The Best Picture Oscar Race– the conventional vs. the unconventional?

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As I wrap up seeing the last of the potential Top Ten list movies for this year, I keep stumbling across this word “conventional,” which I’ve used in reviews for “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” — both British in origin, both film biographies with tried and true character arcs, and both released just this month.

“Theory” has the triumph over personal tragedy “Beautiful Mind/My Left Foot” template. “Imitation” is built on the tragic but misunderstood and ahead of his/her time framework. That one goes back decades. Take away the homosexual persecution, and there’s “Tucker” or “Flash of Genius” built into this tragic take on Alan Turing.

Both films are top ten pictures, possible Oscar contenders. Their competition?

“Birdman” is anything but conventional. Genre-defying. “Boyhood” merits inclusion among the possible ten Oscar contenders. “Interstellar” might work its way in there. Each seems outside its genre’s norms, breaking formula in some fundamental way.

“Foxcatcher” is hard to pin into a tried and true genre, a cryptic tragedy that hides its cards and seems more likely to merit its inclusion in the Best Picture field for its amazing performances.

“Whiplash” and “A Most Violent Year” break the genre molds of their respective genres.

And then there are “Wild” and “Gone Girl” and “Mr. Turner,”  all possible members of a Best Picture pack, all perfectly seated within their genres.

The outliers on the edge of this list  — conventional ones like “The Drop,” maybe “Get On Up,” possibly Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” maybe Anjelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” The last one has to overcome clumsy Oscar campaigning by Universal, which is holding off showing it to critics who create the awards buzz that leads to Oscars.

It’s possible “Inherent Vice” and “Into the Woods” and “Exodus” will have the whiff of Oscar about them, but they aren’t figuring into most prognosticator’s lists at this point.

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Thanksgiving Movies: “Penguins” and “Imitation Game” endorsed, “Horrible Bosses” not

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One great way to spoil Thanksgiving would be to drag the friends and family to “Horrible Bosses  2,” with its headache-inducing two-guys-babbling/one-guy-screeching all at once dialogue, limp plot and reprised characters totally outclassing the new additions.

Chris Pine does the charming rogue thing, Christoph Waltz is typecast and it is up to Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey to walk off with the movie Jason Bateman can’t slow-burn to life. Poor reviews across the board for this one. A good one to sleep off that turkey triptofan buzz with.

What about those over-exposed “Penguins of Madagascar”? I laughed and laughed, but I figured most reviewers would dump over its derivative plot and villains. Naah. We all laughed. Well, most of us. Damned funny penguin puns, John Malkovich has lots of movie star punchlines as the villain. It works. Good reviews for that one.

“The Imitation Game” is an Oscar contender, though perhaps not the slam dunk it might have seemed on the page. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid, but the Alan Turing saves the world but is persecuted for his homosexuality story is conventionally told and oddly unaffecting. I love WWII tales, the Enigma/Ultra story in general (I liked the fictional version of this, “Enigma,” that Michael Apted did with Kate Winslet and Jeremy Northam some years back). It’s quite good, but not the best picture of the year.  Reviews are respectful and overwhelmingly positive.

“Before I Disappear” didn’t get the break I would have hoped. I loved Shawn Christensen’s Oscar winning short, “Curfew,” and was totally into this dark comedy about a suicidal junkie trapped taking care of the precocious niece he doesn’t know. Just one night, padded out to a feature film. Adding Ron Perlman and Emmy Rossum — big pluses. I dig it. Other critics? More indifferent.

“The Babadook” is earning the kind of rapturous praise that only that rare horror story that works does. Reviews from the faithful are titling this one into the high end of the Tomatometer, though Metacritic is, as ever, more measured in its praise. Damned spooky story from Australia, a real midnight movie. Dive in.

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Movie Review: “The Imitation Game”

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World War II, for those a little rusty on their history, wasn’t won by Brad Pitt or General Patton or Captain America. It was won by a bunch of nerds led by a socially inept, puzzle-obsessed mathematical genius who also happened to be homosexual at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain.

Their work, breaking enemy codes, was “Ultra” secret, the ultimate secret of the war. Ironically, it was entrusted to a man who was already quite accomplished at keeping secrets in his personal life.

“The Imitation Game” is an entertaining, sometimes riveting and yet quite conventional film biography of Alan Turing, the glum but gay Brit who invented the first electronic computer and thus created the modern world.

Benedict Cumberbatch manages an efficient, brittle and brooding turn as Turing, working with a screenplay that, on many occasions, turns him into an object of fun, a World War II era Sheldon Cooper of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
“Mother says I’m just an odd duck.”

Graham Moore’s screenplay, based on an Andrew Hodges book, frames Turing’s story within a police case. A Manchester detective (Rory Kinnear) investigates a 1951 break-in at Professor Turing’s home, and is so put off by his aloof insults that he digs into who Turing really is and what his war record was. Detective Nock can interrogate the Great Man all he wants, but he must “Pay attention. I will not pause, I will not repeat myself.”

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s film flashes back to Turing’s comically brusque first meeting with his would-be Royal Navy boss (Charles Dance, biting), his incompetence at mixing with his code-cracking teammates and the stroke of genius that had him go directly to Churchill, through the MI-6 intelligence chief (Mark Strong, wonderfully inscrutable) to take over the team.

Turing’s brainstorm — only a machine can defeat another machine, the German Enigma encoder. He will build an electronic device that can sift through the coded Morse Code letters of German transmissions fast enough to save convoys, head off attacks and foil the fascists, who were winning the war pretty much right up to that moment.

There were threats from the Admiralty, security breaches involving leaks to the Soviets and personality clashes along the way.

“Damn you and your useless machine!” shouts fellow code-breaker Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode, effortlessly suave and caddish), not knowing a cliche when he bellows one.

Turing is forever insulting his peers and failing to apologize with more than “That’s actually not entirely a terrible idea.”

He uses crossword puzzle tests to recruit help, among them, a woman (Keira Knightley) whom he cannot even invite into the office with the other men. Turing and Joan Clarke had to meet after hours and ponder the problems of Enigma — a secret within a secret within a secret.

And we travel back to Turing’s boarding school days, his first hint of love, which is meant to further reveal his character. The boy playing young Alan, Alex Lawther, is even more convincing as a guarded, eyes-averting genius with a “dirty” secret than Cumberbatch, who is at his best here.

Tyldum’s film recreates the consequences of the war in quick, digitally-augmented scenes of convoys sinking, bombs falling and battles raging. Moore’s script ably ramps up the pressure on the team. It does a poor job of showing the tragedy of Turing’s hidden life but a better job at making a bigger case — unconventional people make unconventional thinkers.

When you’re tackling “the most difficult problem in the world,” you need all the unconventional people you can find.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong

Credits: Directed by Morten Tyldum, screenplay by Graham Moore, written by . A release.

Running time: 1:54

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Movie Preview: “Jurassic World” is straight up horror

There’s no pretense of magic and majesty to this “Jurassic Park,” no notion that this is a reboot. No, the story has progressed, the theme park has opened, safety concerns be damned. No, science has learned nothing about genetic tinkering — not the important lessons, anyway.

Nice shot at Sea World, for those willing to look at it that way.

Chris Pratt is the voice of reason. And Chris Pratt, whatever his virtues, is no Jeff Goldblum.

June 12, 2015 — “Jurassic World.”

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Movie Review: “Before I Disappear”

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Writer-director-star Shawn Christensen’s “Curfew” was a minor miracle of a short film. This 2012 Oscar nominee was cynical and bitter, sad and uplifting — and deeply, darkly hilarious — a lot to manage in 19 magical minutes.
“Curfew” earns a feature film treatment titled “Before I Disappear,” with Christensen, his precocious co-star Fatima Ptacek, and a supporting cast that now includes Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman and Richard Schiff. Expanded and fleshed-out, the short film becomes a somewhat more showy and melodramatic movie, just as moving, just as funny and almost as magical.
We meet Richie (Christensen) in the tub. He’s narrating a letter to Vista, his girfriend.
“I hope this note finds you well. But as these things go, that won’t be the case.”
Richie has a razor blade. Vista is dead. Richie’s planning on joining her. The bathwater turns crimson.
He’s about 30, a junky, and a janitor. Richie’s seen something — a young woman, dead of an overdose, in the toilets he cleans at a club run by Bill (Perlman). Bill tells Richie to forget what he saw, and slips him some “Flora,” a nickname for heroin. Richie lied to his other employer, Gideon (Paul Wesley), who was in love with the dead woman. So Richie figures that’s about enough.
But the phone rings. And rings. And rings. It’s his estranged sister, Maggie (Rossum), who asks a favor in the most profane, judgmental and hateful way. Can you, you worthless, unreliable lout, pick up my daughter from school and get her home?
Richie bandages his wrist, figures he can put off suicide for an hour or two, and staggers, smoking, into young Sophia’s school. She is reciting Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” — first in English, then in Mandarin. She is a uniformed sixth grader, organized, uptight, an overachiever in school and in gymnastics. She is impatient with this stoned stranger picking her up. “There will be hell to pay,” she threatens, if he cannot get her home to do her homework, study for a test and continue over-achieving. And there will be.
The chemistry between these two is electric. Christensen’s eyebrow arches at Sophia’s every insult, as if he is not sure she’s just another of his many hallucinations. He makes Richie soulful and sweet, but given to righteous rages when he feels others are being wronged. Ptacek’s Sophia is the adult, assertive in every situation. They storm into a dinner at Bill’s place, and she sits herself down and digs in with his henchmen. They stagger over to a hipster bowling alley, and she dances to her favorite electronica pop right down the lanes.
OK, maybe it’s whatever drug Richie has popped that has him seeing that.
Through a long, comically tragic New York night, these two bond, we hear the story of how Richie and Maggie grew up and grew apart, and they avoid people who want to collect from him or kill him, or grab her as a way of getting at her mother.
We can guess where this is going, but as with his short film, Christensen fills the sure-to-be-redemptive story arc with surprises. Ptacek, as she was in the short, makes a great foil.
And the addition of Rossum and Perlman to the cast adds pathos and paranoia, guilt and menace.
Christensen may have won the best short dramatic feature Academy Award, but his real prize was the chance to turn some marvelous characters and gripping, gritty situations into a feature length film. “Before I Disappear” was his prize, and as it turns out, our prize, too.

3half-star
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, drug use, adult themes, profanity

Cast: Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman, Paul Wesley, Richard Schiff

Credits: Written and directed by Shawn Chistensen. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: “The Babadook”

babadookA mop-topped six year-old sees something in the back of his mother’s station wagon. His eyes go wild with terror and he lets out a blood-curdling scream.
It’s broad daylight. And even though we sympathize with his harassed, widowed mom when she shouts “Why can’t you just be NORMAL?”, we know there’s something there, that he’s not as cracked as he seems.
It’s “The Babadook,” and only Sam sees it. At first. This Australian horror tale is about a child under threat, with that threat seemingly coming from his increasingly unhinged mom.
Amelia (Essie Davis) still has nightmares about the drive to the hospital the night Sam (Noah Wiseman) was born — slow-motion tumbles inside the car, the husband that died in the wreck.
Almost seven years later, Sam has grown into a weird kid — assembling a stash of self-designed weapons; a crossbow that fires dartboard darts, a backpack catapult.
“I’ll SMASH the monster!” he promises. “I’ll protect you, if you protect me, Mummy!”
Sam is impressionable, prone to tantrums and risky play, dangerous to other children.
Poor Amelia, a nursing home nurse, grieves and half-heartedly tries to correct him. His school doesn’t want him. Her sister doesn’t want her little girl to be around him. And social services is dropping by, wondering what is up in their creaky two-story home.
A book Sam plucks from who-knows-where might explain his phobias. “The Babadook” is the creepiest popup book bedtime story ever. As she reads it to her hyperactive son, Amelia sees its grisly grey drawings and rhymed couplets as threatening — not just in a general sense, either. This book seems to be predicting their doom.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent keeps the camera close on Davis, capturing Amelia’s growing terror at what she hears and sees, events predicted by this awful book. And Kent lucked out in her kid-casting, with young Wiseman suggesting that least favorite, obnoxious ADHD child of a friend or relative. There’s no abrupt transition from jerk to brave little sage when it turns out his terrors are real.
Kent tosses in moments of kids being cruel to other kids — “Your dad died because he didn’t WANT to be with you!” — birthday parties, disbelieving cops, a flirtation at work and a boogeyman to die for.
All of which push the film into that “outstays its welcome” zone — too many nights and days of dealing with this threat, the menace growing more real with every horror movie Amelia flips by on TV.
But “The Babadook,” film and the book within it, still manages to pop the hairs on the back of your neck more than most repetitive, predictable and gory Hollywood horror films these days.
2half-star6
MPAA Rating: unrated, with bloody violence, profanity
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Credits: Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

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Blame it on lowered expectations for the umpteenth cartoon starring those commando penguins from “Madagascar,” over-exposed little darlings who stole all those movies and went on to star in their own spin off TV series.
Or lay it at the feet of the Dreamworks Animation trademark style — slapstick for the kids, and a boatload of wisecracks aimed at the parents who also sit through these farces aimed at the under-eight crowd.
But “Penguins of Madagascar” is as “cute and cuddly” as ever, and often downright hilarious.
Kids will giggle at the plucky impertinence, the pratfalls and the sheer breakneck speed of the gags, and the occasional gas-passing joke.
And their parents? The puns, movie references and impersonations are for grownups. Hip ones will grin at the witty touch of having iconoclastic German director and “Encounters at the End of the World” documentarian Werner Herzog play a comically callous documentary filmmaker in the opening scene. Here, on “Earth’s frozen bottom,” he captures the beginnings of the penguin team.
Even as chicks, Skipper is in charge, impulsive and riffing in that Tom-McGrath-does-William Shatner-as-Kirk voice, leading tiny Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and the newly-hatched Private (Christopher Knights) into “adventure and glory like no penguin has seen before.”
That flashback prologue sets up the dynamic that has played out for this cute and cuddly quartet ever since.
“Kowalski! Analysis! Rico! Status report!”
“Penguins of Madagascar” is about dopey and adorable Private’s efforts to become “a meaningful and valued member of the team.” He will have his chance when an octopus supervillain named Dave (John Malkovich) sets out to rid the world of penguin-kind. But the Madagascar boys have competition in the heroics department. The well-financed, gadget-equipped North Wind inter-species commando team has a seal (Ken Jeong), a polar bear (Peter Stormare), an exotic, sexy owl (Annet Mahendru) and is led by a confident, oh-so-competent wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch).
“No one breaks The Wind!”
Director-turned voice actor Tom McGrath’s Skipper has always been what makes the penguins funny. Skipper refuses to be humbled, contradicted or corrected. His version of profanity is a hoot.
“Parker Posey! Flippin’ Frozen Tundra!” And, since they chase Dave the octopus to Venice, “Venetian BLINDED again!”
Every word out of that animated penguin’s 3D beak (you can even see the fine penguin feathers now) is funny. They pop up in Shanghai, which Skipper mistakes for Dublin.
“All right boys, River Dance!”
It doesn’t matter that the plot and characters seem like a mishmash of other recent animated offerings, as long as McGrath is cracking wise. And the team of writers spare no pun in giving the villain just as many zingers, most of which will zing over the heads of the younger viewers.
“Drew, Barry,” Dave orders his minions, “More power!”
“William! Hurt them!”
“Nicolas! Cage them!”
“Halle! Bury them!”
Whatever this little nothing of a cartoon comedy lacks — decent female characters, an original villain — the bottom line from this bottom-heavy brotherhood from the bottom of the world? They’re still cute, still cuddly, still as funny as a ninja penguin could ever be.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Cast: The voices of Tom McGrath, John Malkovich, Chris Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Stormare, Werner Herzog
Credits: Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, screenplay by John Aboud,
Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer. A Fox/Dreamworks Animation release.
Running time: 1:32

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Movie Review: “Horrible Bosses 2″

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Your enjoyment of “Horrible Bosses 2″ is almost wholly dependent on your tolerance for clusters of funny actors, babbling, riffing — and in the case of Charlie Day, screeching — all at once.
That’s how they communicate. And if we get headaches listening to them, imagine how they’re suffering for their art.
Because it isn’t about bosses at all this time. But those poor working schlubs Nick, Kurt and Dale are still getting stiffed. As bad at it as they were at the last time around, these clowns still think revenge will taste sweet.
We catch up with the trio as they’re pitching their new gadget, the “Shower Buddy,” a showerhead that dispenses soap and shampoo and conditioner, etc., on local L.A. TV. The two goobers, Dale and Kurk (Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) are all about how to “be ourselves” on “Good Morning, L.A.” Nick is still the deadpan voice of sanity.
“Let’s NOT be ourselves. ‘Ourselves’ is a dumpster fire.”
They proceed to prove it when they’re pursued by a home shopping mogul — Chris Pine — and then that mogul’s dad (Christoph Waltz). They are out-maneuvered and stand to lose their start-up company, their dream of “never having to work for anybody ever again,” forced to realize they will “always be (just) cogs in the machine.”
So naturally the two dummies start talking revenge, with the more-sane Nick trying to talk them out of it. They’ll kidnap the son, ransom him to the dad and collect enough cash to save their company from the very guy trying to steal it.
“Name one kidnapping movie where the kidnappers aren’t dead or in jail at the end.”
“Nine to Five!”
“OK, name TWO…”
All this is set-up is handled in a rush, just enough time for Pine to come off as a preening punk and Waltz as a smiler with a knife.
“I make new enemies every day,” he purrs, Teutonically. “It’s called BUSINESS.”
The guys have to cross paths with the survivors of “Horrible Bosses.” Start with Kevin Spacey’s hilarious ex-boss/now-inmate, hissing profane tirades of “advice” over a prison-visitation phone, then check in with the colorfully-named thug Jamie Foxx brought to life. He is still insulted by the stereotypes they lay on him.
“You’ve got the N-word in your eyes!”
And then there’s the sex-crazed dentist played by Jennifer Aniston, her eyes sparkling at the filthy words she gets to let out of her mouth — or is that the too-obvious key lighting engineered to create sparkling eyes?
There are plans to be made, intrigues, betrayals, cops to fool and a caper to carry out. Some of the laughs come from the infuriating ineptitude of the trio and the ways they get outflanked and out thought at every turn. Other giggles spin from the colorful profanity of one and all.
And then there’s all that headache-inducing cacophony of babble. You can’t catch it all, which is just as well. The many improvisations are rarely much more than passably funny. The plot — packed with coincidences both explained and glossed over — doesn’t withstand any scrutiny.
But the original cast — both heroes and villains — are still funny, with Spacey and Foxx flirting with hilarious.
And as the film itself is thin on themes and gags, there’s a big car chase finale and an indifferently amusing collection of outtakes over the closing credits, where Bateman finally breaks his deadpan and Sudeikis finally comes off as clever.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for strong crude sexual content and language throughout
Cast: Jason Bateman, Chris Pine, Jason Sudeikis, Jamie Fox, Jennifer Aniston, Charlie Day, Christoph Waltz
Credits: Directed by Sean Anders, written by Sean Anders, John Morris, Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:48

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Movie Review: “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” takes us inside Studio Ghibli

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“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a great name for a documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and his animation house, Japan’s Studio Ghibli.
His Oscar winning “Spirited Away” and fantasies such as “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Ponyo” established him as the greatest practitioner of Japanimation — and-drawn anime rendered in bright shades of watercolor.
And Steampunkish titles such as “Howl’s Moving Castle” and other works, including “Spirited Away,” have a hint of madness about them.
Even he admits, on camera here, that he doesn’t know what “Spirited Away” was about.
Then there’s the very idea of preserving so much of the hand-crafted way of making movies in an age of computer-generated slickness. Madness.
“I am a man of the 20th century,” the septuagenarian grins, “I don’t want to deal with the 21st!”
But six days a week, he showed up at the animation company he built, storyboarding his pictures, rewarding himself with champagne and a cigarette when they were done. He and the staff of 400 would take their mid-day calisthenics break at their drawing boards or computer animation work stations. And every day, at dusk, they’d gather on the peaceful, lush roof garden and look at the sunset.
Now he’s retired. Mami Sunada’s languorous documentary takes us inside his work and his life for a glimpse of the pacifist whose final film was about the designer of the Japanese Zero warplane, the visionary who didn’t write his own scripts, but whose poetic films capture a worldview that is animated, through and through.
Sunada scampers after Miya-san with her camera, a tireless, playful man in a work apron presiding over an empire that includes movies, TV series, “museums,” product tie-ins and a worldwide brand. The name may just be “a random name I got from an airplane,” he admits (in Japanese, with English subtitles), but Studio Ghibli is almost as famous to animation fans as Disney.
Sunada documents Miya-san’s career as a director and shows him working on that final “Zero” film, “The Wind Rises.” He ponders its message, changes the ending, fusses over storyboards and frets over the film’s reception. The last thing he wants is a militaristic rabble rouser coming out in the middle of a Japanese election year. Miyazaki has no use for nuclear power or right wing “Zero fanatics,” who fetishize the warplane and Japan’s days of imperial glory.
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Sunada’s unhurried film has time for moments of Miyazaki looking at the flowers, testing the strength of tree limbs, teaching his staff how people in Japan bowed pre-World War II, voice-casting “The Wind Rises” and explaining himself to his longtime producer, Toshiro Suzuki. Artistic freedom is dying, they worry, partly because their last film together is so freighted with meanings that the director never intended.
Sunada, who narrates the film (also in Japanese) shows Miyazaki timing his scenes with a stopwatch. The scenes are only on a storyboard at this point and only exist in animated form in his mind.
Flashback footage shows the director starting Studio Ghibli, and part of what is happening as “The Wind Rises” wraps up is him paying back his animation mentor, Isao Takahata, whose Ghibli-released “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was to come out at the same time as “Wind Rises.” It only opened in the U.S. early in November.
“Kingdom’s” slow pace won’t be to every taste. There are a lot of scenes that seem superfluous, and the only footage from the director’s extensive animation resume is glimpsed briefly in the finale. But if you ever wondered at the world Miyazaki was trying to honor and recreate and why the films of that one studio have such a consistent beauty and civilized playfulness, “Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” will show you.

3stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, with smoking

Cast: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Hideaki Anno, Toshiro Suzuki

Credits: Written and directed by Mami Sunada. A gKids release.

Running time: 1:57

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Today’s first screening: “Mr. Turner”

Mike Leigh’s bio-pic of Britain’s “greatest artist,” J.M. W. Turner, gives his muse, Timothy Spall, a great star vehicle. A lovely looking period piece performed in almost indecipherable Cockney, or so we’ve been told. Dying to see it, maybe a Mr. Spall interview afterwards? One can hope and ask.

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