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

Smile Worthy

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)

Spelling the Dream

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

Smile Worthy

[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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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.

wolf children

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 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

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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