Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a little girl who wants to believe the world is filled with wonder and magic, but experience has taught her to embrace cynicism instead. She may hope for the best but she prepares for the worst, reading disaster preparedness books alongside the comic books written by her father. Incandesto and his super hero friends are so familiar to her she can practically see them but her father George (Ben Schwartz) has had no luck selling them, and has recently left the family, bereft. Mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) isn’t doing so hot either. A romance writer, Phyllis has been in a bit of a slump lately, and her new project isn’t very inspired either.
But don’t worry, folks, this isn’t some sad sack story, this is a super hero origin story, and the super hero is a squirrel named Ulysses. Ulysses gets sucked into a robot vacuum and once resuscitated, he’s got super powers! He’s super strong, and super fast, and super troublesome when Flora brings him into the house. He also writes poetry, but it’s unclear whether that’s actually a super power. Anyway, any squirrel in the house is likely to wreak havoc, but Ulysses is capable of so much destruction! All accidental, of course, but ask mom if she cares. She does not! But in the course of things, mean Miller (Danny Pudi) at animal control gets whiff of a potentially rabid squirrel and he’s on the case, pursuing the Buckman family, the boy next door, William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is temporarily hysterically blind, and their super squirrel Ulysses, stopping at nothing to euthanize super Ulysses, willing even to tranquilize humans in his quest to cage a furry little super hero.
Matilda Lawler is an insanely cute kid and a very capable actor. Much of the film’s charm emanates directly from her. Ben Schwartz harnesses a lot of his oddity and delivers straight up goofball as the affable, supportive dad. Their family adventure makes for excellent family viewing, and there’s no denying the soft, endearing fuzziness of Ulysses the poetry writing super squirrel. Director Lena Khan does an excellent job of translating the hijinks onto the big screen but keeping it grounded first and foremost in family values. The characters may be offbeat but the message is hopeful, the story is bright, and the squirrel is hard to resist. Flora & Ulysses has the makings of an excellent family movie night.
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You may already know about this movie even if you haven’t seen it. Sia, the popular singer-songwriter with the oversized wigs, is its director and co-writer, but more importantly, is the woman who made a movie about a young woman on the autism spectrum without casting or seemingly consulting anyone on the spectrum. And when she was called out about it, she got kind of defensive. Understandable, maybe, but not a great look. She has since half-apologized, the very definition of too little, too late.
While I definitely believe that inclusion is good and right, and representation important, I decided to see if I could set the controversy aside and enjoy the movie anyway. The short answer is NO. The long answer is:
Music is not about a young woman on the spectrum named Music. Music (Maddie Ziegler) lives with grandma Millie (Mary Kay Place), who has carefully constructed a safe space in which Music can exist. Music is barely verbal, but she likes to go for walks and visit the library, and she’s never without her headphones. But then Millie suffers a deadly stroke and Music’s sister Zu (Kate Hudson) has to step up and take custody, which is a real head scratcher since Zu is an addict and a drug dealer recently released from prison and currently on parole. How she gets custody is beyond me. She can barely care for herself, she’s 40 but hardly an adult. Caring for a special needs sister seems wildly beyond her, which is probably why things get so wildly out of control. Anyway, this movie is not about Music, it’s about Zu. Music is merely used as a prop to help Zu achieve her goals. She’s a plot device on Zu’s road to redemption.
While this is hardly Hollywood’s first ‘marginalized person as a plot device’ narrative, it is a particularly offensive portrayal by Maddie Ziegler, who, by her own admission only prepared for the role by watching Youtube videos of kids on the spectrum having meltdowns. Ziegler’s performance is without depth or nuance. It’s one-dimensional, insensitive, and doesn’t begin to describe a person as a whole. But director Sia doesn’t understand this, and the script, co-written by Sia and children’s author Dallas Clayton, isn’t interested in fully-realized characters anyway. Music remains opaque and unknowable, Zu is hardly treated to anything resembling an arc or development, and other characters aren’t just basic but sometimes downright offensively stereotypical. It’s surprising that Sia was able to get the likes of Hector Elizondo, Mary Kay Place, Ben Schwartz, and Leslie Odom Jr. to sign on, but then again, none of them would have seen Ziegler’s patronizing performance until everyone was already on set and the ink on contracts was good and dry. But the whole notion that Zu can achieve some sort of absolution merely by learning to love her “challenging” sister is gross. Music doesn’t exist to make Zu look good. She shouldn’t be used as a way to illustrate someone else’s good vibes and positive intentions. She’s not an instrument or a stop along her big sister’s victory tour; her depiction as such is cruel and irresponsible. Why does a movie named after her fail to see Music as a person?
This patronizing and poorly judged filmed is frequently interrupted by an entire album’s worth of Sia songs – performed by Ziegler, Hudson, and Odom Jr. – and their accompanying music videos, which masquerade as insight into Music’s interior life but are really just an excuse to trade on the director’s only real talent. If only she had merely put out 10 videos instead. The musical interludes are of course pastel pieces of choreography heaven, but they not only have little if anything to do with the film itself, they also get really old really fast. Sia lacks the skill to connect these interjections to the larger story and the videos feel shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t want them. And though Maddie Ziegler’s other Sia collaborations (on her videos for Chandelier, Elastic Heart, and Big Girls Cry) are borderline genius, these are of course tainted by Ziegler’s self-evidently problematic aping of disability.
The film’s ignorant and infantilizing portrayal of autism is disastrous, so it might be a good time to yet again point out that actually involving people on the spectrum in this film’s conception, casting, development, and shooting would have resulted in something more authentic and representative. I know it’s tempting, in today’s cancel-prone culture, to dismiss or boycott this film, but I think that we can still learn valuable lessons from bad art. And Music is very, very bad. It’s so bad that it should serve as a new benchmark for productions going forward. It’ll be harder for mistakes like this to be made in the future. That’s not so much a silver lining as a tin foil lining, paltry perhaps, meager consolation, but it’s important to remember that a movie like this doesn’t just do a disservice to a marginalized community, it sets us all back, our understanding and our empathy and our ability to build a more inclusive society. Music isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom, and the only way we can be part of the cure is to talk about the way forward.
Does the world need movies based on video game characters? Not really. But a good story can spring up from anywhere, except perhaps from the minds of screenwriters Josh Miller and Patrick Casey whose credits are so sparse they literally feature “community television” and yet Sonic The Hedgehog will still not make their highlight real.
Sonic The Hedgehog isn’t bad but it is speeding in the exact opposite direction of good, leaving only lightning farts and a blue blur in its wake. Is Sonic allergic to not sucking? Okay, so it’s kind of bad. The script is bland and overly familiar and exceedingly safe. There’s nothing new or exciting here, just a paint-by-numbers that any idiot could have written, and in the case of Sonic, we got two. I mean: someone got paid for this. Miller and Casey literally cashed a cheque for writing the line “Let’s go do some ROCK-conaissance!” and Jim Carrey got a much, much bigger one to say it.
And ugh: Jim Carrey. I was fine with him having disappeared off the face of the earth. I was never a fan of his annoying, rubber-faced schtick, the over-the-topness of his obnoxious expressions and over-enunciation. NOT. HERE. FOR. IT. I very kindly tolerate him when a director keeps a tight leash on him (Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) but Jeff Fowler is not that director. Not only is Carrey unleashed, it’s pretty clear he’s a very bad dog who’s probably pissing on Fowler’s shoes. Fowler, whose credits are no more impressive than Miller’s or Casey’s (ie, he’s never made a movie before), is quite content to simply point his camera in the right direction.
James Marsden, charming and inoffensive, is relegated to saying things like “Good grief!” which is not a thing for grown men to say, or anyone outside of Charlie Brown’s inner circle, really. Tika Sumptner, playing his wife, is given even less to do. Ben Schwartz voices Sonic, and though Schwartz is known for rather larger than life characters, you could go the whole movie without placing his voice, generic white guy à la Zach Braff.
Sonic The Hedgehog is the film equivalent of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Kids might reach for it simply because it is a cookie, but if chocolate or peanut butter or even plain old shortbread were on offer, it would be no question. But it’s just 6 weeks into this new year and it’s virtually the only family-friendly movie in theatres. This is how oatmeal raisin thrives: a complete dearth of options.
If you’re going to make a movie about seedy undergrounds, small-time criminals, and scary mob bosses, you need to pick the right tone. Make it funny like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Make it clever like Pulp Fiction. Make it suspenseful like The Town. But don’t you dare try to make your movie all of those things, because odds are you’ll end up with a mess like Blue Iguana.
Two ex-cons, Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and Paul (Ben Schwartz), are working in a diner trying to turn their lives around when Katherine (Phoebe Fox) offers them a job too tempting to turn down. Of course, it’s not a legal task, and of course, it goes sideways immediately as the target of their snatch and grab operation falls off a balcony face-first. Do they try to disappear after mucking things up? Of course not. They double down and go after the Blue Iguana, a giant diamond that they’re going to steal from mob boss Arkady (Peter Polycarpou), after he steals it first.
There’s just no one to root for in this film, which is surprising considering Sam Rockwell has made a nice career for himself playing various charming idiots (winning an Oscar as an amazingly bad cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). And when someone like Rockwell can’t make us care about his loutish dirtbag, no one else has a chance. These characters just have nothing to offer.
No matter how many quick cuts were taken, no matter how many slow motion shootouts were paired with carefully selected songs, no matter how many montages contained colourful disguises, Blue Iguana never felt comfortable in its own skin. In trying to be lots of other things that writer/director Hadi Hajaig clearly admires and aspires to match, it just tries way, way too hard, to a painful degree.
At no point does Blue Iguana ever get close to being great, and worst of all, in trying so damn hard to emulate greatness, the result ends up being less than mediocre.
Teddy is a high school dropout and a moderately successful barbecue salesman who is living paycheque to paycheque in order to fund a lifestyle worthy of his out-of-his-league girlfriend, Lisa. Lisa makes loads of her own cash so Teddy feels a little inadequate, and worries that his inability to keep up would cause her to leave. When he finds out that he stands to inherit the barbecue business, he finally feels secure enough to propose. Of course, Teddy’s (Kevin Hart) over-the-top proposal gets explosively out of hand, and his romantic prospects burn up just as assuredly as his economic future.
Out of a job with no high school diploma to his name, Teddy has little choice but to obtain his GED if he doesn’t want to work at Christian Chicken for the rest of his life (WHY is the chicken christian? how do we know to whom the chicken prays?). Two things stand in his way: first, the night school teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), with whom he clashes, and also the school’s principal Stewart (Taran Killam), who was Teddy’s high school bully, more or less.
Night School is written by Kevin Hart and 5 others, and it feels like a movie written by committee. There are some laughs to be sure; Hart and Haddish are not exactly devoid of chemistry but the rest of the cast (Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are just a bunch of weirdos that turn a not unpromising premise into a bag of very mixed nuts. Between chuckles, there is often a dauntingly vast laughter desert where not one iota of mirth exists. Sure, sometimes a joke may shimmer in the distance like it’s the real deal, but up close you’ll soon discover that though it may have a joke-like structure, it’s missing that essential element: comedy. Comedy is the thing that turns words into jokes. Apathy into laughter. 111 minutes into a movie. Night School does not have enough comedy to fill out the typical run-time of a commercial, so I’ll let you do the math as to whether or not this one’s worth your time. Mine? Not so much.
On their third anniversary, Sam and Mollie realize the biggest excitement of their lives is pushing the limits of their garage door opener. Are they happy together or just habitually together? Either way, a couple who starts asking themselves that is bound to find some flaws.
So then we get to witness them fight and watch a long term relationship disintegrate because they’re just not sure. And I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately in which the couple just aren’t sure. When my grandparents got married, there was no ‘sure’. They were the same religion, their families didn’t hate each other, and they were 18 and probably horny. So they got married, and thanks to the religious belief in never, ever getting divorced, they’re still together today. When my parents got married, there was no ‘sure’. He thought she was pretty and she thought he’d be a good provider so they waited for her to turn 18 and married. That was enough. Today, there’s no telling what’s good enough, or even if good enough is good enough.
Sam (Ben Schwartz) and Mollie (Noël Wells) are practically the every-couple. Whether or not you find them funny probably depends on how secure you are in your relationship. I sure found it relatable, sometimes embarrassingly so. But that’s what love is: baring your worst self to someone else and hoping they don’t leave you. We’re all assholes. Finding someone who will put up with it feels like a kind of miracle.
I’ve rarely seen Schwartz in non-obnoxious mode. I didn’t even realize he was capable. It’s kind of nice. And Sam and Mollie are kind of cute together, in a way that makes you want to pull for them, even when it feels like the wrong horse to bet on. Flashbacks reveal both the good times and the bad – because no relationship has ups without downs. Perfection is a fallacy, although it’s exactly that kind of perfection that’s usually sold in rom-coms: guys who aren’t afraid of intimacy, who don’t struggle to communicate, who convey their passion with grand, romantic gestures. But Happy Anniversary is the kind of rom-com we need: one that teaches us to value the idiosyncrasies that make a couple special, perfectly imperfect for each other. “Knowing” is hard. Trusting is hard. Having in faith in someone else is hard. Forever is hard. So good fucking luck.
Chris has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t really commit. That sounds like a cop out but the shades of guilt were complicated and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But he was sentenced at the age of 17 as an adult and it was only thanks to the hard work of his high school teacher Carol that he’s now out.
A couple of things: Chris (Jay Duplass) had developed quite an intense relationship with said teacher (Edie Falco) but now that it’s not a strictly phone friendship, things are different. She’s married. She has a teenage daughter, in fact. But Chris doesn’t really have very many other people in his life, so he’s leaning very heavily on her. His brother isn’t a lot of help – yeah, he’s staying in his garage, but things are pretty tense since Ted (Ben Schwartz) never visited him in prison, and seems to have had something to do with the crime that sent Chris away. Things are very, very tense.
Also: freedom isn’t quite as free as Chris has imagined. I mean, being outside the walls of his cell is intimidating. But he’s also dealing with the confines of probation – not drinking, not traveling, finding a job suitable for an ex-con, etc, etc. And I couldn’t help but feeling like Carol’s less than ideal marriage is a little more prison like than she’d like to admit. So shit’s complicated.
Duplass and director Lynn Shelton wrote the script together and though it’s not very action-oriented, it’s packed with emotional awkwardness and personal growth. Duplass doesn’t make for a typical criminal, whatever that means. Even 20 years of prison doesn’t seem to have hardened him, he’s sensitive and introverted and a little lost and needy. The movie really follows his struggles to readjust to this life, and it’s quickly obvious that the superficial stuff like texting and bike helmets are the least of his concerns. The world has changed, but more importantly, so has he. He’s struggling to catch up; the film shines in small moments, like when Carol’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) teaches him it’s no longer okay to use the word ‘retarded.’
Edie Falco is a wonder. I especially loved the complicated relationship between her and her daughter. But the movie flounders a bit, with Chris’s plight a little too internalized. The story’s predictability makes this film good, but not great.
Four couples convene at a cottage for a weekend getaway, or at least that’s what one of the couples thinks. The other three are there to tell the fourth to get divorced already. Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza) have been at each other’s throats for as long as anyone can remember, and their friends have determined that this is the time to spring a martial intervention on them. It’s not that easy to tell your friends to quit their relationship though, especially not when your own is on somewhat rocky ground.
Jessie (Clea DuVall) and Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) are in love, but they lead separate lives, perhaps because Sarah is not exactly Jessie’s “type” , but you do you know who is? Jack’s new girlfriend! Everyone thinks it’s kind of tacky that Jack (Ben Schwartz) brought a hot young date named Lola (Alia Shawkat) to the shindig, and they doubly don’t appreciate their sloppy pda all over the place. Not when Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and Matt (Jason Ritter) are on their umpteenth postponement of their wedding and Annie’s drinking again, not that anyone minds so much when her drunken outbursts break the ice during a very tense dinner.
Have you ever guided someone towards divorce when they themselves have never put divorce on the table? It’s a little dicey, but Clea DuVall’s script is often funny in the right places. We don’t get to know the characters very thoroughly, but we do get a front row seat to an epically disastrous friends’ weekend. The plot is a little old-hat but the incredible dynamism between the lead actors gives the movie some verve and even if it plod a little in the middle, it was a good Netflix risk that made me feel just a bit better about the stupid stuff I get up to with my friends, who as far as I know, are pretty comfortable with my marital status.