Let’s try something new today — a series of shorter reviews for everything I’ve been watching.
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“The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” (B-) is the latest entry in the media franchise based on toy bricks for children, and it's a testament both to how clever these movies are and how exhausting their rapid-fire mayhem becomes after about 30 minutes.
Five years after the first “Lego Movie,” the Duplo invaders have destroyed Bricksburg. Emmet, Lucy and Batman (Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett) now live a “Mad Max”-ian existence in Apocalypseburg. An evil queen (Tiffany Haddish) advances the plot. If everyone can’t get along, the Our-mom-ageddon is coming. The moral: Be nice to your little sister or these Legos are going right into storage, mister.
There are too many musical numbers in this movie, too many characters and gags and far too many minutes. But for a family film, it has a pleasing madness to it. Velociraptors pilot a spaceship. Pratt voices a second character named Rex “Machete Ninja Star” Dangervest. Bruce Willis does a cameo as Lego Bruce Willis.
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
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From the writer/director of “Nightcrawler,” “Velvet Buzzsaw” (C) is a caustic, contemptuous and, for a while, pretty fun satire of the L.A. art scene. Every character is a sociopath screwing over everyone else for status and profit. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a prissy critic who believes that a bad review is at least “better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity.” (He's right.) Rene Russo is a viciously competitive gallery owner, John Malkovich an abstract artist who’s lost his muse.
They're selfish caricatures who espouse cool cynicism like: “None of this is new. It’s been done since someone charged a bone to see the first cave painting. What cave are you showing in?”
One of the characters finds a cursed collection of paintings that kill anyone who profits from them. It becomes a blah-blah Blumhouse horror movie. “Velvet Buzzsaw” never loses its sour wit. But it never discovers a reason to be 113 minutes long, either. Rated R. Streaming on Netflix.
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The Netflix Fyre Fest documentary, “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (B), deals in a different kind of caricature. Two kinds, actually: tech bros and the rich (and generally white) 20-somethings they con. “Fyre” is a cautionary tale for people who would spend thousands of dollars to attend a music event co-created by Ja Rule and an iPhone app.
The film captures the anxiety of waiting for something you know is gonna go horribly wrong go horribly wrong. You see that apprehension on the face of everyone in the film not named Billy McFarland. One Fyre employee calls it “the persistent feeling of growing dread.”
McFarland himself is mousy and awkward, but it’s not hard to see why people follow him: He’s a liar who sells pipe dreams to unhappy people. That’s always a good business plan. Rated TV-MA. Streaming on Netflix.
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“Generation Wealth” (B-) would make for a nice and despairing pairing with “Fyre.” Both docs find pathos and horror in the excesses of our irredeemably dumb culture. Director Lauren Greenfield takes a broad approach, interviewing people obsessed with money, status or, in one case, getting gruesome plastic surgery in Brazil. She interviews rich people and aspiring rich people, each unhappy in predictable ways.
She talks to leftist writer Chris Hedges, who says: “The only social mobility you have is fictitious.”
But it’s important for a documentary to offer differing perspectives, so she also talks to Limo Bob, owner of the world’s longest limousine, which includes a swimming pool and a helicopter landing pad. Limo Bob regularly wears 33 pounds of gold and diamonds. This is Limo Bob’s truth: “When you pull up in a limousine, they don’t know who you are but they think you’re someone.”
Rated R. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
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If “Fyre” and “Generation Wealth” poke fun at the folly of American values, Bing Liu’s documentary “Minding the Gap” (A) shows us what society would rather ignore: poor people struggling in America.
Liu points his camera at his own troubled life, along with those of his skater friends Zack and Kiere. Liu has been chronicling their stories for much of his life, giving the film 12 years of footage to work with. It follows the trio from their teens through their 20s.
“Minding the Gap” examines race and poverty (and skateboarding) in America without the use of talking heads or statistics or animated graphics. Just a few good-hearted young men, each trapped in cycles of violence and abuse. It's bleak, sure, but it’s also a life-affirming, even joyous tribute to the makeshift families who support us when our real ones aren’t up to it.
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I’d grown so disinterested in new TV shows that when I found one I love, Netflix’s “Russian Doll” (A-), I knocked it out in a weekend. The series takes the “Groundhog Day” premise and runs with it in fascinating new directions. Natasha Lyonne (who co-created the series) plays a jerk living in New York who can’t stop dying. After each death, she resets to her 36th birthday party. Each new iteration, she tries to figure out why this is happening and how to break out of the loop. It’s a hilarious mix of sweetness and snark that eventually gives way to horror. The finale not only attempts something I’ve never seen a TV show do before. It sticks the landing. After you finish it, you want to rewatch it all over again, just to see how all the pieces matter. Rated TV-MA. First season streaming on Netflix.
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I’ve been re-watching “Deadwood” and “The Sopranos” this winter, and I just re-finished Season 3 of the latter (A) and it got me wondering ... Was this the best season of the best TV show of all time? Was “Pine Barrens” the best episode of the best season of the best TV show of all time?
Every good show that came in the wake of “The Sopranos” was a deconstruction of each individual piece that made the show great. “Mad Men” had that moody literary quality. “Breaking Bad” had the potboiler stuff. Countless shows have aped the crime, violence and macabre comedy. But no show since has been so complete. “The Sopranos” was the everything show, wherein almost any given scene could be taken as dead-serious drama or a satire of American life or both or neither. Streaming on HBO and Amazon Prime.
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“Cold War” (B+) was just nominated for the best director, cinematography and foreign-language film Oscars, and you can see why. Shot in black-and-white and in the boxy Academy ratio, Pawel Pawlikowski’s period drama doesn’t possess a frame that isn’t beautiful, interesting or packed with meaning. It’s about a pair of musicians in Cold War Poland who end up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Years pass. They push each other away and come back together again and repeat the process as politics and world power dynamics shift beneath their feet. The lovers are prone to inscrutable behavior, but when actress Joanna Kulig stands on top of a bar and dances to “Rock Around the Clock,” all is well and cinema makes sense again. Unrated.
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I received an email (B+) from a reader who posed the question: “I see you graded the movie 'Vice' as a D. Then why has it been nominated for best picture? I saw it last weekend and found it interesting but not worthy of a best picture Oscar.”
My answer, I suppose, is that the Academy likes to award best picture nominations to movies that seem like best picture nominees — that have the right pieces: a great cast, important subject matter — without stopping to wonder if the movie they watched was actually any good.
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If they can make a $1 billion movie franchise about toy bricks, then they can make a Dwayne Johnson/Jason Statham “Fast & Furious” spinoff in which Idris Elba plays a villain with bulletproof skin. The new “Hobbs & Shaw” trailer (A) makes this look like a “Tango & Cash” remake. Two rogues who don’t play well with others are forced to team up. Vanessa Kirby as their babysitter. Fast cars, bad one-liners, muscular bald men bickering. And not a Vin Diesel in sight. The rare example of our irredeemably dumb culture working for good. There is no other movie coming out in 2019. Only “Hobbs & Shaw.” Available on Internet.