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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: 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: Hubie Halloween

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Steven Brill

Anybody else just really loving this holiday season more than usual this year? I don’t know what it is, but I’m especially open to anything Halloween related just to get the spooky feels going. Haunted houses, late night movies in bed, decorating my classroom, scary stories around the fire–I’m doing it all this time around. Maybe that’s why I was actually willing to give Hubie Halloween a shot. My take on this film will end up being pretty simple, short and not so sweet. But I don’t feel like passing judgment without first honoring merit where merit is due. So, let me talk a little bit about the producer and lead actor.

Deep down, don’t we all love Adam Sandler? From The Wedding Singer (1998) to 50 First Dates (2004), he’s made some definite classics that will be in my movie collection forever. He has a respectable resume between SNL, his large filmography, and an underrated knack for drama like in Punch Drunk Love (2002), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) and most recently, Uncut Gems (2019). It’s not very debatable, the guy has talent.

On top of his career, he just seems like a really good dude off the screen. I love the tear-jerking, heartwarmingly personal memorial he gave Chris Farley in Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh (2018). He performed a beautiful song with Miley Cyrus respecting the victims of the Las Vegas shooting a few years back. Even that funny video of him and Justin Bieber spotting each other on the streets; just a nice, down to earth human being.

Now I’ll add to the overwhelming consensus: he’s had a lot of duds. In many cases, his later movies have been almost entirely void of the sincerity, wit and utter watchability of his past films. I don’t think I need to name them, but basically any Happy Madison produced flick in the last 10 to 15 years should give you a general idea. This doesn’t mean that these movies don’t have a place in the world. Just as the gags have delved into potty-humor and the stories and characters have turned (even more) ridiculous, they may just be more so geared for preteens. So don’t call me a hater. And for the record, I love that he uses his films as a way to kind of vacation and spend time with his buddies. I’m also sure he works really hard; they usually pump out 2 or more movies a year.

Julie Bowen and Adam Sandler appear in a scene of Hubie Halloween | NETFLIX.

So… Hubie Halloween. I’ll say a couple things I loved. There were really fun references to older, far superior Adam Sandler movies. Moments of these are what got me first engaged in the film and what often got me through it. That element and just a few other subtle bits of dialogue had me genuinely laughing. Another thing, Sandler’s character is a sweet guy, and the moral of the story centers around that. Though many might be tired of the standard Bobby Boucher/Happy Madison/Sandy Wexler voice and mannerisms (and at first his voice did make me moan in exhaustion), it works fine enough to make the character overall likable.

BUT expect the bizarre, witless potty-humor. Expect other jokes that just simply fall flat. Expect less than award-worthy acting and a script and story that don’t help much either in bolstering this flick out of the slew of subpar Netflix Originals.

For many die hard fans of his content, or if some individuals are just that easily pleased by a movie, this may be a fun new addition for you. After all it’s Halloween genre. And in my opinion, that alone makes any movie more fun.

Aside from those select few mentioned, I’d advise the general audience to skip it for now. Keep an eye out on our content that has or will be released this month for some better suggestions of Halloween movie night options!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Mulan

*Editor’s note: this is the second roundtable review we have done on Backseat Directors. This format has been a lot of fun for our writers, and you can expect to see this more in the future with bigger blockbuster type films. For a more comprehensive (spoiler-free) review of Mulan, check out The Formal Review’s Podcast episode 25 (season 3) and his thoughts of the movie.

Mulan is available VOD (video on demand) on Disney+ for $29.99. The movie will be available to all Disney+ subscribers to stream for free come Dec. 4, 2020.

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 115 minutes | Director: Niki Caro

Rachel Wagner: I’m not sure what I expected out of this new Mulan. I haven’t been a big fan of most of these Disney live-action remakes, but occasionally they will produce a winner. The trailers looked pretty good and I felt that it is a story that could warrant different interpretations. Unfortunately, what they came up with thoroughly underwhelmed me. The power of the original Mulan (1998) is an ordinary girl who makes sacrifices to save her father and learns to be a warrior. In this new version, Mulan has the power of “chi” and is destined to save China, which is far less interesting. I also thought the actress Liu Yifei was very wooden and flat in the role. I think this might have something to do with a language barrier, but whatever the reason it kept me from being engaged in the film. In the end, they went for a superhero, “chosen one” narrative, and that was a huge mistake; making for a film that nobody will remember in 2 years, let alone 22 like the original animated classic.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

CJ Marshall: An old basketball coach used to tell me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Disney’s live-action Mulan feels like a perfect example of this. Mulan (2020) is merely decent, and the external forces (politics, Disney classic remake, expectation) are hard to ignore, because they don’t allow this phoenix to fly. They’re trying to serve too many masters here, and in doing so, it lacks a focus and gravity that would have made it a better picture. A Wuxia remake of Disney’s Mulan should have been better than this…especially with Donnie Yen and Jet Li involved. If you are a Disney+ subscriber, just wait until the movie is available to stream for free in December.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: As an Asian American, Mulan (2020) was a great experience, and frankly, it was the best thing that could come from a Disney remake of an animated movie. Unfortunately, the look of it won’t be appreciated because they won’t have a big enough screen to do so. The action and the colors and the costumes all looked great; though, historically inaccurate. Even though it’s trying to be diverse with its obvious attempt to be a wuxia film, it’s not exactly the genre it was trying to be. To tell an “authentic” story of a legendary Chinese warrior, Disney hired a white director, a white costume designer, four white screenwriters, a white composer, a white cinematographer, white film editor, and a white casting director. It was a good attempt, but a better one would be to have given a person of Asian descent the reins on at least one of those professions to help out. Having a female director is great, but there are plenty of Asian directors of all genders out there that could have directed this. The representation that it had on screen is important but so is the representation behind the camera as well. Even so, the score by Henry Gregson Williams is pretty amazing. Though controversial, the film had some really good acting by the many stars. It dared to be different while also feeling the same. It had a lot of good things that make it worth the watch. I recommend splitting the $30 rental price with some family or friends, and enjoy the movie together.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: In an ironic twist of fate, the parts where Mulan (2020) honors the original animated movie with its own twists were the parts that I most enjoyed throughout the movie. The relationship between Mulan and her father was expanded beautifully. I think the writers really understood that their relationship drove the whole story, and executed that part of the story perfectly. I thought the group of soldiers were portrayed wonderfully here, and I wish we got more time with them individually as opposed to just the love interest. The callbacks to the original musical numbers in both the score and dialogue was executed brilliantly. Sadly, every distinctly original element of this live action adaptation felt out of place or completely irrelevant to the story. The way chi is used in this story just felt like a lazy way to justify wire-fu to Americans not familiar with Asian/martial arts cinema, rather than having Mulan have natural talent in addition to her hard work and training. The witch detracts from Jason Scott Lee’s imposing performance as Bori Khan and his army, both in screen time and importance to the plot, and the idea of chi as traditional magic further muddles the idea of chi. Finally, the phoenix is literally only there for the most in-your-face symbolism since Game of Thrones. Mulan is one of the best live-action Disney Remakes alongside Cinderella (2015) and Aladdin (2019), but it still falls short of being great. I would advise those who want to see it to wait until December when it will be free to watch. Although somewhat enjoyable, $30 is just too much to pay.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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: 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: 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: 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

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