2020: The Year in Reviews (Part I)
Well, this has been a weird one, huh? We’re four months into the year, and theaters have only been open for about, two-and-a-half of those months. Most stuff has been pushed either to VOD or rescheduled altogether. Though I guess the byproduct of that is that most, if not all stuff that came out this quarter has been made available to stream quicker than usual. So, if you cared enough to do so, you could have seen pretty much everything that’s come out. Normally by this time, I’ve usually got like 15-20 films I haven’t seen. This year? Five. I’ve seen all but five movies that have come out, and one of them came out today and I just haven’t been able to watch it yet. The other four are ones that hit theaters before the pandemic hit and haven’t yet been put online for streaming
Though the situation does also leave us wondering what’s gonna happen in these next four months. I can’t even imagine what the next third of the year is gonna look like if theaters don’t open during that time. There might only be like 30 movies that come out. I guess we’ll see. Until then, let’s all try to not die.
Here are reviews of everything I’ve seen between January and now:
All the Bright Places — * * * (3 stars)
Netflix YA. It was kind of interesting in the first half. Or rather, I wasn’t bored during the first half, but then it just totally lost me by that ending. It’s basically The Fault in Our Stars with suicide. I’m not really sure what the point of it all was, but I got through it. So I’m fine. Never need to see this again.
Ana — * * * (3 stars)
I enjoyed this. Dafne Keen in what I believe is her first movie, post-Logan, and Andy Garcia. Small little buddy movie that I feel like I’d have grown up watching in the 90s. It’s not gonna amount to much for most people, but it is fun watching Keen’s screen presence grow, and always nice to see Garcia in anything.
The Assistant — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This movie was my Uncut Gems. You know how some people said that movie made them feel like they were having a two-hour-long panic attack? That was this movie for me. It’s like, my own personal PTSD. By 15 minutes in I was having fucking war flashbacks. And this was before we got into the sexual assault stuff. I obviously saw this film from a different angle than most, but on a pure film level, it’s a really interesting look into the story without directly getting into the story. It’s extremely uncomfortable but also very well done. The HR scene alone is one of the best single scenes you’ll see from this year. I’m gonna have to wait a while to watch this again to get a more complete picture of my feelings on it and being able to see it with some level of detachment, but, it was really solid and definitely one of the better and more important films that should be seen from this year.
Bad Boys for Life — * * * (3 stars)
A totally unnecessary, yet oddly welcome sequel. There’s less Bayhem and more, character introspection, I guess? As much as this franchise can. Kinda like Men in Black, where there was that one randomly sorta deep moment at the end of the third one where you were like, “Damn, I didn’t think you guys had the capacity to go there anymore.” That’s almost what this is, since it’s about aging and regret and all that. It’s — there’s not really all that much there, but honestly, as bad as this could have been, it actually turned out kinda watchable. So I’m fine with that.
Bad Education — * * * * (4 stars)
Oh, this was so good. Who doesn’t love a good public school embezzlement scandal? I was so excited for this when they announced it (as I am for any movie that Hugh Jackman is, given his ability to pick really interesting material), and got worried when it got picked up for HBO, because I thought maybe people wouldn’t take it seriously as a film. But the quarantine’s changed that. Not that it really matters, because a great movie is a great movie. I love how they slow play everything here, starting with Jackman as the pillar of moral standing and then little by little, the cracks start to show. And you just wait for that domino to fall, and slowly see just how fucked up the whole thing is and just how not-great he is. I couldn’t wait til everything fell apart. This was so good and is something from this quarter of the year everyone should see, because it’s just wonderful.
Bad Trip — * * * (3 stars)
This is about what I’d have expected. It’s a hidden camera prank movie with the loosest plot you can imagine. The whole thing is disjointed, with the plot stuff being obviously badly scripted and the prank stuff almost feeling forced. The fun comes in the insane situations they set up to get reactions from people who don’t know what’s going on. And as dumb and tasteless as some of them are, they did get me to laugh in spite of myself. Maybe it’s because I watched it at 4am during a quarantine. Who’s to say, really? Plus — there’s a MUSICAL NUMBER. They had Eric Andre perform a whole musical number in front of unassuming strangers. I can’t hate the movie on that alone. It’s pure dumb fun, and maybe that’s what we all need right now.
The Banker — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was solid. It’s an interesting story — black man gets into the real estate game and then eventually buys banks. And that part is really solid. But once they get successful and are able to buy stuff, it just loses steam. It’s hard to really care about someone with money acquiring more money. They try to make it work by having him go back to buy the bank in the town where he grew up, which is super racist and excluded black people for years from being able to get mortgages, but I just didn’t have the feeling toward it that I had for the first half of the film. Still, Mackie’s solid, as usual, Sam Jackson is fun, and it generally works. I just wish it held up as well as that first half started out.
Beastie Boys Story — * * * * (4 stars)
First, let me say, I fucking love the Beastie Boys. I grew up with them, and they’re one of the defining bands of my childhood. That ‘Sounds of Science’ anthology was one of the things I listened to most when I was 12. I love that concert film they made that was shot entirely by audience members (Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That!). They’re my guys. So I was thrilled to hear that Apple was putting this out and that Spike Jonze (who directed the ‘Sabotage’ video with them) was directing. I figured it would just be like all the other music docs I’ve seen, a history of the band loaded with clips and music. But this is totally different. This is a two-man show that Ad-Rock and Mike D did where they go over the history of the band, telling all sorts of anecdotes and throwing to clips and montages and things. And it’s wonderful, and so perfectly them. Because they’ve always been low-tech and doing things that amused them, and they put all the technical gaffes in this. There’s a recurring bit about a sound effect and animation that’s supposed to show up, and for the majority of the show it just isn’t there, and it becomes some of the best moments in the doc, meanwhile most people would cut that out. It’s really the perfect thing for this band to do, and also a great reminiscence of the band, their impact, what it means to the members (and by extension, all of the people who love them), and a great tribute to the dearly departed MCA. It’s worth seeing as a different way to make a music doc, and definitely worth seeing if you like the Beastie Boys.
Big Time Adolescence — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I liked this more than I thought I would. Anything with Pete Davidson in it is a questionable proposition for me. But, here, he works. Not really much of a stretch for him. The character is a 20-something who drinks and smokes weed all the time and refuses to grow up, but he is kinda charming here, and the film is fun. Any excuse to not go to 3.5 stars I probably would have taken, but it’s a testament to how charming this was that I kept it at 3.5.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Well this was fun. I’m not gonna pretend like there’s really anything good in the D.C. Universe as presently constituted, but turns out, the best stuff they’ve made since Chris Nolan left is about women. Wonder Woman and this. Neither is a perfect film, but they have much more going on for them than the other ones. This, I like how maintains its comic book status, almost to the point of (and maybe even including it, I can’t fully remember) someone getting hit over the head with a mallet and cartoon birds appearing. It’s that kind of tone. And that’s fun. It’s trying to be a comedy. And I love that the writing isn’t taking itself too seriously and finds inventive things to do to make it more ‘girl power’. Some of it feels like it’s straining, but most of it I really like. I love the use of the chemical plant in the beginning of the movie (which they set up from another movie) as a metaphor for her and Joker’s toxic relationship. That was a really smart choice. And I like that the stakes are low and mostly it’s just Harley Quinn going around and getting into some shit most of the time. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot. But I think of it like — you know when you’re trying to open a package that just will not open? Or break a hole in something? And you push your finger through it really hard and eventually it breaks and you have your little opening with which to keep ripping from to get it open? That’s what this was for the D.C. Universe. It was stuck in this god awful prison of boring mediocrity and this was them pushing forward to get out of that and go be its own thing. And I think they achieved getting out. And I think (or hope) that next time it will bust wide open and do something really interesting.
Bloodshot — * * * (3 stars)
I wonder how much more interesting this movie could have been had they not ruined the twist in the trailer. The first act of the film plays like a simple revenge movie. Vin Diesel is a special ops guy, and then an evil dude comes and kills his wife and then him. Only he’s then woken up by a super secret government program who upgrades him and all that into a super soldier and then is gonna train him to go on missions. And then he goes out and gets his revenge on the guy who killed him. Only… not quite, because it’s a Source Code situation, where they’re basically resetting him every time with their technology and using him to murder people they want dead. And he keeps thinking this whole backstory happened, when in reality he’s just murdering innocent people. And of course the rest of the film is him figuring it out and going to get the people who did this to him. So on and so forth. It’s not great. But if you hid that twist and just let it happen, maybe some people will go, “Oh, that’s fun.” But no. Just kind of a generic action movie. Kinda fine. Diesel is well within his range and largely it works as a piece of mindless entertainment. Otherwise, it’s not overly great. You kinda know what you’re getting with most Vin Diesel action movies that are neither fast nor furious. It’s fine.
Blow the Man Down — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I really enjoyed this. I thought it was gonna be Ireland for some reason. But I guess it’s the next best thing — Maine, with those almost-Boston accents. It’s a bold debut from the directors. It starts with a fisherman singing the titular shanty, and occasionally it brings the fishermen back to sing interludes, kind of like There’s Something About Mary. But it’s about two sisters, one of whom stayed in the town to work the family store while their mother died, and the other who comes back and doesn’t want to be there. And one of them ends up killing a guy for… well, you’ll see the circumstances. But it’s really good. I like the small town element and the fact that it doesn’t become some action thriller or anything like that. It’s one of the hidden gems from the year people should seek out. And judging from how small the film crop this year is looking to end up being, I think maybe this has a bit more of a shot than it otherwise might have.
Brahms: The Boy II — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Did not care about the first one, did not care about this one. I don’t understand why they needed to make a sequel to something that wasn’t particularly interesting in the first place. I guess this is a prequel, but still. Yawn.
Buffaloed — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is my kind of indie. I love these types of movies. I like a movie that uses voiceover well. I also like when actresses get real — I know the word to use is star-making, but this isn’t really that — Zoey Deutch gets a real proper role to show people that she’s a good actress. She’s shown flashes of it for the past five or so years, but this one feels closest to maybe getting her that big part that’ll put her over the top. It’s just a great role for her, with the upstate New York accent and the way she’s able to play up the hustler side of the character with the comedic elements of the film and the dramatic parts too. It’s a really good performance, and the film is fun as hell. It’s just this weird story about a woman who is constantly running these little schemes and things, most of which aren’t strictly legal and often land her in jail, who gets into the racket of debt collecting and turns out to be really good at it. It gets insane, logically, by the end — there are different firms and they’re feuding and there’s a ‘meeting of the five families’ kinda thing — I honestly don’t even care. To me, it was about the initial premise and her performance. It’s a lot of fun. This is one of the nice little gems of the year so far and I hope people see it, if only to see what is, at the quarter pole, one of the best performances I’ve seen so far this year.
The Burnt Orange Heresy — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Liked it. Didn’t expect to like it. Because, you know, anything that becomes about a theft or a heist or something, and you know that going in, you’re immediately watching to figure out what all the angles are, who’s lying to who, and so on. And this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s pretty straightforward, and that, I think, maybe set up my expectations in the wrong direction. But, it’s about an art critic (played by the guy from The Square, because studio executives and producers are not clever) who gets invited to a billionaire’s estate (Mick Jagger, who is the best thing about the movie and not in it nearly enough), where a reclusive painter is staying (Donald Sutherland, who is having a lot of fun with the performance, and it’s great to see) who is famous because all his work went up in a fire like forty years ago and he hasn’t been seen since. And Jagger says he’s never seen the guy’s work and really wants one of his paintings, so he tells the critic to go steal one for him, and in return, he’ll grant him an exclusive interview with the guy so he can write about him and get acclaim. And then Elizabeth Debicki is there as a woman who starts seeing the critic just before all this happens. She’s also (as always) quite good. I think the movie won’t appeal to most people, but I was surprised at how much I cared about it. Which is largely due to the strength of the actors more than anything else. Wasn’t crazy about the turn it takes around the third act. But it’s based on a book, so what can you do. Still, it ends nicely, owing again to Jagger just being awesome. Overall, fine with it. Think it’s worth a watch for the actors and not much more.
Butt Boy — * * * (3 stars)
What a weird fucking movie. The male equivalent of the film Swallow. It’s about a guy who, after his first prostate exam, discovers he really likes sticking stuff up his butt. Only whereas Swallow made it realistic in a sense (the things she swallows are actually almost killing her), this one does not. Within about ten minutes, the guy has (somehow) stuck a child up his butt, meaning the child has now disappeared and no one knows what happened to them. It’s a very sure-handed film. There’s talent behind this, which still begs the question — why? I don’t have the answer to it, but at least this now goes into that weird subsection of ‘weird cinema’ for people to find. That’s always an interesting place to go.
The Call of the Wild — * * * (3 stars)
I love the 1935 adaptation of this book, with Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Now, I remember the movie being more about the Gable character than anything. Of course, I didn’t know the book is by the guy who wrote White Fang and makes movies from the perspective of animals, so I was not expecting this to be another one of those fucking dog movies we keep getting nowadays. Dog’s Journey, Dog’s Purpose, Dog’s SAG Card, whatever they all are. It’s literally that. It’s from the perspective of the dog as it goes about all these different people. The trailer sold Harrison Ford as the Gable character, but he’s not really in it all that much. It’s a very weird film. Even weirder because THEY DIDN’T PUT A REAL DOG IN IT. Harrison Ford was acting by a guy in a mo-cap suit pretending to be a dog. Which is just insane. It is watchable, I’ll give it that much. BARELY watchable, but watchable. Still, I just did not want another dog movie and this was really something… I’m not gonna say I was looking forward to it, but I at least had hopes that it would be fine, and it was not fine, and that disappointed me a lot.
Coda — * * * (3 stars)
I saw it because it’s Patrick Stewart. Katie Holmes is fine, but I saw it for Stewart. And it’s not a great movie, but maybe it’s because it’s the beginning of the year and I’m more likely to tolerate stuff like this or maybe I just caught it on a good day, but I was fine with it. There’s not really much here. Aging pianist befriends a younger journalist. If it came out in another month, chances are it might have only gone 2.5 stars, but here, we got 3.
Coffee and Kareem — * * * (3 stars)
I was fully ready to hate this movie. Bland, generic studio comedy starring Ed Helms. The director did Goon, which I liked, and Stuber, which I did not particularly care for in either direction. And as it started off I thought, “Ugh, it’s gonna be one of those, isn’t it?” But the minute the child showed up on screen, the movie got better. Children cursing is usually funny, but the way this kid does it, it’s really funny. And the plot actually held my attention and was kinda fun, even if it was really obvious all the way through. But you don’t go into a movie like this for the plot, you go into it to laugh. Which I did. So I was actually quite fine with this. Would not have guessed that at the beginning of the year, but here we are.
Color Out of Space — * * * (3 stars)
I was sold a bill of goods on this. It played a festival I always go to and unfortunately I missed that particular date, so all I heard was that it was crazy Nic Cage and that it’s this batshit movie — and that’s how Mandy was sold. Usually no one talks about these VOD Cage movies, so I got excited. I didn’t think it would be amazing, but I had hope that it would be at least sorta nuts. And turns out… nope. Just real dark horror. It’s Lovecraft, and it’s not even remotely uplifting in any way. Just, meteor lands, and it starts fucking with this family, and bad shit happens, to the point where eventually everyone dies. Not sure who this is for except hardcore sci fi people. I love Cage, and this to me barely rises above the crop of ‘insignificant VOD fare’. And that’s only because at least weird shit happens like mutant bugs and people being fused together. Other than that, I did not care for this movie at all.
Dolittle — * * * (3 stars)
I appreciate Downey doing a Welsh accent because he’s done the British one so often recently, it feels like. Other than that — not a whole lot of positive things to say about this movie. Feels like they got skittish and recut/rewrote too much of it and were trying to bail out the boat before it started sinking. And then it sank. It’s a totally watchable, throwaway family movie. They spent way too much on it and it’s not particularly good. I’m not sure why anyone decided to reshoot the third act to feature them pulling a set of bagpipes out of a dragon’s asshole (that’s not a joke, that’s how it ends), but hey, they did what they did. Now it’s just a giant financial failure and a perfectly fine, yet completely inconsequential movie (as so many of these expensive movies are).
Downhill — * * * (3 stars)
I will start by stating the obvious — just watch Force Majeure. Otherwise, if you have to watch this, it’s fine. It’s not that, and it will never be that. But otherwise, fine. Totally fine. Like all American remakes of foreign films, it’s just okay. You can set a watch to them all turning out the same. Secret in Their Eyes, After the Wedding — they’re all just 3 stars and lack whatever it is that made the foreign versions good. So I guess what I’d say is: watch it all you want. But just know, there is a better version of this movie out there that just requires you to read a little bit more.
Emma — * * * (3 stars)
I wanna say they’ve made this movie a bunch, but they really haven’t. Just the once with Gwyneth in the 90s, and technically Clueless was loosely adapted from it. Otherwise, that’s pretty much it. Still, it was one of those where you heard they were making it and went, “Why?” Like when they remake Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. Both of which, admittedly, were quite good. I just feel like unless someone’s gonna Little Women it like Greta Gerwig did, they’re all just kinda the same. And this feels kinda the same. It’s fine. Anya Taylor-Joy is a star, which we knew, and she’s delightful, and Mia Goth is also quite good, and Bill Nighy is welcome in anything, and the costumes are nice and it looks great… otherwise didn’t care. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise. This is how I feel about almost all of these types of costume dramas based on famous novels.
Escape from Pretoria — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I like prison break movies. This one’s got the apartheid thing going for it, and you have Daniel Radcliffe doing a South African accent. Which, if I’m being honest — he’s a hugely underrated actor. I like that he tries stuff, and somehow he hasn’t gotten to the spot that Pattinson is in (even though he survived that movie they did together). But still, I like watching him in stuff, even if it’s not always great (though it’s almost always watchable, if not solid). This — it’s just a solid movie. Forget the political stuff, you’re watching people break out of a prison. And that’s never not interesting.
Extraction — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Plot-wise, it’s pretty much your standard action-thriller. Hemsworth is good, but he’s always good. This one’s more about his star presence and action skills than charisma. He’s got that ‘haunted, waiting for a bullet on the next mission’ character to work with, so most of the film is based on the fact that it’s been directed by a stunt coordinator, so the action scenes are directed with some nice flourishes. There’s a nice chase, ‘we need to get out of the city’ sequence that is done almost entirely in a single take, which some cool moments like what is either a cameraman jumping into a car window as it backs up or handing the camera to someone who was hiding in the backseat, so the camera seamlessly goes from street to filming in the backseat of the car. That was really nice. It’s like that Atomic Blonde fight in the stairwell but in a small local Bangladeshi village. The action sequences are what you’re staying for. Hemsworth just makes a good central figure to make you want to turn it on in the first place. Overall, I recommend it. It’s probably a 3-star movie, but I went 3.5 just because the action scenes were so entertaining. They kept what could have been a very over-serious tone from permeating the rest of the film.
A Fall from Grace — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Tyler Perry movie. And not even a comedy or Madea movie. Straight Lifetime thriller. I’ve yet to find a film of his that I haven’t been indifferent toward, past a global ‘good for him for becoming fucking rich off them’. And the dramas especially don’t do it for me.
Fantasy Island — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Why? Why is the trend taking famous IP and turning it into horror movies? Just to make the IP relevant again? I don’t get it. This is a shitty horror movie that I didn’t care about, and then somehow by the end, it becomes a prequel to how we got the show? Very odd movie that I just did not care for at all. But boy, does Blumhouse have one of the biggest con jobs in the world going, so good for them.
The Gentlemen — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I love when Guy Ritchie does his own stuff. Sure, this isn’t Snatch, but it’s also not Aladdin, you know what I mean? It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a palate cleanser for him and is just a good time at the movies with cool actors having fun. I love Hugh Grant in particular doing his best 80s Michael Caine impression. I like the flair Ritchie uses to tell stories, and while this isn’t something I’ll go back to like I will some of his other stuff, I’d rather him making movies like this than taking studio gigs that help nothing but his bank account.
Gretel and Hansel — * * * (3 stars)
Why did we need this? What was the point? What did we get out of this story? Siblings go into the woods, a witch takes them in, and she almost kills them. I think there’s supposed to be some metaphor about coming of age and female empowerment, but I honestly didn’t see it. This wasn’t for me, as watchable as it was.
The Grudge — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
These movies aren’t for me. I like that they at least tried some weird Crash but with horror with it, where there’s all these interconnected stories of people getting murdered, but I just don’t like horror. So I leave it alone and more on.
Guns Akimbo — * * * (3 stars)
This was fun. Difficult to watch, because the main character is so unlikable past his situation. Hard to root for a guy who openly is an online troll and says terrible shit just to incite others. But also, dude wakes up with guns bolted to his hands and has to compete in a tournament where he fights to the death with other people. That’s fun. Samara Weaving also adds to her arsenal of performances guaranteed to keep her rolling in money signing at conventions forever if her career doesn’t fully take off. But, it’s just a fun action movie. Nothing more than dumb fun. I enjoy those. So I was fine with this, even if it didn’t rise above anything more than an amusing 90 minutes.
Hope Gap — * * * (3 stars)
There’s always a handful of movies each year that make me go, “Who is this for? What is the purpose of me having watched this?” It feels like something that was maybe more interesting as a novel but doesn’t make the most interesting film. This is Bill Nighy and Annette Bening as a couple. They’ve been married like 25 or more years, something like that. Their kid is out on his own now, an adult. And she’s pretty bossy, and he’s very much passive. And one day she demands to know what he wants, and he goes, “I want a divorce.” And that’s the film. He leaves, and we watch the fallout from that. I’m not really sure what anyone got out of it, but it was watchable I guess, so there’s that.
Horse Girl — * * * (3 stars)
It’s Jeff Baena, who definitely likes offbeat, weird, and maybe a little funny at times. I have a feeling that he finds all his films very funny. Which to me, explains a lot of them. This he co-wrote with Alison Brie, and it’s just a film about her being a very strange person, and ultimately becomes about mental illness. Definitely wasn’t for me. I was fine watching it, but I couldn’t make any inroads to understanding whatever there is to understand there. This style of comedy is, most of the time, not something I relate to. Some do, so good for them. It just doesn’t work for me, though.
Human Capital — * * * (3 stars)
I liked all the people in it… just not sure what the point was. Oren Moverman wrote it, which I guess explains some of it. It feels very much in his wheelhouse of the things he deals with. But basically — we follow Liev Schreiber for a while, and we kind of get invested in his thing, but then out of nowhere we start following Marisa Tomei, and then start following Maya Hawke, and we’re just ping-ponging over these events which are framed around a hit and run of a random dude on a bike that starts the film. And then some of the characters we don’t follow. It’s a strangely put-together film. It has moments of being solid, but doesn’t (human) capitalize on most of them. Oh well. At least the cast is good and they tried hard.
The Hunt — * * * (3 stars)
Well, this was a weird one. So the premise is that liberals, having been fired from their jobs because someone took a joke they made about killing Trump supporters in a ‘most dangerous game’ situation, go and become the people that they were accused of being and capture a bunch of message board trolls who display conservative ideologies and hunt them down for sport? Okay, then. Feels like it’s taking a lot of unnecessary steps to make a point away from what is otherwise a pretty decent premise. People wake up in a field in what they think is one place (but we later find out is another) and are slowly hunted down, Hunger Games style. And it does an interesting thing with bringing in a few famous faces only to kill them instantly and also is kinda smart in how it keeps the action contained and grounded to the situation at hand. No one’s getting rocket launchers and guns and ‘leveling up’ along the way. It all pretty much stays true to the premise while slowly letting out information for the protagonist as we go along. The problem is when the information comes out. The more you learn, the more the movie falls apart. Betty Gilpin is solid in the lead, but otherwise I’m not really sure what the purpose of it is. Are we supposed to not be rooting for the main characters because they might support an ideology we disagree with? The entire political message here is so muddled and unnecessary that it detracts from what could otherwise had been a lean and badass horror-survival movie. But whatever. It’s not like Damon Lindelof is a stranger to criticism for lazy, half-baked writing.
I Still Believe — * * (2 stars)
Religious movie. The usual garbage. Based on some Christian music guy and his dead wife. Didn’t care. Will never care. Honestly should stop watching these at this point, but once in a while we get the ‘Columbine out of nowhere’ movie and it kinda almost makes it worth it.
Imprisoned — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Only watched it for Laurence Fishburne. Wasn’t worth it. Completely uninteresting in every way and not something anyone need ever concern themselves with.
Inherit the Viper — * * * (3 stars)
Thought I might only get 2.5 out of this, but I surprisingly got 3. It’s not great. Very serious. I’m guessing influenced by Ozark, based on what (very, very) little I know about that show. But it’s a family of people in a small town who basically sell the population all the opiates. And everyone hates them because they know they’re responsible for so many people dying from overdoses and such. And it’s about them and their business, trying not to ever get caught. And there’s some gun shit and all that. It’s fine. Nice to see Josh Hartnett doing what feels like almost real work again. I know he didn’t really want that level of fame and chose this life, but still. He’s likable. Would be nice to see him in better stuff than this, even though he could also be doing much worse than this by the same token.
The Invisible Man — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. I think because, like Upgrade was for Leigh Whannell, it was very well-written and directed. It wasn’t just a metaphor for abusive relationships (though he handled that part really well). Mostly I liked how there’s the slow burn of everything and it’s a pure monster movie in that no one believes her for most of it and makes her seem crazy and then eventually it becomes about survival. I also really liked the early stages, when he’d just pan the camera over to another corner of the room or focus on an empty hallway and just let the tension build from those moments. That was good stuff. I’m never gonna call it my favorite movie of the year by any stretch, but considering I thought I wouldn’t care, I thought it was very solid and understand the acclaim. I will probably end up feeling that people ended up praising it way too much (as I often do), but honestly, there’s not much to get excited about this year, so go ahead. Have your fun. Just don’t try to bring this one back up in November come actual awards time. And yeah, yada yada, the restaurant scene. Whatever. It’s been done before. Shocking moments are not new. It’s a good scene, but let’s not pretend he invented sliced bread. He just used a different (red) kind of butter. To me, it’s the tension from those empty frames and long pans that were the real highlight of the direction.
The Jesus Rolls — * * * (3 stars)
Love John Turturro. Love when he directs movies. Romance and Cigarettes is a movie I love just because it’s so unique and fun. His other stuff I appreciate. This — loved the idea. Love that he was adapting Going Places but with that character. Kind of a gimmick, but what the hell. Probably came about 5-10 years too late, to be honest. He parades a bunch of cameos in this, some inconsequential, others a little more fun. Mostly the movie doesn’t really work, but it tries. I appreciated the effort more than I liked the finished product. But, you know, I’d rather watch this than a bunch of other stuff that’s in this article.
The Kindness of Strangers — * * * (3 stars)
This is Lone Scherfig making one of those ‘everything is connected’ kind of ensemble movies. Not like Crash, but like all those other ones. I’m not wracking my brain for them now because it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean. This is one of the New York ones. Or, should I say, Toronto as New York ones. A bunch of people all go through drama and all interact in some way. It has its moments. Zoe Kazan is the best thing in the movie, as she often is in most movies. It has other subplots that I kinda cared about, and I was very interested for stretches of time. But ultimately it felt like the movie had nothing to say and didn’t really get anywhere all that interesting in the big picture sense. So, ultimately I was fine with it, can’t really recommend it, but got through it just fine and think that if you like the actors or love these ensemble dramas, maybe you’ll want to check it out.
The Last Full Measure — * * * (3 stars)
They got a cast on this. And 20 years ago this would have been an almost prestige picture. The late 90s was prime for these kinds of movies. Instead, it looks and feels cheap and it’s like a half a click away from faith-based movie. It’s about a parachute soldier who died in Vietnam during an operation who went in to help a platoon during a bad operation who has been denied a medal for years and years. And his family and those men saved by him petition to get him the medal. And there’s the up-and-comer who gets handed the case as a throwaway but begins to take it seriously — it goes by every number in the book. But, Sebastian Stan, Sam Jackson, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Peter Fonda in his final performance, William Hurt. There’s a cast here. Of course, like most of these movies nowadays, it’s painfully obvious they all worked different days, especially at the end when they’re all meant to be in the same place. But you know, that’s how things work nowadays. It’s watchable but not good. You’re watching it for the cast if you’re watching it at all. And honestly… there’s really not much for the cast to do there, so it’s probably skippable.
The Last Thing He Wanted — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I can see why it got bad reviews. Kind of falls apart as it gets to the third act. But the setup is interesting and it’s well made by Dee Rees. Hathaway is fine, Affleck barely has anything to do, Dafoe is really good (but what else is new). Honestly — 3.5 is probably too high and most people won’t like it, but I thought it was solid enough. I’ll likely never go back to it again, but the one time I thought it was perfectly fine.
Like a Boss — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Nope. Generally not a fan of Miguel Arteta’s stuff, and this was just a bad, broad, generic comedy. Tiffany Haddish does her usual thing, Rose Byrne does her comedy thing, Salma Hayek is over the top — it’s what you’d expect. Not for me, and not for most people, I’m guessing. The same generic studio comedy stuff I’m used to, unfortunately.
The Lodge — * * * (3 stars)
This is kind of like the directors’ previous film (Goodnight Mommy) for me — it looked great and there were some interesting moments, but it didn’t all come together. I just had trouble with the central — what’s the word, without giving too much away — I had trouble with the reality of what was actually happening. I don’t know if this was drama or horror or a psychological thriller or what. But either way, I just wasn’t really engaged with what was happening. It felt drawn out and boring and never really amounted to anything I cared about. And the fact that the situation ended up being what it was, it just made me dislike it all. So, it was fine, and I was fine with it, but I really wish they found a more interesting way to get through this story.
Lost Girls — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I liked this. It’s not all there, but what’s there is solid. It’s about a mother (Amy Ryan) whose older daughter, from whom she’d been sort of estranged (drugs, prostitution), goes missing. And the police don’t seem to care. And ultimately it’s based on a real case from Long Island and is about violence against sex workers and indifference from law enforcement because of discrimination against their profession. It’s solid. I wish Thomasin McKenzie had more to do and maybe it didn’t go as ‘mystery’ as it does (there’s Zodiac type scenes where you almost become convinced the creepy dude who sure seems suspicious had something to do with it, even though in reality they never caught the guy), but overall, it’s solid. Uneven, but solid, and there’s a good message at its heart. I think this is better than a lot of other fare that Netflix puts out.
Lost Transmissions — * * * (3 stars)
Well damn. This is another pure indie. It’ll work for some, not work for others. I’m middle of the road. Juno Temple plays a woman who befriends Simon Pegg. And at first it’s kind of magical. He’s this semi-brilliant music producer who’s got this energy and life about him and brings out the best in others. And then of course she finds out he’s bipolar and has recently gone off his meds. And much of the film is her and his other friends trying to wrangle him as he goes through episodes. And Pegg does a good job with it, as good as the material will allow, but ultimately it just feels like that middle-of-the-road indie that’s neither good nor bad. Like I said, some will like it, some won’t. I came out on, “It’s fine.”
Love Wedding Repeat — * * * (3 stars)
Ensemble Netflix wedding rom com. I’m surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. Maybe it’s the quarantine, maybe it’s actually okay. I thought it was gonna be cheesy, but the characters didn’t feel entirely one-dimensional, the chemistry and dialogue between the leads worked for me, and even the goofy side shit didn’t diminish it. I will say that I think the plot is a little too dependent on people just not saying the truth to one another in a given (many given) moments, but nevertheless I was entertained. Overall, perfectly watchable piece of forgettable streaming fare.
The Main Event — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
I thought maybe I’d get something out of this even though it looked really kiddie. Turns out it was too kiddie for me. Basically just an advertisement for the WWE. Which I guess is fine. They made it. But it does show the far cry from how things were made in other decades versus how they’re made now. It’s funny, because it’s not markedly different from a movie that would have been made in the 80s. But it just feels different. There’s no emotional hook, the editing and pacing is too fast — but you know. That’s filmmaking now. It’s really for 10 year olds, so hopefully they get something out of it.
Misbehaviour — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I quite enjoyed this. It’s not breaking any ground — the tone doesn’t allow it to go that deeply into anything, but at least it’s trying to say something and has a great cast. Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, Suki Waterhouse — I enjoyed it. It’s not gonna affect great change, but it’s an entertaining recreation of an event that most people don’t know about or much remember that reflects upon some issues that are still ongoing in society (sadly).
My Spy — * * * (3 stars)
The ‘action star dealing with cute child’ trope is well-worn. You know what you’re getting, and you know exactly all the markers it’s going to hit. There’s absolutely nothing new here, and it almost feels like every one of these action guys (and wrestlers, for some reason. I feel like at least five or six wrestlers have done this film before) has done one of these. It is what it is. They’re pleasant enough for you to be fine with them, but it’s hard for them to be anything other than mediocre. No surprises here. The little girl is really charming and Bautista is his usual self. And in a year where you can’t really be picky given the situation, I was very okay with this.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always — * * * * (4 stars)
This is the best film that came out in this third of the year. No contest. It’s so good. The director is Eliza Hittman, whose first film (Beach Rats) was well-received out of Sundance but didn’t really resonate with me at all. But this one intrigued me from the start. It’s about a girl in Pennsylvania who finds out she’s pregnant but decides she doesn’t want it. And the film is her journey toward getting that abortion, and the things she (and most women in places like this) have to go through in order to have that done. Most of the film is comprised of a road trip between her and her cousin, taking the bus to New York to have the procedure done. They have almost no money, nowhere to stay, and complications ensue all the way through. It’s just incredible. And sure, like 10% of it is about my feelings about the central issue at hand and how awful it is that the plot needed to be as complicated as it was, but I’ll keep out the social issue portion of it. This isn’t about one’s feelings on abortion, and anyone who tries to make it about that is belittling cinema as an art form and trying to make it about things other than the film at hand. This is just a really good movie. The scene where the film gets its title is the most powerful I’ve seen this year. I remember watching it while standing in front of the TV, pacing back and forth going, “Oh god, oh god,” because it’s just so brutal and heartbreaking. And I love that the film never goes into any of the stuff that’s hinted at during that scene (even if you can make some inferences, which just make it all the more brutal). I really like this movie a lot and think people owe it to themselves to watch it. Because there’s a lot of garbage that comes out in the first quarter of the year, but this feels like the first legitimate contender for being one of the best of the year that’s emerged thus far.
The Night Clerk — * * * (3 stars)
Ehh. It’s fine. Pseudo-sexual (I guess?) thriller about a kid with Asperger’s who is the (insert title here) at a hotel. And he secretly spies on his guests by recording them in their rooms without them knowing and I guess. It’s not clear if he gets off on it or if it’s more of him trying to emulate how other people interact. I don’t know. But, of course he witnesses a murder, and then that sets off a chain of events, because he wasn’t supposed to have been there, and the police are looking into it and he sure seems like a suspect, but then he’s trying to figure out who did it, and then there’s Ana de Armas as the femme fatale who is clearly there for another purpose — it never comes together. But Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt and John Leguizamo are in it. So at least they make it watchable. Otherwise, this is pure B movie schlock, and not even the good kind.
Olympic Dreams — * * * (3 stars)
I love everything about this movie. Alexi Pappas, a former Olympic track star turned filmmaker (whose first film was Tracktown, which was quite good as a first effort she made with her husband), returns in her sophomore film, which is sort of a natural progression for her as a filmmaker. Her first film was largely about her own life, about an aspiring Olympic runner and the grueling training she puts herself through and how she motivates herself and all that. It was nice. This is more of a ‘film’ story. And what I love about it is that they shot it at the actual 2018 Winter Olympics. They just went with the cast (which is basically just her and Nick Kroll) and shot at the actual Olympic village and made this movie around it. And it’s her as an Olympian (skiing, since you can’t do running at the Winter Games) and Nick Kroll as a volunteer dentist who meet and befriend one another and fall in love. It’s really sweet. It’s so unassumingly sweet. It’s hard to dislike this movie. And honestly, the fact that they went and made this movie and shot it at the actual place of the games — I can’t talk up this movie enough. I think everyone should see it and support it. Because this is how movies should be made. There’s not a selfish bone in this movie’s body. This is as pure as cinema gets, and truly this is one of the best pieces of product to have come out this year. Fuck all the big studio stuff. Go support movies like this. This is where the real shit is at.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I love a good rock doc. And The Band is just such an endlessly fascinating entity, because they’re at the nexus of a lot of big names and events of that era, so it’s nice to have something that gets into them. Easy Rider, The Last Waltz, all their stuff with Dylan, you forget just how connected to the culture of the late 60s, early 70s they are. And I love their music, so it’s great to see something that gets into their story and their music and shows just how influential an entity they were/are.
Onward — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Feels like they took it out of the oven too soon. Usually original Pixar makes me feel something or cry. I just… didn’t care about this movie. I get the core story about the loss of a parent and wanting to have had more time with them, and they certainly tried to make that work (and it’s something I’m usually more than willing to be moved by, too). I just didn’t engage with it past, “Yeah, it’s Pixar, it’s well made.” Honestly, can’t believe I’m saying this — felt like it could have been made by someone else. Okay, maybe not most people, and probably just Disney and like, one other studio (I guess DreamWorks), but still. I don’t know. The fantasy aspect felt like a gimmick to spice up the story and sell stuff (“Zootopia worked, let’s try that!”). Much like the father character for the majority of the road trip, it didn’t feel all there. Feels like lower tier Pixar. Aside from sequels, to me the weakest original stuff Pixar’s ever done are A Bug’s Life (just because it’s early and everything else is so damn good), Cars, Good Dinosaur and this. (And I guess if you wanna throw out a fifth to make it even, Brave. But even that’s like, half a good movie.) This isn’t as overtly weak as Good Dinosaur is, but I also don’t think it’s very good. Not by Pixar standards. I’m gonna say the same thing I said with Zootopia — it’s fine, but I think the message is simplistic and doesn’t achieve the emotional catharsis as well as other films with similar themes. But whatever. Love it. It’s fine. I don’t really care enough to say anything negative about it. I’ll leave it to the people who think it’s really good. I’ll go watch Inside Out, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Up and Coco instead.
Ordinary Love — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I really appreciated this one. It’s just a low key drama about regular people and everyday life. Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville are a couple in their 60s who have been married for like 30 years (I don’t know the actual number). They know each other, they understand each other. It’s easy. And they live a simple life. And then one day she gets what might be cancer, and that changes everything. But not really, because they’re still going grocery shopping and talking about the usual stuff, there’s just the worry of this thing over their heads. That’s really it. And I like that about it. It doesn’t do anything huge or cinematic. There aren’t any big speeches or emotional reservations or tearful monologues. It’s just regular people going through life, and I really liked that about it. Sometimes it’s worth making a movie about the shit regular people go through.
The Photograph — * * * (3 stars)
This was really solid. Could have veered a lot more into Nicholas Sparks territory, but it doesn’t. A lot of it works because of the chemistry between Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae. I think it’s a little overserious at times and pushes too hard on the subplot instead of the main romance at hand. But honestly — it’s really well shot and has a lot of charm to it, and it’s not like there are a lot of romances about and featuring people of color, so I’m all for this in every way. Not my favorite movie, but in terms of ‘should exist’, I’d rather this than more than 2/3 of the shit that did get made this year already.
The Quarry — * * * (3 stars)
Solid little drama. Shea Whigham is a drifter who murders a man and takes his place, which happens to be as the new preacher in a small town. Michael Shannon is the local police detective who slowly start to suspect that something isn’t right. It’s pretty good. Not gonna blow you away, but you could do a lot worse for 100 minutes.
Resistance — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Okay, so I had no idea what this really was. I knew the title and I knew it was Holocaust, so I figured it would be one of those Defiance type movies. First Ed Harris shows up as Patton, which, wasn’t expecting. I mean, yeah, it’s a cameo and he clearly did one day of filming, because he’s in one scene broken up at the very beginning and the very end, but still. Then Jesse Eisenberg showed up and started doing a mime act, and then his father called him Marcel. And I went, “Wait, WHAT?” Because it’s about fucking MARCEL MARCEAU. It’s a biopic of Marcel Marceau helping the French resistance in World War II. Which actually happened. I actually had to pause the movie for like nine hours before I went back to it just to mentally prepare myself for that being the story. Which — I did really like it. It’s a solid movie. I generally find it hard with these war (especially World War II) period pieces to truly care, but I did quite enjoy this one.
The Rhythm Section — * * * (3 stars)
We all were subjected to that trailer for what felt like six months. I saw this in front of like, every movie I saw between October and December, which — that’s my prime movie-going period, so I was inundated with this one. And it didn’t look too good. It felt like barely passable January action. And guess what? That’s what it was. It was way too serious and didn’t really get into anything too interesting. That’s two movies now for the director where I went, “This looks nice, but it’s too serious and there’s not enough for me to care about whatsoever.” In the end, it felt like a waste of resources. Watchable, but unnecessary.
The Roads Not Taken — * * * (3 stars)
Boy, was this a slog. It’s just a slow, dramatic movie with no real upside about Javier Bardem having dementia. And Elle Fanning is his daughter, trying to care for him. I’m not sure what the point of this was. There was really nothing for me here at all.
Run This Town — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Appreciated the story, not sure I liked how they told it. It’s trying to be a slick, Sorkin/fast-paced dialogue/witty kind of political journalist thing. However, it’s clear this is a first feature from a young writer who thinks he’s hot shit. The movie is about the staff of Toronto mayor Rob Ford (during that whole crack-smoking scandal from this past decade) and the journalist who stumbles upon it. Now, the problem for me (aside from the fact that you can hear the writer’s smug self-satisfaction with every turn of phrase) is that the main character is utterly unlikable. You know all those people who shit on the idea of what they think millennials are? He’s that guy. Just out of journalism school and thinks he deserves a big story and should be doing all this ‘real’ work. And of course he just fucks it up entirely along the way and looks like an asshole. Which is odd, because they set him up like a smart, sarcastic, capable kind of character. Btu then he just looks like a buffoon for 80% of the movie. Very odd way to structure that one. And mostly, while there are parts I really enjoyed (Mena Massoud as Ford’s right hand man in particular), I’m really not sure what the point of it all was. “Hey, this happened, and here’s this young idiot who fucked it up, and here’s some of the people affected by it.” Mostly it just feels like a filmmaker saying, “Look at me, give me work.” And honestly, fine with that. It was engaging and felt generally well made. Not gonna go much further than that, though.
Saint Frances — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Truly loved this movie. One of my favorites of the year so far. I saw this on a whim, too. They dumped it on VOD early and I thought, “Okay, sure.” And I’m so glad I did. It’s co-written by the star, Kelly O’Sullivan, who clearly based it on her own experiences in some form or other. It’s about a woman who wanted to be a writer but is now mid-30s and working as a nanny, while her sister and all these people around her are getting married and having kids. And she ends up getting pregnant from a one night stand (or I guess casual hookup), but decides to abort it (coincidentally the second of my favorite films from the year where abortion is a major plot point. Or actually, third I guess). And the film is her going through that process while also bonding with the little girl she’s nannying for. It’s a really strong film, and I like that she wrote a part for herself. It’s a really strong piece of work. It doesn’t feel like an indie even though it very much is one. This is the kind of movie that we should all be seeing and championing. It’s great. O’Sullivan is fantastic and gives one of the best performances you’ll see in this third of the year, and I just can’t say enough about this as a film.
Selah and the Spades — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Feel however you want about the film, but the one takeaway that everyone should have from this is that Tayarisha Poe has a really bright future as a director. The film is about the social hierarchy at a Pennsylvania boarding school. Each student is in a clique, and each has their own thing that they do, and all of this happens completely under the noses of the administration. And that — is very heightened. But, you get the sense that Poe is completely in command of that story and is telling exactly the story she wants to tell. So even if I wasn’t totally invested in it, I took comfort in knowing that I was in good hands regardless. I was impressed with the film as an effort more than I was entertained by it. I think it’s worth seeing, and I think it shows an exciting new voice that hopefully should be giving us more cool stuff in the future, which is way better than seeing some generic garbage that they throw out that no one will remember in six months.
Sergio — * * * (3 stars)
Oh, I bet everyone’s lining up to watch a biopic of a U.N diplomat, right? This is the double whammy of stuff that tends to bore me on screen — stuff about the Iraq War (especially on the bureaucratic side of things) — and films about bureaucrats. Which, I’ve seen enough stuff to know that it’s a thing. It’s rare, but it’s a thing. I just did not care about any of this, even though they definitely cared about the film they were making. So I’ll give them that. But it just wasn’t for me at all.
Sonic the Hedgehog — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Loved Sonic when I grew up, had no expectations for this to even be watchable. I suspect that if I were in the 10-15 range, I probably would have been okay with this, but honestly… I didn’t get much out of this. Sonic at least wasn’t creepy looking like the original design was, and there were sort of charming family elements to him, but by and large it was just dumb stuff with humor that would really only appeal to the 8 and under crowd. That’s just not me anymore. And it didn’t even get me with the Sonic stuff. It just felt dumb and pointless. But they made money, so good for them. Maybe if they make another one it might be watchable.
Sorry We Missed You — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Ken Loach movie. So you’re getting blue collar people going through awful shit and a series of bad things happening to them with no real silver lining at the end of it. And guess what? More of the same. It’s about a guy who gets a job essentially as an Amazon delivery worker, only he’s a contractor, so he’s renting shit from the company and has to drive for crazy long hours just to pay everything back and get money. And of course any excuse for them to take money away from him and dock him penalties, they take. Which of course wreaks hell on his family. It’s like all Ken Loach films, really solid but depressing as hell. You know what you’re getting with him.
Spenser Confidential — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This rating is purely an early year rating. I like dumb, fun movies like this. It’s not good at all. To the point where it’s clear how much it was edited to even make it sort of coherent. But honestly, fine with it. Wahlberg is doing his Wahlberg thing, you get Alan Arkin, who is always welcome, Bokeem Woodbine is always nice to see, and Winston Duke is fun too. It’s got cool people and it’s entertaining enough, plus I gave it the half-point for just enjoying these kinds of movies. The rating isn’t really to recommend it to people but just that I get more out of these than most people do. It’s definitely one of the weaker Wahlberg/Pete Berg collaborations (though nothing’s as bad as Mile 22 was).
Standing Up, Falling Down — * * * (3 stars)
Strange one, but I do like when Billy Crystal does movies. What’s the last thing you remember seeing him in on screen? That movie with him and Bette Midler as grandparents? (Update: Looked it up. That was 2012. He was in two movies since then, not including this. One was The Comedian, as himself, which doesn’t count, and the other is Untogether, which I’m pretty sure almost no one but me even saw, where he plays a rabbi.) He never did all that much, but it’s always a treat when I do get to see him on screen, because he’s just wonderful. Anyway, this is a movie starring Ben Schwartz as a comedian who went to LA to make it big, but of course never did and now has to move back in with his parents in his small town. And of course, he’s miserable, and he has to see his ex (who he broke up with to go hit it big, who is now married. And neither are over one another) everywhere, and doesn’t want to get stuck working with his father at a blue collar job — you know that movie. But the joy is seeing Crystal, who plays a dermatologist who is also just a raging alcoholic. And he just completely livens up what is otherwise your typical Sundance indie with the same plot points you’ve seen a dozen times. The scenes with Crystal are the highlight of the film, and there’s some real dark shit the film gets into with his character. The general idea is that he’s just naturally funny and teaches Schwartz to start putting more of himself into his act, and yada yada yada, you get it. But truly, the backstory to Crystal’s character is just nuts. And it’s almost deserving of a better movie, because there really is good dramatic shit there. But on the other hand, we’d rather he be funny. Though still, the dramatic stuff is also really nice. While it’s not a great movie, I do appreciate part of what they did here and think it might be worth seeing for people. Of course, I say that knowing that no one ever watches anything (because I recommend a lot of movies, and no one ever comes back and says they watched anything more than like, the top 1% of stuff that people should be watching), but you know, it’s not a bad option if you want something interesting to chew on. I think it’s an interesting misfire, and you can often learn and gain more from those than you can from most straight up good or bad movies.
Stargirl — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I liked this so much more than I ever thought possible. Somehow, from the title, I thought maybe it was a child superhero thing. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. This has to be based on a YA novel, but it’s younger YA. Middle school YA, not high school. So we don’t have to deal with people with cancer or depression meeting and falling in love and all that stuff. This is just about a social outcast boy who befriends a new girl at school who goes by the name Stargirl and is just very much her own being. At first people think she’s a bit weird, but then her ‘magic’ begins to infect everyone and she becomes a bit of a celebrity. And then he and her start this cute relationship, and it becomes a story about first love and coming into your own. It’s really sweet and the message there is really nice. It also gets a little more serious than maybe I’d have expected out of a movie like this. All her cute ‘pixie dream girl’ gestures don’t always work, and even she learns the harsh realities of life. And I like that. I like movies with kids this age learning hard truths and dealing with emotional pain that helps them learn and grow. It’s nice. I quite enjoyed this movie, and for every school musical number there’s another sweet scene that more than made up for it.
Swallow — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Well this is a fucking weird one. But I guarantee you won’t see more than one or two movies more unique and memorable than this one during this section of the year. Holy shit. Haley Bennett (aka ‘discount Jennifer Lawrence’. Sorry, I know that’s mean, but they do look insanely alike) plays a housewife to a rich businessman who is set to take over the family company. And she’s the trophy wife, meant to cook and clean and tend house and have the babies. And you watch the film and see that maybe something is a little off, but can’t quite be sure what. And then, over the course of the film, she begins developing an obsession with swallowing various objects. A marble, batteries, thumbtacks. The objects begin to get bigger and more dangerous as time goes on. And of course, after one trip to the hospital, it becomes a concern for the husband and his family, so they start monitoring her and try to stop her, and eventually it just grows and grows and gets worse. And — well… it goes to an interesting place by the end. Personal favorite moment involves a motel and dirt. But — it’s very well shot. Immaculate to look at. And Bennett is very good. Plus it’s just so weird and offbeat and tonally very well done (because it’s unsettling without veering too much in any direction). I’m a fan of this one. That Carey Mulligan movie was supposed to have come out around now, and I feel like that’s a spiritual sibling to this one in a lot of ways. But, until we can get that one, this will suffice for films of this sub-genre or whatever it is of very dark — can this be considered a comedy? I have no idea — movies that subvert the notion of ‘women’s issues’, or just a woman’s body and place in the world. It’s worth a watch, for sure.
Three Christs — * * * (3 stars)
Fascinating movie. Based on a real psychiatrist who studied paranoid schizophrenics who had three separate patients who each believed they were Jesus Christ. So what he did was put them all in the same room to see how that played out, and eventually achieved major inroads to helping each of them through these sessions. Richard Gere stars as the psychiatrist (and I really like his choices in these solid indies that unfortunately no one sees), and the three patients are played by Peter Dinklage, Walt Goggins and Bradley Whitford. All three are quite good. I had some issues with how the film does the movie thing of making the head doctor the villain of the piece because he’s envious and feels excluded and doesn’t like Gere’s methods, but a lot of it is well done. I almost got 3.5 out of this. Ultimately I don’t think it got there, but I do think it’s a very solid, if uneven movie.
Tigertail — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I really loved this film as an idea, and wish it had been executed better. Part of me thinks this is a guy going, “I wonder what my father’s life was like. I bet it was like in the Mood for Love.” But also part of me thinks that I only think that because the film gave me tantalizingly little of that section of the film. I feel like the proper version of this movie is at least an hour longer, has much more about the father’s life in Taiwan, shows you just what the romance meant to him and what his ultimate choice meant to him, and just put more meat on the bones. I’m not surprised to find out that the writer-director is a TV comedy writer, and it feels like he streamlined his story to fit for a certain time slot rather than letting the story be what it should be. This is a film about a certain type of immigrant experience, and that of the children of those immigrants. I bet the exact kind of relationship depicted in this film is very common among children of immigrants, where the parents don’t ever fully tell the children what they experienced growing up or open up to them about their feelings and desires. And I just feel like there was a chance at this film to hit at something universal if they just went further with it. Because I want to know more, and I wanted to see more. And instead it felt like an outline to something longer. So, while it was a solid film, it feels like I’d feel about a really well-executed short film… now give me the feature version of this story.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I’ll always gravitate toward movies like this. Sure, it’s a kids movie. But it is from the director of Spotlight (and technically his followup to it), who does make it more solid than maybe it would have been with someone else at the help. It’s about a strange boy (some sort of autistic, as is the affliction du jour in movies nowadays) who has his own ‘detective’ agency. And it’s his way of relating to the world. His ‘partner’ is an imaginary polar bear, and he turns the world into cases he needs to solve. It’s cute. There’s a lot of great fantasy sequences with him imagining how things will play out, and it’s just good, clean fun. A lot of people won’t care for it, I know. But I liked it. I’ve got absolutely no problem with this movie whatsoever.
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You — * * * (3 stars)
The first one was a really charming surprise. This one was kinda charming, but it lost the element of surprise, and seemingly lost the plot too. The premise was really good the first time. Now, it’s basically just the same as all these other movies — will she pick this dude or that dude? Problem is, I don’t care. Also, hilarious how these movies go from, “Oh my god I can never get a date,” to, “Wow, the two hottest guys in the school want to date me! What shall I do?!” But it is what it is. I get it. At least it has some of the charm of the first one, so I’m fine with it, even if I have lost most of the interest I had in this series.
To the Stars — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was a beautiful coming-of-age story. I love that it was set in 60s Oklahoma, which is not something you see all the time. And it’s just a wonderful story of female friendship and coming into your own and finding your way in the world. Liana Liberato and Kara Hayward are both really great here, and it just has a really sweet message behind it. I love the little things that get revealed along the way (and the things that get revealed through absence of characters), and I really liked the direction and shot choices made by Martha Stephens. I just enjoyed this so much more than if there had been some sort of superhero or mainstream action movie in its place, and I’m so happy that in this year of all years that this has as much of a chance to potentially get seen as most other stuff. This was one of my favorite films of this third of the year, and I recommend that everyone go see it if they can.
Trolls World Tour — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
I barely got through the first one, but at least that had some nice original songs in there, even if it’s basically just an advertisement to sell toys. But this one is just an orgy of pop music. They just take fifteen second snippets of famous songs for kids to groove along to. It might as well be a Kidz Bop album. There’s really no point to this at all, and they’re just selling merchandise. So I’m leaving it to whoever the hell this is for, because it sure as hell isn’t for me.
Troop Zero — * * * (3 stars)
I enjoyed this. Granted, I know it’s not great, and some of the stuff (particularly in the third act) is really on the nose. But, I have a higher tolerance to early year stuff and am more willing to be lenient in January because I know how slim the pickings are. So, I was fine with it. Mckenna Grace is really good here. She’s the go-to young version of like, every big female character, but here, she creates a really likable character that feels like a real acting job and not just a ‘child performance’ kinda role. Honestly, I’d recommend the movie just for what she does in it.
The True History of the Kelly Gang — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Films about Ned Kelly have been made before. What makes this one stand out is that it doesn’t give a fuck about the facts. It purports that none of it is true and then begins with its main character writing a letter and saying, “Every word of this is 100% true.” Which is a perfect way to start the film, because now we’re not tethered to the facts. And it then does what it wants. You get fun extended cameos from people like Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe, but really what you get is some stunning visuals from Justin Kurzel. Kurzel burst onto the scene with the Michael Fassbender Macbeth a few years ago, which was gorgeous. And then Assassin’s Creed was a misstep, but he did what he could. Here, he returns to the type of tier he knows, and he really shoots the hell out of this film. There’s a shootout at the end of this film that is so beautiful to look at. It’s also brutal, because it’s realistic and there’s blood everywhere, but — just watch what he does with it. It’s so much more interesting than if he told the story in a straightforward way. It’s a real solid effort. Never gonna be remembered, never gonna be shouted out as one of the best of the year, but currently one of the most beautiful-looking films you’ll see all year.
The Turning — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Based on “The Turning of the Screw,” a novella where not much happens. and guess what? Not much happens here. It’s just a waste of Mackenzie Davis. And Brooklynn Prince from Florida Project. And the kid, the Stranger Things kid whose in like everything now. There’s just no point to this movie. The horror’s not there, the story’s not there. I don’t know who this was for or why it was made. So I just leave it alone and more on.
Uncorked — * * * (3 stars)
I liked this way more than I thought I was gonna. At this point I don’t even watch trailers for the Netflix stuff and go in cold for most of it. And stuff like this, I almost never actually know what it’s about past maybe a synopsis I remember or seeing a still they release two weeks earlier. Things like that. I figured this would be about wine in some way, but for some reason I was expecting some bad comedy. But it’s not. It’s about a guy (Mamoudou Athie, who is quite a good up and coming actor) who is born into a barbecue restaurant but dreams of becoming a sommelier. And it’s just him trying to balance both of those as well as a new relationship. It’s quite solid. While it takes a turn or two that might feel a bit obvious for a story like this (not too badly, either, I’ll add), I think it finds a subject matter that is interesting, and even though I could care less about wine past red or white and a broad taste, I found myself enjoying scenes of him tasting stuff and being able to tell everything about it. Netflix has a lot of crap out there, and it’s got a lot of really great stuff. This is in that mid-range, where some people will like it, some people won’t care, but it’s also good enough that I’d say it’s worth a shot, as opposed to some of the other crap they throw out there on a weekly basis.
Underwater — * * * (3 stars)
Honestly, I appreciate that it was as straightforward as it was. The premise is — people in an undersea base deal with impending disaster, and we realize there’s some giant sea creatures down there that are the cause of everything and gonna kill them. So it’s like Deep Blue Sea but with underwater Godzilla instead of sharks. I like that it wastes no time getting into it. Literally starts with Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth and then the big seism happening that propels the plot in motion. I like that it sets up semi-recognizable actors in the beginning only to kill them early. I like that it’s just them trying to survive and the monsters don’t really show up until the latter third/half of the film. There’s a lot I appreciated about the construction of this as a disaster/survival movie. However… kinda too serious, kinda boring, and just not enough going on to keep me fully engaged. It felt like an elevated by-the-numbers movie. They took care to not go down a lot of the pitfalls of a movie like this, but still kinda left out the ‘make it interesting and make characters we care about’ part. But, it’s watchable. So that’s nice.
VHYes — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
LOVED this. The premise is — the whole movie takes place on a VHS tape from, I think, 1989. Basically, a young kid gets a camcorder for his birthday and starts recording tapes. And we figure out pretty immediately that he’s currently (accidentally) taping over his parents’ wedding video. And at first it’s him filming himself and his friend and his parents, but then he and his friend start recording late night TV, so a lot of the movie is just recreations of what TV was like during that late 80s, early 90s time period. And it’s just spot on. Of course, it’s exaggerated for effect, but it feels a lot like what TV felt like during those years. And I just loved everything about this movie. From the weird late night infomercials to weird commercials to cheesy shows to porn — this movie was just a straight line to all the weird shit that was TV in my youth. Plus, recording things on VHS tapes — that was my life. I enjoyed the hell out of this one and it’s just such an ingenious premise. Highly recommend this one.
Vivarium — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is straight Kafka. Pure psychological horror. Couple goes house hunting, goes to look at a new development with some weird realtor (and when you see him, you kinda get what the deal is, but I digress), and then gets stuck there. That’s pretty much it. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are both really good and the film is well made. It’s solid, even if it kinda loses me a little past the midway point. Not to say I disliked it, I just lost interest in what was otherwise a set up I enjoyed.
The Wave — * * * (3 stars)
I watched it because I heard it was about a dude on a crazy drug trip and the visuals looked like they might be good. It’s a madcap kind of comedy, where he’s running around and trying to figure out what happened the night before. And, turns out, it’s a bit more meta and philosophical than I thought/wanted it to be. Kinda hard for me to love it when it ends the way it does, and I’m not really sure what it is I was supposed to get out of the whole thing. But sure, it’s fine.
The Way Back — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Gavin O’Connor certainly knows his way around a sports movie, with Miracle and Warrior under his belt already. This feels like it nestles solidly in between the two, tonally. Miracle is very Disney, uplifting, great moment-y, while Warrior is very serious, dramatic, men who need this putting it all on the line, brother vs. brother. This is kind of — a little dark, alcoholic becomes basketball coach, looking for redemption. So there’s the ability of there being an uplifting moment there, but it’s certainly also not Hoosiers. I liked it well enough. Affleck is solid, and I like that it doesn’t do anything too ‘movie’ — he doesn’t stop being a drunk after a talking-to or for the big game, and the team doesn’t suddenly become unbeatable and go from 0-10 to winning the championship. It’s realistic. Life doesn’t always work out, but we take steps to assure that maybe it’ll be okay. So I liked that part of it. Otherwise, it’s just fine. Just a solid movie with decent enough entertainment to be gleamed from it.
Wendy — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This feels like a situation where, the first time Zeitlin made a movie with this energy and milieu, it felt fresh and amazing. And now, the second time (especially now eight years later), it feels like, “Yeah, we get it. You’ve done that already.” At least that’s the vibe I’m getting from the reaction to this movie. It’s literally just Beasts of the Southern Wild but with the story of Peter Pan. That’s what it is. And I’m not sure if it doesn’t fully work because it’s the same thing again and the same thing barely worked the first time because of the unique setting, or because of the actors, or just doesn’t fully work because it’s Peter Pan. I don’t know. I liked this. I like the ‘kids making a movie’ energy to it, and the score, which Zeitlin co-writes like he did last time, but the film itself didn’t fill me with the joy that Beasts of the Southern Wild did. So I don’t know. It’s solid, but I would like to see maybe a little something different, especially now that it took all this time to basically get the same movie again.
The Willoughbys — * * * (3 stars)
It’s fine. Perfectly affable animated family fare. Animation looked solid, I just didn’t care all that much about the story, as I often don’t about these things. No reflection on the film whatsoever, just my usual reaction to most animation. I wish I cared more about this film, but I didn’t.
Young Ahmed — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
The Dardennes’ style is always interesting, but always feels limited. They create this handheld, indie atmosphere where you immediately buy and are invested in the realism of the project, but always feel like you want more characterization and screen time invested in more fully developing the people and their beliefs and lives. Here, they create an interesting portrait of a young French Muslim boy whose views are radicalized by an imam who deliberately misreads and obscures part of the Quran’s teachings. It’s almost the modern indie version of Jojo Rabbit (minus the imaginary friend). And while it’s really interesting to see, you do wish there were more. You wish you saw the struggle within the boy and more of his thought process rather than just the reflection of what he’s been taught (which you don’t really see but just sort of take at face value because you understand what it is). Overall, it’s as solid as most Dardennes films. You pretty much know what you’re getting with them.
Films I’ve Yet to See
- First Cow
- Dangerous Lies
Favorite Films So Far
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- Bad Education
- Beastie Boys Story
- Saint Frances
- The Assistant
- To the Stars
- The Gentlemen
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
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