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Movie reviews: Reynolds romps through video world

Plus, Jennifer Hudson seeks respect in new biopic.
Credit: AP
This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Ryan Reynolds in a scene from "Free Guy." (20th Century Studios via AP)

DALLAS —

FREE GUY

Think back to the opening scene of "The Lego Movie." Everything is awesome for good guy Chris Pratt as he starts his day. The beginning of "Free Guy" reminds me of that, starring Hollywood's other favorite everyman, Ryan Reynolds, only he's surrounded by violence and mayhem. Guy is oblivious to it all, because he's a non-player character in a popular video game: a teller at a bank where robberies happen daily. They don't faze him or his security guard buddy (the affable Lil Rey Howery). But a chance encounter with a pretty action avatar played by "Killing Eve" star Jodie Comer (in an inside-out role as a game coder, too) prompts Guy to change his routine. That opens a whole new world, in which he and his new gal pal team up to carry out a code heist and reclaim his life.

"Free Guy" is directed with great energy and humor by Sean Levy, who did the "Night at the Museum" movies. Reynolds is made for the role, and Taika Waititi is also perfect as a corporate mogul. This will be an especially immersive experience for gamers, but it's not so much a movie about video games as it is about owning your journey in life. After all, we don't get to reboot. So, as Guy would say "Don't have a good day, have a great day!" 

This is a clever, fun film.

(20th Century Studios. Rated PG-13. Run time: 1 hour, 55 mins. In theaters only.)

RESPECT

There's been a lot of anticipation for this biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul handpicked JHud for the job. No pressure, right? 

The movie tells her life story from childhood through her gospel music documentary "Amazing Grace" in the 1970s. We learn she suffered sexual abuse as a girl, resulting in two pregnancies, and she often butted heads with her pastor/father (a stoic Forest Whitaker). She was also abused by her first husband (played in the beginning with charm by Marlon Wayans), and she dealt with what she called 'demons,' often taking the edge off with alcohol.

A talent like Aretha deserves a top-notch film, and "Respect" unfortunately falls short in the hands of director Liesl Tommy. It lacks the dynamism and grit the story calls for. This PG-13 version should be amped up to an R. The pacing drags, especially off the top. The musical numbers are the highlights, especially seeing how the title song came together. Hudson's vocals soar, tweaking her own fabulous voice to be in Aretha's register. The Oscar winner's emotional range, though, is limited, with no help from the script. As the Franklin song goes, "A Change Is Gonna Come." I kept hoping it would. (But stay for the credits and the real deal.)

(MGM. Rated PG-13. Run time: 2 hours, 25 mins. In theaters only.)

SWAN SONG

Magnolia Pictures (the film distribution arm of Mark Cuban & Todd Wagner's entertainment company) is out with "Swan Song." Maybe you saw it at SXSW or the Oak Cliff Film Festival. 

Filmmaker Todd Stephens returns to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio to tell the story of a retired gay hairdresser who's given the chance for one last hurrah. A stroke has placed him in a nursing home, but the estate lawyer for a socialite informs him that it was his client's dying wish that he style her hair for her funeral. He begrudgingly agrees, escaping from the home. His daylong trek to gather beauty supplies allows him to reminisce about his glory days and grieve over the loss of his partner to AIDS.

The always welcome Jennifer Coolidge plays a humorless townsperson, and the glorious Linda Evans takes her first film role in decades as the woman who's passed. But the film belongs to the star, German character actor Udo Kier, in a heartfelt performance. This is a small film. Don't expect much and you might be surprised.

(Magnolia Pictures. Not rated. Run time: 1 hour, 45 mins. Texas Theatre only.)

VIVO

I checked this out on Netflix, because I was looking for something for families to watch at home. "Vivo" is an animated movie featuring songs from none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (is he prolific, or what?!), and they are very catchy. 

A Cuban street musician, Andres, has rescued a kinkajou, Vivo, and made him his sidekick (Miranda voices the cute critter). Andres receives a letter from the love of his life, Marta (Gloria Estevan), asking him to come to her final concert in Miami. He never makes it, but Vivo decides to deliver a love song his master wrote for her as she left to pursue her musical dream. Vivo acquires a travel buddy, Andres' great niece, who loves music but can't carry a tune, and off they go!

I don't know what it is with family films, but this one features the death of a loved one early on. There are a few too many diversionary adventures along the way, including an Everglades detour involving a huge snake and some Girl Scout-types on the chase. Miranda apparently came up with the idea for "Vivo" before his Broadway sensation, "Hamilton." 

Now it's finally come to life, and you could find worse ways to spend your time.

(Sony Pictures Animation. Rated PG. Run time: 1 hour, 35 mins. Netflix.)