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The Best of Enemies (2019)

DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell

CAST: Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill

REVIEW:

Quick on the heels of recent Best Picture winner Green Book comes yet another one of those standard-issue, well-intentioned 1960s “based on a true story” race relations dramas that are all the rage these days. Given the current political climate, a movie about a die-hard racist and an equally aggressive black activist getting past their enmity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but even more so than Green Book (an enjoyable, inoffensive little movie which was not, in my opinion, Oscar material), The Best of Enemies is standard issue and a little trite and does nothing to distinguish itself from all the other movies covering similar subject matter in recent years. It’s easily lumped in with the likes of The Help, Hidden Figures (also starring Taraji P. Henson), and Green Book, and doesn’t linger in the memory.

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Shazam! (2019)

DIRECTOR: David F. Sandberg

CAST: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Djimon Hounsou

REVIEW:

With Shazam, the DC Expanded Universe plays about as far as possible from the dour dreariness of Batman v Superman. Shazam has its share of more conventional superhero action, but it’s not a straight entry; it’s far more family-friendly than the likes of Deadpool but exists in a somewhat similarly self-parodying vein (though even Shazam is not as openly satirical). The result is an effective mix of superheroics and spoofing thereof, and Shazam‘s status as a minor league player among the comic book superheroes who’ve been brought to the screen (no one expects it to compete against The Avengers: Endgame, but it’s not trying to) doesn’t stop it from being one of the fresher and more entertaining entries to crop up lately, especially from within the troubled DCEU. Were this MCU, it’d be a middle-of-the-road offering, but it’s the most unreservedly enjoyable entry to emerge from the DCEU thus far, and while it’s not a 100% straight comedy, it offers more laughs than some that ostensibly are.

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Dumbo (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton

CAST: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins

REVIEW:

Dumbo began life as a children’s story published in 1939, written by the husband-and-wife duo of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. In 1941, Walt Disney, looking for something that could be slapped together quickly and cheaply to shove out into theaters to help offset mounting costs of his expensive flop Fantasia, bought the rights and the Dumbo animated film debuted in theaters, running a slim 64-minutes. While remembered fondly, it was arguably the most simplistic and juvenile of the Disney animated features of the time, so while this remake (of sorts) is the latest in Disney’s line-up of live-action recreations of its animated classics (following Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and soon to include Jon Favreau’s The Lion King and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin), the brevity of the source material required Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger to do a lot of padding. The result, as one might expect from a padded-out reimagining of a simplistic and juvenile cartoon, is a middling affair that contains enough special effects and lively sequences to entertain children but whose generic and uninspired narrative has less to offer for their parents. Adults accompanying their children may be sufficiently engaged to not be suffering in silence for their children’s sake (which alone bumps Dumbo up above some other theatrical options for family movie night), but adults attending alone may be less enthralled.

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Captain Marvel (2019)

DIRECTOR: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

CAST: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou

REVIEW:

Captain Marvel, the first but far from last Marvel installment of 2019, doesn’t ascend to MCU top-tier, but it escapes the purely perfunctory mediocrity that some may have expected from a superhero origin story that’s primarily being squeezed in before she serves as the deus ex machina she’s clearly being set up as for next month’s The Avengers: Endgame. A 1990s setting and sci-fi angle (shades of Guardians of the Galaxy, including a familiar character or two) lends a fresher feel that’s sorely needed in such an over-saturated comic book movie landscape.

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Cold Pursuit (2019)

DIRECTOR: Hans Petter Moland

CAST: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, William Forsythe, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, Tom Jackson

REVIEW:

Those going into Cold Pursuit (a remake of director Hans Petter Moland’s own 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance starring Stellan Skarsgard) for a straightforward Liam Neeson action flick might not get what they’re expecting. On the one hand, given the lack of variety on Neeson’s filmography these days, it’s a little nice to see Cold Pursuit at least try to do something a little different. Alas, the results are an uncertain and self-indulgent, somewhat schizophrenic product that can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to be a gritty “Liam Neeson kills everyone” crime thriller or a quirky black comedy, leaving it not fully succeeding in any direction.

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The Upside (2019)

DIRECTOR: Neil Burger

CAST: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman

REVIEW:

The Upside is a serviceable but pedestrian remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was based on a true story (with characters’ names changed). Filmed in 2017, the film was left languishing on the shelves of The Weinstein Company after it became embroiled in the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, until finally with STX Entertainment buying the rights, it has found its way into a theatrical release (ironically in the wake of another, smaller scandal involving star Kevin Hart’s dismissal as Oscar host after past homophobic tweets resurfaced). The behind-the-scenes turbulent journey to the screen might make a more interesting story than the movie itself. The Upside is a blandly “feel good”/buddy comedy-drama that offers nothing we haven’t seen before, and seen better, from various movies in this genre.

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Vice (2018)

DIRECTOR: Adam McKay

CAST: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons

REVIEW:

Vice might be billed as a dark comedy, but the occasional absurdist flair only slightly softens the blow of what is essentially a political horror movie. As he did with 2015’s The Big Short—also starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell—Adam McKay uses a comedy-drama approach to bring flair and panache to what on paper sounds like a dry, dull subject for a movie (in The Big Short, the 2007-2008 financial crisis, here the distinctly uncharismatic former Vice President Dick Cheney). In this regard, there’s a little resemblance to what David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin and later Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin did with The Social Network—about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—and Steve Jobs—about the late Apple CEO—but suffice to say McKay again puts his own offbeat fingerprints on the proceedings.

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Aquaman (2018)

DIRECTOR: James Wan

CAST: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren

REVIEW:

Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman might look better in comparison by virtue of being an entry in the DCEU (DC Expanded Universe) that isn’t an abject trainwreck, but that might also be doing a slight disservice to the film, which like many a comic book flick, is silly but entertaining. Aquaman is style over substance, but a visual feast for the eyes and a fast whiz-bang pace make it a fun, if flawed, ride.

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Mortal Engines (2018)

DIRECTOR: Christian Rivers

CAST: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Ronan Raftery, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

REVIEW:

“From the producers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy”—though it was actually directed by Christian Rivers, not Peter Jackson—comes the latest YA fantasy book-to-screen adaptation.  Mortal Engines is decidedly style over substance, but unlike Divergent, which has robbed of a cinematic final chapter and left hanging due to declining box office returns, it at least shows the good sense to tell a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end (there’s three more novels in Philip Reeves’ series), ensuring audiences will get a satisfactory stopping point in case no further films are forthcoming (a wise move, as a weak reception makes this a likely one-and-done).  A smorgasbord of CGI-heavy eye candy and pretty visuals only partially compensates for a generic and underdeveloped narrative, but Mortal Engines is still a fun and interestingly unique ride, even if a shallow rushed feel keeps it from ascending to true epic fantasy.

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Boy Erased (2018)

DIRECTOR: Joel Edgerton

CAST: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton

REVIEW:

Boy Erased, the second directorial feature of actor Joel Edgerton and based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley (with names changed to protect both the innocent and some not-so-innocent), is not a feel good viewing but a worthwhile and important one.  Conley’s memoirs, and now the film adaptation, shine a light on the long-running practice of so-called “conversion therapy”, a phrase which may not even be familiar to some viewers.  Performed most often on underage children, and roundly debunked by virtually every reputable psychiatrist as both ineffective and unethical and psychologically harmful, conversion therapy aims to “convert” an individual with homosexual or bisexual inclinations into a heterosexual.  To this end it uses a step-by-step program of indoctrination including techniques amounting to both psychological and physical abuse.  While increasingly a discredited practice and banned in a growing number of states, conversion therapy remains legal on the books in thirty-six states.  By telling one former patient’s story, Boy Erased offers both a frank condemnation of the insidious quackery of conversion therapy, and the dramatically compelling true story of one young man who emerged triumphant on the other side.

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