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Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

Fist Fight
Starring: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Dean Norris, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Tracey Morgan, Christina Hendricks, and Jillian Bell
About: Being a teacher is hard, especially during the dog days of the school year in an impoverished school environment. That's the set up for "Fist Fight." It's the last day of school, it's a poorly run and poorly funded school, and teachers are being laid off in droves. And after an incident with students, a brash history teacher (Ice Cube) and a laid back English Teacher (Day) clash. Soon, Day's character is challenged to a fight after school. He tries a myriad of things to get out of it and that leads to a new found commitment and plenty of hijinks. There's a lot of fun to be had in this film, which offer some breezy comedy and outrageous situations. I particularly liked the character played by Bell, a guidance counselor with a serious Meth issue. This isn't a deep or complex film and story, but it's entertaining and good for a laugh.
Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.

The Great Wall
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, and Tian Jing
Synopsis: This is a time of year when we get some interesting options at the Box Office. While some are running around trying to catch up on the Academy Award nominees they missed in December, new movies with a decidedly different tone are filling the rest of the screens. This usually results in a mix of Valentine’s Day themed films, a few comedies, some cheap horror films and plenty of action films. Many of those action films aren’t really concerned with things like story and character development. When you see Matt Damon fronting a film, you might expect a little cinematic depth. But “The Great Wall” more closely resembles a February action film in its formula, offering plenty of action, some interesting set pieces, and little else. And for those that think it’s some kind of historical drama, think again. “The Great Wall” comes from director Yimou Zhang, who previously delivered western nation crossover films like “The Golden Flower,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggars.” He brings a similar sense of visual style and choreographed action to this film. And if that’s all you’re looking for — a couple hours of battles and CGI — then you’re in luck. But “The Great Wall” is hardly a great or memorable film. I was drawn to the interesting use of colors and some of the lavish sets. And the action pieces, for the most part, are well done. I would argue that the final battle is a little too effects-driven. But There isn’t much in the way of developing a story or characters. We get pieces of character development for William and for Lin Mae, and there’s the hint of a friendship/romance that’s never really defined and never goes anywhere. The rest of the characters are fairly flat. Tovar seems to be there for some comic relief, and Ballard is basically a one-dimensional plot device that doesn’t even really seem to fit in the narrative. There was potential here, but it quickly devolves into something else. The biggest point of interest might be trying to figure out why an actor like Damon agreed to take this part in the first place. That, or trying to figure out what he’s doing with his accent. None of that is a great sign when considering the quality of the film. “The Great Wall” isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just a mediocre one. That’s likely why it was dropped on an unassuming week in February with little fanfare.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.
Verdict: One star out of four.

I Am Not Your Negro
Starring: James Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis: This is one of five documentaries nominated for Best Documentary by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It's based on a book treatment from the last James Baldwin, a book he was planning to write that tied together the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and what it meant for the American story. The film uses his treatment, as read by Samuel L. Jackson, and archival footage of Baldwin to give viewers a feel for Baldwin and his hopes and fears for America, contrasting that with all that's happened in the years since. It's a fascinating and powerful film.
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Auli'i Cravalho, and Jermaine Clement
Synopsis: This is one of the nominees for Best Animated Film, and a classic Disney tale. It features a young girl, in this case the village chief's daughter, who has to come into her own. It's also a musical, with a lead song also nominated for an Oscar. Released before Thanksgiving, "Moana" continues to be a force at the Box Office, which makes it a decent contender for the animated film prize. I thought the film was fun and enjoyable, and it was one of the better recent Disney features in terms of memorable songs. This is a story that traffics in a lot of familiar cliches, but it's good entertainment for the whole family.
Rating: PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, February 24 — "Collide," "Get Out," "Rock Dog"


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