[REVIEW] ‘Playing with Fire’ and Longing for the Family Comedy

Honestly this post will feel more like an editorial than a review. I don’t have that much to say about the latest comedy Playing with Fire. It’s one of those films that think being made for kids is synonymous with making it stupid. Of course, the truth is the reverse: anything made for children needs to be twice as clever and engaging.

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There are a few hard earned laughs from Keegan-Michael Key but he needs to be careful as he runs the risks of over-exposing and diluting his talent in projects like Playing with Fire. I also thought the kids were pretty cute; although the teenager Brynn is played by Brianna Hildebrand who is 23 and it shows.

Unfortunately there are many more things I did not like. First of all, the film has bad timing with its release coinciding with the fires in Southern California. It feels in poor taste to show firefighters acting like morons when they are risking their lives at this very moment.

Also the film is chocked full of product placement which is always especially distasteful in a movie for children. It’s not bad enough they make a movie that does nothing for their creativity or intellects but they have to sell them SPAM, Kleenex and My Little Pony every 5 seconds?

The oldest child is also very reckless causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage while committing felonies. I’d think she’d be a little grateful for someone saving her life but she sure has a strange way of showing it!

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All this said, the biggest problem with Playing with Fire is it is just not funny enough. As I was watching it I kept thinking back to the live action Disney films from the 50s and 60s. Sure not all of them were classics but I miss them.

Now we mostly get remakes from Disney live action and even outside of Disney most family comedies are animated now. Whatever happened to films like Blackbeard’s Ghost, The North Avenue Irregulars, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat etc. Even Herbie or The Absent-Minded Professor are much better than most family comedies we see today.

I would so love to get these small budget family films back! We don’t need fancy special effects or expensive actors. Just well written scripts the whole family can enjoy. Why is that so hard?

Instead we get Playing with Fire and I think that’s a real shame

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Current Mini Reviews

As a critic who has seen over 200 films both TV movie and feature film it is impossible to write full reviews of every movie I have seen. This means it is time for one of my famous ‘Current Mini Reviews’ posts! This is where I give my brief thoughts on a film I’ve seen and let you know whether it is smile or frown worthy so here goes!

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Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl-

This is a movie version of the anime, and I must own I should have watched the series before seeing it. Some anime do a great job of welcoming newcomers into the films (like My Hero Academia was the best) but then others assume only fans are interested which I can understand. Nevertheless, I liked the many worlds premise that brings multiple versions of a girl named Shoko into conflict (and love) with a boy named Sakuta. It was interesting with beautiful animation. Even being a greenie I’d say it is worth a watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

I had the great opportunity to review this cool new documentary called Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound for rotoscopers.com. In fact I even got to interview the director Midge Costin. I really enjoyed learning more about the incredible work sound designers and editors do behind the scenes to make everything pop on the big screen.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

The Addams Family-

Unlike most it seems, I enjoyed the animated take on The Addam’s Family. My review (make sure you are subscribed to my youtube channel for all my reviews)

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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White Snake-

This is another film I was blessed to review at rotoscopers.com and interview the director Ji Zhao. Based on the Chinese ‘Legend of the White Snake’ they have created a modern fantasy adventure with quite possibly the most beautiful CG animation ever. It has some grown up moments and is a bit uneven in tone but I still really enjoyed it and found it very new and innovative.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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One Piece Stampede-

This is another anime based on a series but the plot is simpler so I didn’t have much trouble following it. Some of the animation of this film, especially the extreme closeups wasn’t my favorite, but I liked the energy in it. It reminded me of an anime take on Mad Max Fury Road with all these pirates racing to find a buried treasure. It’s definitely not for people with sensory problems or anything like that but worth a watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

parasite

Parasite-

This film by Korean director Bong Joon-ho lived up to the festival hype in spades. In fact, there isn’t much to fault with it. The writing is fantastic, as well as the acting, production design and score. The premise is at the same time heartbreaking, thrilling and funny. It has a message about class warfare without beating you over the head with it (like what was done in this year’s disappointing The Dead Don’t Die). The director trusts the viewers and the film he has crafted enough to not feel the need to hold your hand through every metaphor of the story. It’s definitely a movie that has stayed with me and one I hope to be able to watch again soon.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Christmas Jars-

As someone who podcasts about made for TV movies it was a little jarring to see a movie like Christmas Jars on the big screen. It is definitely designed for television with even the noticeable ad breaks left in. That said, I did enjoy the film. It gave me everything I want from this kind of movie. It was sweet with a nice message about community and Christmas. The girl lies more than she needs to and the liar reveal trope is one of my least favorites but I liked everything else enough to forgive those elements. For a pretty melodramtic Christmas tearjerker it can also be quite funny (although its depiction of journalism is ridiculous I still found it funny). Christmas Jars will definitely be something families can watch together for a cheesy batch of Christmas feels!

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Arctic-Dogs

Arctic Dogs-

Anyone who follows this site knows I am frequently a defender of low budget CG animated films. Something like Sgt Stubby American Hero or Son of Bigfoot I have championed when other people won’t even give them a chance. So, I was willing to give Arctic Dogs a shot but unfortunately it is one of the worst animated films I’ve seen in a long time. People might criticize something like Ugly Dolls but at least there was clear effort put into that film. This is just lazy with no creativity to the story and nothing to inspire or move children. I hated pretty much everything about it. Avoid it at all costs and support better animated films like White Snake.

0 out of 10

Frown Worthy

So there you go! Let me know what you thought of these films if you got to see them. Thanks always for reading!

[REVIEW] ‘Midway’ a Movie That Should Have Stayed in the Past

There is something admittedly nostalgic about schlock-master Roland Emmerich’s latest film Midway. It feels like something John Wayne or Charlton Heston would have been in the 50s and 60s. The problem is this is 2019 and such a jingoistic approach feels woefully outdated and simplistic.

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Midway tells the true story of the Battle of Midway during the Pacific front in World War 2. The cast is formidable with Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid and more. The problem lies in the clunky dialogue they are given and the complete lack of nuance.

There’s a small attempt to humanize the Japanese fighters but it still feels awkward and like they are from a different movie than the risk-taking, daredevil Americans. There’s even a scene where a captured soldier tells the Japanese to f-off as he is thrown into the sea on an anchor. Groan!

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Other problems with Midway is the pacing is slow and the special effects are hit and miss. It will be interesting to see if Midway is a hit or not. There is definitely an audience for this type of simplistic nationalism but whether the marketing has grabbed their attention or not is another question.

I guess we will have to wait and see…

Does Midway interest you? If you get see it let me know what you think

3 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Last Christmas’ and Why It’s So Disappointing

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As host of the Hallmarkies Podcast I feel there is an assumption I will automatically love anything billed as a ‘holiday romcom‘. Well, if you are a listener to my podcast you’d know that I dislike many films we review, as is the case with any genre a critic is partial towards. We aren’t doing our job if we blindly like everything presented to us for entertainment.

This explanation is to hopefully help quell some surprise my readers might feel that I did not like the new film from director Paul Feig, Last Christmas. Unfortunately most of the reasons I did not like it are spoilery but let’s just say it fails at both the rom and the com of a romcom (and I have issues with the holiday part as well).

Last Christmas stars Emilia Clarke as Kate, a disaster of a human who has struggled to get her life together after receiving the gift of a heart transplant the year before. She works at a year-long Christmas shop for Michelle Yeoh (who gets some of the only laughs of the film with her strange cabbage loving relationship).

Kate is simply the worst. It’s always a tough dynamic to pull off when either of our leads in a romcom are unlikable. You have to make that switch to nice person at just the right moment or we as an audience don’t want him or her to succeed in love because they are a terrible human being. Kate even outs somebody at one point which I found shocking for a movie in 2019 (and the penance wasn’t near enough for such a betrayal IMO).

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Henry Golding is super dreamy (of course) but he leaves for long unexplained stretches, which hurt the chemistry and seems especially bizarre as the plot reveals itself. Speaking of said plot it is so groan-worthy and leaves our heroine with a very unsatisfying ending.  Without spoilers let’s just say between this and Me Before You Emilia Clarke has the strangest set of 2 romcoms imaginable.

To my surprise, I also felt focusing on George Michael music was a mistake. The problem is he only has one Christmas song so most of the soundtrack is holiday-free. Sure they are surrounded by the trappings of Christmas but they participate in none of the tropes of the genre such as picking a tree, wrapping gifts, visiting Santa, baking cookies etc. Most of what they do could be done at any time of year just with different decor. All the Christmas in the movie feels like window-dressing without the heart the holiday offers these films.

A lack of Christmas spirit and romance makes Last Christmas an unsatisfying and disappointing holiday romcom. What should have been sweet and funny ends up being groan-worthy and frustrating. Too bad but at least I’ve got 100 other Christmas movies to enjoy this holiday season (not exaggerating).

3 out of 10

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[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

frown

 

[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

smile worthy

[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

smile worthy

[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

smile worthy

[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

smile worthy