I Watched ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and ‘Artemis Fowl’ on the Same Weekend: Here’s What Happened

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CREDIT: David Lee/Netflix; Walt Disney Studios/YouTube Screenshot

Da 5 Bloods

Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Victoria Ngo

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time:

Rating: R for Sometimes Shocking, Sometimes Not-So-Shocking Graphic Violence

Release Date: June 12, 2020 (Netflix)

Artemis Fowl

Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Josh Gad, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG for Goofy Fantasy Action

Release Date: June 12, 2020 (Disney+)

I was so worried that I was going to spend so much of my time watching Da 5 Bloods bemoaning its lack of a theatrical release. For one thing, the event status of a Spike Lee joint is unavoidably diminished by an at-home debut, and furthermore, I was concerned that even if I was really feeling it, there would be too many distractions fighting for my attention. Regarding the former, I just had to make peace with that fact. As for the latter, I can’t tell you the last time a Netflix release pulled me in with such a firm grip and refused to let go. A prologue swoops in hard and fast with real-world contextualizing footage from the Vietnam War era: Man goes to the moon! Muhammad Ali refuses to serve! Riots at the DNC! Nguyễn Ngọc Loan is executed! If you look away for even a second, you’re going to miss something essential.

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‘Frozen II’ Only Makes Sense If You’re From Arendelle

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CREDIT: Disney

In Frozen II, Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling out to her from the forest. There’s some gee-gaw mystical explanation by the end about what that’s all about, but its ultimate purpose seems to be making her realize that she ought to be living on her own out in the forest. It’s hard not to read queer subtext into that, if you’re at all open to the possibility that there could be queer subtext in an animated Disney movie. So that’s how that goes, and meanwhile, there’s plenty more going on elsewhere, as Elsa and Anna stumble across some soldiers who have been fighting each other for decades while also trying to understand the important messages their parents have left for them. Plus, Kristoff attempts to propose to Anna while she keeps misinterpreting him in maddeningly over-the-top fashion, Olaf keeps telling us that water remembers, when ALL OF A SUDDEN, I’m so overwhelmed that I’m now doing a Phil Donahue impression (or at least an impression of Darrell Hammond’s Donahue impression). Arendelle is a busy place. Sometimes it’s exhausting.

I give Frozen II One Million Voices out of a Million and a Half Water Memories.

Movie Review: ‘A Dog’s Journey’ is Overflowing with Human Melodrama

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CREDIT: Joe Lederer/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Starring: Josh Gad, Kathryn Prescott, Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau, Abby Ryder Fortson, Ian Chen

Director: Gail Mancuso

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG for Emotional Neglect and a Car Crash

Release Date: May 17, 2019

Movies centered around dogs sound all well and good, but what we perhaps are not always as cognizant of as we should be is that these flicks often need human stories happening around the pooches. It might be natural to ask, “If I love dogs, will I love A Dog’s Journey?” Well, it turns out that is not the most relevant question, because what really matters here is your taste for melodrama.

A sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey is an extension of the narrative but also a re-do, running through the exact formula set by the original: a soul with the inner voice of Josh Gad lives a full dog life, dies, and then gets reincarnated as a new breed with a new name, but with the memories of the past lives intact. “Purpose” has been dropped from the title, because this time the pooch (who consistently knows him/herself as “Bailey” despite all the new monikers) learns his mission right from the start. His original owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid) informs Bailey that he must stay by the side of his step-granddaughter CJ (Ant-Man‘s Abby Ryder Fortson as a youngster and Kathryn Prescott as a young adult) as she navigates a rough and painful life.

And oh boy, does CJ have a tough upbringing, often comically so. Her mother Gloria (GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin) is chronically absent and frequently antagonistic to her family members. At one point, CJ comes right out and tells her, “You are literally the worst mother in the world.” Gilpin is impressively committed, but Gloria comes off as little more than a caricature. While there may be bad parents just like her in the real world, her behavior is so bizarrely motivated that it always feels like she and CJ are acting like they’re in a soap opera when everything else around them suggests verisimilitude. The ostensible appeal of a canine-based movie like A Dog’s Journey is the dog’s askew interpretations of human behavior. Those zingers are present and occasionally worth a chuckle, but the majority of the plot is overwrought human tragedy. That’s generally exhausting, though occasionally it thankfully enters the territory of self-parody.

A Dog’s Journey is Recommended If You Like: A Dog’s Purpose, Unabashed melodrama, Believing that your loved ones can be reincarnated

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Boss Dogs

This Is a Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Marshall’ is an Electric Portrait of the Supreme Court Justice as a Young NAACP Defense Lawyer

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Open Road Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens, Ahna O’Reilly

Director: Reginald Hudlin

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Dangers of Being And/Or Defending a Black Man in Mid-Century America

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Moderate)

I almost feel like it is my Professional Critical Duty to take Marshall to task for its most straightforward biopic tendencies. In that vein, while Marcus Miller’s jazzy score that just won’t quit is agreeably toe-tapping, it does indeed make it consistently clear when you are supposed to feel angry, or concerned, or shocked, or stirred to pride. But I can live with one element being on the nose, especially if it is enjoyable in and of itself. Besides, Marshall mostly sidesteps biopic clichés (save for one silly moment of epiphany). It only just superficially feels cliché because justice prevails so rousingly. But it deserves to prevail because its subject is kind of one of the best lawyers in American history.

Reginald Hudlin’s film wisely opts for the surest path to biopic success, i.e., focusing on one chapter in the subject’s life. In 1940, more than two decades before he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, and twelve years before he argued before that same court in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a lawyer working for the NAACP, whose mission was to represent wrongfully accused African Americans across the country. One of those wrongfully accused was Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, cast both for and against his type of commonly decent men), a driver for a wealthy Connecticut family on trial for raping the woman he works for (Kate Hudson). Marshall’s co-counsel is insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), but since Sam is the only one certified to practice law in the state, only he and not Thurgood can speak during the trial, thanks to the ruling of a possibly racist or perhaps just frustratingly strict judge (James Cromwell).

Marshall is not out to score liberal brownie points, though it could easily settle for that. What it is more interested in, and what makes it so valuable, is examining why systems and social norms exist, and exploiting them for the best possible solution. A man like Joseph can find himself unfairly fighting for his life not just because he is black, but also because he is not entirely innocent. He has been guilty of unfaithfulness, petty theft, and absentee parenting. None of this makes him a rapist, but it is the conflation of all crimes that has been used and continues to be used as faux justification for the endurance of institutional racism. Marshall the film, and Marshall the man, say that yes, there is racism here, but there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, judge, jury, and opposing counsel are all people, and they can be appealed to if you know how to wield the truth properly and effectively, and are willing to take a few shots from those who aren’t ready yet.

Marshall is Recommended If You Like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Conviction, Selma, 42

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Pebbles

This Is a Movie Review Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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What up with Disney ransacking its vault to remake its own animated hits into (mostly[-ish]) live-action versions? This is not an inherently bad idea. These are stories that have been told over and over (often in fairy tale form) and will continue to be told over and over, so why not spruce them up with some 21st Century Pizzazz?

What does new-flavor Beauty and the Beast offer over the 1991 toon? Belle’s an inventor, but that does not factor in too much. There is an “exclusively gay moment” for Le Fou, but it is so inconsequential that you might need a study guide to locate it (I certainly did). So ultimately, this is about some legends of acting and singing giving it a whirl. Nothing earth-shattering, but we’re in good hands.

I give Beauty and the Beast 3 Rose Petals out of 5 Snowy Days in June.

This Is a Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

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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