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St. Patrick’s Day Movie Recommendations

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, it seems like we are all in need of a little luck. Fortunately, St. Patrick’s Day is here and we can all celebrate in our quarantines to our hearts content. To increase the fun, put on an Irish-themed movie and have a blast!

My Top 10 Favorite Irish Movies

Honorable Mention: Christmas Perfection

First, I would like to give one honorable mention. I am a huge fan of TV movies, particularly those found on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels at Christmas. In 2018, Lifetime Channel had a film called Christmas Perfection, which is hilarious and is all set in an Irish Christmas village. The movie takes on the tropes of a time loop movie, but this time it is Darcy who keeps living her ideal Irish Christmas over and over again, with it eventually getting pretty desperate. It’s not a St. Patrick’s Day movie so I couldn’t include it in the main list but if you want some laughs check it out.
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10. Far and Away

In this unfairly forgotten epic frontier film, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play immigrants from Ireland who come over to America with big dreams. The film is worth seeing just for the land rush alone, but the then-married Cruise and Kidman have tremendous chemistry and both pull off their Irish accents quite well.


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9. Waking Ned Devine

If you are in the mood for a laugh, Waking Ned Devine is the perfect choice. It focuses on a town that comes together after a lottery winner dies, but still wanting to get the payout. It’s funny and sweet, with a nice heart to it as well.


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8. The Quiet Man

No film on this list made Ireland look more beautiful than The Quiet Man. John Wayne gives a more nuanced performance than usual as an ex-boxer who moves to Ireland to get rid of his demons (unsuccessfully, I will add). Soon he falls in love with Maureen O’Hara, and the two have a fiery, passionate romance.


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7. Brooklyn

In many ways Broolyn is a simple story. It’s about one woman in the 50s who comes to America for an adventure. However, the characters are so likable and the atmosphere so immersive that it just works. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the lead character, and Emory Cohen and Domnhall Gleason make for a convincing love triangle.


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6. Once

Once is another simple film that packs an emotional punch. It tells the story of two singers who meet and decide to record the perfect album together. It is not a romance, but a meeting of two like-minded people who have the same passion. The songs are so good they made a successful Broadway musical off of them.


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5. My Left Foot

It’s hard to not put a film with an Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis at the very top. His performance playing a young man with cerebral palsy is moving and humanizing. Brenda Fricker is also great in her Oscar-winning turn as DDL’s mother. It’s a moving film that can also be quite irreverent. A gem.


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4.  In America

If people ask me for a film I find underrated, one of my first responses is In America by director Jim Sheridan. In the film a family led by Paddy Considine comes from Ireland to the United States to start a new life. Along the way, they face all kinds of challenges while their little girls give them hope. It’s an honest movie with characters anyone can relate with. Just beautiful.


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3. Sing Street

In 2016 when the world was ga-ga for La La Land I was obsessed with Sing Street. I love basically everything about this story of an Irish teen trying to win a girlfriend. It’s so charming!




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2. Darby O’Gill and the Little People

If you want a true St. Patty’s Day film, check out the only one on this list that features leprechauns! This is kind of The Quiet Man lite, but it is a lot of fun. A young Sean Connery is very charismatic, and Albert Sharpe is great as the leprechaun Darby O’Gill.



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1.  Song of the Sea

Irish director Tomm Moore scored a hit with his film The Secret of the Kells, and then knocked it out of the park with his second film Song of the Sea. I absolutely love everything about this film from the beautiful world-building and lore, to the emotion of a boy having to say goodbye to his mother. The animation is so stunning and full of movement and life. It may be too emotional for some kids, but I think most of them are going to like it!

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So there you have it. What are your favorite Irish films? Do you agree with my list? Let me know! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Lost Girls – REVIEW

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Liz Garbus

The first image you see in the newest Netflix original movie, Lost Girls, pretty much sets the mood right off the bat: text with a black backdrop saying “An Unsolved American Murder Mystery”… Welp, this should be a great time. For comparison, Zodiac (2007) is one of the greatest crime thrillers of all time, and it ends in perhaps a suggestive yet ambiguous fashion. But even then, that film knew not to plaster the lack of resolution from the very top. It had plenty of stunning cast members, superb storytelling and dialogue, and relentless tension. The story itself constituted a globally renowned case that struck fear and uncertainty to everyone in California. At the very least it had more than enough entertaining authenticity of a bygone decade. Between all of this, it never had me looking at the clock or anxious that I wouldn’t get all the answers. Lost Girls just didn’t have any of these elements in enough abundance to make it stand out amongst the sea of Netflix Original-forgettables. That isn’t to say it’s bad! Trust me, there are enough full-blown Netflix bombs to have their own category.

This movie did feature decent performances from Amy Ryan (The Office) and Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit). The skillful cinematography was as dark and harrowing as the story itself, and there was some meaningful dialogue on social classes, police corruption (or just incompetence), and America’s ambivalence toward a victim that isn’t stain-free—that alone makes me think it deserves the semi-decent reviews it’s gotten so far. But at the same time, the movie struggles with poor acting from many of the smaller roles. It’s a story that just doesn’t have quite enough meat to be the engaging crime thriller we need it to be—or at least enough to prevent us from counting the seconds till we can have this checked off and then watch something newly added to Netflix, like Jerry Maguire or Pan’s Labyrinth (WOULD RECOMMEND). During a week as bleak and uncertain as this, who needs a movie this bleak and uncertain?

Recommendation: SKIP IT

BOX OFFICE BULLETIN: No Winners Here

Brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot embark on an epic quest in search of a rare Phoenix Gem in Onward | PIXAR

The Hollywood box office just had its worst weekend total since 1990 (I really hated writing that sentence). And unfortunately, this might be the predominant Box Office Bulletin headline for the foreseeable future (I really don’t want to get used to that either…). As we move into discussing the box office numbers from movies this past weekend, keep in mind that every single movie currently in theaters is being impacted by Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and the current global climate of self-isolation and social distancing will force these numbers into record lows.

As the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic begins to settle in, lives around the world are forced to adapt. It’s safe to say we would all prefer things to go back to what we call “normal” and for life to resume the way it was just a few weeks ago: but this is the new reality (for now), and adapting is something that humans do very well. We adapt, we move forward, we find ways to make the best of what life gives us. Rocky probably said it best when dealing with tough challenges in life:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

– Rocky Balboa (2006) | MGM Distribution Co.

And with that, let’s get into some numbers.

Barley and Ian Lightfoot risk it all to spend one day with their dad in Onward | PIXAR

Pixar’s Onward captured this past weekend’s top spot by earning an additional $10.6 million at the domestic box office. Onward‘s global total has now reached $101 million. From week one to week two, Onward dropped 73% in its domestic earnings, becoming the steepest decline for any Pixar movie in its second weekend. The Good Dinosaur (2015) previously held that spot, dropping 61% in its second weekend, followed by Cars 2 (2011) dropping 60% in its second weekend. This is without a doubt a huge disappointment for Pixar and the filmmakers of Onward, as these numbers are no way reflective of the quality of the film.

Jeremy Camp (played by K.J. Apa) performs a song in I Still Believe | Lionsgate

In its opening weekend, faith-based film I Still Believe was able to gross $9.5 million domestically, coming in second just behind Onward. Lionsgate’s newest inspirational film did see a few international screens in Australia and New Zealand adding less than $300k to its box office totals. I Still Believe follows in the footsteps on another “true story” faith-based film distributed by Lionsgate called, I Can Only Imagine (2018) which grossed over $85 million total at the box office. Sadly, I don’t believe (pun absolutely intended) that I Still Believe will come close to making those kinds of numbers considering the current COVID-19 global climate.

Vin Diesel stars as Ray Garrison in Bloodshot | Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot takes third place for this past weekend’s box office. Bloodshot earned $9.1 million domestically, with an additional $15.1 million at the international box office. This is the lowest domestic opening weekend total for Vin Diesel since his 2015 film, The Last Witch Hunter. Even with current public gathering restrictions being implemented worldwide, Bloodshot debuted in 14 other countries, with Russia, Indonesia, and Mexico being the top three international markets. Vin Diesel stars in the lesser-known comic book adaptation from Valiant Comics as a technologically enhanced super-soldier named Ray Garrison. Bloodshot is the first of more Valiant Comics adaptations to come. Harbinger is the next slated adaption to hit theaters and is currently in development. Bloodshot earned a “B” from CinemaScore, while Rotten Tomatoes showed the common divide between that of critics and the general audience. The approval rating from critics is at 32% with 111 reviews at the time of writing this article, while the audience posted a 78% approval rating with 1,080 reviews.

Rounding out the top five of this past weekend’s box office are two films from Universal Pictures. In its third weekend The Invisible Man added $5.9 million to its domestic total, bringing its global box office total to $122.6 million. Kudos to Universal Pictures for instilling confidence back into the public that their iconic collection of ‘Classic Monsters’ can be adapted into compelling modern-day stories. The second Universal movie is the highly controversial film, The Hunt. Originally slated to release in Sept. 2019, the movie was pulled in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings last year. The Hunt is a political satire and dark comedy about wealthy elite liberals who kidnap young adult conservatives to their ranch where they hunt them for sport. The Hunt made $5.3 million domestically, while receiving mixed reviews from both critics and audience members alike.

Here’s a look at how other movies still showing in theaters are performing:

Sonic the Hedgehog$145.7 million domestic total, $306.4 million worldwide total.

The Way Back$13.3 million domestic total, $14.3 million worldwide total.

The Call of the Wild$62 million domestic total, $107.2 million worldwide total.

Emma$9.9 million domestic total, $25 million worldwide total.

*Note: All financial data is provided courtesy The Numbers, my favorite source for box office data.

The Hunt – REVIEW

Universal Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Craig Zobel

Ever since I had an unfortunate incident involving a flight of stairs and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, I’ve insisted that my life is better off without horror movies. But The Hunt lured me in; resembling The Hunger Games more than The Exorcist, it’s a dark political satire about a group of Liberal elites hunting “deplorables” (a.k.a. non-elite Conservatives) for sport, and an awesome protagonist who flips the game on its head (she also literally flips a lot of people—it’s her signature move). The movie was set to release in 2019, but the plot caused a lot of discomfort in the wake of multiple mass shootings and even prompted criticism from the President, and thus was delayed until now. The controversy created a fair amount of buzz—not enough for me to know about it in 2019, but enough to prompt the marketing team to use the slogan, “The most talked about movie of the year is one no one has seen yet!” I thought, “Well, duh, it’s only February,” but I was intrigued! Surely any movie bold enough to make that kind of statement is worth a watch, right?

Well… Not any movie.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought, “This is getting good!” and a few seconds later thought, “WTFB (what-the-flying-bananas).” I imagine a middle-aged Vegas fortune-teller writing the script, musing mysteriously and waiting with a hairy mole and misty incense for me to fill in the gaps for myself. Vagueness, it seems, is their attempt at brilliance. I get that you have to suspend disbelief for movies, but my disbelief was so suspended that I was floating aimlessly in the endless space of ideas and theories without ever being grounded by an intelligible story. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you because I’m not exactly sure what happened. It was probably all a dream, but whose dream is anybody’s guess.

Justin Hartley and Emma Roberts in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

My top two complaints were the gratuitous violence and the unending stream of political mudslinging. Obviously, I expected more than pillow-fights, but I felt that the movie kept trying to push the boundaries of gore for the simple sake of “going there.” What’s worse is the combination of bloodshed with humor that falls sickeningly flat, leaving you feeling really, really uncomfortable: it’s the level of awkward that has you looking for the exits. It’s not like I never laughed, but I certainly cringed more than I chuckled. As far as political commentary goes, you’d get the same level of subtlety from the protagonist’s shotgun. The original title of the film was Red State vs. Blue State, and it should have stayed that way. The 90-minute runtime consisted of extremists saying and doing awful things to each other, like a brutal Shakespearean yarn based on Twitter comment sections. Rather than feeling “woke” about my own political leanings, I just felt more frustrated with the people whose opinions I disagree with. To remain unbiased, the film’s main character has no obvious political leanings. Her core beliefs could be summed up by a perverted version of the Barney theme song: “I hit you, you hit me, let’s go on a killing spree”.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin fighting in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

Speaking of which, if this movie has any chance of earning the price of admission, that chance’s name is Betty Gilpin. She plays Crystal, one of the victims of the Hunt who is really bad at being a victim. She disappears into the role of disaffected, totally deranged Mississippi-trailer-trash, and yet makes the character relatable, entertaining, and engaging. You definitely wouldn’t want her to be your coworker or your neighbor, but you can’t help but root for her on her quest for survival. Both the actress and her character are placed in really crummy situations (Crystal being in the Hunt and Gilpin being cast in The Hunt) but they shrug it off and start running the show. Gilpin quite literally does it all: the bad-bossery of Sigourney Weaver, the captivating presence of Sandra Bullock, the emotional range and control of Jennifer Lawrence, and the action-hero skills of Gal Gadot. She’s surely headed for bigger and better things, so be sure to catch her in GLOW on Netflix or keep an eye out for her next Hollywood venture. 

In all fairness, everyone I knew was shocked I picked this film, so maybe my expectations were way off. Maybe I’m just crazy; I certainly felt crazy walking out of the theater. But assuming I’m sane, maybe wait until March’s other movies feel safe enough to get released.

Recommendation: NO GO

Ordinary Love – REVIEW

Focus Features
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn

“How do you say to someone ‘don’t die’?”

I saw the ​trailer​ for ​Ordinary Love​ during the previews before ​Emma​ a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it. ​​A heartwarming Irish film with Liam Neeson? Count me in! The trailer felt like warm, creamy hot cocoa gently blanketing over my soul. However, what I got was more like a discount dollar store hot chocolate mix in tap water. It wasn’t awful by any means, but it felt like such a mediocre attempt at a much better movie. I am going to forgo my usual division of “My Quibbles/What I Liked” and focus on this movie as a whole while I explain why this movie didn’t stick for me.

First, no one can or should say that Liam Neeson or Lesley Manville are bad in this movie—because they aren’t. Lesley Manville actually does a phenomenal job as Joan going from nervous concern at finding a lump in one of her breasts, to acceptance that she has cancer, to pain ridden anxiety, to a quiet dignified perseverance. Her performance was the highlight of this film. Seeing Liam Neeson as Tom in a more quiet, subdued role rather than the elderly action hero was a really nice change of pace as well.

The main premise of this film is a year in the life of an ordinary Irish married couple who go through the ordeal of finding out that one of them has cancer. We are informed that they have been married for many years, have suffered tragedy, and are very comfortable with each other as friends and spouses… Or so we are told.

The film begins with the couple taking their normal morning walk followed by breakfast. We then hear them make playful jabs at each other—over and over and over again. At first, I was amused by how comfortable they seemed with each other. But before the cancer diagnosis, all they do is insult and argue with each other. It was starting to feel like less of a playful relationship, and more like a concealed abusive one. As the film progresses, Joan’s prognosis gradually takes over the couple’s life and puts a strain on their relationship. Joan increasingly thinks that Tom is not taking her cancer seriously, and Tom is frustrated with his feeling of powerlessness, and doesn’t want to accept the seriousness of their situation.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in a scene of Ordinary Love | Focus Features

This is where the film fails to deliver. We are told that the couple has this loving relationship, but we never see their relationship outside of the “playful” insults and the arguing around the house. In fact, Tom doesn’t seem to even be emotionally invested in Joan or her prognosis outside of a few scenes: one line where he asks another patient’s spouse, “How do you tell someone to not die?”; when he begins to cry after his pet fish dies; and one monologue at his daughter’s grave. We spend almost an hour-and-a-half seeing Joan suffer, and Tom doing the bare minimum of driving her to the hospital and being in the same general area as her. In one major scene, Joan calls Tom out on avoiding her; choosing to watch a soccer game and leaving her in bed alone while in pain. The film seems so preoccupied with being subtle about the couple’s relationship, that they don’t allow for any positive emotion to slip though. Inwardly I was channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, crying “Let me see some tenderness!”

The message the movie was trying to tell was the age-old classic of spending time with the ones we love while we have a chance. But they were also so concerned with keeping it subtle that it sucked all positive emotions right out of it. This is a love drama with very little love, very little tenderness, and very little positivity. What we are left with was an entirely ordinary (pun intended), forgettable, “romantic” drama.

Recommendation: NO GO

I Still Believe – REVIEW

Lionsgate
Rated: PG
Run Time: 115 minutes
Directors: Andrew & Jon Erwin

For some filmgoers, the mere mention of “faith-based films” makes them cringe; this, unfortunately, is not without due cause. While many solid films exist in the market, there are far too many demonize “non-believers,” while billing those with faith as almost mythic-like humans ready to part the seas and challenge the evils of the world.

With this history in mind, I try to be a little forgiving of the genre when a flawed but well-meaning film like I Still Believe comes to theaters. It’s not a game-changer or a great film, but it’s sweet, with a competent cast and inspiring message. That’s enough to get a recommendation from me. I Still Believe is directed by the Erwin Brothers who did the 2018 film, I Can Only Imagine (which is one of the best of the genre in recent years). Here, we follow the story of another Christian musician, Jeremy Camp (played by KJ Apa), and the struggles he faces as his first wife Melissa (played by Britt Robertson) battles with cancer.

For most of the movie, things play out reminiscent of a “Nicholas Sparks-ian” weepy-romance: we have our attractive young people who meet in sandy locations with dewy sunlight. At first, the romance is threatened by another suitor but eventually they declare their love just in time for our female character to get in an accident or become terminally ill. This is exactly how things play out here except, of course, this is a true story: Camp and his wife really did fall in love, they really did have a moment of healing, and she really did face-off with cancer. This battle that led him to write the popular title-song I Still Believe (the song and the music as a whole are not as good as I Can Only Imagine, which saps some of the energy from certain sequences). Obviously a true story is going to be more impactful than fiction (and we have to be more forgiving of story tropes) but it is nevertheless still predictable.

Britt Robertson and KJ Apa in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

The key to making a film like this effective is getting the right casting and portraying enough moments of earned emotion—I Still Believe passes both of these tests. It is not one of the best faith-based films of recent memory, but it is solid and inspiring enough to be worth a watch. While Robertson is getting too old for these types of teen roles, she and Apa have nice chemistry together which goes a long way. The script is also smart, giving them more than just anguish and misery to face together; we get to see them staring at stars in a planetarium, singing tunes by the ocean, and spending time with family together. This helps bond us as viewers to the couple especially as things get harder.

Unfortunately, the first act of I Still Believe has an extended back and forth love triangle, which I did not care for. It was so obvious who was going to get together that the melodrama of “will she/won’t she” was not interesting in the least. That said, once the cancer plot goes into full gear the film mostly earns its emotion. I particularly loved a scene with Gary Sinese (playing Camp’s father) where he talks about the disappointments in his life but how each one of them has brought him closer to God. I saw I Still Believe about 10 days ago and that message, along with his performance, has really stayed with me and made a positive impression.

KJ Apa performs a song in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

Thankfully there are enough strong moments in I Still Believe to make it worthy of a recommendation, especially for its target demographic of religious evangelicals. There were times I got a little sleepy (both because I was sick and the pacing sagged), and it is not reinventing the wheel; but in the end, it is a sincere and sweet story of faith and love, and sometimes that’s enough.

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

Spenser Confidential – REVIEW

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 111 minutes
Director: Peter Berg

I’ve often heard people compare Netflix’s original content selection model to “throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” which often seems to be a fairly accurate statement; especially if you’ve spent a good amount of time watching Netflix original content. There’s a lot of good, but there’s also a lot of bad. Spaghetti that’s stuck: Stranger Things, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Bright (I personally love this David Ayer movie), Daredevil, Murder Mystery, Grace and Frankie, Queer Eye, The Haunting of Hill House, Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, etc. That list is pretty long, and substantial. Netflix has really begun to hone in on their craft. But it’s been a bumpy road along the way. Spaghetti that has not stuck: Rim of the World, The Open House, Polar, How It Ends, The Titan, The After Party, Everything Sucks, Disjointed, etc. (If I called out any show that you’re a fan of, please do tell me why you like that show!) Here’s what I’m getting at: What happens if that spaghetti you threw against the wall stuck but is slowly sliding down, making its way to the floor? That’s exactly how I feel about Spenser Confidential. It’s really not that great of a movie, but it was free! (kind of)

Spenser Confidential (loosely based on the novel Wonderland by Ace Atkins) stars Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Iliza Shlesinger, and Bokeem Woodbine. The movie takes place in Boston, MA, where it was also shot and filmed. This is Mark Wahlberg in his natural habitat doing Mark Wahlberg things. I like Wahlberg. I’m not sure there’s a movie of his that I didn’t enjoy to a certain extent. And any time you go see a movie starring Wahlberg, you kind of already know what you’re going to get. Like many actors in the business, Wahlberg just plays himself. So it’s a good thing that he’s got a charismatic way about him, because without Wahlberg, this movie likely would have sunk like a rock in the Boston Harbor. Wahlberg plays Spenser, a disgraced Boston police officer, who has spent the last five years in prison for assaulting his superior in his own home. Spenser re-enters society after his five year prison stint with hopes of leaving Boston and starting his life over (Why as a truck driver living in Arizona? I’m still trying to figure that one out). Spenser has help acclimating back into society from his old fighting coach, Henry (played by Alan Arkin). Henry allows Spenser to live with him, where Henry is also mentoring and housing an up-and-coming fighter named Hawk (played by Winston Duke). Shortly after Spenser leaves prison, other Boston police officers are murdered, which sparks Spenser’s policing instincts to begin his own investigation into these suspicious murders.

The plot plays out in very familiar fashion. You’ve definitely seen this kind of movie before—think Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, 16 Blocks, or The Other Guys—the buddy-cop action-comedy, but just not nearly as good or as memorable as those classics. Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke make a really interesting pair; although, I wish Duke had more to do in this movie. Every time his character is given some light, he shines, but only long enough for the spotlight to be taken away, leaving you wanting more from him. Duke is a very talented actor; he was fantastic in Jordan Peele’s Us, and I’m ready for him to take on a true starring role. The more tense and serious moments of the movie are broken up well with bits of comedy from Spenser’s jilted lover, Cissy, who is not happy about the five years she’s spent alone waiting for Spenser to get out of prison. Cissy definitely plays the part of a strong, confident Bostonian woman: she takes what she wants when she wants, and is not scared to get her hands dirty. Wahlberg really is in his element playing an ex-cop in Boston. This is his city, and he feels right at home in this movie.

(From left to right) Winston Duke, Alan Arkin and Mark Wahlberg appear in a scene of Spenser Confidential | NETFLIX

Where the movie’s wheels fell off for me was the ending. It was far too predictable, and felt like a cheap way to end the movie. Corruption in law enforcement and local elected officials is not an uncommon story, but I always find myself eager to watch these kinds of movies. Maybe that’s because deep down we all know (or want to believe) that these kind of stories are real. We want to see that dirty underbelly of the city we’ve grown up in; we want to swing that door open as fast as we can and expose those filthy rats in the basement; we know they’re there—we just can’t see them. Movies like Spenser Confidential help to fill in the gaps of what we already suspect is happening in real life. So when the movie approaches the ending, and both my wife and I are audibly predicting what is going to happen, and then rolling our eyes when it does, it just feels cheap. Good thing this is a Netflix movie, which means we got to sit in the comfort of our own home, on our own couch, and just veg.

Now it comes to it: my recommendation. Like I stated earlier in this review, Spenser Confidential really isn’t that great of a movie, but I didn’t regret spending the 1 hour and 45 minutes it took to watch it. The reason I will give it a “Stream It” is because this is a Mark Wahlberg-starred movie, and he is able to do enough to keep the movie afloat. The only thing this movie will cost you is your time. So if you’ve got some time to spare, give Spenser Confidential a watch.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Onward – REVIEW

PIXAR
Rated: PG
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Dan Scanlon

Pixar lives in its own caliber of animated films because they have such a way of telling unique and heartwarming stories. They stay true to this claim once again with their latest tale, Onward. It ticks the following boxes: a buddy comedy, superhero origin story, and fantasy adventure. As always, the animation is incredible. From a scene where the viewer gets to see dust animated in such a way that has you thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know dust floating could be so entrancing,” to the details in facial expressions where a character’s slightest facial movements have you feeling exactly what they’re feeling.

In Onward, two brothers—Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Ian (voiced by Tom Holland)—go on a quest across their land to bring their father back from the dead for one day. They follow clues, go to dangerous places, have hiccups along the way, and get into brotherly tiffs. This aspect of the film gave me major Goonies vibes, in the best way. What could have easily been predictable was elevated by humor, great world-building, and subtle callbacks throughout the film. My one critique is the musical score. Michael and Jeff Denna (who also composed the music for The Good Dinosaur) tried to create an 80’s-rock vibe for this soundtrack, and for me, it didn’t leave me in awe. Most Pixar movies have soundtracks that immediately stand out while watching the film, but that was not the case for Onward. The music was definitely not bad, it was just simply missing that little something extra that makes Pixar scores so special. 

While the basic plot was familiar (two youngsters going on a dangerous journey following clues in search of something magical) the world in which the story took place was unique. Sure, it has familiar fantastical elements—manticore, elves, unicorns, wizards—but the way the creator put his modern twist on the fantasy made it so much fun to watch. For example, Barley plays a game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, which was such a fun and nostalgic element to the world. Additionally, the B characters, Barley and Ian’s mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and The Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) added to the story in a comical way. Their characters helped make this film well-rounded and relatable to women and parents. Lastly, the way magic is portrayed as something you have to work really hard to master, was great. I loved the way it felt like when a superhero is first learning to control their powers; and when they finally are able to use them in awesome ways, it is so satisfying as a viewer.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively) in a scene of Onward | PIXAR

In all, Onward is an original story with such a fresh feel to it. The ending will have you surprised, with your insides feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, as they should after watching a Pixar film. Other classic Pixar elements in the movie are the “Easter Eggs” and callbacks. Not only does it reference other Disney/Pixar films in exciting and subtle ways, but also has some callbacks to small things throughout the film. I can’t wait to see it again to discover more of these special moments that make the viewing experience a unique one with each new watch.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

The Way Back – REVIEW

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Gavin O’Connor

It’s been darn near impossible to escape news of Ben Affleck lately; his very public battles with very personal demons (and professional “failures”) coincide so closely to his character in The Way Back that I’d be remiss without mentioning it. It’s guaranteed to color how you approach the film. The press rounds he’s been making feel more like an exploration of his life’s struggles than advertising for the film. How much more of the latter is it than the former? I have no way to truly tell, but if I let the film inform my answer then I have to lean towards honesty and healing.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that Ben Affleck is perfect for the role of Jack Cunningham. One could argue that this is his best performance—Affleck is usually playing some degree of Affleck—but it’s clearly his most emotional. It’s not emotion for acting’s sake either; it’s a real kind of rawness to see a man succumbing to addiction: you get the peaks and the valleys. You get the “I’m fine,” and the “I’ll do better next time,” and the “give me one more chance.” You get the incomprehensible decisions. Those are staples of these stories. The tropes. We expect them. But the internal struggle is what The Way Back portrays so much better than other films like it. Jack offers generic excuses when it comes to his alcoholism, but only because he numbs himself from a truth more painful than he thinks he can bear—Jack is also the one his Alma Mater calls to coach their basketball team. 

This is the kind of plot that screams melodrama (and in less capable hands it would be just that). Gavin O’Connor has a knack for making a compelling story out of underdog situations and I applaud him for the subtle subversion in a film like this. He did the same for Warrior, and even found a way to ground The Accountant. I don’t see The Way Back as inspirational: I see it more as cautionary, designed to cut away at judgment and foster pathos and empathy. The fires in these people’s lives didn’t light themselves and they won’t be extinguished by winning a handful of league games. I respect O’Connor for understanding that and reflecting it in his story.

Jack Cunningham (played by Ben Affleck) looks on as his basketball team celebrates a victory in The Way Back | Warner Bros. Pictures

That brings us back to Mr. Affleck, doesn’t it? There’s an obvious synergy that exists in viewing the film. He needed this project for his own sake, and the project needed him to elevate it by revisiting those dark places. I wish I could separate the final product from the production history but I can’t, so I won’t pretend to. I can be objective enough to say that The Way Back is merely a good film. I wouldn’t even bat an eye if Affleck didn’t receive a nomination. It’s a straightforward movie to a fault. All that baggage though? The context in which the film is presented to us? I couldn’t help but sit in the theater and root for both Ben and Jack. The Way Back is a lifelong road and my hope is that they never stop moving forward.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Emma – REVIEW

Focus Features
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Autumn de Wilde

One of the biggest sources of contention between me and my darling mother is which version of Pride and Prejudice is superior: the Colin Firth version or the Keira Knightly version. I am more partial to the 2005 version due to its cinematography, music, and more modern approach to the dialogue. My mom prefers the more drawn-out version where the dialogue is super book-accurate. It is an argument that has never (and most likely will never) be resolved. Up until a few days ago, Pride and Prejudice and its varying version, was my only exposure to anything Jane Austen.

I knew from the moment of the trailer that this would be a movie that my mom and I would bond over when she eventually saw it, and I leapt at the chance to see an early screening of it at the Broadway Center Cinemas. I’m happy to say that this Jane Austen adaptation combines the best aspects of both Pride and Prejudice adaptations into a film that movie goers from any generation would appreciate and enjoy.

My Quibbles…

Random butt: Near the very beginning of the film, one of the male characters (I honestly don’t remember who) is changed by his servants and we are exposed to his full backside. There is no other overt sexual humor or nudity for the rest of the film, so the unexposed view of this character’s posterior felt really out of place.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in a scene of Emma |Focus Features

What I Liked…

Anya Taylor-Joy: Ever since The VVitch, Split, and Glass I have been carefully watching Anya’s career with great interest. After seeing her in all serious roles, I am ashamed to admit that I was doubtful that she could pull off a comedic role, especially in a period piece. Well, I am glad to say that DING DONG I WAS WRONG. Anya embodies a Jane Austen character; she can go from snarky and quick-witted, to incredibly humbled and repentant in an instant and make it believable. It was refreshing to see her have so much fun and delight in such a different role than what she normally does. Her chemistry with all the actors was super genuine, and I really hope she gains more popularity.

Bill Niighy: I am entirely convinced that Bill Nighy can do no wrong. His character as the Woodhouse patriarch was absolutely HYSTERICAL. Every scene he was in had me laughing; it was his subtle mannerisms and biting commentary that did me in every time. The relationship between him and Emma is beautiful and sweet, and he stole the show every time he was on screen.

The score: My hat goes off to both the composer and the sound editor for this film. They managed to pull off a score that is beautiful, period appropriate, and acts as an amplifier for the humor. There is a term called “Mickey Mousing” or “paralleled scoring” where the music is synced with the action on screen, mostly for comedic timing. (60 Second Guide to Film Music [3] – Mickey Mousing) Emma uses this technique in such a brilliant subtle way that highlights the hilarity of the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s not overt, so it doesn’t seem too cartoony, but it is there, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson-like aesthetic: For most film fans, the name of Wes Anderson is synonymous with symmetry, quirkiness, and a pastel color pallet. Emma has all the makings of a Wes Anderson flick without being as precise and detail oriented, which isn’t a bad thing. Emma doesn’t need to be a Wes Anderson film, but the similarities make for an absolutely beautiful thing to look at. The color choice is simply gorgeous and fits right along with the period production design. The cinematography of Emma comes close to almost perfect Wes Anderson symmetry, allowing the film to have an elegant feel to it, without crossing the boundary to overly quirky. Overall, this is a stunning film to look at.

Mia Goth (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) in a scene of Emma | Focus Features

Final Thoughts…

Emma is a quintessential Jane Austen movie that combines the aesthetic of a modern film with the dialogue from the time period. The film is witty, charming, hilarious, and well acted. Each of the four people I saw it with had the same reaction: “My mom is going to love this movie!” And do you know what? I loved it, too.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Our Writers

The Backseat Directors team of writers is a collection of some of the most passionate movie fans ever assembled. Dedicated to bringing you the latest in movie reviews, and compelling editorials.

Movie Quote of the Week:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

– Rocky Balboa (2006)

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