[REVIEW] ‘McMillions’: Oh What an Entertaining Web we Weave

 

mcmillions

So you might not have heard but recently I’ve found myself with a little bit of time on my hands. The movie theaters are closed, screenings are cancelled and most films are postponed, so what’s an aspiring film critic supposed to do with herself? Well, I have a lot of fun stuff planned but to begin with I watched the new documentary series on HBO called McMillions and boy is it entertaining!

McMillions follows the $24 million fraud perpetuated behind the McDonald’s Monopoly game sweepstakes between 1989 and 2001. The story has almost nothing to do with McDonalds but it is a many tangled web of all kinds of characters who become involved: ‘from Mobsters to Mormons’ as the ads promise.

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Even the agents investigating prove to be very entertaining. This is especially true for agent Doug Mathews who was born to be on television. He is funny, charismatic and probably a little bit nuts but it makes for great TV. In fact, the series suffers a bit when it goes to long without him. What makes him so appealing is his innocent enthusiasm for every part of the investigation. He doesn’t want those boring old cases. No way! He wants to be where things are happening and he can go undercover and do crazy things. It’s the best.

Aside from Matthews there are a ton of different personalities on both the investigator and criminal side and the scheme is very well executed. In fact, it may have never come to light if there wasn’t a mysterious informant who tipped off the FBI. It brings up the interesting question if someone came up to you and offered you a million and all you had to do was turn in a game piece that you didn’t organically find would you do it? I think a lot of us would.

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Also in the end who is really hurt in this whole scam? McDonald’s isn’t. They would have given the money out regardless of who won. The American public? I guess they had no chance to really win but the chance was so small to begin with that it is hardly a large wound. The marketing firm went under after it was revealed one of their employees did this but that’s about the worst it got. Is it a victimless crime?

I suppose that is for the courts to decide and not me but I do know this documentary series was very entertaining especially agent Matthews who should totally have his own show. He’s got that secret sauce for television you don’t see every day. So fun!

Have you seen McMillions? What did you think? I would love to hear in the comments section.

Even though this is on HBO it’s pretty clean minus some language.

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Stranger Things Season 2 Review

Even though season 2 of Stranger Things came out just under 2 weeks ago I feel like I am woefully late in logging this review. Most of the world binge watched it in the first weekend but I didn’t have the time and I hate binge watching so I just finished today and I thought I would share with you my response. First, I loved the original because of the intriguing story, nostalgic atmosphere, and the strong performances. This second season was entertaining but for me it fell short of that first season.

Let’s talk about the strengths first. The biggest one is the performances. The kids are all so great and have amazing chemistry with each other. These feel like real kids with unique personalities, bonds and conflicts. As a child of the 80s I can’t help but think back to my friends while watching and the adventures we would have in our neighborhood riding our bikes and pretending in our backyards. Noah Schnapp as Will does a particularly nice job portraying a child trying to sort out his time in the Upside Down. Millie Bobby Brown is fantastic as Eleven and Gaten Matarazzo couldn’t be cuter as Dustin. Sadie Sink is a nice newcomer as Maxine (or Madmax as the boys call her). All the kids are great and completely adorable.

The returning teens are also all good with Natalia Dyer as Nancy, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan and Joe Keery as Steve (he steals the show as the assistant for Dustin hunting down a monster). The one miss for me was Dacre Montgomery as Billy, Max’s racist brother. I didn’t really see the purpose of his character except to just be racist and not take care of Max. I thought he might get eaten by the monsters in some humorous way but no such luck. He was just there to be an unused bad guy from what I could see.

The adults are all good with the nice addition of Sean Astin as Bob Newby (the boyfriend of Winona Ryder’s Joyce). Paul Reiser is also fine as a government doctor keeping tabs on Will’s recovery.

The atmosphere is also really good with terrific music and dialogue that works. The one exception of that was episode 7 that focuses on Eleven and her sister Eight. These characters remind me of the gang in Chappie, which if you know me that is not a good thing. They were very annoying, and I feel like the episode didn’t show me anything I didn’t already know about Eleven aside from giving her a chance at revenge and not taking it. It felt superfluous to me.

Now let’s talk about the parts I didn’t like as much. In the first season the Upside Down is a total mystery. We know Will is gone and all of these strange things keep happening, so when for example Joyce is making an alphabet wall with Christmas lights to communicate with her son it is tense and we as a viewer have no idea what is happening. She could be insane or it could be leading to something sinister? We must keep watching to find out.

There are so many elements of mystery in the first season that kept me engaged and excited. Who is 11? What happened to Barb? What is the strange government facility etc? For the first 3 or 4 episodes of season 2 they do a good job continuing to build mystery by having Will’s character experience new fears and pain. They try to have a similar scene to the lights on the wall by having Will draw a puzzle that gets put together all over the walls and it mostly works if a little repetitive. They also have Nancy and Jonathan looking into Barb’s disappearance and Dustin finding a new mysterious life-form. All of this works pretty well and is entertaining. The problem is eventually Dustin’s life form turns into a monster called a demogorgon and the narrative changes to a standard monster movie.

It kind of reminded me of the movie I am Legend, which is so fantastic for the first 45 minutes when Will Smith is alone and the unknown surrounds him. It is scary and full of surprises. Then the zombies appear and it becomes pretty generic and lame. That’s how I felt about season 2 of Stranger Things

Part of the problem is we get too much of the monsters (as in I Am Legend). Creatures are more scary when we don’t see them and I think you can tell from the image above these monsters are pretty cheesy looking and they are in packs so we see a lot of them. I can enjoy a monster hunting people scene. I love Jurassic Park after all, but it just felt less special than the mystery of the first season. Monsters on the prowl in a hospital with intermittent electricity is fun but not something you speculate about for weeks amongst your friends.

So all in all, I had a good time watching Stranger Things 2. The acting alone makes it worth a watch, but I don’t think it will be something that will stay with me like the first season did especially the last half of the season that got monster-heavy.

I seem to be in the minority with this view but what else is new! LOL. What about you? What did you think of Stranger Things season 2? Which season do you prefer?

Overall Grade- B

Watcher in the Woods 2017 Review

I’ve always said if you are going to remake a movie pick a flawed movie that has potential. Then you have something to improve upon. The 1980’s Disney film The Watcher in the Woods is a good example. The original is entertaining but it is saddled with bad acting and cheesy dialogue. A new version aired last weekend on Lifetime Channel and it does make some improvements to the original. Unfortunately it also makes odd choices that made it less interesting as a narrative.

Spoilers below

If you want to hear my thoughts on the original film here is my review:

The biggest improvement the new film makes is in the acting. Tallulah Evans is a serious step up as Jan. She is beautiful, expressive and a much better actress than Lynn-Holly Johnson. She also looks like she could be Britt Robertson’s doppleganger.

I honestly thought all the acting was better in this new version. The little girl was better. The boyfriend was better. The parents were better. You get the idea.

Anjelica Huston is about as good a replacement for Bette Davis as you could cast. Unfortunately she’s not in the movie near as much. I wonder if they only had her for a few days of shooting? It feels that way. Still she makes good work of the scenes she is in and elevates the film just as Davis did. You feel for her as this wounded mother and yet those big eyes are terrifying.

The story of Watcher in the Woods focuses on a family that moves into an old house with a weird old woman living in the guest house. Years before the woman’s daughter Karen went missing and ever since the woods nearby are full of creepy goings-on. As the family lives in the house, the mystery of the daughter starts to unfold putting them all at risk.

The problem with the remake is it takes this basic premise and makes it very conventional. Where the original made strange choices, that added mystery in this version you see everything coming a mile away. For example, in the original the teens make a conscious choice to hold a seance and experiment with the occult. Then Karen is taken by an alien known as the Watcher. Even though the acting is hokey this is interesting because it was their choice to become involved. It’s hard for Jan and crew to figure out what happened to Karen when it is shrouded in an eclipse with the occult.

In this new version the Watcher is a puritan doctor who was killed by townspeople because they feared he had the plague. Now he stalks the forest waiting for the townspeople to recognize him and the work he did. This is less interesting because it is a monster movie. There is no sense of mystery at why the students had the seance and what Karen was all about. She’s just an innocent girl who was taken by a monster.

There were other little things that were less interesting. Like when the glass shatters it is a cross instead of a triangle. This is probably a nitpick but to me a triangle is more unusual. What does a triangle mean? Where it is obvious what a cross means. Another example is the ‘Nerak’ scenes aren’t as interesting. In the original the little girl randomly writes Nerak backwards before anyone knows about Karen and names her dog Nerak. This is more interesting than writing it on the window 30 minutes in and then waking up and screaming the the name once the investigation has started. It doesn’t leave you as the viewer asking questions which is part of what makes the original scary. This new version has family friendly scares but it’s not as thoughtful a narrative as the original. Oh well.

All that said, if you are looking for a family friendly horror movie you could do worse than the new Watcher in the Woods. It’s a pretty bland movie but it does have good performances and some scary sequences. It’s a little frustrating because with just a few changes it could have been special but it’s an okay watch.

Just barely smile worthy.

My friend AJ did a podcast comparing the 2 films

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Wonder Woman (TV 1976)

This week for Hit Me with Your Best Shot Nathaniel at The Film Experience has given us a fun challenge. In honor of Wonder Woman we were assigned a 2 part episode of the iconic 1976 Wonder Woman television show to pick a best shot from. The episode is called The Feminum Myystique and it aired November 6 and 8, 1976

I used to watch Wonder Woman reruns when I was a little girl but it had been years since I revisited it and I must confess I found it to be a complete delight. I may have to get this show on bluray!

Lynda Carter radiates charisma as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Her smile disarms you immediately and yet she is no bimbo especially as Diana working in the navy. It is easy to compare her to Christopher Reeves’ Superman as both are strong, immortal characters with old fashioned charm but I never viewed Reeves’ Clark Kent as all that bright like Diana is. Anyway, they are both great.

In this double episode a group of Nazi spies are trying to get information on the latest US fighter jet.  Diana’s sister, Drusilla (Wonder Girl), comes to bring Diana back to Paradise Island but becomes abducted by the Nazis. Eventually Queen Hippolyta and the rest of the Amazons must group together to defeat these Nazis. This requires them to understand men and evil in a way they never had before.

I thoroughly enjoyed these episodes. I suppose I like traditional superhero narratives with good guys and bad guys facing off with little weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that we so often see now. It’s just simple smarts and goodness facing off against Nazis!

The best shot becomes difficult because it is shot in a fairly standard way without a lot of epic moments. So, the shot I have chosen is a more subtle one. Towards the end of part 2 Hippolyta tells the girls about lying:

“I know it’s impossible for you to lie but men don’t know that.

They lie all the time”

What I love about this moment is I feel we have lost the ability to be cheeky when it comes to the sexes. Everyone is always offended by everything. Look at the uproar over a lovely notion of a women’s only Wonder Woman screening? It has to be used as some kind of feminist revenge plot by idiotic men…

Anyway, we can’t tease each other or have fun any more. It’s all cries of misogyny from women and anger over radical feminism from the men. I include myself in this group.

I love being a woman and I don’t think we are the same as men- thank goodness. It’s ok to admit differences and tease each other every now and then.

Just have fun with freakin Wonder Woman folks and chill out!

Anne with an E Series Review (Spoilers)

* A few spoilers ahead

Anyone who knows me knows of my love of Anne of Green Gables. Anne and her series of books was essentially my childhood’s Harry Potter. I read them over and over again and I loved the 1985 series with Megan Follows. So it was with great anticipation I heard a new version was coming on Netflix this week! Unfortunately I have viewed the 7 episode first season and not only is it not an Anne series but it doesn’t replace her with anything very compelling. I really didn’t care for this version of Anne.

It cannot be denied there is a darkness to Anne’s story. Many of her most attractive qualities such as her window friends or active imagination when you dig into them are coping mechanisms, survival strategies more than anything else. She had to create an imagination in order to live as a slave with the Hammonds or in the miserable asylum. So, on the surface I don’t have a problem with them exploring this darker side of Anne’s personality. However, what they forgot to show is how Anne is a survivor and how her optimism brightens all around her. The dark is good to show but the lightness is also important.

This is the main problem with Anne with an E- it’s unrelenting bleakness. Most of the series bears no resemblance to the novel and even the scenes that do, come across as cold and sterile where they are mixed to sweet in the book. For example, in the book Marilla accuses Anne of taking her broach. Anne confesses to stealing it even though she hasn’t because she wants to go to a party. Marilla finds the broach and asks Anne’s forgiveness.This is a tense but honest moment where the two become closer.

Unfortunately in this version Marilla sends Anne away to Charleston on the train back to the asylum for stealing the broach!! Gone are any chance to learn or have the characters bond from this simple sweet experience. Plus you have the ridiculous sequence of Matthew racing on a horse to find Anne like a knight in shining armor (and much more melodrama hunting her down in the city crashing into carriages and the like).

Another example can be seen in the school sequences. In the book Josie Pye is a snob that looks down on Anne because of the attention Gilbert gives her. In this series Josie is unceasingly cruel and the entire town talks about Anne and what a retrograde orphan she is. Anne literally has to go into a burning building to get anyone to trust her at all.

Even scenes that should be fun are made ponderous like Matthew buying the puffed sleeves dress. In this version he is confronted with the woman he once loved but couldn’t marry and then Anne must sell the dress back when the house is going to be foreclosed on. It’s just a joyless enterprise!

They even manage to work in themes of suicide, mental illness and abuse to make things really fun. And they are sooooo heavy handed with the modern messaging and feminism. Anne isn’t just as good as a boy but a boy is sent to protect her at one point and he literally gets beat up by thugs while she is unharmed. There is also a weird scene where she tells the other kids about sex and that Prissy Andrews and the teacher are making a baby together. I get the writers wanted to modernize Anne but in so doing they created an entirely different bland feminist character. I like Anne just the way she was!

It is nicely shot and the performances aren’t bad but that’s all I can really say in its defense. As it moved along I became less and less engaged. By episode 5 if I wasn’t podcasting about it I would have stopped watching. Like I said, it’s not just that they changed everything. It’s that they didn’t replace it with something compelling or engaging. It was just grim and joyless.

I would definitely not recommend Anne with an E for children and even teens should be warned. My advice is to watch the 1985 version and even better read the books. This is new series isn’t good. In fact, it is kind of awful.

Overall Grade- D (Yes, that’s what I really feel it deserves)

Check out our podcast on the series:

Tangled: Before Ever After TV Movie Review

Evidently this is the week for Disney expanding upon my favorite animated classics. On Thursday I will see the new take on Beauty and the Beast (for better of worse) and this weekend I saw the TV movie that goes with the new series based on Tangled called Tangled: Before Ever After.

If you’ve read this blog you know Tangled has a special place in my heart. I wasn’t really into animation except for Pixar for years and then I went and saw Tangled in 3D and it blew me away. I loved the characters, songs, writing and being surrounded with those floating lanterns. Tangled is Disney’s first romantic comedy and still boasts their best movie couple in Eugene/Flynn and Rapunzel. I just love it.

With such strong feelings about the original it is probably no surprise I approached this TV movie and new series hesitantly and honestly my response is mixed. I liked some things about it but other parts felt extremely generic and bland.

The best thing by far about it is the visual style and animation. I really think the 2D flash animation is cool and looks inventive and new. I like all the bright colors and the way it moved and flowed.

I also thought the music was decent. It’s poppy but so was the original so it works. The voice cast including Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi is back and they do a great job.

So good animation and music that’s pretty good start for a new series, right?  Well, unfortunately I have some big problems also.

My biggest problem by far is what they did with Rapunzel as a character. In the original she is positive but also real. She’s open with Flynn, a stranger, very quickly, making deals and sharing her dreams. We also see her struggling with her loyalties to her mother and her joys at being free. This makes her feel very real and human.

Also, she is able to entertain herself and be happy in her environment in a tower for years. Yes, she wants to see the lanterns but over all she is positive and upbeat despite being in the tower. The same is true when she meets the ruffians and thugs. Sure she’s scared at first but she quickly becomes positive and warm with them.

So that brings me to my problem with the series. They try to paint her as this disgruntled teenager dying to break free from the bonds of castle life and I don’t buy it. Again, she kept herself happy in a tower for years. I don’t think she would be complaining about a castle especially when she has so many people to talk to and can leave whenever she wants (she goes out into the town with no real problems or penalties).

To make matters more unbelievable she lies to Eugene and spurns his proposals and advances a little bit, which feels completely out of character. This also turns Eugene into a bit of a dope fawning over Rapunzel and her parents into boring strict parents. Max and Pascal are pretty much non-factors in the TV movie.

Surprisingly I’m okay with their somewhat convoluted explanation of how Rapunzel gets her hair back. I don’t know why they decided to go the hair route but I suppose it’s just about as good an explanation as anyone could come up with.

The other problem in Tangled: Before Ever After is not only do they hurt the original characters but the new additions are very forgettable. She has an attendant/best friend named Cassandra who she somehow listens more to than Eugene. I know exactly where her character is going. Bland…

And then there is Lady Cain who isn’t a a listed recurring character so she may not be the villain for long but she was very generic and boring. She’s certainly no Mother Gothel- who is coming back after falling off that tower. Don’t ask me how…

I guess it might sound like I completely hated this Tangled: Before Ever After, but I didn’t. It just annoys me when characters I love are changed like they do with Rapunzel here. It is visually inventive and I see some potential with the songs and voice cast. I hope it will be like Elena of Avalor and build as a series becoming entertaining. However, just on this TV movie I can’t give it a very high grade. I hope for better in the future but there were definitely big problems that I am not happy with.

Overall Grade- C

Rankin/Bass 9: Year Without a Santa Claus

yw santaSorry I have gotten a bit behind on my Rankin/Bass month what with that little thing called Star Wars! Luckily they have a lot of non-Christmas specials so I should be fine stretching it into January where hardly any good movies come out.

One thing I’ve learned about these Rankin/Bass specials is they all have a kooky weirdness to them.  I don’t know if you notice it as much when you watch one a year like a normal person.  At least it is more noticeable watching them in a block like I have been.  I’ve been wondering why some of them are weird and work and others miss the mark?  I’m not sure but I think the weirdness is better as an embellishment than the whole story.  Like in Jack Frost the story was pretty good and so it made it better to have weird touches.

Anyway, The Year Without a Santa Claus is definitely one of their more successful entries and it is also full of strange elements.  Released in 1974 it is a stop motion 48 minute special that tells the story of the year Santa decides to stay at home!

yw santa-2Santa, you see, is in need of a break and his doctor tells him to ‘forget delivering presents to those ungrateful kids who don’t believe in you and stay home!’ (amazing how many people in these specials hate Christmas!).  Santa listens and Mrs Claus and the elves Jingle and Jangle are horrified (you think he could just take a day off and not the entire year!).

Jingle and Jangle decide to take a young reindeer named Vixen (they both ride the little reindeer like a horse which looks very strange) to find proof for Santa that someone believes in him.

They are stopped in their quest by the Miser Bros’ who rule the clouds- Heat Miser and Snow Miser who hate each other.  I liked these character’s designs and behavior.

yw santa-6They end up in a town called Southtown where they try to find anyone who believes in Santa but Vixen becomes sick and nearly dies.  Mrs Claus comes and they meet a boy named Ignatius Thistelwhite who doesn’t believe but his father believes.

yw santa-5Then they must go and find Mother Nature in order to convince Heat Miser and Snow Miser to work together so that the town and Ignatius will believe in Santa.

yw santa-4Santa then comes to save Vixen but before that we get a very melancholy version of Blue Christmas sung by a little girl with lots of stop motion tears.  Rankin/Bass loves the stop motion tears!

yw santa-9Santa eventually see’s the error of his ways and makes everything right in the end.

yw santa-7I mean come on- you hear that description it’s pretty creative right?  It’s wacky and nutty but very creative.  In one 48 minute short we have elves, dying reindeer, Santa playing hooky, Mother Nature, Heat and Snow Miser and a girl singing Blue Christmas. That’s great!

There are also some really nice songs with good performers.  I like I Could Be Santa Clause, I Believe in Santa Claus, The Snow Miser and Heat Miser Songs, Blue Christmas and Hear Comes Santa Claus.  They are all well sung and some of the best writing from Maury Laws and Jules Bass.

At least to me this is just wacky, weird fun:

I also like Year Without a Santa Claus is a little less heavy-handed in its messaging than some of the other Christmas shorts.  It is mostly about Santa with a thin message of believing in things and being kind.

The animation is also a little more seamless than some of the other shorts and I really liked the colors in scenes like at Heat Miser’s castle.

Scenes like this are just so nutty and silly:

It’s certainly one of my favorite of the Rankin/Bass specials.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?

Rankin/Bass 6: Twas the Night Before Christmas

night before christmasNext up in Rankin/Bass month is the 1974 short ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  This is a traditional animation take on the 1823 poem of the same name.  The poem of course opens with the line ‘not a creature was stirring not even a mouse’.  Well, this movie takes that quite literally and tells the story of both man and mouse in the house.

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While the animation isn’t the best (particularly the eyes look strange throughout on the characters), this is a really cute entry from the Rankin/Bass team.  It basically tells the story of a human cloc maker named Joshua Trundle who works with a mouse called Father Mouse to make the clocks.  Unfortunately the mouse son Albert is overthinking Christmas and has written an editorial in the paper claiming Santa is a fraud.

night before christmas7Unfortunately Santa reads the letter and is offended and decides to send back all the town’s Santa letters, both mouse and human, and skip their Christmas all together, which is quite extreme when you think about it but it works!

night before christmas4So the mice must help appease Santa and convince Albert to believe in things he can’t see or explain with science.  The plan is quite elaborate where they will build a singing clock that will entice Santa to come to their town after all.  Albert eventually see’s the error of his ways and agrees to go inside the clock and repair it.  night before christmas2It’s really a sweet little story here.  Nothing that will blow you away but it is cute and has a nice message. It’s definitely not subtle but none of these specials are and this one surprised me with the creative storytelling without being too weird. I also felt like they treated Albert’s lack of a belief more kindly than some other more Christian based films might have.

The music is nice and the vocal performances by Joel Grey, George Gobel and John McGiver are all very pleasant.  It’s only 25 minutes and so I would give it a watch if you get a chance.   Its really adorable.

Friday 5: 5 Favorite Animated TV Show Theme Songs

There is a really fun series I do over on my youtube channel that I normally post on my other blog smilingldsgirl.com called The Friday 5.  It was set up by a fellow youtuber named Sarah Crawford and each week she picks a topic and we have to choose 5 of our favorite songs that fit that topic.  Normally my other blog is more suited to music but since this one involved animation I decided to include it on this blog this week.

This week’s topic was ‘5 of your favorite themes from TV Shows” and since animation is my favorite I decided to go with that.

I think they are 5 really fun themes and 5 great shows. If you haven’t seen them you should totally check them out.  What are some of your favorite themes from TV shows, animated or not?  I would love to hear.  I do this series every week and next week is wild card so if you have any suggestions of a fun topic I could pick put in the comments section.  If any of you have youtube channels it’s a very fun series to be a part of.

Thanks and have a Happy Friday!!