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Knives Out (2019)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer

REVIEW:

With Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson has wholly redeemed himself for his disappointing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Johnson and Star Wars were not a good fit, but he has returned here from playing in another’s sandbox to writing and directing his own material where he has been consistently intriguing (I’m a big fan of his 2012 time travel thriller Looper, for example) and churned out something we don’t see often, an original murder mystery of the type that Agatha Christie might have written (plus some modern sensibilities). Boasting a star-studded ensemble cast obviously enjoying itself, a slickly “keep you guessing” screenplay, and a quirky sense of humor, Knives Out is a deliciously twisty-turny and hugely entertaining morsel for anyone who appreciates a good whodunit. Johnson and his cast obviously relished making this movie, and they’ve given us something to relish eating up in turn.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller

CAST: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

REVIEW:

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod (with some names changed), is a well-intentioned, feel good ode to beloved television icon Fred Rogers (better-known simply as Mr. Rogers), whose children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 (Rogers passed away in 2003) whose quietly affecting moments sometimes get lost amidst its own treacly earnestness (though, considering I might apply those words to the show it’s depicting, maybe I’m just not the target audience). Those with nostalgic fond memories of the late Mr. Rogers might find it a moving experience, while those indifferent or unfamiliar with the subject might be unmoved.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Mangold

CAST: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon

REVIEW:

Ford v. Ferrari, director James Mangold’s (Walk the Line, Logan) docudrama chronicling events leading up and involving the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans, is likely to appeal to the same audience that appreciate Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-themed docudrama telling the true story of the rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played there by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl). The central dynamic here, rather than the “frenemies” there, is in full-blown “buddy movie” mode—albeit not without a little tension—but both movies do an effective job of balancing visceral racing sequences with strong human drama.

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Doctor Sleep (2019)

DIRECTOR: Mike Flanagan

CAST: Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis

REVIEW:

Thirty-six years after publishing The Shining, Stephen King published a follow-up, Doctor Sleep, further expanding on themes and concepts he had introduced in the first novel through the life of now-adult Danny Torrance. For Warner Bros., the allure of making a sequel (of sorts) to The Shining (adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980) was too much to resist, but screenwriter-director Mike Flanagan had a tricky task ahead of him, both adapting one of King’s dense, complicated, thematically rich works, and attempting to bridge a long-standing divide: being both reasonably faithful to King’s book while also doing some tweaking to serve as a more direct sequel to Kubrick’s film, which differed from the book in some significant ways (and which King famously disliked). Flanagan has mostly succeeded. While a little overlong and drawn-out, Doctor Sleep largely stands on its own (apart from the climax), telling a very different kind of story from The Shining but serving up some of the same slow burn. Perhaps most welcome, it serves up complicated concepts rather than a lazy reliance on jump scares and conventional horror tropes. In fact, it’s more a drama/thriller than a horror movie, which might disappoint some viewers attracted by its connections to The Shining.

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Midway (2019)

DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa

REVIEW:

One goes into “a film by Roland Emmerich” with tempered expectations. I wasn’t expecting the next great war epic, but I had—I thought—reasonable expectations of something along the lines of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; some big-scale war action intermixed with corny human drama. Alas, even for those modest expectations, Midway fails to deliver, once again begging the question of why such a hack as Emmerich continues to have his relentless mediocrity rewarded with gigs directing big-budget disaster/war movies. In fact, while I’m no Michael Bay fan, one could say that at least Bay knows he makes big, dumb action flicks where lots of stuff blows up real good. Emmerich occasionally displays pretensions of helming historical epics, and here (as usual) his reach exceeds his grasp.

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Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Miller

CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna

REVIEW:

And now in the latest of far too many examples of Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas, the long-running—and long-suffering—Terminator franchise once again proves itself even harder to kill than its titular killer cyborgs, despite the fact that it passed its sell-by date quite a while ago (for my money, all the way back in 1991). While Dark Fate‘s promotion made much ta-do out of the “return” of James Cameron (who gets a producer and co-writer credit but did not retake the director’s chair, which is occupied by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, leaving it questionable how much direct involvement Cameron really had) and Linda Hamilton (who hasn’t taken part in the franchise since 1991’s Judgment Day, turned down a chance to reprise her role in 2003’s Rise of the Machines, and should have turned this one down too), neither Cameron nor his ex-wife’s names in the credits signals a return to the quality of the first two installments, which slipped after Cameron moved on and has never been regained. Dark Fate ignores the existence of every entry since T2 and acts as a direct sequel to the first two and the first two alone—which many fans would likely have been okay with—but alas it doesn’t replace them with anything superior. It’s probably better than its immediate predecessor Genisys (no great accomplishment), but finds its own new ways of dumping on the series mythos.

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The Current War (2019)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton

REVIEW:

Filmed in December 2016 and originally slated for a 2017 release, The Current War has finally found its way into theaters two years later after becoming collateral damage of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and the subsequent downfall of The Weinstein Company (after the beleaguered Weinstein Company sold off The Current War‘s film rights, they were eventually bought by little-known 101 Studios). This finally released version comes out under the label “The Director’s Cut”, claiming it represents director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s original vision before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it and, as was notoriously his wont, started chopping and editing (this is supposedly the original version which played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, not Weinstein’s edit, which was never released). In retrospect, the film’s turbulent and meandering behind-the-scenes journey to its low-profile delayed theatrical release might have been a more eventful story than the film itself. A movie about the fledgling electrical grid and the men vying for dominance over it is not inherently cinematic, and no matter much director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tries to spice it up with visual flair, The Current War remains a rather drab history lesson that fails to use a promising cast to its full advantage.

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Joker (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham

REVIEW:

With the simply-titled Joker, an independent stand-alone existing on its own unconnected to any other film in any Batman franchise, director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have gone even further afield of the stereotypical tropes and restrictions of a “comic book movie” than the likes of The Dark Knight, Deadpool, or Logan (rarely for a comic book movie, it shares with the last two examples a well-deserved R rating; this is an adult movie which is thoroughly intended for adults and inappropriate for younger viewers). This is a “comic book movie” in a loose definition of the word, owing more to Scorsese—Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in particular—than the pages of the Batman comics. Taken on its own merits, Joker is a slow burn but darkly engrossing ride following in gritty, down-to-earth fashion one man’s descent into madness. It’s the kind of movie it’s arguable to say is conventionally “entertaining”, but it’s powerful and disturbing, and not easily shaken off afterwards.

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Ad Astra (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Gray

CAST: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

REVIEW:

Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars) joins the likes of Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian as serious, hard sci-fi space movies that seek to portray with docudrama realism and verisimilitude the realities of space and the difficulties and dangers inherent therein. To that end, it’s aimed at a markedly different audience from the action-oriented likes of Star Wars and Star Trek, and its slow-burn deliberate pace requires a commitment of attention from serious-minded viewers.

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It: Chapter Two (2019)

DIRECTOR: Andy Muschietti

CAST: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Teach Grant, Bill Skarsgard

REVIEW:

IT: Chapter Two, the film adaptation of the “27 years later” adult section of Stephen King’s novel, hasn’t saved the best for last. The conclusion to 2017’s IT is far from the worst film adaptation of a King written work, but it’s bloated, overstuffed, and unwieldy, clocking in at a formidable—and unnecessarily drawn-out—-three hours, a full thirty-five minutes longer than Chapter One. That’s a lot of meandering runtime. To be sure, there’s a number of strong scenes in the mix, but it requires a bit of sifting through uneven material.

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