Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

There’s something really satisfying about the trial & error process of songwriting that lends itself well to feel-good cinema. The recent heartfelt indie drama Heats Beat Loud recognizes the joy of building a song from scratch, where confused & frustrated emotions can start in an incoherent haze and then be better understood & emotionally processed once solidified in song. It’s nowhere near the first movie to adopt that songwriting-as-self-therapy concept as foundational thematic ground, but it does feel like part of a recent push to build on that theme by closely following the frustrated stops & starts of the songwriting process while characters figure themselves out. 2016’s Sing Street used that conceit to craft a full-on romantic fantasy piece as a band that barely knows what they’re doing become more confident & cohesive with practice. 2017’s Band Aid is much more brutally honest about the underlying emotional devastation that dives its characters’ need for musical self-therapy, supplanting fantasy with darkly humorous observations about small-time musicianship & romantic crises. Hearts Beat Loud treads water between those two extremes. It flirts with attacking raw nerves with Band Aid’s ruthlessness, but tempers that impulse with Sing Street’s tendency for wish-fulfillment fantasy. The result is still a wholly satisfying movie, even if a less distinct one.

Nick Offerman continues his career-long Grumpy Cat routine as the owner of a failing record store in a small East Coast town. Depressed about the inevitable closing of his shop, his complete lack of romantic & professional prospects, and his daughter’s impending move away to college on the opposite coast, his face only lights up when he dedicates his energy to one obsession: making music, forming a father-daughter band. Hearts Beat Loud occasionally pretends to be an ensemble drama, spreading its POV energies to character crises as wildly varied as middle-age dating anxiety, queer teen romance, senility, addiction, grief, and the list goes on. No one topic is ever explored at any thorough length or depth. That approach can sometimes be admirable, especially whenever same-gender or interracial romance is treated like no big deal, entirely unworthy of comment. For the most part, though, the potency of its emotional beats isn’t reached through any character-based drama as much as through the emotive power of music. Each relationship lightly sketched out in the film could have been more fully developed, but that time is instead dedicated to the cathartic payoff of a climactic concert where the half-formed songs that have been tinkering their way to completion over the entire film are allowed to shine in their now fully-realized glory. It helps that the music is genuinely good and easily carries the emotional weight the deliberately light narrative demands of it.

Low-key, earnest indie dramas like this often survive by the strength of their casts, which is no problem for the Hearts Beat Loud ensemble. Offerman is surrounded by such heavy lifters as Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, American Honey’s Sasha Lane, and impressive newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who sings the film’s original numbers with Lorde-like emotional heft. High-Fidelity packed just as many impressive performers into a romantic drama about a failing record store, though, and that film’s caustic, self-absorbed bitterness sits on the stomach like a bout with food poisoning (not a fan). By contrast, Hearts Beat Loud approaches its own vinyl dude’s midlife crisis with a welcome dose of heartfelt sweetness to balance out the melancholy. It’s not quite as willing to interrogate its own emotional darkness as Band Aid, but its story of somewhat mediocre musicians finding immense relief in the therapeutic joys of songwriting still lands with a thundering thud when it counts: while the music plays. You can feel mediocrity creeping in from the corners of the frame in moments when the film pauses to worship at the almighty altar of Jeff Tweedy or updates the band-excitedly-hearing-their-music-on-the-radio-for-the-first-time trope with coffee shop Spotify listening, but mediocrity is oddly part of its low-key charm. This is a story about normal people finding joy in D.I.Y. song-building, a process that is infectious in its built-in satisfaction, as indicated by the increasing number of recent films in this genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I’m usually pretty harsh on the kind of computer-animated children’s features that’re flimsy excuses for ensemble casts to earn a relatively easy paycheck doing voiceover work. I am, however, also very weak to the powers of pandering. For all of the Madagascar 2‘s, Angry Birds: The Movie‘s, and Minions films I’ve skipped (and will be skipping) over there’s always one or two CGI animations that drag me to the theater. I checked out Pixar’s Inside Out earlier this year, for instance, because its inner-world design looked fascinating in a dream-logic kind of way. That, however, was actually a pretty good movie. What’s much more shameful is that I couldn’t resist the recent Adam Sandler cartoon Hotel Transylvania 2. By all accounts Hotel Transylvania 2 is the exact kind of hokey CGI ensemble cast animation dreck I typically avoid. Still, I was too weak-willed to pass up a famous monsters-themed comedy featuring several SNL alumni, not to mention Steve Buscemi as a werewolf & Mel Brooks as an aging Borscht Belt Dracula. I am admittedly powerless against that formula, regardless of the film’s quality.

It’s hard to say for sure if Hotel Transylvania 2 is better or worse than its predecessor. Its lack of ambition in terms of storytelling are pretty much on par with the first film, which was centered on a *gasp* human being winning his way into the heart of Dracula’s daughter & finding his place in a social circle consisting entirely of famous monsters. That small bit of world-building already taken care of, the second film at least has a lot less leg work to do, which is a blessing. There are some interesting ideas at play here about how the young lovebirds are treated as a “mixed couple” in both of human & monster societies (despite both being blindingly white) and the ways their first child together struggles to find a sense of identity in one of the two worlds. The rest of the film is sort of a loose jumble of disconnected thoughts on gentrification, social media addiction, a Luddite’s place in the modern world, and so on. The race metaphor in the human-monster relations is half-cooked at best and doesn’t amount to much more than ludicrous statements like, “Maybe you’ve let humans into your hotel, Dad, but I don’t think you’ve let them into your heart.” Whatever. Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the former SNL staff & the monster-themed puns, something that the film was obviously also more invested in as well.

As far as former-SNL cast members go, Hotel Transylvania 2 hosts voice performances from the likes of Adam Sandler (duh), Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, Dana Carvey, Chris Katan, David Spade, Chris Parnell, and Jon Lovitz. The movie was also co-written by TV Funhouse creator/all-around comedy genius Robert Smigel (not putting in his best work, but still). That’s not even mentioning contributions from non-SNL comedians Nick Offerman, Megan Mullalley, Rob Riggle, Keegan-Michael Key, Steve Buscemi, and, of course, Mel Brooks. As these things generally go, it’s a fantastic cast put to minimally effective use. The movie may be monster-themed, but it definitely tends more towards cute than scary. The bats look like kittens & a baby vampire with bright red curls for hair isn’t likely to appear in any child’s nightmares. The most horrific the film gets is in the (humorously) blank expressions of the hotel’s zombie staff. I appreciated a couple of the film’s isolated punchlines, like a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that goes, “Suffer, suffer, scream in pain. You will never breathe again,” calling back to the first film’s “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna bite the head off a bird.” For the most part, though, the jokes are worth maybe an occasional light chuckle (whenever they’re not vaguely homophobic, an unsavory line of humor Sandler can’t seem to resist even in his children’s media). Even the decades-old Al Lewis travesty Grampire: My Grandpa is a Vampire has a better grasp on portmanteau than this film’s less satisfying concoction “Vampa”. It’s no matter. I got what I wanted out of Hotel Transylvania 2: former SNL staff, hokey monster puns, and a werewolf Steve Buscemi. If that’s not enough to hold your interest for a feature (and it really shouldn’t be; I’m weak), I highly recommend instead tracking down the much-superior-in-every-way 2012 Laika production ParaNorman for all of your animated monster movie needs.

-Brandon Ledet