Category Archives: Movie Reviews

HIFF2020: Ben’s Column – Picture Character (2020)

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3.5 stars

Picture Character (2020)

Documentary Feature
Directors: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane
Producers: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane, Jennifer 8. Lee
Executive Producers: Fred Benenson, Peter Friedland
Cast: Rayouf Alhumedhi, Florencia Coelho, Daniela Guini, Carmen Barlow, Francis Mason

Premise: “Picture Character” explores the complex, conflict-prone, and often hilarious world of the creators, lovers, and arbiters of emoji, our world’s newest pictorial language. How do you create a global language on the fly? This film charts the evolution of emojis, and investigates what they may reveal about our increasingly technological world.

It’s hard to imagine modern daily conversations without the ever-present emoji. What emerged after the technological takeover of smartphones as a way to express a wide variety of emotions in a simplistic manner quickly spread outside our phones and became inescapable. Socks, pillows, Happy Meal toys, and bumper stickers are only a sliver of the countless products available that have cashed in on the emoji craze in recent years, with no end in sight. Emojis have largely been viewed as a force for good in the world (we can now order pizza with one simple pizza emoji sent via text message). The “face with tears of joy” emoji was named as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015. They’ve even withstood the release of The Emoji Movie in 2017.

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HIFF2020: Ben’s Column – The Outside Story (2020)

The Outside Story (2020)

  • Narrative Feature
  • Director: Casimir Nozkowski
  • Screenwriter: Casimir Nozkowski
  • Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon

Premise: An introverted editor living a vertical life in his 2nd-floor apartment, always on deadline and in a rut. When Charles locks himself out of his building, he’s forced to go horizontal and confront the world he’s been avoiding in search of a way back inside. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Boys In The Band (2020) – Review

The Boys In The Band (2020)

Premise: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.

The LGBTQ community is at a crossroads in America in 2020. The Supreme Court may have legalized gay marriage years ago, along with a handful of other civil rights victories, but the current administration has been actively working to roll those protections back since day one, all in the name of “religious freedom”. Seen through this lens, it makes perfect sense why now is a good time for a new adaptation of The Boys in the Band, the Tony-winning Broadway show. This iteration, directed by Joe Mantello, even assembles the original cast from the 2018 stage revival, which was notable at the time for its all-out gay cast – a sign of how far society had come since the play’s inception. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020) – Review

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

Premise: A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.

It’s not often that a film can be simultaneously considered a documentary, a drama, and a comedy, but director Kirsten Johnson somehow manages to achieve that feat with Dick Johnson Is Dead. Movies can be used as a director’s way to put their own personal ideas and experiences out into the world: Truffaut channeled his early adolescence in The 400 Blows; Fellini expressed his struggles with the creative process with 8 ½; and Spike Lee used his experiences with racial injustice for Do the Right Thing. Johnson’s latest is not only a loving tribute to her father, but an examination of the grieving process, even when the aggrieved is still alive. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Cuties (2020) – Review

Cuties (2020)

Premise: Amy, an 11-year-old girl, joins a group of dancers named “the cuties” at school, and rapidly grows aware of her burgeoning femininity – upsetting her mother and her values in the process.

Perhaps you’ve already heard of Cuties because you saw it advertised on Netflix. Perhaps you heard of it through word of mouth. More likely, you’ve heard of it because of the controversy the film has stirred up which has caused it to be shared on social media and even, yes, Ted Cruz. But to really talk about Cuties is to talk about America’s political discourse in 2020. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Tenet (2020) – Non-Spoiler Review

Tenet (2020)

Premise: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.

Tenet feels like the kind of movie Christopher Nolan has been building towards from the beginning of his career – at least on a surface level. It’s easy to spot some of the elements he’s pulling from, elements that have helped to define his aesthetic as a filmmaker: you of course have the incredible mind-bending visuals like in Inception and Interstellar, the action sequences from the Batman trilogy, the third act reveal from The Prestige, the perplexing chronology of events like in Memento and Dunkirk, and the complicated romantic entanglements of The Dark Knight, to name a few. Typically when a filmmaker cribs the best of himself to be put into one film, the result is an unbridled success, but Tenet just can’t make all of its puzzle pieces into an enlightening picture. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Yes, God Yes (2020) Review

Premise: After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation.

Think back to your early high school days and how sex and sexuality felt ever-present in daily life. Then, if you weren’t already, imagine those same feelings in the setting of a Catholic school, where you’re taught to mostly repress or ignore those feelings. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. So is masturbation. What do you do when your body and society are telling you one thing and the church is telling you another? Oh, and if you go against what they’re teaching, you’ll spend the afterlife in eternal damnation. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Greyhound (2020) Review

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Greyhound (2020)

Premise: Early in World War II, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by Nazi U-boat wolfpacks.

Throughout the running time of Greyhound, we learn more about Captain Ernie Krause’s (Tom Hanks) leadership skills, but shockingly little about his life outside the titular naval destroyer. The mission is simple: guide a fleet of Allied supply ships across the vast Atlantic Ocean, and sink as many Nazi U-boats as possible. The fleet remains unprotected from air cover for over 50 hours over the ocean, and this provides the ticking clock conceit to the film. Greyhound bears a striking similarity to last year’s 1917, in that there’s a clear endpoint objective at stake, and the characters we spend the most time with are frustratingly opaque. But whereas 1917 took time to reflect and add at least a little characterization between its video game-like checkpoints, Greyhound only stops and pauses for a scant few moments. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Da 5 Bloods (2020) Movie Review

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Premise: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020) Movie Review

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

Premise: A look at the final moments of a Las Vegas dive bar called ‘The Roaring 20s’.

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

And they’re always glad you came;

You want to be where you can see,

Our troubles are all the same;

You want to be where everybody knows your name. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Deerskin (2020) Movie Review

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Deerskin (2020)

Premise: A man’s obsession with his designer deerskin jacket causes him to blow his life savings and turn to crime.

It’s a tale as old as time: man buys a secondhand deerskin jacket. Man falls in love with said jacket and begins talking to it as if it’s a real person. Man begins converting his entire wardrobe to 100% deerskin. Man’s jacket tells him that it’s so great that it wants to be the only jacket left in the entire world. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Trolls World Tour (2020) Movie Review

Trolls World Tour (2020)

Premise: Poppy and Branch discover that they are but one of six different Troll tribes scattered over six different lands devoted to six different kinds of music: Funk, Country, Techno, Classical, Pop and Rock. Their world is about to get a lot bigger and a whole lot louder.

Dreamworks Animation made history by adapting to the rapidly changing circumstances of the novel coronavirus and, instead of postponing its release of Trolls World Tour, the studio gambled by making the film the first to forego any kind of theatrical release by dropping it for home viewing on the same day it was scheduled to hit the cinemas. The strategy honestly makes perfect sense for a family-friendly film like this: rather than wrangling the kids, finding a babysitter for the siblings that are too young, shelling out major dollars for marked-up snacks, and all the other hassles associated with taking kids to a movie, families can sit down and watch the film at their own leisure, even having the luxury of pausing for a bathroom break. Just make sure your home internet connection is more reliable than that of yours truly.

As with most animated franchises aimed at a younger audience, the sequel is generally used as an opportunity for world building, and director Walt Dohrn literally makes it his primary objective from the opening minutes. Throughout the film, we’ll meet all manner of trolls, every size, shape, and color of the rainbow (including their signature hair). All trolls are united by their love of music, but separated by their respective genre tastes. The original cast has thankfully all returned here: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, James Corden, and Ron Funches (Dohrn actually steps in and replaces Jeffrey Tambor as the voice of King Peppy, and brings some unexpected energy to his performance). Rachel Bloom makes a meal out of her character, the queen of the rock-n-roll trolls, whose mission is to eliminate all other forms of music and turn every other troll into guitar-shredding, leather-clad rock zombies.

Yes, the theme of Trolls World Tour becomes fairly evident early on, preaching the virtues of individuality and diversity over the drabness of hegemony. I think there was an episode of Doug that had the same message when it was on Nickelodeon. Easily the weakest aspect of this Trolls entry is its script, which takes the path of least resistance at nearly every turn. For instance, you have Timberlake’s Branch, whose character arc here is essentially the same as Poe from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (only here, the director at least remembers his character exists by the end of the film). The climax is literally recycled, beat for beat, from the first film when all color goes out and all hope is lost until the heroes discover the music within.

Dohrn at least deserves some credit, though, for wisely expanding the role of Ron Funches’ Cooper – the only troll that looks less like a person and more like a giraffe. Once his eyes are opened to the wider troll world, he sets out to find out if there are more out there like him. His arc has the most personal stakes, despite the character being a little thinly sketched, though it unfortunately gets cut short to make more room for the main plot.

It may be tired by now to praise a children’s movie as “fun for kids AND adults”, but such a feat is harder to pull of than just throwing in a few jokes – and maybe a visual Mad Max Fury Road reference – specifically targeted at the grown-ups and calling it a day. But with World Tour, you’ll probably find yourself digging a little deeper to find something to hold onto. The original film sneakily turned itself into a fun jukebox musical, mashing together hits both old and new. Here, the musical numbers are so overwhelming, you begin to wonder if more were added to pad out the already thin plot. Yes, the sequences are all animated spectacularly, and the singing is all top-notch, but how many of us were really itching for another cover of “Barracuda”?

It should be mentioned that all of World Tour looks great. The gloomy world of the Bergen’s from the first film is replaced with even more Technicolor vibrancy, as each troll world is given its own distinctive style. Not to mention the character designs of each musical region: the country trolls have gaudy, bouffant-style hair, while the techno trolls are glow-in-the-dark neon. The hilarious “Smooth Jazz Troll” sequence in particular is a visual highlight, bringing to mind a drug trip in a Lisa Frank factory.

Nobody at Dreamworks could have predicted the circumstances surrounding the release of Trolls World Tour. Who knows – maybe a year from now, we’ll hail them as pioneering geniuses. The quarantine has undoubtedly made me hungry for new content aside from the doldrums of Netflix’s typical winter and spring releases. 2016’s Trolls mostly worked because it wasn’t beholden to any particular mythology. With World Tour, it’s fun to explore the wider world, but it needs a better story to justify its existence.

FINAL TAKE:  The cast list here is truly insane, but Ozzy Osbourne’s cameo was a personal favorite. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that he was definitely not cast against type.


About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.

 

 

 

Ben’s Column: Blow the Man Down (2020) Movie Review

3.5 stars

Blow the Man Down (2020)

Premise: Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly attempt to cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous man. To conceal their crime, the sisters must go deep into the criminal underbelly of their hometown, uncovering the town’s darkest secrets.. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Onward (2020) Movie Review

Onward (2020)

Premise: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.

At what point should we start worrying about the original storytelling capabilities of Pixar? While the studio remains at the forefront of modern animation and earns plenty of major awards at the end of almost every year, the studio has loaded its docket lately with sequels to its most beloved franchises, some less successful than others. Look through their recent filmography and the last non-sequel put out was all the way back in 2017 with Coco. Go back even further and you won’t find any until 2015, with The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out – a mixed bag, as the former is one of Pixar’s worst, and the latter one of its best. Granted, most of their sequels have been mostly solid (Toy Story 4 was one of my favorite films last year and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature), but the studio’s reliance on existing property could be taken as a troubling sign. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Birds of Prey (2020) Movie Review

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

Premise: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord..

You would certainly be validated for being a little skeptical of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), especially after the unmitigated disaster that was 2016’s Suicide Squad. Heck, you’d even be validated based on DC Comics’ track record in trying to establish their own Marvel-esque connected universe. The studio stumbled out of the gate up until and including 2017’s Justice League, but has had some winners recently with Wonder Woman and Aquaman. But once DC leaned away from forcing the issue of a shared universe and focused on the characters within that universe, they found a way to make compelling films again. Rest assured though, Birds of Prey may contain some hidden Easter Eggs for diehard DC fans – which I missed entirely – but there were far from any overt references to other characters (besides the Joker, of course) or set-ups to future films. Continue reading