MOST
RECENT
POSTS

REVIEW: Vivarium

Vertigo Releasing
Rated: R
Run Time: 97 minutes
Director: Lorcan Finnegan

The Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has completely turned the film and movie theater industries on their heads: every big budget movie has been delayed from its original release date; new dates are added in hopes that movie theaters will reopen soon, only to see the rescheduled dates be delayed again. Things have gotten so bad for movie theater companies nationwide that a petition to receive federal funding has been circulating and gaining momentum. #SaveYourCinema has become the rallying cry of movie fans and movie theater owners alike. (If you want to show your support, go visit www.saveyourcinema.com). The economy shutdown has likely saved lives and slowed the spread of the coronavirus, but it has also decimated countless small businesses, and continues to threaten larger corporations like AMC, Regal, Cinemark, etc.

As movie theater owners and patrons work to adjust to the new way of conducting business and supporting movie theaters, streaming services fill a void left in the vacuum of the movie industry shutdown. Dozens of movies that were slated for theatrical release were quickly switched to a VOD (video on demand) worldwide debut (e.g. Trolls World Tour), or some other movies had their worldwide debut on streaming services like Apple TV+ (e.g. Greyhound).

I had a friend mention to me last week that he misses seeing new movies. My response to him was that he more likely misses seeing new BLOCKBUSTER movies since there is a plethora of new movies that continue to release almost every single week (to which he agreed). Between streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+ etc., and VOD services like iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Prime, there are dozens and dozens of new 2020 movies that are available to watch right now—to the point that I have ventured into seeing new movies that I otherwise would not have watched before… Which has not always been a pleasant experience.

And thus begins my review of Vivarium

From left to right: Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, and Jesse Eisenberg in s scene of Vivarium | Vertigo Releasing.

Vivarium debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2019. It never had a theatrical release and was instead released VOD worldwide back in March of this year. Vivarium tells the story of a young couple (played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) that is on the hunt for their first home together. They walk into a home developer’s office and meet with an odd real estate agent named Martin. Martin has a bizarre mannerism about him. He’s polite and is always smiling, but his social awkwardness was almost too much for me to handle. Like any good salesman, Martin guilts the young couple to take a drive with him to a new suburban development called Yonder, and to take a tour of the freshly built homes. As they pull into the new development you notice that everything is exactly the same—from the color of the houses, to the size of the houses, everything is in perfect unison. As Martin takes the couple on a tour of house #9, Martin’s mannerisms become more and more uncomfortable, and even sociopathic. As the tour comes to an end, Martin disappears outside leaving the couple alone inside. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) go to their car and attempt to exit the neighborhood. They drive for hours trying to find the exit all the while ending up right back where they started at house #9.

At the beginning of the movie before any of the human characters are introduced, there is a short clip of the parasitic life-cycle of a cuckoo bird. If you’re unfamiliar with a cuckoo bird, get ready to be educated. Female cuckoo birds lay their eggs in the nest of other bird species. Once hatched, the baby cuckoo pushes out any other baby bird or egg from the mother bird, and then is tended to by the surrogate mother bird. Even as the cuckoo grows to sizes bigger than the surrogate mother bird, the cuckoo begs and whines for attention, food, and care from the surrogate. When Gemma and Tom are left alone and unable to escape from this bizarre labyrinth of houses, they discover a box outside house #9 that says, “Raise the child and be released.” I am not inclined to say anymore about the story without getting into spoiler territory; suffice it to say, the cuckoo clip in the beginning has a little something to do with the overall plot of the movie.

Vivarium is an original story that presents a unique and interesting enough plot to hold some viewers’ attentions, but not enough to hold mine. It presents some ethical and moral dilemmas throughout the movie that scratch the surface of really getting you to wonder, “What would I do in this same situation?” but not deep enough to really explore those elements. The pacing is very slow, and the lack of music (although not completely devoid of a score) makes the pacing that much slower. I was very much intrigued by the trailer, and since new movies are not the most abundant product around, I took a stab. But I would be doing everyone reading this a disservice if I said I liked Vivarium, or would recommend it—I just can’t. Even with the creatively clever title “Vivarium” (think Aquarium or Terrarium), there’s just not enough substance to fill even a decent run time of 97 minutes.

Vivarium is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

Robin Bissell: An Unexpected Path to the Director’s Chair

Robin Bissell and Taraji P. Henson on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

Movies are the creation derived from the dreams, inspiration, ideas, and hard work of countless minds and hands. If you stay at the end of each movie as the credits begin to roll, you’ll get a glimpse of just how many people it really does take to bring a movie to life. The name Robin Bissell might not sound entirely familiar to the casual movie fan, and it might even elude some of the more self-declared cinephiles, but without a doubt it is a name you’ll want to follow in the Hollywood industry.

Have you ever heard of Pleasantville (1998), or Seabiscuit (2003)? How about The Hunger Games (2012)?—only the third highest grossing movie at the domestic box office in 2012, grossing over $408 million. Bissell served as an associate producer and executive producer (respectively) on all three of these films (among others). But Bissell’s path to Hollywood was an unexpected one to say the least.

Bissell’s upbringing exposed him to theater and plays, but it was at the end of his freshman year at the University of Maryland that Bissell discovered his ability to write music. This discovery inspired him to drop out of college during his sophomore year and head west to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in either music or acting, both equal passions of his. Friends and family admonished him to choose one and focus on that—and he chose singing/song writing. Bissell was able to form a band and land a record deal with A&M Records, only to see that deal nullified once PolyGram bought out A&M Records. This didn’t stop Bissell and his band, Everything, from pursuing their love of music and playing shows all over town.

Robin Bissell, co-lead singer of the band Everything, playing a show in 1995.

After a few years of playing music, Bissell felt ready for a change; a new adventure of sorts. Bissell’s love of film had never diminished, and ultimately, it was Bissell’s connections that he had made through music that landed him an opportunity in the film industry. Bissell’s friend, agent Melanie Ramsayer, lined him up an interview as an assistant to a movie writer who was about to direct his very first film. This new director had fired his last three assistants, and Bissell went in to interview for the opening. Even after being warned at how awful this assistant position was going to be, Bissell persisted and never wavered during the interview. When the interview concluded and Bissell was making his way to back to his car, he realized he had forgotten to ask for a script of this new movie. So Bissell went back into the building only to run into the new director himself, Gary Ross, who then hired him on the spot. This new movie being made was Pleasantville, starring Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and Tobey Maguire.

(Left to right) Robin Bissell, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Walker on set of Pleasantville (1996).

Bissell’s hiring came two months before principal photography began for Pleasantville, and with no experience and no idea how to actually do his job, Bissell became a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly could. He worked long hours and took on more responsibilities, and during the extensive fifteen-month post-production of Pleasantville (while other producers left to take care of other projects), Bissell picked up the slack and made his worth known to Gary Ross as well as others; Ross ended up making Bissell an associate producer for Pleasantville.

And thus began his new journey in Hollywood.

Bissell would go on to be hired as a full-time producing partner for Gary Ross and Larger Than Life Productions, and would be part of the making of such films as Seabiscuit, The Tale of Despereaux (2008), and The Hunger Games. When Comcast bought Universal Studios back in 2010, they ended up buying out the contract that Universal had with Larger Than Life Productions. Gary Ross, Bissell, and co. were still able to make The Hunger Games, whose financial success allowed Bissell the flexibility to set off on his own in pursuit of a project he had been thinking of making for a number of years.

Sam Rockwell and Robin Bissell on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

It was back in 2005 that Bissell came across an article in Time Magazine about two individuals back in the 1970’s that were on opposing sides of civil rights activism occurring in Durham, NC; Ann Atwater, a Black woman and civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a White man and president of the KKK chapter in Durham, NC. This story grabbed Bissell’s attention, and years later would end up being the passion project that put him in the director’s chair of his very own movie titled, The Best of Enemies (2019). This story is explored in detail on episode 110 of the Backseat Directors Podcast. Bissell’s journey from college drop-out, to musician, to an assistant, to associate producer, to executive producer, to a writer and director of his own movie was likely the most unexpected journey he could have imagined. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Bissell’s career is to follow your heart. Even if the path before you is uncertain and obscure, the only way to know is to take that leap and move forward. I encourage all readers to listen to the rest of his story and learn more about the man, and the movie fan, Robin Bissell.

REVIEW: Greyhound

Apple TV+
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Aaron Schneider

Greyhound marks Tom Hanks’ fourth artistic foray into the Second World War, with the three previous projects being Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001), and The Pacific (2010). The previous projects are larger in scope and widely considered to be among the best film representations of WWII. Greyhound doesn’t meet those heights, but it doesn’t aim to—nor does it need to. Its mission is on a smaller, but no less important scale.

The movie was originally slated for theatrical release in early July, but COVID’s hostile takeover of life as we know it, sent Greyhound hurtling toward the streaming shores of Apple TV+. It wasn’t too much of a surprise considering other studios are sending theatrical projects straight to the TV screen. Greyhound feels different from some of these other “early release” projects. One viewing will show that this film was made with the biggest screens in mind, and when you’re done, you’ll lament the fact that you couldn’t watch it there. It has a higher production value than most of the stuff they’ve been dumping in our laps lately. This movie would have killed at the box office.

Greyhound is short and to the point. It spends just enough time to introduce Hanks as Commander Ernest Krause before setting off on its mission. The rest of your characterization comes as the drama unfolds, for it’s often said that times of adversity reveal true colors. In typical U.S. war film fashion, the colors of this flag don’t run… And they don’t make movies about the cowards, do they? Greyhound is set apart from many of these other films due to its brevity and its singular focus on the task at hand: five Destroyers escorting thirty-seven ships and thousands of sailors across the Atlantic for five days—with no air support to fend off the German U-Boats lapping at their heels.

Hanks serves double-duty as the main actor as well as the screenwriter, and while his script lacks flourish, it’s old-school Hollywood in all the good ways. Director Aaron Schneider paces Greyhound well, and together they ratchet the tension to unbearable levels. Think of the best submarine movies in recent memory and the feelings they evoke as you watch. Now place yourself on the other side of that torpedo. It makes for compelling cinema.

(Right to left) Tom Hanks, Brandon Holubar, Michael Carollo, and Cade Burk in a scene of Greyhound | Apple TV+

Greyhound is worth ninety minutes of your time. I might be reading too deep into the movie, but I find the short running time and overly technical jargon a good fit for what this film represents. It’s a WWII action movie at surface level and below the explosions and choppy waters lie a representation of sacrifice. This was a mission conducted over five days. This was a mission that was conducted more than once. There were similar missions conducted all around the world. These missions were conducted during a war that lasted six years. I think above all else, Greyhound shows that the small missions are just as important as the major offensives. The offensives don’t happen without the bravery exhibited in these smaller skirmishes. All of these small moments combine to make way for victory.

Releasing more high-end productions like this might make this quarantine more bearable. I’m not advocating streaming over theaters just yet, but Greyhound makes a serious argument for it. It’s that good.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Palm Springs

HULU
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Max Barbakow

Let’s go back to my college days, when my roommate and I needed a TV show to watch at night to relax after arduous hours of homework and essay writing.  I remember seeing clips of How I Met Your Mother on occasion and I thought we should give it a try. We ended up loving watching Ted Mosby navigate through his love-life while dealing with shenanigans from his friends. For eight seasons we wondered who the titular mother would end up being. What would she look like, act like, be like? Would it end up being one of Ted’s many romantic conquests, or would it be an original character?

(*Minor spoiler ahead) In the end the Mother (Tracy McConnell) was played by Cristin Milioti, and she was perfect. Her character’s personality beautifully matched with Ted’s. Their relationship was the perfect culmination of the nine-season show. (Then of course, the writers completely destroyed all character development during the last two episodes like Game of Thrones after it); however, Cristin brought a feeling of authentic romance and wholeness to How I Met Your Mother that made up for the backwards last two episodes.

Fast forward to last year. My roommate and I had been watching several documentaries on really heavy subjects, and I was looking for something lighthearted to watch. I was talking to one of my good friends about our favorite TV shows, and I mentioned how much I liked Psych, and so she recommended Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I started watching and fell in love with it—especially the character of Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg). I only knew Andy Samberg from his comedy group, The Lonely Island, and was surprised to see how kind, respectful, and hilarious he was both in and out of the show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine joined How I Met Your Mother as one of my favorite TV shows. So naturally when I saw that Samberg and Milioti were teaming up to star in a Groundhog Day-esque rom-com, I was super excited.

Meaning and Purpose

I was happy to see that the chemistry and charm that Milioti and Samberg brought to their respective shows were on full display in Palm Springs. Their characters (Sarah and Nyles) sell a truly believable and lovable romance. Just by seeing the trailer, I assumed that the goal of the movie would be for their two characters to end up together and that would be sufficient to end the time loop. As much as I loved watching their romance blossom on screen, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their romance was not the end of the journey they embarked on during the movie.

It seems almost serendipitous that this movie is in wide release during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us feel we are also in a repetitive loop as we wait for life to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. I related Nyles’s struggle to find out the meaning of our daily struggle. My fears of the film focusing all of its attention on the romance was short-lived as we get to see Nyles overcome his apathy, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy; Sarah overcoming her sense of low self-esteem and guilt; and J.K. Simmons’ character, Roy, learning how to forgive and appreciate the day he has.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in a scene of Palm Springs | HULU.

I really appreciate this take, as too often films try to dedicate the entire movie to one lesson, whether it be “love conquers all”, forgiveness, acceptance, or lessons like that. Palm Springs allows the characters to be as complex as humans are in reality. Life and love are messy, and deserves to be shown messy. Our characters feel more human, more like us, and thus more relatable.

Palm Springs almost reminds me of one of my favorite romantic films, About Time, a movie where the main character has the gift of traveling into the past to relive his days. Like Palm Springs, it is a beautiful love story that is more than just romance—it’s about life. Love shouldn’t end when you get together with a person. Love is about finding peace within yourself, your relationship with your partner, and with the world around you. Palm Springs accomplishes this beautifully.

Final Thoughts

Palm Springs is a hilarious and beautiful film that shows us how messy, complicated, imperfect, but also wonderful life can be. All the characters have great chemistry, the comedic beats are hilarious with just the right amount of raunchiness, and it just ends up being such a pleasurable movie to watch. If you have Hulu I recommend it as one of the best movies of 2020.

Palm Springs is streaming exclusively on HULU.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlize Theron

I’ve always been interested in the stories of how movie stars are “found”; it always seems a perfect blend of hard work, sacrifice, and a little dumb luck. Charlize Theron’s moment came from inside of a bank in Los Angeles, where a teller had just refused to cash her check. Broke, far from home, and desperate to pay the rent, Theron found herself yelling at the bank teller, begging him to find a way. Prompted by her pleas, a man in line behind her offered his assistance, and eventually the check was cashed. [1] That man was John Crosby, a talent agent who helped her get connected in the industry and land a part in her very first movie, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).

Only a few months earlier, she’d been an 18-year-old looking down at her one-way ticket, worried that she was going to the wrong place because it said “Los Angeles” and not “Hollywood.” She hadn’t planned on being an actress; she came to New York from her native South Africa to study at the Joffrey Ballet and chase her dream of being a dancer, only to be told that said dream was no longer possible due to her persistent knee injuries. [2] But here she was, in a bona fide Hollywood picture! Her appearance was little more than a gross death scene where she’s mutilated by a Stephen King monster, but it was so important to her that she spent precious money on a brand-new pair of shoes for filming. Not only were her shoes ruined by the fake blood and muddy terrain of the corn field, but when she went to see the movie in theaters, she realized that her voice had been dubbed and she wasn’t listed in the credits. [3] It was clear that the interest was in her visage, but she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed because of her looks or her thick South African accent. She knew she could be more.

A side-by-side comparison of Charlize Theron: on the left, Theron poses with her Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and on the right, Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) | Newmarket Films.

“Range” became the name of the game for Theron. Beginning in 1996, she appeared in at least two movies a year, everything from critically acclaimed dramas like The Cider House Rules (1999) to panned comedies like Waking up in Reno (2002). Even if the movies bombed, her stardom was on the rise. Then, she had a breakout year. First, she joined the popular caper The Italian Job (2003), which showcased her ability to hold her own in a star-studded cast. Then, she took the lead role in Monster (2003), a Patty Jenkins biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a mentally ill prostitute targeting former clients. She gained significant weight and shaved her eyebrows, disappearing in both features and physicality to morph into a different person altogether. Film critic Roger Ebert hailed her work as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” [4] It made her the first South African to win an Oscar for acting and proved her versatility once and for all. No one would ever mistake her for just another pretty face again.

Theron continued to challenge herself with a myriad of characters: a victim of workplace sexual assault in North Country (2005), a police detective in In the Valley of Elah (2007), and an exhausted mother of three in Tully (2018). Her marketability has helped to fuel box office smashes like The Fate of the Furious (2017), Hancock (2008), and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and her comedic chops continue to surprise in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) and Long Shot (2019). The voice that wasn’t good enough for Children of the Corn was cast in Astro Boy (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and The Addams Family (2019); she was able to showcase her transformative abilities yet again in Bombshell (2019), where she was unrecognizable as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. But perhaps her most well-known films are her action flicks. Despite Aeon Flux (2005) being a notorious flop that almost paralyzed her, [5] Theron returned to the genre with a vengeance in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as the now cultural icon Imperator Furiosa. She’s also had to learn fight choreography for Atomic Blonde (2017) and most recently The Old Guard (2020) (which is now available to stream on Netflix). And that’s less than half of her filmography from the past 25 years.

 

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde | Focus Features.

Despite her status in the upper echelon of acting and activism, I find the most compelling characteristic of Theron’s persona to be her relationship with her mother, Gerda. She is mentioned in almost every interview, appears as Theron’s date to award shows, and is constantly acknowledged as a co-parent in the raising of her two adopted grandchildren. She’s been there from the beginning: a cheerleader in Theron’s ballet classes, modeling gigs, and movie roles. But her daughter grew up with an unpredictable, alcoholic father—and Gerda was there when an incident of domestic violence resulted in Theron’s father’s death. [6] Theron was only 15 at the time, and firmly asserts that her mother’s actions saved her life. While some may point to such trauma as the fuel for what she has become, I think Theron’s success should not be attributed to tragedy. Hers is the kind of depth earned not only with experience, but also an inexhaustible work ethic and enthusiasm.

When I see Charlize Theron, I am reminded of the artist P!nk: the toughness and edge of someone who’s bigger than their problems, accompanied by the vulnerability necessary to talk about therapy, darkness, and heartache. She’s a renowned action star, so it might not be surprising to learn that she’s a UFC fan and can eat hot wings with levels of spice that nobody has any business trying to eat. [7] That commanding presence is evident on screen, and yet, there is a level of raw complexity in her performances that humanizes even the superhuman. Not everyone likes her tough exterior, her sarcastic sense of humor, or her candor, but in those traits I can’t help but see resilience and resolution to play a better hand than the one she was dealt. Rather than being intimidated, I choose to be inspired by the idea that we can live indefinable—despite trauma, struggle, and how others perceive us.

Citations:

  1. “Oprah Talks to Charlize Theron”
  2. Charlize Theron Biography
  3. “Theron’s Film Debut Pride Ruined By Dubbing”
  4. “The Warm Embrace of Charlize Theron”
  5. “Charlize Theron Has Seriously Damaged Her Body More Than Once During Filming”
  6. “Charlize Theron Details the Night Her Mother Shot and Killed Her Father: ‘I’m Not Ashamed'”
  7. First We Feast

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Old Guard

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 125 minutes
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Old Guard is a superhero film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka. It is adapted from Rucka’s comic book of the same name. The film stars Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Story & Direction

The Old Guard tells the story of a small group of vigilante warriors who all share a special ability, and attempt to use that ability to make the world a better and safer place. Our “superhero” team is led by the fearless Andy (Charlize Theron), along with three others who are extremely skilled in the art of combat. But what is the one superpower they all share? …Immortality. Almost every time that Andy and her team are shot, blown up, stabbed, fall from great heights, or are injured in any way, they are able to heal and recover—to the surprise of their attackers. This film was advertised as an over-the-top action film, which director Prince-Bythewood definitely delivers. The action is fast, fierce, and isn’t filled with excessive CGI aspects. The film is about the characters and their extended lifelong journey together.

The Characters

Aside from the obvious star aspect, Theron’s Andy is the one in charge because she has been alive the longest. We aren’t given her exact age, but she has been around “long enough” to have more life experience than her teammates. Her team is made up of partners Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who met interestingly on opposite sides of the Crusades. They are joined by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) who found the others during the Napoleonic Wars. They all have died and come back multiple times and lost a lot of people along the way. They have even lost other immortal team members. You may ask, “How is that possible when they are immortal?” The answer is what makes this story very compelling as it adds a very vulnerable aspect to these “superheroes.” To say what it is would be entering spoiler territory; however, it does allow for someone to watch this intriguing film all the way through—even if the story is somewhat familiar. Theron is definitely the standout and continues to show that she is a chameleon in Hollywood. Her acting in The Old Guard shows her character’s age and wisdom. Her experience has shown that the world hasn’t changed very much and any good she has done may have been in vain.

Charlize Theron and other cast members in a scene of The Old Guard | NETFLIX.

The team finds a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), whom they have to convince of their powers and her own. Nile develops a bond with Andy and their relationship is a good one to follow throughout the film. Layne, mostly known for her work in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, provides a funny (at times) and heartfelt performance. However, Theron’s and Layne’s performances aren’t able to fully elevate the movie’s (somewhat) unoriginal story.

The Flaws

This film’s plot is not a unique one, even though it is decent enough to keep most viewers entertained. Each major plot point is fairly predictable and some of its attempted ethical aspects are not executed well. For example, Andy’s team sees themselves as an intervention force similar to that of DC Comics’ League of Shadows. They kill people when it is absolutely needed, but their newest recruit Nile does not approve of their methods. They are “saving” people by killing others. It’s contradictory but because this film’s biggest draw is its action sequences, this ethical dilemma seems glossed over; also there are some parts of the film that feel drawn out and could have been cut. In addition, the villain is fairly cliche, even though it tries to modernize a younger villain within a pharmaceutical company. Merrick is over-the-top at times but Melling does act his part well. It almost feels that this role is Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series who grew up and became successful. 

Cast members appear in a scene of The Old Guard | Netflix.

Overall

Even with these issues, The Old Guard does build a very interesting world, and the characters are intriguing enough to watch… With perhaps future sequels. Theron is an amazing star that continues to shine in this film, even if it is slightly unoriginal. You don’t need to rush to watch it, but it’s definitely worth watching if you have some free time for a decent action film. The Old Guard is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

The original cast of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015).

If you asked me who Alexander Hamilton was five years ago, I would’ve maybe remembered that he was the guy on the ten dollar bill. If you asked me what he did with his life, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much at all. My interest in Hamilton: An American Musical began when I was on vacation in New York City. We were walking through Broadway, trying to find the specific theater our show was being performed in, when we passed the Richard Rodgers Theater that was housing Hamilton. I thought that the outside of the theater looked really cool; it was something I had never seen before. However, I didn’t feel the need to look anything up about the musical until later.

When I returned to college for the Spring semester, I was browsing Pinterest when I saw someone had animated Hamilton as a traditional hand-drawn Disney film. I was intrigued that a musical about the Revolutionary War had gotten so popular; not only that, but a hip-hop and rap musical had gotten so popular. I downloaded the soundtrack, looked up the lyrics on Google so I could understand what they were actually singing/rapping, and prepared to see what the hype was all about. I was completely captivated by the musical genius and the story of Hamilton. Thus began my obsession with everything Lin-Manuel Miranda has done. In the process of learning about how and why he created Hamilton, I began to understand how influential Hamilton was—not only as a small glimpse into a lesser known narrative of the Revolutionary War, but celebrating diversity. As Miranda so eloquently puts it, “Hamilton is the story of America then told by America now.”

Who Lives

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) perform on stage.

One of the main criticisms of Hamilton is that while almost all of the characters are played by people of color (POC), there are actually no POC characters in the story. There is one throw away line about Sally Hemmings (a slave that Thomas Jefferson owned and had a relationship with) but that character is played by an ensemble dancer and has no significant involvement in the story aside from taking a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Other than this three second sequence in the song “What Did I Miss?” there are no characters of color in Hamilton.

The phrase, “History is written by the victors” is commonplace now in this age, but no less true. Right now, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, we are more focused on scrutinizing our media and the way we view and understand history. Many films about race have come under fire for being “White savior movies.” Historical accounts of people of color have been coming forward to highlight how significant their role was in the history of our country—it seems as though diversity has never been more important, analyzed, and talked about. So why did Miranda choose not to include POC characters in the story? After all, In the Heights (Miranda’s first musical) was entirely about POC characters. Couldn’t he find a Revolutionary War story from a perspective of a person of color?

Who Dies

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) perform on stage.

Before Hamilton, my knowledge of Revolutionary War history was very minimal: the British were taxing the colonies without allowing the colonies to have representation in Parliament, we protested, revolutionary sentiment spread , we went to war, George Washington was awesome, and somewhere in between Ben Franklin discovered electricity. That was pretty much it. I had no idea what Alexander Hamilton contributed, or who he even was. Even the lyrics of the opening number of Hamilton acknowledges this: “His enemies destroyed his rep/ America forgot him.”

Hamilton’s first act focuses on a group of revolutionaries that not many people are aware of: Hamilton himself, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan. We are given a very basic story of what they contributed to the war effort, all under the legendary George Washington. The second act takes historical figures we know (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) and deconstructs them into more antagonistic roles while still respecting all that they did for the founding of America.

While Hamilton may be historical fiction and has taken creative liberties, it is a brilliant introduction (and it really is only an introduction) into the complex nature of the founding of our nation. However, I think the historical backdrop is secondary to the actual message of Hamilton.

Who Tells Your Story

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) take a bow at the end of the show | Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.

Ultimately, Hamilton is a tragedy. The character even refers to himself as “another Scottish tragedy,” comparing his life to Macbeth’s. Hamilton was so caught up in his legacy (a constant theme of the show); he spent a plentitude of time dedicated to his writing and securing that legacy at the cost of his wife and children. He was even willing to die in order to be remembered—and eventually, he did die over an argument about his reputation with Aaron Burr.

The truly ironic thing about Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy is that he would’ve been forgotten if not for Eliza—the wife he neglected for so long. In an earlier draft of the song “Burn” Eliza sings, “And when the time comes//Explain to the children//The pain and embarrassment//You put their mother through//When will you learn//That they are your legacy?//We are your legacy.” The final shot of the musical is Miranda leading Eliza up to the front of the stage, and she sees the audience, realizing that Hamilton’s legacy exists because of her.

Miranda has taken the founding of America—a story told traditionally through the lens of White men—and recontextualizes it to fit the story of modern America. Hamilton is a story about immigration, slavery, feminism, the value of family and marriage fidelity, and the inherent worth of all people regardless of gender, race, or financial status. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway production, viewed the message of Hamilton as a vehicle for these themes when he addressed Vice President Pence:

“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values. We truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”

Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical (2015)

Rather than telling the people of color’s story during the Revolutionary War, Miranda instead chose to correlate the struggles of the Founding Fathers then to the diverse America now. Through our own dedication and determination, we have a chance to improve our nation, and leave behind a legacy of good for our children. People of all colors, genders, sexualities, races, nationalities, and abilities have an opportunity to “rise up” and create a better world. And that is a message we so desperately need in our time.

REVIEW: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: David Dobkin

Do you ever find yourself dreading a movie you don’t want to watch, because deep down you know you’re not going to like it? You might be asking yourself, “Why am I even going to watch a movie I have no interest in seeing?” As a movie reviewer, I ask myself this same question far too often—specifically anything starring Will Ferrell. Enter Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (let’s just call it ‘Fire Saga‘ for short) is a 2020 film that was released June 26 on Netflix. The film is directed by David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell as Lars Erickssong and Rachel McAdams as Sigrit Ericksdottir, two Icelandic musicians that dream of performing and winning the Eurovision Song Contest. For us uncultured Americans who might be unfamiliar with the Eurovision Song Contest, this is a real international song competition that has been held annually since 1956. Competitors from 50 different European countries (and more recently some non-European countries) compete in a sing-off where each individual country is allowed to submit one song to be performed by their representing artists. It is one of the most watched non-sporting television events in the world.

Getting back to my previous comment about dreading this movie, “dreading” might be too harsh of a word. Will Ferrell movies just aren’t my cup of tea. Like many other SNL actors that have made the jump to feature films, Ferrell has his fans and his detractors. I wouldn’t consider myself in either of those camps; his comedy style just doesn’t have that much appeal to me. I hope my review of ‘Fire Saga’ is as objectively fair as possible, admitting that I probably had made up my mind about this movie within the first five minutes.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams appear in a scene of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga | Netflix.

‘Fire Saga’ tells the story of Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir (a play on words that I am only now noticing), two Icelanders’ journey to fulfill their lifelong dream of performing at the Eurovision Song Contest. Lars has dealt with criticism and ridicule from his small Icelandic town, and the reproach of a father who has felt nothing but disappointment toward his son. Sigrit is the second member of Fire Saga, and the only faithful supporter of Lars and his dreams. Unfortunately, Sigrit is also the only one with any real singing talent. Along their journey they are helped and hindered by other performers at the Eurovision Song Contest, namely the Russian singer and favorite-to-win-the-competition, Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens); and Greek singer, Mita Xenaki (played by Melissanthi Mahut). It’s an odd sight seeing quality actors like McAdams and Stevens starring in a movie like ‘Fire Saga’. Perhaps it was the opportunity to go travel to incredibly beautiful shooting locations like Iceland, Scotland, London and Tel Aviv, Israel. Or perhaps it was the opportunity to make a quick paycheck starring in a film that required little-to-no effort on anyone’s part. Ferrell and McAdams make for an odd duo, and their chemistry, even for a movie like this, never felt like it gelled.

Will Ferrell movies have a knack for the silly and outrageous, and ‘Fire Saga’ is no exception. If you’re not a fan of Will Ferrell movies you’ll likely find your eyes becoming exhausted from all the excessive eye-rolling you’ll experience from this movie. Again, like most Will Ferrell movies, the plot is razor thin, and the occasional laughs are also mixed in with groans. There are some heartfelt moments between Lars and his disapproving father (played by Pierce Brosnan), and some very catchy pop music, which just might end up being the highlight of the movie. My Marianne performs the incredible female vocals for Sigrit, while Ferrell does his own vocals, which appear on the soundtrack too. I was surprised to see that Dan Stevens did not do his own singing. He has the ability and the talent, but for whatever reason, did not perform his iconic “Lion of Love” song.

The deciding factor for my recommendation came down to two things: whether or not you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, and the excessive run time. At 123 minutes, ‘Fire Saga’ is about 25 minutes too long. There’s only so much of this kind of comedy that I can take, and 2 hours is just too long for me. I know Ferrell has his fans out there, but I’m just not one of them. For the Ferrell fans, you’ve likely seen this movie already, but if you haven’t, go turn it on and enjoy the silly laughs that has made Ferrell’s career what it is today. For the rest of you, this is just not a movie I can recommend.

Recommendation: SKIP 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