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Film Reviews: New Releases for March 8

Kung Fu Panda 4, Damsel, Cabrini, Io Capitano, Imaginary, Ricky Stanicky


  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Kung Fu Panda 4
Cabrini **
Director Alejandro Monteverde’s previous film about a real person on a single-minded quest to save children—last year’s surprise hit Sound of Freedom—had to deal with some unpleasant revelations about its subject. At least that problem is unlikely to face this historical biopic about Francesca Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna), which plods through the life of a literal saint, but with the same self-righteousness about its message as Sound of Freedom did. The story begins in 1880s Italy, as they physically frail but determined Cabrini is tasked by People Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) with starting a religious order in New York to serve the impoverished Italian immigrant community, including starting an orphanage. Upon arrival with five fellow religious women, she encounters plenty of obstacles: killer pimps, a not-entirely-supportive local archbishop (David Morse) and a city establishment more inclined to spit on Italians in the street than help fund their survival. Monteverde and his production team do a nice job of re-creating his turn-of-the-20th century setting, and there are a few striking images along the way. But this is one of those inspirational dramas that’s really more melodrama, leaning into the sneering bigotry of the time and an idealized hero. Dell’Anna does a lot of chin-forward acting to emphasize Cabrini’s grit, but she doesn’t really have a character to play. Just like we can all agree child trafficking is a bad thing, we can agree here that anti-immigrant prejudice is a bad thing, without spending 135 minutes patting ourselves on the back for it. Available March 8 in theaters. (PG-13)

Damsel **1/2
Streaming services are creating an entire sub-genre built on solitary women confronting mortal peril—The Princess, Prey, No One Will Save You, etc.—so that idea alone isn’t going to be enough to carry a movie without some real creativity. This one casts Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie, daughter of a feudal lord (Ray Winstone) in a long-ago time, who is married off to the prince (Nick Robinson) of a distant kingdom. But only too late does she realize that her real purpose is to serve as ritual sacrifice to the local dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo). Dan Mazeau’s script spends a lot of time on throat-clearing before getting to the meat of the story, which naturally involves Elodie attempting to survive being tossed into a cave to die. And while Brown has proven herself to be a plucky enough hero in the two Enola Holmes features, she ends up spending too much time alternating between screaming in pain and getting a determined look on her face, with the challenges she faces rarely providing enough excitement or tension on their own. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems much more comfortable when he can give his imagery an edge—like the fate of a dragon-torched flock of birds—than when he seems to be making a movie for those who know Brown from Enola Holmes, rather than those who know her from Stranger Things. Available March 8 via Netflix. (PG-13)

Imaginary **
It has become kind of a movie-critic punch line how many contemporary horror films are Actually About Trauma, but I’ll be honest: This one would have been in much better shape had it not swerved so violently out of that lane. It’s the story of Jessica Barnes (DeWanda Wise), a children’s-book author moving back into her childhood house with her husband Max (Tom Payne) and stepdaughters Taylor (Taegan Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun). There Alice finds an old teddy bear in the basement that becomes an imaginary friend she calls Chauncey, and which seems to have some creepy influence over Alice. For a while, it seems as though director Jeff Wadlow and the screenwriting team are going to turn Imaginary into a metaphor for kids dealing with mentally-ill parents—both Jessica’s father and the girls’ mother fall into that category—and searching for something that can love them without also hurting them. But there’s an abrupt pivot as soon as Betty Buckley appears in her role as "Veteran Actor Whose Job is Spewing Forth Buckets of Exposition," and we get an entire mythology that feels unnecessarily complicated without actually making the narrative more interesting. Wadlow manages a few token scares, but fails at the most basic task of turning Chauncey into a figure of menace—or, for that matter, into something that could be Actually About Trauma. Available March 8 in theaters. (PG-13)

Io Capitano ***
Matteo Garrone isn’t exactly inventing the wheel in telling the story of how brutal the contemporary immigrant experience can be, but he finds enough specificity in his story to be emotionally affecting beyond its portrayal of hardship. He follows two teenage Senegalese cousins—Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall)—as they decide without their families’ awareness to save up enough money to leave Dakar for Europe, hoping to fulfill their dreams of being music artists. Garrone and his co-screenwriters make it clear that the place they’re leaving is hardly an unlivable hell-hole, but merely one where opportunity seems limited, and that the two youngsters are simply too naïve to appreciate the travails they might face. Sarr and Fall do a solid enough job for non-professional actors who are mostly part of a delivery system for their harsh experiences, but it is horrifyingly fascinating to observe an economy that exploits dreamers at every possible opportunity—smugglers, bandits, corrupt quasi-government officials, slavers. The climactic journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to Sicily further emphasizes the idea of kids forced to deal with perils beyond their years—which Seydou occasionally turns into fantasies that blunt the pain—and while some of the individual character dynamics could be stronger, it’s still an urgent, unsettling reminder that any country’s “immigrant problem” is made up of human beings. Available March 8 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Kung Fu Panda 4 **1/2
It’s been 16 real-world years since Po the panda (Jack Black) first became the “Dragon Warrior,” and somehow he’s still bumbling and insecure, and no longer the most entertaining thing in the franchise’s entries. In the latest entry, Po is informed by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he soon must relinquish the role of Dragon Warrior to a successor, but Po is more interested in continuing his heroic exploits, including challenging a sorceress called The Chameleon (Viola Davis) with plans of conquest. Po teams up with a thief named Zhen (Awkwafina) on his quest, and it’s certainly possible to see the entire premise as a way to set up a Puss In Boots-style spinoff franchise. If so, the better focus might be on Po’s two dads, Li (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong), whose attempts to track down Po yield some of the movie’s comedic highlights. Those scenes are also a reminder that the “fake it ’til you make it” component of Po’s personality was a huge part of the original Kung Fu Panda’s appeal, and Black’s voice performance here lacks a bit of the oomph that made him such a great initial fit for the character. Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls), taking over from Jennifer Yuh Nelson, delivers plenty of engaging high-energy action, but it’s a little bit of a bummer to realize that everything that works here is around the edges instead of at the center, and that maybe moving on from Po wouldn’t be the worst thing. Available March 8 in theaters. (PG)

Ricky Stanicky **1/2
I’m 100 percent all-in on John Cena as a comic actor, even when the stuff surrounding him isn’t as inspired as he almost always is. That material here focuses on three friends-since-childhood—Dean (Zac Efron), TJ (Andrew Santino) and Wes (Jermaine Fowler)—who have spent years building the legend of Ricky Stanicky, a non-existent buddy who could always get them out of trouble or provide an excuse. But when the time comes to put up a real-life Ricky, the friends hire Rod (Cena), a drunken low-rent actor who’s willing to fully commit to the part. That sentiment applies to Cena as well, who’s an absolute delight whether performing Rod’s masturbation-and-celebrity-impersonation-themed cabaret act, or proving how much research Rod  is willing to put into a role. Director Peter Farrelly (back in his There’s Something About Mary-esque R-rated comedy wheelhouse after earnest detours like Green Book and The Greatest Beer Run Ever) and the screenwriting team give Cena plenty of room to shine, even if the rest of the characters feel only superficially thought-out, especially since Dean’s relationship issues are meant to drive the entire Stanicky legend (guys would rather create a pretend friend for 30 years than go to therapy, etc.). It’s a high-concept comedy that stumbles over getting sincere, but at least we get Cena at his musclebound goofball best. Available March 7 via Amazon Prime Video. (R)