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You Were Never Really Here
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You Were Never Really Here

Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
Rating: R
for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language and brief nudity.
Grade: B+
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
The PLot:
A traumatized Gulf War veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) finds missing girls, lost in sex trafficking. He’s unafraid of violence, and known for his brutal tactics. One job spins out of control. Joe seems to be on the brink – will he go mad or will everything fall into place?

Lynn’s Take:
Winner of two awards at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix) and Screenplay (Lynne Ramsay), “You Were Never Really Here” is a disturbing thriller that takes no prisoners.
With a distinct vibe like “Taxi Driver” and last year’s surprise indie thriller “Good Time,” the impressionistic film has an urgency and energy that draws you in, even if you’re never sure of what’s going on or where it’s going.
That sounds improbable, but visionary director Lynne Ramsay tells a story in a hypnotic way. After all, she was responsible for the unsettling, haunting 2011 film “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which remains unforgettable.
Short on linear plot developments, Ramsay immediately sets an eerie mood. The cacophony of the city contrasts with the inner demons of a killing machine, as the explosive Joe keeps everyone, including the audience, on the edge. Does he have a death wish? Flashes of a dark past mix in with a hallucinatory present.
With a Charles Manson appearance and a steely, dead gaze, Phoenix plays someone we assume is unhinged but is a master of control. It’s a sly, smart performance, delivering as much through his eyes as his muscles.
Real life eventually jars him into a heightened reality. The film’s jagged speed, combined with unusual cinematography and jarring editing, creates an urban nightmare. Jonny Greenwood’s music score accents the disquieting atmosphere.
No doubt, this is a strange film, and the violence is grisly. Nevertheless, there’s something about the morality straight line, and the avant-garde filming that’s mesmerizing.
Rampage
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Rampage

Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris
Rating: PG-13
for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures
Grade: B+ (Kent)/B (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
The PLot:
A genetic experiment gone wrong exposes three creatures to a nightmarish transformation.
One of the victims is Davis Okoye’s (Dwayne Johnson) friend and charge, George, an albino gorilla. When George begins growing to enormous proportions and the government steps in.
With the help of geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), Okoye embarks upon a journey to help George and stop the animal rampage heading toward a vulnerable Chicago.

Kent’s Take:
“Rampage” is based upon the classic video game of the same name. A game where players are tasked with destroying city blocks. In this movie version, as in Japanese monster movies from the 50s, things get a bit out of hand as city blocks are destroyed.
Fullfilling exactly what it promises, this action flick has the tough, buff, soft-hearted hero, a straight-forward plot and predictable story and character archetypes. The villain is bad to the bone and has an idiotic, sniveling sidekick, while it also offers incredible special effects and plenty of destructive action. All this adds up to a wild and enjoyable ride.
This is no “Jurrassic Park,” but it doesn’t have to be. The creatures are the stars of this film. They are both heroes and villains as they rampage across the country. The creatures are fantastic and at the center of it all is George and Okoye’s relationship. If not for this fun caring relationship, the film would have quickly degenerated into a mindless chase film. Instead, it becomes a story about trust, genetic safety and our responsibility for animal safety.
Dwayne Johnson has cornered the market on tough guys who can laugh at themselves. His Davis Okoye is ex-military and is serious about his animal’s safety, but he uses his perfect comic timing for sarcasm and snarkiness – a perfect combination to balance a character and film.
“Rampage” will crush it at the box office drawing viewers from lots of places – Dwayne Johnson fans, action film fans, Rampage fans or those who just long to see Chicago reduced to dust. Dwayne Johnson makes this film worth seeing while the creatures and special effects make this film memorable.

Lynn’s Take:
A rip-roaring good old-fashioned monster movie in the vein of 1950s B-movie sci-fi creature features, only gussied up with a glossy high-tech sheen, “Rampage” is ridiculous, but also ridiculously entertaining.
With massive mutated marauders George, Lizzie and Ralph (videogame gorilla, crocodile and wolf characters) on the loose, director Brad Peyton’s penchant for fast-paced action and non-stop danger works for this super-sized smash-fest.
He has teamed up with his “San Andreas” star Dwayne Johnson in his sweet spot – saving the world with charm and super-human derring-do.
“The Rock” (I’m sorry, it’s a habit) warms up to geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who helps him rein in his beloved George, now a frightening weapon of mass destruction.
They make a good team, but the villains do not. Malin Ackerman is unconvincing as corporate dragon lady Claire Wyden, hell-bent on world domination. Jake Lacy, mostly known for rom-coms, is miscast as her partner, brother Brett.
But stealing the movie is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government fixer Harvey Russell, a smooth operator with a cowboy complex and a honey-drenched drawl. He’s a welcome surprise.
The script by a gang of four, including story creator Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse of “Lost” fame, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, uses humor well.
And how about this – Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill., is one of the military operation sites.
“Rampage” knows its lane and stays in it, delivering a crowd-pleaser.

Beirut

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris
Rating: R
for language, some violence and a brief nude image
Grade: B
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
The Plot: Summary: A U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by CIA operatives (Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris) to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.

Lynn’s Take: Jon Hamm is ready for his close-up as a movie star. He’s back on the big screen in a leading-man role – suave yet conflicted -- that fits him superbly.

Our versatile Emmy-winning hometown ambassador has spent the post “Mad Men” years as a TV ad pitchman, in guest turns on comedy shows, headlining a couple innocuous films, and then turning heads last year as a dangerous criminal in “Baby Driver.”

In flashbacks as Mason Skiles, a hotshot U.S. diplomat specializing in Mid-East affairs, he glides through a room, working it – and clearly is the smartest guy there. But tragedy strikes at his home. Cut to 10 years later, and he’s a bitter, boozy, detached guy who earns a living as a labor negotiator but would rather be sitting on a barstool. OK, shades of Don Draper, but he does gives Skiles his own identity.

Duty calls, and while he’s loathe to return to the place where his life turned upside down, the CIA and State Department guys won’t take no for an answer. Thus begins a dangerous mission where duplicity lurks around every corner, but he gets back in the groove, and look out.

While Hamm is always an interesting actor to watch, these parts as a golden boy whose personal setbacks are at odds with his promise are perfect for him, like early Robert Redford.

In “Beirut,” it’s no coincidence that he resembles George Clooney, because screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote and directed “Michael Clayton.”

Gilroy, who also penned the first four “Bourne” movies, is in his wheelhouse, too – he knows how to write a political thriller.

He wrote “Beirut” 25 years ago, dusted it off, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Funny how the more things change, the more things stay the same. The Middle East remains a war zone, and far greater minds than me can better explain 2,000 years of conflict.

This story has a narrower focus, some of it contrived, some of it cliched – but compelling as a smart espionage drama that benefits from strong performances. Rosamund Pike impresses as a CIA operative whose integrity and loyalty are revealed when necessary. She and Hamm play well off each other.

After Skiles left Lebanon a decade earlier, a hellish civil war reduced the “Paris of the Middle East” to a mere shell. Fighting continues in 1982, and a fringe Palestinian group has kidnapped Skiles’ former best friend, CIA agent Cal (Mark Pellegrino), in hopes of exchanging him for a notorious terrorist linked to a trail of evil, including the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics.

The plot thickens, no spoilers here. The atmosphere helps set the tone, and the burnished cinematography is effective. While the music score is authentic, it becomes intrusive at times.

How welcome it is to see Hamm emerge in total command of the silver screen.
1945
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1945

Genre: Drama/Foreign
Starring: Peter Rudolf, Eszter Nagy-Kalozy, Dora Sztarenki, Bence Tasnadi, Tamas Szabo Kimmel
Rating: This film is not rated.
Grade: B (Kent), B+ (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
It is August of 1945 in a small Hungarian town. Town Clerk Szentes Istvan (Peter Rudolf) is frustrated with his laudanum-addicted wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy) while he prepares for his son’s wedding later that day, Szentes Arpad (Bence Tasnadi).
Arpad’s fianceé Kisrozsi (Dora Sztarenki) truly loves Russian Jancsi (Tamas Szabo Kimmel), but will not reveal her true feelings.
When two mysterious Jewish men arrive on the train travelling with two boxes of perfumes, facial creams and soaps, the townspeople start talking.
Istvan becomes nervous as residents come to him with questions, comments and stares.
As the two mysterious Jews approach town, the secrets of betrayal surface and lies compound as justice arrives on their heals.

Kent’s Take:
“1945” is a Hungarian drama meant to send a message to viewers, and the message is loud and clear.
Istvan loves his power, he rides about town in the local constable’s motorcycle sidecar greeting, shaking hands, barking orders.
The war is over and hope has not yet arrived to this little village.
When the Station Master brings the news of two Jewish men heading toward town, locals begin talking, questioning and reacting.
This sleepy town has a dark secret and these two Jewish travelers awaken this town’s conscience.
Filmed in black and white, this beautiful film is, initially, difficult to follow as characters are called by both their last and first names and the relaxed pacing of the story takes its time setting up.
Director Ferenc Torok initially brings us into daily 1940s Hungarian life, the excitement of a wedding and its dinner celebration, the white table cloths, the clinking of glasses as the outdoor tables are set. The salutations of townsfolk, delicious foods, and the uncorked bottles of brandy help define a pleasant life, but the problems we all face slowly creep into the forefront to grab our attention, then darken to turn this welcoming setting into a fitting puzzle.
The mysteries gather speed as the Jewish visitors walk through town. The question of what Istvan spearheaded and the answer as to why the Jews have come to this sleepy hamlet fuel the narrative and define its citizens.
“1945” is both a well written mystery and a fascinating story regarding the deafening silence of conscience and the repercussions of our actions. While the story develops slowly the emotional impact and subtext are strong and true.

Lynn’s Take:
In an Hungarian village, people who profited from other’s misfortunes during World War II may feel like a day of reckoning is near when an Orthodox Jew, Herman Samuel (Ivan Angelusz) and his grown son show up in town, bearing a trunk.
“The Jews have arrived” becomes an ominous phrase uttered throughout town. Why is their presence so unsettling?
Based on an acclaimed short story, “Homecoming,” by Gabor T. Szanto, this period drama feels like a western, with thriller overtones, because of the dread and suspicions their presence has stirred.
Writer-director Ferenc Torok simply provides details, while Elemer Ragaly’s lustrous black and white cinematography enhances the film’s compelling nature. Dorka Kiss’s art direction and Tiber Szemzo’s gripping score also add to this morality tale of justice and evil.
Peter Rudolf (Istvan Szentes) is strong as the town notable and a pharmacist whose troubles are many, including his addict wife Anna (Ezter Nagy-Kalozy). Russian soldiers remain in town too.
You may think you’ve seen every war angle, but “1945” provides a new perspective into its aftermath of a very dark time. Hungary, Oscar winner for “Son of Saul,” tells another haunting and disturbing tale.
Pandas
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Pandas

Genre: Documentary
Rating: G
for general audiences
Grade: B
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT/TAKE:
Pandas are the oldest and one of the most endangered species on the planet. There are fewer than 2,000 Pandas left in the wild. Although they are one of the most recognizable creatures worldwide, little is really known about Pandas in their natural habitats. One factor limiting the Panda population is their lack of genetic diversity.
These playful, beautiful bears are quick to roll, flop, and climb, but never forget, these are still wild animals built to survive in the wild. Their jaws are extremely strong, enabling them to chew through bamboo (an adult must eat at least 50 pounds per day).
China’s Dr. Rong Hou has developed a method to breed Pandas in captivity with great success, but her goal to reintroduce Pandas to the wild has been difficult. It has been a struggle to teach animals to use their instincts.
With the help of bear expert Ben Kilham and biologist Jacob Owens, Rong Hou attempts to send Chen Chen, a Panda raised in captivity, into the wilds to begin a new chapter of reintroduction into the wild Panda population.
“Pandas” is the latest Omnimax film documentary following Chen Chen and her team of scientists who work tirelessly to help save the Panda population.
Of course, at the center of this film is a group of cute, cuddly, fun-loving Pandas. As they grow to maturity, Chen Chen is chosen to become the first Panda reintroduced into the wilds using Dr. Rong Hou’s and Ben Kilham’s new method. As Chen Chen matures, they begin a slow process to shift her reliance on humans to a reliance on her instincts. Knowing that this could mean a difference between life or death for this loving creature, both increases the tension and emotions of this documentary.
Everything looks better as an Omnimax film. The immersion screen and filming method helps draw audiences fully into the story. One can almost smell the forest leaves and the humidity of the dense forest glades. Even the urban areas were more vibrant on screen as we visited a bustling Chinese city, however, the stunning outdoor vistas were made to be filmed in Omnimax.
Pandas takes viewers on an emotional journey, one over-flowing with audience smiles and giggles, but it is also flavored with healthy pinches of facts, science and sadness. Created for families, this wonderful documentary comes in at a lean one hour, a perfect length for adventure and learning.
A Quiet Place
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A Quiet Place

Genre: Drama/Horror/Thriller
Starring: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Rating: PG-13
for terror and some bloody images.
Grade: A-
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
The world as we know it is gone. Most are dead. Survivors Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan Abbott (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus Abbott (Noah Jupe) must not make any noise. The creatures hunt by sound and move like lightning.
Struggling with guilt, struggling to remain quiet and struggling to simply want to live in this world is a tough task. This family will soon be tested in ways they never knew they could be.

KENT’s Take:
“A Quiet Place” is a horror/thriller with both heart and brains. Taking place over 473 days, this tight, simple film holds viewers fast from the opening scene.
Lee’s family has quickly built a world of silence. They talk in sign language, walk on paths of sand, steam food in a covered oven, play games with knitted pieces – all to remain almost totally silent.
Adding to their woes, Regan is deaf and the family lost their youngest, Beau (Cade Woodward) – everyone blames themselves.
This smart film uses silence as a weapon slapping audiences into an unsettled stillness. We learn early on that noise equals death, thus, I glared at the man loudly carrying his snacks to his seat and I began to panic when a an audience member coughed – the creatures will hear you!
As audiences are indoctrinated into this new world, we are also brought into every parent’s nightmare – How do I protect my children?
Try to be totally silent for an hour – now try to live in silence. Writers Brian Wood and Scott Beck thoroughly immerse viewers in this smart premise, then begin adding disturbing elements, a deaf character, a pregnant wife – and a terrifying creature.
Although the cast gives strong performances, Emily Blunt is fantastic in her role as pregnant wife Evelyn. Her expressive features beautifully define her strong emotional palette, giving viewers a fervent anchor on which to hold.
“A Quiet Place” truly makes silence golden within the story and the theater. This apocalyptic thriller will certainly take a bite out of the box office in coming weeks.
Ready Player One
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Ready Player One

Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Starring: Mark Rylance, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe
Rating: PG-13
for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
Grade: A (Kent) C+ (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
It is 2045 and the world is an unhappy place. Poverty and famine are rampant as everyone escapes to a virtual world called Oasis. Designed by the eccentric James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance), Oasis is a place where anyone can go anywhere and be anyone.
Upon his death, Halliday released a message to those in Oasis. Hidden somewhere in the vast reaches of his world are three keys. Whomever finds these keys and the Easter Egg, will gain full control of Oasis and Halliday’s vast fortune.
Parzival (Tye Sheridan) undertakes this quest with his friends, including Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe), as do millions of others. Yet, Parzival has an advantage, he has studied Halliday’s life and has gleaned meaning while others guess.
As Parzival finds the first key, Innovative Online Industries (IOI) begins monitoring Parzival and his hunt for the keys in order to gain the Easter Egg and monetize Oasis. A race for real freedom has now begun in virtual reality.

Kent’s Take:
“Ready Player One” is the latest film by Steven Spielberg and is based upon the best-selling novel of the same name.
This incredible film pulls viewers in and out of reality as Parzival struggles to unravel the clues left by Halliday.
The genius of this gem is in its universal appeal. Rife with fun pop culture references as well as nods to video game classics and current fare, this fascinating story will thrill millennials with its technology and a wild virtual ride. The pop culture and themes will grab anyone who remembers the ‘70s and ‘80s.
This film is essentially “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” with the world trying to gain access to an eccentric’s fortune, but only the worthy really have a chance. A nefarious corporation also uses its vast resources to gain an upper hand in this quest. IOI, represents the idea that corporations see employees and customers as only numbers, alludes to the 1s and 0s of binary as right or wrong and, of course, good vs. evil.
Themes of “love conquering all,” the virtues of slowing life down to “smell the roses,” and the concept of Net Neutrality are subtly woven into the neon fabric of this story. It is also notable that the anonymity of virtual space is shown as being both dangerous and uplifting.
The adventure setup, the means by which the story arc is presented, and the characterization all scream classic Spielberg. The dampening of language, sexuality and gore are a welcome characteristic of his films. In addition, although there is plenty of violence, when a player is killed in the Oasis, they simply burst into coins.
Spielberg gives a new generation a taste of innocent romance and top notch storytelling wrapped in an action/adventure shell, reminding us that a film can be heartfelt, heart-pounding and eye-popping all at once.
“Ready Player One” fires on all cylinders as audiences are brought into a dark future of escapism, but the real treasure here is Oasis. This virtual world holds excitement, tense drama, belly laughs and the crux of the story as well as an unlimited potential.
My teenage son and I excitedly discussed the pop references, the video game references, the graphics, the sheer undertaking and flawless execution. We bridged our vast technological and cultural divide, if only for one evening, and it was glorious.
“Ready Player One” is a film that will appeal to ages 13-70 and will give everyone something with which to connect. A connection that will take us all into virtual reality and ultimately back to one another.

Lynn's Take:
With super-duper bells and whistles, “Ready Player One” immerses us into a video game. If you are a gamer, it’s nirvana. For non-gamers, they appeal to nostalgia for 1980s music and movies.
However, the disjointed live-action story underwhelms and disappoints because the focus is more on the pop-culture patchwork pastiche. Screenwriter Zak Penn, of many comic-book blockbusters, adapts Ernest Cline’s debut young adult science fiction novel, and that’s the audience aim.
Tye Sheridan, a standout as Brad Pitt’s son in “Tree of Life” and in “Mudd,” is likable as earnest Wade. His avatar is Parzival, which is the real star. He crushes on Olivia Cooke’s Samantha (Art3mis).
Slick eye-popping computer graphics swirl and dazzle, as the pair is plunged into the intricate game. As in nearly all tentpole action-adventure fantasies these days, lots of things blow up and the sound is loud, clearly past 11.
Easter eggs, those inside jokes or special nods that can be spotted in video games, movies, TV and computer games, are emphasized, but does this make a compelling story? No. Sure, recreating key scenes and characters in “The Shining” and replicating “Saturday Night Fever” disco floor is clever.
But the movie feels hollow, needs a meatier live-action tale. They waste the talents of three terrific character actors – under-used Oscar winner Mark Rylance, Emmy winner Ben Mendelsohn as the cardboard cutout villain and Simon Pegg as super-nerd Ogden Morrow.
Rylance and Mendelsohn play partners who have a falling out, derivative of Apple founders Steve Jobs – Steve Wosniak’s real-life situation.
For all its state-of-the-art tech, the movie spins into this sprawling mess that never catches fire. Nowhere is Spielberg’s magic touch evident.
Stepping into a video game is one thing, watching someone play a video game is about as dull as watching paint dry. Even if kids dress as Buckaroo Banzai and mention Bill and Ted.
Isle of Dogs
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Isle of Dogs

Genre: Animated/Adventure/Comedy
Starring: (voices of) Bryan Cranston, Live Shrieber, Jeff Goldblum
Rating: PG-13
for thematic elelemts and some violent images.
Grade: A
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
In Megasaki City, dogs are banished by the evil authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi to Trash Island. A 12-year-old aviator who is​ the mayor’s ward, Atari, crashes onto the Japanese island, looking for his pet Spot. With the help of a pack of wild dogs, ​quite an odyssey is ahead​.

LYNN’s Take:
Goofy as all get out, “Isle of Dogs” is another weird and wonderful stop-animation movie from the eccentric filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was an endlessly fascinating curio.
With his trademark meticulous detail and jaw-dropping symmetry, Anderson has fashioned a unique fantasy brimming with stunning visuals that create a Far East culture down to a floating cherry blossom landing on a mutt’s nose.
Alexandre Desplat’s memorable score pulses with taiko drums and other native sounds.​
Laced with deadpan wit and the impressive measured delivery of Bryan Cranston, Liev Schr​ei​ber, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson, along with Anderson’s ​top-shelf repertory of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel​, Tilda Swinton​ and Frances McDormand, the film’s charms are vast.
In an interesting twist, Akira Takayami (Major-Domo), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor), Koyu ​Rankin (Atari) and other Japanese performers speak in their native tongue.​ And Assistant-Scientist Yoko Ono is really Yoko Ono!​
Anderson is obviously a dog person, and his affection for man’s best friend is sweet​. Despite a complex plot, the film’s oddball imaginative tapestry ​is a visual feast. Second viewing will be a must to discover more of its inventive delights.
The Death of Stalin
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The Death of Stalin

Genre: Comedy
Starring: Adrian McLoughlin, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin
Rating: R
for language throughout, violence and some sexual references.
Grade: C/B
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
1953 Moscow finds Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) continuing the relentless oppression and killing of his people. His Council of Ministers fall over one another to hold their positions with Stalin – walking on egg shells around the dictator.
When Stalin dies of a stroke, his Council of Ministers begin a wild game of political maneuvering that will eventually result in a new “Comrade” leader to bring Russia into a new era of cruelty and death.

Kent’s Take:
“The Death of Stalin” is the latest satire from writer/director Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In The Loop”), but unlike his previous films, this comedy offers sporadic laughs and consistent violence.
Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), is the head of the Russian NKVD – Stalin’s brutal elite security force and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the Ministry’s First Secretary. The two men begin a cat and mouse game of manipulation, provocation and deceit as both men attempt to solidify allies and their positions in order to step into Stalin’s role as Leader.
Initially, the laughs come as Stalin’s decrees force Russians to extreme measures to fulfill those demands. This creates hilarious ridiculousness that show both the brutality of a totalitarian regime while also poking fun at it. However, the story quickly dons a more serious mantle as we delve into the politics of communism.
Where Iannucci stumbles is in the narrative. The pacing is perfect, the cast is talented and gives strong performances, the direction is spot-on and the sets and costumes are memorable, but the story itself becomes less funny as this tale of political intrigue unfolds.
There are funny moments, like when Khrushchev calls the funeral director “skinny Hitler,” or when Michael Palin’s Vyachaslav Molotov lectures the Ministry on why they should continue Stalin’s barbarous programs . . . or maybe not. And the always funny, Jeffrey Tambor gives his usual top-notch riotous performance as the oafish Georgy Malenkov.
Yet, funny lines do not a narrative make.
Iannucci attempts to satirize the absolute disregard for human life that stains Stalin’s cold-blooded regime. Such as when they can’t find a decent doctor to help Stalin because he killed or imprisoned all of them – that’s funny. Unfortunately, the comedy takes a back seat to the history, so much so, in the final act, audiences forget this is supposed to be a farce.
“The Death of Stalin” is a well-acted, well-directed film, but this satire suffers a comedy of errors as the subject matter is too sobering and the satire too light for such a brutal time in history. While the beloved cast is worth a visit, many will be surprised and disappointed at the sobering conclusion to this dark drama.

Lynn’s Take:
As in all savvy political satires, the dialogue crackles and the characters are ripe for skewering in “The Death of Stalin.” But of course, writer-director Armando Iannucci has more than laughs in mind when he tackles one of the world’s most notorious tyrants and his oppressive regime.
You don’t have to be a government scholar to see the parallels in modern politics. In post-Cold War Russia, where elections are fixed and spies are poisoned, the handprints of Stalin’s autocratic reign of terror are evident.
The movie takes off when Stalin’s yes men deal with his loss and worry about where they’ll wind up in the shakeup. The slapstick-y jockeying for position is funny.
Steve Buscemi, as eventual successor Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale, as chief of the secret police and state security administrator Lavrentiy Beria, are nimble character actors who don’t miss a beat in conveying the crafty, cunning figures of the Politburo.
Co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin, who along with Iannucci, used Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel as source material, establish the same buffoonish style here as they did on ‘Veep.” The actors showcase how awful these people really were.
As impressive as the writing and directing is, the story just simply runs out of gas. It becomes repetitive, the same one-note jokes. But when this film is clicking, this marvel of bulls-eye machinations hits its targets well.
Pacific Rim: Uprising
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Pacific Rim: Uprising

Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Starring: John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny
Rating: PG-13
for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.
Grade: C
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
It’s been 10 years since the deadly alien Kaiju attacked Earth. Mankind has mostly recovered, but all know we must be prepared for other possible attacks.
When Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) the son of a legendary Jaeger Ranger and Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) are arrested, they find themselves recruited as Ranger pilots.
These two mavericks soon find themselves mixed up in a Kaiju plot to destroy humanity.
Will they be able to step up and ignore their pasts to triumph for our world’s future?

Kent’s Take:
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” is the next chapter in the Pacific Rim franchise. Continuing the saga, we find familiar faces alongside some new ones.
Jake has struggled to walk outside of his father’s greatness. Amara is unable to look beyond the loss of her family at the hands of a Kaiju – together they form an unlikely and predictable duo.
Although Earth has rebuilt from its destruction, the physical and mental scars are still felt.
In this “Transformers meets Johnny Sokko” action flick, suspension of reality is essential. Plot holes as big as Kaiju breaches appear throughout as Jake struggles to accept his calling. Clunky dialogue and unneeded exposition remind viewers of what has come before.
Director Steven S. DeKnight valiantly attempts to set up a story to enhance the action. Unfortunately, the pedestrian narrative, clichéd characters and predictable story path slows the pacing to make the film climax seem like it’s a long time coming.
As the action arrives, this film shines. The Yaeger robot warriors live up to our expectations as do the Kaiju.
Even the plot twist, launching us toward the climax, is well setup giving audiences a reason to finally cheer.
Although “Pacific Rim: Uprising” truly tries, but fails to give audiences a real story setup, the special effects and action are certainly worth a discounted viewing.

Love, Simon

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Starring: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel
Rating: PG-13
for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Grade: B
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
The Plot: Based on Becky Albertalli’s young adult book, “Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda,” Simon Spier is a high school senior harboring a big secret. He feels comfortable pouring out his feelings to an anonymous gay pen pal, and a bratty kid finds out, threatening to expose him. Will Simon find peace, love and understanding?

Lynn’s Take: This slick, sincere movie knows its audience. Aimed squarely at a new generation, “Love, Simon” hits all the right notes as a breakthrough mainstream gay teen coming-of-age and coming-out film.

It’s also a breakout role for charming Nick Robinson, a young actor most known as the older brother in “Jurassic World” and as Ryder in the Disney series “Melissa and Joey.”

With his natural ease and earnestness, he’s terrific leading the appropriately diverse cast. The big names are Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as his well-meaning parents, and Tony Hale as the goofy vice principal.

At first glance, this slick, sincere teen comedy is not unlike the dozens of pleasant crowd-pleasing formulas filling multiplexes on weekends: Attractive youngsters, a school that you’d want to go to, a town you’d want to live in, and a home where you would be quite comfortable.

And while it has those appealing elements, what separates it from the pack is not its gay plotline, but how normal it is.

The film is genuine and heartfelt, with snappy dialogue. It’s also not as predictable as you think, taking a few unexpected plot turns.

Director Greg Berlanti, who wrote “Dawson’s Creek,” “Everwood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” stays in his lane, assuredly presenting a teen discovering his sexual orientation in modern times.

And Nick Robinson is going to be much in demand after this.
7 Days in Entebbe
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7 Days in Entebbe

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Rosamund Pike
Rating: PG
for violence, some thematic material, drug use, smoking and brief strong language.
Grade: C
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Summary: Wanting to free dozens of Palestinians jailed in Israel, four hijackers take passengers hostage on an Air France airplane out of Tel Aviv, and force it to land in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. Israel’s daring rescue mission could save 102 hostages

Lynn’s Take:
With its choppy style and generic script, “7 Days in Entebbe” filmmakers declaw a harrowing real-life drama. However, a few moving performances and savvy power plays inside the Jerusalem war room give some perspective to the Palestinian-Israel conflict.
Once upon a time, networks made TV movies ripped-from-the-headlines with all-star casts and much fanfare. In 1976, Burt Lancaster, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor and Anthony Hopkins starred in “Victory at Entebbe” while Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Jack Warden and Sylvia Sidney headlined “Raid on Entebbe.”
That was then, this is now. Forty years later, director Jose Padilha of Netflix’s “Narcos” fritters away his cast’s talents by odd editing choices and unnecessary subplots.
By the time Operation: Thunderbolt kicks off, this edge-of-your-seat action is interrupted by the powerful dance performance.
Say what?
Yes, dancers. Now this dance piece by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin is nifty, but it doesn’t add to the plot because its use is repetitive and distracting. The Batsheva Dance Company are shown in rehearsals and performance, and one of the lithe dancers is the girlfriend of a special-ops soldier, so their romance is fodder for his conflict between love and duty.
That does the movie no favors. Neither does the friction between radicals Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and more heartless Brigitte (Rosamund Pike), cold as ice. We don’t know much about them, except they are on the wrong side of history.
Faring the best are Israeli officials determining the plans and tough choices – Lior Ashkenazi is Prime Minister Itzak Rhabin and versatile character actor Eddie Marsan is the cagey Defense Minister Shimon Peres.
Denis Menochet stands out as flight engineer Jacques Lemoine, whose strength provides a human face to the incident.
Tomb Raider
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Tomb Raider

Genre: Action/Adventure
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins
Rating: PG
for sequences of violence and action, and for some language.
Grade: B-
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Independent-minded Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) shrugs off the fortune her lost father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has left behind for her – choosing to blaze her own path.
When her father’s legacy and her adventurous spirit collide, Lara finds herself fighting for survival and that of the world itself.

Kent’s Take:
“Tomb Raider” is the cinematic reboot based on the top selling video game of the same name. The two previous Angelina Jolie visions fell flat with critics. This version helps restore some of the lost luster to this beloved franchise.
Lara struggles with the disappearance of her loving father while growing into a strong, smart and athletic woman.
Following her father’s sketchy clues, she stumbles upon his life’s work – locating the tomb of Queen Himiko, the Death Queen. Realizing no one must ever open her tomb, Richard Croft left seven years prior, never to return.
This action film is slow to start, introducing Lara, her family legacy and her motivations. Yet, this origin story gains momentum to culminate in the traditional over-the-top climax that is fun to watch, but which audiences have seen before.
Using puzzles, secrets, hidden clues and adventure, this story may follow a predictable path, similar to the “Indiana Jones” films, but is still enjoyable.
Offering top-shelf effects, nice stunts and gorgeous cinematography, audiences are easily and quickly brought into Lara’s quest. This adventure falls short on viewer’s high expectations, but deftly sets the table for future thrills.
Vikander is excellent as the capable Croft, balancing brains with determination to carry her through. As Lord Richard Croft fights to protect his daughter, Lara struggles to reconcile with a ghost, a man she thought was dead.
Opening too slowly, following a predictable path and falling prey to some action/adventure pitfalls may lower this film’s credibility. However, the adventure is present, the acting is strong, and there is certainly something alluring about dark, dank, scary tombs and the treasures and traps within.
A Wrinkle In Time
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A Wrinkle In Time

Genre: Adventure/Family/Fantasy/Sci-fi
Starring: Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling
Rating: PG
for thematic elements and some peril
Grade: Adult Grade: D Youth Grade: B Lynn: C
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Middle schooler Meg (Storm Reid) misses her father who disappeared four years ago . Her parents, both scientists, were researching teseracts – a bending of space-time for infinite travel.
When Meg, her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are contacted by three celestial beings, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Whitherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), they embark upon a journey to find Meg’s and Charles Wallace’s father and heal the wounds of loss.

Kent’s Take:
“A Wrinkle In Time” is based upon the beloved adolescent novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle. Unfortunately, this adaptation has a few wrinkles of its own.
Meg is a typical adolescent, she wants to fit in but feels like she can’t, she thinks she is the only kid going through problems. Add a missing father with whom she was very close and Meg struggles with a lost identity.
Unfortunately, this film lacks subtlety, offering audiences a predictable, straight-forward tale. The dialogue is clunky and lacks authenticity, weakening the acting performances. The narrative is simply an anemic wisp alluded to periodically.
The costuming and makeup are ridiculous – Zack Galifianakis and Reese Witherspoon received the brunt of the embarrassing costumes.
For all its major shortcomings, this family film has worthy elements, too. The special effects are wonderful and of quality. As Meg and company search far off worlds, they discover unusual beauty while discovering themselves. This film also has a rousing soundtrack with new recordings from Sade (which is unusual), DJ Khaled/Demi Lovato, Sia, Kehlani and Chloe X Halle.
The cast makes lemonade out of lemons giving good performances that shore up this faltering story. Winfrey, for her small part, manages to give a memorable performance with range and heart – impressive.
However, for 9-12 year-olds, this film will be an entertaining distraction. A fellow critic brought some adolescents of both sexes and they enjoyed the film.
“A Wrinkle In Time” certainly has its problems and most adults will find them glaring and egregious. However, this film, like the book, is made for youngsters who fall perfectly within the magical realm of this film’s positive themes and colorful sights.

Lynn's Take:
After 56 years, an unfilmable novel has been turned into an unwatchable movie. This green-screen extravaganza is pretty to look at, in a 1970s progressive rock album cover way, but an empty vessel for storytelling.

The ambitious but disjointed script, adapted by Jeff Stockwell and Disney stalwart Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”), is basically New-Agey gibberish, mixed in with scientific over-explanations. As preachy as a motivational speaker, the movie crashes from the weight of its earnestness.

Maybe the book’s magic is what’s left to your imagination, and that can't be effectively translated to the screen.

Storm Reid shows promise as the lonely and brainy Meg, bullied by the mean girls at school, and grieving her genius dad that she idolizes (Chris Pine, who fares the best, with a grounded performance in a brief role).

Three fairy godmothers show up to help with the search – chatty Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, acting like Glinda the Good Witch), quotation-spouting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and the glittery, tall Mrs. Which (the all-powerful Oprah Winfrey).

By following a time-and-space opening, the kids track their dad, but are met by evil energy and are in peril. It’s a trip down a rabbit hole -- a journey that’s slow and hard to follow. They waste much time looking at computer-generated images of wonder and danger that don’t advance the story.

Applause for the well-intentioned focus on diversity casting, but the filmmakers failed to emphasize compelling characters and a lucid story, which were as necessary and important.

We’re given cardboard cut-outs instead of relatable characters, and generic real-people problems that don’t add anything to the fantasy narrative. The erratic skipping between worlds had me dazed and confused, and as I saw kids squirm and parents snore, I realized I wasn’t the only head-scratching viewer.

Zach Galifianakis shows up as a “weirdo in a cave” but we don’t know why. Oprah’s 12 feet tall when we first see her, and then normal size later. Kooky character traits for the sake of being quirky were annoying.

The random insertion of musical montages were just pretty time-wasters, substituting for emotions.

I think what the movie is trying to say is that nonconformity is good, love is the answer, and the lightness will win over the darkness only if love triumphs.

But the points are either vague or hammered over the head, and whatever good intentions the project touted are lost.

Nevertheless, yes to STEM girls. Way to go, females interested in science, technology, engineering and math. (But how about STEAM – put the arts in there too.)

“A Wrinkle in Time” is an unfortunate disconnect at a time when we are desperate for inspiration.

2017 Oscar Picks

Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
BEST PICTURE
• “Call Me By Your Name”
• “Darkest Hour”
• “Dunkirk”
• “Get Out”
• “Lady Bird”
• “Phantom Thread”
• “The Post”
• “The Shape of Water”
• “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

KENT’S PICK: Nine worthy films. It’s difficult to compare apples to oranges. “Dunkirk”– Unforgettable, “Darkest Hour”– Compelling, “Lady Bird”– Eccentric, “The Shape of Water”– stylish, “Three Billboards...”– Winner.

Lynn’S PICK: I am sticking with “The Shape of Water,” for it’s fantasy, romance, visual effects, music, top-shelf cast and atmosphere. However, if “Lady Bird” won, I’d be OK with that.

BEST ACTOR
• Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”
• Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
• Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
• Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
• Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel”

KENT’S PICK: Interesting list this year. Day-Lewis is a regular, like Streep in her category, but Oldman fully becomes Winston Churchill in this riveting film to fully win the Oscar.

Lynn’S PICK: Hands down, Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour.” Not just because he looked like Churchill, and acted like the august British Prime Minister, but because he got the nuances right – he showed us the vulnerabilities.

BEST Actress
• Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
• Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
• Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
• Saairse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
• Meryl Streep, “The Post”

KENT’S PICK: Miraculously, Streep is the weakest link in this list, not for her performance, but because her material wasn’t as strong. McDormand should win, but don’t count out Hawkins.

Lynn’S PICK: Sally Hawkins should win, but Frances McDormand will win for “Three Billboards,” and it’s a worthy performance to be recognized.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
• Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
• Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
• Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
• Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
• Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

KENT’S PICK: Strongest list of the Oscars. Each actor deserves the prize. Harrelson and Rockwell may dilute one another’s votes, so Dafoe or Jenkins could sneak in for the win. I want Rockwell to win.

Lynn’S PICK: Sam Rockwell has been one of my favorite character actors for a long time, but in “Three Billboards” we see a truly layered performance, and his story arc as the racist cop who does the right thing is a good one. About time he gets recognized.

BEST SUPPORTING Actress
• Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
• Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
• Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
• Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
• Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

KENT’S PICK: Talented, diverse group of ladies. This Oscar could go several ways. I loved Janney in “I, Tonya,” and think she will “skate” through with the honors.

lynn’S PICK: I want Laurie Metcalf to win badly – the look on her face when Lucas Hedges talks about them living across the tracks – for her terrific work as the mom in “Lady Bird,” but it’s Allison Janney’s gold-medal performance as the horrible mom in “I, Tonya” that gets the gold statue here.

BEST Directing
• Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”
• Jordan Peele, “Get Out”
• Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”
• Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread”
• Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water”

KENT’S PICK: Although the list forgot my favorite director (Denis Villenueve), this list is a strong offering of diverse films and genres. del Toro will win for “The Shape of Water.”

lynn’S PICK: Guillermo del Toro, for bringing such a visionary film as “The Shape of Water” to life. Although, if Greta Gerwig or Jordan Peele would win, I’d be very happy.

BEST Adapted Screenplay
• “Call Me By Your Name”
• “The Disaster Artist”
• “Logan”
• “Molly’s Game”
• “Mudbound”

KENT’S PICK: Notice only one of these films is up for Best Picture. “Call Me By Your Name,” and “The Disaster Artist” are my frontrunners with “The Disaster Artist” winning by a nose.

lynn’S PICK: “The Disaster Artist” turned an only-in-America story into one of the best comedies about movie-making ever, and should be acknowledged.

BEST Original Screenplay
• “The Big Sick”
• “Get Out”
• “Lady Bird”
• “The Shape of Water”
• “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

KENT’S PICK: Stacked! Stacked! Stacked! Each one should win something. Regardless of who wins, please watch all of these films. “I want my top film of the year to win, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Lynn’S PICK: “Lady Bird” or “Get Out” should win, but it might be “The Shape of Water.”

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
• “The Boss Baby”
• “The Breadwinner”
• “Coco”
• “Ferdinand”
• “Loving Vincent”

KENT’S PICK: This is a “no brainer,” “Coco” will win and deservedly so, however, “Loving Vincent” is so unique, this film is also a “must see” feature.

Lynn’S PICK: Oh, the wonders of ‘Coco.” What a beautiful film from Pixar – stunning visuals and a story with great heart. I cried a bunch. “Remember Me” is an unforgettable song, and my pick in that category too.

Visual Effects
• “Blade Runner 2049”
• “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
• “Kong: Skull Island”
• “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
• “War for the Planet of the Apes”

KENT’S PICK: I enjoyed almost every film in this list. But “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Blade Runner 2049” lead the pack. “Blade Runner 2049” is a stunning film – and better win.

Lynn’S PICK: Nothing soars above “Blade Runner 2049” and this one is not only state-of-the-art but jaw-dropping.
Game Night
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Game Night

Genre: Action/Comedy/Crime/Mystery
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler
Rating: R
for language, sexual references and some violence.
Grade: B
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) are husband and wife, highly competitive and love game nights with their friends.
When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives back in town, he hijacks their game night and Max’s self-esteem.
Yet, game night will soon take on a life of its own when Max and Annie and their game night pals find themselves mixed up in a real game of danger and intrigue.

Kent’s Take:
“Game Night” is the latest offering from the people who brought us “Horrible Bosses.” “Horrible Bosses” yanked audiences into a hilariously raunchy, crude story of three bumbling men. “Game Night” invites viewers into an innocuous group of fun-loving couples to reveal their problems and solve them as the night unfolds. Although that may sound tame, it’s anything but. Filled with funny people, this story is well written and is paced perfectly.
Writer Mark Perez balances innocence with corruption, love with deceit and betrayal, and danger with family values. As the narrative reveals the ridiculousness of this escapade, it quickly pulls back on the reins to temper the story with a punch of reality.
In this laugh-out-loud comedy the game pieces are more important than the win. We quickly fall in step with these lovable characters as their night vaults out of control in the most entertaining ways.
Although the supporting cast energizes this film with their enthusiastic performances, McAdams and Bateman skillfully carry this film. McAdam’s supportive Annie uses her determination to buoy their relationship, while Bateman’s Max plays the straight-man, the everyman, the hilarious victim.
As “Game Night” reveals its twists, the adventure spins to a dizzying climax to finally settle into a predictable and welcomed conclusion.
Annihilation
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Annihilation

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy/Thriller
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny
Rating: R
for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Grade: A (Kent)/A-(Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
The Earth was hit by a small meteor, that meteor has formed an area we call The Shimmer and centers around a lighthouse.
Teams have been sent in – none have returned. That is, until Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns disoriented, clouded, changed.
The next team sent in is all female and has a soldier (Tuva Novotny), paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who is Kane’s wife.
What Lena and her team experience in The Shimmer will change them and us forever.

KENT’s Take:
“Annihilation” is the next sci-fi offering from writer/director Alex Garland who brought us the critically acclaimed “Ex Machina” (2014).
We know immediately that Lena lives to the end of this story for she is being interviewed by government scientists in HAZMAT suits – she exhibits memory loss, time gaps, disorientation. Immediately, audiences are thrown off balance by the alien presence and kept reeling with our inner questions.
The stark nature of this story strips it down to basics. Characters mostly exhibit negative emotions, sadness, guilt, fright or anxiety. The only moments of happiness are in flashback.
The settings are barren and somber with a monochrome modern design, yet The Shimmer is colorful, naturalistic and beautiful in an alien way – opposite to what one would imagine. Garland also foreshadows this story with the soundtrack. The music certainly reflects and helps create a mood as it transitions from a relaxed folk-rock to a tense alien digital score.
This masterful film is disturbing and riveting. One cannot help but watch as this all-woman team unravels. Each member has either a reason to join this dangerous/ suicide mission or no reason not to.
Their sadness, desperation, guilt or scientific sense of exploration fuels the dynamic of the mission and how it plays out.
The cast is excellent with Jennifer Jason Leigh giving a perfectly subdued performance, but Portman’s driven, guilt-ridden Lena strikes a nerve – charging audiences with her determination.
This story balances action with its psychological tension, driving viewers deeper into their seats as these scientists and soldiers delve deeper into The Shimmer.
“Annihilation” is hard sci-fi at its best as this unusual story gives us enough answers to satisfy, but leaves us with enough questions to ponder.
Lynn’s Take: Writer-director Alex Garland is a visionary, as we first took big notice in “Ex Machina” in 2015. Yes, his work is strange – but breathtaking in its boldness. He had me at the “28 Days” movies, which he wrote. Shivers.

He is masterful at spinning a weird but convincing and fascinating tale, teasing with an unexplained phenomenon, adding human conflict and danger, throwing us a curve or two – or six, and seamlessly integrating eye-popping visual effects that express wonder.

And horror. Frazzled nerves are omni-present in “Annihilation,” the same feeling of dread evoked in “Alien” and “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (original and 1978 remake).

Garland has adapted the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s three books, “The Southern Reach Trilogy,” and it does feel like we’re just getting started, that more chilling developments await.

With nods to “Predator” and the futuristic elements of “The Fifth Element” in the mix, he keeps us on edge about what we think we know. The eco-chamber of horrors inside the Shimmer erupts in icky creature attacks that leave the crew shaken, doubting their sanity and terrified about what is happening inside their bodies. The 'found footage' additions help advance the ambitious plot.

The women are a smart unit, with Jennifer Jason Leigh playing it straight for a change, as a psychologist, and Gina Rodriguez in her usual tough-chick role, adding more bombast. Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny are the other half of the sympathetic quartet.

The lynchpin is Natalie Portman, now 36, whose maturation in grown-up roles is becoming more impressive with each film. As Lena, she’s strong yet vulnerable, and yes, complicated. But she seizes the screen with palpable fear, fright, resilience and devotion in every scene.

Her mesmerizing character’s drive depends on Oscar Isaac’s brief flashbacks as a loving husband whose call of duty intercedes in their relationship. The depth he achieves in fleshing out the imperiled special ops soldier Kane is remarkable, affecting our viewpoint in only a few scenes.

While some moviegoers will see this challenging film as a head-scratcher, others will delight in its refusal to spoon-feed the audience, giving us tidbits to chew on and savor throughout, and long after the credits roll.

And if you think Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Helplessly Hoping” was an innocuous choice to create a happy home atmosphere, think again. Oh, that cagey Garland. I can’t wait to see what he has next for us behind the curtain.
Black Panther
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Black Panther

Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Starring: John Kani, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaliyah, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker
Rating: PG-13
for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.
Grade: A (Kent) A (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Following the unexpected and tragic death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) overcomes his challengers to become King of Wakanda and Black Panther.
To the outside world, Wakanda is a third world country, but in reality, it is a more advanced civilization than our own. What sets Wakanda apart from everyone else is Vibranium, a unique substance only found in Wakanda.
Some close to King T’Challa want Wakanda to share its technology and Vibranium to help others around the world. However, T’Challa already knows what misuse of Vibranium can do.
When tradition and technology meet bloodlines, T’Challa will discover the true meaning of being a leader.

Kent’s Take:
“Black Panther” will surprise many people. The Black Panther in “Captain America: Civil War” was an interesting addition to the Avengers, but had such a small role he became somewhat forgettable. This film will change everything.
Opening the film as a confident Playboy-Prince, T’Challa exits as a respected and wise king – an impressive feat for an action film.
Themes of inequality, spirituality, family and hope fuel this action-packed film.
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler captures the spirit of African culture and heritage and uses its beauty and strength to create a Marvel film as unique as The Guardians of the Galaxy.
Coogler takes the themes of racism and oppression and flips them to create an inclusive story of hope for everyone. Black Panther himself is not a wondrous superhero, but the culture and the man behind the mask is – an important distinction.
The all-star cast is perfect in each role, using the beauty of African cultures and meshing them into a proud future. Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger is a strong villain (with the help of a buff Andy Serkis), mean and motivated, but his perspective is understandable and garners viewers’ sympathy as truth reveals all.
Danai Gurira (Michonne from “The Walking Dead”) gives a strong performance as warrior Okoye, while Chadwick Boseman sets the tone and depth as T’Challa. Boseman’s performance is the balancing element throughout the film offering a superhero with heart, strength and intelligence.
The special effects are fantastic, adding an additional layer of wonder to this meaningful story as Wakanda comes to life technologically, emotionally and culturally.
“Black Panther” is both a memorable Marvel film and a Marvel-ous set up for the upcoming “Avenger’s: Infinity War.” This strong story uses its elements efficiently, creating a new legend that is a modern Marvel.

LYNN’s Take:
Much will be made of how groundbreaking this event film is, and yes, it is, but “Black Panther” is more than its hype as the first black superhero movie.
First and foremost, it is a meticulously crafted origin story, and fans of the Marvel Comics will enjoy the Easter eggs, but even if you do not know any background, you can follow this tale.
The natural, majestic beauty of Africa shimmers, as Rachel Morrison, the first woman cinematographer nominated for an Academy Award (“Mudbound”), focused on visual splendor.
The visual effects are seamless, and the film’s swift and culturally-infused rhythm is noteworthy.
Savvy director Ryan Coogler brings a fresh perspective, steeping the film in customs and heritage.
Family is a major emphasis, and Coogler presents the rich-in-resources Wakanda as a very special place, one that instills pride and is worth saving. The panoramic vistas are breathtaking.
The cast is deep with talent, and the actors are currently heavy-hitters — mesmerizing Chadwick Boseman is noble as T’Challa/Black Panther; Michael B. Jordan, in his third film with Coogler, is all muscle and attitude as outsider prince Killmonger; Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar nominee for “Get Out,” is conflicted ally W’Kabi; and St. Louis native and two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown is Wayward son N’Jobu. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is the Wise Zuri.
However, the women are a force to be reckoned with, and that is exhilarating.
From the fierce committed warriors Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), to T’Challa’s wingmen Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo as Nakia and Letitia Wright as brilliant scientist Shuri, to regal Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, the women demonstrate strength and resilience.
In other notable roles, Martin Freeman plays against type as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, while versatile Andy Serkis is imposing villain Ulysses Klaue.
Of course, it’s a set up for the next film, and a tease for “The Avengers: Infinity War,” But you must stay for the additional scene after the first batch of credits, and don’t leave until you see the second scene that provides an interesting epilogue.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
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The Ballad of Lefty Brown

Genre: Western
Starring: Bill Pullman, Peter Fonda, Kathy Baker, Diego Josef, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Caviezel
Rating: R
for violence and some language.
Grade: B (Kent)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
When cowboy Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) witnesses the murder of his longtime friend and newly elected Senator Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), he is determined to find his killer and see justice meted out.
Returning to Johnson’s farm, his widow Laura (Kathy Baker) accuses him of being a hanger-on as Lefty is uneducated and a bit slow.
With no help, no confidence and little hope of success, Lefty sets out on the trail of a killer.
As his journey progresses, Lefty finds a tenderfoot named Jeremiah (Diego Josef) and U.S. Marshall Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan). Together, this unlikely trio discovers a hard truth about the open range.

Kent’s Take:
“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is an old fashioned western, with cowpokes, dastardly villains and an unlikely hero.
Lefty Brown is slow on the uptake, but for 40 years Senator Johnson (then sheriff Johnson) had been riding with Lefty, upholding the laws of the Montana Territory. The Senator’s death sends Lefty into a focused determination driven by his friend’s dedication to him. When Tom Harrah and Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), Lefty’s and Senator Johnson’s old riding partners, show up the story kicks into overdrive as this plot begins taking on a life of its own.
With open vistas and gritty detail, this film reminds me of “Unforgiven.” The hard life on the range is deftly shown while the razor’s edge between life and death becomes very evident as bullets begin flying. Add to this strong themes of revenge and justice and you have a traditional and welcome western yarn.
While almost every character in the film pokes fun at Lefty for his cowardice, his slow nature, or his quiet dedication, he has the last laugh. Lefty’s friends, Tom, Edward and Jimmy are frontier legends, as their exploits are detailed in Dime Novels of the time. While Jeremiah fawns over Tom, he teases Lefty for having no part in the legend. Later, Jeremiah realizes that those Dime Novels leave out the truth, that most of the time, his heroes were scrambling for their lives, hightailing a retreat or skulking away for survival. Later, when Jeremiah is in need, only Lefty comes to his aid.
This entertaining tale gives Bill Pullman a meaty role. His aging range man is sincere, and has something that few in this film display – heart. The supporting cast gives excellent performances, with Flanagan and Caviezel distinguishing themselves in their roles.
“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” hits a true note as four former lawmen are changed by the times to meet a lawless end.
Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool
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Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Genre: Biography/Romance/Drama
Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters
Rating: R
for language, some sexual content and brief nudity.
Grade: B (Lynn)
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Known for sultry femme fatale roles, Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) was a va-va-voom actress who peaked in the 1950s, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful.”
By the time she met young struggling actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) in a British flat in 1978, she had four ex-husbands, four children, few movie roles and worked mostly on stage. They fell head-over-heels for each other, but did not last.
The film, based on Turner’s memoir, chronicles their complicated relationship and makes a point that happiness seemed elusive for Grahame, who was desperate for love and attention, insecure and fearful of aging.
Dying of cancer at age 57, she turned to Peter’s working-class family, wanting his mother Bella (Julie Walters) to care for her.

Lynn’s Take:
The film has only a smidgeon of glamour, presenting more of the harsh reality of an actress no longer valued by Hollywood. The clichés would sink such a film in the hands of less capable performers, but Bening and Bell are a formidable pair.
Bening, of course, is tailor-made for this role. Affecting a breathy, sexy voice, Bening projects a vulnerability but also a strong-willed demeanor.
Bell, who endeared in his first movie “Billy Elliot” and was last seen on the AMC series “Turn,” delivers one of his best performances – mature and emotionally charged.
Julie Walters, sublime in “Billy Elliot” as the dance teacher, plays Bell’s earthy straight-talking mother here.
Director Paul McGuigan, who helmed both the clever “Lucky Number Slevin” and the hot-mess “Victor Frankenstein,” opted not to flesh out the characters more, which is unfortunate, because we needed more than merely scratching the surface.
But he does provide enough poignant details for us to sympathize with the believable lovers.
Of note is the gritty feel of Liverpool contrasted with the sunny but shallow California lifestyle. Elvis Costello’s music score has a bittersweet edge.
The story is sad, but the performances are bright spots.
Fifty Shades Freed
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Fifty Shades Freed

Genre: Drama/Romance/Thriller
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson
Rating: R
for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Grade: C-
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are married in a whirlwind ceremony and whisk off to Europe for an “active” honeymoon.
When Anastasia’s former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) begins threatening and attacking the Greys, Christian attempts to control the situation by trying to convince Anastasia to stay at home. But Anastasia refuses, forcing the newlyweds to confront their differing opinions and strong personalities while establishing open communication. Yet, their rocky relationship will be tested as Hyde has much more up his sleeve for the Grey family.

Kent’s Take:
“Fifty Shades Freed” is the third installment in the “Fifty Shades” series. As Anastasia’s and Christian’s relationship has been defined in the first film, deepened in the second and matured in the third, it is assumed that the viewer’s tastes and sophistication has followed along.
Unfortunately, the quality of the stories has deteriorated through this process. Where the first film dealt with a blooming relationship (especially the sex), the next film shifts toward the rest of their relationship (especially the commitment part). The third film makes an attempt at a thriller, assuming danger will drive these two lovers together.
Playing like a soap opera with great sets, this predictable, uninspired and disappointing narrative never builds tension and more importantly doesn’t make us care for the characters. Christian is a spoiled, immature man-child who has always gotten his way. When Anastasia begins bucking (literally and figuratively) his edicts, he throws temper tantrums and “punishes” her.
Since the tension is never really built into the story, the moments when these two newlyweds explore their sexual desires disrupts the pacing of the film – interrupting the narrative flow.
What a more involved plot also reveals is the limitations of these two actors. Whether it be from poor writing, lack of chemistry between Johnson and Dornan or simply bad performances, these two actors struggle with their characters’ emotions.
The tagline for this film states “Don’t miss the climax.” As audiences search for their “happy ending,” Anastasia is the only one who doesn’t miss hers, as she and Christian struggle to sell a relationship based on control. Wrapping up this trilogy may be bittersweet for fans, but is a welcome arrival for the rest of us.
I, Tonya
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I, Tonya

Genre: Biography/Comedy/Drama
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Rating: R
for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity.
Grade: B+/B+
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Olympic figure-skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) could have been known as the first woman to land a triple axel in competition. Instead, the one-time national champion and world medalist lives in infamy because of a 1994 bizarre assault on her teammate Nancy Kerrigan.
“I, Tonya” chronicles Harding’s rough upbringing in Portland, Ore., troubled marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and difficult relationship with her prickly mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney).

Kent’s Take:
“I, Tonya” is the wildly entertaining story based on the real trials and tribulations of Tonya Harding and her band of misfit idiots.
Harding grew up under the alcohol-soaked tutelage of her unrelenting mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) who took pleasure in berating her daughter in spite of her successes. Despite the poor upbringing, Tonya excelled at figure skating and was the first woman to land a triple axel.
Meeting Jeff Gillooly, she escaped one abuser to land in a relationship with another.
Filmed in a documentary style, this fictional retelling captures the innocence, vulnerability and abuse that Harding endured throughout her life. The attack on Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) had little to do with Harding. Yet, she bore the brunt of the blame as her husband, his delusional friend, and those who actually perpetrated the attack, were barely punished.
Breaking the fourth wall, this film shrugs off convention to create a funny and tragic biography. Its tongue and cheek nature belies the sad truth of Harding’s relentless abuse and the media’s misdirected blame on Harding as the ring leader of the Kerrigan attack.
Harding was always athletic, but struggled to fit into both worlds. Her mother never allowed her to feel comfortable, and due to her unending practice schedule, never had any friends. Within the skating community, she was seen as poor white trash by her fellow skaters and their parents. Judges were looking for “proper” representatives for the U.S. at International events – Harding and her coarse mother were certainly not those people.
The performances are outstanding. Although Robbie is too comely to represent Harding, her performance transforms her into the 1990s pariah. Allison Janney is remarkable as LaVona Golden. Her vulgar turn as Harding’s uncaring mother has already earned her a Golden Globe and she has been nominated for an Oscar, too.
The tone of the writing is wonderful, flavoring the narrative with tragedy and spicy language. If Kerrigan is a diamond in the rough, Harding is the rough in the diamond. No matter how tailored her outfits, how stylish her hair, no matter how many triples she lands, she will always be Tonya Harding – the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
This is certainly a cautionary tale. As those around Harding suck her dry of dignity and self-respect. She believed that fame would solve her problems – offering love, power and understanding, but most know that celebrity is rarely fulfilling.
“I, Tonya” is a microcosm of this country. Building the belief that anyone can succeed with hard work and a little luck, but we are also a country that loves to watch our heroes crash and burn. Harding’s fall was one of those first sensational fireballs. As Harding so appropriately puts it, “Everyone has their own truth and life does whatever the f _ _ k it wants.” This hilarious tragedy will draw viewers into its web and spit you out a changed person – one who may have greater sympathy for a woman abused, scorned and railroaded throughout her moment in the spotlight.

LYNN’s Take:
Brassy and bold, “I, Tonya” is an outrageous take-no-prisoners look at a notorious chapter in American sports scandals.
Anchored by Oscar nominees Robbie and Janney’s gutsy performances, the film breaks the fourth wall with plenty of attitude. Adding farce to the storytelling ensures that this is not a typical biopic. But then Tonya Harding wasn’t a conventional ice princess.
Uneducated, foul-mouthed and feisty, Tonya’s natural ability and relentless drive turned her into a world-class skater, but her fight for honor was for naught, as not-too-bright associates carried out a botched plan to harm a competitor. Kerrigan wound up America’s princess while Harding’s career was ruined.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers digs into class, professional sports biases and complicated relationships as this unusual tale unfolds, and director Craig Gillespie emphasizes the absurdities.
This entertaining only-in-America snapshot captures a young girl’s rocky ascent into the rarified air of elite ice skaters and her spectacular downfall that we saw played out in a media frenzy.
After this up close and personal account, can we ever watch the Olympics the same again?
Hostiles
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Hostiles

Genre: Adventure/Drama/Western
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike
Rating: R
for strong violence and language.
Grade: A- (Kent) B+ (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
In 1892, legendary army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), is assigned his final mission before retirement. Blocker is ordered to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family across the Midwest to tribal lands in Wyoming. The chief has killed several of Blocker’s friends, so Blocker wears his anger as a badge of honor especially while around his former enemy.
When Blocker’s party chances upon a settler’s farm burned by Sioux Indians, they find survivor Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). As they journey on, the Sioux pursue Blocker’s party, forcing Blocker to choose between fighting an elusive enemy undermanned, or fighting alongside a former enemy whom he despises.

Kent’s Take:
The title for this smart film would lead one to believe that it is a “rock-em-sock-em” western with plenty of conflicts – arrows and bullets zipping through the air. Although there are fights, this is also a quiet introspective film.
Writer/director Scott Cooper brings a skillful eye to the story, using the wide open vistas of the prairies to create a sense of natural beauty as well as alluding to the smallness of humans in the grand scheme of nature, and the life and death struggles in the empty spaces of 19th century America.
Captain Blocker is a military legend, he has survived one of the most brutal eras in American history – the Indian Wars on the frontier. His 20 years of service has transformed him into a brooding, broken man feeding upon a hatred that burns within him like a white hot ember.
Blocker seethes with emotion as he travels with his enemy. Yet, as he comes to rely on Yellow Hawk and his family as tentative allies, he begins to understand his Indian charges, their motives and eventually their perspective.
Accented with breathtaking cinematography, this gritty, tension-laced story balances beauty and violence with rugged survival and discipline as Blocker leads Yellow Hawk to his tribe’s sacred ground.
Bale, Studi and Pike give strong performances as each distinguish their personas as real people with hostiles as allies, persuers and inner demons.
“Hostiles” offers a graphic look at frontier life, filled with danger, struggle and eventually – forgiveness.

LYNN’s Take:
“Hostiles” is a breathtakingly beautiful-looking film that contrasts with the graphic violence of the period western, which makes its harsh revisionist look at our past even more poignant.
The frontier was a brutal place in 1892, but it still fueled dreams of a better life as Americans sought a stake in the West. Now that history has taught us the real stories about Native American territory, we think differently about that time. But in the 19th century, it was a bloody war, and even the survivors were scarred.
Writer-director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) delves into the very meaning of humanity, and frames it in the context of this violent era. It’s superbly crafted storytelling, with Cooper very specific in defining time and place.
An intense Christian Bale anchors the film in a haunting performance, conveying this Army officer’s conflicts about duty, faith, leadership and compassion in a moving way.
The entire cast is first-rate, with Wes Studi exceptional as the very spiritual and proud Chief Yellow Hawk. (Do not know why he didn’t make the supporting actor cut). The beautiful Rosamund Pike is affecting as a woman devastated by tragedy, but keeps going. The always riveting Ben Foster is in his element in a brief role as a disgraced officer. Jesse Plemons, Peter Mullan and Timothee Chalamet offer solid support as young soldiers just doing their job.
Through panoramic vistas and the awe-inspiring views of big-sky country, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi has created a stunning palette that enhances this unforgettable drama.
12 Strong
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12 Strong

Genre: Action/Drama/History/War
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Navid Negahban, Michael Pena
Rating: R
for war violence and language throughout.
Grade: C
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Just weeks after 9/11/2001, the U.S. military sends a 12 man unit of Green Berets into Afghanistan.
Led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), his unit is tasked with gaining the trust of Afghani Warlord General Dostum (Navid Negahban). Dostum is a critical ally against the Taliban as well as the lynchpin holding the Northern Afghan Alliance together.
Nelson’s mission is both insurmountable, and most likely, a suicide mission – making his promise of bringing each man home safely virtually impossible.

Kent’s Take:
“12 Strong” is based upon the true story of the first soldiers to respond to the 9/11 attacks.
There is no doubt that these brave soldiers deserve to have their story told. Unfortunately, it should have been told with more clarity and less predictable action.
Setting up this story: The anger and loss of 9/11 surfaces as the Twin Towers burn on televisions across the country. We then witness these brave men leaving their families – offering viewers a reason for their sacrifice. Yet the clichés and predictable goodbyes flag this film immediately as an action film first and reverent story of heroics second.
The cinematography in this film captures the beautiful and rugged land General Dostum describes as, “the graveyard of many empires.”
The cast is skilled and helps to shore up a faulty story execution. Hemsworth gives a good performance, Michael Peña (as Sgt. Sam Diller) is the comic relief, and Negahban is a believable tribal chief, while the skilled Michael Shannon is totally wasted as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer.
As the mission unfolds, viewers get lost in the confusing narrative. As the 12 soldiers split into two groups, then three, audiences become unsure of each group’s whereabouts. This creates a problem when various attacks ensue because we have no idea where anyone is in relation to the other – good guys and bad.
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, this film is more concerned with action and explosions than telling a compelling emotional story.
“12 Strong” does not give Nelson and his men an adequate story that outlines their vital mission – but when do soldiers ever get their rightful dues?
The Final Year
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The Final Year

Genre: Documentary
Rating: This film is not rated.
Grade: B+
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
An insiders’ account of President Barack Obama’s last year in office, ‘The Final Year” presents the administration’s preparations to leave the White House after eight years. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Council’s Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and other staffers are highlighted.

Lynn’s Take:
A compelling look at the inner workings of government, and how the Obama administration navigated the demands of the U.S. Presidency in 2016, “The Final Year” excels in its mission.
Because of today’s polarizing political climate, this thoughtful documentary will likely be shunned by those of opposite political views. No matter what a citizen thinks, this film presents what those in power must do regarding diplomacy.
The filmmakers points out the responsibilities of the U.S. as a major force in the world, which transcends politics. We visit different countries, they present the tasks at hand, and really smart people explain what’s happening.
Now that another administration has been in office for a year, it’s a bittersweet look back. The filmmaker uses portions of Obama’s speeches, and no one can deny his eloquence as a public speaker.
So there is that. The power of words, what is heard and read, and in the history books for posterity, is evident in this film.
Whether or not we chose to listen, and understand this president’s place in history, is on us.
But “The Final Year” makes a strong case for an enduring legacy. After his historic victory, Obama came into office during two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression..
It’s a remarkable portrait, no matter what “side” you’re on, and unfortunately, we live in a very divisive time.
The Post
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The Post

Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks
Rating: PG-13
for language and brief war violence.
Grade: B+ (Kent) A+ (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
December 1971 finds the Vietnam War as unpopular as ever. New York’s Washington Post is seen as a smaller community paper as opposed to The New York Times, a rival that continues to scoop them.
When the Times writers get their hands on classified documents that show five presidential administrations have lied to Congress and the American people regarding our activities in Vietnam – they begin publishing related stories.
Dubbed the “Pentagon Papers,” the explosive information enrages the current Nixon Administration and the American people for opposite reasons.
The New York Times is served an injunction from the State Department to cease publishing classified documents. While The Post pushes forward to get its hands on the classified documents in order to finally “one-up” The New York Times. When The Post is threatened by the government as well, its management must decide whether to follow their rivals and allow the government to decide what they can print or take up the mantle to preserve the First Amendment and possibly lose their newspaper and serve prison time.

Kent’s Take:
“The Post” is based upon the true story of Publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and Managing Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), of The Washington Post.
Katharine Graham inherited the paper after her husband’s suicide. She had never held a job prior and suddenly found herself fighting to find her voice in a male-dominated industry. Add to this a presidential administration trying to stomp on the free press and this powerful woman has no choice but to take the lead.
As The Times secretly sifted through the Pentagon Papers, locating the nuggets of lies and deceit, Graham was coordinating the public offering of stock in order to make The Post solvent.
This solid homage to free speech and the risks that the newspaper industry took to ensure our freedom, makes this film both relevant and a must-see!
Director Steven Spielberg deftly captures the stakes, the risks and the environment in which this story takes place. Kay Graham must learn to listen to her inner voice rather than the loud ones on her board of directors. Ben Bradlee knows a newspaper man or woman must be able to distinguish between being friends with power brokers and being a public source of news – a check on their power.
Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks give top-notch performances, imbuing their characters with verve and stamina for doing what’s right. The supporting cast is also outstanding, creating a depth throughout that deepens the emotion and realism of this tense time in America.
If there is any complaint about this film, it would be the setup. The tumultuous times during the Vietnam War are not well outlined, and viewers don’t feel the anger toward the government about the war or the disillusionment of the soldiers and the struggles of the middle class due to a faltering economy. Setting this up would have injected this story with an emotional boost creating tension from the start which is exactly where this film is weak – true tension.
“The Post” should appeal to a wide demographic. Younger viewers could connect the parallels between the political atmospheres now and then. Fans of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks would not be disappointed. Older viewers would find the behind-the-scenes maneuvering an added bonus to their memory of this important event. Yet, these factors don’t always result in box office success.
“The Post” is a thoughtful film showing the risks that an unlikely heroine takes in order to ensure that her family maintains ownership of their newspaper as well as ensuring that we have a press free of the bindings that limit our freedoms of speech. This first collaboration of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks is indeed a potent one.

Lynn’s Take:
Meticulous in every way, “The Post” is a love letter to old-fashioned print journalism. But it also is the most important film of the year, with its obvious message about keeping the First Amendment sacrosanct.
When Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers in 1971, which detailed a cover-up about why we should not have been in Vietnam, it created a firestorm about newspaper rights. Director Steven Spielberg deftly blends footage of the war and recreated protests to put the historical dilemma into context.
But the film’s truth to power advocacy is best exemplified in The Washington Post’s newsroom. Its accurate depiction of the way things were underlines the dedication of reporters and editors.
Spielberg’s sharply drawn portraits contrast how the first-female newspaper publisher Katharine Graham endured the boys’ club boardroom and dismissive attitudes. Meryl Streep expertly captures what Graham faced daily, compounded by the pressures involved in printing the leaked government document.
The incomparable Streep leads a top-shelf cast through this tense time, with Tom Hanks superb as the grizzled veteran editor Ben Bradlee.
Stand-outs in supporting roles include Carrie Coon as reporter Meg Greenfield, Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense.
With its parallels to today, “The Post” hits home about why attention must be paid to what our Founding Fathers laid forth in the Bill of Rights.
The Commuter
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The Commuter

Genre: Action/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga
Rating: PG-13
for some intense action/violence and language
Grade: D+
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Ex-cop Mike MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is now a mild-mannered insurance salesman who is having a bad day. His son’s large tuition bill just arrived, his wife reminds him that their second mortgage payment is due and he was just let go from his job of 10 years.
Riding his regular commuter train home, he is approached by the alluring Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a “hypothetical” situation that turns out to be very real. Mike has seven stops to find a passenger before they exit the train and in return for his service, his wife and son will not die.

Kent’s Take:
“The Commuter” is the latest Liam Neeson thriller wrapped in an uninspired mystery.
Throughout this story Mike fails to build audience confidence by displaying his “intuitive” policing skills he will use throughout the film, nor does he use sound decision making. He initially tries a few smart things, but then degrades to a frantic, undisciplined hunt. There are no twists or memorable scenes and the only surprise is the fact that this thoroughly mediocre film was made.
Mike’s captors can coordinate an unplanned “accident” on a busy city street in broad daylight when he throws them a curve, yet they resort to an elaborate plan to use a former cop to find the person?
Director Juam Collet-Serra opens the film with a montage that is meant to allude to Mike’s 10 years of commuting and introduce his fellow “regulars.” Unfortunately, the result is a choppy and confusing mess that throws viewers off balance.
Liam Neeson manages to wring out a good performance from unremarkable writing, but is showing his age, appearing gaunt and almost sickly. His suit hangs on him like a zombie in a horror film, while the supporting cast attempts to help Neeson salvage this disappointing presentation with their skilled performances.
The more this narrative unfolds, the more it unravels. We are kept in the dark throughout the first two thirds of the film, using this time to establish Mike’s situation at home and on the train, leaving the final act to reveal and resolve the mystery. Yet, it isn’t riveting, the entire situation is muddy and a bit confusing and by the time we discover all of this – we haven’t cared for over an hour. “The Commuter” jumps the track early, offering viewers a rough ride through sheer nonsense.
Phantom Thread
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Phantom Thread

Genre: Drama
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis
Rating: R
for language
Grade: A
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Set in 1950s London, “Phantom Thread” is about renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock’s carefully controlled world. With his sister, he runs a successful fashion empire. When he falls in love, his world becomes topsy-turvy.

Lynn’s Take:
Watching Paul Thomas Anderson direct “Phantom Thread” is like being served a multi-course meal by a Michelin starred chef. The textures and flavors are deftly mixed to create bold statements and subtle undercurrents, and this carefully crafted exercise is one of his best yet.
His virtuoso star, Daniel Day-Lewis, is like watching Gershwin conduct “Rhapsody in Blue” and Picasso paint. He is just on another level as an actor – we never catch him ‘acting.’ And his portrait of this conflicted control freak, a demanding and cultured designer, is masterful.
Because he works so seldom, and reportedly this film is his final – say it ain’t so! – we must cherish every moment, every nuance. It is a work to be savored.
With a few nods to Daphne du Maurier’s classic mystery novel, “Rebecca,” Anderson weaves an engrossing tale, and the production design, cinematography and costume design are exquisite. Jonny Greenwood’s lush score perfectly captures this world and the various moods.
Of special note is newcomer Vicky Krieps as the young waitress Alma who becomes Reynolds’ muse and lover, and Leslie Manville as the cunning sister Cyril.
This is true art. And it’s delicious.
Molly's Game
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Molly's Game

Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba
Rating: R
for language, drug content and some violence
Grade: B- (Kent) B (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was a driven athlete performing at the top of her sport (Free-style skiing) when she suffered a fluke accident that ended her Olympic hopes and her career.
Looking for a means to both escape her father’s (Kevin Costner) relentless pursuit of perfection and to prove to him and herself that she can make it on her own, Molly moves to L.A. with $1,700 to her name.
Hired by jerk Dean (Jeremy Strong) as his assistant, he puts her in charge of his weekly high stakes poker games. The $10,000 buy-in stuns her. Yet, even more stunning are the tips she receives that first night – totaling $3,000.
Going “all in,” Molly begins enhancing the game with her smarts, honesty and added amenities – all legal.
But as her game grows, so do the stakes – and so grows the notice of the FBI.

Kent’s Take:
“Molly’s Game” is a true story about top athlete, Molly Bloom, an intelligent and strong woman who parlays her brains, and social skills into one of the world’s highest stakes poker games.
As professional poker is less about gambling and more about skill, this film is less about poker and more about a girl and her father. Molly’s father is an ass, his pompous academic attitude, coupled with his relentless drive, teaches his sons and daughter that quitting results in total failure – forcing his children to excel at his chosen sport, which is skiing.
Driven to show her father her worth, Molly becomes focused and industrious, turning nothing into $4.7 million dollars in a single year, all legally. But the men she invites to her games are not “upstanding” citizens and it becomes a matter of time before things begin to unravel. As she battles sexism, greed, lust and ultimately misunderstanding, Molly continues to overcome each hurdle with dignity and grace.
Director Aaron Sorkin brings us a tale of one woman’s collision course with her identity – one of irrelevance and humiliation – using strong performances, and a compelling tale of danger and greed to frame his heroine’s redemption.
This film is an unusual beast, set within the high stakes poker world. This fractured, driven woman carves out a place among rich, powerful, arrogant men, establishing herself as the “Princess of Poker.” Yet, as she gets deeper and deeper into her games, with rising stakes, viewers never really connect with Molly. She keeps us at arm’s length emotionally, forcing us to look for other hooks to grab onto – that hook is Idris Elba’s Charlie Jaffey.
Elba’s Jaffey is a lawyer’s lawyer, having a reputation of absolute honesty. That rep is what attracts Molly for she needs someone with similar conviction and honesty. Elba’s performance is strong and fuels this story with his charisma.
“Molly’s Game” is a high stakes true adventure of one woman’s journey through hell for a simple realization that a father’s love should not be earned – but given freely.

Lynn’s Take:
Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s first directorial effort immerses us in unfamiliar territory – big-time poker players – with impressive clarity, illuminating complex characters in a fascinating way.
Sorkin’s trademark smarty-pants dialogue suits this material, and he keeps it moving fluidly. He deftly highlights strong women getting in their own way, father-daughter relationships, and how one can cross over into dangerous territory.
The story, which hits a few questionable patches in its final act, gives opportunities for meaty performances. Chastain, all cool and confident on the outside, but a hot mess inside, is again flawless.
Elba continues to be a commanding screen presence as her defense, while Costner delivers one of his best later-years performances as an intense, demanding father.
Michael Cera is cagey playing a jerk, a ‘green-screen’ actor, supposedly based on Tobey Maguire (named in her book).
“Molly’s Game” is an engrossing account of a made-for-cinema life story, and Sorkin, thankfully, stayed out of his own way.
TOP 10 MOVIES of 2017
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TOP 10 MOVIES of 2017

Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
KENT’s Top 10 (Alphabetical)

“The Big Sick” – The lightest, funniest, most endearing film in my top 10. This story is a cinematic hug, with a distinct seriousness that balances the love story. The strong cast and performances make this an easy recommendation.

“Blade Runner 2049” – Although moviegoers showed tepid interest in this sequel to a 30-year-old classic, the style, story, cinematography and direction of this emotional sci-fi tale is unmatched. Please give this film a chance!

“Coco” – Drenched in vivid colors and a wonderful story about the power of family memories, this gem is easily the top animated feature of the year. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll love this film!

“Darkest Hour” – Gary Oldman gives a performance that should win him an Oscar. His Winston Churchill is spot-on, engaging audiences in his dire political struggles as he stares utter ruin for his country squarely in the face.

“Dunkirk” – This is not a war film, it is a retreat film. Offering sparse dialogue, this story is told in harrowing moments. We experience war, duty and heroism from different soldier’s perspectives, in unforgettable facets.

“Lady Bird” – This memorable comedy written and directed by Greta Gerwig shows her maturing in both areas. One wants to follow her characters to see what they will do next. Her stories always offer an off-center warmth. This is Gerwig’s best offering to date.

“Personal Shopper” – This story ignores any genre label. Is it horror, an indie gem, a supernatural thriller, a simple story about a woman struggling with grief … yes, it’s all of these. Kristen Stewart is vulnerable and beautiful in her skilled performance.

“The Shape of Water” – Director Guillermo Del Toro hastens us into a dark fairy tale of Cold War discovery. Playful sets, lovable and hate-filled characters, and a creature who is at the center of it all makes this memorable film a must see!

“Split” – James McAvoy gives an unforgettable performance in this tension-filled story by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. This story morphs throughout, gaining speed, tension and gravity to finish with an interesting revelation for M. Night Shyamalan fans.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Born of frustration, this dark comedy follows a riveting story meandering in and out of Ebbing citizens’ lives as a heartbroken mother searches for answers. Raw and honest, this film is in my top three of the year.

Honorable Mentions: “Alive and Kicking,” “Atomic Blond,” “Baby Driver,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “The Disaster Artist,” “The Florida Project,” “Get Out,” “The Glass Castle,” “Hostiles,” “It,” “Loving Vincent,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Thank You For Your Service,” “Victoria & Abdul,” “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Lynn’s Top Ten: (Alphabetical)

“Baby Driver” - The elements are simple, really: cars, tunes and a sweet girl with the same wanderlust as our endearing hero. But its best quality is its sheer audacity. Writer-director Edgar Wright embellishes this fast-paced, high-energy caper with confidence, charm and memorable music. Whiplash editing, fresh dialogue and an offbeat story make for a wild ride.

“The Big Sick” - One of the best romantic comedies in years, “The Big Sick” brims with heart and humor. The true story of Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife Emily (Zoe Kazan) connects in a relatable way, striking the right balance in tone between the silly and the serious. Director Michael Showalter deftly guided the cast through a culture clash that did not trivialize the issues.

“Blade Runner 2049” - Delving into a bleak nihilistic future world with daring and depth, director Denis Villeneuve has infused the mystery with an impressive exactness. Every technically dazzling element is integrated superbly into this much-anticipated sequel to the 1982 original.

“Coco” - “Family is all that matters,” young Miguel learns in another Pixar masterpiece. This ambitious, sprawling tale, vividly steeped in Mexican folklore, is set on Day of the Dead (Nov. 2, All Souls Day). With its emotional heart-tugging moments, vibrant colors, energy and stunning visuals, “Coco” weaves a magical spell.

“The Disaster Artist” - Laugh-out-loud funny, “The Disaster Artist” chronicles how “The Room” became a cult sensation as the greatest bad movie. This entertaining and hilarious truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale is zestfully embraced by an appealing cast. James Franco uncannily captures the peculiar self-promoter Tommy Wiseau.

“Get Out” - No movie captured the cultural zeitgeist like “Get Out.” Jordan Peele’s refreshingly smart and well-constructed horror film blended classic elements with modern situations. Creating unease by using aspects of longstanding racial issues made it relatable and contemporary. Peele injected humor deftly while smoothly building suspense, and kept us riveted.

“Lady Bird” - A perfect effort from writer-director Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird” conveys the joys and sorrows of senior year. Its truths resonated with an uncommon understanding. The ensemble doesn’t hit a false note. How it touches on family, the relationships that define our lives, how we find ourselves, and what home means to us makes it a special experience.

“Phantom Thread” - Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson mixes textures and flavors to create bold statements and subtle undercurrents in this work, set in a fashion designer’s carefully controlled world. Daniel Day-Lewis is on another level, and this performance is to be savored.

“The Post” - Meticulous in every way, “The Post” is a love letter to print journalism, depicting the tense battle over press rights regarding the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Its message about keeping the First Amendment sacrosanct makes it the year’s most important film.

“The Shape of Water” - Oh, what a special world of wonder we have in visionary writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s extraordinary film. This rare gem is an enchanting romantic fantasy, a tribute to lush Hollywood escapist movies and music, a tense workplace drama, and a beautiful depiction of friendship.

Honorable Mention (12):
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “A Ghost Story,” “Darkest Hour,” “Land of Mine,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “The LEGO Batman Movie,” “Atomic Blonde,” “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” “Wonder,” “Wonderstruck,” “Good Time.”
Call Me By Your Name
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Call Me By Your Name

Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Timothee Chalmet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Rating: R
for sexual content, nudity and some language.
Grade: C
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
During the summer of 1983, 17-year-old Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) passions are awakened by a 24-year-old American scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is working for his archeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg).

lynn’s Take:
This year’s critically acclaimed “Call Me by Your Name” is much ado about nothing, a sun-drenched travelogue with an erotic scene involving a peach.
Long, slow and boring, this coming-of-age tale has two things in its favor: the lush northern Italy setting and superb character actor Michael Stuhlbarg.
Indeed, Professor Perlman’s monologue, while he consoles his son, is the best scene in the entire film, and a highlight of the year.
Timothee Chalamet is a 19-year-old with much promise. As the innocent and curious Elio, he has an easy screen presence. However, this privileged, intellectual 17-year-old is pretty much a blank slate. He’s an accomplished classical pianist, and wiles an idyllic summer away swimming, biking, reading and goofing off at his parents’ 17th century villa.
He is swept away by desire, very subtly, but this summer affair story was a tad creepy because of the age difference – grad student Oliver is 24, but Armie Hammer is 31. Hammer, who came to prominence as one of the Winkelvoss twins in “The Social Network,” is tall and handsome, but redefines wooden. Here, he plays the Jewish-American “scholar” Oliver with little depth of feeling.
Based on Andre Aciman’s novel, screenwriter James Ivory captures the blooming passion of first love as his other films about sophisticated society types repressing emotions. There is a whiff of tension, anxiety and sensual, but it’s mannered and guarded.
Every year, there is a critically acclaimed film at awards season that I just can’t see the appeal in, and this is it in 2017.
But oh, does that countryside and al fresco dining look appealing.
Downsizing
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Downsizing

Genre: Sci-fi/comedy/Drama
Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig
Rating: R
for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Grade: C
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
After scientists discover they can shrink humans to 5 inches to help the world’s environmental problems and over-population, Omaha couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) take the plunge. They get small and move to a downsized community. But problems amplify, not lessen.

Lynn’s Take:
An ambitious but muddled mess, “Downsizing” fritters away our goodwill because we want to root for its likable cast – but loses us during its way-too-long meandering journey.
Matt Damon’s everyman Paul, a dutiful son and husband, represents the hell that can happen when you expect heaven.
He’s a good guy, caught up in expectations and frustrations, and wants to live the good life. But the utopia turns into a nightmare, and it’s too much for Damon to carry this central character’s very heavy load.
Because the plot gets more intricate as it unravels, Damon’s only treading water, his performance becomes as tedious as the script.
As a social satire, “Downsizing” is spot-on for the first half, but then spirals into a head-scratcher as it takes a few turns off course. Or what we thought was the course.
Writer-director Alexander Payne’s latest is sharp when it tackles the pitfalls of the American Dream and bigotry (normal-size vs. little people), but isn’t effective as an environmental cautionary tale, it’s primary focus. Or I think it is supposed to be.
This goldmine of a cast – two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz! – and a plethora of pleasant cameos thrown in for good measure, suffer because of the wasted opportunities.
The standout is Hong Chau, a Vietnamese actress playing a dissident whose hard times make her stronger and wise.
The visual effects are jaw-dropping and funny – especially the detailed medical process.
This film starts out with so much promise, especially for Payne fans (“Nebraska,” “The Descendants,” “Election”). But he has added too many elements and does not know how to wrap up. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it became an exercise in endurance.
Wonder Wheel
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Wonder Wheel

Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple
Rating: PG-13
for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking.
Grade: C-
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
While working at Coney Island one summer in the 1950s, miserable waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), unhappily married to a gruff carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi), has an affair with lifeguard (Justin Timberlake). Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), on the run from her mobster husband, hides out with them.

Lynn’s Take:
Woody Allen’s film feels unfinished. Although he’s mining familiar territory, this clunky look at unfulfilled lives sputters in uncharacteristic ways.
Awkward transitions, unlikable characters and uninspired writing deflate a film that looks fabulous. The period recreation is splendid, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has designed exterior shots of exquisite beauty.
Yet, this is the highlight, and shouldn’t be, because a film isn’t merely a pretty picture postcard. Despite the lush look – oh, that burnished view, it’s staged more like a play.
These stock melodramatic characters seem straight out of a dime novel, a Mickey Spillane potboiler. And while Temple is impressive in her small role, the rest do nothing new.
Winslet ventures from exasperated and stressed-out to flighty and jittery, resorting to a cheap Blanche DuBois imitation. And would her character really use the word “supercilious”? I think not.
Belushi channels Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners,” and this portrait of a loutish, domineering husband is stale.
Yet another discourse on unhappy male-female relationships, “Wonder Wheel” never gains momentum. What a disappointment.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Starring: Carrie Fisher, Daisey Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Joseph Gordon -Levitt
Rating: PG-13
for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Grade: C (Kent)/B- (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
The First Order has scattered the Rebel forces. They are in retreat. Rebel leader Leia (Carrie Fisher) scrambles her people to flee their base as the First Order Battle Cruisers arrive to destroy it. The only thing between the Rebel’s utter destruction and their survival is the hot-shot pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
At the same time, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been dispatched to find Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in order to enlist his help. While Kylo Ren struggles with his emotions, as the evil Supreme Leader Snope continues to keep Ren under his thumb.
As the forces of good and evil collide, the fate of the galaxy falls upon the actions of those willing to fight and sacrifice.

Kent’s Take:
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the much anticipated Episode VIII of the storied Star Wars franchise. Unfortunately, this episode struggles to connect with its audience.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, this film is defined by uninspired action, familiar characters, and themes of hope and sacrifice. It is also defined by a distinct lack of emotional connection with audiences, poor use of humor, and mediocre writing.
We met Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8 in episode VII, yet, we learn little more about any of these characters in this next installment. Rey begins to discover her Jedi power, but we never actually witness any training. Finn is sent on a useless mission and BB-8 is relegated to a utility bot.
The strong cast gives good performances in this film and the special effects are excellent from top to bottom, but these strong elements can’t help audiences connect because of a weak story. Add to this, humor that is misdirected and misused – diluting the villainy and weakening an already faltering story.
We already know the big problem in this feature – the writing. Snope (who looks like E.T’s grandfather), is a weak villain, acting more like a bully rather than a “Supreme Leader.” The plot has holes big enough through which one could drive a dreadnaught, in addition there are small details that make you scratch your head asking why they would waste time on such things.
One of the most disappointing aspects of this film is the use of Luke Skywalker. This legendary Jedi was relegated to simple posturing and a few wise moments. His prowess as a Jedi was not displayed. His years of development, training, experiences and seclusion was supposed to bring him into the mythical realm of Yoda, yet, we never see any of it.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had the potential to launch this franchise into a galaxy far far away, but instead sucked it deeply into the dark side.

LYNN’s Take:
How many times can the Rebellion be reborn? Apparently, endlessly, as indicated in the eighth chapter of the “Star Wars” saga. The same fight is being fought over and over in the lumbering and dense “The Last Jedi.”
This bloated blockbuster – 2 and a half hours! – has epic moments, but not enough to soar.
Oh, it’s a super-deluxe buffet of all the 40-year “Star Wars” mythology, and that’s a lot to keep track of for casual fans. However, ultra-passionate fans will delight in all the references to its storied past.
But, the film takes a very long time to get going and is too repetitive to gain momentum. It coasts on its reputation, its penchant for unusual creatures, and those legendary cherished characters.
Unfortunately, Luke Skywalker is now a sad hermit, a tortured soul. He won’t be swayed by the new Jedi Rey, a spunky girl who’s fearless with a light saber and capably pilots the Millennium Falcon.
The effects are dazzling, worthy of wonder, and the pleasant injection of humor is noteworthy. The cast is first-rate, although some get short shrift because of so many multiple storylines.
Han Solo’s loss is deeply felt, in several ways. His son, Ben, with Leia, has become the Dark Side’s poster boy, Kylo Ren. Adam Driver is such a good actor that he is able to show his conflicts and pain – we just needed more of his story.
“Star Wars” remains a grand adventure, but writer-director Rian Johnson has squandered opportunities to make us care deeply about what’s happening now, and what’s to come in the next installment.
The Shape of Water
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The Shape of Water

Genre: Adventure/Drama/Fantasy
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Rating: R
for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.
Grade: A- (Kent)/A+(Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely and mute. Working diligently at a government facility in the early 1960s, Elisa and her co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) discover that the newest “asset” to the facility is a living creature.
The aquatic creature is defined as “dangerous” by military director Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), but Elisa has a different view, creating a conflict that only love or hate can resolve.

Kent’s Take:
The synopsis above may sound a bit odd and that is a welcomed expectation with writer/director Guillermo Del Toro. His previous films have steadily built a cult following with stories that capture audiences and bring us into wondrous worlds.
Elisa lives above an old theater house and watches over her elderly neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) as she wiles away her days listening to the feisty Zelda, but after creating a connection with the creature in the lab, she finds purpose in her life.
Del Toro, along with Vanessa Taylor, bring us a sci-fi fable grounded in loneliness and love. This world of Cold War posturing and paranoia is a perfect fuel to ignite this tale. Add wonderful sets and set design, fleshing out this facility with 1950’s nuts and bolts, rich woods and wallpaper, dramatic lighting and Michael Shannon’s classic antagonist Richard Strickland – this film becomes a vivid story of tension and danger.
Villain Strickland certainly is a “Richard” as he follows a mission outline that is inflexible, unforgiving and ruthless. Shannon is a talanted actor bringing distinction to every role and he continues that here.
Del Toro also uses special effects wisely. He rarely uses over-the-top effects as his stories are often defined by emotional subtlety. Del Toro anchors viewers with memorable touchstones throughout the unfolding story.
Balancing a dark story with positive emotion offers a high wire act of tension and comfort that works well.
In “The Shape of Water” the “wondrous” comes in the form of a fantastical aquatic creature who is just humanoid enough for audience acceptance, and whose heart is as big as Elise’s.
“The Shape of Water” not only defines a hidden world with gritty detail, it gives audiences a window into an alternate world that both piqued our interest and warms our heart.

lynn’s Take:
Oh, what a special world of wonder we have in visionary writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s extraordinary “The Shape of Water.”
The film engages us in several ways – first and foremost, it’s an enchanting romantic fantasy that has aspects of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Doug Jones’ work as the creature is superb.
It also captures the lush escapism that movies and music provide, a world that mute Elisa takes great comfort and pleasure in indulging. Alexander Desplat’s score exquisitely expresses that joy.
It’s a workplace drama, too, frought with heroes and villains. This is where some of our finest character actors working today shine – especially Michael Shannon as a supremely horrible boss and Michael Stuhlbarg, who has secrets and a conscience.
And it’s a beautiful depiction of friendship – embodied by neighbor Richard Jenkins, who is a loyal bright spot in beleaguered Elisa’s lonely life.
Sally Hawkins, such a fine actress distinctive in every role, is radiant as the woman whose life changes through risks. And she does so without ever uttering a word!
The movie is expertly crafted, with a compelling Cold War storyline. Its period details are meticulous, set around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The vintage movie house is a sublime reminder of how grand that experience once was.
This rare gem’s ability to move us can’t be overstated – and is a genuine grand experience.
Ferdinand
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Ferdinand

Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Starring: Colin H. Murphy, Jeremy Sisto, Jack Gore
Rating: PG
for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Grade: C (Kent)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Young bull Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy) loves flowers and despises violence. His fellow bulls long to be chosen by a matador to test themselves to earn a life of freedom and leisure. When Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) is chosen, Ferdinand realizes he is alone. That night, bully bull Valiente (Jack Gore) upsets Ferdinand. In a fit of anger he flees the ranch in a daring escape, awakening the next day in a new barn with a new family. Growing to extra large proportions, Ferdinand the bull will eventually find himself back among his old bully friends and must confront his past in order to have a future.

Kent’s Take:
“Ferdinand” is the latest animated feature by Twentieth Century Fox Animation. This light-hearted feature will entertain youngsters, but holds little for the parents who brings them.
Ferdinand” is a sweet, innocent bull who prefers to water the single flower in his pen, than run around wrestling with his friends as they train for their bull fights.
Bull fighting is a bloody, gory sport, and while Twentieth Century Fox does a good job of dancing around this fact, it is still disturbing to watch bulls long to be chosen to go to their deaths.
With standard animation, a predictable story and simple climax, this film will entertain, but not stick in audience’s memories. The character development is simple and the story has little nuance resulting in a tale that is too “on the nose” and lackingin any real substance that will deepen the emotional connection with audiences.
Comparing this film to Pixar’s “Day of the Dead” gem “Coco,” finds a tale of two very different films. Where “Ferdinand” only brings the Mexican culture into the story with accents and the actual bull fight, “Coco” builds a story around this culture weaving a story among the traditions while adding universal experiences that help viewers connect culturally and emotionally.
Where “Ferdinand” uses an animation style that is fun and playful, “Coco” explodes with colors, style and life, with a deep emotional story that will have every eye watering.
“Ferdinand” is NOT a bad film, it is a simple, predictable film of a bygone day. A film that may offer nap time for adults, but will certainly entertain children – and isn’t that why we bring our kids to movies?
The Disaster Artist
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The Disaster Artist

Genre: Biography/Comedy/Drama
Starring: Dave Franco, James Franco
Rating: R
for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Grade: B+ (Kent)/A (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) befriends the very strange Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in their San Francisco acting class. They team up and move to Los Angeles to pursue their show business dreams.
Wiseau, with apparent deep pockets, finances the making of his script, “The Room,” and the shoot is as unconventional as the mysterious director, writer and star. With great fanfare, the movie opens in 2003, but spectacularly tanks. However, because it is so laugh-out-loud bad, it gains traction as a cult sensation.
James Franco directs and stars in this adaptation of Tom Bissell and Sestero’s 2013 book, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.”

Kent’s Take:
“The Disaster Artist” is the best film ever made about a bad film. If that sounds odd, it’s because it is.
This is a film about a film “The Room” was released in 2003 in one theater. It would have closed on opening night, but Tommy paid to keep it in theaters for two weeks, so it would be considered for the Oscars. It made a total of $1,800 . . . until it became a cult classic at midnight showings. Since garnering cult status, the film has made it’s money back (more than $5 million).
“The Disaster Artist” recounts Tommy’s and Greg’s story, one of friendship, hardships and ultimately success.
No one can place Tommy’s accent, his place of origin, his age or how he made his millions, but one thing is for sure, Tommy is eccentric. His vision is different from everyone else and his skills do not lie in acting or directing.
“The Room” is choppy, non-sensical and very poorly written, yet, audiences arrive to midnight screenings with props and rehersed lines as audiences did with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
James and Dave Franco undertake an exercise in nuance. They must give a professional acting performance of poor acting, they must portray an arrhythmic person with rhythm. Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber must cobble together an engaging story that befits such an unlikely film. I liken this task to building the Mad Hatter’s home, it must be a sound building, but reflect the Mad Hatter’s personality.
James Franco nails his performances. His Tommy Wiseau is creepy, sad, unskilled – an enigma. He carries this film squarely on his shoulders and does so without overacting – an amazing achievement.
“The Disaster Artist” is anything but a disaster, alerting audiences to an improbable story of friendship and underachieving.

lynn’s Take:
How Tommy Wiseau, a two-bit talent but gold-plated self-promoter, has extended his 15 minutes of fame is a remarkable truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale.
Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who wrote the charming romance “500 Days of Summer,” have skillfully transformed Sestero’s account into a hilarious movie-within-a-movie. James Franco’s passion for the project and the appealing ensemble enrich it as well.
Franco uncannily captures the peculiar Wiseau’s intensity and cadence, delivering one of the year’s best performances. His brother Dave excels as the chipper team-player Sestero, and the siblings work well together conveying the alliance.
The cast zestfully embraces the bizarreness, especially Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson. Delightful high-profile cameos abound. You must stay until the very end for your chance to see Wiseau, as a waiter. Sestero appears too in the movie, uncredited, as a casting agent.
You don’t have to be familiar with “The Room” to appreciate “The Disaster Artist,” but that knowledge enhances the enjoyment. (A funny 8-minute summation is available online for background).
The movie’s astounding revival can be credited to Kristen Bell, who first showed the film to her “Veronica Mars” team, and then a cadre of young Hollywood stars boosted its notoriety at midnight shows. She and other famous fans appear in the film’s opening.
“The Room” first came to St. Louis in 2009. I attended a critics’ screening, and just howled. It defied description – odd characters, ridiculous dialogue and ludicrous situations. I interviewed Wiseau a few years later, when he began attending screenings across the country, and the movie is a genuine depiction of this puzzling, complicated guy. He occasionally appears at the Tivoli, which has the film in its late-night rotation.
Franco has authentically captured a pop culture phenomenon, and the movie is a daffy tonic to share with an audience.
Darkest Hour
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Darkest Hour

Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Gary Oldman
Rating: PG-13
for some thematic material
Grade: A
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Summary: During the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour. With the Nazis advancing and the possibility of invasion, all eyes are on the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). The Allied army is cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk. He must either negotiate with Hitler or rally his nation. Their fate rests in his hands.

lynn’s Take:
Ever since Churchill saved Western Europe, he has enjoyed a lofty place in history. But with his bombastic personality, the colorful political leader took his knocks. “Darkest Hour” shows us his path to greatness.
Churchill has almost become a caricature over the years. Recently, John Lithgow’s work on ‘The Crown” won him an Emmy, and Brian Cox played him in a biopic. Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman plays Churchill with such conviction that he disappears into the role.
Like Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” Oldman’s remarkable transformation includes physical alterations and mannerisms, but also the man’s character in quiet moments.
The story is riveting, too. The top-shelf cast includes both noteworthy Kristen Scott-Thomas as Churchill’s wife, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George.
Director Joe Wright delves into the career-defining moments with verve. Wright, who helmed one of my favorite movies of the last decade, “Atonement,” knows how to stage both action and vulnerability.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Genre: Comedy/Crime/Drama
Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Rating: R
for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Grade: A (Kent), A (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) is broken and frustrated. Her daughter was raped and brutally murdered seven months ago and there have been no arrests. The small town of Ebbing, MO. sports a traditional main street with an inviting backdrop of Ozark hills.
Purchasing space on three unused billboards, Mildred begins an advertising campaign to spur the town police to put more effort into catching her daughter’s killer. As Mildred embarrasses the locals the town rallies behind their police. But this town has woefully underestimated this grieving mother and her enduring resolve.

Kent’s Take:
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a dark comedy by writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruge”) and, like his other films, delves into dark decisions and is a character-driven gem.
Mildred is a diamond in the rough, she is a spitfire who doesn’t suffer fools. She spews obscenities while being brutally honest. Officer Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the target of Mildred’s billboards, is a “good-’ol-boy” running his precinct with lackadaisical procedure mixed with a generous pinch of down home indifference. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a bigoted, uneducated, undisciplined ass who somehow manages to show Willoughby that he has a glimmer of potential. Although these men and women seem unredeemable, they are shown to simply be regular people, flawed and struggling.
McDonagh sets up this story with three simple billboards and three complex characters – he then steps back and watches the fireworks as this freight train of entertainment builds emotional momentum.
Each character in this film is tragically flawed, yet each finds some kind of redemption. Through skillful directing, beautiful dialogue and unforgettable characters, audiences are treated to a modern fable of redemption and forgiveness.
Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell give Oscar-worthy performances, while Harrelson establishes himself as a multi-faceted chameleon. The introduction to the main characters in this tale, is initially negative, but with adept writing and outstanding performances from the entire cast, these initial antagonists transition to protagonists by the conclusion – a very difficult task.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will tickle your funnybone, challenge your sensibilities and leave an indelible impression branded upon your spirit as a struggling mother becomes a catalyst for change in a small town.

Lynn’s Take:
In another indelible performance, Frances McDormand scorches the screen as an angry mom seeking justice in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The entire cast is just as compelling, especially Sam Rockwell’s remarkably multi-layered portrait of a cocky, hothead officer known for cruel intentions and violent outbursts. It’s about time he’s on the short list for supporting actor awards.
While the dark comedic aspects of director Martin McDonagh’s original screenplay are getting the most attention, the script offers more than outrageous laughs.
McDonagh, a renowned playwright who helmed the bloody “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” films, has created a work of real substance that crackles with insightful real-folk dialogue.
Redolent with uncommon grace, unexpected depth, poignancy, and fully realized characters, the film demonstrates that flawed human beings can change, grow and be redeemed.
Woody Harrelson, as terminally ill Chief Willoughby; Lucas Hedges, as Mildred’s conflicted teenage son; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband; Peter Dinklage as the put-upon little person tired of being mocked; and Caleb Landry Jones as the advertising company guy are at their best.
The cast vividly carves memorable characters that stay with us days later. There is no Ebbing, Mo., but we know of such a place.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
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The Man Who Invented Christmas

Genre: Biography/Comedy/Drama
Starring: Dan Stevens, Morfydd Clark, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce
Rating: PG
for thematic elements and some mild language
Grade: B
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Basking in the success of his first novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) returns to England to work on three successive novels – each of which flops.
Having moved into a large home, with mounting decorating costs, wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) reveals that they are pregnant. To make matters worse, Charles’ penniless mother and father (Ger Ryan and Jonathan Pryce) arrive to fill an already busy household.
Worried that he may never get published again, Dickens gains his initial kernel of inspiration for a new book from his Irish nanny. Off and running, Dickens must write his new novel, A Christmas Carol in six weeks in order to have it available for Christmas – or be financially ruined.

Kent’s Take:
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a light, holiday comedy following the rambunctious Charles Dickens as he cajoles creditors, seeks inspiration and wrestles with his new story’s characters. In 1843, Christmas was a minor holiday and wasn’t even celebrated by everyone, thus Dickens decision to write a Christmas novel is a big risk.
Introducing Dickens, his family and friends and setting the stage for his mounting debt, is very traditional. But as we begin to witness Dickens gather inspiration from Irish folk tales, his friends and family, from the seamy areas in London and the dark places in his heart, this bright story quickly gathers momentum.
Writers Susan Coyne and Les Standiford spice up a potentially drab story using Dicken’s characters as a peanut gallery to his inspiration. As he decides on the name Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), he appears in Dicken’s study commenting on his story decisions and ruminations. This lively banter injects humor and gives audiences a chance to see and hear what Dicken’s is thinking. As his novel progresses his study fills up with more and more characters.
As the six weeks zip by, he finds he has one final chapter to complete, but he experiences writer’s block and cannot finish it as the deadline arrives.
As he bumps up to the deadline, he realizes he has one night to figure things out or he is ruined. Between fighting the shreds of childhood nightmares and teasing from the inhabitants of his study, Dickens hears the clock ticking away moment by precious moment.
With a talented cast, great sets and strong writing, this enjoyable film is a perfect holiday film for almost the whole family. Those under 12 years old may find this story boring since it delves into the writing and less the story in the novel.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is an entertaining and heart-felt holiday story that will find a permanent place in many people’s rotation of holiday films.
Last Flag Flying
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Last Flag Flying

Genre: Comedy/Drama/War
Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne
Rating: R
for language throughout including some sexual references
Grade: B
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
In December of 2003, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) begins contacting a couple of his old Vietnam War buddies.
Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) owns Sal’s Bar & Grill. The bar part is still functioning but the grill part isn’t. Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is a pastor at a Christian church, preaching the good word to his parishioners.
When Doc gets them both together he reveals why he has reconnected with them. His son has died in Iraq and he asks Sal and Richard to accompany him to the burial – a request that turns out to be more complex than any had envisioned.

Kent’s Take:
“Last Flag Flying” is another film in a growing parade of war-related films hitting theaters in recent years (“Dunkirk,” “Thank You For Your Service,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “Man Down.”) This film is oriented for the Vietnam era soldiers who deserve their moment in the sun more than any other soldier. However, this film, like the soldiers’ experience in Vietnam, is uneven and works hard to find its purpose.
Doc has just lost his son. This grieving man has “had nothing but pain in his life.” Yet, he quietly accepts Sal’s and Richard’s limited advice and help. His two cohorts are likened to a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.
Sal is brash, an alcoholic and harbors deep resentment for authority. Richard has forsaken his drinking, gambling and carousing for a reverend’s collar and salvation.
Each man has been transformed by their experiences in Vietnam, some for the better, some not.
This comedy/drama certainly balances these two elements. Writer/director Richard Linklater (along with writer Darryl Ponicsan) uses the lighter moments to help define these vets and reveal their true selves. However, they always bring us back to the grim reality that Doc’s 21-year-old son is dead. This wandering from pain then snapping back mirrors the grieving process. Additional balancing comes in defining the war experience now and then. Both these Vietnam vets and modern-era Iraq soldiers question why they are there and both feel that their government has lied to them regarding their reasons for service.
However, balancing the anger, frustration and guilt associated with their service is the ritual, the absolute respect and care given the body/coffin of the fallen soldier. The finality of this transport will quiet one’s spirit as the aura of solemnity and honor, duty and dignity drapes the casket as does the American flag.
This film falters in having too much dialogue. Little is shown, most is explained through long exposition, slowing the film’s pace. If not for Cranston’s Sal, this film would have derailed; instead, Sal is the fuel for this story, acting as the catalyst for discussions instigating change in each man.
The story is slow to build momentum, but when it does in the third act, the film realizes its goal with an emotional and memorable conclusion.
As these men were molded into soldiers for Vietnam, these three former soldiers once again use tragedy and reminiscence to transform themselves into more grounded men.
Justice League
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Justice League

Genre: Action/Fantasy/Sci-fi
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Amy Adams, Diane Lane,
Rating: PG-13
for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
Grade: B- (Kent)/C+ (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Superman is dead. Some mourn the loss, others rejoice. Batman (Ben Affleck) is aging and notices his limitations more and more. Alongside Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), they begin to recruit Meta-humans to help them in future conflicts.
As the team grows with the additions of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller), the future is realized sooner than anyone had thought.
When three ancient Mother Stones suddenly activate after millennia of inactivity, they summon demigod Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who begins gathering the stones in order to transform earth into his dark haven.
Discovering that their powers may not be enough to defeat Steppenwolf, Batman and his Justice League attempt a dangerous and volatile experiment – whose results may cause “super” trouble.
Kent’s Take:
The Marvel vs. DC battle continues at theaters and between fans. Although Marvel has been dominating, DC has a new weapon that could turn the tide – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
Bruce Wayne sees the writing on the wall. His gadgetry will turn the tide in his favor with criminals, but it gets dicey with Meta-humans. After witnessing Superman’s sacrifice, Batman begins assembling his Justice League.
DC films are plot-driven action adventures, fueled by villains’ nefarious plans. Building on previous films’ plots, we witness the repercussions of Superman’s death on Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) as well as Batman and the city as a whole. As the Justice League battles Steppenwolf, their personalities fall away and the action ensues. Using their chosen weapons, each Meta-human uses force to attempt to destroy the villain. Where Marvel mutants pass through walls, read minds, and sport a plethora of abilities, the DC heroes are less flashy and rely on simple brute force.
This results in a film that is less layered, more straightforward and less emotional – in other words, a more traditional action film.
The heart of this film (and possibly the franchise) is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. This Amazon is powerful, graceful and deadly, and has resisted taking the lead – until now. She carries this film with Batman. Affleck’s troubled Dark Knight has begun to see the light and so have fans as the negative reaction to his casting has turned to quiet submission or outright acceptance. Batman is showing his scars, both mental and physical – adding an important human touch.
Director Zack Snyder paces this adventure well, while balancing an ensemble cast. Although Aquaman could be a problem as he is simply a punching bag in this film.
“Justice League” brings plenty of action and enough characterization and narrative to this origin story to satisfy, yet the next installment needs to be elevated a notch to prevent this franchise from becoming the “Injustice League.”

LYNN’s Take:
The most maddening aspect of franchise movies is that they are basically set-ups for the next one. The current blockbuster superhero mindset is frustrating, because of the assembly-line formula feel.
“Justice League” is DC Comics’ trying hard to compete with Marvel’s successful formula, yet still feels clunky and derivative.
That said, “Justice League” is a vast improvement over the tepid and painful “Batman vs. Superman.”
Joss Whedon’s influence is apparent in the snappy banter – he’s the screenwriter revered for the first “The Avengers” as well as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Toy Story,” and was called in to write additional scenes.
Thankfully, because director Zack Snyder’s penchant for video-game action and elongated scenes of computer-generated mayhem (or as I like to say, flying chunks of concrete and massive explosions) is tiresome, and bogs down the goodwill.
The likable actors do what they can to live up to their mythical characters, using their superpowers for good – and comically show them off, because they can.
However, cramming them all in, explaining their origins and resolving conflicts is an extra-heavy load.
The plot density is its downfall. The mumbo-jumbo about three boxes that could destroy the planet, and the giant foe Steppenwolf isn’t clear, and doesn’t make us care.
Wonder
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Wonder

Genre: Drama
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic
Rating: PG
for thematic elements including bullying and some mild language.
Grade: B+
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is starting 5th grade at a new school. Auggie has been home schooled up to now due to the multiple surgeries related to his birth defect.
His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) wants him to go to public school in order to address the difficulties he will inevitably face. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) is against it for the same reasons Isabel insists that he goes.
Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has always been there for Auggie, but wishes her parents would be there for her, too!
As Auggie experiences the trials and tribulations of adolescence it not only transforms him, but all those around him.

Kent’s Take:
“Wonder” is a perfect title for this heartwarming film. Its multi-faceted meaning leads audiences down a path of heartbreak and, wait for it . . . wonder.
The emotional range of this film is fully realized but focused, meaning we laugh, we cry, we hope, we wither, but the depth of our angst is not too deep as to be unfathomable and the soaring moments are not staggering heights. Viewers are shown a world from an adolescent viewpoint, with bullying, friendships and memories.
Writer/director Stephen Chbosky purposefully keeps this tight emotional range. Maintaining the PG rating allows families to enjoy this wonderful tale together. Magnifying the tragedy and its related angst would also create a more extreme roller coaster ride for younger viewers. The dampened emotional range also defines the film as more a parable/fable. We know that life doesn’t usually wrap things up with a glimmering bow, but sometimes it’s nice to experience this. Making this film grittier or adding details that allude to Auggie’s deeper struggles would bleed the darker moments into the lighter ones, dulling this narrative’s polish.
Every character in this film has struggles and each of those battles is somehow linked to the Pullman family. As we follow various friends and family members, we gain insight further into this world from their perspective. This smart choice has a resetting effect on the story, rotating the perspective and re-adjusting the emotional dial to a slightly different feel.
The cast manages to give performances that are memorable, yet subdued. Roberts is excellent as a mother who is an emotional wreck as her son struggles to fit in. Vidovic is charming and sweet in an important role as Auggie’s sounding board, while Tremblay hits a home run as a normal kid in an abnormal body.
“Wonder” shows audiences the wonders of life, the wonders within each of us and the wonders of good filmmaking as the Pullman family searches for answers to life’s tough questions.
Lady Bird
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Lady Bird

Genre: Comedy
Starring: Saiorse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf
Rating: R
for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying.
Grade: A+
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, Calif. Set during 2002-2003, she has big dreams and plots her future, despite the realities of her middle-class life.

LYNN’s Take:
Oh, the joys and sorrows of senior year in high school are impressively captured in “Lady Bird,” a perfect effort from first-time director-writer Greta Gerwig.
Gerwig, a young actress known for quirky roles, has created not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the absolute best movies ever about adolescence.
Every moment of this splendid film is grounded in reality, and its truths resonate with an uncommon understanding.
The ensemble doesn’t hit a false note – the sublime Saiorse Ronan as a teen trying to navigate all those transitions, never-better Laurie Metcalf and blue-chip Tracy Letts as her struggling parents, Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet as the boys she dates, and Beanie Feldstein as her best friend.
How it touches on family, the relationships that define our lives, how we find ourselves, and what home means to us makes it a special experience.
This is indeed an awards contender, and an unforgettable film to see more than once.
Murder on the Orient Express
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Murder on the Orient Express

Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad
Rating: PG-13
for violence and thematic elements
Grade: A
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Summoned back to London, legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) cancels his holiday and books passage on the Orient Express, a luxury train.
Once en route, Poirot is approached by tough guy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and offered an unsavory employment opportunity – Poirot emphatically declines.
When an avalanche engulfs the train, the passengers find themselves captives of Mother Nature.
Soon after, Ratchett is murdered and Poirot must find a killer among the guests – a dangerous and deadly mystery is at hand.

Kent’s Take:
“Murder on the Orient Express” is based upon the 1934 Agatha Christie classic novel titled, “Murder in the Calais Coach.”
Poirot is an intuitive and gifted detective, pulling clues from around him and combining his vast knowledge and memory to further connect distant clues to offer amazing resolutions to murder mysteries.
Here, he is enlisted by circumstance as he is trapped on a train with 13 passengers – one being a victim – and begins an in-depth investigation.
This buttoned-up period piece boasts an all-star cast, breathtaking scenery, stunning costumes and sets and a classic mystery. Set in 1934, this patient story lacks the modern accoutrements. There are no quick cuts, no over-the-top action, no eye-popping special effects (well, the avalanche is eye-popping). This mystery unfolds like a seven-course meal, building to a delicious crescendo to finish with a treat. Younger audiences may feel this is too slow, but if they wrap themselves in the cocoon of this setting and gain the feel of the period, they will sense the dread and embrace the tension.
The honest, direct Poirot is as steadfast as his stiffly waxed moustache, always seeking balance. He looks to balance his overly busy schedule with some much needed R and R. He insists on balancing a wrong-doing with justice. Yet, on the Orient Express, Poirot will discover that his definition of justice will forever change.
Actor/ director Kenneth Branagh carries this film with an outstanding performance and diligent pacing. His supporting cast of suspects finds a way to become bigger than life without over-acting. They magnify Poirot’s abilities and personality without tipping the viewer to their tricks. Branagh then drives his performance home with a subtle depth that imbues his detective with a history that we feel but are never quite told through playful and perfect dialogue.
“Murder on the Orient Express” will thrill fans familiar with this story and introduce new ones if audiences are willing to allow a classic tale to crochet them a memorable yarn.
Wonderstruck
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Wonderstruck

Genre: Drama/Family/Mystery
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds
Rating: PG
for thematic elements and smoking.
Grade: A-
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), children in two different eras, embark on journeys to sort the missing pieces in their lives. Ben wants to know his father. Rose, who is deaf, is fascinated by a silent-picture actress.
A half-century separates them, so how do their two worlds intersect? Behold the mystery of “Wonderstruck,” adapted by Brian Selznick from his 2011 juvenile novel.

Lynn’s Take:
A rhapsody of childhood wonder and yearning for emotional connections, “Wonderstruck” gently takes us on an unabashed sentimental journey.
Director Todd Haynes paints an intriguing canvas of memories and mysteries – those moments that unlock imagination and spark passion during our youths. He manages the tempo and tone of each period in a cohesive way.
Your patience will be rewarded, so give it time – unless you’re skeptical about coincidences and prefer simple solutions. The adventure is satisfying, even if the wrap-up isn’t what you expected.
Millicent Simmonds is a rare find as beleaguered Rose, and the cast is solid. However, the film’s technical prowess is its crowning glory – elegant and eloquent cinematography, costumes and production design; a sublime musical score by Carter Burwell; and a striking sound palette, combining the sounds of silence with the cacophony of the city.
Delight in the details and marvel at the feelings it evokes.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Genre: Drama/Horror/Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic,Barry Keoghan
Rating: R
for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language.
Grade: D
Reviewer: Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has an idyllic life with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their comfortable routine is upended when the sinister motives of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teen that Steven took under his wing, are bizarrely disclosed.

Lynn’s Take:
Even understanding what is going on, what’s at stake, and why are we going down this rabbit hole, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” isn’t satisfying.
Carefully cultivated absurdism is the hallmark of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who made the polarizing “The Lobster” last year, along with co-writer Efthymis Filippon. That was set in an alternate universe; this is grounded in a modern Midwestern city.
What starts out strange, but builds suspense, becomes unbearably claustrophobic and is ultimately undone by its excruciating third act and crazy conclusion.
The epitome of a high-concept, this art film expects us to buy into the plot without giving us reasons to care.
In a very sterile environment, the characters speak in flat tones. The banter is polite, spoken often in hushed tones. You sense this off-kilter tone right away.
That ploy is to make the nightmare premise more chilling, but we grow weary of its tactics.
What is afoot is dark and deeply disturbing. The intensity and shock are present, as is an over-the-top annoying discordant musical score. In a chilling performance, Barry Keoghan is unnerving as the menacing boy.
It becomes an endurance effort, a torturous exercise that takes much too long to wrap up.
Thor: Ragnarok
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Thor: Ragnarok

Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins
Rating: PG-13
for intense sequencesof sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.
Grade: B-
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Times have changed. When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) escapes captivity and returns to the realm of Asgard, he finds that decadence, laziness and self-aggrandizement rule the day. He also discovers that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has assumed Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne, after exiling him.
It doesn’t take Thor long to find Odin, but in so doing, begins Ragnarok – the downfall of Asgard. Thor and Loki soon learn of their sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), when she begins her domination of Asgard – Hela’s other name is the Goddess of Death.

Kent’s Take:
“Thor: Ragnarok” continues the run of Thor movies that separate themselves from the usual Marvel playbook.
Thor, the God of Thunder, is arrogant, self-absorbed, egotistical and is strong as all get-out! He swings, twirls and spins his hammer like a champion, neutralizing and destroying all foes. So it stands to reason that fear is a distant companion for this demi-god.
As he discusses Asgard’s and his own future with his father, Odin, Thor undertakes his journey with the overwhelming force he is accustomed to. Yet, when his hammer is taken away, he is forced to become more than Odin’s enforcer – he begins to become a leader.
Thor has always been a foreigner in the Avengers. His personality, powers and rapport always seem out of sync with the other Avengers – much like the Hulk. When Thor loses his hammer, it’s like Sampson losing his locks. He is adrift in a pool of uncertainty and is forced to develop skills other than strength.
This film is also different in its balance. Marvel normally uses a very successful combination of action, drama and humor to fuel its stories. “Ragnarok” is overbalanced with humor. The Guardians of the Galaxy could have made an appearance and not felt out of place. The constant humor dilutes the drama that should have galvanized the villain, Hela. Instead, this almost seems like two separate films: Hela’s unrelenting assault on Asgard and Thor’s humorous lark on a distant garbage planet.
Add to this a distinct lack of characterization, we never get further insight into Thor’s, Loki’s or even Hela’s character. They are simply raw emotions of anger and revenge and are hell-bent on driving this narrative home to Asgard. The highlight of the film is Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. He is ridiculous, vengeful and hilarious.
That’s not to say this film fails as an exciting action adventure. On the contrary, this film has plenty of laughs, action and some interesting fights. But the subtlety that distinguishes Marvel films from others is missing here.
“Thor: Ragnarok” shrugs off the distinctive Marvel mantle in order to once again blaze its own path. As this humorous and action-packed adventure unfolds, the pieces that fall into place fit well, but lack the Marvel luster.
Thank You For Your Service
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Thank You For Your Service

Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Miles Teller, Beulah Koale
Rating: R
for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity.
Grade: B+ (Kent)/B (Lynn)
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert & Lynn Venhaus
THE PLOT:
Three soldiers return from Iraq, but settling back into family and civilian life in Kansas becomes a struggle in different personal ways. Can they overcome the memories of war and move forward?

Kent’s Take:
“Thank You For Your Service” is inspired by true events and based upon the best selling novel by David Finkel. Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) thought his wartime experiences were over after his three tours in Iraq, but battles closer to home take their toll on him and his combat buddies.
Following Schumann and Specialist Solo (Beulah Koale), we quickly begin rooting for these men who return from war to face a new one: a war of displacement and frustration, of finances and betrayal, of depression and hopelessness.
As Schumann fights to keep a grip on his emotions in order to support his men with his outward strength and stability, he knows deep inside he is a shattered man. Solo’s heartbreaking outward struggles with the repercussions of his brain damage sustained from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), further deepen our emotional commitment to these courageous men.
This emotional film fully engulfs viewers in the daily struggles of returning soldiers. We witness various facets of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and how it surfaces differently in each soldier and the different methods they use to find solace.
In addition to Teller’s and Koale’s excellent performances, Haley Bennett gives an impressive turn as Saskia Schumann, Adam’s strong, committed wife.
The obvious care taken to tell this subtle, multi-faceted story shows in each frame. Audiences will long to jump through the screen to help these poor souls or scream “NO!” at the top of their lungs as they struggle making the right decisions in a hapless life.
Using honesty, simplicity and love in telling this important story, writer/director Jason Hall and writer David Finkel deftly define the soldiers’ toughest battle – one of civilian life, which becomes a war with new rules of engagement and unrecognized enemies.
“Thank You For Your Service” is a gritty, sobering look at modern struggles, successes and failures of our military friends, neighbors and family members as they fight to be heard. This narrative is based upon an incident repeated many times before and after – this is one story of many.

LYNN’s Take:
The characters are based on real people whose stories are in the best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author David Finkel, who met the guys while covering the war.
This gripping film is a timely reminder about the price of service and sacrifice. Always-sharp Miles Teller easily slips into a mature leadership role as a troubled family man, and the cast is a tight band of brothers.
Their realistic portrait brings the problems of soldiers’ re-entry home to the forefront: depression, getting into fights, marital problems, drinking too much, drugs, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Writer-director Jason Hall, who wrote the screenplay for “American Sniper,” deftly weaves soldiers’ struggles. He also sheds light on wives having to adjust.
The breakthrough role is Beulah Koale as Tausolo “Solo” Aieti, who is more at home on the battlefield than with his pregnant partner.
It is obvious that this film makes advocacy (of veterans) a priority. The authenticity is apparent, as is the thoughtful approach to getting these stories right, admirably honoring those who serve.
(Fun fact: The real Adam Schumann is in the airport scene with Miles Teller, welcoming him – his fictional self – home.)
Loving Vincent
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Loving Vincent

Genre: Animation/Biography/Drama
Starring: Chris O'Dowd, Douglas Booth, Helen McCrory
Rating: PG-13
for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking.
Grade: A-
Reviewer: Kent Tentschert
THE PLOT:
Vincent Van Gogh has been dead for a year and a letter that was never mailed is found in his abandoned flat. Postmaster Joseph Roulin (voiced by Chris O’Dowd) enlists his son Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) to deliver the letter. This animated story follows Armand as he searches for the proper recipient of Van Gough’s final letter.

Kent’s Take:
“Loving Vincent” is a remarkable film. Animated through oil painting, this film enlisted 100 artists to paint over 65,000 works to tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s final years.
Van Gogh began painting after a frustrating series of failures in other endeavors. His attempts to please his family and fit in failed miserably. Yet, his brother Theo Van Gogh showed love and support for his brother which spurred Vincent to begin painting. In 8 years of painting he painted 800+ oil paintings and advanced from a fledgling artist to being considered one of the most influential painters of modern art.
Armand initially is flummoxed as to whom to deliver the letter, but as he discusses the situation with his father, he decides to deliver it to his brother Theo. As Armand’s journey takes him to Vincent’s friend, Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), a mystery unfolds. The deeper he digs, the more facts surface. Vincent transformed from a happy, relaxed man, to a suicide victim within 6 weeks. What happened in those six weeks takes audiences on a journey of discovery for both viewers and Armand.
This unusual film is fully animated with the oil paintings. The characters are painted with detail and a distinct life of their own, yet the backgrounds are less detailed and follow the Van Gogh style of vivid colors and painterly bold strokes. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman create a mesmerizing tale of a fascinating man using his own style of painting to tell a story literally in broad brush strokes – genius!
Add to this a compelling and tragic story of a man struggling with his art and his sanity while those around him both help and hinder him.
“Loving Vincent” is a compelling story of mental illness and creativity and a memorable presentation of this narrative. This film truly shows love for the man, the artist and his legacy through a creative and compelling biographical film.
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