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5/10
Rushed and Uncertain, Tomorrow Never Dies is a Bland, Faceless Entry
24 February 2020
When war horns bellow between China and the UK, MI6 sends their resident super-spy to get to the bottom of the grievance. It doesn't take much detective work to discover the man most likely to profit from such international conflict: media mogul Elliot Carver, who just so happens to have launched a 24-hour news network in time to broadcast the opening volleys.

It's a forward-thinking concept for the franchise, asking pertinent questions about the rooting interests of the press, but the whole affair is painted in rather broad strokes, every dilemma solved with the same rudimentary answer: shoot bullets until the problem goes away. Preferably in a big, round, satisfying fireball. Carver is a role that could have been really interesting, a menacing mash-up of Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch, and I would've loved to see Anthony Hopkins tackle it, as originally cast. Alas, his departure after a mere three days left the part to Jonathan Pryce, who really hams it up (even by Bond villain standards) and spoils the character's potential. Not that the thin, rushed script did him many favors. His henchmen are severely lacking, too, a rather pedestrian clan without much in the way of muscle or panache.

So we've got James, plus special guest-star Michelle Yeoh (a highly stereotypical, but effective, shot of adrenaline), mowing through a crowd of red shirts en route to a lackluster final showdown with the scrawny, intellectual owner of a media empire. It's not without merit - the chase scenes are still quite good and there's a renewed emphasis on gadgets this time around - but in the pantheon of 007, I would consider Tomorrow Never Dies middling at best.
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Black Swan (2010)
8/10
Dire and Despairing, Aronofsky's Swan is Characteristically Black
20 February 2020
A timid, devoted ballerina experiences both sides of the hunt, having finally usurped the long-standing lead for her company's next major performance and then immediately spotted a crosshair upon her own back. Along the road to opening night, prodded by competition from a new dancer and a taxing, handsy show director, she reluctantly confronts the various psychoses and anxieties that have been brewing, unimpeded, in her psyche for years. Will she finally learn to cut loose and embrace her id, or fall apart en route?

Natalie Portman is a nervous wreck in that leading role, finding comfort in the rigorous pursuit of perfection on-stage, but tumult and uncertainty everywhere else in her life. She's perfectly cast, petite and toned in a physical sense but versatile enough to dig deep and project the agonizing struggles that writhe within. Director Darren Aronofsky, no stranger to plumbing such depths, brings his usual grim, unflinching perspective to the scene. It's a good thematic marriage. Aronofsky's work is almost always oppressive and exhausting, which is why it took me ten years to get around to watching this one. In a very real way, I dread his films and what they'll put me through.

Portman's performance (not to mention that of Mila Kunis, in an indispensable supporting role) and the gorgeous dance choreography saves it from being a total plod, but Black Swan is anything but a pleasant experience. Profound at times, pervasively uncomfortable at others, it digs until it hits the bone and then it digs some more.
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Nightcrawler (2014)
9/10
A Distressing, Indispensable Piece of Haunting Cinema
17 February 2020
Ambulance-chasing with the latest form of human pond scum, an aggressive crowd of opportunistic late-night freelance photographers who make their living from the graphic misfortune of others. "If you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life," brags the new recruit in this bloodthirsty professional sport, a hauntingly detached functional sociopath played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

It's a top-notch performance, Patrick Bateman-esque in its eerie moral bankruptcy. Laser-focused and analytical in all things, he's amoral to the core. He communicates in long, precise sentences that cut straight to the point, strategically disarming his conversational adversaries before they even know they've entered a sparring match. If not for the obvious physical indications, one might question if he's human at all. The one exception might be his fondness for composition, an endless pursuit of sublime photographic harmony amidst the broken glass and shattered bodies of a fatal auto accident. The rescue crews and police officers, also present amidst the carnage, are mere obstacles between his lens and the natural beauty he finds, bleeding and gurgling, upon the asphalt.

As Gyllenhaal grows bolder and more calculated in his nightly hunt for that next great shot, the stakes increase and his eye grows more selective. It all culminates in a masterful climax, a white-knuckle chase scene, that pulled me from my cozy spot on the couch to a closer seat on the floor, a few feet removed from the TV screen. I can't remember the last time I was so invested in a story.
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Shoplifters (2018)
9/10
What Constitutes a Family? And Who Decides?
13 February 2020
Ruminations on the essence of family with a scrappy group of bottom-feeders, discarded and neglected by society at large. Living well below the poverty line, stealing what they can't afford, their household exists on the outskirts of civilization; a phantom in more ways than one. The general population is perfectly happy to turn a blind eye upon the situation and this ragtag, close-knit little unit is content with the same arrangement, despite the guarded air of closeted secrets looming over the household.

It's the kind of film you know probably doesn't end well, so you just enjoy the good times while they last. The movie itself seems to feel the same way, lingering in those sweet moments of quiet memory and cozy togetherness for as long as it can, delaying the inevitable. Of course, eventually something has to give, and then it's a crushing landslide of sudden public interest and consequence, hitting all the harder for the delicate harmony that existed, so freely, prior to the vortex.

Heartfelt and thoughtful, with a stirring message and no true heroes or villains; just people, doing what they think is right, no matter how misguided that might seem from another angle.
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Paddington 2 (2017)
8/10
A Simple, Effective, Big-Hearted Dose of Feel-Good Family Fun
10 February 2020
Sometimes, I think, we get carried away in chasing bells and whistles. We seek the fresh gimmick, the new, unseen perspective, while overlooking the power of simple fundamentals. The Paddington sequel is the epitome of those fundamentals. It doesn't need to threaten the world or dazzle us with fireworks because it understands the basics of empathetic storytelling. Armed with a pleasant cast of characters (even the unsavory ones), plus a wonderful sense of humor, it spins a simple yarn with elementary motives that still manages to charm and surprise. It's also unexpectedly well-crafted in a technical sense, with a sharp photographic eye and ornate attention to detail that must have been inspired by Wes Anderson.

Yes, it's a family movie. I'd like to think Pixar has stomped many of those preconceptions to death by this point, but if you still can't get past the idea of talking bears in people clothes, that's your loss. What may appear to be a stiff bit of rudimentary mail-in shelf-filler is, instead, the big-hearted bedtime story you never realized you were missing.
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The Nice Guys (2016)
7/10
An Excellent Celebrity Pairing in a Slightly Above-Average Comedy
10 February 2020
A buddy cop throwback in more ways than one, The Nice Guys follows a pair of mismatched private eyes in pursuit of a grand conspiracy that connects everything from porno to the auto industry. It revels in the late-70s setting, poking fun at the fashion, décor, celebrity and personal habits of the era, but at heart it feels a touch more modern.

I was struck, repeatedly, at the tonal similarities to the Lethal Weapon franchise, so it was with no great shock that I discovered Nice Guys' director, Shane Black, made his first bucks as a screenwriter for those Mel Gibson action/comedies. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are the new Gibson and Glover, an odd couple whose pursuit of the truth (and the accompanying payoff, naturally) only barely supersedes their grumbling dislike for one another. Crowe is the anchor, your typical gruff exterior with a warm, chewy center, but Gosling steals the show as his loopy, desperate, unpredictable counterpart. They both get some strong one-liners (and one spectacular silent team-up gag in an elevator), but for my money, Gosling does more with his.

The plot never fully recovers from a risky swerve at the end of the second act, and it plays the pesky kid tagalong card way too often, but it's not trying to be fine art and such missteps sometimes go with the territory. It is what it sets out to be, for better or worse. I enjoyed myself.
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7/10
An Honest-to-God Live-Action Video Game
5 February 2020
Hard-hitting martial arts mayhem with as little actual storytelling as possible. We get a white knight, a villainous mastermind, a couple turncoats and a large, loud gang of dispensable supporting characters. Everybody plays their traditional roles; butts are kicked, scenery is smashed, lines are crossed and credits are rolled.

It's as close to straight-up video game action as I've ever seen on the silver screen, particularly if you're one of those gamers who likes to skip the cutscenes. The fights are, generally, good enough to carry the picture single-handedly. They're intense and climactic, from the manic four-on-one rumble that kicks off the pandemonium to the nigh-invincible boss battle that concludes it. There's a jarring sense of harsh finality to The Raid, with a steady stream of weaponry in play and every duel culminating in a killing or crippling blow. There's no limping off, bruised ribs in-hand, to fight another day... these guys are visibly finished.

In lieu of a deeper, less generic plot, it's that brutal efficiency which gives the film its identity. In six months' time, when I reflect on this film, that's what I'll remember. Not the flimsy double-turn pulled near the end, but the cleverly dismembered enemy combatants our hero has (sometimes literally) folded in half during his nonstop fifteen-floor rampage.
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Parasite (2019)
9/10
As Stakes Rapidly Rise, a Clever Family of Con Artists Slips Underwater
29 January 2020
A relatively simple, low-key racket spirals way out of control as an impoverished lower class Korean family smoothly weasels their way into the lives of a wealthy, naive, white collar household.

Unpredictably composed, Parasite effortlessly shifts between several genres, evenly mixing comedy with tragedy and several stops in between. Of the versatile tools in that particular box, the film's at its best on the frequent occasions that it ratchets up the tension. I constantly caught myself holding in a deep breath, completely immersed in the moment and conflicted about the best possible outcome. Not all of those nail-biters lead to fireworks, and the film is careful not to overplay its hand, so that, when the time is right, those inevitable explosions land like a flurry of unexpected body blows.

The first hour is captivating, as the leeches' shady plot comes together and their long con gains momentum, but the home stretch, with its string of sharp curves and grim consequences, is unrestrained chaos in the best of ways. One helluva ride.
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6/10
Funny and Familiar, But Shallow Like a Series of SNL Skits
28 January 2020
The whole crew is back for a decade-later reunion tour in this silly, gore-flaunting, undead escapade. I welcomed the familiarity, I laughed at most of the jokes, I appreciated the winks and callbacks, but the whole thing is a little too on-the-nose and easy. Everything feels like a time-chewing diversion, like a whole slew of side dishes without an entree.

Double Tap has some inspired moments - Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as cut-rate stand-ins for the male leads, most memorably - but man, it really misses the sense of urgent motivation that was everywhere in the original. Each new plot development or character feels lazy, thin and temporary, and without the fresh allure of learning those famous rules of survival, it all comes up a bit lacking. Points for the wacky new breeds of zombie, though, and for a tremendous, unexpected mid-credits scene that, er, feels more energetic and inspired than half the material in the feature. Come to think of it, maybe I should take points away for that one.
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Joker (2019)
8/10
Difficult, Challenging, Unfriendly Truths About Life in Our Modern Society
28 January 2020
Uncomfortable close-ups with a broken man, struggling to cope in a broken city, without a flicker of hope from a broken society. Set in the very early 1980s, Joker goes out of its way to invoke all the dirt and grime of that era. The local news, the regional politics, the dark sense of a brooding civil discontent, it's all here, and not only are we transported back to an age that could've easily spawned such a fractured criminal figurehead, we're shown direct parallels in today's seemingly polished outward-facing veneer.

Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing in that lead role, carrying the picture in an essential performance that alternately wows and disturbs. He wrings every last drop of power out of a difficult part, creating a beautiful sense of poetic, unsettling discord that's tough to watch but even tougher to tear one's eyes from. Even if we can't endorse his actions (the film also stops short of doing so), we can understand the series of tragic missteps that led up to them, and maybe identify a shard of that same mania tucked away in our own subconscious.

It's both literal and metaphorical, concrete but ethereal. We never know if what we're seeing takes place in reality or in a hyper-realistic, drug-induced sense of imagination, as the two are so hopelessly, constantly intertwined. There's a logical explanation for almost every last one of the character's trademark quirks, most of the heartbreaking variety (particularly that violent, wrenching laugh), but are those the truth or more figments? Daring and ugly and spontaneously violent (the deaths in this film are shocking in their immediate finality), it's the kind of movie that stomps your teeth into the concrete and leaves you wondering where it all went wrong. The post-climax is a weakness, perhaps, its messaging too blunt and transparent, but that's a rather small gripe. I've been thinking about it all weekend.
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2/10
Pointlessly Nutso and Thoroughly Flashy, it's a Nic Cage Playground and Nothing More
28 January 2020
Based on a classic slice of short fiction by HP Lovecraft, this long-incubating adaptation is an overly flashy, effects-laden blend of sci-fi and horror. Nic Cage plays a semi-retired family man whose isolated upstate farm is struck by a meteorite, which then evaporates and causes all sorts of bizarre changes in the surrounding environment. Pink trees, mutated animals, unexpectedly abundant harvests, that sort of thing.

Among the afflicted is Cage himself, who revels in the chance to amp up every last one of his craziest on-screen tendencies. My god, what a Cage-being-Cage film this is. He's howling, he's gesticulating, he's painted in blood and cackling, he's... suddenly and inexplicably changing accents? I'm not sure how much direction he took here, because it looks like they just focused the cameras and kept rolling while their star actor did whatever felt good, with the occasional interruption from family members or special effects showcases. And, as perversely entertaining as that can be, it doesn't merit a film unto itself.

The scraps that surround those indulgent bouts of overacting are awfully scant, narrow and underdeveloped, like the worst '80s straight-to-video productions. It's trippy, but pointlessly so. We get cryptic prophecies and arcane imagery as props, mere window dressing that's waved around and then forgotten. Even the visuals can seem laughably dated, particularly the goopy, absurd creature effects. Catch the highlights when they invariably wind up on a YouTube gag reel - they're almost as funny as Cage's out-of-context lunacy in The Wicker Man - but do yourself a favor and skip the rest.
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Jojo Rabbit (2019)
9/10
Whimsical but Honest, Colorful but Draining, Jojo is Both Wonderful and Terrible
28 January 2020
Alternating between bitter poignance and flippant hilarity, Jojo Rabbit thrives as an emotional rollercoaster. Gravely serious situations are often cut with a well-timed, stress-melting laugh. Light moments of childish infatuation take a sudden swerve into existential turmoil. That's a hallmark of director Taika Waititi, who explored similarly polarizing contrasts in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and, as it turns out, it's also the essence of childhood during wartime.

Here we spend time with a ten-year-old German boy (passionately interested in the fading Third Reich), his troubled but deeply caring mother, the comically inept Nazis left to supervise their small town, and the sarcastic Jewish girl secreted away in their attic. Largely due to circumstance, the kids deal with some very adult subjects, trying everything to convince their peers to take them seriously. It doesn't work, of course, and that leads to some of the richest comedy, so they redouble their efforts. It's only in the very last scene, with the shadow of impending invasion finally past, that the specter of assumed adulthood is released and we finally catch a glimpse of these children acting their age. I wasn't sure the film would actually come together until that perfect moment, but what rich rewards for a thoroughly up-and-down journey.

Whimsical but honest, colorful but draining, it's both wonderful and terrible, often at the same time. My spine was shivering as it cut to the credits.
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Knives Out (2019)
8/10
A Wonderfully Stylish, Unpredictable Bit of Essential Murder Mystery... Until it Runs Out of Nerve
28 January 2020
Rian Johnson writes and directs this wickedly pointy ensemble murder mystery, which finds a large, snobby family at odds over the untimely demise of their allegedly-beloved patriarch and the impending redistribution of his wealth.

The first hour is a particularly brilliant bit of deceptive filmmaking, shifting from one unreliably-narrated flashback to the next, while the audience is left to make sense of all the lies and half-truths. Eccentric to the last, each member of this extended family has something to hide, a personal scandal or ulterior motive, and that's conveniently left out of their fond memories with the deceased. Though it's burdened with such a heavy cast, none feel extraneous or fade into the woodwork. They're each distinct and memorable, even if a few of the actors take things a bit over the top and flirt with parody. Daniel Craig might be the loudest such example, constantly over-playing his best Foghorn Leghorn accent, but he's got plenty of competition. Like a high-expense party game, most everybody has a gimmick. Some just work it a bit harder than the others.

When it's on-point, Knives Out delights in toying with perception and reality, sharing the same events from multiple, highly biased, perspectives. It falters on the home stretch, though, dropping the cloak and dagger in favor of a rather blunt, linear final act. That's disappointing, but not crippling. Even with the limp climax, this is a quirky, amusing, well-composed mystery. Just seemed like it was on the fast-track to something more.
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7/10
Battle of Wills, Both On and Off the Racetrack
28 January 2020
The (mostly) true story of two passionate gear-heads and their tireless quest to unseat mighty Team Ferrari at the grueling 24-hour Le Mans endurance race. Armed, that is, with the financial backing (and all-too frequent corporate meddling) of Ford Motor Company. In that sense, it's a war on two fronts: they're playing catch-up against a more advanced opponent while also fending off the various obstacles and bad ideas tossed down from their own corporate brass.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon, somehow sharing the screen for the first time, provide all the personality this flick needs to maintain momentum, while the hair-raising cockpit scenes nail the hairpin turns. Bale plays the more fiery of the pair; a sparky, cocksure driver who comes out of near-retirement for this chance at immortality. Damon's man is full of piss and vinegar, too, but more amicable to the kind of machinations necessary for navigating a corporate American boardroom. From the first word, they're great together. It's not an easy relationship to define - blows are exchanged, often comically, more than once - but there's no arguing their kinship, even if both might brush it off as a mere working association. They both know the fine points of their job, and the slight quirks and deviations that make them essential to one another.

Several of the film's plot twists are telegraphed, even for those (like I) who didn't know the full story coming in, and it's guilty of occasionally dipping into the well of over-worn sports movie tropes, but otherwise it's an effective pulse-pounder.
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GoldenEye (1995)
8/10
Bond is Rejuvenated with a Fresh Sense of Rich, Playful Vigor
28 January 2020
Pierce Brosnan's debut behind the martini glass is easily the best Bond movie since Sean Connery first quit the role, nearly thirty years prior. Everything just seems to click for Brosnan, who deftly balances the tricky contrast between suave, romantic espionage and blunt, campy excess while still, somehow, seeming cool and in-command. He's familiar but replenished, a character we've grown to appreciate over the course of sixteen preceding films, cast in a new light. No growing pains whatsoever - this agent hits the ground running.

The plot's emphasis on post-Soviet decay provides a long-sought modern backdrop to the series (at the time of its release, at least), while opening the door for all sorts of fresh concepts, unique characters and fascinating set pieces. Bond's fleeting showdown with an ex-comrade (Sean Bean, in a fantastic villainous turn) amid a cluster of stylish, discarded Russian monuments is a particular standout in that respect.

It's not perfect, by any means - the tech bits are laughable, the timeline's a mess, it's overly long - but it's undeniably fun to watch, colorful and edgy and hip, and a decided return to form for a series that had been floating, directionless, for quite a while. A new cornerstone, just where one was most desperately needed.
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Happy Gilmore (1996)
7/10
Unapologetically Silly, Short-Sighted and Superficial... and I Love it
28 January 2020
Recipe for a prime Adam Sandler comedy: dream up a ridiculous, one-note concept, plaster it with silly side gags, stretch the whole thing to fill ninety minutes and... somehow succeed in spite of yourself. There's no way this rudimentary formula should work so well, but here's Exhibit B, and I'm still laughing.

Sandler in the mid-90s was a roiling ocean of slapstick brilliance, totally superficial and meaningless but all the more endearing for it. Here, of course, he's the brainless hockey player turned golf pro, capable of driving the green on a par five but allergic to any semblance of a short game. It's a role catered to his strengths - quick temper tantrums, wacky fight scenes, childish infatuations - and he still plays them well. All the fleeting extraneous bits land, too, from Carl Weathers's absurdly long false hand to Lee Trevino's frequent, often wordless, cameos to Christopher McDonald's delicious overacting as the stuck-up front runner, Shooter McGavin.

It doesn't look great (actually, the budget must've been pretty tight) but that's hardly the point. This one remains a simple dose of energetic fun, twenty-odd years later.
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7/10
A Gorgeous, Imaginative Modern Fairy Tale
28 January 2020
Beneath (or maybe parallel to) our world lies a secret land, populated by mythical creatures and governed by a strict, traditional code. Orphaned by his mother and abandoned by his father, one angry young boy finds his way between the two planes and begins an apprenticeship with a tenacious, if temperamental, fighting bear. Together, they learn and grow, developing physically as well as spiritually, but never completely reaching a full, placid understanding. Their mutually headstrong ways stand in the way of such a harmonious accord.

This is where the real interest of the film lies, a father-son relationship that's complete with bumps, warts and stubborn deadlocks. Its fantasy landscape is magical and fascinating, colorfully realized and teeming with life. I just wanted to dwell there for the duration. Later forays back into the human world are an unwelcome distraction, even if they lead to greater depth for the main character, and the climactic battle falls into the same category. It's completely out of left field, under-explained and off-key; a poor match for the softer, more resonant touch that was evident in earlier acts.

While it's in the sweet spot, The Boy and the Beast is animated magic. The hand-to-hand fight scenes and training montages are especially wonderful, smoothly and precisely animated with just enough exaggeration to remind us it's an anime. Very good when it's in the zone, but that focus doesn't last forever.
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9/10
A Nearly Perfect Blend of Darkly-Humored Sentiment and Christmas-Flavored Sarcasm
28 January 2020
Each of the early Vacation movies nails a certain aspect of middle class family life, be it the cross-country road trip or a rare overseas adventure, and most of their laughs come from the lack of romanticism or glossy, nostalgic veneer. They dig straight into the dirty reality of awkward family dynamics, the unfulfilled promise of adulthood and the emptiness of the American dream; weighty subjects for a comedy, but the results are never all that serious. This time we're home for the holidays, with a busy household of nosy, noisy, overly dramatic relatives, in from out of town for a long, unpleasant visit. A Lampoon stay-cation, in other words, with a whole mess of awful family obligations.

John Hughes is in the writer's chair again, delivering his usual high-quality, relatable laughs with just a hint of sentiment. Clearly, he's lived this life and made these mistakes, and with the benefit of hindsight, he's all too happy to share and enjoy with the rest of us. Chevy Chase runs the show on-screen, his stress levels spiked as the maligned, tormented family man who's always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He's picture perfect as the seemingly-jolly patriarch with a devilish glint in one eye, and his visibly mounting frustrations enhance almost every scene before the inevitable blow-up.

As a whole, Christmas Vacation still makes for a great off-color family tradition. A few of the jokes have grown dated (like most of neighboring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss's home décor), but the spirit remains rich and the broad, physical humor is timeless.
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5/10
A Thoroughly Polished Holiday Rehash
28 January 2020
Writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus go back to the well, very quickly, for this derivative sequel/remake. Strike while the swinging iron's hot, I suppose, and while the child star can still pass for a nine-year-old. It's basically the first film all over again, with a few negligible tweaks to satisfy convention, less emphasis on the errant family (Catherine O'Hara is now officially the worst mother in America, no need to dwell on it) and a renewed sense of brutality in all the scoundrel-punishing booby traps. Rather than scarred for life, just about every one of these pitfalls would leave poor Harry and Marv pushing daisies. It's a weird level-up for a family movie, downright mean-spirited at times, but that particular brand of action is saved for the closing twenty minutes and almost entirely self-contained.

The rest of the running time is rehash central, with repeat gags and plot points played over a different backdrop, plus the added bonus of Tim Curry and Rob Schneider as a pair of bumbling, high-class hotel clerks. In the end, Home Alone 2 is nothing magical, just a transparent sequel with enough influential industry minds behind it to avoid being sent straight to VHS.
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5/10
Rey and Kylo's Third Act Lacks That Special Something
28 January 2020
Evidently upset by Rian Johnson's contribution to the series in The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams has returned to the Star Wars universe to set the record straight, often directly contradicting the plot points and character arcs set in motion by the preceding film. That makes for an awkward sort of arm wrestling competition, as Johnson himself often seemed intent upon bucking the conventions established by earlier chapters in the franchise. In other words, "you undid my work, now I'm going to undo yours."

The result, in this case, is an overstuffed mammoth of a film that tries to do too much while also, somehow, accomplishing very little. Not the first time a Skywalker film has been messy, but the lack of enthusiasm and excitement is certainly new. Even in the much-maligned prequels, there was something unique and special about seeing a Star Wars movie. This time, despite the enormous budget, eight films' worth of lead-in, tons of new environments and alien races, plus constant callbacks to please the die-hards, the final product is rather bland and pedestrian. And that's probably the most damning thing I could say about it. This isn't the grand conclusion to a generations-long space epic, it's just a nondescript, run-of-the-mill science fiction shelf-filler with a billion-dollar sheen. It's a mass of writer's room concepts, tossed into a tumbler and belched out onto the screen without much connective tissue.

Episode IX does have successful moments. The law of averages says, given enough options, something's bound to stick. Yet, even when they hit upon a winner, Abrams and company's lack of conviction, their reluctance to take a risk and get firmly behind any one direction, lessens the meaning of the whole. How disappointing that it's come to this.
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The Goonies (1985)
8/10
A Wonderful Kid-Friendly Adventure, Essential 80s Viewing Material
22 November 2019
This one gives me the warmest sense of nostalgia. It's the ultimate '80s kid adventure, as a crew of young pals seek lost pirate treasure beneath their sleepy coastal Oregon suburb. When compared to the stiffer, more highly-orchestrated kids' movies of today, The Goonies is refreshingly grounded. The stakes may be relatively small, but they feel insurmountable from a pre-teen's perspective, and that's what really counts. Led by a sharp-tongued Corey Feldman, the young actors do a great job of conveying that blend of quick wit and fading innocence. They might occasionally trip over words and step on lines, but that makes the production feel more alive, more real. Because, let's be honest, in a room full of actual grade-schoolers, there aren't a whole lot of quiet moments.

The opening act, in particular, is a masterpiece of off-the-cuff jokes and effective scene-setting, as we get to know the gang and prepare the stage for their bicycle-powered expedition. Later chapters can get a bit cute, and pacing is sometimes a problem, but those shortcomings are generally smoothed out by the film's convincing practical effects, sweet character and overwhelming sense of childhood discovery. A veritable time capsule of the personalities, and production styles, of the period. And now I've got Cyndi Lauper running through my head again.
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Rocky (1976)
10/10
A Bare, Honest Look at Self-Doubt, Desire and Motivation
22 November 2019
An extremely impressive screenwriting debut for Sylvester Stallone, not to mention a breakthrough acting performance, in this transcendent boxing saga that's more about the path to the ring and the tumultuous effects of both participants' personal lives than the outcome of the fight itself.

Stallone is raw and nuanced as Rocky Balboa, the punchy palooka who wears his heart on the sleeve of his leather jacket and tumbles through life in a barely-contained tailspin. He's awkward but approachable, blunt but genuine. When flanked by an equally flawed supporting cast, we catch Rocky's personality from a number of different angles. Finally granted the long-sought opportunity to date a friend's sister, he's clumsy and oafish. They both are. The climactic moment of their embrace isn't a Hollywood crescendo, met with a romantic orchestral swell, it's a quiet fumble on the cold floor of his ratty, single-bedroom apartment. That's real; that's personal. As a trusted corner man's alcoholism spirals into an incoherent fury, we don't find any easy resolutions. Just added color to an already-bright fabric, portraying life in an American downtown during the mid-'70s.

The film's simple, seat-of-pants production further reinforces that theme. There's no gloss here, no smoothed edges. It's heartfelt and meaningful, bare and earnest, from the quiet moments of self-doubt to the irrelevance of the judges' scorecards at the end of the big match. Great stuff.
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5/10
Half Bond, Half Overstretched 80s Action Wannabe
22 November 2019
When personal loyalties conflict with his MI6 limitations, Bond turns in his credentials and goes rogue to smoke out a fugitive drug lord. Continuing the darker trend established in Timothy Dalton's first turn, 1987's The Living Daylights, this entry borrows several recurring themes from the then-tapering 1980s action boom. Our cocaine kingpin is lifted straight from the set of Scarface, reckless and bloodthirsty but insulated behind a wall of cash, and the revenge fantasy that motivates all the fireworks is, typically, pretty shallow. Not nearly as shallow as the pool of actors, mind you; a good sixty-percent of the cast must've been chosen for their pin-up potential alone.

The action scenes fare well, especially the climactic eighteen-wheeler chase along winding, mountainous roads, but those often feel like easy distractions while more substantial pots boil unwatched in another room. The premise of an outlaw 007, dodging cronies and his own jilted former handlers alike, seems ripe with fresh potential. Shame it's never exploited for more than an odd sniper scene at the Hemingway House, then mindlessly hand-waved off after the bad guy's dealt with.

Licence to Kill has moments, but too often it feels like it's straining to be something it's not. Are those growing pains, as the franchise storms into its fourth decade, or desperate attempts to keep up with the times?
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8/10
A Tantalizing, if Simple, Return to Familiar Territory
22 November 2019
If the final season of Breaking Bad were an earthquake, this would be its aftershock. Not just because it follows chronologically, or because it's a less violent, traumatic event (though both are true), but because it's so essentially associated.

El Camino regularly calls back to events from the original series, revisiting characters, scenes and developments through a vibrant, smoothly-related series of flashbacks and memories. Like a serpent winding over the sand, writer/director Vince Gilligan delicately slithers through old scenery, adds a new layer of context, then immediately relates it to the present. It's a more elegant solution to the same problem HBO's Deadwood movie addressed earlier this year: how do we remind viewers of an important scene when it may have been a decade (or more) since they last watched it? HBO went at it with a hammer, slamming old footage abruptly into the mix, while Gilligan works with a scalpel, remembering and elaborating in the same breath. Fans of the series will, no doubt, relish the chance to re-visit this territory; to occupy the same space; to gain fresh perspective; to discover a new sense of closure. It moves like a TV program in film's clothing: expansive and deliberate, patient enough to chase those dangling threads, even if they divert from the greater narrative. Which, in this instance, works because that main storyline is rather simple. It's a loose end itself, left hanging when the series ended six years ago, but not a very long one.

As was often the case with the series, El Camino is all about rich character moments, fabulous cinematography and powerful acting. Aaron Paul is the film's constant, digging deep to deliver an impressive, nuanced performance that merits the extra screen time. He's joined by several strong supporting players - a few regulars from the show's prime and just as many bit players with newly-expanded roles - but those appearances always flicker and fade. This is Paul's show, and he brings the goods.
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6/10
Thematically Similar to Kon's Best, But Lesser in Most Ways
22 November 2019
Satoshi Kon's directorial follow-up to Perfect Blue is a somewhat lighter, less enveloping picture. We tail a pair of DIY documentarians, enamored with their subject, as they suss out the location of a reclusive former starlet and entice her to share her life's story. Truth and fiction intertwine in the telling of that particular saga, with personal memoirs stirred into various scenes from her best-loved screen performances. The result is a flighty, dreamlike atmosphere, a general easing in and out of the present that doesn't always follow a linear train of thought. It operates with a soft touch, which matches the understated nature of our aging narrator; smoothly straddling genres and decades en route to a destined meeting with a lost love.

That puts it on common thematic ground with both Perfect Blue and Paprika (Kon's 2006 swan song), which both toyed with perception and the meeting ground between internal and external realities. Millennium Actress, though, approaches the subject with reduced color and vigor, leaving less dangling threads to captivate audiences and fewer cornerstone visual showpieces to linger in their memories.
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