Bob Mondello | WYPR

Bob Mondello

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

For more than three decades, Mondello has reviewed movies and covered the arts for NPR, seeing at least 300 films annually, then sharing critiques and commentaries about the most intriguing on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine All Things Considered. In 2005, he conceived and co-produced NPR's eight-part series "American Stages," exploring the history, reach, and accomplishments of the regional theater movement.

Mondello has also written about the arts for USA Today, The Washington Post, Preservation Magazine, and other publications, and has appeared as an arts commentator on commercial and public television stations. He spent 25 years reviewing live theater for Washington City Paper, DC's leading alternative weekly, and to this day, he remains enamored of the stage.

Before becoming a professional critic, Mondello learned the ins and outs of the film industry by heading the public relations department for a chain of movie theaters, and he reveled in film history as advertising director for an independent repertory theater.

Asked what NPR pieces he's proudest of, he points to an April Fool's prank in which he invented a remake of Citizen Kane, commentaries on silent films — a bit of a trick on radio — and cultural features he's produced from Argentina, where he and his husband have a second home.

An avid traveler, Mondello even spends his vacations watching movies and plays in other countries. "I see as many movies in a year," he says, "as most people see in a lifetime."

Crip Camp opened the Sundance Film Festival two months ago, and it was supposed to arrive in theaters today. But with nearly all movie theaters closed, it's arriving instead on Netflix — and it's a window on a revolution.

The first person we meet is Berkeley Rep sound designer Jimmy LeBrecht, who's climbing above the theater's stage without the use of his legs. He was born with spina bifida. "They didn't think I was going to live more than a couple of hours," we hear him say. "Apparently I had different plans."

There's some hopeful news for the film industry coming from China.

As the number of new cases of the coronavirus declines in China, the Chinese government is allowing a few movie theaters to reopen for the first time since the country's theaters were shuttered by decree in January.

According to the entertainment news website Deadline, about 500 have reopened (less than 5% of Chinese exhibitors), mostly in Xinjiang and in far-flung provinces across the country.

On Wednesday, the day all three of the largest U.S. movie exhibitors — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — shut down operations, Hollywood reported the lowest box office figures since the industry began tabulating numbers independently decades ago.

With just 440 of the nation's more than 5,500 theaters (which account for some 40,000 screens) open for business, North American cinemas took in less than $300,000 for all the movies currently in theaters, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Actor Max von Sydow, whose career stretched across seven decades, died Sunday at the age of 90. The imposing Swedish star played the title character in The Exorcist and more than 100 other roles.

In Hollywood, the bean counters always talk at this time of year about the "Oscar Bounce" — the boost films get at the box office from Academy Award nominations.

The bounce, which can amount to tens of millions of dollars, is much sought-after by film studios, but their calculus may be altered by recent changes in the industry — especially by the advent of streaming services.

Kirk Douglas, the self-described "ragman's son" who became a global Hollywood superstar in the 1950s and '60s, died on Wednesday. He was 103. Douglas was often cast as a troubled tough guy in films, most famously as a rebellious Roman slave named Spartacus. Off-screen, he was devoted to family and to humanitarian causes.

NPR's movie critic and Pop Culture Happy Hour hosts picked 20 of their favorite films of the year.

1917

Taika Waititi may be best known for directing the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, but what got him that job was smaller movies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — films best described as "quirky."

That epithet fits his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, about a little boy in Nazi Germany who has an imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler.

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Good morning from Toronto, where the NPR Movies team has decamped for the next seven days or so, as we attend the Toronto International Film Festival, the largest film festival in North America.

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How does Hollywood keep the momentum going after a summer that gave the world "Avengers: Endgame" and four other billion-dollar hits? Apparently, not with superheroes. Here's Bob Mondello with his fall movie preview.

When you stand in the center of Plaza del Congreso in downtown Buenos Aires, looking at the dome of Argentina's Capitol building, there's an imposing grey ghost of a building just to the right. It's a deteriorating art nouveau masterpiece: the Edificio del Molino, closed for decades, and now in the middle of a multi-year restoration.

The restorers opened it to the public for just a few hours recently, and a crowd started lining up on the sidewalk hours early, two and three abreast. When the doors finally opened, the line stretched almost three blocks.

We meet soon-to-be-class-valedictorian Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he's addressing a high school assembly in Northern Virginia, saying all the right things about a rosy future. He is clearly practiced and comfortable in the spotlight, popular with students and with teachers, despite a wrenching childhood in war-torn Eritrea before he was adopted and brought to the U.S. He's a success story, as the school principal never tires of saying.

As a college sophomore, I knew exactly what the Apollo astronauts would find when they arrived on the moon: a desolate rockscape, craters shining white in reflected earthglow — and a big, black monolith.

Stanley Kubrick showed us all of that in the top-grossing movie of 1968 — 2001: A Space Odyssey — a full 15 months before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. And even Kubrick was late to the party: Moviegoers had been heading moonward from pretty much the moment there were filmmakers to lead the way.

When Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her partner (Michaela Watkins) arrive in small-town Alabama for the reading of her grandfather's will, she thinks they're inheriting a house. But to pay for his final years, he'd taken out a reverse mortgage, so instead, she's handed ... an antique sword.

Is it weird to keep asserting that Summer Movie Season starts Memorial Day weekend, when Avengers: Endgame, the ultimate summer movie, and also the year's (the decade's! the century's!) biggest blockbuster, opened last month?

Maybe. Sure. Who cares?

"Summer movie" is a term, after all, that has taken on a negative connotation, as it tends to be deployed by those looking to sniffily dismiss the whole crop of films that come out in the months without an R. See also: "popcorn movies," "comic-book movies."

Let's specify right at the start that movies are not history, and that biopics take liberties.

Not taking liberties would mean not shaping the material of life to make it dramatic, so you'd never get a scene like, say, the one in which a young Tolkien and his college buddies declare undying devotion — declaring their friendship "a fellowship."

I'm gonna guess that that particular coinage didn't happen like that.

In its first issue of 2019, National Geographic named a shop in Buenos Aires, Argentina "the world's most beautiful bookstore." NPR was ahead of the curve. Bob Mondello filed this report 18 years ago, shortly after the Teatro Gran Splendid was converted into El Ateneo Grand Splendid.

Two films open this week with titles that make them sound a lot sexier than they are: On the Basis of Sex and Vice.

They're both biopics — Sex about a liberal Supreme Court justice, Vice a conservative vice president. But they differ in ways that go far deeper than politics.

On The Basis Of Sex

In the Lebanese movie Capernaum (the title translates to "chaos," an apt description of the world of the film), skinny, sad-eyed Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is 12 years old, though he's so tiny he could pass for eight.

He's running and playing with other kids in the streets of Beirut under the opening credits. Once those credits are done, we watch as he's led past TV reporters into a courtroom, where he barely comes up to the waist of the soldier who's brought him. He looks firmly at the judge who asks him why he's there.

"I want to sue my parents," he says.

At the movies, 2018 was the year of Black Panther, the year of more Incredibles and Avengers, more Star Wars and Mission: Impossible. But it was also the year of intimate stories of youth and love. It was the year of period pieces and fantasies, crushing tragedies and raucous comedies. Bob Mondello, Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon would never agree on a single list of best movies of the year. But here are 15 of the movies we admired and will remember.

Black Panther

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Do not expect corgis and decorum. That's the word on the new movie comedy "The Favourite." There's palace intrigue and a British monarch, an 18th-century one - Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman. Our critic Bob Mondello has this review.

Young Lara is asleep as Girl, Belgium's official submission for this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film, begins. Her mane of straight blonde hair falls across her cheek as her five-year-old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) climbs onto her bed, whispering her name.

It's clearly a ritual: As she wakes, she stays motionless — then, suddenly, hoists him in the air. The boy giggles.

Virtue is often associated with beauty, and evil with ugliness. But in Argentina in the 1970s, there was a teen serial killer so strikingly becoming he was known as El Angel — the Angel of Death.

Fall is often the most intense movie season of all. Awards contenders begin to come into focus after the Toronto International Film Festival, while comedies and thrillers continue to hit screens. We got to see a lot of upcoming films at TIFF — below you'll find write-ups of 15 movies we really enjoyed and a heads-up about nearly 40 notable releases.

Actor Burt Reynolds, who played good ol' boys and rugged action heroes in an acting career that spanned seven decades, has died. Reynolds died Thursday morning at a Florida hospital following a heart attack. He was 82.

Spike Lee's new movie, BlackkKlansman, is based on a true story, but the plot sounds crazy enough that you'd be excused for thinking he'd just made it up. It's about an African-American police officer, Ron Stallworth, who went undercover in the 1970s to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan ... by joining it.

Stallworth was the first black officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film, when his chief and the mayor tell him they're hoping he'll "open things up," they don't anticipate that he'll go about that task in quite the way he chooses to do so.

The first image in Robert Schwentke's The Captain is an open field. You hear World War II coming before you see it — an off-key trumpet, gunshots, the roar of a truck.

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