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Movie Reviews
'Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse'
(PG / 100 mins)

Overview: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents to a fresh vision of a different Spider-Man Universe, with a groundbreaking visual style that's the first of its kind.

'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.

Verdict: It's hard to fathom that the same Sony Pictures that, in 2012, decided the best way to expand the appeal of its live-action Spider-Man franchise was to start over with lesser movies, has now become smart enough to put its resources into a superb new — really new — Spider-Man cartoon. Maybe someone in a Culver City boardroom got bit by a radioactive MacArthur Fellow.

Whatever the reason, for a powerful corporation to relax its grip on an ancient specimen of blue-chip IP enough to let the creatives have some fun is a rare thing, and one that should not go unheralded. Marvel Comics weathered the ire of reactionary fandom back in 2011 when it introduced Miles Morales, a Spider-Man no less Amazing than that nerdy orphan Peter Parker, but for the fact he was the son of a Puerto Rican ER nurse and an African-American beat cop. Miles became the Spider-Man of the publisher's "Ultimate" line, a spiral arm of the Marvel Universe that... know what? Don't worry about it. To cite the refrain of this graphically dazzling, generously imaginative, nakedly optimistic, mercilessly funny and inclusive-without-being-all-pious-about-it animated odyssey called 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse', "Anyone can wear the mask"!

Without getting all hung up on plot, some messing about by The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) prompts what you might call a crisis on infinite earths, allowing the just-bit high-schooler Miles to meet up with confident twenty-something grad student Spidey (Chris Pine, once again getting that swagger-to-humility ratio just right) as well as divorced, depressed, forty-something dad-bod Spidey (Jake Johnson).

For all its visual dazzle, Spider-Verse is working the same optimistic side of the street as the Richard Donner Superman of 40 years ago and the Wonder Woman of last year.

It believes in heroism and sacrifice, even when it's practiced by a wisecracking pig, who I'm pretty sure is seen eating a hot dog at one point. (It's the role Mulaney was born to play, baby.)

'Mortal Engines'
(PG / 111 mins)

Overview: Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London -- now a giant, predator city on wheels -- from devouring everything in its path.

Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Verdict: In truth, and no matter what you've heard, there is a lot to like about the post-apocalyptic film 'Mortal Engines.'

The movie, directed by Christian Rivers, is visually stunning. The team of screenwriters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson — proved with "The Lord of the Rings" they can do epic films well, and this big-budget picture is no exception.

The world has been ruined by a “60-minute war” that took out much of civilization, but the stark landscape makes for an interesting backdrop as you watch the main characters run for their lives.

The giant, steampunk contraption that London has become rolls along, consuming other cities in its path. It is a fascinating blend of old technology and modern ideas. The ideas of territory and borders have become obsolete as London rumbles across the Earth in search of resources.

You can ponder the meaning of civilization and how people treat each other in a society where people who are relegated to the lower rungs of society are literally kept underground.

And if you like action, the movie delivers fight and chase scenes in abundance. The actress Jihae (from the television series "Mars") has a couple of thrilling fight scenes as Anna Fang, as does newcomer Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw.

But 'Mortal Engines' leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

For example, much of the plot revolves around a city lacking technology and resources, but there are fantastic flying machines that seem to have plenty of power and advanced weaponry.

And given that those advances are possible, why haven’t the people figured out ways to use what resources are left (snow-capped mountains?) more efficiently.

Maybe some of those questions are answered in the 2001 Philip Reeves novel of the same name upon which the film is based. But even at two hours and eight minutes, the film doesn't have time to tie up all of its loose ends, or maybe it doesn't mean to.

Perhaps those plot lines will be better developed in a sequel or three. Reeves has four novels in this series. Ergo, 'Mortal Engines' is an entertaining movie if you don’t ask to many questions of the story and stick to what’s put in front of you onscreen.

'The Mule'
(R / 128 mins)

Overview: Earl Stone, a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he's just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel.

He does well -- so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn't the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates.

And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl's past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it's uncertain if he'll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel's enforcers, catch up to him.

Verdict: ‘The Mule' is based on a true story, and a good one, but it’s weakened by a mediocre script. Clint Eastwood, who also directed, is Earl Stone, a 90-year-old former horticulturist at the end of several tethers.

Earl is broke, on the outs with his family and almost homeless when he gets a gig he hasn’t sought as a courier for a Mexican drug cartel. It’s all about his spotless driving record and his age-spotted face.

Those two factors, cartel recruiters in the Midwest realize, will make him invisible to cops, so off he goes in a new career, transporting kilos of cocaine cross-country—at first in his ancient pickup truck, then in a shiny new Lincoln Navigator that he acquires once his financial situation starts to improve.

It’s fun to watch Earl getting richer with every run, like a geezer dowser who has discovered an underground spring of cash. What’s less enjoyable is the film’s indifference to detail, and its penchant for formula. (Nick Schenk adapted the screenplay from a New York Times Magazine article by Sam Dolnick.)

Earl is smart, but he seems to be the least inquisitive of men, given his surprise at discovering, quite belatedly, the powdery nature of his cargo. What did he think his handlers were doing with all those heavy weapons at the garage where they loaded his truck?

Bradley Cooper, who starred—with great success—under Mr. Eastwood’s direction in “American Sniper,” is less fortunate this time; he does what he can, which isn’t much, with the clumsily conceived role of Colin Bates, the DEA agent who tracks Earl down.

Earl’s ex-wife, Mary, is played by Dianne Wiest, a superb actress condemned to play a scene of surpassing mawkishness.

'The Mule' is not a movie you’d want to see for its nuances. Yet the story at its core deals with matters that have long been Mr. Eastwood’s professional, and clearly personal, concern.

Earl feels burdened by guilt—not for hauling narcotics, but for a lifetime of neglecting those he loves—and seeks redemption that transcends melodramatic cliché. When the old man finally mans up to his failings, the movie succeeds with special poignancy.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'
(R / 117 mins)

Overview: Set in early-1970s Harlem, 'If Beale Street Could Talk' is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple's unbreakable bond and the African-American family's empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne).

A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James).

Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Through the unique intimacy and power of cinema, 'If Beale Street Could Talk' honors the author's prescient words and imagery, charting the emotional currents navigated in an unforgiving and racially biased world as the filmmaker poetically crosses time frames to show how love and humanity endure.

Verdict: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' opens with a quote from James Baldwin and a slow, sweeping violin score that will be heard many more times. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) walk along the edge of a New York City park, with greenery on one side and highways and cityscape on the other.

Their clothes are coordinated in yellow and navy as if they belong to one another. The details of this outdoor world soon melt away, leaving only close-ups of the actors' faces. They are looking into each other so deeply that nothing else exists. Not the problems that are about to come their way, the tragedy or heartaches that will soon eclipse their young lives.

Those stares will change over the course of Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Baldwin's novel about love, family, New York City and racism. The bliss of their budding romance will be put on hold when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), by a racist white police officer (Ed Skrein).

Not long after Fonny goes to jail, Tish reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Although Fonny's father and Tish's family toast to the new generation, Fonny's deeply devout Christian mother and sisters receive the news less excitedly.

They are the least of Tish's worries, however, as now she must figure out how to make ends meet as an unwed pregnant 19-year-old separated from her partner by prison bars and thick glass.

Those gorgeous, longing stares at the beginning of the film grow resentful, hurt and frightened as the months wear on. It begins to feel uncomfortable to be so close to this much pain, but Jenkins' camera is steady – and so is Tish's resolve to fight for her love. Her mother Sharon (Regina King) defends her daughter against criticism and steps in to help her future son-in-law's case.

In the movie, Jenkins enhances the subtleties of his actors' performances, growing small personal moments into epics. Layne and James' chemistry is sweet and believable, playing the parts of lifelong friends who committed to one another.

Jenkins lavishes close-up after close-up on their young, hopeful faces, capturing each sly smile and direct glance. King gives a powerful performance as Tish's determined mother who's trying to do everything to protect her child's chance at love and justice. Some of her most moving scenes have no words.

After a meeting goes poorly, she cries and curses at having potentially botched the conversation that could have lead to a break in the case.Jenkins' camera zooms in on Sharon's hands clenched on a photo of Tish and Fonny, holding it slightly above her bowed head like an appeal to a higher power for help.

Barry Jenkins is an avowed fan of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, naming movies like Chunking Express and In the Mood for Love among his favorites. You can see echoes of influences in Jenkins' feature debut Medicine for Melancholy in the shots where the movie's couple trades smiles and flirty glances without any words.

It's also evident in Chiron's longing stares at the camera throughout Jenkins' Oscar-winning film, Moonlight. But in If Beale Street Could Talk, those close-ups are a way to show the audience that no matter what bars or glass comes between them, Tish and Fonny are still connected.

The world can still melt away, not as clearly or as often as it used to, but they still look at each other in a way that might make you feel weak in the knees.

There's a timeless quality to the film despite its specific setting. Jenkins employs very few pop culture or news references that might get in the way of the romantic drama, only late '60s or early '70s clothes and hairstyles clue us in.

The earthy tones and warm color schemes of Fonny's sculptures, the furniture in Tish's home, and the couple's outfits look luxurious in the lens of cinematographer James Laxton, who also worked with Jenkins on Moonlight.

Beale Street may play on similar visual notes of longing but on a warmer register than the cool blues and tones in Moonlight. As if the look of the film and its heartbreaking story weren't soul-stirring enough, composer Nicholas Britell complements the imagery with possibly this year's most moving score, a wave of slow violins that ebb and flow throughout the film's most emotional scene.

The problems of racial profiling and abuse Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) deal with are not relics of the past. Jenkins inserts striking black-and-white stills of the Bronx and Harlem in that era, of black men working on prison chain gangs and of white police officers enacting various acts of police brutality to underscore his point.

Yet in this terrible situation and cruel world, Tish and Fonny find moments of sweetness, of loving caresses and the romantic feeling like they're the only ones on a crowded subway.

'If Beale Street Could Talk' is at once a tribute to love and a call for its defense against racist hatred, all told in an artfully composed tragedy.

(PG-13 / 143 mins)

Overview: From Warner Bros. Pictures and director James Wan comes an action-packed adventure that spans the vast, visually breathtaking underwater world of the seven seas, 'Aquaman,' starring Jason Momoa in the title role.

The film reveals the origin story of half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry and takes him on the journey of his lifetime--one that will not only force him to face who he really is, but to discover if he is worthy of who he was born to be ... a king.

Verdict: Anyone who read comics in the ’90s probably remembers Peter David’s mean, bearded Aquaman, a rejoinder to the Filmation and Hanna-Barbera cartoons that had cemented the character’s popular image as a weenie, the Fred Jones of the seven seas, and the butt of endless jokes about his fish friends and the limited usefulness of his marine powers.

David’s Aquaman had a lot of backstory and he looked like a shirtless Nordic sea captain with a harpoon for a hand. Before that, there was the brief “blue period” of the ’80s, the brainchild of the DC Comics editor Neal Pozner—an earlier attempt at revamping Aquaman’s orange-and-green costume and making the seagoing superhero cool.

There’s no older dramatic plot in cape comics than the one that asks if the character lives up to their suit and powers, but Aquaman has spent decades trying to live his down.

But now there’s the Aquaman played by Jason Momoa in the live-action DC films. After a seconds-long cameo in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, he got a proper introduction in Justice League (the franchise’s low point) as the surly foil of the superhero crew.

But maybe that was just residual grouchiness; no one in that $300 million dud really seemed like they wanted to be there. The version we get in James Wan’s Aquaman is more of a party dude. Nü-Aquaman is the hearty, exclaimed “badass!”; he is AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”; he is all 96 seconds of the intro to the early-to mid-’90s Lorenzo Lamas TV series Renegade.

He zips around the oceans on a jet stream squirted from God-knows-where wearing a leather duster coat and steel-toed boots. A guitar lick plays every time he glares over his shoulder in his first big scene. He has a wallet chain. He is cheesy and fun.

For the most part, so is Aquaman, despite the usual genre obligations. Like so many DC origin stories, Aquaman’s is a mix of birthrights and parent issues; like Wonder Woman’s, it takes its basic, pulpy inspiration from the ancient Greeks. (Hey, did you know superheroes are, like, our modern myths?) As we learn, thousands upon thousands of years ago, the hubristically advanced civilization of Atlantis sank into the sea.

Since then, its people have developed the ability to live and breathe underwater. Some still looks more or less human, though only a few of them are able to breathe surface air. Others evolved into sea monsters, like the scaly Fishermen and the hideous, abyssal Trench people.

Some 30-odd years ago, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a princess of the human-looking Atlanteans, escaped to the coast of Maine, where she fell in love with a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), and had a baby before being forced to return to her arranged royal marriage in the kingdom of the depths.

Now, her son—Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, a half-Atlantean with superhuman strength and the ability to telepathically communicate with all undersea animals—patrols the open water, slugging hijackers and rescuing sailors in between trips to the local watering hole with his dad.

Unfortunately for Arthur (and for us, the landlubbers), his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) has set out to wage war against the surface in a bid to take over all of the undersea kingdoms and have himself declared “Ocean Master.”

The first utterance of these words, “Ocean Master,” is accompanied by an honest-to-goodness dum-dum-dum. But then again, Aquaman is the sort of the movie that casts Dolph Lundgren as an undersea monarch who rides a giant seahorse.

It is also the sort of movie that ends with a freeze frame, and includes dialogue along the lines of, “You have our mother’s trident—powerful, but flawed, like her.” It owns up to its cheese.

With the help of Mera (Amber Heard), an aquatic royal who can move water through telekinesis, and his old Atlantean tutor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur travels to an undersea megalopolis to challenge Orm—and then, when that doesn’t turn out as planned, sets off to find a long-lost artifact called the Trident Of Atlan, occasionally exchanging blows with Atlantean commandos whose high-tech exo-suits spring leaks of pressurized water.

This quest-by-numbers plot gives Wan an opportunity to keep changing locations, justifying the bloated budget and running time that is more or less a must for today’s superhero movies: massive undersea palaces and arenas; even bigger ruins; an abandoned Atlantean splinter kingdom lost in the sands of the Sahara; the Jules-Verne-ian hollow interior of the Earth, where dinosaurs still roam; the open sea, where a nighttime attack by the Trench people gives Wan a chance to show off his bona fides as a horror director on a swarming, CGI-panorama scale.

Wan’s The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 had their Spielbergian notes, and there’s a certain discount-Indiana-Jones logic to the stretch of the film that takes Arthur and Mera from the Sahara to Sicily. But for the most part, Aquaman’s medley of influences skew to the less timeless and trendy, quoting the more spectacular moments of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels (the underwater and aboveground cities of Naboo from The Phantom Menace, the chase from Attack Of The Clones) along with some Stephen Sommers of similar vintage. (A little bit of the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies here, a little bit of G.I. Joe: Rise Of The Cobra there.)

In the climax, he even manages to do Zack Snyder’s bombastic, grimacing slow-mo style better than Snyder did in his own DC superhero movies Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Justice League.

The problem is that, for all of their cycloid-scale costumes, nacreous architecture, and giant cargo turtles, the Atlanteans aren’t any fun. Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a high-tech pirate with a grudge against Aquaman and a bug-eyed helmet that shoots plasma beams, makes the bigger impression as an underutilized secondary villain. (He’s Aquaman’s best-known nemesis in the comics.)

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the most successful of the DC films, had its own problems with dull baddies and stiff, contraction-less exposition delivered by actors in armor.

'Aquaman' needs its smirking, beer-loving, roadie-looking, Chippendale-chested hero—not to save the day, but to remind us that this is stuff is about as goofy as it gets.