Category Archives: Movie Reviews

A Whole New Genie

Disney gives Aladdin a live-action make-over & a fem-forward twist

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Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud & Naomi Scott
Directed by Guy Ritchie

The genie is out of the bottle—again.

Or the lamp, as the case may be. Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, 27 years after the release of its original animated classic, adds some fresh, feisty zest to the familiar tale while honoring its beloved roots.

The rags-to-riches story, based on an 18th century folktale with roots in China as well as the Middle East, is a time-honored fable that’s become woven into pop culture in just about every possible way—on stage, in the movies, on TV and in comic books. But most people walking the planet today know it from the 1992 Disney version, about a young street-wise thief, a princess, a magic lamp and a wish-granting genie.


Jasmine (Scott) and Aladdin (Massoud)

In the new version, the “street rat” is a handsome charmer (Mena Massoud—perhaps you saw him in a handful of episodes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon) who pines for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in the fantasy kingdom of Agrabah. She digs him, too; but she’s also got her sights set on the throne to safeguard it from the nefarious, war-mongering Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), her father’s devilishly duplicitous advisor.

Jafar tricks Aladdin into a mission to seek a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders—where many others have tried and failed—in exchange for his assistance in wooing the princess. That doesn’t go exactly as planned, and Aladdin ends up with the lamp, a whimsical flying carpet, and a genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.

When the trailer was first released for Aladdin, it caused a bit of an outcry among Disney fans. Many of them bristled at the sight of Smith, big and blue and half naked—and certainly not Robin Williams, who imprinted the role of the genie with his unique personality and comedic riffing when he provided the voiceover back in 1992.

nullBut Smith—aided by an arsenal of CGI—wins you over in his first poof! out of the lantern. His genie is a sight to behold, a zany, shape-shifting zephyr zipping and swirling and twirling around with one-liners and quips, happy to be out of his cramped, brass quarters for the first time in thousands of years. Smith is fun, he’s funny, and—yes—he makes the role his own.

There is, however, a nice little nod to Williams (who died in 2014) around midpoint in the movie. Watch for it when Aladdin, in “disguise” as Prince Ali, is looking on a map for a country that isn’t there.

Although it follows the basic plot and story of the animated version, this Aladdin is certainly not a beat-for-beat remake. Fans of the original will enjoy seeing familiar characters “fleshed out” anew, and Naomi Scott makes a fine Disney “princess” for the modern, “woke” era—a contemporary, progressive-minded, role-model female (even though the story takes place centuries ago) who stands up for herself and her people.

“Understand,” Jafar mansplains to her, “it’s better for you to be seen and not heard.” That is not what you say to Princess Jasmine—or any other female—as he finds out. Jasmine even gets her own power ballad, “Speechless” (a brand new number), that defines her position in song.

The costumes are sensational, an ever-changing, eye-candy cascade of gorgeous pastels and vibrant rainbow hues. Director Guy Ritchie—best known for his stylish action flicks about sharp-cookie, wisecracking British lads, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Sherlock Holmes franchise—keeps things moving along at a brisk, lively clip with a couple of well-staged chase sequences, and also shows he’s capable of handling his first bona fide movie musical.


Marwan Kenzari plays Jafar

The original Aladdin was a rightly considered a “family” film, and so is this one. But there’s a bit of darkness in the story that the live-action version makes feel even darker, especially for younger viewers, since it’s happening to “real” humans and not animated characters—like when a man screams as he’s tossed to his death into a deep, dark well, or others suffer at the hands of Jafar and his sorcery. And the plot’s loaded real-world undertones—about war, borders, allies and the advancement of women as leaders—might be lost in the love story for little ones more interested in the starry tale of how things will work out for plucky Aladdin and spunky Jasmine.

All of the songs from the original Oscar-winning soundtrack—by Disney’s musical maestros Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman—are still there. And some of them are turned into real movie-musical dazzlers. In “Prince Ali,” Aladdin/Ali makes his booming entrance in a grand, carnival-like street procession with elephants, ostriches and monkeys and hundreds of dancers, musicians and attendants. Later, there’s a Bollywood-inspired ballroom-dance fusion of hip-hop, popping and locking. And the flashy cabaret blowout of “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie shows off the spectrum of his skills, ends in a sky full of fireworks.

And of course, there’s “A Whole New World,” the movie’s soaring signature love ballad. Jasmine and Aladdin sing it as a duet while they’re sailing over the city on the flying carpet.

Magic lamps and genies and flying carpets are cool, but Aladdin reminds us that there are some things you just gotta buckle down and do yourself. “I made you a prince on the outside,” Smith’s genie tells Aladdin, “but I didn’t change anything on the inside.”

Aladdin 2019 isn’t a whole new world; it hasn’t changed that much on the inside. It just looks a bit different than it did almost 30 years ago—brighter, bluer, newer and given a significant spin, especially for a modern generation of young viewers who need to hear that princesses have more on their minds than marrying a prince.


In theaters May 24, 2019


Lit Chicks

Olivia Wilde’s riotously funny directorial debut is a grrrrrl-power breakthrough

Booksmart IMDB_(72)

Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever cut loose in ‘Booksmart’

Starring Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Olivia Wilde

Hollywood loves high school.

That’s why it always keeps returning, in movies like Dazed and Confused, Easy A, Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, The Breakfast Club, Superbad, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Duff and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

In the riotously funny, wildly entertaining Booksmart, two high school over-achieving seniors, Amy and Molly, realize they’ve spent way too much time with their noses in books, and not nearly enough having fun. On the eve of their graduation, they decide to take some corrective measures, cramming four years of cutting loose into one wild, raucous night.

In other words, these good girls are gonna go bad.

Their quest is an unsupervised bacchanalia thrown by their studly classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). But getting there won’t be a simple task…

This is basically a high school, coming-of-age buddy-adventure movie with a brainy, bawdy, fem-centric spin. Beanie Feldstein (from Lady Bird and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) plays the savagely competitive Molly, the class president and valedictorian who’s already set her sights beyond Yale to a spot as the youngest female judge on the Supreme Court. Kaitlyn Dever (she’s Eve Baxter on TV’s Last Man Standing) is Amy, her openly gay best friend, who’s headed to Botswana after she gets her diploma to help the locals make eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.

BOOKSMARTAmy and Molly’s odyssey sets them off on a quirky, rapid-fire comedic romp that becomes a multi-hued celebration of sisterhood as they careen from one manic, mapcap situation to the next. The movie is rich in colorful supporting characters, most of whom are fleshed out to become more than simply background props.

You really feel like you get to know—and like—the rich, misunderstood, terrifically funny Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who’s spent his high school years trying (unsuccessfully) to buy his way into popularity; he laments that “no one in this entire school knows me at all.” His kooky, crazily hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd, who plays Lieutenant Connix in the Star Wars film trilogy) spices up the evening by showing up everywhere. Real-life skateboarder Victoria Ruesga is Ryan, the androgynous skater girl on whom Amy has a stupefying crush. You’ll find out why Amy and Molly’s classmate known as Triple A (Molly Gordon, who played Nicky Belmont on TV’s Animal Kingdom) hates her boy-toy nickname.

Comedy veterans Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow add some mature seasoning to the young cast. Jessica Williams plays “cool” teacher Ms. Fine.

Stacked and packed with vibrant youthful actors, Booksmart crackles with boisterous, unpredictable Gen Z energy and a zesty embrace of diversity and inclusion. Characters discuss, experience—and explore—sexuality in refreshingly frank and candid ways, but it never feels smutty, smarmy or exploitative. Hormones rage and roar, but here the laws of attraction can’t be found in any textbooks, or plotted along gender lines.

Credit goes to the creative team, starting with four female screenwriters, three female producers and continuing through Olivia Wilde—yes, actress Olivia Wilde, here making her directorial debut. After appearing in numerous films, including Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Love the Coopers and Rush, she seems to have truly found her calling behind the camera instead of in front of it. And the whole project reflects, and projects, a progressive, pro-female sensibility—and sensitively—that never sacrifices, soften or supplants any of the story’s savagely funny, righteously raunchy comedic bite.

In Hollywood, where the “celluloid ceiling” for women working in the movie industry is well-documented and much lamented, Booksmart’s top-down arsenal of female talent scores a  commanding breakthrough.

Booksmart poster

The movie belongs, though, to Amy and Molly. They’ve got the mojo-spark of Girls, the crisp comedic chomp of Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, and they totally sweep you up, up and away in their crazy, intoxicating, swirling rush. Feldstein clearly has some of the same DNA of her brother, Jonah Hill, and Dever (who previously played the drug addict Lauren alongside Timothée Chalamet in the critically acclaimed 2018 film Beautiful Boy) is a star on the rise.

“Nobody knows that we are fun!” Molly tells Amy early in the movie. Thanks to the best, brightest coming-of-age comedy in years, we know it now!

I don’t ever want to go back to high school, but I’d gladly return to this movie. Booksmart gets an easy A+ from me.

In theaters Friday, May 24, 2019

Doggie Do (Over)

Dennis Quaid takes the lead in another canine-reincarnation furry-tale 

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

A Dog’s Journey
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau & the voice of Josh Gad
Directed by Gail Mancuso

He’s been many things—a U.S. president, an astronaut, a baseball prodigy, an Alamo fighter, even piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis—but Dennis Quaid’s career has sure gone to the dogs.

The versatile actor, whose movie and TV resume spans almost 100 roles and weaves through almost every genre, here returns to the canine comedy-drama franchise that became a modest hit in 2017 with A Dog’s Purpose.

A Dog’s Purpose was about the “soul” of a loyal pooch, recycled and reincarnated several times in various dog bodies over the decades as it bonds—and continually reconnects—with a boy, Ethan, who eventually grows into adulthood (and is played by Quaid).

Dogs, of course, don’t live as long as humans, and the heartrending “hook” of A Dog’s Purpose was how each adorable mutt had to die, one way or another, in order to move the story along. That signature plot device is very much intact in A Dog’s Journey, which picks up where the first movie left off.

Film Title: A Dog's JourneyAnd again, it’s based on the source novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who had a hand (with three other writers) in the screenplay. And although the doggie Grim Reaper has to do his thing, the powerfully sentimental tone is (oddly) kid-friendly throughout, thanks mainly to a generous dollop of poo, pee and butt-sniffing gags.

We reconnect with Ethan (Quaid), who’s now a farmer in Michigan with his wife (Marg Helgenberger, who played Siobhan Ryan on the soap Ryan’s Hope in the 1980s), and his faithful sidekick, an aging Great Pyrenees named Buddy. (As in the previous movie, all the dogs are voiced by Josh Gad.) Soon enough, and sure enough—about 20 minutes into the film—we have to say goodbye to Buddy, and we’re off to the next dog, and the next phase.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Emma Volk takes a lickin’, with Marg Helgenberger

But before Buddy dies, blissfully journeying into canine afterlife, Ethan asks him to always look after his precious granddaughter, C.J.—played as a toddler by Emma Volk, then by Abby Ryder Fortson (young Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and its sequel), and finally by Kathryn Prescott from TV’s The Son. That means Buddy’s spirit will be funneled, over the years, into curs of various shapes and sizes, all on a mission—and all sounding like Olaf the Snowman from Frozen—to find and protect C.J., wherever she is.

C.J.’s gonna need some shepherding, for sure. Her mom (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is a major screwup, neglecting her daughter, hating dogs and soaking her frustrations in alcohol. Leaving home and striking out on her own as a teenager, C.J. has a scary brush with a scruffy, abusive bad boy (Jake Manley, from TV’s The Order) before finally reconnecting in New York City with her childhood best friend, Trent (Henry Lau, a singing/rapping pop star in China and South Korea).

There’s a lot of melodrama—and a lot of dogs. Buddy’s reincarnations include a Yorkshire terrier named Max and a female beagle, Molly, and he/she meets others along the way. “What happened to you?!” a bewildered Max asks an ultra-pampered poodle in New York.

The first movie was a bit of a dog, so to speak, with critics, and put Swedish director Lasse Hallström, a three-time Oscar nominee, in swirl of controversy about animal abuse. This time around, the leash is in the hands of director Gail Mancuso, whose previous experience is mostly in TV sitcoms. A Dog’s Journey won’t get any Best in Show awards, but it also likely won’t raise any hackles with PETA.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Kathryn Prescott with “Max”

Prescott (another British actress who can play American characters flawlessly) carries much of the movie and makes the story strongly fem-centric as C.J. struggles with finding her voice as a fledgling singer-songwriter. And the talented Gilpin (Emmy-nominated for her work in Netflix’s female-wrestling drama GLOW) turns her role as C.J.’s mom into something more, and more dimensional, than you may first expect.

Dog lovers will likely love A Dog’s Journey, a fanciful, wholesome, feel-good furry-tale that offers an easy, pat answer to an age-old, existential question: What happens when life’s journey is at its end? In the case of dogs like Buddy, Max or Molly, they run through an Elysian-like wheat field in slow motion and get a doggie do-over. It’s a curious kind of Fido-tailored Buddhism that leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Where are all the other dogs? What about cats? When my dog is barking at nothing, is he really barking at Dennis Quaid?

Warm and fuzzy but a bit lacking in substantial bow-wow-wow, this franchise nonetheless feels like it’s turning into a faithful movie companion that’s figured out its own secret to coming back again and again. What’s next? A Dog’s Mission? A Dog’s Tale? Gad-zooks: All Dogs Go to Heaven (But Only For a While)? Sit. Stay. Wait. I have a feeling another do-(r)over could already be in the works, somewhere in a golden wheat field, up there, out there, in Holly-woof.

In theaters May 17, 2019


Diane Keaton ‘brings it on’ in benchmark cheerleading flick


Starring Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver
Directed by Zara Hayes

Cheerleaders sure are a versatile, adventurous bunch.

Of course, they rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, dance, entertain and perform, at sporting events and competitions. And in the movies, they’ve also sidelined as witches, zombies, ninja warriors, bank robbers, vampires—and—remember Buffy?—vampire slayers. In Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, one grows into a giantess.

“It’s our moment of glory!” proclaims a character in the 1971 cheerleader cheese-fest Satan’s Cheerleaders. “Hail, Satan!”

Poms marks another moment of glory, of sorts, for cheerleader flicks. The first mainstream movie focused on cheerleading grannies, it breaks new ground for the genre with its tale of a group of residents of a retirement community who decide to form a cheer squad.

They’re not witches or vampires or ninjas, just older gals who each have various reasons for picking up a pair of pom-poms at an age when most of their peers—and neighbors—are playing shuffleboard or canasta.

Diane Keaton stars as Martha, the newest resident of Georgia’s Sunshine Springs, a sprawling independent-living complex with picture-perfect swimming pools, hundreds of activities—and lots of rules. Though she’s not officially a grandma, Martha is a bit of a rule-breaker; she’s already decided to break off her cancer treatments, sever ties with her Atlanta physician, and let life’s mortal coil unwind on its own.

Sunshine Springs’ welcome-wagon committee is a bit taken aback when she flatly tells them that she’s come there “to die.”

Martha’s sprightly next-door neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), is a live wire, however, who reignites Martha’s youthful passion for something she gave up long ago: cheerleading. Together they decide to start a group to “bring it on” in an upcoming talent competition…

Keaton has top billing, but it’s Weaver who steals the show. The ever-dependable Australian actress, whose resume includes dozens of TV series and movies (including Silver Linings Playbook, The Disaster Artist, Bird Box and Animal Kingdom) is a 1,000-watt bulb that brightens up every scene in which her character appears—and wisely, she appears a lot. Keaton may have the Oscar (for Annie Hall, 1977), but Weaver gets the laughs.

There are other familiar faces, too, especially for audiences “of a certain age.” Rhea Pearlman (she was Carla on TV’s 1980s sitcom Cheers) is Alice, newly freed from her domineering husband. Pam Grier, the cult “blaxploitation” star of such 1970s fare as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Blacula, plays Olive, who admits her new activities as a cheerleader fulfill some long-repressed fantasies of her hubby.


Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver

Bruce McGill trades in his roaring chopper from his memorable role as D-Day in Animal House (1978) for a whirring electric golf cart as the community security guard with not a lot to do—except try to keep the crime codes for “rape” and “noise complaint” straight. South Carolina native Celia Weston (who had a recurring role on TV’s Modern Family as Barb Tucker, Cam’s mother) is a natural as Vicki, the Southern-belle foil of Martha and Sheryl.

Poms is obviously geared toward the AARP crowd, but a couple of younger actors (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan, 20, and Alisha Boe, 22, one of the stars of the teen-suicide series 13 Reasons Why) set up a “young love” subplot. It’s a bit of awwwww, cute-kids, added-value for more seasoned audiences—and a calculated push to edge the viewership demo a few clicks “downward.”

Hollywood has discovered that mature viewers buy movie tickets, too, a trend made apparent when The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought in a respectable $46 million at the U.S. box office in 2012. Several years later, Book Club, starring Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen, took in more than $68 million. Those aren’t Avengers numbers by any stretch, but they indicate a market too valuable to neglect.

Director Zara Hayes, making her first feature film after working in the documentary field, keeps things basic and doesn’t ever dazzle, and sometimes the story sags when you want it to soar. You really yearn for these gyrating grannies to bust out, cut loose and fly. They do, mostly, but I kept wishing there was a bit more rah to go with the sis-boom-bah.

But the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s funny, sweet—sometimes bittersweet—and it has an uplifting message about teamwork, friendship and not letting age be a barrier, of any kind.

The Sunshine Springs squad performs their rousing finale on a stage with big, illuminated letters that spell out “Dance” and “Cheer.” Their bit—to a hip-hop version of “The Clapping Song”—makes everyone do just that, in the audience and beyond, in the viral, internet world.

And it will probably make you want to do that, too. Shake your poms and hoist your popcorn. These age-defying cheerleaders are a cause for celebration—because they’re not devils, vampires or giants, just ordinary women enjoying life and doing their thing.

Everyone can cheer for that, right?

Hail, Keaton!

In theaters May 10, 2019

Odd Couple

Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron make strange bedfellows in political rom-com

Long Shot 2 (72)

Long Shot
Starring Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron
Directed by Jonathan Levine

He’s the actor king of stoner schlubs. She won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster.

You’ve heard that politics make strange bedfellows. In Long Shot, in which a bombastic, gonzo, out-of-work liberal journalist (Seth Rogen) is hired as a speechwriter by an elegant, globetrotting female presidential candidate (Charlize Theron), strange bedfellows make pretty interesting politics.

Turns out that the two knew each other—sort of—back in high school. Before she was America’s youngest (and sexiest) secretary of state, Charlotte Field was a slightly older babysitter for little Fred Flarsky, who crushed on her from afar.

How Charlotte and Fred reconnect, all these years later, and the sparks that fly when they do, is the story in Long Shot, a smart, sharp, frequently hilarious, often raunchy odd-couple rom-com loaded with clever political barbs, packed with fun, pop-cultural riffs and buoyed by a raft of familiar faces in supporting roles.

Fred comes on board as Charlotte’s campaign wordsmith, but ends up serving the secretary in more “personal” ways.

“Could you not tell anyone about this?” Fred asks one morning-after when he’s surprised by one of Charlotte’s ever-hovering security guards (Tristan D. Lalla). Don’t worry, says the special agent with a smile. “They wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

Rogen and Theron are immensely likable, with a crackling, whip-sharp chemistry that sometimes takes you by surprise. The movie makes you believe in them, root for them, pull for them, even when others try to yank them part—like Charlotte’s image-obsessed advisor (June Diane Raphael, who plays Brianna on Grace & Frankie). Driven by popularity polls, she compares Fred to a combination of Guy Fieri, Danny DeVito and a potato dressed in a windbreaker.


Bob Odenkirk

Bob Odenkirk is the comically dunder-headed President of the United States, whose decision not to run for a second term leaves the door open for Charlotte. Andy Serkis plays the mogul at the head of a right-wing media empire. Alexander Skarsgård puts on a poofy brown wig to play the Canadian prime minister, who still has a soft spot for his one-time, international fling with Madam Secretary. O’Shea Jackson Jr. (he was young Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton) brings a mega-dose of supporting-cast juice as Fred’s best friend, Lance; he’s the rare actor who can consistently steal scenes from Rogen, who tends to bellow and barge his way to the top of anything with a punchline. But he energizes the screen whenever he’s on it.

The movie isn’t a parody, or a satire. But you’ll see shades of real people in certain characters, easily. There’s a lot of Hillary Clinton in Charlotte—an idealistic secretary of state running for the nation’s highest office. And Odenkirk’s POTUS, a former television actor still re-living his best roles, will likely remind you of Ronald Reagan, who moved into the White House after a long career in Hollywood—or perhaps the current occupant of the Oval Office, who once famously “starred” in his own reality-TV franchise. Serkis’ media magnate is clearly a Fox in the TV henhouse; he thinks “hurricanes [are] caused by gay marriage.” For guaranteed chuckles, the movie keeps returning to a Fox & Friends-like morning talk show, where the panel of two doofus men (Paul Scheer and Kurt Braunohler) and a woman (Claudia O’Doherty) make eye-rolling commentary about Charlotte—alongside other networks’ more “serious” coverage.

There are plenty of laughs in Long Shot, and many of them are proud to hoist the movie’s R rating high. Drugs? Check. Sex? Yes. Self-gratification joke that becomes a major plot point? Ewwwww, yeah.

But there’s also a serious streak embedded in the humor about gender inequality and the challenges a woman faces in a man’s world. “Would you be asking a man about what kind of products they use in their hair?” Charlotte politely queries an interviewer. There are messages about compromise, taking risks and the art of politics at the highest—and lowest—levels.

We’ve been inside the Beltway many times before, with TV shows like Veep and Madam Secretary and movie comedies including Dave, Wag the Dog, Bulworth and The American President. Long Shot serves up a new cinema combo platter to the mix, a bawdy political-tinted escapist-fantasy romp with two stars who synch so naturally that you hope they’ll align for another project again soon.

Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) and Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) in FLARSKY.

Fred urges Charlotte to reconnect with the idealism and fire of her high school years, when she was running for student council president, and channel some of that passion into her platform. A soundtrack of retro 1980s pop—plus an appearance by Boyz II Men—also helps set the stage, and the mood, with well-placed tunes by Blondie, Cameo, Bruce Springsteen and Roxette.

When Fred and Charlotte share a dance to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” it’s a throwback to how significant that tune was in another movie—Pretty Woman—about two other people from wildly different worlds coming together and falling, improbably, in love against the odds. What a long shot it was, as well, for Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, back in 1990.

Sometimes a long shot hits the mark, even when the odds are stacked against it. Rogen and Theron sure do, Fred and Charlotte do, and this Long Shot assuredly does. How to explain it? As Roxette sings, “It must have been love.”

In theaters May 3, 2019

Bird is the Word

Plucky Penguins win your heart in Disneynature docudrama 

Disneynature "Penguins"

Narrated by Ed Helms
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Jeff Wilson

Raising a family is a full-time job; being a couple is a commitment; parenting can be a very challenging gig.

Just imagine doing it in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, surrounded by predators who want to eat you—and your kids—and having to restart the process every year.

That’s the situation for Steve, the little Adélie penguin in Disneynature’s Penguins. Adélie penguins, named for the wife of 19th century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, live along the coastline of Antarctica, their only natural habitat.

We meet Steve in the opening scene, waddling along over snow and ice on his annual migratory trek to his birthing grounds. We learn that this is Steve’s first solo trek, without his parents, and that he—along with millions of other male penguins—is on a single-minded mission to mate.

The guys will build nests out of rocks and pebbles, find gals and start families.

Disneynature, a documentary branch of the Disney empire, has been making theatrical nature and “wildlife” films for 10 years. Maybe you’ve seen Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom or Born in China. Both educational and inspiring, they’re the latest addition to the Oscar-winning Disney lineage of true-life animal movies, which extends back to the 1940s.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is a nature documentary, yes, but the filmmakers give it a snappy, immensely entertaining, with-it spin, from classic rock music and clever editing to the narration of Ed Helms, who also provides the voice (and thoughts) of Steve. The actor from TV’s The Office and the Hangover movies brings just the right undeterred-underdog vibe to the part, channeling the plucky, pint-size penguin’s unflagging determination and drive to succeed—and survive.

As movies go, it clocks in at a crisp 76 minutes; some other flicks would only be warming up by the time this one’s wrapping up. But it’s a poignant tale, filled with tension, comedy, fun, suspense and romance. I particularly loved the part where Steve finally finds a mate, Acdeline, and they swoon and coo together—to the fulsome swells of REO Speedwagon’s “an’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.”

There are other tunes by the Average White Band, Patti LaBelle and Whitesnake. Steve may be living on the ice-cold end of the Earth, but his playlist is blastin’ pretty hot.

Disneynature "Penguins"Soon Adeline has two eggs, then two baby chicks, and Steve is a first-time father. He’s got to be on the lookout for danger just about everywhere—from the air, where predatory birds called skuas are always on the hunt for the smallest, weakest and youngest chicks; and in the water, where leopard seals and killer whales would love to snarf up some penguin appetizers.

You learn a lot in Penguins. About how Adélie penguin “couples” can pick each other out from hundreds of thousands of other penguin pairs—even after they separate at the end of the mating season, to spend the winter swimming free in the wide, open water. How they build nests, and how pebbles and rocks are real commodities. About the hurricane-force katabatic winds that can sweep across the ice, burying the penguins in snow. About the millions of forms of life that return to the Southern Ocean when it comes alive anew every year in the summer thaw.

The photography is spectacular, and some insets during the end credits hint at the extraordinary filmmaking efforts involved—a combination of underwater, aerial and “conventional” techniques, but all done in the most inaccessible place in the world, five million square miles of ice where it’s full sunlight for six months, then full darkness, and where temperatures can drop to 122 below zero. I’d gladly watch a full movie about the making of this movie.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is timed to coincide with Earth Day, Monday, April, 22, and a portion of every ticket purchased during opening week will go toward the Wildlife Conservation Network to help protect penguins across the southern hemisphere—like Steve and Adeline.

As the movie tells us, Steve’s new role as a father is one he’s been “preparing for his entire life.” Penguins reminds us of the grand cycle of life not just for Steve, but for nature in general—the mystery of animal instincts, the majesty of their domains and their marvelous, miraculous adaptability.

And as Earth Day approaches, it reminds of the awesomeness of our precious planet, teeming with life, spinning with seasonal spawn and carrying on the constant business of renewal, reawakening and rebuilding.

“If all goes well,” Steve says, he and Adeline “will see each other again next spring.” Hey Steve, we’re all pulling for you two!

In theaters April 17, 2019

Growing Pains

Regina Hall, Marsai Martin get small with big message 

Film Title: Little

Issa Rae & Marsai Martin star in ‘Little.’

Starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae & Marsai Martin
Directed by Tina Gordon

Time travel, body switching, growing big, shrinking small—movies have certainly been there, done that.

Little gives an old, familiar theme a somewhat new spin in its tale of a hard-charging, bullying business executive who gets zapped back to a much younger version of herself.

Film Title: Little

Regina Hall

Regina Hall plays the grown-up Jordan Sanders, a real bitch on wheels—whether she’s peeling out in her ultra-cool BMW sports coupe, cutting line at the coffee kiosk, shoving little kids out of her way or barking at her employees at the tech company she runs. Somehow, her long-suffering assistant, April (Issa Rae), has endured the abuse for three long years.

When Jordan makes the mistake of dissing a little girl who tries to entertain her with a magic trick, she gets whammy-ed—and wakes up the next morning freaked out that she’s the 13-year-old she used to be.

At this point, Jordan is played by young Marsai Martin (she’s daughter Diane on ABC’s hit comedy Black-ish). And Little becomes a little of this, and a little of that. It’s a pleasant enough springtime diversion, with a bigger, multi-cultural message of empowerment for women of color.

You’ll probably think about Big, and maybe Freaky Friday, 17 Again and 13 Going on 30. The characters in Little do—if only to note that those movies, and those kind of things, typically happen to, well, another demographic. “You went to bed grown and woke up little,” April says, marveling at the transformation of her now-pint-size boss. “That’s for white people—black people don’t have the time.”

Little takes the time, however, to force the humor in just about every situation as April “fronts” for Jordan back at the company, “little” Jordan enrolls in middle school to avoid a social-services intervention, and various life lessons are learned all around.

We learn that Jordan had a pretty horrible experience in middle school the first time, and her second time doesn’t start off any better. But a subplot, about her bonding with a group of fellow “outcasts,” is a big buildup to a sweet, doughy nothing, like sugary cakes and other dreaded carbs that grown-up Jordan deplores.

Hall, who was acclaimed for her acting in The Hate U Give and the indie drama Support the Girls, and some raunchy laughs in Girls Trip, brings brass and sass to the adult version of Jordan. Rae, who segued from her YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, to HBO’s Insecure, rocks as April, bridging both “Jordans” with her considerable comedic gifts.

In her first major movie role, Martin looks like she’s having a ball, playing “grown-up” with a twist—she’s a real grown-up frustrated by having to return to an awkward time, in an awkward body, dealing with awkward situations.

SNL’s Mikey Day plays a spoiled-brat billionaire client of Jordan’s company. Listen closely and you might recognize the voice of Tracee Ellis Ross (also from TV’s Black-ish) coming from Jordan’s virtual assistant, HomeGirl. Tone Bell, from the CBS sitcom Fam, plays April’s coworker, Preston, who supports one of her ideas, an app that lets users “see the world through the eyes of a child.”

Film Title: Little

Justin Hartley plays Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson on This Is Us, has a couple of scenes as little Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher. Luke James (he’s Noah Brooks on the Fox musical-drama series Star) is Jordan’s sexy suitor, Trevor, who’s plenty confused by Jordan’s middle-school masquerade. The scenes of 13-year-old Jordan with “big” men—who don’t realize she’s actually a woman in the body of a teenager—are meant to be funny, but they’re just a little creepy.

One of the writers of Little also worked on the screenplay of Girls Trip, but this movie—as befitting a storyline built around a 13-year-old—isn’t anywhere near as raunchy. It does, however, make snickering jokes about lady parts, the desirability of one particular non-black male (“the other white meat”) and how April seems to be constantly horny.

But the movie’s central idea of a headstrong, super-smart, successful black woman running her own business empire—that’s certainly a noble one. Even if she does have to learn, in a rather humbling, magical way, that “to live your best life” isn’t all about being rich, bossy, persnickety and bitchy.

The plot is paper-thin and the supporting characters are little more than cutouts in this modern-world fantasy, but one thing does ring true: The idea came from an authentic place. Little Marsai Martin herself, then only 10, pitched the concept (inspired by watching the movie Big) to a producer of Black-ish, Girls Trip and Ride Along, and she became one of Little’s executive producers.

That makes her the youngest executive producer of a major, mainstream Hollywood film ever.

Now that’s big.

In theaters Friday, April 12, 2019

Soar Subject

Director Tim Burton puts his curveball twist on Disney’s flying-elephant tale

Dumbo poster 2 (72)

Starring Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green & Michael Keaton
Directed by Tim Burton

I’ve been, done, seen about everything—goes an old song—when I see an elephant fly.

That tune is from the beloved 1941 Disney classic Dumbo, about a baby circus elephant who does just that, thanks to oversized, floppy ears that become wonder wings.

Disney’s new live-action Dumbo fleshes out the animated original with colorful new characters, layers of sumptuous detail and dashing retro drama, and all the dazzle and wonder that modern CGI effects can provide—especially when it comes to making you believe you’re actually watching a precious little pachyderm soar, somehow, into the air.


Colin Farrell with Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins

Set around 1920, the story begins when World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns stateside to reunite with his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and saddle back up for his old job as a trick rider with the traveling Medici Brothers Circus. Wartime has been tough on Holt; he lost an arm in battle, and his wife died of influenza while he was away. And now circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) tells him he had to sell the horse that Holt used to ride.

So no more giddy-up for Holt, who is reassigned to care for the elephants, including Max’s latest investment—a large, pregnant female named Mrs. Jumbo. Max is ecstatic that the arrival of a cute little baby elephant will give his struggling circus something big to promote.


Danny DeVito

But when “baby Jumbo” is born, Max is bummed to discover the newborn has enormous ears, so cumbersome the poor little feller trips and stumble-bumbles over them when he walks. Circus roustabouts dub him a “monster,” and audiences members jeer at him and give baby Jumbo a cruel new nickname, Dumbo. To add to the heartache, Max sells off Dumbo’s mom after a tragic big-top incident.

But things begin looking up, so to speak, when Holt’s children discover Dumbo’s hidden talent—whenever he inhales a feather, he’s clear for take-off.

And baby, this baby soars!


The jeers turn to cheers, newspaper headlines blare the amazing news—and a smarmy Coney Island entertainment mogul named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) comes calling with an offer that Max and his little traveling circus troupe can’t refuse. But is it too good to be true?

Director Tim Burton certainly understands Dumbo’s plight. The veteran filmmaker, so adept at telling eccentric tales of oddballs, outcasts and misfits in films including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Frankenweenie and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—and even his gloomy take on Batman—syncs up with this heart-tugging fantasy about a little elephant alone and afraid, humiliated and abused, finally emerging as a humble hero.

Burton’s telltale touches are everywhere, from the swelling soundtrack provided by his longtime musical collaborator, Danny Elfman (this is their 19th movie together), to the quirky characters that make up the cast of Max’s circus—like multitasking muscle-man Rongo (played by British actor DeObia Oparei), who also provides the big top’s beat behind a slapdash drum kit, keeps tabs on the books, and handles Max’s PR.

Burton’s signature, curveball spin on Dumbo edges into some deliciously dark corners, but the movie’s big—and big-top—heart throbs with the rousing, high-spirited pulse of family, togetherness and freedom.


Eva Green

Casino Royale Bond girl Eva Green, who also starred in Burton’s Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home, plays Colette, a French acrobat. Vandevere wants the aerial “Queen of Heaven” to team up with Dumbo as a high-flying duo for his curiously Disney-like amusement park, Dreamland, but she soon realizes that Dumbo’s dreams are far beyond any circus tent. Alan Arkin shows up as a fat-cat banker with dollar signs in his eyes.

Burton jams and crams a lot into this little elephant’s trunk. The original Dumbo was barely an hour long, and this one’s nearly doubles that. In addition to dozens of characters, there are undertones about animal rights, especially in the closing scenes. There’s a mischievous monkey, a group of trained mice and a “Nightmare Island” of captive, “dangerous” creatures. If you’re familiar with the original Dumbo, you’ll appreciate the reappearance of the Oscar-winning song from 1941, “Baby Mine,” and a “bubble” sequence that nods to “Pink Elephants on Parade,” another musical number in the original.

There’s also a modern girl-power subplot that certainly wasn’t there back in the less-enlightened 1940s. Holt’s daughter, Milly, is a budding scientist who doesn’t want to become a circus sideshow act. “I want to be known for my mind,” she says.

Disney movies, from Bambi onward, have frequently had a thing about children who’ve lost, or had to grow up without, a parent. But it’s hard not to think about the timely real-world connection—the wrenching scenes of separation and detainment of children apart from their mothers or fathers—when Mrs. Jumbo is loaded into a dark, dismal cart, the door slams shut and it’s driven away, and little Dumbo is left wailing, with big tears in his big eyes, as she goes.

You’ll probably have tears in your eyes, too, and more than once—but don’t worry, not all of them will be so sad.

Nobody really expected Dumbo to be a big hit, back in 1941. The animation was relatively simple, nothing groundbreaking, and done on the cheap. But the little airborne cartoon elephant won over audiences and became one of Disney’s biggest success stories of the decade. The film went on to air on TV and get theatrical re-releases later in the ’40s, in the 1950s, and in 1972 and 1976.

And even if you’ve never even seen it, you still probably know about the endearing, pint-size pachyderm who represents hopes, dreams and the impossible becoming possible, no matter how impossible it seems. He’s become part of pop culture, and it’s great to see him soaring again.

“That’s my elephant!” shouts Vandevere at one point.

But no, sir—that’s our elephant.

In theaters March 29, 2019

This is ‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s scare-tastic follow-up to ‘Get Out’ delivers a terrifying twist and feels like an instant horror classic

US imdb 2 (72)

Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker
Directed by Jordan Peele


A family’s beach vacation takes a terrifying twist in the new movie from writer-director Jordan Peele, who reminds us of the soul-shaking scares that can be waiting to pounce from places we’re least expecting them—or places we never want to look.

Like, when we see ourselves.

Us, Peele’s follow-up to his excellent Oscar-winning Get Out (2017), begins in the 1980s as a guileless young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders off a boardwalk amusement park and has a traumatic experience inside a funky beachside carnival funhouse, a hall of mirrors—where she sees another little girl who looks exactly like her.

It’s unnerving and very creepy.

Now, some three decades later, Adelaide is all grown up (and played by Lupita Nyong’o), returning to the same California seaside town, Santa Cruz, for a getaway with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) and their kids, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). She’s still haunted by what happened on the beach, and so are we.

The family tries to enjoy the day with their friends (Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale and Tim Heidecker, and their two too-cool teenage daughters, played by twin sisters Noelle and Cali Sheldon). But a weird vibe is building, like the odd design on a Frisbee that gets tossed onto their blanket—and what’s with that eerie old guy in the filthy trench coat, who’s hanging around? Is that blood dripping off his fingertips?

And why did Jason draw a picture of him when he got home?

Film Title: UsThen things really shift into creepy overdrive that evening. “There’s a family in our driveway,” says Jason. That one line sends shivers down the spine, because the “family” outside looks exactly like the family inside. They easily break into the house. They overpower Adelaide, Gabe and the kids. Things get violent and threatening.

The outside “family” moans like animals or talks in rasps and croaks. They move or flit about in bizarre, herky-jerky motions, or like robots. And they’re carrying big, sharp scissors—for something they call “the untethering.”

Where have they come from? Who are they?

“It’s…us,” says Jason.

Us is a horror show, for sure, with boldness, bite, brilliance, blood, substance and style. In Get Out, Peele melded gotchas with scathing social commentary, and he’s working on an even broader canvas here. This is a masterful, scarifying puzzle of a film that combines terror, humor, violence, pop culture, philosophy, religion and roasting riffs on consumerism, class, yuppie excess and American comfort zones. It’s a lot to unpack, and you’ve got to stick with it.

Film Title: UsYou may want to look up the movie’s repeated references (you’ll see it visualized at least twice) to the Old Testament verse Jeremiah 11:11. (It’s heavy.) If you’re old enough to remember the 1986 charity campaign Hands Across America, well, that will come in hella-handy. Did you know that there are hundreds of miles of unused tunnels, deserted mine shafts and abandoned subway systems underneath the surface of the United States? How can bunnies be creepy and cuddly at the same time?

This is a movie you’ll probably be discussing long after you see it; it’s got plenty of things to dissect—especially about the duality of human nature, our ids and egos and just where, and how, any of us might “find ourselves” if we went into a hall of mirrors—or dug deep enough into our pasts.

Though all of the actors pull “double” duty, also playing their dark-side doppelgangers, Nyong’o is a true revelation, raging with explosive survival instincts that can turn equally monstrous in either of her characters.

Peele, who got his start in comedy with the Emmy Award-winning duo Key & Peele, has now become a modern horror maestro. He nods to Kubrick, Spielberg and De Palma, but he’s clearly got his own footing and panache. On April 1, he’ll take over the vaunted Twilight Zone franchise for its reboot on the streaming service CBS All Access. If this movie’s any indication of where he might take it, I’m all aboard.

Some scary movies just scare you. This one rattles you good. Who are we? What do we see when we look in the mirror? Are we the “us” we think we are? Do the things we do to feel good—and prosperous, and comfortable—make someone else feel miserable, poor…and very angry? Are heaven and hell two identical twins that ended up on opposites sides of the same cosmic coin?

US imdb 3 c

It’s a deep, dark dive into a movie-carnival funhouse of apocalyptic nightmares, where grim shadows lurk and dreams go to starve and fester—and an iconic, sunny summer song by the Beach Boys will forever sound more ominous because of how it’s used in one particular scene.

This is Us, a modern horror movie that has the feel of an instant classic, one that has staying power to shock and awe years or even decades from now, a horror film that suggests that the most monstrous monsters of all might be the monstrosities that are the easiest to overlook, bury or forget—until we’re confronted with them face to face. And those faces turn out to be our own.

In theaters March 22, 2019

Pulling Rank

Brie Larson Radiates Grrrrl Power in Marvel’s First Fem-Solo Superhero Saga

nullCaptain Marvel
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Move over, Thor. Step aside, Spidey. At ease, Iron Man. There’s a new officer pulling some serious rank in the comic book corps.

But don’t call her Captain Marvel—not just yet.

In the first female-fronted superhero saga from the Marvel big-screen spandex factory, Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot—and also a Kree space-alien soldier, known as Vers, from the distant planet Hala.

But Danvers has a hard time understanding how to reconcile these two separate—but very connected—parts of her life. Her memory’s been scrambled, in a big, primal explosion that also gave her cosmic superpowers, and she spends most of the movie trying to put the pieces together.

She doesn’t know who she really is. She doesn’t know who she really was. And she doesn’t know that her past and present will eventually merge and she’ll become the super-charged superhero known as Captain Marvel, who can zoom through the skies, glow with fire and shoot explosive photon beams from her hands.

nullAnd she certainly doesn’t know that she’ll become a pivotal figure—perhaps even a cornerstone—for the entire Marvel franchise.

Captain Marvel, the 21st Marvel movie, is mostly set in the 1990s, before the events depicted in most other flicks in the Marvel Comic Universe, which connects almost all the Marvel titles and characters. Much of the fun is seeing how it lays the groundwork for things that happened in previously released films, reintroduces familiar characters and whets the appetite for more movies to come (like Avengers: Endgame, opening April 26).

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are mostly known for their indie films Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This is a pretty big deal, to get the keys to kingdom for a huge franchise movie—a Marvel epic with the Disney brand. And even though DC Comics beat Marvel to the punch getting Wonder Woman to the big screen (as the first female superhero movie, ever), there’s still a lot riding on Captain Marvel. Even before the movie was released, internet trolls weren’t happy about Brie Larson’s casting (since, in the comics, Captain Marvel was originally a man), or her campaign for more “inclusion” in superhero epics. (And speaking of inclusion, Boden becomes the first woman to ever direct a Marvel movie.)


Here come the Skrulls!

But Captain Marvel soars as an origin story with heart, cheeky humor, wit and warmth, zingy dialogue, punchy action, colorful characters and a hero—heroine—who radiates righteous grrrl power as Danvers breaks the glass ceiling on two worlds where men can’t seem to stop telling her what she can’t do, what she’s not qualified to do, what she’s not meant to do. “You do know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” one of her male Air Force co-pilots taunts her. “Don’t let your emotions overrule your judgement,” says Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her Kree mentor, training her as part of his elite, SWAT-type team of Starforce warriors who fight the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

The movie pulsates with a rockin’ soundtrack of ’80s and ’90s tunes from female-fronted bands—“Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage, Heart’s “Crazy on You,” “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. When she crash-lands through the rooftop of a Blockbuster video store in 1995, Vers ponders the rows of strange artifacts, briefly picking up a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, the 1983 Oscar-winner about the Mercury astronauts and America’s space race. It’s a nod to her own test-pilot roots—and the space gauntlet she’ll soon be running herself.

And it’s full of fun ’90s pop-cultural artifacts. A Nerf Gun factors into a smashing space-alien smackdown. A Space Infinity Stone, an all-powerful Tesseract, is transported inside a Fonzie lunchbox—Heeeeey! Remember pay phones, dial-up internet, Troll dolls and settling in to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?


Samuel L. Jackson

On Earth, Vers runs into Special Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the future director of the Avengers superhero organization S.H.I.E.L.D, and his assistant, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Both Jackson and Gregg were digitally “de-aged” to look some 25 younger, and it’s pretty amazing, especially for Jackson, who appears extensively—without Fury’s signature eyepatch, which we know will come later. Jackson, a Marvel fan favorite, is the special sauce that spices up anything he’s in, and he enlivens Captain Marvel considerably with some of the movie’s best quips and one-liners.

Gemma Chan (from Crazy Rich Asians) is a Starforce warrior. Annette Bening plays the elusive Dr. Wendy Lawson, who holds a critical key to Danvers’ fuzzy-memory back story. Lashana Lynch adds a layer of warmth as Danvers’ former Air Force bestie, Maria Rambeau, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her precocious daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), whom Danvers nicknames Lt. Trouble, crop up in another Marvel movie down the road. There’s a pause for a sweet posthumous cameo from the late Stan Lee.

The movie brings up issues about refugees, imperialistic domination, war and the age-old question of who, or what, you can trust. The granny on the train, who might be an evil alien in disguise? The enemy alien, who might be an ally? The memory, that might not even be real? A “Supreme Intelligence” who might not be so supreme, or so intelligent, after all?

An orange tabby cat named Goose (dig the Top Gun reference) is a fur-ball of feisty surprises, and surely earns a place in filmdom’s feline Hall of Fame.

nullBut Captain Marvel is Brie Larson’s movie, certainly—even if her character is never actually called Captain Marvel. The closest we get is “Mar-vell,” one of the earlier incarnations from the comics; you’ll have to bore down into Marvel lore to find out just how deep Captain Marvel goes, back to 1967, how the mantle of character passed over gender lines in the 1970s and finally became fully female around 2012.

“It’s two words,” she tells Fury. “Mar-Vell.”

Marvel sounds a lot better,” Fury says. “Like the Marvelettes.” He playfully sings a bit of the group’s big 1960s hit, “Please Mister Postman.”

Danvers grins, but she’s not having any of that—not yet. She’s got other music to make, another superhero song to sing, more galactic mail to deliver, other missions to fly. Captain Marvel will assuredly be back. And we’ll all get used to that name. Hang on, and stay tuned!

In Theaters March 8, 2019