Hors normes [The Specials] (2019)

Hors normes
Director: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano
Writer: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Reda Kateb, Hélène Vincent, Bryan Mialoundama, Alban Ivanov, Benjamin Lesieur, Marco Locatelli, Catherine Mouchet, Frédéric Pierrot, Suliane Brahim, Lyna Khoudri, Aloïse Sauvage, Djibril Yoni
Seen on: 10.1.2020

Content Note: ableism

Plot:
Bruno (Vincent Cassel) and Malik (Reda Kateb) are best friends and also do the same job: they each run organizations that work with disabled and/or neuroatypical people, mostly autistic teens and young adults that everybody else seems to have given up on. When Bruno’s organization is being inspected again, it just adds to his overall workload and frustration. As if he hadn’t enough on his plate already, trying to do right by all of the children in his care.

I was hesitant about seeing the film, given that Intouchables has a less than great record when it comes to handling disability (I didn’t see it at the time, so my review linked above is very hype-y, but I have learned in the last decade). But since I worked with autistic children myself and since I like Cassel and Kateb, I figured I’d give it a go. I really, really, shouldn’t have. Hors normes is a sanctification of social workers that fails to take into account the perspective of the people they work with for even a second. That’s not how you make a film about such a sensitive topic. Or about any topic.

The film poster showing Bruno (Vincent Cassel) and Mailk (Reda Kateb).
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Rock Angel (Jody French)

Rock Angel is a novel by Jody French.
Finished on: 9.1.2020
[I won this book in a librarything Early Reviewer give-away.]

Content Note: domestic violence, racism

Plot:
Emily has two gifts that help her get through the memories of her traumatic childhood: she can see people’s auras and she can sing. When her crush Matt (a cool blue) actually asks her to be in his band, Emily can’t believe it. Supported by her best friend Rachel (an energetic, volatile red), Emily gives it a try and is suprised how well she fits in with the other band members Patrick (a caring purple), Zeb (a creative green) and Matt (an unreliable orange). Together, they create something good and their success pushes Emily in directions she didn’t expect. She has to figure out if they are directions she actually likes.

Rock Angel is not the best written novel, but it’s a fine, quick read. Despite some nice characters, there were a couple of things I did struggle with, though – especially the racism.

The book cover showing a girl with long blond hair, a leather jacket and a guitar.
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Queen & Slim (2019)

Queen & Slim
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Writer: Lena Waithe, James Frey
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore, Benito Martinez, Jahi Di’Allo Winston
Seen on: 9.1.2020

Plot:
Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) are on a blind date and things are not going particularly well. But they are still talking as Slim drives Queen home. That’s when they’re stopped by a police officer (Sturgill Simpson) who behaves pretty threateningly. Things get out of hand, and Slim ends up shooting the officer. In a panic, Slim and Queen take off, trying to figure out how to go from here – but their options are limited to say the least.

Queen & Slim is a strong film in many ways with a couple of serious missteps that keep the film from being really great, unfortunately.

The film poster showing Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) in a black-and-white image.

[SPOILERS]

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The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yongbo Jiang, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Xiang Li, Hongli Liu,
Seen on: 9.1.2020

Plot:
Billi (Awkwafina) ambles a little aimlessly through her life in New York, waiting and hoping for an acceptance from an art university. When her Chinese grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), with whom Billi is very close, is discovered to have only little time left to live, her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) fly to China. Billi follows, unable to stay behind, although she does have a hard time with the family decision to not tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis. To explain why the entire family is gathered, a wedding for Billi’s cousin (Han Chen) is arranged instead.

The Farewell is a beautiful film. Touching and emotional, it manages to be funny and tender at the same time – and also very insightful about life, death and family.

The film poster showing the entire family grouped around Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao).
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Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cast: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Frank Oz, K Callan, Noah Segan
Seen on: 8.1.2020

Plot:
Famous author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has died, leaving behind an eccentric family, a lot of money and a police investigation into his death. Just before it is officially declared a suicide, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) joins the investigation to make sure that everything is as everybody thinks it is. As he interviews the entire family, including Harlan’s nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), there is no telling what he will uncover. But it’s probably nothing good.

Knives Out was an amazingly entertaining film that managed to breathe some new life into a genre that has been well-established for many, many years (and it’s not even a genre that I personally love a lot). I had the best of times.

The film poster showing all of the main characters standing in a group.
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Curse of the Spellmans (Lisa Lutz)

Curse of the Spellmans is the second novel in the Spellman Series by Lisa Lutz.
Finished on: 7.1.2020
[Here’s my review of the first novel.]

Plot:
Private Detective Izzy Spellman has been arrested for the fourth time in three months and she may think it was unavoidable in the course of her duty, but her parents and employers do not. And her neighbor – whom she has been running unsanctioned but, in Izzy’s eyes, entirely necessary surveillance on – isn’t amused either. That would probably be enough to keep her busy, but with a family like Izzy’s there’s never just one thing going on and there are several family members who behave in very suspicious ways. Plus, Izzy has to make sure that her little sister Rae doesn’t overstay her welcome in police inspector Henry Stone’s life.

Curse of the Spellmans is a great sequel, keeping the energy and sense of humor of the first novel, but also managing to introduce new elements. I really enjoyed coming back to the Spellmans.

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Candy Jar (2018)

Candy Jar
Director: Ben Shelton
Writer: Chad Klitzman
Cast: Jacob Latimore, Sami Gayle, Tom Bergeron, Helen Hunt, Paul Tigue, Austin Flynn, Blake Flynn, Christina Hendricks, Uzo Aduba
Seen on: 4.1.2020

Plot:
Bennett (Jacob Latimore) and Lona (Sami Gayle) are constantly in competition with each other in school and on the debate team, as are their mothers Amy (Christina Hendricks) and Julia (Uzo Aduba) who couldn’t be more different. But when they run into trouble with their individual debates, the only way they can bolster their resumés for college is by teaming up. So, reluctantly and begrudgingly, they decide to go for cooperation instead of competition. Surprisingly, this works much better than either of them expected.

Candy Jar is a nice high school romance that manages to get a little off the beaten path – though it doesn’t stray too far. I enjoyed watching it.

The film poster showing Bennett (Jacob Latimore) and Lona (Sami Gayle) looking at each other in front of a blackboard and a lectern.
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A Cinderella Story (2004)

A Cinderella Story
Director: Mark Rosman
Writer: Leigh Dunlap
Cast: Hilary Duff, Jennifer Coolidge, Chad Michael Murray, Dan Byrd, Regina King, Julie Gonzalo, Lin Shaye, Madeline Zima, Andrea Avery Ray, Mary Pat Gleason, Paul Rodriguez
Seen on: 4.1.2020

Plot:
Sam (Hilary Duff) divides her time between school and the diner that her stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) inherited from her father. Her stepmother is rarely there herself, which is just as well, as all she sees in Sam is cheap labor. Fortunately, there’s Sam’s best friend Carter (Dan Byrd) and Nomad, a guy she met online and with whom she has kept up a regular correspondence. He goes to her school as well – and he really wants to meet her. So she suggests that they meet at the school’s Halloween dance. There she learns that Nomad is Austin (Chad Michael Murray), the school’s most popular guy. He, on the other hand, doesn’t learn who Sam is – but she loses her phone and he finds it and tries to find her through it.

Look, a fairy tale retold as a teenage RomCom will very rarely win points for originality, and if a plot that surprises you is what you’re looking for, you should skip this A Cinderella Story widely. But I thought it was a pretty sweet take on a familiar story with some nice touches in the way it modernized the story.

The film poster showing Sam (Hilary Duff) riding piggyback on Austin (Chad Michael Murray).
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What a Girl Wants (2003)

What a Girl Wants
Director: Dennie Gordon
Writer: Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler
Based on: William Douglas Home‘s play The Reluctant Debutante
Cast: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Eileen Atkins, Anna Chancellor, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver James, Christina Cole
Seen on: 3.1.2020

Plot:
Daphne (Amanda Bynes) lives with her mother Libby (Kelly Preston), an artist and a free spirit. Daphne has never met her father, she only has a photo of him and knows that he is British. Taking a leaf out of her mother’s book, she decides that the best thing she could do is get on a plane, fly to London and find him. So that’s what she does. And things start pretty well. She meets the cute musician Ian (Oliver James) and she actually quickly finds her father – Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), who is running for political office at the moment and could not learn about an illegitimate teenage daughter at a worse time. So they have a lot of stuff to figure out.

I was actually not sure if I had seen What a Girl Wants before. It feels like I must have, but having seen it now, I’m now certain that I hadn’t before. Anyway, it’s fun in many ways and if you’re looking for 90 minutes entertainment that doesn’t need you to think for a single second, it could be just the film for you.

The film poster showing Daphne (Amanda Bynes) dressed in a shirt with the USA flag standing in front of two beefeaters.
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Step Sisters (2018)

Step Sisters
Director: Charles Stone III
Writer: Chuck Hayward
Cast: Megalyn Echikunwoke, Eden Sher, Lyndon Smith, Gage Golightly, Alessandra Torresani, Nia Jervier, Marque Richardson, Naturi Naughton, Matt McGorry, Sheryl Lee Ralph, L. Warren Young, Robert Curtis Brown
Seen on: 3.1.2020

Plot:
Jamilah (Megalyn Echikunwoke) has her life completely figured out: she’s president of her sorority, leads her sorority’s step dance group, she gets excellent grades, she has a devoted boyfriend (Matt McGorry) and she knows exactly where to go next: Harvard Law. But her plans are being threatened by another sorority’s embarrassing misbehavior. The school fears for its reputation and tasks Jamilah with getting the white girls of Sigma Beta Beta back on track by turning them into step dancers and winning the next contest. Despite her misgivings about bringing that black tradition to a bunch of white girls, Jamilah sees no way out but to do as asked – but that proves more difficult than initially thought.

Step Sisters was fun enough with a few good things, but I was also a little weirded out by the way they handled race in it. Since race is at the front and center of the film, that’s not a small thing.

The film poster showing two pair of boots, one black, one pink.
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