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Beauty and the Beast

a joy from start to finish
Irresistible animated feature which sets a gold standard for the genre. In a colloquial little village, modest, dedicated bibliophile Belle cares for her father (an eccentric inventor) but yearns for adventure and someone to talk to, all the while ignoring the advances of pompous village alpha male Gaston. When circumstances lead Belle outside the boundaries of the village, she finds herself imprisoned in a castle that's mastered by the monstrous, irascible Beast, an embittered soul cursed for his arrogance and selfishness. With stellar animation, wonderful songs, fantastic characters and vocal work (Orbach's Lumière being a true standout) and an array of genuine emotions, this charming, well-crafted little feature is a real treat that can entertain just about any fan demographic. While the final resolution may not come as a surprise, the journey there is one you can easily enjoy again and again. ***½

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

a bit drawn-out, but the results are still impressive
The year is 1805; Napoleon Bonaparte continues to try and expand the French Empire thereby turning the high seas into a battlefield. Somewhere off the coast of Brazil, staunch and strategic Royal Naval officer Jack Aubrey commands a frigate with a critical mission that draws him and his (mostly) loyal crew into a cat-and-mouse game with the Acheron, a formidable French privateer that's bigger, faster, and far more equipped for battle. Out on the open ocean, tensions mount, personalities clash, and loyalties are tested as the mission becomes more demanding. With strong performances, crucial character interactions, elaborate set design, vivid scenery, and rousing battle scenes, this is one of the more realistic depictions of sea life that you're likely to get. The lengthy running time and a sluggish middle act saps some of the initial momentum, but as a whole it's worth the viewing experience. ***

The Hours

provocative showing, efficiently cast across the board
The story of three disparate women and how their lives in one way or another are interconnected by the novel Mrs. Dalloway. 1920s England: writer Virginia Woolf lives under the watchful eye of her husband as she deals with her recurring bouts of bipolar disorder, the only solace coming from writing her book; 1950s Los Angeles: suburban housewife Laura Brown is expecting her second child, but is suffocated by the constraints of the American Dream; New York 2001: Clarissa Vaughan plans a party for her ailing ex-lover-turned friend, but she's slowly unraveling over a feeling that her life is so trivial. Though it's not always easy to connect with the characters on a personal level, this is still a deep and powerful portrait of unhappiness with startling scenes and tangible themes like fear, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. With so much grief on display it's admittedly a depressing experience to sit through this, but it's also a testament to the quality of the film with sure-handed direction that expertly weaves the narrative through each time period, and with heavyweights like Moore, Kidman, and Streep at the top of their game (along with a fine supporting cast) the overall impact can't be denied. It tugs at the heartstrings, but when it does it this well it's really hard to complain. ***

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World

makes good on its promise, it's just that the results are uninspired
Marissa Wilson is one of the top agents of the OSS. Having just completed her latest mission, she retires to spend time with her oblivious husband (an unskilled spy hunter), two bickering stepchildren (the daughter with whom she has a strained relationship), and their newborn child, but her attempt to settle into the domestic life comes to an abrupt halt when a villain unveils a dastardly global scheme involving the passage of time. Marissa promptly returns to the OSS to try and deal with the threat, but the unanticipated involvement of her stepchildren (along with her husband's sudden rise in ambition) creates more complications in an already difficult assignment. With a barrage of visual effects, gizmos and gadgetry, and tepid juvenile humor, this plays out like an unremarkable video game. **

The Last Days of Disco

eventually loses some steam but highly watchable just the same
An exploration of the N.Y.C. nightlife set in the fall of the very early 1980s, a key transitional period in which disco was slowly becoming a thing of the past as seen through the eyes of two young women (and recent college graduates) who are polar opposites: passive, impressionable Alice Kinnon, and icy, superficial Charlotte Pingress. Though they maintain a close companionship while working for the same publishing company, they have drastically different ideas of how to climb the social ladder while frequenting the nightclub scene. Engaging, well-acted, and insightful, with believable characters and crisp dialogue, but despite an impressive look at the era-plus some great tunes that come with the time period-it's hard to avoid a feeling of redundancy after a while. **½

Puss in Boots

lukewarm material that has its moments
Functioning as both a spin-off and a prequel, with the titular feline character that first appeared in the second Shrek film getting his own full-length feature that spotlights him as a wanted fugitive from the law. There are more cat puns, idioms, and witticisms than you'll likely care to count, some which hit, some which miss, as well as some sly Zorro in-jokes so as to take full advantage of the vocal talents of Banderas, and familiar characters on hand like Jack and Jill, and one Humpty A. Dumpty. Despite all the characters and colorful lines the plot is pretty flimsy, and the protagonist seems better suited for a supporting role within the company of Shrek and Donkey instead of having his own full-length feature, as even with a fairly short running time it feels padded-out. The content is tame enough to attract its target audience, but not inspired enough to span a new franchise. **½

Still Alice

riveting story that hits close to home
Dr. Alice Howland has the seemingly perfect life: she's a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University, is happily married to a successful physician, and has three adult children. Upon turning fifty, her seemingly perfect life comes to an abrupt halt when she receives a rare diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. With the support of her family, she has to come to terms with her condition and what it will mean for the remainder of her life, both personally and professionally. Despite the subject matter, this straightforward drama isn't saccharine or manipulative in the least; it's a thoughtful, life-affirming story that generates honest emotions by showing how a resilient individual and those around her do their best to cope with the many challenges brought on by affliction. Every actor is terrific across the board, headlined by Moore who's inspiring in the lead. ***

Winter's Bone

a truly powerful showing
With an absentee father and a mentally ill mother, an impoverished seventeen-year-old girl is forced to care for her two younger siblings while making their way in the rural Ozarks of Missouri. Upon learning that her father (a known drug cooker) is out on bail and put up their house as collateral, she's forced to try and track him down before his next court date, but no one else within her small, gossipy community seems to know, care, or be willing to disclose her father's whereabouts. Lawrence is compelling in the central role as a resilient but vulnerable young woman doing everything she can-even at the risk of her own life-to ensure her family's welfare, and has great support from Hawkes who gives one of his most intense, unparalleled performances to date. This look into a bleak, isolated world is vividly realized, the story unfolds in ways you wouldn't quite expect, and there are plenty of haunting scenes and volatile character interactions that keep you riveted throughout. ***

Spy Game

the setup is good but the execution isn't up to par
On the verge of a major trade agreement between the United States and China during a 1991 cholera outbreak in Suzhou, maverick CIA "asset" Tom Bishop is captured while conducting his own, unofficial operation. Accused of espionage and facing execution unless claimed by the U.S. government, the agency seems content to sever ties with him as his life would jeopardize said agreement. When word of this gets to Nathan Muir-Bishop's former mentor and a dedicated thirty-year agent in his last day before retirement-Muir must fight through all the agency's red tape and use whatever alternative channels are available to save his former protégé. The story creates potential, the cerebral cloak-and-dagger chess game and interplay between some of the characters is intriguing to watch, but it goes on too long, lacks tension despite the high stakes, and director Scott's use of quick edits and frenetic pacing make it difficult to really get a sense of who the characters are and what roles they serve within the story. It's not a total loss though, as Pitt and Redford do work well together. **


trying something different doesn't always produce good results
Separated from his mother at a young age, teenager Billy Batson has run away from various group homes and never found a place where he felt he truly belongs. Shortly after joining his newest family (which features five other foster children) he encounters an ancient mystical wizard who chooses him as the new champion. With his newfound powers Billy is able to transform into an adult superhero, but he quickly learns that being a superhero is more than just fun and games. Latest DCEU inspired project seems to be trying to shift gears and explore a much more lighthearted and comedic tone, which isn't an inherently bad idea per se, but the problem is it isn't very funny, the special effects are unremarkable, the characters are poorly developed, and though there are some easy to spot easter eggs for dedicated followers, the story still unfolds in routine and predictable fashion despite the none too subtle attempts to preach a message of family values. **


not always on point, but you likely won't mind
Hard-drinking, non-monogamous N.Y.C. writer Schumer is a modern woman who does what she wants, avoids serious relationships like the plague, and seeks out a potential promotion at work. Her unwavering routine is thrown off course when she's assigned to write an article about renowned sports doctor Hader, a "good guy" whom she inexplicably finds herself attracted to. What initially seems like a straightforward, raunchy sex comedy actually has some layers to it, along with more dramatic undertones than you'd expect that make it a bit uneven, but it's thoroughly engaging, laugh-out loud funny, and loaded with star power-special props going to wrestler Cena who convincingly plays against type, and NBA superstar LeBron James who shows a knack for comedy as an exaggerated version of himself, but as expected the real highlight is the work of both Schumer (also serving as screenwriter) and Hader who exhibit great chemistry. A touch long, but with so much talent and laughs you're likely to give it a pass. ***

Super Troopers 2

the boys are back in town, but don't leave much of an impression
Remember that zany group of Vermont highway patrolmen who hit the big screen back in 2001? Well they're back, and just as immature and disobedient as ever, only this time they're no longer in law enforcement after an embarrassing PR incident cost them their jobs. Having found alternative means of employment as outdoorsmen, they're given an opportunity to reclaim their uniforms after a border dispute arises between the United States and Canada, but doing so will require them to work (begrudgingly) alongside a group of Canadian Mounties. If you enjoyed the first one then you'll likely be happy to see the same likable cast reunited for more shenanigans, but beyond the (expectedly) numerous digs contrasting the differences between Americans and Canadians, there really isn't much in terms of joy or humor. Some-if not all-of the cast members look like they're enjoying themselves, but they're let down by a bland script that allows few surprises or genuinely hilarious moments. **


eerily effective with polarizing content
In the early 1980s Gotham City has deteriorated into an incendiary cesspool of crime and apathy where the rich and powerful have cast aside lower-class residents like Arthur Fleck, a party clown who's been disregarded his entire life. In spite of this he aspires to make it as a stand-up comedian, but his troubled history and mental erosion have begun to strip away what remains of his sanity. If you're looking to bring a well-known comic book character to the big screen in a way that's never been done before then look no further: this relentlessly dark and morbid story from Todd Phillips (yes, the same one from The Hangover series) is a psychologically twisted and unnerving character study of a frightening individual's downward spiral and just how far he'll go to make a name for himself. Intense, riveting, allegorical but equally audacious, chaotic and off-putting with a sluggish first half, how much actual enjoyment is derived from watching it is in the eye of the beholder, but there's no denying the work of Phoenix (with shades of Christian Bale) who dominates the screen with his unflinching portrait of the damaged protagonist...not for the faint of heart. **½

A Simple Favor

an oddball mix of genres that's a definite guilty pleasure
Apologetic, seemingly pristine vlogger and single mother Stephanie is thrown for a loop upon meeting beautiful, libertine (and manipulative) alpha female fashionista Emily when their schoolchildren arrange for a play date. Despite being polar opposites, the two women quickly form a friendship, but when Emily's whereabouts suddenly become unknown, Stephanie has her life turned completely upside down while trying to discover the fate of her new best friend. What initially begins as a straightforward drama eventually shifts tone into the realm of dark comedy and mystery thriller/whodunit, with an array of twists and turns (some which probably wouldn't bear close scrutiny) that seem to have taken a page from the works of Hitchcock! Tonally the film is all over the place, and makes some unusual choices for musical interludes, but it's never dull, often laugh-out loud funny, and benefits from an uninhibited performance from Lively, but it falls apart in the third act with an underwhelming ending that (possibly by intention?) feels like self-parody. **½

It Chapter Two

tries a bit too hard to outdo the first one, yet there's still plenty to entertain
Twenty-seven years after they first encountered the killer clown, the Losers have all grown up, gone their separate ways, and settled into the uneasy routines of their respective lives, but when the ravenous Pennywise reemerges, they're summoned by Mike Hanlon (the only member to stay behind in Derry) to return and fulfill their blood oath to put the monster down for good. Not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of the source material, this time around Muschietti-clearly working with a larger budget-holds nothing back piling on the visual flourishes and gross-out effects (a bit too much at times) but makes a good decision to give his efficiently chosen adult cast a broad platform on which to explore their characters, and cleverly interweaves the narrative with pivotal flashbacks that allow viewers to revisit the young counterparts who set it all in motion. Devotees of the novel may be discouraged by some of the significant changes, and while it is difficult to maintain a consistent level of fear and suspense with the lengthy running time, it's still gripping and colorful, with some truly eerie moments, great dialogue, and a wonderful sense of humor, thanks largely to the work of Ransone and especially Hader, whose witty banter is a definite highpoint. A lot of fun, though admittedly it doesn't leave as lasting an impression as its predecessor. **½


high-tech without high-quality
Top Gun on steroids set in the near future where U.S. Naval forces are armed with advanced technology to combat the mounting threat of terrorism, wherever it may operate in the world. Of the many qualified pilots only three are selected to spearhead the program's top secret missions, until they're ordered to welcome a new team member: an unmanned, artificial intelligence aircraft built with their same capabilities...minus the humanity of course. Three's company, but four's a crowd, especially when this "UCAV" goes haywire and decides to carry out a mission of its own, with the expected results: planes fly really fast, stuff gets blown up, people are endangered, orders are compromised, so on and so forth. Capable actors can't bring any conviction to this hollow exercise which plays out like an extended video game...just without any fun or excitement. *½

The Kids Are All Right

thoughtful and effectively made story
Territorial, workaholic medical professional Bening and diffident, part-time landscaper Moore are a happily (but imperfectly) married couple raising two teenage children--intelligent, college-bound Wasikowska, and inquisitive Hutcherson. Wanting to know more about his parentage, the son implores the daughter into contacting their biological father/sperm donor. He turns out to be an unconventional restaurateur and fancy-free bachelor (Ruffalo), but his entry into their lives exposes the façade of their seemingly steady family dynamic. Modest family drama is not always as intensely emotional as expected to be, but it's well-crafted and riveting with three-dimensional characters, first-rate performances, and effectively explores the many challenges of marriage and family life, regardless of orientation. It lacks a really strong and honest ending to tie up all loose ends, but the high points are certainly enough to make it worthwhile. ***

The Theory of Everything

a theory of how great acting can elevate a film
Eddie Redmayne effectively channels Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot in this biopic of one of the most brilliant men of his generation. In the 1960s, Stephen Hawking is an ambitious astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge contemplating his thesis, but that takes a backseat upon discovering he has Lou Gehrig's disease, while also meeting and becoming smitten with Jane Wilde, a literature student with ambitions of her own. Taking into account that this is based on Jane's memoirs, it makes sense that more emphasis is placed on Hawking's domestic life rather than his accomplishments in the field of science; film's structure deprives it of some expected conflicts, and thus the emotional impact that comes hand in hand with said conflicts, yet it's still riveting thanks to a remarkable, transformative performance from Redmayne (who earned a well-deserved Oscar) capturing the essence of Hawking with tremendous authenticity, and it's also a great showing for Jones as a strong woman who "does her best" even in the most difficult of times. The performances alone make it worth the viewing experience, and help overcome any shortcomings in the screenplay. ***

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

watchable just not really necessary
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; 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. **

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

overall it's well-made, but doesn't quite know when to let up
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

The Lion King

will only deliver if you can completely disregard the original
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. **

Men in Black: International

very little that can be taken from this
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 (reteaming from the Thor franchise) have chemistry, but are given nothing to work with. *½


only works if you take it for what it is
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. **

The Spectacular Now

a rare film that gives an in-depth examination of youth and responsibility
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. ***

Spider-Man: Far from Home

not quite on the same level as some of the previous films but it still entertains
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 enough juicy tidbits for dedicated followers of the MCU moving forward. **½

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