Movie Review: Love, Simon

The best thing about Love, Simon is its sincerity. The lead character is sincere. The conflict, a boy’s struggle over whether to acknowledge the reality of his sexual orientation, plays with authenticity. The suspenseful plot, involving narration, family, coming of age, friends and blackmail, is clever and original. The theme that genuine self-esteem comes from rational thought and virtuous action is earned. There’s nothing cynical, fake or modern about Love, Simon. The gay-oriented movie, like La La Land, Legally Blonde or The Greatest Showman, derives power from underlying truth and pop musical romanticism. Like those other entertaining films, this movie’s a good candidate to be underestimated and misunderstood.

Aside from its unabashed embrace of middle class American values, depiction of a complicated and intelligent nuclear family and subversively radical stereotype busting, Love, Simon rolls with humor, pathos and concision. It’s at once uniquely humorous, romantic and wholesome. Love, Simon is already this year’s best picture.

“They’re perfect”, high school senior Simon Spier (Nick Robinson, Everything, Everything) tells his sister Nora (Talitha Bateman) about her pancakes at breakfast one morning. This after his dad (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!‘s Josh Duhamel) entices him to emerge from his secretive, closed-door bedroom. In narration, Simon’s already admitted that he likes his sibling, so this coming of age movie, directed by writer and producer Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern), is savvy to differentiate its pop romanticism from both today’s dark, death and despair oriented pictures, such as Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, and also the flip, sensory comic book-based assaults. Love, Simon seeds its honesty early with short, sweet lines like that to let the audience know not to feel compelled to hunt for digs, addiction or manipulative parents.

This is not to say that Simon Spier’s story unfurls without complexity. On the contrary, it unspools with more wisdom and wider dimension, especially about today’s multiracial and sexual problems, than those other movies. It’s more honest, challenging and liberated about race than Black Panther, though it is subtler. It’s more realistic about coming out to family and falling in same-sex love than Call Me By Your Name, though it’s less self-absorbed. It is more universal about the gay male youth experience than Moonlight, though it is also more condensed and optimistic.

An interracial pair of bullies, whom some may suspect of being in the closet, too, are the closest Love, Simon has to villains, though a kid who wears t-shirts screaming for attention comes close. In text and electronic mail messages, Simon corresponds with an anonymous fellow classmate going by the name Blue who claims to be sorting through his sexuality, too. Simon, perhaps naively creating a generic e-mail account and starting innocuously off with “hey”, reaches out with nods to the Kinks and Smokey Robinson, later acting out courtesy of the Violent Femmes, falling for Blue as his circle of friends lands on a collision course with another lovesick kid.

Like a twist out of John Hughes’ underappreciated Some Kind of Wonderful, the plot revolves with Simon Spier spinning certain distortions out of control and out of alignment with his values. Amid parties, drinking games and desires, Simon’s secret and e-mail correspondence make an impression. Under the guidance of sexually frustrated high school authorities, compounded by screenshots, fantasies, a Ferris Wheel and the “newness” of being gay, not to mention a Freudian slip, the closeted gay kid bumps along toward wreckage of his most cherished friendships in the most psychologically astute depiction of young coming out in memory.

But this is a boy whose waking and sleeping self-taught lesson, judging by the thought chalked above his bed, is to Think. Think Simon Spier does, with a surprising swiftness, manliness and boldness which leads to one of the most rewarding moments in romantic screen history. Love, Simon excels because it is realistic, romantic and upright about the boys who become men when friends and family who claim to love them choose to rally around them. Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) and Josh Duhamel are outstanding as parents of a gay teen. Talented Garner lets her appealing 13 Going on 30 affability weave into another understated, knockout performance.

The incredible cast performs in wide ranges as an anguished, troubled boy’s friends, schoolmates and family. Small details matter, too. A dog helps the lovesick straight girl get past heartache. A station wagon shows how the individual drives, rallies around and loves himself, leading by example. Love, Simon essentially exists to depict that loving your life means fundamentally loving yourself, your whole self, choosing friends who do, too, and making the metaphysical commitment to show up and realize the ideal.

Premiere: ‘Benji’ on Netflix

This will always be the week I met Joe Camp, who created Benji. That 1974 independent movie was a creative and commercial success, like last year’s marvelous The Greatest Showman, stunning detractors who rejected it for its virtues. Audiences loved Benji. They loved the scrappy mutt movie so much that a major movie series was born, making more cute dog movies, enjoyment and money. Today, Netflix debuts a remake of Joe Camp’s original Benji (read my thoughts on the new Benji here).

‘Benji’ creator Joe Camp at the March 11, 2018 premiere of Netflix’s ‘Benji’

Camp, whom I interviewed years ago when Bambi debuted on DVD, continues to indulge in his love for animals at his home in Tennessee. With his wife, Kathleen, who helped him formulate a new philosophy of horsemanship which became the basis for his book The Soul of a Horse, he took a trip to Hollywood to attend Netflix’s premiere of Benji with his filmmaker son, Brandon Camp (Love Happens), who co-wrote and directed the new Benji. We met for the first time.

Camp’s is a terrific, true Hollywood story. When major studios rejected his wholesome pitch for a movie about a mutt who brings joy to children, he went and made the movie himself, casting The Big Valley‘s Peter Breck as a single father (the new version involves a single mother) and reaping Benji‘s profit. Producer Jason Blum (Get Out, Whiplash), who also attended this week’s Benji premiere, teamed with Brandon Camp and Netflix to bring the dog movie back. Netflix bills today’s remake, which screened at the “paw-miere”, as a family feature film.

The new Benji, who goes in life by the name Benji, also debuted at the premiere. Brandon Camp, a talented director who recreates the onscreen dog cuteness and poignancy, walked Benji down the “paw-miere”‘s green lawn. When a Netflix promotional photographer asked them to stop for a photo opportunity, Brandon situated Benji, who mugged, barked and posed for the camera while Brandon answered questions — while his dad, Joe Camp, praised his son’s work and stilled Benji to near perfection like a master dog whisperer.

It takes effort and skill to work dogs and kids thoughtfully into film with stories that entertain. Lasse Hallstrom’s recent A Dog’s Purpose was a marvelous movie in this regard and, overall, I was impressed by the new Benji and look forward to more movies with the adorable pooch. Most of all, though, I admire Joe Camp for his independence, confidence and single-mindedness in making a movie which inspires audiences of all ages, instilling wonder, laughter and joy in today’s culture. He’s as frisky, resourceful and upbeat as ever and he’s never gone Hollywood if that means selling out. May the same go for Benji and dog movies to come.

New Movie and Blu-Ray Review: ‘Lady Bird’

Buy the Movie

The 2017 movies were disappointing in general. Having finally seen the last of the Best Picture Academy Award nominees, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, my contention is affirmed. Read my new review of the film here.

As with every movie I see, I wanted to like and enjoy Lady Bird. Unfortunately, it ended up as dull as I’d expected. However, I found more to appreciate than I’d anticipated. I won’t be rushing out to see the next Greta Gerwig film but Lady Bird‘s not the worst navel-gazer I’ve seen. The Blu-Ray edition has merit, too, in the features, especially for those who like the movie.

Among last year’s movies I’ve seen, I, Tonya, also new to home video, is the best of the bunch. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Dunkirk — both available on disc or stream — are well made if lacking, though the latter is more moving and realistic, which to me makes it better. After the overdone onslaught of Marvel’s Black Panther and the overrated Wonder Woman, I am inclined to take a break from comic book movies. I’m continuing to see and write about classic movies and there are more to come. This weekend, I may also see and review a new gay-themed picture called Love, Simon, because the marketing looks like the movie may have an interesting character and story.

TV Preview: Elton John Tribute on CBS

Some of my favorite recording artists will sing songs by Elton John in a tribute show to air on CBS next month. The program, Elton John: I’m Still Standing–a Grammy Salute, is scheduled to be broadcast for two hours at 9pm Pacific Time on Tuesday, April 10. The Grammys announced that tunes originally written, performed and made famous by Elton John, who recently announced details for a final tour, will include the classics co-written with his legendary writing partner Bernie Taupin.

Judging by the guest appearance list, a slew of CBS personalities, players and stars will be shoehorned into the tribute. But the concert will also feature extremely talented artists such as Sam Smith, Lady Gaga, John Legend, and Ed Sheeran covering the Elton John catalog. Other artists, such as Miranda Lambert, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town and Chris Martin, will also perform. Look for Kesha, SZA and Maren Morris, too. Christopher Jackson and Valerie Simpson will perform a duet for “Border Song”. Miley Cyrus will belt out “The Bitch is Back”, Gaga sings “Your Song”, Ed Sheeran performs “Candle in the Wind” and Sam Smith will do the ballad of “Daniel”. John Legend (La La Land) is slated for “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. Little Big Town will play “Rocket Man”.

According to CBS, the set list features new performances by Elton John of his hits “Bennie and The Jets”, “Philadelphia Freedom” and his Eighties pop hit “I’m Still Standing”, which will be performed with an ensemble. Elton John: I’m Still Standing–a Grammy Salute is scheduled for broadcast on the CBS Television Network.

 

Movie Review: Benji (Netflix, 2018)

If you enjoyed Joe Camp’s adventurous Benji (1974) featuring Peter Breck as a single dad and an adorable stray mutt that loves kids, fights crime and saves lives, Netflix’s remake is probably worth watching this week. Benji, co-written and directed by Brandon Camp (Love Happens), debuts this Friday, March 16 on the streaming service.

Benji on Netflix

With a caveat, I enjoyed the new Benji. Director Camp, son of Benji‘s original creator, seamlessly captures the simple magic and joy of watching a scrappy little street dog try to get a home and a boy to adopt and love him. I think Benji’s fundamentally enduring appeal, and, as a movie series, it’s had several successful sequels, lies in its depiction of a dog that can think and act with a sense of purpose. Audiences like seeing these qualities on screen and dog owners and lovers know that dogs are often as amazing as portrayed.

The low-budget, independent charm of the 1974 picture carries into this version, too, with a few changes to the basic story but the same unaffected, family-friendly sensibility toward decent, hardworking people and the persistent dog that comes into their streets, shops, homes and lives. This means Benji bonds with a boy (Gabriel Bateman) and, later, his sister (Darby Camp, no relation) whose emergency medical worker single mother (Kiele Sanchez) nixes the idea of getting a dog on practical grounds.

The dog is the star of this show and Brandon Camp gets him from every angle, scampering about, climbing, pouting, bounding and jogging through the seasons and breaking into a full sprint to save the kids when they’re endangered. His expressive eyes work wonders on humans and his little black nose picks up clues, too. A terrific plot point comes with humor in enlistment of another dog when Benji’s luck runs out and local police stumble on the job. Add a pawn shop angle, a pair of nasty thieves, a prayer, a boatyard, found cell phone video, being named after Benjamin Franklin and being kicked out in the rain and Benji delivers.

He’s the cutest dog in pictures since the lifesaving dog in The Artist and a worthwhile successor to the original Higgins as Benji, if not quite as stray-looking as that unkempt mutt. What feats the new Benji (real name: Benji) accomplishes, leaping and balancing about, are as plausible or as implausible as other dog tricks in the series or films starring Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. I could watch him in almost any movie, though I also enjoyed the last movie in the series, Benji Off the Leash, so I’m admittedly a fan.

A heavy-handed plot twist puts a damper on the light, wholesome, 87-minute Benji. If you love dogs and watch, and you should watch if you subscribe to Netflix, you’ll know the faith-based twist when you see it in an instant. It’s not necessary, it goes on too long, which is part of what makes it too thickly laid on, and it breaks character. But the scenes of a dog bonding with a boy and trying to save him from harm are compelling on their own terms, especially the expression on Benji’s face when he first sees the boy, and young Bateman as the boy is likable and easy to watch. Almost as much as Benji.