Lady Bird

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Much like making it to the end of the film, finishing this review will be an emotional triumph for me. Lady Bird put me into a time machine. For an hour and a half, I existed vicariously in a different time and place that was so similar to my own life once.

Coming-of-age stories tend to glamorize actually coming of age. Refreshingly, this one neglects that approach for one that is gracious in its inelegance.

Marion and Larry (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, respectively) — Mar and Lar, as I call them — are heading a household in which their heavily pierced son, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), his equally holey girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), and their daughter, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), miraculously coexist.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) — a name which she has bestowed upon herself — is on the verge of high school graduation, facing the paramount choices every almost-adult must; she could play it safe and attend community college or risk it all for whatever’s behind door number 3.

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A realist with her heart in the right place, her mother discourages any of Lady Bird’s lofty ambitions of attending a decent college, especially after Larry is laid off. LB’s solace exists in high school theater, the dreamboat star thespian, Danny (Lucas Hedges), her BFF Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) predictable self-deprecation, and fleeing Sacramento for greener pastures.

This film is a transcendent experience. The viewer doesn’t necessarily only find common ground with the titular Lady Bird, but with so many of its rich characters. It is intrinsically cast, making these quirky little slightly misshapen pieces form a Kintsugi sort of whole.

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This movie mirrored instances in my life so closely that I had to side-eye Writer/Director Greta Gerwig a little bit. I think she’s been following me. One scene — in the supermarket — shows Lady Bird having the guts to walk right up to Danny and talk to him with heavy eye contact and everything.

My high school crush worked at our grocery store and my mother always had to strike up conversation with him for me. Humiliating at the time, I can see now that those moments are cornerstones in becoming a person in this world.

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All of the treasures that adolescence holds are represented; pressure to be cool, fear of rejection, other-worldly elation after a first kiss, and imploding after your first real heartbreak. Amid the tragedy of youth is the presence of the calamity that exists throughout adulthood and well into old age, as well.

The idea that coming of age happens when we’re young is debunked a bit. The only character in this film who isn’t transitioning any longer and appears sure of herself is stage and screen legend Lois Smith’s.

While my favorite actor of all time, Laurie Metcalf, drew me to this film, the entire cast filled my heart. As your resident score junkie, my face lit up at Jon Brion’s name in the opening credits. The score he composed to accompany Lady Bird on her journey is like one of those intricate garnishes on an elegant dish; a radish sliced perfectly to resemble a rose.

Lady Bird is charming and wistful. It struck a range of emotions in me that was perhaps wider than I’d experienced in one sitting before. One of the warm-ups LB’s theater group does is introduced by their teacher, Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), as a game called Whoever Cries First Wins.

I won.

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Marjorie Prime

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There are countless inevitablilities in life; disappointment, the start of a new day (should we continue to be so fortunate), the barista spelling your name incorrectly on your cup. These unavoidable parts of life keep us on our toes and give birth to statements like, “If it wasn’t this, it would be something else.”

Perhaps the most recurring and absolute of these certainties is, naturally, death. As mortals, each and every one of us faces it as something that will happen. Circumstantial and wildly unknown, expiration isn’t just for dairy.

As human beings, we’re equipped with different emotional ranges and — as such — we all cope with passing from one life to the next in our own way. With the impressive strides in technology, we’re able to accomplish feats that were unthinkable before. For example, in 2012, at the popular music festival, Coachella, a hologram of deceased rapper Tupac was projected on stage for a performance with Snoop Dogg.

What’s to say that a computer couldn’t learn the mannerisms of a loved one who has passed away and take on a holographic form designed by the grieving party as a method of dealing with the loss? That’s precisely what happens in Marjorie Prime.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) lost her husband, Walter (Jon Hamm) 15 years ago. These days, her days are spent with Walter Prime — a handsome, 40-year-old projection of her beloved. Her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) and her son-in-law, John (Tim Robbins), live with her in the gorgeous, serene beach house Walter bought years before.

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While Tess has reservations about her digital dad regaling her ailing mother with stories of their salad days, John spends time with him, teaching Walter the memories he shares with Marjorie.

An information sponge, Walter remembers everything he’s told to appear as hominid as possible to maintain Marjorie’s illusions.

Marjorie Prime is a stunning interpretation of the role memory plays in our lives. Memories — as they are explained by Tess — are never exact. Every time we remember something, we’re remembering the memory, never the event itself. Like a dream that wakes us suddenly and feels as though it is a permanent fixture in our psyche, it, too will become fuzzy and eventually fade away, leaving only spotty remnants.

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I read once, that after heartbreak — when some time has passed — the memories that muster overwhelming sentimental strain, will someday illicit different feelings and no longer create the same ache. While my experience with this idea has proven to hold some truth, the levels of relief vary.

This film features sublime, multi-faceted performances while giving each viewer a different experience. It takes on different shapes for everyone because much of it is left open to interpretation. This was evidenced by the Q&A after the film that stage and screen legend Lois Smith took part in. The audience members around me expressed much different sentiments than the ones I felt, and that’s a remarkable feat for a film.

To achieve a varied visceral response from each person is something that just doesn’t always happen at the movies.

I wanted to ask Lois who would be her date to the Oscars, but I chickened out. That said, my heart will be full on nomination announcement day to see her name on the list.

As your resident score junkie, I must also say that Micachu beautifully captured the emotion of the film. She set a deeply profound emotion to music, making Marjorie Prime a film you don’t just see, but one you feel.

Mudbound

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As we continue to face ubiquitous racism on a day-to-day basis, here in 2017, it’s pretty jarring to see a film that addresses it head-on and realize that — while slavery was abolished so long ago — we haven’t progressed as much as we’d like to think.

Mudbound is the story of a well-read, firey young lady by the name of Laura (Carey Mulligan). Shortly after she meets the man who would become her husband, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), his brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is drafted as a fighter pilot to fly in WWII.

Henry is the type of husband that — here in 2017 — would likely sleep on the sofa pretty often. Back in the Depression Era, a good man was — I guess — even harder to find, and women were staunch believers in the “stand by your man” principle. All of that said, Henry, in bed one night, casually drops into conversation that he’s uprooting their family and moving to a house on the farm he purchased.

I admire Laura for her restraint in not smothering him in the night.

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Piling the kids in the car, along with Henry’s massively bigoted father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), they leave behind their happy home for a new life. Surprise surprise when Henry, the savvy business man he is, finds out he was swindled on the deal and the new home they’re headed for is already inhabited by a man who I would liberally describe as unfriendly.

Fortunately, there’s a house — er, a shack — on the farm that they can stay in. This place can best be described as an oozing hellscape.

Not far from there, in another, smaller home, are the Jacksons. Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) — along with their children — work on the McAllans’ farm, often going above and beyond the call of duty. They, too, are awaiting the safe return of a loved one — their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) — to safely return from the nightmare of war.

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When the day finally arrives that these men come marching home, their reception is lackluster at best, and hostile at worst. Finding camaraderie in their time spent in battle, Ronsel Jackson and Jamie McAllen strike up an unheard of friendship at the dismay of everyone in town, but especially, Pappy.

Their bond will be tested in an excruciating fashion before it’s all said and done.

Mudbound is extraordinarily well done. In a time when our already shaky foundation as a country is crumbling atop a crust of rampant nationalism, this is a film that needs to be seen. Not only is it and incredible story, but it speaks to a three different generations — each of which has their own experience with race riots.

Months ago, Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia and the current “president” defended them. It’s an ongoing problem and movies like Mudbound are profoundly deep statements of the evil that still lurks in broad daylight.

If you disagree, consider this — Jordan Peele’s Get Out is nominated for a Golden Globe for best Comedy. This plight is not satirical. Mudbound is available for streaming on Netflix November 17th.

Murder on the Orient Express

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When my editor assigned me to see this film, all I could think of was Steve Carell as Michael Scott saying, “There’s been a murdah… in Savannah,” and I laughed for three days.

I’ve never read the novel by the same name penned by Agatha Christie, so if we’re being honest, I thought this was another Polar Express movie.

I am an idiot.

Murder on the Orient Express is a whodunit that takes place in 1930s Europe on a train that has been derailed due to an avalanche. With the suspect likely still aboard, passenger and world-famous Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) — who is supposed to be taking a break from cracking cases — is thrust back into his role mostly against his will.

Among the other passengers are a criminal by the name of Rachette (Depp) and his associate, MacQueen (Josh Gad). Ms. Caroline Hubbard (Pfeiffer) — a woman on a husband hunt — and a woman who is already married — to Jesus — Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz).

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A bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked Governess by the name of Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) freely expresses her disdain at the narrow-mindedness of other riders over diversity and the mixing of “white” and “red” wine. Meanwhile, a real life princess (Judi Dench) holds court nearby with her pups and her loyal handler, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

When the body count on the luxurious locomotive goes from zero to one over night, Poirot calls for the assistance of Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) to deduce time of death and other details that might lead to the capture of the killer.

 

Yes, this is a star-studded mystery and feels very much like a game of Clue. While I enjoyed trying to place the assassin’s identity before it was revealed, I found myself swept up in the romantics of it all. Murder on the Orient Express is very much a love story of a different size and shape than we’re used to.

Kenneth Branagh as Poirot is bright, witty, and engaging — and always leaving the viewer wanting more. Branagh has no trouble sitting behind the camera in the Director’s chair and holding his place firmly on-screen. Having a heavy-hitting cast — and seeing these players in roles we’re not accustomed to — adds something truly unique and enjoyable.

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The film is an exercise in right and wrong and leaves the audience feeling wholly fulfilled. A story delivered as only celluloid can, Murder on the Orient Express showcases brilliant cinematography and just the right amount of secrecy to keep you on your toes.

Happy Death Day

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October — in my humble opinion — is the most wonderful time of the year. The days become cooler, pumpkin spice gets its 15 minutes of fame, those Pure Michigan commercials dominate the air waves, and the cinema gets a lot spookier.

During the 10th month on our annual ride around the sun, it seems like our buffer between the movies that didn’t make the Summer Blockbuster cut and the For Your Consideration Oscar Bait movies.

And it. is. glorious.

It’s horror movie season! For four years, Blumhouse gifted me a new Paranormal Activity right around my birthday — October 19th — which just happens to be Michael Myers’ birthday, too. Michael Myers, or, The Shape, terrorized babysitters in the horror staple, Halloween which also came out in October.

Yes, it’s a magical and horrifying time of year.

Anyway, Happy Death Day markets itself as a scary movie, and it is, but it takes a step outside of the typical October theater fare, which is refreshing.

When Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on the morning of her birthday in a mystery man’s dorm after a night of what she can only assume was fun, she’s gotta piece the events of the evening together on her walk of shame back to her sorority house.

I was never in a sorority, but movies sure like to portray “sisters” as vile creatures with a propensity for making the rest of the campus feel plebeian at best. At a house meeting during lunchtime, the head sister, Danielle (Rachel Matthews) — not sure what her title is, queen jerk, maybe? — admonishes a fellow sister for eating. At lunch.

That night, a party is to be held for Tree’s birthday. On her way there, she’s followed by a figure in a mask of the school’s mascot — a baby with a single tooth — and regrettably won’t make it to her own soiree after the big baby stabs her to death.

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Fortunately, she’s playing some sort of real life video game and gets to restart the next day. Confused to wake up in the same dorm with the same guy whose same friend bursts in asking if his friend got that, “fine vagine,” Tree finds her way back to the sorority house and is met with the exact same interactions as the day before.

The day plays out the way the previous one had, verbatim. A tiff with Danielle, a homemade cupcake from her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) that she carelessly throws away, the lunchtime dispute, only this time she makes it to her party… before she gets killed again.

Waking to the same birthday morning phone call from her dad and the same guy whose name she finally learns — Carter (Israel Broussard) — Tree feels as though she’s losing her mind. After revealing everything to Carter, he suggests that she has to find out who is killing her to stop the cycle.

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Running out of lives, Tree will need to do some serious detective work to find out who has it out for her. In the process, she might even learn a little something about herself.

I wish people would stop comparing this movie to Groundhog Day. I thought Happy Death Day had a fresh perspective. It’s reminiscent of your late 90s slasher flicks, interjects a healthy dose of comedy, and even does a little gentle heart-string tugging.

Jessica Rothe — who danced alongside Emma Stone in La La Land — is a pleasure to watch. She’s engaging and dynamic. I’m excited to see what’s next for her.

Anyhoo, get out to see this one. Fun and spooky, Happy Death Day is a the perfect October date night movie. Or, if you’re like me, a good one to go to alone, sneak wine into the theater, and get in touch with your inner “I am woman, hear me roar.”

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American Made

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The last time I saw Tom Cruise in a movie and enjoyed his presence more than resenting it was War of the Worlds. Because this is a film review and not a Tom Cruise think piece, I’ll spare you my personal thoughts and feelings about the guy.

In the 1970s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) was a pilot for commercial airline TWA. Making your average day trips here and there, it would come as quite a surprise when he would be approached by a CIA agent going by Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Shafer recruited Barry to run furtive patrol missions in a small plane with cameras installed, taking photos of operative camps while being shot at.

Unable to tell his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), about his new gig, Barry has to maintain the appearance that he’s still shuttling passengers to places like Bakersfield several times a day.

This would become far more difficult when Shafer tells Barry he’ll now be a courier, running guns to Panama. On one of these trips, the Medellin Cartel picks him up while he’s on the ground trying to fuel up. There, he’d team up with the most notorious Columbian Drug Lord of all time, Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), to fly cocaine into the United States.

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For every two kilos, Barry would be paid handsomely in the form of duffel bags full of what I assume were non-sequential bills. While the CIA would basically ignore Seal’s drug smuggling, the DEA would not. To avoid being found out, Barry picks up his family and moves to a small town called Mena, Arkansas.

Lucy, livid at the fact that she had to pick up and move in the middle of the night to escape a raid, learns of Barry’s new occupation and becomes less and less angry watching him throw rubber-banded stacks of cash around the kitchen where appliances should be. Missing refrigerator? Money. Need a washer? Money. Still mad at me? Money.

Bringing in cash, as he puts it, “faster than he could launder it,” Barry is given new tasks from Shafer. He’s asked to run guns to the Contras — US funded, rightist rebel groups — and even bring them into the United States for training.

Most of them ran as soon as they hit American soil, though.

Everything would soon come crashing down for Barry when he’s caught and arrested. The CIA would halt their ongoing projects with him and when it looked like he’d be going away for a very long time, he would unexpectedly be invited to the White House. He would strike up a deal with them to bring the cartel down. In return, they wouldn’t throw him in prison for the rest of his life.

I truly enjoy biographical films like this one. I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t looking forward to watching Mr. Scientology — sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t — run around for two hours. I’m very pleased — and a little mad at myself — to say that I dug this movie quite a bit.

Cruise shows a side of himself in this movie that is aloof and uncharacteristically goofy and it works out massively in his favor. Sarah Wright was the perfect choice for his other half, as well. She’s no-nonsense and — while she doesn’t have much to work with other than the role of wife and mother — holds her own on-screen beside him.

All in all, I was impressed by how pleased I was leaving the theater. It’s a fascinating story and Doug Liman — who is no stranger to high-octane action flicks and is basically Jason Bourne’s dad — does an excellent job telling it. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you’re stuck for what to see this weekend, check out American Made. It’s actually really good, and you can quote me on that.

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The Mountain Between Us

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The closest I’ve been to a plane crash was on a flight back to Chicago from LA. We were coming in over Lake Michigan and the turbulence was no joke. While I was thinking about how much the airline would charge me for the fingernail damage I was inflicting on my armrests, I was carefully surveying the flight attendants.

I always assume that if they’re not panicking, I shouldn’t either.

I leaned over to my boyfriend at the time and whispered, “I’m just waiting for the oxygen masks to drop.”

His response, without looking up from his book, was, “The masks won’t drop, we’re too low. We’ll just crash into the water.”

I’m too aware of my own mortality to board a 4-person plane, but Kate Winslet didn’t get that memo.

The Mountain Between Us is the story of two strangers faced with travel dilemmas. Ben (Idris Elba) is a surgeon trying to make it to an important procedure for a young patient. Alex (Kate Winslet) is desperate to make it to her own wedding.

Regrettably, the weather never considers our plans. A looming storm has grounded their flights, but when Alex overhears Ben talking to the staff at the airport, she gets an idea. Fantastically enough, she just happens to know a guy with a plane who is crazy enough to take them where they need to go. Forget that silly old storm.

With his canine co-pilot at his side, Walter the Pilot (Beau Bridges) manages to keep them in the air for what seems like a very short time before going down in the mountains somewhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve never been in a plane crash, but I gotta say — this is a pretty tame crash.

Left with bumps and bruises, Ben, Alex, and — best of all — the dog, survive the plane essentially bumping into the mountain. After assessing the situation, tending to Alex’s wounds, building a fire, burying the pilot, and taking inventory of their rations, Ben concludes that they should stay with the wreckage until rescue crews come.

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Alex makes a good point in arguing that their bonehead pilot didn’t make a flight plan, she didn’t tell her fiance, and Ben didn’t call anyone before the flight either. Together, they’ve got to trek down the mountain to the treeline.

With waning assuredness of survival, the pair will have to avoid petty arguments prompted by their less than ideal circumstances and work together to survive the elements.

This movie is equal parts survival/love story. Winslet’s character often talks about her fiance, but her words seem to fall on deaf ears. She gently prods about Ben’s wife, but doesn’t get much out of him. Naturally, she resorts to the equivalent of going through his phone when he steps out of the room and is awkwardly caught.

Her explanation: she wants to get to know the man she might die with.

Sometimes, when I cross the big bridges in downtown Chicago at the same time as a bus, the ground under my feet gives just a bit with the weight of the 12-ton juggernaut beside me and I look around to see the faces of the other people I’m about to die with.

A bridge I’ve been walking hasn’t collapsed yet, but in that moment, I don’t want to know anything about those other faces. Perhaps a snowy mountain setting elicits a more… romantic state of mind. Falling through a bridge into the stinky Chicago River probably isn’t quite the same.

Enough about me. Ben and Alex clearly have some sort of bond, but to the viewer, it feels wholly synthetic. My primary concern throughout was for the dog, naturally. Alex is portrayed as a woman in need of saving. This film does a poor job of fleshing things out. When I say that, I mean that it happily glosses over things that it just doesn’t feel like explaining.

Ben saves Alex so many times that I started a tally sheet. I came up with seven. She comes to his rescue all of one time. Unless you mean that she rescued him in a larger sense. Then it’s two.

Over all, Mountain feels a bit scattered and misinformed. Ben and Alex have a relationship that feels overly saccharine and the story just tries too hard to do too much. At the end of the day, the dog survives. And that’s all I really cared about in the first place.

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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I’ve found, over decades of watching movies, that films boasting non-stop action are often not so exciting once you’ve shelled out your $12. If you promise me explosions, cars somersaulting through the air, or monsters grappling on the streets of a major city, I’m anticipating having my face blown clear off of my head.

Sometimes, trailers like to turn my internet browser into a house of lies. Examples that come to mind: Pacific Rim, Battle L.A., Transformers II and IV, Sucker Punch, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Then, there are trailers that deliver what they promise. Movies like Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Oops! Did I name all Matthew Vaughn movies? Do you know why I did that? Because he and his go-to stunt coordinator, Bradley James Allen, are like the Steven Spielberg and John Williams of the genre. They know how to blow your hair back, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle is no different.

Golden Circle picks up a year after Galahad (Colin Firth) involuntarily and violently retired, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) taking over his role. When he’s attacked in front of the titular storefront by former Kingsman intern, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), Eggsy narrowly escapes and, in classic Kingsman style, shakes off the ambush in order to make dinner with his girlfriend, Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), and her parents.

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Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful drug lord, Poppy (Julianne Moore) — living on her own 50s movie-style compound complete with its own diner, salon, and theater — has some pretty dreadful plans. Masquerading as a pharmaceuticals company by the name of The Golden Circle, Poppy has the junkies of the world wrapped around her warped, sadistic little finger. After wiping out Kingsman HQ, she’ll have the leverage she needs to make some demands.

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The only surviving members, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) follow Doomsday Protocol, jetting them stateside to a bourbon whiskey distillery called Statesman. After getting rocked by a southern charmer with a big gun who goes by Tequila (Channing Tatum), they learn that Statesman is an American organization much like their own.

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Statesman head, Champagne (Jeff Bridges), briefs the team on the Golden Circle business and pairs them up with agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Tequila was supposed to join them, but comes down with something and is left under Ginger Ale’s (Halle Berry) careful watch. While showcasing her prowess in tech support, she remains oppressively behind-the-scenes. The guys will need to reach Poppy’s undisclosed whereabouts to basically save the world. Obviously.

Golden Circle was the most fun I’ve had at the theater since Baby Driver and Free Fire before that. It’s rife with savagery both in combat and dialogue in the best way possible. This installment of Kingsman is impressively witty and comes chockablock with white-knuckle fighting, out-of-nowhere absurdity, and a script that would make any screenwriter swoon.

Based on the characters from The Secret Service comics written by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Golden Circle gives new life to the Kingsman franchise. I, unlike some other Chicago based critics, understand and appreciate that the movie thrives on outlandish bloodshed and whimsical satire.

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If Golden Circle is any indication of things to come, writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman should just never part. The screenplay — coupled with brilliant cinematography, of course — makes a 2 hour and 21 minute runtime feel like half of that and leaves you wanting more.

And, not that it needs to be said, but the cast is an absolute treat. Nobody plays a sociopath quite like Julianne Moore.

Best of all, as your resident score junkie, I was over the moon that Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson came back to compose for this installment. Though they aren’t niche composers, but they do have one helluva a knack.

I’m thrilled that this movie is hitting theaters and everyone can go see it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year and meant to be seen in Dolby. If you’re heading to the theater to see it this weekend, you might just see me there since I’ll be seeing it at least twice more before it leaves the big screen. I’ll be the girl in the “TARON EGERTON IS A BABE” t-shirt. See you at the movies!