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4 stars

My family took me to this yesterday, and while it lacks the fresh inventive feel of the original, quintessential summer flick, it is still a treat. The sense of humor is intact, the characters remain winning, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax again steals the picture, and Groot is now Baby Groot, so darling that the most vicious murderers in the galaxy cannot do him in because, as their leader freely admits, “it is too adorable to kill.”  The story is a bit ragged – Peter Quill’s father (Kurt Russell) is introduced and his plan is both overly apocalyptic and not necessarily reliant on the involvement of the Guardians.  The sentiment is also a bit heavy; a lot of pain is expressed within the theme of family interrupted, creating one too many lumps in the throat for a damn Marvel movie.  Still, a lot of fun.

Isabelle Huppert (nominated for best actress) is a successful video game designer who is, in the film’s first scene, brutally raped. The twist is that she is already so cynically wired and self-loathing that the act does not have the consequences one might expect.  In short, she’s a tough-as-nails cookie, central to the maintenance of her successful business, dolt of a son, needy ex-husband and outrageously libertine mother.  She is also brazenly selfish, carrying on an affair with the husband of her best friend, with whom she has an almost romantic relationship.

So, when her rapist begins to text her and even break into her house to leave “mementos”, she is as much intrigued as terrified.  The result is, at its best, a Hitchcockian sexual thriller and sly comedy of manners, and, when the mystery is solved, at worst, a smugly self-satisfied weirdo tale.  All in all, a solid film by Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, Robocop), who has made a career sticking his thumb in the eyes of traditional sexual mores, usually with a taste for the violent.  Huppert is nothing less than commanding.

The politics of the film are also interesting. It has been dubbed by many critics as a “rape revenge” movie, but it is really a great deal more complicated than that.  I am guessing the moniker was affixed to ward off much of the picture’s untidy political incorrectness (as one progressive reviewer unsurprisingly notes, this is a “male filmmaker’s lurid, repeated depiction of violence against a female character, one who is defined, almost entirely, by her relationship with men, shown in nightmarish detail”).  If someone brought this baby on to an modern American campus, the viewers would likely be institutionalized and those responsible tarred and feathered.

Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the Broadway play is expertly cast, and his performance as the imposing and haunted patriarch Troy Maxon is both mammoth and intricate.  Washington’s turn is equaled by the performances put in by Viola Davis (as his long-suffering, devoted and stoic wife), Mykelti Williamson (as his mentally-impaired brother), Stephen Henderson (as his lifelong friend) and the rest of the cast.  August Wilson’s screenplay, adapted from his own stage play, crackles with raw and poetic renderings of regret, loss and anger.  As Maxon stalks his family and curses the sky from his tiny rowhouse backyard, he seems to become smaller and more vulnerable in each scene.  His ethos of “trust no one, owe no one” becomes more minimizing as the film progresses.

All that said, this tale of a familial Goliath negotiating his lost opportunity, youth and vigor, as well as his brutal past and his current-day demons, has a few slow spots, and while Washington’s direction is capable, there is no compelling reason to see what is essentially a stage play in the movie house.   Wait for DVD/streaming and enjoy.

A funny and wry comedy about an improv group in New York City that is splintered when one of its members makes it to “the show”, a stand-in for Saturday Night Live called Weekend Live. The elevation exposes fissures within the group, eventually sealing its doom . Nonetheless, through the process of promotion and disintegration, the members realize how integral the group is/was to their lives and how their involvement fits into their ambitions.

This is a sweet movie, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also stars as one of the improv group members. Some of the drama is beyond the talents of the actors, almost all of them are immediately recognizable from some Comedy Central or other endeavor, and it is on occasion a little gooey. But, otherwise, this is good clean fun, bettered by a biting, almost cruel caricature of Lorne Michaels as the head honcho at Weekend Live.

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My own Star Wars experience goes something like this.  I saw the first film in the theater and like any 13 year old boy, was enthralled.  My father was captivated as well, because it harkened back to the serials of his youth.  By the time the next two films came out, I was in high school/early college, and I did not see them because I was too cool to go to a kiddie movie.  Fast forward to the late 90s, early 00s, and I have children.  I couldn’t wait to show them Star Wars and the two that followed, in anticipation of the next trilogy.  They were enthralled by the first three movies, and like most folks, bored by the mind-numbingly antiseptic and stupid second set.

Fast forward to last year, and the triumphant return of a Star Wars movie that is not in the hands of the animatronic George Lucas, and everybody cheers.  Sure, the movie was pretty much a replica of the first film, but it breathes life and marked the fact that the series had been wrested from the dolt Lucas.  So, rejoice!

Which brings us to Rogue One, a prequel to the 1977 debut of the series.  As you likely know, in that first film, the rebel alliance must stop the Death Star, and the iconic figures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia take on the task.  Rogue One gives us the story of how the alliance was able to get the plans to do exactly that.

Now, to my introduction.  When I watched Star Wars with my Dad, it was exciting and engaging and even spine-tingling because I was 13 years old.  It also had the added bonus of speaking to my father through nostalgia encased in a rip-roaring yarn.  So, he didn’t have to sit through an insipid child’s movie.

But now, an entire industry and ethos has grown around Star Wars, and the series has had to deal with an unexpected but incredibly lucrative development – the emergence of an audience who demand that same feeling they had when they were 13 years old, in perpetuity, until the day they die or are kicked out of their parents’ house.  And that is a hard row to hoe.

Now, you can’t put the failure of the horrible Lucas trilogy on the demands of the arrested development audience.  Those films were execrable, to anyone, anywhere.  And as noted, last years’ coming out party had to merely not suck.  And it didn’t.

Rogue One, however, is a little better than not sucking.  It is a rip-roaring yarn but, in an effort to keep the interests of the 36 year old man living in his parent’s basement surrounded by his collectibles, it gives him all the normal elements but in a dirtier, darker package.  Space looks more like Blade Runner and Alien than the gleaming, clean world of the earlier films.  Moreover, one of our protagonists (Diego Luna) is a rebel spy and, if necessary, a cold blooded killer of the innocent (it is a sharp rebuke to Lucas’s fey re-imagining of the shoot-first cad Han Solo when Luna mercilessly puts down a friend who may jeopardize the mission) .  The other lead (Felicity Jones), is an embittered castaway, neutral on the issues of the day.  Together, they embark on a decidedly dour suicide mission that is deftly handled by director Gareth Edwards.

There are problems.  Jones’s transformation from cynical to heroic is clumsy and way too fast.   The first half is slow.  Forrest Whittaker and Mads Mikkelsen, as, respectively, the father-figure and father to Jones, are thin characters.  And the idea that information is still held in what essentially are super floppy disks in the future is weird.

Still, I liked this film and respect the attempt to please the kiddies, the geeks and the critics all at once.  It is vulnerable to attack on all sides, but it does a fair job at a difficult task, giving folks iconic moments, gritty semi-realism, and winking nods to characters and circumstances that die-hard fan know are forthcoming.  I am particularly thrilled at something truly and wonderfully surprising that happens at the end which I cannot share.