California Typewriter
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated by MPAA.
Theater: Edina.


Documentarian Doug Nichol’s debut full-length film celebrates the surprising staying power of a technology that has become almost — but not quite — obsolete. “California Typewriter” is a love letter to an antiquated device that retains its charm and utility even in the digital age.

The heart of the film is an Oakland repair shop from which the movie gets its name. Owner Herb Permillion III takes pride in a skill that is all but extinct. It’s mesmerizing to watch Permillion and a crew of dedicated craftsmen take apart these ingeniously constructed machines, which were once ubiquitous. Nichol easily could have focused only on Permillion’s business as a way of looking at the history of the typewriter and the dizzying range of designs.

Instead, the movie takes some long detours to visit with typewriter enthusiasts. Singer-songwriter John Mayer argues for the machine as a potent creative tool, but he seems oddly unengaged with Nichol’s camera. Actor Tom Hanks shows off his collection of about 250 vintage machines; it’s interesting but not particularly insightful. Artist Jeremy Mayer, who makes found-object sculptures out of discarded typewriter parts, ends up talking more about his financial struggles. A saving grace is the late playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who talks about how the slower speed of a typewriter compared with a computer makes people think more as they write.

The film would benefit from a tighter focus. Although many of its subjects are endearing, the scattered approach undermines Nichol’s point about the simple endurance of an artifact.
Pat Padua, Washington Post


The Lego Ninjago Movie
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: PG.


If you’re of a certain age and childless, it’s possible you haven’t the foggiest idea what a “Ninjago” is. It is both a toy and a TV series, and now it’s also a movie. Following on the heels of “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie,” this installment sadly proves that when it comes to Lego movies, there can be diminishing returns.

The film, credited to three directors and no fewer than nine screenwriters, doesn’t maintain the level of mania that made the earlier movies fun. In a plot inspired by 1970s kung fu and monster movies, the young hero, Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), accidentally unleashes a terrifying monster — actually a house cat — named Meow-thra. With his posse of ninja buddies and under the guidance of their sensei (martial arts movie superstar Jackie Chan), Lloyd sets out on an adventure to retrieve a super-special weapon to stop Meow-thra.

Some aspects of the film are quite entertaining, but it doesn’t come close to the high-key antics of the first two movies in the series.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service


Two Trains Runnin’
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated by MPAA.
Theater: Uptown.


This captivating documentary — not to be confused with August Wilson’s play “Two Trains Running” (note the “g”) — is equal parts essay, road picture and musical anthology. On June 21, 1964, two lost giants of the Delta blues, Skip James and Son House, were found by obsessed music fans after weeks of amateur sleuthing along the back roads of Mississippi. James and House each had made a handful of recordings in the ’30s and ’40s, and then faded into obscurity until the folk revival of the early ’60s piqued the interest of students and coffeehouse guitar pickers in the college towns of the North.

At the same time, other, larger groups of students were traveling to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer, a campaign to register black voters. Also on June 21, three of those activists — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. With deep historical knowledge and nimble storytelling techniques, documentarian Sam Pollard explores how idealism, horrific brutality and artistic genius converged in a single historical moment.

The juxtaposition of music and politics sheds light on both the music and the movement. The voice-over narration (read by rapper/actor Common) braids apparently disparate threads into a single tale. The song that gives the film its title mixes hope and fatalism in uncertain proportions. It is open to endless interpretation, but in the context of this movie — the past it evokes and the moment at which it arrives — it sounds like both an affirmation and a warning.
A.O. Scott, New York Times