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REVIEW: My Spy

STX Films
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 99 minutes
Director: Pete Segal

(*Disclaimer: This movie review was originally written on March 12, 2020. My Spy is not screening in theaters, but is available streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Let’s just start out by addressing the elephant in the room: COVID-19. Also know as the Coronavirus, COVID-19 continues to impact societies, peoples, industries and businesses all over the world. Whoever you are that is reading this review, and wherever you find yourself, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay healthy, and be smart about your decisions. Who knows when things will settle back into what we consider “normal?” Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.

With that said, I want to quickly focus on the current impact COVID-19 is having on the movie industry. James Bond: No Time to Die was the first domino to fall in what is now a long chain of movie release delays. My Spy was set to release March 13 nationwide, until it wasn’t. On March 9, STX Films announced that the movie was going to be pushed back in little more than a month with a new release date of April 17. Compared to recent announcements concerning release delays, My Spy came out fairly unscathed. Whether or not that new April 17 release date will remain unchanged is still to be seen. I’m not predicting anything, but I imagine the studio will stick with this date. There are a lot of moving parts that go into changing movie release dates. It’s a complicated task to delay a movie, so to move it again after an already announced second date seems highly unlikely. The only scenario I could see keeping this movie out of theaters on April 17 is if movie theaters nationwide shut down. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Even with the movie delay already certain, Salt Lake City still hosted a screening of My Spy this week. (As long as movie theaters are still letting people inside their doors, you know where to find me). My Spy is the most recent project from Director Peter Segal. Perhaps most known for his iconic 1995 comedy, Tommy Boy (1995), Segal has a long list of well known movies that have both hit and missed for audiences and critics alike. From 50 First Dates (2004) and Anger Management (2003), to Get Smart (2008) and Second Act (2018), Segal’s filmography are all movies you’ve likely seen before, and maybe even enjoy to a certain extent, but just don’t quite capture that memorable quality that really great films often do. And so it is with My Spy.

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in a scene of My Spy | STX Films.

Every so often in Hollywood, a big, muscly, charismatic action-movie-hero graces us with his presence (and I say “his” because we have yet to get the big, muscly action-movie-heroine of the same caliber as Stallone or Schwarzenegger. I believe that Gina Carano could be the first). And they seem to come in waves. Stallone, then Schwarzenegger and now Dwayne Johnson; physical specimens that have a real commanding presence on screen, but also a very likable way about them no matter which movie they play in. These three actors seem to be in a category all to themselves. That’s not to say there are no other great action-movie-heroes in the business. Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg, Tom Hardy, Vin Diesel, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham etc. all fit the bill of a really great action-movie-hero, but when lined up against those aforementioned three, it’s an unfair competition. Now we enter a category of action-movie-heroes that is hard to define. This is the category of actors that are without a doubt, physical specimens themselves, routinely score roles in action movies, but still somehow have not achieved that status of any of the previously mentioned actors. I’m talking Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers, John Cena, Dave Bautista etc. Don’t get me wrong…in no way am I attempting to criticize these actors or their careers. I just wonder what kept, or has kept these actors from really breaking out and a making a name for themselves that can rival those of their contemporaries…if you have any ideas, please do share them with me.

To Bautista’s credit, My Spy really seems to be his kind of movie. Not much is asked of Bautista outside of just being himself. There is a natural chemistry between him and Chloe Coleman that helps endear the characters to the audience. My Spy uses the same DNA as the 90’s classic Kindergarten Cop, but emphasizes the relationship between JJ (Dave Bautista) and his smaller counterpart, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), more so than his potential romantic interest in Sophie’s mother (Parisa Fitz-Henley). This is a refreshing take on an already used storyline, and helps to distinguish it from its DNA predecessor.

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in a scene of My Spy | STX Films.

As likeable as Bautista is in My Spy, it’s Chloe Coleman that steals the spotlight. Starring in her very first feature film, Coleman plays her part like a seasoned actress. I’m always impressed by child actors that display levels of talent on screen that many adult actors fail to achieve. Coleman is no exception. Her character, Sophie, is able to go toe to toe with JJ in wit and bravery, which will keep any of the younger audience members entertained and engaged in the film. Coleman’s acting career seems as if it’s about to take flight, as she is slated to star in a few upcoming films, namely Avatar 2, scheduled to come out in 2021.

Without a doubt, families and children were the intended audience for My Spy. But given its PG-13 rating, and the amount of violence and language that does happen in this movie, I would caution parents to maybe watch the movie first before bringing children, or maybe just check out the review from Common Sense Media, which will detail the content in full.

Overall, I enjoyed My Spy for what it is, and the audience it was intended for. If you’re looking for a fun night out with your family, and this is an option in theaters, maybe wait for a discount movie night or a matinee.

Recommendation: Maybe a Matinee

REVIEW: Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Warner Home Video
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Directors: Matt Peters & Christina Sotta

It’s extremely rare when you watch an animated movie and forget that you’re watching…an animated movie. It’s extremely rare that an animated movie has a production, story and overall quality that takes you out of a normal animated experience and gives you (to a certain extent) the feel of a live-action film. Thus was my experience while watching Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Apokolips War‘ is the fifteenth and final film in the current DC Animated Movie Universe (DCAMU), and the direct sequel to Justice League Dark (2017). It debuted on May 5, 2020 as a direct-to-video release by Warner Bros. Animation. The movie was co-directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and is loosely based on the graphic novel, “The Darkseid War” by Geoff Johns. ‘Apokolips War‘ tells the story of our DC heroes taking on their arch nemesis, Darkseid, on his home planet of Apokolips in an all-out final battle. Unlike many happy-go-lucky superhero movies of today, ‘Apokolips War‘ does not shy away from showing real world consequences to having these god-like beings duke it out, and the inevitable casualties and collateral damage that ensue.

Apokolips War‘ is going to have wide appeal to any DC fan. Whether you’re a fan of DC Comics, DC movies, or both, you’ll find a lot to like about this movie. Superhero team-ups are abundant; you’ll see most of your favorite DC characters ranging from the Justice League, to the Teen Titans and the Suicide Squad. With so many characters to juggle in one movie, it can be very challenging finding enough screen time to give to each character, while also not feeling overcrowded and bogged down with too much at once. ‘Apokolips War‘ does well in finding enough screen time for the DC superhero favorites to shine, while also allowing the less popular characters to have their own moments and appeal to their own subset of fans.

As first time directors in the DCAMU, Peters and Sotta do well in guiding the movie along a fairly complex storyline, and doing it in just under 90 minutes. Peters and Sotta deliver a dark, bloody, and sometimes shocking film with this animated feature. With the critical and audience reception being very successful, don’t at all be surprised when Peters and Sotta ultimately find themselves back in the director’s chair for future animated movies.

The Justice League listens intently to Superman’s plan on how to defeat Darkseid in a scene of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War | Warner Home Video.

As much as I enjoyed this movie, there are a couple of things that really bothered me on initial watch—something that Superman said that felt…well, just felt very “un-Superman”-like. Here is the quote:

“I want to make this perfectly clear—we are facing an existential threat to the planet. We can’t wait for Darkseid to make the first move. That could mean the end of us. We have to attack!”

Superman in Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020).

The notion that Superman is willing and ready to make an offensive attack on his enemy without his enemy attacking first seems to go against everything that Superman stands for. It’s a statement and sentiment that feels hopeless, and one based on fear. Even after Superman presents this plan to the Justice League and the Teen Titans, neither Batman nor Wonder Woman make any objections. The only voices of reason come from Flash, Cyborg and Lex Luthor—yes, THE Lex Luthor—who offered the only other alternative plan opposed to Superman’s. This plot point felt all too convenient, and just too sloppy for my liking. With an extra 10 minutes of movie time, a backstory sufficient enough could have helped to build up to this point.

Lastly (and not to give any major spoilers away) I’ll be very vague with this critique. Time travel has become an oft used plot convenience for many superhero movies today. I would like to see some writers let go of that crutch and really dig deep in giving audiences something more…permanent.

If you’re an animation fan; if you’re a DC fan; if you’re just a fan of superhero movies in general, I definitely think you should give Justice League Dark: Apokolips War a shot. You might find yourself wanting to go back and start at the beginning of the DCAMU. For those of you who are interested in where to start, the following is the DCAMU in order from beginning to end:

  1. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
  2. Justice League: War (2014)
  3. Son of Batman (2014)
  4. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015)
  5. Batman vs. Robin (2015)
  6. Batman: Bad Blood (2016)
  7. Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)
  8. Justice League Dark (2017)
  9. Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (2017)
  10. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)
  11. The Death of Superman (2018)
  12. Reign of the Supermen (2019)
  13. Batman: Hush (2019)
  14. Wonder Woman: Bloodlines (2019)
  15. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020)

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 154 minutes
Director: Spike Lee

Da 5 Bloods is a war drama film directed and produced by Spike Lee. The film stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. The film follows a group of aging Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in search of treasure they buried while stationed there. Otis (Peters), Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) journey through Vietnam to retrieve their squad commander’s (Boseman) remains for a proper military burial.

Spike Lee is known as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers and his films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints.” Lee received a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983, and his first feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It was released three years later. Over the course of his career Lee has directed 23 films and only 6 of them were not written by him. He has also starred in ten of them. His most famous works are She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his filmography, Lee has directed a number of music videos by artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Eminem. His work has won him numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Also interestingly, prior to Da 5 Bloods, Inside Man is his biggest box office hit, and BlacKkKlansman is the only film for which he has won an Academy Award. His films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other social and political issues.

(From left to right) Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX. Photo credit: David Lee.

The Story & Direction

As with many “Spike Lee Joints,” Lee is able to explore his themes and messages in a very compelling way. In Da 5 Bloods he is able to mix a fictional story with real-life imagery flawlessly. One of the most obvious allegories is how this film shows the duality of how war in general deals with the Black community. These men go fight for the United States against an enemy that did nothing directly to them. Then when they return to their home country, they are treated as secondary citizens. This idea can be applied to almost all veterans in general, but it is especially evident toward the Black community. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and American intervention in the war started only a year later. The country had just started to recognize that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was wrong. Even now, there are still problems in our country involving civil rights—not just people of color, but also women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different religious groups, and people from different countries.

RELATED:

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

The current social climate adds to Lee’s (mostly) engaging and thought-provoking film. The film highlights the disproportionate nature of the African American sacrifice in Vietnam; African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they were 11% of the total U.S. population at the time (1). Furthermore in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated ‘Project 100,000’ which further lowered military standards which he said would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor. This allowed many Black men who had previously been ineligible to be drafted along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the US South. This led to increased racial tension in the military (2). Out of all of the newly eligible draftees, 41% were black. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military. 20% of black males were combat soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. At the end of the war, black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths (1).

The film also feeds into issues of Black patriotism, inequality, and justice. In one flashback, in the Vietnamese jungle, the five comrades learn of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also learn of the rioting back home in response to MLK’s death and the brutal government response to the riots. The broadcaster then asks, “Why you fight against us so far away from where you are needed?” to which Lee overplays footage of the 1968 riots that look unfortunately similar to the past few weeks. The film is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative, but it’s also a terrific heist drama. As the story reaches the completion of getting the gold, the film is only halfway. This makes the second half almost uncertain. Along the journey, there is some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the audience gets to know “Da 5 Bloods.”

Cast members in a scene of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX.

The Characters

This film has some amazing performances by the cast: the typical jester in Otis; grounded medic, Eddie; and the character, Paul, who is still haunted by his experience. They are also joined by Paul’s son, David. Lee is able to show this squad having a camaraderie that only occurs between brothers. The film starts off very similar to films like The Best Man (1999), Bridesmaids (2011), Last Vegas (2013), Going in Style (2017), and Girls Trip (2017)—this genre of films that have a bunch of friends getting back together to do one last big event. Whether you like that genre of film or not, one thing that they always have is chemistry between the stars. This adds an authentic feeling to them, and this film is no different in that aspect. All of the actors have chemistry with each other which makes each scene enjoyable. The standout is Lindo’s character who deals with guilt, greed, and PTSD. Lindo provides one of the best performances of the year so far, and his anti-hero never becomes cliche.

Lindo’s character, Paul, represents how so many veterans suffer from mental health issues after returning home from war. The film says people need counseling which some veterans can get and some cannot. It is said early on in the film that Paul doesn’t have a lot of money, so it is possible he cannot afford it. He is shown to be very proud, so even if he had money, he probably wouldn’t admit that he needed it. Plus, the older generation as a whole do not embrace therapy, especially minority populations (3). Lindo gives this character a very special performance. It’s very touching to see his friends rally around him when he is struggling. When his PTSD panic attack hits he thinks he’s all alone and that none of his friends will understand. This isn’t the case; they all have the same struggles and are in this together, adding to the realism of their brotherhood. The other actors are good, but Lindo definitely outshines them. The notion of Black servicemen fighting overseas for a country that disenfranchised them isn’t new but the way this film approaches it feels fresh. Boseman is not in the film too much but his charisma still finds a way to show itself.  His last scene in the film is very emotional and powerful. There’s also a small subplot dealing with one of the men and a local Vietnamese woman that touches on the many Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam after the war.

The Flaws

Unfortunately, some of the characters do feel awkward as not much is given to their backstory aside from a few one-liners here and there. Boseman isn’t in the film that much even though he has been shown to be a really good actor, e.g. 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), and Marshall (2017). This is not to say his acting is poor in any way; in fact, it is really good, but his ability sadly feels wasted. He has proven to be a starring actor. Additionally, Lee’s writing has a lot going on in this film that does not use it’s 2.5 hour run time efficiently. He could have cut a few scenes here and there to make the story feel more fluid. The film’s pacing has some problems at the beginning that can feel rushed; the film switches that up and then slows down. The editing is also choppy at times and is very noticeable. There also appears to be no age disparity between the flashbacks and “present” day. Some of the actors look the exact same and also the “camera” footage that one of the characters was filming seemed very dated in comparison to the time period the film takes place in. (Maybe that’s the only working tech they have?) It’s never explained, though it is a cool aesthetic. One potential flaw for people could be how obvious Lee’s political views are in this film, which makes sense as he has always been outspoken on that matter.

Overall

Even with the odd pacing and not always efficient storytelling, this film has a good message that it is trying to get across. Spike Lee is one of the few directors that is able to tackle messages in both good and bad ways. In films like Da 5 Bloods, he is able do it with a great amount of brilliance. This film is extremely thrilling at times, and uses genre cliches in unique ways to reclaim a historical narrative. It works on pretty much every level. It will work as a conversation piece, an action movie, and a comedy. It gives the audience superb performances, especially by Lindo, and is able to bring back Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as one of the best anti-war songs of all time. Spike Lee has made a movie that not only speaks about the past but also feel very relevant for today. Even if the obvious political opinions are taken out, Da 5 Bloods is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely recommendable to anyone.

Citations:

  1. Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War; New York University Press; 1997; pp. 11–16
  2. Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press; 2003; pp. 31–33.
  3. Murry, V.M., Heflinger, C.A., Suiter, S.V. et al. Examining Perceptions About Mental Health Care and Help-Seeking Among Rural African American Families of Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1118–1131 (2011).

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh

With their huge hauls at the pre-COVID19 box office, a lot of people might not realize that Disney has a bit of a live-action movie problem. It has been years since the “House of Mouse” produced a winning, successful new franchise or original film, and that’s not from lack of trying. From The Lone Ranger (2013) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to Tomorrowland (2015), their attempts to start new franchises have not been successful. Even something with the pedigree of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as a sequel underperformed.

The only successful new franchise I can think of are the Descendants films on Disney Channel, which is saying something.  Now we have Artemis Fowl based on the popular books by Eoin Colfer, and I was hopeful it could break this worrying trend. Unfortunately, it may be the worst of them all. Artemis Fowl makes baffling choices and fails to give us intriguing characters or an engaging plot.

The story of Artemis Fowl is fractured amongst a number of characters (part of the problem), but supposedly centers around the brilliant but devious Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw) trying to find a device called the ‘aculos’ which will help him find his missing father (Colin Farrell). As he searches we meet a fairy named Holly Short (who is the lead character in the first novel) played by Lara McDonnell but is given little to do. Then there’s Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Nonso Anozie, and more. Most of these characters aren’t given anything to do but are stuck explaining their story to either Artemis or Holly. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I hated) in that regard. Magical creatures are stuck explaining magic instead of actually being magical.

(From left to right): Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene of Artemis Fowl | Walt Disney Studios.

Miss Peregrine’s (2016) at least had some cool visuals—Artemis Fowl doesn’t even have that. It feels more like a pilot for a show introducing its characters than a movie. For example, in the book Holly is a vivacious character and leader of her people. She goes up against Artemis who is the villain and outsmarts him in many ways. Here, she is stuck in a cage the entire time talking with nothing to do or say.

If I was running Disney+ I would be concerned; with releases like Artemis Fowl they are in danger of appearing as Disney’s garbage bin. I have enjoyed films like Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made but they haven’t made much of a cultural impact. Artemis Fowl (being a YA franchise that readers love) has that potential and it could leave subscribers with a bad taste in their mouth. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t work as a film and most of the blame falls on the weak script and choppy editing. It’s simply a big, bland miss.

My recommendation is to watch one of the Disney Classics on Disney+ such as Pinocchio (1940) instead. That would be a far better use of your time.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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REVIEW: My Hindu Friend

Rock Salt Releasing
Rated: Unrated
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Hector Babenco

My Hindu Friend is Brazilian drama film, directed and written by Hector Babenco, starring Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello and Reynaldo Gianecchini.

This film was made back in 2015, but due to the director’s passing directly after the premiere, it is only now being released this year. The reason why is likely due to the film being based on the director’s personal experiences. His stand-in character is Diego played by Dafoe who is diagnosed with cancer. While he is hospitalized, he meets and befriends another patient, a Hindu 8-year-old boy who is also battling his own sickness.

Brazilian filmmaker Babenco directed many films over the course of 40+ years. His most famous film is Kiss of the Spider Woman for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director—the first Latin American to be nominated in that category. This film is meant to be his swan song, and for that this film is fairly poetic. The film documents his real-life battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his subsequent bone marrow transplant.

The Characters

At the beginning of the movie, Diego learns that his cancer has spread to his lungs and his doctor advises that he gets a bone marrow transplant. Undoubtedly, the shared sentiment with most cancer patients, Diego wants to live. The film then becomes an autobiographical series of snapshots including a wedding between Diego and his supporting partner, Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido). The film then goes through every grueling step of treating Diego’s cancer: chemotherapy, removal of bone marrow samples, comatose nights that include visions of a mysterious otherworldly character. In an extremely meta way, Diego lets his passion for cinema and his friendship with the young Hindu boy (Rio Adlakha) give him a reason to live again, but it ends up being more difficult than he thought.

Willem Dafoe and Maria Fernanda Cândido in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Dafoe as Diego is mesmerizing as he is able to make the audience care for him and hate him at the same time. Diego is indifferent to the world and is miserable to his wife. He constantly accuses her of having affairs but expects her to be there for him when he can’t handle the pain anymore; however, because of the circumstances and Dafoe’s brilliant acting, audience members never hate him too much. Viewers understand that he’s in mortal fear of his life and he’s angry. Each scene feels very natural and realistic, and any viewer can feel the despair happening in this movie. Candido, as his dutiful partner, is also quite good, and her character’s relationship with Diego is the powerhouse point of the film.

The Flaws

The film really struggles with its balance between the serious aspects and outrageous aspects; the latter can really affect the viewing experience as they are so odd that they feel completely different from the prior scenes. They are there to be Diego’s hallucinations, but the transitions between them and real life feel really abrupt. The title of the film feels a little off since the interactions between Diego and the little Hindu boy are limited in comparison to those outside of the hospital. This may have been purposefully done; however, given the amount of hallucinations and the title of the film, it is not too clear on why it was done. The film does drag on a little bit which may dissuade some viewers.

Willem Dafoe in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Overall

It is fairly interesting to see how this film essentially had Babenco analyzing himself and (given this film is his last) it ends up giving more sympathy to the man’s career. The beauty of this film is in the small moments of this procedure where the audience gets to see the feelings of the characters. That is where Dafoe is perhaps at his best. This is another film in his resume that shows he is one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actors. This film may not be perfect and it is odd at times but it is very touching when it tackles themes of mortality and rediscovering life. This film is definitely worth checking out as it is a rather surreal experience that allows the viewer to see how Babenco confronts death. It is now on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Lovebirds

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter

Did you know that lovebirds are actually a species of parrot? I accidentally discovered this while doing research for this review, and I am fascinated. I learned that if you want one as a pet, it’s recommended that you only get one rather than a pair. Why just one lovebird, you ask? Because they will breed you out of house and home if you have two. Like it or not, the loving will never stop; it’s like a lifelong “honeymoon stage” that can spread parrots faster than handshaking can spread coronavirus (*not a real medical fact; please wash your hands). Also, lovebirds usually don’t talk like other parrots do; just as the humans we refer to as lovebirds don’t spend much time talking either, as their mouths are usually occupied with other activities. Also, their scientific name is “Agapornis.” So many facts, so many jokes, so little time… The good news is that The Lovebirds is funnier than I am.

The Lovebirds follows Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), a couple traversing the highs and lows of love-life when they are carjacked and become witnesses (and sort-of abettors) to a murder. As they try to exonerate themselves by solving the ensuing mystery and simultaneously avoiding the authorities, they end up in some pretty wild and hilarious situations, my favorite of which includes a unicorn hoodie. Much of the humor is due to the couple’s dynamics and their inexperience in crime-fighting/crime-solving, which was reminiscent of Date Night (2010) with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. The Lovebirds is raunchier and targets a younger audience and features the cult from Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but it’s still difficult not to compare the two. Suffice it to say that if you enjoyed one then you’ll probably enjoy the other, as the same sort of shenanigans take place.

The reason you should see this movie is the hilarious duo that is Rae and Nanjiani; though both are comedic stars in their own right, whoever teamed them up deserves brownie points. Their chemistry is near perfection, as is their comedic give-and-take as their characters embark on their hilarious misadventure. In addition to their comedic chops, both Rae and Nanjiani nail the ups and downs of real relationships, complete with brutal honesty; you can feel the burn from your couch. Also, I have to add that the Amazing Race scene is absolutely hilarious. I love the tie-in so much and would actually love to see the couple team up on my favorite reality TV show.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in a scene of The Lovebirds | NETFLIX

There’s not too much to complain about; the movie started out strong, with timely jokes and excellent performances. It did become less entertaining after the halfway point, but I can’t decide if outrageousness fatigue or predictable plot points is the culprit. Despite a slower third act that lost the spark a bit, the movie is only 90 minutes, so it’s not likely you’ll get bored amidst interrogations, glass-smashings, and the bickering banter of talented leads.

Paramount was supposed to release The Lovebirds to theaters back in April, so you may have seen the trailer for it in February (as I did). But thanks to the pandemic it was pulled from the schedule and sold to Netflix, who released it on their streaming service just this weekend. I would have gone to see this in theaters just from watching the trailer, but I was glad to see it on Netflix with family and happy Huskies. It’s funny and fresh, so barring sensitivities to profanity, there is little reason not to give this comedy a gander very soon. It is almost certain to make you laugh.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: True History of the Kelly Gang

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel

When a film titled True History begins by telling you that nothing you’re about to see is true, you brace yourself for what comes next. Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger and Australian legend, apparently said that a man should write his own history and thus the True History of the Kelly Gang was born.

Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, True History is faithful in the intent to explore Ned Kelly’s life and the personal and political motivations that inspired his defiance to British colonialism. The approach of both projects is what separates myth from reality. Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) bathes this film in ugliness, and cinematographer Ari Wegner juxtaposes what transpires on screen with beautiful color and dream-like landscapes that can only be provided by the Australian wilderness. Combine those visuals with an almost UK punk aesthetic and you get a movie that’s as divisive as its subject matter. Think Guy Ritchie by way of The Revenant.

There were many moments I failed to understand the significance of what I was seeing. I don’t know Australian history, though a few minutes on Wikipedia and Google will get anyone up to speed on “facts.” As I watched True History I couldn’t help but think that there is a cultural significance to the project that I could possibly never appreciate; the most notable example I can think of is Black Panther. As universally accepted as that film has been, there is a cultural level to it that many of its admirers cannot know. I get the impression that True History is much of the same. I have no doubt it hits on different levels depending on Australian politics and ancestry. There’s plenty I can say about the face value of the film. The acting is great and it’s a technically superb and creative movie. I also know there is a deeper context.

George McKay appears in a scene of True History of the Kelly Gang | IFC Films

I haven’t decided if the film is worth the extracurricular activity needed to fully appreciate it. Perhaps reading the novel or an Internet history lesson will be enough for you; if so, do it before you watch. True History is an ugly film that goes out of its way to bring you the harshness of life in the bush. It explores violence and masculinity in a way that might make some uncomfortable. Though I now have a better understanding of what the project explores, I have no desire to watch it again. I realize that both the novel and the film are a deconstruction of Ned Kelly’s legend. I also realize that there are pieces to the puzzle that I may never be able to fill in on my own.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: The Wrong Missy

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Tyler Spindel

At what point do you stop blaming others for the unreasonable expectations that you have placed on them? This is where I currently find myself with Happy Madison Productions—the production studio founded by Adam Sandler, and that brought you comedy classics like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. (I hope you can recognize my sarcasm)…

Happy Madison Productions (HMP) is an enigma in Hollywood. Its existence is a testament to the notion that there really is an audience for every movie (audience size being negligible). The ‘Paul Blart’ movies just felt like a low point for the production studio, for Kevin James, for myself for watching them, and just for the whole world in general—but these movies somehow continue to make money, and I somehow still feel interested any time they release a new comedy. I don’t consider myself masochistic in the least bit, but I’m not sure how else to explain this bizarre sense of hope I feel with new Happy Madison movies, knowing full well that I’m not going to enjoy them.

Adam Sandler invested in himself and in his career dreams, and it’s safe to say that his return on investment has paid off and continues to do so. Now, my intention is not to come off as a “hater.” I never want to disparage anyone from liking the type of movies they like. No one should feel guilty for liking any HMP movie. To prove that I’m serious, here is a (small) list of the HMP movies that I genuinely do enjoy: 50 First Dates, Bedtime Stories, Grown Ups, and Murder Mystery.

The Wrong Missy is the latest comedy movie produced by HMP. The film stars David Spade and Lauren Lapkus, and is directed by Tyler Spindel. This is the second Netflix Original movie directed by Spindel while also starring Spade. They first teamed up for the 2018 movie, Father of the Year. The Wrong Missy tells the story of Tim Morris (David Spade), a man spurred by love lost and betrayal of past relationships. After a blind-date gone very bad with Melissa or ‘Missy’ (Lauren Lapkus), Tim has decided that if he is destined to find love, love will find him. While at the airport catching a flight for a business trip, Tim runs into another traveler, Melissa (Molly Sims) and accidentally swaps bags. This mixup causes both individuals to miss their flight, and end up together sharing a (non-alcoholic) drink at a bar. The pair hit it off instantly and Tim believes that love has found him once more. They exchange some kisses and their phone numbers fully expecting to see each other again.

David Spade and Lauren Lapkus in a scene of The Wrong Missy | NETFLIX

But what could go wrong with having two phone numbers from two different Melissas stored in your phone? Apparently, A LOT. Not that anyone has actually every texted the wrong person on accident…I mean that never happens, am I right? So as Tim plans for his big company retreat in Hawaii, his friend Nate (Nick Swardson) convinces Tim to invite Melissa, but “The Wrong Missy” shows up at the airport and accompanies Tim on this work trip in paradise instead.

The story is full of familiar relationship tropes, and quirky circumstances that make for an easy watch. David Spade’s character is fairly sympathetic, and one you can’t help but root for. This movie had all the potential for an easy watching rom-com that would have had mass appeal, especially for a Netflix Original. But alas, this is a Happy Madison Production, and vulgarity, stupidity, and laziness all have to be at the core of their movies, and The Wrong Melissa is no exception. Lauren Lapkus has the chops to be a good comedic actress. She was pretty good in Between the Two Ferns: The Movie, and she has flashes of comedic talent in this movie, but the overuse of sexual obsession, and no regard for any type of social behavioral norms will just leave you rolling your eyes more than laughing.

Spade (like Adam Sandler) is a very specific kind of comedy actor, and most definitely has his fans. His character is straightforward, and plays like most every other character he’s played in other movies. It just really frustrates me that he continues to star in these kinds of movies, when I truly believe that he has the ability and the opportunity to break out of the mold. But if this is the mold that he enjoys, maybe these are the movies that he will always be destined for.

The Wrong Missy has its moments of charm and laughs, but ultimately is hindered by literally everything else this movie does to try to be edgy and irreverent. I know that this movie will appeal to life-long Spade fans, and fans of Happy Madison Productions. But for me, I’m left wondering why I still hold out hope for these movies.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Capone

Vertical Entertainment
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Josh Trank

First off, I haven’t been more uncertain as to what the actual title for a movie is since the Tom Cruise-alien combat-version of Groundhog Day. Once and for all, is it Fonzo or Capone?! Feel free to weigh in. 

In any case, the common usage of the first or last name of the lead character in a title seems to be an attempt (however feeble) to reel people into a juicy biopic. Between that and the expectation of an intricate and spectacular performance from Tom Hardy, I have to say, it caught my attention. 

Whether you love Tom Hardy or think he’s overrated, I think you’d have to admit that he inhibits a uniquely infectious brand that makes any movie or T.V. show he’s associated with 10 times more anticipated by general audiences. But here’s my opinion: I think he’s talented. I’m a huge Hardy fan; from watching Bronson as a teen discovering independent films, to his blood pumping action sequences in Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, and his truly Oscar-worthy performances in The Revenant and Locke. I think for many cinephiles, Tom Hardy’s name and face slapped onto a biopic is enough to bring in open hearts and minds to what would likely be a great film with a great lead performance. 

Enter Josh Trank: Director, Writer and Editor.

Aside from nailing a solid lead actor (I guess they’re actually close friends), I really was excited to give Trank a chance with this film. We were all ready to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really wasn’t to blame for the critical and financial atomic bomb that was Fantastic Four; maybe it really was just studio interference. Unfortunately, he just might not be a talented director, and he certainly shouldn’t be editing or writing. A big problem is that from the top, he chose a period in a “true story” that really just didn’t have a lot to work with. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

Now there’s plenty of movies that can and have been made with someone as infamous as Al Capone playing or inspiring some sort of role; whether that’s as a main character, a co-star (as in The Untouchables), or even just referenced to (as in Scarface, Road to Perdition, even the likes of The Godfather).

Trank chose to base a near two-hour movie around Capone’s life—post the gangs, guns, and criminal glory. Even past the fall from said glory and his imprisonment due to tax evasion. The film takes place just after he’s released from prison, is mentally and physically deteriorating from disease, and is living out the rest of his life on a quiet, private manor in Florida.   

From there, it has all of the depressing elements of a central figure delving into dementia, along with all of the incontinence you’d ever need in a movie without any meaningful point to be cemented, though attempts were made. 

To Trank’s credit, I understand what kind of perspective he was trying to give the audience of this villainous, all-powerful mob boss we’ve come to know through pop culture. 

I think Trank was trying to help us empathize with the vulnerable, unbearably mortal side of a once ruthless giant. We watch the post-golden era of a king that’s lost his throne, and witness his slow and steady erosion. There’s an element of him regretting his innocence lost, as well as violent and irresponsible decisions he has made in the name of good business (all shown in flashbacks or hallucinations, or maybe both). Old Capone is trying to hold a grasp of authority and relevance, but age and sickness have left him without any devices. And no, I don’t mean to poke at this being a metaphor for Trank’s career, but there are some unfortunate parallels. 

There’s also a potentially interesting subplot of the feds trying to get whatever they can out of Capone’s last days. But every one of these potentially lifesaving elements aren’t explored in-depth enough to make the film have any sort of an impact. And the crazy thing is that none of those underwhelming elements are grounded in facts (not even the incontinence). If you’re going to puff up a true story with your own plot points, make them good—make them engage the audience. The film isn’t concerned with developing those areas, but instead is more concerned with having you watch Tom Hardy be versatile. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

To be fair, Hardy does great with what he’s been given. The best part of this movie is his performance, whether wholly accurate to the historical figure or not. But there’s a moment where you get a glimpse of what he looked like as Capone in his hay day and that is the movie I really want. Tom Hardy is too much in his prime to be taking roles that have to make so much out of an old, decrepit, terminally-ill vegetable. He needs to be swinging a bat and making spontaneous, intimidating monologues like De Niro in The Untouchables. I’m not saying we need a literal remake, but it’s been enough time since  an actual Al Capone movie featuring him as we think we’ve come to know him. And with the likes of Tom Hardy in the lead role? I’m convinced that something great, if not entertaining, could have been done here. 

Instead we got some semblance of a fading personality for the first 30 minutes. Then you get a beating corpse for an hour. Of course, there’s a respect for Hardy’s commitment to the unique role, but Daniel Day Lewis couldn’t have saved this movie.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to take a derivative from your common gangster movie formula, and show this kind of unsung final chapter to a life of crime. But again there wasn’t enough to work with, and you’re left staring at a man who’s staring at nothing for the length of the movie. If they wanted to keep with the unique change in tone, they could’ve started with Capone going to prison, then we could get the actual fall and the aftermath. The content of the 100 minutes of screen time could’ve been reduced to a 10 or 20 minute epilogue in a more holistic approach, and it would’ve been far more impactful because you’d lose the fluff!

Bear with me while I spurt out my imaginings of a better film that would accomplish the same thing: There’s 11 years of him in prison that hasn’t been (recently) put to screen. You could explore the celebrity welcome he got at the Atlanta and Alcatraz prisons and his subsequent manner of living. You could show him still trying to run his failing business from behind bars, and the disarrayed reactions to prohibition ending and his purpose becoming null. Leading right up to the ending Capone offers, you can see how his demeanor went from that of a titan to a debilitated wreck. All in all, I’d be more than interested in seeing that flick with Tom Hardy.

Alas, I need to accept that just wasn’t the movie we got. Where credit is due: the original score was interesting enough, and the backdrop and much of the cinematography was well done. 

Lastly, I’ll just mention one thing about the editing. In every conversation, it feels like the camera has attention issues constantly cutting back and forth from close ups of one character to another. I think he’s trying to show subtle details in the acting (that aren’t actually there) as one speaks and one listens. Honestly, if you want to catch the dramatics in the dialogue, just use a wider angle with both characters in the shot. And let your actors act. That’s pretty “backseat” of me to say, but we don’t claim to be anything else!

Let us know if you have outlying questions or if you agree or disagree with this review in the comments below!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Valley Girl

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg

My Rating: 6.5/10

As a critic I always try to divorce my movie-watching experience from the film I am watching. For example, it is not fair to fault a film being bad if I am in an unusually bad mood, or for it to be boring if I am unusually tired, etc; however, sometimes such objectivity is impossible as I am human and my viewing experience impacts my overall experience. Such may prove to be the case with the new remake of Valley Girl—although, I will try to be as objective as possible.

Valley Girl (2020) ended up being the first new movie I have seen in a theater environment for several months since the Coronavirus quarantine began. I watched it at my local drive-in movie theater called the Redwood Drive-in Theatre. I’ve been to this theater before but it had been a while as it is a bit of a drive from my home.

There are pluses and minuses to seeing a movie at the drive-in; but as the only option available, it was refreshing to see a new movie on some kind of big screen! Since I am on a strict no-salt diet right now I didn’t have my usual popcorn, but I had snacks and turned my FM radio to the correct station, and watched my movie to my heart’s content. It was great!

So how about the actual movie: it is not perfect but overall I had a good time with Valley Girl. The original with Nicolas Cage is also a lot of fun but not a nostalgic favorite of mine. I don’t know what people who are super attached to it will think, but I think the decision to make the film a musical was inspired. Overall it was a bubbly, effervescent, fun film with a very likable leading presence from Jessica Rothe.

Chloe Bennet, Jessica Rothe, Ashleigh Murray and Jessie Ennis in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

In the film Alicia Silverstone plays an older Julie Richman (Jessica Rothe), narrating her life experiences to her daughter. In particular, she tells the story of when she fell in love with the bad boy from the other side of town named Randy (Josh Whitehouse). Her preppy friends don’t understand her decision nor do her parents (played by Judy Greer and Rob Huebel).

Valley Girl is a high school love story so it plays out as you would expect, and that is fine. What sets this film apart (and what will probably be divisive) is their choice to make it a jukebox musical. In fact, the official soundtrack of Valley Girl has over 20 numbers on it. I’m a very easy sell when it comes to musicals and this had me sold. The musical numbers are bright, fun and full of energy.

The downside to Valley Girl is the acting. While Rothe is good, most of the other performances (particularly YouTuber Logan Paul as her evil ex-boyfriend) leave something to be desired. I was hoping he would only be a cameo but he has a good number of lines and he delivers them like the amateur he is. Whitehouse is also pretty bland and uninteresting as our male lead. He certainly ain’t anything close to Nicholas Cage, but who is?

Jessica Rothe and Josh Whitehouse in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

Mae Whitman also appears as Whitehouse’s rebellious sister Jack, and she’s great as usual. I would just like Hollywood to start casting her in more adult roles outside of these kinds of high school films—she’s a great actress and she deserves it.

Nevertheless, Valley Girl is filmed with a lot of energy and personality by director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. I enjoyed Rothe in the lead, the 80’s fashion and sensibilities, and the fun musical numbers. That’s certainly enough for me to give it a recommendation. Plus, if you can see it in a drive-in near you GO! You’ll have a blast. At least I did!

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Here’s a look at my drive-in experience and actually seeing a new movie during the Coronavirus pandemic!

REVIEW: Bad Education

HBO
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Cory Finley

 I am at a point in my life where if I see Hugh Jackman attached to any film then that alone gives me immediate incentive to watch that movie.  He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest and diverse actors around today, so seeing him in a new movie was exciting. Luckily, I have HBO, so once I actually remembered that Bad Education was out, I quickly fired it up.

 One thing this movie has going for it is its spectacular use of writing to increase tension and give us insights into the characters. For the first twenty minutes or so, I was worried that I would find this show dull and uninteresting. But the tension kept rising and rising, and the characters kept getting more compelling until, by the end, I was on the edge of my seat! (Well…bean bag).

 I’ve seen many reviews calling this film the best performance of Hugh Jackman’s career. While the performance was excellent, I don’t think the role was dynamic enough to label it as his best. For that honor, I’ll steer you towards his performance as Tomás/Thomas/Tommy in The Fountain or as Wolverine in Logan. However, what this performance did give us was a truly three-dimensional look at what could have easily been a flat character. It’s a testament to how fantastic the writing is in this film. Jackman’s character could very easily come off as sleazy, callous, and selfish. Instead, we are confronted with a man who truly believes that spending the school’s money in order to give the appearance of financial affluence is the right thing, and would ultimately be beneficial for the progress of the school and the students as well. Allison Janney also gives a great performance in this film as well— although her character comes off less rounded than Jackman’s.

I will always champion well-written movies, and the writing for this film is its greatest strength. It elevates a story and characters that with a lesser script would be reduced for a very slow and dull story. Instead, it makes for a very compelling drama with empathetic characters. If you have HBO, or know someone who will lend you their password, give this movie a chance!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: 18 Presents

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 115 minutes
Director: Francesco Amato

I have never been to Italy nor lost a close family relative to a terminal illness, but I do have a mother and, like her, I am a crier. Watching 18 Presents accompanied by my mother late at night on Mother’s Day was a recipe for disaster, especially when the real-life inspiration for the film is revealed. If you’re looking for something to turn your tear ducts into sprinklers and don’t mind reading subtitles, you’ve come to the right place.

The premise is this: Elisa (played by Italian actress Vittoria Puccini) is pregnant with a baby girl when she finds out that she has terminal cancer. Knowing that the progression of the illness would likely result in her dying during the child’s infancy, the mother-to-be decides to buy her unborn child 18 presents: one for every birthday until she becomes an adult. Sure, it might be hard to shop for someone you’ve never met, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Apparently not. Her now grown daughter, Anna (Italian actress Benedetta Porcaroli), actually hates these gifts from her mother, and her dad has to force her to open them, even as early as her 5th birthday. By 18, Anna has become a Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice) look-a-like with a far worse attitude and talent for self-destruction. I literally hated her. In the notes I made while watching the film, I wrote, “There is just no redeeming this character.” The biggest compliment I can give 18 Presents is that it proved me wrong: by the end, I forgave Anna, and couldn’t find it in me to hate her even the slightest. I remain impressed by this unexpected redemption. 

As the plot progresses, and thanks to some extraordinary circumstances, Anna gets to meet her mother and relive the last few months of her life beside her. Thus, there are plenty of scenes of mother and daughter interacting whilst simultaneously longing for a past/future that will never occur. These moments are genuinely sweet and get you right in the feels. The ending had me sending twin waterfalls down my cheeks, not unlike the emoji titled “loudly crying face 😭” (though it should be noted that my tears were silently dignified and not noisy). 

Vittoria Puccini and Benedetta Porcaroli in a scene of 18 Presents | NETFLIX

My quibbles are petty, but still I will quibble. First, I felt like Italy was another planet, or at least a world the Kardashians would find more relatable than I would. For instance, what would you do if you accidentally locked yourself out of your house? When I was growing up, that meant my Mom busted out the crowbar and boosted me through one of the windows so I could get in and unlock the door from the inside. I guess that makes me a trashy American, because this film would have you believe that the only sensible thing to do when locked out is rent a penthouse for the night, complete with a pool, and simply wait until morning to call a locksmith. Second, when Elisa is in her cancer support group, her suggestion of buying eighteen gifts for her unborn daughter is met with awkward silence and sideways glances (while other members are discussing their sexual promiscuity and whether they should have their cremated ashes converted into diamonds). In fact, everybody acts like the idea of a mother trying to substitute her presence with presents for her daughter’s birthdays is insane and awful. At one point it’s suggested that Anna is unfairly burdened by these gifts from her dead mother. I guess that’s just how the other half lives; burdened by too many gifts and slumming it in penthouses. It made me feel sorry for Italians.

18 Presents is the brain-child of daytime soap opera and Hallmark with an affinity for the F-word and cigarettes. Though it has its virtues, I have a hard time universally recommending a tear-jerker unless it is almost above reproach. This movie has its audience, and cry-fests are necessary evils in their time and season, but it lacks any “must-see” qualities. Considering how hard it is these days to acquire tissues, maybe go with something on Sam Cooley’sUltimate Feel-Good Movie list” instead. 

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Tigertail

NETFLIX
Rated: PG
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alan Yang

May is a special month for me as it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Essentially, it’s a time to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian-Americans towards the United States. When deciding on what film I wanted to review in May I tried to keep this special month in mind, and luckily Netflix had the hookup with their release of the film Tigertail. Directed by Alan Yang, who worked on the fantastic Netflix show Master of None, Tigertail tells the story of Pin-Jui: starting with his childhood in Taiwan and leading to his adulthood as an American immigrant. 

As a young man Pin-Jui has big dreams. He works the rice fields making a meager wage and longs to live a life where he no longer has to worry about his financial situation, and so he can retire and take care of his mother. This desire leads him to accept his boss’s offer of an arranged marriage and also a chance at a new life in New York City. But this comes at a cost as he must leave all he knows behind—including his childhood love, Yuan.

Tigertail’s story structure bounces between Pin-Jui’s past life and his present. When the story takes place in the past the color palette of the film pertains rich, strong hues, while the present is desaturated and dull; the sets also have a very distinct look for each time period. However, the structure hamstrings the film—I ended up confused as to where the film was taking place, and it becomes further complicated as the present storyline is shared with Pin-Jui’s daughter Angela (played by Christine Ko), and shares her strained relationship with her father and fiancé.

Christine Ko and Tzi Ma in a scene of Tigertail |NETFLIX

Pin-Jui is a deeply flawed character (which I admired), and when he told his daughter that “crying is for the weak” it struck me to the core: he isn’t a cruel character but rather a tragic one. He sacrificed all he loved to chase the American Dream, something that he thought would solve his problems, but the cost of that dream is in the emotional consequences. Pin-Jui is played by the excellent Tzi Ma and I could really feel his struggles. He lets you see someone who’s been taught to keep his emotions bottled up and when he finally tries to let them out he fumbles so hard it’s difficult to watch—it reminded me a lot of my own father.

Despite my issues with the film’s editing and pacing, the story was something I very strongly resonated with; being the son of Asian immigrants, there was a lot I could reflect back on. When I was younger I always thought my parents were too hard on me, and they always pushed me so hard to succeed to the point where I would be incredibly frustrated. Looking back and reflecting after watching this film I understand why they pushed me so much: they simply didn’t want me to struggle and suffer like they did when they were younger. Tigertail is a wonderful story about the cost of starting a new life and the pain of leaving your life behind to start something new. It is an introspective film and a very personal act of love, showing how important it is to honor and respect those that sacrifice what they hold dear so that the next generation can succeed.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Horse Girl

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Jeff Baena

My recent run of movies that I’ve chosen to review have been, in a word, torturous. The continuation of movie theater closures during the Coronavirus pandemic has kept our choice of new movies very limited. Netflix seems to have been totally unaffected with releasing new movies in 2020. Their audience is already built in with over 100 million subscribers tuning into their Netflix Original content. Of course, their new movie and T.V. series productions have been impacted, but that is new content for 2021.

Netflix is such a fascinating, modern studio that I hope one day goes full meta and makes a docu-series of itself. “Netflix Presents: The Making of Netflix, a Netflix Original.” They’ve completely changed the game as it relates to how we consume our video content. They’ve disrupted the “norm” of the old Hollywood guard, and the industry will never be the same. Netflix has given opportunity to up-and-coming filmmakers, producers, writers, etc. that otherwise would not have that same opportunity when dealing with the larger movie studios. And with the risk-taking approach that has built Netflix into the giant that it is, comes the tares mixed in with the wheat.

I came across Horse Girl while browsing new content on Netflix. Nothing about it seemed remarkable, but this was a new movie released in 2020, and at the time, that was enough of a reason for me to watch it. At first glance, the only actor I recognized in the movie was Molly Shannon (a SNL staple during my adolescence) but after a little research I realized that I was familiar with some of the work that the lead actress, Alison Brie, had done (The Disaster Artist, The Post, The Lego Movie 2). Brie co-wrote the script for Horse Girl along with Director, Jeff Baena, and the film was screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Baena and Brie also worked together on The Little Hours which debuted back in 2017. Unfortunately, after watching Horse Girl, any new project with Baena and Brie’s names attached to it is something I will likley avoid.

Horse Girl tells the story of a socially awkward and isolated woman named Sarah, who continually loses her grip on reality. Sarah has been deeply affected by her mother’s suicide the year before, and the loss of her horse to new owners. She spends her time between her job at a crafts store, and watching a supernatural crime show. Even with the help of her roommate, Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) who sets Sarah up on a date and encourages her to be more social, Sarah continues to plunge deeper and deeper into a schizophrenic state.

Alison Brie in a scene of Horse Girl | NETFLIX

A series of very bizarre events, that leave me struggling for words to even attempt to explain, intensify as the film goes on. Events that make you wonder what the writers were thinking or experiencing that made them come to the conclusion that these were good ideas and something people would want to see in a film. In all honesty, I really struggled to even get through the film. I’ve never experienced the use of psychedelic drugs, so it’s unfair for me to compare the experience I had while watching this movie, but other explanations seem to be lacking. From bizarre fantasy sex scenes, to dreams of random strangers and then seeing those strangers in real life, to alien abductions, the movie seems to have the tools to be an interesting story, and somewhat engaging film, but will end up leaving you completely dazed and confused as to what this movie even is.

In all good conscience I cannot recommend this movie in the least bit. There are so many other new Netflix Originals that are worth your time (see: Spencer Confidential or Extraction), that Horse Girl should be the last thing you consider turning on before exploring other options.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Wendy

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rate: PG-13
Run Time: 112 minutes
Director: Benh Zeitlin

 Back in the “before Coronavirus times,” Wendy was the latest movie I had planned on seeing. The story of Peter Pan—like Robin Hood or Batman—is a story that Hollywood seemingly thinks needs to be told over and over again, every five to ten years or so. After the fever dream that was Pan (2015), I was convinced that there was nothing any movie could do that would revitalize my interest in the story. 

 Then I saw the trailer for Wendy. It was a new setting, an unknown cast, a more artsy feel, a more modern time period, and a new focus on Wendy. I was [H]ooked. (Haha, see what I did there?) 

 Then the theaters shut down, and after months of mourning my loss I realized Wendy could be streamed via Amazon and iTunes. So I settled into my beanbag and fired it up. And well… I was underwhelmed.

The Setting

Instead of taking place in Edwardian England, the story is set in the deep South of the United States, a little closer to our own time. Instead of Peter flying and listening to stories at Wendy’s window, he is aboard a “haunted” train that travels right next to the Darlings’ home and restaurant. Neverland is an island that they can travel to by boat. It takes the more whimsical parts of the classic story and makes it feel more grounded and realistic.  You would think that the Rural South and the lush island of Neverland would lead to some gorgeous cinematography, but I found it really uninspired.

Magic?

Near the beginning of the film you would assume that this movie would be an almost entirely grounded story with none of the fantastical elements of the original Peter Pan. There’s no flying, no Tinker Bell, no offensive stereotypes of Native Americans, and no mermaids; everything seems to be grounded in our reality. However, once they arrive in Neverland, they in fact do discover that no one grows old there because of a magical glowing whale/fish that lives in the ocean, which Peter calls “the Mother.” 

Not only do the children not age, but it is revealed that the children who allow negative or mature thoughts to enter into their minds age rapidly. These elderly lost boys and girls, whom Peter call “the Olds” live on the other, less lush, side of the island.

It’s really confusing that a movie that starts out so grounded in our reality will suddenly have an unexplained magical phenomenon that wasn’t part of the original lore, and even abandons key parts of that lore.  Tinker Bell and the ability to fly were not only the highlights of the original stage play, but also highlights of most of the movies after it. Heck, Tinker Bell is even integrated into the Disney logo (She’s the spark that flies over the Disney Castle)! It seems super weird that Wendy would ignore two of the most integral parts of the Peter Pan mythos. 

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Devin France, from left, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in a scene from the film Wendy | Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Characters

I had really hoped that the more realistic nature of the film would allow for more intimate connections with the characters—especially Peter and Wendy. Sadly though, all of the characters’ motivations are really vague and don’t let us connect or emphasize with them at all. What makes it even more frustrating is that the script lays all the groundwork for a really profound look at the way children view, understand, and process growing into adulthood. But the film never delivers on what it promises. We are left with the standard “I don’t want to grow up” line and are expected to be satisfied with that. Peter Pan (2003) (which I believe is the best film adaption) gives the explanation that the kids didn’t want to grow up because it meant having to conform to societal norms and lose a part of their identity. Wendy gives us hints that all the adults in children’s lives  seem poor and overworked, but on the other hand, they were loved by their parents. There was no inciting conflict between the Darling children and their mother to give them a reason to leave with Peter. (Side tangent, taking the Darling father out of the narrative also disrupts the symbolic themes of the story since the father and Captain Hook are meant to be shadows of each other, often portrayed by the same actors on stage and on screen.) 

There is also a weird power struggle between Wendy and Peter that I would have liked to have seen more fully fleshed out. In other versions, Peter either looks up to Wendy and defers to her as a motherly figure, or as a love interest. In this version, the age difference between the two is more drastic, and they seem to struggle for leadership over the lost boys. There’s one moment where I thought Peter was going to show the cruel streak that he exhibits in the novel, but then the moment passes. None of the lost boys are particularly interesting either.

One positive aspect that the film does bring to the characters is the relationship between Peter, Wendy, and the character who eventually becomes Captain Hook. The events, actions, and emotions that lead up to the characters taking on their more iconic roles was the best part of the film for me. However, this only constitutes the third act of the movie and also drastically impacts the main characters’ home lives, but the movie completely ignores it. 

Final Thoughts

I really wanted to like Wendy. I really thought it could bring something fresh and new to a story that people keep bringing back. We’ve seen so many different incarnations and this one actually looked like it could stand out. Sadly, it was just as forgettable as most others. It looks like we might have to wait until some horror director discovers Gerald Brom’s The Child Thief , or Disney cashes in on Peter and the Starcatchers before we get another truly unique and good Peter Pan adaptation.

It feels like the writer had the setting and the dynamic between Wendy, Peter, and Hook in the forefront of his mind when penning this film, but didn’t know how to fill in the space around it. What we are left with is a reimagining that changes or subtracts everything that made the original not only iconic, but also narratively and symbolically cohesive and satisfying. It offers up some good ideas, but lacks the fairy dust to make it soar.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Guns Akimbo

Saban Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Jason Lei Howden

Every now and then I find myself contemplating on the child actors of certain movies that shaped my childhood—where they are now, and where their acting careers have led them. There have been certain occasions when I realize that a child actor in one of my favorite childhood movies actually never stopped acting, and had made quite the career for themselves. I think it was in 2007 with the release of No Country For Old Men that I realized this was the same Josh Brolin that played Brand in the 1985 classic The Goonies! And what a career Brolin has had, especially in the last decade. But what about some of those child actors that seem to have quietly disappeared even after starring in some of the most iconic movies that shaped us? This is the question that led me to watch Guns Akimbo, starring Daniel Radcliffe.

I had not heard a thing about this movie before watching it, and don’t be surprised if this is the first time you’ve heard of this movie either. Guns Akimbo had a limited release in U.S. theaters back in February of this year, just before the Coronavirus outbreak (it likely was not playing in a theater near you anyway). You can rent the movie on most digital movie platforms which is how I was able to find it. I came across the movie while searching for cheap digital movie sales on iTunes (yes, I love digital movies, so sue me!), and the vibrant yellow and purple poster with Daniel Radcliffe in the middle holding up two guns immediately grabbed my attention. That’s when the previous question about child actors popped into my head, “Where have you been, Daniel Radcliffe? What have you been up to all these years?” I had to get to the bottom of this, even if it cost me $6.99 for a rental.

… And I totally regret my decision.

Guns Akimbo takes place in the near future as society has continued to plunge itself into the ever deepening hole of smartphone and social media addiction. Radcliffe plays a computer coder named Miles who works for a game app company designed to swindle its users out of more and more money through addictive play and in-game purchases (think Candycrush). Miles lives alone, has no friends, and spends his free time online stalking his ex-girlfriend while pining for the past. There is a monotony to his life that many of us are likely able to relate to: we wish for more of our life only to find ourselves spending hours and hours wasting time mindlessly scrolling through the Internet. And just like Miles’ own place of work, there are others organizations in the film that are ready to take advantage of our smartphone zombie-like, vegetative state specifically through an illegal underground game called Skizm.

Daniel Radcliffe in a scene of Guns Akimbo | Saban Films

Skizm has achieved worldwide popularity through live-streaming actual death matches of willing participants. The organization has become so popular and operates under such secrecy that the authorities are struggling to shut them down. This is when we find Miles alone in his apartment, on his computer, trolling the viewers and participants of Skizm in a very relatable “holier-than-thou” moment. But Miles can’t stay hidden behind his Internet anonymity for long as the Skizm game-makers notice his trolling comments and decide to bring the death match game to him. Within minutes Miles’ apartment is broken into by some goons that look like they stepped out of a Mad Max movie. Miles is drugged, passes out, and wakes up the next morning with guns bolted to his hands, and is forced to play in a Skizm death match against top player, Nix (played by actress Samara Weaving). Everything up to this point in the movie felt somewhat promising. It felt like there were some decent narratives and social commentary setup that could be explored in a crazy, fictional way. Social media and smartphone addiction, trolling behavior online, our desensitization of violence, monotony of life while not feeling motivated to make any real changes—this really could have been an interesting way to explore these questions and issues. Unfortunately, the movie fails in every aspect to address these commentaries, and even fails to be remotely entertaining. Once Skizm begins and Miles is trapped in the game, the movie takes the viewer on a bloody, violent, reckless mayhem journey through the city without revisiting any of the aforementioned commentaries. The violence is absolutely senseless, the plot is incoherent, and the acting is so poor that I really struggled to even finish the movie. My policy with any movie I watch is once I start it I have to finish it, no matter what.  It’s been a long time since I was this tempted to turn a movie off and call it quits. 

I was also really disappointed with Samara Weaving’s performance.  She was genuinely great in the surprisingly good indie horror flick Ready or Not (2109), and I believe that she has the talent to be a very good actor, but maybe any actor would have struggled to be good in this movie and this screenplay.  And what about Daniel Radcliffe?  You might almost feel sorry for the guy after watching Guns Akimbo.  No actor had a brighter spotlight in the early 2000’s than Daniel Radcliffe did in the Harry Potter series.  I know he’s done a handful of movies in between this movie and the final Harry Potter movie, but after watching this film, I’m not at all inclined to search out any other Radcliffe-starred movies.

At this point you should not be surprised that my recommendation on this movie is 100% SKIP IT.  Save your money and your time, and watch literally anything other than Guns Akimbo.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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