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Movie Review

A scene from ‘Toy Story 4’. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

By Jeffrey Sanzel

A film that aims to explore the pains of growing up, that endeavors to touch on love and loss, on sense of self and self-worth, takes on a huge challenge. That the movie aspires to a balance of humor and honesty makes it even more challenging. That an animated feature is told through the eyes and voices of toys seems impossible. However, as seen through the first three Toy Story movies, it is more than attainable. In a franchise that grew in both depth and art with each film, finding more laughter and more tears, it is the exception to every rule. The newest addition, Toy Story 4, is certainly one of the best films of the year.

Woody introduces Forky to the other toys. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Here are 100 minutes of pure entertainment, alternating between laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly touching, in a film that never feels like a sequel. It plays on multiple levels, providing jokes and slapstick, clever asides and deep insights, so that audiences of any age will be completely engaged from start to finish.

Woody (the always marvelous Tom Hanks) now belongs to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) but has been put aside for cowboy Jessie (Joan Cusack). This does not change Woody’s mission to make sure Bonnie is taken care of at all times. When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, she finds solace in creating Forky, crafting him from a spork, googly eyes and a pipe cleaner — an opportunity that Woody engineers. Forky becomes Bonnie’s obsession and solace. What she doesn’t realize is that Forky (a scene-stealing Tony Hale) does not want to be a toy. Eventually, guided by Woody, Forky learns his value.  

Toy Story 4 is what we have come to expect in the series without ever feeling like it is a repeat of its earlier chapters. The movie includes a wild road trip, a dazzling carnival and a range of hijinks and colorful characters that make for a nonstop adventure. 

Eventually, the crew is reunited with the now self-actualized Bo Peep (a sly and knowing Annie Potts) who has found freedom in being a “lost toy,” living a full life in what can only be labeled renegade and off the grid with a posse of like-minded toys. Much of the latter half of the film also centers around an antique shop, ruled by Gabby Gabby (a flawlessly wicked Christina Hendricks) and her minion of ventriloquist dummies. Gabby Gabby is, at first, the villain of the story; but there is much more to her and her journey.

The film features many returning voices including Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (comically learning to listen to his inner voice), Wallace Shawn as the neurotic Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head, Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head (from archival recordings), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly and Carl Weathers in a terrific running joke as three different Combat Carls. All of them deliver incredibly enjoyable performances, mining the most of their individual and team moments.

Newcomers include Keegan-Michael Key as Ducky; Jordan Peele as Bunny, an outrageous plush pair; and Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a second-rate Evel Knievel toy. There are wonderful cameos from Mel Brooks (Melephant Brooks), Carol Burnett (Chairol Burnett), Betty White (Bitey White) and Carl Reiner (Carl Reineroceros).

Josh Cooley, whose directorial credits include The Incredibles, Cars and Up, has beautifully guided the entire film. The excellent screenplay is by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (with a total of eight people credited with “story by”). The literally hundreds of artists who worked on the picture have contributed to an emotionally seamless and visually stunning whole.

If the ending doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch of Toy Story 3, it is still wholly satisfying, bringing to a close a classic and heartfelt odyssey. While perhaps not perfect, Toy Story 4 comes pretty close.

Rated G, Toy Story 4 is now playing in local theaters.

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.

Emma Thompson in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.  

Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)

The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.

Minday Kaling in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.

Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.

Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.  

The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.

The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.

Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Elton John: So how does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a soul man?

Wilson: You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

The first moments of “Rocketman” easily establish the world in which this film will take place. In full demonic costume, Elton John descends on a rehab group therapy session. This serves as the framework throughout this unusual musical.

Promoted as “based on a true fantasy,” this is less a biopic of Elton John (who produced) but a fantastical rumination on the power and price of superstardom. Chronology and accuracy of time line are flexible at best but this by no means is a complaint. The result is a flashy, frenetic and wholly engaging two hours where we are treated to John’s rise and ultimate self-destruction. 

The movie is both a traditional and a unique musical, most often using the songs to further the story rather than focusing on his concert career. The unusual gambit pays off in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative direction of Lee Hall’s scattered but satisfying screenplay.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film shifts quickly from the rehab group therapy as John literally steps into his past. A cold and distant father (an appropriately uncomfortable Steven Mackintosh) paired with an indifferent and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, in an ugly but believable performance) fuel his need to find himself.

“I wish I was someone else,” laments his boyhood self, Reginald Dwight. With the encouragement of a benevolent grandmother (the always wonderful Gemma Jones), he begins to take piano lessons, graduating to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music.

The film hopscotches through the next years as he begins playing with the pub band, Bluesology. The story then hits the highlights. These include connecting with music publisher Dick James (a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Stephen Graham), meeting and working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (a saintly Jamie Bell) and his debut at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club. It is here he meets John Reid (Richard Madden, a little too full-on villain) who becomes his manager and his lover.

Much of the film follows this destructive relationship. John then begins the transition to the flamboyant persona that would carry him through much of his career. With success comes a life of excess as he becomes embroiled in alcohol, drugs and sex.

The film’s center needs to be its heartbeat.  In the starring role Taron Egerton creates a mesmerizing, three-dimensional performance and even provides his own vocals. Egerton smoothly arcs from the inhibited Reggie to the outrageous but equally self-doubting
Elton John. He manifests a complete rainbow of humanity, with shades of loneliness showing through even the grandest moments. Egerton is a marvel and drives the entire film.

As for the music, nearly two dozen songs are used, including “The Bitch Is Back” (a fascinating opening), “I Want Love” (highlighting the family’s dysfunction), “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (chronicling his early years), “Honky Cat” (embracing his life of indulgence), “Rocketman” (an attempted suicide and recovery), “Bennie and the Jets” (spiraling down), “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” (emphasizing his break with Taupin), as well as various concert moments.

Special note should be made of Adam Murray’s interesting, sometimes dreamlike and often athletic choreography. Costume designer Julian Day’s reimaging of Elton John’s spectacular wardrobe is a whirlwind of sequins, feathers and glitter.

The creators chose not to present the last three decades of his life, instead opting for a quick summation, including sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. While it would have been nice to follow his recovery and the second act of his career (“The Lion King,” “Candle in the Wind,” etc.), it finds an appropriate ending to an epic journey. “Rocketman” is thoroughly entertaining with all of the glitz and razzle-dazzle one would expect to celebrate this legendary icon.

Rated R, “Rocketman” is now playing in local theaters.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaityln Dever in a scene from the movie. Photo by Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

By Daniel Dunaief

Although it’s getting a lot of buzz, few moments in “Booksmart” are worth the price of admission. It’s just not that funny, charming, unique, innovative or engaging.

The story follows two high school girls, Amy (played by Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein) who are at the top of their class. Academic overachievers, they suddenly realize on the eve of their graduation that their classmates have done well academically too, have gained admission to top colleges and seem to have engaged in a social scene that clearly hasn’t included them. The two best friends spend the rest of the film trying to make up for lost party time on their last day of high school.

The antics that follow mirror the shenanigans of “Superbad,” albeit from a female perspective. The problem is that this film from Annapurna Pictures doesn’t do for awkward high school girls what “Bridesmaids” did for rowdy and raucous women.

Amy and Molly have their own little world, which includes an extended dance sequence on the street and an endless stream of compliments about how great each of them looks. While these moments of connection, which likely originated from years of a developing and co-dependent friendship, appear to be genuine and reflect their friendship, they can’t and don’t replace more substantial memories or interactions that allow them to coexist, and feel like they might be thriving, on their booksmart island.

Just about everyone else in the film is a woefully underdeveloped character. Jason Sudeikis, who is married to debut director Olivia Wilde, plays Principal Brown. Clearly exhausted and burned out by his job, Brown can’t stomach the holier-than-thou attitude Molly demonstrates when she lectures him.

He shuts the door on her until later, Amy and Molly discover that he moonlights as an Uber driver. Yeah, funny stuff. Well, it could have been, but it doesn’t play out especially well, even when the girls accidentally share some raunchy sounds from a phone he’s charging in his car.

Jessica Williams, who plays teacher Miss Fine, is a 20-something version of Molly and Amy, relating well to them because she clearly followed a similar school-committed path. She weaves in and out of the film, sharing a few details about breaking free of the bonds of commitment and academic dedication, but again, her character is neither especially funny or poignant.

“Booksmart” is desperate for the equivalent of a McLovin, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse in “Superbad.” Sure, he’s ridiculous and awkward and overwhelmed by various moments, but he’s amusing, awkward and desperate in ways that are charming and relatable.

The other characters in “Booksmart” are one-dimensional. Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, plays the offbeat Gigi, who seems rich and strange. She floats in and out of scenes with Skyler Gisondo, who plays Jared. Neither character adds much and yet they each enter scenes like unwanted weeds and then disappear, only to spring up again.

While “Booksmart” has an interesting premise, with two intelligent seniors eager to catch up on the social scene they missed through academic dedication, it fails to deliver memorable scenes or compelling dialogue.

Rated R, “Booksmart” is now playing in local theaters.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets the genie (Will Smith) in the Cave of Wonders

By Heidi Sutton

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 27 years since Disney released the classic animated feature film “Aladdin.” This weekend, the much anticipated live-action remake opened in theaters and reviews have been mixed.

Written by John August and Guy Ritchie, and directed by Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”), it follows the 1992 film’s storyline closely and includes all of the favorite characters from the original but also expands on some of the characters.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in a scene from the movie

The story takes place in the fabled city of Agrabah where Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) adviser to the Sultan (Navid Negahban), seeks to retrieve a magic lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders. He enlists the help of a street rat named Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a “diamond in the rough,” who becomes trapped in the cave. When Aladdin finds the lamp and polishes it, a magical genie appears and grants him three wishes.

Along with his pet monkey Abu, the genie and a magic carpet, Aladdin spend the remainder of the film disguised as Prince Ali of Ababwa trying to woo Princess Jasmine while trying to stay clear of Jafar.

Massoud is perfectly cast as “Aladdin,” both looking and sounding the part, and succeeds in bringing Aladdin from animation to life. Naomi Scott brings a fresh take on Princess Jasmine, making her a strong political figure who wishes to be Sultan.

Will Smith has the Herculean task of being the genie this time around and pulls out all the stops in ensuring that his character gets the maximum laughs. “Robin Williams didn’t leave a lot of room for improvement in the development of the genie,” said Smith in a recent interview on the “Graham Norton Show,” adding that he wanted to maintain the nostalgia but add a new flavor to it. Although many of his lines are from the original film, Smith, in Fresh Prince fashion, adds rap to his songs, works out a lot and also develops a crush on Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).

All of the wonderful songs by Alan Menken we have come to love are in the film, including “A Whole New World,” “A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” with one new song, “Speechless,” performed beautifully by Scott.

Aside from being visually stunning, with many special effects, the film does have its issues. Although not a cartoon, the movie at times feels cartoonish. The animals – Raja the tiger, Lago the parrot and Abu the monkey – are computer generated and look it, and the people in the film look like Disney characters as they sing, dance and mull about in over-the-top costumes.

The length of the film is also problematic. While the 1992 film was rated G and was only 90 minutes long, this version is rated PG and is over two hours long, a stretch for families with young children.

That being said, Ritchie’s modern-day version of “Aladdin” has its own charm and is a fitting take on the Arabian Nights tale for fans of the original.

Up next for Disney is a live-action remake of “The Lion King” set to open in July.

‘Dumbo’ is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.

The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.

The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development. 

The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.

It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.

While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting. 

Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.

Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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.

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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