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Sci-fi at its best. It’s good; It’s so good.

Is it worth $10? Yes!

When a heady science fiction film comes out, I wait for it, like waiting for the bass drop in a dance tune: the inevitable comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, Ad Astra, the new sci-fi adventure starring Brad Pitt, has shades of that seminal film. Luckily, though, it is no mere pastiche, standing firmly on its own two feet. A gorgeous spectacle that speaks to our brains as much as it does to our adrenaline pumping hearts, Ad Astra is one of the year’s best movies.

In the near future, man colonizes space. Stations are built on the moon and on Mars, but the push into our solar system ends at the angry red planet after a failed mission to Neptune. Years later, strange energy bursts emit from deep space causing deadly surges on earth. In a spectacular opening sequence, one of those surges almost kills the film’s protagonist, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), while performing routine maintenance on a massive communications antenna that scrapes the edge of earth’s atmosphere. The surge causes explosions that send Roy spiraling through the sky, with the whirling visuals, especially on an IMAX screen, thrusting you into every queasy moment of Roy’s unexpected descent to earth.

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Fans of the show will likely find it satisfying, and those who haven’t seen the show but are curious will find it enjoyable enough.

Is it worth $10? Yes

An English drama of manners, ripe with enough scandal to knock your Bobby Hat off, usually only appeals to the art house crowd in the U.S., but “Downton Abbey” could be different.  

The hit TV show of the same name that inspired this film aired for six seasons on PBS. Devotees of the show will be eager to see the big screen continuation of the saga, which picks up a little more than a year after the events of the series left off. Thus finding enough of an audience to recoup its presumably modest budget (and then some) should not be its challenge.

The question is: Does the movie have appeal to those (like this reviewer) who’ve never seen an episode of the show? A great movie would create a desire to seek out all six seasons as soon as possible. That is not happening.

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“Dark Phoenix” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” the second part of his autobiographical trilogy of plays about growing up in Brooklyn, takes his avatar Eugene Morris Jerome, played by Matthew Broderick in this movie version, out of his Brighton Beach neighborhood. It does not, however, take the Brooklyn out of the boy.

Unlike the first installment, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” or the third installment, “Broadway Bound,” “Biloxi Blues” takes place, mostly, in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the second World War. He and his fellow recruits from the northeast, including Manhattan Jewish intellectual Arnold B. Epstein (Corey Parker, who would go on to play the part of Eugene in the TV movie of “Broadway Bound”), and obnoxious Bridgeport, CT, native Joseph Wykowski (Matt Mulhern), are transported via train to Biloxi for Army basic training under the guidance of Sergeant Toomey (Christopher Walken). The weather is not to Eugene’s liking, as he astutely observes, “This is Africa hot. Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot.”

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Based on actual events, it’s an effective, thought-provoking drama that’ll make for a great dinner conversation afterward.

Is it worth $10? Yes

The question in “Official Secrets” is not whether British intelligence agent Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley) broke the law. She did. We see her do it, and she confesses to it. Rather, the question is whether she was right to do it. The British government says no. Gun, and thousands of anti-war protesters, vehemently disagree. What follows is a fascinating look at government malfeasance, journalistic integrity and professional ethics.

Based on actual events, the film is set in London in 2003. Gun works for an arm of British intelligence called the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). She’s a translator. She receives an e-mail from the National Security Agency in the U.S. asking for assistance in blackmailing smaller countries into supporting a United Nations resolution that would allow the U.S. to invade Iraq. We know from history that this war happened, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.

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“John Wick 3” and “The Dead Don’t Die” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

It’s interesting how time and maturity shape how we see the world and the things we focus on. I was a huge fan of Disney’s animated “Aladdin” as a teenager in 1992, seeing it twice in the theatres and a few times after that on home video. As a young man, the swashbuckling “Arabian Nights” tale appealed to me more than “Beauty and the Beast” from the prior year, and it didn’t hurt that childhood icon Robin Williams completely cracked me up as the voice of the genie.

A song from the first act of that movie, which is also in this 2019 live action remake, is called “One Jump Ahead,” where Aladdin explains how he’s a thief who only steals what he can’t afford—which is everything. My 1992 self, with no practical sense of work, earning, gain, and loss, didn’t register any problems with this character being a thief at all. My 2019 self couldn’t help but think that he should learn a trade and stop being a leech.

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TV vet Jillian Bell owns the screen in this genial, touching and sometimes preachy dramedy, inspired by a true story, about a plus-size New York City millennial with self-esteem issues who discovers that the road to personal fulfillment is paved with potholes and detours.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is the movie equivalent of that fiercely loyal friend with no patience for excuses and a borderline vicious fondness for exercising tough love. It doesn't sugarcoat reality checks and sees right through your claims that everything is OK when, come on now, a kindergartner can tell your life is a mess.

But to hear it from the title character, played by a winning Jillian Bell, life is the bubbles: an undemanding job as a theater usher, sharing a New York City apartment with a far more successful friend, using a sharp tongue and quick wit to get what you want, and a propensity to be approached by men at bars because she's, you know, approachable. Okay, so she could shed a few pounds, but when one's daily routine plays out like an endless summer internship in the Big Apple, what's there to complain about?

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John Travolta's spiraling movie career hits rock bottom with this cringe-inducing stalker thriller, directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, that squanders a familiar but juicy premise with nails-on-a-chalkboard dialogue, one-dimensional characters and a pervasive lack of tension. Cancel this fan club membership.

Is it worth $10? No

To watch John Travolta chew the scenery in “The Fanatic” is to mourn the decline of a career that saw the star at the top of Hollywood's food chain on at least two occasions: During his “Saturday Night Fever”/”Grease” heyday and during his mid-1990s resurgence, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino and a spirited turn in “Pulp Fiction.” How appropriate, then, that the Oscar nominee's latest effort takes place in the city of angels' underbelly.

In this limp and misbegotten character study with tired genre flourishes, the brainchild of Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, Travolta inhabits a role that, at least on the page, must have seemed an irresistible challenge for an actor who's not afraid of playing the heavy: Moose, a consummate movie fan with a bizarre silver-hued mullet/bowl cut hybrid and an obsession with horror staple Hunter Dunbar (“Final Destination's” Devon Sawa). Oh, and he's also on the special needs spectrum, though it's unclear whether he has autism or Asperger's. You get the idea.

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The characters are well-developed, the scares are legit, and this is a worthy sequel that’s better than its 2017 predecessor. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club defeated Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) in “It” (2017). During that time most of the club members moved away, except Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who lives above the town library and keeps watch for signs the evil clown has returned. And lo, at the start of “It Chapter Two,” Pennywise has returned.

To the phone Mike goes, calling the other six Losers, all of whom swore a blood oath that they would return to Derry, Maine, should Pennywise re-emerge. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful author; Richie (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian; Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk analyst; Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect; Stanley (Andy Bean) is about to take his wife to Buenos Aires; and the lone female in the group, Beverly (Jessica Chastain), has an abusive husband.

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There’s a great deal of affection and recollection from the major players here, but what’s most fascinating is the show’s worldwide appeal. It’s a must-see for anyone who enjoys the musical.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Documentaries with a singular focus, such as “Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles,” tend to only entice those already familiar with the topic. Luckily for director Max Lewkowicz, his topic, the musical “Fiddler On The Roof,” doesn’t hurt for popularity – it has been performed somewhere in the world every single day since its Broadway debut in September 1964.

Hispanic and African-American secondary schools have performed the show. There’s been a Thai college production, a Japanese professional production, and everything in between. Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) was in the show when he was in sixth grade, and loves it so much he performed “To Life” at his wedding with his new father-in-law (no bottle dance, though). Joel Grey, an Oscar winner for “Cabaret,” starred in a Yiddish version of the show. He said a Japanese fan of his reached out to say it’s her favorite musical. “Everybody thinks it’s about them,” Grey said.

Indeed. How that universal appeal came to be, and why, are at the heart of this doc, which treats the musical with utmost esteem. We hear from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who created the music and lyrics, respectively. From Joseph Stein, who created the book for the show, and the late Harold “Hal” Prince, who produced it. Through this we also learn about the process of adapting Sholem Aleicheim’s “Teyve” stories, how incredibly difficult original director Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story”) was to work with, and how Broadway’s original Tevye, Zero Mostel, hated Robbins because Robbins named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Elton John (Taron Egerton) creates an imposing silhouette in the opening shot of “Rocketman,” director Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of the iconic piano playing pop star from a screenplay by Lee Hall. John is wearing a flashy orange and red costume that has giant feathery wings and a pair of fairly intimidating horns coming out of the head. As he comes into focus and heads into an addicts’ meeting, the symbolism is clear: His demons have taken over and he is there to exorcise them. As “Rocketman” progresses and more about who John is and how he got into heavy drug, alcohol, and sex addiction becomes apparent, the costume is removed. First the horns are snapped off. Then, once enough soul-searching and purging is done, we see John completely out of the costume and sitting at the meeting in a gray robe. This is a brilliant yet subtle visual metaphor that shows Fletcher’s creative mind at work.

Of course, he is greatly assisted not only by Egerton’s heartfelt performance, but also by the eye-popping costume design by Julian Day, who more than likely is headed for an Oscar nomination for his work here. Anyone familiar with the real-life John’s oeuvre knows that his stage costumes were every bit as important as his music. Day does a great job at capturing John’s costumes faithfully and with flourishes of his own added here and there. A side by side comparison of the real Elton John’s costumes next to Day’s costumes makes the closing credit sequence worth watching.

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Recent Articles

Ad Astra ****
Sci-fi at its best. It’s good; It’s so ...
Downton Abbey **1/2
Fans of the show will likely find it ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Biloxi Blues
“Dark Phoenix” is also new to Blu-Ray this ...
Official Secrets ***
Based on actual events, it’s an effective, ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Aladdin
“John Wick 3” and “The Dead Don’t Die” are also new ...
Brittany Runs a Marathon ***
TV vet Jillian Bell owns the screen in this ...
The Fanatic *
John Travolta's spiraling movie career hits ...

Best Movie In Theaters Now: The Farewell

Wistful, perceptive and bracingly unsentimental, Lulu Wang's winning dramedy, inspired by her own family, finds that the lies we tell our loved ones to shield them from pain is something that knows no national borders. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Movies about dysfunctional families tend to lean toward one of two directions: the warm and fuzzy ones that make you appreciate your relatives, warts and all, and the more ruthless dissections that portray domestic gatherings as emotional minefields where no one gets away unharmed. It takes a skilled hand to tell a story that manages to strike a balance between both sensibilities.

Say hello, then, to “The Farewell,” which pulls off this feat with beautifully observed candor, formal rigor and a reliable bullcrap meter.

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