MOST
RECENT
POSTS

REVIEW: Our Friend

Gravitas Ventures
Rated: R
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Have you ever watched a movie and as the the credits start to roll, you’re just so thankful that this film exists–the kind of film where you feel a real sense of how important it is, and how much it can comfort and validate some, but then also bring potent awareness anchored in empathy to all others?

I can count on one hand how many movies have achieved that level of impact for me, and Our Friend has just been added to that small list.

Based on actual events and on an award winning article by Matthew Teague, Our Friend talks about a family’s struggle dealing with the terminal illness of their wife and mother, and the selfless love shown by their close friend in taking care of so much of the natural fallout that comes with such a predicament.

This is likely going to be an emotionally heavy movie for most. That can be daunting, and I do believe that you have to be in the right mood to watch this, but to not watch it and write it off as “depressing” would be a major disservice to the film… and to yourself. One of the most beautiful things about Our Friend is its way of showing the sincere, but often overlooked details in the life of any of person hit by cancer. It jumps head first into the realm of tragedy, but it also shows it within the context of a lifetime of love, friendship and mistakes. It shows the perspective of multiple, integral members, including one of the sweetest takes of motherhood I’ve seen put to screen. It offers a glimpse of how difficult this disease truly is, and what hardships and tender moments can occur between diagnosis and death. It even shows the subsequent disarray to a home once a homemaker is sick, the likely insecurity of the partner, and the desperate hope for relief, even if it’s just in the form of a friend doing the dishes. The end result is overwhelmingly touching, shockingly relatable, and worth recommending to everyone I can.

The fact that it’s based on true events makes for a major highlight in and of itself. A lot of the time, that same phrase at the beginning of every movie might be met with numbed, accustomed minds, but this time it hit differently (and incidentally, it isn’t revealed to be a true story till the end). The fact that these delicate emotions were felt and these good deeds done, causes me to think of the friends that would perhaps be there for me if our family ran into tragedy. The film shows how the type of friend to drop everything and commit to caring for you during an illness likely may not “have their own life together” in the popular sense, that they may even be running away from their present, but all the same, they are there for you and always will be; they are unquestionably heaven sent. After the film ended, thinking on those individuals drove me to tears.

Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson in a scene of Our Friend | Gravitas Ventures, 2021.

Dakota Johnson (Peanut Butter Falcon) plays Nicole Teague, and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) plays the husband who ends up writing the article largely centered around the goodness of their friend, Dane Faucheux, played by Jason Segel (I Love You, Man). All three actors do an absolutely wonderful job capturing the vulnerability and complexities of such roles. The roles themselves are shared seamlessly amongst each other. I don’t know how this movie being originally released in 2019 will affect its chances come award season, but there are some definite areas in this film deserving of widespread praise. That goes for the expert writing (Brad Ingelsby) and directing (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) as well!

I could go on, but I just want to reaffirm how passionately I feel regarding the importance of this movie. This goes back to responsible movie watching for me (which kind of sounds tool-ish of me to say, and please don’t take me too seriously). However, the concept has become a big deal to me over years of watching mindless comedies, heartless action thrillers and corny romances. Sincerely speaking, if we could choose films more often that capture humanity to this caliber, all of the sudden cinema could be considered less of a lazy passtime, and more of an art that’s demanding of our attention and improvement. Though it’s not one I picture revisiting anytime soon (honestly, it’s really tough to watch), I will be forever grateful to have seen Our Friend.

Recommendation: Go See It!

 

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Malcolm & Marie

Editor’s note: Like all of the “Roundtable Reviews” we’ve done before, we chose a movie that has been getting a lot of buzz mixed with a lot of controversy. Malcolm & Marie features two of the hottest and most in demand actors in Hollywood, and puts them front and center in this intimate drama. This film might be Zendaya’s most rigorous role since shedding her Disney Channel shell, and John David Washington’s career is ever onward and upward. What can this man not do?

NETFLIX | Rated: R | Runtime: 106 minutes | Director: Sam Levinson

CJ Marshall: The Christmas episode of Euphoria should have prepared you for this project. Malcolm & Marie exists more as performance art than an actual film. It’s like a high budget “sponsor me” skate video. The end product has killer performances and a great soundtrack, but it has no purpose other than to showcase the formidable talent of its creative forces. They absolutely killed it on the technique angle. Zendaya has never looked or acted more mature and she wears it well. The uncomfortable (Euphoria’s trademark), voyeuristic vibe is contrasted with the constant nudging and winking of Levinson’s dialogue–the film engages in the very techniques and tropes that it seems to be critiquing. All of that would be more interesting if there were a point to be made. It’s conflict for the sake of conflict, dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and filmed–beautifully I might add–in black and white for the sake of black and white. In the spirit of this film I’ll offer up one of the more ubiquitous critiques: Malcolm & Marie insists upon itself.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: When the trailer for Malcolm & Marie dropped, you knew that the film would be about a relationship filled with both love-making and insults that might be similar to your average couple stuck together in quarantine. The film definitely hits each one of those checkboxes with each argument showing a deeper problematic layer in their relationship. The most obvious comparison for anyone to make is to 2019’s Marriage Story. While similar, that film is more about one man’s side of a divorce whereas this film is more of a power struggle between two people. From a stylistic perspective, Malcolm & Marie has a lot more compelling aspects when compared to Marriage Story, from beautiful cinematography, and great use of music to move the story along. The acting by Washington and Zendaya is on point in perhaps their best roles yet. While one may not enjoy argumentative relationship type movies (is that a genre now?)… this film has more to it than simply a display of that to enjoy time and time again. Full thoughts coming later on.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: Malcom and Marie claims to not be a love story, but “a story about love.” When I saw that phrasing in the trailer, my guard immediately went up. That seems to be code for “terrible people spend the runtime yelling at each other, and yet still claim they love each other.” When early reviews went up, my suspicions were confirmed. But, because of my love for Zendaya, I was determined to watch this movie. And I have to admit, it was incredibly well made. The staging and cinematography were great, and the acting was pretty incredible. Zendaya’s character had a monologue that literally left my jaw hanging off the floor. However, the relationship between the two titualar characters just felt so mean spirited and cruel to each other, that it left me feeling very uncomfortable and waiting for the film to end. But maybe that was the point of the movie…? I don’t know. It was a well crafted film, but in the end, it didn’t convince me that these two really cared about each other, nor that it was a “movie about love.” So it”s going be a “skip it” for me. However, it made me even more excited to see Zendaya in Dune coming out later this year!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: The Little Things

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: John Lee Hancock

“It’s the little things that are important. It’s the little things that get you caught.”

I don’t believe writer/director John Lee Hancock expected this line to have a meta element to it, yet here we are. I’ll yank the low hanging fruit out of the tree and say he should have followed his own advice. The little things are important in a film, especially in a murder mystery. It’s the lack of a little thing here or there that keeps The Little Things from being the major experience it should have been.

All of the elements are there on the presser kit. Hancock is a solid film maker and Denzel Washington is arguably the greatest actor of his era. Pairing them with talented thespians such as Rami Malek and Jared Leto should have been a winning play. Instead we get bases loaded and a full count heading into the end of the game. Oh yeah… and you’re down by one run. How you accept the film’s end is what will determine whether that last swing was a strikeout or the home run.

It’s not for lack of trying. The film is appropriately dreary and creepy, drenched in that Fincher-esque green tint that gives the film that icky serial killer vibe we’ve all appreciated since the seminal Se7en (and yes, I spell it that way because it earned it). Denzel gets to look and act his age while being a tortured soul to boot. He employs a physicality I haven’t seen in him before. His trademark swagger is buried under a mountain of regret and sleepless nights. Still, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Rami Malek is so pensive and understated in his role that he’s either given one of the great performances of his career, or he had no clue what he wanted to do with his character. I honestly can’t tell you which it is. Jared Leto came to party like he always does, and we all know that the only thing that stops Leto is a script. Saying anything further will spoil what awaits you.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in a scene of The Little Things | Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021.

I don’t know if I can recommend The Little Things as a theater experience. I think this one would go down smoother through HBO Max. If you’re a subscriber you’ve already paid for it anyway. I say that because I can say, without spoiling any plot points, that this movie isn’t what you think it’s going to be. The film defies expectation but doesn’t replace what you’re anticipating with a better alternative. It didn’t work for me because the characters aren’t given the opportunity to earn what Hancock is asking of the audience by the end of the film. It feels like a curveball when the moment called for some heat straight down the middle. 

It’s the little things that cost you the game.

The Little Things is showing in theaters where theaters are open, and is streaming on HBO Max.

Recommendation: Maybe a Matinee

Why You Should Support Physical Media

Showing off my 4K UHD Steelbook of Black Panther.

My film collection is now almost 800 movies strong, with 135 of those being 4K UHD discs, 524 Blu-rays, and 133 DVDs. Now, why do I collect? Why stay with physical media when Netflix has been broadcasting some content in 4K since 2014 and Amazon, Apple, and HBO Max now offer 4K content too? The reason is how the video and audio components are affected by streaming. In theory, these streaming services offer picture quality that is comparable to discs the latest in digital video disc technology. However, when the same movie compared on that versus a Blu-ray disc and a 4K disc, A/V enthusiasts at WhatHiFi.com found that the 4K streaming experience was actually more in line with watching a traditional 1080p Blu-ray—and that Blu-rays had a clear advantage in terms of contrast and color. However, 4K discs looked far better than either. They even compared audio quality and they found that streaming would get compressed Dolby Digital Plus.

Dolby Digital Plus has been around since 1992 and it has been on televisions since 1998. More advanced surround sound formats encode discrete sounds on different channels.This audio technology was mandatory on DVDs and is now mandatory to have at least this on Blu-rays, though, obviously at a higher level. When we watch movies at home either via streaming or disc, this audio can be experienced or lost either by your television speakers or your streaming service (dependent on your internet). This can reduce the movie watching experience. How this is prevented is through a number of lossless audio compression formats Dolby and DTS. While there are many out there who would state their preference, in turn have found they are fairly interchangeable. DTS Digital Surround is comparable to Dolby Digital, DTS HD Master Audio is comparable to Dolby TrueHD, DTS-X is comparable to Dolby Atmos. The latter two audio are currently the two best audio formats out there. The problem is that streaming reduces the high level audio down to the old technology. 

I recently updated my Star Wars collection from Blu-rays to 4K UHD. Thank goodness for Black Friday!

This is due to compression as the picture and sound information have to be processed in a way to send it over the internet. On top of that, the content has to be there. To get authentic 4K content on Netflix, one must pay for their premium subscription ($17.99/month) and then your internet needs to be able to handle it. Both Netflix and Disney+ say that at least 25 megabits per second is needed to stream UHD (ultra high definition) content, and Amazon needs at least 15 Mbps to watch videos in UHD. The two cheapest high speed internets for the most bandwidth in the US are Verizon and Comcast at $40 and $35/month, respectively. This will get you download speeds of 100mbps for Comcast and 200mbps for Verizon. However, this is only if the streaming device is hooked up directly to the router and wifi is about 70% as fast, at maximum. Additionally, there are more confounding factors such as the type of router and how many other devices are on the wifi–even if your streaming devices are up to speed and your internet is the best possible, there will still be some information lost along the way. Compression is inevitable. That’s not to say that streaming services aren’t useful and don’t have some real advantages. Streaming services do provide a deal when it comes to price, selection size, and ease of use. 

Ultimately, the streaming experience is more like channel surfing through many channels, especially now with almost everyone having their own streaming service. Using these services may be nice for the selection but that selection is determined by someone else. Netflix constantly removes content depending on the month and so does HBO Max. It all depends on licensing similar to that of cable channels running movies during the day. In the past, cable became so expensive to get access to movies and tv shows. This allowed Netflix to become popular. People didn’t enjoy having to pay for movies so this company created a way to only pay a monthly fee and you get as many movies as you wanted but one at a time. This led to their streaming services which had all people’s favorite shows. You could find everything on Netflix which was a game changer. Now, it may not be called “cable” anymore but it’s essentially the same thing.

Anyone that knows me knows that I am a huge Batman fan, especially the animated versions.

On top of that, Netflix announced in August 2020 that they were going to rencode all 4K, HDR and HFR titles in its catalog. They claim to be able to deliver the same quality 4K video at half the bitrate. They stated, “For members with high-bandwidth connections we deliver the same great quality at half the bitrate on average. For members with constrained bandwidth we deliver higher quality at the same (or even lower) bitrate.” Other advantages of the new approach include “higher initial quality,” and “fewer quality drops while streaming,” less buffering, and a reduction in “initial play delay by about 10%.” Also in October, Disney revealed that in order to further accelerate its direct-to-consumer strategy, it would be centralizing its media businesses into one entity that would be responsible for content distribution, ad sales and Disney+. This move was obviously done in response to the global coronavirus pandemic which crippled the theatrical business and pushed more viewers to streaming services. As of August 2020, Disney had over 50 million subscribers to Disney+ alone.

So with Netflix compressing their content and Disney moving towards streaming services, films have the potential to become less impactful due to streaming limitations. This makes physical media more and more important. Physical media has been shown to be the better, more pure way to view movies for a number of reasons including the audio and visual components. While there are some who disagree and say that physical media is a fad and that streaming is the more modern way to go, the questions about internet speeds, the content, and the technology surrounding streaming still remain. When Wonder Woman 1984 was released on HBO Max, director Patty Jenkins stated that it would be the first film on HBO Max to be in 4K Ultra HD, HDR 10, Dolby Vision and have Dolby Atmos. However, Warner Bros. hadn’t released any information about what internet speeds were needed for this. On top of that, some devices that should get 4K content such as the Xbox Series X were not able to get 4K; it was only on certain devices. This again shows that most likely the high end video and audio components of the movie are being limited by these streaming services and their technology. Even if you have the highest and most consistent bandwidth available, physical media holds the upper hand. The compression still happens, and thus streaming limits viewers from getting the true aspects of the film and seeing what the filmmaker intended. Furthermore, having the movies in the palm of your hand can give a more direct connection to the movie itself that can last a lifetime. Even if you hate the idea of physical media, you have to admit at some point that you are okay with getting a lesser quality film experience. Streaming may be cheaper and more convenient, but physical media is a more premium experience; which is why I support physical media, and you should too.

ROUNDTABLE RECOMMENDATIONS: A Look Back at Some of Our Favorite Movies of 2020

*Editor’s note: The year that seemed like it would never end has done the impossible… it’s actually over. 2020 has been a year unlike any other in our lifetime, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us are glad to see it go. Through it all, we have gained experiences and memories (both good and bad) that will shape our lives for years to come. Movies, and the lack thereof, might seem a trivial things when compared to the crushing challenges many faced in 2020; death, sickness, unemployment, school closures, social interactions etc. have all paid a heavy toll on societies around the world. Encouragement, hope, friendship and love are forms of strength that can be derived from stories, and as pillar of modern day storytelling, we want to share with you which movies we fell in love with in 2020 and wholeheartedly recommend to you. Enjoy!

André Hutchens: As bad as 2020 has been for the movie theater industry (and I only hope a speedy recovery for the industry), streaming services have never been more in demand. Lockdown mandates and social distancing policies have all but crippled movie theaters globally, but one industry’s tragedy is another industry’s triumph. And no streaming service has reaped the rewards more so than Netflix. With over 200 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the King of streaming, and continued its dominance in 2020… which is where I will pull my movie recommendation. Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of real working class Americans and their struggle for survival in towns long forgotten by the broader public. You’ll see lives and relationships shredded by drug addiction, the struggle of single parents trying to play the part meant for two, and how life can feel hopeless when you’re drowning in life’s struggles. But the reason why I am recommending this film isn’t for the depiction of real life struggles, but for how the characters are able to overcome them. With the help of family, the power of forgiveness, and the guiding hand of faith, Hillbilly Elegy will show every viewer the possibilities of a better life when you begin to take responsibility for it. Easily my favorite movie of the year, I unequivocally recommend watching Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix.

CJ Marshall: Pixar has maintained such a high standard over the years. Their projects are mostly varying degrees of “Good” rather than good or bad. Soul is no different. The film already had wit, charm, and an authentic Black culture flavor coursing through its veins (Spider-verse anyone?) Who could know what significance its message would carry going into a year like the one just past? Soul carries that added weight because of how sturdy Pixar built its foundation. It should rightfully take its place as one of the jewels in the Pixar crown. My single regret is that I couldn’t see this film on the big screen in 3D.

Parker Johnson: 2020 was a tough year for all of us, and The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect, charming movie to come out during this trying time. Dev Patel shines as David Copperfield, and this colorful cast brought this delightful pseudo-biopic of Charles Dickens to life in such a heartfelt way. Like Little Women (2019) and Emma. (2020) before it, The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect blend of wit, charm, and warmth that should delight anyone… as long as you don’t confuse it for David Copperfield the magician, like my mom did.

Rachel Ogden: The near impossible task for sequels is to find a way to provide the protagonist with new obstacles and growth without losing the character’s identity that made them cheer-worthy in the first place; in essence, changing the character without changing the character. Though it will draw dissent, I say Wonder Woman 1984 does this perfectly. Gal Gadot continues to amaze as a dynamic woman and superhero that even villains want to be like. The movie’s 150-something minutes follow three different character arcs that are integrated into a simple yet powerful plot that I found both well-written and engaging. What does it mean to be great? Both the message and material of the film serve as a satisfying answer, even if it’s not a popular one. Don’t let the haters get you down.

Rachel Wagner: Tomm Moore is perhaps the most consistent and underrated director working today. He already had triumphs in The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea and now he dazzles audiences once again with Wolfwalkers. Not only is the 2D animation beautiful but the story of 2 girls coming to understand their connection and who they are rings true. I love the way Moore weaves in his Irish lore into his stories without feeling the need to over-explain what is happening. We are charmed by both girls and that’s enough to get us invested in whatever fantastical challenges and adventures come their way. I also loved the music by Bruno Coulais and Kila. It all combines to make a special film that we are not likely to forget. Watch Wolfwalkers on Apple TV+ as soon as you can!

Sam Cooley: What’s crazy about The Invisible Man (2020) is that it came out before COVID blew up, but it still came and went nearly… invisible to audiences. But it is so deserving of all the attention and praise it can get. Between a chillingly unique premise of abuse and deception, subtle works in suspense and terror, and another expert, almost exhaustive performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is confidently endorsed as one of the best films of the year. Though its namesake is a classic, the most it has on the 2020 version is originality, but even then, 2020’s new and fresh version still approaches surprisingly close in that regard.

Shay Satmary: Palm Springs was definitely the movie of 2020 that I told everyone I know to watch immediately after I watched it. It’s one of those movies where the less you know about the plot, the better it is to watch. What you do need to know is that it does a cracking job of summing up the feelings and aesthetics of most people’s 2020. It also stars a hot, understated Andy Samberg, à la Celeste & Jesse Forever,  and Cristin Milioti from Black Mirror. Along with invoking specific 2020 feelings and wonderful acting, Palm Springs will make you laugh out loud, and if you’re a sucker like me, you’ll end up crying too. 

The Formal Review: Research has shown that there is an appeal of rewatching movies because of the familiarity of characters, settings and plots–and Tenet exemplifies this. Nolan uses numerous scientific theories, and the ROTAS palindromic square, in a very ambitious and ingenious way. He is able take those ideas and stage them via action sequences that run backward and forward through time simultaneously. Yes, it will require multiple viewings, but that is in no way a bad thing. Each time will allow for new details to be discovered and will increase the appreciation for this movie. It is in the top tier of Nolan films. Complex? …sure, but phenomenal as well.

Thank you for your support of Backseat Directors this last year. It ended up not being the most ideal year to launch our new movie website, but we’ve made it out alive! May this new year be better than the last. Happy 2021, everyone!

REVIEW: Pieces of a Woman

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Kornél Mundruczó

We’re at that time of year when movie studios (COVID pandemic aside) begin to churn out what we movie fans like to call “Oscar-bait,” a movie that has the look and feel of an award worthy movie, and one you could easily be swayed into thinking is Oscar worthy. But before you take the bait, look beyond the shimmer and sheen of a movie that has all the tools to be special, and you’ll begin to see why these movies are usually passed over by the general public and long forgotten just weeks after their debut.

Still excited to read this review? FYI, I will be touching on minor spoilers, emphasis on minor.

Pieces of a Woman debuted in September 2020 at the Venice International Film Festival, and was picked up by Netflix for a limited theatrical release in December, then debuted streaming shortly thereafter. The movie stars Vanessa Kirby as Martha, who gave a particularly strong performance, Shia LaBeouf as Sean, and Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth (Martha’s mother). The premise of the movie surrounds the tragedy of Martha and Sean losing their baby during childbirth, and the subsequent relational struggles between the couple, and Martha and her mother.

The story is very compelling… at least parts of it are. I can’t think of many movies that have attempted to tackle such a personal and intimate tragedy such as this. And as I mentioned before, the performances are quite strong. Pieces of a Woman really highlighted Vanessa Kirby’s talents as an actress, more so than her more prominent roles in the two blockbuster action movies she co-starred in (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Hobbs & Shaw). But outside of the partly compelling story, and the well acted roles, I don’t have much good to say about this movie, and all of it hinges on the execution of what should have been a better movie.

Where Pieces of a Woman fails, is exactly where Oscar-bait, Marriage Story (2019) failed for me as well. In its attempt to tell a strong, moving story, the writer (Kata Wéber) fails to give the audience a purpose in experiencing this tragedy with her characters. I understand that some readers might think me naive, or unqualified to be talking about a movie that portrays a grieving mother who is attempting to deal with one of the worst tragedies a mother could ever experience… and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. But my criticisms lie solely with the purpose of the story, and the goal the writer/director was hoping to achieve. Because outside of watching a couple’s and family’s life fall apart in the most painful ways, why were we meant to suffer with them when there was no purpose to the suffering other than for suffering’s sake?

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in a scene of Pieces of a Woman | NETFLIX, 2020.

Martha and Sean’s decision to have an at-home birth conducted by a midwife was never explained, other than “just because.” Martha and Sean’s deep relationship issues, which clearly started long before the birth and death of their baby, are never mentioned. The beginning of the film depicts the existence of a loving and caring relationship between the two main characters, only for the movie to jump ahead and show how deeply broken these two individuals are. I would prefer to see their journey to that point instead of skipping the details on how and why many couples who lose a child end up getting a divorce after. There is too much fighting, too much yelling, too much pain without enough background or context to justify my subjection to this 2 hour movie. The film does make an attempt at some type of message of healing at the end, but the message fell flatter than Sean’s complete and unexpected disappearance half way through the movie.

If you want your audience to willingly suffer along with your characters you must provide a strong justification as to why they will. You must provide a story that can instill hope and optimism in the audience that not every couple that loses a child ends up separating; not every mother that loses a child succumbs to the crushing weight of that burden; not every life is destroyed when tragedy befalls it. Real life provides ample enough examples of that already. I don’t need reminding that the weight of life is nearly unbearable. I need encouragement that WE CAN bear it. Sadly, Pieces of a Woman is NOT that movie.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Ron Howard

Every now and then Netflix really surprises me. The good kind of surprises. Like a Christmas gift. You know… the kind that you’re hoping for, maybe even asked for, but not sure you’ll get. That was Hillbilly Elegy for me. Over the last few years Netflix has shown their ability to produce and distribute high quality films worthy of the big screen. Such films like ROMA, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or Mudbound. Netflix’s “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” strategy for their original content has created a bloated and overwhelming catalogue of both good and bad content. Most of their originals are very forgettable, things I would never consider watching twice (and regret even watching once). But I will give credit where credit is due, and all credit to Netflix for picking up the distribution rights to Hillbilly Elegy, and showing us the type of quality entertainment they are capable of providing.

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the 2016 best-selling memoir (of the same name) by J.D. Vance, which sold well over 3 million copies, and reached the New York Time’s Best Seller list twice. The movie was directed and co-produced by Ron Howard, and Vanessa Taylor adapted the screenplay. It stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, and Haley Bennett. Both Adams and Close give Oscar worthy performances in this movie. Some of the best of their careers.

I wasn’t familiar with J.D. Vance’s memoir, or the story behind the movie. And even after watching the trailer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the movie. It seemed like a regular family drama kind of film, but nothing to get me too excited. What really drew my interest to the movie, though, were Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Their character transformations were stunning, and for that reason alone I chose to sit down and spend two hours on this movie. And I’m so glad I did.

Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of a low working-class family from Jackson, Kentucky that picks up and moves to a small steel town in Ohio where J.D.’s grandparents live. J.D. is the younger of two siblings being raised by a single mom who is battling a serious drug addiction. The movie goes back and forth between J.D.’s life as a student at Yale Law School and his memories of growing up in a broken family. J.D.’s mom, Bev (played by Amy Adams) struggles to keep a steady job, or even a steady relationship due to her frequent substance abuse. Her personal instability leads to a very unstable life for her two children. Bev’s mother (played by Glenn Close) is well aware of her daughter’s inner demons and does what she can to help. The family drama plays out with J.D. and his sister in need of guidance and structure, and a mom who is struggling to even keep herself alive.

From left to right: Haley Bennett, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in a scene of Hillbilly Elegy | NETFLIX, 2020.

Any viewer should be advised that the scenes of intense family drama are very raw and unfiltered. These are the real stories depicted in J.D.’s memoir, and the very real life he and his family endured. In spite of the Vance family’s circumstances and struggles, in spite of their dire financial situation, in spite of an America that seems to have forgotten about these, the deplorables, J.D. and his family are able to overcome. Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. On multiple occasions the movie brought me to tears. Through all of the pain and anguish endured by every member of this family, the underlying messages of family, faith and forgiveness drove deep into my heart, and have stayed with me for weeks after. Ron Howard has directed some classics throughout his career in Hollywood (Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story), and I’d confidently add Hillbilly Elegy to this list.

If you’ve happened to see the poor ratings posted by Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll notice a cavernous discrepancy between the movie critics and the audience. The majority of audience members enjoyed the movie, with an 86% approval rating. The politically motivated criticisms of a non-political movie by overtly biased critics has left an unfair and underserved smear on what is an incredible film. I unequivocally and wholeheartedly recommend this movie. Without a doubt, Hillbilly Elegy is my number 1 movie of 2020.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: White Lie

levelFILM
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Yonah Lewis

White Lie is a 2019 Canadian drama film written and directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. The film stars Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, and Connor Jessup.

The Story/Direction

White Lie centers around a college student named Katie (Rohl) who lies about having cancer. The story is absolutely fascinating and also horrifying. As a society, we usually will feel sympathy toward people with cancer, but this film twists that sentiment on its head. Why does Katie try her best to keep up this lie? Directors/writers Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis don’t really tell you. There are clues that it could be a coping mechanism, but that’s not a guarantee. The film only tells the character’s story over the course of the five days. This felt very true to be a comment on society as a whole; we often feel open and willing to give money to someone suffering. But then there are cases similar to the one in November 2017 where three people fabricated a feel-good story, created a GoFundMe page titled “Paying it Forward” and furthered the scheme by doing numerous local and national media interviews, including one on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The Characters

We’re not sure why the aforementioned couple chose to con so many generous people, just as we don’t know why exactly Katie goes down this same path. But to see this character unwind is absolutely fascinating. Rohl gives a powerful performance as Katie. You can’t help but hate the character and be fascinated with her at the same time. The movie takes place over the course of five days, but the journey the audience takes is an emotional one. As the film starts the music creates this tense environment that will make the viewer lost trust in Katie. She is sick, but everything is not as it seems. She has a GoFundMe page to help her fight her battle with melanoma skin cancer. The problem is Katie doesn’t actually have cancer. She goes through an elaborate scheme to forge medical documents, fake medication, and pretend to go to weekly chemo treatments.

Not only is Katie fooling the generous people who are donating to her GoFundMe, but she’s also lying to her girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson) about her condition as well. As it goes with all lies, cracks begin to appear. Katie then has to keep everyone believing her story which becomes more difficult as the film plays out. Anderson really shines in the film with her limited role.

Kacey Rohl and Amber Anderson in a scene of White Lie | levelFILM, 2019.

The Flaws

There is a slight flaw with this film as the end result is known. We know that the lie will eventually fall apart. However, it’s the journey to that finale which makes this film interesting. This is what makes the story more fascinating than boring. There are similarities to the film’s ending and that of The Godfather (1972).

Overall…

White Lie may play with the ideas of victim-shaming which may be triggering for some and hinder their enjoyment of the film. However, the film’s main purpose is to question the idea of blind validation without looking more into whatever the case is. You can’t judge someone without knowing all of the details and that’s what this film does. It does not ask its audience to judge Katie and that’s what makes it such an interesting character study. A must see if you’re interested in the psychology of human behaviors or if you just love a good story.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

Focus Features
Rated: R
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Emerald Fennell

I’m going to be straightforward with everyone right off the bat… Given, I still have quite a bit on my 2020 watchlist, but as of right now, Promising Young Woman is my choice for what would be Best Picture, indie film or not.

This film takes all the nuance and excitement of a femme fatale action-comedy, mixes it with the delicate emotions of a drama, and dashes it with the utterly nail-biting tension of a psychological thriller.

Promising Young Woman delves into some delicate and often polarizing issues as it follows a traumatized and hardened woman (played exceptionally by Carey Mulligan) who constantly puts herself in vulnerable situations with men, and then proceeds to teach them a lesson…of sorts. I won’t say more, but in case you think this movie is predictable just from the trailer, you’ll likely find that you’re wrong. These twists and turns WILL KNOCK THE WIND OUT OF YOU, and there will be inevitable group discussions throughout; if not, positively as the credits roll.

If you were a fan of the writing of The Crown, Killing Eve, or Call the Midwife, you’re in luck. The same Emerald Fennell writes and directs this with such natural precision on human behavior as well as such a sincere take on otherwise divisive subject matters. I’m convinced that even the crudest chauvinist wouldn’t be able to deny the ability this movie has to help one question, or at least analyze, their moral compass. It’s that good.

Again, Carey Mulligan performs beautifully here. She’s always been a very underrated but bankable actress, and this really feels like her moment to break into household familiarity (if enough people watch it). She’s subtly ruthless, even keel, and also charming. I’m not sure the movie would be anywhere near as impactful without her expert performance.

Carey Mulligan in a scene of Promising Young Woman | Focus Features, 2020.

Other cast members include Alfred Molina, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox and Christopher Mintz-Plasse… Oh, and also Bo Burnham! Even though most of them have small roles, it’s the kind of lineup where you can feel that these people said to themselves early on, “This is a big deal, and I want in!”

To conclude, there won’t be any spoilers here, but the ending had me on a 30 minute phone conversation with my uncle who’s in law enforcement, because my mind was THAT blown and I was THAT invested. Go watch it, tell everyone about it, and then watch it again.

Recommendation: Go See It!

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

*Editor’s note: Amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Disney made a bold move and decided to release the newest Pixar animated movie on their streaming service, Disney+. Pixar’s Soul debuted worldwide (where Disney+ is available) on Christmas Day. Unlike Disney’s Mulan (2020), Soul was available to any Disney+ subscriber at no additional charge, thank goodness! Whereas Mulan was part of the Disney+ Premier Access; meaning, if you wanted to watch Mulan at the time of its release, you would have to pay a rental fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fees. We’ll see if Disney uses that same strategy with other movies that might debut on their new, shiny streaming platform… (hopefully not!).

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG | Runtime: 101 minutes | Director: Pete Docter

Shay Satmary: Soul ticks every Pixar box for me: great music, groundbreaking animation, complex characters and a deep meaning. Both, the jazz songs by Jon Batiste, and the other instrumental scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do an amazing job of transporting you into the different settings of the film. The animation of the physical world captures the characters’ details and uniqueness. The way the spiritual world was animated–from the way the colors kaleidoscope through the light to the linear figures of the counselor characters–left me in absolute awe. Joe Gardner is a humble main character with relatable problems (maybe not the dying part and trying to make it back to your body) that helped me feel attached to his journey.  I have watched it twice now and with each viewing I was moved to tears. The magical thing Pixar does so well is leave you thinking about their films long after you complete them, and Soul is no exception.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: I think we are all in agreement when we say that Pixar is one of the giants in the animation industry, and that it is due to their ability to tell a deep, rich, emotional compelling story that resonates with both young kids, and their parents alike–taking a deep, core concept like feelings, grief, or passion and making it kid friendly. Soul has all these elements, but is geared toward more older kids and adults, and in doing so solidifies itself as a different kind of Pixar masterpiece. The animation is still stunning (with the abstract worlds of the Great Before and the “in between” being especially beautiful and stylistic), and there is still that classic Pixar playfulness, but the subject matter and themes of the movie are more mature and refined. I really appreciated that. It was like having your first sip of sparkling cider after only drinking grape juice your entire childhood. Soul moved me deeply, and made me want to live a better and more purposeful life. I think it deserves to be ranked among Pixar’s greatest.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Rachel Wagner: Soul is a bold, ambitious film from director Pete Docter that I appreciate more than I love. I am grateful to the team at Disney Pixar for taking such a risk and making a beautifully animated interesting film that makes you think about the questions of life, and what price we are willing to pay to chase the dream. However, the script gets a little lost particularly in the middle section involving a cat. I also think the movie keeps us at a distance, and definitely keeps children at a distance, when with a few changes it could be more accessible. All of these choices impact the pacing and impact of the message. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have such an experimental film come from a major studio, and if it doesn’t 100% deliver it gives the viewer a lot to think about along the way.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Sam Cooley: Soul doesn’t have the exceptional wit nor the near airtight writing that is found in several other Pixar movies. However, I would recommend that anyone watch this film due to its sweetness, warmth and importance alone.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

The Formal Review: This movie is amazing, story wise and visually. The characters are engaging, the environments realistic and fantastical all at once, and most of all, it hits on an emotional level. There’s a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone. However, the film does not seem to emphasize death outside of the fact that it happens. One of the main characters, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), could also have been looked at a little deeper, which would have had a more emotional moment. While the message is understood to be along the lines of getting to know someone by walking in their shoes, I couldn’t help but think of 2017’s Get Out. Though not Pixar’s best film, Soul is good for a laugh, and it does have an emotional and enriching experience. The film does have a positive message about not taking your life for granted that ends up feeling satisfying in the end.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Our Writers

The Backseat Directors team of writers is a collection of some of the most passionate movie fans ever assembled. Dedicated to bringing you the latest in movie reviews, and compelling editorials.

Movie Quote of the Week:

“I knew a man once who said, ‘Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.'”

– Maximus (Gladiator)

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

BOX OFFICE BULLETIN

Backseat Directors Twitter Account

Backseat directors theme song

"Let's Go to
the Movies"

Artist: Ozomatli
Album: Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz

Scroll to top