[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

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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

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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

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Blind Spot 54: ‘Wolf Children’ Review

In the world of anime fans it’s actually kind of a scandal that I haven’t seen Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece Wolf Children. I love Hosoda so I’m not sure why I put off seeing it but now that I have I’m delighted to tell you all that it lives up to the hype. It’s not a loud movie but it is one of the most beautiful depictions of motherhood I’ve seen.

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Wolf Children tells the story of a woman named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man while in attending college. Eventually she finds out the man is a wolfman, but not the man-eating variety we see in horror movies. Hanna and the man end up having 2 children, Yuki and Ame who share the wolfman traits of their father.

When the man dies Hana must figure out how to not only be a young single Mother of 2 but also raise 2 children that are of a different species from her own- one that she and everyone around her is entirely unfamiliar with. She ends up moving to the country to keep them safe and learning how to farm and teach her children how to manage both sides of themselves.

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What’s also interesting is the different trajectories of the children. Yuki wants to live as a human being. She goes to school, makes friends, and is able to hold her wolf side in with the help of a little song her Mom made up. On the other hand, Ame is drawn to the wolf side especially after he becomes friends with a wolf named Sohei.

If you are watching Wolf Children looking for a big narrative or strong action you will be disappointed. It’s a simple film about the every day life of our 3 lead characters. We get to know them and become invested in their journeys. The animation is absolutely stunning- right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The sound design is also very impressive with the lushness of nature coming to life before our eyes. It really helps us become immersed in the story.

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But mostly Wolf Children is a beautiful story about the power of a Mother’s love to save her children. Even if they are of different species that love is powerful and that says a lot. I don’t think you have to be a big anime fan to enjoy this film. If you have a mother, are a mother or long to be a mother you will be moved by this touching story. I highly recommend it.

9 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’- A Defense

In the midst of the protests and hashtags of the last week one little post caught my eye. It was from a man named Franklin Leonard who said:

“Not to make a bad situation worse but I was informed yesterday that Sister Act 2 is 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it’s not the best evidence I’ve heard of bias in the film industry it’s still, you know, definitely not good”.

This was retweeted by the critic Robert Daniels asking us to ‘re-review Sister Act 2 this week’ so here I am!

I must own I hadn’t seen Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit for many years but I was shocked to hear the fresh rating was so low. My memory was that it is an improvement over the original, which has a rottentomatoes score of 73%. So I sat down with my Disney Plus and re-watched both films today and confirmed that my memory is correct. Sister Act 2 is definitely the superior of the two films.

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The original Sister Act is an enjoyable enough light comedy. Most of the jokes come at the expense of ‘look at those silly nuns’ which is a level of comedy not high above toilet humor. Nevertheless, it has a charismatic lead in Whoopi, a fun ensemble supporting her and a big enough heart to work.

For the sequel, they obviously rushed out a movie, making it to theaters just over a year after the successful original. Instead of a comedy, they tried to give the story a bit more gravitas by putting Whoopi and her singing nuns into an inner-city school that is about to close its doors. I’m not going to say this is the most original concept to ever hit screens but it’s something easy to relate to and very appealing when done well, which it is here.

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Who can’t relate to that teacher who inspires you to be a better person or to pursue your dreams? In this film Whoopi Goldberg gets to be a black woman making that happen for a diverse group of teens in 1993. That’s not something you saw every day back then. In addition, they share their music with her, and we the audience get to enjoy different styles like hip hop and rap.

My absolute favorite part is when Tanya Blount and Lauryn Hill sing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’. It gives me the chills every time I hear it. Stunning. This song alone makes it better than the ‘nuns are funny’ comedy of the first film.

In fact, Lauryn Hill’s Rita is my favorite character in the film. She wants to sing but her Mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is worried her daughter’s dreams aren’t practical. This is a trope but it’s executed very well and again is easy to relate with (on both sides both mother and daughter). Her Mother makes a lot of sense but then when you hear Lauryn sing it’s obvious she’s born to do nothing else.

On the surface it is easy to dismiss a movie like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit as a lazy throwaway film, but I appreciate it tried to be more than just a comedy. It gave us a beautiful soundtrack with likable performances and a story that while admittedly generic is extremely likable and easy cheer for. It’s the kind of movie that’s a blanket of comfort and goodness, and I thoroughly enjoyed rewatching it.

And I definitely give it SMILE WORTHY

7 out of 10

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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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[REVIEW] ‘The Vast of Night’

One of the things that has kept me sane during this quarantine experience has been attending a drive-in movie theater. There are 2 drive-ins within a 30 minute drive to my house, one of them a temporary make-shift location and one a permanent fixture, that have been operating for some to nearly all of this pandemic. I have been able to see new films like Valley Girl and Trolls World Tour to classics like Jurassic Park and E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial and it has consistently been a great experience.

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Last Friday I even got to attend a critics screening at the drive-in! It was for a small film that will be available on Amazon Prime May 29th called The Vast of Night. This throwback to old-school 1950’s radio dramas and sci-fi films was a perfect piece of cinema to watch at the drive-in and while it has some pacing issues I really enjoyed it.

The Vast of Night tells the story of 2 teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico who work at a radio station in the 1950s. One night they start to hear a strange frequency from the radio and they start to investigate what is happening. The film has a small cast with only 4 actors and spends large sections with just Everett (Jake Horowitz) talking into the radio processing what he is hearing.

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One of my friends on letterboxd called the film ‘Podcast: the Movie’ and he’s not wrong. It does have the feel of a podcast like Serial especially because so much of the drama is Everett just talking into the microphone at the station. I’m hard-pressed to think of another recent movie that has such long stretches of uninterrupted monologuing. This mostly worked for me but there were moments where they pressed their luck and I got a little sleepy (it was also a late night screening so take that with a grain of salt!)

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The Vast of Night is a rare film you could listen to and get most everything out of it; however, the production design is very impressive. On a micro-budget the period details and the skill cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz brought to the project is very impressive. It’s definitely a film that spikes my curiosity for all involved including director Adam Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. I will be very anxious to see what they do next as this showed great potential.

I’ve waited 5 days to write this review of The Vast of Night because it’s a movie that requires some thought. So much of the film lies in long stretches of conversation at the radio station that I almost wish a copy of the script was included with admission price. All good scifi should be trying to say something and I think The Vast of Night is trying to tell us to listen to people and to not give in to modern cynicism. Indeed, the world is vast and spectacular and it may just be trying to teach us something if we are open to listening.

I would have enjoyed a little bit more romance between the 2 leads and sometimes the monologing at the station pushed it but nevertheless, I recommend The Vast of Night as a thoughtful, unique, indie scifi film that will leave you thinking for days. I really enjoyed it, and I think you will as well.

8 out of 10

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Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

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I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

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