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THE AMAZING CHARLEY BOWERS IS DISCOVERED—AGAIN

In the early 1980s I attended the Ottawa Animation Festival, where I saw a handful of silent shorts that blew me away. These ingenious films blended meticulous stop-motion work with live-action slapstick. The man who made and starred in them was Charley Bowers. I knew of him as the producer and director of Mutt and Jeff cartoons in the late teens and early 1920s, but I had no idea that he later appeared on-camera and masterminded such unique comedy films. I was so eager to spread the word about him that I obtained footage from the late Louise Beaudet at the Cinemathèque Quebecoise and ran highlights on Entertainment Tonight. He has been discovered and rediscovered several times in the intervening years, but he’s still not a…

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SCARFACE, CAPTAIN AHAB, AND KING KONG: GREAT READING

Normally I review only film-related books on this site, but I’ve just devoured two volumes written by friends that I can’t resist writing about. One is a work of fiction, the other non-fiction. When I finished reading them I picked up a movie-related biography I’d been meaning to get to for months. The result: three enthusiastic endorsements.   Scarface and the Untouchable (William Morrow) is the latest tome by Max Allan Collins and his new writing partner A. Brad Schwartz. Collins is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve long been a fan of his true-crime novels featuring private eye Nathan Heller. He has spent so much time rooting around the world of 20th century American crime that he is the ideal person to tackle this dual…

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SWORD OF TRUST: LIGHT AND SATISFYING

I enjoy Lynn Shelton’s work overall but I think Sword of Trust is her best feature to date. It doesn’t seem like an improv-based film at all; it plays as well as a scripted comedy but manages to retain an air of spontaneity, constantly throwing us curves—and laughs. The set-up is likably off-kilter. One morning, Birmingham pawnshop owner Marc Maron is handed an oddity from two female customers (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins), an old sword from the Civil War that may change our understanding of how that fateful event played out. This impels Maron to do some research, with the dubious help of his sad-sack assistant (Jon Bass), and leads all four fortune-hunters on a strange and surprising adventure. Standup comic and master interviewer Maron has…

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STUBER: START MAKING SENSE

A good comedy has to have structure, just like a dramatic film, and should possess some degree of logic. It can be internal logic, once the movie has established its concept and boundary lines, but it still has to add up. Stuber flaunts its implausibility so many times I lost count. I also lost the ability to invest in its characters and situations. The premise is outlandish, but not impossible to accept: a police detective (Dave Bautista) has to act fast in order to capture a heroin dealer who murdered his partner, but he’s just had eye surgery and can’t see, let alone drive. Desperate not to let the criminal slip through his fingers, he hires an Uber driver (Kumail Nanjiani) and leads him into a world…

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THE FAREWELL: A SLEEPER THAT CROSSES BOUNDARIES

For her second feature, up-and-coming writer-director Lulu Wang has drawn on her own experiences to craft a touching story of a Chinese family, told from the point of view of a young Americanized woman who returns to her homeland for a wedding—and a possible funeral. Awkwafina, who has revealed her bold screen presence in such films as Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, excels in the leading role. She is struggling to get along in New York City, waiting for word about a fellowship while falling behind in her rent. She has a somewhat fractious relationship with her mother, less so with her father…but as we learn, all three feel a deep connection with the family matriarch, familiarly known as Nai Nai (played by the endearing Shuzhen Zhou).…

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

The best way to enjoy Spider-Man: Far from Home is to embrace your inner 12-year-old. Once I did that, and realized that the tone of this movie is completely different from Avengers: Endgame, I had a good time with it. Tom Holland is thoroughly likable as Peter Parker, who’s more concerned with expressing his feelings for classmate MJ (the equally enjoyable Zendaya) than he is with saving the world. It’s easy to relate to this character and his identity crisis. Peter is a normal kid facing all the pressures and problems any high-schooler would; the only difference is that he’s been blessed (or cursed) with superpowers. It may sound odd to describe a film filled with overpowering action scenes and a maniacal villain as lighthearted, but that’s the trick…

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YESTERDAY: WHAT A LETDOWN

A good idea is a rare and precious gift. Screenwriter Richard Curtis has had many of them, leading to such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Notting Hill. He and Jack Barth had another good one: What if a time warp erased the whole world’s memory of The Beatles, and a struggling singer presented their songs as his own? They brought this concept to director Danny Boyle, whose enthusiasm led to Yesterday. An idea, however, is not the same thing as a story. This film is an unfortunate example of a premise that doesn’t blossom into a full-fledged screenplay. The cast is engaging enough, with Himesh Patel as a hard-luck guy who has greatness thrust upon him and Lily James as his platonic pal. They’ve…

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