December 15, 2018

A Wrinkle In Time (2018)

Storm Reid, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey

Oh, Ava.

I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to love it. I love the book. Even years after I'd read it for the first time, it held up as an adult. In such a short book, Madeline L'Engle managed to capture the nerve-wracking insecurity of the tween years and complicated familial relationships while simultaneously whisking young readers into a world filled with magic--both good and evil. It is somehow both optimistic and at the same time, terribly dark and foreboding--something I appreciate in a story for kids.

Fast forward to the movie, which is styled like a Disney princess puked all over it. I don't know, maybe I'm just a cranky old lady now who doesn't want precious memories from my childhood being changed, but why oh why are the witches bedazzled and sparkled like Glinda on steroids? Don't get me wrong--they're beautiful. They're just not supposed to be. They're also not supposed to be young. So while I like both Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as actors, I have no idea what either of them are doing in this movie. And while I don't necessarily object to Oprah (because she's been around long enough she can do pretty much whatever she wants), her character is never actually supposed to be seen, so...

But the styling choices are just the first of my many grievances. Is it the end of the world that they inexplicably made Charles Wallace an adoptee and old than the toddler he is in the book? Not really. Was it unnecessary to add Rowan Blanchard as a next door bully who then gets her own sympathetic backstory as a sort of PSA to tweens watching the movie? Yes, but not a dealbreaker. But cutting out the sequence of planets landed on, the nature of IT, Camzotz, and even the attempted rescue is unforgivable in favor of fabricated "action" to liven up the story is unforgivable.

Look, the story is pretty introspective. For a fantasy, not a lot happen, action-wise. Meg spends a lot of time in her head, and a lot of the bad stuff involves more insidious feelings than external evil. But in adapting that for the screen, we somehow lose the actual suspense or evil involved. For as bright and colorful everything is, the whole story lacks punch. Everything has been stripped back to a very blah, straight-forward search and rescue story with some magic sprinkled over it. It's boring, frankly.

When I read this story as a kid, I was terrified of IT. The book did a good job of making the setting dark and creepy, without the need for flashy fight scenes or theatrics. The mental game was suspenseful and the anguish real. This movie, in its rush to add pizzaz, glossed over everything that made the story great and instead made a somewhat boring, overblown children's movie that tried to be everything except what the actual story was.

Final word: It feels traitorous to say I didn't like this, but I didn't like it.

December 4, 2018

Paddington 2 (2018)

Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, et al

I never reviewed the first movie, though rest assured, I did watch it. It was honestly so baffling and not enjoyable that I didn't even bother writing about it. While I thoroughly enjoy skewering a bad movie, sometimes I can't even bring myself to do it because that means I have to spend time thinking about the movie to even write about it (see: John Carter).

So when the reviews for Paddington 2 came out, I was even more confused. People loved it? So much so that they were willing to rave about it? And Hugh Grant in particular? I was damn near convinced there was some kind of hypnosis happening at theaters across the globe, putting critics and audiences in some kind of trance.

But I have kids, so I knew I'd watch it eventually. Because no matter how terrible it seemed, it had to be better than sitting through one of those insipid Tinkerbell movies.

I'm sure you know where this is going...

I liked it. I can't believe it, but I liked it. It's still stupid and ridiculous and definitely baffling (especially the part about a simple b&e carrying a 10 year prison sentence), but somehow much more enjoyable this time around. It's simple in its joy of Paddington's goodness and hard lines it draws about selfishness and and unkindness. In terms of a kid's movie, it's uncomplicated and sweet. No snarky jokes made for the adults, no mouthy friends that say things you wish your kids wouldn't repeat--nothing but an animated bear and a clear villain.

Speaking of the is almost uncomfortable to recognize how good Hugh Grant is in this movie. I think we take him for granted as an actor because he is so good at playing a particular role that when we do notice his brilliance, it's almost awkward. The first time I noticed was in Florence Foster Jenkins. The second time was here. Maybe the less I expect of a movie, the more I appreciate him. 

At the end of the day, I understand why audiences were so charmed with this movie. I love a dark or funny or exciting children's movie, but sometimes we need a break to indulge in some good old-fashioned clean entertainment too.

Final word: Finally, a sequel better than the original!

November 24, 2018

Alex and the List (2018)

Patrick Fugit, Jennifer Morrison

Look, it's a never a good sign when there are a bunch of famous people in a recently-released movie you've never heard of. I know this. And yet...I watched it. Because I made poor life decisions, apparently.

So basically, this is a story about a guy who's dating someone we're meant to believe is "out of his league." She then proves this by providing him with a list of things he needs to change about himself before she can seriously consider marrying him.

Some are superficial and stupid, like whitening his teeth or changing his wardrobe. Petty, but whatever. Plenty of people in relationships coax their significant other to change their appearance. We can argue about whether or not that's acceptable at a later time.

Others are obviously thrown in to paint her as excessively materialistic and shallow, like her telling him he needs to drive an expensive car and get a new job. And still others are just flat out stupid, like her requirement that he love football to please her dad. Not simply watch it--LOVE it.

Whew. Where to start. First of all, I suppose I should say kudos to the writer of this movie for subverting the abusive boyfriend trope by making the girlfriend low-key emotionally abusive. They went above and beyond the usual "nagging" and waded into a field absolutely chock full of red flags. I mean, who would seriously consider changing basically everything about themselves unless they already had some major self-esteem issues? (Which, you know, fine if they do, but then this would be a very different movie) But somehow, the worst part of all of it is that he doesn't even consider fulfilling the list until he sees a hot guy moving in on his girlfriend. So he's apparently just as shallow and petty.

So, all of this terrible plot, mixed with Gilles Marini pretending to Italian, a Russian sex chat girl, and trying to convince us Patrick Fugit is lovable because he trains dogs, is A LOT. Like, added-every-idea-that-came-up-in-the-writers-room lot. But I can't help but give kudos for writing a romantic comedy that is neither romantic or funny, at literally any point in the movie. It takes skill to write something this terrible and still convince established actors to star in it.

Final word: I can't ever un-see this movie, which is the real tragedy.

October 30, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

Tye Sheridan (aka fake Miles Teller), Olivia Cooke, et al

When I read this book, all I could think the entire time was this would make a much better movie than a book. I don't want to be that person, but I think it's sort of impossible to discuss this movie without discussing the book, so...

The book is basically a tome of 80's references blanketed over a straightforward plot. And when I say tome, I mean tome. No movie, TV show, video game, or song was off limits. Having been born partway through the decade, I appreciated, but didn't understand most of the references in the book. I thought a movie would be able to incorporate them in a more meaningful way that didn't require me to pull myself out of the story to wrack my brain to figure out if I'd played a particular game or heard a particular song.


The movie is entertaining. It would difficult not to be. It's an action story, after all, and one that exists almost entirely within a virtual reality, so the filmmakers were not bound by the laws of physics or reality so they could really go wild--and did.


The movie bears little actual resemblance to the book. So much of the world building and even many of the game references have been stripped out in favor of flashy action sequences and moving the plot forward. I understand that movies will never be able to dive into the amount of detail that books can, but by simplifying the story to extent that it does, it also takes away what makes this story special and different from any other quest-type story. So what if it's set in virtual reality? It's the details that make the story memorable!

Gone is nearly any reference to Wade's real life. Gone is the layered complexity of each challenge, including making up two entirely new challenges that didn't even exist in the book. Gone is the build up to meeting his virtual friends, who they are, and even how they meet. Gone is the ending, the beginning, and pretty much everything in between. Like the movie adaptation of Ender's Game, this movie is fine on it's own--it's just not the story the book tells.

It's hard to separate my feelings of disappointment watching this movie from what it actually was, so I asked my husband to weigh in with his unbiased opinion. "It was okay," he said. "Nothing special." I can't summarize it any better myself.

Final word: This should have been a lot better than it was. Maybe someone will re-do it properly one day.

October 17, 2018

Smallfoot (2018)

Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common

First, let me just say how far Channing Tatum has come. No, this isn't a reference to his stripper days (though let's be honest, those are fun to reference too), but his acting ability. Like, not once was I pulled out of the movie by some vocal tic of his or anything that reminded me that it was Channing Tatum's voice and not simply the voice of the character. And any reader of this blog knows what a big deal that is to me. So kudos, Channing.

Ok, onto the meat of it. This movie is so surprisingly clever. I know that sounds like an insult, but I mean it. I've sat through so many mediocre or even terrible kid's movies that I'm honestly surprised when anyone other than Disney puts out something of quality. (And even Disney mucks it up sometimes. See: The Good Dinosaur.) This is one of those stories that has two levels: one superficial, cute level with a nice moral for the kids, and another, higher level that parallels adult topics so we enjoy it more than just nodding along to cute animation. In a weird way, the overall theme of the movie reminded me a little of Sausage Party, except you know, all the dick jokes.

What threw me in the movie was the fact that it had musical numbers. It's just so rare these days, and even more rarely done well. (Thank you, Common!) The whole movie just kept surprising me for the better.

In the end, I'm not certain whether the movie was as good as I thought it was, or if it was just a result of having such low expectations, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Final word: It's still not Disney, but it's worth watching.

October 9, 2018

Ocean's 8 (2018)

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, et al

I wanted to like this. I really did. For one thing, I like heist movies. For another, I live for Cate Blanchett. (She does not disappoint in this movie. Her whole look is a mood.) But making this movie as part of the Ocean's franchise was a mistake.

For one thing, isn't everyone sick of the Ocean's movies? I know I am. 11 was great. 12 was terrible. 13 was tolerable. Let it die already! Instead, this movie decides it's important to keep paying tribute to the franchise by way of cameos and constant references to George Clooney. It's maddening. Just let it be a heist movie on its own! It literally adds nothing to the story to make it related to the other movies. I argue it makes it weaker.

Secondly, the movie just isn't very good. Like, it tries, but it lacks the both playfulness and drama, leaving the movie rather...bland. Everything just sort of happens. I didn't turn the movie off or anything, but at no point did I feel fully engaged with the story or literally any of the characters. In fact, the best person in the entire story was probably Anne Hathaway, who was the only person to show any depth of character. Everyone else was very one-note. Very. I will add that's probably not the fault of the actors themselves, but the writing. I mean, since when does Helena Bonham Carter struggle to be interesting?!?

Anyway, I was hoping for a successful female spin-off/remake/whatever you want to call it to prove the haters wrong, but sadly, this wasn't it. On the other hand, I'm not terribly disappointed at the prospect of letting this "franchise" die a quick death. Try it again, but with a better script.

Final word: Totally forgettable.

October 4, 2018

Nanette (2018)

Hannah Gadsby

I've watched and reviewed a lot of things over my past 6+ years as a blogger. Hundreds of movies, documentaries, TV movies, and even the occasional book. But this is the first stand-up comedy routine I've written and I'm doing it because it really is as good as everyone says it is.

Comedy is a tricky thing, most obviously because not everyone has the same sense of humor. But even within people who like more cerebral jokes (which this absolutely is), there is a question of format. Nanette sits at the generally unpopular intersection of being super smart, super gay, and told in story format. Here's what I mean by that:

1. Gadsby's jokes rely on a certain amount of knowledge from the audience. For one thing, a not-insignificant portion of her set is devoted to jokes around art history and Impressionist painters. Another long joke centers on the multi-layered perspectives of Picasso. This isn't "forget your problems and laugh" comedy. It's comedy that makes you think and I am here for it.

2. If you didn't already know Gadsby is gay, well, she tells you. Repeatedly. In fact, it's the crux of the entire show. And if that turns you off right there, well, this isn't your brand of comedy. But that's too bad because anyone who doesn't want to watch it because she talks about being gay is exactly the kind of person who should be watching it in the first place.

3. Hannah Gadsby is not a comedian. I mean, of course she is, but not in the way you'd expect. The "traditional" way. She doesn't stand up there and tell jokes. Instead, she weaves personal a personal narrative that's both uncomfortable and sprinkled with jokes, much like Hassan Minaj in his brilliant stand-up special, Homecoming King. But here, Gadsby takes it a step even further by breaking down the process by which she tells jokes, making that a story (and a joke) in and of itself.

I'm trying, in vain, to convey the depth and brilliance of Nanatte without much success. When my husband and I finished watching it, we both sat in silence for a few moments, in awe at the way she crafted the set to come full circle. Every single moment of it serves a purpose and there is not one wasted joke or line in it. It is a mastery of comedy, storytelling, and tension. It's so good, in fact, I'm not entirely certain it is a stand-up comedy special. It seems more like a documentary on how marginalized people in our community cope with society. It is both important and entertaining, funny and sad. It is every contradiction you can think of and if this special isn't referenced as one of the most important cultural moments of 2018 I'm going to throw a fucking chair at something.

This comedy special/stand-up routine/whatever you call it captures the indelible sadness and rage of both women and the LGBT+ community around the world right now. Gadsby pinpoints the exact moments of discomfort that exist and somehow turns them into laughs, but not cheap laughs--laughter that comes through tears; laughter that knows we are only laughing because what the fuck else are we supposed to do. So please, please, please, I am begging you. Watch this. And laugh. And cry. And even if you do neither of those things, please just watch it until the very end.


October 1, 2018

American Panda by Gloria Chao [book]


At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Riding high on the Asian wave, I've extended my search for representation to books. I've read everything I could get my hands on across the Asian spectrum, from contemporary stories like Emergency Contact and It's Not Like It's a Secret to more fantasy-inspired stories like The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. But one story, above all, prompted me to write a review of it.

American Panda starts off funny: jokes about stinky tofu, disapproving mothers, and of course, starting college at MIT--pre-med. It warms you with the familiars Tiger parent narrative and sprinkles of Mandarin before launching into wonderful awkward hints of romance. I thought I would know where the book would lead. I was wrong.

What's so lovely about this book is that it isn't at all what the fluffy cover and loopy font leads you to believe it is. The jokes and awkwardness are cute, but this isn't a To All the Boys-style rom-com. It's barely even a romance. Or a comedy.

This book is a wonderful examination of what it means to be Chinese-American; to be stuck between traditional parents and a progressive world. This book explores the familial relationship in a way Chinese-American kids haven't seen reflected back at them in the media they consume. This book is secretly a deep, poignant drama, wrapped in the cloak of teenage romance.

This is not to say that the romance angle is irrelevant or unnecessary--it's not. Only that it's not the main focus, and I actually love the book more for it. I cried reading it. A lot. All the feelings I had watching The Joy Luck Club for the first time rushed back when reading this. It's a hell of a thing--representation. And even though my life experience does not match that of the main character in this story, the small overlaps feel like a victory. Oh, she only refers to her butt in Chinese? Me too!!

Of course, it's impossible to live in America and read something like this and not wonder how it fits into the larger landscape of accessibility: i.e. how would white readers react to this? What experience would they have reading it? Would it all seem foreign to them? Would they assume this is how it is in every Chinese family? I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but honestly, I don't really care. I read a book that felt like it was written for people like me and you know what? Fuck anyone who doesn't understand it. I don't care. (I'm sure the author cares, but that's not currently my problem.) I want a movie made of this. I want this story out there, like The Joy Luck Club, for new generations of Chinese-American kids to relate to.

Final word: Where's my movie, Netflix?!?

September 18, 2018

Set It Up (2018)

Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs

First of all, let me just say I was hyped to watch a movie I'd only heard about, thinking it was a romantic comedy starring Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. Yay, more Asian representation! Except, um, it's not a movie starring Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. I mean sure, Netflix puts a picture of them on its banner, but they're just trying to lure you in for a romantic comedy about two other people you've never heard of. So there's that.

But it's cute! Granted, I'm a sucker for rom-coms, but even the fact I spent a fair amount of time deciding what bigger name actors they reminded me of didn't overshadow my enjoyment of it. (For the record, it's fake Anna Kendrick meets Mae Whitman for the girl, fake Colin Jost for the guy.) The whole sucky-assistant job premise brings back shades of The Devil Wears Prada, but without the sucky, judgmental friends! (Anne Hathaway's boyfriend in that movie was the absolute worst. This is not up for debate.) Plus, Lucy Liu's character is a badass sports entertainment exec, so really, what's not to love?

It has all the hallmarks of a predictable-yet-enjoyable rom-com: cute banter, hilarious awkward moments (I will never look at another delivery person in an elevator the same way again), and of course, the dramatic breaking point. It's all there. So while this isn't the most inventive rom-com, it certainly ticks all the boxes. And it was pleasant enough to convince me to add The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which Glen Powell is in) to my watch list.

Final word: More movies with Lucy Liu, please. And have her be the actual star next time.

September 10, 2018

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

Lana Condor, Noah Centino

If you haven't heard about this movie, you must be living under a rock. I don't say this to be rude--it's simply a fact. Likely due to radiating excitement over the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Asian-American awareness sent this teen rom-com skyrocketing into the public consciousness with a very sweet, very PG-13 story about a girl whose secret love letters get mailed to the boys she wrote them to and must deal with the very awkward consequences.

A few things, for the unaware:

1. It's actually a book adaptation.
2. The books are a trilogy. Expect more movies after the smashing success of this first one.
3. Lana Condor is so cute I want to eat her face off.

Okay, #3 is a personal opinion. But I think the reason the movie is so popular is because of the film's two stars, Lana Condor and Noah Centino. They are impossibly cute and have amazing chemistry--a must in rom-coms and is surprisingly lacking when directors rely on big names for casting. Seriously, the more I read about these two the more I am shocked they are not a couple in real life. Luckily, I am not a teenage girl so I understand how acting works and can still like the movie without it paralleling real life.

That being said, I have a couple of minor qualms with the movie.

1. I wish it hadn't de-emphasized the divide Lara Jeans feels about being half-Asian. It's a solid portion of the book and the reason none of the love interests are Asian boys (do you hear that, Internet? The casting directors didn't do it to be racist!). A lot is being made about the little nods to her Korean heritage, but I wish it had been a little more front and center because I am selfish and I want everything to be all Asian, all the time right now.

2. There is some revisionist history about how the letters actually get out. Or rather, why. I did not like Kitty in the book. She is the Little Women's Amy of the Song sisters. To write her redemption in from the beginning displeased me.

3. Lara Jean's "showdown" with Gen in the bathroom is shallow at best. The movie sort of strips out Gen's real motivation for her feud with Lara Jean and leaves the whole thing feeling really petty and manufactured, when (not to sound like a broken record) the book gives it a lot more nuance and believability.

4. They did Josh dirty. He all but disappears for half the movie, which removes the awkward love triangle aspect that sets everything up in the first place. It's unfortunate.

5. Everyone is swooning over Noah Centino, but he husky whispers, Nicholas Cage-style, a little too much for my taste. And he looks like a long-lost Lawrence brother.

6. I wish they'd shown the letter to Peter. It's hilarious.

But other than those six things? LOVE. I love the awkwardness of Lara Jean and the ridiculous faces Lana Condor makes. (Seriously. I want to eat her face off. Forget Noah Centino. I think I'm in love with Lana Condor.) I love that Aiden from Sex and the City is the dad (shut up with your "actually his name is John Corbett. He will always be Aidan.) I love that none of the sisters look like each other, showcasing that yes, mixed kids often don't actually look anything like each other. And I love Lara Jean's outfits. Sure, it's a minor thing, but the whole set design and her clothing and everything just makes me happy. It's a happy movie that makes you happy to watch it. And that is the best thing you can get from a rom-com.

Final word: The best teenage rom-com in decades. I've already watched it three times.

P.S. Bitch better get her scrunchie back in the sequel.

August 19, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh

Sometimes the things that mean the most to us are the most difficult to explain or articulate. Case in point: this movie. But I'll try.

Asian-Americans have long been overlooked in media representation. This is not to say other marginalized groups have not also been ignored, or that Asian-Americans have it the worst. It is not a contest. (If it were, let's be honest, Native Americans would win.) Growing up, two of my favorite movies were Mulan and The Joy Luck Club. They are, of course, both excellent movies in their own right, but its is difficult to estimate how much of my regard is due to the fact that those were the only two Asian-American movies I saw as a kid. Literally. The only two.

So when I settled into the theater on opening weekend and heard the credits open with music with Chinese lyrics and Constance Wu's face on screen, I nearly burst into tears. It was Wonder Woman x 1,000. This is what I have been waiting for. This is what I hadn't realized I was missing all those years.

To watch a movie where the main characters are Asian, but don't speak with stereotypical Chinese accents is, to be quite honest, revolutionary. The fact that an actress like Constance Wu, who plays a mother of three on Fresh Off the Boat, can reverse course and play a young twenty-something love interest, is equally astounding. And to see Asian male actors cast as lust-worthy, sex symbols for a mainstream US audience is something I wasn't sure I'd ever see in my lifetime. This movie transcends the normal movie-going experience into a cultural event--an introduction into Asian culture in a way that doesn't fetishize it. We are shown everything from delicious Singaporean food porn to little insights about Chinese beliefs in "auspicious noses" and "lucky colors." It immerses the audience in its culture and is completely unapologetic about it.

Now, there have been a number of criticisms of the movie, mostly coming from within the Asian community. There are concerns about the erasure of Southeast Asians in a movie set in Southeast Asian (fair) and the glorification of a stereotypical "rich" Chinese person. But here's the thing, guys: one movie can't be everything to everyone. I don't want to dismiss Crazy Rich Asians as *just* a rom-com, but really, it's a rom-com. It's meant to be fluffy and indulgent and fun to watch--all of which it was. No one is gunning for a Best Picture Oscar with this. So why does it get put under the microscope like it is?

Much has been made about the fact that this is the first all Asian-American cast in a movie in 20 years (you can argue about whether or not Better Luck Tomorrow disputes that in the comments). And perhaps instead of picking apart all the ways this movie doesn't represent all Asians, we should be demanding a wider and more varied range of Asian experiences depicted in our movies. Until then, I choose to celebrate an imperfect, but deeply satisfying story that highlights the beauty, variety, and utterly normal-ness of being Asian. (You know, other than everyone in the movie being mind-boggling, disgustingly wealthy.)

Final word: My heart is full 

P.S. I am team Ronny Chieng over Awkwafina all the way. Optimal angles.

June 20, 2018

Doctor Strange (2016)

Benedict Cumerbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor

I watched a documentary on K-Pop recently and they talked about how K-Pop bands are like the Avengers: "it wouldn't work if there were 9 Tony Starks" was an exact quote. But what is Doctor Strange if not a skinnier Tony Stark with a different profession?

Now, I'm not a comic book nerd by any means, so I don't know the "true" history behind any of the characters or what changes were made to bring them to life on the big screen. But Doctor Strange is not a very exciting character. He's Tony Stark with Batman training. Like oh, you learned from a mystical faction that had one of it's former students go rogue? Yawn.

The movie was fine. It was perfectly entertaining, and had the most exciting use of CGI I've seen since Inception. The cloak of levity was also pretty awesome, and a character in its own right. But considering the whitewashing of the ancient one and the eerily similar character arc to Ironman, I'm not seeing what the fuss was about.

Final word: Maybe superhero movies just aren't my thing.

June 4, 2018

Paris Can Wait (2016)

Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin

It's like someone watched Under the Tuscan Sun and thought, 'let's make that movie, but worse!' As a fair warning, this review will contain spoilers, but not really because this movie is so terrible the ending doesn't even matter.

In the #MeToo era, this movie could be used as a lesson on consent because while it's framed as a romantic movie, it's anything but. A plot summary: Diane Lane is married to perpetual asshole, Alec Baldwin. They play their roles to a T, two the two of them well-versed in these exact characters: Baldwin, the neglectful, self-centered husband, and Lane, the quietly-suffering wife. Enter: Viard, Baldwin's work colleague and notorious womanizer.

So blah, blah, blah, circumstances separate Baldwin and Lane, who agrees to go on a road trip with her husband's co-worker. This is where Under the Tuscan Sun comes in, as half the movie is just cinematography of French countryside and closeups of Diane Lane eating or taking photographs (because of course, she's a budding photographer! No, this movie isn't trying too hard to be artsy, what do you mean?). It's a very quiet movie, but not in a good way. The only thing that kept me awake was waiting for the inevitable come-on from Viard and Lane's brutal refusal. What can I say? I love to see overconfident men get shot down.

Alas, this movie couldn't even deliver that. No no, after days of Viard's manipulations - unplanned stops, refusals to continue driving, and even unprompted stories of how Lane's husband had been unfaithful to her - she falls for him? 

This is not how it works. Or at least, this is not how it should work. Romantic comedies, while generally unrealistic, should at least be a fantasy escape for the viewer. It should not be a cringe-inducing two hours of a man covertly badgering a woman to fall for him and her actually doing it. It should not be a woman substituting one crappy man for another, almost as terrible one. JUST BECAUSE HE GIVES HER ATTENTION DOESN'T MEAN HE'S BETTER. Lane and Baldwin are married something like 22 years in the movie - do you really think she's going to be seduced by some guy she's known for 3 days because he shared a meal with her? Come on. Anyone that's been married that long knows that initial attraction fades, and this new guy is just as likely as her current husband to ignore her in a few years.

This is not to say she should stay with her self-centered husband. Nor is it to even say she shouldn't kiss the new guy. I'm not here to judge morals. What I am saying is that it makes for a terrible movie for the manipulations of one man to be the entire storyline. Let them have a torrid affair. Let him die off. Let her slap him across the face. I don't really care. JUST DON'T END IT LIKE SHE'S GOTTEN A HAPPILY EVER AFTER WITH SOME DUDE AFTER 3 DAYS. That's some real teenage shit, except everyone in the movie is in their fifties. It's just embarrassing.

At the end of the day, I know Diane Lane has the tendency to do these flighty, terrible romantic dramedies (Must Love Dogs, Nights in Rodanthe), but I still want more from her. She's a better actress than this and I deserve better. 

Final word: No.

April 20, 2018

The Wizard of Lies [TV movie] (2017)

Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer

Financial crimes are not an easy subject to make interesting. For one thing, the average person doesn't understand what any of it means. Secondly, there's no real action involved. The tension lies in stock prices or backdating or other yawn-inducing descriptions most people don't care about. (Which is also the reason certain people are able to get away with such crimes...)

So kudos to this movie for keeping it as interesting as possible. Aside from The Big Short (which absolutely everyone should watch, btw), this has been the second most interesting financial meltdown movie I've watched. (Grand total in that category: 2)

They do it by focusing more on Madoff's persona relationships--his wife and his two sons--than the actual crimes committed. Personally, I would have liked more nitty gritty details of just how these things were executed and covered up, but I suppose that's what Google is for. Instead, this movie set its sights on showing the involvement of Madoff family members and the toll the entire scandal took on them. It was humanizing without glossing over the viciousness of the crimes committed, which is a hard balance to achieve.

I was relatively young (well, not really paying attention) when Madoff was exposed, so I wasn't intimately familiar with the amount of vitriol his family received. And while we will probably never know the objective "truth" about their involvement, this movie certainly moved my sympathies their way. It cannot be easy to be related to a notorious criminal of any kind and the toll it takes on you must be enormous. This movie does well to highlight those effects.

Much like the movie Game Change, HBO has a way of pulling back the curtain on a certain situation to make you view it differently. Here, they show Madoff as a controlling, all-powerful figure that doesn't allow his sons to ask questions about the business or gain any insight into how things are run. Should they, then, be treated as liable for the damage their father caused? Whether or not you walk away agreeing with the narrative, they've given you something to think about. 

This wasn't the most exciting or even the most well done HBO movie. But it was thought-provoking and interesting and certainly topical. Either way, I'd rather have studios gamble on movies like this than just churn out another superhero whatever.

Final word: A new take on a national scandal

P.S. I could not stop looking at the actor portraying Mark Madoff and thinking it was Beck Beckett from SNL. I'm convinced maybe it should have been Beck Beckett. 

April 3, 2018

Leap! (2016)

Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Carly Rae Jepsen

Sometimes I get the feeling that people think movies for children don't need to be as good as movies for adults. How else can I explain The Penguins of Madagascar or Hop

This movie is like that. It's as if whoever created it wanted to make a ballet movie and didn't pay attention to literally anything else. Like costume design, or music, or plot, or casting...

So the ballet is entertaining. Though as I've admitted before, I will watch literally any movie about ballet. So maybe my opinion on that doesn't even count. And the animation is cute. Like, the kids are drawn to be cute. So that's something.

Everything else? Everything else is a train wreck.

Let's start with the setting, which is supposed to be France in 1879. Yet Felicie, our main character, wears rolled jean shorts over black leggings and chic boots. She's also always impeccably clean. Oh, did I mention she's supposed to be an orphan? Look, I get that it's supposed to be a feel-good story, but why does her male companion always look like a dirty little street boy in patched clothing and she look like she stepped directly out of an H&M catalogue? Even after escaping an orphanage on a dirty train for who knows how long? It's just one of those little details that eats away at you when the plot gives you too much time to analyze other things.

So we're in Paris. 1879. Yet, like The Book of Life, this movie thought: let's put contemporary American music in the score! Also, let's have non-French actors voice the characters! Better yet, let's cast a 30-year-old man to voice a pre-teen orphan boy! Oh, and while we're commanding "star power" at the sacrifice of authenticity, let's cast Carly Rae Jepsen! Because nothing says "STAR" like a one-hit wonder pop singer who doesn't even freaking sing in the movie. 

Clearly I have a lot of feelings about it.

But even those mistakes pale in comparison to the plot and character development. For one thing, the villain is so one-dimensional and overtly evil that even my four-year-old complained that no one could possibly be that mean. When a four-year-old starts pointing out character flaws in an animated movie, you know you've got problems. Usually they are just awed by the flashing colors. 

As a warning, I am going to post a spoiler. I don't usually, but this movie has gotten under my skin and since kids aren't reading my blog anyway, I feel like it's a safe space to vent. So, spoiler alert:
The worst part of this whole damn thing is that we're supposed to believe little Felicie learns to dance perfect en pointe ballet in a matter of days--better than girls who have been training for a decade--simply because she has passion?? I'm all for inspirational stories, but that is both absurd and insulting to kids who actually train for stuff. Literally, she turns from a walking disaster to a show-worthy dancer in like, a week. Never mind that she literally cheated and lied to gain entry to her dream in the first place, but what kind of message are we sending kids when a movie tells them they can perfect something in short order if they want it really really badly? Oh, and practice for an entire week.

Added to that is the miraculous transformation of the villain's daughter, Camille. I know they're kids, but again, we're supposed to believe she does a complete 180 from being exactly as evil as her mother into someone who would concede the lead role to the girl who stole her identity? And we should cheer Felicie for just accepting that without skepticism? Maybe that's my cold, cynical adult heart speaking, but I would let that girl anywhere near me without first checking her hands for a knife. Seriously.

Final word: I tried to like it. I really did. I just couldn't.

March 20, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavle

Remakes are always tricky. Do them badly (Annie) and the backlash is severe. Do them differently (Ghostbusters) and the backlash is severe. Do them better (The Parent Trap) and you've tied your fortunes to Lindsay Lohan. Just kidding.

But really, the original Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, and that kid who also voiced Chip in Beauty and the Beast was so good I was surprised they went for a remake at all. Surely it couldn't be good. I assumed it would go something like The Rock's sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth.

But I'm a grown-up who can admit when she's wrong and boy, was I wrong. The movie opted for scenario #2 from above (do it differently) and I think it's what made the story fresh and original, despite being a remake. Instead of a board game, it's a video game. And instead of two adults and two children, it's four teens who transform into their adult avatars for the game. It's maybe a little kitschy and over-played for the laughs about transforming bodies, but it's funny enough to make it worth it. I mean, for once, I'm wasn't annoyed by Kevin Hart doing the same overly-aggressive short man schtick.

The fast pace of the story and the concrete plot of moving through game levels to achieve a goal (getting out of the game) makes for an exciting watch. It's never too scary (the villain in the original is much scarier), never too slow, and never too cheesy. It's a good balance for a PG-13 action movie.

I will say, however, I was shocked by the amount of cursing in this movie. Don't get me wrong, I love a good swear word as much as the next person. But the number of of "bitches" and "goddamns" in this movie made me wonder if it was trying too hard to appeal to teens by seeming edgy. It certainly didn't need that kind of language and made it borderline inappropriate to show my younger-aged kids. (Ditto for the numerous penis jokes.) 

And Dwayne. Oh, Dwayne. I love me some Rock. I'm pretty sure everyone does. But he is clearly the weak link of this movie, which is sort of a problem when he's headlining it. Luckily, Jack Black turns in a pretty memorable performance as a teenage girl and Karen Gillan, who'd I'd never heard of before, is excellent so I can overlook Johnson's inability to portray anything but himself.

Final word: Good, but no longer appropriate for small kids. Then again, maybe the original wasn't really either.

March 4, 2018

2018 Oscar Predictions

It's been a bad year. Not necessarily movies-wise, but my ability to watch them all. It seems like every year gets harder. This, in turn, makes my predictions a lot less reliable and more March Madness-ish, where I choose based on uniform colors or something.

I will fully admit, I purposely skipped a few of these. One of them being The Disaster Artist. The other being Get Out. I trust the friends of mine who have seen it and loved it, but considering I still jump out of my skin when the Hans pop out of the snow after the avalanche in Mulan, I don't think I'm equipped to watch even a mock horror movie. I am rooting for it, though, knowing how much it meant to people and what it represents for the future of movie making.

So after I log these picks, I can just sit back, relax, and hope Jimmy Kimmel doesn't make racist Asian jokes again this year.

Best Picture predicted winner: The Shape of Water

  • Call Me By Your Name: This will have a much better shot in the screenplay category. I have a feeling voters are going to do the whole "we did this last year" thing and vote for something else.
  • Darkest Hour: Let's be honest. This wasn't going to win anyway. I'm ok with having missed it. 
  • Dunkirk: Because we couldn't possibly go one year without a WWII movie *eyeroll*
  • Get Out: Judging from those "anonymous Hollywood ballots," voters didn't "get" this movie. Or didn't try to. Or didn't care to. But it all adds up to no win.
  • Lady Bird: This was my favorite of the year, but I have a feeling voters are going to feel like the life of a teenage girl isn't "deep" enough to win top honors.
  • Phantom Thread: Ugh. Quintessential Oscar movie the vast majority of people wouldn't even like.
  • The Post: Intention is important, sure, but so is execution. And the execution of this movie left a lot to be desired.
  • The Shape of Water: I enjoyed it, but it was certainly weird. But I think it represents a "safe" middle ground for voters between the far-flung artsy and the outright political.

Best Actor predicted winner: Timothée Chalamet

I actually think this is one of the tougher categories to pick, with breakout star Timothée Chalamet up against Daniel Day Lewis' proclaimed "last performance." Will he (or Daniel Kaluuya) prevail when the Academy tends to reward "lifetime achievement" instead of actual individual performances? Not to say Day Lewis wasn't excellent. He was. But was he the best of the year?

  • Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name: I think the new shininess of his performance and the buzz this movie generated will be enough to get him the win. At least I hope so.
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: I wish I had more to weigh in on this.
  • Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: I don't feel sorry I don't have to weigh in on a rosy Winston Churchill performance.
  • Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq: Nice to see a deviation from the usual parts Denzel plays, but I don't think it's enough to get him the win.

Best Actress predicted winner: Frances McDormand

I actually think this is the most hotly contested race this year, with excellent performances from everyone (except Meryl, who basically is just a permanent fixture here whether she deserves it or not, *cough cough* Iron Lady). However, I think age, opportunity, and subject matter all factor in for voters (which it shouldn't but it does), which tips the scales in favor of the veteran actress.

  • Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water: Excellent performance, but she won't win. She just won't.
  • Frances McDormand, Three Billboards: She will win. I don't think it's even a question.
  • Margot Robbie, I, Tonya: Robbie actually had my favorite performance of the year
  • Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: So, so good. Much better than when she was nominated for Brooklyn.

Best Supporting Actor predicted winner: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

  • Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards: Entertaining, but not even the best supporting actor in the movie. They didn't need to nominate both him and Sam Rockwell.
  • Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water: Without the sane voice (and narration) of Jenkins, this movie could have been an incoherent mess.
  • Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World: Kevin Spacey really took the momentum out of this movie. I don't see it winning anything.
  • Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards: I don't think it's even going to be close in the voting.

Best Supporting Actress predicted winner: Allison Janney

I think we all know it's going to be a showdown between Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney, which leaves me completely torn. They both played excellent, complicated mothers in equally excellent, complicated movies. Everyone else in the category needs to be satisfied with just being nominated this year.

  • Mary J. Blige, Mudbound: Yet another movie I didn't get to.
  • Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I don't know why we live in a world where Allison Janey doesn't have an Oscar but we need to remedy that.
  • Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread: I liked her even better than Daniel Day Lewis.
  • Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird: I loved her. I really loved her. But did I love her more than I loved Allison Janney?

    Best Original Screenplay predicted winner: Get Out

    Obviously these categories are balanced where the Best Picture probably won't also win Best Screenplay so voters can spread the awards around a little, so my picks are based on the assumption that The Shape of Water will win the big one.

    • Get Out: I think it was between Get Out and Lady Bird, but ultimately I think voters will see this as a more creative story.
    • Lady Bird: I've made no secret of my love for this movie. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.
    • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Popularity is waning for this story and while I think the actors in it will still be recognized, I think McDonough being left off the Best Director nominees was a signal this movie will go empty-handed in this category.

    Best Adapted Screenplay predicted winner: Call Me By Your Name

    • Call Me By Your Name: I think this is a much more sparsely populated category, giving this movie the easy win.
    • The Disaster Artist: Please, God. No.
    • Logan: Apparently I'm the only person in the entire country who wasn't swooning over this movie. It's big news that a superhero movie made it in, but I'm surprised it was this one.
    • Molly's Game: I thought this story was excellently executed, especially given the wacky nature of it. But I am definitely biased when it comes to Aaron Sorkin.
    • Mudbound: Netflix is getting closer and closer to actually winning something. And then, the movie industry is going to change.

      As usual, I only predicted the categories I care about/feel like I can reasonably predict. So with so many movies gone unseen, I can't even begin to touch categories like Visual Effects and Sound Mixing and the like. Make sure to check out the Oscars Page to find my reviews on other Oscar-nominated movies like Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Coco.

      Phantom Thread (2017)

      Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville

      Romance means different things to different people, I suppose. For instance, this movie. Or Fifty Shades of Grey. Both are classified as romances, and yet...

      Yes, I compared the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Daniel Day Lewis/Paul Thomas Anderson British "romance" with the Twilight fan fic that fetishizes BDSM. And I say it with a completely straight face.

      They are both about abusive relationships. In both movies, at least one of the participants is controlling, manipulative, and coercive to the other. Yet we are expected to watch one of them and declare it romantic and wonderful and worthy of the title of Best Picture of the Year. Why? Because it stars the great Daniel Day Lewis? Because it has beautiful costume design? Because it is set to an incredible score? Nope, nope, nope.

      Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a statement about toxic relationships. And if that's the case, I don't think the statement was clear enough. It had a Gone Girl quality to it and not in a good way. Both people in the relationship were extremely damaged and I'm not sure what message I'm supposed to be getting out of their interactions with each other. Literally the only semi-likable person in the entire movie is Lesley Manville, who gives the least bothersome performance as Reynold's sister, Cyril.

      All in all, this movie felt like it was trying to hard to be deep--flanked by the score, design, and big-name actors--with only the thinnest of plots to back it up. It's all fluff, peppered by a few contentious scenes. In thinking about my reaction to another Paul Thomas Anderson movie, The Master (not to mention Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia), I wonder how I ever enjoyed There Will Be Blood. It seems like every single one of his movies is exactly like this. Which I guess is convenient, since I know now to avoid them in the future.

      Final word: The window dressing on this is beautiful, just don't try to look inside.

      March 1, 2018

      Lady Bird (2017)

      Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf

      Everyone has a favorite genre. Whether it's sci-fi, historical dramas, or horror, our inclination to seek out these types of movies also generally biases our opinion in favor of movies that conform to our preferences. Obviously.

      So in my coming of age-loving heart, this movie was flawless. I would not change one single thing about it. Not the casting. Not the wardrobe. Not the choppy way it jumps from scene to scene, sometimes skipping chunks of time. Not even the ending, which was decidedly more sappy than I expected.

      Of course, I only watched it once and again, I have a heavy bias toward stories that revolve around high school girls. But still. It is such a realistic portrayal of that age, without romanticizing it or condescending to those of that age. It is a perfectly relatable story that's frankly, nothing remarkable, yet manages to have such impact. Nothing is too heavy or too light, no scene drags on for too long, nor are we ever left with the sense that we've missed something. It is perfection.

      As an aside, I had an exceptionally terrible viewing experience (read my entire tweet thread here), and yet I still walked out of the theater totally in love. (I'm not exaggerating about the circumstances. Read my thread.) Who knew a 23 yr old (Ronan) and a 34 yr old (Gerwig) could so thoroughly immerse us in the high school experience?

      All of this makes me think back to my review last week of The Florida Project, in which I complained that nothing happened in the movie. I didn't connect with the characters, nor did I care much about their journey. I understand all the ways in which that movie and this one are similar, and yet I loved one and didn't care for the other. Personal journeys are both commonplace and unique and perhaps because of my background and experiences, this one resonated with me. That's what took it from "great directing and great acting" to "perfection." Because like The Florida Project, I can recognize a well done movie even if it's not my taste. And this one is. It just also happens to be exactly what I love.

      Final word: *hearts-as-eyes emojis*

      February 27, 2018

      Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

      Denzel Washington

      Hey remember when Denzel made that movie about holding a hospital hostage to try and get his son medical care? It pretended to be an action movie, but was really a commentary on the messed up health care system of the US. This is kind of like that.

      This movie has been panned pretty thoroughly by every avid movie watcher I know, and understandably so. It's not really a movie. It is, technically, of course, but it's so laden with morality speeches and over-the-top scenarios to demonstrate said morality that it feels more like something you show a high school class to provoke discussion. It's also really slow.

      On the other hand, I didn't hate it. Maybe it's my bias toward social justice issues, especially those regarding the legal system and how it disproportionately affects low-income defendants and people of color, but the movie definitely hits those points without confusion. The plot arc is clear and Denzel you know, does his Denzel thing. His performance of the socially awkward (autistic?) but torch-carrying activist, though not necessarily consistent all the way through, makes the movie worth watching.

      At the end of the day, I'm usually pleased I've watched movies like this. They are not the most entertaining, nor are they the type of movie I'd necessarily recommend to others. But it's not part of a blockbuster franchise and it made me think--a rarity these days. So while this movie is guaranteed not to actually win anything at the Oscars, I'm glad movies that try to convey a message are still being made and getting attention called to them. Maybe one of these days someone will actually make a "social issues thriller" that hits the mainstream.

      Final word: John Q but for the legal system.