Movie Review ~ The Mitchells vs The Machines

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope. 

Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Blake Griffin, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Conan O’Brien, Sasheer Zamata, Elle Mills, Jay Pharoah, Alex Hirsch, Griffin McElroy 

Directors: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe 

Rated: PG 

Running Length: 113 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Were this a time when we were back seeing movies in theaters, a film like The Mitchells vs The Machines (which was originally set to be released in 2020) would have been one that made me glad for stadium seating that allows me a nice distance between the screen and my seat.  There’s so much going on in the movie that it often becomes an overwhelming mash of color, ideas, and sound.  As a child, it would have served to stimulate a number of my senses in just the way the animators at Sony meant to but as I get older, I find that these mile-a-minute delirium exercises put a serious crimp in the overall way I absorb the story.  That means the performances land with a little less oomph and the sweetness at the heart of the screenplay from writer/directors Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe can’t quite get its hands in a firm enough grasp at your heartstrings to tug away whenever it wants to. 

It’s definitely not for lack of trying, don’t get me wrong.  Rianda & Rowe are willing to go to great lengths and expend copious amounts of energy and animation to send home the message about the importance of family and, more pointedly, family time.  In this ever-expanding world of technology when it can be easy for us to self-isolate, families spend less quality time together than ever before and it becomes an effort to get everyone (parents included) out of their “screens” and involved with one another.  In Rianda & Rowe’s brightly hued world, a service known as PAL (voiced on the mainframe by Olivia Colman, The Father) is installed on nearly every phone and also into many of the machines the country uses on a daily basis.  Think of it as Alexa from Amazon, just with a wider net and a much more sensitive skin that’s easily rankled. 

Katie Mitchell has a number of PAL powered devices and for good reason, she’s a budding filmmaker that’s been at work since she was a small child making movies involving her family and dog.  As she has grown older, she feels like she doesn’t fit into the small-town life and craves a creative community of like-minded individuals (note the rainbow-pin on her jacket and later references to her relationship with Jade) that speak her language.  More than anything, her once inseparable bond with her dad Rick (Danny McBride, Sausage Party) has frayed and father and daughter barely know each other anymore, much to the dismay of mom Linda (Maya Rudolph, The Way Way Back). 

When tensions rise the night before Katie is set to leave for college, Rick makes a terrible error in judgement and decides to make up for it by gathering the family (including always-worried brother Aaron) and road-tripping his only daughter off to school instead of having Katie fly out there on her own.  A bad idea at first, it proves to be a stroke of genius because the family is together when a new model of PAL is released, causing the previous version to erupt in a jealous rage.  Using a virus to take over her replacements, she begins to enslave the humans in a giant prison. However there’s one family that won’t go down without a fight, one that’s rediscovered their strength as a team when put through a series of high-stakes battles with bots.

It’s never quite clear to me what endgame PAL was after but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about watching a family that has drifted apart find their way back to one another when put into a perilous situation.  I may question how young children would react to some frightening situations of appliances coming to life and attacking them and just the overall thought of electronic world domination, but it’s delivered wrapped in such a buoyant bow it’s hard to fault anyone involved too much. (I’m easily swayed, clearly.)  Running long at nearly two hours, there’s a lot of story packed in that wound up feeling repetitive and padded for time…that might be good for a theatrical release but when you’re at home I’m always in favor of a shorter sit for the family-oriented flicks.

Despite the presence of a talented comedian like Rudolph and someone that likely had a ball making this like Colman, the voice work is strangely muted here.  There’s so much in motion around everyone that it’s odd for there not to be any standout among the voices heard.  Even two rogue robots voiced by Beck Bennett (Zoolander 2) and Conan O’Brien (The Lego Batman Movie) that wind up working with the Mitchells sound interchangeable throughout.  I kept waiting for some spark to be lit, and while Colman comes close and Rudolph finds it late in the film when her character hilariously finds her inner warrior the movie comes to a close with barely any embers glowing.

For Netflix families that haven’t subscribed to Disney+ or Apple,+ which have had several impressive animated films over the past few months, there is now a viable option for entertainment in The Mitchells vs The Machines.  It’s fast, loud, and firmly a movie of today, but it will surely catch not just the eye of your kids but probably yours as well.  Not only are there positive lessons to be taken away from the sweet-natured heart of the film but its animation is stunning.

31 Days to Scare ~ Bad Hair

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.

Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams

Director: Justin Simien

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Not that I have much of it to speak of now, but there was a time when getting a haircut was a big deal.  When I started making my own hair decisions (meaning, my dad stopped taking me to his barber and telling him to “give me the usual”) it took a while to find the right person to give me the cut I wanted.  Looking through the men on both sides of my family I knew I was fighting a losing battle so was always prepared for the end.  Until that time, though, I was going to treat my hair with flair.  So I get the way that hair plays a huge part into the way we feel about ourselves and why a haircut during a difficult time in our lives is often the way we first signal a change is necessary.

In 1989, I think I had those horrible parallel gradient lines buzzed into my hair (all photo evidence has been destroyed or is in a safe location so don’t go looking for it) but for Bad Hair’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), her situation is far worse.  As a child she had a bad run in with a poorly applied relaxer and her scalp has never been the same, forcing her to keep her style largely natural to avoid any further irritation.  Normally, this would be something most of us could live with but Anna’s working in Los Angeles at one of the hottest music networks (think MTV but run by a James Van Der Beek type, played by James Van Der Beek) and dreams of becoming a host on their popular video program.

When her team undergoes a restructuring, she impresses her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams, Miss Virginia) with her ideas but not her looks.  The ex-model suggests Anna start with her hair and offers the name of a stylist that had recently worked wonders on singer sensation Sandra (Kelly Rowland).  Determined, Anna heads to Virgie’s (Laverne Cox, Charlie’s Angels) where the cryptic woman helps her find the perfect weave.  Armed with a glam new look and a fresh aura of confidence, Anna is set on a path to success only to be derailed when her locks begin to display strange, life-like behavior and a fondness for blood.  Possessed by her hair, no one is safe from Anna’s tresses of terror.

Writer/director Justin Simien’s film has so many things going for it that it depresses me to no end to report that Bad Hair (streaming on Hulu starting 10/23) isn’t the fun bit of campy horror it sounds like it’s going to be.  True, there are moments of wit and some humor to be had from the observances from the time and the cultural norms of the day, most of it provided by Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) as Anna’s co-worker who already hosts her own show.  The biggest problem going on here is the severely poor special effects that sink an already shaky ship.  Plenty of films can skate by with a small budget and decent special effects because they know how to work around them.  However, in Bad Hair, Simien relies so much on terribly rendered effects that its robs the actors and action of any credibility or suspense because the viewer is totally taken out of the moment thinking about the poor quality of what’s onscreen.

You can also add an unnecessarily long run-time to the list of thumbs-down factors because at 115 minutes, Bad Hair needs a good trim.  It’s simply too long and unruly to justify that length and the time it does use up it doesn’t dole out wisely.  Not enough effort is spent to set-up the acknowledgement that something awful is happening in the offices of the music network – people are vanishing left and right courtesy of the hungry hair yet there are hardly any establishing scenes showing anyone is discussing this.  Basically, it’s just a series of scenes of Anna’s weave acting wonky and then the next event happens.  There’s a mass slaughter of key players and all is well the previous day.  Did they not have the police working back then?  The first twenty minutes are so cleverly constructed that you wind up wondering where all that creative energy went in the final 90 minutes that seem to stretch on forever.

The best thing to come out of this experience is getting to know Elle Lorraine as the dynamite lead of the film.  Whatever I thought about the movie, its effects, or its pacing, there’s little denying that Lorraine is a bona fide star and will go on to better things after this.  She’s practically the only person other than Waithe and a great Judith Scott as Anna’s ousted boss, who feels like they realize they’re in a feature film.  Everyone else is strictly playing for a television audience, none more so than Vanessa Williams.  Oh dear.  Vanessa. Williams.  Playing her umpteenth ex-model witchy backstabbing narcissist, I simply don’t see the rationale for Simien using her for this role.  Bringing nothing new or interesting to the role and developing into exactly what we think she will, Simien lost a chance to go after someone unexpected not known for playing this type of maneater and non girls-girl to play a type of role Williams has got the market cornered on. What a flat, boring,  uninspired casting choice on a grand scale.

I almost feel like a broken record saying this but I get to thinking that Simien’s story started out as an episode for some anthology series or film that he then expanded to full-feature length.  It doesn’t have the substance to qualify for that expansion, even though a head-spinning ending created a twist so devious (and, yes, interesting) I wish the actor involved had been in two or three more scenes so their reappearance made more sense.  If you’re going to attempt a final zinger like Simien does, you have to set it up better and, like many things in Bad Hair, it isn’t fully realized.  I expected much more from this and had hoped it would have found the same Little (Hair)Shop of Horrors vibe it felt like it wanted to go after.  Instead, the effects weren’t even comically bad in an Ed Wood sort of way.  Very disappointing.