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REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Shaka King

*If you are not familiar with the true story of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, the following review will contain some spoilers for the movie.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama film directed and produced by Shaka King, from a screenplay written by King and Will Berson. It is based on a story by King, Berson, as well as Kenny and Keith Lucas. It stars Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen. While the story is seemingly about Hampton (Kaluuya), the film concentrates on William O’Neal (Stanfield) who was essentially forced to work for the FBI to infiltrate and spy on the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal eventually became the organization’s chief of security and then supplied the floor plan of the building where Hampton was staying. This led to a raid in which Hampton was killed. 

Kaluuya as Hampton gives an electrifying performance that is as riveting as the man himself. His delivery of the speeches are intense and have conviction. What the film does extremely well is show how Hampton had an ability to bring potential enemies and rivals together. He knew that there was strength in numbers and that they could turn heads to their ideas if they came together. The title is an allusion to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s statement that they, “…must prevent the rise of Black Messiahs.” In Hampton’s case, they did so by enlisting O’Neal, a “Judas,” to infiltrate and betray him. This obviously ties into the biblical story when Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver to Pontius Pilate which led to Jesus’s crucifixion and Judas’s suicide. This film makes Judas the lead character and Stanfield does a fantastic job. The film doesn’t absolve O’Neal for his part in killing Hampton; rather, it humanizes him. Stanfield plays a conflicted man who wants to dedicate himself to the cause of Black liberation but also does not want to go to prison. Our natural inclination might be to vilify O’Neal for killing Hampton, but the film shows reasons to sympathise and how we might learn from his mistakes. Tragically, O’Neal also took his own life, again aligning himself to the biblical Judas. 

Outside of these two men, the supporting cast is strong as well. Plemmons is great, with the best performances coming from Fishback as Deborah Johnson. The film really shows how big of an impact women had to the Black Panther organization. Fishback is fleshed out extremely well and her relationship with Hampton indicates that Johnson was a strong woman who wants to stand with Hampton but also will tell him when he isn’t as good as he could be. Fishback hits every note perfectly and is as charismatic as Kaluuya. Their chemistry makes the final tragic moments of the film even more painstaking.

Daniel Kaluuya stands surrounded by fellow Black Panthers as he sets to give a speech in a scene of Judas and the Black Messiah | Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021.

The film does have a few issues with its historical accuracy of certain details; O’Neal has stated it was fairly easy to get close to Hampton where the film says it was difficult. The writers also took some liberties regarding O’Neal’s relationship with Mitchell. Hampton and O’Neal are not accurately represented in the film as the former was 21 and the latter was 17. Stanfield and Kaluuya are 29 and 31, respectively, which may seem a little jarring as neither actor feels the age that the two men really were.

Additionally, in real life, Hampton did open his eyes when the building was raided but still keeps this scene simple. Instead of a big climactic scene with FBI agents running in guns blazing, the film shows him sleeping. By keeping Hampton sleeping when he is killed, (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the film seems to parallel Fred Hampton’s murder with the infamous killing of Breanna Taylor in 2020. The final flaw is in showing how the FBI was involved. Though purposeful, it can take away a little from the film’s overall pacing.

Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds with its story, the acting, the ending, its message, and the majority of its details. The performances by the entire cast alone is reason enough to watch this movie multiple times. The film highlights how citizens can be manipulated or influenced to turn on their fellow citizens with use of propaganda and other tactics. Will society continue to allow this to happen or will they stand up and fight? That is up to the viewer to decide.

Judas and the Black Messiah was released in theaters where theaters are open, and is available to stream on HBO Max.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Minari

A24
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Minari (미나리), which literally translates to “water dropwort” is a drama film written and directed by Lee Isaac Jeong. It stars Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, and Will Patton. It is a semi-autobiographical take on Chung’s upbringing where a family of South Korean immigrants try to make it in rural America during the 1980s.

This film takes inspiration from the Bible, of a family trying to find a new life. In the old testament, the Hebrews left Egypt as “strangers and exiles on the earth and were seeking a homeland,” and they were immigrants coming into the promised land, and the Yi family is no different. Jacob and his family traveled from California to Arkansas to start their own garden/farm. His wife, Monica, wants the family to do well; especially for David, their son (Kim), who has a heart murmur. Their views coexist, but do clash when certain things happen that may or may not put the family at risk. To be successful in this new land, he has to make choices and deal with the consequences; whether that be joy, pain, laughter, or heartbreak.

Chung’s direction is able to accurately capture what some immigrants have to go through when they come to the United States. Even if one does not connect with the religious aspects or the immigrant aspects of the film, the film taps into what almost every human does, restlessly seeking for that sense of belonging. As humans, we are looking for the perfect job, the friend group, the people that accept us who we are and help us succeed. People may not always get along but good people that push through the differences will endure. Eventually, Monica’s widowed mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes to live with them. Yuh-Jung is so good the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress seems well within her reach. She is dramatic when she needs to be, and her comedic timing was on point, though unexpected. Yuh-Jung has to flip back and forth and she does that fantastically well. Both Yeun give strong but vulnerable performances as the parental figures and Kim is adorably wonderful as David. Not only is David basically the director’s point of view, he ends up being the one that the audience follows even if they are not an immigrant or Asian themselves. David is an Americanized child and is always on the outside looking in. He does not know the struggles that his parents are going through as a lot of non-immigrants do not understand about immigrant families.

Alan Kim and Steven Yeun appear in a scene of Minari | A24, 2021.

Even when this film does show how racism does exist with the many Americans around the Yi family, Chung simply shows this as part of the family’s journey. Their journey is about a family trying to make it in a place that some would say they do not belong in. Chung then shows the immigrant experience of learning to assimilate but they also try to bring along the things that remind them of home. To the Yi family, it’s Minari.  When immigrants come to this country, there is always a conflict of the cultural aspect versus the new one that they are trying to assimilate into. Why would immigrants want to go somewhere where they are instantly put into an uphill battle? Because it’s worth it to make a better life for the next generation, and this is why this film is a beautiful representation of immigrant life. As the film shows, the Yi family goes through a rollercoaster of events and still endures.

Overall, Minari succeeds with its story, its acting, its message, its ending and some of its details.  The only small issue is that the film can feel a little slow at times. However, the ending is definitely worth it; it is about a family that asks for empathy without overdoing it with specific acting scenes. It’s not a political statement rather it’s only showing what humanity looks like. Watch it.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Our Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Go See It!

 

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Malcolm & Marie

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

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

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

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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REVIEW: The Little Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Maybe a Matinee

REVIEW: Pieces of a Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: White Lie

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

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

The Story/Direction

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

The Characters

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

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

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

The Flaws

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

Overall…

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Go See It!

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

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

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

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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: Freaky

Universal Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 101 minutes
Director: Christopher Landon

Alright, so Freaky! Unfortunately, this review wasn’t ready in time for Halloween (which is totally understandable considering the circumstances), and because of that, it may have gone overlooked. But here comes another surprisingly decent horror remake of a classic movie plot element. From the same director and movie studio that brought us Happy Death Day (2017), but instead of a reimagining of Groundhog Day (1993), you might have already guessed it: this is a horror revision of Freaky Friday (1976).

I think the twist on the plot by itself was enough to get me more than interested in seeing it. Instead of a mother/daughter switch for a day, it’s serial killer/victim. The concept is honestly a great idea, in my opinion. The kind of idea that you think you could’ve thought of yourself but failed to do so in time. Furthermore, the comedy that comes from a serial killer being stuck in a 17 year old girl’s body, and vice versa, really makes for some genuine laughs. 

I usually am not out-of-my-way stoked about Vince Vaughn leading a movie, but the highlight of the film ends up being the lead actors’ performances, which also includes Kathryn Newton.

Despite any potential flaws I mention, I was able to stay engaged throughout the entire duration. I did not feel obligated to finish this movie just because I had to write a review, but was really anxious to watch the whole thing. For me, that makes the movie qualify as a worthwhile watch. If any movie can generate this much interest off the bat, and then maintain that interest through the hour and a half runtime, it deserves a seat at the table. In the end, it’s definitely a 2020 horror highlight (which I guess wasn’t too hard to do since the competition was scarce). 

Now, much of the movie shouldn’t be held to a high standard of originality, but the writers often are too tempted to not play into some exhausted horror tropes to progress the plot. One of the more egregious is creating absolutely disposable characters. The kinds where a horribly violent death doesn’t faze the viewer as much, because the victims are such unrealistic scumbags. Examples include extraordinarily unashamed, non-virtual high school bullies, borderline abusive teachers, and the creepiest jocks you’ll ever see. Then again, the whole movie really is shockingly violent, so maybe this tactic works well for most people. Speaking for myself, it was a tad bit forced. 

Kathryn Newton in a scene of Freaky | Universal Pictures, 2020.

Some of the acting is a bit crummy. The delivery of lines from a lot of these side characters (who are often very young actors) gets distracting. There’s also a noticeable shortage in extras, which was maybe due to Covid. I’m not bashing on that, but it’s interesting to notice how they try to adapt from that.

I guess if I could wrap up my view on this movie’s weaknesses: It’s often formulaic, but the frustration comes when you realize that it really didn’t have to be.

Now, I do have to go off for a second. The most unfitting scene in the movie is when the love interest (who’s an underage kid) passionately kisses Vince Vaughn… I mean sure, there’s “an underage girl trapped inside the character” but oooooof, that scene was weird. It’s a very bold move by the writers. The moment could’ve just as well been prevented before lips met with an inevitable gag, but instead they use the same gag to stop the make out after it starts and before things “go for too long,” I guess. And the fact that it didn’t feel like it was supposed to be funny but rather a meaningful moment, makes it all the more uncomfortable. I hope I’m not sounding too obtuse with this critique. That scene was just totally bonkers for me.

Anyway, you can weigh the pros and cons. But I think it was worth the single view, and it definitely satisfied my excitement just with the premise alone. Being that it’s still available in theaters, and it does have some glaring flaws, I’m going to go ahead and designate this as matinee kind of movie, or wait to stream/rent/purchase digitally.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

REVIEW: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

NETFLIX
Rated: PG
Run Time: 122 minutes
Director: David E. Talbert

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a 2020 Christmas musical fantasy film written and directed by David E. Talbert. It stars Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Davina Phillip, Ricky Martin, and Madalen Mills.

This Netflix original checks off every box for a cheerful Christmas movie. There’s a character who has lost all happiness and a young cheerful kid to bring back cheer into their life right in time for the holidays. The grump is Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker) who used to be a brilliant inventor extraordinaire and loving family man. His life changed when his wife died and his apprentice, Gustafson (Key), “borrows indefinitely,” the plans for Jangle’s most brilliant work for mass production. He sends off his only daughter, Jessica (Rose), so he can live alone in his misery. It seems all is lost until Jessica sends his granddaughter Journey (Mills) to his store to stay with him. She’s smiling all the way with a head full of dreams and a belief in the impossible that would make Disney consider replacing Mickey Mouse. The film then progresses as a normal Christmas film would. However, the difference here between other typical Christmas films is the cast. The cast is superb all round, but newcomer Madalen Mills as Journey, and Lisa Davina Phillip as Ms. Johnston steal the scene when they appear. The ENTIRE cast is truly outstanding and that makes the typical Christmas story fun and moving.

The catchy music was mostly penned by Philip Lawerence, Michael Diskint and Davy Nathan (John Legend writing one song, “Make it Work”), though inspired from prior musicals from Disney otherwise. The song writer’s embed elements of the blues, jazz, and Afrobeats into these songs that make them feel fresh. There’s even a moment where James Brown’s iconic cape routine is emulated. The music is supported by fantastic dance numbers. Each big number feels fun and will get the audience moving. The costumes are also phenomenal, putting this film in right in the middle Victorian England and gives the feeling as if the story was from a Charles Dickens novel. It’s as if one combined “A Christmas Carol,” The Wiz (1978) with a twist of Disney magic from Mary Poppins (1964) and they produced this film.

Madalen Mills as Journey appears in a scene of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey | NETFLIX (2020).

The most important part of this film is it’s message. Though Journey may have some of the cliche optimistic child qualities one would find in a Christmas movie, she also has important differences. Unlike a lot of the child protagonists in these kinds of movies, she is not gullible and easily outmaneuvered by the antagonist. She is also interested in the fantasy version of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The film shines a light on these fields of study in hopes to encourage children in their academic pursuits. Bringing more people to the STEM field is important for our country to grow and be able to compete with other countries who prioritize these fields of study. This film shows that it’s good to be interested in these areas using real life properties but with a twist of fantasy, e.g. “Square Root of Possible.”

The only flaws are that it is a fairly predictable film, and there are a few plot holes too. Also, Christmas does not really have much of an impact in the film. It takes place around the holidays and it provides hope, but it does not really apply outside of that. While the majority of the singing is great, not everyone is on key and some seemed more talk-singing than singing. Then the ones who really could sing, they weren’t on screen. When they were there, they were phenomenal, such as Rose who voiced the Disney character, Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Overall, this film is one of Netflix’s best original movies. Don’t be surprised if this story finds its way onto a theatre stage once the pandemic is over. This film has the ability to become a Holiday classic, but if not, it will be memorable for the music alone. Definitely check this movie out, and be ready to dance and feel the music!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Let Him Go

Focus Features
Rated: R
Run Time: 114 minutes
Director: Thomas Bezucha

There’s something about Kevin Costner and the romanticism of “The Old West”. Say what you will about the true history of western expansion, but there are few cinematic motifs burned into our American psyche as strongly as the romantic western. Costner’s been behind a lot of the good ones, and Let Him Go owes a lot to that tradition.

The film begins with George and Margaret Blackledge (Costner and Diane Lane) mourning the loss of their son. His widow then remarries for security instead of love, which places their daughter-in-law and grandson in the clutches of unscrupulous matriarch Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville) and her family of thugs. A simple request for custody of the boy escalates into a matter of life and death.

The film’s narrative hangs on the western framework: The old gunslinger who doesn’t sling his gun anymore, the firebrand who can hold her own, a family of criminals who answer to no one, and wrongs that must be righted with blood. Let Him Go rises above that standard fare on technical merit alone. Guy Godfree blesses the screen with gorgeous shots of Montana. Even the Dakotas look beautiful in frame despite their relative barrenness. This material is elevated even further by the sensitive direction of Thomas Bazucha and the performances of Lane and Costner. The rapport they display and the tenderness they show would be strong enough for the best of dramas. The resolve (and willingness to take it “there”) they display is strong enough for any white hat who’s ever been early to the showdown. These characters don’t reach the mythic heights of more traditional films, but the DNA is recognizable.

That’s the real strength of Let Him Go–particularly in Margaret’s character. So much of the story hinges on her decisions. George is there to be the strong shoulder and the voice of reason, but what is reason to a mother who can’t escape her loss? What is reason to a man who wants to help his wife with that escape? This is the dynamic that drives the film, and they nail it pitch perfect. The title “Let Him Go” becomes both a plea and an order that references the boy and his father all the same. The couple are at odds in how to reach a resolution, yet they know they have to carry each other above all else. It’s powerful stuff.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane appear in a scene of Let Him Go | Focus Features (2020).

Let Him Go isn’t going to be the feel-good hit of the winter lockdown. What you should expect to see is a solid, assured piece of mature film making. Balance is the name of the game here. The movie is just as tender as it is terrifying. At times it sprawls like the wide open plains and canyons. In other moments it provides warm intimacy. The intimacy and the tender moments are welcome, because a love this strong and a hurt this deep come at a price, and like all Westerns, that cost must be paid….in full.

*Disclaimer: Let Him Go was released in theaters where theaters are open. If you are near an open movie theater, it might still be available to go see. If not, the film is already available to rent or purchase through VOD services.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Possessor

NEON
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Possessor is a good film. I just can’t think of a single good word to describe it. The strongest word that comes to mind is “violation” because this narrative is built on them. It’s a Black Mirror episode gone horribly wrong–if there could be such a thing. Let that sink in. Possessor is labeled as a sci-fi, horror, psychological thriller. It ticks all of these boxes while remaining thought provoking (hopefully the philosophical or existential kind of thoughts); though, it seems to care more about depicting an act in brutal, excruciating detail than exploring why the act occurred in the first place.

In a near future where the level of technology is just right enough to enable all the wrong things, Andrea Riseborough is cast as Tasya Vos. She’s an assassin who uses the minds and, by extension, bodies of others to perform her work. The method can be taken as a microcosm of the film itself: relatively low-tech and high-concept. The efficiency of such a clandestine operation is really not the point. I believe writer/director Brandon Cronenberg is driving home the concept of violation and boundaries they cross….over and over and over again. It’s not enough to secretly poison a target or simply shoot them. Victims are bludgeoned and maimed and butchered. Here, in Cronenberg’s future, professional assassinations look more like rage or crimes of passion. Close up shots of needle injections and knife wounds are paid as much care as close ups of the actors themselves. One could argue that Vos’ body snatching is no different than a sharp object entering a victim’s body. All are violations. The collateral damage caused by Vos’ various masquerades are emotional violations. All do irreparable damage, but which of these instances is the most morally bankrupt way to do it? Is the Possessor or the host to blame for the savagery of these acts?

Cronenberg’s themes are apparent. Technology has pervaded every nook and cranny of our lives. Our privacy is gone. Secrets are easily laid bare. Social interaction isn’t the same as it was for the previous generation. All of it can be weaponized–is weaponized. This would have been a very different film in different hands. When I say “different” I mean just that. Not “better.” The visual aesthetic is right on the money and some creative visual choices are on display. They lend themselves well to the psychological aspect of the film, because the technology is the means and not the end. The flip side of that coin is the Cronenberg family penchant for body horror. I accept its symbolism only so far because there comes a point where it’s not about “the point” anymore. It becomes about shock and violence and perhaps appeasing the conventions of genre.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough in a scene of Possessor | NEON.

Though Possessor will hopefully elicit some existential questions, I don’t know if a deep analysis is required. That’s not slight to Cronenberg, but more a comment on how committed he is to his message. Peel back the layers and you’re left with a bloody, nihilistic dissection of human nature. I don’t think it has more to say than that. Anyone familiar with sci-fi knows the hidden dystopia that’s configured underneath the surface of society. It often operates parallel to everyday life, giving you the good things while hoping you forget the toll it can exact upon you. Possessor will be a challenging watch because I see it as the opposite. There’s great art and an interesting premise, but you will feel every bit of the transaction. Some of you will find this film right down your alley. Some of you will find it difficult. I say err on the side of the challenge.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 130 minutes
Director: Aaron Sorkin

There’s just nothing like a good court room drama. If you’ve set it up right and created colorful characters, it can be the perfect storm of emotional pay-off and problem-solving. Some manage to explain the mechanics of the law so well and so thrillingly that lay people like myself get a false feeling that we understand the law better than those who spend years studying it. The best ones have me thinking that it’s my destiny to go to law school, change the world, and look good while doing it. Such was the effect of The Trial of the Chicago 7. There’s a lot of context and a lot of set-up, but if you’ve been paying attention, the magnetism of the second half will have you glued to your screen. Aaron Sorkin both directed and wrote the film, as he did with his directorial debut Molly’s Game (2017), which was one of my favorites from that year. His fast-fire dialogue and endless exposition provide engaging entertainment through weighty subject matter, though at times it feels heavy-handed. It will definitely appeal to fans of his previous works, A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010).

Even if you are suffering from political fatigue, you have to see this movie just to take in the characters. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from such an extremely talented group, as even supporting characters with sparse lines are memorable and incredibly engaging. Sorkin’s talent for presenting opposing sides and yet making both sympathetic is on full display. The Chicago 7 (plus Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) make for a fascinating group; though under the same charges, their different backgrounds, followers, and agendas make for compelling conflict as they interact with each other. What appears one dimensional is slowly fleshed out and made into real, more rounded people, though certainly creative liberties were taken with history to produce an entertaining, inteligible tale. As long as you remember that you are watching a movie, I don’t think those stylistic changes should bother you.

From left to right: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in a scene of The Trial of the Chicago 7 | NETFLIX.

This stellar Aaron Sorkin script brought to life by an all-star cast is definitely a Hollywood home-run. I have no doubt it will be a big dog at the awards circuit, but I also believe it has the potential to be the film that brings Netflix its first Best Picture Oscar. Certainly, the timing of its release is no coincidence, as it’s evident that producers had both an election and an awards season on their minds. Viewing it in the context of our current climate is especially insightful and affecting. It’s hard to say whether it will have the staying power of 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but I do think it’s one of the most socially relevant viewings you’ll have this year. And even if it doesn’t convince you to go to law school, I hope that once the pixie dust wears off you’ll still want to make a difference.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Orion Classics
Rated: R
Run Time: 83 minutes
Director: Jim Cummings

One more thing that COVID-19 has done to to the industry: The Indie movies that would’ve never been given a chance as a wide release in theaters are now camouflaging in with the blockbusters. I thought I was about to watch a straightforward, sobering, drama/thriller… Boy, was The Wolf of Snow Hollow NOT that.

Immediately following a beautiful and unsettling opening credit sequence, the off-beat, erratic editing, acting and dialogue begins and never lets up. You might be tempted to call it bad acting, or low budget, but give it a few minutes; once you get used to the rhythm of this truly odd movie, you start to enjoy the imperfections. It really doesn’t seem like a mistake, but rather intentionally other worldly. It reminds me a lot of how the same elements are handled in It Follows (2014); just a bit off and unfamiliar. But I think it works! Where as those little details gave It Follows a hipster feel, The Wolf of Snow Hollow brings more of an ironic comedy to the mix. And I wouldn’t classify this as “so bad it’s good,” it’s more grounded than that, and much more self aware. Whatever the film is, it’s good enough to get you engaged if you allow it 15 minutes of your time before giving up (the movie is only 83 minutes total). 

This story portrays a moment in the life of an unstable, small town sheriff’s deputy along with the rest of his office, and what would happen if a murderer (or something else) started going on a homicidal rampage. What ensues is a series of incompetent decisions, mental breakdowns, and desperation to stop the carnage. It’s honestly so great. 

Once you get used to the insane editing, the non linear, almost hyperactive story telling becomes one of the film’s strong suits…even if it’s just that it’s unique. It shows just how scatterbrained an amateur cop from the boonies would be dealing with something this HUGE (tease).

From left to right: Riki Lindhome, Marshall Allman, Robert Forster, Neville Archambault and Jim Cummings in a scene of The Wolf of Snow Hollow | Orion Classics.

So many moments of otherwise bizarre behavior feel so relatable, to the point where you’re surprised how much you’re laughing. Honestly, guys, from one scene in particular I ended up laughing uncontrollably for like 5 minutes.

To wrap it up, the horror factor is unnervingly mysterious and creepy by itself. Along with that, there’s a clever, whacky twist followed by a satisfyingly tranquil ending.

Side note: veteran actor Robert Forster, who co-stars in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, passed away during the filming. His character and performance end up being a coincidentally nice goodbye and a highlight of the film. Jim Cummings is the writer, director and lead actor. Being that he decidedly pulled off such an unlikely accomplishment, I’m excited to see his one other film he has to date, Thunder Road (2018), where he helms all three jobs again.

I’ll stand by The Wolf of Snow Hollow as one of the best and likely most underrated dark comedies of the year.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Hubie Halloween

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Steven Brill

Anybody else just really loving this holiday season more than usual this year? I don’t know what it is, but I’m especially open to anything Halloween related just to get the spooky feels going. Haunted houses, late night movies in bed, decorating my classroom, scary stories around the fire–I’m doing it all this time around. Maybe that’s why I was actually willing to give Hubie Halloween a shot. My take on this film will end up being pretty simple, short and not so sweet. But I don’t feel like passing judgment without first honoring merit where merit is due. So, let me talk a little bit about the producer and lead actor.

Deep down, don’t we all love Adam Sandler? From The Wedding Singer (1998) to 50 First Dates (2004), he’s made some definite classics that will be in my movie collection forever. He has a respectable resume between SNL, his large filmography, and an underrated knack for drama like in Punch Drunk Love (2002), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) and most recently, Uncut Gems (2019). It’s not very debatable, the guy has talent.

On top of his career, he just seems like a really good dude off the screen. I love the tear-jerking, heartwarmingly personal memorial he gave Chris Farley in Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh (2018). He performed a beautiful song with Miley Cyrus respecting the victims of the Las Vegas shooting a few years back. Even that funny video of him and Justin Bieber spotting each other on the streets; just a nice, down to earth human being.

Now I’ll add to the overwhelming consensus: he’s had a lot of duds. In many cases, his later movies have been almost entirely void of the sincerity, wit and utter watchability of his past films. I don’t think I need to name them, but basically any Happy Madison produced flick in the last 10 to 15 years should give you a general idea. This doesn’t mean that these movies don’t have a place in the world. Just as the gags have delved into potty-humor and the stories and characters have turned (even more) ridiculous, they may just be more so geared for preteens. So don’t call me a hater. And for the record, I love that he uses his films as a way to kind of vacation and spend time with his buddies. I’m also sure he works really hard; they usually pump out 2 or more movies a year.

Julie Bowen and Adam Sandler appear in a scene of Hubie Halloween | NETFLIX.

So… Hubie Halloween. I’ll say a couple things I loved. There were really fun references to older, far superior Adam Sandler movies. Moments of these are what got me first engaged in the film and what often got me through it. That element and just a few other subtle bits of dialogue had me genuinely laughing. Another thing, Sandler’s character is a sweet guy, and the moral of the story centers around that. Though many might be tired of the standard Bobby Boucher/Happy Madison/Sandy Wexler voice and mannerisms (and at first his voice did make me moan in exhaustion), it works fine enough to make the character overall likable.

BUT expect the bizarre, witless potty-humor. Expect other jokes that just simply fall flat. Expect less than award-worthy acting and a script and story that don’t help much either in bolstering this flick out of the slew of subpar Netflix Originals.

For many die hard fans of his content, or if some individuals are just that easily pleased by a movie, this may be a fun new addition for you. After all it’s Halloween genre. And in my opinion, that alone makes any movie more fun.

Aside from those select few mentioned, I’d advise the general audience to skip it for now. Keep an eye out on our content that has or will be released this month for some better suggestions of Halloween movie night options!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Enola Holmes

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: Harry Bradbeer

 Since Stranger Things, I have been eyeing Millie Bobby Brown’s career with great interest. I have yet to see Godzilla: King of Monsters, since I have not seen the Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. (For those of you crying in outrage, it’s on my ever expanding watch-list. I’ll get to it eventually.) However, when I heard she would be playing the sister of Sherlock Holmes, who was to be played by Superman (Henry Cavill), I was intrigued. The trailer dropped and it grabbed my interest even further. I saw the movie the day it dropped, and I was really pleased.

What I Liked

Millie Bobby Brown

I have really enjoyed her performance in Stranger Things, and from what I’ve seen in the King of Monsters trailer, it seemed like she was becoming well known for playing stoic, solem characters (I could be wrong. Like I’ve said, I have yet to see the movie.) So, when I saw that she was playing a fourth wall breaking, wise cracking action character, I was nervous about whether she could pull it off or not. I needn’t fear though. I was actually blown away by how funny she was as Enola Holmes. The fourth wall breaks felt organic, like she was recounting the story to us, and it was nice having a fourth wall breaking character in red that was also family friendly. She also acted incredible well with her emotional scenes, and was really engaging to watch. I’m proud to see how far she’s come since Stranger Things.

Feminism!

When I saw what this movie was going to be about, I have to say I cringed just a little bit. Usually, when any movie tries to adapt a popular story and add modern takes to it, it usually comes off as heavy handed. Thankfully, Netflix handled it really well. Instead of the “strong women good, men bad” mentality that seems to pass for feminism in Hollywood, Enola Holmes actually emphasized that real feminism is meant for the equality of both men and women. Feminism is about both men and women expressing themselves without fear of suppression by those in power. They show Tewkesbury (the main male lead) having more feminine hobbies and forward thinking ideas, while those trying to kill him benefit from those in power and want to keep the status quo. I really appreciated that they did this, and refrained from making Enola into a “bad ass boss girl” and actually made her and Tewkesbury more well rounded. When we were first introduced to him, I groaned and thought, “Here we go. They made the male character into an incompetent buffoon that she has to protect,” but by the end of the film you can see that they are each other’s equal, and they both have to learn from each other. It’s a good message for both boys and girls watching this film.

Sherlock & Mycroft

Buckle your seatbelts my beautiful readers, because I am about to throw down an extremely unpopular opinion: I enjoyed Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes far more than I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s. (You may now proceed to throw your computer/phone across the room in outrage.) Benedict’s Sherlock oozes superiority and condescension with glimpses of the humanity within. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Benedict played the character brilliantly. However, Henry’s Sherlock still was introverted and detached from people while still showing warmth and affection toward people. While Enola Holmes wasn’t as focused on Sherlock’s detective skills as the BBC Sherlock was, I still found myself more compelled by Henry’s version.

And holy cow–Mycroft. From what I remember from Sherlock, Mycroft was more high strung and concerned with society than Sherlock was, but boy oh boy does Sam Claflin bump that up to an 11 (pun totally intended) in this film. I absolutely loved watching and loathing his version of Mycroft. He was so oily and prissy. He was such a delight to watch.

The Action

I almost cried with joy when the first action scene started. For the first time in forever, someone understood that action is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated, not cut and edited into a million different cuts that makes you have a seizure when you watch it. I could actually sit back and appreciate the fight choreography and have fun watching it. The story has a lot of really cool, fun, and different action set pieces that the editing allows us to take in and enjoy.

From left to right: Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin in Enola Holmes | NETFLIX.

Final Thoughts

Enola Holmes was a movie I’ve been waiting for–something with amazing actors, a good message, good editing and fight choreography, and an uplifting story to boot. The movie is fun, engaging, and a great stepping stone for Millie to show off more of her acting chops. It’s a great movie, and a movie I’ll gladly watch again and again.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Devil All the Time

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 138 minutes
Director: Antonio Campos

The Devil All the Time is a psychological thriller that examines themes of evil, religion, and the abuse of power in rural small-town America. It is based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who also serves as the film’s narrator. It stars Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson. The film was directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay that he co-wrote with his brother, Paulo Campos.

The Story

The film shows how multiple generations are impacted by violence, and it analyzes how faith and evil actions mix as pious men do awful things. This really affects their congregation’s views on life and death. It also tells the story how one’s beliefs can be influenced and even determined by the beliefs of their parents. In this film, Willard Russell (Skarsgård) returns home from WW2 with PTSD, and becomes extremely religious which affects his nine year old son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta/Holland), in a multitude of ways. Without spoiling anything, his strong beliefs push Arvin to question the teachings of the Christian church from a very young age. This story may be the focus of the film but there are multiple other intertwining stories that make this film extremely captivating. The film has a 138 minute runtime and the story is extremely engaging from start to finish. Though a little sporadic, the music fit well in the film and allowed the viewer to step into the world in which it takes place. The direction and the cinematography helped a great deal in achieving the tone of the film. One really great decision by Campos was to make this movie on film. It adds a grain to the film that makes it feel grim and dark.

Tom Holland in a scene of The Devil All the Time | NETFLIX.

The Characters

Each actor played their respective role absolutely brilliantly. Holland provides a very mature performance that shows he can do more than web sling. The stand out was Pattinson that shows he’s becoming the new Willem Dafoe, an acting chameleon. His role is small but each second he is on screen is extremely impactful. While he was surrounded by great actors, he gave a particularly excellent and energetic performance. The film’s narration by the story’s creator helps to understand what is going on inside the characters’ minds and complements the story extremely well.

The Flaws

The film’s tone and the amount of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, but it adds a thoughtful complexity to the story. This world is dark and there are evil people living in it. Once religion is added in, it can get even more complicated.

Overall

The Devil All the Time is a southern tale about faith and fate.  It is dark, twisted, and bleak, yet absolutely fascinating. It can make its audience question themselves, their beliefs, and if this world is random, or if there is divine intervention. It is definitely worth watching, if for the performances alone. It may not get many rewatches, but that doesn’t take away from the brilliant story and acting.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Antebellum

Lionsgate
Rated: R
Run Time: 106 minutes
Directors: Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz

While Gone with the Wind (1939) is well-acclaimed and beautifully shot, it has been criticized since its premiere for romanticizing the pre-Civil War South and glossing over the brutality experienced by countless Black Americans. The movie Antebellum (2020) acts as a rebuttal to its glamour and fond nostalgia by depicting a more historical and less polite existence for slaves on lavish plantations. The directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz even went so far as to obtain the actual lenses used to film Gone with the Wind, literally reframing the narrative on the antebellum era. Its theatrical debut was lost to the pandemic, so I bitterly paid $20 to watch it by myself on VOD.

The plot, reportedly originating from a nightmare that Gerard Bush once had, centers on a plantation owned by the Confederate army and their inhumane treatment of the slaves there. One of these is called Eden, though she is actually a 21st century writer named Veronica Henley. She is looked to as a leader by her fellow prisoners, though they aren’t allowed to speak to each other and their failed resistance and escape attempts are met with cruel consequences. The rest of the movie is spent unraveling the mystery of how Veronica came to be in this situation and what it will cost her to escape (I’ll note here that though some themes are similar, Antebellum is not based on or related to the novel, “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler).

The opening scene escorts you through the premises the same way any traditional horror setting would be introduced; pairing idyllic scenes of children skipping through fields and beautiful architecture with the horrific suffering of the enslaved, all set to the same, unsettling score. As the identity of Veronica is explored, the lines between past and present are blurred in brilliant and provocative ways; as they say in the film, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The choice to cast Janelle Monae as Veronica Henley was an important one; Antebellum has the privilege of being the first movie to land her a leading role, though her supporting work in Moonlight (2016), Hidden Figures (2017), and Harriet (2019) have sent her on a rapid rise to stardom. Monae’s commanding presence on screen anchors the movie in her struggle and her strength, but hers is the only character with whom I felt an emotional connection. I would have preferred more time devoted to her fight on the plantation than on her life as a writer, as it could have given more space for the development of her supporting cast, especially those played by Tongayi Chirisa and Kiersey Clemons.

Janelle Monáe in a scene of Antebellum | Lionsgate.

I was puzzled to find that Antebellum hasn’t been doing well with critics or general audiences; there’s plenty of praise-worthy material and effort, even if I have my quibbles on execution. If you’re looking for something that’s going to make you jump and douse yourself in popcorn, this isn’t it, but it will leave you with a sense of unease that’s hard to shake after it’s over. The scariest part is its relevance to the world of the viewer. While Antebellum isn’t strong enough to flagship a movement, I do think it’s sufficient to remind us that there’s still some reconstruction to do on behalf of those who are taken for granted.

Wait until the VOD rental price has gone down. It should drop from $20 to $7 in about a month or so.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director, Tomm Moore Reminds Us to Listen to Children. #TIFF20

Apple TV+
Rated: NR
Run Time: 100 minutes
Directos: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

My Rating: 9.5/10

Anyone who follows my career as a film critic knows how much I adore the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. He is the man behind the Oscar nominated films Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Both are wonderful works of art, but Song of the Sea is a special favorite of mine as it helped me through a tough time in my life, and one that I saw soon after my cousin passed away in 2015. I actually got to interview Moore last year over on my youtube channel and so needless to say I was pretty pumped for his new film Wolfwalkers.

All that said, expectations can be a dual-edged sword and we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Fortunately, with Wolfwalkers that was not the case; Moore has created another stunning animated film full of heart, and quite possibly his most endearing and easy to relate with characters yet.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose widowed father has a mission to get rid of all the wolves in the forest. One day she meets a boisterous girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is looking for her mother. Robyn learns that Mebh’s Mother is an enchanted creature called a wolfwalker who is both human and wolf. This starts our girls on a series of adventures as they must convince the townspeople to protect the forest and save the wolfwalkers.

If that sounds a little familiar there are definitely shades of Princess Mononoke (1997) within Wolfwalkers, but the characters of Robyn and Mebh are so different and the animation has such a different texture that it works. Plus, it’s a story we need to hear over and over again because we don’t seem to be listening very well! Where I felt especially gravitated to is Robyn and her attempts (mostly failed) to try and explain what is happening to her father. She pleads so hard for him to listen, but he rarely does. How often is that the case with each of us and the young children in our lives?

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

As I said, the animation is absolutely stunning in Wolfwalkers. I loved the hand drawn look to everything and the incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and character designs. Just as in Song of the Sea captures the swirling nature of the sea in nearly every frame, so Wolfwalkers has a feeling of wind, torment, and fire in every inch of every frame. No part of the screen is left vacant or bare, and yet it’s not overwhelming visually, because the story and characters are so engaging. It just adds to the feeling that you are witnessing a special film, crafted with care (and let’s be real, a lot of animation is mass produced for laughs these days with the artistry forgotten).

But if you are concerned Wolfwalkers may be too intense for kids, don’t be. It has a positive energy, particularly with Mebh, kids will love, and the intense sections aren’t any worse than films like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas or Secret of the Kells. I’d say Song of the Sea is probably more morose and sad than Wolfwalkers, so if your children have seen that (and they should) they will be fine with this.

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

Moore has brought back the music team from his previous films with a beautiful score from Bruno Coulais and the band Kila. It helps draw you into the story, and combined with the animation, makes for an electrifying experience.

As a lover of animation, Wolfwalkers easily took the top spot for my favorite movie of 2020. It’s a glorious film the entire family will love. Currently it can be rented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (#TIFF) for a rental fee. If you miss it there it will be coming to Apple TV+ this fall and to some theaters. Keep an eye out for it; Wolfwalkers is a wonderful animated film.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 134 minutes
Director: Charlie Kaufman

So, I would place director, Charlie Kaufman in the same category as David Lynch. Both have never really made a customary film with things like a linear plot, even tone, clear purpose, and actual resolution. Both are some of the most talented screenplay writers of our time that employ groundbreaking creativity, and both have the same effect on actors: that is, the actors will do anything to be in their latest film. If I could just lump them together, I would say, “They both have gained success making really weird movies.”

Kaufman directed and/or wrote films like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (personal favorite), Anolmalisa, Adaptation., and Synecdoche, New York. All are extremely unique, are difficult (at least for me) to understand, and often involve elements dealing with human psychology and mortality. There’s also a recurring theme of puppets… In fact Anomalisa utilizes puppets for all of its characters, though it’s one of the most humanistic films I’ve ever seen. They all utilize music, poetry, literature, and just great original writing to really enrich themselves, and it’s all from the mind of Kaufman.

Though his latest release through Netflix, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, takes a turn for the more creepy, all of these elements (minus the puppets this time) can be found here. Whether some of those aforementioned quirks sound captivating enough to reel you in or make you shrug or sigh and cause you to overlook this film, I understand either way. This movie is not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for me.

In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a woman and her new boyfriend take a trip to his parents’ rural, isolated farmhouse. What’s supposed to be a dinner with awkward pleasantries turns into a night that loses its grip on reality and exploits the woman’s dark thoughts on life and time. 

Jessie Buckley as Young Woman, Jesse Plemons as Jake in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. Credit: Mary Cybulski | NETFLIX © 2020

Here’s some of things I love about it:

There’s this bizarre yet honest first person narration from the main character, played by Jessie Buckley, that truly feels like it’s out of a bestseller novel (the film is based off a book by the same name). This narration is interactive, constantly interrupted, and enhanced by a beautiful score.

The movie involves a lot of pastime with Buckley’s character and her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, driving in a car on a snowy, lonely highway. Their discussions caused me to write down quotes that I thought were so insightful and relatable about little details in life. Unfortunately, most of those details are rather bleak, but like I said, the writing alone will keep you entertained for a good while. There’s some truly poetic monologues and dialogues. 

There’s an unsettling figurative backdrop that leaves you waiting for a jump scare, but it never comes because it’s not that type of movie. Rather, the plot clumsily bumps into disturbing details of morbid animals, distorted time, and erratic behavior. There’s even quirky moments of genuine, relatable comedy that somehow isn’t out of place. There’s even a beautiful contemporary dance out of nowhere that feels clever and right. The whole thing makes your eyes widen, and I appreciated how the movie got me to feel just as uncomfortable as the main character. 

Finally, to complement the great writing and direction, the acting is impeccable. Both Buckley and Plemons, as well as Toni Collette and David Thewlis, give great performances with a wide range of emotion and state of mind.

When it comes to what I didn’t necessarily enjoy, and what might make people stray away from watching is just how terribly vague and bizarre the movie is.

(From left to right) Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis in a scene of I’m Thinking of Ending Things | NETFLIX.

Most people like to have some sort of grasp of what is going on in the movie they’re watching. Maybe it’s just me, but this film will likely prove difficult to get a grasp. The whole time, you’re not sure whether there’s a supernatural haunting going on, there’s some sort of black hole that’s affecting time and space, one or more characters are losing their minds, or if you’re not even close and the whole movie is some sort of a metaphor. Trying to understand the movie just kind of leaves you in a blur. The secret may be to just not try too hard, and let the movie pass through you…or something. If you know the point of the movie, please comment below!

It ends up feeling like a bizarre dream you had the night before and you’re trying to recall later in the day; you’re left trying to remember vague scattered pieces. I have to admit, I have the same attitude in both scenarios: earnest effort to listen and see it through, but overall confusion. And there’s the same urge to move on and forget the story forevermore.

But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. If you’re a fan of Kaufman or you can appreciate a film for its qualities without requiring all the answers, give this a try. Otherwise, I think this may be irritating to a lot of viewers. Either way, I’ll leave the general invitation to give this a single watch.

Oh, and a warning: I’ve heard the word “horror” floating around to describe this film, but I would call it psychological suspense. DO NOT watch this with a group of friends expecting a unique horror film. Your friends will likely leave early and judge you for putting them through it.

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!

REVIEW: The New Mutants

20th Century Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 94 minutes
Director: Josh Boone

  The New Mutants release date has become something of a joke as of late. Between the rumors of reshoots, the confusion between the Disney/Fox merger, and delays because of the Corona Virus- The New Mutants seemed to be cursed. But against all odds, it ended up being one of the first new movies to be released in 2020. Being a fan of the X-Men films, and of Anya-Taylor Joy and Maisie Williams in particular, I was eagerly awaiting this film for two years, and I leapt with joy when I finally got to see it in theaters.

My Quibbles

  The New Mutants has been described by its director as “John Hughes meets Stephen King”–a combination of the horror and coming of age genre. This hybrid is nothing new with shows like Stranger Things and the It movies. So having some of the X-Men set in this kind of environment is such a great idea for a film. However, The New Mutants fails to do something that is absolutely vital in order for a horror movie to succeed: establish the scare.

In the beginning of every horror movie you need to establish what we should be frightened of–whether it be a setting (like a haunted house), a supernatural entity (like a ghost or demon), or a specific person. Once we establish the scare, we are then able to increase tension until the final confrontation or twist.

The first two acts are really weakened because we are shown scares without it connected to anything. Frightening events happen with seemingly no connectivity until the final act.  We are unable to determine if we should be wary of the hospital our characters are in, the director of said hospital, or one of the characters in the hospital. If we had any lead (even a false lead) we could have been more engaged with the scares instead of just randomly jumping from horror scene to horror scene.

Blu Hunt in a scene of The New Mutants | 20th Century Studios.

What I Liked

Relationships: Despite the lack of a proper horror establishment, what kept me interested in the first two acts was the relationships between our characters.

One of the main themes of this movie is how we deal with trauma in our lives and how we each cope with it in our own specific way. Illyana (played by Anya-Taylor Joy) lashes out in anger and sarcasm and is an absolute joy to watch as she learns to open up to her eventual friends. The stand out relationship of the movie is between Dani (played by Blu Hunt) and Rahne (played by Game of Thrones standout Maisie Williams). Rahne offers a really interesting dynamic as she is a person of faith while dealing with the burden of being a mutant. Her positivity during the whole movie was so charming and filled with warmth, and her romance with Dani was so genuine and heartfelt. These characters make the movie, and without these actors giving their all to these roles, the movie definitely wouldn’t have been as good as it was.

Scares: I personally am not frightened by the typical loud jumpscare-noise-thing that infects most of the horror movies Hollywood churns out. I get startled, I jump in my seat, and then I move on. What really gets under my skin is when the scary thing is disturbing and/or specifically relates to a trauma that the characters go through .The latter is what the film chooses to employ. The CGI isn’t anything to write home about, but boy does it know how to pack a gut punch. I audibly gasped “oh crap” when it was revealed what the “smile creatures” shown  in the trailers actually were. And the shower scene shown in the trailer? Terrifying. You don’t have to have the best gory effects, or have something jump out at you every ten minutes for it to be effective. Maybe the real scares are the trauma we made along the way.

Final Tribute: There is no end credit scene, but there is something else fans can look forward to. Bill Sienkiewicz, who originally worked on the “Demon Bear Saga” (the story this film is based on) in the comics drew a portrait of each of the actors in character, which were displayed over the end credits. It was a beautiful tribute to the last X-Men movie we will get from Fox… excuse me… 20th Century Studios.

Final Thoughts

The New Mutants  is a fun and heartwarming  mashup of the best parts of  Glass (2019) and the It movies. Was it worth the two year wait? Honestly, it was for me. It wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, but it certainly doesn’t belong down at the bottom of the mutant list with X-Men Origins (2009) and Dark Phoenix (2019). Booth has created a solid mid-tier horror coming of age tale that should satisfy X-Men fans and young horror fans alike. I know I look forward to having this movie on my shelf and re-watching it whenever I need a fun spooky movie to watch.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Searchlight Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 119 minutes
Director: Armando Iannucci

If you’re wondering, this movie has nothing to do with a magician. It’s about the O.G. David Copperfield, a fictional character created by the one and only Charles Dickens from which the famed illusionist took his stage name. Finding inspiration in Dickens’ own story, The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) details a young man’s personal struggles and the strong personalities in his 19th century lifetime. To attempt detailing the plot further would only create confusion or do the film disservice, but it’s definitely a period film with plenty of witty one-liners, poignant messages about misfortune, morality, and all the things you’d expect from a Dickens tale. It’s beautifully shot, creatively told, and peacefully thought-provoking. Though other films might be more ruminative of our time, ‘Copperfield‘ is cathartic and sweet, presenting an unflinching hope that though fortunes fall, they are fated to turn right again.

By far, the characters are the best part of the film. David (Dev Patel) is blissfully awkward and earnest, Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) is the best friend everyone wishes they had, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is present and absent in all the right ways, and Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) is the sweetest/sternest oddity around. The simple, homespun sense of Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and the contrasting cold of Jane Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) are, in a word, perfect. The entire cast is just a skill-fest. It’s like the actors are all on the Great British Baking Show; technically they are all trying to outdo each other, but it’s just so friendly and fun and they are so busy celebrating each other that you forget it’s a competition. The film drew attention for its “color-blind” casting, for which there are a number of fair criticisms. For my part, I enjoyed a movie where race didn’t seem to matter; they were just brilliantly talented British actors absolutely killing their individual roles. There’s great beauty in a bunch of weirdos navigating a troubling life that could easily get the better of them. At one low point in the film for our characters, David tells Mr. Dick, “We must be cheerful,” at which point Mr. Dick nods in serious understanding and proceeds to put on a nervous smile that unsettles his fellow characters but sends ripples of laughter through any in the audience. 

Aneurin Barnard and Dev Patel in a scene of The Personal History of David Copperfield | Searchlight Pictures.

In the preface of his novel, Charles Dickens calls David Copperfield his “favorite child,” perhaps because much of the character’s life is taken from his own. It provided some light to him in difficult times of his life, and I feel that director Armando Iannucci strives to do the same with his film adaptation. ‘Copperfield‘ is a healthy dose of happiness amidst a year defined by illness. Its charming way of winking through worries makes you feel like it will all be okay, for them and for you. The movie takes a few liberties with the original novel, but I enjoyed the changes. It is still a timeless tale touching on homelessness, poverty, prison, struggle, and the beauty of imperfection. As David Copperfield comes to see his life differently as he writes about it, you can’t help but feel grateful, even cheerful, about your own.

It’s an easy film; I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection of period films perfect for rainy days and a good, clean laugh. Not many films make me wish I was sick, but this one had me yearning for a fever or a head cold, just so I could cuddle up with a fuzzy blanket. When it is digitally released in the fall, I will be sure to have my granny sweater and hot cocoa ready. That being said, it was a real joy to take my mom to see it in the theater. My only disappointment, though admittedly a severe one, was that only 4 people attended our showing. I wanted to look around and see rows of smiling faces all feeling the same warm fuzzies; instead, I just listened to the elderly couple a few rows down bicker about whether they should take the leftover popcorn home. While it isn’t a blockbuster or big-screen spectacle, ‘Copperfield‘ deserves to be seen, so see it any way that you feel comfortable. But go see it!

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Bill and Ted Face the Music

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Dean Parisot

Your calculated consideration in viewing this editorial is most appreciated, dude!

What to say about the third and (I’m sure it’s safe to say) final installment of the Bill & Ted series? Well, I can’t speak about one movie without the other two in this case, especially since there’s so much reference to them in Bill & Ted Face the Music. So let’s start from the beginning…

Like many who are reading this, I grew up watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, the first in the trilogy). Though I was born and introduced to it long after 80‘s culture had diminished, this became one of the solidified go-to’s watched on pre-teen Saturday night sleepovers and on trans-state road trips. Dated as it is, it’s one-liners have always lived on in my family circle, and I’ve shamelessly shown it to family and friends who missed it amongst the sea of 80’s classics.

I went ahead and watched the original again at about the time I heard that ‘Face the Music‘ had received a release date. It had been about a decade since I last watched it, and as ridiculous as it is, it has truly kept its good humored, sincere savor over the past years. I especially loved the plot point that’s probably the most in your face but that I had never really given a lot of weight to: they learned history and defied expectations by being who they truly were, a couple of chill, really nice guys that could get along with anyone including the most diverse group of historical figures. As a history buff, and also someone that didn’t do well in school, this aspect alone makes me want to stand by this movie’s goodness forever. Oh, and the soundtrack is THE BEST.

What followed for me was a viewing that was a long time coming. I didn’t grow up watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (the 1991 sequel), and I’ve always been hesitant to visit it. I don’t know what it was; maybe it’s the fact that most comedy sequels are usually awful and I really didn’t want it to taint my love for the first movie, or maybe it was just that the Death character on the movie posters and VHS covers creeped me out as a kid, and I still have some PTSD. But unfortunately, and I think based off pure coincidence, my two stated worries had some legitimate grounds. Where ‘Bogus Journey‘ isn’t busy taking a few quirks from the first movie and exhausting them till all logic and good humor has dulled, it adds a cartoonish underworld, a long awaited creepy Death character (not to mention the creepiest martians), dirtier jokes, uneven tone, and finally a less endearing, less clever representation of Bill and Ted. Another big disappointment for me is where the first movie takes the unique approach of making the antagonist intangible (namely their intelligence, the looming lack of time, and the fear of being separated by military school), the sequel just makes the villain an evil European future guy and some uncomfortably insulting evil robot versions of our heroes. I feel like I just said everything, so I’ll leave it there. Sorry to offend any die hard fans, but the sequel is pretty bogus.

(From left to right): Samara Weaving, Kristen Schaal, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter appear in a scene of Bill and Ted Face the Music | United Artists Releasing.

Now you may understand why I was a bit ambivalent about watching the third. Surprisingly, the same writers have helmed the script for all three movies, so for my friends that are nostalgic toward the first AND the second, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy this.

Bill and Ted find themselves still stuck 40 years later after the events of the first two films without their hit song which supposedly was going to bring the world into harmony. They go on an adventure through the future to get the song from their future selves while their daughters go back in time to find the most talented songwriters in the world (reminiscent of the first movie). Everyone ends up running into mortal danger which reintroduces Death and the underworld (referring to the sequel). Sounds like a big mess but it actually works more decently than you think.

It was weird approaching a movie with both positive and negative bias but I can honestly say the following: Bill & Ted Face the Music takes familiar characters and aspects across both of its predecessors to make a fun enough conclusion for our two excellent friends. The fact that they basically never changed over the half century annoyed me a bit at first, but they eventually wear you down (I mean how can you not love Keanu no matter what?). The ending was heartwarming with a climatic performance along with a sweet familial reveal, even if it did feel a bit hurried.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in a scene of Bill and Ted Face the Music | United Artists Releasing.

Now being that this film is in theaters, I do need to give a responsible review before designating this flick. It does play on many past tropes that may feel entirely exhausted. I mean, we’re so culturally far from the 80’s stereotype bros that we started out with, so this vibe may not appeal to everyone (fan of the originals or not). I’ll say that the fact that the two millennial daughters are pretty much a pale imitation of their metalhead fathers often made for a more annoying and illogical detail than a fun redirection. As mentioned, the ending and even much of the movie itself felt just a little rushed (perhaps too much was going on between the two plots). Lastly, it’s just nowhere near as comical as the first–at least not enough to quote for years to come. 

I will say that all the faithfulness to the first movie was enough to help me overlook many of those offbeat quirks. So in the end, ‘Face the Music‘ was a necessary, even crucial addition to the Bill & Ted saga as a whole because it makes up for the second movie and gives us a decently solid conclusion. However, I still think that the world would be better off with solely the original in their movie collection. But if they need to see the full story, it’ll make for a fun enough watch. But maybe spare the miles and movie ticket and rent it on-demand.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

Doing Sentimental Right: ‘Made in Italy’ and ‘Chemical Hearts’ Review

We watch movies for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it is to get our adrenaline pumping; other times it’s to have a good cry, and every so often it’s to connect with the human experience. Often these types of films can be labeled as ‘sentimental’ or trite, but if they have an emotional heft to them they can be just the ticket to help us process our own relationships and life challenges. Such is the case with 2 new films: Made in Italy, which is available in select theaters and VOD (video on demand), and Chemical Hearts, which is available on Amazon Prime Video. While neither film is perfect, they both have their heart in the right place and are worth a watch.

Made In Italy

Lionsgate
Rated: R
Run Time: 93 minutes
Director: James D’Arcy

Our first film is Made in Italy. Watching this film is the cinematic equivalent of eating a big bowl of pasta with a good friend: warm and comforting; it just works. The film stars Liam Neeson playing a father who is estranged from his son, an art gallery curator played by his real life son Micheál Richardson. Together they must work to renovate a house in Tuscany, all while finally coming to terms with the loss of their wife and mother years before. 

This of course has extra poignancy given the real life story of Liam and Micheál losing their own wife and mother Natasha Richardson to a terrible accident in 2009. One can’t help but feel the experience of making the film was cathartic for the father and son, and we as an audience pick up on that catharsis and experience that along with them. 

Plus we also get to see Neeson doing great work as he processes his grief and tries to connect with his somewhat bitter son. In the home they are renovating there is a wall of art he created after the loss and its presence throughout the renovation is a story all unto itself. 

Made in Italy also has some sweet romance and the escapism to Florence we all need in these days of quarantine. If you like movies like Return to Me (2000) or Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) you will enjoy this movie. I don’t think it needed to be an R rated film as none of the language added much to the story, and Richardson can’t quite live up to the acting chops of his Dad but it’s a sweet and sincere film about a father and son that is definitely worth a watch.

Recommendation: Go See It!

Chemical Hearts

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 93 minutes
Director: Richard Tanne

While Made in Italy explores a father and son dynamic, Chemical Hearts dives into a more standard teenage love story, but it is no less heartfelt and sincere. The film stars Austin Abrams as Henry, a hopeless romantic teenager. It’s similar in a way to the Disney+ Stargirl (2020), but it’s better executed here. One day, to his chagrin, Henry gets assigned to work on the school paper with the new girl, Grace, played by Lili Reinhart. 

Like Stargirl, this could have easily devolved into a manic pixie dream girl teen edition but Grace is better written than that. She is confusing and feels like a real teen struggling to deal with her feelings. Reinhart is also better than the typical manic girl with a warmth and honesty to her performance you don’t always see in this genre. Grace is more emotionally mature than Henry, and while he is delighted by his first love, she is worried about deeper things like the possibility of death and the fleeting nature of happiness, especially as an adolescent. 

Even at 93 minutes Chemical Hearts did feel a little stretched out at times and there are moments when the pacing could have been improved. The film looks gorgeous with beautiful cinematography by Albert Salas but at sections that do feel a bit languid. Also, the teen romantic dialogue does get a little syrupy on occasion, even for me who loves that kind of thing. 

With that said, Chemical Hearts is definitely worth watching, especially if you are a teenager or have teenagers in your life you will likely love it. Again I wish it was not rated R as the sensuality, language and drug use is not needed and could ostracize some of the very people who the film was made for. Nevertheless, mature teens should be able to handle Chemical Hearts and will hopefully gain some insight into trauma, romance and how human connection can help us through something as turbulent as growing up.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Unhinged

Solstice Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 93 minutes
Director: Derrick Borte

Driving has an uncanny ability to unleash the worst in people. It’s the right combination of high-speed danger, intoxicating power, and an air of anonymity behind closed windows that turns normally reasonable people into foaming lunatics. If I’m Dr. Jekyll in normal life, then I’m Mr. Hyde behind the wheel. All it takes is for someone to not use their blinker, come too close to my lane, or go the speed limit for me to lose my mind or loose my insults. Occasionally, I’ll hear my parents’ voices in my head; first, my mom’s go-to reply to my angry outbursts: “Don’t say that; you don’t know what kind of day they are having.” Then, my dad’s reminder to drive defensively, as if everyone on the road was out to kill me. Both pieces of advice, however irritating, would go a long way towards preventing the events of Unhinged (2020) from happening in real life. The scariest part? To some extent, they already are.

Unhinged tells the story of a traffic encounter between Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), a man whose troubles have him slowly eroding into murderous apathy, and Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius), a single Mom under heavy financial and familial stress. Tom zones out at a traffic light and Rachel honks at him angrily for not going when the light turns green (incidentally I did this on my way to the theater). Then, in the most relatable of awkward situations, the man she just cussed out pulls up alongside her at the next light. Their exchange provokes his wrath to the point where he pursues her the rest of the film. The encounters build in ferocity as Tom terrorizes without restraint and Rachel finds herself a victim of the worst road rage imaginable.

I feel that the movie did a great job of reflecting on the state of our society, exhibited blatantly by behavior in traffic. While it by no means condones or seeks to redeem the violence Tom inflicts on others, Unhinged provokes a frightening question; even if Rachel escapes Tom, how many people like him are out there? How far are we ourselves from becoming unhinged? Regardless of whether Rachel bests Tom or not, the environment that facilitates his rampage still exists, both in the film and outside the theater. My personal interest in this film came largely from the fact that my favorite actor was playing the villain. Though he won a Golden Globe last year for portraying Roger Ailes, he expressed hesitation for this role. Having seen the film, I can understand his concern; Tom is brutal, unrelenting, and out for blood. He doesn’t care if he’s caught, he just wants to cause some damage first. In one scene, he explained his disillusion with life and I totally bought it; though I did not empathize, his attempt at pathos was grounded in the reality of our societal condition without getting too preachy. The movie claims “he can happen to anyone” and supports this thesis outstandingly.

Russell Crowe appears in a scene of Unhinged | Solstice Studios.

Relatability is what made the movie for me. Situations that are most eating at our characters are every day in nature; finances, divorce, education, health expenses, living with family, and just trying to be on time for things. I almost feel that “stress”, while not as grabby as “unhinged”, is probably more descriptive of the film’s focus. People that encounter Tom and Rachel are for the most part checked out, disconnected, and uncompassionate. Carl Ellsworth penned the screenplays for fantastic thrillers like Disturbia (2007) and Red Eye (2005), and likewise created an effective and believable set-up that carried a well-earned intensity throughout Unhinged. But he is also responsible for three lines of dialogue that I found more annoying than my parents’ backseat driving. They really ruined the seriousness and thrill of this film for me. Other thrillers involving vehicular stalkers like Joy Ride (2001) have a healthy helping of cheesiness that enhances the intensity. For the most part, Unhinged was real and unflinching without any sign of letting off the gas pedal. So when it gets cheesy, it’s as jarring as a fender bender. That, along with an ending that made me feel like I was watching a government-sponsored-ad for safe driving, soured what should have soared.

In spite of my petty complaints, I’ve spent the weekend trying to convince people to come with me to see it again. What better compliment can you give a film? Occasionally timely and ultimately thrilling, I believe Unhinged is worth your time and just as intense as advertised. A rated-R road-rage thriller might not be everyone’s first choice, but if you can stomach the 90-minute ride, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Project Power

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 114 minutes
Directors: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Project Power is a superhero film directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. It stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Colson Baker, Rodrigo Santoro, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, and Allen Maldonado.

The Story & Direction

Living in New Orleans has never been easy for Robin (Dominique Fishback). She has been forced to sell these pills to help with her uninsured mom’s medical bills. As a safety precaution, she works with police officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In exchange for protection, she gives him Power pills to give him an edge against the city’s criminals. This relationship and Robin’s dealings become more complicated when Art (Jamie Foxx), a former soldier comes into town and takes down dealers to find the source of the drugs. If one takes a pill, they could self-immolate on the spot or they get powers for five minutes with each person’s abilities being different. This variety of powers allow for some fun and entertaining action sequences. The film even tries to touch on the nation’s history with drugs, health care, and experimentation, especially on it’s poorer communities and people of color.  Because this city is dealing with problems post-Hurricane Katrina, having someone releasing this drug into poor communities one can understand how this would lead to total chaos. As such, New Orleans feels like the perfect location for this film because it allows for the characters to feel grounded.

The Characters

One of the best things about New Orleans is its people, and this film takes place in all the  recognizable downtown areas to residential neighborhoods. This movement through the city helps make the characters more relatable. Frank is a cop who loves New Orleans so much that he is willing to try the product tearing apart his city, but also wears a NFL Saints jersey while on the job. Robin is told that because she is a woman of color an education is the only way to make it in the world, but she struggles in school. Art is only trying to get back his daughter or maybe something more sinister. While Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback all perform very well in their roles and really make the film better than it should be, the writing is where this film suffers.

Jamie Foxx appears in a scene of Project Power | Photo credit: Skip Bolen. NETFLIX © 2020

The Flaws

One of the biggest issues with Project Power is that it unfortunately falls into a lot of cliche material, especially in the villain portions. One even ends up being a “mad scientist” type surrounded by a bunch of goons who take the pill before attacking the heroes in the finale. While the main characters feel grounded, they are not much more than what is described above. There’s not a lot of development to them aside from what one would come to expect from a film such as this. Furthermore, the message that it attempts to tackle doesn’t seem thought out fully, and some of the action sequences are edited poorly which can make them a little hard to follow.

Overall

Project Power isn’t as deep of a movie as it tries to be, and it’s one that likely will not get a sequel. However, the characters are played well by their respective actors and they are worth rooting for in this fairly fun film. As with a lot of Netflix’s action films (e.g. The Old Guard and Bright), there’s enough in the film to keep it interesting for its runtime. It’s not the best film put out by Netflix but it’s not really trying to be. One’s reaction to the film will go along with those taking the pills. They will either explode with anger or find some enjoyable qualities that do not make it a hard swallow. Both are understandable reactions when it comes to this film. The ideas are there for a good film even though it’s not as good as it could have been. It is worth checking out if you’re looking for a new and entertaining film with decent acting and action sequences.

Project Power is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: An American Pickle

HBO Max
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Brandon Trost

Rogen, Rogen, and Pickles…

Like so many movies lately going straight to VOD or streaming channels, An American Pickle felt like it came out of thin air and with very little hype preceding it. That’s life as we know it for the time being. Though this flick has its faults, I’m particularly delighted at its spontaneous arrival. Even though I watched it far from a movie theater in a basement bedroom with intrusive outdoor lighting, this movie felt well done enough to bring me back to a small sense of normalcy, and I appreciated that!

From the drawing boards of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Brandon Trost who have worked together near exclusively on past films and tv series, comes a movie that feels a bit whimsical and aimless at times (even compared to some of their other stoner buddy comedies), but makes for an almost lighthearted Black Mirror episode. With every moment that the plot is actually progressing, there’s some curious insight into generational ideals, ethics, and abilities and what might happen if the wrong generation clashed with our current times. Connected with that is some heartwarming commentary on family relationships and honoring family tradition, which really turns out to be the main point.

So when I talk about the movie being a bit laughable, it mostly falls to this premise: Seth Rogen plays an early 20th century Jewish immigrant that comes to New York and is accidentally preserved in a pickle factory for 100 years. When he is awakened, he tries to connect with his now great grandson (also played by Seth Rogen, though more familiar), and the dramatically changed world around him. Yeah… this movie has the synopsis to make it sound like it came out in the early 90’s when everybody thought that all the non-ridiculous ideas were all taken. I say this, but there’s a common trend among a lot of those far-fetched flicks, in that they become subtle classics. I think this happens when the movie manages to be somewhat self aware and still has the ability to connect the absurd plot and characters to real human emotion. Kindergarten Cop (1990) does this for me everytime, and after watching An American Pickle, I think this will likely fall in that category.

Seth Rogen and…Seth Rogen in a scene of An American Pickle | HBO Max.

That isn’t to say that An American Pickle doesn’t have some real flaws. The film has some poor pacing between the prologue, the introduction of the main conflict, and the resolution. The laughs are there, but maybe at times, a little too far in between. And to be honest, the plot really is just so distractingly ridiculous (I know I may have already beat this to the ground). I somewhat let these things slide in the end, but I want to prepare everyone: this may not be at the same level of quality that you’re used to with a Rogen/Goldberg produced comedy.

That being said, this may be one of the more thought provoking movies these men have ever brought forward. Firstly, in most movies they’ve made there’s been quippy and overlooked dialogue on Jewish culture (them both being Jewish), and I’m glad that they seemingly embraced that aura for this movie. It’s almost a love letter to their family tradition, and that alone is enjoyable. But it goes further to ask questions like, how much blame do we put on other generations for the morals that were thrust upon them by the society of their time? How much more industrious and driven were these other generations than us having gone through subjectively worse economical conditions? Would they outdo us if they were put in our working classes today? Would we make them proud with who we’ve become?

I would say that my final opinion aligns pretty heavily with Rotten Tomatoes: just above average. I’ll probably bump into it on a sick day in five years and give it a revisit. And I’ll likely enjoy it for the reasons stated above, but I’m definitely not going out of my way to make sure this happens. And it’s not going on any favorite list. You get the idea; this movie’s most likely worth at least a single watch. Find it on HBO Max!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Tax Collector

RLJE Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: David Ayer

As a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to spend the night aboard a retired Navy submarine. OMSI had a great program to educate us about the science and history behind the machine, but I was most excited for us to plunge below the surface and take the submarine for a spin. Imagine my dismay when my dad confessed that submerging was not part of the deal; we spent the night parked safely afloat in the Willamette river, never to explore the possibilities of the hyped-up watercraft. Laying in my 17-inches of bunk, I was deeply disappointed in the shallows of my nautical escapade. The Tax Collector (2020) left me with a similar reaction.

The story follows David Cuevas (played by Bobby Soto), who in addition to being a devout Christian and involved father is an intimidating tax collector for a crime lord in South Central L.A. Watching him conduct brutal business amidst the family’s preparations for a quinceañera had me making connections to The Godfather (1972), as Cuevas is a man living two lives in two worlds he claims coexist. But both lives are threatened when an old enemy of Cuevas’ boss called Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town and attempts a takeover. Like those he collects tax from, Cuevas learns that he has his own price to pay and attempts to settle the score before the screen fades to black. There are moments reminiscent of director David Ayer’s previous screenplays Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), but they are lost amidst numerous bad investments in runtime.

The best part of the movie was the interplay between Cuevas and his partner Creeper (Shia LeBeouf), who attends his duty to “terrify the herd” with sick satisfaction and stone-cold stares. Despite his sadistic nature, Creeper is wholly devoted to his partner. When he tells Cuevas, “zI’ll ride with you ‘till the wheels fall off,” you believe him. The complexity of both characters is best shown when they are together; Creeper doesn’t believe in God but has consigned himself to hell, while Cuevas asserts that his own religious convictions and familial devotions allow him “to go into the darkness but come back into the light”. Creeper serves as a foil to Cuevas’ duality, a warning sign that having a foot in both worlds doesn’t work. This concept was fascinating, but it was forgotten as the plot progressed. Consequently, Cuevas ceased to be complicated or compelling. Instead of gripping action, you get a lot of gun-waving and threat-throwing that doesn’t really add to the story or help you care about the characters. The DNA is there, but it’s just sitting in a plain petri dish with no signs of life. A myriad of plot threads with little substance leads to an ending that comes up short, just like Cuevas’ count of the tax collections earlier in the movie.

Shia LaBeouf and Bobby Soto in a scene of The Tax Collector | RLJE Films.

The biggest problem for me was figuring out the overall story arc. I thought I was watching a critique of the toxic masculinity that keeps a steady death toll in L.A. neighborhoods, but instead the movie seemed to revel in it. The opening credits claim that gang culture is all about love, honor, loyalty, and family, and it seems to really believe it, expounding on it with heavy-handed dialogue. The relationship between the values that the gang preaches and the fruits of their labor form an interesting dichotomy, but any chance of deep exploration is overthrown by random stabs at shock factor. Like when the big baddie bathes in the blood of a young woman and sacrifices a chicken to the devil, or when the bullets start flying and the tally of revenge kills ramps up so fast you lose track. The good guy cries, seethes, and swears, but I was too emotionally checked out to care much.

There’s a part of me that feels defensive of the film because so many critics have condemned it with a mercilessness to match Creeper’s. I especially feel that the claims that The Tax Collector is racist and brownfacing are completely unwarranted. I so badly wanted this movie to be great, but alas it wasn’t so. The character of David Cuevas is described as “a candle in the darkness,” but this film feels more like a shadow of the greatness it could have been and what I wish it was. The great team of collaborators and top-notch trailer got me so excited for a movie that proved to be like my OMSI experience; I expected torpedos and got torpor instead. I can only hope that Ayer’s next venture makes the submarine seaworthy once more.

Recommendation: No Go

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