Netflix Review: “Jerry Before ‘Seinfeld'” gives us autobiography, and his Greatest Hits


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Back when he made his documentary about the calling, the life and the difficult work that being a stand-up comedian is “Comedian,” Jerry Seinfeld gave voice, in interviews (with me and others) that his sole ambition, after his wildly successful sitcom ended, was to get back to performing live.

It wasn’t about money. He’s been stupidly rich since “Seinfeld.” And it wasn’t really about ego. Well, maybe a little. He wanted to go back to playing live shows — trying out material in small clubs, touring it in pricier venues — for the ongoing challenge, the need to work and to set in stone his place in the stand-up continuum.

He idolizes the great comics of his youth, who did TV shows, made movies and the like. But what he most admired and identified with was the work ethic, the compulsion to perform, process of finding an observation, seeing what’s funny in and polishing that into a comic gem that fit in with a whole set — a routine.

“Comedian” — hunt it down if you missed it, most people did — was the most naked we’ll ever see him, stumbling through sets with note cards, “starting over” the hard way in tiny clubs, failing to get laughs, losing his place. Failing.

In the years since, he’s done more TV — failed shows that one suspects he was begged to do by a desperate network — and the hilarious and off-the-cuff web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” But those are just play. The real work is going on tour, like Robert Klein and George Carlin, David Steinberg, Phyllis Diller and Shelly Berman and even Henny Youngman before him — a road warrior, a comic survivor.

“Jerry Before ‘Seinfeld'” is a Netflix special that lets Jerry tell the story of his career, to visit the childhood home in Massepequa, Long Island, where he discovered there was this thing called “stand-up” by watching Ed Sullivan and “The Tonight Show.”

And it takes him back to the club where he auditioned, got his start and worked “for FREE” — New York’s Comic Strip — back 1976.

Jerry Before Seinfeld

There aren’t a lot of interviews. Plenty of TV documentaries have covered that ground. There’s just a stage, a few props (Whoa!) and the decades-polished Jerry more or less running through his Greatest Hits.

There’s new material here, but in telling the Cliff Notes/Funny Bits version of his autobiography, “engaged at 29,” etc., he showcases “my first joke” on stage that worked — the big about “left handed” and all the negative connotations we attach to “left.” And his “second joke.”

And there are all the jokes he doesn’t ID as “oldies but goodies,” the bits about the secret ambitions of clothes, socks “making a break for it” from the dryer. I watched this, and flipped on “Seinfeld” re-runs, and there much of this material existed in a previous form — the stand-up bits that opened and closed the seminal 1990s series.

Of course the jokes themselves are even older than that — dating back to their stand-up origins in the ’70s and ’80s (He made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1981).

I’ve always connected Seinfeld, in my mind, with his pal Jay Leno — guys who love the work,the challenge of getting a laugh out of a fresh audience every night. “Jerry Before ‘Seinfeld'” — which flashes on images of his idols and his contemporaries — Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman and others — connects him more closely with those who developed an act and more or less stayed with it.

It’s not contemporary. There’s never a hint of politics. Every joke made at his expense, on “Seinfeld,” from “When’re you coming up with some new material?” to “Is it another ‘Didya ever NOTICE?'” — lands hard and true.

I once sat in a hotel bar in LA in the early 1990s, swapping notes with fellow entertainment journalists about the “worst” (toughest) interviews we’d ever had. Seinfeld, especially pre-“Seinfeld” topped the list. Angry, testy, dismissive. He’s not that way (much) any more. The confidence and ease of success rubbed some of that off. The shortest stand-up interview I ever had was with him in 1988, just before the series came out.

So if you’re curious enough to learn about the “real” Seinfeld — and the unguarded Jerry can be testy and still doesn’t want the world poring over his personal life, professional rivalries and romantic history — you’re going to have to go someplace else. Because unless your memory’s going (Whose isn’t?), nothing here will surprise you enough to get a fresh laugh.


Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Brogan, Mark Schiff

Directed by Michael Bonfiglio, written by Jerry Seinfeld. A Netflix production.

Running time: 1:02

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Movie Review: “Beach Rats” find it almost as hard to come out of the closet as ever.


Over the decades, “queer cinema” has largely confined itself to three basic plots.

There were dramas about about transgression, furtive love or lust, and persecution for “the love that dare not speak its name.” “Prick Up Your Ears” and most genre films that preceded it fell in this category.

There were the “embodiment of gay” frolics/weepers, all cinematic sons and daughters of “The Boys in the Band” or “The Birdcage.”

And there was the longest running trope of all, the melodrama (or comedy) of “confusion and discovery.” It’s the most popular gay sub-genre, so commonplace that “In & Out” could knowingly send it up during the Golden Age of “Will & Grace,” twenty years ago.

“Beach Rats” revisits that pain of confusion, parking a gay teen smack in the middle of an age of “alleged” tolerance, but running with the pack — Coney Island punks whose reaction we can guess if Frankie (Harris Dickerson) was to reveal his true nature to his pack.

They swim at the beach, hang around the amusement park where they compare skills and feats of strength in the arcade. They share drugs — pot and whatever pills Frankie steals that are meant to ease his comatose father’s pain as he dies of cancer.

And they check out the girls who come to check out the fireworks, brag about conquests and peer pressure each other as they do.


This is where pretty boy Frankie edges into the background. They don’t need to know about the Brooklyn Boys live sex chat room where he hangs out.

“Do you like what you see?” the stripped online cruisers (most of them older than Frankie) want to know.

“I don’t really know what I like.” At least he’s being honest. He’s curious.

But crossing paths with the “intimidatingly pretty girl” Simone (Madeline Weinstein) forces his hand. The boy with “the sad blue eyes” meets the girl all the other boys salivate over “on the boardwalk, under the fireworks.”

And he can’t admit that’s romantic. He’d rather be rude to her than risk humiliation and exposure when forced to put up or shut up.

That’s the core conflict writer-director Eliza Hittman (“It Felt Like Love”) digs into. And the choice she parks in front of her hero is frankly, a bit out of date and problematic.

Frankie can take on a “relationship” with a beauty who might meet the approval of his grieving mom (Kate Hodge). Or he can wholly commit to a life of sordid highway rest-stop hook-ups arranged with online gay exhibitionists with a taste for the old-fashioned danger of anonymous rough trade.

Take Simone on dates, convince himself to have sex with her, look troubled at every other image of a “normal” couple they pass by (his kid sister is just starting her own romantic life). Or haunt the night with strangers, learning about his sexuality with creeps.

To make up for her frankly-retro and problematic storyline, Hittman (“It Felt Like Love”) paints in a just-out-of-high-school world of Brooklyn’s “Avenue Z,” vape shops, hot dog stands, limited Coney Island horizons and the extremes these “Beach Rats” will go to in order to score something to smoke, pop or snort.

Frankie does what teens have always done — just tries to fit in. And if that means sex with a girl, that’s less risky than being found out.

The melodramatic possibilities here, given the circumstances our writer-director sets up, never lapse into The Dark Old Days. She revels in showing us full frontal nudity and gay sex, along with attitudes that aren’t anywhere near society’s current sexual cutting edge.

“Two girls making out? That’s hot,” Simone explains. “Two guys? That’s just gay.”

There’s nothing new here. This isn’t daring in the way  “L.I.E.” was, or decades of gay films before it might have been. But this gritty, cell-phone video-quality drama does a more than passable job of renewing an exploration of the trauma of coming out, decades after Ellen, “Will & Grace” and Harvey Fierstein singing torch songs.


MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Cast: Harris Dickerson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Harrison Sheehan

Credits:Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:38

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Box Office: “Kingsman” is crowned, “LEGO” limps in, “Friend Request” deleted

box1The “excruciating” “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” was on pace late Thursday and all through Friday to hit the $40 million mark on its opening weekend.

If it doesn’t, blame word-of-mouth. Reviews aren’t killing it, but they’re not complimenting the tastes of those who go for this.

“The LEGO Ninjago Movie” is pointing towards the end of these movies, once consigned to direct-to-video, as a franchise. Sales of LEGO toys have been in free fall. Maybe there’s a connection. The movie might clear $22 million with a big Saturday. But there’s no sense of pent-up demand. This ship has sailed.

As I mentioned in my review of “Friend Request,” the “social media will get you killed” thing is totally played. They were even going to call this “Unfriended,” like several other horror pics on the same general subject before it.

Thus, nobody is going to see it. No one. A theater-chain owned studio couldn’t shove this down our throats, and if it sells $2 million in tickets, it’ll be a miracle.

Another big weekend for “It,” which should clear the $300 million mark sometime NEXT weekend.

“Stronger,” an Oscar contender, opened very well in very limited release — cracking the top ten.


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Movie Review: Harry Dean Stanton takes a deserved curtain call as “Lucky”


In his seven decades as a movie and TV star, Harry Dean Stanton rarely had to carry a picture. Stanton, who died earlier this month at the ripe old age of 91, was a character actor — the consummate supporting player who brought a weathered, Okie authenticity to just a scene or two, a few mere lines in classic films and indie experiments, from “Cool Hand Luke” to “Alien,” “The Rose” to “Seven Psychopaths.”

But the Kentucky good’ol boy could carry a picture on those rare occasions somebody asked. And fortunately, somebody did with “Lucky.”

It’s a wistful character sketch about extreme old age and solitude, following a quite elderly man through his circumscribed daily routine as he is finally forced to think of his own mortality.

There isn’t much story. The scenes are mostly anecdotes and monologues — supporting performers play characters who have one big speech they can sink their teeth into. No, it’s not particularly consequential.

But it’s a tour de force for Stanton, purposefully plodding forward, a sagebrush philosopher giving his valedictory performance, a lovely curtain call that bookends with his other famous shot at leading man — “Paris, Texas.”

Another character actor, John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac,” this year’s “The Founder”) directed it, and he lets the camera be fascinated with simple details of he life of this World War II vet in the dying desert southwest hamlet he calls home.

The days start with Tejano music, light calisthenics and a cigarette. Lucky then dons his uniform — real cowboy jeans, boots and a battered straw hat — and walks to town. They know him at the diner. His sugar-loaded coffee is parked at his seat the moment he walks in.

“Lucky, you know you can’t smoke in here.”

He’s a regular at the convenience store where he stocks up on cigarettes.

“Well, I gotta go. My shows are on.”

Midday quiz programs and crossword puzzles make him philosophical.

“Reality is a thing!”

He shares those conclusions at night, when he makes his way to Elaine’s bar for his “Bloody Maria.” That’s where the sometimes profane bar-stool soliloquies kick in.

Elaine (Beth Grant) tells her pistol-packing barmaid tales, her “man” (James Darren) repeats the story of how they met and she saved him.

Vincent (Hugo Armstrong) wrestles with Lucky’s concept of “reality.” And Howard (director turned actor David Lynch) sidles up to share the latest misadventures of President Roosevelt, his “escaped” desert tortoise.


It’s amazing what can happen in a bar that doesn’t have a TV in every corner, where the drinkers are social and know when to say “when.”

The big dramatic incident in this tiny world is Lucky fainting. A visit to the dryly sarcastic doc (Ed Begley Jr.) ensues. And a series of testy encounters with an estate planning lawyer (Ron Livingston).

What they were shooting for here is variation on “The Straight Story,” Lynch’s wry comedy about a retired farmer who rides a lawnmower hundreds of miles to visit his ailing brother. Stanton had a supporting role in that, and Lucky has an encounter with a fellow WWII vet (Tom Skerritt) that closely copies one in that Richard Farnsworth farewell film.

“Lucky” isn’t as witty as that film, and it lacks the dramatic drive that a quest tale (even on a lawnmower) provides. The cast is mostly filled with former Stanton colleagues, old admirers back to tip their hat to him.

But Stanton gets to show us everything he’s got just one last time — the weary whimsy, the feisty combativeness, the soulful harmonic player and singer. He gets to deliver one or two last surprises as a character and a character actor, including the most poetic scene of his career.

And as “Lucky” winds down, it turns out that this is enough. Every great character player deserves a custom-fit curtain call just like this.


MPAA Rating:

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston

Credits: Directed by John Carroll Lynch, written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:28

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Box Office: “Kingsman” and “LEGO the Latest” set to skip past “It”

boxoffice3Mixed reviews — OK pans — aren’t expected to tamp down turnout for “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and “The LEGO Ninjanga Movie” this weekend.

Both are predicted to best “It” in its third weekend of release. But will the clear the mid-30s? $40 even?

Box Office Mojo is bullish on the BS “Kingsman,” which is going to take it in the crotch via word of mouth by Sat. It had a $3.4 million Thursday, largely based on Fox owned Rotten Tomatoes pimping this Fox fiasco with cherry picked pre-release reviews. Take away the pre-Monday reviews, and this dog would have “DANGER Will Robinson!” signs all over it.

$45 million, says BOmojo.  Mojo is also predicting a whopping $35 million for the poorly reviewed pander-to-Chinese audience “LEGO” lamo. 

Box Office Guru is considerably more sober-minded about the two biggest releases this weekend. The Guru is saying $34 million for “Kingsman: The Sequel,” and $29 million for “Ninjanga.” Good news for Hollywood, after the summer that just ended. But “It” is the real cash cow, with another $20 million expected this weekend.

“Stronger,” the first great film of the fall, is only on 500 or so screens, and will crack the Top Ten — no more.


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Movie Review: Justin Long suffers as the ex at the wedding who came quite “Literally, Right Before Aaron”


American romantic comedies that even halfway work are so rare that one which manages a little pathos and maybe five actual belly-laughs should be cut a little slack.

Which could be Justin Long’s motto as a leading man. No, that’s not mean — or any meaner than the “Poor Man’s John Cusack” mantle he’s worn among the movie reviewing classes the past — oh — 20 years or so. And that’s only mean until you think about it and then agree with it.

Long is the hapless ex invited to his longtime love’s San Francisco nuptials, the guy she dated for eight years, “Literally, Right Before Aaron” whom Allison is about to marry.

Allison is played by Cobie “How I Met Your Mother” Smulders. So you can understand the look of distress Adam (Long) wears, first scene to last, in this rom com.

She’s the one who got away. Everybody knows it. They can’t help but rub his nose in it.

“Hey, didya hear what I said to ‘SECOND PLACE’ over here?”

But in a situation that exists ONLY in the movies — going back way before “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — she wants Adam at her wedding, that whole “I don’t want you to hate me…I’m going to be at YOUR wedding, you HAVE to come to mine.”

Really? Quick show of hands, how often has that happened at a wedding you went to? Never mind — DKDC. Because if there’s one thing the movies teach us about this obviously bad idea that so many movie characters go for, it’s that it’s a bad idea for a reason.

Adam consults with friends (John Cho, Charlene Yi, the wisdom of the East?). He goes in spite of their advice. He takes time off from editing a goofy adventures in nature TV series (Peter Gallagher is the screwball host), packs his 1970s VW Beetle (a “car with character”) and heads north. He lies to people he runs into — an old college pal (Malcolm Barrett) and even his mom (Lea Thompson), about his reasons for being there.

And he pines pines pines for Allison, even though he has to see how the “good at everything” hunk Aaron (Ryan Hansen) she’s tying the knot with is a step or two up from him.

Actor-turned-writer/director Ryan Eggold finds his laughs around the periphery of Adam/Long’s perpetual look of sucker-punched shock. There’s the current girlfriend (Briga Heelan) Adam riffs an impromptu proposal to — “What else IS there, right?” — only to break up with her the very next breath.

Cho’s character’s “intervention” involves tough love, bowling and a few dope slaps.

And Luis Guzman makes a third act appearance as the wise Latino cook who offers champagne and pet goldfish homilies to help Adam cope, upon seeing Adam’s stricken face.

“Somebody kill your cat?”


None of which really fixes him. Because, come on, it’s COBIE SMULDERS. If “How I Met Your Mother” taught us nothing else, it’s that she’s the Queen of Heartbreak — embodying it, or causing it.

And if the movie finds its pathos and laughs around the edges, “Literally, Right Before Aaron” finds its easy if limited appeal outside the Hollywood mainstream, where “Home Again” is somebody’s idea of what a romantic comedy should be these days.

No. As Shakespeare declared, there shalt be no rom-com without a wedding, no wedding without a wedding interrupted and no interruption that isn’t made funnier by the Great Luis Guzman.


MPAA Rating:

Cast: Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, Lea Thompson, Ryan Dana Delaney

Credits:   A Screen Media release.

Running time:

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Movie Review: Middle-aged Stiller laments “Brad’s Status”


Ben Stiller gives his most soulful, vulnerable performance ever in his new film, “Brad’s Status.” Writer-director Mike White (“The Good Girl,” “Year of the Dog”) has conjured up a gentle, realistic and melancholy midlife for Stiller to act out, one that cuts awfully close to the bone for him, and us.

Remember Randy Newman’s acrid take on the pointlessness of the purposeful life, “It’s Money that Matters?” “Status” is like that, a further exploration of Stiller’s wasted-life worries of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young.”

To say that it’s no surprise that Stiller announced he’s divorcing longtime wife Christine Taylor with this film freshly in the can isn’t a cheap shot. The performance is that studied, unsettling enough to let us think Stiller was brooding on this very subject.

Brad Sloan, who narrates his story start to finish, has the sense that “the world was rubbing my nose in something.” And that something is what therapists call “relative deprivation.” He’s not kept up with his high-flying college classmates.

One’s a former White House spokesman and best-selling political writer (Michael Sheen) always on TV. Another’s a rich movie director (Mike White) whose mansion is on the cover of “Architectural Digest.”

There’s the tech guru (Jemaine Clement) who retired at 40 and lives in Maui with two nubile young women.

And a hedge fund manager (Luke Wilson) with his own private jet and designer upper class family finishes off the quartet of envy.

Brad’s starting to realize that running an online non-profit consulting firm in Sacramento — “a secondary market” — mediocrity incarnate, where he’s “surrounded by beta males” — weren’t the best choices. Wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer, where’ve you been since “The Office?”) may be happy and satisfied. But Brad seethes over the lack of status, the absence of luxury in their lives, the petty indignities inflicted on people whom the service sector figures they can dismiss.

Hell, he can’t even upgrade their plane tickets when he takes his musician son (Austin Abrams) to Boston to visit colleges Brad could never get into.

This trip — they plan to hit Harvard, Tufts, Amherst and Williams — is eye-opening for Brad. His boy Troy may be affect a laid-back attitude, but it’s obvious his dad’s been too self-absorbed to be fully tuned in to the kid’s life.

As in, he’s applied to Harvard, and just might get in. The kid dismisses even bothering with Yale. He’s a prodigy and a scholar. Brad? He’s a newspaper journalist laid-off into non-profit work. He desperately wanted to go to Yale.

White may rely entirely too much on interior monologues — Brad fretting that “the world hated me, and the feeling was mutual.” But he’s cooked up a vivid flesh-and-blood portrait of angst for the angsty-Stiller to play. Brad fantasizes the paths he might have taken, about the “easy” lives of those ex-classmates, veers between envy and schadenfreude in his obsessions about them. His “advice” to a Harvard friend of Troy’s (Shazi Raja) is a cry for help, a lament filled with self-pitying white privilege.

“You have enough,” she assures him, a sobering put-down if ever there was one.

And Brad passes on his case of nerves and fear for the stakes they’re playing for to his son, who speaks frankly to the old man, but whose passive exterior can’t disguise his rising concern that Dad is desperate to live vicariously through him.

The old classmates have revealing encounters with Brad, and White and Stiller make us squirm with the discomfort Brad feels at these renewed contacts. Will he accept his place with them, voice his resentment or lash out?

It’s Ben Stiller. What do you think will he’ll do?

But that’s a marvel of this intimate chamber piece of a comedy. White finds ways for Stiller to surprise us, and the veteran actor manages to hide his cards in scene after scene, letting us keep up with him, but never ever allowing us to guess where his emotions will take him next, and what form they’ll take.


MPAA Rating: R for language

Cast: Ben Stiller, Jenna Fischer, Austin Abrams, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen

Credits: Written and directed by Mike White. An Amazon Studios release.

Running Time: 1:41

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Movie Review: Murder makes a “Friend Request”

The horror trope that “social media can get you killed” has already led to assorted thrillers with the title “Unfriended,” one of them popular enough to warrant “Unfriended 2.” So that working title for the movie that became “Friend Request” had to be abandoned.

But not the basic Spawn of Agatha Christie (and Poe before her) plot — a killer picking off your “friends list,” with, of course, a supernatural twist.

After a stylish opening, which director Simon Verhoeven (son of Michael, director of the German classics “The Nasty Girl” and “The White Rose”) uses the morbidly Gothic animations of our villain to establish her talent, loneliness and twisted state of mind, the picture turns strictly paint-by-numbers, with each “shocking” jolt and death less hair-raising than the one before it.

It’s about the most popular girl in college, stalked by a disturbed classmate whom she then unfriends. Ms. Popularity soon finds her “friends list” shrinking as she loses control of her social media accounts, and as tormentor kills those closest to her — after that tormentor’s death.

Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) lives her life on social media — the parties with her Newkirk (California) College roommates (Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham), her romance with the med student (William Moseley) and the friendship with the tech nerd (Conor Paolo) who never quite got over her. 

Laura’s a psyche major and a nice kid, which is why she accepts the friend request from creepy, pale hoodie-obsessed Ma Rina (Liesl Ahlers). As no good deed in our privacy-ending era goes unpunished, Ma Rina, who manically yanks out her hair (“Trichotillomania,” Laura correctly diagnoses) clings to her one-and-only online “friend.”



Until turning on that friend, and then killing herself, something she video recorded for the whole campus to see. Laura is set up to lose every friend — real and online — she has, one way or the other.

Verhoeven (the German film “Men in the City” is his major credit) has no ear for colloquial English. Whatever morbid jokes the script (which he co-wrote) tries to pass off, he fails to get a take out of his actors that lets the funny line land.

All the frights are of the flash-edit cheap surprise variety, and none of the performers manage to break through the empathy barrier, save for Debnam-Carey, and that’s more a function of the character than a tribute to the performance of the Australian from “Fear the Walking Dead.”

With no real suspense and little empathy, “Friend Request” devolves into your standard horror cast-killer time-killer. There are more frights in the trailers for upcoming Halloween horror films preceding showings of this — “Jigsaw” and “Happy Death Day” among them.


MPAA Rating: R for horror violence, disturbing images, and language

Cast: Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Conor Paolo 

Credits:  Simon Verhoeven,  script by Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch and Simon Verhoeven. An Entertainment Studios release.

Running Time: 1:32

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Movie Preview: “Murder on the Orient Express” puts the old in “old fashioned?”

It’s always a call for celebration when a major studio puts money and effort behind a picture aimed at an audience over the age of 25. But the second “Murder on the Orient Express” trailer underlines some pretty big questions about the movie. Only one matters.

Is it aimed at an audience that no longer exists? Didn’t Agatha Christie’s fanbase die out with the rest of the WWII generation? Does anyone read her any more?

And her “Ten Little Indians” style of murder mystery is a cliche of a cliche — even with Branagh, Dench, Dafoe, Pfeiffer, Cruz, Depp, etc. in the cast. This feigned Belgian accent intoning “Everyone on board…is a suspect” is hoary beyond belief.

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Movie Preview: Wes Anderson goes a little darker, a lot Japanese with the stop-motion “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson’s latest is set in a Japan where dogs have been exiled to a garbage island, where a 12 year-old dodges the quarantine in search of his pet.

Bryan Cranston is the one voice that stands out in the cast. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig — the usual hip lineup.

The writing may be uneven, just judging from the trailer. “Living, even at this moment, as a captive prisoner” is redundant. But it looks to be touching and witty.

“Isle of Dogs” arrives next year.

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