t for lack of effort. The cast, music and dance, production design, and elaborate visual effects are all top-shelf. But only two ingredients gave me real, deep-down pleasure: the performances of Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat and Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy. McKellen delivers his poignant song like the stage veteran he is in real life, with a wink in the direction of Bert Lahr. There are younger, shinier performers in the ensemble but they can’t hold a candle…

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BOMBSHELL: MUCH ADO

It’s not uncommon for me to stare at a beautiful woman like Charlize Theron, but in Bombshell I was fixated on her face for the wrong reason: I kept trying to figure out why it looked odd. That’s because her features were altered to make her resemble former Fox News “star” Megyn Kelly. The changes are subtle but I found them distracting, all the more so because I have little acquaintance with the high-profile anchorwoman. Did the resemblance have to be so exact for Theron’s performance to be convincing? The film as a whole suffers from tunnel vision. Charles Randolph’s screenplay is so tightly focused on happenings at Fox News that if you didn’t follow the players in this real-life drama—and I didn’t—you may find it difficult…

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NEW AND NOTABLE FILM BOOKS December 2019

There’s never enough time to read, so please consider this a survey rather than a series of reviews. I’ve only included books that interest or intrigue me.     THE MOVIE MUSICAL! by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf) In addition to teaching several generations of filmmakers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Basinger has written a handful of essential books on classic Hollywood including The Star Machine, Silent Stars, and A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. Her latest is an expansive (634-page) treatise on musicals: a heady mixture of history, personal experience, and pointed opinions. This is the book I most look forward to reading cover-to-cover over the holidays, and I know I won’t be disappointed.       THE GROVE MUSIC GUIDE TO AMERICAN FILM MUSIC Edited…

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THE ULTIMATE PRE-CODE MOVIE

If there hadn’t been a Production Code crackdown brewing in Hollywood before The Story of Temple Drake (1933), this astonishing film might have tipped the scales. Based on William Faulkner’s sensational novel Sanctuary, it’s the story of a carefree Southern belle who teases men—until she is raped and turned into a sex slave. The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release provides everything you need to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this material and how potent it remains today. I’m posting two pieces from 1933 that should be of interest: a publicity piece about Jack La Rue, who plays the notorious Trigger (named Popeye in the novel) and the first paragraphs of a review in the trade journal Motion Picture Herald.     Miriam Hopkins is excellent in the leading role.…

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