How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

It’s no secret that I am not the biggest fan of DreamWorks animation. Particularly their comedies are very hit and miss for me. However, the one consistently great series from the studio is the How to Train Your Dragon films. They are epic in scale but with sweet moments and the animation is always stunning. Now we get the 3rd and last installment entitled How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (breaks continuity with the other 2 that had simple numbers in the title but oh well!). While I did have my issues with the film, it’s still a very sweet and lovely way to end the series and most fans will be very pleased with it.

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The story of How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World starts in Berk where dragons and humans are living peacefully with Toothless being the alpha or intermediary between the two groups. One day they find a new Night Fury (Toothless was supposed to be the only one) but this dragon is white and is a female, which of course is very exciting for Toothless. Unfortunately a dragon hunter named Grimmel is after the dragons and wants to destroy everything in Berk. I won’t tell you any more so you aren’t spoiled but there is a lot of action, romance, and some sweet moments of friendship.

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The strongest parts of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World are in the animation and character moments. There is a particularly stunning sequence when they find the Hidden World and things look like under a fluorescent black light. It’s truly breathtaking. While I missed the flying sequences of the first 2 films (Toothless and Hiccup are separated or battling in most the movie), it is still a very beautiful film.

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Also we see growth from Hiccup as character as he comes to understand Toothless, Astrid, and even his father better through the course of the movie. A lot of the side characters who we have come to love during the movie including Astrid get nice endings and moments to shine. Some of the comedy with Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig) wasn’t my taste but the kids in the theater seemed to enjoy it so I may not be the target audience.

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My criticisms of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may not be an issue for you if you love fantasy adventure and action. Aside from slasher flicks, fantasy action is probably my least favorite. There are a lot of battles and fighting in this movie and I found them to be more than a tad dull. I know other people will enjoy them but I kept nodding off during these sections. You would think with all the flames and warfare it would be exciting but it isn’t for me at all. At the very least they were too long and repetitive. I would have much rather had less action and more flying sequences or time in the Hidden World, but that’s probably just me.

Other than that I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It is a beautifully animated ending to our trilogy and one I bet you will find very satisfying if you loved the previous 2 films.

7 out of 10

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The Wandering Earth Review

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Recently I have really enjoyed getting into some of the big blockbuster films from China. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Chow’s film The Mermaid (2016). Now we get the massive interstellar disaster movie The Wandering Earth directed by Frant Gwo which scored $300 million in China during its opening week alone. To my surprise my local AMC was screening it so I decided to give it a watch, and I’m glad I did.

The Wandering Earth is big, loud, spectacle entertainment if I’ve ever seen it. It’s definitely convoluted and over-the-top but it embraces all these elements in an old-fashioned exuberance that made me smile. The style and special effects may not be as glossy as something like Geostorm (although it can be quite stunning in sequences) but all the choices they made gave it a charm and earnestness, which was very appealing.

WanderingEarth3The story is based on a novella by Liu Cixin and it is set in a future society where the sun has aged and the Earth is in danger of losing its axis and source of light and power. In response the nations of the Earth band together to create United Earth Government and cities exist underground where oxygen and temperature can be monitored.  They create a plan to use giant rockets on the earth to boost it out of orbit and move it over 2,500 years to a new galaxy with a new sun. A scientist at the beginning of the film named Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) goes up into space to lead the International Space station which is now responsible for navigating the Earth on its journey to the new galaxy.

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As you can imagine this plan is fraught with peril and Liu’s son Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), and adopted daughter Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) are left behind to try and run the rockets systems down on Earth. Unfortunately as the Earth passes by Jupiter it gets caught in the planet’s gravity and it starts to get sucked causing all kinds of problems they must solve.

I could totally understand  someone finding The Wandering Earth to be exhausting and frustrating. They throw a lot at you including a lot of characters, tons of destruction, loud music and big action set-pieces. They even have a portion where the artificial intelligence on the International Space Station turns into HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and tries to thwart the will of astronaut Liu. The subtitles are also very fast so you are not going to get everything and will have to fill in some of the blanks using your imagination.

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All that said, I’ve seen this type of spectacle entertainment done so poorly by the Roland Emmerichs and Michael Bays of the world that I found myself really enjoying this unbounded exuberant scifi film. It felt fresh by its unabashed insanity and enthusiasm. There’s just some time when you can tell that everyone behind a movie is trying really hard to make something great and it’s infectious. It kind of reminds me of the joy I felt watching the Baahubali films in 2017. It’s true spectacle entertainment, and I think that’s great!

wanderingearth4 If you have any palate for big over-the-top scifi blockbusters I think you will really enjoy The Wandering Earth. Who knows? You might even find yourself cheering the Chinese on as they save the Earth from literal destruction at the hands of Jupiter!

8 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

Alita Battle Angel Review

Hey everyone! Before I start my review I want to wish you all a Happy Valentines Day and share with you the annual valentine I designed. This year’s design is based on my recent selection as a critic at rottentomatoes.com. I even used the same color of green as the rotten splat is on their website. Happy Valentines!

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I also have my review of Isn’t it Romantic on my youtube channel

ALITA BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

Honestly Alita: Battle Angel is a movie I probably wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t trying to be a more well-rounded critic. Fantasy movies don’t tend to be my thing and most of the live action anime adaptations haven’t been great (although I did enjoy the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation more than most). With all that said, I actually enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel quite  a bit.

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Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a cyborg (Rosa Salazar) with a fully intact human brain that is found by a cyborg scientist (Christoph Waltz) in the scrapheap. At first she can’t remember anything of her previous life but as she fights she gets back bits of that memory.

In the dystopian world they have a sport called Motorball which is kind of like a grittier form of roller derby and it turns out Alita is a natural. If she can win the grand championship of the sport she can get to a special city in the sky called Zalem, which is where she originally came from.

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Alita also meets a boy named Hugo (Keen Johnson) and discovers there are assassins out to get her and her father. She can train as a ‘hunter-warrior’ to defeat these assassins but they are very strong and make things difficult for her and her friends.

That’s all I will say about the plot. The strengths of Alita: Battle Angel is in Alita as a character. The giant eyes may be off-putting for some, but I adjusted to them quite quickly. Rosa Salazar and the motion capture animators do a really good job making Alita likable and endearing. She’s such an honest character in a dark world that you can’t help but root for her. I also liked her and Hugo’s little relationship quite a bit (you know I’m a sucker for romance!).

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It is also a beautiful movie with stunning world building. I saw it in 3D and I recommend it as it feels even more immersive than the flat images would on their own. Beautiful world building isn’t enough alone to win me mover but it is still a plus in the movies favor.

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The downsides to Alita: Battle Angel is I didn’t like the goons who were hunting Alita down. There are 2 main cyborgs, and I found both of them to be pretty grating. Also the middle section of the movie where most of the fighting takes place gets repetitive and dull. However, it picked back up with a strong finale so I can forgive the film.

If you like action or scifi movies you should find more than enough to like with Alita: Battle Angel. It’s beautifully made with a charming and sweet lead character. Even if you don’t typically like sci-fi/fantasy you might like it with the teen romance, and sweet relationship between father and daughter. It’s true that some actors are wasted in bland roles like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, but I still had a pretty fun time with the film. It has its flaws, but I was entertained more than enough to give a recommendation.

7 out of 10

smile worthy

 

Current Mini Reviews

Today I am back with a small edition of my mini reviews post. Mostly the end of January was taken up by the Sundance Film Festival but I was able to squeeze in a few other viewings which included both new and 2018 releases.

So here goes!

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS CR: NETFLIX

At the risk of losing some of my film snob credibility with #filmtwitter I must own I have not enjoyed most of the Coen Brothers recent comedies. They seem to rely so much on setting that they forget to tell a good joke. Films like Hail Caesar didn’t work because instead of being funny they decided to be boring and repetitive. Their early work like Raising Arizona focused on script first, setting and set-pieces second and this is what made it so funny.

Now we get a western themed anthology from them and it has much of the same problems of Hail Caesar. Lately the Coen Brothers seem content to simply pay homage to classic storytelling (in this case the western) instead of crafting compelling scripts within said genre.

For starters, I didn’t think that any of the shorts were funny. A couple were sweet and tender like The Gal Who Got Rattled, but even it, is not something I am going to remember. In contrast, their films like Fargo or Oh Brother! Where Art Thou I will never forget (memorable characters, script and setting!).

The shorts in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are well made and acted but aren’t memorable nor did they inspire any large emotion from me. Pretty bland I’d say.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE

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Another missed opportunity came with Andy Serkis and his version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Of course we all know that Disney hit a real homerun with their 2016 version directed by Jon Favreau. I wasn’t as in love with that version as some moviegoers but it was certainly better than this new version that went straight to Netflix for a reason.

To put it quite bluntly Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is unmemorable and boring in every way. The child performer Rohan Chand who plays Mowgli is pretty good (perhaps better than the kid in the Favreau version tbh) but the story was not interesting. They go a darker angle which will be too traumatizing for kids but it isn’t compelling enough to entertain adults so it’s just really bland.

Also the cgi, which was so memorable in Favreau’s version, is very hit and miss here. The voice cast is all good but the characters don’t do anything interesting and Mowgli is a jungle boy who stays the same through the movie. I immediately forgot about the movie as soon as I finished watching it, which is a real shame.

3 out of 10

Frown Worthy

FREE SOLO

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This Oscar nominated documentary follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to ‘free solo’ climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The directors do a good job creating stakes for the danger of the climb and helping us get to know the free-spirited Alex. This helps his climb during the last third of the film feel wracked with tension!

I couldn’t help but ask myself while watching what all this risk was for? What was the point of going solo? I guess just to prove you can but is that something to be applauded? It’s similar to Evil Knievel jumping over 20 cars through a ring of fire for our entertainment or Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Towers in 1974. Man always wants to entertain us via risking their own lives and more often than not such stunts are compelling and hard to not watch and applaud.

They had a lot of challenges while making the movie because they couldn’t disrupt his dangerous climb in any way to get either sound or images, so what they accomplish is really quite impressive. If they win best documentary I won’t complain (knowing the documentary branch it will probably go to something more pedestrian like RBG). Regardless you should check out Free Solo while you have the chance.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

I WANT TO EAT YOUR PANCREAS

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I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is definitely the strangest title of the year but fear not! It is not a cannibalism movie after all. In fact, it is a sticky sweet coming of age love story in the vein of A Fault in Our Stars or a Nicholas Sparks film like A Walk to Remember.

It tells the story of Sakura, a teenage girl suffering from pancreatic disease who becomes friends with a sullen teen boy who wants no part in her dreaming and life. Sakura is very much a manic pixie dream girl who exists mostly to inspire this boy (who we don’t even get a name of for most the movie) to live a full and exciting life. She also has a best friend who is very suspect of this new boy in her friends life.

Despite the somewhat tired setup, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is actually quite sweet with nice moments between the 2 characters that teens will relate with and enjoy. The animation is beautiful throughout using light and a watercolor aesthetic to make Sakura seem all the more angelic and hopeful. I also enjoyed the music and the character designs while fairly generic were pleasant to watch.

Overall, if you like these kinds of coming of age weepies than you’ll enjoy I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, and I’d recommend checking it out.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

WHAT MEN WANT

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If you are new to my blog you might not know that I hate the original What Women Want with a passion. I think it is such a putrid terrible lazy excuse for a comedy. Especially with the Marisa Tomei character’s plot I find it quite morally repugnant to be honest. So you can imagine I was horrified to see it was being remade with a gender swap with Taraji P Henson in the Mel Gibson role. Unfortunately the filmmakers couldn’t swap my feelings for the film into enjoying this new version

The positives for What Men Want is it has a funny poker scene where Shaquille O’Neal and other NBA stars get some good laughs. Also Wendi McLendon-Covey is funny in the 3 or 4 scenes she is in.

The rest of the movie is awful. The stereotyping is embarrassing. The laughs are few and far between (and extremely repetitive). The movie is way too long at nearly 2 hours and the lead character is an insufferable, entitled jerk for way too long. Also her skill of reading men’s minds seems to come in and out very conveniently. I know a lot of people hated I Feel Pretty last year but I thought that had way more heart and a way better message than this mess.

Worst of all it wasn’t funny (except for the poker scene). There’s tons of R rated humor and that did nothing for me. (I’m not sure why people think saying the f word a lot is funny. It’s just using a word. You have to do funny things with it). Anyway, What Men Want is trash. Don’t watch it or the original. There’s way better comedies out there to watch. Put on Game Night or even TAG instead.

Please let’s move on from this lazy gender stereotyping movie concept!

1 out of 10

Frown Worthy

Have you gotten to see any of these releases? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks!

SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 9 (LOVE ANTOSHA, TROOP ZERO, PADDLETON)

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It’s finally happened. After 9 days of attendance and 25 movies screened the Sundance Film Festival has finished for 2019! What a great ride it has been. I hope you have all enjoyed these daily updates and that perhaps it will inspire you to join me next year for the festival (or go to your own local film festival. They have them all over the country).

I finished the festival with 3 films all at the Rose Wagner Theater and they were all quite different but each emblematic of the type of material we often get at Sundance. A sweet documentary tribute, a quirky family comedy and a bittersweet dramedy about 2 friends facing the toughest of life decisions together. I’d say it was a pretty great way to end the festival and it was neat to talk with all the other passholders in line about the movies they’d seen. Believe it or not almost everyone I spoke to had seen more than my measly 25! Looks like I will have a new goal for next year.

Here is my ranking of the 25 movies (plus animation spotlight which would be towards the bottom):

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But let’s talk about the 3 movies I saw today.

LOVE, ANTOSHA

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First up is the documentary Love, Antosha about the life of lost-too-soon actor Anton Yelchin. He died in a freak accident at the young age of 27 in 2016 but there was much I didn’t know about him. For instance, despite being so young he had 69 film/tv credits to his name, which is pretty impressive. Also, I had no idea he suffered from cystic fibrosis. Many in his life probably expected him to die a young age of this condition of the lungs so how strange to have him taken from a preventable accident. Funny how life works out sometimes.

He is also an only child, which is always the saddest thing. His parents, both Russian immigrants, are obviously devastated. I can’t even imagine what they have gone through. The title of the movie is from the letters Anton would write to his mother signing them Love, Antosha with a little drawing of his Mom. I definitely teared up whenever they read one of his letters.

The documentary doesn’t reinvent the mold but interviews an impressive group of his friends and family including costars like Martin Landeau, Jennifer Lawrence, Ben Foster, Kristen Stewart and more. They do go into his photography career which are quite pornographic (you’ve been warned).

But Love, Antosha is a sweet look at a young life taken too soon but who still managed to cram so much into the time he had. If you need some inspiration give it a watch.

6/10

Smile Worthy

TROOP ZERO

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Next we get a classic Sundance quirky indie comedy in the veins of Me Earl and the Dying Girl or Napoleon Dynamite except having a more noteworthy cast than either of those films. Troop Zero is about a hokum little town in Georgia (in the early 70s I think?) where a young girl named Christmas (McKenna Grace) joins a scouting troop because she dreams of winning a prize to make a record NASA astronauts will take into space to play for any aliens they might find.

In order to get on the record they must attend the jamboree and in order to attend they must each earn at least one badge. Viola Davis plays Rayleen, a woman who works for Christmas’ Dad who reluctantly agrees to be the troop Mother and then Allison Janney plays the rival team Mom who is selfish but not too catty. Jim Gaffigan is a lot of fun as Christmas’ Dad.

One of the weird parts about this movie is race is never mentioned. Rayleen being black is never discussed. The black kids in the troop get no flack for it. I guess it’s a film which requires a certain suspension of disbelief.

Also, the look and feel of the film is very reminiscent of Wes Anderson but not quite as well executed. I don’t know who the ‘Bert + Bertie’ directors are but it might have been nice if they had differentiated their film more from something like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

But all that stuff can be put aside because the kids are so cute and everyone involved is bringing a warmth to the picture. It makes for a pleasant enjoyable movie. It kind of reminded of the underrated Because of Winn Dixie in many ways.

I wouldn’t say it is a must see but if you get the chance to see it on amazon prime you’ll enjoy it.

6/10

Smile Worthy

PADDLETON

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Finally my last film at Sundance is the dramedy Paddleton starring Mark Duplas and Ray Romano. This is the first in a 4-picture deal between the Duplas’ Brothers and Netflix and it’s a pretty good start. Someone in line told me that in the q and a the director said much of the dialogue was improvised between Romano and Duplas and if that’s the case they are definitely pros because I couldn’t tell.

Paddleton tells the story of 2 platonic friends who live in the same apartment complex and enjoy watching kung-fu movies, making pizza and playing their made-up game called paddleton. One day Duplas’ character finds out he has terminal cancer and decides to take a prescription, which will end his life before he goes through all the pain. Romano’s character struggles with this choice but in the end decides to go through the journey and support his friend.

It sounds like a real downer, and it is very sad, but it is actually quite funny throughout. Romano and Duplas have terrific chemistry and the highs and lows feel earned and emotionally true. It’s a sweet, endearing little movie.

If you are open to movies that will make you cry than Paddleton is definitely worth a watch and I’m excited to see what the Duplas Brothers come up with next.

8/10

Smile Worthy

So what do you think of the movies I have reviewed for Sundance? I would love to hear your thoughts!

SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 8 (LEGO MOVIE 2, BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, THE MUSTANG)

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Today is what you might describe as a marathon event for movie fans like myself. It started not at the Sundance Film Festival but at an early screening for the upcoming film Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. Naturally being animation and a sequel to one of my favorite recent films I had to take time to see it and it ended up being a lot of fun.

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My friend Tyson met up with me and he’s a real sweetheart. We went to lunch afterwards and had a nice time talking about movies and our lives.

Once we were finished I headed over to the Grand Theater for 3 screenings at the festival. I contemplated going to the midnight screening but by the end of the evening I was too tired. I have realized through this week’s experiences that 4 movies in one day is my limit (I’d say that’s pretty good!). So, even though Lego Movie 2 isn’t technically part of Sundance I am going to include my review here because it feels like part of the experience.

Overall it was a pretty good day of movie watching and now that the festival is almost done I know I will look back with fond memories at all the great (and some terrible) films I got to see (I’m at 22 films seen at Sundance!).

LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART

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Like I said, the original Lego Movie is one of my favorite recent animated films. I loved how it combined humor, heart, creative world building and stunning animation all into one film. Then it was followed by The Lego Batman Movie, which I enjoyed, although I think it started to lose steam in the last act. Finally they had Lego Ninjago, which was very boring, and I didn’t enjoy.

Fortunately the team at Warner Animation dusted off the miss of Ninjago and are back with another strong entry in the franchise with Lego Movie 2. While more kid-oriented than the original, it has a lovely message with animation that pops and a funny (if not as funny as the first) script.

The story follows Emmet (Chris Pratt) as he tries to save Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) from an alien captor (Tiffany Haddish). Batman, Spaceman and Unikitty accompany him as they try to fight off the destruction by the ”Systar System” (those darn sisters!). Along the way, we get some good pop culture jokes and a nice message about being kind and not leaving anyone out when you play. Any kid will be able to relate to the struggles the children have in getting along and dealing with annoying siblings. I certainly could have.

I also really enjoyed the songs. They have a fun riff on “Everything is Awesome” and then a funny song called “Catchy Song” which only has one line of lyrics “this song is goona get stuck in your head.” Tiffany Haddish’s character also has a fun villain song.

If I had any criticisms for the film, the central message is more for children so some adults may find it drags a bit. It also isn’t as funny as the original or as visually inventive but it’s still solid in those categories. I’m debating about whether I like it or The Lego Batman Movie better but regardless they are both definitely fresh.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON

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So now we get to the true Sundance films. I started the day with a favorite from the festival Brittany Runs a Marathon. This little romcom about an overweight girl that takes up the cause to run a marathon seemed perfect for me. As a plus size athlete who has completed 12 open water marathon swims I thought I would really connect with it.

Unfortunately I left the theater feeling disappointed (unpopular opinion time). The problem is being overweight or losing weight doesn’t mean you are a jerk which is what Brittany was in this film. Even at the start of the movie she was pretty unpleasant and then she gets thin and treats everyone around her like garbage. And she does have a redemptive arc by the end but my problem is her behavior didn’t feel authentic or genuine. It is particularly bad in a scene where she is very cruel and rude to an overweight friend of her sister who is joining them for a party. I just don’t believe someone would say the things she says to her. They try to claim she is drunk but it came across as very mean and she was like that to everyone. I have no idea why anyone would want to be her friend.

Because she was such a jerk to so many people and so judgemental it made her hard to root for and I didn’t feel much victory when she completed her goal because it was a selfish goal. All the performances are good and I can see why other people like it but I was disappointed. Not for me!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

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Ever since the release of John Carney’s Sing Street in 2016 I have been chasing its spiritual successor. Many times I have heard people claim ‘_____ is the next Sing Street” and they always disappoint. Well, finally Gurinder Chadha’s delightful film Blinded By the Light comes close to taking that spot in my heart. I absolutely loved it (and I don’t even like Bruce Springsteen that much).

Blinded By the Light tells the story of Javed (Viveik Kalra) who is a young Pakistani man in the 80s who discovers Bruce Springsteen in all his glory. He dreams of becoming a writer and Bruce’s words and melodies speak to him. Encouraged by his teacher (Hayley Atwell) he starts writing more and gaining confidence to assert his independence from his traditional father. He also gets the guts to ask out the beautiful edgy girl he has a crush on.

I suppose some might call such a film trite but I thought it was pure joy. I smiled from beginning to end. The music is so well incorporated into the story (even a musical song and dance number on the streets of town works!). Javed is such a lovable character that you immediately root for and all the teens have great chemistry (I loved him and his neighbor and his best friend who first introduces him to Bruce).

It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s romantic. It’s just fantastic.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

THE MUSTANG

Mustang

The last film of the night is one I was skeptical about. I had heard good things about The Mustang and it was the final film at The Grand Theater but I was worried it looked dry and boring. Fortunately it wasn’t dull but quite a powerful character piece with a tremendous performance from Matthias Schoenaerts.

It’s a simple movie about a program at a Nevada prison that has inmates working with wild mustang horses to try and get them ready for an auction to sell. Matthias’ character Roman Coleman is a bitter angry man who starts out the film getting into a fistfight with a spirited horse. He tells the psychiatrist (Connie Britton) that he’s not good with people and prefers isolation but he and this wild horse form a powerful bond. I also enjoyed Bruce Dern in a small role as the man who runs the equestrian program at the prison.

As the movie plays out we learn about what got Roman in prison and see his strained relationship with his daughter. There’s a lot of powerful moments of rage, forgiveness, fleeting feelings of accomplishment and despair. I felt like I really got to know Roman in full technicolor and his transformation as he works with the horse was earned and very moving. Writer and director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre did a wonderful job and I’m definitely curious to see more from her.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

So there you have it! Let me know what you think of these reviews and if the films look intriguing to you. Thanks! One more day to go!

SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 7 (VELVET BUZZSAW, PHOTOGRAPH, WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES)

netflix watching

So day 7 of the Sundance Film Festival proved to be a unique one! It started out with quite possibly my favorite venue of all: my house! I was planning on seeing director Dan Gilroy’s new film Velvet Buzzsaw at the festival on Sunday but then I heard it was already playing on netflix so I figured why bother? Especially since I had done a midnight movie the previous night I needed to take a lighter day today. Watching the first movie at home proved to be the perfect solution!

day 7 sundance

The next 2 movies were at the library and I must say those seats at the library are mighty uncomfortable after 2 long movies. My knees are still aching! Luckily tomorrow I have my screening of Lego Movie 2: the Second Part in the morning and then 3 movies at The Grand Theater which is pretty comfortable (and free parking!). In fact, all my remaining screenings are at either The Grand or the Rose Garden theater. Not the most comfortable but better than the Library.

Anyway here are my thoughts on today’s movies

VELVET BUZZSAW

Velvet Buzzsaw - Still 1

It’s an interesting experience watching Velvet Buzzsaw in the midst of the Sundance Film Festival. There is perhaps no better place to view films that truly espouse to be abstract art rather than narratives than at Sundance (see We are Little Zombies below or The Last Black Man in San Francisco for examples). Some of these artpiece films work for me and then others are frustrating experiences. Either way what’s even more frustrating is when you have the pedantic hipster types who try to tell you how to you should be responding and what classifies as ‘true art’.  Velvet Buzzsaw tries to take aim at these irritating art snobs with a mixture of dark humor and horror and it meets with mixed success.

What can’t be argued is the tremendous cast they have assembled for this film. Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette, Rene Russo and Zawe Ashton all do good work as stuffy art buyers/critics. They all seem to be having fun playing such stuffy characters and it helps elevate the material. I laughed quite a few times at the pompous behavior of these characters. It kind of made me wish the Christopher Guest crew had taken on the world of art criticism (movies like Best in Show or For Your Consideration have similarly self-obsessed characters).

Then you have the horror elements. A rich man dies leaving behind some beautiful artwork the team is dying to own. What they don’t know is this art is cursed and it kills the owners (think Final Destination). These kills were pretty creative, and I enjoyed seeing how each of our snobs was taken down.

However, there are problems with Velvet Buzzsaw. While I did laugh some, a lot of the humor falls flat, and you have the feeling it isn’t as creepy or as funny as it thinks it is. After a while, it starts to feel repetitive and that the actors are reaching for moments that the script isn’t delivering. It all feels a little undercooked if I’m honest- like it needed a few more times in the editing/writing room before it was greenlit.

Still, I’d say the good outweighed the bad and if you can handle some strong R rated content it’s worth a watch.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

PHOTOGRAPH

Photograph - Still 1

The next film I saw is an Indian export called Photograph that I have very mixed feelings on. Directed by Ritesh Batra, it has many elements I love. First, it is a classic romance where a poor man who takes photographs for tourists asks a young successful businesswoman to pretend to be his girlfriend for his nosy Grandma. There is nothing I love more than a fake fiance plotline in a romantic comedy.

As they pretend to be a couple their chemistry grows and there were many sweet moments between the 2. However, this relationship is SLOOOOOW going, which I was fine with, but then the director fails to give us the payoff this kind of story needs at the end to be satisfying. He spends a majority of the film getting a special gift for her and then the camera pans away before we get to see her get the gift, which was very disappointing.

If you are going to have something as conventional as a fake fiance plotline, the least you can do is give us a conventional happy ending. I am sure some people like the ambiguity of the ending, and I can see why, but for me I wanted a little bit more closure. It felt like the pilot of a tv show instead of a movie.

Photograph is beautifully shot and acted but I don’t know if I can quite go fresh with it. The pacing and the ending were just too frustrating. She needed to get the cola gosh darn it!

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES

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Now there are art films and then there are ART FILMS! Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa’s We are Little Zombies is about as big an example of the latter as you are going to get. As such, some people will find it exhilarating, and others like myself, will find it exhausting and even nauseating. That’s just the way bold art works sometimes!

We are Little Zombies is about a group of 4 orphans that decide to form a band because they all hate their parents and are angry at the world. As they play we get 3 new songs that are fun and there are some witty moments particularly from each of the 4 kids.

However, we also get long sequences with blaring music, strobe lights, flashing nonsensical imagery and complete randomness. At one point they are in a womb waiting to be birthed. At another point they steal a car and are zooming around the countryside eating strawberries. Then they become famous musicians and are on covers of magazines. It’s non-stop and exhausting.

Like I said, I’m sure some will enjoy this film.  I felt like I was going to vomit after the first hour, and I would have left if I wasn’t crammed in the middle of the row. It’s especially problematic at the very long runtime of 2 hours. It simply was not for me.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 6 (THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, MOONLIGHT SONATA, EXTREMELY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE)

Day 6 has come and gone at the Sundance Film Festival and today was a lot of fun seeing 3 movies with very long names! LOL. I think I liked the experience of attending the festival today more than the actual movies but it’s an interesting grouping. The final movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was my first true midnight movie of the festival (not just this year but ever). My pass wasn’t valid so I had to wait hoping to get in over at the Tower Theater. Luckily I was in line with some nice people and it ended up being pretty fun.

So without further ado my thoughts on the 3 films:

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

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Judging by the overall positive response of last year’s Sorry to Bother You, which I did not like, there is obviously an audience for this type of chaotic urban art-piece, but I am not a member of that audience. I did enjoy last year’s Blindspotting so it can work for me when there is enough of a story to carry me through all the chaos, so I don’t feel assaulted by art (which is probably part of the point but I leave more confused than inspired). This trend is like if Terrence Malick and Spike Lee had babies, and I just don’t get it.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has impactful moments but most of the time it seemed all over the place in both story and message. The lead protagonist Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) have sweet scenes as they fight to keep possession of a family home in San Francisco but in the meantime there are street preachers, rotting fish, toxic oceans, a blind Danny Glover watching old movies and much more. We meet the protagonists Mother at one point but I’m not sure what the point of that was. It was really strange.

The other big problem with The Last Black Man in San Francisco is it is far too long for this kind of abstract art piece. At 2 hours I grew bored with all the shouting and what was supposed to be revelatory felt exhausting. I am sure many will be inspired by director Joe Talbot’s arthouse film. It just wasn’t for me.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

MOONLIGHT SONATA: DEAFNESS IN THREE MOVEMENTS

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Next up is a documentary with tons of heart called Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in 3 Movements. In the film director Irene Taylor Brodsky profiles her family and their experience with deafness, both her parents and her son (she is fully hearing). All 3 subjects received cochlear implant surgery to varying degrees of success.

Irene’s parents don’t do well with the surgery and prefer their deaf world where her son feels conflicted. In fact, he enjoys the quiet peace of turning off his implant but then is glad when he can be in the hearing world again. This was a very interesting perspective I have never considered.

The film is all built around Jonas learning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for a recital. This is a dream of his as Beethoven was also deaf. They also use animation to show Beethoven and portray the inner feelings of both Irene’s parents and Jonas. All of this worked pretty well and was very sweet. My only qualm with the film is that at times it was a little dry and slow but overall I’m glad I saw it. It’s going to be released on HBO films so look out for it there and give it a watch if it interests you.

(I did think it was a little strange they didn’t have subtitles when many deaf people were in the audience and the sign language interpreter was difficult to see in The Tower Theater).

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE

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The final film of the night was the much talked about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron. There’s a lot to like in this film including the solid performances by Efron, Lily Collins and even Jim Parsons in a small role. It looks nice and clips along fairly well. I understand what they were trying to do humanizing Bundy to make his crimes seem all the more vile and disgusting. You are supposed to see the suave, slick guy that Ted Bundy was in and out of the courtroom.

Unfortunately they almost do too good a job with that. The movie needed to be messier. There are almost no signs of an evil man at all. We needed to get some clue that he committed the murders aside from him being in the locations. It almost seemed like the movie was painting him as the underdog who was wrongfully convicted. I guess that could be an interesting approach but shouldn’t there be some moments where we see the darker man come out? Some scenes of fleeting anger or fear from the Lily Collins character? It was strange and left me a little uncomfortable to be honest.

The movie Monster about Aileen Wuornos does a much better job of portraying a serial killer as just that but also showing some of her backstory and her perspective. I realize they are different in that Wuornos was not a charismatic showman like Bundy but at least the movie wasn’t afraid to depict her as a monster as the title suggests. This film, on the other hand, shows little evil or wickedness or vile behavior.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

So there you have it! My thoughts on another day at the Sundance Film Festival! Let me know what you think

SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 5 (WORDS FROM A BEAR, THE REPORT, SWEETHEART)

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Another day has come and gone at the Sundance Film Festival! Today I saw 3 films, 2 of which were at the Rose Wagner Theater. They have a cool backdrop there that you must have your picture in front of to be a real Sundance groopie!

After some misses I am happy to report today is 3 wins at the festival and 3 films that couldn’t be more different. Just goes to show there is a little of everything at Sundance.

WORDS FROM A BEAR

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First up is the documentary Words from a Bear, which profiles the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/poet N. Scott Momaday. This film is directed by Jeffrey Palmer who was there at the screening and has a small theatrical release planned, followed by a release on the PBS program American Masters this fall. If you have ever seen American Masters than you will have a good idea about this film. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it is an effective and competent look at an important American literary figure.

Momaday makes a great subject for a documentary because of his big booming voice. He could have a second career as a voice actor if he wanted. It really was very captivating! He won the Pulitzer from writing his novel House Made of Dawn, which I have not read but sounds like a good book. He certainly has a beautiful way of describing nature and the Native American experience.

They do work some neat animation into the documentary and have a wide variety of guest contributors with everyone from scholars to Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges. You could probably wait until it airs on PBS but if you get a chance to see it I don’t think you’ll regret it.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

THE REPORT

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One of the things I loved about the Oscar winning film Spotlight is how fair and thorough it was. It resisted the urge to be a political bully-pulpit so many similar films step into being. I can say the same thing about Scott Z. Burns’ film The Report. As it follows the investigation into enhanced interrogations, led by Dan Jones, it gives no one a free pass. After seeing the propaganda piece disguised as humor that is Vice, this was so refreshing. That said, I have a feeling some of my liberal friends who have President Obama on a sacred pedestal may find his administrations choices hard to stomach but nobody is ignored. That’s what makes it great.

Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is the only hero of the film with perhaps Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) as his trusty knight who goes through the whole ordeal with him and finally gets things done. Everyone else is willing to turn a blind eye to the findings of the report for a variety of reasons. Dan Jones even gets faced with chances to compromise his values. It reminded me a little of Mr Smith Goes to Washington without the Capra vibrato. We can have hope that amidst all the mess people exist in America like Dan Jones.

The Report is very stressful to watch as they meticulously gather information, facing barriers at each step but I was riveted. Driver is tremendous as is the incredible supporting cast including Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C Hall, Corey Stoll and more. There are some tough scenes of the interrogations being performed but it’s all part of building tension and desperation on Dan’s character to try and get something done. Like I said, I was riveted throughout!

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

SWEETHEART

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I always try to get out of my comfort zone at the Sundance Film Festival (if there is ever a time to do that it is Sundance! It’s the whole point of the festival!). One example is going to see the Blumhouse offering Sweetheart. If you don’t know, Blumhouse is a studio that makes small horror movies. Technically I will have seen 2 of their movies in January with having seen the Shyamalan film Glass in the regular theaters. Sweetheart seemed like it would be an enjoyable creature-scares movie and to my delight it was just that!

Directed by JD Dillard (who was at the screening and a lot of fun answering questions), Sweetheart tells the story of a young lady named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who is washed ashore on a deserted island in Fiji. At first it seems like her greatest challenge is going to be living on the island but she quickly realizes there is a strange creature haunting all who dwell there.

In mostly a one-woman show, Clemons does a great job being vulnerable and also tough as she faces off against the monster. The tension builds well and had a good mixture of jump scares and lingering frights. The creature is seen just enough and there are a couple of great reveals especially one involving a flare gun. Sweetheart also doesn’t wear out its welcome at just 82 minutes. I was never bored and was smiling throughout.

The only downside to the film is 2 other actors we meet are not as strong as Clemons and the creature looks cheesy. He actually reminded me of an evil version of the creature in The Shape of Water, which was funny. But if you just go with it, there is fun to be had. It will be interesting to see what people think of it as it is definitely outside the normal genres I cover.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

So there you have it! 3 more films at the Sundance Film Festival! Tomorrow I have 2 on the docket and then a jam packed weekend to follow. Happy Sundancing!