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Liam Neeson

Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.

I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen have put their inimitable stamp on just about every film genre there is. Their movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t even really their first attempt at an anthology. They previously turned in a segment in two different anthology collections. The first was for the film Paris, je t’aime, where each story is set in the City of Lights. The second was a three minute short for a film commissioned as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, called Chacun son cinema.

Scruggs, however, is all Coen Brothers, from start to finish. The film contains no out-and-out clunkers, but, as is the case with most anthologies, the whole is a bit uneven.

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Widows

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Widows

It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.

The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.

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Love Actually

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Love Actually

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes… when the month of December rolls around, the need to watch Love Actually is a feeling that grows.  I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times since friends introduced it to me seven or eight years ago. It delivers on that harmless popcorn flick level that never disappoints regardless of how many times you watch it. It’s endlessly quotable, and never fails to get laughs in all the right spots, despite year after year of viewing.

The first scene of the movie, when washed-up rock star Billy Mack attempts a comeback with a yule-themed reworking of The Trogg’s 60s hit Love is All Around, never fails to bring a smile to my face. Most of that joy is created by actor Bill Nighy’s gleefully mischievous performance as Mack. Nighy sinks his teeth into the persona of the has-been rock god like he’s biting into a thick medium-rare steak. I have to wonder if he didn’t serve as an example to the rest of the cast. Everyone involved in Love Actually takes the material they’re given – which is by turns cheesy, silly, funny, and depressing – and together they deliver an unabashedly heartfelt piece of entertainment that doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. When the film leaves Nighy as he hilariously struggles to shoehorn the correct Christmas references into the song, composer Craig Armstrong transforms the melody into a sweeping orchestral piece as we meet the rest of the characters. The joy of that opening montage is infectious, and if you let it work its magic, you realize that love actually is all around.

Director Richard Curtis set out to make the definitive romantic comedy, so he wrote this tale of nine intersecting stories about the trials and tribulations of love set in the month leading up to Christmas. Based on how many knock-offs have come in the dozen years since Love Actually was released, it’s obvious quite a few screenwriters thought Curtis was on to something. From Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve to He’s Just Not that Into You, the formula has been copied, but not as successfully as in Love Actually. Most of that success is thanks to the cast taking Curtis’ over the top situations and creating unforgettable moments with their performances.

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