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Saccharine and cutesy? Yep, but so what? Stunning wildlife photography and Ed Helms' winning narration conspire to make Disneynature's latest guided tour a charming portrait of cuddly, anthropomorphized critters doing that thing cuddly, anthropomorphized critters do. Like, totally adorbs. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

He waddles into the frame like the cutest latecomer to a cocktail reception you've ever seen, and a big, goofy grin is all but unavoidable. There's a grocery list of objections one may hold against “Penguins,” Disneynature's easily disgestible new entry in its pantheon of photogenic wildlife tales. But once its flippered leading dude makes his giggle-inducing entrance, they largely go out the window. Think of a G-rated spin on Pam Grier gliding into the Los Angeles International Airport's baggage claim area at the beginning of “Jackie Brown” and you get the aesthetically pleasing picture.

This Adélie penguin's name, narrator Ed Helms reveals in disarmingly self-deprecating manner, is Steve, and he's a little behind the curve when it comes to the arduous journey ahead of him in that humongous chunk of ice known as Antarctica. Directors Alastair Fotherhill and Jeff Wilson depict his struggles as he stakes out a place among other males in hotly contested (or is it coldly contested?) real estate. The goal: to be prepared to make a good first impression when the females arrive, and to be able to build a nest out of rocks. When the girl penguins show up, the filmmakers turn the ensuing mating ritual into family-friendly speed dating, climaxing in an endearing payoff.

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There are some decent scares, but it should and could have included a lot more. 

Is it worth $10? No 

That’s right, it’s me! The sorta-great, Matthew Kaiser. I’m here to give you reviews from the crypt and to steer you in the right direction for all your horror needs. Like the great John Wick says, “I’m thinking I’m back.”

Hundreds of years ago, in Mexico, a beautiful mother (Marisol Ramirez) of two boys caught her husband cheating on her. Devastated and wanting revenge, she gave in to a horrific crime of passion. Believing that she could hurt her husband as bad as he hurt her, she decided to take away what he loves most — their children. But not in a way most sane women would do it. She took them away permanently by drowning them in a river. Heartbroken by what she’d done, she takes her own life. You would think that would be the end of her punishment, right? Nope. Her sinful crimes led her to be cursed to travel the Earth, forever searching to replace her dead children. Now known as La Llorona (the weeping woman), tragedy seems to follow as she is seen and heard, weeping from her sorrows.

Fast forward to 1973. A recently widowed child protective services worker, Anna (Linda Cardellini), is trying to survive as a single mother of two children. While working, she’s confronted by her boss. He tries to remove her as the caseworker for a family of three that she’s been with for years. Knowing the family well, she felt that something was very wrong when she’s told that the family is not responding to reports of the children being frequently truant from school. After entering their home, she finds herself drawn into a terrifying world of supernatural horror. The evil spirit, La Llorona, sets her sites on claiming Anna’s children as her own. With the help of a Shaman, Rafael (Raymond Cruz), Anna attempts to fight for her family, and to remove The Curse of La Llorona before it’s too late.

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The story is predictable, but it’s also surprisingly peppy and well made by first-time director Max Minghella. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

We’ve seen the story of the ingenue from nowhere making it big in show business plenty of times, so a shoulder shrug at the next incarnation of this would be understandable. It would also be presumptuous. “Teen Spirit” excels at every predictable turn, gamely engaging us to root for the protagonist to triumph even though we already know she will.

Her name is Violet (Elle Fanning). She’s shy, and lives with her religious mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on a farm in the Isle of Wight in the U.K. They’re poor – they sell eggs at a flea market, and Violet also works at a bar, where she moonlights as a singer. She loves to sing, in fact, and is pretty good at it according to Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a husky local who is not as he initially seems.

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“The Kid Who Would Be King” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

There’s a child-like quality to director M. Night Shyamalan’s movies that make them stand out from the usual polished Hollywood fare. It’s as if he sees the world through the kindest, simplest, most innocent lens possible, only to be completely crushed that the subject matter at hand is so brutal and horrifying. His best movies, which include the two pre-cursors to “Glass,” 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2016’s “Split,” play off this dissonant dichotomy quite well. While I still think that “Split” was the most effective use of this contrast, which makes sense given its subject matter, “Glass” certainly holds its own.

“Glass” refers to Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Or, as he likes to be called: “First name Mister. Last name Glass.” Those who remember “Unbreakable” will no doubt remember Glass, whose bones are so fragile that the slightest touch causes them to break. This is in sharp contrast to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who seems to have an indestructible constitution. This quality of Dunn’s comes in handy when battling The Beast, one of the many personalities of James McAvoy’s Kevin character. At one point The Beast grabs Dunn from behind and squeezes his chest. This would have crushed a normal man, but Dunn was able to resist the weight bearing down on him and not succumb.

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The performances are fine, but it’s more about Jesus than Mary, and feels disappointing as a result. 

Is it worth $10? No 

“Mary Magdalene” might have been a good movie – if it was about Mary Magdalene. Alas, a guy named Jesus enters the story about a third of the way through, and quickly becomes the center of attention. (How could we not want to know more about a guy who uncrosses the eyes of a cross-eyed woman, and brings a man back from the dead?) This should’ve been called “Jesus & Mary,” with “Jesus” emphatically coming first.

We start with Mary (Rooney Mara) in Judea, 33 A.D.  She’s liked and respected in her village, but seeks independence and control of her life, so she rejects the marriage proposal of a local businessman named Ephraim (Tsahi Halevi). Shocked at the gall she has to desire her own happiness, her father (Tcheky Karyo) and brother (Denis Menochet) think she’s possessed by demons, and conduct an exorcism by trying to drown her. In need of help, her father brings in a charismatic healer named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), but this backfires when Mary chooses to leave her family behind and follow Jesus to Jerusalem.  

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“Holmes & Watson” is also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

The human mind is an incredibly complex yet fragile thing. When confronted with a truly traumatizing event, the mind has protectors in place that help the person cope. Blackout periods as well as auditory and visual hallucinations are some of these coping mechanisms, which are characteristic of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), the assault victim at the center of “Welcome to Marwen.”

After a brutal homophobic beating at the hands of five neo-Nazi thugs (if this wasn’t based on a true story I’d call this very lazy writing), Mark went into a mental retreat. Director Robert Zemeckis very wisely breezes through the background exposition portion of the narrative with flashbacks and a scrapbook to show what Mark went through following the assault. It’s now three years later, and Mark lives alone in a house where he spends most of his day posing and photographing dolls in a fictional World War II scenario.

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A cheeky throwback to a time when costumed do-gooder movies were less concerned with slavish adherence to their source material than in delivering thrills with cross-generational appeal, this winsome, frequently funny origin tale reconfigures the superhero experience as family group therapy. The strategy works like a charm, at least until yet another overlong climax somewhat dampens the fun. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

There's a dispiriting sense of duty in most superhero movies coming out nowadays. An obligation, if you will, to make sure a particular entry fulfills expectations, both for fans of the comic books they're based on and moviegoers conditioned to judge the merits of said work by how well it's woven into the larger fabric of a shared cinematic universe. More often than not, the end result receives a coveted $eal of approval from its target audiences, but in the process stamps out the very qualities that would make it stand out from the rest.

In terms of content, “Shazam!” is not in any hurry to rock the boat. It's recognizably set in the DC Extended Universe, the Warner Bros.-financed shingle that released “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” to boffo box office and widespread derision. (Me? I rather liked Zack Snyder's ambitious grimdark take on DC Comics' iconic big guns, and this is coming from a “Man of Steel” detractor.) It also follows the shopworn beats of an origin story. You know the drill: an obstacle course for the protagonist to find the hero within.

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There’s an earnest sweetness that works, but be prepared for heavy-handed environmental and anti-hunting messages.  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

In “Storm Boy,” the message overwhelms the story. Ostensibly the tale of a boy and the pelican he raises from its infancy, the film plays more like a polemic exposing the evils of hunting and environmentally harmful corporate greed. Throw in themes of poverty, single parenting, and lost loved ones and you have a lot more going on – probably too much, actually – than the simple story of a boy and his pelican.  

Based on the 1963 novella by Colin Thiele and directed by Shawn Seet, the story balances the present with the 1950s. In the present is Michael (Geoffrey Rush), a retired corporate tycoon whose son-in-law Malcolm (Erik Thomson) now runs the business. Michael’s granddaughter Maddie (Morgana Davies) is outraged that the business’ latest policy will destroy vast swaths of land, and implores her grandfather to vote against it at a board of directors meeting. All the while, Michael is having visions, blurred memories of his childhood that prompt him to question what he’s doing.

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“Bumblebee” and “Vice” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a master horticulturalist and a charming man. Father of the year, however, he is not. This is all made abundantly clear in the opening moments of “The Mule,” in which we see that Earl choose to attend a horticulture gathering over his own daughter Iris’ (Alison Eastwood) wedding.

It’s also made clear that the old school Earl isn’t fond of the Internet. When we first see Earl at the horticulture gathering, it’s 2005 and he dismisses a fellow horticulturalist who does business on the Internet. Flash forward to 2017—which the subtitle helpfully points out is 12 years later in case you can’t math that out—and Earl is out of business with a home that is facing foreclosure.

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Tim Burton's pleasantly retro live-action adaptation of Disney's proudly cartoonish 1941 classic expands the source material with gentle assurance and disarming showmanship -- but to get there, it faces major hurdles along the way, the biggest of which is being unable to match the original's elemental power.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

If anyone tells you “Dumbo,” Walt Disney Studios' 1941 gem about a big-eared elephant and his quest for self-confidence, is strictly kids' stuff, you have my blessing to give them the stink eye. They probably don't remember how visceral and wrenching this tale of circus life actually is. Clocking in at just 64 minutes, Disney's fourth animated feature was driven by the fierce bond between a mother and her son, and what happens when they're torn apart.

Family also lies at the heart of the 2019 “Dumbo,” a live-action (but CGI-heavy) feature billed as another triumphant collaboration between the Mouse House and Tim Burton, the animator-turned-auteur who got his start as an apprentice at Disney in the early 1980s. That marketing decision might make sense from a publicity standpoint, but it's problematic insofar as Burton hasn't really been able to recapture the dark magic of his early work in decades, and while Disney has had considerable financial success with retooling its animated classics for crossgenerational global consumption, it's unlikely most of these big-budget productions will stand the test of time the way its predecessors have.

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Recent Articles

Penguins ***
Saccharine and cutesy? Yep, but so what? ...
The Curse of La Llorona **
There are some decent scares, but it should ...
Teen Spirit ***
The story is predictable, but it’s also ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Glass
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is also new to ...
Mary Magdalene **
The performances are fine, but it’s more ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Welcome to Marwen
“Holmes & Watson” is also new to Blu-Ray ...
Shazam! ***
A cheeky throwback to a time when costumed ...

Best Movie In Theaters Now: Teen Spirit

The story is predictable, but it’s also surprisingly peppy and well made by first-time director Max Minghella. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

We’ve seen the story of the ingenue from nowhere making it big in show business plenty of times, so a shoulder shrug at the next incarnation of this would be understandable. It would also be presumptuous. “Teen Spirit” excels at every predictable turn, gamely engaging us to root for the protagonist to triumph even though we already know she will.

Her name is Violet (Elle Fanning). She’s shy, and lives with her religious mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on a farm in the Isle of Wight in the U.K. They’re poor – they sell eggs at a flea market, and Violet also works at a bar, where she moonlights as a singer. She loves to sing, in fact, and is pretty good at it according to Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a husky local who is not as he initially seems.

Read more
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