[REVIEW] ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ (2020 Netflix) or How to Adapt Nostalgic Properties Right

Back in the old days when I was in middle school there wasn’t much of a YA reading scene (at least to my knowledge) but there were several popular authors (ala Cynthia Voigt and Judy Blume) and popular series (Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew) with my favorite being The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M Martin. What I loved about the series is the independent spirit of the girls forming their own business and also becoming a strong group of friends. It satisfied both my youthful needs for independence and connection in one set of novels. My friends and I even started our own club inspired by the books!

With this history you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the new series on Netflix coming this year. Well, excitement mixed with trepidation after what Netflix did with my beloved Anne of Green Gables in the abhorrent Anne with an E, which I hated. That show lost all the spirit of the novels and the characters in a weird mixture of melodrama and supposed grittiness. What would they do with my Baby-Sitters Club?

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Well, I am delighted to reassure you all that not only is The Baby-Sitters Club a worthy adaptation of our beloved novels but it is one of the best live action family series I’ve seen in a long time. I absolutely loved just about everything they did in this series and I don’t see any reason why other fans won’t also be very pleased with it.

The biggest strength to the series is the writing. Taking inspiration from the novels each of the 5 main girls is granted their own episode or chapter where they are the lead narrator. Kristy played by Sophie Grace is the brainchild behind the club and a very independent young lady that bristles at the thought of her mother remarrying.

Then you have the artistic Claudia (Momona Tanada), free spirited Dawn (Xochitl Gomez), shy Mary Ann (Malia Baker), and sophisticated Stacey (Shay Rudolph). They all face their own unique challenges that feel authentic and real without resorting to unnecessary and overbearing trauma like Anne with an E did.

The conflict is especially impressive when we consider the writers have only 23 minutes to get their lead character’s story across as well as building the over-all narrative of the group.

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I also really enjoyed the casting including Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s Mom. She walks the tricky balance of defending her own choices while still giving her daughter space to grow and accept the big changes in their lives. Again, it was real and authentic and something anyone can relate with.

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The show is also sweet with great chemistry on the part of all of the girls. You don’t have to be a teenage girl to love this show. If you ever were a teenager or ever faced the toils of growing up you will enjoy it. It’s honest and heart-felt without resorting to the cheap gags or sitcom antics of shows typically made for this age demographic.

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There are also characters for younger kids like little Karen Brewer (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) who would go on to receive a spinoff series in the novels and I can see that happening here in The Baby-Sitters Club Little Sister series (they also have graphic novels of the main and Little Sisters series). She’s a funny, strange and superstitious character that smaller children will really enjoy.

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What’s great about a show like The Baby-Sitters Club is it can be appreciated on many different levels. It tackles different issues teens are facing from having your period, to parents splitting up, to bullying but it also can be enjoyed on a basic entertainment level. This is because they took the time to write dynamic interesting characters we can relate to. I can think of so many family home evening discussion you could have with this show while still being very entertained.

As far as flaws the 2 episode arc at the camp was a little more over-the-top and less grounded than the rest of the episodes but I was with fine with it. A few of the side characters dipped into caricature like Claudia’s sister Janine. But in fairness she comes right out of the books and was based on Ann M Martin’s actual relationship with her sister, so I’ll allow it (one classic novel this episode is based on is literally called Claudia and Mean Janine). I also thought Mary Ann’s Dad (Marc Evan Jackson) took me out of the realistic tone and was a bit silly in his neurosis for the show.

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Other than that I absolutely loved The Baby-Sitters Club. It was clearly made with love and I hope that families embrace it and it becomes the hit it deserves to be.

9 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Irresistible’ or Don’t Forget to Be Funny

Most of my readers know I am a traditional conservative who did not vote for our current President Donald Trump. This puts me in a bit of a weird position when it comes to observing the current political landscape. I side with Republicans when it comes to many issues particularly fiscal ones, but I cannot abide the moral failings of our leader and the many reprehensible things that have happened since 2016. On the other hand, I also disagree with most of the positions of the Democrats and so I am stuck in the middle with nowhere to turn to.

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Being an independent-of-the-moment should make me primed to enjoy political satire and comedy. Ideally I should be able to see truth in the humor of both the left and the right; however, unfortunately the tension of this moment seems to have made both sides either too nervous or distracted to make good comedy. This is a real shame as comedy can be an important tool in critiquing and even challenging our leaders to do the right thing and listen to the people. You can see this going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin challenging Hitler in The Great Dictator.

Anyway, I say this to make clear my problem with the new film Irresistible by writer/ director Jon Stewart has nothing to do with my disagreeing with its politics. The film actually does a pretty good job of poking fun at both parties equally. Unfortunately, the problem is I just didn’t find it to be funny. To be more specific, I laughed twice over 2 media related gags and that’s it. Everything else fell completely flat.

The problem with Irresistible isn’t that different than the problem most faith-based films have. Stewart wants to reveal a big flaw in the American political campaign system so he made a movie exposing this flaw to the American people. This attempt is perfectly admirable, but just as with faith-based films, it is not enough to have a compelling message in a movie. You must craft a narrative around that message which will appeal to the audience. Story first. Message second!

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Not that Irresistible doesn’t have its strengths. All the acting from folks like Steve Carrell and especially Chris Cooper as a Vietnam War vet are well done. The problem is the script doesn’t give the actors anything to do. Most of the time I was watching campaign stops mixed with board meetings, and if you know anything about me nothing is more boring in a movie a than board meeting (with a tie going to staring at screens).

Most of the attempts at jokes involve the media. Carrell and Rose Byrne’s characters trying to manipulate the 24 news cycle in their favor and most of these jokes are not funny because they are more observations than actual humor. I honestly had more laughs with last year’s Long Shot: a movie I would barely count as political satire.

Again it’s more about the message than an entertaining script. If we want to learn more about the mechanics of the campaign finance system and how it can be corrupted we can read an article or watch a documentary. Watching Irresistible just makes us bored and less likely to want to learn more about this important subject.

If you want to see a well done political satire there hasn’t been much lately but some classic examples are Dr Strangelove, Wag the Dog, In the Loop, Thank You for Smoking, and Dave. As far as current politics you are probably better off watching an episode of The Simpsons or The Daily Show than spending time with Irresistible. I’ve been told VEEP is good but have never seen it myself.

3 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Current Mini Reviews

Today I am back with another round of my mini reviews of films I don’t have time to write a full review of but wanted to log my thoughts on. Some of them are current to me but not to the world at large. That’s the nice thing about quarantine is a chance to catch up (I’m about caught up to be honest!). So here goes! Enjoy!

Da 5 Bloods

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Spike Lee’s new joint Da 5 Bloods has been getting a lot of buzz lately and part of that is undeniably due to its timely themes and character arcs. Overall, I enjoyed the film but I do not think it is nearly as strong as his last film Blakkklansman. Delroy Lindo is excellent playing a conflicted wounded man who is tired of dealing with all the garbage he’s been thrown in his life.

Unfortunately the film also has problems: most of which lie with the direction and script. The narrative is a bit sloppy with it trying to pull off ‘old guy reunion comedy’, gory war movie, political documentary and outdoor survival story and more- sometimes all within the same scene. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Da 5 Bloods and recommend it as a springboard for learning more about this pivotal time in our nation’s history and the brave Black men who served without the recognition they deserve.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind'; Photograph by Bill Ray/Courtesy of HBO

It’s hard to be too tough on such a sweet and affectionate documentary but as Natalie’s life, or at least the ending of her life has a lot of controversy Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind does feel disappointing. It feels very managed by the family to give the best impressions of all of their members including Robert Wagner. This ends up as a standard famous person documentary, which is fine but underwhelming (and a little boring to be honest).

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

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There is nothing extraordinary about the filmmaking in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael but as a female film critic I loved learning about Pauline Kael and her groundbreaking career. Pauline’s voice in her reviews is so bold and unapologetic. I feel like I’ve lost a little bit of that in the last year or so and I’m determined to find it again. I love film and love writing about film and nobody was better at it than Pauline Kael.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Artemis Fowl

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

Spelling the Dream (Breaking the Bee)

Spelling the Dream

We have had documentaries about the National Spelling Bee before but what makes Spelling the Dream interesting is it is from the Indian/Pakistani- American perspective and so it covers the entire immigrant experience not just the kids and their spelling. It’s basically a 30 for 30 for the spelling bee and I’ve never met one of those I don’t like. This film is charming and heart-warming and definitely worthy of your time.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Long Gone Summer

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Speaking of 30 for 30 films we had another good one air last weekend called Long Gone Summer about the 1998 race to beat Roger Maris’ home run record. While this film does address the steroid fallout that came years later it’s more concerned with documenting the moment in time when the nation got caught up in excitement of the game. I love that kind of thing and in this time of isolation it was just what I needed. I could have used more on Sosa but it was still a very enjoyable watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Stranger Things Season 3

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I finally got caught up with Stranger Things Season 3! When it originally aired last summer I was too busy with my podcasting schedule to get to it and once the hype had died down I kept saving it for a rainy day. Well, that day finally came and I ended up enjoying the season. I wish they had gone the more scifi route over the monster route but that was decided back in season 2 so it’s fine. At least we don’t have any bizarre entries into Eleven’s backstory to deal with this season but a few of the characters felt a bit undercooked like Cary Elwes’ Larry Kline.

Still I love this cast so much that it feels like going on an adventure with friends while watching. The show is also so well made with such a well-used sense of nostalgia (all the callbacks to Terminator were very well done) that it is very entertaining. I don’t only care about the teen characters but also Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Jim (David Harbour) as well. I particularly loved new editions Erica (Priah Ferguson) and Robin (Maya Hawke) and what they added to our Hawkins, Indiana family.

7 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Judy & Punch’ or a Not Very Punchy Revenge Story

Back what seems like a million years ago I attended the Sundance Film Festival. While there I heard about a film getting some buzz entitled Judy & Punch. As a lover of costume dramas its premise of a ‘anachronistic take on the origin of Punch and Judy shows’ sounded intriguing and I was disappointed I didn’t get to see it at the festival. Now I have seen it and must own to being disappointed by the film. I didn’t hate it but its script is very uneven.

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The first 30 minutes of Judy & Punch are its strength. Watching Mia Wasikowska’s Judy and Damon Herriman’s Punch travel around 17th century England putting on puppet shows is entertaining. The costumes, spectacle and relationship of the couple feels fresh and new. Waikowska does a great job as usual and makes for a compelling empowered woman and Mother doing an unusual job for her time.

Then something happens which I won’t spoil, and the movie becomes a simmering revenge tale with Herriman playing our greedy villain and it’s a lot less interesting. We rarely hear any more dialogue from Wasikowska’s character for the rest of the film as she wins her revenge from her evil husband. I wanted to yell out ‘I liked the earlier Judy best!’. In the desperation to make a feminist film the creators seemed to have abandoned a compelling woman and in her place put a bland archetype.

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That’s not to say the movie is bland, just the character. It’s a strange film with a cool look and aesthetic about it. I didn’t hate watching it. I just resented the turn the script took when I was enjoying the unusual story it started with.

Probably the most impressive aspect of the production in Judy & Punch is how dirty everything looks. Everyone appears like they haven’t had a bath in weeks and even the hair on the horses looks long! The puppet shows are also a ton of fun and very creative. Nevertheless, the tone is too jumbled and the story’s message too heavy-handed and simplistic for me to recommend. They were close to making something really cool but didn’t pull it off. Too bad!

4.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Faith Ba$ed’ or a Laugh and a Prayer?

In many ways the faith-based film genre invites itself for easy satire. Whenever a film puts itself out there as being more than entertainment, but a ministry tool it will be ripe with hypocrisy and ridiculousness. There’s also something so sincere and cheap about them which make it hard to not poke fun at. Filmmaker Vincent Masciale has taken on this fertile ground for satire in his new comedy Faith Ba$ed and the results are a mixed bag but just funny enough to recommend.

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In Faith Ba$ed the film’s writer Luke Barnett plays a dumb but optimistic man who idolizes a multi-level marketer tycoon named Nicky Steele (played by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander). Barnett dreams of making easy money and living the good life. To make it big he develops a scheme with his BFF Tanner (Tanner Thomason) that they are going to make the world’s greatest Christian film.

Both Masciale and Barnett are regulars on the satirical internet show Funny or Die and you can see some of that influence in Faith Ba$ed. Evidently even just the trailers have gotten some of the conservative media upset calling the film ‘blaspheme’, which should feed right into their advertising. In truth, the script is pretty tame when it comes to their criticisms of religion. Most of the good jokes are similar to any type of misbegotten artistic project like we see in The Disaster Artist or The Producers.

There’s actually a lot in Faith Ba$ed that feels borrowed from other films. For example, Luke has an all Black family, which feels right out of Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Other gags (and the over-all vibe) has strong Napoleon Dynamite or Dumb and Dumber vibes. And their dopey optimism feels right out of the early Will Farrell comedies such as Talladega Nights.

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The derivative nature, however, wasn’t much of a downside for me because I was consistently laughing. The script in Faith Ba$ed is funny especially when it is focusing on the movie. When it’s filming, financing and casting the movie it is pretty hilarious. When it goes off on tangents it works less. For example, when Luke ends up at Nicky Steele’s house to clean his pool Alexander’s over-the-top sales pitches fall flat.

I was also left wondering who the target audience for Faith Ba$ed is? It’s too strong an R rating for most religious viewers to enjoy and will the R-rated crowd be aware of the tropes of the genre to laugh? As a conservative critic I’ve seen lots of faith-based films, so I am the perfect person for this film, but I think it might struggle to find a general audience. It might have been smarter to follow the Napoleon Dynamite model and make it something the skewered audience could more easily embrace while laughing at themselves.

Actor David Koechner in the film “Faith Based”. Courtesy photo

Nevertheless, I always judge a comedy by how much did it make me laugh and in this case it was quite a bit. Like I said, whenever they are making the film A Prayer in Space it’s quite funny. On that basis alone I have to recommend Faith Ba$ed. The script is solid and the chemistry between Barnett and Thompson works. If you get a chance to see it let me know what you think!

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Blind Spot 54: ‘Wolf Children’ Review

In the world of anime fans it’s actually kind of a scandal that I haven’t seen Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece Wolf Children. I love Hosoda so I’m not sure why I put off seeing it but now that I have I’m delighted to tell you all that it lives up to the hype. It’s not a loud movie but it is one of the most beautiful depictions of motherhood I’ve seen.

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Wolf Children tells the story of a woman named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man while in attending college. Eventually she finds out the man is a wolfman, but not the man-eating variety we see in horror movies. Hanna and the man end up having 2 children, Yuki and Ame who share the wolfman traits of their father.

When the man dies Hana must figure out how to not only be a young single Mother of 2 but also raise 2 children that are of a different species from her own- one that she and everyone around her is entirely unfamiliar with. She ends up moving to the country to keep them safe and learning how to farm and teach her children how to manage both sides of themselves.

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What’s also interesting is the different trajectories of the children. Yuki wants to live as a human being. She goes to school, makes friends, and is able to hold her wolf side in with the help of a little song her Mom made up. On the other hand, Ame is drawn to the wolf side especially after he becomes friends with a wolf named Sohei.

If you are watching Wolf Children looking for a big narrative or strong action you will be disappointed. It’s a simple film about the every day life of our 3 lead characters. We get to know them and become invested in their journeys. The animation is absolutely stunning- right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The sound design is also very impressive with the lushness of nature coming to life before our eyes. It really helps us become immersed in the story.

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But mostly Wolf Children is a beautiful story about the power of a Mother’s love to save her children. Even if they are of different species that love is powerful and that says a lot. I don’t think you have to be a big anime fan to enjoy this film. If you have a mother, are a mother or long to be a mother you will be moved by this touching story. I highly recommend it.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’- A Defense

In the midst of the protests and hashtags of the last week one little post caught my eye. It was from a man named Franklin Leonard who said:

“Not to make a bad situation worse but I was informed yesterday that Sister Act 2 is 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it’s not the best evidence I’ve heard of bias in the film industry it’s still, you know, definitely not good”.

This was retweeted by the critic Robert Daniels asking us to ‘re-review Sister Act 2 this week’ so here I am!

I must own I hadn’t seen Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit for many years but I was shocked to hear the fresh rating was so low. My memory was that it is an improvement over the original, which has a rottentomatoes score of 73%. So I sat down with my Disney Plus and re-watched both films today and confirmed that my memory is correct. Sister Act 2 is definitely the superior of the two films.

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The original Sister Act is an enjoyable enough light comedy. Most of the jokes come at the expense of ‘look at those silly nuns’ which is a level of comedy not high above toilet humor. Nevertheless, it has a charismatic lead in Whoopi, a fun ensemble supporting her and a big enough heart to work.

For the sequel, they obviously rushed out a movie, making it to theaters just over a year after the successful original. Instead of a comedy, they tried to give the story a bit more gravitas by putting Whoopi and her singing nuns into an inner-city school that is about to close its doors. I’m not going to say this is the most original concept to ever hit screens but it’s something easy to relate to and very appealing when done well, which it is here.

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Who can’t relate to that teacher who inspires you to be a better person or to pursue your dreams? In this film Whoopi Goldberg gets to be a black woman making that happen for a diverse group of teens in 1993. That’s not something you saw every day back then. In addition, they share their music with her, and we the audience get to enjoy different styles like hip hop and rap.

My absolute favorite part is when Tanya Blount and Lauryn Hill sing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’. It gives me the chills every time I hear it. Stunning. This song alone makes it better than the ‘nuns are funny’ comedy of the first film.

In fact, Lauryn Hill’s Rita is my favorite character in the film. She wants to sing but her Mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is worried her daughter’s dreams aren’t practical. This is a trope but it’s executed very well and again is easy to relate with (on both sides both mother and daughter). Her Mother makes a lot of sense but then when you hear Lauryn sing it’s obvious she’s born to do nothing else.

On the surface it is easy to dismiss a movie like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit as a lazy throwaway film, but I appreciate it tried to be more than just a comedy. It gave us a beautiful soundtrack with likable performances and a story that while admittedly generic is extremely likable and easy cheer for. It’s the kind of movie that’s a blanket of comfort and goodness, and I thoroughly enjoyed rewatching it.

And I definitely give it SMILE WORTHY

7 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The High Note’ is a Good Enough Note

Like most cinephiles I have been quite depressed waiting for theaters to reopen again since the COVID19 shut-down. I am one of the lucky ones that has been able to go to drive-in movies and see one film in an indoor theater (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Pt 2). You can see all about my experience here:

In the meantime, we have to be content with the films going on streaming and VOD. To see all my reviews of TV and Film check out my RT site. The latest release, which was meant for theaters, is director Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note. While not platinum release, it was an entertaining enough film to recommend and support.

First thing I want to clarify is Tracee Ellis Ross’s character Grace Davis is a supporting role to Dakota Johnson’s Maggie in the film. The trailer had me believing she was if not the main character at least 50/50 but there are long stretches where you don’t even see her and it is all about Johnson and her boyfriend/client David played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nevertheless, the cast is all really good in this and they help elevate somewhat basic plotting.

The story of The High Note centers around Maggie who is a beleaguered assistant for Grace who dreams of becoming a music producer of her own and nourishing new talent with her great ear for mixing and arranging songs. Unfortunately, any attempts she makes to step out on her own are quickly pushed down by Grace’s manager played by Ice Cube. Then one day she meets aspiring singer David and things start moving forward in her career.

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I think most people will agree the best parts of The High Note are when Ross and Johnson get to interact together. The dialogue, for the most part, is pretty good and their conversations felt authentic and true to what the characters would be experiencing in real life. This is not always the case in these types of films where the journey to stardom can feel so phony (Bohemian Rhapsody for instance had some of the corniest stale dialogue I’ve heard in a long time in a film). Here these characters feel true and believable and that is refreshing.

Of course, Ross has a great guide for her performance in her Mother Diana Ross and she channels her quite effectively. She’s not the singer her Mother is but she’s good enough to sell the scenes. I oddly had a harder time buying Johnson as the music producer because I didn’t care for the synthesized sound she added to the tracks but what do I know about R&B music!

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If you are looking for something outside the box and super original The High Note won’t be for you but if you are up for a sweet, enjoyable film with good performances than you will enjoy it. It’s fairly generic and predictable but I enjoyed the ride and recommend the film. If you can see it at a drive-in or local opened theater please go and support those venues. If not, rent it, pop some popcorn, take a big breath in and relax with a movie.

Isn’t that what we all need right now anyway?

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The Lovebirds’ or the Sometimes Funny Birds

As shown in my review of the recent film The Wrong Missy most Netflix comedies are not my cup of tea. However, in the case of The Lovebirds I had more hope as it is an acquisition by Netflix not an original film. Indeed, Paramount originally planned to release The Lovebirds into theaters before COVID19 closed everything down.

The film also stars Issa Rae who I recently enjoyed in The Photograph and Kumail Nanjiani who was so great in The Big Sick with the same director Michael Showalter. So how did it turn out? Were my high expectations met? Honestly not really but it had just enough laughs and chemistry to give a mild recommendation.

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The plot of The Lovebirds is similar to 2018’s Game Night but not nearly as funny. Both movies are about a couple who want a simple night of fun and end up in a mad-cap race for their lives with all kinds of violence and over-the-top comedic set pieces. In this case Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) are a couple who have lost their mojo after 4 years together. Unfortunately just as they are breaking off their relationship they hit a man with their car and then one thing after another happens until they end up in all kinds of shenanigans including a sftrange cult ceremony of some kind.

Most of my favorite parts of the movie came from the dialogue particularly from Nanjiani. He was just manic enough to make me laugh without being shrill or annoying. Nanjiani and Rae also have wonderful chemistry together, and I bought them as this established couple struggling with their relationship.

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The problem with The Lovebirds is not all the comic-action set-pieces worked. In particular there’s a sequence where the 2 are tortured by Anna Camp and forced to chose between getting hot bacon grease on them or get kicked by a horse. This kind of body humor isn’t for me and it went on way too long.

I also didn’t love the long sequence at the cult. Basically whenever the plot or the action was supposed to carry the film it didn’t work for me. When they relied on the dialogue and the witty banter between the 2 leads it did.

The Lovebirds earns its R rating with vulgar language and violence so it will not be for everyone. Although obviously I had problems with it, I did laugh out loud quite a few times and that’s enough to give it a mild recommendation. No masterpiece but if you are looking through Netflix for a comedy you could certainly do worse.

6 out of 10

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