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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: Enola Holmes

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: Harry Bradbeer

 Since Stranger Things, I have been eyeing Millie Bobby Brown’s career with great interest. I have yet to see Godzilla: King of Monsters, since I have not seen the Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. (For those of you crying in outrage, it’s on my ever expanding watch-list. I’ll get to it eventually.) However, when I heard she would be playing the sister of Sherlock Holmes, who was to be played by Superman (Henry Cavill), I was intrigued. The trailer dropped and it grabbed my interest even further. I saw the movie the day it dropped, and I was really pleased.

What I Liked

Millie Bobby Brown

I have really enjoyed her performance in Stranger Things, and from what I’ve seen in the King of Monsters trailer, it seemed like she was becoming well known for playing stoic, solem characters (I could be wrong. Like I’ve said, I have yet to see the movie.) So, when I saw that she was playing a fourth wall breaking, wise cracking action character, I was nervous about whether she could pull it off or not. I needn’t fear though. I was actually blown away by how funny she was as Enola Holmes. The fourth wall breaks felt organic, like she was recounting the story to us, and it was nice having a fourth wall breaking character in red that was also family friendly. She also acted incredible well with her emotional scenes, and was really engaging to watch. I’m proud to see how far she’s come since Stranger Things.

Feminism!

When I saw what this movie was going to be about, I have to say I cringed just a little bit. Usually, when any movie tries to adapt a popular story and add modern takes to it, it usually comes off as heavy handed. Thankfully, Netflix handled it really well. Instead of the “strong women good, men bad” mentality that seems to pass for feminism in Hollywood, Enola Holmes actually emphasized that real feminism is meant for the equality of both men and women. Feminism is about both men and women expressing themselves without fear of suppression by those in power. They show Tewkesbury (the main male lead) having more feminine hobbies and forward thinking ideas, while those trying to kill him benefit from those in power and want to keep the status quo. I really appreciated that they did this, and refrained from making Enola into a “bad ass boss girl” and actually made her and Tewkesbury more well rounded. When we were first introduced to him, I groaned and thought, “Here we go. They made the male character into an incompetent buffoon that she has to protect,” but by the end of the film you can see that they are each other’s equal, and they both have to learn from each other. It’s a good message for both boys and girls watching this film.

Sherlock & Mycroft

Buckle your seatbelts my beautiful readers, because I am about to throw down an extremely unpopular opinion: I enjoyed Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes far more than I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s. (You may now proceed to throw your computer/phone across the room in outrage.) Benedict’s Sherlock oozes superiority and condescension with glimpses of the humanity within. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Benedict played the character brilliantly. However, Henry’s Sherlock still was introverted and detached from people while still showing warmth and affection toward people. While Enola Holmes wasn’t as focused on Sherlock’s detective skills as the BBC Sherlock was, I still found myself more compelled by Henry’s version.

And holy cow–Mycroft. From what I remember from Sherlock, Mycroft was more high strung and concerned with society than Sherlock was, but boy oh boy does Sam Claflin bump that up to an 11 (pun totally intended) in this film. I absolutely loved watching and loathing his version of Mycroft. He was so oily and prissy. He was such a delight to watch.

The Action

I almost cried with joy when the first action scene started. For the first time in forever, someone understood that action is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated, not cut and edited into a million different cuts that makes you have a seizure when you watch it. I could actually sit back and appreciate the fight choreography and have fun watching it. The story has a lot of really cool, fun, and different action set pieces that the editing allows us to take in and enjoy.

From left to right: Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin in Enola Holmes | NETFLIX.

Final Thoughts

Enola Holmes was a movie I’ve been waiting for–something with amazing actors, a good message, good editing and fight choreography, and an uplifting story to boot. The movie is fun, engaging, and a great stepping stone for Millie to show off more of her acting chops. It’s a great movie, and a movie I’ll gladly watch again and again.

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: Antebellum

Lionsgate
Rated: R
Run Time: 106 minutes
Directors: Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz

While Gone with the Wind (1939) is well-acclaimed and beautifully shot, it has been criticized since its premiere for romanticizing the pre-Civil War South and glossing over the brutality experienced by countless Black Americans. The movie Antebellum (2020) acts as a rebuttal to its glamour and fond nostalgia by depicting a more historical and less polite existence for slaves on lavish plantations. The directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz even went so far as to obtain the actual lenses used to film Gone with the Wind, literally reframing the narrative on the antebellum era. Its theatrical debut was lost to the pandemic, so I bitterly paid $20 to watch it by myself on VOD.

The plot, reportedly originating from a nightmare that Gerard Bush once had, centers on a plantation owned by the Confederate army and their inhumane treatment of the slaves there. One of these is called Eden, though she is actually a 21st century writer named Veronica Henley. She is looked to as a leader by her fellow prisoners, though they aren’t allowed to speak to each other and their failed resistance and escape attempts are met with cruel consequences. The rest of the movie is spent unraveling the mystery of how Veronica came to be in this situation and what it will cost her to escape (I’ll note here that though some themes are similar, Antebellum is not based on or related to the novel, “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler).

The opening scene escorts you through the premises the same way any traditional horror setting would be introduced; pairing idyllic scenes of children skipping through fields and beautiful architecture with the horrific suffering of the enslaved, all set to the same, unsettling score. As the identity of Veronica is explored, the lines between past and present are blurred in brilliant and provocative ways; as they say in the film, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The choice to cast Janelle Monae as Veronica Henley was an important one; Antebellum has the privilege of being the first movie to land her a leading role, though her supporting work in Moonlight (2016), Hidden Figures (2017), and Harriet (2019) have sent her on a rapid rise to stardom. Monae’s commanding presence on screen anchors the movie in her struggle and her strength, but hers is the only character with whom I felt an emotional connection. I would have preferred more time devoted to her fight on the plantation than on her life as a writer, as it could have given more space for the development of her supporting cast, especially those played by Tongayi Chirisa and Kiersey Clemons.

Janelle Monáe in a scene of Antebellum | Lionsgate.

I was puzzled to find that Antebellum hasn’t been doing well with critics or general audiences; there’s plenty of praise-worthy material and effort, even if I have my quibbles on execution. If you’re looking for something that’s going to make you jump and douse yourself in popcorn, this isn’t it, but it will leave you with a sense of unease that’s hard to shake after it’s over. The scariest part is its relevance to the world of the viewer. While Antebellum isn’t strong enough to flagship a movement, I do think it’s sufficient to remind us that there’s still some reconstruction to do on behalf of those who are taken for granted.

Wait until the VOD rental price has gone down. It should drop from $20 to $7 in about a month or so.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director, Tomm Moore Reminds Us to Listen to Children. #TIFF20

Apple TV+
Rated: NR
Run Time: 100 minutes
Directos: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

My Rating: 9.5/10

Anyone who follows my career as a film critic knows how much I adore the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. He is the man behind the Oscar nominated films Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Both are wonderful works of art, but Song of the Sea is a special favorite of mine as it helped me through a tough time in my life, and one that I saw soon after my cousin passed away in 2015. I actually got to interview Moore last year over on my youtube channel and so needless to say I was pretty pumped for his new film Wolfwalkers.

All that said, expectations can be a dual-edged sword and we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Fortunately, with Wolfwalkers that was not the case; Moore has created another stunning animated film full of heart, and quite possibly his most endearing and easy to relate with characters yet.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose widowed father has a mission to get rid of all the wolves in the forest. One day she meets a boisterous girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is looking for her mother. Robyn learns that Mebh’s Mother is an enchanted creature called a wolfwalker who is both human and wolf. This starts our girls on a series of adventures as they must convince the townspeople to protect the forest and save the wolfwalkers.

If that sounds a little familiar there are definitely shades of Princess Mononoke (1997) within Wolfwalkers, but the characters of Robyn and Mebh are so different and the animation has such a different texture that it works. Plus, it’s a story we need to hear over and over again because we don’t seem to be listening very well! Where I felt especially gravitated to is Robyn and her attempts (mostly failed) to try and explain what is happening to her father. She pleads so hard for him to listen, but he rarely does. How often is that the case with each of us and the young children in our lives?

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

As I said, the animation is absolutely stunning in Wolfwalkers. I loved the hand drawn look to everything and the incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and character designs. Just as in Song of the Sea captures the swirling nature of the sea in nearly every frame, so Wolfwalkers has a feeling of wind, torment, and fire in every inch of every frame. No part of the screen is left vacant or bare, and yet it’s not overwhelming visually, because the story and characters are so engaging. It just adds to the feeling that you are witnessing a special film, crafted with care (and let’s be real, a lot of animation is mass produced for laughs these days with the artistry forgotten).

But if you are concerned Wolfwalkers may be too intense for kids, don’t be. It has a positive energy, particularly with Mebh, kids will love, and the intense sections aren’t any worse than films like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas or Secret of the Kells. I’d say Song of the Sea is probably more morose and sad than Wolfwalkers, so if your children have seen that (and they should) they will be fine with this.

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

Moore has brought back the music team from his previous films with a beautiful score from Bruno Coulais and the band Kila. It helps draw you into the story, and combined with the animation, makes for an electrifying experience.

As a lover of animation, Wolfwalkers easily took the top spot for my favorite movie of 2020. It’s a glorious film the entire family will love. Currently it can be rented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (#TIFF) for a rental fee. If you miss it there it will be coming to Apple TV+ this fall and to some theaters. Keep an eye out for it; Wolfwalkers is a wonderful animated film.

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

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: Project Power

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 114 minutes
Directors: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Project Power is a superhero film directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. It stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Colson Baker, Rodrigo Santoro, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, and Allen Maldonado.

The Story & Direction

Living in New Orleans has never been easy for Robin (Dominique Fishback). She has been forced to sell these pills to help with her uninsured mom’s medical bills. As a safety precaution, she works with police officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In exchange for protection, she gives him Power pills to give him an edge against the city’s criminals. This relationship and Robin’s dealings become more complicated when Art (Jamie Foxx), a former soldier comes into town and takes down dealers to find the source of the drugs. If one takes a pill, they could self-immolate on the spot or they get powers for five minutes with each person’s abilities being different. This variety of powers allow for some fun and entertaining action sequences. The film even tries to touch on the nation’s history with drugs, health care, and experimentation, especially on it’s poorer communities and people of color.  Because this city is dealing with problems post-Hurricane Katrina, having someone releasing this drug into poor communities one can understand how this would lead to total chaos. As such, New Orleans feels like the perfect location for this film because it allows for the characters to feel grounded.

The Characters

One of the best things about New Orleans is its people, and this film takes place in all the  recognizable downtown areas to residential neighborhoods. This movement through the city helps make the characters more relatable. Frank is a cop who loves New Orleans so much that he is willing to try the product tearing apart his city, but also wears a NFL Saints jersey while on the job. Robin is told that because she is a woman of color an education is the only way to make it in the world, but she struggles in school. Art is only trying to get back his daughter or maybe something more sinister. While Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback all perform very well in their roles and really make the film better than it should be, the writing is where this film suffers.

Jamie Foxx appears in a scene of Project Power | Photo credit: Skip Bolen. NETFLIX © 2020

The Flaws

One of the biggest issues with Project Power is that it unfortunately falls into a lot of cliche material, especially in the villain portions. One even ends up being a “mad scientist” type surrounded by a bunch of goons who take the pill before attacking the heroes in the finale. While the main characters feel grounded, they are not much more than what is described above. There’s not a lot of development to them aside from what one would come to expect from a film such as this. Furthermore, the message that it attempts to tackle doesn’t seem thought out fully, and some of the action sequences are edited poorly which can make them a little hard to follow.

Overall

Project Power isn’t as deep of a movie as it tries to be, and it’s one that likely will not get a sequel. However, the characters are played well by their respective actors and they are worth rooting for in this fairly fun film. As with a lot of Netflix’s action films (e.g. The Old Guard and Bright), there’s enough in the film to keep it interesting for its runtime. It’s not the best film put out by Netflix but it’s not really trying to be. One’s reaction to the film will go along with those taking the pills. They will either explode with anger or find some enjoyable qualities that do not make it a hard swallow. Both are understandable reactions when it comes to this film. The ideas are there for a good film even though it’s not as good as it could have been. It is worth checking out if you’re looking for a new and entertaining film with decent acting and action sequences.

Project Power is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: An American Pickle

HBO Max
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Brandon Trost

Rogen, Rogen, and Pickles…

Like so many movies lately going straight to VOD or streaming channels, An American Pickle felt like it came out of thin air and with very little hype preceding it. That’s life as we know it for the time being. Though this flick has its faults, I’m particularly delighted at its spontaneous arrival. Even though I watched it far from a movie theater in a basement bedroom with intrusive outdoor lighting, this movie felt well done enough to bring me back to a small sense of normalcy, and I appreciated that!

From the drawing boards of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Brandon Trost who have worked together near exclusively on past films and tv series, comes a movie that feels a bit whimsical and aimless at times (even compared to some of their other stoner buddy comedies), but makes for an almost lighthearted Black Mirror episode. With every moment that the plot is actually progressing, there’s some curious insight into generational ideals, ethics, and abilities and what might happen if the wrong generation clashed with our current times. Connected with that is some heartwarming commentary on family relationships and honoring family tradition, which really turns out to be the main point.

So when I talk about the movie being a bit laughable, it mostly falls to this premise: Seth Rogen plays an early 20th century Jewish immigrant that comes to New York and is accidentally preserved in a pickle factory for 100 years. When he is awakened, he tries to connect with his now great grandson (also played by Seth Rogen, though more familiar), and the dramatically changed world around him. Yeah… this movie has the synopsis to make it sound like it came out in the early 90’s when everybody thought that all the non-ridiculous ideas were all taken. I say this, but there’s a common trend among a lot of those far-fetched flicks, in that they become subtle classics. I think this happens when the movie manages to be somewhat self aware and still has the ability to connect the absurd plot and characters to real human emotion. Kindergarten Cop (1990) does this for me everytime, and after watching An American Pickle, I think this will likely fall in that category.

Seth Rogen and…Seth Rogen in a scene of An American Pickle | HBO Max.

That isn’t to say that An American Pickle doesn’t have some real flaws. The film has some poor pacing between the prologue, the introduction of the main conflict, and the resolution. The laughs are there, but maybe at times, a little too far in between. And to be honest, the plot really is just so distractingly ridiculous (I know I may have already beat this to the ground). I somewhat let these things slide in the end, but I want to prepare everyone: this may not be at the same level of quality that you’re used to with a Rogen/Goldberg produced comedy.

That being said, this may be one of the more thought provoking movies these men have ever brought forward. Firstly, in most movies they’ve made there’s been quippy and overlooked dialogue on Jewish culture (them both being Jewish), and I’m glad that they seemingly embraced that aura for this movie. It’s almost a love letter to their family tradition, and that alone is enjoyable. But it goes further to ask questions like, how much blame do we put on other generations for the morals that were thrust upon them by the society of their time? How much more industrious and driven were these other generations than us having gone through subjectively worse economical conditions? Would they outdo us if they were put in our working classes today? Would we make them proud with who we’ve become?

I would say that my final opinion aligns pretty heavily with Rotten Tomatoes: just above average. I’ll probably bump into it on a sick day in five years and give it a revisit. And I’ll likely enjoy it for the reasons stated above, but I’m definitely not going out of my way to make sure this happens. And it’s not going on any favorite list. You get the idea; this movie’s most likely worth at least a single watch. Find it on HBO Max!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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