From time to time, I get so caught up in watching movies and reviewing them in the moment that I forget to catch up on things that have released earlier, and I missed a lot in the first quarter of 2019. Combine all of these with the Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon films I’m still catching up on, and the only conclusion one can come to is that there is no way that I would be able to pump out full reviews for all of the many projects I end up seeing in one calendar year; the quantity of content and speed at which release schedules move is simply too much and too fast for me to be able to finish all of those in time as full reviews. And that is where the Mini Reviews segment comes in. This is a way I can still put out my thoughts on these films, along with a score out of 10, without having to commit to a full-length review for each. I’ve already put out two installments of Mini Reviews for 2019 (Part 1, Part 2), but lo and behold, here we are again with a third batch, this being five films longer than the last, including some short films added for good measure. With so many new reviews coming very soon, we have no time to waste, so let’s get on with Mini Reviews installment #3.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
This Netflix original foreign-language (well, mostly foreign-language) film, adapted from the book of the same name by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, is the directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who starred in The Martian and 12 Years a Slave), and stars Maxwell Simba as Kamkwamba, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his father. Overall, the film could have been a bit more focused in its storytelling, and the third act tends to outright ignore some of the most compelling parts of the first two, but this is still a solid, easily-respectable directorial effort for Ejiofor, who shows great promise as a director moving forward, and Maxwell Simba, whom I am sure we can expect to see back very soon. 8.3/10.
This mid-summer indie thriller released pretty small, but once it was available for purchase on iTunes, I bought it and watched it to my own satisfaction. Little Woods is a compelling story about small town poverty that features some of Lily James’ and Tessa Thompson’s best performances; although the film never looms much larger than its low-budget origins, it’s a solid watch that’s worth checking out if you have the time for it. 8.6/10.
The first of many documentaries I am currently catching up on as the year slips by faster and faster, Apollo 11 actually has no interviews or added narration built to emphasize the magnitude of the mission that put man on the moon, instead told through 70mm footage shot during the preparation, execution, and aftermath of the Apollo 11 space flight in 1969. The original score by Matt Morton is fantastic, utilizing every tool in the box to make you feel the dread, excitement, and tenuous nature of the mission itself, and for a documentary to be this compelling without a single line of narration or interview dialogue is a mightily impressive feat. 9.8/10.
Fyre & Fyre Fraud
Both Netflix and Hulu put out fascinating documentaries about the failed Fyre Fest in January of this year, and while I would say Netflix managed to keep their doc more focused on the actual festival, thus creating a more entertaining watch by a hair, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud acts beautifully as a companion piece detailing Billy McFarland’s shady past and history of mass scams. Each of these films has something to offer that the other does not and the two make a very nice dual package about one of the largest dumpster fire events in festival history. Fyre: 8.7/10. Fyre Fraud: 8/10.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
I thought about doing a full review for El Camino, but in the end, I decided that I simply didn’t have enough to say about it that wasn’t already being said by other, more qualified Breaking Bad aficionados or other critics in general. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty much on the same page with most of them about this extended series finale to the iconic show wherein we’re let in on what happened to Jesse Pinkman after he shot off into the night post-rescue by Walter White. The resulting film does end up feeling like a tv movie somewhat by nature, but this is definitely one of the good ones, and seeing Aaron Paul in this role again is a refreshing reminder of just how good of an actor he really is, despite a not-so-great film career thus far. While I’m not sure what the film’s title has to do with anything (Jesse ditches it within ten minutes of the movie’s start), the tension, thrills, and chills are all there, and although it certainly isn’t a necessary addition to the Breaking Bad world, it is a welcome one that proves mostly satisfactory for fans. 8.2/10.
Most critics seemed to enjoy Liam Neeson’s action thriller Cold Pursuit to one degree or another, but unfortunately, I’m just not sure I watched the movie they watched. The film plays at being an action film for a bit, but soon slows down into a ransom story, eventually morphing into a turf war between a Native American tribe and a drug-dealing operation that took the life of Neeson’s young son at the film’s beginning. Maybe it was just a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but apart from Neeson’s performance (which really is just his 12th Taken performance since that film came out), the film simply didn’t do for me what it seemed to do for most other people. It’s scattered, unfocused, hardly possesses any real thematic weight, and features one of the most annoying and unnecessary “villain” subplots in a feature film this year. I’d just as soon skip it and watch Taken again.
Knock Down the House
This Netflix original documentary was an early favorite for many film critics, and the story it tells of female candidates in many states running for office against inactive, or worse, apathetic establishment politicians (all of them men) is an inspiring story, especially as it chronicles the rise of millennial firecracker Congresswoman AOC in New York’s 14th district. Each of these fights for action in government is dire, unlikely, and difficult to keep going, but when AOC’s name is called as the winner after the other two women on which the doc centers lose their respective races, one can’t help but feel a little bit of pride in having witnessed her never give up. The rest is (literally) history. 9.6/10.
Truth be told, I’m still not sure whether this counts as an album review or a movie review, as this Bruce Springsteen project really is more of a concert documentary with some alternate footage spliced in between songs so Bruce can explain what the songs are about and the place he was in when he wrote each one. As a country music album, Western Stars is a bit lacking and repetitive, but one can tell that Springsteen, as always, really put time and care into its production, and watching him perform it start to finish was a treat to watch, with Springsteen and co-director Thom Zimny managing to make each song feel like a fresh step on a continuous journey, even if each orchestral riff sounded one or two notes off from just being a repeat of the last one. 8.6/10.
Ghosts of Sugar Land, All in My Family, Life Overtakes Me, and After Maria (Short Docs)
It’s far harder to score short films than it is to score features, as by nature there simply is less to analyze/grade/judge, so I won’t be scoring these short documentaries today, but each of them has something unique to offer, with compelling stories that raise as many questions as they answer; some might even be seen at the Oscars next year, so when you get the chance, I’d recommend popping open your Netflix account and checking them out (they’re all on there).
Generally speaking, you can trace whether or not something will be worth your time by tracing it back to its spot in the cinematic release calendar, and while the landscape wherein the reliability of that calendar is concerned is shifting, The Prodigy, an early February horror release starring OITNB’s Taylor Schilling as the mother of a possessed child, apparently missed the shift memo. The film isn’t entirely unoriginal, but you’ve seen possession movies like it before, and the lack of actual scares that don’t involve jumps in the film makes it yet another fairly average horror movie in the back half of a decade filled with exceptional genre entries. 4.8/10.
What Men Want
Thank God Aldis Hodge was here to save this film from being a total dumpster fire, because even the performance chops of Taraji P. Henson can’t save a contrived, way-too-predictable script from Tracy Morgan’s overdone improvisational “comedy.” Credit where credit is due, the story does go to some interesting places, but everything feels dialed up to 10 on the genericism meter, up to and including the fact that this sports agent who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman has a literal gay assistant. Skip this one. 4.8/10.
Alita: Battle Angel
It took me a long time to catch up to Alita: Battle Angel, and truth be told, I really enjoyed most of what was there, even though the film deliberately stops itself short in order to set up a sequel it most likely won’t end up getting, leaving the whole thing feeling like only two thirds of a pretty original, fun movie. Rose Salazar makes a great titular character, the other performances are mostly pretty great as well (apart from Keean Johnson’s character basically only serving as a love interest), and the visual effects/action actually work really well on screen. With a built-in lore and world-building that remains interesting even though we don’t get to see enough of it, Alita is actually a pretty good movie. It’s just a shame it seems like the story for it got scrapped before act three. 7.8/10.
By far the worst horror movie I’ve seen this year (and maybe the worst movie I’ve seen this year, if Playing With Fire doesn’t try to take its first place spot), Countdown can’t even be bothered to do a fun Final Destination riff on the “phone go bad” premise that so many shitty tech-based movies of the past couple years are based on (and one great tech-based movie, Searching). Instead, it settles for cheap supernatural demon hauntings and grim reaper scares that makes less sense as they go on because the whole plot of the film is based around an app that tells you when you’ll die, but only turns on the horror if you try not to die. Even when the characters figure out how to defeat the demons chasing them, they make such ridiculously stupid decisions that I actually kind of wanted them all to die so the movie would end sooner. There is one somewhat genius thing during the film’s finale where the lazy “heroism by suicide” horror trope that I hate so much is avoided since the main character is a nurse, and knows well enough to instruct someone to resurrect her via Narcan, but then the film tries to set up a sequel right at the end and it takes any small amount of good will out and pisses on it, and then pisses on you for daring to hope it could at least end well. I didn’t expect really anything from this, and I barely scraped by with one positive. 2.3/10.
Black and Blue
Remember how Training Day had one great Denzel performance that took him all the way to an Oscar win, but was otherwise a pretty average cop movie? Remember how Sicario featured one of the greatest night raid sequences ever shot, with Roger Deakins behind the camera, and actually understood its world and characters so well that it came down on the side of telling the “hero” to stay out of conflicts she didn’t have the stomach for because of her conscience? Black and Blue (the most recent film on this list) isn’t a terrible movie, but there’s only so much running from the cops that Naomie Harris can do before Tyrese Gibson shows up and the film begins to rinse and repeat; it starts to drag around the halfway mark, and then the overlong finale hits and it feels like it’s 40 minutes long. This movie wants to be Training Day with notes of Sicario thrown in but it doesn’t understand what made either of those films special, so it feels like just another generic cop movie that’s save from the Walmart bin because its two stars are one part Academy Award nominee and one part ensemble cast member in one of the biggest film franchises of all time. It’s not unwatchable, but it’s not really worth your time either. 5.6/10.
Always Be My Maybe
Always Be My Maybe is a Netflix movie in every sense of the word, but even this rom-com with pretty rough pacing during the first act and some truly terrible dialogue choices manages to find its footing after a while, thanks to some pretty solid music, a decent enough premise, and good performances from breakout star Ali Wong and Fresh Off the Boat alum Randall Park. Keanu Reeves shows up as a douchey version of himself I wish they went further with, and the songs by Randall Park’s band are actually pretty catchy, even while it’s insufferable how his character apparently hates hipsters while he writes the exact kind of music hipsters would eat out of a garbage can. It’s a beta-Hallmark movie at best, but it’s not without its charms. 6.5/10.
And that’ll do it for my third installment of Mini Reviews in 2019! How many of these films have you seen? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks, and keep it right here at The Friendly Film Fan for more reviews coming soon!
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.