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Movie Reviews
'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.

'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.