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watchable just not really necessary
4 August 2019
Spin-off featuring the two Fast & Furious alpha males DSS agent Luke Hobbs, and former British SAS officer Deckard Shaw whose relationship is acrimonious (to say the least). That has to take a backseat when their mutual skills are needed to take on a "Black Superman" bad guy who's instigating a scheme for (in truly original fashion) world power. There are complications abound given that Shaw's proficient little sister is included in the mix. Given the franchise these characters originated from, it should come as no surprise that storytelling is subordinate to action scenes; Johnson, Statham, and Kirby fill their roles well, Elba is a formidable foe, and there are some surprises in the casting choices, but for the most part it's just a high-energy, high-testosterone rush of relentless action scenes and stunts, many of which are done well, but it's overlong and without any real tension, and nothing really inventive in terms of plot or character. The kind of thing you can easily sit through, and then just as easily forget once it's over; may as well be retitled Action & More Action. **
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overall it's well-made, but doesn't quite know when to let up
4 August 2019
An aging (and fading) Hollywood action star is stuck in an emotional rut in the late 1960s, believing that his once prosperous career has officially gone south-a belief he confides to his best friend and longtime stunt double who, like him but for much different reasons, is also struggling to find a place in the rapidly changing Hollywood scene. By chance the washed up star lives next door to acclaimed director Roman Polanski and his bubbly wife Sharon Tate, and believes that becoming acquainted with them will help propel his status. Tarantino's tribute to the golden age of cinema is well-crafted, features many of his frequent collaborators in key roles (including DiCaprio and Pitt who are a dream pairing) and is especially effective at capturing a specific look and feel of a memorable time period, but it goes on way too long, has a finale that's needlessly sensationalized, and a major subplot about the Manson Family that's more distracting than interesting. Until the third act the film's content is surprisingly tame, but all of its best qualities are diluted by the length of the picture. **½
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The Lion King (2019)
will only deliver if you can completely disregard the original
30 July 2019
Not so much a live-action remake, but more of a photorealistic, CGI makeover of the animated feature about a lion cub born into royalty. Simba, the only son of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, lives peacefully in the Pride Lands but is a bit too eager to prove his courage and ability to rule. Unfortunately for Simba, his embittered Uncle Scar has his own plans and will stop at nothing to take the throne. If you're capable of viewing this as a standalone feature (which isn't easy) then you can probably find some things to like about it...but-and it's simply unavoidable no matter how hard you try-when comparing it to the 1994 original it lacks the thrill, humor, and sheer emotional punch, despite some impressive visuals and a colorful assortment of vocal talents, including Jones whose reprise provides some much needed authority, along with Rogen and Eichner who seem perfectly cast. Unfortunately the spoken lines don't mesh well with the use of "live" animals, and the music doesn't resonate as well as it should. Despite any homages, in-jokes, or straight up replicas from the original film, the magic just isn't there; too much of the time it feels like watching a monotonous Animal Planet documentary. **
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very little that can be taken from this
28 July 2019
Uninspired and forgettable installment does very little to reinvigorate the Men in Black franchise. Ambitious, seemingly "delusional" Brooklyn native Thompson has dedicated her life to proving the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Despite being the best kept secret in the universe, she's able to locate the MIB and then is reassigned to their London branch (headed by Neeson) where she's partnered with top field agent Hemsworth who, despite his reputation, is in a career slump. What may have seemed like a good idea on paper provides little to make it an enjoyable movie experience; plenty of gadgetry and special effects (which shouldn't come as a surprise), but it's nowhere near as slick or witty as the previous films, the story is by the numbers, the laughs are sporadic at best, and the action scenes are completely underwhelming. Hemsworth and Thompson have chemistry, but are given nothing to work with. *½
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Shaft (2019)
only works if you take it for what it is
15 July 2019
Latest entry in the titular detective series is pretty standard stuff, but worth a look for followers of the character and the actors involved. The focus this time is on John 'JJ' Shaft, III, a timid analyst with the FBI who's forced to team up with-and clash with the "old school" methods of his father John Shaft, II while investigating the death of a close friend. It's a waste of time to get into the intricacies of the plot because most of it makes little sense, and is not of any real significance considering the goal is to watch and enjoy the banter between the actors, plus throw out lots of in-jokes and a colorful soundtrack to liven things up. Usher lacks charisma (possibly by design) but Jackson is in full badass mode which makes for more enjoyable moments than you'd expect, and Roundtree is also on hand as an added bonus for devotees of the original series. While it's somewhat fun to see three generations of the same character on screen, there's nothing really special here for them to work with. **
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a rare film that gives an in-depth examination of youth and responsibility
14 July 2019
Charismatic, popular eighteen-year-old high school senior Sutter Keely only lives in the moment. Despite being a smart kid he ignores his school work, procrastinates with his college application, clashes with his mother, and doesn't bother to contemplate a real future with his more serious-minded girlfriend (Larson). It's not until he meets cute, unpopular classmate Aimee Finecky (Woodley) that he begins to finally ask himself real questions about his life. This is not just another typical or run-of-the-mill teen romance; it's a refreshing and intimate coming-of-age story that carefully examines that pivotal time in a young person's life where they have to figure out who they are, and more importantly, just who it is they want to be. Honest and emotional, with winning performances from the two leads, and steady direction that perfectly captures the feeling of adolescence. ***
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not quite on the same level as some of the previous films but it still entertains
14 July 2019
High schooler Peter Parker and his Midtown Science classmates find themselves in an unusual situation as what technically amounts to their junior year is taking place in a world that has forever changed. Although still grieving over the loss of his mentor, Peter plans to put the heroics on hold, enjoy a class trip abroad, and spend time with the girl that he likes. Upon arriving at his destination, Peter's plan becomes a secondary concern when Nick Fury summons him to team up with master illusionist Quentin Beck and take on elemental threats, but the question is whether Peter is ready to step up and take on the responsibilities of being a full-time Avenger. Because it exists on a much smaller scale than some of the previous Marvel films it doesn't quite have that same sense of anticipation, and also gets off to a bit of a slow start, but director Watts still has some tricks up his sleeve and manages to find the right tone for the film, make his characters engaging, and take the story in some unexpected directions so as not to completely rehash what he accomplished in Homecoming. Holland effectively conveys all of his character's conflicting priorities, with quality support from Jackson, Favreau, and Gyllenhaal. The biggest complaint would have to be that the action scenes are a bit overdone, and there's a bit too much plot exposition at times, but there are also some juicy tidbits for dedicated followers of the MCU moving forward. **½
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Mulan (1998)
A good but extremely uneven feature
14 July 2019
One of the more unique animated features from Disney set in Ancient China during the Han dynasty. When a ruthless tribal confederation breaches the Great Wall, the Emperor has no other choice but to declare conscription in defense of his country. Fearing the safety of her elderly father, the impetuous Mulan embarks on a daring mission to take his place. Well-crafted and interesting in spots, with a recurring theme of sexism, along with some striking animation, but the film revels more in its comedic overtones (specifically Murphy's wisecracking dragon sidekick Mushu who seems suited for another film) taking away from the presumably more serious central theme. With a short running time it's easy enough to sit through, but the overall approach to the material along with some of the casting choices are certainly questionable. **½
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Pet Sematary (2019)
some good qualities but not enough to keep you on edge
8 July 2019
Agnostic medical doctor Louis Creed relocates from Boston to a small town in rural Maine with his wife, two children (and cat) in tow. Upon arrival they get acquainted with a friendly but eccentric elderly neighbor who warns them of the dangers of the local woods, specifically those involving a pet graveyard that just happens to be located in their backyard. Can you guess what happens next? A definite improvement over its 1989 predecessor, the latest adaptation of Stephen King's novel is effective at creating a gloomy atmosphere, and is well-acted (especially by Clarke and Lithgow) but relies much too heavily on jump scares rather than creating a tangible sense of fear or suspense. Not surprisingly, it makes a lot of changes from the novel, but either way the ending falls short of any real satisfaction. **
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Us (2019)
riveting at times but doesn't succeed as a whole
3 July 2019
As a curious child, Adelaide Wilson has a frightening chance "encounter" that completely alters the course of her life. Fast forward to the present day where She, now married with two kids, is vacationing with her family in the same place where said encounter occurred. Though peaceful at first, the trip quickly spirals into a nightmare when their home is invaded by counterparts of themselves...to reveal any more would be both confusing and a spoiler. With an intriguing set up and sure-handed direction the film grabs and holds you, has some clever moments, and is genuinely chilling at times, but the longer it goes on the more the tension dissipates, and too much time is spent preaching a message rather than telling a story that avoids all the usual horror movie clichés. Effective at keeping you guessing, plus Nyong'o is very good, and Duke's welcoming humor helps to keep things light, but not all of the plot twists really make sense, and the ending isn't very satisfying; more strange than scary. **½
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interesting for a while then tosses credibility off the ledge
30 June 2019
Disgraced ex-cop who's been behind bars for several years escapes from custody and goes to the extreme to try and prove his innocence, literally climbing out onto the ledge of a high-rise in Midtown Manhattan. Will he or won't he? Naturally the media asks this question turning it into a citywide spectacle, but the disillusioned negotiator on the scene (Banks) begins to believe there's more to the story. Intriguing but far-fetched thriller is effective at pulling you in early on, and has a lot of convoluted scheming and double-crossing that evoke some interest, but eventually comes apart by piling on too many coincidences, conveniences, and improbabilities before arriving at a finale that's beyond ridiculous. Watchable if you don't ask questions, and elevated only a bit by the performances of Worthington, Harris, and Welliver, but there's really nothing special or memorable about it. **
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Faster (2010)
not much to take from all this
29 June 2019
Sensationalized, hard-boiled vigilante saga centering around three characters: Driver, a surly, menacing ex-con just released from prison on a single-minded quest for vengeance; Cop, a debilitating detective on the verge of retirement who wants to go out like a man; Killer, an exceptionally skilled assassin who refuses to quit his job despite having no real personal stakes in all the goings-on. There's no doubt a fan base for this type of film, but despite all the pulpy subject matter, rapid gun fire, and quick editing, it never manages to raise the level of tension, thus making it difficult to enjoy even on a predictably mindless action level. Though he certainly looks the part, Johnson is unable to do anything with his terse, one-dimensional character, and has little help from Thornton who basically sleepwalks through the proceedings. **
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Elektra (2005)
unsure what the goal was here
28 June 2019
In case you hadn't figured it out, Elektra is alive-but as for the how and why that doesn't seem to matter much as long as they can get her onto the screen. Enraged and working as an assassin-for-hire, she finds herself caught up in a war with an underground group called "The Hand" while trying to protect some people who are more important than they seem. The result is brutal bad guys, ambiguous flashbacks, ominous visions, and false climaxes all rolled into one without any real weight or depth given to any of it, along with a story that never bothers to make any sense. The action scenes make it seem as though they're trying to take a page from Ang Lee, but poor choreography and phony effects sink any chance of that. Garner definitely fits the bill, but her icy stoicism makes it difficult to find any real humanity in the character, and reliable veterans Tagawa and Stamp are wasted as well. *½
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Carnage (2011)
initially a mediation about children that erupts into a full-blown analysis of fractured marriages and human nature
24 June 2019
Insular black comedy/drama set in an upscale Brooklyn apartment where two married couples decide to air out their grievances following a violent altercation between their grade school kids. Though at first cordial and cooperative, the façade is eventually broken as they become increasingly hostile and impertinent with one another. Given the short running time and occasional feeling of padding it's easy to discern that this likely worked much better on stage than on screen, but good lines and solid direction that creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of underlying tension help to keep things interesting, though after sitting through all the sniping and squabbling you may be left feeling a bit cold. It wouldn't be as effective without the commitment of its stellar leads (though Foster occasionally overplays it a bit), meanwhile Winslet is flawless, and both Waltz and Reilly are fitfully amusing and appropriately cynical. **½
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Toy Story 4 (2019)
surprisingly good addition to the series
24 June 2019
Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang have managed to smoothly integrate themselves into the lives of their new owner Bonnie and are quick to welcome Forky, the newest addition to the group who doesn't quite comprehend life as a toy. While out on the open road, Woody (as loyal and intrepid as ever) finds himself separated from the gang on a mission to find Forky. Encountering some new faces, and some familiar ones as well, Woody begins for the first time to justifiably question his purpose in life. Despite being the fourth installment in the series, this latest feature is just as engaging as its predecessors, with a well-crafted story that manages to unfold in very surprising ways, along with stellar animation, terrific vocal work, plus the charm and nostalgia of spending time with so many characters that fans have grown to love. Feel-good, touching, and adventurous, with clever gags, and moments of true hilarity thanks especially to the work of newcomers Key, Peele, and Reeves; for series fans it shouldn't disappoint. ***
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a retread of a tired formula
23 June 2019
Special Agent Malcolm Turner is back in the game (again), going into the field (again) to try and apprehend a notorious Russian gangster, but complications ensue when his rebellious stepson Trent (who doesn't wish to follow in Malcolm's footsteps) gets caught up in the raucous. The plan? Go undercover as Big Momma (again) only this time Trent (in the guise of great-niece Charmaine) is forced to tag along as part of a package deal. Does more really need to be said? Fully grown Jackson is miscast, and never believable in the role of Lawrence's college-aged son, and the flimsy plot about a criminal and his elaborate scheme are just a ploy for the two stars to don the makeup and accessories. Viewers would likely give all this nonsense a pass if the film were actually funny-too bad it's not; the epitome of an unnecessary third entry if there ever was one. *½
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The Reader (2008)
a captivating, well-made story
18 June 2019
The setting is Berlin in 1995: Michael Berg, a coldly introverted lawyer who's never open with anyone, recalls his youth when as a teenager in 1950s West Germany (the aftermath of WWII still fresh in the minds of many) he crossed paths with an older woman who became his lover. It's not until later in life that he discovers she was a former SS guard at Auschwitz. As an adult, he has yet to fully come to terms with the affair and how it drastically affected the trajectory of his life. Sensual, atmospheric drama vividly captures the mood and essence of a specific time period, and packs an emotional wallop with the expectedly haunting revelations of the Holocaust, along with fully realized characters whose morally ambiguous actions shake them to their very core. Absorbing and thought-provoking, with (not surprisingly) fantastic work from Winslet, a riveting and complex performance from Fiennes, and a remarkable, praiseworthy showcase for Kross who comfortably holds his own as the young, naïve version of the same character. ***
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a belated sequel that isn't quite what you'd expect it to be
13 June 2019
Dedicated barber Calvin has formed a partnership with Angie and the two of them (along with their irrepressible colleagues) are relishing their success. At the same time, Calvin is trying to be a good father to his smart but impressionable teenage son who's fallen in league with the wrong crowd as the neighborhood continues to be encroached upon by negative influences. An enjoyable but most unusual follow-up; when it spotlights the day to day routine of the shop and interplay between it's likable, wisecracking characters, it's pleasant enough (though not uproariously funny), however with so much emphasis placed on a subplot about the emergence of gang violence and deterioration of Chicago's South Side, it works better as a social commentary than an actual comedy. In spite of that, the central theme is a good one and Cube provides a sincere, sympathetic portrayal of a man torn between his commitment to his business, and his responsibilities as a father. Well-cast, deeply political, and easy to take, but those expecting loads of laughs may be unsatisfied. **½
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unique, thoughtful, and wonderfully acted
12 June 2019
A gloomy, close-mouthed young man and a quirky, forward young woman meet and instantly form a connection despite their clearly contrasting personalities, only to learn that they were once lovers. Upon discovering that she was unhappy and decided to completely erase the memory of him from her life, he decides to undergo the same procedure, but can he really go on living without the memory of a woman he once loved? If you're looking for a refreshing mixture of genres then this is an ideal choice as it plays with various tangible themes like loneliness, heartache, and heartbreak, all wrapped up in a nonlinear, mind-bending narrative that at times resembles a complex psychological thriller. As unusual as it sounds, and as bizarre as the presentation is, it's still able to create genuine emotional depth, brought to the forefront by a superb cast, with the usually comedic Carrey convincingly pained and sullen, and Winslet who's spontaneity and fervor make her the perfect foil. An intelligent and memorable hybrid of romance, comedy, and science fiction, not a surprise coming from the screenwriter of other oddball gems like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. ***
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bold, masterful, and memorable
10 June 2019
Riggan Thomson was a famed actor who gained recognition for playing the lead role in a superhero film series. More than two decades later, he's faded from the limelight and continually tormented by a derisive inner voice and a vivid, overactive imagination. Determined to stay relevant and be recognized as a serious actor, he takes on the task of writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation, taking his girlfriend, lawyer/best friend, estranged, strung out daughter, and a talented but loose cannon method actor along for the ride. An intense, surreal, and immersive movie experience with terrific dialogue, outstanding visuals, clever, self-referential humor, and a story that's riveting from start to finish. Nearly every actor is phenomenal across the board, and Inarritu's crafty directorial style is astonishingly effective, allowing for several tense, character-to-character interactions that will both shock and amuse. An impressive and unique piece of work, with an ending that'll leave much to talk about afterwards. ***½
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Dark Phoenix (2019)
has its moments but doesn't really provide anything new
9 June 2019
Seemingly thinking they didn't get it quite right in The Last Stand, the producers thought they'd try their hand again at adapting the Dark Phoenix saga of the X-Men comics. Set in the early 1990s nearly a decade after the last cataclysmic event, the mutant and human populations have managed to find some small degree of consonance thanks to the efforts of Charles Xavier and his intrepid team. The X-Men respond to a distress signal in outer space, but blossoming student Jean Grey has an unusual encounter that imbues her with powers that no one-mutant or human-is equipped to handle. From a storytelling perspective this covers familiar ground, and lacks some sorely needed character development, thus the few crowd-pleasing moments that it does provide come primarily in the form of action scenes and special effects, of which there are heavy doses...just nothing that distinguishes it from the many previous films in the series. Turner has a complex role, and is clearly up to the task, and the presence of McAvoy, Fassbender, and Chastain provides added weight. **½
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Aladdin (2019)
tries very hard but doesn't really succeed
9 June 2019
A live-action remake-or perhaps its own film altogether-of the 1992 animated feature about a street rat with a heart of gold whose only friend is a mischievous little monkey. Despite his current predicament, he believes he's destined for a greater future and is given the opportunity to obtain it when he releases a magical genie with the power to grant him three wishes. Though watchable, this probably works better for those who haven't actually seen the animated feature; throws out lots of flashy visual effects, a few new songs, and shoehorns in some dance numbers so as not to be an exact replica, but despite all the effort it still lacks the pizazz, sense of joy, and emotional resonance of the original. Smith makes a wise decision to not try and imitate or outdo Robin Williams, instead making the role his own from the get-go, and Scott makes a strong and passionate Jasmine, but the film drastically underserves the characterizations of Jafar and Iago who were so much more distinctive and vile the first time around. It just isn't very memorable despite how glitzy and glamorous it tries to be. **
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uses the rinse, wash, repeat approach
9 June 2019
Several years have passed and there have been no Godzilla sightings of any kind, yet prominent scientists still believe that the Earth is facing mass extinction. Hibernating monsters, dubbed "Titans" by humanity, have been discovered in various locations throughout the world. The debate about what to do with them, or whether they can co-exist with humans can potentially lead to a conflict greater than anyone can ever imagine. Big, bombastic monster movie follows a fairly straightforward pattern: pile on hordes of city-leveling destruction and chaos...stop for some exposition, preaching, and ineffectual human drama...throw out more action and destruction...and then do it all over again. Despite the redundancy it manages to go on for quite some time, in all likelihood so you never get a chance to breathe or ask any legitimate questions about the stability of the plot. Even with some good actors in the cast, after a while it's simply boring and headache-inducing, and doesn't create much anticipation for the future despite how hard it tries to do just that. The director must be a fan of disaster specialists like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay because this echoes their earlier works in more ways than one. **
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an effectively eerie picture that features one of Williams' most memorable characters
8 June 2019
Watch the trailer for this film and you'll understand early on that it's not for the faint of heart. A solitary, socially inept photo technician is consumed by his job, and develops a fixation on a family of three whose photos he's developed for many years...but that fixation has gradually spiraled into a dangerous obsession as "Sy the photo guy" is determined to insert himself into their lives in any way he can. A simple idea effectively expanded into a full-length feature, this gloomy thriller is gripping every step of the way, but (necessarily) rife with unsettling scenes and disturbing subject matter, and is also one of those rare instances where a longer running time might've been beneficial to fully develop each character's backstory and motivation. It goes without saying that the film wouldn't work as well as it does if not for the devastating performance of Robin Williams, whose haunting, full-on commitment to the role will forever change a viewer's perception of photo technicians. ***
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some flaws in the presentation but a good film overall
8 June 2019
A boy meets girl scenario set against the backdrop of the sporting world. Beginning in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, a cocky young boy and the tomboyish girl next door meet for the very first time. Though initially at odds, they discover a mutual affinity for the game of basketball. Years pass and they grow up together, but complications arise due to their mutual dedication to the game, as well as the uncertainty of the feelings they harbor for one another. They could've used a more original title, but that ceases to matter as this is a touching and thoughtful drama that explores the hardships of the sports world in ways you wouldn't quite expect, with excellent casting down the line, and especially strong, persuasive performances from Lathan and Epps. The director's episodic storytelling technique hinders the film from developing some key emotional moments to their full extent, but viewers are unlikely to mind due to the work of the actors involved. **½
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