Mainstream

★1/2

Writer/director Gia Coppola comes from a famous family. Her aunt is Sophia Coppola of “Lost in Translation” fame. Her grandfather, Frances Ford Coppola, is one of the greatest filmmakers the world has ever seen (and he makes a good bottle of wine too).

The now-34-year-old writer/daughter exploded onto the filmmaking scene when she was 27 years old and directed “Palo Alto,” a film starring James Franco based on writings by the actor. It wasn’t a perfect film by any means but for a young filmmaker’s’ debut, it showed real promise and it currently has a 70 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t too shabby.

For her sophomore effort, Coppola has created “Mainstream,” a purposely strange film that will possibly resonate with a select few. But for this reviewer here, it was unbearable. It’s an exhausting film full of fortune cookie wisdom and a muddled message that feels about 10 years too late to the party.

The movie is the cinematic equivalent of some overly confident and overly inebriated stranger trapping you in the corner at a party and spouting some half-baked soliloquy about how we are, “All slaves to our phones, man.”

“Mainstream” is a satirical take down of Internet fame headlined by former Oscar-nominee and one-time Spider-Man Andrew Garfield. I’m not sure how I feel about Garfield as an actor. I enjoyed him in “The Social Network,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence” but he was an awful Peter Parker. Something about him just bugs me. In “Mainstream,” I think he’s supposed to be playing an incredibly annoying and unlikable character, so in that sense he’s succeeded (and the casting was spot on).

To get a sense of Garfield’s character, think YouTube star Jake Paul (who has a cameo has himself) if he was imbued with the soul of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler.”

Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman that wowed audiences in season three of the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” plays a lost, broke, twenty-something bartender who hates her job and wishes for something more in life. She stumbles upon Garfield, a goofy jester who pokes fun at mainstream society and everyone’s addiction to their phones, and befriends the enigmatic pontificator. When a video she records of him going on a nonsensical rant in a mall goes viral, she hatches a plan to turn him into an Internet sensation to solve her financial woes.

His “free yourself of your phones” schtick grows bigger and bigger and he eventually gets an agent played by Jason Schwartzman, who is Coppola’s father’s cousin in real life.

As the YouTube show grows, Garfield’s character seems to lose his way (or did he really have it to begin with?) and he becomes more obsessed with being famous rather than having something to say. Nat Wolff plays a co-writer of the YouTube show who warns about ethical concerns and how the channel has become what it once satirized.

The plot is predictable and the characters are so thinly developed that you can see right through them. The soundtrack is filled with ill-fitting music that was likely selected because it sounds young and cool but feels jarring and forced.

The acting? I can’t tell if the actors are just awful or if the screenplay and the director are to blame. Certainly Garfield, Hawke and Wolff do nothing to elevate their roles beyond the dreck written on the pages.

Garfield decides to go insanely big with the role and seems to have a blast chewing the scenery. I suppose an over-the-top performance feels appropriate but that doesn’t mean I can’t hate what he did. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Andrew Garfield’s performance could have ended up something like James Franco’s in “Spring Breakers.” Big and bold and slightly brilliant. Instead, it’s merely big.

The best thing I can say about “Mainstream” is that visually it looks just fine. Coppola has a command of the camera.

I suppose my biggest complaint about “Mainstream” is that it’s so smug and sanctimonious with a “been done before” message about social media and Internet fame.

The TV show “Black Mirror” has tackled all of these topics much more intelligently. And if you want to watch a truly great movie about a media-inspired frenzy following a false messiah then watch the 1970s classic “Network.”

Literally every character in “Mainstream” is so full of shit. And it boggles the mind that Hawke’s character would every be drawn to Garfield’s techno-prophet. Even before his character “changes,” he was unbearable.

I can’t really say I disagree with the message of this movie but it’s never really clear what the movie is trying to say. It throws more things at the wall than an elephant with a paintbrush.

If you ask Coppola what the movie is ultimately trying to say, I’m sure she would spout some pretentious nonsense like, “Well, it’s really open to interpretation from the viewer” which always feels like a cop out answer for disjointed movies that try to say too much.

The central message about people being addicted to their phones? Obvious, overdone, oversimplified and about 15 years too late.

And while I agree with the premise that people evaluate too much of their self worth based on social media, the movie itself feels so out of touch you’d think that a boomer wrote it instead of a 34-year-old. There’s no real insights and the film lacks awareness. It’s like a caveman grunting, “Phone! Bad!”

There’s real irony in the making of this movie. Garfield plays a shallow narcissist who thinks everything he says is genius and the movie itself feels like it was penned by a kindred soul.

The sad thing is I know one day I will run into someone who thinks this movie is brilliant and I’ll just smile and nod because I won’t have the energy to tell them why I hated this movie.

Was this whole movie a joke on the viewers? I think that is giving the filmmaker too much credit.

In the end, I think the main reason I hated this movie is because it feels like a half baked idea that was lazily executed. I can forgive movies that try something ambitious and brave but don’t quite stick the landing perfectly, like last year’s “Promising Young Women.” I can look past the flaws of a movie if it has something interesting to say.

But to be unenjoyable and with an uninteresting message? That’s a mortal sin.

Even at 90 minutes this film is exhausting and feels overly long. That’s not a good thing.

I cannot recommend spending money to rent this movie and when it eventually is available for free on a streaming service, keep your expectations extremely low.

Golden Arm

★★★

Sometimes you can take a comedic formula that’s been done a million times and make it feel fresh again by simply casting actors and actresses who aren’t generally known to the public.

“Golden Arm” is the kind of movie we’ve seen again and again.

It’s a silly comedy about two former college roommates who travel across the country to compete in an arm wrestling competition. One wants to get revenge against the cheating champion who broke her wrist in a previous bout. The other, an inexperienced arm wrestler with the lucky gift of a “golden arm,” wants to earn money to save her struggling bakery. And, of course, along they way they find themselves and rekindle their friendships.

Cynical critics might describe the two leads as Great Value versions of Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. One is frail and timid and nervous. The other is unapologetically brash and vulgar with mannerism that resemble Chris Farley.

But it’s easy to look beyond the cliches and the formula in “Golden Arm” and appreciate its charm, mainly because of the enthusiastic performances from leads Mary Holland and Betsy Sodoro.

Both are veterans in the improv comedy community and you might have seen them in sketches on the Web site Funny or Die or heard them play characters on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!

Holland played Jonah Ryan’s cousin/wife in the final seasons of the HBO comedy “Veep” and she just had a breakthrough performance as the strange sister in the LGBT Christmas comedy “Happiest Season” on Hulu, a movie she also co-wrote.

This time Holland mostly plays the straight man to Sodero’s wacky character. Again, Sodero is playing the kind of role we’ve seen Melissa McCarthy do again and again but Sodero is her own person and her unique vocalizations and throwaway improvisations help make the character her own.

Dot-Marie Jones, a veteran actress and weightlifter, lend her talents as a coach who teaches Holland how to be an arm wrestling champion. Interesting enough, Jones was a world champion arm wrestler in real life at age 19 and her coaching advice in the film sounds like what she would normally tell people. Jones, who was thrice-nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Coach Biest on the hit Fox show “Glee,” throws herself into her performance and the audience is a little sad that her appearance is so brief.

The biggest problem with “Golden Arm” isn’t that it’s plot is cliche and formulaic. It’s that it takes its storyline far too seriously. It tries a little too hard to make us care about the characters, their struggles and their friendship. It might have been better off just being a complete spoof of an arm wrestling movie and not take character development seriously at all.

But in the end, this is a breezy 90-minute comedy that will likely give you at least two or three audible laughs in its run time. If you’re expecting laugh-a-minute hilarity or get turned off by vulgar language, then save the $7 and don’t rent this on-demand option.

Thunder Force

★★

Normally, I’d expect a comedy like “Thunder Force” to end up in the bargain bin full of $2 movies at Wal-Mart.

The only reason that this Melissa McCarthy vehicle won’t end up with that fate is because it’s streaming exclusively on Netflix.

The comedy veteran actress is back with another comedy directed by her husband Ben Falcone. They’ve now made five movies together, all pretty much bashed by professional film critics. In 2020, they collaborated on a comedy called “Superintelligence” that premiered exclusively on HBOMax. But their three movies they made together that had theatrical runs actually made quite a bit of money, despite their disdain from movie reviewers. “Tammy” made quite a few “worst of” lists in 2014 but it made $100 million on a $20 million budget. Margins like that have kept Ben Falcone working as a director.

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s married to a two-time Oscar nominee in McCarthy. Despite the majority of her leading roles being dubbed as “rotten” by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, McCarthy’s movies (for the most part) make money.

McCarthy has been at her funniest when she’s in films directed by Paul Feig, such as “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy” and “Ghostbusters,” all of which are “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.

With Falcone? Not so much.

But with “Thunder Force,” I actually think it’s her funniest collaboration with her husband. That’s not saying much though.

Basically, the premise of this film is: “What if two plus-sized middle aged women became superheroes?” The idea came from the fact that McCarthy and Falcone have been longtime friends with Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer. They’ve known each other back when Spencer was waiting tables and McCarthy was doing improv.

It’s actually refreshing to see two women like McCarthy and Spencer as the leads for a movie like this. Both worked in Hollywood for many years, taking small bit roles before their big breaks. They aren’t the kinds of actresses that usually earn such stardom and they both seem quite likable.

And it’s refreshing because we have larger women who don’t fit into the usual ideas of what a female superhero should look like and the movie itself isn’t just a bunch of fat jokes. In a way, it’s a body-positive kind of movie.

The story itself isn’t anything to rave about. The world has been ravaged by genetic mutations that create superpowers, but only in individuals with sociopathic tendencies. They’ve been termed “miscreants” and it’s a world with all villains but no heroes.

Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Spencer) are friends who have been estranged but reunite decades later. Emily was the smart one in school who has been determined to create a way for ordinary, good-hearted people to develop superpowers after her parents are killed by the miscreants. She brushes off Lydia, the loud and crazy one, because she thinks she’s holding her back from her life’s purpose.

Lydia surprises Emily at her lab one night and accidentally gets injected the super-serum that is finally complete, giving Lydia super strength. Quickly moving on from any anger and frustration, Emily trains Lydia and then eventually gives herself the power of invisibility. They team up to fight super powered bad guys in Chicago. Yada, yada, yada.

Pretty standard stuff. It’s definitely better than superhero comedies like “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” “Blank Man” or “Meteor Man” but not as zany or lovable as “Mystery Men,” “Super” or “Shazam!”

The problem with most comedies about superheroes is that the studios feel the need to fill it with action sequences and special effects take away time for funny jokes. The action sequences aren’t as good as a regular superhero movie and the jokes aren’t as good as any usual comedy. Same can be said for action comedies like “Date Night” or “The Lovebirds.”

The special effects in “Thunder Force” are not amazing and I gained nothing from watching the action sequences.

There are a few moments that are worth a few laughs in “Thunder Force.” Jason Bateman steals every scene he’s in while playing The Crab, a hilariously bad villain with giant crab claws for hands. It’s such a stupid role that after they introduced him I was sure that he’d only be in it for five minute. But he kept showing up! I have to admit that I became more interested when he was on screen. Yes, it’s dumb. But sometimes you need that to coax a few laughs out of an otherwise mediocre comedy.

McCarthy is relegated to playing the slob character again, a variation on a role she’s played too many times before. It just doesn’t pack the same punch anymore.

Spencer is in most of the movie as the co-lead, but basically plays the serious one and doesn’t get anything funny or challenging to do. She’s either reacting to something that McCarthy does or she’s explaining something science-y. Many of her lines are just explaining the plot. She’s given a daughter to try to give her character some depth but it feels rather tacked on.

Bobby Cannavale, who usually impresses in everything he does, isn’t that great as the villain. He’s cartoonish, but not cartoonish enough, if that makes sense. He would have been better off if he overacted and went overboard. Apparently he’s married to Rose Byrne, who’d been in a few comedies with McCarthy and they’re friends, so that explains why he agreed to be in this.

In the end, if you can’t stand Melissa McCarthy, this movie won’t convert you into a follower. If you like her work, you know what to expect and will probably be mildly amused. Very mildly.

“Thunder Force” isn’t something I’d venture to a movie theater to see but if you’re bored and need something to watch, it’ll be good distraction in the background as you fold laundry. You might even laugh once or twice like I did. But I’ll probably forget about this movie all together rather quickly.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

★★★

It’s always impressive to see an actor or actress take a mediocre script and elevate it to new heights with a transcendent performance.

It’s even more remarkable when the actor or actress is making their feature film debut.

R&B singer Andra Day is the perfect person to take on “Lady Day” Billie Holiday the new biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which is free to stream right now with a Hulu subscription. And it’s not just her similar surname that creates that connection.

She channels the legendary blues singer as if she were possessed by her spirit. She nails the emotion and the singing voice in a way that even surpasses previous portrayals of the iconic star (Diana Ross was nominated for an Oscar for playing Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald won a Tony and was nominated for an Emmy for playing her as well).

Unfortunately, Andra Day’s Golden-Globe-nominated performance is trapped inside of a mediocre film that is disjointed, unfocused and at times cliche. She deserves better and it’s a shame.

It’s a surprise that the screenplay is so weak considering it’s helmed by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Apparently Parks should stick to the stage instead of the big screen (her filmography is less than stellar and her biggest movie is “Girl 6,” one of Spike Lee’s lowest rated films).

Parks focuses on the last 10 years of Holiday’s life when the singer’s voice became hard and raspy, as did her guarded demeanor.

Even though they don’t tell Holiday’s entire life story it feels like this movie tried to tackle too much and sometimes doesn’t know what it wants to be. At times, it’s a political drama and other times it’s a story about drug abuse. It’s even a love story in parts.

During this decade, Holiday is already addicted to heroine and the FBI has targeted her because they feel her song “Strange Fruit” — which is about lynchings in the South — is dangerous and must be stopped. The government sends undercover FBI agents to nail her on bloated up drug charges to silence her Civil Rights credibility.

It’s the third film this awards season to focus on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI targeting and discrediting black activists, following the documentary “MLK/FBI,” and the excellent film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” In this Billie Holiday biopic, the FBI is treated like a cartoonish super villain, lacking the subtlety and complexity in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I almost expected Garrett Hedlund’s agent to twirl a handlebar mustache like he was Snidely Whiplash.

Parks gives considerable screen time to a romance subplot featuring Holiday and the black FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes of “Moonlight” in a disappointingly flat performance). I looked it up and this romance is actually based in factual events but the way it’s written in the movie you would bet big money that it was fictionalized and contrived in order to create a narrative for the film.

Therein lies the biggest problem with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” While the events in the film are factually accurate, it fails to feel real or authentic. That’s because too many lines in the movie are meant to just set up background information that the audience might not have or emphasize the themes of the work. Subtlety is not present in this movie.

Characters recite lines that no actual human would utter, like, “You can’t sing ‘Strange Fruit.’ Don’t you know that the government doesn’t want you singing that song because it brings up uncomfortable truths about our society nowadays?” OK, that literal line isn’t spoken, but it’s not far from what is actually written.

I’m reminded of another awards contender this year in “Nomadland,” in which Frances McDormand’s character doesn’t have to give a big speech about her inner monologue because it’s all shown in the expressions on her face. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they don’t give Andra Day that same luxury and instead feed her clunky lines in which she emotionally vomits up every single feeling.

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, a former Best Director nominee at the Oscars for “Precious: based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Daniels’ work. His film “The Paperboy” was one of the worst to come out that year. I saw not much more than melodramatic Oscar bait in his foray into political history with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (an unfortunate and arrogant title due to a lawsuit from another film called ‘The Butler.’) I even think “Precious” is a little over the top.

But Lee Daniels’ real strength might be that as a producer rather than a director. He’s responsible for hit TV shows like “Empire” and every single of his movies — even the bad ones — are full of amazing acting performances. He absolutely knows how to cast a film and put the right actors in the right place to succeed (the one exception would be his presidential portrayals in “The Butler.” I mean, John Cusack as Nixon?! C’mon!).

Lee Daniels nails the casting by selecting little-known singer Andra Day for the lead. She is a revelation. It’s another example of an amazing acting performance in an average-to-weak biopic. We saw it last year with Renee Zellweger in “Judy” and a few years back with Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” Both took him Oscars for their performances while the movies themselves were not nominated.

Previously I said that Andra Day was better than Diana Ross and that might song like sacrilege but it’s true. Although it’s been many years since I’ve seen 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” I never felt that Diana Ross became Billie Holiday. Her voice wasn’t as raspy (although she was playing a younger version) and I still saw Diana Ross on the screen.

Perhaps it’s because Day was unknown to me before but I really felt she inhabited this character. Her singing performances are mesmerizing and as a result Daniels inserts many, many on-stage songs throughout the film. Almost too many. There was one point where we see a three-minute performance at Carnegie Hall and then after a minute and half of story in between we get another three minutes of her singing in a smoky jazz club. It was a bit much.

There are many aspects of Holiday’s life that they barely touch on. Unlike biopics like “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” this film doesn’t feel the need to start at childhood and reenact every single event in her life. That’s a good thing though. Some audiences might be disappointed that more screen time isn’t given to the sexual relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead. Although I was confused by Natasha Lyonne’s almost-British accent while playing the Alabama-born actress.

There are moments of brilliance in Lee Daniels movie but unfortunately they are quickly followed by scene so trite and cliche that it feels like a moment from the biopic-parody-comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if Tim Meadows offered her heroine.

Despite all of these flaws in screenplay and direction, Andra Day is so very good that she nearly erases any missteps. I hope she continues to act in feature films and next time gets a chance to work with a stronger script.

We Bare Bears: The Movie


★★★1/2

Full length movies based on animated TV series are usually somewhat of a letdown. Often, they feel like just long episodes of the TV show and don’t warrant a trip to the movie theater unless you’re dying to get your kids out of the house.

TV series like “Rugrats,” “Hey Arnold,” “Doug,” “Teen Titans,” “Spongebob Squarepants,” “My Little Pony,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “The Simpsons” and more have all debuted in movies theaters and none of them were particularly special. “South Park” might be one of the few to actually break new ground with a feature length debut.

“We Bare Bears” has had a nice four-season run on Cartoon Network, telling the endearing and zany tales of three bear roommates in the San Francisco Bay area: a panda, a grizzly bear and a polar bear. It’s filled with jokes that children wouldn’t get about food trucks, hipster culture, viral videos and obscure movie references. It’s built up a cult following among adults who enjoy cartoons but it’s never inappropriate for young children. There’s nothing vulgar or obscene hinted at in this sweet natured TV series that actually shows up under kids’ choices in the Netflix categories.

Creator Daniel Chong has directed a 70-minute feature to serve as the series finale of the beloved show, which was released as a rental option during the pandemic and is now free to stream on HBO Max. The plan is to launch is spinoff series about the three bears as young children, which we’ve seen in the series before during flashback episodes.

The feature-length movie doesn’t fall under “must watch” territory and owning a DVD/Blu-Ray copy would only be needed for huge fans of the show, but given that there are so many terrible kids movies that bore parents to tears while entertaining only the littlest children, this is a welcome respite from the “Trolls: World Tour”s of the world.

While you don’t have to have seen the series to enjoy this movie, there a few minor references to recurring characters from the show, such as Nom Nom, the arrogant koala who is Internet famous and voiced by Patton Oswalt, and Charlie, the Bigfoot-like creature voiced by Jason Lee.

The plot of this movie is pretty simple. The entire town has grown weary of the three bears’ antics and an overzealous wildlife officer (voiced by Mark Evan Jackson, who you might know as Shawn from “The Good Place” or Kevin on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) decides to lock them up in a bear sanctuary. The three escape and go on a high speed road trip as they try to find refuge in Canada. Hijinks ensue along the way, including a hilarious detour as the stumble upon a viral video animal rave, featuring such luminaries as pizza rat, Doge the Shiba Inu, Grumpy Cat and Lil’ Bub.

The three bears are voiced by comedians Eric Edelstein, Bobby Moynihan and Demetri Martin. For those that haven’t seen the show, you’ll enjoy the distinct personalities of each one and likely will want to watch the series after checking out this movie.

I have to knock a few points off because a few jokes don’t land, such as the road trip song they sing. And yes there are episodes that a lot funnier than this movie.

But the movie really distills the themes of the TV series. It’s about friendship and acceptance and being there for people.

I probably laughed more at this silly cartoon than many comedies aimed at adults. If you already subscribe to HBO Max, it’s worth a watch.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar


★★★★

Good comedy isn’t meant for everyone.

It’s nearly impossible to create an incredibly funny movie or TV show that is universally loved by everyone. That’s because if you focus-test something to death and make it easily accessible with jokes that everyone can get, you lose a lot of the humor.

That’s been the issue with “Saturday Night Live” sometimes. They focus so much on characters with catch phrases and easy-to-predict punchlines that there’s no daring or risk. It often just boils down to a funny voice.

I’ve always been more of a fan of edgier sketch comedy like “Mr. Show,” “Kids in the Hall,” “Human Giant” and “Upright Citizens Brigade.” When I do like “Saturday Night Live,” my favorites are the sketches that air right before 1 a.m. The throwaway, weird, bizarre stuff that makes you say, “What the heck was that?!”

Kristen Wiig became a household name on “Saturday Night Live” doing funny voices and repeating characters again and again.

In 2011, Wiig, along with comedian Annie Mumolo, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Bridesmaids.” Now she reteams with her co-writer (who also stars alongside her this time) in the female-friendship comedy “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”

The trailers for this movie told us virtually nothing except that it was a comedy about two middle-aged women with strong Midwestern accents who go on a trip to Florida. They’re adorned with seashell necklaces. They wear culottes and have hairdos that make you think their names might be “Karen.”

At first, you might think these are the same broad, irritating characters that “Saturday Night Live” would repeat to death. Like Target Lady or Coffee Talk.

But what we discover is the screenwriting duo has veered into more adventurous territory and this movie’s DNA is more aligned with the last 30 minutes of an episode of SNL rather than the first few sketches. It’s a strange and silly movie with bizarre moments that make it destined to find cult comedy status in the near future. It’s the kind of movie you watch by yourself on cable late one night after a few drinks and you laugh your butt off alone. You run out and buy a copy to show a sibling or a friend, only to see them sit there in silence wondering why you found this so funny.

This is the definition of niche comedy. It is not for everyone.

Personally, I immensely enjoyed this scatterbrained romp because it surprised me at times. Maybe I had low expectations, but when a talking blue crab has the voice of Morgan Freeman, I can’t help but laugh.

The movie tells the story of two unmarried middle aged friends, Star (Wiig) and Barb (Mumolo, who you might remember as the dim-witted housewife in “Bad Moms”),  who spend every waking moment together. When they lose their job at Jennifer Convertibles, they decide to shake up their routine and try to rediscover that “shimmer” that’s been lost since they’ve aged and lost their husbands. So they go on a trip to this fictional resort town to drink cocktails with tiny umbrellas, ride on a banana boat and get matching friendship bracelets.

Their plans are upended by a spy subplot that is so ridiculous that it makes “Zoolander” look ultra realistic. Wiig doubles up her acting credit by also playing the albino-skinned cartoonish super villain who orders her man-slave, played by Jamie Dornan, of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” to implement her ridiculously silly terrorist attack on the quiet beachside town.

What you end up with is an uneven comedy with lots of jokes that don’t land particularly well. But given the rapid fire succession of gags, there are quite a few chuckles though. I’m sure movie producers would have loved this screenwriting duo to create another massive hit like “Bridesmaids” but what they’ve churned out instead is more like “MacGruber,” “Hot Rod,” “Pop Star” or “Wet Hot American Summer.” Even if COVID didn’t exist, this one would likely be discovered more on rental than in the theaters.

Some characters are unnecessary, such as Damon Wayans Jr.  playing a not-so-secret agent or Andy Garcia as the literal embodiment of Tommy Bahama. Some jokes are so stupid your eyes will roll, such as riffing on how great the name Trish is. And the runtime is probably too long at nearly two hours.

Despite all of its flaws, it’s hard to not like a movie that’s so insanely positive. These two might have “Karen” haircuts, but they never ask for an manager. They’re loving and supportive and enthusiastic. This PG-13 comedy never relies on gross out humor, political jabs or racist stereotypes for shock factor. Besides a few subtle sex jokes, it’s pretty wholesome.

It’s the kind of “girls night” movie that would be perfect for a Galentine’s Day celebration. Like a middle-aged, less fashionable version of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

Judas and the Black Messiah


★★★★

The story of the Black Panther Party is a perfect example of how our high school history books don’t always tell the whole story.

Vilified by white audiences and portrayed as militant, radical and violent — especially compared to the more peaceful civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. — the Black Panther Party doesn’t always come off great in historical accounts.

Shaka King’s new feature film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (available in theaters and on HBO MAX on Feb. 12) attempts to show the other side of the Black Panther Party that wasn’t known to many people, especially white audiences. They show the political leaders uniting hispanics and poor whites to create a “rainbow coalition.” They show free lunches and educational seminars.

And yes, the movie portrays the Black Panthers taking it too far and committing violence against the police.

The honest “warts and all” depiction is led with masterful sincerity by former Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred Hampton (recently portrayed by a different actor in “Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Kaluuya shines with oratorical brava but it’s really an ensemble film that touches on a variety of perspectives. Underrated actor Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a thief turned FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers. Jesse Plemons (also underrated) melts into his character as Agent Mitchell, a conflicted soul who’s somewhat prejudice but not full of the hate spewing from his boss J. Edger Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, who unfortunately has too much makeup and prosthetics on).

One scene in particular between Plemons and Sheen is quite powerful, exemplifying how the government wasn’t content with just locking up Hampton in jail to silence them, they were going to turn him into a martyr with actions that can’t really described any other way rather than assassination.

Given all we know about Hoover, it’s shocking that we still have government buildings named after him.

The only downside to this film is it often feels like a collections of sketches rather than a cohesive narrative flowing from one scene into another. But when you have powerhouse acting from three of the most underrated young talents in Hollywood, any minor quibbles can be overlooked.

Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director who serves as a producer on this movie, said “Judas and the Black Messiah” can be greater appreciated when you consider the context of today’s events.

“The people that were responsible for this, a lot of them are still alive,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “These ideas are still ever-present, these systems that Chairman was fighting for to be demolished — the constant attacks on poor people, on black people — those systems are still here. We’re still fighting the same beast, we’re still fighting the same monsters, we are still fighting the same system, you know, and they haven’t gone anywhere.”

Which brings up the question: who is the monster here? Who is the villain of the movie?

Is it the undercover rat betraying the Panthers? Is it the FBI agent? Or is it the system itself that seems to perpetuate?

This intense drama brings up a lot of bigger themes about racism and government overreach but what I was most fascinated with is the relationship and conflict between these imperfect souls doing what they think is best. Nobody is 100 percent evil or 100 percent good in this tale and that makes it interesting and real. Despite the title referring to religious overtones, this movie isn’t an allegory. It’s more complicated than dealing with broad archetypes.

It’s a story about the late 1960s but it’s also a story about today. About struggle, both societal and internal. I suspect only those with truly closed minds will fail to get at least something from Shaka King’s electrifyingly suspenseful drama.

The Last Blockbuster

★★1/2

If you’re older than 25, you probably have fond memories of visiting your local video rental store on a Friday night. Spending 45 minutes browsing the aisles to find the perfect movie to rent and then picking up a pizza to head home. Maybe it was a first date in high school. Maybe it was a father and his kids bonding while mom had to work late. Maybe you just got dumped and you were going to drown your sorrows in romantic comedies.

Going to a video store was a fond memory for many, many people.

And for most people, it was often a Blockbuster Video.

That’s because Blockbuster — once purchased for $9.5 billion by Viacom — was everywhere. It ran mom and pop video stores out of business by negotiating deals directly with movie studios that made it unable for the little guy to compete. It was said at one point that a new Blockbuster location opened every 17 hours.

And something that huge and everywhere is no more. The company went bankrupt when it was unable to compete with streaming companies (more on that in a minute) and stores closed nationwide.

But there’s still one location — just one — left in the United States in Bend, Oregon. You might have read about them in The New York Times or saw a profile on CNN or Fox News. It’s the kind of quirky news that media love to report on.

The new documentary “The Last Blockbuster” (ironically available by streaming) gives an up close look at the rise and fall of the video company, complete with talking head celebrities who once worked at Blockbuster locations themselves (like comedians Doug Benson and Ron Funches and actors Adam Brody and Jamie Kennedy). But the real heart of the documentary is the focus on the manager of the last location, a woman named Sandi Harding who isn’t a massive film buff but instead is a hard working, customer-service-oriented “mom” who won’t give up even when the writing is on the wall. She’s kind of an inspiration, in many ways.

Director Taylor Morden and writer Zeke Kamm do a great job of putting the human emotion into this story, following Sandi as she purchases DVDs at Target when a customer requests something, stocking up on boxes of Airhead candies at Sams Club and physically opening up the 1990s Blockbuster computer system (still loaded with floppy discs) to repair the check-in/check-out system. She grills burgers for her longtime patrons and has employed nearly every teenager in their small Pacific-Northwest town.

The documentary itself sometimes over-romanticizes the days of video rental and relies too much on talking heads. At 88 minutes, it feels overly long and there are inconsequential sequences that probably should have been cut but were likely left in to beef up the running time, including a long scene with comedian Doug Benson browsing the store and texting his fellow comedian friends.

The nostalgia well starts to run dry way before the credits start to roll. It’s a feel good movie but even movie lovers like myself will feel like it was spinning its wheels a bit much.

But there are two big things I took away from this movie (and a good documentary either teaches me something or makes me think about life in a different way).

First is a business lesson. Blockbuster didn’t just simply die because Netflix came around. If you remember, Blockbuster tried to launch its own service similar to Netflix, with movies available by mail and you could pick them up at kiosks or in stores too. They even had streaming available (through Cable companies not smartphone apps) before Netflix did. But the reason Blockbuster died is because they didn’t have any capital to expand their streaming options. They borrowed and borrowed and when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the traditional financial leaders weren’t interested in investing in a declining corporation saddled with debt. Netflix — which offered to sell to Blockbuster for $50 million early on but was turned down — was the darling of West Coast investors and had money to get them through several years in the red (the company wasn’t profitable for a long time since costs were so high).  Now Netflix’s profits have tripled in the last three years and their margins look good, even as they continue to invest hundreds of millions in buying or creating new content. Blockbuster could have easily buried Netflix but they didn’t have the capital. They waited too long to adjust to the future.

Second thing I thought long and hard about after watching this documentary is how an abundance of options doesn’t make us any happier. We have every movie available at our fingertips. We don’t have to drive to a store and pay late fees. We can watch whatever we want. But we don’t appreciate movies as much as we used to. When we only were able to watch a movie every once and a while, it was a treat and even a bad movie was fun.

This is detailed by many psychological studies, most notably by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More.” He notes that when given a million options, we take longer to decide and we end up less satisfied with the choice we eventually make, ultimately nit-picking and looking for negatives because we keep thinking about the other options that could have been available.

I would also add that the effort that it takes to go to a movie theater or a Blockbuster video make the joy of watching a movie feel like more of an event compared to streaming something on Netflix on your phone. You’re more likely to watch the movie all of the way through even if it’s not great because of the time and money you put into it.

Video stores aren’t the only things we might see become scarce or non-existent. Younger audiences go to movie theaters less and less and would prefer watching something at home, even though us old farts still say it’s better to watch it on a big screen surrounded by people (home TVs are pretty big now though). During the pandemic, more movies went immediately to streaming and that might be the future, with movie theaters becoming a niche thing for certain audiences. You might see restaurants decrease their dine-in space as more and more people choose DoorDash or GrubHub even when the pandemic ends. Keep in mind that these services didn’t really exist about a decade or more ago. Things change quickly. Will there always be a few fancy restaurants and neighborhood pubs to provide social gatherings? Absolutely. But you’ll find that restaurants will have smaller dine-in spaces and might even move to lower rent areas with less visibility if the bulk of their money is coming from delivery. And the physical DVD/Blu-Ray? I’m already mocked by younger consumers for still purchasing physical movies since everything is eventually available to stream. They will probably end up like CD’s and be on their way to extinction.

Do I want to cling to the past? Maybe a little but I understand these changes.

I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to ordering carryout or watching “Wonder Woman 1984” at time rather than a theater. It’s just easier. But easier isn’t always better and I guess my point is to remember those “event experiences” we used to have and try to seek them out in places where they still exist. Maybe it isn’t going to a movie theater or renting a movie in person, but live theater and live concerts should still be sought out. And even if you’re streaming a movie at home with carryout food, you can still make it feel special. You can set up your dining room table and put the cell phones in a drawer. I guess my point is instead of just consume, consume, consume, we need to take the time to stop and savor sometimes. That’s what this documentary made me reflect on.

Earwig and the Witch

Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, having produced such beloved films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning classic “Spirited Away,” all directed by co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.

My two-year-old daughter is a big fan of three of Miyazaki’s movies in particular: “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” also all directed by Miyazaki. The other night she was running around with her play broom, pretending to be flying like Kiki, the young witch.

As a parent, I’m always looking for quality-made animated films and shows that I can watch with my daughter and I won’t be bored out of my mind. Studio Ghibli films can vary in quality when it comes to plot/story but the animation is always gorgeous to look at and the score, often composed by Joe Hisaishi, is consistently beautiful. Sometimes we even tell Alexa to play songs by him in order to relax us to sleep.

Now, the famed studio has its newest feature film available on HBO MAX, called “Earwig and the Witch.” It premiered on Japanese TV in late December and is just now available for North American audiences with an English dub. It’s directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of the acclaimed co-founder, and it is the studio’s first attempt at a three-dimensional computer animated film as opposed to flat hand drawn animation.

The newest offering is a complete swing and miss for older viewers. Some younger kids might like it but even my daughter started asking me to put on a different cartoon.

Simply put, it’s not up to the standards established by Studio Ghibli.

It’s the story of a young girl witch, left on the door step of an orphanage as a newborn, only to later be adopted by a strange magical couple. Oh, and there’s a talking black cat too. Sounds awfully like “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

It’s based on a novel by Diana Wynn Jones, who also wrote the book for “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and it seems like Goro is trying hard to copy his father’s previous efforts but seems to miss the magic and charm of his dad’s movies.

The biggest sin of “Earwig and the Witch” is that it’s ugly to look at. The cheap-looking computer animation looks more like “Cocomelon” than anything done by Pixar (or even Dreamworks for that matter…).

Some people have argued that “Earwig and the Witch” makes a case that hand-drawn animation is superior than working solely with computers but I disagree. Films like “Soul” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” prove otherwise.

The expressionless faces in “Earwig and the Witch” actually look a lot like the generic avatars you created when the Nintendo Wii was launched in 2006.

I understand that the budget might have been smaller because it’s a TV movie, but the animation seems to lack creativity.

Studio Ghibli recently created candy for the eye with the interesting rough sketches in “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2013 or the simplistic figures in “The Red Turtle” in 2016, both nominated for Oscars. To release this newest effort under the studio’s name feels more like a favor to the founder’s son rather than a production to be proud of.

I hate to sound like a snob when it comes to the look of animation, but it does matter. Animation can be an art form. My wife laughs when I complain about the cheap animation in the PBS cartoon “Dinosaur Train.”

But it’s important to have something interesting to look at. My daughter and I love watching “Hilda” or “Puffin Rock” on Netflix, the latter of which was created by the same people who directed the amazing-looking animated films “The Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers.”

Maybe Goro just isn’t as good as his father. His previous two films, “Tales from Earthsea” in 2006 and “From Up on Poppy Hill” in 2011 are often panned by Studio Ghibli fan who sometimes bring up his strained relationship with his father.

For loves of Studio Ghibli there is good news on the horizon though: Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement to direct the film “How Do You Live,” which is currently under production and is expected to come out in 2021 or 2022 (no date yet).

I guess we’ll just have to wait for daddy to restore the glory.

Soul

★★★★★

Probably the biggest question one could answer is: “What is the meaning of life?”

It’s a riddle that all forms of artwork have attempted to solve. The novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” joked that the answer is 42, as if it were like solving a math problem.

But should we be surprised that Pixar, the animation giant behind “Up,” “Inside Out, “Toy Story” and “WALL-E,” is the movie studio that actually comes closest to answering this question?

Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” was released on Disney+ on Christmas Day after being delayed from its summer release due to COVID-19.

In that time during the delay, hundreds of thousands of people have died. Many have lost their jobs or their businesses and have spent the past few months contemplating what their purpose is on this Earth. And the movie came out on a day — Christmas — in which people would usually gather with dozens of relatives to exchange gifts. This year, many didn’t travel to see their families at all.

It seems fitting that “Soul” was not just released on Christmas, but this Christmas, the year of this horrible pandemic. It’s a movie that not only deals with death and the afterlife (similar to “Coco”) but it also deals with what makes us who we are (similar to “Inside out.”)

The end result might be Pixar’s boldest, most experimental and most artistic output. It might be the best movie released in 2020. It certainly was the one we needed and it left me and my wife in tears for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.

First off, this movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, an aspiring jazz pianist who is stuck (at least in his mind) as a middle school band teacher. He wishes he could be touring and playing in night clubs and doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he can help mold the minds of students. He’s singularly focused on what his purpose is in life and he’s convinced it is music.

He’s finally landed his career-changing gig when he quickly falls into a manhole and ends up as a pastel blob floating above an escalator to The Great Beyond. He’s fearful of death, not because he’s worried about Heaven or Hell, but because he isn’t satisfied with the life he left behind. He feels he never truly achieved his life’s goal and he has to go back. He has unfinished business.

The metaphysical animation depicting the escalator to the afterlife is dark and abstract with sharp white lines all shooting out of the sky. It’s the most daring piece of animation that Pixar has created and it’s scored by the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross. The former NIN frontman has impressed with film scores in the past, mostly with David Fincher, such as “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank.” Instead of relying on his past collaborator in Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, co-director Pete Docter went the industrial route but still has emphasized the importance of a good soundtrack. The jazz music on Earth is composed by Jon Batiste, the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Batiste scores a stunning piano finale.

Joe Gardner finds himself in The Great Before, a land where souls are created before they are sent into newly born bodies. The multi-ethnic, accented leaders-in-charge are two-dimensional Picasso-like drawings that all call themselves Jerry. It’s very trippy and looks like it could have been conceived by Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick or Charlie Kaufman.

Gardner is teamed up with an unborn soul, simply named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has yet to find her spark despite the guidance from hundreds of famous mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Carl Jung and more. Soul 22 worries that she might not actually be great at any one thing in life.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot, but the adventure eventually moves to Earth and the story moves quickly and with conviction. The movie never feels like it’s wandering or spinning its wheels. Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, is at the helm and he knows what he’s doing (having previously directed “Monsters Inc,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”)

You can tell the team behind this movie has read a lot of books on philosophy and apparently the story had numerous drafts before they landed on this tale. It was originally a heist film set entirely in the metaphysical realm, but I think Pixar made the right decision to set some scenes on Earth to show that life is worth living.

Joining Docter for co-director and co-writer duties is Kemp Powers, an exciting new voice in cinema. This is actually only the second movie that Powers has worked on, the other being a 2020 Oscar contender with “One Night in Miami,” the drama he wrote based on his own play. That movie is only out in select cities, but it’s very good as well. Powers, a graduate of Howard University, is the first African American director of a Pixar movie and this movie that has Pixar’s first African American lead character. While this is historic, it never feels like forced diversity or pandering. They never hit you over the head with it and the producers brought in experts to make sure the African American experience is told authentically.

Powers is 48 years old but he’s a relative newcomer to Hollywood. He wrote a short film in 2012 and wrote a few episodes of the TV series “Star Trek Discovery,” but his IMDB profile is very slim. He’ll be a household name soon with at least one Oscar under his belt come 2021 (he will likely get nominated in both Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories and “Soul” is a lock to win Best Animated Feature and might get strong consideration for Best Picture too).

I think what I love most about “Soul” is the questions it asks and the unconventional viewpoints it takes. Most movies, especially those aimed at children, talk about finding your destiny or your purpose in life. They talk about if you really love something and have a dream that you should never give that dream up and pursue it to the bitter end. “Follow your dreams” is repeated over and over again. But what if you don’t actually achieve the dream you had as a child? Does that mean you had a failed life? What if you finally get to do your dream and it doesn’t make you happy? What if you don’t have any dreams? What if there’s not one big thing that you’re passionate about?

Just like Docter taught children in “Inside Out” that it was OK to feel sad at times, he’s teaching adults in “Soul” that it’s OK to feel lost at times, wondering what your purpose is in life.

In the end, the movie preaches appreciating the simple things in life, like eating a slice of pizza or looking up at the sky.

Pixar did something really risky with “Soul.” They aimed it more at adults than children.

There likely won’t be many action figures or merchandise from this movie. It won’t be the cash cow such as “Cars” or “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles.” There won’t be kids’ sleeping bags depicting Joe Gardner playing in a jazz club.

This movie isn’t a babysitter for your kids for two hours. They might get bored. Many certainly won’t understand it. It’s not as funny or lighthearted as Pixar’s other offerings.

But if you were moved to tears by the opening scene in “Up.” If you marveled at the artistic silence that was the first half of “WALL-E.” If you appreciated the deeper themes in “Inside Out” and “Coco,” then this movie is for you.

I’ve always been frustrated that Pixar was afraid to embrace the true artistry in their movies. “Up” is a genius movie at first. It makes you cry and tells a real story about loss and regret because embarking on a colorful adventure with balloons in the sky. But for me, the movie loses its appeal when it turns into a story about talking dogs and giant birds. The same for “WALL-E.” I loved the quiet storytelling between WALL-E and Eve, but when Jeff Garlin is running around the spaceship, I lose interest.

I get it. These are kids movies.

But maybe we’re underestimating children.

My daughter is only two. She was already asleep when we put on “Soul,” but I don’t think she’ll understand what is going on. She mostly watches Peppa Pig. But for older children — I’d say seven years old and up — this movie could speak to them.

Fred Rogers said that children’s entertainment shouldn’t be just meant to babysit your kid. It should teach and inspire. Movies can say something in a way that you and I might not be able to. It can teach children lessons.

I once met an addiction counselor who was an alcoholic herself. She was telling me that she grew up in an abusive household and was in and out of the foster care system and never truly felt loved or accepted. When she was a young girl, she watched the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and saw the Island of Misfit Toys. She looked up at the TV screen and said, “Finally, there’s a place for me!” It broke my heart to imagine this young girl who felt so lost. But it spoke to me about the power that a cartoon can have to inspire a child.

“Soul” is a movie that might inspire a lost soul, someone who works 60 hours a week at a job they hate, someone who is so obsessed with their passion that they lose sight of the world around them, someone who doesn’t know what they’re good at. We just have to take the time to look around and enjoy a slice of pizza. Is there really anything more you need in life?

Usually, you need a few tissues handy when you watch a Pixar movie. This time, grab the whole box.

My wife and I hugged each other after watching this movie. We both had a tough year during this pandemic. We looked over at our daughter, slumped over asleep, and we knew that it doesn’t matter what we do for a job or if we make our mark on history.

On Christmas Eve, after I just spent a very long day working at the restaurant I co-own with my parents, I came home to watch a movie with my wife and daughter before bed. As we were struggling to put our daughter to sleep, the most gorgeous snow began to fall on the ground. My daughter stood up and went to the glass sliding door and pressed her hands up and looked outside at our dim backyard with white flakes catching the light as they fell. It was beautiful and it might be one of my favorite memories from this Christmas.

It doesn’t matter what we buy or what we do. It’s moments like snow falling on a beautiful night. That’s what life is about.