Author

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
About the Author
Founder of Backseat Directors. Host of The Backseat Directors Podcast, and The Mega Movie Show! Continually surprised that he's getting older and not forever 24. Quit the corporate life to pursue his passions and spend more time at home. Grateful for the talented team at Backseat Directors, and for all the incredible work they do. Lover of movies, the BYU Cougars, Amy Jane and Groucho. Let's go to the movies!

ROUNDTABLE RECOMMENDATIONS: Belated Valentine’s Day Special

Editor’s note: An extended weekend vacation out of town is the main reason this post is just now going up. Even though Valentine’s Day is two days past, I think it’s a good thing to keep those loving, heartwarming feelings going even after the holiday has ended. So here’s to love, relationship, and just really good romance movies!

Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg pose for a marketing photo op for Ghost | Paramount Pictures, 1990.

The Formal Review: As an almost 31 year old movie, Ghost (1990) is still one of the best romantic movies to watch. It was directed by Jerry Zucker, written by Bruce Joel Rubin, and stars Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, and Rick Aviles. It is about a young woman in trouble (Moore) who has to be saved by the ghost of her murdered boyfriend (Swayze), and a reluctant psychic (Goldberg). Yes, the plot may seem a bit cheesy but if audiences suspend their disbelief for a little bit, they’ll be rewarded with a phenomenal love story. Regardless of its age, the movie is still enticing, even with a simple, yet tragic, love story. Once the movie begins you will not want to fast forward anything as it has a number of elements that make it irresistible to any viewer; from comedy to thrills, and (obviously) romance. The performances are fantastic, especially by Whoopi Goldberg in her sole Academy Award winning performance. There are some things, like the CGI, that may be a bit dated, and yes, Molly probably should have simply changed her locks. However, Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze’s chemistry keeps the most important part of this story, the romance, intact. There’s a reason why this movie brought back the 1965 Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Unchained Melody” to the top of the radio charts, and was made into a stage musical in 2011. It has one of the most iconic moments of 90’s cinema–and the word “ditto” has never had more emotion tied to it.  It’s a film that will make viewers cheer and cry on every rewatch, again and again.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a scene of You’ve Got Mail | Warner Bros., 1998.

Rachel Wagner: There are so many reasons I love You’ve Got Mail. To start off it is probably Nora Ephron’s best script; she manages to take a classic film like, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and add her witty banter throughout. Then you add the incredible chemistry of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and you are in for a treat. I also love the supporting cast with Dave Chappelle, Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Dabney Coleman and Jean Stapleton. There are so many quotable lines like, “You don’t go to Spain and fall in love with fascist dictators,” or, “When I get out of this elevator I’m having my eyes lasered,” and,”They are called readers, Dad.” All of that comes from Nora and her brilliant script. The other aspect of You’ve Got Mail I love is what it has to say about work. Joe and Kathleen have both defined themselves by their work and yet it is not who they are. It’s no wonder they don’t fall in love until they meet each other outside of work where their vision is broader and open to trying new things. It’s such an easy trap to define ourselves by our work, and yet, it is not truly who we are. If we can broaden our horizons perhaps love and happiness will in our lives as well. There’s always hope!

Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche in a scene of Dan in Real Life | Walt Disney Studios, 2007.

Sam Cooley: Dan in Real Life is not only one of the greatest romantic comedies, it’s the quintessential comfy movie. In one of Steve Carell’s first leading roles, it looks at a single dad of 3 girls just trying to keep it together. The surrounding feel of the flick just adds to the coziness, set at an autumn family reunion in Rhode Island. The soundtrack is contagious. Laughs are constant from everyday blunders and the often inconvenience of love. Touching moments, sincere characters, helpless attraction, jealousy, more laughs–it’s so fun! Dan in Real Life is a sweet look at the complications of being a dad, and that of being open to love for a second time. It’s appropriate for all ages, and it’s soooo rewatchable.

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson in a scene of About Time | Universal Pictures, 2013.

Parker Johnson: About Time may be the greatest love story ever put to film in my completely authoritative opinion. Very few films have impacted my life in the way this one has. And apparently, I’m not alone. Go to the trailer on youtube and look at the comments, or whenever this movie is mentioned on reddit. This is no mere “will they, won’t they” rom-com, but a lesson on the true meanings of romantic love, familial relationships, and life. Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson as Mary and Tim are amazing, and Tim’s relationship with his Dad (played by the amazing Bill Nighy) had me tearing up. Most rom-coms will have you feel the warm fuzzies at the end, and even though About Time indeed left me feeling warm and joyful, it was even more than that… it left me wanting to be a better person. I cannot express how great this movie is, and cannot recommend it enough.

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

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

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

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Wonder Woman 1984

*Editor’s note: Wonder Woman 1984 was another divisive review for our writers, so take each recommendation with a grain of salt! Even though the movie was released in theaters worldwide and streaming on HBO Max simultaneously, we chose to go with the “theatrical release” recommendation scale. Enjoy!

Warner Bros. | Rated: PG-13 | Runtime: 151 minutes | Director: Patty Jenkins

The Formal Review: The movie evolves from the vibrant and somewhat cheesy 1980s in the first act, to emotional in the second, to a philosophical third act. Gal Gadot once again shines as Diana delivering with intensity. Her chemistry with Chris Pine is once again fantastic. Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig as Maxwell Lord and Barbara Minerva, respectively, are good as well. Pascal plays a complex, moving character and Wiig shows her acting range. Her character’s progression was understandable from her behavior to her clothing, and this was done extremely well by Patty Jenkins. The score by Hans Zimmer is also great, honoring both old compositions and introducing new ones. The film could have developed Maxwell Lord a little bit more than the quick flashback in the climactic scene. Does this film have a moment as impactful as the first movie’s “No Man’s Land” scene? No, not really; though, there’s still a very comparable heroic scene. However, if you’re expecting it to be like the first movie, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s definitely a more thoughtful and emotional movie that establishes what it means to be a hero. As Superman learned in Superman II, a hero must face the truth and choose the selfless way for the betterment of the human race. “No true hero is born from lies.” Then you add in George Orwell’s concepts of truth from “1984,” “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” The film says that absolute power corrupts the best of us but the truth will set you free. Add in a few DC easter eggs, you get a pretty enjoyable movie that’ll be worth rewatching again!

Recommendation: Go See It!

CJ Marshall: The more I discuss this film the more I like it. Rather than reconcile Diana with Zack Snyder’s vision of DCEU, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot own their Wonder Woman and make her a better symbol of goodness and hope than our current Man of Steel could ever be. The only real problem is the slog of campiness and general lack of conflict that fills WW84‘s bloated runtime. Forty minutes less or another action set-piece could have balanced it out. Power through that and you’ll get the point of the story. Go in thinking (or rewatch 1984) with Christopher Reeve’s Superman in mind. It’ll make sense.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

Rachel Wagner: As someone who is a huge fan of the original 2017 film, Wonder Woman 1984 is definitely disappointing, but I still found enough joy in Diana and her story to recommend the film. Patty Jenkins does a good job capturing Diana’s loneliness, and Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have such great chemistry that I was willing to forgive a lot in the story department. For the most part the action was engaging. I enjoyed going back to Themyscira to begin the film, and the use of the lasso was a lot of fun. We also saw Diana become more vulnerable which is hard to do when dealing with such a powerful character. The message that love redeems all of us, whether it is Steve and Diana or Maxwell and his son, is a powerful one and something we could use more of. Unfortunately, it is also way too long, doesn’t capture the 80’s well, and should have stuck to only one villain, but I still give it a mild recommendation.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

Parker Johnson: Wonder Woman (2017) is one of my favorite DCEU movies and I was looking forward to its sequel. Sadly, I felt entirely disappointed. The acting was great, but the tone was completely contrary to the first film and what we’ve seen in the DCEU line up. It felt too happy go lucky and cheesy compared to the first film. And sadly, that tone made the film seem ungrounded, which is saying something when we have actual Greek gods, and Superman and Batman running around in the same universe. I loved all the actors in this movie, and they clearly had a blast making it, but it lacked the depth and maturity of the first film. Hard pass.

Recommendation: NO GO

Andre Hutchens: It’s hard to state my utter disappointment for Wonder Woman 1984 in a single paragraph, so be sure to check out the Backseat Directors Podcast review on Episode 115! WW84 disregarded one of the most sage advice to ever grace human kind: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Wonder Woman (2017) was universally beloved by both critics and audiences worldwide (a most challenging accomplishment for any movie these days). It resonated with audience members of all ages, both male and female. It was inspirational, but WW84 inexplicably chose to take a different path. A bloated 2 hour and 31 minute runtime with an incoherent story left me wondering what on Earth was Patty Jenkins thinking… WW84 is more reminiscent of the DC superhero shows on the CW than a DC movie worthy of the big-screen. Whether intentional or not, the film relies heavily on old comic book movie tropes and campiness that resemble a bygone era not fit for modern audiences. Patty Jenkins proved her worth as a director with the first Wonder Woman film, but has exposed her inability to write a good story for the DECU franchise. It’s a shame she did not use the same writing team, stunt team, choreography team, or production team that helped make the 2017 film a modern classic. If you’re so inclined to see the movie, it might be worth a matinee just to see it once. But in all honesty, I won’t be revisiting this movie any time soon.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

REVIEW: The Witches (2020)

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 105 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis

 We’re in a really weird moment in history where film companies are in a dilemma of whether to release films, once intended for movie theaters, onto streaming platforms, or to wait it out until coronavirus restrictions are lifted and more people are willing to go back to the movies. The Witches (2020) chose to release around Halloween on HBO Max. As I was already planning to watch as many spooky films as possible during this festive month, I became interested in watching this one. Being an HBO Max subscriber helped as well.

Disclaimer:  I have not seen the original 1990 film with Anjelica Huston, and while I have read the Roald Dahl book, It was in elementary school and I don’t remember enough of it to compare it to the 2020 film. So, this will be a review of the 2020 film on its own.

What I Thought

Ok, I lied. I’m gonna bring up the 1990 film just a little bit. Before I took the time to watch the film I was surprised to see that there was a large amount of negative reviews pouring out, which had me going into the film with a preconceived bias. About a third of the way into the movie, I finally stopped trying to look for faults and just enjoyed the fun story. From what some critics were saying, the 1990 version had a darker tone, and more serious take to the story. I personally love dark and creepy children’s films, and find it so fascinating to see how they can make a movie frightening without relying on the gore and violence meant for more mature audiences. It seems like the 2020 version went for a less creepy and more family-friendly approach.

Now, just because it’s family-friendly doesn’t mean it’s not creepy at all. This is a movie about witches after all. Anne Hathaway’s performance as the Grand High Witch is truly entertaining to watch, and when she unleashes her true evil it is quite creepy. I was reminded of Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown–just with a Russian accent. When she reveals her true form, she reveals a wide smile filled with teeth just like Pennywise in IT (2017).

Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci in a scene of The Witches | Warner Bros. Pictures.

I did have some issues with the CGI mice at the beginning part of this film, which I eventually got over. It was really fun seeing Octavia Spencer in the role of Grandma. She comes off as both hilarious, fierce, and kind. Codie-Lei Eastick was absolutely hysterical to watch as Bruno, and seeing his character’s interactions with “Hero Boy” and Daisy/Mary was just so much fun. And I think that’s the main difference between this film and the 1990 film (I assume). The 1990 film was known for its practical effects and its ability to scar children for life. The 2020 is meant to be a fun and spooky family film. And if you’re looking for that this season, then The Witches (2020) is a perfect movie for you and your kids.

I originally went into this film feeling influenced by the negative reviews, and ended up having a great time. The acting is great, the CGI (while not the best I’ve ever seen) is perfectly capable for what type of movie this is, the plot is fun, and the characters are all very likeable. If you are in the mood for a spooky, family-friendly film this fall, I’d say give The Witches (2020) a chance!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Mulan

*Editor’s note: this is the second roundtable review we have done on Backseat Directors. This format has been a lot of fun for our writers, and you can expect to see this more in the future with bigger blockbuster type films. For a more comprehensive (spoiler-free) review of Mulan, check out The Formal Review’s Podcast episode 25 (season 3) and his thoughts of the movie.

Mulan is available VOD (video on demand) on Disney+ for $29.99. The movie will be available to all Disney+ subscribers to stream for free come Dec. 4, 2020.

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 115 minutes | Director: Niki Caro

Rachel Wagner: I’m not sure what I expected out of this new Mulan. I haven’t been a big fan of most of these Disney live-action remakes, but occasionally they will produce a winner. The trailers looked pretty good and I felt that it is a story that could warrant different interpretations. Unfortunately, what they came up with thoroughly underwhelmed me. The power of the original Mulan (1998) is an ordinary girl who makes sacrifices to save her father and learns to be a warrior. In this new version, Mulan has the power of “chi” and is destined to save China, which is far less interesting. I also thought the actress Liu Yifei was very wooden and flat in the role. I think this might have something to do with a language barrier, but whatever the reason it kept me from being engaged in the film. In the end, they went for a superhero, “chosen one” narrative, and that was a huge mistake; making for a film that nobody will remember in 2 years, let alone 22 like the original animated classic.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

CJ Marshall: An old basketball coach used to tell me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Disney’s live-action Mulan feels like a perfect example of this. Mulan (2020) is merely decent, and the external forces (politics, Disney classic remake, expectation) are hard to ignore, because they don’t allow this phoenix to fly. They’re trying to serve too many masters here, and in doing so, it lacks a focus and gravity that would have made it a better picture. A Wuxia remake of Disney’s Mulan should have been better than this…especially with Donnie Yen and Jet Li involved. If you are a Disney+ subscriber, just wait until the movie is available to stream for free in December.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: As an Asian American, Mulan (2020) was a great experience, and frankly, it was the best thing that could come from a Disney remake of an animated movie. Unfortunately, the look of it won’t be appreciated because they won’t have a big enough screen to do so. The action and the colors and the costumes all looked great; though, historically inaccurate. Even though it’s trying to be diverse with its obvious attempt to be a wuxia film, it’s not exactly the genre it was trying to be. To tell an “authentic” story of a legendary Chinese warrior, Disney hired a white director, a white costume designer, four white screenwriters, a white composer, a white cinematographer, white film editor, and a white casting director. It was a good attempt, but a better one would be to have given a person of Asian descent the reins on at least one of those professions to help out. Having a female director is great, but there are plenty of Asian directors of all genders out there that could have directed this. The representation that it had on screen is important but so is the representation behind the camera as well. Even so, the score by Henry Gregson Williams is pretty amazing. Though controversial, the film had some really good acting by the many stars. It dared to be different while also feeling the same. It had a lot of good things that make it worth the watch. I recommend splitting the $30 rental price with some family or friends, and enjoy the movie together.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: In an ironic twist of fate, the parts where Mulan (2020) honors the original animated movie with its own twists were the parts that I most enjoyed throughout the movie. The relationship between Mulan and her father was expanded beautifully. I think the writers really understood that their relationship drove the whole story, and executed that part of the story perfectly. I thought the group of soldiers were portrayed wonderfully here, and I wish we got more time with them individually as opposed to just the love interest. The callbacks to the original musical numbers in both the score and dialogue was executed brilliantly. Sadly, every distinctly original element of this live action adaptation felt out of place or completely irrelevant to the story. The way chi is used in this story just felt like a lazy way to justify wire-fu to Americans not familiar with Asian/martial arts cinema, rather than having Mulan have natural talent in addition to her hard work and training. The witch detracts from Jason Scott Lee’s imposing performance as Bori Khan and his army, both in screen time and importance to the plot, and the idea of chi as traditional magic further muddles the idea of chi. Finally, the phoenix is literally only there for the most in-your-face symbolism since Game of Thrones. Mulan is one of the best live-action Disney Remakes alongside Cinderella (2015) and Aladdin (2019), but it still falls short of being great. I would advise those who want to see it to wait until December when it will be free to watch. Although somewhat enjoyable, $30 is just too much to pay.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Tenet

*Editor’s note: Today’s review will be the first of its kind on Backseat Directors. Since our writers’ opinions of TENET varied quite a bit we decided to give each of them an opportunity to share their experience and thoughts of the movie. Each writer was given one paragraph to share their quick thoughts. For a more in-depth (spoiler-filled) discussion of TENET, go listen to Ep. 113 of the Backseat Directors Podcast.

Warner Bros. Pictures | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 150 minutes | Director: Christopher Nolan

Parker Johnson: One thing that made the movie so enjoyable for me was seeing Kenneth Branaugh as a villain. Most of the time I’m used to either seeing him as the protagonist, a mentor figure, or Gilderory Lockheart. I was impressed by the range of emotions his character went through, and how his character genuinely believed he was in the right–even in the act of doing awful things. There’s one scene in the movie where he flies into a rage that made me more tense in a movie then I’ve been for years. Bravo sir, bravo. 

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Wagner: There will be some people who try and paint those of us who did not enjoy Tenet as simpletons unwilling to embrace risky filmmaking. I would ask those people to consider what their own basic demands for a film are? For me, it’s engaging characters, interesting story, and coherent dialogue. Tenet failed at all 3 of these requirements. The characters for the most part were flat with little backstory or depth to their roles. The story was difficult to follow and overwhelmed by a loud blaring score and very choppy editing, and the dialogue was frequently unintelligible. If I literally can’t understand what the characters are saying because of the bizarre sound mix choices it doesn’t matter how great the visuals and action are. In fact, it only makes me more frustrated that such craft and spectacle is wasted in a self-indulgent slog. I have always been a fan of director Christopher Nolan, even in his more divisive films like Interstellar (2014) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but he deliberately made choices in Tenet to ostracize his audience from the picture and make it an overall unpleasant experience. Especially having such a yearning for a big blockbuster on the IMAX I wanted to love what he offered in Tenet, but I did not.

Recommendation: NO GO

The Formal Review: 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. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gives some amazing scenes that make a James Bond film look low key. Ludwig Göransson’s score is very Hans Zimmer like, and it is a thunderstorm. The film has Nolan trying to outdo the espionage film genre by making his own filled with speedboats, glamorous locations, and a lot of crisp suits. Each actor does a good job at playing their roles with Washington and Branaugh being the standouts. The former is able to be like his father while also establishing himself as a lead man. The latter is no surprise as he is a Shakespearean actor and he can do almost any role. The film does have some issues with dialogue being muffled and it feels too short for the complexities it tackles. This can make the film feel confusing, and maybe subtitles would have been beneficial. The character development and Nolan’s treatment of his female characters could be better. For better or worse, this movie has Nolan trying to outdo himself, and each viewer will decide if he is successful. In short, it is in the top tier of Nolan films; go see it! The best experience would be in a theatre with the best audio possible like Dolby Cinema. Any other thoughts would involve spoilers and a full analysis will be coming later.

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Ogden: With Hollywood plagued by a one-time-watch epidemic, director Christopher Nolan has created something you can’t possibly grasp without multiple viewings. Every choice is a gesture of faith in the audience; faith that we will do our best to keep up and that we’ll come back for more. The dialogue moves as fast as John David Washington runs, and the content is cerebrally ambitious without losing the thrill of the ride. Rather than be intimidated, I think you should be excited; just don’t get hung up on what you don’t understand and enjoy what you do. Though I’m only on my first viewing, I wouldn’t be surprised if TENET became my favorite Nolan movie.

Recommendation: Go See It!

André Hutchens: As it goes with every Christopher Nolan film (it seems), TENET was one of the most, if not THE most highly anticipated film of 2020. Coronavirus pandemic be damned, there was no stopping this film from debuting in actual movie theaters, and allowing audiences worldwide the opportunity to experience the latest Nolan film the way every Nolan film should be experienced. Perhaps his most complex and intellectually challenging movie yet, Nolan has crafted a unique and bold movie that will be discussed in social circles for months (and maybe years) to come. TENET presents time-travel like no other movie before it, which will require the intent concentration and focus of its audience. John David Washington is a star in the making, and Robert Pattinson’s role only helps to build my excitement for his next project as Bruce Wayne in The Batman (2021). Other than a few scenes that really struggled to properly sound mix the audio and I was unable to understand the dialogue, this movie is a must see in theaters. See TENET in IMAX if you can; this movie deserves that kind of spectacle.

Recommendation: Go See It!

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