2020: The Year in Reviews (Part III)
Well… we made it. What a weird year this was. Just when I got myself around to starting 2020… theaters closed and the world stopped. The film calendar was decimated, a lot of stuff was released online and streaming, but a lot of the major studio stuff was pushed entirely to next year. So we had this weirdly thin year for movies, which is really gonna make it hard in two weeks to pick out a top ten. But fortunately that’s two-weeks-from-now-me’s problem. For now, all we’re doing is going over all the movies I saw between August and now.
As always, some stuff isn’t out yet, so I can’t have reviewed it. I’ll specify it all at the end. Then tomorrow we’ll get into the wrap-up articles. For now, here’s the last batch of reviews (I know you’re all on pins and needles, waiting to hear what I thought about Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square):
The 40-Year-Old Version — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Wonderful film from Radha Blank, who wrote, directed and stars (essentially as herself). It’s a prime example of a person not getting opportunities, so they gave themselves one. She plays a version of herself, a now-40-year-old woman and once promising newcomer playwright who is stuck and forced to concede her artistic voice for success/money, and instead finds an outlet by starting to rap. It’s really great. Very low budget, very personal, and very charming. It’s just one of those likable movies, and even if it’s not your favorite film of the year, it’s impossible not to respect it. This is the kind of movie that needs to be championed.
Above Suspicion — * * * (3 stars)
Decent enough thriller with Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville and even Thora Birch shows up. It’s the usual thing — ambitious FBI agent stars tracking a local drug dealer and ends ups sleeping with his wife. Doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t expect, but I did think Clarke did a pretty good job playing southern with little to work with. Overall not really anything to recommend, but if you like these generic-but-watchable thrillers or like the actors, then maybe you’ll get something out of it, but it’s not gonna surprise you at all.
Adults in the Room — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Greek political drama from Costa-Gavras. Based on events within the past decade, and largely just a lot of people in a room talking. Not my kind of movie at all. But he’s a director I respect, so I saw it. But definitely not my kind of movie. I got about the same out of this as I would’ve a documentary on the same subject. I know my limitations.
American Utopia — * * * * (4 stars)
Wonderful filmed version of David Byrne’s stage show. I knew I was in for a good time from the opening shot of Byrne sitting on stage at a desk holding a plastic brain. The entire show is him, several musicians and two dancers, playing songs from his ‘American Utopia’ album, plus a few Talking Heads songs. It’s the perfect companion piece to Stop Making Sense. Stop Making Sense is for when you’re young and wild and on drugs and dancing around a theater. This is for when you’re older, sitting on your couch and remembering how fun it was when you did drugs and danced around in a theater watching Stop Making Sense. And, you know… almost 40 years later, the timing is right for a lot of people. I like so many things he did with this show — the bare set design, and how it’s just him and the other musicians and dancers just playing the songs. He does the great thing of showing just how they’re all playing live on stage by bringing each person in one-at-a-time as a lead in to a song. He incorporates some great social commentary by using the show as a way to register people to vote and including a Janelle Monáe protest song in the proceedings. Overall, I think it’s a wonderful show, and Spike Lee did a fantastic job of translating it into film. Seriously, though, if you like Stop Making Sense, this is the one you watch when you’re hungover the next day. It’s such a great companion piece.
American Woman — * * * (3 stars)
There was a movie with the exact same title that was released last year. Neither movie feels like it fits the title, but here we are. This one is based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping/etc, but from the perspective of a radical woman living off the grid after a bombing who agrees to help three people on the run, one of whom happens to be a famous heiress in the news. It’s… fine. Sarah Gadon is the Hearst stand-in and Hong Chau gets a starring role, which is nice. Overall, watchable, but not really anything I can recommend.
Ammonite — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I had one very specific thought after seeing this movie, which is: “I wonder what 13 year old me would think, finding out that during a scene where two of my favorite actresses started making out for the first time, the thing that would get 32 year old me most excited was the fact that the director very deliberately crosses the line during the scene.” That’s apparently where I’m at now. The nudity does nothing for me, but a line cross? That’s exciting. Anyway… Kate Winslet has always been one of my favorite actors to watch and Saoirse Ronan is the best actress of her generation and is perennially someone I love seeing. So having the two of them in a film together is something I was very much looking forward to. I had tempered expectations, given the director’s lack of anything that really made waves and knowing how these types of movies tend to go. And honestly… Portrait of a Lady on Fire basically did this story already last year. So I bet a lot of people are gonna be disappointed with this, especially with it being pushed as hard for awards as I’m sure it’s going to (or already is). And, if I allowed myself to go in with those expectations, I too probably would have been disappointed. But honestly, I got out of this exactly what I expected to get out of it — a solid movie with really solid lead performances that looks nice, that is well-acted above all else… and is just kind of okay, story-wise. Portrait of a Lady on Fossils — shame to say it, but that movie came out last year. So it’s gonna get compared to that. It’s very much the American (okay British, but you know what I mean) version of that film, even down to the much more explicit sex scenes and extra plot stuff. It’s fine. Don’t downgrade it because you saw the same plot last year and don’t get deluded that it’s a better film than it is just because the actors are really good in it. It’s a solid movie, no more, no less.
Antebellum — * * * (3 stars)
Gonna be honest… I expected more. The visuals were nice and the filmmaking was damn fine for first-time directors, but the film doesn’t add up to anything. They made a huge mistake in the scripting to not cut to her having a normal life early on, within the first ten minutes. Waiting until 40 minutes in kills any connection to the film you might have. At that point it just becomes slavery porn. 12 Reels a Slave. And the worst part is, they spell out the way to have structured this movie in those first 45 minutes. But instead they went with Get Out meets The Village? At least do a Twilight Zone thing and work the stuff to say into the fiber of the story. The way they did it is just cheap. And I don’t know who this movie is even for. You don’t care about the character on either side of the story, and it just becomes about some awful white people doing this rather than some existential horrific situation. This is no better than The Hunt, except at least there you had the survival situation to at least sort of care about, on top of the insane ‘message’ or whatever they were trying to accomplish with it. I honestly don’t even hate the movie, I just want to know what they thought they were doing. It was maddening to watch, because you can see a better movie there, just a few turns away. But aside from EVERYTHING else, I really have only two major gripes with the movie: 1) no one’s getting in an Uber (especially a woman) without making sure the person behind the wheel matches the photo they send you beforehand. And 2) there is no way the cops are actually coming in to save anyone. In real life, the cops are helping stock this place.
Audrey — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Nice little doc about Audrey Hepburn that focuses on her the person rather than her the movie star. They discuss the movies, but not in depth the way something like the De Palma documentary did. This really focuses on all the stuff that people didn’t know in her life. And it’s quite nice. Not the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, but it fills out everything you didn’t see on screen, which for some people will be stuff they didn’t know.
Ava — * * * (3 stars)
So I’ll start by saying this is a movie written by Matthew Newton, who was gonna direct but pulled out beforehand. And I clocked that while watching because — he’s made two really solid indie dramas that I quite enjoyed, and just seeing his name made me realize that this was gonna be more than just your usual ‘hitman’ movie. And it was. Sure, it’s got all the usual plot points — Jessica Chastain murders people. John Malkovich is her handler. Colin Farrell is the one they work for. She botches a job (or is made to have the job go wrong). Things go bad. They have to put a hit out on her. She’s gonna get revenge. You know the broad strokes of that plot. However, there’s this whole other section of things going on — she’s a recovering addict. She had an affair with Common, who is now marrying her sister, who’s pregnant. She’s got mommy issues (Geena Davis plays her mother). There’s a lot of personal shit going on aside from the usual murder stuff. And I liked that about this. This could so easily have just been a John Wick knockoff, but instead it took that framework and tried to tell a human drama alongside it. And I respect the hell out of it for that. Still came out the same way, but at least I got a different version of it while it did. So that’s nice. Plus the cast is pretty stacked. And it’s Tate Taylor, so you know he’s good for a watchable movie (whether it’s The Help, Get On Up, Girl on a Train or fucking Ma).
A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting — * * * (3 stars)
Quite a number of babysitting and monster hunting movies this year. Go figure. Anyway, this is the kids movie of the bunch. Very much one of those movies they’d have made in the 80s in the vein of Labyrinth and things like that. A girl has to babysit on Halloween night, only to see the boy she’s watching get kidnapped by monsters. In trying to get him back, she uncovers a secret organization of babysitters who explicitly protect their children from so called ‘monsters under the bed’, which are real. It’s fun, in that kid kinda way. Most adults probably wouldn’t care for this. But if you allow yourself to give in to your inner 10 year old, it’s not a bad movie. I had fun with it. It’s colorful, and not nearly as dumb as a lot of that pre-tween oriented stuff is nowadays.
The Babysitter: Killer Queen — * * * (3 stars)
The sequel to the Netflix movie from a few years ago, which has proven itself to be a hugely underrated little gem on the platform. Doing fun genre stuff tends to age well if you do it correctly. Which they did. Also — both movies directed by McG. So just know that. The first one is the basic — ‘guy has a crush on his babysitter, only to find out that she and her friends are part of a satanic cult’ — plot. Which you’ve all seen a thousand times, I’m sure. But it’s fun. This one is a sequel that cares less about plot and more about playing. The plot is dumb as rocks — the gang is back (except Samara Weaving, because she actually has a career now)! There’s a new head cult leader and now they’re trying to kill the guy all over again! Plot-wise, it’s exactly what you’d expect out of a sequel and there’s nothing of note. HOWEVER… this movie decided, “Who cares about the plot, let’s just do fun shit instead.” So this movie takes chances. There are these really nice fantasy sequences throughout, including a musical number where a sex scene would be. It’s very playful in all the right ways. Because you know you can’t (and won’t) take something like this seriously, so the movie doesn’t even bother to take itself seriously and just says, “We’re here for a good time.” And I respect the shit out of that, and both these movies have proven to be two of the most worthy things you can spend your time with on the Netflix platform.
Bad Hair — * * * (3 stars)
This is a satirical horror movie from Justin Simien, who did Dear White People. It’s set in the 80s and is about a black woman who is forced to change her hairstyle in order to get ahead. She gets a weave in order to look more like all the white women, and it helps her career. Only, the hair itself is cursed. It’s like Child’s Play, or that one TV episode the Simpsons parodied where someone gets a hair transplant that causes them to start murdering people. It’s that, only it has something to say about race and how black women are forced to act more ‘white’ in order to get ahead. It’s really smart and really worth seeing. Though the message only goes so far for me, since — horror movie. I generally don’t care about those or enjoy them a lot of the time. I also think this one’s a bit slow and muddled at times, though its heart is firmly in the right place and I think the good does outweigh the bad. But again — me and horror… it’s not my genre, so I was only gonna like this but so much.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Incredible documentary about a group everyone knows but maybe not everyone really knows. Sure, you’re exposed to the Saturday Night Fever stuff pretty early on, and then maybe you get to some of the deeper stuff. But the length and breadth of their careers, and the relationships between the brothers and the drugs and premature deaths and all of that. It’s really great. And the use of the music and editing is absolutely terrific. One of the best documentaries I saw this year.
Belushi — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Showtime doc about John Belushi. More of an oral history than anything. Generally just the people in his life talking about him interspersed with clips. Probably not the best version of a documentary we could have gotten. It plays a lot more like a Behind the Music or something. But also — I’m not really sure what better one we could have gotten, given how young he was when he died and how little an amount of time he was actually famous. So, they did as well as they could, and you get a lot of fun clips of him on SNL and in Animal House and Blues Brothers. Honestly as far as documentaries go, this is much more my speed than most others.
Black Bear — * * * (3 stars)
Yup. This is the weird indie comedy/drama that I’ve come to expect from Aubrey Plaza. It’s — I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s trying to be a mind fuck of a movie. I’m not sure it ever achieves that, but I’ll give it credit for trying. To try to get into plot is to give stuff away (not that it’s twisty or anything… it just gives stuff away that might be better served from just viewing the film as-is), but basically — Plaza is at a getaway cabin in order to work on a movie. Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon are also there, and there’s some interesting relationship stuff going on between the three of them, and I’ll leave it at that. I had trouble with this. I like all three actors. I just wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care during the first part. I was kind of indifferent toward all of it. Then the movie took that turn and I thought, “Okay, sure.” And then I was watching that second part. And it got slightly better, and Plaza really did shine in those later scenes. But in the end, all I thought was, “So what was the point of all of this?” It felt overly heady and complex with no real purpose. I know people are gonna praise Plaza for the work here — and she absolutely deserves it. I’m just not sure the movie’s really all that good around her. It’s possible I’m not seeing something other people are seeing. This strikes me as one of those ‘aspirational’ movies. Which is to say — there’s always a handful of movies every year that you see on a lot of people’s top ten lists, yet (for me at least) whenever I ask people why that is, they can never really ever say just why they loved it or why they think it’s any good. And a lot of that, I’ve found, is because the more… pretentious wing of filmdom jumped all over it because it has a more obscure, esoteric structure and presents itself as having a lot of grand ideas (when in reality it might not have any), and those people have decided they feel that way too because they feel like it makes them look cool and informed. And let me say — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being that person and feeling that way. All I’m saying is, I’ve done this for a lot of years now, I’ve seen a lot of people and how they react to things, and I have become very good at pinpointing certain things that give me red flags. And this feels like one of those movies. I can tell a lot about a person when I see something like this on their top ten list, especially when I see the other nine that are around it. This really wasn’t a statement against the movie in any way, just something I felt was worth mentioning, since we are getting to that time when you’re gonna start to see stuff like that happen. And maybe you yourself are in that situation now, as you try to figure out what you liked best from this year. And so I’ll just say this — I thought it was fine, I didn’t think it was anything overly special. To each their own. Love it if you think it’s great, don’t feel the need to say you loved it just because certain people think it’s amazing and, rather than admit that you didn’t see that or understand whatever it is they saw, you simply agreed with them. That’s really my point there. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is, congratulations on the Independent Spirit Award nomination, Aubrey Plaza.
Black Beauty — * * * (3 stars)
Black Beauty is one of those books where, you feel like you’ve read it even if you haven’t. I never read it, yet it felt like it was always just sort of there in my life. Oh, the other fourth grade class read it as part of summer reading, but it wasn’t on my list. Oh, that movie is out there, but I saw The Horse Whisperer instead. I’m aware of the story in very broad terms (or maybe it’s just because I’ve seen things like The Horse Whisperer and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Oh, I’m sorry, Academy Award nominee Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), and it feels like one of those movies — kind of like The Secret Garden, which also got remade this year — where there’s always gonna be a remake every 20-30 years, just because it’s a book people grow up with. And so, sure. It looked good, it followed the story (I’m assuming), and they made it very competently. But the problem with something like this is — the story’s so prevalent that it’s been used in countless other things (like, say, Academy Award nominee Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) that there’s almost no point in remaking it because it’s gonna feel like you’ve seen it before, even if you’ve never read the book or seen a film version (as is the case with me). Maybe there’s an audience for this. And good for them. Me? If I’m gonna watch anything of this sort, I’m gonna watch Academy Award nominee Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (*slowly turns to camera, holding up a DVD, winking and giving a thumb’s up*). (Also, I won’t look this up because it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong, but people who grew up buying a lot of DVDs as I have… doesn’t Spirit just feel like one of those movies that for sure had a white case instead of a black case? I don’t even have to look it up to be sure, because I just know that it did. Does that make sense?)
Blackbird — * * * (3 stars)
It’s a remake of a Danish film. And like all American remakes of foreign dramas — it’s just fine. I’ve made this argument at least once a year for what feels like the past five years now. Every time one of those comes out (was After the Wedding last year or was it something else? It’s always something), I find myself saying, “This seems like it was pretty much the exact same story as the foreign version that got all the acclaim, maybe with a few things Americanized (but not enough to overly impact the plot), and the movie’s just okay. And I always feel like — in some of those cases… are people just saying things are great purely because of the subtitles? You know what I mean? If all you change is the language and maybe a couple of minor details, why is it that things get vastly different reactions from people? I’m convinced Michael Haneke was onto something when he did a shot for shot remake of Funny Games in English and people savaged him for it. That fascinates me to no end. But anyway — it’s a chamber drama. Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson. Sarandon’s character is dying and brings her family together for one last weekend together before she takes medicine to kill herself before her illness gets too bad. It’s fine. Lot of acting stuff, all the usual thing you’d expect out of a movie like this. Literally nothing you haven’t seen before. And yet… remake of a movie that I’m sure was hugely received when presented in another language. These movies never get seen or noticed by anyone when they get made in English (despite always having terrific casts), and they’re never good enough for me to want to talk about anything else with them, so all I’m left thinking is about that question of — is it just the subtitles that people are responding to? Just something to consider.
Black Box — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
This is part of like six horror movies Amazon released in partnership with Blumhouse. I’ve been pretty vocal about my complete disinterest in Blumhouse movies and my belief that 90% of them just… aren’t very good. And I get it, because for them, they’re all made so cheaply… 90% of them can not be any good. Because all you need is one or two in ten to hit financially and you’re set. It’s a brilliant business model. That said… for people like me who watch everything (and particularly do not like horror), having to sit through them all is tedious at best, its own version of a horror movie at worst. This one — weird, overly complicated psychological horror thing where a guy goes through this brain treatment and starts to wonder if he is who he thinks he is… I didn’t like it at all. I like Mamoudou Athie a lot, but I did not like this movie. It just… who cares? I got absolutely nothing out of this, and I’m just gonna leave it for the people who did.
Books of Blood — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Anthology horror movie based on Clive Barker, I think? I don’t care enough to look it up. I think it’s him, so let’s go with him. I think this is just two stories with one frame story around the two, where there’s this… well it’s in the title. And who fucking cares. Evil book, people die, scary shit. Honestly not a good movie and not really worth my time. Just gonna leave it at that and move on.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
A second Borat movie 14 years later. Normally I’d ask why so long, but Borat is the kind of thing where… you kinda have to wait a while before you do it again just because it’s predicated on people being unaware of what they’re being filmed doing. And you’d think after the first movie was such a big hit and Sacha Baron Cohen had a show within the past two years where he got actual politicians caught on camera doing insane shit that you’d have a hard time pulling Borat off again. And yet, you’d be wrong. To their credit, they worked in the fact that people knew the character pretty well. And they did admittedly have to build more of a film ‘story’ around this one, since I imagine they had a limited scope of what they could do. But they do pull off four solid gags, namely him sneaking into the Pence rally as Trump to ‘gift’ his daughter to him, him staying with the two guys in lockdown, him doing the singer guy at the COVID rally and the Giuliani thing. Those are big level things. The rest is smaller stuff, like the babysitter and debutante ball. I’m still pretty surprised that people somehow don’t know this character and fell for all this, but I guess I should never be surprised at the stupidity of Americans. But, as a movie, you go in knowing it’s largely gonna be them stringing a story around the gags. I was surprised at how much I did care about the storyline with him and the daughter. Especially since a lot of that felt dumb and forced for so much of the movie. And yet, when you got to the end, it was actually kinda touching. Which I guess speaks to Cohen’s and Maria Bakalova’s performances. Overall, it’s about how I felt about the first one — solid, lot of fun if you’re in a group, not something I ever need to see again, but perfectly entertaining in the right situation. It’s not as incendiary as Who Is America was, but in terms of bringing this character back after 14 years… it’s a pretty successful movie.
Boss Level — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
So this is Groundhog Day, but an action movie. Frank Grillo wakes up every day with people trying to kill him, and he’s slowly figuring out how to not die and why he’s in this situation. It’s fun. Mel Gibson is the villain, Naomi Watts is there. Lot of character and a lot of fun. It’s not wholly successful, but in the realm of action movies that actually give you a good time and feel worth the price of admission, this is definitely that. (P.S. this isn’t officially out until next year, and it’s gonna be on Hulu, so you can see this fairly easily once it’s out. And I recommend that you do, because it really is a lot of fun.)
The Boys in the Band — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is the kind of film that feels perfect for Netflix. An adaptation of a play that is very theatrical and focused on the acting and the content. Having Netflix as a platform eliminates that discussion people might have had if this were put out like a normal awards movie where you wonder if maybe it was better as just a stage play and worth being on a big screen. It feels right for Netflix. The play is one of those landmark plays, kind of like A Raisin in the Sun, where it was one of, if not the first to really focus on the lives of people whose lives were marginalized in mainstream media. They adapted it in 1970 (it was William Friedkin’s first major film), though it was very worth updating. The thing they did here, which I like, which they did originally on Broadway, is have the entire cast be played by openly gay actors. Good for them for that alone. And honestly, the play is really good, the film is very good. It’s literally just a play, the actors are in one location and it’s extremely dialogue heavy. So just be aware of that going in, but otherwise, it’s a really engaging movie with great performances and well-handled all around. For me, it took a minute to get settled with the theatricality of it all, but pretty soon you get invested in the characters and you completely forget about all that. It’s just a really engaging piece of work and, in a year without a whole lot of really solid stuff, is one very much worth seeing.
The Brilliant Biograph — * * * * (4 stars)
This is a movie/exhibit put on by a Netherlands film museum. It’s basically just an hour of beautifully restored early silent films. Like, early early silent. Phantom rides, cityscapes — Lumiere employees exiting the factory early. It’s gorgeous. It’s exactly the kind of movie I want in my life. Honestly, if I could just have these things playing in a loop on a screen in my home like a screensaver, I’d do it. I love this stuff. And it’s just an hour of gorgeously rendered films that have pretty much never been seen before. If you love early silent film, do yourself a favor and watch this one.
The Broken Hearts Gallery — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
It’s hard to create a rom com that is both charming and original. The genre was dead for basically a decade and then Netflix revived it. And now you’re starting to see some ones crop up. Though a lot of the time they veer too much on hokey drama or bad comedy. It’s hard to really straddle that line. But this one does. It’s about a woman who has kept emotional keepsakes from all of her relationships. And while recovering from her latest bad breakup, she decides to take all that stuff and turn it into its own gallery, full of stories of all her breakups, the idea being that everyone can submit their items and tell their stories in the hopes that it allows them to move on. It’s a really great idea. And the film is anchored by a wonderful lead performance from Geraldine Viswanathan, who is gonna be a star one of these days once people finally take notice. It’s got enough quirky originality to really stand out, and for people starved for actual good rom coms (and not the usual bullshit), this is one of the most original I’ve seen in years. I really appreciated this movie a lot and wish people saw it, if only in the hopes that more movies get made like this and not all the other crap that pretends to follow in the footsteps of such a hallowed genre.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Bruce finally realized he could fully control his own content once he put the Western Stars film out. That film was basically just a concert film of him recording the album and putting these poetic voiceovers and archival footage in between all the tracks, covering his ideas for the concept of the album and going over the length and breadth of his career. He does the same thing here, only instead of performing the album live in his barn, it’s footage of him and the E Street Band recording the album in studio over the course of four days. And you get all of them together, just making music. If you enjoyed Western Stars and you like Springsteen, you’ll enjoy this. This is one of those situations where you know exactly what you’re getting.
A California Christmas — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Another Hallmark-level Netflix holiday rom com. It’s terrible. Most of them are terrible. This isn’t my genre, and these films bore me out of my mind. That about covers it.
Charm City Kings — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is a feature version of 12 O’Clock Boys. If you never saw that documentary, it’s about bike/ATV riders in Baltimore who go around driving illegally, defying local police. The name comes from those who can lift the fronts of their bikes up so that they’re facing 12 on a clock face. It’s a real fun doc. What they did here (with the help of Barry Jenkins, who co-authored the story) was tell the story through the lens of a local boy (whose brother was one of the riders and died young) trying to build his own bike and not get caught up with all of the bad influences that are around the neighborhood. The film has a lot of charm, and all the kids in it are really good. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, and goes to some pretty obvious points at times, but it’s the personality of it that shines through. That’s what makes it stand out from a lot of other stuff. You really feel the characters and the location and it just feels alive. Not many movies pull that off. This one does, and it’s really worth your time.
A Christmas Carol — * * * (3 stars)
Interesting adaptation. I wasn’t sure what this was gonna be when they announced it, but I saw the voice cast, so I figured it would be worthwhile. What they did with this was almost a musical theater version. There’s a frame story, but mostly it’s the story being recited by famous voices while actors portray the actions on screen (though wordlessly). So it’s almost an entirely visual experience. Like a visualized audiobook. I liked it. I liked the idea of it. It was a nice way to tell a story we’ve seen at least a dozen different times on screen by this point.
The Christmas Chronicles 2 — * * * (3 stars)
The first film was an absolute surprise and an absolute delight. I figured the second one wouldn’t be as good, but I figured I’d get enough out of it. And that’s what it was. The first one was less a plotted movie and more based on Kurt Russell being Santa Claus and all the hilarious interactions of him being around people and openly being Santa Claus and them being freaked out. Plus there’s the musical number in the jail cell (after he gets in a high speed chase with the cops) and a moment where an elf is gonna take a chainsaw to someone’s nuts. It’s insane and wonderful. This one… it’s all about plot. And stuff you’ve seen before. The girl’s worried because her mother’s gonna remarry. There’s a fallen elf looking to get revenge. Christmas is gonna be undone. The whole thing. Not nearly as good as the original (and they repeat bits, like the musical number. Though kudos to them for at least writing an original song), but as long as Kurt Russell is Santa, these movies are always gonna be at the very least watchable.
Clouds — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Generic music/faith-based movie. Based on a real guy and produced by Disney, so it’s not as cringey as the rest of those religious-type movies are. But it’s still not for me. It’s meant to appeal to a particular audience, and I’m not that audience. So this did absolutely nothing for me and I leave it to the people who care about this sort of stuff.
The Coldest Game — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Somehow I didn’t even know this movie existed at the beginning of the year. And then at some point a few months ago, my buddy Colin (you all remember Colin from Fun with Franchises) texted me about it like, “What about this movie with Bill Pullman as an alcoholic chess master?” And alarm bells went off. Because, what? Bill Pullman? Alcoholic chess master? And it’s a cold war spy thriller? That’s literally a bingo scenario for me, and I had zero idea it had even existed. So naturally I rushed out and watched it almost immediately. And I have to say — I loved it. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s one of those movies that I was destined to like more than others because it checks my personal taste boxes. And it is a solid little thriller. They’re organizing a Russia vs. USA match, a la Spassky v. Fischer, but the American opponent dies under, shall we say, mysterious circumstances. And since the rules are very specific as to who can play the Russian champion, they’re forced to get Pullman, now an alcoholic professor. And so he’s thrust into this giant match and international intrigue, because of course there’s spy shit going on between the matches. It’s fun. I, of course, gravitate to the chess and alcoholism moments (which, apparently seems to be what a lot of people like, based on the reaction to the Queen’s Gambit show this year). There’s a great moment where he blacks out before a match after getting hammered and then asking, “When’s the match?” And everyone else is like, “What are you talking about? The match is over. You won.” And he has zero memory of it. That’s my kinda movie.
Come Away — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Somehow I thought I was getting a different movie here, but it was still solid nevertheless. The movie starts with the presumption that the children who were the basis for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were brother and sister, and tells the story of their childhoods. And, I’ll warn you — it’s bleak. Drowning, depression, gambling debts, hands being cut off… it’s not magical and uplifting at all. Yet… looks great, good actors in it, and a solid movie. Can’t say I ever need to see this again, and I have no earthly idea who this movie is for or why they thought this would go over well, as depressing as it is, but I did enjoy it for what it was.
Come Play — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Horror movie based on a short. And, as I’ve learned with previous horror films based on shorts (the one with the light switch comes to mind. That three minute one where she’s flipping the light on and off and whenever she does, the ominous shadow gets closer and closer?), they’re cute and clever when they’re four minutes long, but they never sustain feature length. This one’s about a monster who lives in technology? So the autistic, nonverbal kid sees him as his only friend? Or maybe the monster sees the kid as his friend? And honestly, I just didn’t give a shit. It tries to do the emotional thing, but I find that it’s really hard to do emotion and horror a lot of the time. And I just don’t think this achieved it. It didn’t make a lick of sense and you could drive a truck through some of the plot holes in it. But hey, some people will like it, so sure. What I’m finding with these movies is, people always thought they were good when they went to a theater opening weekend when they were packed. How are these faring now, on VOD, when it’s just you and maybe one or two other people? Are you actually paying attention to how bad most of them are? Or does it not matter?
Critical Thinking — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Inner city teacher movie. You’ve seen those before, and they’re usually solid. Here’s the two kickers: first, it’s a chess movie. So, awesome. And second, it’s directed by and stars John Leguizamo. Which is an automatic watch for me anyway. But this is solid as hell. Chess movies are always interesting, and Leguizamo provides a realistic flair to this. Sure, it does a lot of obvious things, but it’s likable Likable counts for a lot.
Cut Throat City — * * * (3 stars)
Heist movie set during Hurricane Katrina directed by RZA. Which sounds awesome on the surface. And that’s the problem I had with it. It was just surface. I get what he was going for and what he wanted to tell and what message he wanted to get across. I’m just not sure the movie actually has a lot of substance beneath that. And honestly? That’s fine. It’s a perfectly watchable and well made movie with good actors in it. I do wish, though, that it was better than the sum of its parts.
Deerskin — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Another Quentin Dupieux film. He’s the guy that brought us Rubber and a bunch of wonderful surrealist films. This one stars Jean Dujardin as a guy who buys a deerskin jacket and becomes obsessed with it. He decides to become a filmmaker and shoot a film that has other people giving him their jackets and saying they’ll never wear another jacket again (I guess because that would make him the only jacket-wearing person in the world). And eventually it descends in to murder — you know what you’re getting with the filmmaker. It’s wonderfully weird and funny and Dujardin and Adele Haenel are great here. It’s one of Dupieux’s better films.
The Devil All the Time — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Netflix movie from Antonio Campos, who made the wonderful Christine with Rebecca Hall as his last film. This is based on a novel, and really feels like it. It feels like they took a sprawling, unwieldy novel and tried to cram it into a 130 minute film. And the result is a solid, but mixed bag of scenes that feel like they either needed to be cut or had a lot more time spent on them. The result is solid, largely because of the actors, but in the end I’m not really sure what we got out of this other than a solid movie that I’m gonna forget about within a year. It’s a movie made up of vignettes — the murderous couple, the zealous preacher, the adulterous preacher, the corrupt sheriff, etc. I remember little sections of the movie rather than what the whole piece is supposed to be about. Which I think goes back to the fact that it’s better served as a novel, which feels like it’s more about the town/the area and the corruption and violence this little pocket of the world. It’s got its hits and misses, but I appreciate that they took the swing. It’s a solid movie with a few standout performances — specifically whatever the hell Pattinson is doing. It’s better than a lot of what Netflix has to offer.
The Devil Has a Name — * * * (3 stars)
A movie directed by Edward James Olmos that has something to say but maybe not the right material to say it. David Strathairn is a farmer (present day) struggling with the backbreaking work that yields little to no profits most of the time. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth works for a giant oil company and is trying to get Strathairn’s land. And because he won’t sell, it turns into this complicated battle of sorts where they try to threaten and bully him off his land, eventually going so far as to contaminate his water. And he, in return, decides to sue the oil company, despite having significantly less funds to fight that legal battle. And if it were just that movie, maybe it would be better. But it’s so much more exaggerated than that. There’s a hitman and this frame story of Bosworth talking to the higher ups at the oil company like it’s some sort of crime movie. It’s watchable, but I truly have no idea what they wanted to do with this if they wanted to get their point across.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Let me say first: I’m happy this exists. Whatever Dolly Parton wants to make is fine with me. I didn’t know she’s been making these movies for years. Honestly had no idea. And you know what? Original musical. I will never begrudge one of those. However, the fact that I did not care one bit about anything I saw in this movie still stands. Good for her, good for everyone who likes this — just not for me.
Dreamland — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
A really interesting film, and one of those that, while it was really solid, makes me think, “Why would you make this?” I’m not really sure who this is for. It’s a Depression Era coming of age story with Margot Robbie as a bank-robber on the run wanted for murder who hides out in a family’s barn. And of course the oldest boy finds her and helps her and starts to fall in love with her. And as I said — I’m not sure who this is for or why it exists. Yet… solid. Very solid. Robbie is very good in a different kind of role than we’re used to from her. And I dare say without her I’m not sure anyone ever sees this movie. So good on her for that at the very least. But yeah, I liked this. Not something I really need to see again, but it was very pleasant.
Echo Boomers — * * * (3 stars)
It’s a millennial heist movie. The idea, I guess, is that millennials are blamed for everything by boomers, yet boomers have made it that millennials can’t actually get anywhere yet continue to make it seem like it’s their own fault. So here, a bunch of 20-somethings go around and rob rich people’s houses. I mean, okay. That’s a movie. It doesn’t really have much of anything to say and is in that weird gray area of wanting to be social commentary, wanting to be one of those ‘cool’ movies that every first-time writer wants to make because it’s what they grew up with and wanting to be a genre movie. So the result is kind of a muddled mess that feels a bit too obvious at times, a bit too pretentious at times and just too generic all around. It has Michael Shannon, and that’s the main reason I watched this, but otherwise there’s not a whole lot I cared about here. It just lacked the subtlety to be about what it wanted to be about, or worse, it was a bad movie trying to pretend to be about something. Either way — it’s probably not even worth it just for Michael Shannon.
Elyse — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
It’s written by, directed by and stars Anthony Hopkins’ wife. He’s in it, of course, and that’s the only reason I saw it. And it just reeks of a bad movie. The directing isn’t good, the writing is bad, and it seems like it’s trying to create a tone it’s simply not capable of creating. It looks like something you’d make when you were a kid and you roped all your friends and family into making something. All the dialogue is stilted and badly written. It’s just… not good. And I hate to shit on a movie, but that’s just what I felt while watching it. It felt like it had good intentions: it seems like she wanted to make a vehicle for herself to star in. And that’s admirable. The result is just… not good, I’m sad to say.
Ema — * * * (3 stars)
This didn’t do it for me. It’s watchable, but didn’t particularly interest me. Oh well.
The Empty Man — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Why would anyone make a horror movie that’s over two hours long? Look, The Exorcist is 122 minutes, and that’s pretty long for a horror movie. Your movie should never be longer than The Exorcist if the goal is to scare people. If you’re doing something else with it (The Shining, if you wanna count Aliens as horror, even It counts in this), then you can go over two hours. But really? This movie is just adding unnecessary lore and bullshit on top of a generic movie where we all know what’s going on and where it’s headed. Just stop. Stop wasting our time. Oh, right, the review? It was too long, I was bored and I didn’t care one bit. But you probably could have figured that when I went on that whole bit about The Exorcist.
Enola Holmes — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Interesting idea for a book series/film — the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ sister. Millie Bobby Brown stars, and you get Henry Cavill as Sherlock and Helena Bonham Carter as their mother. And the film revolves around Sherlock and Mycroft having left home and Enola being left to be raised by her eccentric mother, who one day disappears. So the entire film is the mystery of her trying to find her mother and finding clues left behind. It’s charming. It does just the right amount of playful fourth-wall breaking and never betrays its young adults roots. This is basically Nancy Drew in costumes, and I’m all here for it. Perfectly entertaining movie and just the kind of thing I enjoy. I hope they make more of these.
Eternal Beauty — * * * (3 stars)
Drama with Sally Hawkins as a woman with schizophrenia. It’s purely a vehicle for her performance, and she’s good in it as she is in everything. The movie’s just okay. Nothing really to write home about. If you’re watching it, you’re watching it for her, but it’s not really anything I’d recommend.
Evil Eye — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
To this film’s credit, it features an all or almost-all South Asian cast. So good for them for that. Otherwise — generic horror/psychological thriller stuff. Indian woman’s mother wants her to marry an Indian man, which disinterests her… until she meets the perfect guy. And then, oh wait, seems like that perfect guy might also be the reincarnation of a dude who is the cause of the mother’s trauma from years prior! And then it’s that kind of movie. Honestly, yawn. But hey, kudos to them for the casting. If you’re gonna make another generic horror movie, at least let other people have a go at it instead of the same twelve white people.
Falling — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Viggo Mortensen wrote, directed and stars in this. And it’s just a nice little personal film about a gay man caring for his ailing father. And the film flashes back between scenes of his childhood and present day, as he takes the father from the family farm to live with him, his husband and his daughter in Los Angeles, as the father is starting to show signs of dementia. Mostly it’s about the father/son relationship, and I like how he handles it. Because the father is somehow both accepting of his son being gay but also says awful things a lot of the time as well. It feels a lot closer to the complexity of what happens in real life, where people still stay in touch, but they still say fucked up things to one another which are either ignored/taken in stride/normalized and also slowly build up inside until one day words are said. It’s that kind of movie, which doesn’t necessarily make for the most rewarding theatrical experience, but is something I did appreciate. The acting is quite good here and it’s just a nice drama about people. And as I always say, I like it when actors direct. And Mortensen was not someone I expected to be someone who directed, so I’m all around very pleased with the result.
Fatman — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is that absolutely bizarre movie with Mel Gibson as Santa Claus. Only, it’s weirdly modern day. They never refer to him as Santa, but it’s clear that’s who he is. The North Pole has the same problems as all other places — the factory is under pressure because most kids are naughty, so they’re forced to take a military defense contract to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Santa pissed off the wrong child — the son of a mobster who is used to getting what he wants — who calls the family hitman (as one does) to put a hit out on Santa Claus. It’s so goddamn weird, and yet, in its weirdness, is really unique and fun. It’s not a great movie, but I enjoyed it because it’s not something I can point to as being this weird ass movie. And if I can talk about it and get excited at how weird it is, that, to me, is a worthwhile movie. It’s better than some generically watchable action movie that I’m gonna forget about almost immediately. So yeah, I’m a fan of this, even if it’ll never be mistaken for Miracle on 34th Street.
Freaky — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was a wonderful film. It’s Freaky Friday but with a serial killer. Much like Happy Death Day was Groundhog Day but with a slasher. Vince Vaughn plays a serial killer who gets ahold of a mystical dagger that ends up transferring him into the body of a high school girl on Friday the 13th. And so you’ve got this film where Vince Vaughn is running around, acting like a 17 year old girl, and a 17 year old girl is going around town murdering people. It’s so much goddamn fun. It hits all the right notes and finds a way to subvert all the usual genre stuff in fun ways. I can’t recommend this one highly enough, it’s so much fun. Vaughn and Kathryn Newton are incredible, and there are some truly hilarious moments in this movie. This is one of the most worthwhile movies of this entire year in film.
Friendsgiving — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
This is one of those movies that someone wrote and got all their friends to be in for little to no money. And that’s fine. I just didn’t like the result. This feels kind of like that movie that Amy Poehler directed for Netflix, only without the budget and star power of that one. It’s just people getting together around a mediocre script and not particularly making it any better. The premise is in the title. And it’s all starring actors who always pop up in things but don’t particularly have a niche. It’s generic. It’s traversing situations you feel like you’ve seen a hundred times, and there’s really not a whole lot of value here.
Georgetown — * * * (3 stars)
Christoph Waltz directed and stars in this, and that’s predominantly why I wanted to see it. It’s based on a real guy and the, I think, Washington Post article written about him from about 15 years ago. It’s about a German guy who married an 90-year-old woman during his attempts to try to become ‘someone’ in Washington. You’ve seen this person before — always hustling, always trying a bit too hard, but never quite good enough to actually get somewhere because there’s always something a bit off-putting about them and how desperate they are. And then, mysteriously… the wife dies! Shocker, I know. And so the movie is this weird hodgepodge of showing the facade and then mixing the eventual legal stuff with flashbacks to the actual truth. And while you can pretty much guess what’s going on, it’s interesting to see the layers of insanity of this guy’s existence. It’s not the best movie ever, but it definitely is worth watching just because of how insane it all is. Maybe it’s one of those things where, if you read the article, that would be enough, but I totally get why they made this. It’s probably not as good as maybe it could have been, but I’m also not quite sure how much higher that ceiling actually is, so I’m fine with this.
The Glorias — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
It’s always weird for me to watch movies like this, about the fight for equal rights and civil rights, for two reasons. First… it’s weird how recently it all happened (and is still happening in a lot of ways), and it always makes me think, “There can’t really be people who don’t understand the importance of what these people fought for, can there?” And apparently there are. When I watch them, I have to constantly fight the urge to think, “Okay, I get it,” just because there are people who just don’t and need to be hit over the head with it, and when you’re already on board with the message, you kind of want them to find a different way to tell it to you after the first dozen times. It’d be nice if these things were commonplace and not that big a deal, but that’s unfortunately not the world we live in. That said, this as a pure film — it’s uneven. Julie Taymor is a very visual director but that often leads to her films being short on acting and writing. And it’s not because of the actors or the script, it’s because her style tends to overwhelm everything else. And this feels no different. She has four different Glorias throughout the film (all of whom interact with one another director in these fantasy sequences that can only come from the mind of a theater director), the two most prominent are Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander. Neither particularly stands out because they always feel like actresses in costume playing a part. They never become Gloria Steinem, the way you’d want in a biopic. And Taymor… if you’re not a fan of her as a director, you’re really gonna have a hard time with this one. She throws in a lot of visual fantasy flourishes to drive certain points home. And sometimes it works, other times it feels like the film is taking a giant mallet and hitting you over the head. I’m not surprised the film got mixed reviews and wasn’t well-received by audiences. Though a lot of that, I feel, will come across like the usual criticisms thrown at women who have the audacity to speak — ‘loud’, ‘shrill’. I just know that if I really cared to listen, the majority of the criticisms of this movie are gonna come across exactly like that, where it’s clear what the real problem is that people have with it (‘I’m all for movies about feminism… just not this one’, which they’ll say about all of them). I do think it’s a solid, well-made movie that is not without its problems, largely stemming from the choice of director. I feel like the style had to not overwhelm the content here, especially with a figure as important as Gloria Steinem. But it does. Though, the movie does work on its own terms and while it did take me a good while to get into it (it started to gel for me once they got to Vikander being harassed and marginalized at her first magazine), I think there’s more good here than bad. And while it’s not the biopic Gloria Steinem deserves, I’d rather have this than nothing.
The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone — * * * * ½ (4.5 stars)
So this is Francis Ford Coppola’s recut of Godfather III, coming on the heels of his Apocalypse Now Final Cut and Director’s Cut of The Cotton Club. In the case of Apocalypse Now, he had gone in with Redux and thrown basically the kitchen sink in there. And this is him paring that down, giving you something that’s a mix of the theatrical cut and Redux without the run time. And they updated all the sound, which is still stunning and some of the best ever (full stop. Ever) put on film. The Cotton Club and this film are examples of him not having full autonomy in a lot of ways and him going back to put the version he’d preferred to have put out originally. In this case specifically, Coppola wanted to call the film The Death of Michael Corleone, and viewed it not as a sequel to the first two Godfather films but rather an epilogue. Hence the ‘Coda’ in the title. And he tells a story about how he had to fight like hell to get them to call Godfather II ‘Part II’, because numbered sequels weren’t really a thing back then, and then when they came around to this, they were the ones forcing him to call it Godfather III. Because after II came out, Jaws and Rocky and all those films happened and of course you number your films because you’re selling the franchise and IP and not the film itself. And Pacino said that they tried like hell to get the studio to push it a year so they could finish editing, but they had their Christmas Day date, so the version that ended up coming out is a bit of a compromise. So this was him going back to try to put out the version he wanted. I feel like everyone toes that ‘company’ line of ‘Part III is a terrible movie’. And I feel like most people either never actually saw Part III or ever really gave it a fair shot because it was just easier and more fun to shit on it. Because sure, it’s not the first two. But also… it’s not trying to be the first two. Coppola admits that, to the point of saying he specifically made Pacino cut his hair for the movie. And I know a lot of vitriol is aimed at Sofia. Coppola also admits that a lot of what he wanted to do with this cut is ‘acquit’ her performance (since people just abjectly shitting on her when she was 19 was pretty traumatic for her and hurt her relationship with her father for years and still remains a sore subject. Though I will say — we did get a couple of great movies from her about daddy issues from that, so, you know. Silver lining). I was always in the camp of ‘it’s not that bad’. I don’t necessarily think it’s the greatest performance ever, but I also understand it. He had Winona Ryder in the movie and she dropped out at the very last minute, like, a week before her scenes were about to be shot, which was during the filming of the movie. So he had to scramble, and I think sentimentality won out. Sofia was in both the first two movies (most notably being the baby in the baptism scene in the first one) and there was an innocence about her that could have worked in that part. I’m not gonna go so far as to say it’s an amazing performance, but I also know that people tend to pile on when they smell blood in the water and it tends to taint reality. Anyway — this recut is shorter, some scenes are altered, namely the opening, and it gives the movie a focus it didn’t have before. Before it started with him writing the letter to his children, getting the church honor and having the party. Which I assume was them trying to mirror the wedding in the first film. But then you get into church deals and political stuff and it all reads like having to listen to trade routes and imperial blockades when you just wanna watch a star war. You know? And so here he puts the driving focus front and center, which is — Michael’s trying to go completely legitimate and use the church to wash away his past sins. Only he still keeps getting dragged back into the muck from the criminal side, and he discovers that the church is even more corrupt than the gangsters are. And then there’s all the lingering family stuff going on as well. You understand all the pieces better here rather than, in the original, not really being sure what’s happening and thinking how it’s not as good as the first two. But I’ll also say — this cut is not that different from the original cut. Which is the film’s dirty secret — it was always really good. People feel the need to compare things. Sure, you could have stopped after II. But to take the chance at III and have it be as good as this is. This isn’t the bastard stepchild of the franchise the way some films are. This more like… I don’t know… Die Hard 2. Is it the first one you throw on? No. You watch the original, and then you probably watch with a Vengeance because it’s fun and has Samuel L. Jackson. This is like 2. It’s lesser, and we acknowledge that, but it’s all there, for the most part. Just… stop comparing shit, especially now more than ever we know — it’s not meant to be part of those other two. So, my point here is: it’s a really good movie and was always a really good movie, and to Coppola’s credit (and he’s three for three on these recuts now), he made it a more driving plot than it was before, which actually does enhance the film. I think this is a perfect film for people to see to remind you that this always was a good movie and that you just fell into the popular narrative that it’s bad because it’s not I or II.
Godmothered — * * * (3 stars)
Basically an Enchanted/Elf ripoff for Disney+. A bumbling, wannabe fairy godmother has to grant the wish of a girl whose wish got lost in the mail 30 years prior. So now she’s an overworked news producer who doesn’t believe in love and yada yada yada. It’s dumb, obvious and generic all the way, yet has enough moments of charm that I went 3 instead of 2.5. It’s not a good movie though. You know exactly what it’s doing and what it’s going to do and the question is how much you’re okay with it. I was okay with it enough, apparently, though I’m very okay never seeing this again.
Greenland — * * * (3 stars)
What an insane idea for a movie in 2020. Or 2010. Pretty much any time outside of the 90s would this be a bad idea. It’s a global disaster movie. And, on the one hand, I like the idea that it focuses on the panic before a confirmed disaster happens and everyone’s rushing to try to become one of the ‘chosen’ people who get to be taken to safety of underground bunkers. But on the other — is this what we really needed during a global pandemic? Plus, while it’s everything you’d expect it would be (perfectly watchable, completely inconsequential), it literally ends with the confirmed deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people. And the happy ending is, “Hey, this one family got to safety with a bunch of people and now they get to come out of their bunker to a scorched earth and almost everyone else in the world dead!” Seriously, what a weird fucking idea for a movie.
Happiest Season — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
So this seems to have gotten some views since it’s come out. Which is nice. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but I was pretty satisfied with the result. The premise is that Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart are a couple, and Davis is going home to her family for Christmas, as her father is going for some sort of election and they have to appeal to rich donors for the campaign. Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know she’s gay. So the whole trip is her bringing Stewart with her, promising she’ll tell her family but after the holidays, all while Stewart is ready to propose to her, and then all sorts of shit goes down in the process. In a lot of ways, the writing is a little obvious, but in others the cast found a way to make the movie work. I, for once, didn’t feel Stewart falling into her usual acting traps. Davis is great as usual. Max Levy was charming in what was an otherwise pretty standard ‘gay best friend’ role. Aubrey Plaza was really wonderful as Davis’ ex. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but I found myself really liking it. I feel like the gay community might have had some issues with it, but just looking at it from a pure film standpoint, I saw a movie that did a lot of things that I’ve seen a bunch of times before and yet I found myself rooting for it and still going along for the ride without really rolling my eyes at it. So I’m in the thumbs up category. I liked this.
Hillbilly Elegy — * * * (3 stars)
Ah yes, Hollywood’s occasional poverty porn. The funny this is, not too long ago, this would’ve been feasting at the Oscars. And now, rightfully, everyone took a look at this one and said, “What the fuck is this?” How big a piece of bait did they think this was? Because goddamn. This is the kind of movie that rich people think is how poor people live. I saw someone shit all over the ‘credit card declined’ scene by saying ‘real poor people know exactly how much money they have’. And that’s how this feels. It feels performative. Look at us, we’re not wearing makeup and doing an accent, give us statues. We did good. We’re showing how the other half lives. You gotta be real dumb to fall for this one. And I was even willing to give this movie a break if it was any good. Problem is, it’s not. There’s no through line here. It’s just excuses for Glenn Close and Amy Adams to have big emotional Oscar clips. The frame story with the guy being a lawyer and somehow getting real mad when people make cracks about where he grew up (as if you wouldn’t learn to take that shit in stride in the moment, especially given how badly this movie drilled down just how important this bullshit dinner was) was dumb and pointless. It’s just a series of scenes. Part of me tried to give some of them the benefit of the doubt — like that scene where Adams and the kid go to the card store so he can get something and the kid accidentally knocks over one of the spinning racks and all of a sudden the teen cashier is like, “That’s it, OUT!” I look at that and go, “I can see that exact scene taking place in a 40s movie. That hair trigger.” But that was the 40s. Movies are held to different storytelling standards now. Now that’s just bad writing. If you were 20 and working the counter in some shitty store and someone knocked something over, would you immediately flip out? Or would you sigh because you knew you had to pick that shit up? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s almost baffling how this movie doesn’t seem to understand how humans interact. But also, kinda funny at times because of that. Also, totally random Eagle-Eye Cherry needle drop out of nowhere, which I thought was hysterical. But yeah, this isn’t that great a movie. It’s fine, but I get why all the vitriol. The vitriol is funny to read. I expected I’d think it was more of a forgettable 3.5 and I’d be the one to say ‘it’s not that terrible’ when everyone shit on it. But no, I get it. It’s not a good movie and is one of the worst movies Ron Howard’s made in his career.
His House — * * * (3 stars)
So let me start by saying — I hate supernatural horror. I hate haunted house movies. This is both of those things. And yet — I respect the shit out of this movie. Because it’s about more than just the usual bullshit that the Conjuring movies are about. This is about race and heritage and the things people do in order to survive. It’s about a couple from South Sudan who escape to London, looking for a better life. They’re put in a crappy house and told they have to meet certain standards in order to qualify for asylum. Only, the house begins to show signs of inhabiting spirits. And we find out that the spirits have to do with all the war and trauma from their country and their past, things they have to come to terms with before they move on. It comes from a black writer-director, and represents a different, more diverse type of voice within genre filmmaking. So while I don’t really care about the movie as a film, I love that it exists. I want more voices in these tired genres. How many dumb horror movies can we let the same five people make? This at least is something different to break up the monotony.
Holidate — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
I liked the premise at least: couple agree to be each other’s date for all the major holidays that require you to be around family. Problem is — movie’s not that good. Too badly written, too generic, too much over-the-top comedy and simply not a very good movie. This joins the ranks of all the other forgettable Netflix rom coms. For every really good one there is, you get 5 bad ones. This is one of the bad ones.
Honest Thief — * * * (3 stars)
I like this new evolution of Liam Neeson movies. At first it was just him beating the shit out of people, then it was him in crime movies where he, at times, beat the shit out of people. Now it’s much more focused on story and drama, and I’m here for it. The title is literally the movie. He’s a thief whose robbed something like 14 banks, but then he meets a woman and decides he wants to settle down and stop being a thief. So he calls the FBI like, “Hey, I’m this bank robber, I wanna turn myself in. I’ll give you the money back.” But of course there are corrupt agents, and things get complicated and then he has to go on the run to prove he’s just a thief and not a murderer. It’s fun. The same quality as all his other thrillers, but completely watchable in every way. I like this run he’s been on, and this is for sure one of the better ones.
Hubie Halloween — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Adam Sandler Netflix movie. You know it’s bad. We all know it’s bad. They’re all bad. I don’t have anything to say here. I’m just glad I’ve gotten beyond the point of hating that these things exist and can now just shrug and move on. They are what they are. I leave them to people who like this type of humor (and there are far more of them out there than you might think).
I Am Woman — * * * (3 stars)
Biopic of Helen Reddy. Not sure she really means as much here as she might have in, say Australia, but “I Am Woman” was very much an anthem for women’s empowerment and she was a huge figure for that fight for a long time. Plus she’s in Pete’s Dragon. Which isn’t in the movie, but just something that is worth noting. It’s just okay. Pretty by the numbers, doesn’t really do anything you haven’t seen and doesn’t really tell a story that makes this feel like one of the many exemplary music biopics that are out there. Win some, lose some. This one feels more like a net neutral.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things — * * * * (4 stars)
I fucking love Charlie Kaufman. I love everything he makes. I love the way he sees the world and the way he tries to impart it to us. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine, Synecdoche New York, Anomalisa — all movies I’ve loved. He’s directed the last three. And this one — I knew from when they announced it that I was gonna love this. Because it’s such a simple premise (especially if you haven’t read the book, which I hadn’t deliberately just because I wanted to experience it through his lens clean) that you knew there was gonna be ample room for him to do what he does. I just love the idea that the only way you can explain this movie is, “Couple takes a road trip to see his parents, and all the while she’s thinking of ending the relationship.” And that’s literally all you can say, because it’s almost impossible to spoil. I love everything about this movie. I love that the opening scene in the car is like 30 minutes long. I love that the movie takes on all these weird turns. I love the stuff he does with the third act (which is apparently different from the book, but nevertheless quite wonderful). I love that I was able to watch this movie and, within about 15 minutes, notice, “Oh, I see that going on. So (x) must be the case.” And then, while I was right, that wasn’t even scratching the surface of what was happening. It’s a really wonderful film that I can’t wait to see again. Charlie Kaufman is a genius.
I’m Your Woman — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Interesting revisionist crime film. You know the wife figure in all those gangster movies, who’s always in the dark about what’s really going on and usually told very suddenly that she has to take the baby and get out of town? Well this is an entire film about that character. And it’s pretty fascinating. Julia Hart directs, and she’s made a hell of a filmography for herself so far, with three of her four features coming out within the past two years. Last year was Fast Color, which was tremendous, and this year was this movie and Stargirl, which no one really saw but was a way more solid coming of age Disney+ movie than I ever thought I’d get. So she’s become someone I inherently trust to make a good movie. This is set in the 70s with pretty gorgeous cinematography, set design and costume design, and it’s anchored by Rachel Brosnahan with a wonderfully understated performance. I like that it doesn’t try to get too big and really puts you in this woman’s shoes. She’s naive to an extent but also way smarter than most people give her credit for, but also is never brought up to speed in any situation so is constantly figuring out what’s going on, on the fly. And you never really do get any information, because this movie exists completely on the margins of all those other movies. I like that they don’t try to speed up the narrative or do anything excessive with set pieces. It’s really grounded and quite wonderful. I’m certain that not everyone will get this, but consider me a huge fan of this movie.
The Informer — * * * (3 stars)
Pretty standard action thriller. Guy working undercover for corrupt FBI agents to infiltrate the Polish mob in New York. It’s the usual thing, but with a better cast. Overall perfectly watchable, but nothing you haven’t seen before. The epitome of the 3 star movie.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey — * * * (3 stars)
Absolutely magical movie. It’s an all-black Christmas movie and an original musical at that. I love everything about this movie. It’s about an inventor and toymaker whose apprentice betrays him and steals his ideas, turning him bitter and jaded. Then, years later, he meets his granddaughter, who reignites his passion for creation and helps him unlock his greatest invention. It’s really sweet. As far as original Christmas movies go, it’s hard to make a truly great one. But also… it’s an all-black cast and from a black filmmaker. That’s so much more interesting to me than more of the usual crap we get. I love that this exists and I’m so happy it’s actually a good movie. This is the kind of movie we need to support.
Jiu Jitsu — * * * (3 stars)
Oh, you know, just your run-of-the-mill action movie about an alien that comes to earth every six years looking for a fight and has to be fought off by earth’s greatest warriors which include Nicolas Cage. It’s a perfect entry into the Cage oeuvre. It’s not amazing, I’ll say that much. Even for Cage standards. It’s also not one of his awful, borderline unwatchable ones where he’s not engaged. He’s engaged here. The problem is, he’s a smaller part of the narrative than usual. The film itself is basically Predator with bad CGI. There’s not a whole lot of value here, but it’s watchable.
Jungleland — * * * (3 stars)
Weird bare knuckle boxing road trip movie that, in my head, takes place in the 30s during the Dust Bowl, but in reality it takes place today. Mostly it’s about two brothers, and it’s a story you’ve seen so many times before. The older one is the schemer, always with a plan but always fucking it up in some way and making life difficult for the younger brother, who is the one in all the fights taking all the risks. You know the whole thing. You know where it goes, you know all the tropes — it’s all of that. It’s Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell, so at least there’s that. It’s watchable, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone because it’s essentially the same movie you’ve seen done a hundred different ways and at least 85 ways better than this one.
Kajillionaire — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Absolutely wonderful Miranda July film that caught me by complete surprise. I knew it had Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez in it, but I just wasn’t expecting the extent to which this would be so unique and have so much personality and be so likable all at the same time. It’s about a family of con artists who only know low rent scams and living off the grid. Wood is their daughter, who only knows what she’s been raised with, which isn’t much. And then the family take Rodriguez into their scheme, and suddenly everything’s turned upside down. It’s — it’s better if you just see it. If you’re not fully invested within fifteen minutes, then maybe the movie’s not for you. But I absolutely adored it. Wood gives an incredible performance in a really tricky role. It’s one of those where, if she wasn’t fully committed and fully prepared to not look good at times, then it wouldn’t have worked. And it really works. She’s so good in this, and the film has such charm and likability to it. It’s really one of my favorite things that I saw this year, and I hope everyone takes the time to go see it at some point.
Let Him Go — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This film is an experiment in star power. It’s Diane Keaton and Kevin Costner, and the film is basically just about them and their screen presences. I’m pretty sure that if you counted all his dialogue, Costner doesn’t say more than 40-50 lines in the entire film. He’s not a man of words, and yet he conveys so much just by being himself. And I love that about this movie. And Lane — I just like seeing her at all times. But she does much of the same. Though, because of the story, she’s forced to say more lines just to get certain things across. But still, it’s that same deal. The story is very straightforward and doesn’t really throw you any curveballs. It’s a modern day western in a lot of ways. They’re in cars and it’s present day, but the story is the same kind of thing you’d have seen in a western: their son dies having been thrown off a horse, and they’re left in care of his widowed bride and their grandson. Then she gets married to a new man who, overnight, takes her and the child away to his family further out west. Lane, who knows the new husband isn’t the best of men and saw him hit the daughter-in-law, says they should go after them, if only for their grandson’s sake. And so the film is kind of like The Searchers. They’re going to save the damsel from bad people. And then you get the whole section with the guy’s family, which gives you Jeffrey Donovan (who is always welcome) and Lesley Manville, who steals the movie with her evil matriarch (who is basically the more overtly unhinged Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom). It’s quite good. There’s a lot under the hood of this movie, and while I don’t think it’ll ever find its true audience, there’s a lot to like here and it’s one of the better films that’s come out this year.
Let Them All Talk — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
So this is an improvised film from Steven Soderbergh. He basically took Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan, put them on a cruise ship for a few weeks and just shot the film. Apparently they just put up little signs for when live filming was happening and people on the cruise ship basically just ignored them. And what they did was go into scenes with simple outlines and just had everyone improvise all the dialogue. Which makes me feel two simultaneous thoughts, now having seen it: 1) I love that Soderbergh keeps trying various exercises and always looks to do something different. 2) Yeah, we can tell that you didn’t have a writer on this. I like the idea of having people improvise scenes, but you realize watching something like this just how much 99% of actors really do need something to be on the page. Because left to their own devices, there’s a lot of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and face touching and trying to carry a scene like a piece of driftwood in the ocean. It’s not so bad most of the time, but you can tell that there’s nothing driving each of the scenes and that some actors handle that better than others. Meryl, for the majority of the film, feels like she’s working from a script, but she’s also the most prepared person on any set, so that’s not surprising. And even she has moments where she seems to be struggling through scenes. Overall, it’s the usual Soderbergh solid. I liked it. I like that he made it. I liked watching it. I wish it had more of a script, but I understand, exercise-wise, why it didn’t. Overall, solid piece of work that I’ve come to expect out of Soderbergh every time he makes a film.
The Lie — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Really generic — I don’t even want to call this horror. It’s just fucked up, more than anything. Basically, overly spoiled girl claims her best friend fell into the lake and has disappeared. Then she says to her father, “Oh, I pushed her.” And so it’s about this awful person getting her parents to help cover up a murder. So you’re left with something not particularly interesting (in the way this is told), completely unlikable characters across the board, and absolutely nothing to hold onto to make you want to keep watching. I can see why Blumhouse dumped this on Amazon, because I think they shot it two years ago and there was no way anyone was gonna give a shit about this. (It’s not very good, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Life in a Year — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
One of those ‘let’s try to make Fault in Our Stars money’ teen dramas. Starring Jaden Smith. Oh boy. And Cara Delevingne. She’s a dying girl and he’s the guy whose father has his life planned out for him… and of course she’s not part of the plan. But he loves her, so he’s gonna go through all the major life events with her before she dies. It’s not terrible, but I just didn’t care. It hits every single beat you’d expect it to hit, and for every moment where I went, “Oh, good for them,” there were equally as many moments where I said, “What the fuck are you doing?” Delevingne actually does a good job with it, and I appreciated that they really focused on the deteriorating health in a real way rather than trying to fancy it up. But, on the other hand — Chris D’Elia plays a trans woman. And a lot of the story is really on the nose in the worst possibly way. So, ultimately, don’t care.
Lost Girls & Love Hotels — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
So I start watching this movie, which I absurdly tracked for like two years before seeing it (because I’m an insane person who really does watch everything), and I know before I start that it’s not gonna be good. And I also know that the only reason anyone is ever gonna watch it is because Alexandra Daddario gets naked in it. But I started watching it and saw — American teacher in Tokyo goes out at night, gets fucked up and picks up random strangers to have sex with. And immediately I think, “It’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” Which is a reference I know almost nobody gets, but that’s what it is. And so that keeps me somewhat invested, even though the movie’s not remotely worth it. And then I found this review, from Roger Ebert’s website, that says just about everything I could ever want to say about this movie as perfectly as can be. So I’ll leave you with these words from Peter Sobczynski:
“’Lost Girls and Love Hotels’ plays like the result of a collision between ‘Lost in Translation’, ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar’ and the entire ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ saga. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say that because that particular combination of influences is so bizarre that it might actually lure some viewers into seeing it on the theory that, if nothing else, the end result would almost have to be at least somewhat interesting. While there are plenty of words that could be used to describe this attempted combination of introspective drama and kinky sex fantasy, ‘interesting’ is one that I am reasonably sure will not be further deployed in the course of this review.”
Love, Guaranteed — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Hallmark level Netflix rom com whose only redeeming quality is that it brings Rachael Leigh Cook back into our lives. The premise is that she’s a likable but clumsy small town lawyer who meets a guy determined to sue a dating app for false advertising because they ‘guarantee’ that someone will find love through them. And of course he’s gaming the system by deliberately going on a required number of dates just so he can say, ‘Hey look, you’re wrong, now pay men.” One of those ‘gotcha’ lawsuits, like the McDonald’s coffee one. And of course she and him fall in in love… all the usual bullshit. It’s not the worst of the Netflix rom coms (but that’s because I’ve seen all of them, so don’t consider that an endorsement), but it’s also not good at all. If you like bad, cheesy rom coms, then sure, watch it. But otherwise, please don’t. It’s not good.
Love and Monsters — * * * (3 stars)
Solid premise for a movie — big apocalyptic event unleashes monsters on the world. The survivors begin living in underground bunkers for as long as they can. The likable but timid main character gets separated from his girlfriend during everything, but finds out she’s actually in a bunker about 20 miles away. So he sets out to go to her. Of course he’s woefully underprepared and everyone in his bunker just assumes he’ll be dead within 20 minutes. And the film is about him learning to overcome his fears and learn how to survive. It’s a good premise and generally works. The CGI of the monsters looks bad. Somehow the better CGI gets, the worse it looks. I don’t understand how that can be, but that’s how it looks. Otherwise, it’s pleasant, likable, and hits literally every note you’d expect it to hit. Not surprising in any way, but comforting in an odd way, because it’s a throwback to those Amblin movies of the 80s. Overall, it’s fun.
Love, Weddings & Other Disasters — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Is there a law that we don’t know about that mandates that Diane Keaton be in all these ensemble wedding movies? Honestly, if they made an ensemble wedding movie about a woman marrying a time traveler, Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams would be in it before you even finished the script. This was directed by the auteur who gave us such films as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Jack and Jill, Grown Ups and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. So I think you understand what kind of movie we’re dealing with here (Oscars). It’s just generic. It’s literally like every other one of those movies. Those New Year’s, Valentine’s ensemble movies… all of that shit, rolled into one. I get why actors do them, but man… they’re never any good. And neither was this. But I think we may want to look into why Diane Keaton seems to be in all of them. Maybe we all agreed to it when we accepted all those user agreements without reading them?
Mank — * * * * ½ (4.5 stars)
There was little doubt that I was gonna love this movie. I love all of David Fincher’s movies. And I love Citizen Kane and the idea that they were telling the story of how Mankiewicz wrote it — I was all in. And I knew Fincher’s been trying to shoot in black and white forever, so the idea that he finally found a way to do it was just thrilling to me. I suspect that this is gonna be one of those movies that is not universally acclaimed and some people will think ‘what the hell is this’. And I get that. I love that he went for it. That he tried to make it feel like a movie set in the 40s. Didn’t fully work, but I admire him for trying. I like that they used reel change dots and tried to do fade outs by having all the lights dim on the set to approximate the look. I like all of that stuff. This was a movie that was tailored for me to really like it. And I really liked it. Of course, I need to see it again over the next two weeks so I can really formulate my opinion on it. But for now, let’s just say that this is, very unsurprisingly, one of my favorite films of the year. Which is a pretty safe bet for anything David Fincher makes anyway.
Minari — * * * * (4 stars)
This is the movie Hillbilly Elegy wishes it was. Family, in Arkansas, in the 80s, dealing with hardship and poverty, and there’s a foul-mouthed grandmother. It’s literally the same movie but better. And somehow more American, even though almost the entire movie is in Korean. It’s a really terrific film that feels intensely personal and very real. I loved that it never tried to be anything more than it is, and in a year that doesn’t have a whole lot that felt really good, this one feels really good.
Monster Hunter — * * * (3 stars)
It’s a Paul W.S. Anderson film. You’ve seen Resident Evil. You know what it is. Generic 3-star action movies. He’s consistent in the quality. They’re all basically the same. And they all star his wife. Milla Jovovich is the Helena Bonham Carter of Paul W.S. Anderson’s films. You can set a watch to this stuff. It’s elevated Uwe Boll territory. Watchable, but never good. It is what it is.
Mulan — * * * (3 stars)
If I didn’t retire the Unforgivables list, this would probably have been on it. And not because it’s a bad movie, because it isn’t. It just really annoyed the shit out of me. I’ve heard mixed things about this one. I’ve heard people who thought it was fine, and heard people who hated it. And I’m somewhere in between. To start — it looks great. Niki Caro is a good filmmaker, and the production design, costumes, cinematography and score and all the technical stuff is terrific (maybe not the editing so much, but I have that problem with most movies nowadays). My problem is the tone. This movie tried real hard to lose me within its first 20 minutes. Hell, it almost lost me in the first three, with that weird ‘child on wires, jumping around’ bit. I can’t explain it in so many words except to say — it’s unnecessary. It feels like a mix of ‘for children’ and ‘today’s audiences’, with unnecessary thrills and action and this unfathomable need to make the main character overly capable from the get-go. Because the stuff in the army is largely good. They keep the weird tone throughout and try to make it a family fun movie instead of just being a war movie, but you sort of forget about it for long stretches of time. And I chalk it up to an inability to trust an audience (everything has to constantly be moving and placate all the people with visual ADD, and for some reason they think kids just won’t sit through a straight war movie, even though they forget about a lot of the stuff people in the 80s and 90s grew up watching) and Disney trying to check as many boxes as it can, because at this point they don’t give a shit about good. All they care about is appealing to as many people as possible and making as much money as possible. It doesn’t matter if it has legs so long as people come pay to see the golden calf. It is what it is. It’s hard to get mad. We know all these live action remakes aren’t good or at all comparative to the originals in terms of quality. So you just live with a watchable movie. I didn’t hate this I just wondered why they made some of the choices they did, and it came down to the same things that piss me off with most movies nowadays — a lack of trust in an audience and a desire for money over quality.
My Salinger Year — * * * (3 stars)
Perfectly watchable, made with a certain amount of flair, and Margaret Qualley is a movie star in the making just waiting for her breakthrough, but I had the same problem with this that I have with every movie about authors and aspiring writers set in New York. It’s the same shit. Please stop having movie characters analyze literature on screen. It’s pretentious and tiresome and I’ve seen it far too often and not once does it do anything to enhance the film except to alert me that the characters are pretentious (which — they’re an aspiring writer in a movie. We know). There’s some legitimately good stuff here, but it’s also got the same stuff that I despise in movies like this. And they’re never gonna change. It comes with the territory. And as long as they keep traversing the territory, I’ll keep being ambivalent about the finished product. Though I will say, to this film’s credit, the main character, for once, lives in an actual shithole apartment befitting of their job and salary level and doesn’t live in a fucking palace that they chose just because it was big enough to shoot in and looked better. So at least the movie has that going for it.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I’ve always been interested in the story of D.B. Cooper. Just because it’s one of those fun unsolved mysteries. Guy gets on a plane in 1971 (back when you could buy a ticket in cash at the gate and just walk onto the plane even if you gave a fake name and everything), hijacks it, gets them to give him a bunch of money and parachutes, then jumps out of the plane somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and then is never seen or heard from again. And all they have (since it’s 1971) is a composite police sketch and the name he gave at the gate and to the people on the plane. Only a little bit of the money was recovered…a few years later, washed ashore, and no one knows if the guy died, or if he’s out there somewhere. No one knows. And so the documentary is a retelling of the incident (which is coming up on its 50th anniversary) along with people who claim they know exactly who the guy is. And so you hear these people tell their stories and why they’re convinced the person they know (uncle, husband, random woman they befriended at an airfield) are absolutely the person who hijacked that plane, or why the person absolutely died after jumping out. I liked it just because I think the story is interesting. I don’t think it’s the greatest film ever, but it’s interesting, kind of like how that documentary about the Shining was interesting, where they talked about all the different interpretations of it. It’s fun to listen to, and if anything it gets you thinking about the incident and how it’s such a unique incident in our history that has never (and will never) happen again.
My Zoe — * * * (3 stars)
I can always count on Julie Delpy to make a solid three-star movie. However, while I generally like her stuff (Two Days in Paris/New York were both really solid), this one was fucking weird. It’s this family drama for the first half, where she’s divorced and sharing custody of her daughter with her ex, and then all of a sudden the daughter goes into a coma with a brain bleed and slowly dies over the course of half the film. And you think, “Okay, it’s that kind of movie. You watch the emotional fallout of this and what it does to them and how you deal with something that seems so minor at the time that becomes this life or death moment.” But no. It’s not that. Because once the girl dies, the movie becomes something else entirely. Because there’s this whole weird second act where Delpy takes cells from the girl before she dies, and she’s gonna clone her and then carry the baby in her uterus, and Daniel Bruhl and Gemma Arterton are scientists working to make this happen — you watch this and go, “What the fuck is going on?” It’s almost like that tonal shift in From Dusk Till Dawn. Where you’re grooving in this narrative of the fugitives trying to get to Mexico, and then all of a sudden it’s fucking vampires. And whereas there you’re like, “Okay cool, let’s roll with this vampires thing, this is fun too,” here you’re like, “I was kinda not feeling the sad, girl dying part, and now I’m left with this weird cloning thing that makes no sense?” I did find this weirdly watchable, but I do not think this is remotely a good movie and is definitely the weakest thing I’ve seen from Delpy as a director. But hey, at least I’ll be able to talk about how weird this was.
The Nest — * * * (3 stars)
This is from Sean Durkin, who did Martha Marcy May Marlene. And the cast is Jude Law and Carrie Coon. Which is appealing, right? Though I’m pretty sure most people aren’t fully prepared for what this movie is. I know I wasn’t. Because it’s a straight character piece, family drama. That’s all it is. It’s a study in these people. It’s about the family moving back to England from New York, after Law says he’s going to take a job back at his old company, and what happens to them after that happens. His whole thing is pretending like he’s more successful than he is, living beyond his means on razor thin margins. His wife trains horses, but isn’t happy with the monotony of living on an isolated estate. And then the kids each have their own stuff going on. And that’s the film. The slow burn of seeing all of this stuff come to a head. The film looks great and lets the actors do their thing… I just didn’t find a whole lot to care about here. That’s not to say it was boring so much as I didn’t find myself fully engaged. It’s a perfectly solid film that I suspect some people will really go for. I also see quite a few people who will hate it because it’s slow and because it’s focused on subtle character stuff rather than big ‘story’ moments. So, ultimately, this wasn’t disappointing, per se, but I do wish I liked it more than I did.
Nocturne — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Another generic horror movie with a premise you’ll feel like you’ve seen before. Two sisters, both music students, one living in the shadow of the other. And the ‘lesser’ one, in order to achieve greatness, finds the diary of another music student who just killed herself. And of course as she reads it, it becomes this Faustian pact to make her great, which comes at the cost of her own humanity… yada yada yada, you’ve seen this before. I’d say that of all the Blumhouse Amazon horror movies, this was the best of them. That doesn’t mean I particularly liked it. It just means I felt it was the best made and probably the one most worth wasting your time on, if you felt like it. Still — not for me.
An Officer and a Spy — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Another solid Polanski movie. He’s a good director, and generally makes worthwhile films. And I know this movie has been a passion project of his for years. It’s about the Dreyfus Affair, a story that I don’t really remember seeing on film apart from The Life of Emile Zola, in which it’s really only a section of the film rather than the entire plot. So it’s nice to see. Overall, it’s good. It’s engaging and well-made. Can’t say it’s one of my favorite movies that he’s directed, but it’s also worth your time.
On the Rocks — * * * * (4 stars)
Sofia Coppola’s latest ode to daddy issues. This one brings back Bill Murray after Lost in Translation and basically has him playing Bill Murray. Which — I’m not complaining about either of those things. Rashida Jones is the star and is struggling with her seemingly distancing marriage to her successful, workaholic husband (Marlon Wayans, who’s quite good in a non-comedic role) and her inability to get around to her own ambitions. She’s got two kids to take care of in the meantime, and then there’s her father, who is basically just a rich dude who travels around places, picking up random women and being the most charming person in the room. And that’s the film, pretty much. Murray comes back into her life more and decides to use it as a sort of spy mission for them to go around and find out if her husband is really cheating on her. But really it’s about the moments of them spending time together. It’s just fun. It’s relaxed. Just a really good time. In a year like this, this was one of the few movies that gave me real joy, even though you sort of knew what the resolution was going to be. It’s a comfort movie. An enjoyable time with people you like.
The Opening Act — * * * (3 stars)
A movie about standup comedians starring standup comedians. So many comics play minor roles here. It feels more of a series of inside references for comics more than it does a film at times. But you know what? Its heart is in the right place. It’s about an aspiring comic who finally makes the move to quit his day job and pursue standup full time. And we follow him on one of those shitty gigs in the middle of nowhere, doing ten minutes before the headliner, staying in a crappy duplex with another comic, doing radio gigs, bombing — the whole thing. If you’ve ever listened to comics talk about what it’s like being on the road before you ‘make’ it (and even then, it’s still kind of the same a lot of the time only maybe the hotels are nicer), it’s this movie. So, ultimately, this didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Yet, it was fine. Like I said, its heart is in the right place. It’s perfectly watchable and I don’t regret having watched it for a second.
Operation Christmas Drop — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Should’ve just stuck with Dumbo Drop. Dropping Christmas on other countries just feels like a bad idea, kind of like when we tried to force Christianity onto other cultures and all that gave them was murder and smallpox. At least dropping an elephant is fun and everyone can enjoy it. But yeah, this is a shitty Netflix rom com. This is them trying to be Hallmark/Lifetime. It’s garbage. There’s nothing redeemable here, and unless you deliberately like watching bad movies, please don’t ever put this on.
Over the Moon — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Okay, so the extra half-star here is for two things: the animation style felt fun and at least trying something different than the usual boring CG thing every animated film gives us nowadays. And also because it’s a film about a Chinese family and features an Asian cast in the leads. Good for them. The story — somewhat emotional, but ultimately more of the same in a lot of ways. But you know what? It felt personal, and it felt like they were being inclusive with other cultures and telling a story that is gonna be great for Asian children to see when they grow up in the coming years. And you can’t put a price on that. It’s an admirable movie, even if it’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. Trust me, there’s a lot of bullshit animation that comes out every year in America. This is one of the ones that I can at least get behind, even if I didn’t love it.
Possessor — * * * (3 stars)
David Cronenberg’s son directed this. And I guess body horror runs in the family. The opening scene is a woman sticking a giant needle in the back of her neck, then going to a party and murdering a man in cold blood. Then you find out it’s this Inception assassin thing, where an assassin gets uploaded into the consciousness of another person, commits a murder, and then is pulled out just as the person commits suicide. And the film follows the assassin. It’s — slow. It’s got some trippy visuals and a fuck ton of body horror, but ultimately it was too slow and not interesting enough to fully care about. It’s one of those where I’d say that I appreciated the filmmaking more than the story. I really didn’t care about anything I was watching, but it looked good and was interesting to look at. So I guess there’s that.
The Princess Switch: Switched Again — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
What’s better than two Vanessa Hudgens’? Three Vanessa Hudgens’. That seems to be the idea behind this movie. “Let’s introduce another one!” Though whereas in the first one, the two didn’t know the other existed before, here the other one is a direct relative to one of them, and yet somehow was never mentioned in the first one. Very appropriate, but also — come on. They try to add extra plot to this, and while the first one wasn’t great, at least that felt slightly more fun and watchable than this does. This is just generic all the way through. Though I will say, I’m utterly fascinated with this weirdness of how all these Netflix Christmas movies seem to exist within the same universe. In, I think it was Knight Before Christmas, also with Vanessa Hudgens, she and the titular knight watch… I think they watch the first Princess Switch. Or maybe they watch A Christmas Prince. They watch one of them on Netflix, and it’s one of the weirdest fourth wall breaks I’ve ever seen. And then here, the actual actors from A Christmas Prince show up at the end of the movie in cameos, implying that their monarchy exists within the realm of this monarchy. I know it’s meant to be fun or whatever, but this is the kind of shit that, when you don’t care about the movie (as I don’t with this), you spend time trying to figure out and it ultimately gives you a brain aneurysm. So, what I’m saying is, this film could be responsible for actual deaths.
The Prom — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was charming. Sure, some of the directorial choices were questionable and the editing was extremely choppy. But it was colorful (which so few films are anymore), fun and has a positive message. It’s over-the-top, but it’s a musical. That’s the point. It’s a mixed bag, but I ended on liking it. This is in the tradition of stuff like Footloose and Hairspray, and honestly, any musical (even Cats) they put on screen I’m probably gonna support just because of how few there are. Sure, I’d have hoped this would’ve been original, but better than nothing.
Rebecca — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
So on the one hand you think, “They’re remaking Rebecca? Why?” But on the other — while it is Hitchcock, and it is a gorgeous film, and it is a Best Picture winner — they’re adapting the novel, and it’s been 80 years and it’s not like it’s this hallowed movie that couldn’t ever be remade. It’s just more of a — why would you bother, sort of thing. Since the original is so good. Which I get. You don’t remake The Searchers, but Rebecca — if you want to, fine. Just don’t expect me to get anything out of it, is my feeling. And that’s what this movie is. Ben Wheatley (who did A Field in England and Free Fire and whatever that tower movie was with Tom Hiddleston) directs, and we have Armie Hammer taking on the Max de Winter role, Lily James as the new Mrs. de Winter and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. And I’ll say that I think all three pieces of casting are perfect for the film. Because in all three situations, much like with the film itself, I would say that the casting is a good fit, but uninspired. And it’s because, while all three are well-suited to their roles, there’s really no casting that would be perfect just as there’s really no way you’re gonna come out of this movie thinking it was exceptional or necessary. At best you’re gonna go, “Yeah, it was solid.” It’s colorful, it’s got nice costumes and production design, it does exactly what the novel does, only it’s able to go into a little more detail about her death and the relationship between Rebecca and Jack Favell. But otherwise it feels close to a note-for-note retelling of the Hitchcock. Which again leaves me where we started — it’s a solid enough film and everything’s done well… it just didn’t need to be made, so at best I’m just gonna think it’s a perfectly fine movie and tell you to just go watch the original instead. So, okay, I guess.
Rifkin’s Festival — * * * (3 stars)
It’s Woody Allen’s new movie! I get so excited whenever one of these comes out now. Of course, a lot of people haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie in years, and now most people won’t watch them at all. I mean, sure, some people catch the ‘bigger’ ones, but most people don’t bother anymore. I, of course, made it a specific point to see every single one of his films just so I could justify my (at the time) seemingly radical claim that I didn’t like his movies. He’s at 49 features now (plus one short in an anthology and whatever that Amazon series was), and I like maybe ten of them? Something like that? Which is a cool 20%. Most of them I’m either indifferent toward or straight up do not like. And over the past decade I’ve grown increasingly amused by his output, because it’s just been flat out ‘old’. It just seems like the stuff an old version of Woody Allen would put out. It’s tired, it’s self-referential, you can see his ideas and references from a mile away, and it just feels like someone repeating their own stories, but lesser versions of them. It would be sad if it weren’t so hilarious to me. But, this past decade, people remember Midnight in Paris, but do you know what all the other ones were/did you even see them? You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (not good), To Rome with Love (ehh), Blue Jasmine (passable, but I wasn’t that big a fan), Magic in the Moonlight (bad), Irrational Man (boring), Cafe Society (watchable but not good), Wonder Wheel (fair, and I’m being kind), A Rainy Day in New York (especially hilarious) and now this. Now, Wonder Wheel’s the last one that got any play. Rainy Day Amazon cancelled when the allegations resurfaced and they finally put it on streaming at some point this year. This one just came out abroad and won’t come out here until god knows when. I’ll focus on this one specifically, just because it is so funny to me to watch these movies now, since I can do this with all of the ones he’s made this decade. This film stars Wallace Shawn (the Woody stand-in for the film, 77 and, in case you don’t recognize the name, the ‘inconceivable!’ guy from Princess Bride) as a wannabe author who goes to the San Sebastian Film Festival with his wife (Gina Gershon, 19 years younger than him, which honestly is a step up for a Woody Allen movie), who is there to work with a hotshot French film director (Louis Garrel, last seen as the French guy in Little Women) and is clearly going to have an affair with him at some point. Shawn keeps having these bad dreams (all of which are pastiches of other films from directors Allen likes — he references Citizen Kane, 8½, Breathless, A Man and a Woman, Persona, Wild Strawberries, The Exterminating Angel, and one more I’ll get to in a second. These pastiches are literally just him recreating scenes from the film in black and white with what is supposed to be classic ‘Allen’ dialogue. It’s cringeworthy beyond belief, but I could not stop laughing because of how ridiculous it all was), and eventually goes to see a doctor (Elena Anaya, 45, a lot closer to the normal age gap in an Allen movie) who he starts to fall for. Everything in the film just feels like an old man who is completely out of touch. He’s falling back on the same damn tropes. And it’s the kind of thing where — and this is why I find it so amusing because I completely understand it — they’re ideas that might have worked if he did them 35 years ago, but now he’s 85, so it’s all just tired and been done before. It’s kind of like when I would see Don Rickles near the end. And he was still doing his same act. And the insults were versions of the same things you heard him say in the 70s and 80s, and the delivery was a little slower, and the wit wasn’t as sharp, and you applauded because it was him and because he was still doing it and because of the body of work, but it’s clear that it’s just an old man doing all this. And that’s what this feels like. Only without my love of Rickles, since, as I said, I didn’t like the films when he was in his prime. Now it’s just funny to me because of how tone deaf they all feel now. I know no one will ever see this movie, and it’s funny to me how we went from everyone loving Woody Allen despite never seeing his movies to now hating Woody Allen and vowing to never see his movies, but I do feel like I should return to my original refrain that I’ve been saying ever since he became persona non grata — can’t we just hate him because the movies aren’t very good and not for all the other stuff? Oh, and I forgot the best part. How does this movie end? With a chess game on the beach with Death. And who is Death played by? That’s right.
Frank Stallone Christoph Waltz. If this ends up being Woody’s final film, won’t that be an interesting finale.
Run — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is by the director of Searching, which was a film based on a tired premise (the ‘entirely within a screen’ gimmick) that used it really well and did something unique. And this was kind of the same. I was leery about it, since it’s the ‘disabled girl in a house with her mother who starts to suspect that her mother doesn’t really have her best interests at heart’ story. You know where it’s going and what it’s gonna do. And yet… it’s told well. They do the scenes you expect well and maintain tension throughout. Ultimately it’s a really good time. A lot like Searching. You don’t expect it to be as good as it is and yet it transcends all the genre trappings it’s somehow making use of at the same time. I don’t know how Aneesh Chaganty does it, but good for him.
Safety — * * * (3 stars)
A football movie directed by Reggie Hudlin (who made House Party and most recently Marshall with Chadwick Boseman) based on a real Clemson football player in the 2000s who, while he was on the team, had full custody of his little brother and was caring for him on top of football and schoolwork all while his mother was in rehab. It sounds like corny family movie stuff, and in a lot of ways it is that. But I also saw that Brian Banks movie last year, and that was not good. This one, while falling into all the traps and containing a lot of bad writing and borderline bad acting, is at least watchable and has some nice moments even if they are manipulative as hell. And I’ll say this — the opening Disney logo, where they use the ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ music but drop in a drumline beat underneath it from a school marching band — that’s better than anything in the entire movie. That shit is great.
Save Yourselves! — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
I just love the idea for this movie — a pair of people addicted to their devices notices it’s having detrimental effects on their relationship, so they decide to get away for a week and completely unplug from the world. Problem is… as they do that, that’s when aliens attack and the entire world is under siege. And they have no idea. It’s fun. It’s a good premise. A bit too indie, especially with regards to the ending, but it’s fun and is just a good time based on a good premise. I’m a fan of this.
The Secret Society of Second Born Royals — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
As you can see from the film’s title — a really circuitous and overly complicated way around to a completely generic movie. This is the premise: there is an underground society of siblings to royalty (and as we all know from existing monarchies — the heir to the throne is the one who gets brought up to rule the country and has to conduct themselves a certain way and all that… and then the other sibling(s) can pretty much just fuck off and usually get into some trouble because they’re neglected and their sibling gets all the attention and it’s only natural) who, for some reason, are the ones chosen to help save the world. Make any sense? Not at all. So you’re left to try to follow this girl whose sister is gonna rule the country, while she’s a punk rocker who protests to abolish the monarchy… and then she gets recruited to train as a secret agent in order to stop bad people from doing bad things. It’s dumb as shit, and honestly if not for the age of streaming services, would have been a Disney Channel Original Movie. And friends, let me tell you this — it’s no Brink.
The Secrets We Keep — * * * (3 stars)
I assumed this would be an action movie, which I guess is purely because Noomi Rapace is in it and I just assume if she’s in something with this title, it’s some sort of action-thriller. Turns out, more of a regular thriller. The ‘hey that new guy in the neighborhood looks exactly like the German soldier I saw when I was in a concentration camp during the war’ kind. So naturally she convinces her husband to kidnap him and keep him in their basement so she can get a confession out of him. It’s — fine. Nothing wholly revelatory, but it’s got enough good acting and thrills to keep you engaged throughout.
Shithouse — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was very charming. Very simple thriller about a sheltered boy having a rough transition to college during his freshman year who runs into a lonely RA during a party and seems to have a connection with her. It’s a cute, charming little rom com of sorts for a while (though it does keep trying to turn that movie on its head every chance it gets, to its credit), and then takes a turn to show you that not everything is always as tidy as movies make them seem. Perhaps he didn’t need to come into his own and is a bit too clingy for his own good and perhaps she wasn’t just waiting for the right guy and really just wants to sleep with him and forget him the next day. It’s really interesting. I feel like it kind of fizzles out moving toward its climax, trying to complicate the characters but never fully achieving that characterization. I admire the effort, and it is a really charming film. I ultimately wish there were a little more there, but the fact that I even want more tells you that there’s enough good there that I’m not just giving up on it and would have liked to see them further the story. It’s a charming film that’s well worth seeing.
Six Minutes to Midnight — * * * (3 stars)
Interesting enough little thriller from Eddie Izzard (he co-writes and stars) about a spy who goes undercover as a schoolteacher at a boarding school for German girls, as his predecessor was mysteriously killed. He’s there to figure out what happened. And of course there are secret Nazi spies and all sorts of intrigue. Judi Dench plays the headmistress and Carla Juri is one of the teachers. It’s a serviceable enough thriller, even though it doesn’t do anything particularly unique. But all the actors are always welcome and the movie is, as I said, very serviceable and gets the job done without much flair.
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
So this and the four films below this are all from Steve McQueen as part of a miniseries he directed for Amazon, focused on West Indian immigrants in the U.K. during the 70s and 80s. Each one tells a specific story, all having to do with race in some way. This one is about the author Alex Wheatle and his experiences growing up in a children’s home and eventually being imprisoned as a teen during the Brixton riot of 1981. It, like all the films in this miniseries, is really solid. Well-acted, well made. All of them really coalesce well around the theme incredibly well and all add up to something really strong. Of course, since each film is an episode of sorts, you’re gonna pick favorites and discuss which ones you liked more than others. And while I think they are all strong, this is my least favorite of the five, which really only speaks to the strengths of all five more than anything else. Because they’re all wonderful.
Small Axe: Education — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
The final episode of the series, and focused on the lack of attention to students in the black community, especially those with learning disabilities. There’s some powerful stuff in here, specifically the scene where the boy is sent to a remedial school and given an evaluation. And of the three kids in the evaluation, two of them are black and one white. The black girl can read just fine and seems to have no issues other than behavioral, the boy is dyslexic (seemingly. Since this is an era before things are diagnosed) but is clearly intelligent, meanwhile the white girl barks like a dog and can’t communicate at all. That’s what I love about Steve McQueen as a filmmaker. He gives you these stunning moments that speak volumes about race and class without ever verbalizing it (the shot of the car driving through the neighborhood in Widows is one of the best single shots of the entire decade). And there’s such great commentary here about how, if people are ignored and treated in a specific way, they’ll just become whatever that thing is, because the system is designed to work against them and keep them in this endless cycle. It’s so great. I cannot say enough great things about this entire series of films. I’m glad they’re on Prime for everyone to see, because they’re some of the most important work to come out this year.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
The second film released as part of this series, and the most insular of the bunch. This one’s almost its own bottle episode, as the entire film (more or less) takes place over the course of a single evening at a house party. And it’s just a group of characters hanging out, dancing, listening to music. That’s it. And it doesn’t sound like much when you say it like that, but the experience of watching it is just amazing. It might be the best film of the bunch. I loved just sitting and hanging out with this one and just experiencing the lives of these people for the hour-plus I spent with them. Definitely one of my favorites from this miniseries.
Small Axe: Mangrove — * * * * (4 stars)
This was the first film released from the miniseries and is probably the one that will be considered its best. It’s based on real events in 1971, about the Mangrove restaurant which opened in West London and catered to Caribbean cuisine and was a hot spot for all people of West Indian heritage in London. The white police, of course, didn’t like this, and chose to deliberately pick on them. First threatening them and then raiding the place to try to intimidate them to shut down. (The parallels to today are extremely obvious and important.) The restaurant was raided a dozen times within the span of six months. All racially motivated incidents that had nothing to do with anything other than them not liking the color of these people’s skin and not liking that they had a business that they considered their own. Eventually the British Black Panthers organized a protest against the racial intimidation of the cops. Which, as we all know with cops…turned into a riot instigated by the cops and led to violence, etc. And then nine of the people involved were put on trial under bogus charges. It’s the same as Trial of the Chicago 7, though very specific and here the defendants were all black. And so half this film is everything building up to the protest and the other half is them on trial, which basically becomes a referendum on race in the country, since it’s pretty clear to everyone involved what’s actually going on. It’s a fascinating film with so many ties to the present day. It’s really wonderful. And while I’d recommend everyone watch all five of the Small Axe films, if you’re only going to watch one of them, this is the one to watch.
Small Axe: Red, White and Blue — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
The third of the five Small Axe films. This one focuses on John Boyega as a man who joins the police force in the hopes of trying to reform it from the inside. This after seeing his father get attacked on the street by two police officers unprovoked. And so the film is him at odds with his father for joining the police force and then him struggling through basically being a pariah, with the white cops not trusting him and not wanting to back him up and him trying to change the extremely racist attitudes from within. Again, a very timely story, as the police force is still incredibly racist and still seems pretty much beyond hope of reform. It’s a solid film, like all the others in this series.
Songbird — * * * (3 stars)
This is fucking ridiculous. Leave it to Michael Bay to produce a pandemic-inspired thriller during the pandemic. What I was most surprised about is the fucking cast in this — Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford, Alexandra Daddario, Craig Robinson, Paul Walter Hauser, Peter Stormare — that’s nuts. But to their credit, this is watchable, even though it’s generic and absolutely ludicrous. The idea is that, four years from now, COVID-23 has killed millions of people, lockdowns are forced and anyone who doesn’t pass temperature checks or shows symptoms is thrown into quarantine zones that are basically refugee camps. And there’s this whole dumb plot with a courier who’s immune and his girlfriend who he can’t meet in person, and this corrupt government agent who murders people… it’s this whole stupid thriller thing. But it’s watchable. I really don’t ever want to see this again, because who wants to ever be reminded of the pandemic, but this wasn’t the worst movie I saw this year, so at least there’s that.
Sound of Metal — * * * * (4 stars)
I was super excited for this back when Derek Cianfrance was making it something like ten years ago. He abandoned it at some point and then his co-writer asked him permission to retool the story. So the result is this movie. The basis is that a heavy metal drummer blows out his eardrums and now has to adjust to being deaf. At the time it sounded like a movie that was gonna do great things with sound design and have a really great story. And this is mostly that. I can’t help but think Cianfrance would have gotten more out of this story than even this film does — which is quite a lot. Riz Ahmed is terrific in the lead, as is Olivia Cooke as his girlfriend. I wish they gave her more to do, as she disappears for a large chunk of the movie. I’d like to have seen her life in parallel to his, though I get why the film didn’t go there. Ultimately it’s a really great piece of work and stands as one of the best films of the year.
Spell — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
No joke, the title was so generic it actually took me a minute to remember what this was about even though I saw it six weeks ago. That’s how boring and generic this was. But, to their credit — all-black cast. So good on them for that. Though I am kinda worried about how now the majority of all-black cast films I see are these low-rent horror-thrillers, which is starting to feel like the cinematic equivalent of the projects. Just saying. Why can’t black people get proper budgets and resources? You know what I mean? Anyway, this is about a guy flying his family (in his own little crop duster plane, which is incredulous to begin with) to his father’s funeral in the rural south, and then the plane crashes and he ends up in this weird farm with an old voodoo woman or some shit. I don’t know, it was really boring. It’s Misery but with voodoo dolls. Very not good and really not worth your time. But also… kinda interested in that projects analogy, because it’s really starting to seem that way, and it’s concerning me.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run — * * * (3 stars)
They’ve made, I think three SpongeBob movies now? And they’re all perfectly pleasant, and loaded with fun cameos. This is no different. Fun, inconsequential, and just a longer version of the show with different animation. I will never begrudge one of these movies.
The Stand-In — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
This movie is All About Eve if it were made by Adam Sandler. And here, both the Margo and Eve characters are played by Drew Barrymore. And, I guess I’ll put it this way — if the Unforgivables list weren’t retired, this would’ve been on it. It’s unwatchable. I barely got through this and do not recommend that anyone waste their time seeing this.
Stardust — * * * (3 stars)
How the fuck you gonna make a David Bowie movie without any of the music? I mean seriously. You literally told a story about his first American tour and how he came up with the character of Ziggy Stardust, and then you end the movie with him going out, dressed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time, and you have to make him sing a fucking cover of a song no one’s heard of because Bowie’s estate wouldn’t grant you the music rights because this was an unauthorized biopic. I mean, really, guys, what the hell are we doing here? I’ll give the lead actor credit. He did his best to sound like Bowie. Other than that, Marc Maron is in this too? I don’t really have a whole lot of good to say about this. Someone like Bowie — you’re kinda stuck telling a story with the consent of the estate, because without the music, you have nothing. And yes, I understand that having the estate’s permission also means a cleaner, more sanitized biopic. But fuck, man, anything but this. What the hell? Really? If I were still doing the Unforgivables list, I’d have put this on there just on principle. Don’t make a David Bowie movie and not give us David Bowie music. Also, if you were ever gonna make a David Bowie biopic — or a stage musical, which should absolutely be done regardless — you’d have to do it like I’m Not There, and focus on his chameleon-like nature and how he hid himself in all these different characters and how, in many ways he was both unknowable and right there in front of us all along. You’d lay into the weirdness and oddness and all that rather than trying to do the conventional thing. So in literally every way possible, this movie was ill-conceived and there’s literally nothing I can say about it that’s positive.
Sulphur and White — * * * (3 stars)
This is one of those overlong and boring dramas about someone’s personal problems. And you follow them present day and flash back to their childhood to show how they got the way they are. I don’t particularly care for movies like this, but to this one’s credit, it held my attention for more than I was expecting it to. So I’ll give it 3 stars, but I don’t recommend it at all.
Superintelligence — * * (2 stars)
It’s another terrible Melissa McCarthy movie. We know how these go. At least she, like Adam Sandler, has moved to streaming services, so the stakes feel lower for the dreck she puts out. She’s made four movies with her husband, and literally all four are Unforgivable. This one won’t officially be because I retired the list, but man… this is a piece of shit.
Teenage Badass — * * * (3 stars)
This is a movie that is based on a lot of inside references to the 90s indie rock scene in Phoenix, Arizona. I have no real basis for reference on any of that, but apparently that’s what this is. So if you know about the 90s rock scene in Phoenix, Arizona, the you’ll really enjoy this. Other than that… it’s fine. There are some fun moments in this. Otherwise not really anything you need to see. I appreciate that the film made something so specific, and at times the specificity of that really did work. Otherwise it’s just okay.
Tenet — * * * * ½ (4.5 stars)
What a weird review this has to be. Christopher Nolan, to his credit, is a firm believer in the theatrical experience. And yet, somehow he didn’t just think to do what so many other films did and just push his film a year. And so he put the film in theaters despite the safety risks in actually going to the few that were open, his film tanked and then he may have ended up being the reason for the decision he’s currently railing against, with a who slate of films next year being released strictly on streaming. But also, because the film had that crazy release saga… no one actually ever saw it. And this is the first time we all waited four months to see a Christopher Nolan film without ever having it spoiled for us. I mean, granted, in a lot of ways, you can’t really spoil this movie, but still. That’s fascinating to me. But anyway, this movie — I spent the first 45 minutes of this movie wondering if it was the sloppiest, most badly edited, unholy mess I’d seen in a long time or something absolutely brilliant that turns the film form on its head by doing something different narratively. I’m still not entirely sure where I shake out on that. It’s a movie that throws you into the action immediately with zero context or information, and you’re pretty much catching up to the film for the first half, slowly catching up by the time the film hits its third act and everything is coming together. And I think, in a lot of ways, that’s a bold choice. You could easily see it as a mess. And yet… I kept finding myself interested in what was going on. I have to give it another watch, and I think the film deserves another watch now that I know what it’s doing. I think this is Nolan’s weakest film (of the blockbusters. So… everything from Begins onward). But it’s not for lack of effort. He does something bold every time he comes up with an original idea. Though here — it doesn’t feel like he’s having much fun. I can’t explain it. Interstellar wasn’t fun, but at least it felt like an experience. Inception at least felt like it was having fun. This one doesn’t have that. And it might just be the casting choices. Or it might just be that the audience is so tired from trying to keep up with all the borderline incomprehensible stuff the movie is throwing at them that they simply don’t have time to have fun. But, I give full credit to Nolan for taking a big swing. At the very least, I was entertained and appreciate him going for it. I’ll know my true feelings after watching it again. I suspect the rating might be a tad high, but we’ll see. I’m gonna err on the side of respecting the fact that he tries to give us something other than $200 million on superheroes, even if it doesn’t work as well as all the other stuff he’s given us. I feel like all of this makes it sound like I’m giving the film a bad review. But I’m not. I just think you need (does this count as a pun?) time to let this one sit and a rewatch to really see how you feel about it. So I’ll watch it again before the end of the year and see where I really come out on this one. But also, consider this — what the hell else came out this year that was really worth your time?
Totally Under Control — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
COVID-19 documentary from Alex Gibney that more or less acts as a record of the insanity that happened with the pandemic. If you’ve paid any sort of attention to what’s gone down — as I’m sure most of us has done, since there was so little else to do this year — you don’t really need to see this. It’s not gonna tell you much of what you don’t already know and you’re really just gonna be reminded of the fact that the current (soon to be former!) administration fucked things up absolutely horribly because all they cared about was the stock market and rich people and didn’t give a flying fuck about the population because it wasn’t in their best interests in getting re-elected. So they let this thing grow instead of acting to stop it early and now we’re left with over 250,000 people dead and soon to be a full year of having to wear masks and not be able to go to theaters and restaurants and carry on our normal lives. But, like I said, you knew all that, so really this doc is just putting all of that on screen with scientists and experts and those who were there giving you a sort of blow by blow of just how badly they fucked it up. Most people don’t really need that in their lives currently, but for those in the future, this will probably be helpful.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 — * * * * ½ (4.5 stars)
It’s an Aaron Sorkin film. I love all of these. I love how he writes, and I always find myself liking these films more and more as time goes on. I remember the year it came out saying Molly’s Game was one of the best films of the year and either no one bothered to see it or they didn’t agree with me. And now a few years later, everyone’s seen it and it’s one of those films people rewatch because it’s so entertaining. That’s how he is for me. I’m still banging the drum on Steve Jobs, even though I’m not sure people have yet come around on that one. This is another one of those — the writing is great and I know I’m gonna keep enjoying it. That’s really all that matters. I’ll watch it again in the next two weeks to see just how much I like it for this year’s purposes. But I’ll take a Sorkin film over most others any day of the week.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy — * * * (3 stars)
I was surprised this wasn’t based on anything. It felt for sure like something that would’ve been made from a kids book. But no. Original script by a TV writer. And honestly? I respect the effort. It’s different and tries to give you something you haven’t seen before. Kid is born with a condition that makes him covered in fur. Naturally people pick on him and he’s shy and hates being seen in public. And the film is his journey to try to find his birth mother after what he believes is a package sent to him by her for his birthday. It’s got its moments. Falls into some obvious traps, specifically with John Turturro as an evil carnival owner straight out of Pinocchio. But the moments of him befriending the trans girl his age were sweet, and the film has some nice moments between him and his father. Overall, watchable and definitely worth it if you go for this sort of thing. Not great, but also not terrible. Perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-road film.
Uncle Frank — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This is from Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty and created True Blood. And yes, this is 100% him using the exact same tropes he uses in all his stuff. So it’s not gonna feel fresh in that way at all. But it’s got Paul Bettany and Sophia Lillis, both of whom I like. Lillis is a girl coming of age in the south who grew up adoring her uncle Frank (Bettany). He always seemed more cultured and thoughtful than everyone else in the family. He encourages her to go see the world and go to NYU for college. Which she does. And there, she discovers that the reason he’s so much different than the family and why his father hated him is because he’s gay. And this is set in the 70s, so it’s not like it would be if it were today. So the film is part her coming of age and coming into her own and part road trip, as the patriarch of the family (Bettany’s father and Lillis’ grandfather) dies and they drive back down to attend the funeral, with Bettany’s lover in tow and all sorts of conflicted feelings. It’s charming. Bettany gets a starring role, which he so rarely gets, and Lillis continues her ascent into full blown stardom one of these years. I liked this one, even if it’s not the most unique film ever made.
Unpregnant — * * * (3 stars)
I appreciate a road trip comedy where the goal is to get an abortion. To the point where you’re rooting for them to overcome the evil pro-lifers (which is a redundant term, I know) and just get there and get it done. So for that alone, I have the utmost respect for this movie. Otherwise, as a pure film… the friend was too over-the-top at the beginning and there were too many broad comedy moments (like the car chase, or everything the boyfriend does) for me to want to go the full 3.5 with it. I think the movie most works when it focuses on their friendship and the character stuff. Overall, though, it’s a really nice film and I think it’s a good one for people to watch. We’ve seen too many dumb movies that don’t have anything to say. At least this one is empowering for young women who need to know they have autonomy over their own bodies, despite what other people might tell them.
Vampires vs. the Bronx — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
This was so goddamn charming. I figured this would be fun, but I wasn’t sure just how fun this was gonna be. It’s a real throwback movie to the kind of stuff I remember growing up with. It’s also got something to say. It’s a film about gentrification. The idea is that a group of vampires have come into the neighborhood, are buying longstanding family-owned businesses and replacing them with trendy, vegan, hipster places that sell things like oat milk and matcha lattes. Clearly you see the parallels. And while it’s also that, it’s also a coming of age story. Three young kids from the block, trying to save the local bodega (run by Kid Mero, of course), come across these vampires and have to stop them in order to save the neighborhood. It’s just so much damn fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s fun, it feels like it was made with love, and, best of all, Method Man plays the local priest and that’s the greatest shit ever. Do not miss this one. It’s one of the best Netflix movies the platform has to offer.
Wander — * * * (3 stars)
Generic 3-star movie. I really only saw it because Tommy Lee Jones is in it. He has nothing to do and it’s just fucking weird. Aaron Eckhart as a former sheriff who lost his mind and is now paranoid with conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and how the government is putting control chips inside people. They’re trying to do one of those ‘is he crazy or is he onto something’ deals, but the movie isn’t written nor directed well enough for you to care. So you’re left with something that maybe you catch on cable at 3:30 in the morning, but otherwise something you won’t see nor ever need to see. I watched it for Tommy Lee Jones, but that doesn’t mean the people you like always make good movies.
The War with Grandpa — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
I mean… what did you think you were getting with this? It’s a generic kids movie. If this didn’t have Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Uma Thurman in it, no one would ever know it existed. It’s based on a book, and to their credit, they did an admirable job of trying to turn it into something watchable. It’s still not good. It’s one of those movies that’s trying to appeal to more people and ends up appealing to less. The comedy is dumb and obvious and it does literally all the things you’d expect from a movie like this, down to the athletic competition in the middle. It’s generic, that’s all. I’m happy these people are working, but it’s not a fulfilling product.
Welcome to Sudden Death — * * ½ (2.5 stars)
Remember the movie Sudden Death with Jean-Claude Van Damme? Sure you do. This is a weird, straight to VOD quasi-sequel to it starring Michael Jai White. It’s Die Hard at a basketball game. The first movie was Die Hard at a hockey game. Security guard has to stop them — you know the drill. It’s really cheap, and looks badly made. I didn’t hate it, but it’s also not good, and really not worth your time unless you’re a middle-aged dad who just watches these things.
What the Constitution Means to Me — * * * * (4 stars)
The show that I didn’t realize I needed in my life. 2020 is the year they finally figured out that they have enough platforms that they can release taped versions of stage shows and people will watch them. Hamilton, of course, is the big one, but Disney+ is also about to put out Aladdin on Broadway too. And arguably, this is what they should be doing with Broadway shows. Once the original cast leaves and the show begins touring (or closes entirely), put out the original cast version for people to see. Anyway, this is a sort of one-woman show written by and starring Heidi Schreck, based on her own experiences as a child debater who entered Constitution debate contests. There are two other people who feature within the play, but largely it’s about her. And she goes through her experiences at these contests, discussing her love of the constitution and brilliantly tying it into current events in beautiful, hilarious and poignant ways. There’s one actor who plays both himself and the old WWII vet who judged these debates and then she brings out an actual current child debater to argue against her for the finale, which culminates with audience participation. It’s an incredible show, and really is something that everyone should see. Young women first and foremost, but everyone growing up in this country. It should be mandatory for everyone in middle school, learning about the government and politics, to see this show. Because it really puts a lot of issues in perspective in this country. It educates you, enlightens you, gives you new perspective and ultimately leaves you to make up your own mind, in the hope that we all just do this for the sake of everyone moving forward more positively together. If ever there was something that epitomized something we needed in this, of all years, this show is it, and I truly cannot say enough great things about it.
Wild Mountain Thyme — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
There’s a great story about Orson Welles and John Ford. Welles was never shy about his love for Ford, and when asked who his favorite directors were, he said, “I like the old masters. John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Or something like that. And later on, when Welles was in his emeritus ‘interview’ stage of his life, he was extolling Ford’s talents as a director and said that when you watch Ford’s films, you really get a sense of what the world is like, ‘even when the script is by Mother Machree’. (Ford apparently heard that and sent him a note that said, “Thanks for the compliment. Signed Mother Machree.”) The point is — this film… it’s not The Quiet Man. The script, while by John Patrick Shanley, who gave us Doubt and Moonstruck, does feel like it was written by Mother Machree. And I get it. It’s not proper Irish. It’s facsimile. It’s sentimental and has all the usual trappings of a movie like this. But you know what? I enjoyed it. It was charming. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if a movie is good so much as whether or not it makes you feel good. I enjoyed it. Not gonna claim it’s the greatest movie ever. If you want a great movie set in Ireland, go watch The Quiet Man. If you want Jamie Dornan, Emily Blunt, Jon Hamm and Christopher Walken in a charming-enough rom com set in Ireland, watch this. (I’ve also deliberately ignored the one absolutely insane thing this movie does in its third act. That’s best experienced for yourself. To me, something that crazy only helps the film. Because who gives a shit? Now at least I’ll remember it for whatever the hell that is.)
The Witches — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
It’s interesting to me to see what people know about this story. I think people generally know that it’s from Roald Dahl, but I was surprised to find out not a lot of people (at least ones I’ve talked to, all generally around my age) are aware of the 1990 film version of this story with Angelica Huston. Admittedly, I’ve never seen it in full, but I do have vivid memories of seeing a small part of it when I was a young child and being moderately freaked out. But it always struck me as one of those movies that people around my age just sort of grew up with and knew. But apparently not. Anyway, Robert Zemeckis directs this version, and his is a career that’s been very… odd… the past two decades. Since Cast Away, people sort of forget what happened to him. He went down the weird uncanny valley CGI path with Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, and then most people have trouble talking about what he’s done since then. And arguably he’s had a solid decade — Flight was a really solid movie. The Walk was pretty solid, if uneven. Allied I quite liked, despite my quibbles. And I think we can all agree that Welcome to Marwen was misguided. That all said, I do think the one issue I consistently have had with him this decade is that every time he makes a movie, I think, “He wasn’t the right person to have made this.” Flight worked out fine. The Walk was largely okay, even though I think the first half is pretty forgettable and I have a few issues with the CGI at the end, even though the film overcomes most of it. Allied I said from the top — this is Hitchcock, it was not fit for Zemeckis’ sensibilities, and arguably it being him really hurt the film in the later second and third acts. And Marwen — I’m not sure that movie should have been made by anyone, let alone him. So this… I was expecting it to be god awful. You just knew he was gonna put unnecessary (and questionable-looking) CGI on it, and you felt like any darkness and scariness the film was gonna have was gonna be undercut by his broader, warmer sensibilities. And all that is true. This, I imagine, got absolutely terrible reviews and people instinctively hated it. And I get that. The CGI does look pretty terrible, and there’s a lot of problems to be had with it. Anne Hathaway is at like a fourteen on a scale of ten. But you know what? That’s what the role called for, and I’m not gonna blame her for that. You forget that we all grew up with family movies where actors were giving these ridiculously heightened performances. That’s part of the deal. And honestly — it’s just clean family fun. Not the best, but I was able to look past a lot of the bad stuff to appreciate it and get enough out of it to have been moderately entertained. I will never defend this as a good movie and think it’s one of the worst of Zemeckis’ career (it’s this and Marwen for live-action, and Polar Express and Beowulf if you’re counting those weird animated ones). But honestly, tonally, this is no different than the stuff I grew up with, and even did have some shades of the dark 80s/early 90s Amblin stuff to boot. So I’m fine with it (though I still hate the abundance of bad CGI), but I imagine most people won’t be.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow — * * * (3 stars)
Fun horror movie from Jim Cummings, who made the short film (and feature version) Thunder Road, which prominently features him at a funeral for his mother, breaking down and singing this awful/hilarious rendition of the titular song. Here, he takes his shot at horror-comedy, starring as a small-town sheriff (Robert Forster plays his father, in his final screen performance) dealing with a bunch of bizarre murders, which seem to be being committed by a werewolf. But mostly it’s these alt comedy situations and nominally about people trying to catch a werewolf. I suspect this won’t be for a great deal of people, but others who go for this sort of tone will really enjoy it. I say watch a trailer, and if it seems like it’s for you, then go for it. It’s perfectly enjoyable.
Wolfwalkers — * * * * (4 stars)
Another stunning piece of animation from Tom Moore, who already has The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both stunning) under his belt. It’s another magical animals movie, this about a medieval town and the wolves that live in the forests surrounding it. The townsfolk are afraid of the wolves and send out warriors to kill them. And the film is about one of the warriors’ daughters, who herself is training to one day kill wolves but eventually learns that the wolves aren’t the dangerous ones and even befriends one of them, a girl who transforms into a wolf when she sleeps. It’s absolutely beautiful, and might be Moore’s best film. Though I say that about each one I see, so I’m sure it’s the best because it’s the most recent I’ve seen. It’s one of the best films of the year and (at least until Soul comes out) the best animated film of the year.
Words on Bathroom Walls — * * * (3 stars)
Interesting twist on the YA genre. It’s got your typical high school romance and all the usual stuff… only the main character has schizophrenia and has constant hallucinations. Which is a nice little change. There’s been a more marked change in the genre recently, especially this year, with All the Bright Places dealing with depression and suicide and Chemical Hearts dealing with grief and loss. Not to mention The Hate U Give and how that dealt with race and racial injustice and police brutality. This one deals very explicitly with mental illness in a way that felt quite fresh. I did really respect how they handled this one. I thought about a 3.5, but there was enough by-the-numbers genre stuff to keep me from fully going there. But all around, a very respectable movie and a nice way to use a well- (and probably over-) worn genre to highlight real world issues that aren’t just ‘oh my god, am I gonna get a date to prom?’ or ‘I might not get into the college that I want!’
Zappa — * * * ½ (3.5 stars)
Documentary about Frank Zappa. I’ll be honest — I knew of him, but I honestly didn’t really know much of anything about him. I just knew he made this weird music that went on for 15 minutes a clip and sometimes was completely atonal and tried to be anti-music in a lot of ways, and that he had a huge cult following. That’s literally it. And watching this — some of it makes sense now. You get a clear sense of him as a person and as a music figure, and it was really interesting to see. A guy whose music was so connected to the drug scene, yet he himself never did drugs and was very anti-drugs. And a guy who deliberately shied away from making anything that would make himself commercially successful even while people spent their whole careers trying to do that. Very fascinating guy. Not sure I’ll ever like the music, but it was definitely a really interesting documentary to watch.
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The Films I Haven’t Seen Yet
- The Last Shift — It’s out on VOD in two weeks. I’ll see it.
- Synchronic — Out on VOD 1/12, so I’ll see it then.
- The Climb — No idea when this is properly out. So I’ll see it when I see it.
- The Croods: A New Age — This is out on VOD next week, so I’ll see it then.
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The Films Still to Be Released
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- The Midnight Sky
- Wonder Woman 1984
- News of the World
- Promising Young Woman
- Sylvie’s Love
- One Night in Miami
- We Can Be Heroes
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