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

Smile Worthy

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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

Smile Worthy

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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

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘Bad Education’ Makes for a Good Movie

Like most of us I have been sitting through quarantine waiting for the next big hit to appear on my television. Unfortunately there have been more misses than hits but occasionally you run across a real gem. For me during quarantine I’ve found 2 gems from HBO: the first is the docuseries McMillions, which I adored, and the second a new dramatic film called Bad Education that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2020.

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There are many great things about Bad Education but the biggest standout is the dynamite script by Mike Makowsky based on a book by Robert Kolker. The plot is based on the true story of former superintendent Frank Tassone who in 2004 was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the local school system in Long Island. Evidently Makowsky was a student at the very schools when this was all happening and that closeness gives the script a sharpness I don’t think you’d have otherwise.

When I compare Bad Education to something like The Big Short it is especially impressive. The script does not waste any time over-explaining the scam. It doesn’t make Tassone into too much of a sniveling greedy rich guy. He has a lot of softer moments but then they are put alongside some that are exceedingly selfish. I was so impressed by how tightly written the script was and how well done every character is written. Even small characters like Tassone’s life-partner gets a full character arc in only a few scenes.

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It almost goes without saying but Hugh Jackman is remarkable as Tassone, as is Alison Janney as his partner in crime (literally). Again these are very selfish characters but their weaknesses are easy to imagine falling into, making the story all the more compelling. Their great performances and the terrific script make for a very entertaining ride.

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I also thought Geraldine Viswanathan was excellent as the young student who begins digging into the waste and corruption at the schools. At first Tassone thinks he can patronize her assuming her work will come to nothing. Then the more she digs the more scared he gets. It was very well done!

In addition, don’t miss Ray Ramano in another excellent supporting role. Honestly, the whole cast is great.

If I was going to nitpick the film probably spends a little bit too long on Tassone’s personal life but even that I didn’t mind much because it was so well executed.

If you like captivating true stories then you definitely need to see Bad Education. It is funny, chilling, well acted wonderful film. I highly recommend it! If it was in the theater it would be an R rated film but it’s not too bad. Some mild sensuality and language is all.

Check it out!

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The Willoughbys’ or Not My Kind of Dysfunction

If you are an animation fan there is perhaps nothing more exciting than what is happening over at Netflix. In recent years they have been gathering a group of talented animators and collaborators unmatched by any other studio. This is true for series like Hilda and Disenchantment and feature films like last year’s Oscar-nominated Klaus (also my favorite movie of 2019!). What’s especially exciting is they are experimenting with new animation styles and bringing back traditional artistry like 2D animation.

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Unfortunately they can’t all be winners and their latest entry The Willoughbys wasn’t my cup of tea. I love the animation and appreciate some of the moments of heart, but its hurt by an uneven tone and a story that fails to produce laughs or provide us with memorable characters.

The Willoughbys is based on a novel by Lois Lowry, and I can imagine the humor working well on the written page. A lot of the jokes are of the dark and dry variety, which is very tough to pull off and not feel mean-spirited. It’s similar to the challenges found in adapting Roald Dahl to the big screen. His books are so strange and dark that when you translate them to screen you have to add a lot of whimsy to make the stories palatable. It’s the same problem with The Willoughbys, and I don’t think they succeeded in finding that balance.

The Willoughbys tells the story of the eponymous family who have the most horrible parents since the Mom and Dad in Madeline. They are disgusted by their children and have no interest in taking care of them. One day they find a new baby and the parents tell the kids to get rid of the baby and not come home until they do. In revenge they decide to send their parents on a ‘murderous vacation’ so they can be on their own and be orphans.

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I can see why some kids will like this style of comedy. I used to love playing orphans with my friends and pretending to take care of ourselves without need of parents. It was an empowering game. However, the tone in The Willoughbys is too all over the place to work on that level and the humor almost never made me laugh. I also didn’t feel like I got to know any of the children very well.

If you look at a similarly structured film in Coraline, I get to know her way better than any of the kids here. Coraline also has a much more consistent tone which makes the scary and funny parts work much better than anything we see in The Willoughbys. I’m rooting for Coraline in a way I never am for these kids who are more props for jokes than compelling characters.

All that said, if you are jonesing for something to watch on Netflix you could do worse than The Willoughbys. It’s not awful. I just didn’t think the script was sharp or funny enough for a recommendation. I would strongly recommend you watch Hilda or Klaus instead of spending time with The Willoughbys.

4.5 out of 10

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Blind Spot 52: ‘The Three Colors Trilogy’

When I was setting up this year’s blind spot picks I took what seemed like a big risk in my pick for April. Deciding to go with a trilogy of films called the Three Colors Trilogy seemed like a big ask. Little did I know we would have a pandemic and I’d be in quarantine for the entire month! It ended up being the ideal choice!

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The Three Colors Trilogy is a trio of films by polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. The 3 films are loosely tied together stories that are named after the colors of the French flag and supposedly meant to be emblematic of the 3 political ideals associated with each color: blue=liberty, white=equality, red=fraternity. Some also feel the films are an anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, and anti-romance.

While I admire the boldness of the project, the trilogy is bookended by 2 great films with a real turkey stuck in the middle. That’s right. I enjoyed Blue and Red but found white to be a big misfire. However, as they aren’t very connected this isn’t a huge problem and I’d honestly suggest just skipping White all together.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on all 3:

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Blue

Blue stars Juliette Binoche as a widow who loses both her daughter and husband in a horrible car accident at the beginning of the film. She is a classical music composer, as was her husband, but he got most of the praise and glory. Now out of the hospital she has to try to put her life back together all the while discovering new revelations about her husband along the way.

This is a very ‘fly on the wall’ type of movie with us mostly following Binoche around as she makes choices. One minute she is reuniting with a former lover, another she is selling her house, then moving to Paris etc. Fortunately she’s a compelling enough character for this to work. Binoche does a terrific job playing this damaged woman and her responses felt real and honest- no melodrama here.

I also enjoyed the way Kieslowski brought in the color blue into the film through a blue chandelier and lots of time in or near swimming pools. It was more than a gimmick but a way to establish moods of grief and loss.

Blue is a definite great start to the trilogy!

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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White

As I mentioned above White is the film in the trilogy that is the big miss. It stars Zbigniew Zamachowski as a sad sap of a man who at the start of the film is getting divorced by his wife. She is played by Julie Delpy and she wants a divorce because he has failed to consummate their relationship. He then spends the rest of the movie feeling sorry for himself and planning his elaborate revenge.

At one point he gets involved with the mafia and sends himself in a suitcase to Poland to finish a job for a shady friend. I guess such gestures are supposed to be the ‘anti-comedy’ of the trilogy, but I didn’t laugh. I found him selfish, rude and irritating. I think there is supposed to be satisfaction in his ending, but I found it pathetic.

I suppose the acting and filming of White is fine but the story and characters were too insufferable and annoying for me to care about. Let’s just say it’s a slice of life I can do without!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Red

The highlight of the trilogy is the concluding film, Red. Instead of an irritating useless male character as we saw in White, in Red you get a layered, interesting character and an ending that ties the trilogy together.

Red tells the story of a model named Valentine played by Irene Jacob. One day she has a car accident with a dog and she seeks out the dog owner. It turns out to be a former judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Unfortunately the judge doesn’t care about the dog but he has a sophisticated technology for listening in on the conversations of his neighbors.

Like in Rear Window, as he listens he becomes more involved in their lives and starts to make assumptions about what is best for them. Valentine tries to help the judge but things become more complicated by the minute. She also has her own love problems to deal with along with some bad luck at work and in her social life.

Like Blue, Red works because it has a compelling main character we are interested in. The reason it is better than Blue is because the plot is more linear and engaging and Valentine is a more complex character (it was nominated for best screenplay). It’s also beautifully made from the lighting, music, direction, all the way to the cinematography. It’s a gem!

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Have you seen The Three Colors Trilogy? Which one is your favorite? I would love to read your thoughts below in the comments