It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

Movie Review: Fly Me Away, ‘Ad Astra’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

Ad Astra, whaddya got for us?

Daddy issues? Check.

A plot about space travel that sure seems like a metaphor for the emotional space between a parent and child? Check.

Am I getting 2001 vibes? Sure. Not quite as psychedelic, of course, but the feeling of being unmoored and location-less (and somehow kind of liking it) is definitely there.

Was I nodding off while I watched? Yah.

Is that a mark against the film? Nah, it’s more about my own physiology. Nevertheless, I think Ad Astra works as a nice lullaby.

I give Ad Astra 5 Launches out of 4 Landings.

This Is a Movie Review: Replicas

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Replicas Holdings, LLC

As Replicas moves closer and closer to its climax, it becomes more and more aware that it must grapple with the consequences of its premise, or else there will be hell to pay. Keanu Reeves is attempting to clone his recently deceased wife and kids, and he’s pretty good at it, too. But he doesn’t want them to know that they’re clones, which presents problems upon problems upon problems. If he attempts to keep up the charade, that would make his character not just hubristic, but also profoundly cruel, and maybe even a little evil. So instead he chooses to be honest, and that’s when Replicas starts to click into gear. It all leads to a surprisingly happy ending that maybe does not grapple with bioethics as carefully as it should, but you know what? It’s a relief that a speculative sci-fi film like this one can offer some hope instead of total despair. If only the rest of Replica were not weighed down by a generic score and too many shots of Keanu wearing a funny helmet and waving his hands around a floating screen.

I give Replicas 3 Cloning Pods out of 5 Corporately Owned Subjects.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bumblebee’ is Retro Fun and Mercifully Economical

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon, John Ortiz, Stephen Schneider, Jason Drucker, Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen

Director: Travis Knight

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadly Alien Technology That Vaporizes Blood and Guts

Release Date: December 21, 2018

The Transformers series is addicted to origin stories and secret histories. Bumblebee does not break that spell, but it does present it in a much more palatable package than usual. The 2007 franchise starter supposedly presented the first time that the Autobots and Decepticons made themselves known on Earth in a major way. But as the series has rattled on, it’s been revealed that the bots have actually been around on this planet in some capacity for thousands of years, which sounds exhausting to hear about, and is even more exhausting to watch. I checked out after 2011’s Dark of the Moon, but I’ve heard horror stories from folks who stuck around for 2014’s Age of Extinction and 2017’s The Last Knight.

The spinoff nature of Bumblebee offers the potential to go in a fresh direction, but its elevator pitch does not exactly inspire confidence. “What if a teenager finds a beat-up old car that turns out to be a Transformer?” is pretty much the exact same starting point as the first Transformers. But while the setup is familiar, the details are unique and mercifully leaner compared to what’s come before. Wisely, only four Transformers play significant roles. There’s the title little fellow, opting for a modest Volkswagen Beetle disguise instead of his typical Camaro look. On his tail are the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, voiced with nasty verve by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux. And Optimus Prime shows up occasionally to keep Bumblebee’s spirits up, mostly in Princess Leia-to-Obi-Wan Kenobi-style pre-recorded message form. Metal clanking against metal is still no more aesthetically pleasing than it’s ever been, but there’s thankfully a lot less of it this time around.

As for the humans, Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in coming-of-age mode. She plays Charlie Watson, a teenager in 1987 San Francisco who would much rather spend her time fixing up cars (like she used to always do with her dad before he passed away) rather than hang out with her family or classmates. There are plenty of hallmarks of the genre: an awkward neighbor with a huge crush (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), an overbearing mom and stepdad (the delightful pair of Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider) who try and fail to get Charlie to smile more often, an annoying younger brother, and bitchy classmates. Bumblebee slots into her universe as a sort of wounded animal that she nurses back to health and also as the only one who really understands Charlie. Bumblebee hardly reinvents the wheel, but it’s a perfectly fun and satisfying addition to the girl-and-her-bot genre.

Bumblebee is Recommended If You Like: The first Transformers movie but not the Michael Bay excess, The Smiths, ’80s-set coming-of-age flicks

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Volkswagen Bugs

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Garner is a Little Too Successful as a Vigilante in ‘Peppermint’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Michael Muller/STXfilms

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh

Director: Pierre Morel

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Wanton Lethal Violence

Release Date: September 7, 2018

Early on in Peppermint, Riley North (Jennifer Garner) tells her young daughter that she cannot just go around punching everyone who treats her poorly. It sounds like the sort of lesson that will undergird the whole film. But then Riley decides to completely act against her own advice. To be fair, there is a massive difference in scale at play here. Daughter is upset about a territorial dispute involving Girl Scout cookies, whereas Mom is seeking vengeance against the drug cartel that murdered her little girl and husband. As satisfying as it may be to dispatch people who have committed heinous crimes, responding in kind with violence tends to have unintended consequences and perpetuate a cycle of violence. Peppermint even acknowledges this dilemma, at least momentarily, but then opts to just ignore it.

I don’t want to condemn for Peppermint for advocating for righteous vigilante gun violence. Indeed, I think it is a mark of intellectual health to be able to enjoy explicit violence on screen while understanding it is much less frequently (if ever) justified in real life. But Peppermint makes that reckoning a little difficult by being so slavishly in thrall to its avenging angel. I genuinely worry that this film could be dangerously influential. I normally wouldn’t be so concerned, but the apparent rejection of a sound moral lesson makes this an unusual case.

Ultimately, I believe (or at least hope) that most viewers can understand that this is wish fulfillment of the highest order. Therefore, if Peppermint can establish its action bona fides, then it might actually earn a passing grade. Garner is certainly game, perhaps raring to go hard for a role like this ever since Alias ended 12 years ago. Director Pierre Morel (basically gender-flipping his most famous credit, Taken) keeps the pacing propulsive, but the overall arc is too by-the-numbers, while Riley is too invincible. It’s the kind of affair designed to get you cheering in the moment and not to get you thinking at all afterward.

Peppermint is Recommended If You Like: Death Wish, Taken, Zero consequences

Grade: 2 out of 5 Shotgun Blasts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Nostalgia’ Makes Some Obvious, Occasionally Affecting Points About Nostalgia

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Bleecker Street

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, John Ortiz, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, James LeGros, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Patton Oswalt, Annalise Basso, Mikey Madison

Director: Mark Pellington

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Language Apparently, But It Should Otherwise Be Rated PG

Release Date: February 16, 2018 (Limited)

Nostalgia, the 2018 film directed by Mark Pellington, would like you to know that nostalgia, the sentimality for the past, is a feeling that exists and that people experience. It does not treat this as some big revelation, as this is a common human emotion and the film does not pretend otherwise. But it is so simplistic and obvious, but also matter-of-factly profound, in its explication of the definition that there is this weird mix of pretension and lack of ambition. Mostly, Nostalgia glides along in a quiet, unfussy groove that is occasionally enlivened by tragedy and committed performances.

This is one of those anthology-style, “we’re all connected” movies with multiple discrete-but-actually-closely-connected(-at-least-thematically) storylines. Instead of cross-cutting between each vignette and having them dance around each other, they take their turns and then hand the ball (one time quite literally) off to the next one, with at least one shared character per section. At first it looks like Nostalgia will follow the travails of an insurance agent (John Ortiz) and the people he encounters. That’s a justifiable enough premise, but the execution is strikingly mundane.

The film eventually shakes out instead to more broadly be a series of sketches of people dealing with loss and holding on to and/or letting go of sentimental objects, which is even more nondescript than the insurance agent setup, but there are some dynamic moments. In particular, there is the scene with Ellen Burstyn as a widow selling her late husband’s autographed baseball to a professional collector (Jon Hamm). His appraisal delivers exactly the sort of human touch you want when parting with an item with such high monetary and emotional value. Hamm’s entire section, in which he and his sister (Catherine Keener) are hit with a great loss in the midst of cleaning out their father’s old stuff, is filled with understated power. Its setup is just as lightweight as the other storylines, but it delivers enough poignancy to make Nostalgia just worthwhile enough.

Nostalgia is Recommended If You Like: Jon Hamm swooping in to save the day, Emotional gut punches

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Verified Ted Williams Signatures

This Is a Movie Review: Going in Style

Leave a comment

This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin

Director: Zach Braff

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: April 7, 2017

Release Date: PG-13 for Shooting Blanks in One Way and Not Shooting Blanks in Another

There is a cottage industry of our finest living octogenarian thespians behaving badly, whether living it up in Vegas or spending spring break with their grandkids fishing for tail. Going in Style at first glance appears the next entry in this genre, what with its premise of retirees making their last big mark by pulling off a bank robbery. As these old coots throw on their Rat Pack masks, are we supposed to be thinking, “Somebody’s watched Point Break one too many times”? Not exactly. This is not a tale of wish fulfillment debauchery. Instead, Going in Style takes its opening cue from much more Oscar-friendly territory (as well as the 1979 original of the same name starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg).

Longtime friends and factory co-workers Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), and Al (Alan Arkin) are facing a variety of ills: foreclosure for Joe, kidney failure for Willie, and disappearing pensions for all three. They do not vocalize a sense of economic betrayal from their country, but the subtext is clear. This is the same message as last year’s neo-Western Hell or High Water: when even the local banks are strictly aligned with the global monied class, robbery is all that those left behind can turn to. Going in Style mostly avoids that bleakness, though not at first. The first 15 minutes or so are all about underscoring the piling up of debt and very real threat of homelessness for decent folks who have put in decades of honest employment.

But with the codgers at its center, a depressing consistency would be truly beyond the pale. The dialogue acknowledges that safety net, as these intrepid thieves figure that even if they do get caught, they will at least be guaranteed a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than they are used to. There is a deep well of fantastic realism, or realistic fantasy, as it were, at play. We know Joe, Willie, and Al will get away with it, and it is essentially a victimless crime. Their temptation into a solution of crime is presented less as a trip to the dark side and more as open-mindedness and ingenuity. But surely the loss of millions cannot be so easily brushed off.

It is probably not necessary to take too harsh a moral stance against Going in Style, as I imagine that its target audience understands that stealing is wrong and heists are not so easily pulled off in real life. But it would be preferable if the film had a more clearly discernible message. Is it advocating for getting what you’re owed by any means necessary, becoming a Robin Hood of sorts, or actually just prescribing robbery in extreme circumstances? As it stands, it is a whimsical wisp propelled along by plenty of capable people that tiptoes around some explosive territory.

Going in Style is Recommended If You Like: Hell or High Water but thought it was missing a dance scene set to “Single Ladies”

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 “Young Men”

This Is a Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

2 Comments

A DOG'S PURPOSE

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2017.

Starring: Josh Gad, K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton

Director: Lasse Hallström

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG for a Few Moments That Make a Dog Whimper

Release Date: January 27, 2017

A Dog’s Purpose asks, “What is a dog’s purpose?” Before answering this question, it is important to note that A Dog’s Purpose presupposes that reincarnation (or at least canine reincarnation) is a fact of existence. If you have been a dog parent multiple times and ever believed that one of your more recent pups was somehow the same as one of your older ones, then this film has your back. This is the third in director Lasse Hallström’s dog trilogy (following 1985’s My Life as a Dog and 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), so I feel confident in determining that he imbued that belief into every single frame.

The film seeks its meaning by tracking the lives of the dog (voiced by Josh Gad in each iteration) over approximately 50 years. The lifetimes that are traversed include an all-American football-slinging, farming sixties family; a seventies detective buddy story; a Jheri curled-style romance in the eighties and nineties; and a reunion narrative in the 2000’s, along with a few danger-filled detours along the way. The canine perspective remains endearing, with much humor mined from the dog growing into its new bodies, often switching genders (the breeds range from Red Retriever to German Shepherd, down to Corgi, concluding as a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix).

But the quality of the film is only as strong as the quality of each of the human stories. The most prominent is also the most cliché-ridden. Ethan (K.J. Apa) is a wholesome high school quarterback with everything going his way until an accident derails his guarantee of an athletic scholarship. Rectify’s Luke Kirby does what he can in the mandatory drunk dad role, and Britt Robertson is a minor delight as Ethan’s best gal, but this whole segment is a slog due to painfully unimaginative writing.

Much more fun, and offbeat, are the two middle segments. John Ortiz is a natural as a ’70s detective in the K-9 unit. His pursuit of a divorced dad who has kidnapped his daughter is a weirdly engrossing mix of family friendly and urban grit. That is followed by a portion that is a bit like The Cosby Show, except with a lot more perms and a-ha.

A Dog’s Purpose is never so cloying that it ought to be resented. Yet its storytelling is all too often so surface-level that it does not matter how lovable dogs are. But it concludes nicely when it returns back to the farm, redeeming a story that had little going for it in the first place. Let’s put it this way: Dennis Quaid has a face and physique that were made for carrying bales of hay, and Peggy Lipton makes the case that all cinematic love stories should henceforth star 70-year-olds.

A Dog’s Purpose is Recommended If You Like: Dogs More Than You Like Good Storytelling, Pretending That Your Dog’s Internal Voice is That of Olaf from Frozen

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Games of Fetch