2020: The Year in Reviews (Part II)

Every year at this time, everyone’s coming off summer and has all these $200 million movies they say are the ‘greatest thing ever’, and I’m always like, “But there hasn’t really been anything that good out,” waiting for the last three months of the year when all the really great stuff comes out. So I was prepared for this. How are the rest of you feeling?

One thing I’m finding with this year is that now that there isn’t a premium on seeing movies and things are either going PVOD, regular VOD or being pushed altogether, I haven’t been in a rush to see things like I normally am (is anyone else even watching stuff? Because it doesn’t feel that way). This year just feels so… inconsequential. There’s been so little I’ve gotten excited about. And also, just so little. I watched less than 100 movies during these past four months and still managed to see 98% of everything that came out. Which is insane. This whole year is insane.

Anywho, here are reviews for everything that’s come out this third of the year (plus a few leftover from the first third):

7500 — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Single location thriller that takes place in near real time. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an airline pilot living in Berlin with his stewardess girlfriend. He’s about to fly a standard commuter flight — usual fare, nothing crazy — when some people attempt to rush the cockpit. He knocks one unconscious and ties him up while the other two keep trying to get in and start taking hostages. The plane has just gotten in the air and is only about 20 minutes from landing, but we basically watch as this all unfolds in real time as he has to try to figure out how to keep people from dying but not letting the hijackers inside the cockpit. It’s nice and tense. Nothing too crazy, which means you’re only gonna get so much out of it, but I like that it’s perfectly tense, doesn’t do too much and doesn’t try to make the situation any larger than it is. You get what you get in the moment and there’s no excess fat. No twenty minutes in the airport for side stories, no cop subplot, and the movie ends the minute they leave the plane. That’s it. That’s all you get. And that, to me, was worth the extra half-star. It was a perfectly solid thriller that did exactly what it needed to.

All Day and a Night — * * * (3 stars)

Netflix movie starring the kid who played Chiron in the middle section of Moonlight that shows him as an aspiring rapper in a bad neighborhood getting involved with the wrong people and being put in jail for a double homicide. And the film traces his environment and how he ended up where he is, while also showing you his relationship with his father, a violent drug dealer who is currently now in prison with him. It’s fine. Looks nice, otherwise pretty standard stuff. I didn’t get too much out of it, though it’s perfectly watchable. It’s also directed by the co-writer of Black Panther, if that means anything to people.

All Together Now — * * * (3 stars)

It’s YA, but it doesn’t feel like YA. It almost breaches the gap into full coming-of-age drama. I guess that’s Brett Haley, whose made a career on interesting little character pieces, like I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero and Hearts Beat Loud. This stars Auli’i Cravalho, best known as the voice of Moana, as a high schooler with dreams of going to Carnegie Mellon’s arts program, has music talents, volunteers, etc, but also is homeless and sleeps with her mother in a parked school bus overnight. Cravalho is really charming in it and the film really only dips its toe into the typical YA stuff (thank god) and instead focuses on the all the right elements of the story. I had a mind to go 3.5 on this. It’s a really solid movie. Definitely one of the better Netflix movies to come out this year, and for sure the better of Haley’s two to come out this year.

An American Pickle — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

I loved this based purely on the premise — guy gets preserved in pickle brine for 100 years and comes back in modern day Brooklyn. Which amazing. And the fact that he’s a Jew from the old country who came over and is now in hipster Brooklyn — perfect. Seth Rogen playing dual roles — even more perfect. The whole ‘starting a pickle business’ thing is fantastic. The feud with his great grandson felt a little forced, but sure. And the jokes about hipsters also felt a bit simplistic (apparently this is what everyone in Brooklyn is like). But then the whole thing went so over the top that you had to admire it. Overall the film has a lot of charm and there’s some really terrific moments in it. It’s fun. That’s all you need.

Arkansas — * * * (3 stars)

Crime thriller written by Clark Duke, who you’ll recognize from stuff like Kick-Ass and Hot Tub Time Machine. It reeks of ‘first screenplay by an actor’ and is one of those movies you write when you really like stuff like Pulp Fiction and want to make something like that. It’s not tonally that movie, but it’s inspired by those kinds of movies. He gets a solid cast — John Malkovich shows up for a bit, Michael K. Williams shows up for a bit, Vince Vaughn is there — he and Liam Hemsworth star. It’s perfectly watchable and the actors get you through. The plot isn’t all there, but it’s capable and watchable. I’m more likely to give stuff like this a pass and enjoy it, so I think it’s perfectly watchable, especially with the cast it has. I suspect most people wouldn’t give a shit, though.

Artemis Fowl — * * * (3 stars)

The only reason I was curious about this was because Kenneth Branagh directed it. I’m still not entirely sure why Kenneth Branagh directed it, but he did. He seems to like doing things across genres. Sometimes it works, others it doesn’t. This one not so much. It’s based on a kids book series, and I can see where there maybe was the idea for a better movie in this, but I don’t know where it went wrong. It’s watchable, but it’s not great. There are famous actors, but the movie is cut far too much, the pacing is too frenetic and we really don’t ever get the sense of a plot. The villain is never properly introduced and just kind of is there and foiled out of nowhere. It feels like a movie they didn’t like and cut up to try to maximize it. You see that a lot. The Greatest Showman was that way. You know there was more there and they cut the shit out of it just to try to salvage it. It generally worked there for people, largely because the songs were good. Here, it just feels like a mess of a movie where things happen but you’re never particularly sure why or what their purpose is. It’s not a good movie, but ultimately I was fine with it, just because at a certain budget level it’s always gonna be a certain amount of watchable, no matter how not-good it is. So, not good, very much a disaster they tried to salvage, but if you watch as many movies as I do, this one’s perfectly fine in a throwaway kinda way.

Babyteeth — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

I didn’t know what I was getting with this. This is Australian Fault in Our Stars, but it’s not sugary, teen bullshit. This is the punk rock version of that story. It stars Eliza Scanlen, who I was aware of beforehand, since people raved about her on Sharp Objects (which I never saw), and saw her as Beth in Little Women, which is kind of the thankless role of the sisters. But I knew people were excited about her as an up and coming actress. And within 20 minutes of this movie, I knew why. She’s incredible in this movie. She plays a girl with cancer who, while she’s been generally in stable condition, seems like she lives in a state of ‘when, not if’. And the film is about her meeting an older (she’s 15-16, he’s 23) drug dealer — basically the exact wrong guy you’d ever want to bring home to your parents — and falling in love with him. Her mother (played by Essie Davis, from Babadook) is all strung out on all sorts of pills most of the time while her father (Ben Mendelsohn) is a detached psychiatrist prescribing them to her, and always feels on the verge of an affair. It’s a really nice tenuous family relationship, but never one that goes full ‘indie movie’. Which I really like. And I like that this is about a girl who’s like, “Look, I’m dying, so fuck it, I wanna live first.” And I really like that about it. Scanlen is so incredible here. It’s clear she’s going to be a star one of these days. And I just like how the film never fully goes where you expect it to go (past the obvious, but even that’s handled well). It’s incredibly well-directed. Shannon Murphy really sets a proper tone and maintains a level of playfulness that I really appreciated. She’s someone who I’m excited to see what she does going forward. I’m a big, big fan of this and think this is for sure one movie from this year everyone needs to see.

Bill & Ted Face the Music — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

This was really fun. They found a way to maintain the dumb charm of the original films and continue it in a way that feels organic. It’s not too long, brings back all the main actors from the original films without making it feel like a parade of references and overall it’s just got a lot of heart to it. I found myself laughing pretty openly toward the end of the film. That, to me, is the sign of a successful movie. It was just a good time, didn’t take itself too seriously and continued the tradition (whatever that is) of these movies. It’s a great sendoff to these characters.

The Binge — * * * (3 stars)

The sister concept to/parody of The Purge (Binge + Purge… get it?), where drugs and alcohol are illegal except for one day a year. And it’s about a bunch of high school kids about to participate in their first Binge. It’s fun. Nothing particularly outstanding, over the top at times, has a fair amount of charm other times. And it has Vince Vaughn. It’s a mixed bag. Some good stuff, some bad stuff, overall watchable. Props to them for a full o

Burden — * * * (3 stars)

This was on the shelf for almost two years and its release felt kinda like a mercy dump. It’s about the son of the KKK who falls in love with a woman who urges him to get away from all the violence and racism. And so he ends up seeking help with the local black pastor, which puts him at odds with his family and friends, etc. You know the idea. The Klansman who’s secretly a good guy because he had a black friend and has redemptive qualities. It’s pretty by-the-numbers all around. Nothing too great here, even though there’s some good actors in it. There’s not much here. Long, slow, not much of value in the end. Stuff you’ve seen before. I feel like there’s better uses of your time, even if it’s a perfectly adequate movie.

Capone — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Ah yes, the Tom Hardy Al Capone movie. The idea sounds amazing, just because we’ve seen Tom Hardy dig deep into characters before. And Capone is a fascinating character to play. And when they didn’t release this last year, I got worried. I thought, “Oh, this isn’t a good movie.” Turns out… it’s just too weird to market. Because it’s about Capone’s final years, when he’s under house arrest and losing his mind from syphilis. It’s a very odd kinda movie, with Capone slipping in and out of dementia. But it works because Hardy is so committed to it, voice and posture and the makeup. It’s not a performance that’ll ever win an award, but it is a nice entry in Hardy’s impressive body of work. The film isn’t for everyone, but the performance is great.

Castle in the Ground — * * * (3 stars)

I assumed this was gonna be a horror movie. Doesn’t that just sound like some atmospheric horror movie about a family moving into a palatial country estate that’s got some dark secrets? It’s not that. It’s a movie about opioids and addiction. Alex Wolff (the Hereditary brother, not Nat, who looks just like him) plays a guy dealing with his mother (Neve Campbell)’s terminal illness and trying to keep it all together. When he dies, he ends up going down the cycle of addiction in his grief, added by Imogen Poots, a neighbor and addict. It’s a drama. Kinda slow. Goes into some places that maybe it didn’t need to toward the end. But Poots is always good (especially so here) and Wolff does a good job, even though his character is morose for the majority of the film (kinda like Hereditary). It’s an uneven, but watchable film. Can’t say I’d recommend it to too many people. I’m not really sure who the audience for this film is.

Chemical Hearts — * * * (3 stars)

YA romance. These generally go one of two ways for me. This one ended up on the better side of things, as I found the unorthodox romance more fun than the usual stuff. It’s serious, but it was kinda nice how the first half of the movie is one person completely disinterested in anything. It just felt like a nice movie about people getting to know one another and only really gave me the overly serious YA stuff in the last half hour. It’s nothing particularly special, but I was fine with it. Watchable, is the word for this one. Not great, but watchable.

Da 5 Bloods — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie. I love the ebb and flow of Spike’s career. He’s always been relevant, but sometimes the films haven’t been seen or struck the right chords at the right time. But fortunately BlacKkKlansman really connected with people and now there were a lot of eyes on him for this one. And it’s wonderful. The film is about a black squadron in Vietnam who, Three Kings-style, got a stash of stolen gold and hid it. And after losing their squad leader, they all went their separate ways. Now they return, 50 years later, to get the gold back. Spike does some really interesting things with it, namely making the Vietnam stuff look like old war footage of the era, on 16mm, as well as putting all the older actors in the flashbacks rather than casting young actors to play them. There’s a lot of interesting things he does with it, and it’s a largely successful film. It doesn’t succeed the way BlacKkKlansman does, and unfortunately a lot of people are gonna compare it to that, since this is the first film he’s released since. But it is a very solid film and fits very well among Spike’s other films. He’s one of those directors where, no matter what you think of the results, his films are always vital and always worth the effort to see.

Dangerous Lies — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Shitty Lifetime level Netflix thriller. Woman works as a caretaker to an old man (Elliott Gould, who surely can do better than this) who dies suddenly right around the time she meets a new, great guy. Then it’s revealed that he wrote her a big check before he died and a trunk full of money. So now it seems like there was a motive, and maybe the boyfriend is in on it… you know the deal. It’s not good. If you like these shitty thrillers, be my guest. Otherwise it’s not worth the effort.

Desperados — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Ah yes. This movie. I remember them announcing this like a decade-plus ago. One of those ‘hot’ high concept scripts destined to be mediocre. Add ten years of development hell, countless rewrites and lowering the tier of people involved and this feels like the appropriate result. It’s a heightened comedy, to the point where everything is so over-the-top that it can’t even be construed as funny. The premise is: woman looking to settle down meets a great guy. They start dating and things seem wonderful. Then he disappears for a week and she assumes he ghosted her. So she sends a really nasty email to him… only for him to call and say that he’s in Mexico, got into a car accident and was in a coma for a week (you know, the reason people create when they want to believe that it’s not just ghosting). So now she decides to rush to Mexico to delete the email before he sees it. And it’s supposed to be funny and raunchy, but mostly it’s just bland. Fortunately it’s only a throwaway Netflix movie and fits with the countless other throwaway Netflix movies out there. There’s really nothing of value here and anything resembling a good script or idea was lost long, long ago.

Emperor — * * * (3 stars)

Slavery movie. Looks crisp, looks well made… not really that much there, in the end. Totally fine, heart’s in the right place. The film just isn’t that gripping past being just watchable. Shit happens.

End of Sentence — * * * (3 stars)

Charming enough little drama with John Hawkes as a widower who is traveling to Ireland to scatter his wife’s ashes in the place she asks for while also reconnecting with his son who just got out of prison. So it’s awkward father-son stuff, road trip stuff, meanwhile he’s finding out along the way that his wife really loved another man and just sort of ‘settled’ with him. It’s fine. Perfectly charming in a ‘small risk, small reward’ kinda way. Definitely worth a shot.

Endings, Beginnings — * * * (3 stars)

It’s Drake Doremus, whose claim to fame is Like Crazy and has spent the rest of the past decade making either dramas that really take relationships seriously (Breathe In, Newness) or high concept sci-fi (Equals, Zoe). This is the former. Shailene Woodley is just out of a long-term relationship and is drifting. She doesn’t want to get back into dating, yet somehow finds herself in the middle of dating two guys at once: Sebastian Stan, the roguish, irresponsible bad boy, and Jamie Dornan, the boring, responsible, nice guy. And that’s the film. Her being with both at once and ‘finding’ herself. It’s… it takes itself way too seriously. Not in a pretentious way, but one of those where you watch the characters and go, “Your shit isn’t that big a deal.”  I find characters in movies like this unlikable and unrelatable, and despite liking the actors in it, felt the same way here. I just didn’t really care. It’s well-enough made and I wanted to like it, I just couldn’t find myself caring past ‘sure’. Only watch it if you really go for this sort of thing or really love the actors.

Endless — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

So they took Ghost and then decided, “You know what would make this better? Making it a YA movie.” The movie Ghost is one of those where — it somehow works even though it could (and maybe should, in some ways) be an absolutely terrible movie. It’s like if you gripped five different paint brushes in one hand and painted with them all at once and somehow ended up with a beautiful still life. Why would you then attempt to do that again with crayons? But whatever. I appreciate what they tried to do, but I intrinsically hate YA movies in general and especially when they’re played for melodrama. They just don’t do it for me. And you know what? Just gonna leave it for teenagers. There’s a certain age of people that flock to stuff like this. So I’ll let them enjoy it. This didn’t work for me at all.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — * * * (3 stars)

I was expecting a garbage Will Ferrell comedy. His movies in the past decade have not been good. But, David Dobkin directed this (he did Wedding Crashers and is a legitimate director whose last movie was The Judge). So I think him mixed with the fact that it’s about this absurdly specific thing and has this weird Icelandic charm to it (by using actual Nordic actors outside the main cast) that I was ultimately fine with it. It’s not a good movie by any stretch. Most people probably won’t like this. But, there’s also a lot of people who love Adam Sandler movies and love shit Ferrell’s done recently like that terrible political comedy with Zach Galifianakis. So those people can enjoy this. I got through it enough to give it 3 stars even though I really have no need to ever see it again. I’m gonna assume Dobkin brought an integrity to the script that kept it from bad topical humor and tried to make it a story that felt worthwhile, and it’s because of that I’m fine with the movie instead of disliking it. And that’s truly the best I could have hoped for.

Family Romance, LLC — * * * (3 stars)

Werner Herzog movie that’s entirely in Japanese. Which is fascinating to me. I love that he just makes whatever the hell he wants. Always has, too. It’s about a service that offers people who pose as family members. In one situation, a mother hires the main character to pose as her daughter’s father, even though her real father is dead. In another, a woman needs a man to pose as her father for a special occasion because hers is an alcoholic, so he steps in. That kind of stuff. It’s a very unique little movie. And like all of Herzog’s stuff, totally watchable. Mostly I just love that he just wrote this movie that takes place in Japan and is entirely in Japanese. That feels so quintessentially Werner Herzog that I just love it.

Fatal Affair — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Shitty thriller with a predominantly black cast. Admirable for the second part, yawn for the first part. It’s the usual thing — woman, stalker dude, murder, you know the drill. This is for women sitting at home during the day. That’s who they make these for. Some people like this sort of thing. I shrug and move on.

Fearless — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Really low-grade Netflix animated movie. This is for under 7, and isn’t even worth the time. But most kids under 7 aren’t that discerning, so I get it. Not remotely watchable for me at all.

Feel the Beat — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Generic-bordering-on-bad Netflix movie about a small town girl who was by far the best dancer in her town who went to Broadway to make it big and now can’t even get a job as a chorus girl. The usual stuff. And of course after a viral video disaster (the plot point of so many bad movies nowadays) she is forced to return to her small town and coach the local girls dance team. Not for altruistic reasons, mind you, because the competition they’re gonna enter is judged by someone she thinks will give her a part in his new production (because that’s how these things work, you know). And she’s gotta confront the guy she dumped when she left, and it’s one of those ‘I’m doing this because I’m an asshole, but boy did you people sure win me over!’ movies. Completely by the numbers, nothing original, to the point where they manufacture the most insane reason to get to the end of act two low point. It’s one of those movies that some people will watch and think is fine, but is more like a movie most people will never see. And don’t worry, you don’t really need to.

First Cow — * * * (3 stars)

Kelly Reichardt. Standard fare for her, which means the arthouse crowd is gonna proclaim it the best movie of the year, the mainstream crowd is gonna think it’s too slow and too boring and meanwhile I’m here like, “What do you want from me?” Her movies are slow and largely plotless. Most of the time (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) I’m fine with it. Others (Night Moves, Old Joy) are more straining on me. This is closer to the former than the latter. There’s kind of a plot here, or at least an atmosphere of a plot in place of an actual plot. It begins in the present with Alia Shawkat as a woman on a hike finding bones and then flashes back to the story behind them. Which I assume is how the movie got made in the first place. “I wonder what the story is behind this thing in the woods.” So it becomes about a Jewish colonial cook and a Chinese immigrant who team up to start their own baking business. Which they do by stealing milk from the titular ‘first cow’ in the territory from the unknowing rich dude who owns it. It looks really nice, as her outdoors films tend to do, the pacing is her usual slow, and maybe some people will find profundity in it. I think it’s just a perfectly solid movie. I don’t read too much into it. It just kind of is. I don’t see brilliance here, but I get that some will. If you need your movies to have Marvel level pacing, then don’t watch this. You’ll be bored out of your face. If you think that slow moving shots and nothing happening constitutes auteur level filmmaking, then this will be the greatest movie you’ve ever seen. Kelly Reichardt movies are very easy to telegraph. You (largely) know how someone is gonna react to it based on their overall film tastes. And, like all other Kelly Reichardt movies I’m giving it 3 stars and saying it’s perfectly fine. That’s how I respond to her films.

Force of Nature — * * * (3 stars)

This was gonna be one of those Bruce Willis paycheck movies until it became a Mel Gibson paycheck movie. I think Bruce realized he was gonna have to be in it for more than he’s used to and get wet (it takes place during a hurricane). Bruce is used to working two days and shooting his scenes alone so they can splice him in with everyone else. Mel is willing to do the thing. Plus he still tries when he’s on screen, which I like. It’s about a group of people who all come together at an apartment complex during a hurricane in Puerto Rico. Emile Hirsch is a cop following up on a routine call. Kate Bosworth, a doctor, is there to try to get her father (Mel), a retired cop dying of some sort of lung or kidney thing, to leave despite his refusals. Meanwhile there are these thieves looking for valuable Nazi artwork and a dude with a panther or tiger or something in his apartment… it’s mayhem. But the storm forces all this to come together ,and there’s action and people shooting… it’s fine. The kind of movie I grew up watching. Though unfortunately now there’s far too much CGI, so some of the scenes look laughably bad. But for the most part it holds together. Can’t say it’s amazing (watch Get the Gringo or Blood Father to watch proper Mel action movies), but it’s perfectly decent 90-minute fare.

Four Kids and It — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Complete kids movie. Of the kind where, unless you’re 7 (and even then, in a lot of cases), you’re not gonna give any shits about this. Two kids of a single father (the oldest of which wants him to get back with her mother) go on vacation with his girlfriend and her two kids (the oldest of which wants to be with her father). And of course it starts badly (in the most one-dimensional, stereotyped way), until the kids find this magical CGI creature on the beach (voiced by Michael Caine, because why not) that is able to grant them one wish per day. So the film is them making these wishes, hoping to use it to do the parents thing. Meanwhile there’s Russell Brand as this creepy rich guy determined to find the creature for his own bidding (which is weird since it’s mentioned he’s scoured this island for years and years and never found this thing, yet the kids found it in like, a second). It’s pure kids movie stuff. Not great, perfectly ordinary, and really not for anyone except children. You just kind of accept it and move on.

Get Duked! — * * * (3 stars)

Fun U.K. horror comedy that’s sort of like Battle Royale meets The Most Dangerous Game. Delinquent kids (and one overachiever) walking around the Scottish Highlands as punishment and start getting hunted by a rich guy for sport. It’s fun. Solid debut for Ninian Doff.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers — * * * (3 stars)

Interesting documentary about the making of the film Ghost of the Noonday Sun. Sort of a comedic Hearts of Darkness. Both films (‘Ghost’ and this documentary) are directed by Peter Medak, best known for The Ruling Class with Peter O’Toole (an incredible film). The film chronicles both the disastrous making of that film — which was a pirate comedy starring Peter Sellers that was just about unreleased and remained a difficult find for many years and is considered one of the movies where even Peter Sellers isn’t funny — as well as the difficulty of working with Sellers, who was notoriously temperamental and hard to work with. A lot of it seems to be some sort of undiagnosed disorder, but for these people he just ran hot and cold. It’s an interesting documentary about Sellers as much as it is the ill-fated attempts to make this film (which I’m sure is one of the many reasons pirate movies stopped getting made for a long time. This and Roman Polanski’s Pirates and Cutthroat Island muddied the proverbial waters until Pirates of the Caribbean came out). It’s a solid documentary. I wish it weren’t as much told from Medak’s point of view and is done much more oral history style, but it’s his film, he can do what he wants. The best stuff here is more about Sellers and about moviemaking in general than it is about anything else, but it does have some worthwhile stuff in it even if it isn’t wholly successful.

Greed — * * * (3 stars)

A literal version of ‘eat the rich’. It’s about a billionaire asshole with shady business practices who is preparing for his 60th birthday party by literally throwing a Roman toga party complete with recreation of the Colosseum and gladiators, complete with a real lion. And so it’s a kind of satire about wealth and the bubble the super wealthy live in. It’s very dark and acerbic, which is sometimes off-putting, but overall is a watchable film that deals with some timely issues.

Greyhound — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Tom Hanks wrote this. The third feature he’s written and the first he hasn’t directed. His two previous efforts are That Thing You Do, which is amazing, and Larry Crowne, which is not great. This falls very much in between. It tells the untold story of a convoy ship in the North Atlantic tasked with safely bringing destroyers across a ‘zone of death’, notorious for its many U-Boats and the sinking of countless American ships. So ultimately the film is this outgunned, outmanned little ship overcoming the odds to save countless lives. Which is admirable. In practice the film is very much just a lot of naval warfare. If the battle scenes in Hunt for Red October are your cup of tea, then you’re gonna love this movie. There’s a nominal scene at the beginning with Hanks getting the command (which is unnecessary, but I understand why it was included), but 95% of the movie is entirely on the boat. The majority of the dialogue is ‘two pings, contact bearing 627, range one mile’. A lot of boat jargon and people relaying messages and preparing to fire torpedoes and put out fires. Which I’m totally cool with. I’d have wanted entirely that, from beginning to end on the boat. Which we almost get. My biggest concern about this — since I knew I’d enjoy it — was how the film was gonna look. It didn’t have that big a budget and water stuff is notoriously tricky to shoot. So I imagined a lot of really bad CGI. But honestly, they make it look good. The wides on the boat are clearly CG but they look realistic enough, and the majority of the film is shot on the boat, so they were able to do it in relative close up on stage for cost. So I’m sure the majority of the budget (since you wouldn’t recognize anyone outside of Hanks and he for sure took scale to get it made) went into the effects to not make them look like shitty VOD-level stuff. I’m honestly impressed with how good it looks for how little money they had. Granted, I’d have preferred practical, but I get why that wasn’t an option for them. Overall, this is a really solid thriller with a lot of good stuff to it (I love how he ends it). Not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Straight war movie, very little fat on it, focused on actually being in the thick of it rather than extraneous stuff. Definitely worth a shot if you’re into the genre or the history or naval stuff.

Guest of Honour — * * * (3 stars)

To begin, it’s an Atom Egoyan film, and while his films aren’t always amazing, they have shown themselves to be worthwhile over the years. The Sweet Hereafter alone speaks for itself, and I’ve spent the past four years raving about Remember, his most recent film. This one’s weirdly structured and not the easiest film to access. It has a strong central performance from David Thewlis, who plays a bit of a strange health inspector with a daughter in prison for something we slowly find out about over the course of the film. It’s something we find out she didn’t do, yet she feels as though she deserves to be locked up for something else. And the film is all structured around her talking to a priest (Luke Wilson) after her father’s death. Like I said, weirdly structured, and I’m not really sure what it all amounts to. But Thewlis is good, and the film is generally pretty watchable, as Egoyan’s films tend to be.

The Half of It — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

I like how every year or so Netflix ups their game when it comes to something new and fresh in the high school rom com genre. This one’s about a high school girl (the stereotypical smart Asian) who does all the work for all the kids in her class for pay, which helps out her immigrant single father, who hasn’t been the same since her mother died. She gets hired by a dumb jock to write letters on the girl he’s got a crush on, when she realizes that she’s the one with the crush on her. So it’s kind of a same-sex Cyrano, in a way. It’s progressive in all the right ways, but also really smart and well-written. And charming as hell. It’s definitely one of the better (if not best) Netflix movies I’ve seen, particularly of the high school/rom com genre. Netflix has a lot of junk out there, but this is definitely one of the worthwhile ones.

Hamilton — * * * * (4 stars)

I remember the show being the huge phenomenon that it was. I remember partially listening to the soundtrack when they released it and thinking, “This is fine.” But I wasn’t really able to concentrate or envision the show from it. And I never wanted to go see it because everything was always sold out and the prices were jacked up (plus I don’t like Broadway shows in general. I much prefer when they adapt them to movies and they’re on more than just a single stage and can build out locations and worlds). So I was interested to see this in particular, since it’s just a way to see the stage show. Which is an interesting call, mainly because the show is still making money, and now people don’t have to pay whatever it is per ticket. Though I’m sure they’ve made their money forty times over on this one by now, so they can afford it. Plus I’m sure the streaming rights sold for some insane amount anyway. Plus people went back to see this multiple times, and this is the one way for everyone to see it with the original cast rather than with whatever the current cast is. I’m glad they did it, and honestly I hope this paves the way to more shows doing this in the future. But, as for the show/film itself — it’s hard to write a review for the film versus the show itself. I’ll try to differentiate between both. As a film – I appreciate that they tried to make it feel as much like a live performance would as they could. There are times at the beginning when they’re rapping so fast and the audio sounds like it would when you’re in the audience that I couldn’t even catch some of the words, even though you generally know what’s going on the entire time. And then I liked that they shot one performance without an audience so they could put in some timely inserts and get angles on things to enhance the cinematic experience. It’s a nice mix of both, and I really appreciated how they put it together. It was well thought out. And after seeing how Thomas Kail put Fosse/Verdon together, I’m not remotely surprised it look as good as it does. As for the show itself… everyone knows it’s great. You can pick nits with it, but for something that does Broadway in a fun and different way, teaches you history that you may not have known about and promotes a diverse, non-white cast in a type of story that’s usually white people in boring wigs and costumes. Plus he brings people in by using rap and music to promote history. I caught so many lyrical samples while listening to it where I went, “Oh it’s that song!” And just that alone is bringing in a different section of the audience that Broadway wouldn’t normally bring in on its own. In a lot of ways, the show is a masterpiece. Two things I loved most about it: 1) the staging. The way they stage this is incredible and puts most (which is admittedly few) other musicals I’ve seen to shame. I can’t imagine other shows are organized nearly as well as this one is. And 2) that a really entertaining, globally beloved, Pulitzer Prize winning musical openly lists DMX in its credits.

Hard Kill * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Another Bruce Willis paycheck movie. Are they ever any good? No. Is he ever in more than like, 10% of them? Rarely. Does he ever do anything meaningful in them or seem like he’s ever actually trying? Never. Why do I keep watching them? I don’t know. Was this as completely forgettable as all the other ones and am I gonna forget this one within days of writing this? Absolutely.

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Pretty much just 90 minutes of famous people describing what it’s like to be on hallucinogens. Which sounded pretty damn fun to me. It’s a little more ‘documentary’ than I’d hoped. Sometimes they recreate the acid trip stories with animation or other actors, but mostly it’s there to tell people ‘hey… these drugs aren’t so bad’. And that’s fine, I guess. It’s admirable. But what I really wanted was more crazy stories people had while on shrooms or acid. And maybe it’s better that there weren’t any crazier stories on here, but I feel like I was hoping for more than I got, even though what I got was perfectly fine.

The High Note — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

I remember this script being on the Black List, which means that the movie was almost certainly gonna turn out to be this. Films based on Black List scripts rarely ever turn out as good as advertised (mainly because it’s all based on personal connections within the industry rather than actual quality and they’re all pretty much high concept action movies or thrillers, biopics or weird comedies that’ll never get made properly). It’s more a film about what it’s like to be an assistant in Hollywood than it is about anything else. Dakota Johnson is the assistant to a famous 80s singer who is in the ‘singing the greatest hits’ stage of her career where the best is behind her and she’s cashing in on the old stuff rather than making any money on new stuff. She longs to be a producer and searches for a way to get ahead in the business. Meanwhile she meets an up-and-coming singer-songwriter and tries to produce an album for him to put both their names on the map. It’s… pretty formulaic in the end. It’s charming enough. The Tracee Ellis Ross character is very over the top (which I get to an extend) and the movie never really rises above ‘mildly charming’. I did appreciate some of the song they shouted out or straight up played during the film. Those had to be in the script and were clearly the result of someone who’s got good taste in music. I feel like this used to be called Covers, which makes more sense as a title since the characters are constantly talking about cover versions of favorite songs. But that just speaks to all the compromises that happen to a script considered very good. The movies always turn out fair at best. And that’s the case here.

How to Build a Girl — * * * (3 stars)

Based on a novel that’s a thinly-veiled autobiography of its author, it’s about a teenage girl growing up in England in the 80s who is an aspiring writer who ends up becoming a rock critic, and in doing so creates this outgoing alternate persona that becomes wildly successful but takes her away from who she is (namely in making her write scathing reviews of singers and artists, which is the opposite of who she truly is as a person). It’s fine. Beanie Feldstein stars and I like that this gave her a proper lead role, and there’s some really smart writing and directing at times. Largely it’s just okay, and ends up getting pretty formulaic toward the end. But overall it’s very watchable and if it seems like it’s something you’d be into, is worth the watch.

Howard — * * * (3 stars)

Doc about Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics to most of the famous Disney Renaissance songs, “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Be Our Guest,” “Belle,” “Prince Ali,” etc. Mostly I’m surprised that Disney put out a documentary that openly talked about him having AIDS. But I guess they didn’t remotely get into that he was a gay man. That would be a bridge too far for Disney. Still, a nice doc about one of the major voices behind the best stretch in Disney history.

I Used to Go Here — * * * (3 stars)

Nice enough little indie. Gillian Jacobs is a young writer who’s just published her first book. It’s not doing as well as she and the publishers had hoped, reviews are mixed and the book tour just got cancelled. She’s doing a speaking gig at her former college and the film is her going back there and interacting with the kids who live in her former house, and her former writing professor. It’s very indie, very much one of those things I’d normally not care for. But it’s fine. Jacobs is good and the film is overall watchable, even if it doesn’t really ever go anywhere interesting or do anything outside of the expected.

Inheritance — * * * (3 stars)

I thought this was gonna be a horror movie at first. It had that sort of tone. Turned into more of a thriller, but still. Same deal. Most people won’t care. Stars Lily Collins as the daughter of a powerful rich dude who dies suddenly one day. While going over his personal effects, she finds out that he just has a dude chained up in an underground bunker on his property and has for 30 years. It’s Simon Pegg (doing a raspy American accent and wearing long hair). And so she’s gotta deal with this (since apparently it was left to her), while also dealing with a high profile career, her father’s death and impending marriage, all while trying to decide if her father was this monster or what the deal is. It’s… I got through it, but my rating definitely straddled between 2.5 and 3. It’s not really something I’d recommend to people.

Irresistible — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Jon Stewart’s second feature, after the perfectly solid Rosewater, which is well-made but not good enough to really be something people want to go back to. This is him taking on politics in a more direct way and making a comedy, which is more the wheelhouse people know him for. It’s — I think the best way to describe this is a lot of great ideas hidden in a mediocre movie. The idea is that Steve Carell is a campaign manager still living with the stink of the 2016 election (he was on Hilary’s side). He finds a viral video with Chris Cooper, a local farmer in a small town in Wisconsin who gives an impassioned speech at a town hall meeting and makes Carell think that this is the new type of Democratic candidate who can unite both sides of the aisle (he’s everything the Republican voters claim to be — god-fearing, working man, that sort of thing — but has typical liberal attitudes toward treating people equally and not letting big interests and corruption ruin his small town. So Carell sets up shop to convince Cooper to run for mayor in this town, looking at it as his way back to the big time and a way to reform the entire party. And that of course brings the Republicans in, led by Rose Byrne, his love-hate competitor. And so it’s about the absurdity of political campaign spending and how there’s no regulation on it. So basically all these city people swoop in on these small towns for these elections and ultimately do nothing to help the towns, since all the money is being spent on ads and trying to get people to vote their way, at which point they then leave and go off to the next town. The film paints with a pretty broad stereotype brush, largely aimed at liberals and political types (and the media). Which isn’t undeserved, but I was curious as to why the conservative Republican voters weren’t portrayed the same way liberals were, since it felt like it was bordering on over-the-top in the way it handled liberals. And I can only imagine that’s because Stewart knew the liberals would see his movie anyway and could handle it, so he tried to bring in more conservative minds who would be amused by the movie making fun of liberals not understanding small time values and being used to rich, ‘coastal elite’ living and then end up taking in the messages the film puts forward. Because if it’s not that then it’s just bad writing. It definitely feels like there’s a better movie in there, but Stewart was either unable (or unwilling) to get there. Most of the movie could be summed up over the end credits, where there’s basically a two-minute Daily Show segment that explains everything the movie is trying to say. It’s basically this lightweight comedy that then tries to get serious for a minute and make a point, doing so with an ending that feels clever on paper but doesn’t quite come across with the way he handled the rest of the film. And so, while there is some good stuff in here, it’s very uneven and unlikely to appeal to either side of the aisle. I appreciated that he had a story he wanted to tell, and while it’s not totally successful, I do appreciate the effort.

Judy and Punch — * * * (3 stars)

Interesting movie about domestic violence. Husband and wife team of puppeteers in a Shakespearean kinda time. He’s an overbearing drunk who refuses to stop drinking and sleeping around despite them having an infant child. And so they’re trying to save their show and make it a hit again, meanwhile they’re in a town that’s on the verge of lawlessness, since people keep being tried for witchcraft and hanged. Meanwhile — well… some shit happens. And there’s a bit of a revenge element to it. I’m not sure how specific to be. It’s… not the film I was hoping for, but was perfectly fine. The subtext is nice, but the execution is just okay. I appreciated it more than I liked it. I’ll watch Mia Wasikowska in anything, but other than her and a solid effort behind it, there isn’t a whole lot here to recommend to most people.

The King of Staten Island — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

So, having seen Big Time Adolescence a few months ago, I saw the range Pete Davidson has on screen. He can play one character — himself, basically. The lovable fuckup who smokes too much weed and likes giving tattoos to children. And that’s what this movie is. And you know what? He’s charming in that one role, given the right material. So this movie works because of that. His schtick will wear out, but for now, he’s given the proper vehicle for it. Otherwise — it’s Judd Apatow, so it’s at least 20 minutes too long, too indulgent, meanders. The usual thing. Some good, some bad. I really only like Knocked Up from him. The rest is just a mix of ‘fine’ to ‘don’t like’. Maybe others will love this. Mostly I just like that it stayed in its lane and did its thing and had a certain charm to it. I just wish they gave more to Bel Powley to do and I’m so goddamn sad that Marisa Tomei is now relegated to ‘mom’ roles.

The Kissing Booth 2 — * * * (3 stars)

I have memories of the first movie being decent, even though I have no memory of it past being an admirable attempt at bringing back the rom com genre (which Netflix has done). Like all good things, they’ve ruined it with sequels. To All the Boys 2 was just okay and didn’t remotely capture the magic of the first one. This, though… 135 minutes long. Why did we need all that time? That’s just insane. And while the first one got by on high school crushes and stuff… the entire plot of this movie is the idiot plot. The boyfriend’s in college and she’s worried he might be cheating on her, but never says anything, and he thinks she’s pulling away because she’s so distant, meanwhile she just wants to give him space and not be a nagging girlfriend. Meanwhile one conversation ends all of it. And so you’re stuck watching 90 minutes of this, bored out of your mind. And of course they introduce another potential love interest, which… has anyone ever watched a movie? Real life is her breaking up and going with the guy who’s there. The movie is ‘love conquers all’. It’s all nonsense. It’s watchable because Joey King is charismatic, but it’s too long and not as good as the first one (which was barely passable in the first place).

The Last Days of American Crime — * * * (3 stars)

What the fuck is this movie? Remember that movie from a few years ago that was about cops and bank robbers? The heist movie? Gerard Butler is the cop and Ice Cube’s son was one of the robbers? It was like this standard thriller that was 2 1/2 hours and felt like it was trying to be some sort of auteur version of this story. This is that… but worse. Don’t let the rating fool you… I’m predisposed to being okay with movies like this. This is not a good movie. It’s directed by the guy who directed the last two Taken sequels and the third Transporter movie. Which gives you an idea of the ceiling. It’s about a future where the government is gonna emit some sort of signal that actively dissuades people from doing crime. Apparently it affects people committing crime and prevents them from doing it. Makes no goddamn sense, but sure. And it’s the days just before this goes into effect, so a group of people plan a giant heist before the wild west closes for good. So sure. Reasonable enough plot, I guess. But my god. It’s two-and-a-half hours and just nuts. There’s no coherence whatsoever to this movie. Edgar Ramirez is the star and is quite literally sandpaper. He’s just there. His character does nothing of consequence for 2/3 of the movie. Michael Pitt is in it and is channeling Jerry Lewis for half the performance. No fucking clue what’s going on there. Completely meaningless, and almost an exercise in making the absolute wrong decision on every conceivable level. If this movie got made in the 90s, it would have been written by Joe Eszterhas, Paul Verhoeven would have directed it and Nicolas Cage would’ve played the Michael Pitt character and knew he could do whatever the fuck he wanted because everything was so insane there was no limit to how crazy he could be and he’d have been the most memorable thing in it. And it would have been better than this, because there would have been that element of satire to it that was lampooning this stuff. This movie is deadly serious, and deadly awful. This is destined to be one of those movies people do funny commentary tracks for because it’s so goddamn nuts.

Last Moment of Clarity — * * * (3 stars)

A movie that wants to be Hitchcock but instead… just kind of exists. Starts with a guy in love with a woman. One day, he sees a crime boss committing a murder across the street. So they come into his place and shoot his girlfriend, while he gets away. Cut to some years later, he’s living in another country under a new identity. Then he sees an actress in a movie who looks exactly like his dead girlfriend. He’s convinced it’s her, so he travels to America to go see if it is. It’s… watchable at best. Samara Weaving plays the girlfriend. There’s a lot of insane logic jumps the movie takes and forces you to go along with. They lost me at ‘immediately upon arriving at Los Angeles he runs into the younger sister of his best friend growing up’. But trust me, that’s not even the worst of it. By the time the third act happens, none of it makes sense. It reeks of ‘this is the first script we wrote when we were 18’. Not sure how it got made with a budget, but here we are. I was able to get through it, but it’s not really worthwhile for anyone else. Even if you love Samara Weaving — this is like one of those paycheck Nicolas Cage movies that you really gotta be die hard to want to get through.

The Lovebirds — * * * (3 stars)

Action-comedy. Couple on the verge of breaking up get involved in this insane murder mystery where they run around trying to clear their names and not get killed. It’s not amazing. A lot of dumb comedy stuff. It’s grounded by Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s chemistry, and that’s what makes it passable. Otherwise it’s not great. But it’s watchable. I’d say you can do better for Netflix, but if you’re gonna settle on this, you could do worse.

Made in Italy — * * * (3 stars)

Fairly generic father/son road trip movie. Almost the exact same premise as End of Sentence in a way, though more openly comedic. Nothing you haven’t seen before, but it is nice to see Liam Neeson not having to play action roles all the time. Reminds you that he is an actual real actor. Which is always nice to see.

Magic Camp — * * * (3 stars)

I expected to hate this movie. It just seemed dumb as hell. I’m also not the biggest Adam Devine fan. The premise is: he’s the former star magician at a magic camp who’s now driving an Uber on the Vegas Strip, where his former girlfriend, Gillian Jacobs, is headlining a magic act at a casino. He gets invited to come back to the camp as a counselor (as is she), so he comes back, determined to have his group win the big camp award as a sort of retribution. It’s very by the numbers, but its the kids that largely lead the way. And while it hits a lot of the notes you’d expect to see, there are some nice little magic moments and some heartfelt ones as well. Like I said, I was very much expecting to go in and hate it, but I actually was quite okay with it. It won me over by the end. Not that it’s good, but it made me feel at least generally positive toward it even though it’s not that great a movie. So good for them.

Military Wives — * * * (3 stars)

Generic, feel-good British film about the women of soldiers who form a choir and sing to boost morale. It hits every note you’d expect (pun ridiculously intended) and does nothing surprising at all. It just… is. If you go for these movies, you’ll like it. If you’re like me and they have to be really charming or really well-written or made to win you over, then it’ll just be fine and you can probably skip it otherwise you’ll be able to watch it just fine and then move on with your life.

Miss Juneteenth — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Interesting all-black film about the daughter of a pageant queen turned working single mother who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps, despite the daughter wanting to get into dance instead. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a solid character piece with lots of social overtones, even though they don’t get too far into it. It’s just about working people trying to get by. The fact that the cast is all black really makes it feel different than if it were about white people (like, say, Dumplin’). And I liked that about it. It’s a solid film that’s worth an audience.

Mope — * * * (3 stars)

I caught wind of this during Sundance last year. It sounded so crazy that I had to track it. Of course it only came out now (barely) because it’s such an odd film there’s no way you could ever market it. It’s based on a real story about two low-rent porno actors (a ‘mope’ is the term for a porn actor who does the dirtiest shit that no one else would do), and an eventual murder involving a samurai sword and someone falling off a cliff. This all happened. They fictionalized it, but that’s the premise. In a way, that’s spoilerish, but you also don’t sit down to a movie like this without knowing what it’s about or where it’s going. The odds of anyone coming to this movie without knowing that are so astronomical (and I really want to know the story of how it happened, in that case). Anyway — it’s weird. It’s the kind of movie I almost expected to be directed by one of the Daniels. I like it because it’s one of those oddball films about weird subject matter. Outside of that I’m not sure who this would appeal to. But hey, now you know it exists.

Mr. Jones — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Solid movie about a journalist going into Russia on the eve of World War II in order to investigate how Stalin says the country’s got all this money and grain even though none of the numbers adds up. He stumbles upon the fact that Russia’s been stealing everything from the Ukraine and created a famine there and has been killing thousands of their people from it. It’s an interesting film that could really only be made in the U.K. Because it’s about journalists. There are no juicy thriller moments really. It’s just people figuring stuff out and/or lying about it for various reasons. It’s solid. I quite enjoyed it and think it’s worth a shit if you like this sort of thing.

The New Mutants — * * * (3 stars)

If you’ve at all been following this movie, it’s hard not to see the years of development and reshoots and recutting that went into it as you watch. They shot this movie three years ago and it’s been through some sort of crazy developmental post production hell ever since. It seems what happened is, they tried to make a YA horror movie with mutants. And I see what they wanted to do. It could have worked, if they focused on a story and really made that work before shooting it. But any time a movie goes into reshoots to retool it, then they never had a handle on it and it’s almost always sinking good money into bad. Then Disney gets a hold of it and goes, “What the hell is this?” Because dark horror is not what they do. So I imagine they went and tried to smooth this out and cut as much dark stuff out as possible and make it as banal as they could so they could dump it quickly and get everyone to forget about this stuff as they fold X-Men and all the Fox-controlled stuff back into their Marvel Universe. There’s a lot going on here under the surface, and that’s all I can think about when I watch this. Which I guess brings me to my ultimate feeling on this — I’m really not sure it was gonna matter how this turned out one way or another. It was almost always destined to be a pedestrian 3-star movie that’s totally watchable but not really that good. Most summer blockbusters are that, and it really takes a certain authorial voice, extra special charm or commitment to storytelling first that makes them anything but. Ultimately the film is just another forgettable 3 star movie, but I can’t help but see all the stuff behind it as it is that, and wonder if part of that forgettable 3-star ness was by deliberate design. At this point, with two years on the shelf, there was almost no way it wasn’t gonna be that, but really I’m just glad I didn’t see the potential of what this could have been completely wasted. Since we had a long time to see the waste coming and accept it. This is all a long way to say — it’s fine, it’s watchable, it’s not good, and for better or worse, now we’re gonna see the X-Men and all their universe assimilated into the boring homogeneity that is Marvel.

The Old Guard — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Fun Netflix movie with Charlize Theron as the head of a group of immortal warriors. It’s basically if they all had Wolverine’s powers but existed in a John Wick type of universe. They’ve been secretly doing good throughout history and we follow them on another job as they recruit a new member. It’s really enjoyable. Nothing I really need to see again and again, but well made and just a good time at the movies. In a way, a perfect Netflix movie.

The One and Only Ivan — * * * (3 stars)

Pure Disney family movie stuff. Bryan Cranston runs a circus in a mall (that’s a thing?) and the star attraction is a giant gorilla voiced by Sam Rockwell. And the movie touches on a lot of random things but nothing too deep — him losing his star spot to a baby elephant, the circus not being a big draw anymore and Cranston on the verge of financial ruin, the fact that the gorilla is a gifted artist somehow (?). It’s a weird one. But it hits all the usual family movie notes and is perfectly watchable, even if it’s not all that good. But hey, there’s a dog voiced by Danny DeVito in it. So there’s that.

The Outpost — * * * (3 stars)

War movie set in Afghanistan. So already not my cup of tea. That war bores me on film, plus anything that glorifies anything that happened in that war never sits right with me. But it’s Rod Lurie, and I generally like his stuff, and it’s honestly well-made. The battle scenes are solid, and the last like, 45 minutes of the movie is just one continuous firefight. It’s based on a base where they tried to make peace with local Taliban but instead became sitting ducks, especially when it was discovered the base was gonna close. So half the movie is just them besieged by locals, undermanned and underequipped. That part’s solid. The rest is standard war stuff. It comes down to personal preference. Some people will like this, others won’t care. I liked it for the war stuff, didn’t like it for the specifics of the war. Overall, just fine.

Palm Springs — * * * * (4 stars)

I’d been hearing so much about this movie out of Sundance that I thought, “There’s no way this is gonna be as good as everyone says.” Mostly because I have certain apprehensions about the comedies when people are too bullish on them, and, I’ll just say it, Andy Samberg. Largely because I’ve hated all the other films he’s starred in recently (Popstar, the one with Adam Sandler). Mostly he cameos in things, but when he’s the lead, it hasn’t been in stuff I liked. So I was very apprehensive toward this. Even as everyone I knew said they loved it. Because I hear that all the time. Everyone loves it and I go, “It was just okay?” But, I waited, watched it on my own time and gave it the full benefit of the doubt. And it was wonderful. I knew there was a Groundhog Day narrative going in, so I half-expected parts of this. But to their credit they started it x amount of years into the journey, which cuts out the need for a lot of extraneous story. And for a while it started out with me just liking it and thinking it was fun and solid, but at a certain point it really won me over, largely due to the smart writing and fun performances, particularly from Cristin Milioti, who I’ve been waiting to see in more things (and hopefully it’ll stick this time). There’s a real heart to this, and they make the best use of people’s understanding of these types of movies to not do the obvious thing you’ve seen everywhere else. There’s a reason this made the stir it did. I’m not gonna say it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, but in a year with abject mediocrity at every turn, it’s nice to see something that feels fun and fresh.

The Personal History of David Copperfield — * * * * (4 stars)

I love Armando Iannucci. His films seem to be going back in time. In the Loop was a contemporary political satire, Death of Stalin was the 50s, and now this is the 1850s. It’s an adaptation of Dickens, which seemed an odd choice, but you can definitely see how he brought his brand of humor to the story. I think the strength of the original Dickens overwhelms his voice a bit, which is only to say that I don’t think the movie is as overly hilarious as Death of Stalin or In the Loop is, though it’s still a very funny and enjoyable film. I really enjoyed it. You really can’t go wrong with anything by Iannucci.

Project Power — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Really enjoyable Netflix sci fi actioner from Joost and Schulman, who made Catfish and also directed this other solid sci fi movie called Nerve a few years ago. This one’s about a street drug that hits New Orleans that gives the person who takes it a sort of superpower for five minutes. Only five minutes. And so we follow a cop, a young girl who deals the stuff and an unnamed soldier on a mission as they try to figure out who the people are behind the stuff. It’s solid. Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt… it’s good shit. The premise is great, and while the movie never really does more than skim the surface, I like the premise it sets up enough to start considering all the potential uses of it rather than think about what it doesn’t do. There’s been a bunch of movies like this. Reminded me of In Time with Justin Timberlake. Not the greatest movie ever made, but I really liked it because whenever it did something obvious or got boring for a minute, I thought about all the possible applications of the premise and little things that the world the film created would bring about. That’s what happened here. Overall, it’s solid, it’s fun and it’s got a good enough concept that allows it to differentiate itself from the standard sci fi fare that’s out there.

Radioactive — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Fairly by-the-numbers biopic of Marie and Pierre Curie and the discovery of radiation. Nothing you haven’t seen before but done solidly and with aplomb. Directed by Marjane Satrapi and there’s nice cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Solid is the word for this.

The Rental — * * * (3 stars)

Dave Franco-directed horror movie that plays more like a relationship drama than a horror movie. The horror stuff doesn’t happen until the last twenty minutes. Mostly it’s relationships unraveling, a thriller-ish twist and then the horror stuff. The actors are all good too (Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White). What’s nice is that all this shit would be happening anyway and then the situation that’s set up only exacerbates it. And then there’s the intriguing ending when they sort of ‘reveal’ everything, which I liked. I won’t call it a twist so much as a smart way to unveil things without it feeling like a cheat. I usually hate this sort of thing, but I like that it focuses on the drama, minimizes the horror and then gives a solid reason for the horror (which, in a way, is not giving a reason).

Scoob! — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Why must we ruin everything? I’d normally say the only reason for something like this is because they were gonna lose the rights to it, but Warners has owned the property forever, which means that it’s just another shitty excuse for trying to make money by using nostalgia to real some people in and putting no effort into the writing or filmmaking whatsoever. I hate these kinds of movies. The 3D CG animation looks disgusting, especially since this franchise began with visually interesting 60s animation, and the humor is designed for every 7 year old who grew up with an iPad in their hands. It’s what all bad studio animation is nowadays, designed to appeal to nothing except people who are children right now. This movie is already dated, and it’s a damn shame that they had to do Scooby Doo dirty like this. Plus they tried to create this Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe from this, which is doubly gross. I’m glad I retired the Unforgivables list, because otherwise this would have had to be on it. It’s that gross a film to me, on every conceivable level.

The Secret: Dare to Dream — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Based on that book that was everywhere like 15 years ago. I assumed it was faith-based nonsense. Turns out, the book seems to be based on faith-based nonsense bu the movie is just generic standard ‘wish it into existence’ stuff. So it’s just there. It’s fine. Katie Holmes, Josh Lucas, Jerry O’Connell… people you remember from the years 1996-2002. By the numbers, adequately made, nothing much for me here. I’m just glad it didn’t get religious. That is truly a blessing.

The Secret Garden — * * * (3 stars)

I feel like this is a book everyone knows, even if you haven’t read it. They made it into a movie in the 90s and also way back when in the 40s and probably even earlier. It’s one of those where, seen one, seen ’em all. But you know what? It’s fine to keep remaking it because some new generation of kids is gonna come across it and this will be their version of it. And that’s fine. I don’t really care about this as a movie past that. It’s watchable, well made, the usual thing. But it hits the mark for who it’s intended for.

Seriously Single — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Netflix rom com. Nothing really of note story-wise, but what is notable is that it was made in South Africa with South African actors. It’s largely in English, for those of you who hate subtitles, but while it is admirable that a non-American film like this got made and put out on Netflix… it’s not particularly great. Though I can appreciate how much worse this would have been if it were made here.

She Dies Tomorrow — * * * (3 stars)

Interesting film. I appreciate Amy Seimetz as a filmmaker. She’s someone who truly epitomizes the indie way of doing things. She acted in Pet Sematary, which felt like an odd choice for her, and then took her salary and used it to fund this. It’s a movie that’s apparently based on seeing other people’s reactions to her talking about having panic attacks. So she made this really visually evocative film that’s more expressionist than anything, about a woman convinced she’s going to die the next day, a feeling that somehow begins to spread to those around her. It’s much more arthouse than mainstream, so use that to decide what you’re likely gonna think about it and whether you think it’s worth seeing. But I like it. It’s really evocative and makes its point about a particular topic in a really interesting way. I enjoyed it. Didn’t love it, but I appreciate that it exists and that Amy Seimetz got to make the film she wanted to make.

Shirley — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Interesting sort-of biopic about the writer Shirley Jackson and her inspiration for writing a particular short story of hers. Mostly I was intrigued because it was directed by Josephine Decker, who did Madeline’s Madeline, which I quite liked. Decker turns this into a thriller of sorts, where there’s a young couple staying with Jackson and her husband (who are played by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg), and Jackson keeps having fits of mental illness while also dealing with her husband’s ever-present affairs and using the pregnant wife as inspiration for her story. It’s solid. Well-made. Can’t say I think it amounts to much other than solid direction and good performances, but movies were built on less. I think in the hands of another director, this would not have been nearly as interesting as it is.

The Sleepover — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Dumb Netflix family movie where kids find out their mother is in witness protection. But more than that — she’s also a world renowned thief. Because of course. And it’s people running around, over the top comedy, kid actors who are very LA kid actor overpolished. Nothing really of value here. So we shrug and move along.

Sometimes Always Never — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Really charming little British indie with Bill Nighy as a father with a Scrabble fixation who is obsessed with finding his young son who ran off some years prior. His older son, also struggling with the disappearance of his brother and looking to maintain a connection with his father, goes out with him on this road trip of sorts to see if they can find him. It’s not quite what you expect it to be and is largely very small in its scope. But I quite liked it. I liked Scrabble as the central unifying object and I thought Bill Nighy was terrific. Overall, way more solid than I thought it would be. I think it’s worth the effort.

Spree * * * (3 stars)

Wasn’t the worst movie ever made, but the premise is a rideshare driver obsessed with social media who starts livestreaming the murder of his passengers. I just… this is not my area at all. Fortunately it’s played more as a dark comedy than a horror movie, so at least there’s that. But this just wasn’t for me at all.

Survive the Night — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Shitty Bruce Willis paycheck movie where he’s not even really in it. Family held hostage in a house by bad guys… standard crap. Not good, not worth your time. Bruce has really stopped trying these days.

Summerland — * * * (3 stars)

Period costume drama with Gemma Arterton as a spirited writer during World War II who takes on an orphaned boy unwillingly. But of course she bonds with him and all that, as we flash back to her younger days as she fell in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It’s fine. Arterton is good, Mbatha-Raw is good and the film is perfectly solid all around. The epitome of ‘perfectly fine British period piece’.

The Sunlit Night — * * * (3 stars)

Interesting, if aimless little indie. Jenny Slate is a painter not getting anywhere with her art who, struggling with her younger sister’s engagement and parents’ announcement of their separation, takes a job in the far north of Norway, helping paint a barn with a once-noted artist who has recently lost favor with critics. And the sun never sets, she doesn’t speak the language and the job initially turns out to be far more disappointed than she expected. And then there’s the odd turn of her meeting a fellow American who came to bury his father with a traditional viking funeral, random cameos from Zach Galifianakis and Gillian Anderson. And yet the film is only like 75 minutes long. There’s no real coherent plot here, but the setting makes the film look nice and the actors certainly are all very welcome. I can’t really recommend it outside of wanting to look at Norway for 70 minutes and liking the actors. But it feels like one of those indie comedies that cut almost all the ‘indie’ stuff out of it at the expense of coherence of thought. But it’s fine enough for the run time. Adding an extra 20 minutes might have made it unbearable instead of just okay. So for that I’m grateful.

Sweetness in the Belly — * * * (3 stars)

I knew about this originally because it was gonna star Saoirse Ronan for a good minute. Instead it’s Dakota Fanning. It’s about a white Muslim woman in Ethiopia who gets pregnant by an Ethiopian doctor and flees to England during the Ethiopian Civil War. So the film is flashbacks to her relationship with him as well as her adjusting to her new life in a place that should be more familiar to her than it is. Overall it’s watchable. Nothing too outstanding, but it’s honest and has its heart in the right place.

The Tax Collector — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

This is definitely closer to the David Ayer I remember. He lost his way a bit when they took Suicide Squad from him and then he went into the abomination that was Bright. But then he went back to his roots. Cops, gangs, Los Angeles. It’s not a perfect movie, but it definitely reminds of of the stuff he came up making. It’s about a very powerful gang member who takes cuts from all the other gangs in the city. And then of course a rival shows up and upsets the order of things. It’s the usual stuff. The film’s only 90 minutes, so it sort of speeds through all the nice character development we’d normally get. The highlight is Shia LaBeouf as the main guy’s primary henchman/driver. I wish they did more with him, but they definitely get a bunch of characterization for him in a very limited amount of screen time. I feel like this film is the result of either them not letting Ayer have his full cut or Ayer lacking his earlier confidence after bad experiences in the studio system. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Either way, it feels like a nice rebound for him and I hope he’s able to continue it through whatever he does going forward.

Tesla — * * * (3 stars)

Biopic of Nikola Tesla starring Ethan Hawke. Which sounds intriguing until you realize that it’s not that interesting a movie. Not much happens, and they struggle too hard to make people sitting in a room talking about electricity seem interesting. They try to spice it up with various anachronisms, like Eve Hewson (one of the characters in the movie) suddenly pulling out a laptop and talking to the audience and explaining what Tesla’s inventions meant for the world, but it doesn’t make the movie any better than watchable. HOWEVER, right near the end of the movie there’s a completely inexplicable musical number where Hawke as Tesla sings Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

Unhinged — * * * (3 stars)

Watchable road rage thriller. It works because they got lucky with Russell Crowe as the villain. If not for him, this would be a completely forgettable piece of drivel. Here at least it’s watchable and reasonably entertaining before you forget about it. Crowe adds a legitimacy to the villain, and it’s nice to see. Otherwise, it’s not really anything you haven’t seen before.

Valley Girl — * * * (3 stars)

Remake of the 80s movie refashioned into a jukebox musical that looks like a hipster-envisioned bubblegum pop version of the 80s. Somehow I didn’t despise this. I don’t know why. Maybe it caught me on a good day. It was fun enough for me to not hate it. I don’t like how a lot of the songs barely got any time. It was like a musical for people with ADD. They sung like a minute of songs just to make you go, “Oh, I know that one,” and then they moved off. I hated that part. But otherwise it’s competent and fun enough and the cast is game for a very particular kind of tone. To their credit, they picked a style and stuck with it, and overall, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse.

Valley of the Gods — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

I don’t really know what this movie was meant to be. It’s like if you took Kubrick doing 2001, Terrence Malick, Jodorowsky and a tub of acid and then wanted to say something about Native Americans, you’d get this movie. I couldn’t get into it even though it looked really terrific. I can’t tell if this is a whole lot of good-looking nothing or if there’s really something here. I felt it was really meandering and very boring. And I now understand why I’ve tracked this for like four straight years without it coming out before now. I feel like some people might get something out of this or at least appreciate the free flowing nature of the film (because honestly, it’s really just a step to the left of what Terrence Malick’s been trying to do this past decade with his stuff. The only difference is this director doesn’t have the reputation of Terrence Malick so people aren’t as willing to put up with it), but overall it was just too weird for me.

The Vast of Night — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Incredible first feature and just one of those really charming indies that immediately qualifies as hidden gem. It’s made like a Twilight Zone episode, beginning with a fictionalized intro reminiscent of an episode and beginning with a black-and-white style intro before moving into the ‘film within the film’, which constitutes the main plot. It takes place over the course of one night in a small town in New Mexico in the 50s (you can guess where it’s going from that alone) where the whole town, save a few people are at a high school game. But then the local switchboard operator begins hearing some weird noises on a frequency and begins looking into it. And so it’s about her and some other people trying to figure out what these mysterious noises are (and again… New Mexico, 50s… Twilight Zone… you can kinda guess). Mostly it’s just charming in how it’s executed. It begins with the town fix-it character, fast-talking and charming. Which I love. The rapid-fire dialogue for the first five minutes is incredible. And there’s an unbroken ten minute take of the switchboard operator on the board, making various calls, which is incredibly sure-handed for a first-time director. Most people would have cut away or put in close-ups as inserts because they didn’t have the balls to keep a single, unbroken take for that long. That’s the best part of this for me. The filmmaking and style of it all. It’s one of those small movies that just does little things really well. It doesn’t feel the need to cater to the audience and tells the story it wants to tell in a really charming way. I’m a big fan of this and think it’s one of the better movies of the year to this point. Highly recommend people check it out.

Viena and the Fantomes — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

This movie’s been on the shelf for like three years. I’ve been tracking this forever. And now here it is. And let me tell you — if a movie isn’t released within two years after premiering at festivals, and it’s not something legal, there’s a reason. This — there’s not really much here. It’s oddly paced, I’m not sure what the purpose of the story is. Nothing much happens. The only thing worthwhile in it is the cast of young, talented actors, the biggest names of whom have literally nothing to do. It’s just a dud, sadly. These things happen.

Waiting for the Barbarians — * * * (3 stars)

Interesting movie. It’s about colonialism, but it never particularly names any countries. All the accents are British and the locals seem to be Mongol in behavior, but nothing is ever overtly stated. It doesn’t matter, really, since all the behavior is the same. It’s about Mark Rylance at a far outpost, keeping tabs on the nomadic people who live in the country’s deserts. It’s sort of a Dances with Wolves. But mainly the idea is, “Guess which ones are the real barbarians!!!” It’s okay. Watchable. Looks really nice. Mark Rylance. You get Johnny Depp for a bit. Then Robert Pattinson randomly shows up. Overall fair but nothing more.

Wasp Network — * * * (3 stars)

Movie about Cuban defectors who are secretly spies in the 80s and 90s, directed by Oliver Assayas. I generally don’t care much about his stuff, though this has like every actor who speaks Spanish in it — Penelope Cruz, Ana de Armas, Edgar Ramirez, Wagner Moura — so it was watchable. Couldn’t say I particularly cared much about the content, though.

A Whisker Away — * * * (3 stars)

Netflix anime. The kind of anime that I am generally not a fan of. It’s about a girl with a huge crush on a guy that is not reciprocated. But magically she finds a mask that allows her to turn into a cat, with whom he does reciprocate his feelings. It’s… anime high school stuff. Not for me. It’s perfectly well-made, but like Your Name and like Weathering with You… they only go so far for me. It’s not really my genre.

Work It — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

This movie lost me within 90 seconds, when the first line of dialogue was voiceover and began: “Albert Einstein once said…” I knew exactly what movie I was getting right there. Bad voiceover, obvious plotting, completely by the numbers in every way. Part of me always wonders why people make these things, but obviously the comfort of knowing exactly what you’re gonna get is what some people want. This didn’t do it for me though. I can’t do films that don’t exist within reality (it’s that heightened sense that bad comedies have that I just can’t handle) and are firmly rooted in the safe trails of a genre and don’t offer anything of value whatsoever. Though kudos to them for giving dancers a showcase and somehow not making the film fall into any racial trappings (which it so easily could have, being about a nerdy white girl who joins the dance team).

The Wrong Missy — * * (2 stars)

Netflix movie from Adam Sandler’s company starring David Spade. You kinda knew what you were getting going in. It’s just straight drivel all the way through. It’s so over-the-top. But apparently that’s what a certain section of people want, since Netflix makes so much money off of these things. So hey, I leave it to those people. For me, this was straight garbage.

Yes, God, Yes — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)

Oh, this was so good. A love letter to the 90s and AOL and dial-up internet and the age when you were a horny teenager and everything around you somehow reminded you of sex. Every random turn of phrase, gesture, image. It perfectly captures all of that. And it captures the double standards of sexual rumors between boys and girls of that age and just the awkwardness of it all because no one’s properly educated or confident (and doubly so because of the bullshit the religion is spewing them). Plus it has the added element of the horror of religious repression and being around those people and all that insanity. That whole situation is my personal nightmare, and this scared me more than any horror movie does. But it’s really well-directed and written by Karen Maine. The way all the dialogue sounds sexual even when it isn’t, the fact that her and masturbation is like the two leads kissing in rom coms, and I love what she did with having her be unable to tell the truth and confess throughout the film. The minute she actually is able to open up is… perfect. I really liked this one a lot.

You Don’t Nomi — * * * (3 stars)

A documentary about Showgirls. I’m honestly kinda surprised there hasn’t been one before now. But I guess the 25th anniversary was a good time to do it. I’ll be honest. I wish it were more an in-depth look at just how it turned into this disaster and gained the cult following rather than a love letter to the strangeness of it all, but it’s adequate enough. I’m not gonna pretend like real resources really needed to be allocated to telling that story, but if we are gonna discuss the doc, I do think it could have been a little less about how much the filmmakers love the film. But hey, is what it is. We now have a documentary about Showgirls with a pun title. And that is very okay by me.

You Should Have Left — * * ½ (2.5 stars)

Blumhouse movie. I usually don’t care for these. You get Kevin Bacon, so sure. Otherwise there’s not much of note in this one.

 

Films I’ve Yet to See

  • Words on Bathroom Walls
  • Cut Throat City

 

Favorite Films So Far

  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Bad Education
  • Beastie Boys Story
  • Hamilton
  • Palm Springs
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield
  • VHYes
  • Yes, God, Yes
  • Saint Frances
  • Babyteeth

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