Month: April 2019

Robin Hood (2018)

Robin Hood comes in arrows blazing for a solid thirty minutes. After a light prelude introducing Rob of Loxley (Taron Egerton) and horse thief Marian (Eve Hewson) as lovers, it sweeps into action. Rob receives his conscription papers from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and immediately ships off to the Crusades where he witnesses startling brutality against the Saracens at the hands of his commander, Gisborne (Paul Anderson). When a botched attempt at heroism goes awry, he is shipped back home, except it’s a home he no longer recognizes. His estate has been ransacked, the people have been driven to a neighboring mining town, and the Sheriff has consolidated his power. What’s a young lord to do?

Rob of course. But lest you think this is a tale of hardscrabble bandits pinching pennies from nobles and retreating into the woods, director Otto Bathurst is here to tell you otherwise. This is not Errol Flynn and there are no men in tights. Instead, Robin Hood is a pounding origin story, one that throws together elements of a war film and a heist thriller with occasional nods to medieval England. It seeks to speak to the times, not unlike every other Robin Hood remake, and so borrows from a visual language today’s audiences know well. The most striking example of this is the opening dogfight between the English and the Saracens, a scene that one could easily mistake from a contemporary war movie. There’s nary a tunic nor cut of chainmail in sight. Instead, camouflaged leather uniforms double as arrow-proof vests, though surely nothing can be effective against the bump stocks on those Saracen bows.

It’s the Crusades as you’ve never seen them before, which is to say something along the lines of dystopian medieval steampunk? The film’s style is hard to pin down since it’s all over the place, but frankly, it matters less what look they’re going for and more that the rest of the movie doesn’t match the art department’s early ambition. The second and third acts are punctuated by plenty of flying arrows and explosions but lack defining moments and a good handle on plot. Rob, under the tutelage of his wartime enemy Yahya (Jamie Foxx in a somewhat magical role), lazily Anglicized to “John,” gains increasing favor with the Sheriff all the while staging bigger and bolder heists on the wartime coffers. His efforts are thwarted, however, by something involving the Church, machinations I didn’t care enough about to sort out.

The relationship between Rob and Marian also isn’t enough to set the story alight. Egerton and Hewson, dedicated as they are, have the look of kids playing at love, and their characters’ romance takes a high school turn when Will (Jamie Dornan) replaces Rob by Marian’s side after his reported death in the Crusades. They settle on an uneasy truce because they’re fighting against a common enemy though maybe not for the same cause. If the writers really wanted to shake things up, they should have made Will the main character. As an aspiring politician, he’s far more interesting and conflicted, but poor Jamie Dornan and his beautiful accent are relegated to lots of scowls and inaudible grunts in dark corners.

The filmmakers also leave the movie’s social political commentary half-formed. The Sheriff is a recognizable authoritarian figure, lifting words and ideas from right wing texts of today. Cloaked in a resplendent overcoat and perched high above the masses, he booms about “barbarians in Arabia [who] hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” The Sheriff’s remedy is a war tax levied on the poor so that they can defend the homes and jobs they no longer have against foreign invaders who just want you to stop killing their kids in their own land. The comparison is at once obvious, cliché, and fair, but it also gets lost in the fury of action and never rises to a powerful indictment of the times that we need. The early condemnations about foreign wars being yet one more way for the rich to steal from the poor should be the overriding message and might have been had it not been blown to smithereens alongside the coin vaults and getaway carriages.

Released: 2018
Prod: Jennifer Davisson, Leonardo DiCaprio
Dir: Otto Bathurst
Writer: Ben Chandler, David James Kelly
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, Paul Anderson, F. Murray Abraham
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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Morning Show Mysteries: Countdown to Murder (2019)

Countdown to Murder is my favorite Morning Show Mystery thus far, and I like it best for reasons unrelated to the murder or mystery. In this fourth episode of the series, some of the minor regulars get a chance to shine, Billie’s romantic relationship finally picks up, and Ian proves to be the best boyfriend detective in the whole Hallmark lineup. That the mystery successfully keeps you guessing is a nice bonus.

The countdown refers to a children’s song, which seems to give clues both about the killer and who will be killed. Toy ducks are left at the scene of the crime or at the doorstep of those who might be targeted next. The first victim is Art, the owner of a local grocery chain. Once again, everywoman Billie (Holly Robinson Peete) has a connection to the deceased and gets drawn into the case.

She comforts Art’s children, Jay (Andrew Francis) and Tess (Tara Wilson), who point to the son of their father’s former partner as the possible suspect. Edmond (Vincent Gale) has a motive; he wanted to sell the stores but couldn’t after he lost a legal battle with Art. Furthermore, the company’s board wrested control from him. The reason seems legit, but it also seems like misdirection after Jay, Tess, and Edmond’s wife, Olivia, are less than forthcoming about their own relationships with and grudges against Edmond and even Art.

Naturally, Hawk (David Paetkau), the junior detective is a jerk about Billie’s hunches, which often prove to be right. I can’t wait until we get the subplot where he’s demoted to desk duty since he’s useless in the field and an arrogant SOB. Thank goodness everyone else around Billie contributes to solving the case and is a decent human, well, everyone except her co-anchor on their Seattle morning show. Lance (David Lewis) has been lurking around the last few episodes. He always manages a snarky line or two, but he really lets his inner diva out this time. I quite like prima donna Lance, and his antics not only serve the plot but also highlight ethical issues in news reporting.

Other colleagues also get their due. Similar to some of the cases in Hallmark’s new series, Chronicle Mysteries, this one utilizes a team of sleuths to track down the killer. Billie still leads the way, but the show’s production assistant (Brittney Wilson) and editor (Jesse Moss) have important parts as well as a burgeoning romance. For years, network police serials have depended on supporting characters to deepen the storytelling. No reason why Hallmark can’t adopt this formula and make better use their regular cast members.

And we kind of need stronger secondary plots to keep this thing going because Billie and her detective love interest, Ian (Rick Fox), are going nowhere fast. Well, they make some inroads here, and couples salsa class is a definite step forward. I love that the two are thoroughly decent. Ian is a boyfriend I can get behind. He is always impressed by Billie, which I find super sweet, and he makes an honest and pretty romantic admission about why he’s sometimes uptight around her. No condescension needed. (I’m looking at you, Detective Mike Kingston from Murder, She Baked.) Still, it wouldn’t hurt to make them, well, fun.

Highlight for spoilers: Edmond killed…himself…sort of. The greedy bastard murdered Art and then faked his own death because, as Jay predicted, he was bitter about the bad deal he was getting and the fact that everyone had turned against him. His plan was to send ducks to the other three owners to both intimidate them and make them seem suspect. Art’s two kids appeared guilty because they were hiding the fact that they did cut a deal with Edmond. They were hoping to use his cash payoff to make improvements on the stores since Art put most of the money into high wages and low prices but pulled out when they realized Edmond was scamming them. Meanwhile, Olivia, his wife, hoped to pin the blame on Uncle Don, the grocery guy, since she also didn’t know what was going on but thought she might be arrested anyway. In the end, Billie manages to lock Edmond in the freezer like a boss.

Released: 2019
Dir: Kevin Fair
Writer: Amber Benson
Cast: Holly Robinson Peete, Rick Fox, Karen Robinson, Jesse Moss, David Lewis, Kirsten Robek, Greg Rogers, Brittney Wilson, David Paetkau, Milah Thompson, Andrew Francis, Tara Wilson, Vincent Gale, Ona Grauer
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

My Summer Prince (2016)

“Her Majesty The Queen is coming to Idaho” is a phrase I’m pretty sure you’ll hear on Hallmark and nowhere else. And since this is the channel that deals in impossibilities, I’m not surprised that this is a story about a wayward prince who falls in love with a fresh American PR rep who rescues him from a bit of a situation. Prince Colin of Edgemere (Jack Turner) turns to Deidre Kelly after a drunken romp in Greenbriar’s beloved fountain lands him in jail. He should be back home preparing for his mother’s jubilee ball, but that’s not how this prince rolls. With only days to go before the celebration, he has to make nice with the locals so they’ll let him leave.

The problem is Deidre Kelly (Lauren Holly) isn’t quite what Colin expected. In fact, the woman he meets isn’t Deidre at all but her assistant, Mandy Cooper (Taylor Cole). When her boss is laid up with the chicken pox, Mandy fills in at the last minute. The mix-up is never corrected, and Mandy tries to leverage the situation to prove that she can be more than a note taker and coffee girl. She lines up a full schedule of charity work and meet-and-greets for her client, earning the respect of both the prince and the townspeople in the process.

The actors do a lot to make up for the average plot, which offers few surprises. Holly and Marina Sirtis stand out in supporting parts. Deidre comes from a long line of insufferable bosses, albeit ones who are very good at their job, but Holly milks the role. Her character is precisely the type who would get chicken pox as an adult because she’s avoided children her whole life, even as a child. I also enjoyed Sirtis’s performance as the royal handler, Penelope, another smug type who can’t believe the crown has resorted to seeking help from the Americans. Both characters are self-assured enough though to show some humility when it’s merited.

The two leads don’t have trouble selling the story either. Cole has a slight change of pace as someone who’s more timid than usual. Mandy doesn’t take a decisive stand on ketchup storage, which sets her back professionally, but she’s kind and that does help her on the job. Anyway, she grows confident enough to wear a poofed, rose pink prom dress. Turner, meanwhile, is your basic prince, someone onto whom you can project your royal fantasies. He’s a bit more boyish than some of your other choices, but you know how palace life is. Colin just needs some room to breathe and maybe a trustworthy companion because homeboy’s a little lonely. He plays piano and likes the arts, a real bonus in my book. The actors are a natural, good-looking fit, evident by the two subsequent films they’ve made for Hallmark. Maybe they’ll pair up again for a sequel in the kingdom of Edgemere, and not going to lie, I’d watch it.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter Sullivan
Writer: Topher Payne
Cast: Taylor Cole, Jack Turner, Lauren Holly, Marina Sirtis, Kassandra Clementi, Vanessa Angel, Brian Dare
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

Best Friend from Heaven (2018)

Y’all, I don’t even know what to say about this movie, except maybe I’m being punished for making my mom watch Masterpiece Theater when she really just wants to watch Hallmark. I will gladly take a white folk’s romance about blasé dog trainer over this one about a talking dog angel any day though. I’m being charitable when I say that it makes no damn sense and that there’s a lot of un-Christian behavior for a purported Christian movie.

The whole thing is premised on the death of a dog, Gabriel, on his owner’s wedding day. He finds himself in doggy heaven, which is really human heaven but with a different entrance, and escapes back to earth before he even gets a paw in the pearly dog flap. However, he finds that he’s invisible and has the voice of…Kris Kristofferson, all of which makes his afterlife mission a bit difficult. Tara (Winny Clarke) and Pete (Christian Von Krause), it turns out, didn’t marry that day or any day thereafter. Now their faithful pooch wants to set things right and make sure the two say “I do.”

This is where the writing teacher in me gently presses my students about missing character motivations. Why did Tara and Pete decide to call off their wedding entirely? Why, since they are clearly still in love and intent on staying that way, didn’t they postpone their nuptials or opt for a smaller ceremony? Crucially, why is the whole town blaming Jerry (Will King), the kid delivering flowers, for running over Gabriel when Tara was the one who left the gate open and the dog was chasing a damn squirrel?!

Thankfully we’re not in a high school English class, so I’ll instead say that I can’t believe someone got paid to write this shit. There are so many gaping narrative holes that this was bound to sink. You just can’t fix poor Jerry’s story with a few patch-ups. I don’t know what is wrong with this mean-spirited town and church congregation, but everyone avoids him. They treat him like a leper despite his genuine remorse and willingness to atone for his actions.

So, feeling really bad but also inspired by the preacher’s “it takes a village” sermon, and by Gabe, Jerry decides to plan another wedding for the bitter couple. He needs the help of other congregants though, help which they give in exchange for Jerry’s free labor at their own places of business. Seriously, WTF, folks? Tara and Pete can stage another wedding if and when they want, and none of this should involve Jerry dressing up like a clown and becoming target practice for kids with handfuls of birthday cake.

And let’s not forget doggy St. Peter (I didn’t get the name of the character or actor), who comes to earth and takes on a human form when he realizes Gabe is missing. I don’t know if this makes more sense in the heavenly realm, but somehow, dude thinks he’s going to find Gabe by putting up “missing” posters and asking people if they’ve seen a dog they know is already dead.

But, hey, maybe it’s just me. Some people will enjoy this movie and find Kristofferson’s gravelly monotone endearing. Others will appreciate the syrupy message about community, albeit one that comes without much sense of true forgiveness. I tend to like my pop Christianity a little more Doubt and a little less Heaven is Real, so take your pick.

Alt Title: God’s Best Friend
Released: 2018
Prod: Patrick McBrearty
Dir: Justin G. Dyck
Writer: Keith Cooper
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Will King, Winny Clarke, Christian Von Krause, Brian Scott Carleton
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: Canada
Reviewed: 2019

Overboard (2018)

Nobody asked for an Overboard remix, so maybe it was right that the movie got dragged by critics. I already did a number on the original, but hating the idea of this movie is one way to be pleasantly surprised by some of the story’s retooling. It turns out the flipping the script and reversing gender roles can improve things. My main problem with the 1987 film is that the insufferable socialite who’s tossed overboard finds herself exploited by the man she’s cheated. He takes advantage of her vulnerability and then justifies that behavior by pointing finger at her and not himself, all of which is played for laughs and a sense of karma. So what happens when the one in need of his comeuppance is a man? Well, something a little more nuanced.

Kate (Anna Faris), for one, is a lot more sympathetic than the Kurt Russell character she is based on. She actually feels guilty about fooling Leo (Eugenio Derbez), the playboy bachelor and now amnesiac, into thinking he is her husband. It’s a last ditch move by a young widow who knows she can’t continue to juggle three girls, two jobs, and a nursing exam, especially after her mom’s popped off to do some community theater. Revenge is not the aim so much as it is a simple need to keep her life from falling apart. She sets the unsuspecting Leo up with a punishing construction job so that she have money for the mortgage. She enlists his help to cook dinner and get the groceries so she has more time to study. At no point does she abdicate her own responsibilities towards work or family.

Crucially, the power dynamics shift. Kate manipulates Leo, and criminal behavior is criminal behavior, but she doesn’t have complete control over him. He gains independence through his ability to work, and that in turn gives him a network of friends and coworkers. Leo takes cues about how to be husband and father, but he has a lot more room to shape his new identity. He is not trapped at home or at the mercy of people who could take advantage of him physically or sexually, and this telling change makes all the difference. In fact, it’s Kate who must remain guarded. She comes up with an excuse to keep him out of her bedroom and, having seen the way he used to demean women, is wary of letting him alone with her/their daughters. So it is that even a woman who seems to have all the power still does not.

I’ll own to be one of the few people who enjoyed this movie, certainly if we’re comparing it to the original. Its better hold on gender also extends to supporting characters. Kate’s kids each have a distinct personality, and Leo’s two sisters are a riot. Responsible, business-minded Magdalena (Cecilia Suárez) has her eye on the family’s company, but their father favors Leo despite his life of debauchery. I can’t say she’s entirely wrong for pretending her brother was devoured by sharks.

Most of my criticism is directed at the humor, which could be dialed up several notches. Though the laughs are consistent, they’re never very strong. Faris is delightfully neurotic, per usual, and keeps things funny while also being the adult in the room. She and Derbez aren’t always tuned to the same comedic wavelength though. They’re an odd couple not only because of age but also because he tends to be more deliberate and over-the-top in his delivery. In his eagerness to get laughs, he just doesn’t get many. I hope we’ll see more of Derbez and the other Mexican actors regardless. This kind of mainstream cross-production is the kind of cinema I want more of, where large chunks of Spanish dialogue is just a natural thing.

Released: 2018
Prod: Eugenio Derbez, Benjamin Odell, Bob Fisher
Dir: Rob Greenberg
Writer: Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg, Leslie Dixon
Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Anna Faris, Eva Longoria, Mel Rodriguez, Hannah Nordberg, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Peyton Lepinski, Fernando Luján, Cecilia Suárez, Mariana Treviño, John Hannah, Swoosie Kurtz
Time: 112 min
Lang: English, Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019