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Movie Reviews
'Pet Sematary' [2019]
(R / 101 mins)

Overview: Based on the seminal horror novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary follows Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), who, after relocating with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two young children from Boston to rural Maine, discovers a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near the family's new home.

When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his unusual neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences.

Verdict: Sometimes the dead are worth resurrecting. That's the case with 'Pet Sematary,' the effective and suitably creepy remake of the 1989 adaptation of the Stephen King novel.

This new 'Pet Sematary' is tightly wound and unfolds at a steady pace, and features strong performances from its sturdy cast.

Of course it is slightly disingenuous for a Hollywood remake to preach against bringing the dead back to life, but no matter. (A more self-aware film would have doubled as a commentary on reboot culture, but no sense in biting the hand that feeds.)

Jason Clarke is Louis, an ER doctor who is moving his family — his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) — from Boston to Ludlow, Maine to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Their large property extends far back into the woods behind their house, where there lies a cemetery for pets, and beyond that, a mysterious burial ground where the dead can be brought back to life.

Louis' neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow, aces as always) takes Louis back to the site after Church, the family cat, meets an untimely end. Except when Church comes back, he's not quite himself; the furball's hair is all tattered and he comes with a newly acquired mean streak.

What's better, accepting the finality of death or settling for rebirth with a few minor flaws? That question is tested when Ellie is in an accident and Louis takes matters into his own hands.

In closing, 'Pet Sematary' addresses issues of death and our unwillingness to accept it in a fun, frank manner. The dead don't always have it this good.

'Dumbo' [2019]
(PG / 112 mins)

Overview: From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure 'Dumbo' expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.

Verdict: Disney's latest live-action remake of one of the studio's animated classics gives Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) another chance to vamp with an empty spectacle that is fine for children and perhaps nostalgia-inducing for adults who watched the 1941 original on VHS. The acting from everyone onscreen, including Colin Farrell as a former trick rider and Danny DeVito as a ringmaster circa 1920, is so anachronistic and unnatural that their interaction with CGI is a respite.

The flying baby elephant is cute and the production design is eye-catching. The upsides end there. The refurbished story, both numbing in its predictability and painstakingly woke, is the clearest indicator that this reboot need not exist; sorry!

'Avengers: Endgame'
(PG-13 / 182 mins)

Overview: The grave course of events set in motion by Thanos that wiped out half the universe and fractured the Avengers ranks compels the remaining Avengers to take one final stand in Marvel Studios' grand conclusion to twenty-two films, 'Avengers: Endgame.'

Verdict: A triumph of sorts. Not of acting: with some notable exceptions — a beer-bellied, tragicomic Chris Hemsworth as Thor among them — a feeling of exhaustion has crept in with a number of the principals over the 10 or so years since Iron Man set this gargantuan, quippy super-opera in motion.

Nor of dialogue: not even Don Cheadle can deliver a line like “We are all about that superhero life,” and the little speeches tend to fall flat, to the point where the film gets self-conscious about them.

Nor of direction: for the first hour or so, the Russo brothers rely heavily on your good will toward the superfolk who remain in the wake of “blue meanie” Thanos’ halving of the universe’s population, and the relentless stream of fan service in the two hours that follow may leave even the truest believer feeling milked.

But a triumph of feeling: of itches scratched, of sorrows and angers eased, even of longings fulfilled. A triumph of theme: the team’s [SPOILER ALERT?] time-travel gambit hammers home the Why We Fight virtues of home and hearth, of Mom and Dad and the kids.

And above all, a triumph of plotting: thread after narrative thread tied off in neat and sometimes unexpected (and unexpectedly satisfying) fashion.

In conclusion, and without giving away anything specific, the MCU will go on and on, but this chapter — and the American pragmatism vs. American ideals bromance that drove it — have well and truly come to their “Excelsior! Nuff said!” moment!

'Alita: Battle Angel'
(PG-13 / 122 mins)

Overview: Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido, a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic.

When Alita awakens, she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in.

As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious past.

Verdict: Co-written and produced by James Cameron (who was too busy working on Avatar sequels to make it himself) and directed by Sin City and Spy Kids’ Robert Rodriguez, this sci-fi movie is based on a cyberpunk Manga series about a female cyborg in a dystopian future.

Alita is said robot, found in pieces on an Iron City junk heap by scientist Ido (Waltz), who puts her back together again. Her body may be spare parts but she has a human brain and begins to remember her past as a warrior.

She also finds time for romance with Hugo (Keean Johnson) and he introduces her to Motorball, a fast-paced, gladiator-style violent sport in which the ultimate winner is promised a new life in the wealthy sky city of Zalem that hovers above the slums below.

Of course, there are bad guys, including killer cyborg assassins and the scheming Vector (Ali), but the movie is dominated by the special effects.

Alita (Salazar), with her oversized eyes and robot body is one of the best effects of all, but while you will marvel at her creation, Salazar never gets the chance to deliver enough warmth for you to care about what happens to her.

In fact, despite being visually impressive, the whole movie feels cold and uninvolving, while the plot seems borrowed from numerous other movies and stories, including – to name just a few – Rollerball, The Hunger Games and Ghost In The Shell.

There’s nothing new here to engage with, and despite the presence of Oscar winners Waltz, Connelly and Ali, it’s really rather tedious and forgettable when you’re not watching the cyborgs smashing each other (and that gets old, too).

'The LEGO Movie 2 - The Second Part'
(PG / 1hr 47 mins)

Overview: The citizens of Bricksburg face a dangerous new threat when LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space start to wreck everything in their path.

The battle to defeat the enemy and restore harmony to the LEGO universe takes Emmet, Lucy, Batman and the rest of their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds that test their courage and creativity.

Verdict: 'The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part' is the over-extended, overly self-referential and overly pleased with itself sequel to 2014's 'The Lego Movie,' which was hip and fun and irreverent in a way that made everyone a part of the joke.

That said, sorry but 'The Lego Movie 2' makes you wonder if the joke was ever funny in the first place!

It was, although that's easy to forget when wading through the self-satisfied sludge of 'Lego 2.' This is a movie for kids that strains itself to not only appeal to adults in the audience but buddy up to them to prove how cool it is.

It's the annoying neighbor child that comes over to play with the kids but really wants to hang with the parents, and strike up a conversation about what they read in Variety that day.

There are jokes about script doctors, social media influencers, "C.P.D.s" (that's shorthand for convenient plot device) and corporate licensing agreements.

You know, all the stuff kids love!

It's meta in a way that jokes aren't just made, they're made and it's explained that they're jokes, as if the deconstruction and over-explanation of those jokes makes them funny. It doesn't.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the Batman character, voiced again by Will Arnett. Batman was a scene-stealer in the original 'Lego Movie' and was successful enough to spin off with 2017's clever 'Lego Batman' movie.

Here, the well of jokes about Batman's darkness and narcissism is all dried up, and line after line lands with a resounding thud.

'Lego 2,' written by original 'Lego Movie' writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and directed by Mike Mitchell ('Trolls'), unfolds five years after the events of the original movie.

The last film ended with the revelation that the film's universe was all in the head of Finn (Jadon Sand), a young child using his imagination to help cope with his overworked father (Will Ferrell).

Ergo, the first 'Lego' movie was like rediscovering your favorite childhood toy had been brought to life by the smartest people in the room.

However, 'Lego 2' is like stepping on a Lego. And anyone who's ever had the misfortune of stepping on a Lego knows that feeling is anything but awesome!

'Fighting With My Family'
(PG-13 / 1hr 48 mins)

Overview: Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige and her brother Zak are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE.

But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone.

Paige's journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.

Verdict: Bevis siblings Paige (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) have been raised for a life of exhibition wrestling by their obsessive parents (Lena Headey and Nick Frost).

Their local shows are put on hold however when the WWE stages auditions. A chance at the big time has arrived, but like all such tales, a toll may be taken on the things that matter most.

There's very little else you need to know about this true-life saga other than it features Dwayne Johnson (producing and cameoing).

In fact, it was the muscular US star who came to writer-director Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) after seeing a documentary about the Bevis family.

Like a body-slamming Full Monty or The Simpsons in leotards, this jewel finds a rare balance between the silliness of the "sport" (and the characters it attracts), a feel-good underdog yarn and some big-hearted sentiment.

A particularly British adolescence (Iron Maiden, black T-shirts, bad hair, etc) provides a tone and feel that are the icing on the cake.

'Captain Marvel'
(PG-13 / 2hr 05 mins)

Overview: Captain Marvel gets caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Verdict: Marvel Studio’s first foray into a female-led film must, in our modern world, necessarily carry with it an unfair amount of cultural baggage.

Will Brie Larson, as the titular hero, serve as a strong, noble hero for the women and girls in the audience? Will the movie address the gender-related elephant in the room with poise and aplomb or with grit and ferocity? Will this movie serve as a cultural sea change that will bring about a fresh wave of female-led blockbusters?

All these questions, and more, swirl around a film like this and create an almost unfair environment for both critics and the film itself. It is, to be honest, almost too much for a single review to cover, and more than any one film should be forced to stand for.

So it is smart, in a way, that 'Captain Marvel' seems to hold itself to no higher standard than the absolute minimum that people tend to expect from an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The second unit does their barely-serviceable work in creating actions scenes that successfully begin, then drag, and then end. The visual effects teams marshal their legions to create passable spectacle when required.

The actors show up, hit their marks, and in the end any real spark or joy that comes from the film comes by the grace of their innate, God-given talents, and very little else.

The film begins on Hala, the homeward of the noble Kree, a race of aliens that seems to have no real aesthetic uniformity. The Kree, who are led by an AI called Supreme Intelligence (perfectly represented by Annette Bening), are at war with the reptilian, shapeshifting Skrull, who are led by the slippery Talos (an impish Ben Mendelsohn).

During a skirmish with the Skrull, Kree warrior Vers (Brie Larson) is taken captive and escapes to end up on Earth, where she must find a source of power before the Skrull can get to it first. All the while, her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) speeds across the galaxy to try to make it to Earth in time for the climax.

If all of this sounds a little goofy while at the same time more than a bit old-hat, then you’re pretty much on the money for what to expect here. A wrinkle, which attempts to make this an origin story wherein the hero already has their powers and their uniform, is the fact that Vers has amnesia, and doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from.

A warrior without a life, all we know about her is that she tends to let her emotions override her focus, which we are told again and again (and again) is a liability.

The problem is that this blankness robs Larson of any character to build or, really, act. The sum total of what the film asks her to do can be summed up by a dependable but tiring pattern of squinting, quipping, and then smiling before launching into battle.

Where the movie comes alive is in the moments in between the action. This is when the skills of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) really pop out from under the smothering fog of CGI and noise.

Vers teams up fairly early on with Agent Fury (an eerily convincingly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) and the two have an odd couple rapport that supports long stretches of the film.

His incredulous-but-game acceptance of a situation involving aliens and superpowers almost makes you wonder what this film would be like if it were willing to be less of a superhero film and more of a buddy-cop comedy.

When she first arrives on Earth, Vers’s steely martial alienness clashes charmingly against the earthlings of 1994, but as soon as the Skrull hit the fan that whimsy disappears and is replaced by brutal efficiency.

This is, after all, a Marvel film, where “character” and “personality” are cobbled together from varying levels of snark, earnestness, stoicism, and nobility; where the only civilians who show up will eventually turn out to be instrumental in the final battle; where personal details exist to form the convenient spine for a lesson to be learned in the final act.

The script doesn’t lean too heavily on the Girl Power angle, but when it does it leans so hard and so clumsily that you wish it would have made it a real theme or through-line just to mitigate the tonal discordance and give the film a viewpoint.

Really though; how can anyone expect that this film will create a new role model for girls when it can barely create a convincing earthling, regardless of gender? How can this movie make a sea change for film culture broadly when it doesn’t signal even the tiniest break from the norm of its own house style?

Larson is an actor of tremendous skill and presence, and Boden and Fleck are talented screenwriters and directors. While all three of these people find themselves muted and hamstrung by the requirements of the Marvel machine, Captain Marvel does make a stellar argument for the three of them coming back together to make a thrilling neo-noir.

Larson can quip and smirk and take a punch, Boden and Fleck can create a fully-realized and damaged character for her to play, with sharp dialogue and grounded storytelling. You can almost feel all of them wanting to make such a movie during some passages of Captain Marvel.

That is the best that can be said of this Marvel Cinematic Universe episode (and perhaps all their offerings); that the layers of corporate-mandated sameness make it so that when the light of individual talent pierces them at all, you know it is because that light is particularly strong.

It becomes a kind of scratch test for one’s strengths. Sadly, it will rarely, if ever, allow for those strengths to cohere into something more than the sum of their parts.