[REVIEW] ‘SPARK: A BURNING MAN STORY’

It’s interesting in 2020 I find myself feeling nostalgic for things I didn’t even participate in. For example, when professional hockey and tennis came back I felt it a triumph of the human spirit, despite my nearly never watching a game of either sport. It’s the same way with events I didn’t attend or performances I didn’t care about. Most of them are still canceled but when they do come back I will shed a tear that people are gathering again no matter the reason.

This is basically how I feel about the Burning Man Festival, which I have no interest in attending but watching the documentary Spark: A Burning Man which was made in 2012 made me hopeful for the day when those who enjoy it will be able to do it again in safety. I hope we do not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear forever when safe solutions and adaptations are implemented. It’s a scary time to be a human. That’s for sure.

Anyway, I was asked to review the documentary Spark: A Burning Man and it is a very interesting film. On the surface it’s a by-the-numbers documentary about the effort which goes into putting on the massive Burning Man Festival each year in Nevada. Every year a city is constructed in the Black Rock Desert out of nothing and a blissful existence of commerce free life lasts for 2 artistic fueled weeks.

However, when you dig beneath the effigies and hippies there are 50 full time employees and thousands of hours of labor which go into making the seemingly anarchistic even happen in the wilderness. It was this duality of themes which fascinated me in Spark: A Burning Man. They literally have an art installation called ‘Burn Wall Street’ with a building ‘Goldman Sucks’ that takes months to build and lots of time in board rooms to coordinate and plan. If that’s not irony I don’t know what is!

It’s also very ironic that the Burning Man Festival is an activity for the rich and well off who want to pretend to be artists for a few weeks. One article I read said a basic estimate for a 4 day trip to the festival will cost $2218 with it going as high as $20,000. The film Spark: A Burning Man dives into this irony particularly talking about the groups attempt to institute a ticket lottery and the resulting backlash but they could have dived even more. Do these Silicon Valley glamping camps fit into Burning Man’s guiding principals?

Either way, if you like seeing how things come together, and seeing some escapism from a simpler time I recommend Spark: A Burning Man. It could dive in deeper into the irony of the situation, but I still found it interesting, and am glad I took the time to watch it.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘High on Heels’ or Is Beauty Pain?

Due to the effects of COVID 19 and quarantine lockdowns most of us have let fashion fall to the wayside. Or at the very least fashion below the waist go. As long as we look good for the zoom or skype chat that is all that matters! This means most women have stopped wearing high heeled shoes that can make a bold fashion statement but also cause loads of pain. A new documentary short (44 minutes) entitled High on Heels looks at high heeled shoe phenomenon and asks: are they good for women or not? The answer might be more complicated than you think.

On one side you have women who love wearing heels. They feel the posture and shape the heel gives them boosts their self-image and makes them feel more confident. In the documentary we go through the history of heels and why additional height came to be seen as empowering and beautiful.

 

On the other hand you have doctors who see the impact of the shoes on women and the pain they can cause. My problem is I have a high arch so I can’t walk well in heels. They just don’t fit my feet well. Heels can cause all kinds of problems like plantar fasciiitis, bunions, blisters and more. Ask any  woman and they will tell you the pain-stories of her feet.

High on Heels has a small budget and it does show from time to time but I still thought it was very informative and entertaining. If you like consumer reports style documentaries you will enjoy this one.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Over the Moon’: in a Word Enchanting!

So I don’t know if you knew, but I love animated films. LOL. Obviously not all animated films but I love the medium and all it can offer the filmgoer. I love being swept away by the artistry and characters and it is even better when it is also a musical! So, I was primed to love the new animated musical Over the Moon, and fortunately it did not disappoint. What a beautiful hope-filled animated musical. I loved it and can’t wait to watch it again!

Over the Moon is the first feature film from famed animator Glen Keane who created such memorable characters like Ariel, Aladdin, and Beast. Here he is taking us to China with the help of China’s Pearl Studio (who did last year’s Abominable with DreamWorks, which I also really enjoyed). It is a retelling of the classic Chinese myth of the mysterious moon goddess Chang’e.

Chang’e is voiced by Phillipa Soo of Hamilton fame and our young heroine Fei Fei goes after her on a quest to find her Mother who has passed away. Voiced by Cathy Ang, Fei Fei sings about her desire to find answers for her grief:

The music is written by Steven Price, and while I could have used even more songs, what we get is enchanting. I loved Fei Fei as a character and ‘Rocket to the Moon’ is probably the best ‘I want’ song we’ve gotten from a studio since ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen.

I also really enjoyed the sense of family in Over the Moon. Fei Fei’s mother makes mooncakes, which are then sold at the market. When the family has meals together it feels warm and authentic, all sitting together talking. Eventually Fei Fei must learn to get along with a new energetic step-brother Chin (Robert G Chiu) and that is sweet and challenging. A lot of kids will be able to relate to these family dynamics as they felt real and authentic.

When Fei Fei gets to the moon things get a little convoluted, but I still found it charming. I really liked the characters and the heart. It’s the kind of film the entire family can watch together and enjoy. Plus, the animation is completely stunning. What a treat to watch! We even get some 2D animation in sequences!!

I still think Tomm Moore’s Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of the year but Over the Moon is a complete delight. If you are an animation fan and/or a musical fan you will love it!

What do you think of Over the Moon? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section

8.5 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘Tenet’: Complex or Convoluted Piece from Nolan? (Spoiler Free)

2020 has been such a strange year it’s probably in fitting that 2 of the strangest blockbusters of recent memory end up opening theaters back up with The New Mutants and Tenet. The New Mutants feels strange because it was delayed so long that its entire franchise feels dated and Tenet because it is from the auteur-meets-mainstream filmmaker that is Christopher Nolan. Going into the weekend I was sure I’d prefer Nolan’s film over The New Mutants but having seen them both I don’t know if that is the case? Their flaws are different, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching the simple superhero origin movie over the convoluted enterprise that was Tenet.

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Without giving any spoilers away Tenet stars John David Washington as the Protagonist (literally that’s his name). He is a CIA agent who becomes involved in a secret organization that is studying inverted energy- or moving backward through time. As part of their investigations they become involved with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who for a number of reasons is trying to star World War III and destroy the entire world with his technology. He is also manipulating his ex-wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) in a complicated case of blackmail involving their son and art.

Robert Pattinson’s Neil is the best character in the film because his job is to inform the Protagonist of what is going on through long exposition dumps. We like him because he is the only one helping us get some kind of baring into the story. Everything and everyone else is muddled and messy.

The truth is at 150 minutes of this sustained confusion I struggled to stay invested and found myself nodding off more than I should have, especially for how much action is in the film. It goes to show all the splashy action in the world does not get you anywhere, for this critic at least, if the characters aren’t engaging and the story isn’t interesting. And I didn’t go into the movie tired or weary. I was ready to be entertained but I mostly wasn’t.

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Some will probably compare Tenet to Nolan’s Inception but to me there is no comparison. I was so much more invested in the characters in the former compared to the latter. I really cared about Inception’s Cobb and have always felt that his relationship with his wife Mal was the emotional core of the movie. Also Inception set up the clues for its puzzle well, piece by piece, so it earned the ambiguous ending. Part of the fun of Inception was walking out debating with my friends what the spinning top means for the characters?

Tenet, on the other hand, doesn’t develop characters we care about. Branagh’s villain, in particular, falls flat in a very one-note performance. Likewise, the clues aren’t laid out in an enticing or interesting way. It ends up feeling like 2.5 hours of characters we don’t care about experiencing cool looking stuff. This can only entertain you for so long. It’s also hard to get invested in characters and story clues when Nolan chooses to have the sound design almost incomprehensible for most of the dialogue. A friend of mine has a hearing aid and got to watch the film with closed-captions, and I’m honestly jealous. I don’t think I’m being ungenerous when saying 2/3rds of Tenet is unintelligible, to my ears at least.

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Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does tremendous work here and the visual effects should all be praised. Hans Zimmer couldn’t do this film because of his work on the upcoming Dune (we got a trailer to a trailer for that film and even though I hate the book what I saw is intriguing) but Ludwig Göransson does a good imitation. Unfortunately the sound mixing is so off and the music so loud the score becomes distracting to the overall narrative.

I’m not going to tell you to avoid Tenet. Maybe it’s too smart for me and you’ll get what Nolan is trying to do? Maybe I will watch it 2 or 3 more times and eventually it will all make sense? It’s possible but I doubt it. Go see it and make up your mind for yourself (as would be my advice for all films). I appreciate that Nolan is pushing mainstream audiences and is not satisfied with the ordinary movie-going experience. Unfortunately sometimes he forgets that the basics of good cinema are important too- characters, story, intelligible dialogue, emotion etc. We need it all for the pretty images to mean something and make an impact. Sorry Nolan! Try again!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The New Mutants’: Satisfying Teenage Angst 3 Years in the Making

Very few films have the rocky journey to the box office that this week’s new film The New Mutants had. Originally slated for a 2018 release it was delayed for reshoots and then got washed up in all the problems with the Disney acquisition of Fox in 2019 with it getting 2 more delays in 2020 because of COVID19. Now we finally have it and is it worth the wait? I might be in the minority on this one but I think so. It’s not perfect but I enjoyed this little teenage superhero origin story film.

I should start out by saying I am completely unfamiliar with this run of comicbooks and I did not use the 3 years to read up on them. Sorry! If you are a fan please let me know how they did in an adaptation in the comments section. I would love to find out. I also should warn horror fans who are hoping for a scary take on superhero storytelling they are likely to be disappointed. There is one character I found scary but the rest wasn’t scary in the slightest- so let go of that expectation and you’ll enjoy the movie more.

There are also messy parts of The New Mutants. It starts very small and can’t quite bear the weight of its ending. In addition, some of the cinematography and visual effects felt more of the CW variety than a major superhero property. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching this film!

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The best way I can think to describe The New Mutants is a combination of X:Men Dark Phoenix and the movie GLASS. The beginning is more like the latter and the ending is more like the former. To begin the film our group of mutants are held in a psychiatric hospital (similar to the one in GLASS) and are told they are there to learn to control their powers. This is led by Dr Cecilla Reyes (Alice Braga in a very one-note performance). Dr Reyes is particularly trying to get to the bottom of a the skills of a new patient named Dani played by Blu Hunt. She is surrounded by other mutant teens played by Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga, Anya Taylor-Joy and Maisie Williams.

The beginning therapy sessions asks a lot of the actors but they all worked for me and the ending while messy was better than a bunch of other X-Men movies like X-Men Apocalypse (which I hated) and X-Men Dark Phoenix. I was way more invested in the survival and growth of these characters than anybody in either of those films and it’s certainly leaps better than something like X-Men Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

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In a world of bloated superhero movies The New Mutants is also a blessed 94 minutes. This is just long enough to keep me engaged with the characters and have a lot of fun with the small-scale action towards the end. I won’t spoil it but I particularly liked the relationship we get between 2 of our teen characters. They had chemistry and I wanted them to be free from this hospital/prison so they could be together.

I have a feeling The New Mutants is going to be slaughtered by my fellow critics and it does have its flaws. For me I liked the coming of age approach to a superhero origin story. I liked The Breakfast Club for mutants feel to the screenplay. The likable young cast (not so young any more! LOL) worked well together and it clipped along nicely. I don’t know if you need to watch it in a theater but when it comes to streaming I’d recommend seeing it. If you do let me know what you think.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Current Mini Reviews

Hi everyone! I hope you are doing well. It’s time to get caught up on a few movies I’ve been watching that I haven’t had the time to write up a complete review. In the next few weeks things are going to be very busy for me with new movies coming to theaters and VOD so reviews should be coming. Make sure you are subscribed to my youtube channel and my podacasts (here and here) to get all of my content!

SPUTNIK

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I’m not the biggest horror fan but I do enjoy a good alien story and a well done creature scares movie.  It is with these tastes I was hoping I would enjoy the new alien horror film out of Russia called Sputnik. Indeed, the film looks great and the scenes with the creature are chilling and quite gory. Unfortunately when they leave the aliens and focus on the humans it becomes a bit of a slog. This is a film I’d actually be interested in seeing a remake where they can have a bigger budget allowing for longer visual effects sequences. As it is, it’s too uneven to recommend; although I am definitely interested to see what the director Egor Abramenko does next in his career.

Sputnik is available to stream on VOD and in theaters.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

HOWARD

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I love me a fascinating person documentary, and I love the Disney Renaissance films so I was primed to love the new film about Disney Legend lyricist Howard Ashman. He was taken far too soon from the AIDS epidemic, but it is amazing to watch the impact he did have in the time he was given (it’s bittersweet to think of all he could have done in the many years following his passing. Tragic). The documentary doesn’t break the celebrity bio-doc mold but it’s a must-watch for any Disney fan. Especially the time spent on The Little Mermaid and behind the scenes on Beauty and the Beast is wonderful to watch.

Howard didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Howard Ashman but it was still fun to see his talent. I particularly loved seeing him work with Jodi Benson and his performances of Poor Unfortunate Souls had such vibrato and energy. No wonder he got story credit on the The Little Mermaid! He invested his all into the film. It also all has special meaning now as we are going through this pandemic. I wonder what documentaries are going to be made of those lost too soon to COVID19? Howard is available on Disney Plus and I highly recommend it!

7 out of 10

THE WEIGHT OF GOLD

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As a huge life-long Olympian fan this documentary The Weight of Gold is tough but important watch. Narrated by star swimmer Michael Phelps it profiles the challenges Olympic athletes face obtaining the proper mental health care they need to deal with the intense pressure of competition. The athletes interviewed include a wide variety of disciplines from both the summer and winter Olympics including Apollo Anton-Ohno, Lolo Jones, Bodie Miller and Shaun White. I have dealt with my own mental health crisis in my life so it’s a subject that means a lot to me.

This stigma against mental health care needs to stop and it doesn’t matter if you are an athlete or have any other type of job we need proper care. Help needs to be easily accessible and encouraged. We’ve lost too many to suicide and despair. Enough is enough! The Weight of Gold is available to stream on HBO Max

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

MAGIC CAMP

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I love live action family comedies and dramas but lately they have been few and far between. Aside from Disney Channel movies Disney has been happy to stick to live action remakes and sequels rather than the small family features they used to be known for. However, with Disney Plus they have been doing more of these films with Togo, Timmy Failure, Noelle and more, which I am very excited about. Now we get their latest film, the long in development Magic Camp starring Adam Devine and Gillian Jacobs.

Magic Camp has a nice message with a simple story of the misfit kids learning to be believe in themselves we’ve seen a lot. Devine is fun and has chemistry with Jacobs, and they both try to make the movie work. Where I fault Magic Camp is, I hate to say it, the kid casting. They are a very bland group of ,kid actors that I struggled to stay engaged with. This is especially true if you compare them to the kids in something like The Sandlot or even The Mighty Ducks. There is no comparison. It makes the movie drag and it’s never funny enough to work as an outright comedy.  I’d say skip this one on Disney Plus watch and just watch Timmy Failure again.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

So there you have it! Have you seen any of these films? What did you think and are you going to be going to the movie theaters to see upcoming films like New Mutants or Tenet? Let me know in the comments sections!

[REVIEW] ‘A Whisker Away’ or Cats are Cute Especially in Anime

With the closure of theaters from the COVID19 virus many of us have turned to Netflix and other streaming services for new films in 2020. This has brought movies like Extraction, Bad Education, and Palm Springs to the world’s attention. However, one aspect of Netflix’s lineup not given enough credit is their incredible anime selection. Whether series or films they have a large selection of original and curated anime films ready for the viewer to enjoy.

One new offering is from directors Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama called Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu or in English A Whisker Away. This is a shame because Whisker is an adorable film the entire family will enjoy.

A Whisker Away tells the story of Miyo an unhappy young girl who struggles to fit in with her peers and doesn’t get along with her family well especially her stepmother. She does, however, love to daydream about her crush fellow schoolmate Hinode. One day she finds a mask that turns her into a cat and as a cat she’s able to spend more time with her crush but of course blissful cat-dom can’t last forever and things get complicated.

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First of all, Miyo as the cat Taro is so cute. Her bright blue eyes and white fur will charm even the most hardened of cat haters! Miyo is also a character we can all relate to with her insecurities and a fear of rejection we all face especially as teenagers. The longer she stays a cat the harder it is for her to become human again and the decision is harder for her than you might think.

I also enjoyed the world building and magic of A Whisker Away. The script is difficult to predict what is going to happen and the magic is both delightful and scary at the same time. It is definitely reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns so if you like that film you will definitely like this.

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The writer Mari Okada also wrote Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, which I found to be very underrated from 2018. She is great at capturing emotion in her writing and helping you connect with the characters. She directed Maquia and has another film Her Blue Sky that she wrote which I hope gets a US release because I love her writing.

As far as criticisms of A Whisker Away sometimes the villain Kinako was a little much and distracted from the more interesting coming of age elements with Miyo deciding what she wants out of her life.

Still if you are looking for a hidden gem on Netflix A Whisker Away is a good one!

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Current Mini Reviews

Yes friends! It is time once again to do one of my mini review posts. It seems I never run out of movies to watch and enjoy (or not) even in a time of pandemic. Fortunately I have some fun recommendations for you this evening with a lot of variety and enjoyment to be had. If you get to see any of them let me know what you think. Here goes:

Black is King

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Anyone who believes film cannot be art needs to check out Beyonce’s new musical treatise Black is King. This 85 minute music video of her ‘lessons of The Lion King certainly has far more to say and more artistry than the ‘live action’ remake she starred in last year. This is a beautiful mixture of music and art that comes from a true and honest place.

My only nitpicks is the songs run together a bit and there wasn’t one I was humming to myself after it was over. The artistry elevates rather bland songs on their own. Also the ties to The Lion King sometimes took me out of the movie and felt like a stretch at times. Still, rarely in 2020 have we gotten something so emotionally honest and beautiful so definitely check it out if you have Disney Plus.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Summerland

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Sometimes a movie wins you over by sheer charm and its determination to be liked. This is the case with Summerland. It stars Gemma Arterton as a woman in World War II in seaside England who is happy to be left alone until a young boy named Frank is given to her to take care of and shelter. She’s honestly a lot to put up with for a lot of this film but the flashbacks to her love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and her bond with the child were enough to win me over.

I won’t give it away but there is a twist I found pretty groan-worthy but the ending is so sweet it won me back over. So Summerland is admittedly uneven but the good is really tender-hearted and good, so I recommend giving it a watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Military Wives-

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Some cynical types will discard Military Wives as a piece of trite fluff but not this critic. It’s just the kind of sweet, crowd-pleaser I love. The fact that it also has great music and is based on a true story makes it even better! The film tells the story of a group of women who’s husbands serve in Afghanistan, and they decide to form a choir to help cheer up their neighbors and before long they become friends. Of course a movie like this is incredibly predictable but that doesn’t matter to me when it is executed well. I could use a lot more movies with as big of hearts as this one, especially ones that remind us all of the power of a strong group of diverse women. Yes please

Kristen Scott Thomas elevates Military Wives with her turn as the grieving Mother who is the stick-in-the-mud leader of the group of women. I also loved Sharon Horgan as our more free-spirited leader who clashes with Scott Thomas. The music is also very well done so that adds a layer of enjoyment to the film. I real feel-good film we need in 2020!

7.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

An American Pickle

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I am not always the biggest Seth Rogen fan. Going all the way back to comedies like Knocked Up his whole man-child that wins the gorgeous blonde woman can sometimes get on my nerves. This is why I am genuinely surprised that with American Pickle I actually enjoyed not one but two Seth Rogens!

I must own I have an affinity for fish out of water comedies. Whether it be Encino Man, Kate & Leopold or even the Thor movies there is something inherently funny about the innocent newcomer trying to make their way around a modern world. Of course the story is convoluted and ridiculous but you have to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. If you can than I think you will have fun with American Pickle.

In the film Rogen plays a pickle worker from the 1920s who is brined for 100 years only to wake up and confront modern life and his great grandson also played by Rogen. There are some parts of American Pickle that feel dated for 2020, particularly in the middle section, but I was still laughing enough throughout to make it work. It also has a lot of charming moments that did my sentimental heart good. If you have HBO Max I’d give it a watch.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

So look at me. Just full of smiles today!

Blind Spot 55: ‘Private Benjamin’ or I Like the Army Parts

 

This month for blind spot I thought it would be fun to tackle a comedy with a little bit of patriotism and 1980’s Private Benjamin seemed like the perfect choice. It’s a film I have heard about for years but never gotten around to seeing. It is written by Nancy Meyers who would go on to write and direct many films including The Parent Trap remake, The Holiday and more. A lot of people put her on the same level as Nora Ephron but I disagree. Her films have cute moments but nowhere near the wit and charm of Ephron’s writing.

In Private Benjamin Goldie Hawn plays a woman named Judy Benjamin who is tricked into joining the army when her husband dies on their wedding night. As a pampered heiress she isn’t used to the rigors of the army and the film rings a lot of comedy out of her being a fish out of water in this environment. Hawn does a good job of making the diva-like Judy likable and much like Cher in Clueless we are rooting for her despite her popular girl trappings.

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Unfortunately this time in the army is only a small part of the film. The last chunk of the Private Benjamin devotes itself to Judy getting engaged to a french man named Henri (Armand Assante). The movie lost all of its bite and wit in these rather tedious sections. I did not care about this relationship and was itching for her to get back to the army where she was growing and becoming a better person. It really bummed me out that the movie took such a turn.

I also was not a big fan of the rated R material in Private Benjamin. I feel like it almost never made anything funnier and came off as gratuitous in certain scenes. In addition, a plot thread with Judy’s officer attempting to rape her felt like it belonged in a different movie. It’s like the film couldn’t decide if it was going to be a grounded story of women in the army or a silly romantic comedy with runaway brides and slapstick antics. Either is fine but you can’t pull off both.

For whatever reason I have found a lot of the comedies from the 80s don’t transfer well. I’m sure there is a piece that could be written about this but Private Benjamin was at best a mixed bag. I enjoyed the boot camp scenes but pretty much everything else fell flat. Evidently a remake with Rebel Wilson is in the works and that might be interesting. Hopefully it will be more successful than the recent remake of Hawn’s other iconic 80s film Overboard. We’ll see.

4 out of 10

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