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The story is predictable, but it’s just cute and funny enough to show kids a good time.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Cute animals. Glossy visual effects. Kids helping Iron Man save the day. “Dolittle” is so infused with saccharine furry fun that it almost gets the 2020 movie year off to a rollicking and joyful start. Almost.

To its credit, though, it does have appealing elements, and is successful enough at what it does to make it worthy of a moderate recommendation.

Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is a recluse. His wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) died while exploring the high seas, so even though he’s the only person in the world who can talk to animals, and is the best veterinarian there is, he’s too depressed to help others. (A bit selfish, no?) Director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan doesn’t point out how many animals died while Dolittle battled depression, so best not to think about it and move on.

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“Gemini Man” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Given that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) turned out to be the savior of the day in the 2014 “Maleficent,” one should be forgiven for scratching one’s head as to how and why the horn-headed dark fae with the high cheekbones is back to being the baddie. It has something to do with the queen of a neighboring kingdom, Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), spreading fake news about Maleficent’s heroism and turning her into the villain of the story. Hey, sequels need reasons to exist.

One of the reasons a sequel should exist is to expand upon and continue the narrative from the previous story. This is exactly what “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” accomplishes, though there are some bumps in the road plot-wise.

The story picks up five years after the events of the first “Maleficent” movie, and we see Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) all grown up and in charge of an enchanted woodland called the Moors. It’s a magical place where mythical creatures roam free, flying, walking, swimming, or crawling in a beautiful, peaceful, pastoral landscape. It’s a dream sprung to life, and looks as good as it should, given that this is a Disney production.

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The entire 118-minute film looks like it was done in one long take, which heightens the sense of urgency and suspense. It’s one of the best films of 2019, and certainly the most technically impressive.

Is it worth $10? Yes

A simple premise meets technical mastery in "1917," a World War I drama that's as gripping and heart-pounding as they come. It's not full of emotion, but it has enough heartfelt energy to keep us invested, and those who know will find deep appreciation for the technical elements that greatly enhance the storytelling.

In the midst of The Great War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a seemingly impossible but essential task: To carry a message through enemy territory that will stop an impending attack. Fail and Blake's brother, as well as 1,600 other soldiers, will almost certainly die. Succeed and you're a hero. The journey finds them climbing through mud, across barbwires and over dead bodies as they desperately strive to stop the attack.

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“The Shed” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Here’s an interesting tidbit I learned from a documentary about notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who did part-time clown work: His makeup was done wrong. Professional clowns know to never use shapes like triangles or put any sharp points on their makeup—it’s frightening to children. The pros use only round, soft shapes. This is perhaps why some people are afraid of clowns. Their parents hired an amateur clown for a birthday party when they were little, and the jagged edges on the clown’s makeup scared them. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, giving the best performance of the year regardless of what any award shows have to say about it) was one of the clowns who would scare children.

Arthur goes by the clown name Carnival, but as we know by the title of the movie, he eventually adopts the name Joker. While “Joker” may be part of the DC comic book universe, this is a dark and gritty origin story like no other. The movie takes place in 1981. There is a garbage collector’s strike in Gotham that causes trash to pile up everywhere, the streets are flooded with hoodlums who will beat people up for fun, and there is an underlying tension between the haves and the have-nots that is ready to bust out into Gotham society at large.

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Compiling a list of the best films of the decade is not as easy as recounting my number one films of the last ten years. In fact, some years rendered no entries on this list at all (2012, 2018), while others have multiple inclusions (2011, 2016). Time is also a factor, as not all movies age well, even in less than 10 years. Thus in some cases it wasn't even my number one movie of the year that endured -- it was a film lower on the list.

Not on the list, but worthy of mention when discussing the decade, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has released 23 movies since 2008. Its broad appeal, homogenized style, and visual splendor consistently captivated audiences; in total, the films earned roughly $22.6 billion worldwide. This success, and the rip-offs it inspired, dealt the biggest blow to adult dramas, many of which are now accessed on a streaming service rather than the big screen.

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Looking back on the films of 2019, individual moments stood out the most. The heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe returning in the end of "Avengers: Endgame." The heartbreaking fight between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in "Marriage Story." Matt Damon taking Tracy Letts' Henry Ford for a test drive in "Ford v. Ferrari." The audience singing “Over The Rainbow” in the end of “Judy.” The revisionist finale of "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." And more -- so much more.

We were moved by the endings of "The Peanut Butter Falcon" and "The Farewell." We were wowed by the filmmaking prowess of "The Irishman" and "1917." We laughed at "Jojo Rabbit," "Dolemite Is My Name" and the funniest movie of the year, “Long Shot.” We certainly did not laugh at Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker," but wow was he terrific, and the movie got us thinking. To that end, so did "Us" and "Parasite."

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“Adopt a Highway” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Renée Zellweger is Judy Garland in “Judy.” The hair, the makeup, the voice, the facial expressions, the mannerisms—in every respect, Zellweger does more than just imitate Garland, she becomes Garland. It’s almost as if Zellweger isn’t just playing Garland, but channeling her somehow. This is one of those performances where I sometimes thought I was actually watching Judy Garland and not another actress playing her. Zellweger is that good.

Zellweger not only encapsulates the look and feel of Judy Garland, she also nails the sound. When we finally get to hear her sing mid-way through “Judy,” she captures the voice timbre of the older Garland, a woman whose voice isn’t as sweet as when she was a child and has been set upon by age, cigarettes, and a tracheotomy. Still, when she wants to, she can carry a tune.

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The claws are out for this much-ballyhooed screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running musical about the secret lives of London cats, but director Tom Hooper ends up being an agreeable, if not quite purr-fect, choice to highlight the material's playfully freeform showmanship.

Is it worth $10? Yes (fight me)

Give it a chance, people. The stage is set for the perfect storm of hissing, catcalls and hairball spewing from audiences ready to hate-watch, or altogether ignore, Universal Pictures' holiday gift to moviegoers: a long-gestating film incarnation of “Cats.” There's no pussyfooting around the fact that I was ready to throw the first overripe tomato at the screen. My knives were sharpened, and my pen glinted in the near darkness of the theater auditorium, ready to tear this production few had been clamoring for to shreds.

And then this reviewer saw what director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”) did to the Broadway hit, and he chose to believe his eyes. This was not supposed to be an enjoyable gang's-all-here romp. The supposed train wreck that reportedly wasted a bunch of A-listers and some lesser known talent is nowhere in sight. Despite a bumpy start, and some of the filmmaker's stylistic tics that tend to come across as nails on a chalkboard, it ends up being kind of the opposite: an amiable, sneakily touching ode to individuality, as well as a feather-weight invitation to get in touch with your inner feline. (Full disclosure: I'm more of a dog person, and yet I was still charmed.)

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It’s an uneven, action-packed and satisfying conclusion to the “Star Wars” saga.
 
Is it worth $10? Yes

After 42 years, nine movies, and the creation of a fan following the likes of which the world has never seen, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” brings the “Star Wars” saga to an uneven but satisfying end.

The pace is quick over the 141 minutes, and the action is frequent. This is a spoiler-free review, so here are the basics: Resistance fighters Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, in a combination of old footage and visual effects) try to stop Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order from taking over the galaxy. In the trailers we’ve heard the voices of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and caught a quick glimpse of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, who’s so happy to be there he’s practically grinning in each scene).

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“Last Blood” and “Abominable” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

With a Latin title and beautiful, quiet shots of the cosmos, it’s easy to get the perception that “Ad Astra” is artsy, trippy, or full of a pretentiousness that makes it inaccessible to the escapist sensibilities of mainstream audiences. By the time our hero Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) battles crazed baboons on a Norwegian space station (a sentence I can’t believe I just wrote) you’ll understand the wrongness of that perception.

Co-writer and director James Gray should have gone all the way with his title and used the popular Latin phrase “Per aspera ad astra,” which means "through hardships to the stars." Hardships there are. In addition to the rampaging primates, McBride also encounters pirates on the moon, bureaucratic treachery, the crew of a spaceship out to kill him, and various expected perils of being in the vacuum of space. But hey, no one told him it would be easy.

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Recent Articles

Dolittle **1/2
The story is predictable, but it’s just cute ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
“Gemini Man” is also new to Blu-Ray this ...
1917 ***1/2
The entire 118-minute film looks like it ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Joker
“The Shed” is also new to Blu-Ray this week. ...
Best Of The 2010s
Compiling a list of the best films of the ...
Best Of 2019
Looking back on the films of 2019, ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Judy
“Adopt a Highway” is also new to Blu-Ray ...

Best Movie In Theaters Now: Marriage Story

The performances, script and direction are terrific, making this one of the best films of 2019.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Heartbreaking, wonderfully acted, and a sure Oscar contender, “Marriage Story” is one of the best films of 2019.

For those who’ve been through a divorce, especially if a child was involved, it’ll feel like a horror movie. For others it’s a cautionary tale of the hardships divorce brings. For everyone, it’s a sad story that chronicles the faded love between two people who couldn’t keep their spark alive.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s (“Mistress America”) film begins as Charlie (Adam Driver) narrates a letter he wrote detailing all the things he loves about his soon-to-be ex-wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). It’s honest, touching and sweet, a reminder that so often it’s the little things, both good and bad, about our significant others that endear us to them. Flashbacks to their happier times highlight the narration, and when it’s over, Nicole narrates a letter sharing all the things she loves about Charlie. There may not be a dry eye in the theater, and we’re only ten minutes in.

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