Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)


Title: The Forty-Year-Old Version
Release Date: October 9, 2020
Director: Radha Blank
Production Company: New Slate Ventures | Hillman Grad Productions | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

Radha (Rahda Blank) is a playwright nearing her 40th birthday who is dealing with the lack of success after winning a “30 Under 30” award early in her career and has taken to teaching at high school.  Her agent and childhood friend Archie (Peter Kim) helps her get producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) to support her play about a Black couple dealing with gentrification in Harlem, but insists that she emphasize what Radha calls “poverty porn” and add a white character.  Radha feels her vision for the play escaping her and decides to make her voice heard by recording hip hop tracks with the laconic D (Oswin Benjamin) who runs a studio out of his Brooklyn apartment. Radha and D also form a romantic relationship, which is all fair since men who write/direct/star in their own films have a tradition of giving themselves younger love interests.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is very funny and also cringe-inducing with its characters following their worst instincts.  Radha Blank does a great job playing a character that can be very unsympathetic but still very likable.  I also like Radha’s chemistry with Archie and believe that they could’ve been friends with childhood.  The movie reminds me a bit of Frances Ha, as they both black & white movies in New York about artists having to deal with failed expectations of greatness and having to adapt to growing older.  But this is a funny and unique movie and I recommend checking it out.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021)


Title: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Release Date: April 7, 2021
Creator : Colin Barnicle and Nick Barnicle
Director: Colin Barnicle
Episodes: 4
Production Company: TriBeCa Productions
Summary/Review:

I generally avoid True Crime media, but I am borderline obsessed with the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  I’ve read a book about it and listened to a podcast, and now I’ve watched this 4-part Netflix documentary. The documentary does a good job of reiterating the main points of what is known about the crime.  It’s good get the visuals to go with the story, such as diagrams of the museum that show where the thieves operated. And then there’s a mix of archival news footage with present-day interviews with many key figures, from museum guards to the museums director.

While being a very entertaining documentary it’s also highly sensationalist (which naturally adds to the entertainment value).  There’s a lot of building up of potential suspects before revealing that they couldn’t possibly have commited the crime.  The same footage is played over and over again, most hilariously a “dramatic reenactment” of a couple of high school students walking piggy back down Palace Road before the crime. The creators of the film are happy to rely on the false Hollywood image of Boston as a mobster-infested playground of vice. A lot of people commenting on the documentary are loving the Boston accents and characters which really don’t exist in present day Boston. In short, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours, but take it with a grain of salt.

My main takeaway from this series is that it is been way too long since I’ve been inside the glorious interiors of the Gardner Museum.  I will prioritize visiting there post-pandemic.  The series also gave us this tweet, which is a work of art of its own:

 

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas


Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.


Rating:

Movie Reviews: Enola Holmes (2020)


Title: Enola Holmes
Release Date: September 23, 2020
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Production Company: Legendary Pictures | PCMA Productions
Summary/Review:

The latest addition to Holmesiana is this movie about Sherlock Holmes’ (Henry Cavill) much younger sister and their mysterious mother (Helena Bonham Carter) who goes missing. It is adapted from the novel The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer. Millie Bobbie Brown stars as Enola Holmes bringing the perfect balance of intelligence and with the naivete and vulnerability of youth. Brown frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the camera directly and also improvised a lot of dialogue, both very risky techniques, but they pay off perfectly in this film. The plot deviates considerably from Springer’s novel although it may incorporate plot details from later books in the series that I haven’t read yet. One main criticism of the film is that it goes on a bit long with several seemingly extraneous scenes after the natural denouement. But overall it’s a fun and clever film that can be enjoyed by the whole family.


Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2020)


Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2020
Season: 6b
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

BoJack Horseman reaches it’s series finale in a melancholy place.  This is on brand for BoJack Horseman, but it could’ve gone to a much darker place.  After all, BoJack could have killed himself and we came close to seeing that story.  A happy ending would’ve felt artificial, so the middle ground between the extremes that is depicted here is the right decision.

In the first half of season 6, BoJack went to rehab and begins to show steady progress.  In the second half opener, BoJack has settled in to teaching acting at Wesleyan University and is actually doing a good job of it.  But as much as we are pulling for BoJack, he has done some horrible things in his life that he has yet to grapple with.  In fact, his friends spend an episode making a list of the bad things he’s done on a white board.  His culpability in the death of Sarah Lynn ultimately comes out in public and leads him to rock bottom.

The penultimate episode “The View From Halfway Down” is the season’s experimental episode in the form of a near-death experiment where BoJack attends a dinner party with several characters who have already died including his mother, Sarah Lynn, and Herb Kazzaz.  It serves as both a reckoning for BoJack and a culmination of everything that has come before in the the tv series.

BoJack survives, of course, and the final episode ties off some loose ends.  BoJack’s story is clearly not over and he will likely face ups and downs in his future.  But BoJack Horseman, the series, is over because there are no longer any reason for the five main characters to be together.  Each of BoJack’s friends from the past six seasons have moved on, and more or less, are in a better place.  Mr. Peanutbutter continues to have tv success and seems to have overcome some of the neediness that has lead him to serial matrimony.  Todd has created a childcare center and moved into a house of his own with Maude.  Princess Carolyn’s hard work has paid off with success in career and life.  And Diane, while still struggling with depression, becomes a successful young adult book author and finds happiness with Guy.

The payoff of this series rewards having watched all six series and growing to care for the characters.  And now it would seem worthwhile to go back and rewatch the whole thing to catch the throughlines that brought us to this finale, as well as all the background gags.

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Movie Review: See You Yesterday (2019)


Title: See You Yesterday
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Director: Stefon Bristol
Production Company: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) are a pair of nerdy teens who develop a device that allows them to jump into wormholes and travel back in time.  Their rather modest goal is to win a prize at a citywide science competition but when the device actually works it opens new possibilities and deadly consequences. The movie draws on classic time travel movies like Back to the Future which it acknowledges with a cameo by Michael J. Fox as C.J. and Sebastian’s teacher (and in a double reference, he’s first seen reading the time travel novel Kindred).

The movie also draws influence from producer Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as well as current events. C.J. lives in an African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhood at a time of heightened tension following a police shooting of a community member. The tension is exemplified in a scene where C.J. and her brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) can’t even have an argument on a sidewalk without drawing harassment from the police. Another police shooting is a key event as C.J. and Sebastian use their time travel technology to attempt to prevent the killing but each time they go back they inadvertently change events leading to someone else dying.

This is a movie that deserves a happy ending.  Instead we get an ambiguous ending as we see C.J. returning the past once again and running as the screen goes black.  Perhaps her running represents the endless cycle of death she cannot break, perhaps this time she is planning to sacrifice herself to save the lives of others.  Marty McFly was able to change events in the past to save the live of Doc Brown and inadvertently make his family happier and more prosperous.  But there are no happy endings in Black and brown communities where children continue to be shot dead by the police with no consequences.

The movie is very short, which is a strength in tight plotting and scripting, although I felt a longing for more. Sometimes the messaging has an after school special feel to it.  But the acting by Duncan-Smith, Crichlow, and Bradley is strong, and I hope to see more from them in the future.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2019)


Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 6a
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

BoJack Horseman returns for its final season, this time a split season of 16 episodes.  The first 8 episodes are up on Netflix NOW! with the rest due in January.  Unlike Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt which did a split final season that made me almost glad to see the series go, BoJack Horseman continues to be some of the most clever and thoughtful television I’ve ever seen.

BoJack continues to reside at an expensive rehab facility, generally progressing well, but anxious about returning to the outside world where he may fall into his old habits.  Mr. Peanutbutter, who inadvertently proposed to Pickles when he was supposed to tell her that he was cheating on her with Diane, finally comes clean. To restore his public persona, Princess Caroline creates a “Sad Dog” meme that makes Mr. Peanutbutter the face of clinical depression (even though he is not actually depressed).  Diane, meanwhile, moves to Chicago where she settles in with a new partner, and attempts to right a book of essays, but suffers severe writer’s block and depression. Princess Caroline struggles with balancing work with raising her prickly baby.  And Todd eventually falls into a job to which he seems a natural, as a nanny for Princess Caroline’s baby.

Some highlights of the season include an episode where guests at a surprise party attempt to hide while Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles argue.  It’s a silly sitcom staple but it’s done so well over the course of an entire episode.   We also unexpectedly get some of Todd’s backstory when his stepfather arrives.  Then there’s the great moment when Mr. Peanutbutter finally gets his crossover episode with BoJack.

The season is moving toward something that if not a happy ending, then at least something more positive for our characters than we’ve seen before.  Then the devastating last episode hits. Brilliantly, none of the five main characters appear, but the episode is entirely carried by ancillary characters introduced over the years in overlapping stories.  They begin to uncover some of BoJack’s darkest moments we’ve seen over the course of  6 seasons that may completely unravel the unsteady progress he’s made.

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TV Review: Derry Girls (2019)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

The second series of Derry Girls shows no sign of a sophomore slump.  In fact, the show is funnier and more confident than it was in the first series.  Set against the backdrop of the last days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Erin, Clare, Michelle, Orla, and James are, well, not ordinary teenagers, but motivated by their daily teenage dilemmas rather than their geopolitical situation.  The adults, primarily Erin and Orla’s parents and grandfather, have a bigger part this season, and get some adventures of their own, which are just as wacky as the kids.  And Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) steals every scene she is in with instantly GIF-able quotes.

The series begins with the Girls enduring excruciating 1990s-style team building exercises with a group of boys from a Protestant school.  In the next episode they take inspiration from a new English teacher,  Ms De Brún, in a parody of Dead Poets Society, complete with the kick the ball/poetry sequence replaced with hitting a ball with a hurley and shouting something that makes you mad (James does not like that people in Derry refer to things as “wee” even when they’re not small).  Then they take a bus trip to Belfast to see a Take That concert even though their parents forbade them over fears of an escaped polar bear.

The fourth episode shows an Irish wedding (complete with a choreographed group dance to “Rock the Boat”) and an Irish wake (with hash scones).  An episode about a 50’s style prom at the school has one of the sweeter moments when James shows up to take Erin after her date stands her up.  And the finale contrasts the excitement of President Bill Clinton and family visiting Derry (complete with actual archival audio) and James preparing to return to England with his mother (and another touching finale).

 

TV Review: Stranger Things (2019)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The phrase “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” comes to mind as I ponder the third season of Stranger Things. The first season of the show came out of nowhere with a perfect recipe of writing, acting, setting, mood, and nostalgia. It’s a tricky thing to repeat, and just as the show was diminished some in season 2, it falls a bit further in season 3. By no means am I saying Stranger Things 3 is bad, I care about these characters and enjoy the stories, but feel it fails to live up to the high standards set by season 1.

At the core of Stranger Things is a pastiche to 1980s American culture.  In this season, the story draws upon the renewed Cold War hysteria of Reagan’s America and the trope of the “evil Russian” that found its way into propagandist movies such as Red Dawn, Amerika, Rambo, Top Gun, and The Day After.  There’s no deconstruction of the trope as the show plays it straight depicting the Soviets having the ability to secretly build a massive laboratory under the Starcourt Mall in the heartland of America at a time when the real Soviet Union was crumbling.  In a show with monsters that invade from a decrepit mirror universe, I found this premise to still be too unbelievable.

Much as the 1980s Cold War hysteria was a gritty callback to the Cold War panic of the 1950 and 1960s, the 1980s was a time when classic horror movies were remade with graphic violence and gratuitous gore.  Stranger Things 3 draws a lot of influence from horror movie remakes such as The Thing, The Blob, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (which was made in 1978, but I’m including in this list because it is clearly referenced). As a result, this is the goriest and most violent season yet, the sequel that decides to be a full-on action film.  In a great moment of metafiction, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) explains his love for New Coke as it being a remake, like The Thing, that he thinks improves upon the original.

The heart of Stranger Things is its characters, and this season’s biggest struggles are with characters being too broadly characterized.  This is true for Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) who was the creepy, abusive metalhead teen with a traumatic past in season 2, and becomes the creepy, possessed by the Mind Flayer teen with a traumatic past in season 3.  Billy deserved better characterization, especially to make his ultimate heroic moment pay off. Priah Ferguson returns as Lucas’ little sister Erica, bumped up from a bit character to one of the main storylines, and although she’s very funny she’s written entirely as a sassy, precocious kid, a la Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. The final episode seems to indicate a new role for Erica in season 4, and one hope that they flesh out her character.  And really, there was no reason to bring back the obnoxious Murray (Brett Gelman), who appeared in a couple of episodes in season 2, much less make him a character who seems to get more screen time than the core children.

My biggest disappointment with this series is with the character of Jim Hopper (David Harbour).  He’s always been depicted as a cop who will punch first and ask questions later, but previous seasons revealed that under his gruff exterior is a gentle heart.  It’s really distressing to see Hopper’s anger over El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) spending too much time together, and worse, threatening Mike.  Later in the season he completely brutalizes the mayor of Hawkins (Cary Elwes cosplaying the mayor from Jaws, right on down to be named “Larry”).  One of the most moving parts of the season is Hopper narrating a letter to El about his feelings, but I’m distraught that this side of Hopper’s character was ignored for the previous 7 episodes.

Like in previous seasons,  large cast is split up into different storylines that come together at the end.  The kids are becoming teenagers, and Hopper is right about Mike and El spending too much time together. El breaks up with Mike and Max (Sadie Sink) breaks up with Lucas, and in some wonderful scenes El and Max become closer friends.  Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp), who lost part of his childhood to the Upside Down, wants to cling to being a kid a bit longer and play D&D.  The teenagers from the earlier series are becoming adults.  Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) attempt to prepare for a career by interning with the local newspaper.  Steve (Joe Keery) works for a paycheck, and maybe to meet girls, at the ice cream shop in the mall alongside an “alternative” girl who he never paid attention to in high school, Robin (Maya Hawke). Robin is the breakout character of the season and seamlessly fits in with existing characters, but I can’t help feeling that she looks like a time traveler from the 1990s (perhaps because Hawke is the daughter of iconic 90s stars Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).  And the grown-ups, Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder), are concerned for the kids, challenged to move on from previous traumas, and resisting their attraction for one another.

In a town with both a Mind Flayer and evil Russians at work, bad things are going to happen.  El, Max, Mike, Lucas, and Will discover that Billy is possesed and recruiting more people for the Mind Flayer, and attempt to stop him. Nancy and Jonathan’s investigative reporting uncovers strange behavior in rats that leads to even stranger behavior in humans.  The Scoop Troop – Steve and Robin joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica – investigate Russian ham radio messages and strange goings-on around the Starcourt Mall.  While the “Evil Russian” plot is ludicrous, these four definitely get the best storyline, dialogue, and character development.  Joyce investigates why magnets are suddenly falling of her refrigerator and convinces a reluctant Hopper to join in. I really like how Ryder plays Joyce as someone who has seen weird shit before, was right about it, and defeated it so now she has a greater confidence and seems more relaxed as she jumps into doing it again.  Along the way they capture a Soviet scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgof as the other breakout character of the season despite speaking no English) and get Murray for translation.

While I’ve expressed my reservations about Stranger Things 3 not living up to its potential, the show clearly attempts and succeeds at trying new things, drawing on new influences, and building on the existing story.  It’s a great bit of mind candy – with both brains and heart – for summer viewing.  I look forward to a fourth season and becoming further acquainted with these characters.

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