The Fast & Furious franchise has always been hit and miss for me. They seem to vacillate between an overly serious police drama to insane stunts with people leap-frogging from one building to another in a car. I much prefer the latter.
The most recent entry Fate of the Furiouswas a disappointment with far too little fun and too many boring scenes of people staring at screens (my greatest action movie gripe!). Now we are getting the franchise’s first spin-off film with the unwieldy title Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. This is no doubt meant to perpetuate the franchise into new avenues but also allow feuding cast-members to make their movies in peace. So what’s the result of this new Jason Statham/The Rock vehicle? I’d say it is as unwieldy as its title but mostly a good silly time at the theater.
I’ll spare you much of a plot summary. Basically there’s a convoluted reason that Luke Hobbs (The Rock) and Deckard Shaw (Statham) have to work together to fight a mutanized Idris Elba and help Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) clear her name and save her life. Along the way we go to London, Moscow, and Samoa with over-the-top action and lots of witty banter between the charming cast. I was particularly impressed with Kirby who holds her own in both departments.
The film does a great job surprising the audience in ways that really paid off and had me smiling (no spoilers from me!). I also liked there wasn’t much standing around staring at screens, which is very boring. For the most part it moved effortlessly from one action set piece to the next and that kept it fun.
Unfortunately on the downside the movie is way too long at 136 minutes and especially the extended portion in Samoa wares out its welcome. There are some major exposition dumps and the attempts to become sentimental didn’t work. Even though I know appeals to family are part of this franchise the Samoan warrior scenes came off as patronizing rather than heart-warming.
There’s some impressive sequences in Hobbs & Shaw but also some I have seen before in other movies and the special effects were hit and miss. Sometimes within the same action scene there would be edits that looked like a tv budget and then the next edit would be really impressive. For example, there were definite moments within a fighting sequence I could tell The Rock wasn’t in Samoa but in front of a green screen. It’s harder to have fun when these type of distractions take me out of the movie.
However, I still walked away from Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw with a smile on my face, having had a good time. It’s not going to change your life but if you are looking for a silly, over-the-top entertainment with very likable leads than there is more than enough to enjoy here.
One fact about me that might surprise people is I actually enjoy a good martial arts movie. While I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the genre, I enjoy Jackie Chan movies like The Drunken Master, or other films like The Grandmaster or IP Man. I know these movies can be very violent but it’s so stylized and part of the choreography that it doesn’t bother me as much as other violence. The skill and craft that comes into making your body a weapon is beautiful and fascinating.
Naturally when I heard that director Zhang Yimou had a new film called Shadow, I knew I needed to see it as soon as I got the chance. Fortunately, it premiered today at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City so I had to see it! It’s not the biggest screen in the world but it’s better than nothing! So I went to see Shadow today and to my relief the film lived up to the hype.
Shadow tells the story of an ancient land with 2 feuding kingdoms. One is ruled by a man named Pei (Zheng Kai) and the other by a man named Yang Cang (Hu Jun). They both have generals, sisters, wives and followers to muddy the waters and bring their kingdoms into conflict. Pei, in particular, has a general named Ziyu (Deng Chao) who we learn is actually a look alike named Jingzhou (also Deng Chao), with the actual Ziyu being hidden away in a cave. Jingzhou has been trained to be Ziyu’s shadow hence the name of the movie.
I won’t give any more spoilers but there’s magnificent training sequences that take place on a giant yin/yang symbol. The cinematography of the film is incredible with a monochromatic aesthetic where sometimes the only color you see is the bright red of the blood.
There is also a surprisingly effective love triangle between Jingzhou, Ziyu and his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li). Most of this is done through looks and dialogue-free scenes that the actors pull off very well. In fact, it makes Shadow approachable for Western audiences because it’s all about the emotion more than the words spoken with each other. So if you are turned off by subtitles you might still want to give Shadow a try.
The martial arts fighting is like none I’ve ever seen before (except maybe in Kungfu Panda 2 oddly enough). They use a metal umbrella made of spears in their fighting and all of these circles help reinforce the theme of yin/yang and combined with the monochromatic cinematography are quite mesmerizing. Honestly Shadow is the closest to watching a modern Kurosawa film that I’ve recently seen. It’s quiet and contemplative like his films. It’s striking like his films, and it has Shakespearean themes like his films. If you are a fan of visually dazzling films with heart than you will leave the theater awestruck by it.
The only downside to Shadow is it can be uneven in its pacing. Particularly the first 30 minutes are a bit laborious. It gets too caught up in the diplomacy between Pei, Yang and Ziyu for its own good. Also it will take me a couple rounds to understand everything going on with the plot. Sometimes I decided to just enjoy the visuals because I wasn’t entirely clear on what was happening.
All that said, Shadow is a tremendous achievement for Zhang Yimou and a film I heartily recommend to film lovers and anyone who can tolerate a rather bloody martial arts action film. You won’t regret hunting this one down
For many years filmmaker T.C. Christensen has made a career out of making sweet and inspirational, faith-based films for Latter-day Saint audiences. Many of these are set in the past and seek to tell part of Church history like The Cokeville Miracle or 17 Miracles. These movies are definitely not for everyone but if you like programs like When Calls the Heart or Little House on the Prairie than you will enjoy them. His latest effort, The Fighting Preacher, is a bit uneven but overall it succeeds in telling a sentimental true story about tolerance, kindness and how a Christian spirit will win over hate every time.
The film is based on the experiences of Willard Bean (David McConnell); a boxing champion who in 1905 is called by the Church to move to the town of Palmyra, New York and make a home for himself and his family in the recently purchased Joseph Smith Farm. As the name implies, the home was once owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint prophet and founder Joseph Smith. Nearby is the Hill Cumorah which is where the prophet claimed to find (by the guidance of an angel) the gold plates he translated into ‘The Book of Mormon’. Unfortunately, the Saints were eventually pushed out of Palmyra by residents who feared the new religion and the fervor of its followers and after 85 years the town had remained free from all ‘Mormons’ as they were known at the time.
One would think after such a long time away from each other, the anger against the Latter-day Saints would have dissipated in Palmyra but this proved to not be the case for the Beans. They faced opposition and challenges trying to do normal things like purchase everyday necessities, get medical care and even helping their daughter get an education.
At first Willard is tempted to use his boxing skills to retaliate against the people but eventually he learns such problems are better solved by an offering of homemade pie rather than a fist to the face (if that description sounds too saccharine, than trust me. This is not the movie for you!).
The casting goes a long way in making The Fighting Preacher work. McConnell is easy to relate to and has nice chemistry with Cassidy Hubert who plays his wife Rebecca (my only nitpick with her is she had very modern lipstick on). The little girl, Scarlett Hazen, who plays their daughter Palmyra is also adorable. She did a great job!
The rest of the cast is fine but there isn’t a huge attempt to flesh out people beyond a slamming of the door with a ‘get out of here you Mormons’ rebuke. As a former missionary, I have no doubt this was a reality, but as a movie, it comes across as forced. The script as a whole is clunky with dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or human.
For a better example of a similar plot with a much better script I recommend last year’s Jane and Emma. That film took the time to flesh out the characters and give authentic nuanced dialogue.
Even with its flaws, however, I still recommend The Fighting Preacher. It knows its audience and unlike some faith-based films, the message is very positive. It tells the viewer to accept people of all beliefs, and to be kind and loving to all men and women (even when it is not reciprocated). The performances are also strong enough to forgive a script I wish was better.
Wild Rose tells the story of girl named Rose-Lynn Harlan played by Jessie Buckley. She is from Glasgow, Scotland but she dreams of going to Nashville and becoming a country music singer (not country/western as she corrects people). Unfortunately, she had 2 children before she was 18 and then got involved in some drug shenanigans which sent her to jail for a year. Meanwhile, her mother Marion, played by the incredible Julie Walters, is tired of holding down the fort for her daughter and worries her dreams are robbing her from living in the moment with her children.
Evidently Jessie Buckley is famous for being on an American Idol type show in Scotland, and I believe it, because she has an incredible voice. I hope the original songs get remembered come Oscar season because they certainly deserve to be. Sometimes her speaking voice is hard to understand with that thick Scottish accent but it’s all worth it when she sings.
The story in Wild Rose isn’t the most original but the characters are layered and interesting. At first I didn’t like Rose as she is very selfish, but her character’s journey worked on me, until I was rooting for her. They also don’t muddy her story with much of a romance, which I appreciated. It’s just a woman trying to decide between her children and her dreams and how much sacrifice is too much.
Julie Walters deserves all the awards for her performance as Rose’s mother. I felt for her even more than Rose (it is kind of like Lady Bird in that regard). She is a mixture of worry, fear, love, hope, kindness and frustration. It’s easy to make parental characters in these films one-note, judgemental types, but that’s not the case here. There’s such humanity in Walters’ performance anyone should be able to connect with her and her struggles.
Like I said, the only major weakness in Wild Rose is that sometimes the dialogue can be tough to understand. I will be grateful when I can watch it with subtitles at home and can pick up on a few scenes I might have missed! It also has some predictable moments but nothing that bothered me personally. It’s a real hidden gem of the year, which I hope you seek out.
Wild Rose earns its R rating for language and a little sexuality but it should be fine for mature teens.
If you love music and human stories check out Wild Rose!
I bet I will be the only critic that compares the new creature scares movie Crawl to a good Hallmark movie but that’s just what I’m going to do. I spend many hours watching Hallmark movies for my podcast The Hallmarkies Podcast and I’ve learned that the good ones know what they are and execute it well. They don’t try to be anything other than a sweet romcom, with nice chemistry between the leads, and a warm holiday message.
It’s the same idea in Crawl. It absolutely knows what it is and executes it well. It doesn’t try to be campy or silly. It doesn’t add annoying characters or convoluted subplots. Crawl knows it is a creature scares movie with 2 people dealing with gators and it executes that concept very well. It’s as simple as that.
Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario who starts out the film trying to rescue her father from the basement crawl space of his Florida home. Unfortunately when she gets there she learns he is stuck with 2 gators in the basement (behind some large pipes). Getting out is then the main plot of the movie. Unfortunately, this task is made more difficult by a huge hurricane that threatens to drown them before the gators can eat them.
Director Alexandre Aja does a great job moving the characters around enough within the small space to create different set pieces by which to fight the gators. They also keep the movie a lean 87 minutes so you never have time to get bored. It feels relatively grounded and realistic and for a small budget film the gators/special effects look great.
Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario do great work as a father and daughter and the film gives us just enough of their backstory and relationship to attach us to them without becoming boring. As they are basically the only characters on screen, their chemistry also adds a ton to the film’s success. It kind of reminds me of 10 Cloverfield Lane in that respect. I was rooting for both of them throughout the entire movie which made the scenes with the gators more intense and fun.
I suppose if there are negatives to Crawl, there are some moments where we must suspend disbelief. In particular the injuries the 2 lead characters have seem to ebb and flow depending on the needs of the script. However, I was invested enough in the story and characters to not care. There are also definitely side characters introduced to be kill candy for the gators, which gets a little predictable.
All that said, I had a great time watching Crawl. It’d be a wonderful choice to go with all your friends and have a good tense time at the movies. Nobody will be too traumatized, and they will all have fun.
Recently director Jon Favreau defended his remake of the animated classic, The Lion King, to USA Today saying it is ‘not completely a shot for shot remake‘. Upon hearing this, I became hopeful that this remake might be similar to his version of The Jungle Book, which had its flaws but took a new approach to Mowgli and to the ending that I appreciated. Now having seen new remake, I am quite baffled by Favreau’s words because aside from the visuals, I saw no noticeable story differences between it and the animated classic. It’s as close to a shot-for-shot remake of a film as I’ve ever seen (Critic David Ehrlich compared it to the remake of Psycho by Gus Van Sant, and he’s absolutely correct.) Of course, the new version of The Lion King will make boat-loads of money but if you are asking for this critic’s advice I would give it a definite skip.
Let’s start off talking about the film’s greatest strength, the visuals. Despite Disney’s reticence to use the term, they are an incredible achievement in ANIMATION! (The reason I believe they haven’t wanted to use the word is because it is one thing to remake an animated film with live action but to remake an animated film with another animated film feels like even more of a copycat than all the others!). Particularly in wide shots the photorealism is impressive. It seems hard to believe that everything down to the smallest blade of grass is fabricated on a computer and yet that is the reality. If people want to see this film for the visuals alone I wouldn’t fault them, but I guess I was hoping to have more to recommend given the original film is such a favorite of mine.
There are other positives like the voicecast is all competent and the music/songs are well executed. However, I was a little disappointed only one song from the Broadway musical is included as a song over the credits and the one original song ‘Spirit’ is just an accompaniment to a transitional scene when the characters are walking. I was hoping it would be part of a new narrative for Nala but that is not the case.
The only song I did not like was their rendition of ‘Be Prepared’, which felt like such an after-thought. It’s one of my all-time favorite Disney villain songs and it came and went without making any impact. There was no spectacle or gravitas, which made Scar a much less interesting villain.
The best part of the film character-wise is Timon and Pumba (Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen). Their scenes, while identical to the original, have the most energy and life to them. They are also the closest to being believable as actually talking and singing animals. With the lions and other characters, their mouth movements never quite worked, with their faces not matching the words/lyrics in a natural easy way (maybe because real animals make individuals sounds like a purr or a roar rather than formulating whole words).
There’s also a problem with the photo-realistic character’s inability to emote in the way a 2D animated character can. Little Simba in the original can have big tears well up in his eyes, and his whole face can be full with the emotion of losing his Dad. That’s not possible with a photo-realistic lion; thereby, rendering the scenes one note and flat.
Coming out of the film I felt it might actually be a better choice for young children (under 5) than the original for this very reason. The tense scenes feel more clinical when realistic; therefore, they aren’t as devastating to the viewer. If a child can handle a nature documentary where animals are in peril, they should be able to handle what they see in this remake.
I know when my brother used to watch the original he would get very upset at the dramatic scenes, and I don’t think that would be the case here. (My friend disagreed with me and felt it might be scarier to young kids because it is more realistic so I suppose it depends on the child). It is less emotionally manipulative than the original but that also means it is less impactful.
Unfortunately this lack of emotional investment strips The Lion King of what makes it special. It becomes an exercise in checking off boxes for the story we know and love instead of anything remotely memorable. The recent version of Dumbo had lots of problems but at least there was some attempt to offer a new take, with different visions for the characters. This is just bland. There are no two ways around it. It’s bland, bland, bland.
My advice is save your money. Stay home and watch the original classic film!
When I was planning my Blind Spot series for 2019 I knew I needed to tackle one of the most heralded films that I had yet to see: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. The film not only won 7 Oscars but it is widely considered the best film to ever win Best Picture. In addition, it’s also a favorite of many of my movie friends including the great MovieRob who has seen more than enough movies to have his opinion be taken very seriously. The only reason I hadn’t seen it is because the length and subject matter intimidated me but that’s what makes the Blind Spot project great! I finally watched this classic film, and I’m sure glad I did.
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of 3 veterans (Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Frederic March) of World War 2 who meet on their way home to their small hometown of Boone City. While all soldiers, they are each quite different and they go on to each have different struggles in adjusting to home life.
Naturally we also get to know the women who are in the lives of our soldiers. I especially liked Myrna Loy who is number one on the call sheet but gives an understated supporting performance as the housewife who comes to realize her returning husband may be an alcoholic and that his recovery from fighting will be no easy task.
Probably the most memorable role in The Best Years of Our Lives is from Russell who had never acted before but plays the soldier with no arms with such humanity (probably because it is who he literally is!). I kept thinking now they would just cgi away an actor’s arms (see Dumbo from this year) and what a loss that is for cinema. What I appreciated most about his performance is most of the time he’s pretty reasonable, not looking for sympathy. He even seems proud of what he can accomplish with his hook hands, as he should be. However, he also keeps people at a distance because he doesn’t want to burden them with his struggles. This is most of all true with his fiance Wilma played with great heart by Cathy O’Donnell. Their love story together is very touching.
There isn’t a ton of plot in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even the grand moments are only grand because we know what they mean to the characters. They are simple moments like a man sitting in a used plane, another giving a speech at banquet for the bank he works at or a former soldier showing his girl how he puts on his pajamas. Simple stuff but it means a ton within the story. I particularly teared up at said banquet speech when a drunk Al promises his fellow soldiers will be supported by his bank and get the loans they need. This is probably a more of a pipe dream than anything else, which is what makes it both touching and tragic.
All of the acting is superb in The Beast Years of Our Lives and everyone has tremendous chemistry. Some will probably find it tedious, but despite my misgivings, I was fully engrossed with the characters and their journeys. It actually felt quite relevant to the struggles many veterans experience today. Often for soldiers it is very difficult to find employment, manage PTSD and relate to civilian life. However, even beyond that this film is full of human stories, and as long as they are well told, human stories will always be relevant.
If you haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives don’t wait as long as I did to give it a watch. You will be rewarded by a moving story of love, family, and the ability of the human spirit to turn the worst years into the best.
For a modern film with these themes I recommend Debra Granik’sLeave No Trace which was one of the best films of 2018.
Hello my fine movie-loving friends! Today marks an exciting day. Believe it or not I have officially seen every movie of any interest to me in both regular and art-house cinema! That almost never happens to me but with a lot of horror movies coming out there hasn’t been as much that interests me when compared with a typical July.
With so many movies seen this means it is time for one of my much celebrated ‘Current Mini Reviews’ posts! These occur when I don’t have time to write an entire post on a film but want to log my response to help all of you know what’s out there to see. So here goes!
First up is the romantic comedy Plus One starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid in the lead roles. This film is available in theaters and on demand and while it is definitely R rated, it is also a pretty charming romcom.
Quaid (who is very charismatic) and Erskine play 2 friends who make a deal to be each-other’s plus one for 10 weddings they have been invited to in one year (I would die going to so many weddings!). As romcoms go, naturally their friendship blossoms into something more, and all kinds of shenanigans unfold. Plus One definitely follows an expected formula but the leads have enough chemistry and it was funny enough to entertain me. If you can handle an R rated movie than I recommend it.
7 out of 10
Directed by Ron Howard this documentary on the legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti doesn’t break the mold of a standard celebrity biographical documentary but I still enjoyed it because of the stunning music. Howard allows the performances to go on for long stretches so you can get a feel for the experience the audience had listening to such a master tenor. The interviews are interesting but again quite standard for this kind of film. Go see it for the music!
7 out of 10
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME-
I know it is kind of sneaky to put only a mini-review for such a big film in here but my friend Patrick already reviewed this film for the site and I have no desire to compete with his review. Unfortunately I was not as in love with this movie as Patrick or the masses seem to be. It has its pluses but some real problems as well.
First the aspects I enjoyed is Tom Holland as Spider-Man. He’s sweet, vulnerable and completely likable as our teen web slinger. I also liked Zendaya as MJ and pretty much all the ‘teenagers go to Europe’ stuff I liked.
Unfortunately I did not like the villain plot. Without spoilers I found it convoluted, predictable and dull. Similar to Zemo, in Civil War, the amount of steps that needed to make the plan work is ridiculous and it required actions by Tony Stark in previous films that don’t make sense. Also some of the more creative moments felt like too much of a video game for my taste. Even something psychedelic like Doctor Strange still felt more grounded and therefore more engrossing with more stakes than the illusions here. Just not my cup of tea visually I guess.
It’s weird because everyone online seems to love this film but myself, my friend Jen and my two nieces all left disappointed so who knows? It’s not awful but definitely lower tier Marvel (and I’ve seen it twice to verify).
Also do the humans in this world even try any more to fight against the bad guys or just the Avengers because that’s what it felt like? I also don’t understand why Spider-man needs anonymity in this universe. Liberally none of the MCU is secret so why him? I dont get the big deal?
4 out of 10
For some reason when the trailer to Yesterday came out there was a big backlash against it. I don’t know if it is just the popularity of The Beatles people wanted untouched or they sensed a dud but many were up in arms about it. I, on the other hand, thought it looked quite charming and was excited to see it.
Unfortunately the doubters proved to be correct, and I was disappointed in Yesterday. A world without The Beatles is an interesting concept and Danny Boyle infuses the film with his trademark optimism but he is unable to overcome a lead character (Himesh Patel) that’s hard to root for and a romance with Lily James that has no chemistry. I was also surprised how sloppily made the film was with some poor editing and some ADR issues with the singing.
In the end, it’s just a bunch of The Beatles karaoke so I’d skip it. (Also the world would be way worse without The Beatles than not having Coke!).
4 out of 10
ECHO IN THE CANYON
The documentary Echo in the Canyon profiles the music scene of the 1960s that developed in LA’s Laurel Canyon area. This includes interviews with bandmembers from The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and more. Jakob Dylan becomes are narrator as we learn about the epic recording sessions that mostly occurred in small studios or in the musician’s homes.
Any music fan will love interviews with Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and more. It was great. Unfortunately I was less enthused with the long sections of the tribute concert put on by Dylan, Regina Spektor, Beck and more. These are very talented singers but it was distracting from the musical story of the classic bands and the time and place the documentary is profiling.
Still, I enjoyed it well enough to recommend to any music fan!
6 out of 10
An interesting trend I have noticed lately in film is the exploration of male friendship- particularly unlikely male friendship. We even recently had our Oscar winner focus on this subject in Green Book. Another example is this sweet little film called Papi Chulo.
Matt Bomer plays Sean, a weatherman who has lost his husband and is finding the transition process very difficult. He is lonely and doesn’t seem to have any real friends (he goes to a party but he seems to be more worried about impressing them than any kind of real kinship). One day he befriends a house painter he hires named Ernesto played by Alejandro Patiño. The fact Ernesto doesn’t speak English is actually a plus as Sean just needs someone to listen and not respond.
Papi Chulo is a bit too casual in its treatment of moments of serious mental health crisis in Sean’s life but it has a huge heart I couldn’t resist. It is rated R for a little bit of language, alcohol use and background sensuality but it’s overall pretty tame and very sweet.