Team Marco


If you can’t see the forest for the VR, you’re missing out on life.

(2020) Family (GoldwynOwen Vaccaro, Anthony Patellis, Thomas Kopache, Anastasia Ganias, Louis Cancelmi, Greg Rikaart, Jacob Laval, Antoinette LaVecchia, Kevin Interdonato, Caitlin Hammond, Jake Katzman, Skyler Lipkin, Joseph Callari, Ethan Coskay, Raymond Sammak, Precious Pia, Andrew Annicharico, Bobby Guarino, Candice Guardino, Noa Lev-Ari.  Directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto

 

Hollywood has a habit of looking at the very old and the very young with nearly equal disdain; senior citizens are technology-averse, doddering and full of aphorisms that pass for wisdom in a world geared towards neat little soundbites; the very young are technology-obsessed, attached to their smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles like they have superglue on them. How do these disparate generations possibly communicate?

Marco (Vaccaro) is a soon-to-be 12-year-old boy whose mother (Ganias) is a nurse in Staten Island, and whose father (Cancelmi) is a videogame designer living on the West Coast. Yes, they’re divorced. Marco has been promised by his dad that if he gets to level 100 on his dad’s latest videogame, that he will fly Marco out to a prestigious videogame convention where Marco will be surrounded by the latest and the greatest – a 12-year-old gamer’s idea of heaven.

Throwing a monkey wrench into all this is Marco’s grandfather, Nonno (Patellis), an irascible old man mourning the loss of his wife and forced to live with his daughter and grandson in a house too small as it is. Nonno sees Marco as almost a shut-in with no friends, no exercise, and no life to speak of other than the fantasy life he leads online. Marco’s anxieties have translated into germ phobia and imagined food allergies which Mom tolerates, but doesn’t actively discourage. Marco regards his grandfather with all the warmth and acceptance that he would a case of chicken pox.

Wise old grandpa sees that an intervention must be made, and he confiscates all of Marco’s electronics with the promise that he can get them all back if he can put together a team of young boys to play bocce ball against his grandfather’s team – and Nonno happens to be a bocce ball champion. It’s a tall order, but if Marco wants to get to that convention, he’ll have to take the plunge.

Generation gap movies can be amusing – very often it’s hard to believe that differing generations are even the same species as ourselves – but they are, generally speaking, not terribly clever, particularly those meant for family viewing. For whatever reason, Hollywood has always felt that the way to find common ground between generations is to dumb things down as much as possible, and that is certainly somewhat true here. The screenplay is predictable, and while there are some moments that genuinely made me misty-eyed, it felt like there was a great deal of lost opportunity here.

We have a man in mourning for his wife of many years; we have a child so eager to impress his father who lives on the other side of the country that he’s willing to do almost anything, not realizing that his father shouldn’t be making spending time with him conditional on whether he plays the game he designed or not. That feels wrong from a parental point of view and in fact there are a lot of parental don’ts in the mix here. I can imagine that a lot of Italian-Americans might end up objecting to the portrayal of the grandfather as being a bit too stereotypical. The accent has all the flavor of Chef Boy-ar-dee.

Vaccaro is a pretty good young actor, but he plays the kind of kid (at least, in the first half of the film) that would make Mother Teresa reach for the leather belt. While he (and we) learn more about bocce than any of us probably ever wanted to know, Marco at least matures a little bit but for many, it will be too little, too late. Perhaps it’s because my son is a gamer that I have little patience for the whole “Gaming is everything” mentality that Marco has; it hits a bit too close to home, so take that aspect with a grain of salt. Still, early on in the movie I wanted nothing more than to put every electronic device I own into a landfill, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the effect the filmmakers were going for.

As family entertainment goes, it does the job adequately, but only just. There are a ton of much better family films out there to be shared with multiple generations and as the holidays approach with the prospect of sharing close quarters with grandparents and grandkids, there is no doubt that you can do much better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Some genuinely heartwarming moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses itself in generation gap cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaccaro was 13 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl

Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B and B Robbery


The joys of hanging with your bestie on a summer day.

(2020) Family (VisionJa’ness Tate, Gabriellla Pastore, Catarah Hampshire, Carlos Coleman, Corey J. Grant, Kim Akia, Donovan Williams, Orlando Cortez, Davey Moore, Camilla Elaine, Hunter Bills, Ole Goode, Jaymee Vowell, Kevin Robinson, Vanessa Padla, Candice Richardson, Ja’Juan Burton, Edward Pastore, Audrey Meah, Diane D. Carter, Tim Davidson, Vienna Ash-Simpson. Directed by Brian Shackelford

 

Have you ever been around someone who was consciously trying to sound hip, but the words are awkward and only make you cringe? It’s one thing to have a 17-year-old telling you that they’re woke; it sounds disingenuous when it comes out of a 40-year-old mouth. Sometimes an entire movie can feel that way.

Summer is beckoning and best friends Lulu (Tate) and Gabby (G. Pastore) are looking forward to three months without school. They live in a fairly tony development called Hidden Orchard where people are friendly, but bicker over just about everything, such as a resident’s plan to convert a property into an Air B and B. Then when the house is robbed the neighborhood goes on edge. Lulu and Gabby are determined to solve the mystery that apparently the local police are having issues cracking. The deeper they get into the mystery, however, the greater danger the two intrepid teens realize they are in. Pretty soon solving the case may be the only way they can get out of this with their hides intact.

I have nothing against family movies in general, but oftentimes they seem to be of the opinion that their target audience is unsophisticated and not very bright. I have found that most young people actually have more than a few brain cells rattling around between their ears, and appreciate not having everything spelled out to them. They are perfectly capable of figuring things out for themselves.

Parents and most kids are going to find this cliché and riddled with afternoon special tropes. While Lulu and Gabby get on like a cross between the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (or to be a little more current, like they should be headlining shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon. Your kids may find that intriguing, although most kids are probably not too interested in a 20-year-old TV show.

While the cast is admirably diverse and in particularly, African-Americans are shown in a light of being hard-working, intelligent and prosperous, the acting feels very stiff and the line delivery sounds forced. Worse still, the music – which is constant to the point that there is almost no moments during the film that don’t have a soundtrack – sounds like the score of a bad TV movie comedy. It’s intrusive and noticeable, which is not a good thing at all.

Parents should be aware that there are an awful lot of damns, hells, and hos. While I think that for the most part it’s no worse than what the average kid hears during the course of their day, some parents may be uncomfortable with it, as well as the drug humor herein. I would recommend that parents consider this when deciding whether this is appropriate viewing for their children.

Nothing here is all that offensive, other than the execution. I get the sense that this could have easily turned into a franchise had this been done right, but I can’t think of a single reason to watch a sequel to this. Definitely one of the worst films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Positive portrayal of people of color.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché and predictable. The acting is forced and uniformly mediocre. The score is intrusive and sounds like it was filched from another older bad movie. Although marketed as a family film, some of the material may not be appropriate for some kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although he has directed several documentary features, this is Shackleford’s debut as a narrative feature director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nancy Drew
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Babyteeth

Abe


MasterChef, Junior.

(2019) Family (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Noah Schnapp Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Tom Mardirosian, Salem Murphy, Daniel Oreskes, Gero Carillo Victor Mendes, Ildi Silva, Devin Henry, Steve Routman, Josh Elliiott Pickel, Alexander Hodge, Debargo Sanyal, Teddy Coluca, Jorja Brown, Troy Valjean Rucker, Vivian Adams. Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade

 

There are equalizers that remind us that we all are human regardless of our cultural, ethnic and religious differences; music is one. Family is another. Food is a third.

Abe (Schnapp) knows all about those differences. His father (Moayed) is an atheist whose parents are devout Palestinian Muslims. His mother (Dominczyk) comes from a Jewish family from Israel. Family gatherings, like Abe’s twelfth birthday, are a little bit like the Seven Days War at the dinner table. For the love of Pete, even a discussion of hummus can turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Abe – whose Israeli grandfather (Margolis) calls him Avraham, his other calls him Abraham and his paternal grandfather (Mardirosian) and grandmother (Murphy) call him Ibrahim – prefers just plain old Abe, and plain old Abe is just plain old nuts about food. He’s a twelve-year-old foodie, interested in trying out new things, new tastes and he lives in the perfect place in all the world for that – Brooklyn. He longs to become a chef, uniting cuisines and hopefully, in doing so, uniting people. Like his family, for instance.

His parents, too busy making decisions about his life without really listening to him, particularly his stubborn father who refuses to allow any other school of thought other than his own enter Abe’s sphere of consciousness. All Abe wants to do is cook. His parents, meaning well, want to send him to summer camp but the cooking camp they send him to is pretty remedial. He chooses to give this camp a miss.

Abe, like a lot of kids his age, is Internet-savvy and there’s a chef on Instagram who is an up-and-coming king of fusion. Chef Chico (Seu) is a Brazilian who brings bold flavors to his food. Abe seeks him out and pesters him into giving him a job so that Abe can learn from him. At first, the job consists mainly of taking out the trash but Abe picks up on things, eventually taking his grandmother’s recipe for lamb shawarma in to make tacos for the crew meal. Chico is actually impressed.

&His parents are not, however, when they learn what Abe has been up to. All the stress of familial pressures has been tearing his mom and dad apart and they separate. Abe is devastated; he looks to reunite his fractured family with a Thanksgiving meal featuring the flavors of both countries, but can a conflict nobody has been able to solve be settled over a meal of turkey and falafel?

Well, no, but that won’t stop this movie from letting you think that it can. I admit, food is a powerful thing, bringing emotions and memories of home to the fore, but for most of us, we are aware that some differences can’t be settled simply. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t send the message that it can, but it does send a message that people can have their minds opened up, which is the first step towards understanding which in turn is the first step towards peace.

For a movie about a foodie, there isn’t as much food porn as I thought there’d be, which is actually kinda nice. I didn’t leave this movie particularly jonesing for falafel, hummus or shawarma. Not even for ramen tacos, which is Abe’s first attempt at fusion.

Schnapp, whom Netflix viewers might recognize from Stranger Things, does a pretty credible job considering that the role is kind of Afterschool Special plucky kid 101. Abe is likable and Schnapp brings that across; he is also anguished that everything he does seems to offend one side of the family or another, and I can actually sympathize with his plight. It is every adolescent nightmare, but in Abe’s case it is literally true.

Andrade, directing his first American movie (it’s actually a co-production with Brazil), uses what is becoming a new cliché in showing the smartphone screens of Abe’s various searches and chat programs, which actually takes you out of the story a little bit. While I agree that if you’re going to show a typical 12-year-old kid in 2020, you’re going to have to show him/her having on online life, the way it is done here becomes somewhat intrusive, as does the Latin-tinged score. The comedy here, while gentle, feels forced and the ending is a bit too sitcom-style pat with everyone sitting to a meal together.

This is an appropriate movie for kids, but if I were you parents, I wouldn’t tell them what it’s about. They might not want to see it based on the description, but they will probably end up getting a kick out of it, although I might warn them that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict isn’t going to be settled over a good meal. Nonetheless it is a pretty decent family film that can be enjoyed over a nice bowl of popcorn; how you choose to season it is up to you.

REASONS TO SEE: Does tackle some serious subjects in a non-threatening manner.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit self-aware, a little too pat, a little too forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Margolis and Mardirosian, who play Israeli and Palestinian patriarchs here, both played prisoners in the hit HBO series Oz.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Polar

A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


Trick or treat!!

(2018) Family (Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Chris Parnell, Bryce Cass, Peyton Wich, Shari Headley, Christian Finlayson, Matthew Jose Vasquez, Courtney Cummings, Jessi Goel, Drew Scheid, Taylor Siva, Sydney Bullock, Jason Looney, Kendrick Cross, Deja Dee. Directed by Ari Sandel

 

I always look askance at a young adult author whose book series is described as a “phenomenon.” The only audience more fickle than adults are kids. Phenomenons come and go with the regularity of Trump tweets.

In this sequel set in the universe of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, two young would-be entrepreneurs (and middle school students) Sonny (Taylor) and Sam (Harris) unexpectedly find an unfinished Stine manuscript in a creepy old house and free Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert) is brought to life. At first, all he wants is a family of his own, which makes Sonny’s big sister Sarah (Iseman) suspicious although their single mom Kathy (McLendon-Covey) is blissfully unaware that the dummy is sentient. When Slappy is ultimately refused, he decides to get himself some revenge – by using his magic to bring to life Stine-influenced Halloween decorations and turn the sleepy upstate New York own into perpetual Halloween.

The movie doesn’t compare favorably with the first one; although Black (as author R.L. Stine) is in the film, he doesn’t show up until the very end in what is a glorified cameo, although he does set up a Goosebumps 3 should Columbia elect to make one. A little more Black would have gone a long way, but to be fair he was busy making a competing film and was unable to participate fully in this one.

That leaves us with the kids to carry the film and quite frankly that’s not something they’re capable of quite yet. Their performances are inconsistent and frequently wooden. Still, the movie does okay thanks to some fairly nifty special effects and the character of Slappy who makes a delightful villain for the younger set.

REASONS TO SEE: Slappy makes an outstanding kidflick villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much like the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There are mildly scary sequences, rude humor, some light profanity, and images of monsters and creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jack Black and Madison Iseman were both in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle but unlike here, they didn’t share any screen time together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere,  Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House With a Clock In Its Walls
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Afterward

Patrick (2018)


All dressed up and nowhere to go.

(2018) Family (Screen Media) Beattie Edmondson, Ed Skrein, Tom Bennett, Emelia Jones, Emily Atack, Cherie Lunghi, Peter Davison, Jennifer Saunders, Gemma Jones, Bernard Cribbins, Adrian Scarborough, Meera Syal, Milanka Brooks, Scott Chambers, Rupert Holliday-Evans, McKell David, Roy Hudd, Maria Barr, Rosie Ede, Olivia Buckland, Elena Valdameri. Directed by Mandie Fletcher

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a well-known dog nut. Not merely a dog lover, but a dog nut, one who talks incessantly about my four-legged family members, who dotes on their every whim, and who would rather spend an evening cuddling with them rather than just about everything else. It does occasionally drive Da Queen batty.

Therefore, take the following review with a grain of salt as I will state outright that my objectivity goes right out the window when it comes to dog movies. In this one, Patrick is an adorable pug who is spoiled rotten by his wealthy, elderly owner. When she collapses while taking him for a walk and dies, his despair is palpable. But oddly, Patrick is bequeathed not to the exceptional, successful granddaughter nor to the equally wealthy son but to Sarah (Edmondson), the ne’er-do-well, disorganized hot mess of a granddaughter who can never arrive anywhere on time, not even granny’s funeral.

For Sarah, the “inheritance” couldn’t come at a worse time. She is stuck in an apartment after her latest in a long line of beaus has dumped her, leaving her in a neighborhood where she knows nobody in a flat that has a strict no pets policy which wasn’t an issue initially because Sarah hates dogs and she’s not terribly good with people either. She’s just starting a new job as a high school English teacher and she’s eager to make a good impression so that she’ll be kept on for next term. Patrick, used to having the run of the palace gets separation anxiety early and often and seems bound and determined to alert the landlord to his presence, destroy all of Sarah’s things and leave poop bombs for Sarah to step in or piddle puddles to slip on.

Naturally, she falls in love with the adorable little dog. It doesn’t hurt that through Patrick, she is introduced to Ben (Bennett), a stable and kindly man who loves dogs nearly as much as I and Oliver (Skrein), a handsome hunk of a veterinarian. He also helps her get through to her unruly class and preaches the joys of healthy living and exercising. Well, not so much preaches but allows her new mate Becky (Atack) to do the preaching; he just provides the opportunity, giving Sarah the excuse to go walkies in some lovely riverside parks throughout England.

There really isn’t a dramatic conflict here; the change from dog hater to devoted dog owner is a fairly seamless one and the film’s climax has to do with a fun run which she is physically unprepared for and whether or not she can complete it. Honestly, that’s it…so those film buffs among my readership might be excused if they want to give this one a pass. I do understand; as plots go this one is pretty much standard dog movie fare albeit one with lovely English settings.

Edmondson, best-known for Bridget Jones’ Baby over here, is an appealing lead who knows how to take a good prat fall. Some of her facial expressions are a bit over-the-top; subtlety might have benefited her performance more here but when you’re making a movie aimed at a certain demographic sometimes grand gestures and over-the-top facial mugging can be called for. I’ve never understood why. She is well-supported by a fairly impressive list of British thespians, including Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), Skrein (Deadpool), Peter Davison (Dr. Who), Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’ Diary) and Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children).

Patrick the pug will absolutely melt your heart, especially when you see him in his dapper tux during the funeral sequence at the beginning of the film. Sure, he’s a handful and spoiled absolutely out of his gourd but any pug lover (I’m looking at you, Char and Adam) will tell you that they are among the most loyal and loving creatures in the canine firmament. This is something of a niche film; dog lovers (and dog nuts) are going to be beguiled by the pug while others may find its charm wasted on them. As a romantic comedy it is a bit of a non-starter while kids who are looking for something a bit more frenetic may be bored. In any case I don’t think this is especially a kids movie even though it is being marketed somewhat that way; there are no children in the movie other than a niece and nephew who make brief appearances here and there whenever Sarah is with family. Still, those who like to dress up their fur babies and have placards proclaiming “A House is Not a Home Without a Dog” in their homes will be absolutely enchanted.

REASONS TO SEE: Edmondson is an appealing lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very rote family film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of dog poo humor and a bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Edmondson is Saunders’s daughter in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beethoven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
ROMA

Dolphin Kick


I don’t know what that kid said but that dolphin wants to kick his butt.

(2019) Family (Epic) Tyler Jade Nixon, Axle McCoy, Travis McCoy, Alexis Louder, DeVaughn Gow, Tim Ogletree, LaVaughan Hamilton, Maya Simmons, Quddus Newton, Tomli Culver, Jordan Pedreira, Erin Reign, Matthew Scott Miller, Barry Askham, Ana-Alicia Carroll, Dwayne Shockley, Frank Salas Jr., Myron Roberts, Carson Doll, Ryan Gonzalez. Directed by Philip Marlatt

 

I suppose that it could be said that of all the creatures on this green earth, the dolphin is probably the most intelligent. Certainly they have the ability to communicate and to learn. They have complex social structures within their pods. It also could be said that if it weren’t for family movies and Sea World they might just be more intelligent than humans.

Clint (T. McCoy) is grieving. His vivacious wife recently passed away and both of his kids – sunny Skyler (Nixon) and her older brother Luke (A. McCoy) are both devastated in their own way. While Skyler who in most ways seems like her late mom seems to be ready to move on, Luke remains introspective. Once an avid swimmer like his mother, he has refused to put so much as a toe into the water since his mom died.

What this kind of tragedy calls for is – a family vacation in an island paradise and not just any island paradise – the one here Mom and Dad got married on. Luke is about as excited to go as a cat would be to a rocking chair convention but he puts a stiff upper lip on and off he and his sister go with Dad bravely leading the way.

At first Skyler is entranced; the island is beautiful, tropical and the family has rented a gorgeous house on the sea. They’ve also rented a boat…and with the house apparently comes a dolphin who strikes up a friendship with the desolate Luke.

At first Luke is terrified of the cetacean but eventually begins to accept him, naming the dolphin “Echo” – and even to rely on him. As Dad makes friends with a group of marine biology students, particularly the smart and sassy Nova (Louder), the group of students is excited about the bond that Luke has made with the playful Echo. However, reality intrudes; Echo needs a pod and finding him one won’t be an easy task.

In the meantime surly fisherman Naz (Gow) has noticed that the lines to his buoys have been cut and he suspects a rival fisherman to be the culprit. But as the sabotage begins to spread to the other fishermen on the island Naz and his first mate Moe (Hamilton) realize that the lines haven’t been cut so much as chewed through and the logical culprit is the playful dolphin who has grown fond of playing fetch with stray buoys. Naz determines that in order for the fishermen to be able to retain their livelihood, Echo is going to need to meet up with an “accident.”

As family movies go this one is fairly harmless and even has some lovely underwater photography to boot. While Echo is partly rendered in CGI, there are plenty of practical effects as well. While the setting is a beautiful Caribbean island, the movie was actually filmed in Louisiana, specifically in the tropical paradise of Slidell. Talk about Hollywood magic, right?

Travis McCoy as the dad has lots of charisma and could have a good career ahead of him playing the “hot dad” if he so chooses. The kids are about as annoying and precocious as is standard with a family film and the juvenile actors who play them actually do a pretty credible job without feeling too forced, a common mistake with young actors. Kudos for that which is also a function of how the director handles them, so that’s to the plus side for Marlatt.

My issue though is that if feels like they got the overall tone of the family wrong. My understanding from the film is that the death of the mom was a fairly recent event. Only Luke displays any sort of melancholia that would be associated with grieving. Young Skyler has moments where something reminds her of her mom but these are fleeting and most of the time, she seems to be incredibly bubbly and positive. The husband who is now tasked with raising two kids by himself, almost never seems to show any sort of feeling one way or the other about his late wife. I think it would be a healthy thing for kids to see that daddies and mommies grieve too.

Other than that this is basic family film 101 with a likable dolphin who is apt to leap above the waves at any given moment, a pair of precious but precocious kids, ecologically committed young people and villains who really aren’t all bad a’tall. While I don’t think that a theatrical release is in the cards for this one, it is already available on most of the major streaming services and on DVD as well – it’s even region free so you can play it no matter where you are. If you have a kid or two who are into the ocean in a big way (and dolphins in a bigger way) and you’ve worn out your copies of Dolphin Tale and Free Willy, this might just be what your family needs.

REASONS TO GO: The kids will love this, particularly those who love animals or the ocean (especially dolphins).
REASONS TO STAY: Being kid-friendly doesn’t have to mean the movie is predictable and formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dolphin Kick is the first screen credit for young Axle McCoy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Final Wish

Santa Claus (Le père Noël)


Even Santa Claus has to do laundry once in awhile.

(2014) Family (Under the Milky Way) Tahar Rahim, Victor Cabal, Annelise Hesme, Michael Abiteboul, Philippe Rebbot, Amélie Glenn, Jean-François Cayrey, Djibril Gueye, Naoufel Aliju, Satya Dusaugey, Charlie Dupont, Lou Ballon, Charles Albiol, Steve Tran, Mathieu Lourdel, Yamina Meghraoul, Jérôme Benilouz, Laurence Pollet-Villard, Pierre Core, Dominique Baconnet. Directed by Alexandre Coffre

 

Our heroes don’t always hold up to close scrutiny. Look closely enough and you’ll find faults as egregious as, well, our own. It never occurs to us that those we admire the most are just as fallible, just as flawed as us. And let us not forget, to the average six-year-old there is no bigger hero than Santa Claus.

Young Antoine (Cabal) is just that age and still a believer in Father Christmas. He reads his list of Christmas wishes, certain that Santa can hear them. When his mother (Hesme) urges him to get to bed on Christmas Eve or Santa won’t arrive, he follows her instructions – but going to bed as every child and most parents know is very different than going to sleep.

Antoine hears a clatter out on the balcony of his family’s Paris high-rise apartment building and arises to see just what is the matter. On the balcony he sees such a sight as he never believed he would see; Santa Claus in full red suit and beard. But this Santa (Rahim) isn’t there to deliver presents; he’s there to rob the occupants of the apartment. He manages to convince the wide-eyed tyke that Santa’s sleigh is broken and requires gold to run again – so with no time to return to the North Pole to retrieve some, he needs to take what he can find so that the presents can be delivered around the world by sunrise.

The thief’s glib lie backfires on him when Antoine decides he’s going to stick to Santa like glue. Antoine believes he’ll be rewarded by night’s end with a ride in Santa’s sleigh. Unfortunately, “Santa” is being chased by some real bad men who he owes a lot of money to (hence the need for gold) as well as the cops who have been getting reports of a thieving Santa all night long. As the crazy Christmas Eve moves into Christmas morning, man and boy form a special bond. They may be able to provide the things the other needs – if they both don’t end up in jail.

In case you wondered if lowbrow family films were exclusively the province of American filmmakers, here is the proof they exist in France as well. This French-Belgian co-production has all the family film clichés that it feels like you’ve seen it all before unless you’re Antoine’s age. When they say the plot almost writes itself, well, here’s a case where it probably do – the baseball team’s worth of writers notwithstanding.

Rahim is certainly charming and while any Americans who are familiar with the actor likely know his work in A Prophet, in a much different role he shows he has the star power to carry a film on his own. Unfortunately, Cabal is given a role that has been written as if all six year olds are absolute morons. I know that six-year-olds are trusting sorts but there are things here that Antoine takes on faith that even a four year old might say “Hey now, that just doesn’t make any sense!!!”

Seeing Paris at night during the Christmas season is a joy in and of itself, and the music by Klaus Badelt is truly complimentary to what’s going on in the film. Unfortunately these things aren’t enough to rescue a film that is ultimately one giant cliché written by a committee of folks who think that being a kid with little experience means being foolish and accepting of the laziest plot devices. Your kid deserves a better movie than this, particularly if he/she has the gumption to read subtitles o top of everything else.

REASONS TO GO: The music is nice and the night scenes of Paris during the holidays are magical.
REASONS TO STAY: Cabal is massively annoying and the character dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are nine writers credited to the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Dark Fortune

The Greatest Showman


Hugh Jackman knows this movie is a snow job.

(2017) Musical (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge, Radu Spinghel, Yusaku Komori, Daniel Son, Paul Sparks, Will Swenson, Linda Marie Larsen, Byron Jennings, Betsy Aidem. Directed by Michael Gracey

 

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” The fact that this movie has done the kind of box office it has is proof of that.

Barnum (Jackman) is a penniless dreamer who has married a beautiful rich girl named Charity (Williams) whose family his father once worked for. Her father most assuredly does NOT approve of the match. Barnum has big plans to buy a specific mansion near where they grew up but no means to get there but after losing yet another low-paying job disappears on him, he decides to go into business for himself, using a little financial chicanery to secure a bank loan to open up his Museum of Oddities.

At first business is slow but his wife believes in him. It’s just when he begins to add human acts – bearded ladies, Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb a performing little person, trapeze artists and acrobats does his business begin to thrive. Upper class playwright Philip Carlyle (Efron) is taken by the show and by a trapeze artist name Anne (Zendaya) in particular but it still takes Barnum some fancy talking to get him to invest in the Museum as a partner.

While on an overseas trip he hears the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Ferguson),, then the most famous singer on Earth, perform at Buckingham Palace and is completely taken by her voice and her beauty. He offers to bankroll her tour of the United States as her manager for which she would get an unheard-of (at the time) guaranteed sum. The tour threatens to bankrupt P.T. but it also threatens his marriage as Lind tries to seduce him and leave his wife for her.

.A suspicious fire burns down the Museum and all of a sudden Barnum is left with nothing again; furthermore his family of unusual acts is no longer feeling the love, having seen him turn their backs on them and treat them like unwelcome guests. Can this dysfunctional family reunite and rebuild?

I had high hopes for this, particular given that Jackman is in the title role. It’s perfect casting and Jackman who cut his show biz teeth on musical theater in Australia is more than up to the task, being the big reason to see the movie. His natural charm and likability shine through and even when he’s acting like a jerk you still like the guy and like me were pretty sure he would come around to his senses.

Unfortunately after that it’s a very short list of reasons to see this. While I like the theme of inclusiveness (although they tend to bang the audience over the head with it), after that there are some key components to the film that simply aren’t up to snuff. First and most glaringly is the songs. They are absolutely dreadful; all of them sound pretty much the same and none of them really are the kind you’ll be humming after you leave the theater; as I write this I can’t remember the tune to a single one of them. That’s very bad news for a musical.

The writers for whatever reason seem to stick a song in even where one isn’t needed and in fact the musical number ends up disrupting the flow of the film. Personally I loved the idea of a musical about Barnum but it needed a capable songwriter to write the music and lyrics. This sounds like it was written by Broadway hacks which it certainly wasn’t; the folks involved wrote the music and lyrics to La La Land and did a much better job with that property. There is not one song here that is anywhere near as memorable as “City of Stars.”

The writers also play fast and loose with history (for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the relationship between Barnum and Lind was anything but a business one) which isn’t an original Hollywood sin but there are so many characters here that were invented out of whole cloth – certainly Barnum had plenty of interesting people in his life that could have made appearances here. Poor Michelle Williams has so little to do that her smile begins to look awfully strained by the end of the movie. Even CGI couldn’t save it – except that the CGI that the movie does utilize is uniformly terrible.

I could go on and on. Barnum’s children here are essentially perfect movie kids whose presence is superfluous and disruptive. There are too many anachronisms in the dialogue to shake a stick at – but why kick a horse when it’s already down, except not only is this horse down it’s also been lit on fire, stabbed through the heart, shot, beaten with a crowbar and drowned in a vat of acid before being miraculously resurrected and buried alive. Actually, the horse has it better than those who must watch this movie. See it for Jackman if you must but see it at home so you can turn it off when you start to feel yourself beginning to need to do whatever it takes to stop the torture.

REASONS TO GO: Hugh Jackman is charismatic and charming. The “different is okay” theme still resonates.
REASONS TO STAY: The songs are generic and awful. There are too many historical liberties taken and the children are an unnecessary distraction. It feels like the writers were flailing around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the costumes used in the film are the property of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and have been actually worn by performers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/518: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago
FINAL RATING: 4/10 (all Jackman)
NEXT:
Off the Menu