Go See It

REVIEW: Minari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Our Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Go See It!

https://youtu.be/GTWqGLnOxtA

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 Wolf of Snow Hollow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation: Go See It!

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!

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!

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