The High Note (2020)

The High Note (2020)

Directed by: Nisha Ganatra. Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Runtime: 1h 53 min. Released: May 29, 2020.

In Los Angeles, a personal assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), working for music superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), follows her dreams of being a producer when she meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and gives him the impression she’s an established producer with connections.

That’s the best I could come up with as far as a synopsis for this film goes, as for much of it felt kind-of plotless until Maggie met David. A lot of it is a personal assistant working for a superstar who’s struggling with her age, and then it leans into romantic drama when Maggie meets David.

Their relationship felt like the heart of the film as Dakota Johnson and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s chemistry was strong. Johnson plays the role as well as she usually does, and there’s nothing really new in her performance, but Johnson is why this worked for me at times. Harrison Jr. is good, too, there’s just nothing special about his performance, except the fact that his singing is solid and enjoyable.

About Tracee Ellis Ross, I haven’t seen enough of her to really create an opinion yet, but I wasn’t a big fan of this performance and that was mostly because I didn’t like the character – she’s a prima donna that’s too often unlikable, but her singing is fine. I liked her once we got to know her more, and a main plot point of her manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) pressuring her to take a Las Vegas residency was fine. It was interesting because Maggie wants her to take risks and encourage her not to play it safe, and safe would be the residency doing the same thing every night.

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Tracee Ellis Ross, Dakota Johnson and Ice Cube in The High Note.

I did like the dynamic occasionally between Maggie and Grace, and I really liked the sub-plot of Maggie working on one of Grace’s old albums to make it have a new sound. That was the most interesting part about Maggie’s character to me – her music knowledge. She’s like an encyclopedia, as Grace calls her, and her knowledge of music and her passion for it is inspiring and Johnson plays that side well. She’s a dreamer and she’s following her ambitions; but it still feels one-note and isn’t enough to create a truly great character.

About Grace’s old music: Everyone loves her music, but they don’t want anything new. It’s explained that her last album sold poorly and that’s why her manager Jack – Ice Cube is fine but has so little to do – is adamant about the residency. The logic of no one wanting new music just doesn’t make sense to me, here. Grace Davis is still doing tours and has her billboards up all over, she still seems like a big deal, still selling out venues. Why wouldn’t these fans buy a new album? Part of the story is finding that passion to want to release new music again, but I couldn’t buy that her album wouldn’t sell well when we’re shown that she is such a big deal.

It’s interesting learning a bit more about the role of a music producer, and I enjoyed all the musical aspects of this. The drama of this is just so flat and just lifeless at times, as this just goes through the motions and never really gets going, and I couldn’t really even tell where the story was going for much of the film. That’s not to say that this is due to an unpredictably to the film – more so that it just felt so unfocused and was trying to do a lot of things at once, while also feeling like nothing of substance was happening. This is made worse by the fact that this feels overlong at 113 minutes, and if this were 90 minutes and more focused, it would be much more enjoyable.

I say that because after the classic break-up conflict, the film finally hits its stride in the last 25-30 minutes. It felt lively as it hit the emotional heart of its story, and finally found its voice. The message of fixing regrets and showing that risks are integral to following your dreams was fine. The third act finally had a couple (predictable) surprises up its sleeve and the film felt like it finally clicked. I just wasn’t emotionally invested at that point, and it’s a shame it couldn’t find its stride or voice like 45 minutes sooner, because it all felt too little too late.

Score: 50/100

Force of Nature (2020)

Force of Nature (2020)

Directed by: Michael Polish. Starring: Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth, Mel Gibson. Runtime: 1h 31 min. Released: June 30, 2020.

Force of Nature feels like the writer of the film, Cory M. Miller, watched 2018’s The Hurricane Heist and said, “Yeah, I’d like to write something like that, but worse.” At least in The Hurricane Heist there’s an aspect of it where it doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it could be fun to mock with friends, but Force of Nature is much too boring for those purposes.

The basic premise makes sense but the story feels haphazardly put together. During a hurricane in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a gang of thieves – led by John the Baptist (David Zayas) – target a building for a heist. They encounter trouble, however, when Officer Cardillo (Emile Hirsch) and his new partner Jess (Stephanie Cayo) are on evacuation duty and try to get a disgruntled ex-cop, Ray (Mel Gibson), his daughter Troy (Kate Bosworth), an elderly recluse called Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos) and Griffin (William Catlett) to leave the building and go to the storm shelter. Then, when John the Baptist and his crew come in, all hell breaks loose.

There are a lot of working parts about Force of Nature that try to come together but never mesh, and that’s with all the attempts at actually creating characters with backstories. It also makes the film feel like it takes itself way too seriously at times. Cardillo is developed as a character with a dark-ish past that everyone knows and Ray immediately doesn’t trust him because of Cardillo’s history. Cardillo has a lot of demons and we meet him sitting on the shower floor with a gun in his mouth. This type of characterization is fine in a drama, but the writing’s not strong enough to create a believable person. I get it, he has demons, but he’s a bit of a boring dickhead.

Ray is also just angry because his health is bad and Mel Gibson is just on one level the entire film – pissed off. The other attempt at serious character development is with Griffin, and his development feels relevant politically as he’s a black man who has problem with police because of run-ins with the past. He also has a killer lion or jaguar – I couldn’t tell, we only see it in a split second shot of it – whom he’s trained to attack cops in uniform. There’s also a layer with Bergkamp who’s a German who must learn to be tolerate others. This all just feels out-of-place for a dumb action movie with a hurricane and a heist. It is a dumb action movie and the attempt at characterization is fine, but the writing is so flat they don’t really ever come alive. It also just feels too serious, and the dialogue is wooden and any attempts at emotional scenes come off as laughable.

The heist is boring as hell, too, and the twist for it is dumb. Major spoilers, but basically John the Baptist is a criminal but also an art enthusiast who has caught wind of an art collection in the building owned by Bergkamp, whose father was a Nazi so he has a bunch of paintings from his Nazi days. This film really feels like if The Hurricane Heist, any action movie with an apartment building as the main setting (it’s too bad to compare this specifically to The Raid: Redemption) and The Monuments Men had a weird baby and this is the product that no one wants. And, while John is an art enthusiast and knows the value of these paintings, he doesn’t mind shooting someone in the back of the head so their brains fly all over a priceless painting. End spoilers.

He gets very little characterization – other than that these people are big into heists in Puerto Rico – and he’s supposed to be threatening just because he doesn’t mind killing his own men if they’re expendable, half the time for no reason. Seriously, I’m pretty sure he killed as many of his own guys as our heroes killed.

The hurricane itself feels inconsequential to the story, really just a framing device designed to get the cops to the same building where the gang is stealing from, and the hurricane also cuts off communication between Cardillo and Jess and their precinct. The hurricane also looks super ugly, and not much of a factor other than some flooding and filming in the pouring rain. In The Hurricane Heist the hurricane was because it was just a stupidly fun mix and at least there were action scenes in the hurricane, and in Crawl at least the hurricane served a purpose in getting the gators to the house. I mean, I guess the hurricane does get the cops to the building, but it never feels like an important factor. The same bad film could be made without the presence of a hurricane, and that could allow more action with more tenants in the building.

Score: 25/100

Scoob! (2020)

Scoob! (2020)

Directed by: Tony Cervone. Starring: Will Forte, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Isaacs. Runtime: 1h 34 min. Released: May 15, 2020.

In Scoob!, we see how Shaggy (Will Forte) and Scooby (Frank Welker) meet when they’re kids. Then they meet the rest of the gang – Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried) and Velma (Gina Rodriguez). It’s not much of a prequel story as this happens for about 10 minutes, but they investigate a local haunted house and this is when it feels like classic Scooby-Doo. Enjoy this while it lasts, as 10 years pass and Shaggy and Scooby find themselves in a generic superhero story to stop the evil Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs) from unleashing a dogpocalypse onto the world.

Usually, the Mystery Gang will simply help local townsfolk with a mystery, solve their spooky problem and then get called meddling kids. Here, as the plot shows it won’t please long-time Scooby fans, the Mystery Gang join forces with superheroes, not even solve a mystery and instead try to save the world, and then get called meddling kids.

This film is intended to be the first in a shared Hanna Barbera universe as Warner Bros. shoves lesser known HB characters into a Scooby-Doo film, as they join forces with Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and Dynomutt (Ken Jeong) from the Hanna Barbera show Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. The villain of this film is also Dick Dastardly of Wacky Races fame. I’m a ‘90s kid so I’m only vaguely familiar with Dastardly, and I don’t care about them. The voice acting is strong as these characters, though, and it could intrigue long-time Hanna Barbera fans to see these smaller characters on the supposed-to-be-big-screen.

However, this all makes Scoob! feel like a product more than something truly creative, as this shares the same mistake with 2017’s The Mummy as Warner Bros. puts a focus on jumping straight into a cinematic universe instead of first making a strong Scooby-Doo film. As a film for kids who might be seeing Scooby for the first time, this would be fine, but it would be a shame to make them think that this captures any of the spirit of Scooby-Doo because it does not. It’s just a film with colourful (and great) animation with non-stop action so their attention span never wanders.

It’s also strange that Fred, Daphne and Velma are turned into side characters. They get little to do and Fred never once tells anyone to split up, and Velma never says “jinkies” and she never loses her glasses. Okay, that’s false, she loses them in an image during the credits as director Tony Cervone and writers tease a real Scooby-Doo mystery, but we don’t get to enjoy it. To tease us like that after the nonsense of this film is honestly a cruel joke.

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Frank Welker and Will Forte as Scooby and Shaggy in Scoob!

As for the voice casting, Frank Welker reprises the role of Scooby-Doo and he’s great, but it’s strange that Scooby talks in complete sentences and is able to have conversations with Shaggy. Will Forte is fine as Shaggy and I like him as an actor, but he isn’t Shaggy. Matthew Lillard is my Shaggy. He started playing the character in the 2002 live-action film Scooby-Doo and has been voicing Shaggy in the television shows and films since 2010, so hearing Forte give it the old college try is kind-of a bummer.

The rest of the core cast is good in their own right in other films, but Zac Efron feels flat as Fred as he’s just playing himself and he’s such a big star that it kind-of distracts. Amanda Seyfried, though, feels like she actually fits Daphne but she has little to do. My biggest issue is Gina Rodriguez as Velma and that’s because she doesn’t even make an effort to make Velma sound like Velma. She doesn’t sound nerdy and she just showed up, did her regular voice and it just does not fit the character at all. This trio also barely has any laughs, but most of the humour in the film doesn’t work.

It feels so dated to the mid-2000’s, strange since Shaggy and Scooby sing a rendition of “Shallow” from A Star is Born to Simon Cowell (yep) that shows this is at least 2018. The music choices are kind-of odd as the film opens to Tupac’s “California Love” and then Shaggy shuffles through five songs about loneliness to show he needs a friend. That loneliness bit feels forced, but Shaggy and Scooby’s friendship is the core of this film and that’s played okay.

However, since this does not feel like my Shaggy and Scooby (the only time I really had fun with them is when they pretend to be restaurant workers at the bowling alley), I couldn’t love their friendship. I cared more about Dastardly’s super cute robots (reminiscent of the minions from Despicable Me and just for the merchandise) who have replaced Dastardly’s usual sidekick Muttley.

While this film surely ups the ante of a normal Scooby-Doo story to make it feel cinematic, it totally forgets that the Mystery Gang is simply a group of twenty-somethings who solve goofy and creepy mysteries that have no implications on the fate of the world. I’ve highlighted the good parts but this film is more frustrating when it flashes its clever side because there’s so much here that is uninspired.

Score: 38/100

Burn (2019)

Burn (2019)

Directed by: Mike Gan. Starring: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Josh Hutcherson, Suki Waterhouse. Runtime: 1h 28 min. Released: August 23, 2019.

I really enjoy hostage situation movies but Burn is truly one of the strangest ones that I’ve seen. When a desperate man, Billy (Josh Hutcherson), in need of cash holds a gas station at gun point, a lonely and unstable gas station attendant, Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), tired of being overshadowed by her prettier co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), sees this as an opportunity to make a connection with the robber.

The best thing about Burn is that it has a unique premise. It just doesn’t know what to do with it as Melinda comes across as way too unstable. She’ll make many audience members uncomfortable and that’s the point so Cobham-Hervey plays it well. You just know when a woman wants to go with the robber when he’s holding the place at gunpoint, something’s not right there.

There’s sympathy for her there, too, because she doesn’t know when someone legitimately likes her or if they’re just pretending. A lot of the time, though, the character’s just awkward. Her fascination with fire and burning herself to feel something is kind-of interesting. Edgy, but interesting.

Suki Waterhouse is okay in a completely opposite kind-of personality as the confident and bubbly gas station attendant who gets hit on by men whose attention she does not want. As for the robber, I like Josh Hutcherson just fine but he doesn’t work as the robber here. Josh Hutcherson in a Canadian tuxedo robbing a gas station isn’t exactly intimidating.

To be fair, his character isn’t a career criminal or anything, he’s just a guy in need of cash to pay off some angry people. That’s where the plot tries to bring outside people to the gas station but the pacing of the film doesn’t work as it’s mainly a two-person show between Billy and Melinda. They don’t have much chemistry as neither want to be there, but that dynamic works well for this. It’s just a boring film that never really elevates past a simply sort-of interesting premise.

Score: 40/100

 

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Directed by: Kevin Smith. Starring: Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Ben Affleck. Runtime: 1h 45 min. Released: October 15, 2019.

Kevin Smith’s latest film, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, is my most disappointing film of 2019. Packaged as a commentary on Hollywood and how they’re out of ideas because it’s all reboots, this is an essentially worse redo of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, as Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) try to stop production on a Bluntman and Chronic reboot. It follows the same structure but this time, there’s more “youth and diversity” as Jay’s daughter, Millennium Falcon (Harley-Quinn Smith), and her friends Soapy (Treshelle Edmonds), Shan Yu (Alice Wen) and Jihad (Aparna Brielle) tag along.

I’ll start with what I thought was tolerable and that’s the set-up with Jay and Millennium Falcon’s relationship. I find Harley-Quinn Smith boring as an actress but her character is the only thing that made me feel anything in this film. She’s also the only time I ever laughed at one of the main character’s lines. Smith’s commentary is smart, but I thought it got in the way, especially as he tries to relate a theme of fatherhood back to reboots, and that the fact that when you have kids, “they’re like your reboot.” It made a nice moment feel hollow.

From the get-go, the film mentions that the reboot they’re going to stop will be terrible. That makes this self-aware to a fault as I can’t tell if Smith actually intended to make this a terrible film. I also can’t tell if Smith has lost his touch or has just over-committed to proving a point that Hollywood has no creativity, by making a film bereft of creativity and skill. If that was the goal, it’s a successful film. I just hate it.

It’s a shame because I’m a Kevin Smith fan (I’ve only missed “Dogma”) but for every clever joke or moment here, there are 20 terrible forced moments at humour. This is the first film with this set of characters in the “View Askewniverse” where its humour feels forced. It tries hard to be funny, and still falls flat on its face. It’s surprising because Mewes and Smith himself are still fine, but this just doesn’t have the magic of his other films.

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Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (IMDb).

Smith prioritizes making fun of himself as a director and he’s a good sport about it. I like Smith as a person and that’s why it sucks that I hate this film. The only big laugh in this film is when someone acts out aggressively against Smith and a crowd member goes, “Oh, she must have paid to see Yoga Hosers.” It’s damn true because I didn’t pay to see that film and I still wanted my money back. Smith knows he’s made some stinkers and Reboot is now one of them.

This is also more fan service and advertisement for his better films than a real movie. It also just feels like Kevin Smith flexing his pop culture knowledge. It’s impressive, Kevin, now stop. He just focuses so much on the commentary that he forgets most attempts at story or characters. The “funny” merely settles for cameos (Ben Affleck’s works best), pop culture references and low-hanging fruit.

The laughs all miss so badly it felt like Smith was taking a handful of Hater Tots, grinding them in my eyes and asking me, “She’s named Millennium Falcon because that’s the name of Han’s ship! Do you get it? Jason Lee says ‘Hollywood’s not even making squeekquels anymore.’ Do you get it? It’s funny because he was in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. What if I do a cute music cue as I smile at Jason Lee when we do this joke? Will that make it funny?” It’s just so in your face that I felt like if I laughed, the movie would pause and Kevin Smith would get down on his jorts thanking me for laughing at one of his jokes. It’s exhausting.

Score: 38/100

Scarecrows (1988)

Scarecrows (1988)

Directed by: William Wesley. Starring: Ted Vernon, Michael David Simms, Richard Vidan. Runtime: 1h 23 min. Released: August 28, 1988.

I reviewed this film as part of the May Scavenger Hunt on Letterboxd, and you can find the original list here if you want to play along. The prompt for this film was No. 24, to “watch a film reference in The Cabin in the Woods. This review contains some spoilers.

I like B-horror movies as much as the next horror fan, so long as it has a point. Scarecrows isn’t one of those films with a point. A group of mercenary type criminals hijack a plane from a military base, kidnapping a pilot (David Campbell) and his daughter (Victoria Christian), forcing them to fly Mexico. En route, there’s a double cross where one of the thieves, Bert (B.J. Turner), takes the $3.5 million in cash, jumps out of the plane, and parachutes into a graveyard surrounded by a lone house and scarecrows.

Bert’s action doesn’t make sense as it’s poorly planned out, but as a concept to get these characters into the path of these scarecrows, it is not bad in set-up. Scarecrows are genuinely creepy – I would never be caught dead in a cornfield with one or even three scarecrows in the middle of the night – but this film makes scarecrows boring. The kills are simplistic and gory enough; but most of the gore comes from what these scarecrows do after the fact. Mild spoilers, but the people these scarecrows bring back from the dead are sort-of creepy. The scarecrows themselves? Hard meh. This isn’t that eventful when the mercenaries are being hunted and when they figure out how to kill these scarecrows, they’re not threatening because it’s such an easy defeat.

The rules for the scarecrows are also not well-established and how they hunt these characters. The scarecrows can imitate voices to lure these mercenaries into traps. They can also bring things back to life. They also magically disperse the money over the property so they are in little “follow the trail of money” piles. They can do so many supernatural things that it seems that director William Wesley just adds a new power when it’s interesting for the story. There’s a lack of planning that feels evident, especially when main mercenary, Curry (Michael David Simms), learns that the scarecrows are murderous. Curry jumps to the conclusion – a gigantic leap that literally can’t be measured – to the fact that these three scarecrows are actually the Fowler brothers, the owners of the home, reincarnated as scarecrows. Up to that point, we had not heard a single thing about them (unless I nodded off, which, sure, is possible) and it feels like a lazy, almost throwaway explanation for the scarecrows. It doesn’t go to any other lengths in explaining powers or Curry’s throwaway theory that maybe they’re meant to be here. There’s no rhyme or reason to this world and it’s annoying. I know I’m taking a stupid scarecrow movie a little seriously, but if the world is this small, I’d appreciate some attention to detail for it. 

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Victoria Christian, Kristina Sanborn and David Campbell in Scarecrows. (IMDb)

Other than this film being boring, the dialogue is weak. Most of the dialogue and action has the mercenaries being separated and shouting at each other over their radios and asking where everyone is. About to be killed by a scarecrow? “Where are ya, man? Where are ya? I can’t find you!” This is always to someone on the other end not answering. There’s also a weird choice made with Bert when he’s alone on the ground. His lips never move so they either filmed his action with the idea in mind that they’d just put a voice-over inner monologue later where he takes us through his thought process, or they just realized the action was so boring that it needed voice-over to tell us what he was doing. Either way, it’s strange and awkward. The dialogue elsewhere is just bad, too, as Jack (Richard Vidan) theorizes that “this place is possessed by demonic demons.” It’s not evident why they brought on three writers credited with additional dialogue, because they did not do their jobs well.

There’s little effort given to these people and they are not that likable. The dynamics of the group feel basic at best, and it’s not that exciting watching them try to recoup their money. The premise sounds like Predator but with scarecrows, and it brings the mercenaries and the large, jungle-esque property, but it only shows the scarecrows occasionally, and the sense of foreboding when we see the crosses without their scarecrow companions is creepier than when we see the scarecrows attack. The only merciless thing about this is the actual movie clocks in at about 75 minutes. We’re in and out quickly; but the trip still feels too long.

Score: 38/100

A Dog’s Journey (2019)

A Dog’s Journey (2019)

Directed by: Gail Mancuso. Starring: Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott. Runtime: 1h, 49 min. Released: May 17, 2019.

Of the dog films adapted from novels by W. Bruce Cameron, and with screenplay credits for him on each of the films, A Dog’s Journey is easily the strongest. 2019’s February release, A Dog’s Way Home, was a dull and annoying adventure and this film’s predecessor, 2016’s A Dog’s Purpose, was just okay, but it spent too much of the film with other owners other than Ethan (Dennis Quaid in both Purpose and Journey) as Bailey (Josh Gad in both films) learned his purpose is Ethan. Not to mention the trailers spoiled the ending.

That’s also a reason I prioritized avoiding the trailer for A Dog’s Journey. Okay, I probably saw the trailer once or twice in April 2019 but that’s the nice thing about waiting a year to watch this – I forgot about the trailers entirely, so this is mostly unspoiled territory. Anyway, this once again concerns the excitable Boss Dog/Bailey/Bailey, Bailey, Bailey, Bailey as Ethan and Hannah (recast with Marg Helgenberger) essentially raise their granddaughter, C.J., while her mother Gloria (Betty Gilpin) is off being irresponsible.

Hannah’s son, Henry, is the father but he passed away in a car accident before C.J. was born, and I’m pretty sure Henry is retconned into this film because I do not recall a Henry in A Dog’s Purpose. Gloria is an aspiring musician who thinks the world is out to get her, so in the first 20 minutes she takes her baby daughter away from her grandparents and leaves, because she assumes they want Henry’s settlement money.

With C.J. out of their lives, Ethan asks Bailey to come back in his next life and take care of C.J. like Bailey took care of Ethan. This follows Bailey’s journey as he helps C.J. (first played by Abby Ryder Fortson at age 10; and played by Kathryn Prescott at every other age when she ages many years in a decent guitar strumming transition).

I think this film has a leg up over its predecessor for one strong reason and that’s because, for the most part, the film has a focus that A Dog’s Purpose just did not have. In that film, Bailey died too many times and spent too much time with pet owners that weren’t interesting. Here, Bailey, now reincarnated as a dog named Molly, for the most part spends all her time with C.J. helping her through life. These scenes are sweet and sentimental, especially in the younger scenes when C.J.’s mom is off being a bad person, and in the teenage and young adult scenes when C.J. wants to be a singer-songwriter but is scared to put herself out there. No one believes in her besides best friend Trent (Henry Lau).

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Kathryn Prescott and Henry Lau in A Dog’s Journey. (IMDb)

We get several characters that want to bring her down a peg and that’s when the clichés in the film start to get lathered on and it becomes relentless. The most prominent is the irresponsible mother routine put on by Gloria – Betty Gilpin plays both halves of her character well – and this leads to a like mother-like-daughter thesis as Gloria continuously gets into bad relationships, and C.J. picks one bad guy named Shane (Jake Manley) who is here for the most annoying conflict in the film.

These side characters are where the film feels at its most emotionally manipulative where Bailey tells us with Gad’s inner monologues that he doesn’t like these characters. They’re mostly annoying boyfriends – another called Barry (Kevin Claydon) is only there to be condescending to C.J. – and other characters here to waste running time. If there’s one main fault in this film, it’s the clichés and poor writing in its conflict caused by secondary characters.

This is a smart film to spend most of the film with the central character of C.J., as Prescott delivers a fine performance and is a likable character. The film takes a brief detour as Bailey/Molly spends time with a different owner as a dog named Big Dog to learn that in the next life he has to be Molly’s dog before any other human can claim him. This is the only time that the film loses focus and feels like it could end up on the editing room floor as it’s a five-minute stretch where the scene feels like it’s Big Dog saying, “No Molly? Guess I’ll die now lol.” I swear, I don’t really think that’s exaggerating what happens there. The Big Dog transition is mostly to advance us to another stage in C.J.’s life., but using Big Dog’s chapter and how Molly’s chapter ends to skip forward in C.J.’s life totally felt weak.

Voicing the dog, Josh Gad is good here and he made me chuckle a lot. His voice-work captures the excitability of a dog, and I generally never found his dog observations to be too obvious or stupid, as they got most of the dumb dog observations out of the way in the other W. Bruce Cameron doggie universe films. Gad helps make this entertaining.

I’m being critical of A Dog’s Journey, but I think this is a good film. It has a strong heart and humour, something A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Way Home especially have lacked. It still packs on the sentimentality but I was honestly interested in watching C.J. navigate through her relationships – well, the only one that matters – and see if she’ll get on the stage and share her songs. The redemption for certain characters is also heartwarming and Dennis Quaid’s strong in a supporting role (though, heavy old person make-up on him and Marg Helgenberger distracts big time at one point).

Most importantly, I don’t think feels that emotionally manipulative, where A Dog’s Purpose felt like it because of how many times the dog dies. Here, it hits the emotional beats well because it takes its time creating a strong central relationship (“When are you guys going to lick each other already?” asks Bailey/Molly/Max) and when there are tears because of A Dog’s Journey, they feel earned because it’s for the human characters and moments, not just because of the pups.

Score: 63/100

Harriet (2019)

Harriet (2019)

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons. Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn. Runtime: 2h 5 min. Released: November 1, 2019.

Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), who escapes slavery and becomes an American hero, freeing slaves and changing history. One thing the film gets right is in the depiction of Harriet as an American hero, an important figure who inspired and is integral to America’s history. That is felt throughout the film. However, she deserves so much better.

The best part of the film is easily Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Tubman. Her brief singing scenes are lovely and there’s power in her performance, especially in the first hour of the film as she walks 100 miles to freedom to Philadelphia. Tubman freeing herself is the most compelling part of the film; but what she does after is more important, starting with arriving in Philadelphia and meeting William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who gives Harriet her freedom. Harriet then stays with Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe). When Harriet arrives, Marie (kindly) suggests Harriet take a bath because she’s “stinking like a barnyard animal.” This is one of the film’s better moments as Harriet uses it as a teaching moment, as Marie was born free. “I guess you never had the stink of fear, of running for your life.”

This is one of the only memorable lines about slavery that holds power. It’s a glossy, action movie look at slavery that, had I not seen the Universal logo before the film, I’d have assumed this was a Disney depiction of it. That’s how safe the screenplay, written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons who does a solid job directing, feels at times. It feels Disney in every way except for its use of racial slurs. I don’t think Tubman deserves a by-the-numbers biopic like this. Erivo’s performance makes the character transcend the generic screenplay, as she makes it worth the watch, and as a film that teaches about Harriet Tubman, it does its job.

I didn’t know much about Tubman before this – I think the most I knew about her was that she was part of the Underground Railroad because of that Black History Month episode of That’s So Raven. Speaking of a show where the main character has visions, Harriet Tubman had visions where she’d zone out (or even have fits of narcolepsy) where she’d receive messages from God of what the proper path was. I wish I had known this about Tubman before watching because it distracted at times, as some aspects of it felt a bit unbelievable in a biopic. Still, it seems like an accurate portrayal so I couldn’t really knock that.

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Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. (IMDb)

The villains of the film are where this is so weak for me. They just feel like very safe caricatures that are easy to hate, including the main one Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who grew up with Harriet but becomes the master of the plantation when his father dies. By the way, Gideon wants to sell Harriet which puts the film into motion because Harriet prays for Gideon’s father’s death and that night he dies. He’s such a goofy caricature of racism, and it’s more annoying to learn he’s a fictional character because he’s just awful.

The film then introduces slave catchers with Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) and the big bad named Abraham (Willie Raysor). Gideon hires them to bring Harriet back when she’s spotted on her first trip back to the plantation trying to bring people back to Philadelphia.

The scenes where Harriet tries to bring people back to Philadelphia to freedom has some thrills. For my enjoyment, though, this started to fall apart for me when Harriet is inducted into the Underground Railroad to free the slaves in an official capacity. Besides Harriet’s own walk to freedom, this is the most interesting part of her as a person but it feels dumbed down into an action movie. Right after she’s inducted it goes into a montage of her freeing slaves (“the bravest conductors steal slaves directly from the plantation right under the overseer’s nose,” explains William Still) to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” This is a fun scene because of the song – it’s such a banger and I loved hearing it in another film other than Cellular – but I would have liked more about the Railroad than just that when it’s such an integral part to her history.

I legitimately liked the first hour but tonally it feels different after “Sinnerman” plays. It inserts a last bit of energy into the film before it just becomes too goofy for the rest of it. The story still seems accurate to Harriet, but the dialogue just feels so rough, where Harriet has a vision of someone’s death and then someone narrates in a letter that they’ve “gone to meet that good friend of the slave, the Angel of Death.” I won’t rant about this line, but Walter says that “we’re gonna need a bigger cart” when there are too many slaves and they don’t have a big enough cart. A character can’t say that without it being a reference to Jaws, and the fact that this line is in a serious film about Harriet Tubman 100-plus years before Spielberg’s Jaws is something I very much dislike. Sure, it’s a harmless line, but when the first half of the film feels like a serious, but filtered, depiction of slavery and then it starts to feel more like an action movie and there’s a line like this, it starts to feel like the film just gives up and that’s disappointing.

Score: 50/100

Stuber (2019)

Stuber (2019)

Directed by: Michael Dowse. Starring: Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani, Mia Sorvino. Runtime: 1h 33 min. Released: July 12, 2019.

Six months after detective Vic Manning’s (Dave Bautista) partner Sara Morris (Karen Gillan) dies in the field of duty at the hands of a drug lord named Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais), he finally gets his chance at payback because of a shipment coming in that involves Tedjo.

The only problem is that Manning’s just had laser eye surgery and he can’t see. He has to enlist the help of Uber driver Stu (Kumaill Nanjiani, naturally nicknamed Stuber) to drive him around, which puts Stu into crazy situations. The premise is fine as Vic essentially kidnaps an Uber driver even though all he wants to do is go see his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) to tell her how he feels.

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Kumail Nanjiani in Stuber. (IMDb)

The chemistry between Nanjiani and Dave Bautista is the charming part about this film. They’re trapped in this co-dependent relationship for a day since Vic can’t see and Stu is willing to do just about anything for a five-star rating since he’s just been getting bad review after bad review. It’s believable when they fight and it’s somewhat amusing. I also like that the excuse for Vic needing an Uber driver is because of the vision. I thought it just might be simply because he gets his licence suspended – but the type of character Vic is, he wouldn’t let a suspended licence stop him from driving if it means getting Tedjo.

Some action scenes are good in Stuber and some scenes are funny, too, but there is just nothing memorable about this film. The only thing that’s memorably amusing is a male stripper, Felix (Steve Howey) tells Stu that he needs to tell Becca how he feels. The film is just disappointing because it’s only fine and it’s terribly predictable. There’s not a lot you’ll regret watching here, but nothing will wow you, either. Iko Uwais is a highlight because of his fighting skills and his parkour (utilized mostly at the beginning) but the star of The Raid: Redemption is wasted in yet another mediocre American film.

Score: 50/100

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

Released: January 11, 2019. Directed by: Charles Martin Smith. Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Jonah Hauer-King, Ashley Judd. Runtime: 1h 36 min.

I like movies about animals, but apparently not when they’re based on books by W. Bruce Cameron (A Dog’s Purpose). His latest film, A Dog’s Way Home is a familiar dog film that plays it completely safe and follows Bella (Bryce Dallas Howard), a pup who gets rescued from under a house and is taken in by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and his military veteran mom Terri (Ashley Judd). Lucas heads a cause to save kittens from under a broken-down house across the street because the property owner wants to demolish it.

For some reason, the property owner is adamant that there are no kittens under the house and asks Terri to have her son stay out of his business, or they’ll go to war. Being the vet that she is, Terri asks “What do you know about war?” The dialogue doesn’t get stronger from there. After this feud, events lead to Bella being 400 miles away and trying to find her way back home to Lucas.

The structure isn’t what’s wrong with the movie. The film is just weakest when Lucas and Olivia are out of the picture and it’s only Bella, which is saying a lot because Lucas and Olivia are dull.

Bella’s a cute pit-bull mix – her breed’s important for the film’s conflict – but Bryce Dallas Howard’s voice-over is weak. She acts as the dog’s thought process and thinks through the innocence of a dog – she names all the games like “Go Home” (Bella tries to do this the entire film and is bad at it) and in one of the film’s only chuckle-worthy moments she calls a veteran’s wheelchair a “small car” – but her dialogue is super boring and dull. The thoughts are just obvious, so when it’s just her doing voice-over and the dog is looking super pouty, it’s painful.

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Shelby the Dog in A Dog’s Way Home. (IMDb)

That’s at fault of the writers, Cathryn Michon and the book’s author and co scriptwriter W. Bruce Cameron, but Dallas Howard offers little effort to make it sound interesting. It’s monotone and the emotions sound basic, and it just doesn’t sound like a dog, either. I think Josh Gad’s voice works for A Dog’s Purpose because he’s hyperactive and sounds like a dog, but Dallas Howard sounds like what it is: An actress recording lines in a studio for the dog. I know that’s what Gad is doing, too, but he sells it.

The repetitive monologues about her having to find Lucas grow tiresome quickly, as they’re usually a lazy transition to get the film back to its main goal. There’s only one moment in the film that feels genuine when she discusses getting back to Lucas. She says it about another dog, saying, “He’s found his Lucas, but I’m still looking for mine.” If there were more heartwarming moments like that, I would have enjoyed this more.

The structure of the film is okay, as Bella meets different characters on her journey home like a bad CGI cougar called Big Kitten. The humans she meets are fine, too – the only notable ones are Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Gyn Foster), who come into player during a rare scene of action that makes this feel like the family adventure it’s supposed to be.

The film’s conflict doesn’t work well, as the animal control officer villain feels more like a simplistic version of Beethoven than anything. This film is also painfully boring. I read about the dog Shelby that was rescued from a Tennessee animal shelter to portray Bella in this film. Her story sounds intriguing and it sounds like it would have made a much better film than this forgettable doggie picture. And if Shelby does get a movie about her, maybe sitting through this would have been worth it. But probably not.

Score: 38/100