[REVIEW] ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

Going in to see Terminator: Dark Fate I must admit my expectations were not very high. After 3 underwhelming, bland films in a row it is hard for me to get excited for another entry in this once iconic franchise. Coming out of the film I’m afraid to say I felt basically the same. Terminator: Dark Fate is not nearly as irritating as Terminator: Genisys but it continues on the trend of bland, forgettable action movies in this franchise.

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Terminator: Dark Fate tries to spice things up by giving us a trio of female kick butt characters led by Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor. Shes campy enough to be a little bit fun but not enough to save the movie. Mackenzie Davis plays an augmented woman named Grace from the future who is sent to save a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) from Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) a terminator that can split into 2 bodies and is practically unstoppable.

The strength of this film is in the performances from Davis, Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger (back as curtain selling family man version of the T-800). They may say ‘I’ll be back’ way too many times but they are entertaining in their roles and know how to sell the action scenes. Also the action scenes are well staged especially the long opening chase sequence.

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The problem is Terminator: Dark Fate has nothing new to bring to the table and it falls into a predictable rut real quick. Exposition, action, exposition, action. For a film with this much action I should not be so bored but that’s what I was for most of the time. The characters aren’t interesting and the film has nothing new to say about humanity, war, AIs or anything else (I believe all good scifi should have something to say). The Rev-9 brings nothing new to the table as a terminator and the time travel concept isn’t explored well. It’s just action interrupted by people cracking jokes and talking about the past.

I am always bad at box office predictions but I don’t see this movie making much money. People have been burned too many times and this entry is at best a vessel for serviceable action scenes. Why when we’ve had such excellent action movies this year like Avengers: Endgame or Shadow would you waste time watching this? I think time has run out on the Terminators, and we need to let Sarah, John and Carl the drapery man go back to their regular lives. No more!

3 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Jojo Rabbit’

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I have to admit I have been holding off on my review of Jojo Rabbit because I really loved it but it’s a hard film to properly put into words. A side of me wants to just close the review out now and say ‘go see it and decide for yourself!’ But alas, I will make the attempt to write a review of this weird, sweet, funny, crazy little movie.

As you have probably heard, Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy by acclaimed director Taika Waititi. Some may only know him from his Marvel film Thor Ragnarok but he has done other wonderful films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows.

In Jojo Rabbit, Waititi takes his biggest swing by casting himself as an imaginary friend of a little boy during the closing months of World War II. The only catch is this particular imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (a cookie zany version of Hitler as dreamed up by a little boy named Jojo).

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I think the reason this frankly bizarre concept works is because it is from the perspective of a child. We are all in many ways the product of our environment so of course he accepts the horrors surrounding him. The goal of the movie is then to help him realize his indoctrination is wrong until we get to a climatic moment where he literally tells Hitler to @#$# off. He is helped along this process by his Mother (lovely performance by Scarlet Johansson), Sam Rockwell as a snarky officer, and a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie who was great in Leave No Trace and is great here), among others.

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Jojo Rabbit reminded me a little bit of ‘The Book Thief’ which is my favorite novel. It is also set in Germany during WWII and is narrated by death with a dry, sarcastic look at the misery humans have created. ‘The Book Thief’ is not satire but it has a similar message about what we decide to believe and how we chose to treat other humans.

And that’s the reason why Jojo Rabbit works so well. It can be quite funny but the emotion and heart are equally strong. I cried multiple times. It’s especially poignant because not only are you seeing war and evil but you are seeing it through the mind of a little vulnerable child.

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Indeed, Waititi has said he kept the movie PG13 because he wanted to talk to young people. Just like Jojo in the movie he wants them to question what they have been taught and decide for themselves how they want to treat others. He seems to want to catch them when they are young and impressionable and steer them towards kindness and away from hate. That’s a powerful message, which deserves repeating over and over again.

I don’t know if what I have said has convinced you to see Jojo Rabbit but I did my best. It’s such a lovely, moving, funny, different, original film with a fantastic script! Go see it!!!

9 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Last Color’

There are some films I review where the words of criticism or praise flow freely and are obvious and easy to put to the page. Others are a bit more challenging. I can feel conflicted and torn for a variety of reasons on a project and often it is tough to articulate both the good and and where the balance shifted from fresh to rotten (or smile/frown worthy on my system). Such is the case with the new debut film from chef Vikas Khanna called The Last Color. Even as I am writing I am unsure whether the strengths are enough to give it a recommendation.

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The Last Color tells the story of a little Indian girl named Chhoti (Aqsa Siddique) who makes money putting on tightrope walking performances in the city of Vrindavan along the Ganges River. One day on the run from the police she meets an elderly widow named Noor (Neena Gupta in a lovely performance). When the film focuses on this unlikely friendship it works quite well (I’m a sucker for a story of an unlikely friendship).

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I also thought the cinematography was really good at creating atmosphere and tone. Khanna really immerses us in the world of India in all its colors and textures. This is especially true at the end when the widows finally celebrate the Holi where they splash colored powder on each other which was previously forbidden.

The problem with The Last Color is it takes on too much. It should have stuck to the central relationship of Chhoti and Noor but it tries to tackle transgender rights, rape, elderly abuse, child abuse, corrupt police, religion and much more. Sometimes it was confusing who characters even were and I kept wishing we could get back to the cute little girl and old lady. That was the relationship I cared about.

Unfortunately being so schizophrenic made the movie a little dull and not as compelling as it should have been. It certainly felt much longer than its trim 90 minutes, so that’s never a good sign.

Still I think the good in The Last Color outweighs the problems. It’s not perfect but the core relationship really works and it is a beautiful look at modern-day India. If you get to see it let me know what you think.

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Harriet’

The new movie Harriet based on the life of ‘slave-turned-abolitionist’ Harriet Tubman is an interesting case study of a type of film we don’t get much any more: the family friendly historical biopic. Some people will criticize the film for being safe and hiding from the grizzly details of Harriet’s life and the realities of slavery. These people would be right. However, I see value in these well-made gateway films for families to begin discussions on tough historical topics and how they may relate to current times.

When I was in middle school I saw a TV movie called Race to Freedom: the Underground Railroad starring Courtney B Vance and Alfre Woodard. I haven’t seen this movie since the 90s, and I am sure there is much about it that is dated and maybe even cringe-worthy. But I do remember watching it and the impact it had on me. I was engrossed in the story and it wasn’t long after that I watched Ken Burn’s landmark miniseries on The Civil War (my parents had it recorded from off the TV) and living in Maryland I visited many of the battle sites and memorials of the Civil War.

I’m not trying to excuse a film for historical laziness, but I do think there is a place for a historical drama that softens things a little bit so they are accessible to an entire family. Showing kids content they aren’t ready for doesn’t help inspire them to learn more. It just traumatizes them.

I remember going to a screening of Hacksaw Ridge and a young girl was uncontrollably sobbing after the movie. Urrrgh! That made me so mad. There are other better choices to teach your children about war than something intended for adults (like Steven Spielberg’s War Horse would be a good option or last year’s animated gem Sgt Stubby: An American Hero).

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Anyway, that’s a long preface to talking about Harriet. This is a film starring broadway singer Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman (who’s slave name is ‘Minty’). She is a slave married to a free man named John Tubman (Zackary Momoth). Harriet has already been forced to see her sisters sold and is terrified the same will happen to her children if she were to have any.

The first part of Harriet takes us with her as she makes her own risky journey to the free North. As a solo female runaway Harriet faced many challenges including animals and the constant pursuit of her Masters and the bounty hunters he hires. There is also a  highly unlikely scene on a bridge that oddly worked for me as a cheesy moment of cinematic heroism.

The rest of the film follows Harriet as she risks going back to save over 70 slaves taking them as far as Canada once the Fugitive Slave Law comes into place. There are definitely cheesy moments where she’s more of an outlaw in a Western than I’m sure she was in real life but I didn’t mind the cheese.

Janelle Monáe appears as a free woman Maria Buchannon who helps Harriet in a boarding house that she runs. Leslie Odom Jr is William Still, who leads the abolitionists and runs the Underground Railroad and country singer Jennifer Nettles has a surprising turn as the Mother of Gideon (Joe Alwyn) who owns Harriet and her family.

If you are looking for 12 Years a Slave gritty realism you aren’t getting it here. This is a film meant to inspire us. It mostly talks of the R rated realities of things like beatings, rape, lynchings etc. Again, this is a film made to inspire young people with the heroism of Harriet Tubman’s story and get them excited about history. That’s a good thing. It’s good we have the gritty realism, but we also need this type of heroic storytelling as well.

Cynthia Erivo is strong as Harriet and her singing chops are put to use in a bit of a corny but effective plot device. The faith-based elements might not be for everyone, but they worked for me. I also thought the production design, costumes and camerawork were all very well done.

A few scenes felt a little repetitive and the 125 minute runtime could have definitely been cut down, but I liked Harriet. It’s a sentimental tribute to a powerful woman. It  will help inspire school-children and families to be as brave as Harriet and to learn a little bit more about the history which surrounded her.

6.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Lighthouse’

Every year while attending the Sundance Film Festival I am reminded there 2 kinds of indie films. First, you have the crowd pleasing, more-mainstream films like Blinded By the Light or Late Night. On the other hand you have the true art-house indie that is experimental and more challenging to watch. Distributor A24 often selects these risky films and as with all high art some of it I resonate with and others I do not. Fortunately for the new film The Lighthouse I did respond to what it’s trying to do but I fully admit many people will not.

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The Lighthouse is directed by Robert Eggers and stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as 2 men who get more than a little stir-crazy while operating a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. Much of what we see between the 2 men is questionable. Some of it is real. Some of it is a dream. Some of it is the delusions cabin fever can bring on. Some may be the result of a guilty conscience. We don’t know and the movie doesn’t tell us.

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Both Pattinson and Dafoe do a great job with their physically demanding roles and the movie looks gorgeous. Shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Eggers helps us dive into the 19th century setting without ever saying that’s when it is occurring. The aesthetic also helps muddle the dream and real life scenes. In color it would be more clear what is gritty and real with what is an illusion. Here we keep guessing.

Watching The Lighthouse reminded me a lot of Ingmar Bergman especially The Seventh Seal. I also thought of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. There’s a mixture of surrealism and passion running throughout all these films that make them unforgettable. They are weird and different but that’s part of the experience of watching them.

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That said, The Lighthouse is not for everyone. If you don’t like abstract, strange art-pieces you won’t like this film. I recommend taking a look at the trailer and if it looks intriguing to you, than you will probably enjoy it. It’s an intense, strange movie that got me thinking. Can’t go wrong there!

I’m still not sure what Eggers is trying to say with his film and there are scenes which feel more than a little repetitive, but I still enjoyed it. It’s a movie you can think on for several days. One where every person in the audience will have a different take on, whether they like it or not. I anticipate this film will have a low cinemascore because it is so different but I still recommend it.

If you want to see something challenging and more than a little nutty than give The Lighthouse a shot and let me know what you think in the comments section. Also what’s one of the most abstract artsy movie you’ve seen that you enjoyed? 

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’

If you have been following this blog for any amount of time you know I am a tough critic when it comes to the Disney live action remakes. A few I like (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but most are bland at best. However, there’s a special level of hatred in my heart for 2014’s supposed reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty called Maleficent. I hated pretty much every decision that film made, so you can imagine my hesitancy when they announced a sequel for this year, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But I pride myself on keeping an open mind for EVERY film. So, I went to see it today, and left with surprisingly mixed feelings.

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First, let’s talk about the positives. Maleficent: The Mistress of Evil is not a cash grab. It is obvious the creators tried their best to improve upon the original film in almost every way. To begin with, the production design is far better. The original felt like a bland CGI world I’ve seen a million times. In contrast, this film has beautiful cinematography and world building, which felt fresh and original. I particularly loved a long sequence in a nest where everything was monochromatic: filled with beautiful grays and whites woven as background for the bat-like Maleficent. Also, all of the costumes and make-up were stunning. Some of the best I’ve seen all year.

For the first act of the movie I was actually digging the film. It starts out as a fantasy version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was weird and different. As opposed to the original, which felt like an apology and bastardization of Sleeping Beauty (especially the fairies! How dare they!), this film felt alive with its own lore and story. The acting was also much better especially from Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning who is actually given something to do as Aurora.

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Unfortunately this is where my positives stop. Once we have our basic setup of Maleficent vs Pfeiffer the movie begins to falter. Where the dinner scene was surreal and strange, most of the remaining second half is a bland fantasy war movie. It reminded me of the war scene in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I hate, except it went on much longer. Despite being pretty, the story dragged, and Maleficent becomes a character who is acted upon more than she acts. Most of the time she is moping around waiting for other people to do things, so she can either sulk or acquiesce to their ideas.

I also was puzzled by the tone and audience Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (the title is so dumb by the way) is going for? The battle gets intense including a scene that is gas chamber-like for our heroes. I don’t think kids will find this entertaining nor are adults invested enough in the lore to be engrossed. I never watched Game of Thrones, but I know enough about it to spot the many times Hollywood has tried to capture the themes and aesthetics of that series, and this is definitely one of those films (there is even a long sequence with a dragon…)

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It’s a real bummer because if they had kept the strange tone of the early scenes I could have had a surprise hit. I don’t even see why the war plotline is necessary? Why not have a movie about Aurora trying to plan a wedding with Maleficent and Pfeiffer bickering the whole time? That would have been amazing. As it is, we got a impressive looking war movie that loses its guts midway through.

I wanted to go fresh because I do appreciate the obvious attempt to improve upon the ‘Maleficent turning into the victim of a man’ nonsense of the original film, but that second half was too dull and derivative for me to recommend. Maybe give it a rental if curious? Otherwise, I’d say pass on this fairy story.

Frown Worthy

4.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a strict literalist when it comes to cinematic adaptations of true stories. I am on record of enjoying both Green Book and The Greatest Showman. However, both of those films offered entertainment that made up for some problematic elements. Unfortunately, in the case of the new film, Lucy in the Sky, this is not the case. Despite a good lead performance by Natalie Portman, this new film loosely based on the experiences of astronaut Lisa Nowak is a big case of wasted potential.

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In Lucy in the Sky, Lisa is turned into Lucy Cola, a recently returned astronaut who struggles to come to grip with life on Earth after being in space. Everything that gave her joy in the past like her marriage to her husband Drew (Dan Stevens) now feels bland and empty. In an attempt to regain the sense of adrenaline of space she becomes increasingly reckless. She participates in risky training exercises like holding her breath for over 2 minutes under water, she gets drunk, she steals a gun from her Grandmother and finally she starts an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm).

Natalie Portman does a good job playing Lucy and the film captures the spiraling feeling of a panic attack but it doesn’t help us to understand Lucy’s choices very well. When it does try to get inside her head it does so by using gimmicks like changing the aspect ratio of the screen or showing on-the-nose metaphors like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon…

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It was also painfully obvious the script was written by 3 men as the film simplified Lucy’s mental health crisis and then proceeded to judge her and her choices. In contrast, the Jon Hamm character is practically given a high five for being the rational womanizer who mistakenly let this crazy person into his life. What about it takes two to tango? Dan Stevens is better but we hardly get to know him so that doesn’t help much.

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What’s especially odd is the team decided to remove the more sensational aspects of the case- like her wearing an adult diaper in her quest to follow Mark, and yet it remains so shallow. One can only assume they made this choice to give it more gravitas, but I honestly wish they had embraced the madness. Why not make something funny and nuts like Raising Arizona or if you wanted a true story use BlackkKlansman as your guide?

I didn’t hate Lucy in the Sky. Portman puts in too strong an effort to totally dismiss, but I do think it is a big case of missed potential, which is frustrating. They could have done something cool and interesting and instead they made a movie I will forget soon after I post this review. Too bad. Oh well!

3.5 out of 10

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Blind Spot 47: ‘Cowboy Bebop: The Movie’

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One of the difficult things about reviewing anime as a movie critic is so many of the films require investment into their accompanying series. Some like My Hero Academia Movie try to get you up to date on what is happening and others just throw you into the fire and hope you can figure it all out. Now, in my recent Downton Abbey review I said I didn’t think it was the job of the movie to please non-fans of the show. I’m fine with a film having a narrow audience; however, it does put me in a bit of a tough situation when I an admitted bystander doesn’t like the end product. Do I toss it up to not being in the intended audience or do I  review it for the problems it has? It’s a tough dilemma but in the end I can’t imagine what the intended audience will think. I can only know what I think and share my experience in my review.

This rather long-winded lead-in, is my way of saying: I did not like Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. It clearly has lots of fans, and I respect that, but it didn’t work for me in some fundamental ways. Let me explain:

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Cowboy Bebop: The Movie tells the story of a group of bounty hunters that live on the planet Mars in 2071. They are hunting down a mysterious man in black named Vincent who is intent on destroying all of humanity (supervillains are so ambitious these days). The main characters are leader Spike Spiegel, femme fatale Faye Valentine, punk kid Ed, brooding Jet Black and super intelligent dog Ein. These are an eclectic group of characters (much like Guardians of the Galaxy), but I never felt like I got to know any of them very well. Plus, we spent a lot of time on stuff I didn’t care about like what type of microwave noodles they each liked.

I never got the sense they were developing a case to follow Vincent but instead they kept accidentally running into him which made the momentum drag. There is some cool animation and some violent action scenes but rarely was the futuristic setting used to its advantage. Most of the events could have been done in any modern situation on any planet. This made the world-building and scifi elements feel generic to nonexistent.

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Vincent is a cool character and his scenes are engaging, as his motivations are complex and troubling. I also really enjoyed how he was animated with the feel of an outlaw in an old-fashioned western. There are scenes some Johnny Cash tunes would have fit right in, which was a fun aesthetic.

Unfortunately a good villain can’t save a film. I found myself getting sleepy while watching Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and losing interest. The story is probably compelling for fans of the series but here in the film it felt pedestrian and bland. It was a lot of time of people sitting around, talking, mixed in with some enjoyable action, which isn’t enough to make a compelling movie for 2 hours (it’s at least 20 minutes too long).

The only reason I could recommend Cowboy Bebop: The Movie it’s one of the few anime films that has a lot of Halloween in it, which makes it an eclectic holiday choice. But even then it is more ornamentation than an actual interesting part of the plot. This movie just didn’t do it for me. It’s crazy how something with so many pieces can still feel so slow and bland? I’m sure some anime fans will be horrified by that statement but there it is.

Are you a fan of Cowboy Bebop? What do you think of this movie and should I watch the show before making a final judgement? Let me know what you think.

3.5 out of 10

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