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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel continues to be ambitious despite some faults
Eluding his difficult past, a young man from China has been content playing it safe in San Francisco for the past several years even though he lacks a true sense of self. But when drastic circumstances draw him back to his conspicuous origins, he has no choice but to face his demons head on. Continuing to expand its cultural horizon the MCU's first Asian-centric movie has unique choreography, a dazzling visual scheme, splendid hand-to-hand combat, and of course the expected teases going forward, but some of the more elaborate action set pieces lack needed tension, much of the exposition and backstory isn't very engaging, and up until the third act many of the emotional aspects of the narrative aren't as rich or compelling as they could be. Some of the humor is strained, but it's efficiently cast and provides enough to be a distinctive entry into the Marvel world. **½

The Little Things

it's standard, but strongly acted
In the rural outskirt of Kern County, deputy sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon is an ex-LASD homicide investigator with a troubled past who returns to his former stomping grounds and partners up with earnest detective Jimmy Baxter to solve a string of recent killings with a familiar M. O., but that's only the beginning. Mix of character study and police procedural/whodunit has a familiar but intriguing setup and there are some taut moments, but it spins its wheels and goes on too long, and isn't really sure how to resolve all of its storylines. The material is elevated thanks to three leads that are in top form: Washington magnetic as always, Malek effectively exploring unexpected layers to his character, and Leto who gets to be deliciously creepy as the games-playing prime suspect. **½

Godzilla vs. Kong

is what it's expected to be, but manages to keep it under two hours
After much anticipation the barbaric Kong and the scorch-breathed Godzilla face off in an epic battle of two alpha Titans. Film sets up the brewing confrontation when after years of absence the once heroic Godzilla abruptly reappears and commences a destructive rampage, with the only solution being to transport Kong from his native Skull Island to help thwart him. Unsurprisingly the actors have thankless roles here as the characters and human drama are just a needless diversion to move things along, but there are some cool visuals and a few of the battle scenes are exciting indeed. Loud and destructive it delivers what's promised, and fortunately doesn't take too long to do it. **

The Suicide Squad

should deliver what the fans want
The horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn jumps over to the DCEU where he puts his own spin on the squad, as the latest task force of supervillains with skill are dispatched to a South American island to resolve a conflict following a recent coup d'état. Though it begins with a solid opening it eventually slows down, and goes on for quite a while even though it doesn't have much of a story at its disposal, but Robbie brings her usual A-game to a role she now seems destined to play, plus there's some amusing interplay and one-upmanship between newcomers Elba and Cena. Whether viewed as a remake, spinoff, or standalone sequel it's handled well in Gunn's assured hands who gleefully takes advantage of the 'R' rating and delivers a colorful, profane, laugh-out loud funny, and cartoonishly violent little feature that is likely to please fans of the source material. **½

Black Widow

for one of the MCU's most endearing characters they could've done better
In the immediate aftermath of Civil War, global fugitive Natasha Romanoff is on the run after acting in violation of the Sokovia Accords. With red in her ledger and nowhere to turn, she goes back to where it all began so to speak, reuniting with some old "family members" and delving into her pre-Avenger history, including her time in the notorious Red Room. Starts off strongly and features a few well-choreographed, intense hand-to-hand fight scenes, some amusing familial squabbles, and an exciting climax, but even with all the anticipation and over-the-top action scenes it doesn't dig deep enough into the central character's backstory to make it a very tense or compelling yarn, despite the efforts of Johansson who (expectedly) holds her own, or a good role for Pugh as Romanoff's sister figure. **½

Bullets Over Broadway

darkly humorous mix of vice and backstage drama
In the late 1920s ambitious, neurotic playwright (and self-proclaimed artist) David Shayne is forced to accept financing for his project from a shady underworld figure. To realize his vision, David has to rely on a zany bunch including a washed up older actress with a self-aggrandized view of herself, a no-talent gangster's moll who turns out to be excruciatingly demanding, and the moll's intrusive bodyguard who, despite his brutish nature, shows an instinctive knack for the creative writing process. Smart and wickedly funny, ingeniously plotted with a unique collection of well-defined characters spouting sensational lines, all brought to life by a stellar ensemble of perfectly cast actors who are able to encapsulate the look and feel of the time period. ***

Mortal Kombat

for fans of the source material it's watchable but unmemorable
A dispassionate MMA fighter (and family man) learns that he, and assorted others, have been "chosen" to compete in a tournament to determine the fate of the Earth realm, one in which the dark forces of Outworld are on the precipice of victory. Reboot takes advantage of its 'R' rating as the amount of violence and profanity is plentiful, but after a promising start it slowly goes downhill with bland characters and noisy, redundant fight scenes, plus all the exposition about prophecies, ancient legends, etc., isn't worth all the fuss. The dialogue is frequently lousy, but live wire Lawson's depiction of Kano easily allows him to walk away with the film. In their defense, you don't watch a movie like this expecting profound character development or award-worthy acting, but all the flashy effects and gore don't make it that much fun either. Non-fans will likely miss the overt video game references, but it's pretty forgettable regardless. **


a seemingly incongruent mix that works
Late-twenties, straight-arrow Seattle public journalist has his world rocked when he's diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. Learning that it's a toss-up between recovery and metastasis, he embarks on a journey of self-examination taking along his bawdy, opportunistic best friend/co-worker, his reticent, artistic girlfriend, his green but straight-talking therapist, and his thoughtful but smothering mother along for the ride. An uncommon, interesting blend of funny and sad, with a believably flawed collection of characters brought to life by a reputable cast. The dialogue is more vulgar than necessary at times, but still amusing, and the emotional, hard-hitting moments really make up for any of the off-color humor. ***

Romance & Cigarettes

wacky and memorable
John Turturro's bold, indie song-and-dance feature is a unique and hilariously unorthodox mix of musical, dark comedy, and crazy familial drama centering on working-class New York couple Gandolfini and Sarandon and the ripple effect on their longtime marriage after he chooses to stray. Salacious, outrageous, even surreal at times, with various themes like lust, fidelity, and redemption, along with a slew of recognizable songs, though the momentum slows in the third act. Features a madcap collection of characters and inspired casting, with high props going to a fiery Winslet who's in rare comedic form as a wanton Cockney temptress named Tula. Even if you don't like it, you'd be hard-pressed to forget it. **½

About Time

very enjoyable despite any faults
When gangly Brit and lawyer-to-be Gleeson learns on his twenty-first birthday from his father that he possesses the ability to time travel he decides to exploit the possibilities, eventually traveling to London where he arranges (more than once) a meet cute with the love of his life--American publishing reader (and Kate Moss groupie) McAdams. If you apply close scrutiny to the intricacies of the plot it'll probably come apart at the seams, but of course you're not supposed to do that...instead you're supposed to sit back, go along for the ride, and watch these characters be sugary sweet and laugh-out loud funny, which given the likability of its cast is easy to do. Sentimental, imperfect, but with enough touching moments, humor, and thoughtful lessons about life to make up for it. **½

Coming 2 America

does a disservice to the original
Tasteless, needless sequel spends more time trying to retread its predecessor than tell its own story, likely cause there isn't much of one to begin with. Akeem and Lisa have sired three daughters, an inconvenience as Akeem prepares to take his ailing father's throne and tradition demands a male heir. When Akeem learns he has an illegitimate son from his past visit to America, he and a reluctant Semmi travel back to Queens to seek him out. Brings back some of the same characters, and some new ones, plus features prominent casting, but they fail to generate much from the script's many contrivances, it's also easy to spot the horrendous editing, along with the obvious Lion King and Black Panther references. Despite all the in-jokes, political incorrectness, and social commentary it tries to force down your throat there are few genuine laughs, though exuberant Snipes has fun as a ruthless, envious African general. Leaving out all the sweetness and charm of the original, this might've actually worked better as a musical than a full-length feature. **

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

teen angst brought to the screen in a thoughtful and affecting way
It's the Pittsburgh area in the early 1990s where a troubled and introverted teenager who never stands out begins his freshman year of high school anxiously (and painfully) counting down the days before it's over, till he befriends a proudly nonconformist clique of senior classmen who see and embrace him for who he truly is, and also encourage him not to shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve. Extremely well-handled, infinite coming-of-age drama treads familiar ground, but is done with a poignancy and depth that make for genuine laughs and tear-jerking moments along the way. It's also wonderfully acted, Lerman and Watson especially, with a good selection of tunes to capture the zeitgeist of the era. ***

Gran Torino

better than expected even though you know what's coming
Surly, widowed, fiercely bigoted Korean War veteran and blue-collar retiree Walt Kowalski lives alone with his Labrador, is furiously protective of his Detroit suburb home, and shuns virtually everyone in his life from his own family, to the local young Catholic priest, and most especially his neighbors--a close-knit Hmong community who've begun to dominate the neighborhood. As gang violence escalates within the area, slowly but surely Walt finds himself becoming protective of his odd new neighbors. The story is about as straightforward as it gets, thus making the film's trajectory pretty obvious, but watching this crusty old codger come to terms with himself and those around him makes for more entertainment than expected. Meaningful and well-made with a cast of primarily novice actors, fortunately they're in good hands with veteran actor/producer/director Eastwood, though admittedly with his established tough guy image it's easy to be reminded of Dirty Harry, Heartbreak Ridge, et al., making this hard to recommend to non-fans. **½


for the most part a good showing
In the days of Imperial China, Rouran warriors from the north led by merciless Böri Khan and his powerful, conniving witch threaten the dynasty. Meanwhile agile, rambunctious Mulan, having been made to suppress her qi from a young age, is taken aback by the idea of relegating herself to the role of a submissive housewife. When the Emperor decrees each family contribute one man in the fight against Khan, Mulan's father (a disabled war veteran) pledges his service. At the risk of shame, dishonor, exile, and even death, Mulan assumes a male identity to protect him. Live-action "retelling" of the 1998 animated feature is a visual spectacle with colorful, sumptuous production design and stirring battle scenes, though an overreliance on special effects, quick edits, and needless slow motion shots dilute some of the impact. Whatever it lacks in battle it makes up for in emotional resonance thanks to strong acting and the important themes of loyalty, bravery, truth...and devotion to family. ***

The Other Guys

enjoyable in spots though it never reaches its full potential
Mismatched NYPD detectives Allen Gamble--a genial forensic accountant, and Terry Hoitz--a wound up "peacock," are low-level desk jockeys and the laughing stock of their precinct. When the unit's idolized but destructive top cops are abruptly taken out of the picture, the two middling backups are tasked with bringing down wealthy, duplicitous investment banker David Ershon. Fitfully amusing buddy cop action-comedy is clever in that it intentionally pokes fun at the genre itself, but after a promising start the energy wanes, many of the jokes are either mistimed or not entirely funny, and it sure takes its sweet time to serve up any real action. Despite that, Wahlberg and Farrell find the right counterbalance, and there's a dynamic collection of talent filling out the supporting roles. **

Oz the Great and Powerful

unsurprisingly it doesn't top the original but still has its moments
Tis better to be a great man than a good one; in early 1900s Kansas, oily con man and failed sideshow magician Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig...just call him Oz, hasn't accomplished anything in his life. A fateful tornado whisks his hot air balloon off to the land of--you guessed it--Oz where he's instantly smitten with Theodora the good witch, but a poor decision on his part, along with a misunderstanding leads to an undesired outcome. Reunited with his Spider-Man director, Franco finds just the right balance of charm and deception to be appealing, aided greatly by the talented, bewitching trio of Williams, Kunis, and Weisz. While it can't touch Judy Garland, the visual razzle-dazzle and cheeky humor make it a fun way to pass the time, though it's pretty clear that Raimi is relying more on special effects than storytelling for impact. **½


some faults but it does have entertainment value
Jamie Foxx (utilizing his previous experience playing famed musician Ray Charles) takes his talents to the animated world in this existential Pixar fantasy. Believing he was born to play, talented N.Y.C. pianist Joe Gardner aspires to succeed in jazz music, but instead has to settle for being a middle school band teacher. On the eve of a big break, he ends up in the "Great Beyond" where he's tasked with mentoring a snarky, cynical nascent (voiced to perfection by Tina Fey). The first Pixar feature with a predominantly African-American cast isn't as remarkable as some of the studio's best efforts, but it entertains just the same with some heartwarming moments, solid voice work, hot musical numbers, luminous animation, and clever pop culture references. The denouement is a bit disappointing as it feels rushed and much too convenient, along with some of the film's familiar and clichéd themes. **½

The Holiday

despite the artifice it'll evoke a smile
On the cusp of the festive season, heartbroken, low-level Hollywood type Amanda Woods, and lovelorn, English society columnist Iris Simpkins both want the same thing: an escape from their lives. Despite being more than 5,000 miles apart, they agree to a two-week home exchange, but soon learn that as one door closes...sometimes another one opens. Christmassy, transparent rom-com is obviously contrived, and given its foregone conclusion needlessly prolonged, but has a likable cast at its disposal, and enough warm, gooey moments thanks to writer-director Meyers who clearly has a deft touch when it comes to the hearts-and-flowers stuff. **½

Wonder Woman 1984

not very engaging despite a diligent effort from the lead actors
In 1984 valiant Diana Prince chooses to fly solo and works under the radar at the Smithsonian, but in a world where nothing good can be born from lies, she secretly continues her righteous crusade against injustice. After an unexpected reunion with lost love Steve Trevor, she faces off against disgruntled loser and businessman Max Lord, as well as geeky gemologist-turned-apex predator Barbara Minerva in a conflict that could have dire consequences. Overlong, unremarkable sequel with a bland villain and clichéd central message finally kicks into gear as it nears the finale, but it really could've done without such an aimless, lingering first half. Offers the expected 80s anachronisms and some warm moments courtesy of Gadot and Pine, but it lacks an adventurous spirit or thrilling action scenes to complement them. **

Punch-Drunk Love

very watchable if a bit aloof
Tormented, socially-neutered novelty salesman Barry Egan has little to nothing to show for himself, thereby wallowing in his own misery. A sudden encounter with a desirable woman, as well as a single discretionary phone call sends him into a tailspin, creating a chain reaction of events he isn't prepared for. Quirky, irregular mix of black comedy, romance, and drama can best be described as a character study of an odd person, how he "interacts" with others, and how he deals with emotional isolation...this makes for an unusual viewing experience, but an interesting one nonetheless. Sandler's portrayed in a much different light here, effectively holds his own as the monosyllabic, combustible protagonist, and clicks with Watson though her character isn't as fully developed. Anderson's direction and an offbeat score create a palpable nervous tension, though the colorful visuals don't seem to exist for any real reason. **½


if any other director you'd be surprised
Opens with a bang as a skilled American protagonist is on an international undercover assignment, but his seemingly routine espionage mission becomes far more daunting when he learns that his actions (past and present) are crucial in preventing WWIII...or something far worse. Twisty, paradoxical thriller can't always maintain a peak level of tension due to all the exposition, set up, and lengthy running time, but it features some truly unique choreography for visual thrills, plus a good cast--especially mad dog oligarch Branagh who does plenty of frothing at the mouth. There's a lot of good stuff here and while admittedly cool to look at, it's also a bit pretentious and when all said and done you may have trouble figuring out why it all had to happen. Latest "mind game" from Nolan is possibly his most challenging film to date, and though he employs plenty of trickery while playing with the flow of time, perhaps he could've streamlined things a bit. **½


loneliness and angst imperfectly packaged, but bolstered by two great leads
In 19th century England jaded, self-made paleontologist Mary Anning spends her days alone on the coastline excavating fossils, until a well-off tourist entrusts his wife Charlotte Murchison (repressed, melancholy, and a shadow of her former self) into Mary's care. Though Mary initially views Charlotte as an unwelcomed guest, gradually the two become close as their relationship intensifies. In a quiet, intimate, and moody story such as this where much goes unsaid, most of the emotion is conveyed through subtleties and body language, but fortunately the two lead actresses are up for the challenge and deliver strong, internalized performances--though at times it's frustrating to try and discern the emotional depths and complications between their two characters. It's hard to determine the historical accuracy of what transpires on screen, plus it concludes on an ambiguous note, but Ronan is solid as usual, while Winslet is absolutely riveting. **½

Midnight in Paris

an enjoyable little fantasy once you buy in
Restless, nostalgic Hollywood hack screenwriter Wilson is vacationing in Paris with bourgeois fiancée McAdams and her right-wing parents, but he gets caught up in the allure of the city while hoping to find inspiration for his work-in-progress novel. Choosing to wander the streets alone, he's magically whisked back to the 1920s where he finds himself interacting with historic icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, and even Picasso. Though the set up requires a leap of faith, this original, undemanding, fairy tale-esque concoction is charming, scenic, and effectively cast, with sly direction from Allen whose frequent use of Parisian landmarks serve as a postcard to the city. ***

Movie 43

try to avert your eyes from this mess
So-called comic anthology isn't so much a movie as it is a sloppy series of skits, each reeking of desperation and landing with a thud as blind dates, fetishes, social media, homeschooling, and product marketing are jumbled together in a tasteless attempt to generate laughs, yet somehow it managed to reel in an A-list cast! The question is how so many good actors agreed to appear in such a foulmouthed, haphazard display of bodily fluids, lame stereotypes, weak parody, homophobic and racial slurs, perverse animation, etc. which grow more agonizing the longer this goes on...one can only presume they had no actual idea what they signed up for; plays out like a series of badly written, readily rejected SNL sketches. *

The Life of David Gale

highly watchable even if unconvincing
In the heart of Central Texas, convicted murderer Spacey--only days shy of execution--sits on death row, but ironically enough (as revealed in flashback) he was formerly a professor at the University of Austin and one of the State's most outspoken advocates against capital punishment. Winslet is the acute but skeptical journalist recruited to tell his story to the public, but slowly begins to doubt his guilt as his tale emerges. Story pulls you in and has three splendid lead actors to give it conviction, but the film's message about the death penalty gets lost amidst all the convoluted plot twists, many of which depend solely on coincidence and improbability. A riveting (if unlikely) drama that tries a bit too hard to add in elements of mystery and thriller. **½

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