Family Friendly

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director, Tomm Moore Reminds Us to Listen to Children. #TIFF20

Apple TV+
Rated: NR
Run Time: 100 minutes
Directos: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

My Rating: 9.5/10

Anyone who follows my career as a film critic knows how much I adore the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. He is the man behind the Oscar nominated films Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Both are wonderful works of art, but Song of the Sea is a special favorite of mine as it helped me through a tough time in my life, and one that I saw soon after my cousin passed away in 2015. I actually got to interview Moore last year over on my youtube channel and so needless to say I was pretty pumped for his new film Wolfwalkers.

All that said, expectations can be a dual-edged sword and we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Fortunately, with Wolfwalkers that was not the case; Moore has created another stunning animated film full of heart, and quite possibly his most endearing and easy to relate with characters yet.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose widowed father has a mission to get rid of all the wolves in the forest. One day she meets a boisterous girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is looking for her mother. Robyn learns that Mebh’s Mother is an enchanted creature called a wolfwalker who is both human and wolf. This starts our girls on a series of adventures as they must convince the townspeople to protect the forest and save the wolfwalkers.

If that sounds a little familiar there are definitely shades of Princess Mononoke (1997) within Wolfwalkers, but the characters of Robyn and Mebh are so different and the animation has such a different texture that it works. Plus, it’s a story we need to hear over and over again because we don’t seem to be listening very well! Where I felt especially gravitated to is Robyn and her attempts (mostly failed) to try and explain what is happening to her father. She pleads so hard for him to listen, but he rarely does. How often is that the case with each of us and the young children in our lives?

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

As I said, the animation is absolutely stunning in Wolfwalkers. I loved the hand drawn look to everything and the incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and character designs. Just as in Song of the Sea captures the swirling nature of the sea in nearly every frame, so Wolfwalkers has a feeling of wind, torment, and fire in every inch of every frame. No part of the screen is left vacant or bare, and yet it’s not overwhelming visually, because the story and characters are so engaging. It just adds to the feeling that you are witnessing a special film, crafted with care (and let’s be real, a lot of animation is mass produced for laughs these days with the artistry forgotten).

But if you are concerned Wolfwalkers may be too intense for kids, don’t be. It has a positive energy, particularly with Mebh, kids will love, and the intense sections aren’t any worse than films like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas or Secret of the Kells. I’d say Song of the Sea is probably more morose and sad than Wolfwalkers, so if your children have seen that (and they should) they will be fine with this.

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

Moore has brought back the music team from his previous films with a beautiful score from Bruno Coulais and the band Kila. It helps draw you into the story, and combined with the animation, makes for an electrifying experience.

As a lover of animation, Wolfwalkers easily took the top spot for my favorite movie of 2020. It’s a glorious film the entire family will love. Currently it can be rented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (#TIFF) for a rental fee. If you miss it there it will be coming to Apple TV+ this fall and to some theaters. Keep an eye out for it; Wolfwalkers is a wonderful animated film.

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: 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: 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: Abe

 It’s rare when my parents and I have a movie we all want to watch at the same time. When I was looking at all the movies the Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS) ‘At Home‘ streaming service was offering I came across Abe and showed the movie trailer to my mom. It looked like a movie we’d all enjoy, so we decided to watch it over the weekend. This looked like a sweet story about overcoming religious and cultural barriers that the whole family would enjoy. 

Blue Fox Entertainment
Rated: PG
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade

Authenticity In Our Stories

 I believe that the stories we tell mold and shape the way we view our world. Diversity in race, culture, gender, ability, and sexuality are all important to see in film as it contributes (however minor)  to our collective tolerance and understanding.

 There are those, however, that claim that any media that attempts to portray a character or culture that is anything other than white cis heteronormative is only doing so to be “politically correct.” And while maligning those cultures and characters simply for being “the other” is wrong and deplorable; there have been some occasions where a film has lazily used a culture/race/gender/sexuality/disability without any research or effort in order to seem “woke.” Let me be clear: diversity in a film is not the issue; bad writing and the lack of authenticity is. Even the most casual of movie-goers (the “popcorn munchers,” as my old boss would lovingly refer to them) can sense when a movie is not being authentic. 

Abe, fortunately, is an extremely authentic movie. It tells the story of Abe, a twelve-year-old boy living in New York whose descendants are from Israeli Jews on his mother’s side, and Palestinian Muslims on his father’s side. Both sides of his family encourage him to go after the faith of their family, constantly pitting themselves against the other side.  Abe’s father, himself disillusioned by all religion, tries to persuade Abe to abandon faith altogether while his mother insists that he is still a child and therefore unable to make any important decisions. Abe seeks to reconcile the two factions in his family, and is inspired by a local Brazilan fusion chef, Chico, who runs a food truck in Brooklyn. He seeks Chico out and becomes Chico’s student. The story moves along as Abe seeks reconciliation between the two factions of his family, and fusion between food.

What I seriously appreciate about this movie is that while there are opposing sides to the family, the film doesn’t divide them into “good” and “bad” sides.  Both have their own faults and good intentions. The father doesn’t want Abe to feel pressured, but he also pushes atheism on him to the point that Abe feels frustrated that he feels like he can’t value any traditions. His mother also doesn’t want to push anything on Abe, but smothers him with her mothering. This film could’ve very easily made one belief the “right” one, but instead had all the nuances, triumphs, and failings that the varying cultures deserved.

A family prepares a meal in a scene of Abe | Blue Fox Entertainment

Food and Family Fusion

Good grief, this movie is mouth watering! Just watching this movie made me want to be more serious about cooking so I could eat all of the food in the movie. But beyond that, I was really impressed that Abe didn’t start out immediately as a cooking prodigy.  He had to learn, grow, and improve as a chef under Chico’s tutelage. The first time he even attempted fusion food (Ramen tacos), it turned out horrible. It shows Abe wanting to learn a skill, failing, learning from his mistakes, and getting better and better over time. I really appreciated that. It shows people that skills aren’t magically inherited or sustained by just raw talent—you have to work at it.

The symbolism between the harmony of the two different sides of the family, and the fusion food that Abe learns to perfect is an absolutely brilliant take that I’m glad got incorporated into the movie.

Noah Schnapp and Seu Jorge in a scene of Abe | Blue Fox Entertainment

The Heart and the Stomach

When we put this movie on, I thought I was in for a visual feast with a story about the power of good food. And I got that. But I was totally unprepared for the emotional gut punch this film would bring. I couldn’t even blame the on-screen onion for my tears! All joking aside, this movie tells a powerful story about culture, family, and acceptance.

Final Thoughts

Abe is an absolutely incredible film that is truly needed in this day and age. Too often we define our relationships with others based on what divides us. Abe (both the film and the character) reminds us that although our divisions may be great, we can always find something that unites us. 

Shout Out: Once again, a big thank you to the Salt Lake Film Society and their At Home streaming service for consistently providing a great film selection during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are in need of a fascinating documentary, check out Fantastic Fungi. As always, if you choose to watch any of their films, consider donating to help keep them in business during this time of economic turmoil.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEWS: Dolphin Reef & Elephant

With all the cancellations and postponements of films announced this month, at least there is one long-delayed film that finally was released to the public on Disney+. This is the new Disneynature film Dolphin Reef, which we were supposed to get in 2018 under the name Dolphins, but it was never released in the United States (only in France for some reason). In addition to Dolphin Reef, we also had the documentary Elephant added to Disney+, so April has been a wonderful time to be a nature documentary fan!

Dolphin Reef

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 78 minutes
Director: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

My Rating: 7/10

In every Disneynature film they try to make following the animals more of a story to help make the footage more accessible to young children. The idea is if they can follow a narrative and give the animals cute names the kids will be more invested in the storytelling. This works sometimes better than others, especially in Chimpanzee where the story ends up surprising even the filmmakers involved. However, in Monkey Kingdom the story felt too contrived and arranged and honestly what’s the point of watching a documentary if it isn’t going to feel real?

In Dolphin Reef (or Dolphins) we meet a young bottlenose dolphin given the name Echo who learns how to get food from the coral reef and interact with friends of the reef, like Mr. Mantis (a peacock mantis shrimp), Mo’orea the whale (a humpback whale), and her newborn baby Kumu, and other oceanic creatures.

If you love the ocean like I do you will enjoy Dolphin Reef just on that level. It brought back memories of going snorkeling at Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii (one of my favorite places in all the world). The coral reef is so beautiful and kids can learn a nice lesson about preserving the ocean for all the creatures in the delicate ecosystem.

Natalie Portman acts as a serviceable narrator for the film, and overall I would put Dolphin Reef in the middle of my Disneynature rankings. It’s hard to get tons of personality from the dolphins because they are constantly moving but it’s still cute and made me long for the ocean!

Elephant

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Mark Linfield & Vanessa Berlowitz

My Rating: 6/10

Next up we have the Disneynature film Elephant that follows a tribe of elephants in the the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. This area of Africa floods over spring creating a fertile and lush land for all creatures—but especially for elephants. Then later in the year the land dries up and the elephants have to travel many miles in order to find new ground for them to live until they can go back to the flooded land.

This cycle repeats itself each year and provides all kinds of intense experiences for our adorable elephants. This particular herd is led by an aging elephant named Gaia and her protégé Shani. Evidently most of the tribe is related in some way and Gaia leads by hearing the vibrations of the other elephants ahead of them as they travel. I don’t know if that is true or not but it’s a pretty effective line.

The thing that hurt Elephant is I saw essentially the same documentary but better at Sundance in 2019 called The Elephant Queen. In that film Chiwetel Ejiofor is the narrator (Meghan Markle narrates in Elephant) and he has more gravitas in his voice. Plus, the storytelling is less cloying in The Elephant Queen with a less manipulative feel about it.

Currently, The Elephant Queen is playing on Apple+, so if you have access to that service I recommend it over Elephant; however if you don’t, the latter is fine and kids will enjoy watching the elephants as they make their way across the desert, so it is worth a watch.

If you’ve seen either of these Disneynature documentaries, let me know what you thought of them! Leave a comment in the comments section below.

Recommendation for both films: STREAM IT

Smash Critic’s Ultimate Feel-Good Movie List to Get You Through the Quarantine

At the beginning of the month I had a completely different topic in mind for an article. Boy, how the last few weeks have brought perspective. Thankfully, most of us aren’t critically affected by this event, but we might be left with a cloud of gloominess as we continue to get through the unknown. As our day-to-day activities have been reduced to what we can do in doors, here’s just one pro-tip to get you through your quarantine. The following are movies that I feel will most likely get you out of any biohazard blues due to their common thread of cheerfulness, low stakes, and unapologetically happy endings. I’ve broken them up into a few different categories based on your taste or mood, but why not work through them all!?

Inspiring Feel-Good Movies

Eddie the Eagle (2016), directed by Dexter Fletcher | 20th Century Fox

Eddie the Eagle (2016), PG-13
This one kind of flew under the radar when it came out in theaters a few years back. As it turns out it’s one of the most underrated movies of 2016 and has joy-filled performances from Hugh Jackman and the fast up-and-comer Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Kingsmen: The Secret Service). Based on a true story, Eddie (Egerton) is an awkward outcast that’s always had a burning desire to be in the Olympics. Once he meets a cynical has-been Olympic skier (Jackman), a fateful journey begins leading to one of the biggest and most heartwarming flukes in Olympic history (along with the Jamaican bobsled team). Honestly, this movie brags a music score and climatic scene that brings happy tears to my eyes everytime! Such a sweet story of friendship and determination. Watch it!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), PG
So, I’m a little ambivalent about the following pick. This movie may inspire you to get out and explore the world… which is kind of a complicated endeavor at this point. But if you’re able to just store that motivation in your backpocket till hopefully the near future, you’re still going to get a movie that offers a quirky, picturesque story. A daydreaming (this element is hilarious by itself), timid corporate worker played by Ben Stiller is forced to get out of his comfort zone and travel to multiple countries in the hopes of saving his Magazine company’s final printed cover. What comes next is an awesome, unique viewing experience that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Also directed by Ben Stiller!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) PG-13
Alright guys, this was hands down one of the best movies of this past year, and probably one of my top 3 favorite feel-good movies of all time. Reminiscent of a Mark Twain story, this modern day journey through the po-dunk south will make you so pumped for a post-pandemic summer full of rope swinging into lakes and beachy bon-fires. A fugitive fisherman played by Shia Labeouf befriends a runaway nursing home resident with Down Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen). Together they go on a search for the latter’s wrestling idol which turns into a journey of self discovery and brotherly love. I’ve watched this like 4 times since it came out a few months ago because I just keep wanting to show it to my friends.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2013), PG-13
Taika Waititi is getting pretty well known at this point with directing Thor Ragnorak and winning an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit (both may deserve to be on this list themselves!). In case you missed this earlier gem, now’s the perfect time. This movie is full of beautiful landscapes, quippy one-liners and characters with hearts of gold and the best accents ever. A foster boy named Ricky causes himself and his reluctant, old guardian, Hec to have to go on the run from child welfare. They end up having the time of their lives in the New Zealand Bush.
How to watch: Streaming on Hulu. Buy or rent on iTunes or Vudu.

Classic Feel-Good Movies

The Goonies (1985), directed by Richard Donner | Warner Bros. Pictures

Angels in the Outfield (1994), PG
Say what you will about 90’s Disney movies but this is, and forever will be, a classic in my home. Sure it’s got clichés all over the place and a plot that’ll make you scoff when first hearing about it, but it’s truly just the best. Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a foster kid who wants his dad to finally commit and make them a real family. In passing, the dad says they’ll finally work things out around the same time the Angels (who suck) will win the Pennant. Roger then prays to God for a miracle, and literal angels start helping the titular major-league team. Yeah, it’s bananas but it stars a young Gordon-Levitt, Danny Glover, a pre-famous Matthew McConaughey, and a heaven-sent Christopher Lloyd. And it’s just a chill, goofy, old, kids’ movie. Give it a chance!
How to watch: Streaming w/ tv subscription to DIRECTV.

The Goonies (1985), PG
Pretty much the original Stranger Things but it was actually made in the 80’s… so it’s not even trying profusely to be 80’s-like! A bunch of dorky teens living in a soon-to-be-demolished neighborhood find an old pirate map in one of their attics (the Dad is a curator). They then go on a legendary Oregon treasure hunt. But will a homicidal family that the map leads to end up killing the vibe… Or even killing the teens?! You gotta find out, it’s so great. Starring a young Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Corey Feldman (Stand By Me, The Lost Boys), and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Avengers: Infinity War).
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Three Musketeers (1993), PG
Another slightly campy 90’s Disney movie, this one’s just a good time. I don’t know if it’s anywhere near accurate to the book, but it’s fun! Chris O’Donnell (Batman and Robin), Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlie Sheen.
How to watch: Streaming on Disney+. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

School of Rock (2005), PG-13
I think we’ll all be pretty familiar with the rest of the nostalgic picks. Jack Black plays a dead-end musician that tries to make some extra money posing as a substitute teacher. He ends up realizing his purpose to turn his elementary school class into the greatest rock band of all time—and the result is stuff of joy. If you haven’t watched the final performance in a while, you need to revisit this!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Galaxy Quest (1999), PG
Honestly, this has gotta be the best space movie spoof ever made: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell—it’s stacked. Galaxy Quest is a hilarious meta movie about has-been TV stars that get abducted by aliens who are under the belief that their old Star Trek-esque episodes are historical documents, and that the actors really are intergalactic heroes. They then have to try to improvise through the most realistic, deadly mission they’ve ever encountered.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

A Knight’s Tale (2001), PG-13
I’m sure we’ve all at least heard of this one. Heath Ledger is a peasant in Medieval times who sneaks his way into becoming a jouster and changing his destiny. Probably the most historically inaccurate, but most fun soundtracks of all time.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Maverick (1994), PG
Underrated Western film! Set in 19th Century American Frontier, Mel Gibson plays an aspiring poker player looking for his biggest win yet—and everyone west of the Mississippi is out to get in his way. This flick has that total campfire feel that takes you for a fun stagecoach ride. Really gives just a truly happy, old-timey feel to it that’ll bring you to a simpler age. Also starring Jodie Foster, and Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2).
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Laugh Out Loud Feel-Good Movies

Pineapple Express (2008), directed by David Gordon Green | Sony Pictures

Pineapple Express (2008), R
This movie is for stoners but also for the friend that declined the joint, and then proceeded to be entertained for the rest of the night. Starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny McBride. A pothead and his dealer try to evade a drug kingpin after witnessing a murder, and it creates the biggest, funniest mess in the world.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

21 Jump Street (2012), R & 22 Jump Street (2014), R
The most non-stop hilarious buddy-cop movie series that’s out there (though I love me some Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour). I believe that both the first installment and the sequel are equally quotable, hysterical, and self-aware. If you’re trying to get through four or so hours of being indoors and just need a good laugh, watch both of these. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ice T.
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Bridesmaids (2011), R
A lot of people call this “The Hangover for Women”. Forget that. This movie makes for twice as many laughs with 10 times as much heart. It’s one of the best comedies—period. Starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy.
How to watch: Streaming on HBO Now and HBO GO. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Romantic Feel-Good Movies

About Time (2013), directed by Richard Curtis | Universal Pictures

About Time (2013), R
This totally flew under my radar for years. Then my brother convinced me to open my heart up to another romantic comedy. And God bless him for it! This is a simple, but lovely story about a man who realizes he can travel through the past, and uses this to help him find love and cherish the present. It’s honestly a beautiful, purely happy movie. Stars Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars, Ex Machina), Rachel McAdams, and Margot Robbie. Same director as Love Actually, but this is far superior. Warning: One scene makes me weep like a child every time (happy tears!).
How to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Pride and Prejudice (2005), PG
The one with Keira Knightley! When I say “low stakes” being an essential element to feel good movies, this is the movie I think of. The worst that can happen is marrying someone that makes less than a billion dollars a year, and people will speak gossip about your family. I’ve read the book, seen the A&E series, and this captures the spirit of the Jane Austin story to a T. As a bonus, the cinematography and music is truly breathtaking. This is one of my go-to Sunday afternoon movies. Make sure you watch the version with the final scene, or find the scene on YouTube (for some reason, one version ends super abruptly before you get the last bit of closure).
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Dan in Real Life (2007), PG-13
You guys… I love this movie. I’m pretty sure this is one of the first films Steve Carell was in that wasn’t a straight-up comedy. He’s a widower with three daughters, and writes a periodic news column on parenting—but he has no idea what he’s doing as a parent and it’s hilarious. The love interest is introduced in a clever way, the relationships feel real and familiar, and the backdrop of a family reunion makes for such a homey, comfy viewing experience. I’ve probably watched it like six times this year because it makes me feel so good. I want to watch it right now just writing about it.
How to watch: Streaming on Showtime. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

While You Were Sleeping (1995), PG
The Smash Critic awarded “Best Sandra Bullock Rom-Com” (and there’s a lot to choose from). This may belong with the others like Angels in the Outfield and School of Rock just because of how ridiculous the plot sounds, but it’s gold, true gold. Crazy story short: Sandra’s character likes this man that’s in a coma and his family is misled into thinking that she’s engaged to him. She’s not, but doesn’t know how to tell them the truth, so she goes with it. The movie tells it a bit better, but it is pretty dumb sounding. But trust me—it’s a good time.
How to watch: Streaming on Showtime. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Road Trip Feel-Good Movies

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris | Fox Searchlight Pictures

*Note: this section isn’t about movies that are good for watching on road trips. There are just literally enough fantastic feel-good movies with the majority of their run-time spent on road trips to demand its own section.

A Goofy Movie (1995), G
This is old enough that maybe some of us aren’t aware that Goofy has a teenage son named Max and they go on a zany field trip together (against Max’s will) full of the best cartoon dance scenes and the most obnoxious but hilarious Bigfoot representation.
How to watch: Streaming on Disney+. Buy or rent on Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Fundamentals of Caring (2016), TV-MA
Oh my gosh, you guys. This is the most relentless feel-good movie I’ve ever seen. By that I mean every second you think something awful is going to happen (like the car crash in Remember the Titans or the freaking rope swing in Bridge to Terabithia), you’re reminded, “No stupid! Relax—this is a happy movie”. Paul Rudd plays an unmotivated, soon-to-be divorcée that starts care-taking for a quadriplegic, viciously sarcastic teenage boy. Together they go on a trip to the most mediocre American landmarks. It’s so great. When I was dealing with being indoors all day and getting very little sleep on paternity leave, this brought me out of my funk!
How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), R
My friend won’t watch this movie no matter how much I plead and beg. This is all because he didn’t like the trailer when he first saw it like 15 years ago. It brings me sorrow because I know he’s missing out on a little piece of happiness that this film will give to whoever watches. Comical, messy, sincere family relationships all put to the test in a cramped VW van headed toward a children’s beauty pageant three states away. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collete (Hereditary), Steve Carell, Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man, There Will Be Blood), and a little, sweet, Oscar-nominated Abigail Breslin (Signs, Zombieland). And Alan Arkin won the supporting Oscar for playing the coked up Grandpa. It’s a gem.
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on Vudu.

Tommy Boy (1995), PG-13
Like many of you, I grew up with these last two picks. They probably belong in the classic section but it was just too convenient to not create a road trip section! Tommy, played by Chris Farley, goes on a sales trip with his pessimistic coworker, Richard (David Spade), to try to save his dad’s company. It’s quotable beyond compare, it’s heartfelt, and it’s gut-bustingly funny—even the 100th time around. If you haven’t seen it, get on this train! Or even if you have, get on it again!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Dumb and Dumber (1994), PG-13
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. The epitome of stupid buddy films. I hope you’ve seen this. But in case it’s been awhile, cheer yourself up with this classic!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

And there you have it! Even if you just take one movie recommendation from each category, that should keep you busy through the weekend. Let me know in the comments which movies you decided to watch, or reach out to me on social media.

REVIEW: I Still Believe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

REVIEW: Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

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