Swiss Army Man (2016, Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) English 5

Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Timothy Eulich, Andy Hull

(5-Okay Film)

Strange. Eccentric. Tiresome.

A man (Dano) stranded on an island finds a chance at escape when a dead body washes up on shore (Radcliffe). To his amazement, this dead body possesses all kinds of extraordinary abilities including flatulence that can act as jet propulsion, for example. It’s an extremely strange and quirky picture which naturally makes it an indie darling. I give it all the points in the world for originality, plus the two leads perform the hell out of it, but I was turned off from the jump, and found myself shaking my head in bemusement for much of the film’s remainder.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


A Monster Calls (2016, Directed by J.A Bayona) English 5

Starring Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougal, Liam Neeson, Geraldine Chaplin

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(5-Okay Film)

Brooding. Unsatisfying. Skilled.

A beleaguered school-age boy (mother suffering from cancer, bully at school, distant father, emotionally cold grandmother) finds his nights being taken up by a storytelling tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). With the help of this unlikely new friend, he learns to deal with the circumstances around him. It’s possible somewhere down the road, I’ll come back to this film and view it differently, but on first viewing I found myself as emotionally distant as the grandmother character seems to be. I enjoyed much of the individual pieces. The monster’s enigmatic stories are told in wonderfully animated sequences. Felicity Jones is suitably moving in her role as the sweet, dying mother. Liam Neeson’s voice as the sage monster is perfect. The young actor in the leading role is excellent. All of these elements work, and yet I felt the material was overly familiar, and the tone stolid where I thought a lighter touch at times could have been more impactful.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Sister Act (1992, Directed by Emile Ardolino) English 6

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Najimi, Bill Nunn, Mary Wickes, Wendy Makkena, Jim Beaver, Jennifer Lewis

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(6-Good Film)

Enjoyable. Silly. Fresh.

Whoopi Goldberg in a habit was apparently enough to pack them in the theater back in 1992, and it’s enough to pass the time closing in on thirty years later. She plays a Reno lounge singer named Dolores who sees her gangster boyfriend, Vince LaRocca (Keitel), murder a man, and must go into the witness protection program after deciding to help the police put him away. They put her in a convent in inner-city San Francisco led by the old-fashioned Reverend Mother (Smith) and your classic fish-out-of-water comedy begins. Sister Act is light on laughs for me but makes up for it with charm and a host of appealing characters. Whoopi, of course, leads the way but the supporting cast is wonderful.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Bye Bye Birdie (1963, Directed by George Sidney) English 7

Starring Ann-Margret, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Janet Leigh, Ed Sullivan, Jesse Pearson, Maureen Stapleton

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(7-Very Good Film)

Fun. Satirical. Memorable.

Inspired by the national obsession with Elvis at the time, Bye Bye Birdie goes from stage to film, adapting its story about a teen idol named Conrad Birdie (Pearson) who gets drafted into the military. His almost psychotic fan base made up of young women is devastated but so is Albert Peterson (Van Dyke), a struggling songwriter whose breakthrough in selling a song is undone by the news. Albert’s loyal girlfriend, Rosie (Leigh), concocts a scheme that might turn things around for him though. Birdie will perform a final time on The Ed Sullivan Show, before kissing one lucky fan, Kim (Margret). Maybe Conrad will sing Albert’s song after all. I didn’t fully understand how Rosie’s scheme came together. She seemed to have better connections than makes sense. I also felt the director or the producers maybe had a massive crush on Ann-Margret. It’s understandable but hurt the overall film to a degree. She’s excellent in her role and a star but so are Van Dyke and Janet Leigh who get short-changed. Besides, by focusing so much on her, the story which should really be an ensemble show becomes too episodic. That doesn’t stop it from being entertaining. There are a number of great scenes and musical numbers in Bye Bye Birdie. Conrad Birdie’s “Honestly Sincere” is my favorite. All in all, it’s a top-notch show.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Pensées #11: Christmas Challenge Week 2 (2019)

I don’t get sentimental about much. Movies are the exception and Christmas movies especially. I am very forgiving of Christmas films; very slow to judge harshly. The truth is that there are only a handful of great Christmas films. Most are mediocre but appeal to me on either nostalgia or a lightness that I enjoy come November and December. I feel like I’ve already seen every great Christmas movie and I’m not overly optimistic about any new releases coming our way this year. Last Christmas, for example, just released in America to middling reviews. I had hopes that it would be a charming Christmas rom-com but it seems to be another addition to that long list of simply passable holiday fare. What’s left for this upcoming season? Little Women has its Christmas moments and I’m definitely looking forward to it but I don’t know that I’d characterize it as a Christmas film. Then there’s Black Christmas. It looks entertaining, to be honest, but that’s not what Christmas is about. I have to hope that I’ll be surprised by something new this year.

#3: The Grinch

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2018, Directed by Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney

(6-Good Film)

Dr. Seuss’ wonderful stories have yet to translate to cinematic gold. There’ve been commercial hits, this version of The Grinch included, but none of them are great and I do think the potential is there for something exceptional. Nineteen years after Jim Carrey’s bizarre but interesting take on the green misanthrope, Benedict Cumberbatch takes over in a much sweeter, animated version. You likely know the story but in case you don’t, it features a hairy green creature, known as the Grinch, who lives life as an outcast in the jolly land of Whoville.  Christmas is the town’s favorite time of year but the Grinch hates Christmas and decides to do something about it. He pretends to be Santa Claus in order to steal everyone’s gifts and sabotage the holiday. The Jim Carrey led Grinch was pretty obnoxious and the Whos were materialistic and unlikable, although I think Carrey was a force of nature in the role. This Grinch is much more likable. It’s a pleasing, beautifully animated picture but suffers from a lack of real menace out of its title character. That’s disappointing. As a result, it’s not funny enough, his transformation not astounding enough, and this rendition of The Grinch ends up being pretty forgettable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016, Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni) English 5

Voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K Simmons, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jean-Claude Van Damme

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(5-Okay Film)

Amiable. Attractive. Worn.

The third installment in the saga following the legendary dragon warrior, Po (voiced by Black) features more backstory as we meet his father (Cranston) and an entire Panda community. Meanwhile, an undead warrior, Kai (Simmons) returns to wreak havoc and establish himself  as the ultimate kung fu master. Like its predecessors, it goes down easily enough, and some of the diverse animation is spectacular, but the substance isn’t there. There’s nothing very compelling pushing the story forward and the humor isn’t there. It relies too heavily on the cuteness factor of the new panda characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Cover Girl (1944, Directed by Charles Vidor) English 6

Starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Otto Kruger, Eve Arden, Lee Bowman, Jess Barker

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(6-Good Film)

Grand. Skilled. Lacking.

Chorus girl, Rusty Parker (Hayworth), has a decent job and a boyfriend, Danny McGuire (Kelly), she loves dearly but can’t help but aspire for more. An opportunity to pose for Vanity magazine comes her way and she makes the most of it, but her newfound success puts a strain on her relationship with Danny. Like most if not all of the old, classic Hollywood musicals, this is a well-crafted, staged, and performed picture. The technicolor cinematography is bright and appealing and there are a number of inspired musical numbers. The story, on the other hand, is less inspired. Most romantic musicals are hackneyed to some degree but there’s not enough happening in Cover Girl that’s compelling. Danny and Rusty already love each other at the start of the film so they’re kind of boring as the story moves on.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-