2020 Movie Review

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

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