[REVIEW] ‘Greyhound’: Hanks Captains Successfully Once Again

It is more than a little poetic and ironic that actor Tom Hanks ended up as the first celebrity to get diagnosed with COVID19 back in March. It’s almost like nature saw his likable demeanor and commanding presence in films and knew he could lead all of us in real life as well as in the movies. With this recent turn of events, it’s almost surreal to see Hanks’ new film Greyhound where he once again plays a man who must lead his ship out of rough waters. My only regret is I couldn’t see it on the big screen, as it was obviously intended to be viewed.

Premiering July 10th on Apple TV+ Greyhound is based on the C.S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd and it’s a simple film. Hanks plays Commander Ernest Krause who is a God-fearing man who loves his girlfriend, prays over his food and is eager to complete his first crossing as a commander in the US Navy during WWII. The problem is those darn Germans! They sure get in the way with their wolfpack of U-boat submarines, which did indeed destroy many US ships during the course of the war. Not this ship. No sir. Not today!

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In many ways Greyhound is similar to last year’s Midway with the same jingoistic spirit about it. Neither are films for nuance or intricate discussions about the complexities of war. However, the big difference between them is Greyhound is a lean 91 minutes compared to Midway’s 138 minutes. With its minimalist storytelling Greyhound sticks to a plot of good ship, bad U-boat, Hanks needs to win, and that’s what happens and while it is happening we are engaged and rooting for them all to succeed. It’s a war movie and we do see loss but never in a way that makes us fear for our heroes. Some may find the approach too simplistic but there is a place for enthusiastic war stories when they are done well and this is.

It is also easy to compare Greyhound with 2017’s Dunkirk which also strives for a battle experience rather than a character study and some might have similar problems with both films. It’s more about getting caught up in a heroic moment than it is the complexities of the humans experiencing said moment. It’s reminding the world that we have defeated hard things like Nazis before and we can do it again. With Dunkirk we are cheering at the everyday men and women who saved the soldiers lives and in Greyhound we are cheering for Hanks- our every man who fights Nazis on the screen and COVID19 in real life. Like I said, there’s a poetry to it all.

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I realize some will want more character development and I can understand that. There are choices in Greyhound that pushed the simplistic approach even for me. For example, the radio dispatches from the wolfpack ships are as sniveling and sleazy as we’ve ever seen from an evil German in a movie. He sounds like he is practically a villain from an Indiana Jones movie for a second. We also have some cringy scenes when the Black chef keeps trying to get our beleaguered commander to eat throughout the battle. But in the end I forgave such problems because the pacing keeps moving and Hanks remains so easy to root for as our leader.

It still pains me I had to watch Greyhound on my laptop and even sadder to think that some will likely watch it on their phone. Such a patriotic rallying cry should be seen on the big screen! Hopefully some day it can happen but until then if you want to cheer on Tom Hanks and other every day heroes facing impossible odds this is your film. I enjoyed it and I bet you will too.

6.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Agathe- Christine: Next Door Spy’ or a Dub Gone Wrong

Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Judged by the huge success of Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out from last year not many. There is also a long tradition of mystery stories for kids with everything from The Great Mouse Detective to The Adventures of Tintin. So when I heard about Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy I was intrigued. Unfortunately it can’t escape a terrible English language dubbing and an uneven script.

In many ways I wish I could watch this film in its original Danish language because I felt the dubbing really hurt this film. So much of the word choices felt strange or inauthentic to the characters. I am sure many scenes feel more natural and even charming in the Danish that come off as strange and off-putting in English. For example there is a large lizard that can talk. He was so creepy but I think he was supposed to be somewhat appealing at least in early scenes. Also there is a some profanity that didn’t work for the story of a teen detective. I kept thinking who was this movie made for? I have no idea.

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Two movies I kept thinking of which execute kid detective so much better is A Cat in Paris and the recent Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Like Agathe-Christine, A Cat in Paris is also animated and it also has some edgier moments. However, I was much more attached to its characters (both have dysfunctional Mother characters but I sympathized way more with A Cat in Paris than Agathe-Christine).  I also prefer the cubist inspired animation more in A Cat in Paris, so it is far more memorable than Agathe-Christine.

Timmy Failure, on the other hand, dives into some deep themes of abandonment and childhood depression but it did so with great tact and sweetness. Agathe-Christine felt tonally all over the place and again like it didn’t know what kind of movie it wanted to be.

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That’s not say I hated Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy. It had good things about it with sweet moments and some nice animation but it is very inconsistent and there are things like the cursing and giant lizard that I really disliked (a better giant lizard story is in April and the Extraordinary World). Older kids might enjoy Agathe-Christine but even then there are better detective stories to recommend to them.

I feel confident the Danish version is much better but as the English is all I have to judge off I can’t recommend Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy. Better  luck next time on the case!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Irresistible’ or Don’t Forget to Be Funny

Most of my readers know I am a traditional conservative who did not vote for our current President Donald Trump. This puts me in a bit of a weird position when it comes to observing the current political landscape. I side with Republicans when it comes to many issues particularly fiscal ones, but I cannot abide the moral failings of our leader and the many reprehensible things that have happened since 2016. On the other hand, I also disagree with most of the positions of the Democrats and so I am stuck in the middle with nowhere to turn to.

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Being an independent-of-the-moment should make me primed to enjoy political satire and comedy. Ideally I should be able to see truth in the humor of both the left and the right; however, unfortunately the tension of this moment seems to have made both sides either too nervous or distracted to make good comedy. This is a real shame as comedy can be an important tool in critiquing and even challenging our leaders to do the right thing and listen to the people. You can see this going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin challenging Hitler in The Great Dictator.

Anyway, I say this to make clear my problem with the new film Irresistible by writer/ director Jon Stewart has nothing to do with my disagreeing with its politics. The film actually does a pretty good job of poking fun at both parties equally. Unfortunately, the problem is I just didn’t find it to be funny. To be more specific, I laughed twice over 2 media related gags and that’s it. Everything else fell completely flat.

The problem with Irresistible isn’t that different than the problem most faith-based films have. Stewart wants to reveal a big flaw in the American political campaign system so he made a movie exposing this flaw to the American people. This attempt is perfectly admirable, but just as with faith-based films, it is not enough to have a compelling message in a movie. You must craft a narrative around that message which will appeal to the audience. Story first. Message second!

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Not that Irresistible doesn’t have its strengths. All the acting from folks like Steve Carrell and especially Chris Cooper as a Vietnam War vet are well done. The problem is the script doesn’t give the actors anything to do. Most of the time I was watching campaign stops mixed with board meetings, and if you know anything about me nothing is more boring in a movie a than board meeting (with a tie going to staring at screens).

Most of the attempts at jokes involve the media. Carrell and Rose Byrne’s characters trying to manipulate the 24 news cycle in their favor and most of these jokes are not funny because they are more observations than actual humor. I honestly had more laughs with last year’s Long Shot: a movie I would barely count as political satire.

Again it’s more about the message than an entertaining script. If we want to learn more about the mechanics of the campaign finance system and how it can be corrupted we can read an article or watch a documentary. Watching Irresistible just makes us bored and less likely to want to learn more about this important subject.

If you want to see a well done political satire there hasn’t been much lately but some classic examples are Dr Strangelove, Wag the Dog, In the Loop, Thank You for Smoking, and Dave. As far as current politics you are probably better off watching an episode of The Simpsons or The Daily Show than spending time with Irresistible. I’ve been told VEEP is good but have never seen it myself.

3 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Current Mini Reviews

Today I am back with another round of my mini reviews of films I don’t have time to write a full review of but wanted to log my thoughts on. Some of them are current to me but not to the world at large. That’s the nice thing about quarantine is a chance to catch up (I’m about caught up to be honest!). So here goes! Enjoy!

Da 5 Bloods

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Spike Lee’s new joint Da 5 Bloods has been getting a lot of buzz lately and part of that is undeniably due to its timely themes and character arcs. Overall, I enjoyed the film but I do not think it is nearly as strong as his last film Blakkklansman. Delroy Lindo is excellent playing a conflicted wounded man who is tired of dealing with all the garbage he’s been thrown in his life.

Unfortunately the film also has problems: most of which lie with the direction and script. The narrative is a bit sloppy with it trying to pull off ‘old guy reunion comedy’, gory war movie, political documentary and outdoor survival story and more- sometimes all within the same scene. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Da 5 Bloods and recommend it as a springboard for learning more about this pivotal time in our nation’s history and the brave Black men who served without the recognition they deserve.

6 out of 10

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Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind'; Photograph by Bill Ray/Courtesy of HBO

It’s hard to be too tough on such a sweet and affectionate documentary but as Natalie’s life, or at least the ending of her life has a lot of controversy Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind does feel disappointing. It feels very managed by the family to give the best impressions of all of their members including Robert Wagner. This ends up as a standard famous person documentary, which is fine but underwhelming (and a little boring to be honest).

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

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There is nothing extraordinary about the filmmaking in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael but as a female film critic I loved learning about Pauline Kael and her groundbreaking career. Pauline’s voice in her reviews is so bold and unapologetic. I feel like I’ve lost a little bit of that in the last year or so and I’m determined to find it again. I love film and love writing about film and nobody was better at it than Pauline Kael.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Artemis Fowl

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

Spelling the Dream (Breaking the Bee)

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We have had documentaries about the National Spelling Bee before but what makes Spelling the Dream interesting is it is from the Indian/Pakistani- American perspective and so it covers the entire immigrant experience not just the kids and their spelling. It’s basically a 30 for 30 for the spelling bee and I’ve never met one of those I don’t like. This film is charming and heart-warming and definitely worthy of your time.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Long Gone Summer

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Speaking of 30 for 30 films we had another good one air last weekend called Long Gone Summer about the 1998 race to beat Roger Maris’ home run record. While this film does address the steroid fallout that came years later it’s more concerned with documenting the moment in time when the nation got caught up in excitement of the game. I love that kind of thing and in this time of isolation it was just what I needed. I could have used more on Sosa but it was still a very enjoyable watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Stranger Things Season 3

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I finally got caught up with Stranger Things Season 3! When it originally aired last summer I was too busy with my podcasting schedule to get to it and once the hype had died down I kept saving it for a rainy day. Well, that day finally came and I ended up enjoying the season. I wish they had gone the more scifi route over the monster route but that was decided back in season 2 so it’s fine. At least we don’t have any bizarre entries into Eleven’s backstory to deal with this season but a few of the characters felt a bit undercooked like Cary Elwes’ Larry Kline.

Still I love this cast so much that it feels like going on an adventure with friends while watching. The show is also so well made with such a well-used sense of nostalgia (all the callbacks to Terminator were very well done) that it is very entertaining. I don’t only care about the teen characters but also Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Jim (David Harbour) as well. I particularly loved new editions Erica (Priah Ferguson) and Robin (Maya Hawke) and what they added to our Hawkins, Indiana family.

7 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Judy & Punch’ or a Not Very Punchy Revenge Story

Back what seems like a million years ago I attended the Sundance Film Festival. While there I heard about a film getting some buzz entitled Judy & Punch. As a lover of costume dramas its premise of a ‘anachronistic take on the origin of Punch and Judy shows’ sounded intriguing and I was disappointed I didn’t get to see it at the festival. Now I have seen it and must own to being disappointed by the film. I didn’t hate it but its script is very uneven.

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The first 30 minutes of Judy & Punch are its strength. Watching Mia Wasikowska’s Judy and Damon Herriman’s Punch travel around 17th century England putting on puppet shows is entertaining. The costumes, spectacle and relationship of the couple feels fresh and new. Waikowska does a great job as usual and makes for a compelling empowered woman and Mother doing an unusual job for her time.

Then something happens which I won’t spoil, and the movie becomes a simmering revenge tale with Herriman playing our greedy villain and it’s a lot less interesting. We rarely hear any more dialogue from Wasikowska’s character for the rest of the film as she wins her revenge from her evil husband. I wanted to yell out ‘I liked the earlier Judy best!’. In the desperation to make a feminist film the creators seemed to have abandoned a compelling woman and in her place put a bland archetype.

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That’s not to say the movie is bland, just the character. It’s a strange film with a cool look and aesthetic about it. I didn’t hate watching it. I just resented the turn the script took when I was enjoying the unusual story it started with.

Probably the most impressive aspect of the production in Judy & Punch is how dirty everything looks. Everyone appears like they haven’t had a bath in weeks and even the hair on the horses looks long! The puppet shows are also a ton of fun and very creative. Nevertheless, the tone is too jumbled and the story’s message too heavy-handed and simplistic for me to recommend. They were close to making something really cool but didn’t pull it off. Too bad!

4.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Faith Ba$ed’ or a Laugh and a Prayer?

In many ways the faith-based film genre invites itself for easy satire. Whenever a film puts itself out there as being more than entertainment, but a ministry tool it will be ripe with hypocrisy and ridiculousness. There’s also something so sincere and cheap about them which make it hard to not poke fun at. Filmmaker Vincent Masciale has taken on this fertile ground for satire in his new comedy Faith Ba$ed and the results are a mixed bag but just funny enough to recommend.

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In Faith Ba$ed the film’s writer Luke Barnett plays a dumb but optimistic man who idolizes a multi-level marketer tycoon named Nicky Steele (played by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander). Barnett dreams of making easy money and living the good life. To make it big he develops a scheme with his BFF Tanner (Tanner Thomason) that they are going to make the world’s greatest Christian film.

Both Masciale and Barnett are regulars on the satirical internet show Funny or Die and you can see some of that influence in Faith Ba$ed. Evidently even just the trailers have gotten some of the conservative media upset calling the film ‘blaspheme’, which should feed right into their advertising. In truth, the script is pretty tame when it comes to their criticisms of religion. Most of the good jokes are similar to any type of misbegotten artistic project like we see in The Disaster Artist or The Producers.

There’s actually a lot in Faith Ba$ed that feels borrowed from other films. For example, Luke has an all Black family, which feels right out of Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Other gags (and the over-all vibe) has strong Napoleon Dynamite or Dumb and Dumber vibes. And their dopey optimism feels right out of the early Will Farrell comedies such as Talladega Nights.

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The derivative nature, however, wasn’t much of a downside for me because I was consistently laughing. The script in Faith Ba$ed is funny especially when it is focusing on the movie. When it’s filming, financing and casting the movie it is pretty hilarious. When it goes off on tangents it works less. For example, when Luke ends up at Nicky Steele’s house to clean his pool Alexander’s over-the-top sales pitches fall flat.

I was also left wondering who the target audience for Faith Ba$ed is? It’s too strong an R rating for most religious viewers to enjoy and will the R-rated crowd be aware of the tropes of the genre to laugh? As a conservative critic I’ve seen lots of faith-based films, so I am the perfect person for this film, but I think it might struggle to find a general audience. It might have been smarter to follow the Napoleon Dynamite model and make it something the skewered audience could more easily embrace while laughing at themselves.

Actor David Koechner in the film “Faith Based”. Courtesy photo

Nevertheless, I always judge a comedy by how much did it make me laugh and in this case it was quite a bit. Like I said, whenever they are making the film A Prayer in Space it’s quite funny. On that basis alone I have to recommend Faith Ba$ed. The script is solid and the chemistry between Barnett and Thompson works. If you get a chance to see it let me know what you think!

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The High Note’ is a Good Enough Note

Like most cinephiles I have been quite depressed waiting for theaters to reopen again since the COVID19 shut-down. I am one of the lucky ones that has been able to go to drive-in movies and see one film in an indoor theater (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Pt 2). You can see all about my experience here:

In the meantime, we have to be content with the films going on streaming and VOD. To see all my reviews of TV and Film check out my RT site. The latest release, which was meant for theaters, is director Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note. While not platinum release, it was an entertaining enough film to recommend and support.

First thing I want to clarify is Tracee Ellis Ross’s character Grace Davis is a supporting role to Dakota Johnson’s Maggie in the film. The trailer had me believing she was if not the main character at least 50/50 but there are long stretches where you don’t even see her and it is all about Johnson and her boyfriend/client David played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nevertheless, the cast is all really good in this and they help elevate somewhat basic plotting.

The story of The High Note centers around Maggie who is a beleaguered assistant for Grace who dreams of becoming a music producer of her own and nourishing new talent with her great ear for mixing and arranging songs. Unfortunately, any attempts she makes to step out on her own are quickly pushed down by Grace’s manager played by Ice Cube. Then one day she meets aspiring singer David and things start moving forward in her career.

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I think most people will agree the best parts of The High Note are when Ross and Johnson get to interact together. The dialogue, for the most part, is pretty good and their conversations felt authentic and true to what the characters would be experiencing in real life. This is not always the case in these types of films where the journey to stardom can feel so phony (Bohemian Rhapsody for instance had some of the corniest stale dialogue I’ve heard in a long time in a film). Here these characters feel true and believable and that is refreshing.

Of course, Ross has a great guide for her performance in her Mother Diana Ross and she channels her quite effectively. She’s not the singer her Mother is but she’s good enough to sell the scenes. I oddly had a harder time buying Johnson as the music producer because I didn’t care for the synthesized sound she added to the tracks but what do I know about R&B music!

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If you are looking for something outside the box and super original The High Note won’t be for you but if you are up for a sweet, enjoyable film with good performances than you will enjoy it. It’s fairly generic and predictable but I enjoyed the ride and recommend the film. If you can see it at a drive-in or local opened theater please go and support those venues. If not, rent it, pop some popcorn, take a big breath in and relax with a movie.

Isn’t that what we all need right now anyway?

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The Lovebirds’ or the Sometimes Funny Birds

As shown in my review of the recent film The Wrong Missy most Netflix comedies are not my cup of tea. However, in the case of The Lovebirds I had more hope as it is an acquisition by Netflix not an original film. Indeed, Paramount originally planned to release The Lovebirds into theaters before COVID19 closed everything down.

The film also stars Issa Rae who I recently enjoyed in The Photograph and Kumail Nanjiani who was so great in The Big Sick with the same director Michael Showalter. So how did it turn out? Were my high expectations met? Honestly not really but it had just enough laughs and chemistry to give a mild recommendation.

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The plot of The Lovebirds is similar to 2018’s Game Night but not nearly as funny. Both movies are about a couple who want a simple night of fun and end up in a mad-cap race for their lives with all kinds of violence and over-the-top comedic set pieces. In this case Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) are a couple who have lost their mojo after 4 years together. Unfortunately just as they are breaking off their relationship they hit a man with their car and then one thing after another happens until they end up in all kinds of shenanigans including a sftrange cult ceremony of some kind.

Most of my favorite parts of the movie came from the dialogue particularly from Nanjiani. He was just manic enough to make me laugh without being shrill or annoying. Nanjiani and Rae also have wonderful chemistry together, and I bought them as this established couple struggling with their relationship.

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The problem with The Lovebirds is not all the comic-action set-pieces worked. In particular there’s a sequence where the 2 are tortured by Anna Camp and forced to chose between getting hot bacon grease on them or get kicked by a horse. This kind of body humor isn’t for me and it went on way too long.

I also didn’t love the long sequence at the cult. Basically whenever the plot or the action was supposed to carry the film it didn’t work for me. When they relied on the dialogue and the witty banter between the 2 leads it did.

The Lovebirds earns its R rating with vulgar language and violence so it will not be for everyone. Although obviously I had problems with it, I did laugh out loud quite a few times and that’s enough to give it a mild recommendation. No masterpiece but if you are looking through Netflix for a comedy you could certainly do worse.

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Lance’

This weekend ESPN debuted the first part of a 2-part docuseries on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong appropriately entitled Lance. As a huge fan of the 30 for 30 series this is a film I was not about to miss. Lance is directed by Marina Zenovich and it does a good job of painting Armstrong as a complete narcissist who both is and isn’t to blame for his situation. He absolutely used his fame to ruin people’s lives when they were telling the truth, but he also got caught up in a system where everyone else was doing it and he simply did it the best.

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Zenovich starts out part 1 with Armstrong’s early years as a young triathlete in Texas. He grew up with a very young Mom and a father who wasn’t in the picture. In addition his step-father admits to beating him on a regular basis. This brought out the competitor in Armstrong and made him the kind of person who would do anything to win.

Then the documentary continues through his racing years and Tour de France wins and to be honest we are pretty much on his side up until that point. Everyone involved seems to agree that the sport had such a problem that the only way he could have won is to participate in the doping. In one shocking moment Armstrong even advocates for the drug saying it is clean with very few risk-factors in taking it. Maybe these drugs aren’t so bad after all? We almost catch ourselves saying.

We especially want Armstrong to be vindicated because of the good work he is doing to fight cancer with his Livestrong organization and other positive outreach. Even though we know the answer we want it to be the great underdog story we all believed at first it was.

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And then things take a turn… Once the investigations start and he begins hurting the legacies of former friends and teammates Armstrong’s meanness and narcissism is on full display. Possibly most shocking is he has no regrets for his behavior! He says ‘I’m sorry’ but then says he would make all the same choices again if given the chance!

There’s nothing groundbreaking about the filmmaking in Lance but it is all fine and in service to a fascinating character. He in many ways is the ultimate fallen hero but even more than that: He is the hero that you realize was running the ponzi scheme the entire time, which is so sad. Can there be redemption for this kind of betrayal? Is forgiveness possible? I like to believe there are no lost causes so who knows? The documentary doesn’t give us any easy answers so we will all have to wait and see.

8 out of 10

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