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"John Wick 3"

‘A Dog’s Journey’

“A Dog’s Journey,” the third in a trilogy of films adapted from W. Bruce Cameron’s novels, offers up an interesting, complex story into which we can sink our teeth. Directed by Emmy-winning TV director Gail Mancuso, written by “Purpose” vets Cameron, Maya Forbes, Cathryn Michon, and Wallace Wolodarsky, “A Dog’s Journey” has the emotional bite to match its somewhat hokey bark.

Both “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey” are metaphysical and philosophical films that purport the theory that the same dog spirit has been reincarnated again and again into different canine forms over its owner’s lifetime, always trying to make it back home. It’s a fantastical idea, and all rather Buddhist for a film that traffics in heartland family values nostalgia cheerleading. But it’s a fantasy dog lovers want to believe.

Bailey, the St. Bernard from “A Dog’s Purpose,” reappears as a kindly older dog in “Journey,” the beloved pet of Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Bailey bonds with Ethan and Hannah’s toddler granddaughter, CJ (Emma Volk), while their daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) grieves the death of CJ’s father in a car wreck. A selfish and vain woman, she impulsively leaves the family farm with her daughter, denying the grandparents any chance of seeing her again while tossing off vague accusations about CJ’s father’s life insurance policy.

Losing a beloved dog is a part of pet ownership, and as Ethan says goodbye to his friend Bailey for the final time, he implores the dog to find and protect CJ in his next lives, because she’ll need it. CJ grows up a lonely, sad girl (Abby Ryder Fortson and Kathryn Prescott), but Bailey finds her again and again, as a beagle named Molly, a mastiff named Big Dog and finally, a Yorkie named Max, who has the greatest influence on CJ’s life, and helps her to believe in the magic of the animal’s spirit.

It’s about halfway through the film when one realizes how much deeper Mancuso and team are going with this dog’s journey. This isn’t all romps in the tall grass and stories of puppy heroism or feats of strength — it’s about family trauma, death, domestic abuse, neglectful parenting, addiction and life-threatening illness. It’s about how dogs can fill the hole in your heart that a person might leave.

The whole schtick of these movies is the treat-motivated, not-quite-getting-it doggie voice-over, performed by Josh Gad, and it lightens the film. But going dark and emotional makes the film work better than the prior two.

(PG, 2½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 48 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘The Sun is Also a Star’

The sick teen genre is a well of deep potential with its heightened stakes and ticking clock. And in the structural sense, “The Sun is Also a Star” is also a sick teen movie — without sickness. But the stakes are high and the clock is ticking — on a mandatory deportation from the United States.

Yara Shahidi (of “black-ish” and “grown-ish”) stars as Natasha, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants but a New Yorker through and through. The day before her family is set to be deported back to Jamaica, she makes a last-ditch attempt to change their fate by pleading their case to an immigration lawyer. She’s spotted in Grand Central Station by Daniel (“Riverdale” star Charles Melton), who notices she’s staring at the starry ceiling, and he interprets her “Deus Ex Machina” jacket as a sign. Daniel is a poet, a dreamer and believer in destiny, and he takes off after her. First he saves her from a speeding BMW in Chinatown, then persuades the science-driven Natasha to spend some time doing the “36 Questions” love study from the New York Times. “Give me a day,” he says, “and you’ll fall in love with me.”

Easy for the easy-on-the-eyes Melton to say! Shahidi and Melton both possess an otherworldly kind of beauty, and combined with director Ry Russo-Young’s lush, rhythmic cinematic style, you could just watch them bop around the city for hours, all shiny hair and plush lips. But then, they open their mouths and the spell is broken. The dialogue (the script is by Tracy Oliver) just grinds things to a halt, with speeches that are a bit too on the nose, and too-grand declarations of love. Then again, all those things seem so profound and meaningful at that age.

As pretty as Shahidi and Melton are, they just don’t share a palpable chemistry. Shahidi is undoubtedly a star, and while Melton is charming and gorgeous with a goofy puppy-dog energy, the more dramatic moments demonstrate the upper limitations of his range. Shahidi’s few short scenes with immigration lawyer John Leguizamo are far more riveting.

. When you’re looking at the world through love-colored glasses, destiny doesn’t seem so far-fetched, and Russo-Young offers up a glimpse.

(PG-13, 2½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 40 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum'

Chad Stahelski's "John Wick" has quickly spouted into a three-and-counting series, the latest of which is "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum." What was once a taut, minimalist action movie with an appeal predicated on low-expectations and leanness has grown into a franchise with a typically overcooked subtitle and de-rigueur world-building.

"Parabellum" finds Stahelski, Reeves' former stunt double who has directed all three films, moving further beyond Wick's hardboiled origins and into a more extravagant action thriller. In its ever-expanding fictional realm, "Parabellum" isn't so dissimilar from a superhero movie, only one with way more blood, a much higher body count and, yes, righteously better action scenes.

It starts right where we left off with Reeves' uber-hitman. He's on the run in New York having violated the fiercely enforced rules of the High Table, an international assassin's guild that sets combat protocol for a vast criminal netherworld, including that no "business" should be conducted in the Continental, the Manhattan hotel presided over with panache by its manager, Winston (Ian McShane).

Ruthless as the world of John Wick is, it's a rigidly ordered one, full of slavish fidelity to a warrior code that's part samurai, part magician. There's a $14 million bounty on Wick's head, just posted by the High Table, which has begun a soon-to-conclude countdown to make Wick "excommunicado." For every other bounty hunter, it's open-season on John Wick. And in these films, one lurks down every alley; the ratio of regular person to hitman is, like, 2 to 1.

With pursuers all around, Wick stealthily seeks out old associates for help, including Anjelica Huston, as a kind of ballet-and-wrestling instructor, and Halle Berry, who has a fiefdom in Casablanca and a few lethal dogs that severely test the bounds of "good boy." He appeals to them on the basis of old bonds that, he hopes, supersede the decrees of the High Table.

Most come to the "John Wick" films for the hyperkinetic videogame action sequences. With a seamless mix of CGI and stunt work, Stahelski fluidly choreographs ballets of bullets and endless violent encounters across a grim cityscape. In some sequences, the action is clever, stylish and syncopated with the camera in motion.

There is no doubt that these sequences are quite easily, in form and execution, a cut above what most any other action film is currently doing. But "Parabellum" often squanders its finesse by resorting, countless times, to execution-like killings. As the body count swells, the relentless sound of gun blasts, and the occasional knife stuck in a skull, begins to pulverize. Fans will surely eat it all up, but the "John Wick" films have nothing to say about gun violence despite its absurd abundance.

(R, 3 of 4 stars, 2 hr. 11 min.)

– Jake Coyle, Associated Press

‘The Hustle’

Con artists working the Riviera: Is there a comic premise more old-fashioned yet strangely hardy than that old thing?

Certainly it has possibilities, even in 2019, which explains “The Hustle.” It’s a remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), with Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headly, which in turn was a remake of the 1964 romantic farce “Bedtime Story” starring David Niven, Marlon Brando and Shirley Jones. Now we have Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson doing the uptown/downtown act in a female-driven reboot.

The mark this time is a young, Zuckerbergian tech millionaire (Alex Sharp). “The Hustle” invents some new elements while relying heavily on set-ups from the earlier pictures. The primary screenwriter, Jac Schauffer, has every right to work her version the way she likes, and the way the project’s initiator, producer and co-star Wilson, likes it.

Well, it’s a dud. Nothing quite clicks. Premise: Australian con artist Penny (Wilson), the lowbrow, meets posh Josephine (Hathaway), the highbrow, on a train chugging along the Mediterranean. The seaside paradise of (fictional) Beaumont-sur-mer is Josephine’s territory. Penny wants in on the action; Josephine agrees to take her on as a partner, under the skeptical eye of a local police inspector (Ingrid Oliver) in cahoots with Josephine.

The fun is in the ridiculous impersonations and accents, or should be. Yet Hathaway and Wilson never get a performance rhythm going. The whole movie looks cheap. The cost-efficient island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, substitutes for the actual Riviera, and you wouldn’t notice or care about the secondhand quality of “The Hustle,” or its reliance on the same hermetic casino or villa interiors, if Addison and company developed any energy in their masquerades.

(PG-13, 1 ½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 34 min.)

– Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

‘Poms’

The elevator pitch for “Poms” had to have been: “It’s ‘Bring It On’ in an old folks home!” because that’s exactly what it is. The brilliant 2000 cheerleading comedy is the gift that keeps on giving (to the tune of, count ‘em, five sequels), so it makes sense to try and re-create that magic by mapping the formula onto something like a Diane Keaton vehicle. But while “Poms” ekes out a few authentically moving moments, it lacks the acidic wittiness of Jessica Bendinger’s script, which was the essential quality that made “Bring it On” such a winner.

It’s a formulaic piece, relying heavily on the fish-out-of-water tale of “Bring it On,” as well as Diane Keaton’s erudite and frazzled star persona. Keaton stars as Martha, a single, childless woman in her 70s who moves from New York City to a Georgia senior living community. She has a dire cancer diagnosis she’s decided to ignore, as well as a repressed dream of cheerleading, symbolized by the high school uniform she’s held onto for all these years.

The cranky, isolationist Martha meets her match in her bubbly and outgoing neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), who is so persistent in her companionship that Martha simply succumbs. Peer pressured to join a club by septuagenarian mean girl Vicki (Celia Weston — the only performer to nail the necessary wackiness yet with wit), Martha convinces Sheryl and a few other women to join her in a cheerleading club. Training montages, interpersonal feuds and viral videos ensue as they chase their dream of competing in a prestigious cheer competition.

The story and plotting are thin and merely serviceable at best, and it often feels like the film has barely been written. We know almost nothing about Martha aside from her prickly personality and secret illness. So it’s hard to follow her emotional transitions, which turn on a dime and feel unearned. Much like a cheerleading routine, the story hits every expected beat, but it rings hollow.

(PG-13, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 31 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Tolkien’

What would J.R.R. Tolkien have made of “Tolkien,” the touching, polished, impeccably well-behaved new movie about his early life? The author’s estate has already weighed in, distancing itself from a project that moved ahead without its participation or approval. Watching the movie myself, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tolkien would have disliked it intensely, which doesn’t mean we should necessarily feel the same: Quite a few people would reject their own biopics on principle, no matter how smartly and sensitively done they were.

The story, toggling between Tolkien’s bookish boyhood and his nightmarish experience as a World War I soldier, evinces a genuine reverence for its subject, his courage and his boundless imagination.

But that imagination is what is most conspicuously lacking in “Tolkien,” which too often falls back into a pose of intellectual and aesthetic timidity. Presenting itself as a kind of origin story for “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it assumes, not unreasonably, that the viewer will have a passing familiarity with those works (or at least seen the movies). And while it isn’t until the very end that we see Tolkien setting pen to paper, the fantasy-literary significance of everything that happens to him has been ponderously determined in advance, ensuring that each moment and encounter will have some future Middle-earth equivalent.

Some of this is only to be expected. As a young boy (played by Harry Gilby) living in the English village of Sarehole, Ronald inherits a natural love for fantasy from his widowed mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), who tells him and his younger brother thrilling stories of dragons and warfare. Later, after Mabel succumbs to an illness, the boys are sent to live and study in Birmingham, where Tolkien meets the three classmates — Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant), Robert Gilson (Albie Marber) and Geoffrey Smith (Adam Bregman) — who will become his closest friends and provide the moving inspiration for his Fellowship of the Ring.

But the outside world, with its stern headmasters and unsympathetic parents, proves less hospitable to their aspirations and desires.

“Tolkien” is structured around a tedious framing device, in which the horrors of one of World War I’s bloodiest battles manifest themselves, in Tolkien’s shellshocked hallucinations, as the evil hooded Nazgûl and fire-breathing dragons that will later populate his fiction. And it’s this reductive visual gimmickry, this use of fantastical iconography as dramatic shorthand, that I suspect Tolkien would have most fervently rejected.

It would be unfair to expect any movie, even one that ran hours longer than this one’s 112 minutes, to capture the inventiveness and ardor of Tolkien’s command of language, his gift for dreaming up new words and new worlds. What “Tolkien” offers instead is a picturesque, amber-soaked balm for armchair Anglophiles: the manners and mores, the crisp witticisms and stirring, stiff-upper-lip sentiments. These pleasures aren’t negligible. But neither are they a substitute for a genuinely cinematic window into a genius’ mind.

(PG-13, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 52 min.)

– Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

‘The Chaperone’

"The Chaperone" doesn't need one. Well-behaved and genteel from the get-go, it has its pleasures, but being wild and crazy is not one of them.

This is more than a little ironic, because one of the film's protagonists is the real-life Louise Brooks (played here by Haley Lu Richardson), an actress best known for 1929's provocative "Pandora's Box" and someone whose incendiary screen presence and free-spirited life gave decorum-seekers fits.

The guiding spirit here, however, is not that G.W. Pabst silent classic but the blockbuster television series "Downton Abbey," which supplied "Chaperone" with both its writer (Julian Fellowes) and director (Michael Engler) as well as the person who got it going.

That would be producer and star Elizabeth McGovern, who came across the 2012 Laura Moriarty novel that the film is adapted from when she was hired as its audio book reader and recognized it as something she could both act in and help create.

The film's earnest focus, as the title indicates, is on the emotional trajectory of another, not necessarily fascinating woman, the fictional Norma Carlisle (McGovern).

It is the conceit of "The Chaperone" that Norma and Louise, different though they are, have an influence on each other's lives. There are small surprises along the way (references to the constricting nature of corsets not among them) but everything plays out pretty much as expected. Self-actualization may be essential for people, but it doesn't always make for the best of drama.

(Not rated, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 48 min.)

– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

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