‘Booksmart’ Review

The teenage coming of age comedy has long been a regular entry into the movie landscape each year. Some I enjoy like Clueless and Juno and others I am more mixed on like Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird. At times the sullen angry teen can be hard for me to connect with and leave me feeling drained (I’m probably the only one who connected much more with the mother character in Lady Bird than the title character). Recently all of film twitter has been abuzz about the latest entry called Booksmart, and I’m delighted to tell you I agree with the buzz. While very raunchy I found Booksmart to be a funny comedy but also a treatise on the importance of friendship.

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Booksmart stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as 2 seniors in high school who realize they missed out on all the ‘fun’ of high school because they were too concerned with academics. To make up for it they decide to have the ultimate night of partying (and most of the night is spent trying to get to the party).  It’s a pretty simple premise but executed very well.

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My favorite part of Booksmart is the funny script. It reminded me of a more R-rated Juno. In particular Billie Lourd as the effervescent new-age Gigi was hilarious. I also enjoyed Jason Sudeikis in a small role as the uber-driving principal.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a decade from now we look back at much of the cast going on to be big stars like we do with Dazed and Confused.

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There are also some very creative sequences. As a stop-motion animation fan I especially loved a surprise Barbie doll, stop motion segment. It kind of reminded me of the stop motion in the 80s teen comedy Better Off Dead.

As far as any negatives of Booksmart, some of the cast felt under-used. In particular Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents only had a few scenes and they are such funny actors I wish they had gotten more. I would also have liked to have seen more of Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Molly together to buy what happens at the end with their characters.

Mostly I loved the theme of friendship and seeing Amy and Molly’s relationship grow and change. They are characters who think they know the other perfectly but in fact they have much to learn. I particularly loved a scene towards the end when they get in a big fight and the frustrations of adolescence come out. That kind of pent-up anger at the world I can relate to much more than characters who are mean-spirited and hateful to each other (Edge of 17…).

Just a reminder Booksmart is a very raunchy movie and is not for everyone. It was definitely out of my comfort zone but sometimes I take chances and push myself a bit. In the end, I’m glad I did.

7.5 out of 10

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Also I give a huge frown to Molly’s hideous yellow turtleneck!

 

‘Rocketman’ Review

Everyone who knows me knows I love a good musical/musician biopic. I was not a fan of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody because of the terrible script, but I love Walk the Line, DreamGirls, A Star is Born 2018, Sing Street, Blinded by the Light, Love and Mercy and many more. A good musician piece uses the music and tropes of the genre to draw the viewer in and make for a satisfying heroes journey. However, for every film that gets the balance right there’s tons that get it wrong. After being burned by Bohemian Rhapsody I approached the biopic about Elton John called  Rocketman cautiously. Fortunately, I kind of loved it!

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What I loved so much about Rocketman is how fresh and new it felt. Sure it hits the traditional beats but the fantasy elements helped everything feel alive and the use of the music was so creatively done! There would be a basic moment and then it would cut away to a musical fantasy sequence put to Elton John’s songs. This was so much better than a dry boring version of his rock n’ roll story.

The casting is also phenomenal. Taron Egerton is perfect as Elton John and his singing voice is so good (any of us who enjoyed Sing already knew that). I also loved Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin (the real hero of the movie!) and the 2 little boys who play young Elton (or Reggie I should say) do a great job. Richard Madden is very dreamy as John Reid (his role is a bit one-note but I didn’t really care because the movie is so over-the-top it fit to have a big bad hunky villain).

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The concert scenes were great and heightened by the incredible costumes by Julian Day and the energy/singing of Taron Egerton’s takes on Elton John’s fantastic songs. It was like Across the Universe but way better.

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Going into it I heard a lot of talk of it being a strong R rating and maybe I’ve been desensitized, but I have to disagree. Everything seemed totally conventional on that level to other biopics (alcoholism, drug use, a little profanity). Honestly unless a gay relationship/intimate scene depicted makes something R, which it shouldn’t, it seemed no more offensive than the PG-13 Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Finally, I loved the message of Rocketman. Like many a biopic, it’s about overcoming demons and the power of a creative genius at work; however, I also responded to the theme of dealing with loneliness and never giving up hope for a happy life. I especially loved the relationship between Bernie and Elton both as a creative force together and a friendship that never had an argument. It’s a beautiful, hopeful thing and will make you want to call your friends and thank them for being there for you.

The only flaws I have with Rocketman are more nitpicks. Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t quite work for me as his Mom and there were a couple characters I could have seen more of or gotten to know better.

Mostly I loved the creative vision of Rocketman. It was new and vibrant and had me grinning from ear to ear the entire time (even the grim sections were done with so much visual flair that I thoroughly enjoyed them). Go see it! It’s terrific!

smile worthy

9 out of 10

 

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ Review (Spoiler Free)

Going into the latest CGI Monsterverse film Godzilla: King of the Monsters I knew I was fighting an uphill battle. Monster movies are generally not my favorite movies, and I haven’t enjoyed either of the last 2 in this franchise. However, I assumed at least the visuals would look good so it would be entertaining on the IMAX. Sadly I was mistaken. It looks like the response is quite divisive on the film but I thought it was awful. You may love it but it was not for me. That’s for sure.

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There are so many problems with Godzilla: King of the Monsters but let me go over a few that especially stuck out. The first and least important problem is the asinine script with characters making nonsensical choices. Yes it’s a dumb monster movie, but we spend a lot of time with these people, so it would be nice if it was at least semi-coherent and logical. Especially Vera Farmiga’s character was a giant continual face palm.

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Second, I’ve long complained that action movies have become one long set of sequences of characters staring at screens. This is no exception. Almost every scene with the humans they are either looking at a glass encasement or staring at a screen. This is not interesting or exciting. Towards the end we have some emotional scenes with characters but they feel under-served because we haven’t gotten to know them beyond seeing them stare at screens.

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Finally, and most surprising, is the disappointing visuals. I think you can see from this gif how cloudy and murky the cinematography is. Every scene is raining and dark so you can’t see what is happening. To make matters worse the point of view is often from the ground up which is difficult when trying to see the action of these big creatures. The editing is also absolutely awful. The fight scenes are constantly cutting away into extreme closeups and mid-shots. Very rarely do you get a good wide shot to really see the fights or the full creatures. Isn’t that why we are there to see monsters fighting?

It wasn’t a big surprise to me when I found out one of the 3 co-editors is the editor for Transformers: the Last Night and Transformers: Age of Extinction- two of the worst edited films I’ve ever seen. And then the cinematographer usually does comedies like The Hangover. It was truly baffling.

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Another annoying aspect is millions of people are dying in scenes in Mexico, San Francisco and Boston, and yet we only seem to care about a handful of humans. It reminded me of San Andreas where the only person the screenplay cares about is The Rock’s daughter and everyone else can die. I think most people would be a little upset if the world was being annihilated and there was mass carnage? Call me crazy. Like I said Vera Farmiga (and Charles Dance) characters were especially bad in this regard.

The only comparison I can make is with 2017’s Geostorm but that film had more of a spirit of fun about it than Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the visuals were fine. This was just a badly made film. You might enjoy it and I hope you do but it’s definitely not for me, and I think I’m done with this Monsterverse for the foreseeable future.

I recommend seeing the Chinese film The Wandering Earth instead. It’s on Netflix and provides much better nutty spectacle than anything you’ll get here

2 out of 10

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‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’ Review

If you have been following this blog you know I am not a huge fan of Illumination Studios. In particular their popular yellow gibberish talkers, the Minions, drive me bonkers. Occasionally they will give us a break from our yellow tick-tacks with a Sing or The Secret Life of Pets– my 2 favorite from the studio most of their offerings are mediocre at best. Pets is particularly memorable for me because it was the first time I went on Rotoscopers podcast and it helped inspire me to podcast more. Now we have The Secret Life of Pets 2 and to my surprise I really enjoyed it!

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One of the challenges of these films is how many characters they establish. It almost necessitates a Toy Storyish plot where they can all contribute little bits to the journey. This makes a sequel even more difficult because do you do more of the same or try to come up with something different? I know many were scared from the trailer The Secret Life of Pets 2 would end up being a copy of Toy Story 2, but that is not the case.

Instead they divide up our team into 3 smaller stories with a vague theme tying them together (almost like a package film or TV series). It definitely has an episodic feel and will do very well when aired on television, but I didn’t mind it. I can see how some will want a more over-all plot but each part was strong enough (particularly 2 out of 3) that I left entertained.

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The first plotline involves Max’s owner Katie getting married and having a child named Liam. Max is very protective over Liam and starts scratching himself out of the anxiety he feels. As someone who deals with anxiety this was handled pretty well and may be a good touching point to talk to kids about how to deal with these strong emotions. Plus the relationship between Max and Liam is very sweet and easy to relate with (it’s a dog and a baby. Who can dislike that?).

Max, Duke and the family end up going out to the country where they meet a sheepdog named Rooster voiced by Harrison Ford (I believe his first voice acting role?). Rooster is disgusted by Max’s cowardice and helps encourage him to face his fears and have more confidence. These scenes while predictable were charming and sweet.

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The second subplot is about Gidget (who is my favorite from the first film) trying to retrieve a bumblebee toy Max gave her to guard while he is away. The problem is the toy is stuck in the home of a crazy cat lady with dozens of cats! She even talks Chloe (my other favorite) into giving her lessons on how to be a cat. This section had some nice physical comedy and slapstick that made me laugh.

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The final plot centers around Snowball, the Kevin Hart voiced bunny who is convinced he is actually a super-bunny because of the way his owner plays with him. He meets a new doggie named Daisy (voiced by Tiffany Haddish, who evidently must be in ever animated film this year). Daisy is upset because she saw a baby tiger get taken by a mean man at the circus. Snowball and the team of pets must save the tiger and restore order to the city.

This was the least successful of the 3 plots. First of all, I felt bad  the circus  is once again dragged through the mud. Most circuses took very good care of their animals and there aren’t many reported instances of abuse or neglect. It would be illogical of them to do so since they need the animals to perform in the show. I don’t think the circus is much worse than any other zoo experience, and yet they are usually the evil villains (Dumbo was a better, more fair approach). However, this portrayal of the circus wasn’t really my problem. It’s that Snowball is irritating and the villains are bland. I got a little sleepy to be honest in this section.

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While some may not care for the episodic nature of the story in The Secret Life of Pets 2, I didn’t mind it. The characters are cute and there are enough laughs and heart to keep my interest. The  vocal performances are all good (Patton Oswalt does a good job subbing out for Louis CK) and like I said, the message on overcoming fears is really sweet.

Alexandre Desplat deserves a huge shout-out for the music. It really helped sell the comedic and action- filled scenes, making me smile. The ending credits are also very sweet and heart-warming.

I have no doubt The Secret Life of Pets 2 will make a boat-load of money but for once it is deserved. The pets are adorable and the 3 sections (especially 2 out of 3) are charming and helpful for kids. I still wish Illumination would challenge themselves artistically more but there’s value in a simple comedy where characters learn simple lessons. I walked out having had a pretty good time.

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Overall Grade- 7 out of 10

Current Mini Reviews

It’s time for another edition of my Current Mini Reviews where I give shortened reviews of recently released films. If you are new to the site you are going to think I’m a super big grumpy pants because I didn’t like any of the movies being covered. Sometimes that’s the way the movie Gods see fit to provide, and it’s a good thing because it makes me grateful for the great films! So here goes:

The Sun is Also a Star

First up is The Sun is Also a Star. This is a romantic YA drama based on the book by Nicola Yoon. I actually read the book and enjoyed it. I thought both Natasha and Daniel were well developed and interesting characters and that helped me care about the instalove gimmick. Unfortunately as you can see in my youtube review the movie did not work. The director used too many gimmicks with spinning cameras and heavy-handed narration that got in the way of the characters. Without their development the romance felt very corny. The two leads are pretty people but the script didn’t work for me.

Frown Worthy

3.5 out of 10

A Dog’s Journey

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Don’t worry this is not a sequel to A Dog’s Way Home, which came out in January, and I gave a marginal recommendation to. No, this is a sequel to the 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose, which I didn’t enjoy, but this manages to be even worse. This is a PG family film, and we get multiple dog deaths, human deaths, parental abuse, alcoholism, a toxic teenage relationship, car crashes and cancer. Good grief! The only thing I liked about the movie aside from the cute doggies was the relationship between Kathryn Prescott and Henry Lau. I’d watch them in another movie- maybe a light-hearted romantic comedy and not this massive downer…It makes Old Yeller look like a laugh-fest.

Frown Worthy

2 out of 10

The Dead Don’t Die-

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Last year I loved the delightful indie zombie Christmas musical Anna and the Apocalypse. It was creative, funny and sweet. It even made Best Films of 2018. So when I saw a trailer for The Dead Don’t Die I got very excited. The trailer was hilarious, and I love the cast. My hope was it was going to be a Wes Anderson meets Zombieland film. Unfortunately I was very disappointed. The Dead Don’t Die was an unfunny, self-indulgent, frustrating experience. The cast is woefully wasted, and they strain for the few laughs the script offers. The metaphors are also rammed in to the ground by narrators and characters breaking the 4th wall. It is my first film from director Jim Jarmusch but the critics at Cannes and other places don’t seem to be enjoying it either, so it appears to be a just a big miss. It’s frustrating because it had so much potential and it all falls flat.

Frown Worthy

3.5 out of 10

Wine Country

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In recent years Hollywood has produced several popular comedic films starring and geared towards women. Whether it is the Bad Moms movies, Girl’s Trip or Bridesmaids these films have an audience. Unfortunately the successes for that audience are few and far between. In the latest from Netflix, Wine Country, a lot of funny women are brought together for little to no laughs. It boggles my mind that so many talented people like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and more could all get together and produce so few jokes. It felt like an R rated version of a sitcom episode stretched into nearly 2 hours. I also am so tired of the trope that women doing raunchy or outlandish things is inherently more funny than when a man does the same things. It’s so lazy and that’s how I would describe Wine Country. Buyer beware!

Frown Worthy

2 out of 10

So there you have it. 4 pretty terrible films all in the same month! I bet you’re not so jealous of my job now! If you get to see any of these movies let me know what you think. Thanks

‘Aladdin’ 2019 Review

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If you have been following this blog for a long time than you know I’m not the biggest fan of these Disney live action remakes. A few I have enjoyed (Mary Poppins Returns, Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but even when I enjoy them the overall movement away from animation is not my favorite. Plus, when it goes bad it goes really bad (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast). So naturally when I heard about a remake of the Disney classic Aladdin I was pretty skeptical. I was made more skeptical when they hired director Guy Ritchie, who I have not been a fan of, to helm the project. Then the casting looked questionable (how do you replace Robin Williams, one of the great vocal performances ever?) and the trailers were uneven at best.

Nevertheless, I always try to set all that baggage aside and go into a movie with an open mind (otherwise why bother?). So what was the result of this live action Aladdin? I’d say it is a decidedly mixed bag. It’s not awful and it’s not a classic like the original. It’s squarely middle of the road entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Let’s start with the positives. The best part about the film is the performances of Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. They are not only good charismatic actors but they had great chemistry and are pretty decent singers. I really enjoyed the ‘One Jump’ sequence from Massoud and Scott has a power ballad called ‘Speechless’ that felt a little out of place musically but was still a pretty good, well sung piece (written by La La Land’s Pasek and Paul). I also thought they nailed the ‘A Whole New World’ because of their chemistry and good singing. It was everything I could have wanted in that sequence.

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I also enjoyed Will Smith when he wasn’t the blue Genie that we know and love. My friend Jen, who attended the screening with me, said she thought he was playing the part of Hitch, acting as matchmaker between a nervous Aladdin and confident Jasmine. These scenes are funny and well produced. They even have Genie getting some of his own plotlines, which I surprisingly didn’t hate.

The trailers are also misleading on how devoted to the original the remake is. It is not a shot-for-shot remake, which many were afraid of, but instead, tries its own thing. The pacing could be a little tighter in spots but overall the story and script worked. Plus the Alan Menken music is always a treat.

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Unfortunately I also had problems with this new version of Aladdin. The biggest fall in 2 camps: blue Genie sequences and the portrayal of Jafar.

Like I said, I enjoyed the scenes of Will Smith playing matchmaker and mentoring Aladdin as a normal looking version of himself. However, I did not like him as the blue Genie. First of all, he looked ridiculous with cgi that was only slightly better than the first trailer. That said, my biggest problem was they took all the funny out of these scenes. I wonder if they were afraid of fans comparing him to Robin Williams? Unfortunately their solution was to make ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ flat and bland with hardly any jokes or energy to them. It felt like glitzy cruise ship renditions more concerned with checking off boxes instead of digging into a deep manic energy to make us laugh and smile. Also Will Smith doesn’t have a broadway style singing voice, so they should have embraced his more hip-hop style rather than produce weak versions of these iconic tunes.

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My other problem with Aladdin is the portrayal of Jafar by Marwan Kenzari. He had a lot of the trappings of Jafar but the performance was very annoying and whiny. I’ve always thought of Jafar as a pretty bold but sniveling villain and this was just irritating. It also didn’t help that Iago as a live action character was window dressing instead of the comic relief that makes the animated Jafar so full of dry menacing wit.

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I really struggled whether to go smile or frown worthy on this Aladdin. I’m about split down the middle on it but it so pales in comparison to the original animated classic that I’m not going fresh on this one. It’s not awful and has its charms, but I’d still say stay home and watch the original. Tough call but:

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Overall Grade 5 out of 10

If you want to hear Stanford and I talk all about the original Aladdin check out our Talking Disney podcast episode:

Blind Spot 41: ‘Brief Encounter’

I always like to have a little bit of variety on this Blind Spot project and this month we are going back to 1945 and taking a look at the romantic drama Brief Encounter.

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Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter tells a simple story of 2 strangers that meet in a train station ‘refreshment room’ and become fascinated with each other. Then they meet several more times until a relationship develops. Unfortunately with them both being married they cannot pursue their love so it is doomed to remain unrequited.

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Brief Encounter is directed by David Lean and he, with cinematographer Robert Krasker, do a stunning job crafting this film. The black and white photography is beautiful with great use of shadows and light. You feel an intimacy with the couple like you are somehow eavesdropping on their conversations instead of watching a movie. It kind of reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies in that regard. I think it also helps that we don’t have traditional movie stars in the lead roles but more ordinary looking humans. It makes their connection feel more grounded and real.

If you are worried this is a movie that justifies cheating, it doesn’t. In fact, the ending with Laura and her husband is actually quite touching. It’s just a moment between two people and that’s it. If it was made today it would probably be tawdry and tasteless but here it strikes just the right note.

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My only flaw with Brief Encounter is it is perhaps too brief. They go from strangers bumping into each other to declaring their undying love very quickly. In that sense, it feels a little hard to believe. We understand why Laura is tempted by a new and exciting love but are not entirely sure why this love with Alec fits that bill. I wish there were a few more scenes where we got to know both of them more and could understand their connection better.

That said, I definitely recommend checking out Brief Encounter. It is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel which is a service I highly recommend. They not only have great films but tons of special features on most of the films.

(Also David Lean is such an incredible director. It’s hard to believe the person who made this also directed Lawrence of Arabia!)

Overall Grade

7 out of 10

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‘Poms’ Review

One of the interesting trends of the last few years is Hollywood taking notice of an older demographic of filmgoer. It makes sense with senior citizen discounts and other programs that older men and women are going to the movies more each year. When I go to my local theater there are a number of older patrons who I see regularly and who seem to attend the movies almost daily.

With this audience it only stands to reason films are going to be made that particularly appeal to them. Whether it is comedies (Marigold Hotel movies, The Intern, Hello My Name is Doris, Book Club) or dramas (I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Mule, Beginners), every year we get a handful of movies about senior citizens and the contributions they make. The latest entry in this genre is called Poms and it is unfortunately a bit of a mixed bag

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The best parts of Poms are the sweet parts. Diane Keaton plays a woman named Martha who with little to no family moves to Georgia to live out her final days of cancer at a plush retirement community. While there she decides to fulfill her teenage dream of becoming a cheerleader with the help of a bunch of her new friends (Jacki Weaver, Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman, and more). These ladies have lovely chemistry and seeing them work together definitely pulled at the heartstrings (my Grandma just recently passed so it was close to home). I particularly loved Jacki Weaver who I think always elevates anything she is in. The ladies also have some sweet moments with 2 teenagers who agree to help the cause (Charlie Tahan and Alisha Boe).

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The problem with Poms is most of the humor felt very sitcomy. It felt like a used Golden Girls script stretched out into a feature film. The ‘old women can have sex’ jokes got old very fast and some of the humor was flat out weird- like an implication Rhea Perlman murders her abusive husband to be on the team or a badly handled subplot with Phyllis Somerville’s abusive and controlling son that was awkward. I also got really sick of Celia Weston’s antics as a Southern Belle maiden overseeing everything at the community. There might as well have been a laugh track behind some of these bits they were so sitcomy.

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All that said, if you are looking for something to do with your Mother and Grandmother for Mother’s Day you could do worse than Poms. It’s harmless but probably best to be seen at home as a rental.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy (Barely)

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Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review

I think like most people when I first heard of a live action Detective Pikachu movie I rolled my eyes. As an animation fan it can be very irritating when it seems like the great answer to updating a property is to abandon animation and make it live action (Disney I’m talking to you!). In addition most of the live action/animated hybrids have been terrible. With the exception of Paddington, it is usually a terrible idea to have a cg creature in the human world. Naturally we were all concerned and then the trailers came out and to my surprise the film looked pretty good. Ryan Reynolds looked funny and the world building with the pokemons looked adorable, so I went into seeing Pokémon: Detective Pikachu with pretty high expectations. Unfortunately I ended up with very mixed feelings on the film. It’s not a total loss but it could have been so much better!

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It’s movies like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu that make the binary system of rottentomatoes difficult because it does have many positives. First of all, the world-building is really strong. It kind of reminded me of Zootopia in the way the world was full of creatures and captured that crime-noir feel while still being kid-appropriate.

The design of all the pokémon was creative and adorable and will no doubt delight fans of the franchise (I have seen 2 Pokémon movies but would not consider myself a fan).

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Ryan Reynolds is great as the voice of Pikachu and Justice Smith does a serviceable job as our orphan looking into the strange death of his father. There is also a really nice heart to the film, and while inconsistent I did laugh a few times.

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The problem with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu lies with the script. At only 104 minutes it feels much longer and there are stretches where nothing seems to be happening but bland action and reveals that don’t amount to much story-wise. The mystery isn’t set up well because the villain is obvious from the start and the clues aren’t interesting to put together. Again to use Zootopia as an example, I was way more invested in the clues and mystery of that film than in Detective Pikachu.

It’s always hard for me to know what kids will like but I suspect a lot of them will get fidgety especially during the middle section of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. I know both my friend and I were struggling a little bit to stay invested. I’ve seen it many times before where the team behind a movie gets so caught up in world-building they forget to craft a script worthy of that world. Such is the case here. (There is some action such as fighting and a car crash depicted multiple times that might scare very little kids but nothing too bad content-wise).

But it’s not a disaster by any means. I would recommend seeing Pokémon: Detective Pikachu at a discount theater if you have one in your community. It’s got enough fun moments to justify a watch but I just wish the mystery had been handled better. Perhaps if they make a sequel they can improve upon that aspect? I’d definitely be interested in them taking another swing at it!

Smile Worthy (Just barely)

✮✮.5 out of 5

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