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MISSING LINK leaps onto year's best-of list

“Missing Link” is the first film I’ve seen this year that made me want to start my best-of list. This animated gem from the reliable Laika studio (“Coraline,” “Kubo and the Two Strings”) can be overly silly, and its ending pushes too hard; yet it is nonetheless a deliciously entertaining piece of work: exciting, inventive, wistful and hilarious -- crammed with lively characters, letter-perfect voicing and so much visual splendor that I found myself scrutinizing the end-credits for its armada of sculptors, puppeteers, artists, modelers and computer whizzes. Set in the 19th century, the story involves aspiring explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and his quest to join the ranks of other fa

SHAFT: Real men make sequels

If you can stomach the nonstop swearing and bad behavior, “Shaft” is a fascinating cultural artifact. In the ongoing debate about modern masculinity -- between a more genteel, millennial maleness and old-fashioned sexist tough-guys -- this entertaining actioner comes down squarely on the side of the latter. That’s not necessarily a good thing; but it’s an interesting voice in the conversation -- and because Samuel L. Jackson does most of the talking, it pretty much demands to be heard. The idea seems to be that if you’re trying to protect your son, or your grandson, or your girlfriend, or your baby -- if, for example, they’ve been kidnaped or attacked by vicious drug lords with big guns and

TOY STORY 4: Pixar is never quite done … so stick around for the credits!

In “Toy Story 4,” familiar toys from the first three movies -- plus one notable newbie -- embark on a road trip with their owner and family. Correspondents Quinn Deitrick and Joseph Smith are likewise embarking on a new stage in life: Quinn graduated from Loyalsock High School with the class of 2019, and Joe retired after teaching there for 27 years. So we decided to honor this occasion with a joint review of Pixar’s latest: JOE: I’ll bet we can agree that it’s the weakest of the four “Toy Story” films, Quinn -- but also, that this doesn’t spell disaster, since the other three set such a high standard in comedy, animation, excitement and emotion. This movie has those qualities, too -- but it

LATE NIGHT: Long may she reign

Ladies and gentlemen, Emma Thompson has done it again. This time, though, she had help from Mindy Kaling. More than 25 years after Thompson took Best Actress for her sensational work in “Howards End,” she continues to burn up the screen in the terrific new dramedy “Late Night,” with a script by Kaling -- who also co-stars. Thompson plays Kate Newbury, a successful talk show host whose ratings are plummeting. The stodgy, prim and viperous Newbury is floundering amid the cutting-edge antics of Fallon and Kimmel, not to mention trendy young YouTube stars with millions of followers. When her growing “irrelevance” is attributed partly to an all-male, all-white writing staff, she impulsively hi

SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2: Not as good . . .

The sequel to “Secret Life of Pets” sort of succeeds in spite of itself. For much of the film, I couldn’t figure out whether they were trying too hard -- or not hard enough. There’s no question it’s poorly written, with a rambling story and only a few decent laughs. Yet somehow when the thing is over, you don’t exactly feel ripped off -- unless maybe you shelled out $60 on the 3­-D version for the whole family. The original 2016 film was clever, fast and funny, raking in nearly $1 billion worldwide. Featuring bright, snappy computer animation, it began with pets who are alone at home all day and quickly morphed into a zig-zaggy adventure with Animal Control, rejected pets, a lunatic rabbit n

ROCKETMAN: Irresistible tunes in a irresistible movie

“Rocketman” is better than “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the same way that Elton John was a better songwriter than Queen. There, I said it -- go ahead and hate. Then ask yourself who had more hits. And whether Queen ever made a record as good as “Tumbleweed Connection.” Or “Madman Across the Water.” Or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” What’s more, the sensational new biopic makes dazzling use of the Elton John songbook, brilliantly reworking tempo, texture and instrumentation on at least 20 terrific tunes. “Rocketman,” you see, is not a biopic so much as a musical -- with characters bursting into song and dance throughout. At the same time, it explores with great tenderness and clarity John’s transform

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR: The "it" factor … and not much else

In “The Sun Is Also a Star,” protagonist Daniel Bae explains to his new-found crush the five elements needed for love. His final necessity is “the X-factor,” and when she inquires what that is he responds, “Don’t worry -- we have it.” I can’t give any better definition than this of the mysterious chemistry that makes love work on-screen; but I agree with Daniel: They have it. And so does this movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much else. Based on Nicola Yoon’s acclaimed 2016 novel, the film follows two Manhattan teens who meet when he saves her from being hit by a car. Instantly smitten, he pursues a relationship, which she resists because A) she doesn’t believe in all that touchy-feely s

THE HUSTLE: Too many cooks, not enough hustle

As a long-suffering critic who’s reviewed many bombs and duds, here’s a little film-going tip: It’s not a good sign when a movie has seven writing credits. This generally means they couldn’t figure out what to do with the thing, and just kept hammering away until it was as flat as foil. In the case of “The Hustle,” it’s also about as funny. Next time you hear movie stars pontificate on politics or climate because they’re so very wise, ask yourself how two apparently savvy and affable actresses like Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson signed up for such a witless mess (though it’s possible the script once looked quite different). “The Hustle” is a low-rent con movie hoping to set itself apart from

THE INTRUDER: Quaid goes full psychopath

Despite generally lousy reviews, I just had to catch “The Intruder” and see for myself whether Dennis Quaid could pull off a psychopathic villain. The answer is yes, and very nicely too -- which is all the more impressive, as it’s tough to think of a single film in which this veteran has played a legitimate heavy. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to Quaid’s fine work, though it certainly does its job. Usually when deciding whether to recommend a film, I simply ask whether folks who see it will get what they wanted -- and again the answer is yes, though “Intruder” doesn’t show much originality or imagination. Quaid plays Charlie Peck, the seemingly likable owner of a quaint but spr

PILGRIM'S PROGRESS: New animated version does justice to Bunyan classic

Nearly 350 years ago, a jailed Puritan pastor named John Bunyan brought forth a little book called “Pilgrim’s Progress”; it has since been translated into more than 200 languages -- and reliably dubbed the second-best-selling book in English (after the Bible). Bunyan’s allegorical fantasy is heavy on dialog and religious symbolism, which is probably why none of the film versions ever caught on. Now writer-director Robert Fernandez seeks to remedy this with a brand-new computer-animated rendition; and despite his obviously modest budget, Fernandez does quite a solid job. Slated for limited release around Easter, this version is exciting, family friendly, often funny -- and reasonably faithful

UNPLANNED: The truth behind our modern holocaust

In the 2012 movie “Lincoln,” we gladly excused the president’s unsavory tactics as he worked to outlaw slavery -- because we knew that this goal was worth almost any price. I dare say that’s how pro-lifers feel about their abortion battle. And since I’m squarely in that camp, I don’t care a fig about the few flaws in “Unplanned,” which tells the true story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood worker who swiftly and decisively jumped ship after she watched a squirming baby get sucked out through a vacuum tube. And honestly, I don’t think the film has that many problems anyway. These would include some weak dialog and an absurdly heartless Planned Parenthood boss; plus, the movie overplays it

DUMBO: Another win for Burton

The new “Dumbo” is nearly 50 minutes longer than its 1941 predecessor -- so one might justly worry that they padded out the slender storyline with cheesy musical numbers, excess sentiment and/or unnecessary action scenes. Let me lay those fears to rest. Tim Burton’s live-action update is basically a whole new movie, with several added good guys and villains, plus a fully developed plot -- not to mention one dandy climax that leads to a very different resolution. Critics have not been thrilled with this film, but I found it charming; despite its greater length, the story never flags -- and it looks sensational. To the essential hook of a likable baby elephant whose gigantic ears enable him to

COLD PURSUIT: Actioner #11 for the tough-to-kill Neeson

Let’s lay them out in order, shall we? “Taken,” “The Other Man,” “The Next Three Days,” “Unknown,” “The Grey,” “Taken 2,” “Non Stop,” “Taken 3,” “Run All Night,” “The Commuter.” That’s the rather hefty list of hard-bitten thrillers Liam Neeson has made since emerging as an unlikely action star way back in 2008. The thing is, most of these movies were pretty entertaining. Yes, both of the “Taken” sequels stunk -- while “Unknown” was, by contrast, a smart and twisty little sleeper. The rest weren’t exactly masterpieces; but they did their formula-driven escapist duty, providing a decent night’s diversion, with plenty of room for Neeson’s special brand of sympathetic toughness. The same can be

STAN & OLLIE: An overlooked gem

Just because you’re fond of the subject in a given movie, that’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy the film itself. There are plenty of lawyers who hate courtroom dramas, and plenty of physicians don’t like movies about doctors either. So maybe my affection for Laurel & Hardy isn’t the only thing that made me love “Stan & Ollie”; but it sure didn’t hurt. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the titular pair, once the most famous comic duo in the world. This splendid new biopic focuses on the end of their career, when they’re reduced to mild-mannered stage shows on a 1953 tour of the British Isles -- all the while scraping for funds to make another feature. For fans of Laurel and Hardy, this fil

SERENITY: Maybe the only favorable review you'll find anywhere . . .

“Serenity” is a bold movie: daring, gutsy, painting in broad strokes. It takes chances -- and for this I liked it, even though it derails near the end. The film was something of a must-see for me, partly because of its impressive cast -- Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke -- but mostly because I keep hoping writer Steven Knight will pen another film as good as “Eastern Promises.” This isn’t the movie I was wanting, but it’s one of the few scripts Knight himself also directed, and his visual style is a pleasure to behold, with terrific cinematography by Jess Bell. McConaughey plays a fishing captain on fictional Plymouth Island, where his quest for a

GLASS: More amazing work from McAvoy!

Were you amazed by James McAvoy’s performance as a schizophrenic in “Split”? Did you enjoy watching him run through several personalities, including a prissy woman and a lisping nine-year-old? Did you wonder why on earth he didn’t get an Oscar nomination that year? And would you ever dream he could top that with something even more impressive? Well, get ready for “Glass,” another thoughtful, well-acted thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Critics have largely bashed this film, but even if they were right, it would still be worth seeing for McAvoy alone. The closing credits list 20 different characters next to his name; I doubt you’ll see a more impressive performance this year.

DOG'S WAY HOME: Good boy!

When I was five, my family acquired a friendly border collie named Spiffy. A few weeks later, we went on vacation, leaving Spiffy in the care of friends -- and he ran off. Their property was several miles from ours, separated by a creek, a highway and a train track; and Spiffy, who had been with us a very short time, could hardly be expected to have any sense of where we lived. But 10 days later, to our undying amazement, the worn-out, hungry and happy little fellow came running into our backyard. I guess this makes me the perfect viewer for “A Dog’s Way Home,” the story of a lovable pit bull who flees while staying with her owner’s relatives 400 miles from home. But despite this personal bi

GREEN BOOK: Fave of 2018 … which went on to take Best Picture!

At the very end of last year, having waited five weeks for “Green Book” to open in Williamsport, I finally gave up and drove all the way to State College to see the film, which stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. It was worth every mile. In fact, if I’d seen “Green Book” before composing 2018’s “best of,” it would have taken the top spot. This sensationally entertaining movie is very loosely based on the true story of Tony Vallelonga, a blue-collar bouncer who in 1962 chauffeured black pianist Don Shirley during a concert tour through the deep South -- smack in the middle of the civil rights era. Fresh from his ethnocentric Italian enclave in the Bronx, Tony has much to learn from the

MARY POPPINS RETURNS … with a bang!

While watching “Mary Poppins Returns,” I spent half the time grinning, half the time crying, and half the time feeling like a little kid again. I know, I know -- bad math in that paragraph; but I kinda need the extra half to say how much I loved this movie. Even though Disney’s upcoming roster is chock-full of updates, this new film is not a remake of the 1964 original; it’s actually a sequel, set a couple decades later, with the Banks children grown and dealing with their own adult problems (and their own precocious children). Yet its stellar music, top-flight cast and ravishing visuals evoke the beloved classic far better than any remake ever could. Granted, Emily Blunt can’t sing as well

WELCOME TO MARWEN: Interesting misfire for Zemeckis and Carell

“Welcome to Marwen” is a high-profile movie starring Steve Carell and directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”). It’s based on the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten nearly to death and struggled toward recovery by creating a scale-model town in his back yard -- peopled with GI Joe-like dolls who helped process his trauma by reenacting it in the form of a World War II action tale. Sun-Gazette correspondents Quinn Deitrick and Joe Smith reviewed the film together -- though neither of us quite knew what to make of it. JOE: I think we can start by agreeing that “Marwen” does not deserve its measly 25% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s is not a bad film -

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