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Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Miller

CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna

REVIEW:

And now in the latest of far too many examples of Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas, the long-running—and long-suffering—Terminator franchise once again proves itself even harder to kill than its titular killer cyborgs, despite the fact that it passed its sell-by date quite a while ago (for my money, all the way back in 1991). While Dark Fate‘s promotion made much ta-do out of the “return” of James Cameron (who gets a producer and co-writer credit but did not retake the director’s chair, which is occupied by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, leaving it questionable how much direct involvement Cameron really had) and Linda Hamilton (who hasn’t taken part in the franchise since 1991’s Judgment Day, turned down a chance to reprise her role in 2003’s Rise of the Machines, and should have turned this one down too), neither Cameron nor his ex-wife’s names in the credits signals a return to the quality of the first two installments, which slipped after Cameron moved on and has never been regained. Dark Fate ignores the existence of every entry since T2 and acts as a direct sequel to the first two and the first two alone—which many fans would likely have been okay with—but alas it doesn’t replace them with anything superior. It’s probably better than its immediate predecessor Genisys (no great accomplishment), but finds its own new ways of dumping on the series mythos.

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The Current War (2019)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton

REVIEW:

Filmed in December 2016 and originally slated for a 2017 release, The Current War has finally found its way into theaters two years later after becoming collateral damage of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and the subsequent downfall of The Weinstein Company (after the beleaguered Weinstein Company sold off The Current War‘s film rights, they were eventually bought by little-known 101 Studios). This finally released version comes out under the label “The Director’s Cut”, claiming it represents director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s original vision before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it and, as was notoriously his wont, started chopping and editing (this is supposedly the original version which played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, not Weinstein’s edit, which was never released). In retrospect, the film’s turbulent and meandering behind-the-scenes journey to its low-profile delayed theatrical release might have been a more eventful story than the film itself. A movie about the fledgling electrical grid and the men vying for dominance over it is not inherently cinematic, and no matter much director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tries to spice it up with visual flair, The Current War remains a rather drab history lesson that fails to use a promising cast to its full advantage.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

DIRECTOR: Joachim Ronning

CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay, David Gyasi, Warwick Davis

REVIEW:

2014’s Maleficent, a “reimagining” of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale which turned the story on its head by casting Maleficent more as a wronged tragic anti-heroine than cackling villainess, was a lightweight and mediocre fantasy adventure, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel. Nevertheless, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will likely appeal to the same audience who enjoyed the first movie and likewise not convert those who were unimpressed. Despite a somewhat “bigger” story and expanded world-building, it doesn’t take things appreciably further than its modestly successful predecessor.

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Joker (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham

REVIEW:

With the simply-titled Joker, an independent stand-alone existing on its own unconnected to any other film in any Batman franchise, director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have gone even further afield of the stereotypical tropes and restrictions of a “comic book movie” than the likes of The Dark Knight, Deadpool, or Logan (rarely for a comic book movie, it shares with the last two examples a well-deserved R rating; this is an adult movie which is thoroughly intended for adults and inappropriate for younger viewers). This is a “comic book movie” in a loose definition of the word, owing more to Scorsese—Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in particular—than the pages of the Batman comics. Taken on its own merits, Joker is a slow burn but darkly engrossing ride following in gritty, down-to-earth fashion one man’s descent into madness. It’s the kind of movie it’s arguable to say is conventionally “entertaining”, but it’s powerful and disturbing, and not easily shaken off afterwards.

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Ad Astra (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Gray

CAST: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

REVIEW:

Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars) joins the likes of Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian as serious, hard sci-fi space movies that seek to portray with docudrama realism and verisimilitude the realities of space and the difficulties and dangers inherent therein. To that end, it’s aimed at a markedly different audience from the action-oriented likes of Star Wars and Star Trek, and its slow-burn deliberate pace requires a commitment of attention from serious-minded viewers.

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It: Chapter Two (2019)

DIRECTOR: Andy Muschietti

CAST: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Teach Grant, Bill Skarsgard

REVIEW:

IT: Chapter Two, the film adaptation of the “27 years later” adult section of Stephen King’s novel, hasn’t saved the best for last. The conclusion to 2017’s IT is far from the worst film adaptation of a King written work, but it’s bloated, overstuffed, and unwieldy, clocking in at a formidable—and unnecessarily drawn-out—-three hours, a full thirty-five minutes longer than Chapter One. That’s a lot of meandering runtime. To be sure, there’s a number of strong scenes in the mix, but it requires a bit of sifting through uneven material.

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Angel Has Fallen (2019)

DIRECTOR: Ric Roman Waugh

CAST: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tim Blake Nelson

REVIEW:

Despite ever-worsening critical reviews, the “[INSERT CODE NAME HERE] Has Fallen” franchise, like its generically stalwart hero Mike Banning, keeps chugging along. 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen wasn’t any kind of great movie, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable Die Hard knock-off. 2016’s London Has Fallen was a lazy, uninspired, low energy classic example of a sequel slapped together because the original did well at the box office, not because there was anywhere fresh or interesting to take the story. Angel Has Fallen is probably a little better, and at least a little more engaging, than London Has Fallen, but not as good as Olympus Has Fallen. It achieves more-or-less exactly what it promises—-a generic, moderately diverting but immediately forgettable action shoot-em-up—which given this franchise’s track record, is a low bar to hurdle.

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The Lion King (2019)

DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau

CAST: voices of Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, J.D. McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph

REVIEW:

Considering Disney’s recent noxious trend of remaking its own animated classics with less-than-classic scene-by-scene regurgitations, it was virtually inevitable that The Lion King would be included. The Lion King is generally considered the “king” of the Magic Kingdom’s fleet of animated movies, arguably only rivaled by Beauty and the Beast, and now, following Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, the lion roars again, this time in CGI rather than hand-drawn animation form. Of all these remakes, The Lion King is probably the best, partly simply because it’s a remake of the one that had the best story in the first place, partly because it is visually splendorous. However, a surfeit of eye candy can’t entirely overcome a slightly hollow feeling, like a competent but uninspired cover of a classic song.

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Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

DIRECTOR: Jon Watts

CAST: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau, Cobie Smulders, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Marisa Tomei

REVIEW:

Coming on the heels of The Avengers: Endgame (it arrives with the other film still in theaters), Spider-Man: Far From Home (the third MCU installment of the year) serves as both epilogue and new jumping-off point, while also giving Tom Holland the chance to swing back into theaters in his second solo outing. To the second point, Far From Home is half of a tedious high school comedy and half of a worthy Spider-Man adventure. The first half leans hard into the weakest elements of 2017’s Homecoming, but the second half surpasses it.

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X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

DIRECTOR: Simon Kinberg

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Jennifer Lawrence, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

REVIEW:

For his directorial debut, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has fulfilled a long-harbored wish to take a second stab at the Dark Phoenix storyline he previously tackled as co-writer of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, dissatisfied with the final product (which was directed by Brett Ratner). For fans of the X-Men comics, the Dark Phoenix storyline, written by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum and running from the late 1970s into 1980, is regarded as one of the comics’ great narrative arcs (in addition to The Last Stand, it has also previously been adapted twice for animated television series). I’m not prepared to say a two hour movie has entirely done justice to a comic storyline which ran for years (reportedly Kinberg initially wanted to tell the storyline across two movies, but the studio declined), but comic book and film are different mediums. In its own right, Dark Phoenix has breathed a little more life into the loose reboot young X-Men series (began with 2011’s First Class and spun off into an alternate timeline by 2014’s Days of Future Past), more compelling than its immediate predecessor, the laborious Apocalypse and overall a better, if rushed and abridged, adaptation of the source material and the Dark Phoenix storyline than The Last Stand.

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