REVIEW: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (2021)

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It seems I always feel the need to qualify any review I write for an animated feature. I’ve admitted countless times that I’m not an animated movie connoisseur. But when animated movies resonate with me they usually REALLY resonate. Such is the case with Netflix’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”, a wacky, high-energy, and at times surprisingly tender movie about an everyday family and the disconnect that sometimes takes place between parents and their children. What can I say…I loved it.

There is some really impressive talent behind “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”. It’s comes from Sony Pictures Animation (who sold the film to Netflix for around $100 million) and is produced by none other than Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, big names who had their hands in huge hits like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “The LEGO Movie” (full disclosure – I wasn’t as smitten with “Spider-Verse” as most but I loved “LEGO”). It’s directed by Mike Rianda (who also co-writes with Jeff Rowe) and it’s topped off by a really good cast.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The Mitchells are a fairly ordinary family of four who love each other but find themselves in a rut. Over the years a chasm has grown between oldest child Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her father Rick (Danny McBride). The two have a relationship littered with great memories of a doting father and a daddy’s girl. But lately the two seem on opposite ends of a widening generation gap and they can’t seem to connect or communicate the way they once did. Katie’s mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) tries her best to be peacemaker, but both father and daughter seem to have forgotten the bond that once bound them.

You could say Katie is a bit of an outsider. Her dinosaur-loving kid brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda) gets her, but no one else does either in school or at home. She finds refuge in her creative spirit, namely in making short films for her YouTube channel. A movie geek at heart, Katie aspires to be a director and her acceptance into film school in Los Angeles brings her closer to her dream. It also gets her far away from home which has become a top priority.

Rick’s skepticism of Katie’s career choice leads to yet another daddy/daughter spat on the night before she departs for California. In a well-meaning effort to patch things up, Rick cancels Katie’s flight to LA (gulp!) and decides to take the family on a cross-country trip for some needed together-time before dropping Katie off at school. Much to Katie’s chagrin, the Mitchells and their wild-eyed pug Monchi load up their burnt orange 1993 family station wagon and head out for the West Coast. Little do they know their greatest family challenge awaits – the machine apocalypse!

Now tell me if you’ve ever heard a better sales pitch than this – distinguished Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman leads a “Terminator”-like machine uprising to take over the world. I mean that’s something that sells itself! Coleman plays a Siri-like artificial intelligence holding a grudge after her Silicon Valley creator (Eric André) dumps her for his company’s hot new robot tech. So she takes control of his robots and everything else electronic in the world from toasters to an army of Furbies.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

All of that is hilarious on the surface but it’s also a key part of the film’s playful critique of today’s tech-dependent society. Several well-placed subtle jabs land throughout the movie but there are also the hysterical not-so-subtle shots. Take when an astonished Linda states with absolute sincerity, “Who would have thought a tech company wouldn’t have our best interest at heart?” Yet this isn’t all about an anti-technology message. In fact the film highlights its invaluable contributions to our ability to create and communicate. At the same time it reminds us that nothing beats intimate, heartfelt, face-to-face connection.

The film frames the Mitchells as being dysfunctional (or from Katie’s hyperbolic point-of-view “the Worst Family of All Time“) and a spotlight is put on their “weirdness” and inner friction. However their actual normality is one of the story’s most endearing qualities. They are a family full of relatable personalities and the daddy-daughter dynamic hit me right in my soft spot. Add in loads of laugh-out-load humor and a gorgeous mix of 2D and 3D animation and you have a movie that had me from its bright and colorful opening to its warm and heartfelt finish. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” premieres this Friday (April 30th) on Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/title/81399614

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Mortal Kombat” (2021)

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Well this is a remake/reboot I never saw coming. I remember when “Mortal Kombat” took the early 1990s arcade scene by storm. From the very start the video game from developer Midway courted controversy for its graphic violence (aka Fatalities) which paved the way for the ESRB video game rating system. But “Mortal Kombat” also became a cultural phenomenon that spawned numerous sequels and since 1992 it has appeared on nearly forty different gaming platforms.

In 1995 during the height of the its popularity, “Mortal Kombat” did the unthinkable and came to the big screen. I vividly remember sitting in a jam packed theater on opening night. To this day it was one of the most excited and energetic crowds I’ve ever sat and watched a movie with. In all honesty, aside from a great score and some terrific fight choreography, it wasn’t a great film. But it remains a lot of fun. Sadly it was followed by a cringy and utterly abysmal 1997 sequel that seemed to kill the movie franchise in its tracks.

Yet here we are in 2021 getting a brand new film offering a completely different take on the franchise. Simon McQuoid makes his feature directorial debut in this entertaining and hyper-violent adaptation that tosses aside any and all PG-13 constraints. McQuoid along with screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham go all-in for the R-rating, giving fans of the video game series all the blood-drenched kombat and grisly fatalities they could ask for. The story is every bit as silly as it sounds, but it also makes for a good time if you know what to expect.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The movie opens with a terrific introduction to two of the franchise’s most iconic characters. In 17th century Japan Hanzo Hasashi (played by the always terrific Hiroyuki Sanada) has set aside his old life and now happily lives in a quite village with his wife, young son, and newborn daughter. But his new life is interrupted by a team of assassins led by the cold-hearted (see what I did there) Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). The brilliantly conceived intro plants some narrative seeds and gives the audience a taste of what McQuoid and company have in mind.

Now jump ahead to current day where a lot of goofy exposition lays out the setting and backstory. In a nutshell the dark and ominous Outworld and our Earthrealm have been battling it out in an ancient to-the-death tournament called Mortal Kombat. The built-in rules state that the first realm to win ten tournaments will be granted the right to invade and overtake the other realm (don’t ask, just go with it). But when Outworld’s leader, the sinister sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), gets wind of a prophecy that could thwart his victory, he decides to bend the rules. He sends his top warriors to kill Earthrealm’s upcoming batch of new champions each bearing the same dragon mark on their skin.

Despite the franchise’s wealth of great characters, the movie makes the interesting choice of introducing a new face as its lead. Lewis Tan plays Cole Young, a down-on-his-luck former MMA champion marked with the dragon symbol. Cole is thrust into the world of Mortal Kombat after Bi-Han (now known as Sub-Zero) attempts to kill him and his wife and daughter. Through no fault of Tan’s, Cole doesn’t make for the most compelling protagonist and he’s consistently overshadowed by the big names who fans are really itching to see.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

While Cole is considered ‘the lead’, the supporting cast of established franchise veterans get plenty of screen time and are the gas that keeps the engine running. Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and her special forces partner Jax (Mehcad Brooks) have been studying the dragon symbol and searching for those marked by it. Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is responsible for gathering earth’s new batch of champions. The unsavory Kano (Josh Lawson) is a dragon-marked mercenary who can be both laugh-out-loud funny and aggressively obnoxious. Kano is essentially an attempt at comic relief, pumping out some genuinely funny one-liners while exhaustingly cramming as many f-bombs into each sentence as he can.

To this biased Sub-Zero player, not only is he the film’s coolest character (sorry, couldn’t resist) but he gets many of the best scenes including a showdown with a certain fiery nemesis. Other recognizable names get their moments to shine including Liu Kang, Mileena, King Lao, and a few other surprises. They all weave in and out of a story that mostly takes a back seat to the high-energy fight scenes.

The rest of the movie never quite matches its exhilarating opening 15 minutes and it’s surprising to see how little the actual Mortal Kombat tournament plays into the story. At the same time “Mortal Kombat” is very much a movie made for the fans. It takes a lot for granted and expects the audience to either already know the backstory or have a certain willingness to just go with it. That allows it more time to show off what it does best – offer thrilling, deliciously brutal, nostalgia-soaked kombat. And while it’s a far cry from a ‘flawless victory’, it’s an undeniable good time specifically for those who know the franchise well. “Mortal Kombat” today (April 23rd) in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “My Octopus Teacher” (2020)

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The engaging and now Oscar-nominated documentary “My Octopus Teacher” is a beautiful, moving, and reflective experience. It’s also a little crazy and doesn’t do much to hide its aggressive tugs on your heartstrings. This Netflix Original from co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed has garnered a lot of praise since its September release on the streaming giant’s platform. It’s easy to see why.

The film is more or less a reflection of a middle-aged man named Craig Foster. He tells the story of his encounter and unlikely ‘friendship’ with a small octopus just off the coast in West Cape, South Africa. For over 325 straight days, Craig would visit a small underwater kelp forest in an area called “The Cape of Storms”. There lived a female common octopus (Octopus Vulgaris if you go by its funky binomial name). Over the course of his daily visits an unlikely yet amazing bond forms, one that genuinely transforms this man’s life.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

We don’t get much in terms of backstory, only that Craig grew up in the ocean but left as an adult to pursue documentary filmmaking. During a film shoot in the Central Kalahari Desert he meets some indigenous master trackers intimately in-tune with nature in a way he once was. 18 years pass and Craig sits at a crossroads, losing his faith in himself and watching his relationship with his family suffer. So he heads back to West Cape, to the place where he felt so connected to the bigger world as a boy.

Craig begins his dives into the cold waters with no wetsuit and no oxygen tank – just swim trunks, flippers, snorkel, and a camera. There he meets the octopus who slowly becomes comfortable with his presence. Before long the fear and apprehension vanishes and the documentary turns into a surreal underwater buddy movie of sorts. Some of the sweetest images emerge as the two grow closer and the octopus shows affection perhaps never seen from an animal known for being anti-social.

At the same time the waters are full of predators, namely swarming Pajama Sharks. Craig’s firm belief in the natural order keeps him from intervening once his octopus friend finds herself in peril. It’s an admirable position but one that raises some fascinating moral-ish questions, especially during the scenes where Craig sits back and films the octopus’ fight for survival. Would it hurt if a bigger human predator ran off the smaller predator? Does attracting the octopus with his presence contribute to the creature’s vulnerability? Does Craig owe it to his underwater friend to protect her if she’s out of her safe place to see him?

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that “My Octopus Teacher” features some truly exquisite ocean photography. The film is masterfully shot by DP Roger Horrocks, a nature doc veteran whose camera creates a vivid underwater tapestry of sea-life that encompasses so much more that just one man and a mollusc. Equally transporting is the elegant score by documentary composer Kevin Smuts. It’s hard not to be swept away by the look and sounds that really emphasize the subtle majesty of the setting and the emotional undercurrent to the story.

“My Octopus Teacher” clocks in at just a little over 80 minutes but it packs a lot of heart and goodwill into that short running time. As I said, the whole thing is a little crazy and it would be hard to believe if this weren’t a documented true story. Strangeness aside, there’s also a lot of sincerity and personal feeling behind Craig’s story. You genuinely believe this was a life-changing experience for this man and the film’s final scenes with Craig and his son really bring that truth home. “My Octopus Teacher” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “My Wonderful Wanda” (2021)

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Two families from two completely different worlds collide in Bettina Oberli’s biting satire “My Wonderful Wanda”. The Swiss film had its world premiere at Tribeca where it won a special jury mention in the Nora Ephron Award category. Now this prickly yet often witty dramedy makes it way to the States sporting a wacky “Knives Out” vibe but with a distinct European flavor.

The story (co-written by Oberli and Cooky Ziesche) centers around a Polish single mother named Wanda (played by a well measured Agnieszka Grochowska). She works as a caretaker for Josef Wegmeister-Gloor (André Jung), a 70-year-old family patriarch who was left paralyzed following a severe stroke. Her unique arrangement with the Wegmeister-Gloor family has her traveling to their lakeside villa in Switzerland where she stays for a month or so before going back to her village in Poland to tend to her two young boys. Leaving her sons is tough but she needs the money and the wealthy Wegmeister-Gloors pay well even if they don’t always appreciate ‘the help’.

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Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

It doesn’t take long to notice the movie’s interest in class and it becomes a central theme that runs throughout Oberli’s ‘three chapters and an epilogue’ structure. Wanda and the Wegmeister-Gloors exist on opposite ends of the social and economic ladders – something Wanda is constantly reminded of by her casually insensitive and often oblivious employers. Yet despite the varying degrees of blue-blooded haughtiness in the Wegmeister-Gloor household, Wanda’s presence highlights how empty their lives have become. And when a particular part of her ‘care’ for Josef leads to her becoming pregnant with his child, the upper-crust rancor really kicks in.

While Wanda is the main character, the Wegmeister-Gloor ménage all have key roles to play and each come with their own individual complexity. Josef is a youthful spirit trapped inside a failing body and he likes Wanda more than his own family (“Don’t leave me with these lunatics,” he pleads). Yet his ‘affection’ for her always comes second to his own sense of privilege. Josef’s wife Elsa (Marthe Keller) genuinely cares for her family but is far too adsorbed in their social standing. “We have a reputation to uphold,” she declares after hearing of Wanda’s pregnancy. Their jittery son Gregor (Jacob Matschenz) is the reluctant heir to his father’s company, but is far more interested in birdwatching and Wanda. Then there’s the snobbish and entitled daughter Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) who only seem to care about her inheritance and who callously refers to Wanda as “the Pole” whenever she’s not around.

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Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Considering all of that, you would expect this to be a movie with a clear-cut hero and villains. After all, Wanda is a woman just trying to take care of her family while the Wegmeister-Gloors exude an air of superiority. But Oberli smartly keeps from overtly vilifying anyone. The film clearly (and rightly) sets our sympathies with Wanda. But even she makes some icky decisions that are hard to get behind. So we end up with an assortment of richly layered characters. Some we want hug, others we want to (figuratively) choke. But most importantly we understand them because Oberli and Ziesche take time and allow them to be more than one-note character types.

Things get pretty crazy in the last chapter when Wanda’s parents and her two sons pay a surprise visit to the Wegmeister-Gloor estate. It’s here that the movie’s clash of class and culture goes full-frontal. Yet (as with everything else in the film) Oberli keeps it all in check, never allowing things to go over-the-top and never losing the all-important human element. And as everything comes to a head, the film’s comical and combative vibes gives way to a overarching sense of sadness and uncertainty. It makes for a fitting finish to a movie that (for the most part) succeeds in blending levity and solemnity. “My Wonderful Wanda” opens April 23rd in select cities.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

First Glance: “My Salinger Year”

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I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to be extraordinarily.” Can’t blame anyone for that. It’s a life goal of the lead character in the upcoming drama “My Salinger Year”, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. The film is based on the memoir of Joanna Rakoff and follows her days working for one of New York’s oldest literary agencies during the mid 1990s. But at its core the movie is about a young woman finding herself and mustering the courage to follow her own dreams regardless of the uncertainties attached to them.

The movie stars Margaret Qualley who broke out as a hitchhiking hippie in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Here she plays Joanna, a twenty-something aspiring writer from Berkeley who we first see arriving in New York City to visit an old friend. She’s quickly drawn in by her romanticized idea of a writer’s life in New York. “Isn’t that what writers did? she ponders, “live in cheap apartments and write in cafés?”. It’s enough to keep Joanna in the Big Apple, leaving her old life and her boyfriend Karl (Hamza Haq) behind in California.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

She gets a job as an assistant at a renowned literary agency in New York. It’s ran by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a savvy and cantankerous professional with a comical distaste for the digital age. But she knows the business and runs a tight ship. Joanna gets put to work doing dictations and opening fan mail for the agencies star client, the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye”. She’s instructed to read the letters and then answer them with one of several carefully prepared form letters informing the sender that Mr. Salinger doesn’t accept mail from fans. It’s hardly a job for a writer but it does put her on a much-needed path of self-discovery.

Qualley brings a sweetness and naivete to Joanna that shows itself in her professional and personal life. She and Weaver have a terrific business-like chemistry and Qualley mixes well with several good faces around the office. Away from her job Joanna meets and falls for a millennial hipster and fellow writer named Don (Douglas Booth) who she meets at a “socialist bookstore”. Much like the bohemian living, Don fits an illusion Joanna has, this time of a relationship that sounds ideal but that (much like her job) puts her dreams on the backburner. Together, all of these things makes her think the trendy New York writer’s lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The biggest encouragement Joanna gets comes from none other than J.D. Salinger himself. She is familiar with his name but not his work. She’s never even read “The Catcher in the Rye”. But the unsolicited wisdom and advice the author gives her during passing phone conversations plant seeds of inspiration. Falardeau chooses to never show us Salinger’s face, tapping into the hermit’s enigmatic reputation. It’s an interesting choice that works better than expected. One choice that doesn’t quite work are the first-person montages of Salinger fans who have written to the author only to get Joanna’s form letter as a reply. They add faces to the letters, but outside of that the scenes are jarring inclusions and its hard to sense what the movie is going for.

“My Salinger Year” is a charming and earnest drama that tells its story with a warm sincerity but muted emotions. Qualley is good here and often better than the material which rarely gives her character opportunities to express her feelings in a satisfying way. There seems to be so much left inside of Joanna that’s alluded to but never explored. Still, Qualley imbues Joanna with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes her easy to root for. And Weaver’s Margaret is the abrasive slice of reality that brings Joanna down to earth and opens her eyes to the real world. Together they’re quite the entertaining pair. “My Salinger Year” opens March 5th in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” (2021)

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy is trapped in an unending time loop where he’s forced to live the same day over and over again. Pretty familiar, right? We saw it in the terrific comedy gem “Groundhog Day”. We saw it last year in the not-so-terrific “Palm Springs”. We saw it in the fun sci-fi action flick “Edge of Tomorrow”. Now we get a Valentines season teen rom-com that attempts to bring its own flavor to the well-worn premise and does so with pretty mixed results.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is directed by Ian Samuels and written by Lev Grossman. The film is an adaptation of Grossman’s own short story and stars two young up-and-comers with enough charisma and chemistry to keep things interesting. Unfortunately it’s not quite enough the shake the feelings that we’ve seen this narrative, these characters, and their inevitable relationship several times before. Still there’s something to say about good performances and their ability to infuse life into an otherwise shaky story. And to Grossman’s credit, he adds some needed emotional weight in the final 15 minutes that makes this more than some meaningless retread.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story begins by introducing us to Mark, a spirited high school teen played by Kyle Allen (who looks old enough to be out of college but be that as it may). Mark wakes up every morning to the exact same day, one that continually repeats itself before resetting each night at midnight. Mark has been in the loop long enough that he’s attuned to every detail, every event, every conversation. You could say he’s the king of his own ‘temporal anomaly’ where everyone but him follows the script and then rinses and repeats.

But there’s a ripple in Mark’s cyclical existence when he sees Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a rogue addition to this tightly scripted world. Realizing he’s not the only person with free will stuck in the loop, Mark is immediately enamored and full of questions. Where did she come from? Does she know how this happened? What has she been doing all of this time? Does she think he’s cute? After following her around a bit Mark finally introduces himself. At first his playful enthusiasm clashes with Margaret’s distant curiosity. He’s an open book, laying everything out without a second thought. She’s harder to read and with things in her life she would rather keep to herself.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Of course the two soon develop a peculiar connection which the movie spends the bulk of its time exploring. A long stretch of the story ends up playing like a conventional YA romantic comedy, surviving on the charms and chemistry of Allen and Newton. Both are really good but they can only keep the movie afloat for so long. But just as the movie starts to sink (and I was about to check out), Samuels and Grossman inject it with feeling and pathos. The story adds some layers to the characters, particularly Margaret, that helps us to see them as more than just another cutesy teen movie couple. And while it doesn’t fully avoid the temptation to slap on a little sap, the ending lands well enough and makes the rest of the film (rough patches and all) seem more meaningful.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” isn’t something that will stick with you long, but it does (barely) save itself in its final act. Even more, for those who don’t know them, it’s a nice introduction to two talented young stars with a load of potential. I think it’s safe to say Allen and Newton have promising careers ahead of them. I doubt this movie will go down as one of their best, but if you’ll stick with it through the rocky and not-so-original middle you’ll find it endears us to these characters in a thoughtful and surprising way. “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars