Current Mini Reviews

Today I recorded a podcast with 2 of the ladies at the Filmotomy Podcast. The topic was a  ‘Film Festival Survival Guide’ and we had a great time discussing all of the tricks of the trade for getting the most out of your festival experience. It all made me a bit nostalgic for my time at Sundance, so I decided to head out to my local arthouse theater (Broadway Centre Cinemas) and watch 3 independent releases. Here are my quick thoughts on all 3:

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The Souvenir-

First up is The Souvenir by director Joanna Hogg. It stars Honor Swinton Byrne as a young film student named Julie who gets caught up in a toxic relationship with an older man named Anthony played by Tom Burke. Anthony is a deep thinker so of course he is also a heroine addict and extremely manipulative. Julie is a naive young girl who gets caught up in the mystique of Anthony and enables his terrible behavior because it feels dangerous and exciting. The Souvenir also stars Tilda Swinton as Julie’s mother and she is in fact Honor’s actual mother so that’s kind of fun.

This film has received huge acclaim from critics and is already scheduled for a sequel shooting this year. All I can say about this film is it is not for me. There are some stunning bits of cinematography (I particularly liked a sequence where we see Anthony and Julie talking not up-close but through a mirror across the room). I also liked Honor and Tilda Swinton’s performances. However, the couple have no chemistry and the story is extremely repetitive. The film is 2 hours long, and I felt every second of it. I didn’t care about either Anthony or Julie and their cycle of abusive behavior was not interesting.  I can see how it would be appealing for others but for me it was a piece of indie slog.

Frown Worthy

4 out of 10

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American Woman-

Next up we have the drama American Woman directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby. This film stars Sienna Miller in one of the best performances of the year.  She plays a woman named Deb who is grinding out her life in suburban Pennsylvania with her sister (Christina Hendricks- who is also strong) living across the street.

For some reason the working class woman seems to be challenging for the movies to portray accurately. They are usually all damage and no joy. In American Woman they avoid this by showing over a decade of Deb’s life with all the joys, sorrows and all the in-between. Some pain is self-inflicted and some is caused by others, but either way it is gripping, and we feel empathy for her.

There were so many times I worried the script was heading into tired twists and then it didn’t, which made me very happy. This is the kind of script and lead performance that will be ignored come awards season and that’s a real shame because it’s great. In my opinion, this is MUCH better than the similarly themed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri  which won all the awards. Oh well.

8.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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All is True-

My last film of the day is the fictionalized look into the latter part of William Shakespeare’s life entitled All is True. There is perhaps no human being on earth more qualified to play the Bard on screen than Kenneth Branagh. He also directed the film and it hopefully won’t put an end to his long career of adapting the works of Shakespeare because this film is an entertaining mess.

If your brand of historical drama is fluffy films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Tristan and Isolde than this might be the movie for you. The actors deserve awards for elevating such hammy dialogue and selling it as if it was one of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies. Judi Dench is particularly great as his humble wife who can’t read and Kathryn Wilder is big and boisterous as their rebellious daughter Judith. They all do what they can with this inane material.

Honestly there were times when it seemed a half step away from a Monty Python or Blackadder sketch. Even Branagh’s ridiculous hairpiece and beard made me laugh. I was entertained by All is True but probably not for the reason the creators intended.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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‘PRODIGY’ (2018) REVIEW

It’s always a fun experience to go into a film knowing as little as possible about it. It is one of the things I love about attending the Sundance Film Festival. Occasionally a movie will get some hype during the festival but most of the time I know only the name and a brief summary.

Recently I had a similar experience watching a small indy film called Prodigy, which has just landed on Netflix US for all subscribers to enjoy. At first I thought it was the 2019 horror movie The Prodigy, which I didn’t have a ton of interest in  (I’m not a big horror movie fan). Fortunately, this film, Prodigy, turned out to be an entertaining scifi thriller that does a lot with a very small budget.

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Prodigy stars Richard Neil as a psychologist named Fonda who is sent to a government facility to psycho-analyze a mysterious young girl named Ellie (Savannah Liles). She is straight-jacketed and under constant observation for her erratic behavior. Both Fonda and Ellie’s past comes into play  and they develop a little bit of chemistry as they talk.

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I won’t tell you any more of the story but Prodigy is one of those films that feels more like a play than a movie and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Most of the time is spent between 2 characters talking and yet the tension builds to some satisfying and surprising moments.  I also thought Neil and Liles do a good job in their roles.

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Where the movie fails is with the other characters and some of the script. In particular a military man who becomes angry at Fonda’s methods, and a man who is operating the observational room they are in, had some very cringy dialogue. It’s also not a very cinematic movie in its production and special effects, so it is perhaps best at a place like Netflix.

That said, I enjoyed watching Prodigy. It’s a clever scifi thriller with 2 good performances so if you are jonesing for something fresh and new to watch on Netflix give it a shot.

7 out of 10

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‘Men in Black International’ Review

Lately the big blockbusters have been a bit hit and miss for me. I didn’t enjoy Shazam, Aladdin, X-Men Dark Phoenix or Godzilla: King of the Monsters but I did enjoy Avengers: Endgame and The Secret Life of Pets 2. The movie Gods taketh and giveth I suppose! Well, today I went and saw the latest blockbuster offering from Sony: Men in Black: International. I was skeptical because the previous 2 Men in Black installments were awful, but to my surprise this reboot was charming and a fun time at the movies.

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The biggest thing Men in Black: International has going for it is the tremendous chemistry between stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (thankfully they keep the ‘she’s a girl’ jokes to a minimum). We all knew this would be the case from their great work together in Thor Ragnarok and it continues here. Their roles are fairly standard (she’s the new girl, he’s the cocky veteran) but they elevate it with their witty banter and chemistry.

In fact, the whole cast brings great work to the film. I enjoyed Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson and Kumail Nanjiani in their roles. Kumail’s character will probably be divisive but I thought he was cute and funny.

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I also thought all of the alien design was creative and in keeping with the original Men in Black film. There are times the cgi isn’t the best but that was usually in action or on backgrounds (green screen can be seen) rather than characters so it is easy to ignore.

The action set pieces started to drag a little bit and the plot is extremely predictable, but I was enjoying the characters and the witty banter enough to shrug such problems off. It’s definitely a film I would like to see again and I hope it does well enough to get more films with this cast. Director F. Gary Gray did a wonderful job injecting some life into this franchise and it has loads of potential for the future.

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I will be very curious to see how critics and audiences respond to Men in Black: International. Like I said, it is predictable and has some technical flaws, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and I think you will as well.

It is a pretty family friendly film except for a scene at a night club, a flirty minx of a woman played by Rebecca Ferguson and a few tense sequences. Certainly if your children can handle the original Men in Black they should be fine with this one. Let me know what you think if you get to see it.

7 out of 10

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BLIND SPOT 42: ‘GIDGET’

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When I decide on my Blind Spot picks each year I try to select a variety of films both for my own enjoyment and the interest of my readers. As important as it is to check the epic sagas and masterpieces off of my ‘to watch’ list, I also find guilty pleasures, cult hits and popcorn films of the past rewarding to discover. For June I picked the bubbly coming of age comedy from 1959 called Gidget.  It’s a really interesting movie which could be easily criticized as an example of pre-feminist filmmaking, but I actually found it surprisingly modern and a delightful watch.

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Gidget stars Sandra Dee in the lead role as a 17 year old girl who is struggling to balance her feminine and tomboy sides. She wants to be appealing to men but also laments the time when she could hang around with her girlfriends without much worry. On a trip to the beach she decides to give “manhunting” a try, but she ends up discovering that she loves to surf instead. Of course, she also gets more motivation when she meets handsome surfer Moondoggie (James Darren) and his group of beach bums. Immediately smitten she works all summer to become part of their group.

At first the boys do not treat her differently as a woman and some may find this surprising. They even try to drown her at one point as some kind of initiation which gives her a sore throat and fever. The whole time she puts up with all this to be accepted in the group but also in hopes that particularly Moondoggie will notice her and make her a ‘real woman’. She even talks with her Mother openly about her desire to explore her sexuality. This surprised me for a movie made in 1959.

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Some may want to discount Gidget as too much a of a bubble-head or silly woman pining after undeserving men, but I disagree. From the beginning of the film she knows what she wants, and she goes after it. This is true in surfing and with the boys.

In many ways she reminded me of Baby in Dirty Dancing, just swap out surfing with dancing. She’s young and awkward, but she still always knows herself and doesn’t change even in the end, unlike other heroines like Sandy in Grease. If anything the surfing bros change more from her influence not the other way around. What’s more modern than that?

There wasn’t as much music in Gidget as I was anticipating. I assumed it was similar to Grease or Bye Bye Birdie in that regard. However, the 2 songs they have are pleasant if a little corny. James Darren has a nice voice and The Four Preps bring a poppy 1950s style to the opening credits.

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As far as any negatives to Gidget go her father can be a bit of a patriarchal cliche but it was made in 1959 so I’m fine with him. Also Cliff Robertson plays a surfer named Kahuna and his character seems a little creepy and out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. Gidget is smart enough to deal with him but it comes very close to going over the line into uncomfortable territory especially with her being only 17 and him being much older.

Fortunately these are only minor quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Gidget, and I look forward to catching up with the sequels this summer. I don’t think I will make it to the beach so why not enjoy some surfing fun in the movies? Sounds fun to me!

Gidget is also recognized as a key player in popularizing surfing in the United States and the ‘beach party film’. I absolutely love the ocean and had the thrill of learning to surf on one of my trips to Hawaii. It is a favorite memory of mine and you can read about it here.

8 out of 10

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‘Dark Phoenix’ Review

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If you have been following my site for a while you know I’ve had a very rocky relationship with Fox’s X-Men series (For my best shots of the series click here). I like about half of them (I haven’t seen Deadpool or Logan but I strongly disliked Once Upon a Deadpool if that counts). However, I loved X-Men Days of Future Past but was very disappointed by X-Men Apocalypse. I found it irritating and extremely frustrating to watch (I hated the character of Apocalypse soooo much). I actually prefer Batman v Superman over X-Men Apocalypse.

Now we have Dark Phoenix, which has gone through development hell and has been dumped by Disney after their acquisition of Fox. It also features the beloved ‘Phoenix Saga’ storyline which was so poorly handled in X-Men: the Last Stand. One would hope they could learn from their mistakes and end on a high note. Unfortunately Dark Phoenix is a weak movie that even franchise fans are likely to forget very quickly. It’s not the worst of the group but certainly not one I can recommend.

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I must start by saying nothing in Dark Phoenix irritated me the way Apocalypse did in X-Men Apocalypse. In fact, nothing got much of any reaction. It was all pretty bland. Most of the actors do a good job with what is asked of them. The problem lies with the script and terrible dialogue. The one exception is Jessica Chastain: who really needs to be more careful with her big budget film projects. She is terrible in this film.

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The rest of the cast feels laden with a dull and robotic script that even they can’t elevate. For example, James McAvoy does a fine job in his scenes but they decide to write Charles Xavier as an insufferable egomaniac for some bizarre reason. He’s supposed to be the moral center of the saga and it feels very odd to end his character by literally replacing him as leader and calling into question all he has accomplished.

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Michael Fassbender as Magneto does his normal ‘I’m a villain but actually not a villain’ routine that is so tired but he’s a good actor and handsome enough for me to give him a pass. And then Jennifer Lawrence is so obviously done in her role as Mystique that her scenes are a snooze. Nicholas Hoult (Beast) has a super cringe-worthy use of the F word, and Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Alexandra Ship (Storm), and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) are just arm candy or tools for exposition. The script doesn’t allow them to be anything more.

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As far as the ‘Phoenix Saga’, Sophie Turner is fine as Jean Grey (I also think Famke Janssen is fine in The Last Stand). Unfortunately the script doesn’t allow us to connect with her character, as it takes us from one action set-piece to another. It’s a strange choice because they established her powers in Apocalypse, so they had a jumping off point for her dealing with those powers from the beginning of the film. Why they decide to retcon all that I will never know. The whole point of Jean Grey’s character is she is battling between the light and darkness and here she comes across as more of an unstable crazy person, which isn’t as interesting.

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The only version of Jean Grey that’s gotten it right is X-Men: the Animated Series and perhaps that’s where it belongs? On television a complex character like Jean can have many episodes to flesh out the struggle in a way a movie can’t (yes I am actually recommending television over movies!!).

There are some entertaining action set pieces in Dark Phoenix, and like I said, the acting is decent, but it leaves the viewer wanting more. It’s not a disaster. It just feels like a weird way to end the franchise and a missed opportunity. I liked it better than the other ‘bad’ X-Men movies, but I certainly can’t recommend it.

Frown Worthy

4 out of 10

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