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ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Malcolm & Marie

Editor’s note: Like all of the “Roundtable Reviews” we’ve done before, we chose a movie that has been getting a lot of buzz mixed with a lot of controversy. Malcolm & Marie features two of the hottest and most in demand actors in Hollywood, and puts them front and center in this intimate drama. This film might be Zendaya’s most rigorous role since shedding her Disney Channel shell, and John David Washington’s career is ever onward and upward. What can this man not do?

NETFLIX | Rated: R | Runtime: 106 minutes | Director: Sam Levinson

CJ Marshall: The Christmas episode of Euphoria should have prepared you for this project. Malcolm & Marie exists more as performance art than an actual film. It’s like a high budget “sponsor me” skate video. The end product has killer performances and a great soundtrack, but it has no purpose other than to showcase the formidable talent of its creative forces. They absolutely killed it on the technique angle. Zendaya has never looked or acted more mature and she wears it well. The uncomfortable (Euphoria’s trademark), voyeuristic vibe is contrasted with the constant nudging and winking of Levinson’s dialogue–the film engages in the very techniques and tropes that it seems to be critiquing. All of that would be more interesting if there were a point to be made. It’s conflict for the sake of conflict, dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and filmed–beautifully I might add–in black and white for the sake of black and white. In the spirit of this film I’ll offer up one of the more ubiquitous critiques: Malcolm & Marie insists upon itself.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: When the trailer for Malcolm & Marie dropped, you knew that the film would be about a relationship filled with both love-making and insults that might be similar to your average couple stuck together in quarantine. The film definitely hits each one of those checkboxes with each argument showing a deeper problematic layer in their relationship. The most obvious comparison for anyone to make is to 2019’s Marriage Story. While similar, that film is more about one man’s side of a divorce whereas this film is more of a power struggle between two people. From a stylistic perspective, Malcolm & Marie has a lot more compelling aspects when compared to Marriage Story, from beautiful cinematography, and great use of music to move the story along. The acting by Washington and Zendaya is on point in perhaps their best roles yet. While one may not enjoy argumentative relationship type movies (is that a genre now?)… this film has more to it than simply a display of that to enjoy time and time again. Full thoughts coming later on.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: Malcom and Marie claims to not be a love story, but “a story about love.” When I saw that phrasing in the trailer, my guard immediately went up. That seems to be code for “terrible people spend the runtime yelling at each other, and yet still claim they love each other.” When early reviews went up, my suspicions were confirmed. But, because of my love for Zendaya, I was determined to watch this movie. And I have to admit, it was incredibly well made. The staging and cinematography were great, and the acting was pretty incredible. Zendaya’s character had a monologue that literally left my jaw hanging off the floor. However, the relationship between the two titualar characters just felt so mean spirited and cruel to each other, that it left me feeling very uncomfortable and waiting for the film to end. But maybe that was the point of the movie…? I don’t know. It was a well crafted film, but in the end, it didn’t convince me that these two really cared about each other, nor that it was a “movie about love.” So it”s going be a “skip it” for me. However, it made me even more excited to see Zendaya in Dune coming out later this year!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: The Little Things

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: John Lee Hancock

“It’s the little things that are important. It’s the little things that get you caught.”

I don’t believe writer/director John Lee Hancock expected this line to have a meta element to it, yet here we are. I’ll yank the low hanging fruit out of the tree and say he should have followed his own advice. The little things are important in a film, especially in a murder mystery. It’s the lack of a little thing here or there that keeps The Little Things from being the major experience it should have been.

All of the elements are there on the presser kit. Hancock is a solid film maker and Denzel Washington is arguably the greatest actor of his era. Pairing them with talented thespians such as Rami Malek and Jared Leto should have been a winning play. Instead we get bases loaded and a full count heading into the end of the game. Oh yeah… and you’re down by one run. How you accept the film’s end is what will determine whether that last swing was a strikeout or the home run.

It’s not for lack of trying. The film is appropriately dreary and creepy, drenched in that Fincher-esque green tint that gives the film that icky serial killer vibe we’ve all appreciated since the seminal Se7en (and yes, I spell it that way because it earned it). Denzel gets to look and act his age while being a tortured soul to boot. He employs a physicality I haven’t seen in him before. His trademark swagger is buried under a mountain of regret and sleepless nights. Still, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Rami Malek is so pensive and understated in his role that he’s either given one of the great performances of his career, or he had no clue what he wanted to do with his character. I honestly can’t tell you which it is. Jared Leto came to party like he always does, and we all know that the only thing that stops Leto is a script. Saying anything further will spoil what awaits you.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in a scene of The Little Things | Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021.

I don’t know if I can recommend The Little Things as a theater experience. I think this one would go down smoother through HBO Max. If you’re a subscriber you’ve already paid for it anyway. I say that because I can say, without spoiling any plot points, that this movie isn’t what you think it’s going to be. The film defies expectation but doesn’t replace what you’re anticipating with a better alternative. It didn’t work for me because the characters aren’t given the opportunity to earn what Hancock is asking of the audience by the end of the film. It feels like a curveball when the moment called for some heat straight down the middle. 

It’s the little things that cost you the game.

The Little Things is showing in theaters where theaters are open, and is streaming on HBO Max.

Recommendation: Maybe a Matinee

REVIEW: Pieces of a Woman

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Kornél Mundruczó

We’re at that time of year when movie studios (COVID pandemic aside) begin to churn out what we movie fans like to call “Oscar-bait,” a movie that has the look and feel of an award worthy movie, and one you could easily be swayed into thinking is Oscar worthy. But before you take the bait, look beyond the shimmer and sheen of a movie that has all the tools to be special, and you’ll begin to see why these movies are usually passed over by the general public and long forgotten just weeks after their debut.

Still excited to read this review? FYI, I will be touching on minor spoilers, emphasis on minor.

Pieces of a Woman debuted in September 2020 at the Venice International Film Festival, and was picked up by Netflix for a limited theatrical release in December, then debuted streaming shortly thereafter. The movie stars Vanessa Kirby as Martha, who gave a particularly strong performance, Shia LaBeouf as Sean, and Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth (Martha’s mother). The premise of the movie surrounds the tragedy of Martha and Sean losing their baby during childbirth, and the subsequent relational struggles between the couple, and Martha and her mother.

The story is very compelling… at least parts of it are. I can’t think of many movies that have attempted to tackle such a personal and intimate tragedy such as this. And as I mentioned before, the performances are quite strong. Pieces of a Woman really highlighted Vanessa Kirby’s talents as an actress, more so than her more prominent roles in the two blockbuster action movies she co-starred in (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Hobbs & Shaw). But outside of the partly compelling story, and the well acted roles, I don’t have much good to say about this movie, and all of it hinges on the execution of what should have been a better movie.

Where Pieces of a Woman fails, is exactly where Oscar-bait, Marriage Story (2019) failed for me as well. In its attempt to tell a strong, moving story, the writer (Kata Wéber) fails to give the audience a purpose in experiencing this tragedy with her characters. I understand that some readers might think me naive, or unqualified to be talking about a movie that portrays a grieving mother who is attempting to deal with one of the worst tragedies a mother could ever experience… and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. But my criticisms lie solely with the purpose of the story, and the goal the writer/director was hoping to achieve. Because outside of watching a couple’s and family’s life fall apart in the most painful ways, why were we meant to suffer with them when there was no purpose to the suffering other than for suffering’s sake?

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in a scene of Pieces of a Woman | NETFLIX, 2020.

Martha and Sean’s decision to have an at-home birth conducted by a midwife was never explained, other than “just because.” Martha and Sean’s deep relationship issues, which clearly started long before the birth and death of their baby, are never mentioned. The beginning of the film depicts the existence of a loving and caring relationship between the two main characters, only for the movie to jump ahead and show how deeply broken these two individuals are. I would prefer to see their journey to that point instead of skipping the details on how and why many couples who lose a child end up getting a divorce after. There is too much fighting, too much yelling, too much pain without enough background or context to justify my subjection to this 2 hour movie. The film does make an attempt at some type of message of healing at the end, but the message fell flatter than Sean’s complete and unexpected disappearance half way through the movie.

If you want your audience to willingly suffer along with your characters you must provide a strong justification as to why they will. You must provide a story that can instill hope and optimism in the audience that not every couple that loses a child ends up separating; not every mother that loses a child succumbs to the crushing weight of that burden; not every life is destroyed when tragedy befalls it. Real life provides ample enough examples of that already. I don’t need reminding that the weight of life is nearly unbearable. I need encouragement that WE CAN bear it. Sadly, Pieces of a Woman is NOT that movie.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Ron Howard

Every now and then Netflix really surprises me. The good kind of surprises. Like a Christmas gift. You know… the kind that you’re hoping for, maybe even asked for, but not sure you’ll get. That was Hillbilly Elegy for me. Over the last few years Netflix has shown their ability to produce and distribute high quality films worthy of the big screen. Such films like ROMA, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or Mudbound. Netflix’s “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” strategy for their original content has created a bloated and overwhelming catalogue of both good and bad content. Most of their originals are very forgettable, things I would never consider watching twice (and regret even watching once). But I will give credit where credit is due, and all credit to Netflix for picking up the distribution rights to Hillbilly Elegy, and showing us the type of quality entertainment they are capable of providing.

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the 2016 best-selling memoir (of the same name) by J.D. Vance, which sold well over 3 million copies, and reached the New York Time’s Best Seller list twice. The movie was directed and co-produced by Ron Howard, and Vanessa Taylor adapted the screenplay. It stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, and Haley Bennett. Both Adams and Close give Oscar worthy performances in this movie. Some of the best of their careers.

I wasn’t familiar with J.D. Vance’s memoir, or the story behind the movie. And even after watching the trailer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the movie. It seemed like a regular family drama kind of film, but nothing to get me too excited. What really drew my interest to the movie, though, were Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Their character transformations were stunning, and for that reason alone I chose to sit down and spend two hours on this movie. And I’m so glad I did.

Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of a low working-class family from Jackson, Kentucky that picks up and moves to a small steel town in Ohio where J.D.’s grandparents live. J.D. is the younger of two siblings being raised by a single mom who is battling a serious drug addiction. The movie goes back and forth between J.D.’s life as a student at Yale Law School and his memories of growing up in a broken family. J.D.’s mom, Bev (played by Amy Adams) struggles to keep a steady job, or even a steady relationship due to her frequent substance abuse. Her personal instability leads to a very unstable life for her two children. Bev’s mother (played by Glenn Close) is well aware of her daughter’s inner demons and does what she can to help. The family drama plays out with J.D. and his sister in need of guidance and structure, and a mom who is struggling to even keep herself alive.

From left to right: Haley Bennett, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in a scene of Hillbilly Elegy | NETFLIX, 2020.

Any viewer should be advised that the scenes of intense family drama are very raw and unfiltered. These are the real stories depicted in J.D.’s memoir, and the very real life he and his family endured. In spite of the Vance family’s circumstances and struggles, in spite of their dire financial situation, in spite of an America that seems to have forgotten about these, the deplorables, J.D. and his family are able to overcome. Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. On multiple occasions the movie brought me to tears. Through all of the pain and anguish endured by every member of this family, the underlying messages of family, faith and forgiveness drove deep into my heart, and have stayed with me for weeks after. Ron Howard has directed some classics throughout his career in Hollywood (Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story), and I’d confidently add Hillbilly Elegy to this list.

If you’ve happened to see the poor ratings posted by Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll notice a cavernous discrepancy between the movie critics and the audience. The majority of audience members enjoyed the movie, with an 86% approval rating. The politically motivated criticisms of a non-political movie by overtly biased critics has left an unfair and underserved smear on what is an incredible film. I unequivocally and wholeheartedly recommend this movie. Without a doubt, Hillbilly Elegy is my number 1 movie of 2020.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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REVIEW: An American Pickle

HBO Max
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Brandon Trost

Rogen, Rogen, and Pickles…

Like so many movies lately going straight to VOD or streaming channels, An American Pickle felt like it came out of thin air and with very little hype preceding it. That’s life as we know it for the time being. Though this flick has its faults, I’m particularly delighted at its spontaneous arrival. Even though I watched it far from a movie theater in a basement bedroom with intrusive outdoor lighting, this movie felt well done enough to bring me back to a small sense of normalcy, and I appreciated that!

From the drawing boards of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Brandon Trost who have worked together near exclusively on past films and tv series, comes a movie that feels a bit whimsical and aimless at times (even compared to some of their other stoner buddy comedies), but makes for an almost lighthearted Black Mirror episode. With every moment that the plot is actually progressing, there’s some curious insight into generational ideals, ethics, and abilities and what might happen if the wrong generation clashed with our current times. Connected with that is some heartwarming commentary on family relationships and honoring family tradition, which really turns out to be the main point.

So when I talk about the movie being a bit laughable, it mostly falls to this premise: Seth Rogen plays an early 20th century Jewish immigrant that comes to New York and is accidentally preserved in a pickle factory for 100 years. When he is awakened, he tries to connect with his now great grandson (also played by Seth Rogen, though more familiar), and the dramatically changed world around him. Yeah… this movie has the synopsis to make it sound like it came out in the early 90’s when everybody thought that all the non-ridiculous ideas were all taken. I say this, but there’s a common trend among a lot of those far-fetched flicks, in that they become subtle classics. I think this happens when the movie manages to be somewhat self aware and still has the ability to connect the absurd plot and characters to real human emotion. Kindergarten Cop (1990) does this for me everytime, and after watching An American Pickle, I think this will likely fall in that category.

Seth Rogen and…Seth Rogen in a scene of An American Pickle | HBO Max.

That isn’t to say that An American Pickle doesn’t have some real flaws. The film has some poor pacing between the prologue, the introduction of the main conflict, and the resolution. The laughs are there, but maybe at times, a little too far in between. And to be honest, the plot really is just so distractingly ridiculous (I know I may have already beat this to the ground). I somewhat let these things slide in the end, but I want to prepare everyone: this may not be at the same level of quality that you’re used to with a Rogen/Goldberg produced comedy.

That being said, this may be one of the more thought provoking movies these men have ever brought forward. Firstly, in most movies they’ve made there’s been quippy and overlooked dialogue on Jewish culture (them both being Jewish), and I’m glad that they seemingly embraced that aura for this movie. It’s almost a love letter to their family tradition, and that alone is enjoyable. But it goes further to ask questions like, how much blame do we put on other generations for the morals that were thrust upon them by the society of their time? How much more industrious and driven were these other generations than us having gone through subjectively worse economical conditions? Would they outdo us if they were put in our working classes today? Would we make them proud with who we’ve become?

I would say that my final opinion aligns pretty heavily with Rotten Tomatoes: just above average. I’ll probably bump into it on a sick day in five years and give it a revisit. And I’ll likely enjoy it for the reasons stated above, but I’m definitely not going out of my way to make sure this happens. And it’s not going on any favorite list. You get the idea; this movie’s most likely worth at least a single watch. Find it on HBO Max!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Tax Collector

RLJE Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: David Ayer

As a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to spend the night aboard a retired Navy submarine. OMSI had a great program to educate us about the science and history behind the machine, but I was most excited for us to plunge below the surface and take the submarine for a spin. Imagine my dismay when my dad confessed that submerging was not part of the deal; we spent the night parked safely afloat in the Willamette river, never to explore the possibilities of the hyped-up watercraft. Laying in my 17-inches of bunk, I was deeply disappointed in the shallows of my nautical escapade. The Tax Collector (2020) left me with a similar reaction.

The story follows David Cuevas (played by Bobby Soto), who in addition to being a devout Christian and involved father is an intimidating tax collector for a crime lord in South Central L.A. Watching him conduct brutal business amidst the family’s preparations for a quinceañera had me making connections to The Godfather (1972), as Cuevas is a man living two lives in two worlds he claims coexist. But both lives are threatened when an old enemy of Cuevas’ boss called Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town and attempts a takeover. Like those he collects tax from, Cuevas learns that he has his own price to pay and attempts to settle the score before the screen fades to black. There are moments reminiscent of director David Ayer’s previous screenplays Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), but they are lost amidst numerous bad investments in runtime.

The best part of the movie was the interplay between Cuevas and his partner Creeper (Shia LeBeouf), who attends his duty to “terrify the herd” with sick satisfaction and stone-cold stares. Despite his sadistic nature, Creeper is wholly devoted to his partner. When he tells Cuevas, “zI’ll ride with you ‘till the wheels fall off,” you believe him. The complexity of both characters is best shown when they are together; Creeper doesn’t believe in God but has consigned himself to hell, while Cuevas asserts that his own religious convictions and familial devotions allow him “to go into the darkness but come back into the light”. Creeper serves as a foil to Cuevas’ duality, a warning sign that having a foot in both worlds doesn’t work. This concept was fascinating, but it was forgotten as the plot progressed. Consequently, Cuevas ceased to be complicated or compelling. Instead of gripping action, you get a lot of gun-waving and threat-throwing that doesn’t really add to the story or help you care about the characters. The DNA is there, but it’s just sitting in a plain petri dish with no signs of life. A myriad of plot threads with little substance leads to an ending that comes up short, just like Cuevas’ count of the tax collections earlier in the movie.

Shia LaBeouf and Bobby Soto in a scene of The Tax Collector | RLJE Films.

The biggest problem for me was figuring out the overall story arc. I thought I was watching a critique of the toxic masculinity that keeps a steady death toll in L.A. neighborhoods, but instead the movie seemed to revel in it. The opening credits claim that gang culture is all about love, honor, loyalty, and family, and it seems to really believe it, expounding on it with heavy-handed dialogue. The relationship between the values that the gang preaches and the fruits of their labor form an interesting dichotomy, but any chance of deep exploration is overthrown by random stabs at shock factor. Like when the big baddie bathes in the blood of a young woman and sacrifices a chicken to the devil, or when the bullets start flying and the tally of revenge kills ramps up so fast you lose track. The good guy cries, seethes, and swears, but I was too emotionally checked out to care much.

There’s a part of me that feels defensive of the film because so many critics have condemned it with a mercilessness to match Creeper’s. I especially feel that the claims that The Tax Collector is racist and brownfacing are completely unwarranted. I so badly wanted this movie to be great, but alas it wasn’t so. The character of David Cuevas is described as “a candle in the darkness,” but this film feels more like a shadow of the greatness it could have been and what I wish it was. The great team of collaborators and top-notch trailer got me so excited for a movie that proved to be like my OMSI experience; I expected torpedos and got torpor instead. I can only hope that Ayer’s next venture makes the submarine seaworthy once more.

Recommendation: No Go

REVIEW: 7500

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Patrick Vollrath

Watching the trailer for 7500 might leave you somewhat underwhelmed and uninterested, as it did me. Airplane hijacking movies are a dime a dozen; an outdated genre that still lingers on. Even 19 years post 9/11, we seem to revisit this collective trauma annually with the release of new hijacking movies. I have my fair share of hijacking favorites that I enjoy revisiting from time to time: Air Force One (1997), Con Air (1997), Snakes on a Plane (2006), all “turn off your brain” kind of films that are the epitome of popcorn flicks. (Man, 1997 was a great year for hijacking movies!) Physical force and action sequences usually dominate this genre, but I am happy to say that 7500 couldn’t be more different to the typical hijacking movie.

7500 debuted last year at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and was released in the U.S. this June on Amazon Prime Video. It is directed by German born Patrick Vollrath, this being his first full-length feature film. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, First Officer and co-pilot of a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris; and Omid Memar as Vedat, a young Turkish Islamic Extremist, who is having second thoughts on the morality of this hijacking.

The plot of of the movie is as follows: a commercial airliner is taking 85 passengers from Berlin to Paris. Islamic Extremists attempt to take over the plane using broken bottles of glass as weapons, and taking some of the passengers as hostages. The are unable to break into the cockpit, so they use threats of violence and death on passengers in an attempt to coerce the pilots to let them in. Without giving too much away, this is the basic plot of the film. But what makes this movie so intriguing—and ultimately why I am going to recommend it—is because of how deeply intimate and thought-provoking the story is.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in a scene of 7500 | Amazon Studios.

The entirety of the movie takes place inside the cockpit of this airliner. It felt reminiscent of films like Buried (2010) and Locke (2013), or maybe if you mixed those two together. You get to see in detail the level of complexity that exists within these marvelous machines, and the level of education needed to pilot them. There is no musical score throughout the film, which adds to the authenticity of this small world created on screen. Gordon-Levitt and Memar bring exceptional performances to their roles, and gives me hope that one day Gordon-Levitt will be seen and revered as a highly talented actor, and land the larger roles that he has earned.

I often hear other movie fans say that the most fundamental aspect of a movie its ability to entertain its audience. I have a hard time agreeing with this notion. If entertainment was the goal of every movie, then the value of movies would mean very little to those who do enjoy them. My belief about what makes film so universally loved by humans everywhere is its ability to tell a meaningful story. Stories (specifically stories about the human experience) are what captivates the minds and hearts of the audience. 7500 gets at the heart of humanity in the midst of trial and tribulation. It will make you think about ethical and moral dilemmas that you otherwise might not be thinking about. I love movies that make me ask myself, “What would I do if I were in that same situation?” but without offering a clear path or definition of what that right answer is. Yes, there are specific character and plot sequences that I would have changed up a bit, but there isn’t anything too egregious enough for me to give more attention to.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, go give 7500 a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised on the outcome, and at only 90 minutes, it’s well worth the investment of your time.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Rental

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 88 minutes
Director: Dave Franco

I am not the biggest horror movie fan in the world, but some of my fellow writers here at Backseat Directors were meeting up to go back to the theaters and invited me to join them. Having been in quarantine for many months, I couldn’t resist seeing a new movie again on the big screen. So I went and checked out the new movie, The Rental, from actor/director, Dave Franco. While it showed promise for the new director (The Rental being Franco’s directorial debut), the film did not monopolize well on the interesting and fun set-up that it builds making for a frustrating experience.

The Rental has a fantastic cast with Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White playing two couples that decide to celebrate their work accomplishments by renting a fancy house on the Oregon Coast for the weekend. As it begins, the movie sets up a lot of potential conflict between the characters: there may be racism on the part of the landlord, illegal cameras in the home, infidelity amongst the partners, and more. I was honestly excited to see where all these plot threads were going to lead and what was going to happen to our characters. The acting from the main cast is also all excellent; and Franco and cinematographer Christian Sprenger do a good job creating tone and an eerie atmosphere throughout. So for the first hour I was really digging this film.

Unfortunately, none of these plot points paid off well in the end. Without giving away any major spoilers, I wasn’t satisfied with any of the character arcs of the people involved, nor are any new characters brought into the story that are compelling. It basically devolves into a slasher movie in the last fifteen minutes but it is too late in the game and too silly to work—even for slasher-movie fans.

(From left to right), Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White and Alison Brie in a scene of The Rental | IFC Films.

When I left the theater I was proud of myself for going back to the cinemas, (mask on and spaced) but I really wish the movie had been better. It had a lot of potential but didn’t monopolize on much of any of it. There’s even a sidestory with a missing dog and a mysterious door that goes nowhere. The suspense and atmosphere were there, but a film has to pay off well and this one just didn’t.

What do you think of The Rental? Have you been back to theaters? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: The Assistant

Bleecker Street
Rated: R
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Kitty Green

I love The Office. It’s dead-pan, documentary style is pure gold. It skillfully embraces the idea of a mind-numbing and even soul-sucking work environment, but does so in a way that finds the humor and even the joy in our 9-to-5s. When I hear the cheerful, cheesy intro, I can’t help but hum along as I watch the main cast go about their workday. In The Assistant (2020), filler scenes of mundane office life are about 87% of the 87-minute runtime. You just watch the main character, Jane, talk on the phone, stand in front of the microwave, smoke, sip coffee, and look overworked. She is basically Pam Beesly in the first season, right down to the pink turtleneck. If The Office had been a drama about Pam’s misery and Michael Scott was a male, predatory Miranda Priestly, then The Assistant would be the pilot episode. And it would never make it to television.

The Assistant premiered at the Telluride film festival in August 2019, then was distributed by Bleecker Street and released to a few U.S. theaters on January 31, 2020. It was just released to streaming on Hulu over the weekend. In that time, it’s developed an incredible disparity of opinion on Rotten Tomatoes; as of this article’s posted date, it holds a 92% approval rating from the critics and a 25% approval rating from the audience—that’s got to be a record or something. For my part, I side with the audience (yet another reason why I identify as a “Backseat Director” rather than “critic”). I’m sure there are subtleties that go unappreciated by my uneducated mind, and there will certainly be those that will advocate heavily for this film—but I couldn’t get past how boring this movie was. I think it speaks volumes that the most interesting part is a visit to human resources. The trailer and the cinematography would have you believe you are watching some sort of thriller, but the moments of build-up and unease lead to nothing. To say the movie is a slow burn is an understatement; I felt like I was waiting for a pot of water to boil, only to discover an hour-and-a-half later that the stove wasn’t even turned on.

Julia Garner in a scene of The Assistant | Bleecker Street.

The movie follows Jane, a relatively new hire at an unnamed production company, who’s working as a junior assistant. The movie takes place on a typical Monday, following her from the early hours of the morning and late into the night. She works hard but finds little joy in what she is able to accomplish. She’s been there five weeks, and she’s clearly miserable; in fact, she spends the whole movie with a facial expression that tells you this girl needs a new gig. In her day, there are various situations and happenings that make her uncomfortable and upset, and then the day ends, and the credits roll. Nothing is achieved, nothing is done, and nothing is different. It’s likely that the same kind of day Jane had on Monday will happen on Tuesday, and every day to follow. While workplace dramas that I adore like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) have rich characters and clear story arcs and a healthy sense of humor, The Assistant abandons any semblance of Hollywood escapism for a dull and grim reality. But this reality appears arcane in its portrayal of women in the workplace, and left me personally nonplussed.

The #MeToo movement is making an indelible mark on Hollywood, reflected in recent movies like Bombshell (2019) and the indefinitely delayed Promising Young Woman—but as a film, we deserve better than what The Assistant has to offer. The movie seeks to show the suffocating normalcy of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, but the monotony outweighs the misconduct. Even as a woman with her fair share of #MeToo experiences, I ask, “What’s the big deal?” I even found myself blaming the protagonist for her own misery, and that’s terrifying. My reaction alone proves the systemic nature of a problem that even victims have grown used to shrugging off. Unfortunately, I think the film will prove esoteric, which is ironic considering the movement is called “Me Too” and is supposed to represent half the planet’s population. I related more to Birds of Prey (2020) than this supposedly accurate depiction of workplace sexual harassment. My worry (and prediction) is that its subtlety will leave a great many asleep rather than woke.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Vivarium

Vertigo Releasing
Rated: R
Run Time: 97 minutes
Director: Lorcan Finnegan

The Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has completely turned the film and movie theater industries on their heads: every big budget movie has been delayed from its original release date; new dates are added in hopes that movie theaters will reopen soon, only to see the rescheduled dates be delayed again. Things have gotten so bad for movie theater companies nationwide that a petition to receive federal funding has been circulating and gaining momentum. #SaveYourCinema has become the rallying cry of movie fans and movie theater owners alike. (If you want to show your support, go visit www.saveyourcinema.com). The economy shutdown has likely saved lives and slowed the spread of the coronavirus, but it has also decimated countless small businesses, and continues to threaten larger corporations like AMC, Regal, Cinemark, etc.

As movie theater owners and patrons work to adjust to the new way of conducting business and supporting movie theaters, streaming services fill a void left in the vacuum of the movie industry shutdown. Dozens of movies that were slated for theatrical release were quickly switched to a VOD (video on demand) worldwide debut (e.g. Trolls World Tour), or some other movies had their worldwide debut on streaming services like Apple TV+ (e.g. Greyhound).

I had a friend mention to me last week that he misses seeing new movies. My response to him was that he more likely misses seeing new BLOCKBUSTER movies since there is a plethora of new movies that continue to release almost every single week (to which he agreed). Between streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+ etc., and VOD services like iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Prime, there are dozens and dozens of new 2020 movies that are available to watch right now—to the point that I have ventured into seeing new movies that I otherwise would not have watched before… Which has not always been a pleasant experience.

And thus begins my review of Vivarium

From left to right: Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, and Jesse Eisenberg in s scene of Vivarium | Vertigo Releasing.

Vivarium debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2019. It never had a theatrical release and was instead released VOD worldwide back in March of this year. Vivarium tells the story of a young couple (played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) that is on the hunt for their first home together. They walk into a home developer’s office and meet with an odd real estate agent named Martin. Martin has a bizarre mannerism about him. He’s polite and is always smiling, but his social awkwardness was almost too much for me to handle. Like any good salesman, Martin guilts the young couple to take a drive with him to a new suburban development called Yonder, and to take a tour of the freshly built homes. As they pull into the new development you notice that everything is exactly the same—from the color of the houses, to the size of the houses, everything is in perfect unison. As Martin takes the couple on a tour of house #9, Martin’s mannerisms become more and more uncomfortable, and even sociopathic. As the tour comes to an end, Martin disappears outside leaving the couple alone inside. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) go to their car and attempt to exit the neighborhood. They drive for hours trying to find the exit all the while ending up right back where they started at house #9.

At the beginning of the movie before any of the human characters are introduced, there is a short clip of the parasitic life-cycle of a cuckoo bird. If you’re unfamiliar with a cuckoo bird, get ready to be educated. Female cuckoo birds lay their eggs in the nest of other bird species. Once hatched, the baby cuckoo pushes out any other baby bird or egg from the mother bird, and then is tended to by the surrogate mother bird. Even as the cuckoo grows to sizes bigger than the surrogate mother bird, the cuckoo begs and whines for attention, food, and care from the surrogate. When Gemma and Tom are left alone and unable to escape from this bizarre labyrinth of houses, they discover a box outside house #9 that says, “Raise the child and be released.” I am not inclined to say anymore about the story without getting into spoiler territory; suffice it to say, the cuckoo clip in the beginning has a little something to do with the overall plot of the movie.

Vivarium is an original story that presents a unique and interesting enough plot to hold some viewers’ attentions, but not enough to hold mine. It presents some ethical and moral dilemmas throughout the movie that scratch the surface of really getting you to wonder, “What would I do in this same situation?” but not deep enough to really explore those elements. The pacing is very slow, and the lack of music (although not completely devoid of a score) makes the pacing that much slower. I was very much intrigued by the trailer, and since new movies are not the most abundant product around, I took a stab. But I would be doing everyone reading this a disservice if I said I liked Vivarium, or would recommend it—I just can’t. Even with the creatively clever title “Vivarium” (think Aquarium or Terrarium), there’s just not enough substance to fill even a decent run time of 97 minutes.

Vivarium is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Greyhound

Apple TV+
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Aaron Schneider

Greyhound marks Tom Hanks’ fourth artistic foray into the Second World War, with the three previous projects being Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001), and The Pacific (2010). The previous projects are larger in scope and widely considered to be among the best film representations of WWII. Greyhound doesn’t meet those heights, but it doesn’t aim to—nor does it need to. Its mission is on a smaller, but no less important scale.

The movie was originally slated for theatrical release in early July, but COVID’s hostile takeover of life as we know it, sent Greyhound hurtling toward the streaming shores of Apple TV+. It wasn’t too much of a surprise considering other studios are sending theatrical projects straight to the TV screen. Greyhound feels different from some of these other “early release” projects. One viewing will show that this film was made with the biggest screens in mind, and when you’re done, you’ll lament the fact that you couldn’t watch it there. It has a higher production value than most of the stuff they’ve been dumping in our laps lately. This movie would have killed at the box office.

Greyhound is short and to the point. It spends just enough time to introduce Hanks as Commander Ernest Krause before setting off on its mission. The rest of your characterization comes as the drama unfolds, for it’s often said that times of adversity reveal true colors. In typical U.S. war film fashion, the colors of this flag don’t run… And they don’t make movies about the cowards, do they? Greyhound is set apart from many of these other films due to its brevity and its singular focus on the task at hand: five Destroyers escorting thirty-seven ships and thousands of sailors across the Atlantic for five days—with no air support to fend off the German U-Boats lapping at their heels.

Hanks serves double-duty as the main actor as well as the screenwriter, and while his script lacks flourish, it’s old-school Hollywood in all the good ways. Director Aaron Schneider paces Greyhound well, and together they ratchet the tension to unbearable levels. Think of the best submarine movies in recent memory and the feelings they evoke as you watch. Now place yourself on the other side of that torpedo. It makes for compelling cinema.

(Right to left) Tom Hanks, Brandon Holubar, Michael Carollo, and Cade Burk in a scene of Greyhound | Apple TV+

Greyhound is worth ninety minutes of your time. I might be reading too deep into the movie, but I find the short running time and overly technical jargon a good fit for what this film represents. It’s a WWII action movie at surface level and below the explosions and choppy waters lie a representation of sacrifice. This was a mission conducted over five days. This was a mission that was conducted more than once. There were similar missions conducted all around the world. These missions were conducted during a war that lasted six years. I think above all else, Greyhound shows that the small missions are just as important as the major offensives. The offensives don’t happen without the bravery exhibited in these smaller skirmishes. All of these small moments combine to make way for victory.

Releasing more high-end productions like this might make this quarantine more bearable. I’m not advocating streaming over theaters just yet, but Greyhound makes a serious argument for it. It’s that good.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Palm Springs

HULU
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Max Barbakow

Let’s go back to my college days, when my roommate and I needed a TV show to watch at night to relax after arduous hours of homework and essay writing.  I remember seeing clips of How I Met Your Mother on occasion and I thought we should give it a try. We ended up loving watching Ted Mosby navigate through his love-life while dealing with shenanigans from his friends. For eight seasons we wondered who the titular mother would end up being. What would she look like, act like, be like? Would it end up being one of Ted’s many romantic conquests, or would it be an original character?

(*Minor spoiler ahead) In the end the Mother (Tracy McConnell) was played by Cristin Milioti, and she was perfect. Her character’s personality beautifully matched with Ted’s. Their relationship was the perfect culmination of the nine-season show. (Then of course, the writers completely destroyed all character development during the last two episodes like Game of Thrones after it); however, Cristin brought a feeling of authentic romance and wholeness to How I Met Your Mother that made up for the backwards last two episodes.

Fast forward to last year. My roommate and I had been watching several documentaries on really heavy subjects, and I was looking for something lighthearted to watch. I was talking to one of my good friends about our favorite TV shows, and I mentioned how much I liked Psych, and so she recommended Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I started watching and fell in love with it—especially the character of Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg). I only knew Andy Samberg from his comedy group, The Lonely Island, and was surprised to see how kind, respectful, and hilarious he was both in and out of the show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine joined How I Met Your Mother as one of my favorite TV shows. So naturally when I saw that Samberg and Milioti were teaming up to star in a Groundhog Day-esque rom-com, I was super excited.

Meaning and Purpose

I was happy to see that the chemistry and charm that Milioti and Samberg brought to their respective shows were on full display in Palm Springs. Their characters (Sarah and Nyles) sell a truly believable and lovable romance. Just by seeing the trailer, I assumed that the goal of the movie would be for their two characters to end up together and that would be sufficient to end the time loop. As much as I loved watching their romance blossom on screen, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their romance was not the end of the journey they embarked on during the movie.

It seems almost serendipitous that this movie is in wide release during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us feel we are also in a repetitive loop as we wait for life to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. I related Nyles’s struggle to find out the meaning of our daily struggle. My fears of the film focusing all of its attention on the romance was short-lived as we get to see Nyles overcome his apathy, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy; Sarah overcoming her sense of low self-esteem and guilt; and J.K. Simmons’ character, Roy, learning how to forgive and appreciate the day he has.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in a scene of Palm Springs | HULU.

I really appreciate this take, as too often films try to dedicate the entire movie to one lesson, whether it be “love conquers all”, forgiveness, acceptance, or lessons like that. Palm Springs allows the characters to be as complex as humans are in reality. Life and love are messy, and deserves to be shown messy. Our characters feel more human, more like us, and thus more relatable.

Palm Springs almost reminds me of one of my favorite romantic films, About Time, a movie where the main character has the gift of traveling into the past to relive his days. Like Palm Springs, it is a beautiful love story that is more than just romance—it’s about life. Love shouldn’t end when you get together with a person. Love is about finding peace within yourself, your relationship with your partner, and with the world around you. Palm Springs accomplishes this beautifully.

Final Thoughts

Palm Springs is a hilarious and beautiful film that shows us how messy, complicated, imperfect, but also wonderful life can be. All the characters have great chemistry, the comedic beats are hilarious with just the right amount of raunchiness, and it just ends up being such a pleasurable movie to watch. If you have Hulu I recommend it as one of the best movies of 2020.

Palm Springs is streaming exclusively on HULU.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Old Guard

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 125 minutes
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Old Guard is a superhero film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka. It is adapted from Rucka’s comic book of the same name. The film stars Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Story & Direction

The Old Guard tells the story of a small group of vigilante warriors who all share a special ability, and attempt to use that ability to make the world a better and safer place. Our “superhero” team is led by the fearless Andy (Charlize Theron), along with three others who are extremely skilled in the art of combat. But what is the one superpower they all share? …Immortality. Almost every time that Andy and her team are shot, blown up, stabbed, fall from great heights, or are injured in any way, they are able to heal and recover—to the surprise of their attackers. This film was advertised as an over-the-top action film, which director Prince-Bythewood definitely delivers. The action is fast, fierce, and isn’t filled with excessive CGI aspects. The film is about the characters and their extended lifelong journey together.

The Characters

Aside from the obvious star aspect, Theron’s Andy is the one in charge because she has been alive the longest. We aren’t given her exact age, but she has been around “long enough” to have more life experience than her teammates. Her team is made up of partners Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who met interestingly on opposite sides of the Crusades. They are joined by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) who found the others during the Napoleonic Wars. They all have died and come back multiple times and lost a lot of people along the way. They have even lost other immortal team members. You may ask, “How is that possible when they are immortal?” The answer is what makes this story very compelling as it adds a very vulnerable aspect to these “superheroes.” To say what it is would be entering spoiler territory; however, it does allow for someone to watch this intriguing film all the way through—even if the story is somewhat familiar. Theron is definitely the standout and continues to show that she is a chameleon in Hollywood. Her acting in The Old Guard shows her character’s age and wisdom. Her experience has shown that the world hasn’t changed very much and any good she has done may have been in vain.

Charlize Theron and other cast members in a scene of The Old Guard | NETFLIX.

The team finds a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), whom they have to convince of their powers and her own. Nile develops a bond with Andy and their relationship is a good one to follow throughout the film. Layne, mostly known for her work in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, provides a funny (at times) and heartfelt performance. However, Theron’s and Layne’s performances aren’t able to fully elevate the movie’s (somewhat) unoriginal story.

The Flaws

This film’s plot is not a unique one, even though it is decent enough to keep most viewers entertained. Each major plot point is fairly predictable and some of its attempted ethical aspects are not executed well. For example, Andy’s team sees themselves as an intervention force similar to that of DC Comics’ League of Shadows. They kill people when it is absolutely needed, but their newest recruit Nile does not approve of their methods. They are “saving” people by killing others. It’s contradictory but because this film’s biggest draw is its action sequences, this ethical dilemma seems glossed over; also there are some parts of the film that feel drawn out and could have been cut. In addition, the villain is fairly cliche, even though it tries to modernize a younger villain within a pharmaceutical company. Merrick is over-the-top at times but Melling does act his part well. It almost feels that this role is Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series who grew up and became successful. 

Cast members appear in a scene of The Old Guard | Netflix.

Overall

Even with these issues, The Old Guard does build a very interesting world, and the characters are intriguing enough to watch… With perhaps future sequels. Theron is an amazing star that continues to shine in this film, even if it is slightly unoriginal. You don’t need to rush to watch it, but it’s definitely worth watching if you have some free time for a decent action film. The Old Guard is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

REVIEW: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: David Dobkin

Do you ever find yourself dreading a movie you don’t want to watch, because deep down you know you’re not going to like it? You might be asking yourself, “Why am I even going to watch a movie I have no interest in seeing?” As a movie reviewer, I ask myself this same question far too often—specifically anything starring Will Ferrell. Enter Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (let’s just call it ‘Fire Saga‘ for short) is a 2020 film that was released June 26 on Netflix. The film is directed by David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell as Lars Erickssong and Rachel McAdams as Sigrit Ericksdottir, two Icelandic musicians that dream of performing and winning the Eurovision Song Contest. For us uncultured Americans who might be unfamiliar with the Eurovision Song Contest, this is a real international song competition that has been held annually since 1956. Competitors from 50 different European countries (and more recently some non-European countries) compete in a sing-off where each individual country is allowed to submit one song to be performed by their representing artists. It is one of the most watched non-sporting television events in the world.

Getting back to my previous comment about dreading this movie, “dreading” might be too harsh of a word. Will Ferrell movies just aren’t my cup of tea. Like many other SNL actors that have made the jump to feature films, Ferrell has his fans and his detractors. I wouldn’t consider myself in either of those camps; his comedy style just doesn’t have that much appeal to me. I hope my review of ‘Fire Saga’ is as objectively fair as possible, admitting that I probably had made up my mind about this movie within the first five minutes.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams appear in a scene of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga | Netflix.

‘Fire Saga’ tells the story of Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir (a play on words that I am only now noticing), two Icelanders’ journey to fulfill their lifelong dream of performing at the Eurovision Song Contest. Lars has dealt with criticism and ridicule from his small Icelandic town, and the reproach of a father who has felt nothing but disappointment toward his son. Sigrit is the second member of Fire Saga, and the only faithful supporter of Lars and his dreams. Unfortunately, Sigrit is also the only one with any real singing talent. Along their journey they are helped and hindered by other performers at the Eurovision Song Contest, namely the Russian singer and favorite-to-win-the-competition, Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens); and Greek singer, Mita Xenaki (played by Melissanthi Mahut). It’s an odd sight seeing quality actors like McAdams and Stevens starring in a movie like ‘Fire Saga’. Perhaps it was the opportunity to go travel to incredibly beautiful shooting locations like Iceland, Scotland, London and Tel Aviv, Israel. Or perhaps it was the opportunity to make a quick paycheck starring in a film that required little-to-no effort on anyone’s part. Ferrell and McAdams make for an odd duo, and their chemistry, even for a movie like this, never felt like it gelled.

Will Ferrell movies have a knack for the silly and outrageous, and ‘Fire Saga’ is no exception. If you’re not a fan of Will Ferrell movies you’ll likely find your eyes becoming exhausted from all the excessive eye-rolling you’ll experience from this movie. Again, like most Will Ferrell movies, the plot is razor thin, and the occasional laughs are also mixed in with groans. There are some heartfelt moments between Lars and his disapproving father (played by Pierce Brosnan), and some very catchy pop music, which just might end up being the highlight of the movie. My Marianne performs the incredible female vocals for Sigrit, while Ferrell does his own vocals, which appear on the soundtrack too. I was surprised to see that Dan Stevens did not do his own singing. He has the ability and the talent, but for whatever reason, did not perform his iconic “Lion of Love” song.

The deciding factor for my recommendation came down to two things: whether or not you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, and the excessive run time. At 123 minutes, ‘Fire Saga’ is about 25 minutes too long. There’s only so much of this kind of comedy that I can take, and 2 hours is just too long for me. I know Ferrell has his fans out there, but I’m just not one of them. For the Ferrell fans, you’ve likely seen this movie already, but if you haven’t, go turn it on and enjoy the silly laughs that has made Ferrell’s career what it is today. For the rest of you, this is just not a movie I can recommend.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Feel the Beat

NETFLIX
Rated: G
Run Time: 107 minutes
Director: Elissa Down

Feel the Beat is a Netflix original movie directed by Elissa Down about a small town dance company that rises to a national level thanks to the tutelage of a disgraced Broadway dancer. I initially found out about this movie through the Ai-Media page on Facebook—a page celebrating Deaf culture and Sign Language. Shaylee Mansfield is a young, deaf actress who stars in this film playing a deaf character using American Sign Language. As I am Hard of Hearing myself, I will jump at the chance to see almost any film celebrating sign language and deaf characters. What I found is one of the best feel-good family films I’ve seen in a long time. 

My Quibbles

As (almost) no film is perfect, there was one thing about the movie that I had a slight quibble over: the plot is extremely formulaic. It suffers from what some have called the “Cars phenomenon.” It’s a movie about a successful jerk who goes to a small town and rediscovers their love for humanity and rekindles their passion. It’s the kind of movie that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly how the movie is going to pan out. However, despite being that type of movie, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of it too much.

What I Liked

Like I said in another review, representation in media is super important and will elevate any film when done properly. Sadly, most films end with simply having a POC (person of color), woman, or disabled character in them without doing the proper writing and character development to make the character’s inclusion valuable. Or the film’s creators will parade their progressiveness months before the film’s actual release. Most of the time in that case, those characters get very minimal screen time, hardly worth the positive PR that the studios try to gain.

Sofia Carson instructs dancers in a scene of Feel the Beat | Netflix | Photo credit: Ian Watson.

Incredibly, Feel the Beat manages to check almost all of the diversity boxes without feeling forced at all: the main character is a woman of color; her roommate is a gay Black man. Among the group of young dancers there is a Black girl, a chubby girl, a deaf girl, and a young boy, and not once did I feel like the movie was shoving itself in my face yelling, “See how progressive we are!” Every character felt like they naturally belonged in the narrative. Rather than elevating one demographic above the other to showcase it, the movie allows the characters to exist with each other, creating a more realistic world. I also have a soft spot for any deaf representation in media, so this was a huge plus for me. (Fun fact: the movie is called Feel the Beat because that’s how a lot of deaf people enjoy music, by feeling the vibrations.)

Although the plot is simplistic and predictable, the film actually incorporates a lot of really good messages that I think a lot of young people should be hearing. It shows the hard work the dancers have to do in order to achieve the level of excellence that they do by the end of the movie. They have to be dedicated, hard working, and have a passion for what they do. 

It also shatters gender stereotypes as a young boy eventually joins the dance team and becomes one of its showcase members. The message that boys can participate in “girly things” like dance is a message that young children need to hear. It helps children become more rounded and enjoy many more different kinds of experiences in life.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how many good child actors there were in this movie. They portrayed all the emotional scenes with such sincerity that it was hard not to feel for them. I totally bought all of their performances.

Sofia Carson performs a dance routine in Feel the Beat | Netflix.

And let’s talk about the dancing in this film—HOLY COW. I was so impressed by how well done the choreography was, not to mention how impressive the children were dancing. It took some real dedication for them to be able to perform all the dances. They were even doing the Dirty Dancing lift and absolutely nailing it! All in all, there were some incredible performances.

Final Thoughts

Feel the Beat may be a predictable movie, but it’s jam-packed with healthy diversity and representation, great dancing and performances, and good messages for young children. With all of the mindless family movies that are being churned out these days, Feel the Beat is easily one of the best family films of the past few years.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

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

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

REVIEW: Extraction

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 117 minutes
Director: Sam Hargrave

After experiencing weeks of relentless Facebook ads, I decided to sign up for six-weeks-free of Chris Hemsworth’s workout app. It’s been fairly successful at putting distance between me and the COVID-15 (like “the freshman 15”… no?), but I don’t look like Thor yet, and there is not nearly enough of him in it. He’s all over the ads, but he is nowhere to be found when the action starts and it’s time to do push-ups.

The same cannot be said for his newest film, a Netflix Original titled, Extraction. Playing a mercenary tasked with rescuing the kidnapped son of a drug-lord, Hemsworth wreaks havoc in this film—killing his enemies with guns, grenades, cars, furniture, architecture, and his own musculature. His character, Tyler Rake, even uses a rake at one point to dispatch an unfortunate enemy. His rescue of Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswa)—and subsequent escape—take them through jungles, rivers, and crowded cityscapes, keeping the landscape fresh and full of new obstacles and things to hit people with. Naturally, the extraction goes awry and Rake must decide if this job is just a job for him or something more.

A lot of effort went into this film and it shows. The action sequences are awesome, feeling visceral and real without shaking the camera like a maraca. It’s easy to appreciate the top-of-the-line physicality and coordination of hand-to-hand combat by Hemsworth and a whole slew of stuntmen. The director, Sam Hargrave, is a stuntman himself, and performed a few risky maneuvers with camera in hand to get the shots he wanted. There’s an 11-minute “continuous” shot action sequence that is brilliantly captured and incredible to watch. The film as a whole is held under a tide of grit and violence and rarely comes up for air, and even those brief respites are home to heavy conversation. Maybe it’s because Rake’s objective was escape and protection rather than vengeance or mass destruction, but this film felt less indulgent or gratuitous than other movies I’ve seen recently.

Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in a scene of Extraction | NETFLIX

What keeps Extraction from becoming “Call of Duty: The Movie” is the exploration of relationships between fathers and sons, men and boys. Granted, it is an action movie with a triple-digit death toll, so don’t expect ocean-level depth here, but the theme gives enough weight to the movie to keep you interested. Whatever patterns the fathers (or father figures) set, the sons tend to follow, including those of violence, trauma, and vengeance. Tyler Rake is haunted by the loss of his son and this shows in his treatment of Ovi and the child soldiers he encounters. Armed with a natural Australian accent and significant athleticism, Hemsworth is compelling as Rake, capitalizing on the opportunity to portray trauma and loss when it’s not played for laughs. He’s backed by an intriguing and talented supporting cast, among whom Nik Khan (played by Golshifteh Farahani), is my personal favorite.

The third act is probably the biggest let-down of the film.  The action ramps up, but in doing so ceases to be impressive and becomes a lot of faceless, unending CPU’s falling victim to our hero’s inability to miss or run out of bullets. The ending was semi-satisfying and didn’t leave me bitter or upset. Brutal, bloody, and bombastic, Extraction can’t be described as a good time, but I do think it’s a good movie. As far as Netflix originals go, it’s nearing top tier. If you happen to be craving Jason Bourne or John Wick, add this to your queue; especially if you like Chris Hemsworth or want to support stuntman directors. After all, it’s more enjoyable than push-ups.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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