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Movie Review

Above and below, scenes from the film

By Heidi Sutton

Peter Jackson’s latest endeavor has been a labor of love. The award-winning director, best known for the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies was recently enlisted to create a unique documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” featuring many never-before-seen archive footage of the Great War, a four-year conflict that claimed the lives of over 16 million soldiers.

Produced by WingNut Films and released by Warner Brothers, the project, which took five months to complete, was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and BBC, who gave Jackson access to over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of audio, including interviews with hundreds of veterans in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jackson chose to focus on the daily lives of British foot soldiers who had been sent to the Western Front – from their experience at boot camp to being shipped to France and living in the trenches, to a few days of rest and then off to the front lines where they are told to hand over any personal effects to their officers before heading off into no man’s land.

The documentary reveals many of the soldiers were mere children, volunteering at the age of 15 and 16 out of patriotic duty, and how many were excited to serve. By the end of the film, however, all romantic ideas of war have completely vanished. “History will decide in the end that this war was not worthwhile,” you hear a retired soldier say.

Every scene is accompanied by narration from army veterans who describe their uniforms and complain about their heavy boots; the food they ate; dealing with rats, lice and dysentery problems; coping with trench foot and mustard gas; capturing German soldiers; and the constant smell of death.

The genius that is Peter Jackson then goes two steps further, (revealed about 20 minutes into the film) when suddenly the black and white film comes to life in a myriad of colors and sounds. The soldiers’ personalities are revealed as they speak and laugh and you hear the shells being loaded into the cannons, artillery fire and the tanks rolling along the open fields. The sudden transformation takes one’s breath away.

The stunning effect was achieved using digital technology, researching uniforms and locations, recruiting forensic lip-readers who studied the original film, and actors who then voiced the parts in various dialects. “Smile! You’re in the pictures,” one man tells his mates as he points excitedly to the camera.

For Jackson, who has long been interested in World War I, (the film is dedicated to his paternal grandfather who was wounded in the Battle of the Somme) the spectacular documentary slowly evolved into capturing the human experience of war. 

He described his vision best in a recent interview with BBC-owned HistoryExtra magazine. “We let them tell their story, of what it was like as a soldier,” adding that these experiences would’ve been similar to those of many other troops. “And the men saw a war in color, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white,” Jackson explained. “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.”

Rated R, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, takes on his first major film role in ‘Mary Poppins Returns.’ Photo by Jay Maidment/Disney

By Heidi Sutton

Fifty-four years after Disney’s beloved “Mary Poppins” magically dropped out of the sky and into our lives, its long-awaited sequel arrived at local theaters for the holidays.

Titled “Mary Poppins Returns,” the movie is based on the second book in the Mary Poppins series by author P. L. Travers — “Mary Poppins Comes Back.” Co-starring Emily Blunt (“Girl on the Train,” “A Quiet Place”) as Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) as Jack the lamplighter, it picks up the story 25 years later in 1935.

Recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives in London at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) and longtime housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) while Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) lives in a flat across town. Set during the Great Slump, the family home is in danger of being repossessed unless a loan can be paid back in five days.

While Jane and Michael search frantically for their father’s bank shares, the children spend the day in the park and come home with — who else — Mary Poppins! “I was flying a kite and it got caught on a nanny!” exclaims Georgie. 

“I’ve come to look after the Banks children” says Mary. However, while Michael’s children go on all kinds of magical adventures, it is Michael and Jane who are ultimately watched over by their old friend.

Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods”), with screenplay by David Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Life of Pi”), the film features a fresh score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and new dance numbers, animation scenes and cameo appearances by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Karen Dotrice (the original Jane), Colin Firth and, at 91 years old, a tap-dancing Dick Van Dyke.

In the title role Blunt is practically perfect in the way she captures Mary Poppins’ mannerisms, and Lin-Manuel Miranda steals every scene in his first major film role. However, it is the many songs (over 25 in all), from the undersea adventure “Can You Imagine That?,” the emotional lullaby “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” the big dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (a companion piece to “Step in Time”), Miranda’s Hamilton-esque rap in “A Cover Is Not the Book” and the finale, “Nowhere to Go But Up” that are the heart of the film.

There are many wonderful aspects to this film — all of the actors are terrific; the singing, dancing and choreography are amazing; and the sets are impressive. That being said, I found it hard to fall in love with this film. Maybe because I kept comparing it to the original, but I found the plot to be thin and rushed somehow — as if it had run over the allotted time and then was edited too much. For a Disney film, it didn’t feel magical enough and failed to capture the charm of its predecessor.

Rated PG, “Mary Poppins Returns” is now playing in local theaters. Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes.

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Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne star in ‘Fantastic Beasts 2.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The thirty minutes prior to seeing “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” were taken up with trailers for movies that were almost exclusively CGI. One film after another displayed a visual and auditory assault of effects. This was an appropriate herald to the main attraction.

The latest addition to the Potterverse is a hodgepodge of characters too numerous to mention — and, in the case of the script — too numerous to develop. Several plots (and what seems like myriad subplots) wander around the two hours and fourteen minutes of playing time.

Eddie Redmayne in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Vaguely at the center is Eddie Redmayne, returning from the first film, as Newt Scamander, an expert in exotic magical creatures.  Redmayne has created a character that mumbles and meanders his way through the story to the point where the audience wants to scream  “Please make eye contact with anyone!”

The first film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” had a benign whimsy with dark edges. The newest entry is basically a mess of hidden secrets and a very frightening look at fascism through the actions of the titular villain (played by Johnny Depp, alternating restraint and scenery-chewing) as a budding Hitler — complete with a chilling nod to the Nuremberg Rally.

There are other villains and half-villains; there are holdovers from the first film; and there are new characters with shifting or surprising allegiances. In short, there are just too many characters. This would all be well and good if the movie had a modicum of charm. It plods, alternating between grand effects and brooding close-ups.

Director David Yates has directed much of the film like it’s ready to be the newest ride at Universal’s theme park.  Visually, it is stunning and the designs are striking but the center is hollow. There is a lack of depth and the actors are left to play with little-to-no dimension. 

Sadly, blame must go to Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who is credited with the screenplay.  The Harry Potter books are works that will endure as great literature. The world Rowling created was populated with people whom we grew to know, care about, and, ultimately, love.  There was honesty and humor, and, most importantly, humanity.   

Unfortunately, she brings very little of this here and seems to contradict or reinvent elements that were part of and at the heart of the series. Even the glimpses of Hogwarts and Jude Law’s Dumbledore seem foreign in this setting.

Finally, we are left with what feels like a very long set-up to the next film. Rowling has announced that there are three more films to come. We can only hope that she finds the magic that was so lacking in this sophomore outing.

Rated PG-13, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald” is now playing in local theaters

A scene from 'Mid90s' Photo courtesy of A24

By Kyle Barr

The real question with films like “Mid90s” and other throwbacks to the days of the childhoods of those born in the ’80s and ’90s is really how far you can get with callbacks and brand recognition. 

It has worked well in some places, such as with the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” but a movie still needs a storyline to fill out the space left between brand name dropping and scenes of, “Oh, don’t you remember this? Wasn’t this fun?” Well, “Mid90s,” which opened in theaters Oct. 21, is an interesting take on nostalgia, one that shows the ugly sides of childhood without any kind of judgment.

Sunny Suljic in a scene from ‘Mid90s’

“Mid90s” takes place in Los Angeles during the titular 1990s as the California skating scene was at its peak. Young Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in a dysfunctional house with abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his co-dependent mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston). While riding his bike Stevie sees a young group of skaters at a distance and decides to infiltrate that friend group, despite the fact he has never ever skated in his life. The skaters, made up of pro-skater hopeful Ray (Na-kel Smith), party-hopper F**** (Olan Prenatt), lonely Ruben (Gio Galicia) and the reserved filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), start taking a liking to the young kid, who they nickname Sunscreen.

Stevie, while learning to skate, also falls into the seedier elements of the scene, the ones involving drugs and alcohol. He picks up terrible habits, acting out against his family. His friends are tested even harder when it becomes evident Ray is coming closer and closer to becoming pro, potentially leaving all those who look up to him behind.

It’s a movie called “Mid90s,” so it’s obvious that first-time director Jonah Hill, most known for his roles in films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is trying to make some kind of declaration of this time period. Unlike something like “Stranger Things,” the brands, music and albums so notorious from the era aren’t just set dressing but are integral to the theme. Stevie goes into his brother’s room and looks through his music, full of recognizable band names, just so he could give him a birthday gift in the next scene, which he then tosses on the table like he’s just received rotten fruit. The recognizable posters on Stevie’s wall are swapped out later once he starts to love the skating culture.

Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith in a scene from ‘Mid90s’

But what really drives the film’s forward momentum is the intense theme of skating as a relief from home life. Though it’s not so much an escape from problems, skating is shown as a way to connect with people on a deep spiritual level. It’s revealed relatively late in the film how each of the main characters has an imperfect home life, and that the friendship they have with each other is what keeps them all sane. 

Though it’s not a long movie, running at about the 90-minute mark, Hill doesn’t make this film overstay its welcome. That’s not to say there aren’t moments that makes one think this is a first-time directorial effort, small sequences that don’t add up, camerawork that pushes in a little too close to faces and a few other niggling details.

The film is also explicit in a number of ways, some of which involve the main character who is supposedly 13 years old, according to the film. Be sure to come at this flick without a sense of judgment for the characters, as the film itself makes it plain it doesn’t wish to judge them as well.

I was never a skater as a kid, but I knew those who were. Even if you have some sort of interest to dive into a time and place that few can honestly say they were a part of, then “Mid90s” should be a good run of some vicarious nostalgia.

Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use and violence, “Mid90s” is now playing in local theaters.

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John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

By Kyle Barr

Is there something to say about the fact that, even as so many Western genre movies have been released, covering every inch of America’s rugged past, that the genre still survives?

Though it’s one of film’s oldest and most tested settings, the entire concept of the Western has been deconstructed, reconstructed, parodied, satired, mocked and idolized so many times until today where we have different subgenres from the post-Western, the comedy Western and beyond.

So where does “The Sisters Brothers,” a film directed by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, sit in this framework? The film was marketed as a comedy Western, and while the film is certainly funny at points, it really is so much more.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

This is the jazz version of the Western, something recognizable yet off-kilter enough to be fresh in all the right ways. Adapted from a 2011 novel by the Canadian author Patrick deWitt, the story follows the brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) as two hit-men gunslingers employed by the enigmatic figure of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

The Sisters brothers are tasked with finding Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a gentleman and a chemist, knowing that, most likely, they will have to kill him. When they finally find him, Warm and the man who was supposed to confine him, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) have a much more interesting offer to give the two murderous brothers.

The opening shot is one so cleanly reminiscent of Westerns but given a subtle twist of shot and lighting. It starts large, a black field with the hint of a purple horizon, but the silence is cut short with sparks and flashes of light as the Sisters brothers engage men fortified in a house. The film is violent without languishing in it, and, instead, Audiard likes to spend more time in finding comedic moments in the exhausting work of traveling across the West, from trying to ride when hung over or from a  random spider bite (one that crawled inside his mouth), or force a man near-comatose for several days while a bear attack nearly kills his horse. 

Westerns have long drawn their themes of the line between right and wrong, good and evil, society and the wilderness. “The Sisters Brothers” doesn’t so much run away from those themes as it does show just how deflated they are. The fact that the film ends not with so much of a bang but with a calm, pastoral scene of home and family goes to say something about the entire idea of the Western genre.

Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from ‘Sisters Brothers’

All actors involved do a great job with their performances, and both Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are particularly interesting to watch as they develop a respect for the other over the course of the film. Phoenix is terrific in his role, playing the slightly unhinged gunslinger with just the right amount of anger while leaving room for introspection.

“You do realize that our father was stark raving mad and we got his foul blood in our veins?,” Charlie Sisters says. “That was his gift to us. That blood is why we’re good at what we do.”

While it was Reilly’s own production company that financed the film, it’s good to note that the man who is most known for his comedies, often co-starring with Will Farrell, takes a far more interesting and nuanced turn as the older Sisters brother, killing people in the name of defending his brother, who does not believe he needs saving. He comes into his own especially at the end of the film, as he tries to make up for the past by protecting his brother as they run across the West pursued by men who would kill them.

“The Sisters Brothers” is one of those films that you’ll either love or fully question what all the fuss is about. As a general fan of Westerns and all its spin-offs, this reviewer says it’s a much-needed spin on many overdone film tropes of the Western genre.

Rated R for violence, disturbing images and language, “The Sisters Brothers” is now playing in local theaters.

Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in a scene from ‘Operation Finale’. Photo courtesy of MGM Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

“Operation Finale” depicts the Israeli secret agents who extracted notorious S.S. Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires. Directed by Chris Weitz, with a screenplay by Matthew Orton, this is a taut historical thriller using Mossad agent Peter Malkin’s book, “Eichmann in My Hands,” for its source.

Eichmann was considered the architect of the Final Solution. It was he who masterminded the transportation logistics that brought millions of innocent Jews to their deaths in concentration camps across Europe. In writing of Eichmann, Hannah Arendt referred to “the banality of evil” — an “ordinary” man who expressed neither remorse nor responsibility for his hideous actions, the epitome of “just following orders.” He has been represented in books, plays and films throughout the latter half of the twentieth and well into the twenty-first century.

Mossad agent Isser Harel’s The House on Girabaldi Street(1975) was turned into a television movie in 1979.  The Man Who Captured Eichmann(also using Eichmann in My Hands) explores much of the same territory.  Robert Shaw’s playThe Man in the Glass Booth(and subsequent film) were inspired by Eichmann’s trial.  Eichmann has been portrayed by Robert Duvall, Stanley Tucci, Donald Pleasance, Maximillian Schell, Werner Klemperer, and Alfred Burke.

Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in a scene from ‘Operation Finale’. Photo courtesy of MGM Pictures

In “Operation Finale” the year is 1960 and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, is given information that points to Eichmann having escaped to Buenos Aires where he now lives under the alias Ricardo Klement. The film follows the covert mission of a small band of agents as they confirm, capture and finally transport Eichmann to Jerusalem to stand trial.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (in a strong cameo by Simon Russel Beale) imparts the importance of the mission: “Our memory reaches back through recorded history. The book of memory still lies open. And you here now are the hand that holds the pen. If you succeed, for the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner. And we will warn off any who wishes to follow his example. If you fail, he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg you. Do not fail.”

It is a delicate balance to blend a Holocaust drama with a thriller. It is a fine and often dangerous line when representing anything that touches on this topic. While the movie does not take place during the Holocaust, it is clearly part of its aftermath and therefore must be approached as carefully and as honestly as possible. For the most part, the film succeeds, working best when the two leads engage.

Oscar Isaac plays Mossad agent Peter Malkin, while Ben Kingsley is Eichmann, his emotionally manipulative arch-nemesis. These are two masterful actors delivering powerful, understated performances. It is their scenes that resonate most strongly.

Isaac displays the conflict of the character’s desire for revenge (his sister and her children, murdered in Lublin, are represented in visions that haunt him throughout) weighed against the need to bring Eichmann to justice on the world stage. His struggle is both painful and vivid.  Kingsley — who has portrayed Holocaust survivors Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List” and Otto Frank in “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” — delivers a disturbingly subtle and emotionally complicated Eichmann in an unnervingly nuanced performance.

There are moments that are chilling in their simplicity: watching Eichmann counting train cars with his very young son as the agents spy on them; Malkin shaving Eichmann with a straight razor; Eichmann’s casual question, “Who did we take from you, Peter? Who did you lose?”; a sleeve revealing a blue tattoo.  

The tension and conflict among the captors themselves, who each bring varied points of view, highlights their humanity, and lends further texture to the film. In addition, this is a dangerous Argentina, with a harrowing scene depicting a gathering of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. There is a clear sense that the government is more than complicit in its protection of these murderers. These elements enrich the world in which it is set.

The film is brisk and focused and the performances are uniformly strong. In supporting roles, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov and Mélanie Laurent (all part of the Mossad team) are particularly noteworthy. While occasionally exchanging depth for dramatic tension, overall, “Operation Finale” is an engaging and often disquieting account of a very important historical event.

From left, Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in a scene from ‘Papillon’. Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street

By Kyle Barr

Here’s a question when it comes to remakes: Should a film stand on its own two feet or should we as an audience come down harder on its mistakes than we would an original film?

“Papillon,” the 1973 movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, is based on Henri Charrière’s autobiography of the same name. I’ve never read the book, and I’ve never seen the original movie. Hell, it might be a great movie, but too often people would rather compare films to each other than consider them on their own merits.

A film is a film before it is a remake, and it should be taken as such. If so, then there is a problem when a remake such as “Papillon” is missing key pieces of character motivation that makes one wonder if it was assumed from the original movie.

“Papillon” starts in early 1930s France, as the titular Papillon (Charlie Hunnam), a safecracker working for the local mob, gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit by a local mob boss for whom he worked. He is sentenced to life in prison at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, a place known for its abject brutality and harsh conditions. Anyone sentenced to Devil’s Island is exiled, never able to return to France. On the way there Papillon meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a convicted counterfeiter to whom he offers protection in exchange for money, all the while thinking of escape.

Though Papillon and Dega initially dislike each other, it is their commitment to their friendship that drives the plot of the movie, and both actors play across each other very well. This friendship is despite attempts by Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen) to break Papillon’s spirit through a long stay in solitary.

Director Michael Noer does a pretty good job at really setting the tone of the film. Everything at the prison colony is dirty, bloody and hard. Every actor involved is well tuned to his role. Malek does well as a stoic man seemingly numb to other people’s problems, that is until he starts to form a bond with Papillon. 

Hunnam has never really had a problem falling into character, and here he plays the hard-bitten man with a heart of gold as well as he has for nearly every film and show since “Sons of Anarchy.”

Yet there is a clear lifelessness to the whole affair. We start the film in France, end up in French Guiana, and yet we never hear a single person try to affect even an attempt at a French accent. It takes the occasional sight of the tricolor French flag to remind us that, yes, these people are French, with French guards and French prisoners. It’s enough to question whether Hollywood still thinks Americans will laugh at anything French as if every line is a nasal-sounding comic’s routine. 

What’s worse is Papillon, the character, never makes you care enough about his plight. He is a rough man, willing to beat any man into roadkill just to get enough money to escape, but he stops just short of killing anybody. It seems the film is trying to tell us that is something to admire. He spends enough time in solitary confinement and suffers so that we may admire him in a Christ-like sort of way, but much like the real prison system, it seems we are supposed to root for someone’s morality just because they will do anything to attain some form of “justice” just short of the original sin. 

Perhaps it would be different if I saw the original film; then perhaps I would understand what character Papillon is trying to be. Perhaps in that film they comment about his violent nature, but there’s not enough here for any kind of real understanding.

The movie is good enough, but it’s still sad to see so much effort go into the set and costume design as well as the character’s portrayals only to see it wasted on what Hollywood must be thinking is just another remake.

Rated R for language, violence, nudity and some sexual material,“Papillon” is now playing in local theaters.

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Elsie Fisher in a scene from ‘Eighth Grade’. Photo courtesy of A24

By Kyle Barr

There’s something inherently unrealistic in movies about young kids. Everyone remembers “Stand By Me,” where young but intelligent kids with hard home lives take an important step in becoming an adult, or the recent Netflix hit show “Stranger Things,” which plays more as a standing ovation to the media of the ’80s through children who use their pop culture knowledge as a weapon against evil. 

Perhaps what’s so unrealistic about them is that they’re made by adults far and away from their youth, looking back on it all with at least some form of fond nostalgia. Those movies centered around kids in the grade school age always seem to say life swings around a single turning point, where kids, who often speak much more eloquently for a person their age, at some point switch from the naiveté of childhood to the outlook of adulthood. It’s a nice thought, if unrealistic. 

Elsie Fisher in a scene from ‘Eighth Grade’

“Eighth Grade,” written and directed by Bo Burnham, remembers school like most of us do. It was an awkward age where young people are not only trying to learn how to exist as a teenager, but also start becoming an adult. Unlike your usual stock of movies centered around kids, nobody is really learning how to keep it all together, nobody talks like an adult, and everything is in transition.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (played with such exactitude by Elsie Fisher) is just about to finish up her last week of eighth grade, which means soon she will enter the strange and complicated world of high school. Kayla is shy and quiet, but she doesn’t want to be. The teenager makes YouTube videos giving advice in often uncertain terms on how to be brave and outgoing while she herself was voted “the most quiet” of her grade.

Kayla spends time scrolling through social media liking or commenting on other people’s Instagram posts. When she makes YouTube videos, she rarely gets any views. At the dinner table she stares down at her phone, mindlessly shuffling through social media despite her dad, Mark Day (sincerely played by Josh Hamilton), attempting to interact with her. At school, she is just one of hundreds of students with their nose in their phones as she stares longingly at her crush Aiden (Luke Prael.) One day, after being invited to the popular Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday party, Kayla tries to transform herself into the girl she portrays on her YouTube videos, often with results that are both sincere, cringe-worthy and glorious all at once.

A scene from ‘Eighth Grade’

What makes the film so compelling and so realistic is the way it portrays Kayla. There is no “Mean Girls” level of commentary. Nobody is looking down on her; instead the audience looks straight at her. She talks like many young girls do, with constant breaks for “umms,” and “likes.” As she stares out the door to Kennedy’s party, the audience is bombarded with kids being kids, of them turning their eyelids inside out, of a girl walking backward on a bridge, all the while the music plays something like out of a dark carnival. Scenes like that strike a very real cord with anybody who grew up around the time of burgeoning social media. Nothing really feels real.

Burnham’s comedy always includes a musical element, and that sense of musical timing is used to full effect in his breakout movie. Every time Kayla sees Aiden, the ambient sound is drowned out by a heavy bass. The musical choices, often listened to by Kayla diegetically through her omnipresent earbuds, are very appropriate for each scene.

Burnham’s final stand-up comedy special “Make Happy” slowly became a commentary about comedy itself. The now-former comedian asked questions of the point of comedy, whether it’s right to make people laugh to forget their problems, even if he himself might not be happy. He baited the audience, often making them laugh before directly insulting them. Really, the show was an expression of how Burnham did not see the performance as “real.” It was his criticism of the entire entertainment industry that goes for glitz and easily digestible media rather than substance. 

“Eighth Grade” is Burnham’s answer to those criticisms. I’m glad to say it is a pretty good response, and it will be exciting to see just where all those involved will take their careers in the future. 

Rated R for language and some sexual material, “Eighth Grade” is now playing in local theaters.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Sabrina Petroski

My, my, how could you resist seeing “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”? After a 10-year hiatus, the original cast returns to the Greek island of Kalokairi for the grand opening of the Hotel Belladonna. The sequel again showcases the upbeat and fun-filled music of the 1970s pop group, ABBA. With similar themes to the first (love, family, adventure), this movie is sure to be a huge summer hit. 

Written and directed by Ol Parker, the PG-13 movie, which is loosely based on a lesser-known 1968 Italian film, “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” opens on Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) getting ready for the opening party for the Hotel Belladonna, named after her late mother Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), with help from her stepfather Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and hotel manager Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia). Sophie gave up her life of traveling to manage the hotel, in hopes of making her mother proud. Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), childhood best friends of Donna, arrive to help Sophie with preparations and begin telling her stories of Donna’s wild past.

Tanya (Christine Baranski), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and Rosie (Julie Waters) in a scene from the movie.

The flashbacks begin with a young Donna Sheridan (Lily James) walking in late to her college graduation, her floor-length graduation gown failing to hide her gold go-go boots. The headmistress of the college calls her up on stage to give her valedictorian speech, but instead, in true dynamo fashion, she breaks into song and invites her backup girls, young Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and young Rosie (Alexa Davies), to perform ABBA’s hit song “When I Kissed the Teacher.” 

The film constantly flip flops between past and present, following Donna on the adventure of her lifetime and Sophie in the most stressful time in hers. In present time, a huge storm destroys the decorations and flowers, devastating Sophie and all those involved with the party. The storm also stops the ferries from running, keeping Sophie’s dads, Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), from being able to reach the island. 

Going back in time, Donna is traveling the world to find herself, and along the way we see how she met Harry Bright (Hugh Skinner), Bill Anderson (Josh Dylan) and Sam Carmichael (Jeremy Irvine).

If you’ve seen the original “Mamma Mia!” then you know what comes next. Donna gets pregnant while in Kalokairi, is given the old farmhouse to live in and fix up, and decides to stay on the island to raise her baby despite having no one. She doesn’t know who the father is, but doesn’t care. In parallel, Sophie finds out she is pregnant at the same age and in the same place as her mother was. 

Young Tanya, young Donna and young Rosie in a scene from the movie.

Sophie begins to lose hope of being able to open the hotel successfully but is saved by Sky, Bill and Harry, who convince a group of fishermen to bring their friends and family to Kalokairi. Three boats pull into the docks, full of people ready to enjoy the Hotel Belladonna’s opening night.

Toward the end of the movie there is a twist that no one sees coming, including Sophie’s grandmother (Cher) arriving in a private helicopter and crashing the party. She announces she is ready to take on the role of being a grandmother, and now great-grandmother. 

As the party ends, the film jumps ahead in time, following Sophie up the path leading to the church where her child will be baptized. At the same time, young Donna is doing the same walk on her way to baptize Sophie. When they both reach the front of the church, young Donna transforms into her older self and sings a haunting duet with her daughter. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater as Sophie held her mother’s hands for the last time.

Throughout the film, the audience is drawn in by the dramatic themes laced with comedic moments and the romances blooming between the characters. There is passion and fun, as well as somber moments of heartbreak. Each character is well developed and well received, and the younger versions of the main characters shine with the same awkward, funny and sweet personalities of their older counterparts. 

There are some scenes where Lily James mimics the mannerisms of Meryl Streep’s Donna so well you would think it was Streep in disguise. Young Tanya and Rosie capture the aspects of the friendship so well you would think they had known each other for decades.

Of course, it is the exciting musical numbers featuring many well-known ABBA hits from the original movie including “Waterloo,” “The Name of the Game” and “Dancing Queen” along with more obscure songs (“Kisses of Fire”) from the Swedish pop group that tie it all together for two hours of good fun.

With spot on casting, along with the great costumes and beautiful filming locations, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is a must see for this summer.

Fred Rogers. Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Make the most of this beautiful film

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a portrait of Fred Rogers, a man of deep faith and principles and unique in the pantheon of television personalities. His show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is lovingly celebrated in this wholly engaging 93 minutes. It does not attempt to be a full-fledged biography but rather a picture of the man in the context of his work and his mission. There are insights into his personal life (interviews with wife and sons), but it is more the story of the evolution of his vocation and his influence on American culture.  

Fred Rogers with Mr. McFeely (David Newell) the delivery man in a scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

The film opens with the iconic entrance of Rogers changing into his sweater while singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and we are immediately transported back to the world he created. With its modest production values and its messages of love and understanding, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” became an integral part of our collective experience.

 

The documentary is simple and delicate, mirroring the show and the show’s creator. There are no bells and whistles. We are treated to an assortment of interviews that give perspective on the span and impact of Rogers’ career. What is common to all is that he was exactly who he presented himself to be. An ordained minister, Fred Rogers deeply believed that “love is at the root of everything” — learning, relationships, understanding. He saw television as a wonderful way to connect with children; a tool to make them better and happier people.  

Fred Rogers poses with the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

His wife (and much of the documentary) posits that, in essence, Rogers was Daniel Striped Tiger, the first of the many puppets he employed. The tamed feline represents Rogers’ doubts but also the ability to listen and learn. Daniel Striped Tiger is the bridge between the real and fantasy worlds that Rogers invented. As a child, he had been plagued by various illnesses and spent a great deal of time in bed; it was here that he began to realize the power of imagination and he used this to inform his work.  

The film also touches on his faith, suggesting that the show was his ministry and he wore a sweater in lieu of a collar. The heart of this ministry, of course, is the power of love — love for each other and love for ourselves. The belief is that everyone is special (incorrectly twisted by some as entitlement) and we all have inherent value. The embodiment of this is his song “It’s You I Like” — a reminder that we grow through acceptance.

Fred Rogers presented himself as the friend every adult should be. He made it clear that his journey was to take care of the myriad of children who watched him. Unlike his own unhappy youth in which he was not allowed to be a child or to show his feelings, he aspired to provide a safe space for all of the country’s children.  

Fred Rogers with King Friday XIII. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Over the years, Rogers tackled everything from racial discrimination to divorce to death (including an episode focusing on grief that dealt with the assassination of Robert Kennedy). After retirement, he returned to do a few short PSAs about 9/11 — the horror of which overwhelmed him. What we take away is that he was unflinching in his desire to be truly honest with children but to always let them be children.

There are a treasure trove of clips, dating back to his pre-Neighborhood television days through his series and later efforts. There is the often-seen but no less-effective testimony that saved funding for public television. Puppets (King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl) and regulars (Mr. McFeely, the delivery man; Lady Aberlin; Chef Brockett; Officer Clemmons), songs and guests … the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Picture-Picture … they are all here. 

Throughout his work, there was always an emphasis on taking time and not allowing the world to speed up. He believed that “slow” space was not “wasted” space. That silence is a gift. The final moments of the picture are perhaps the most memorable.  He often invited people to take a minute to think of the those who have cared for them. One after another, the various people interviewed are shown to do just that. Like Fred Rogers and his work, it is at once so simple and honest and yet so powerful.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a film not just to be seen but to be shared. Find those people that mean the most to you and spend some time remembering the power of love.

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