Drama

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 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: 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

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!

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: 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

REVIEW: 7500

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Patrick Vollrath

Watching the trailer for 7500 might leave you somewhat underwhelmed and uninterested, as it did me. Airplane hijacking movies are a dime a dozen; an outdated genre that still lingers on. Even 19 years post 9/11, we seem to revisit this collective trauma annually with the release of new hijacking movies. I have my fair share of hijacking favorites that I enjoy revisiting from time to time: Air Force One (1997), Con Air (1997), Snakes on a Plane (2006), all “turn off your brain” kind of films that are the epitome of popcorn flicks. (Man, 1997 was a great year for hijacking movies!) Physical force and action sequences usually dominate this genre, but I am happy to say that 7500 couldn’t be more different to the typical hijacking movie.

7500 debuted last year at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and was released in the U.S. this June on Amazon Prime Video. It is directed by German born Patrick Vollrath, this being his first full-length feature film. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, First Officer and co-pilot of a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris; and Omid Memar as Vedat, a young Turkish Islamic Extremist, who is having second thoughts on the morality of this hijacking.

The plot of of the movie is as follows: a commercial airliner is taking 85 passengers from Berlin to Paris. Islamic Extremists attempt to take over the plane using broken bottles of glass as weapons, and taking some of the passengers as hostages. The are unable to break into the cockpit, so they use threats of violence and death on passengers in an attempt to coerce the pilots to let them in. Without giving too much away, this is the basic plot of the film. But what makes this movie so intriguing—and ultimately why I am going to recommend it—is because of how deeply intimate and thought-provoking the story is.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in a scene of 7500 | Amazon Studios.

The entirety of the movie takes place inside the cockpit of this airliner. It felt reminiscent of films like Buried (2010) and Locke (2013), or maybe if you mixed those two together. You get to see in detail the level of complexity that exists within these marvelous machines, and the level of education needed to pilot them. There is no musical score throughout the film, which adds to the authenticity of this small world created on screen. Gordon-Levitt and Memar bring exceptional performances to their roles, and gives me hope that one day Gordon-Levitt will be seen and revered as a highly talented actor, and land the larger roles that he has earned.

I often hear other movie fans say that the most fundamental aspect of a movie its ability to entertain its audience. I have a hard time agreeing with this notion. If entertainment was the goal of every movie, then the value of movies would mean very little to those who do enjoy them. My belief about what makes film so universally loved by humans everywhere is its ability to tell a meaningful story. Stories (specifically stories about the human experience) are what captivates the minds and hearts of the audience. 7500 gets at the heart of humanity in the midst of trial and tribulation. It will make you think about ethical and moral dilemmas that you otherwise might not be thinking about. I love movies that make me ask myself, “What would I do if I were in that same situation?” but without offering a clear path or definition of what that right answer is. Yes, there are specific character and plot sequences that I would have changed up a bit, but there isn’t anything too egregious enough for me to give more attention to.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, go give 7500 a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised on the outcome, and at only 90 minutes, it’s well worth the investment of your time.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Assistant

Bleecker Street
Rated: R
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Kitty Green

I love The Office. It’s dead-pan, documentary style is pure gold. It skillfully embraces the idea of a mind-numbing and even soul-sucking work environment, but does so in a way that finds the humor and even the joy in our 9-to-5s. When I hear the cheerful, cheesy intro, I can’t help but hum along as I watch the main cast go about their workday. In The Assistant (2020), filler scenes of mundane office life are about 87% of the 87-minute runtime. You just watch the main character, Jane, talk on the phone, stand in front of the microwave, smoke, sip coffee, and look overworked. She is basically Pam Beesly in the first season, right down to the pink turtleneck. If The Office had been a drama about Pam’s misery and Michael Scott was a male, predatory Miranda Priestly, then The Assistant would be the pilot episode. And it would never make it to television.

The Assistant premiered at the Telluride film festival in August 2019, then was distributed by Bleecker Street and released to a few U.S. theaters on January 31, 2020. It was just released to streaming on Hulu over the weekend. In that time, it’s developed an incredible disparity of opinion on Rotten Tomatoes; as of this article’s posted date, it holds a 92% approval rating from the critics and a 25% approval rating from the audience—that’s got to be a record or something. For my part, I side with the audience (yet another reason why I identify as a “Backseat Director” rather than “critic”). I’m sure there are subtleties that go unappreciated by my uneducated mind, and there will certainly be those that will advocate heavily for this film—but I couldn’t get past how boring this movie was. I think it speaks volumes that the most interesting part is a visit to human resources. The trailer and the cinematography would have you believe you are watching some sort of thriller, but the moments of build-up and unease lead to nothing. To say the movie is a slow burn is an understatement; I felt like I was waiting for a pot of water to boil, only to discover an hour-and-a-half later that the stove wasn’t even turned on.

Julia Garner in a scene of The Assistant | Bleecker Street.

The movie follows Jane, a relatively new hire at an unnamed production company, who’s working as a junior assistant. The movie takes place on a typical Monday, following her from the early hours of the morning and late into the night. She works hard but finds little joy in what she is able to accomplish. She’s been there five weeks, and she’s clearly miserable; in fact, she spends the whole movie with a facial expression that tells you this girl needs a new gig. In her day, there are various situations and happenings that make her uncomfortable and upset, and then the day ends, and the credits roll. Nothing is achieved, nothing is done, and nothing is different. It’s likely that the same kind of day Jane had on Monday will happen on Tuesday, and every day to follow. While workplace dramas that I adore like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) have rich characters and clear story arcs and a healthy sense of humor, The Assistant abandons any semblance of Hollywood escapism for a dull and grim reality. But this reality appears arcane in its portrayal of women in the workplace, and left me personally nonplussed.

The #MeToo movement is making an indelible mark on Hollywood, reflected in recent movies like Bombshell (2019) and the indefinitely delayed Promising Young Woman—but as a film, we deserve better than what The Assistant has to offer. The movie seeks to show the suffocating normalcy of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, but the monotony outweighs the misconduct. Even as a woman with her fair share of #MeToo experiences, I ask, “What’s the big deal?” I even found myself blaming the protagonist for her own misery, and that’s terrifying. My reaction alone proves the systemic nature of a problem that even victims have grown used to shrugging off. Unfortunately, I think the film will prove esoteric, which is ironic considering the movement is called “Me Too” and is supposed to represent half the planet’s population. I related more to Birds of Prey (2020) than this supposedly accurate depiction of workplace sexual harassment. My worry (and prediction) is that its subtlety will leave a great many asleep rather than woke.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Greyhound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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