Drama

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!

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: 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

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