2020 Movie Review

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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