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ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Editor’s note: The moment is finally here… Zack Snyder’s Justice League is set to debut on HBO Max at 12 AM PDT, March 18. Years of fan campaigning and constant social media clarmor has delivered what tens of thousands of people worldwide have been asking for; the mythical “Snyder Cut” is finally here. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, polish up by reading this article here. The Snyder Cut of Justice League is perhaps the most infamous and relevant story of the collective power of fandom ever told. Whatever your thoughts and feelings are toward Zack Snyder and his movies, it’s hard to dismiss the #ReleaseTheSndyerCut movement as anything short of historic. We had the pleasure of receiving screenings for two of our writers here at Backseat Directors, so this will be a mini version of our normal roundtable reviews. We hope you enjoy what they have to say about this legendary movie.

Superheroes in Zack Snyder’s Justice League head straight on into battle against cosmic foes. | HBO Max Original (2021).

CJ Marshall: The Snyder Cut is good. Compare it to the previous version and it’s a masterpiece. It’s audacious, with a mythic quality that feels more on par with a fantasy epic than your average cape flick. I can’t say it’s enough to convert the naysayers. Justice League is Snyder with carte blanche. You have to sit through the slow-mo and the idol worship to get to the brilliance. Satisfied as I am with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I don’t need more. This puts a big, beautiful, four hour bow on his offering to the DCEU and he can ride off into the sunset with full vindication (if he ever even truly needed–or wanted–it). Still, I find myself wondering what might have been.

It’s baffling that Warner Bros. chose what we received in theaters over the original vision. The trajectory of the DCEU might still be climbing instead of the peaks and valleys we’ve seen thus far. I’ll even go so far as to claim that this older, better JLA film makes Man of Steel and Batman v Superman better by association. It shows the decisions, whether you find them poor or not, were done with a clear plan in mind. I don’t worry about the precedent this sets with the fandom at large. People are fooling themselves if they think this wasn’t anything more than a stunt to nab subscribers for HBO Max. I just don’t think anyone realized just how good it was going to turn out. Love it or hate it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is historic.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

DC Comics’ greatest heroes join forces like never before in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. | HBO Max Original (2021).

Parker Johnson: The DCEU opened in 2013 with the first teaser trailer for Man of Steel, as temp music from The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring played alongside the voice of Jor-El telling his son that, “[he] will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind [him]. They will stumble, they will fall- but in time they will join [him] in the sun. In time, [he] will help them accomplish wonders.” I sat there in the theater as a young man, simply awestruck. Here was something different than what we had ever gotten before in the superhero genre. Something epic, something beautiful, something inspiring. Seven years later, I now have the privilege of watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and as the end credits rolled, I am struck with that same feeling of awe. With the wildly popular, entertaining, and successful episodic formula of the MCU, it was hard for casual fans and studios alike to imagine Snyder’s vision of a 5 film arc for our favorite heroes. With Justice League now restored to Snyder’s intended 4 hour drama, I now see where he was heading.

Those who complained about the weight and somberness of the previous Snyder-verse films will be happy to know that the hope and optimism that they craved is now starting to emerge in the story as our characters reflect on the impact Superman had on their world, fulfilling Jor-El’s declaration. I haven’t seen a trilogy of films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), with the same scale of epicness, hope, and faith in humanity since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Snyder has given us our modern day mythos–drawing from the comics, older mythologies and theology (specifically Christianity) to give us stories that inspire us to live up to our potential. It is a miracle that this movie got to see the light of day, and I believe people are going to love it. I was captivated for the full 4 hours, and I want to see the story continue to complete its five film arc.

#RestoreThe Snyderverse.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Shaka King

*If you are not familiar with the true story of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, the following review will contain some spoilers for the movie.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama film directed and produced by Shaka King, from a screenplay written by King and Will Berson. It is based on a story by King, Berson, as well as Kenny and Keith Lucas. It stars Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen. While the story is seemingly about Hampton (Kaluuya), the film concentrates on William O’Neal (Stanfield) who was essentially forced to work for the FBI to infiltrate and spy on the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal eventually became the organization’s chief of security and then supplied the floor plan of the building where Hampton was staying. This led to a raid in which Hampton was killed. 

Kaluuya as Hampton gives an electrifying performance that is as riveting as the man himself. His delivery of the speeches are intense and have conviction. What the film does extremely well is show how Hampton had an ability to bring potential enemies and rivals together. He knew that there was strength in numbers and that they could turn heads to their ideas if they came together. The title is an allusion to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s statement that they, “…must prevent the rise of Black Messiahs.” In Hampton’s case, they did so by enlisting O’Neal, a “Judas,” to infiltrate and betray him. This obviously ties into the biblical story when Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver to Pontius Pilate which led to Jesus’s crucifixion and Judas’s suicide. This film makes Judas the lead character and Stanfield does a fantastic job. The film doesn’t absolve O’Neal for his part in killing Hampton; rather, it humanizes him. Stanfield plays a conflicted man who wants to dedicate himself to the cause of Black liberation but also does not want to go to prison. Our natural inclination might be to vilify O’Neal for killing Hampton, but the film shows reasons to sympathise and how we might learn from his mistakes. Tragically, O’Neal also took his own life, again aligning himself to the biblical Judas. 

Outside of these two men, the supporting cast is strong as well. Plemmons is great, with the best performances coming from Fishback as Deborah Johnson. The film really shows how big of an impact women had to the Black Panther organization. Fishback is fleshed out extremely well and her relationship with Hampton indicates that Johnson was a strong woman who wants to stand with Hampton but also will tell him when he isn’t as good as he could be. Fishback hits every note perfectly and is as charismatic as Kaluuya. Their chemistry makes the final tragic moments of the film even more painstaking.

Daniel Kaluuya stands surrounded by fellow Black Panthers as he sets to give a speech in a scene of Judas and the Black Messiah | Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021.

The film does have a few issues with its historical accuracy of certain details; O’Neal has stated it was fairly easy to get close to Hampton where the film says it was difficult. The writers also took some liberties regarding O’Neal’s relationship with Mitchell. Hampton and O’Neal are not accurately represented in the film as the former was 21 and the latter was 17. Stanfield and Kaluuya are 29 and 31, respectively, which may seem a little jarring as neither actor feels the age that the two men really were.

Additionally, in real life, Hampton did open his eyes when the building was raided but still keeps this scene simple. Instead of a big climactic scene with FBI agents running in guns blazing, the film shows him sleeping. By keeping Hampton sleeping when he is killed, (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the film seems to parallel Fred Hampton’s murder with the infamous killing of Breanna Taylor in 2020. The final flaw is in showing how the FBI was involved. Though purposeful, it can take away a little from the film’s overall pacing.

Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds with its story, the acting, the ending, its message, and the majority of its details. The performances by the entire cast alone is reason enough to watch this movie multiple times. The film highlights how citizens can be manipulated or influenced to turn on their fellow citizens with use of propaganda and other tactics. Will society continue to allow this to happen or will they stand up and fight? That is up to the viewer to decide.

Judas and the Black Messiah was released in theaters where theaters are open, and is available to stream on HBO Max.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Malcolm & Marie

Editor’s note: Like all of the “Roundtable Reviews” we’ve done before, we chose a movie that has been getting a lot of buzz mixed with a lot of controversy. Malcolm & Marie features two of the hottest and most in demand actors in Hollywood, and puts them front and center in this intimate drama. This film might be Zendaya’s most rigorous role since shedding her Disney Channel shell, and John David Washington’s career is ever onward and upward. What can this man not do?

NETFLIX | Rated: R | Runtime: 106 minutes | Director: Sam Levinson

CJ Marshall: The Christmas episode of Euphoria should have prepared you for this project. Malcolm & Marie exists more as performance art than an actual film. It’s like a high budget “sponsor me” skate video. The end product has killer performances and a great soundtrack, but it has no purpose other than to showcase the formidable talent of its creative forces. They absolutely killed it on the technique angle. Zendaya has never looked or acted more mature and she wears it well. The uncomfortable (Euphoria’s trademark), voyeuristic vibe is contrasted with the constant nudging and winking of Levinson’s dialogue–the film engages in the very techniques and tropes that it seems to be critiquing. All of that would be more interesting if there were a point to be made. It’s conflict for the sake of conflict, dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and filmed–beautifully I might add–in black and white for the sake of black and white. In the spirit of this film I’ll offer up one of the more ubiquitous critiques: Malcolm & Marie insists upon itself.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: When the trailer for Malcolm & Marie dropped, you knew that the film would be about a relationship filled with both love-making and insults that might be similar to your average couple stuck together in quarantine. The film definitely hits each one of those checkboxes with each argument showing a deeper problematic layer in their relationship. The most obvious comparison for anyone to make is to 2019’s Marriage Story. While similar, that film is more about one man’s side of a divorce whereas this film is more of a power struggle between two people. From a stylistic perspective, Malcolm & Marie has a lot more compelling aspects when compared to Marriage Story, from beautiful cinematography, and great use of music to move the story along. The acting by Washington and Zendaya is on point in perhaps their best roles yet. While one may not enjoy argumentative relationship type movies (is that a genre now?)… this film has more to it than simply a display of that to enjoy time and time again. Full thoughts coming later on.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: Malcom and Marie claims to not be a love story, but “a story about love.” When I saw that phrasing in the trailer, my guard immediately went up. That seems to be code for “terrible people spend the runtime yelling at each other, and yet still claim they love each other.” When early reviews went up, my suspicions were confirmed. But, because of my love for Zendaya, I was determined to watch this movie. And I have to admit, it was incredibly well made. The staging and cinematography were great, and the acting was pretty incredible. Zendaya’s character had a monologue that literally left my jaw hanging off the floor. However, the relationship between the two titualar characters just felt so mean spirited and cruel to each other, that it left me feeling very uncomfortable and waiting for the film to end. But maybe that was the point of the movie…? I don’t know. It was a well crafted film, but in the end, it didn’t convince me that these two really cared about each other, nor that it was a “movie about love.” So it”s going be a “skip it” for me. However, it made me even more excited to see Zendaya in Dune coming out later this year!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Ron Howard

Every now and then Netflix really surprises me. The good kind of surprises. Like a Christmas gift. You know… the kind that you’re hoping for, maybe even asked for, but not sure you’ll get. That was Hillbilly Elegy for me. Over the last few years Netflix has shown their ability to produce and distribute high quality films worthy of the big screen. Such films like ROMA, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or Mudbound. Netflix’s “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” strategy for their original content has created a bloated and overwhelming catalogue of both good and bad content. Most of their originals are very forgettable, things I would never consider watching twice (and regret even watching once). But I will give credit where credit is due, and all credit to Netflix for picking up the distribution rights to Hillbilly Elegy, and showing us the type of quality entertainment they are capable of providing.

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the 2016 best-selling memoir (of the same name) by J.D. Vance, which sold well over 3 million copies, and reached the New York Time’s Best Seller list twice. The movie was directed and co-produced by Ron Howard, and Vanessa Taylor adapted the screenplay. It stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, and Haley Bennett. Both Adams and Close give Oscar worthy performances in this movie. Some of the best of their careers.

I wasn’t familiar with J.D. Vance’s memoir, or the story behind the movie. And even after watching the trailer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the movie. It seemed like a regular family drama kind of film, but nothing to get me too excited. What really drew my interest to the movie, though, were Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Their character transformations were stunning, and for that reason alone I chose to sit down and spend two hours on this movie. And I’m so glad I did.

Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of a low working-class family from Jackson, Kentucky that picks up and moves to a small steel town in Ohio where J.D.’s grandparents live. J.D. is the younger of two siblings being raised by a single mom who is battling a serious drug addiction. The movie goes back and forth between J.D.’s life as a student at Yale Law School and his memories of growing up in a broken family. J.D.’s mom, Bev (played by Amy Adams) struggles to keep a steady job, or even a steady relationship due to her frequent substance abuse. Her personal instability leads to a very unstable life for her two children. Bev’s mother (played by Glenn Close) is well aware of her daughter’s inner demons and does what she can to help. The family drama plays out with J.D. and his sister in need of guidance and structure, and a mom who is struggling to even keep herself alive.

From left to right: Haley Bennett, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in a scene of Hillbilly Elegy | NETFLIX, 2020.

Any viewer should be advised that the scenes of intense family drama are very raw and unfiltered. These are the real stories depicted in J.D.’s memoir, and the very real life he and his family endured. In spite of the Vance family’s circumstances and struggles, in spite of their dire financial situation, in spite of an America that seems to have forgotten about these, the deplorables, J.D. and his family are able to overcome. Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. On multiple occasions the movie brought me to tears. Through all of the pain and anguish endured by every member of this family, the underlying messages of family, faith and forgiveness drove deep into my heart, and have stayed with me for weeks after. Ron Howard has directed some classics throughout his career in Hollywood (Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story), and I’d confidently add Hillbilly Elegy to this list.

If you’ve happened to see the poor ratings posted by Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll notice a cavernous discrepancy between the movie critics and the audience. The majority of audience members enjoyed the movie, with an 86% approval rating. The politically motivated criticisms of a non-political movie by overtly biased critics has left an unfair and underserved smear on what is an incredible film. I unequivocally and wholeheartedly recommend this movie. Without a doubt, Hillbilly Elegy is my number 1 movie of 2020.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

*Editor’s note: Amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Disney made a bold move and decided to release the newest Pixar animated movie on their streaming service, Disney+. Pixar’s Soul debuted worldwide (where Disney+ is available) on Christmas Day. Unlike Disney’s Mulan (2020), Soul was available to any Disney+ subscriber at no additional charge, thank goodness! Whereas Mulan was part of the Disney+ Premier Access; meaning, if you wanted to watch Mulan at the time of its release, you would have to pay a rental fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fees. We’ll see if Disney uses that same strategy with other movies that might debut on their new, shiny streaming platform… (hopefully not!).

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG | Runtime: 101 minutes | Director: Pete Docter

Shay Satmary: Soul ticks every Pixar box for me: great music, groundbreaking animation, complex characters and a deep meaning. Both, the jazz songs by Jon Batiste, and the other instrumental scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do an amazing job of transporting you into the different settings of the film. The animation of the physical world captures the characters’ details and uniqueness. The way the spiritual world was animated–from the way the colors kaleidoscope through the light to the linear figures of the counselor characters–left me in absolute awe. Joe Gardner is a humble main character with relatable problems (maybe not the dying part and trying to make it back to your body) that helped me feel attached to his journey.  I have watched it twice now and with each viewing I was moved to tears. The magical thing Pixar does so well is leave you thinking about their films long after you complete them, and Soul is no exception.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: I think we are all in agreement when we say that Pixar is one of the giants in the animation industry, and that it is due to their ability to tell a deep, rich, emotional compelling story that resonates with both young kids, and their parents alike–taking a deep, core concept like feelings, grief, or passion and making it kid friendly. Soul has all these elements, but is geared toward more older kids and adults, and in doing so solidifies itself as a different kind of Pixar masterpiece. The animation is still stunning (with the abstract worlds of the Great Before and the “in between” being especially beautiful and stylistic), and there is still that classic Pixar playfulness, but the subject matter and themes of the movie are more mature and refined. I really appreciated that. It was like having your first sip of sparkling cider after only drinking grape juice your entire childhood. Soul moved me deeply, and made me want to live a better and more purposeful life. I think it deserves to be ranked among Pixar’s greatest.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Rachel Wagner: Soul is a bold, ambitious film from director Pete Docter that I appreciate more than I love. I am grateful to the team at Disney Pixar for taking such a risk and making a beautifully animated interesting film that makes you think about the questions of life, and what price we are willing to pay to chase the dream. However, the script gets a little lost particularly in the middle section involving a cat. I also think the movie keeps us at a distance, and definitely keeps children at a distance, when with a few changes it could be more accessible. All of these choices impact the pacing and impact of the message. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have such an experimental film come from a major studio, and if it doesn’t 100% deliver it gives the viewer a lot to think about along the way.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Sam Cooley: Soul doesn’t have the exceptional wit nor the near airtight writing that is found in several other Pixar movies. However, I would recommend that anyone watch this film due to its sweetness, warmth and importance alone.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

The Formal Review: This movie is amazing, story wise and visually. The characters are engaging, the environments realistic and fantastical all at once, and most of all, it hits on an emotional level. There’s a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone. However, the film does not seem to emphasize death outside of the fact that it happens. One of the main characters, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), could also have been looked at a little deeper, which would have had a more emotional moment. While the message is understood to be along the lines of getting to know someone by walking in their shoes, I couldn’t help but think of 2017’s Get Out. Though not Pixar’s best film, Soul is good for a laugh, and it does have an emotional and enriching experience. The film does have a positive message about not taking your life for granted that ends up feeling satisfying in the end.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

NETFLIX
Rated: PG
Run Time: 122 minutes
Director: David E. Talbert

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a 2020 Christmas musical fantasy film written and directed by David E. Talbert. It stars Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Davina Phillip, Ricky Martin, and Madalen Mills.

This Netflix original checks off every box for a cheerful Christmas movie. There’s a character who has lost all happiness and a young cheerful kid to bring back cheer into their life right in time for the holidays. The grump is Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker) who used to be a brilliant inventor extraordinaire and loving family man. His life changed when his wife died and his apprentice, Gustafson (Key), “borrows indefinitely,” the plans for Jangle’s most brilliant work for mass production. He sends off his only daughter, Jessica (Rose), so he can live alone in his misery. It seems all is lost until Jessica sends his granddaughter Journey (Mills) to his store to stay with him. She’s smiling all the way with a head full of dreams and a belief in the impossible that would make Disney consider replacing Mickey Mouse. The film then progresses as a normal Christmas film would. However, the difference here between other typical Christmas films is the cast. The cast is superb all round, but newcomer Madalen Mills as Journey, and Lisa Davina Phillip as Ms. Johnston steal the scene when they appear. The ENTIRE cast is truly outstanding and that makes the typical Christmas story fun and moving.

The catchy music was mostly penned by Philip Lawerence, Michael Diskint and Davy Nathan (John Legend writing one song, “Make it Work”), though inspired from prior musicals from Disney otherwise. The song writer’s embed elements of the blues, jazz, and Afrobeats into these songs that make them feel fresh. There’s even a moment where James Brown’s iconic cape routine is emulated. The music is supported by fantastic dance numbers. Each big number feels fun and will get the audience moving. The costumes are also phenomenal, putting this film in right in the middle Victorian England and gives the feeling as if the story was from a Charles Dickens novel. It’s as if one combined “A Christmas Carol,” The Wiz (1978) with a twist of Disney magic from Mary Poppins (1964) and they produced this film.

Madalen Mills as Journey appears in a scene of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey | NETFLIX (2020).

The most important part of this film is it’s message. Though Journey may have some of the cliche optimistic child qualities one would find in a Christmas movie, she also has important differences. Unlike a lot of the child protagonists in these kinds of movies, she is not gullible and easily outmaneuvered by the antagonist. She is also interested in the fantasy version of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The film shines a light on these fields of study in hopes to encourage children in their academic pursuits. Bringing more people to the STEM field is important for our country to grow and be able to compete with other countries who prioritize these fields of study. This film shows that it’s good to be interested in these areas using real life properties but with a twist of fantasy, e.g. “Square Root of Possible.”

The only flaws are that it is a fairly predictable film, and there are a few plot holes too. Also, Christmas does not really have much of an impact in the film. It takes place around the holidays and it provides hope, but it does not really apply outside of that. While the majority of the singing is great, not everyone is on key and some seemed more talk-singing than singing. Then the ones who really could sing, they weren’t on screen. When they were there, they were phenomenal, such as Rose who voiced the Disney character, Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Overall, this film is one of Netflix’s best original movies. Don’t be surprised if this story finds its way onto a theatre stage once the pandemic is over. This film has the ability to become a Holiday classic, but if not, it will be memorable for the music alone. Definitely check this movie out, and be ready to dance and feel the music!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Possessor

NEON
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Possessor is a good film. I just can’t think of a single good word to describe it. The strongest word that comes to mind is “violation” because this narrative is built on them. It’s a Black Mirror episode gone horribly wrong–if there could be such a thing. Let that sink in. Possessor is labeled as a sci-fi, horror, psychological thriller. It ticks all of these boxes while remaining thought provoking (hopefully the philosophical or existential kind of thoughts); though, it seems to care more about depicting an act in brutal, excruciating detail than exploring why the act occurred in the first place.

In a near future where the level of technology is just right enough to enable all the wrong things, Andrea Riseborough is cast as Tasya Vos. She’s an assassin who uses the minds and, by extension, bodies of others to perform her work. The method can be taken as a microcosm of the film itself: relatively low-tech and high-concept. The efficiency of such a clandestine operation is really not the point. I believe writer/director Brandon Cronenberg is driving home the concept of violation and boundaries they cross….over and over and over again. It’s not enough to secretly poison a target or simply shoot them. Victims are bludgeoned and maimed and butchered. Here, in Cronenberg’s future, professional assassinations look more like rage or crimes of passion. Close up shots of needle injections and knife wounds are paid as much care as close ups of the actors themselves. One could argue that Vos’ body snatching is no different than a sharp object entering a victim’s body. All are violations. The collateral damage caused by Vos’ various masquerades are emotional violations. All do irreparable damage, but which of these instances is the most morally bankrupt way to do it? Is the Possessor or the host to blame for the savagery of these acts?

Cronenberg’s themes are apparent. Technology has pervaded every nook and cranny of our lives. Our privacy is gone. Secrets are easily laid bare. Social interaction isn’t the same as it was for the previous generation. All of it can be weaponized–is weaponized. This would have been a very different film in different hands. When I say “different” I mean just that. Not “better.” The visual aesthetic is right on the money and some creative visual choices are on display. They lend themselves well to the psychological aspect of the film, because the technology is the means and not the end. The flip side of that coin is the Cronenberg family penchant for body horror. I accept its symbolism only so far because there comes a point where it’s not about “the point” anymore. It becomes about shock and violence and perhaps appeasing the conventions of genre.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough in a scene of Possessor | NEON.

Though Possessor will hopefully elicit some existential questions, I don’t know if a deep analysis is required. That’s not slight to Cronenberg, but more a comment on how committed he is to his message. Peel back the layers and you’re left with a bloody, nihilistic dissection of human nature. I don’t think it has more to say than that. Anyone familiar with sci-fi knows the hidden dystopia that’s configured underneath the surface of society. It often operates parallel to everyday life, giving you the good things while hoping you forget the toll it can exact upon you. Possessor will be a challenging watch because I see it as the opposite. There’s great art and an interesting premise, but you will feel every bit of the transaction. Some of you will find this film right down your alley. Some of you will find it difficult. I say err on the side of the challenge.

Recommendation: STREAM 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: 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

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