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July 2020
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Movie Reviews

Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) (2020)

DIRECTOR: Cathy Yan

CAST: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina

REVIEW:

Like last year’s Shazam!, the wordily-titled Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) demonstrates that the most enjoyable entries to emerge from the troubled DCEU are those that throw the dark and dreary approach brought into vogue by Zack Snyder to the wind and go into outright comedy mode (or, barring that, are simply unconnected stand-alones like Todd Phillips’ critically-acclaimed Joker or Matt Reeves’ upcoming Batman movie). DC’s answer to Marvel’s Deadpool, Birds of Prey employs a similarly madcap comedic approach, stylized action, a whiz-bang pace, and an unreliable (and thoroughly whacked-out) narrator/protagonist (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who stole the show in the Suicide Squad ensemble and has been rewarded with her own movie). While Birds of Prey is not as well-constructed as the first Deadpool, it’s in similar enough vein that it might appeal to some of the same audience. It’s a glibly vapid and chaotic hyperkinetic mess that never completely comes together, but it’s at least never boring.

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Little Women (2019)

DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig

CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel

REVIEW:

When it comes to a story that’s been adapted as many times as Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women (most prominently by Gillian Armstrong in 1994), the differences between versions of such an oft-told story are matters of performances and screenwriting choices. Comparing Greta Gerwig’s adaptation to Armstrong’s is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Armstrong’s was a straightforward telling. Gerwig juggles the time frame and deconstructs some aspects while (as might be expected from her prior cinematic output) honing in on the feminist elements. The result is intriguingly “different” enough to have a valid claim to exist as its own thing, but in some ways is a less satisfying experience.

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Just Mercy (2019)

DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton

CAST: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, O’Shea Jackson

REVIEW:

Just Mercy is an example of an entry in a well-traversed genre—the “based on a true story” courtroom/social justice drama—that doesn’t transcend its expected tropes but elevates them. It’s a well-made, well-acted, stirring, compelling, and affecting docudrama telling the story of a true miscarriage of justice that forces viewers to face the uncomfortable question of how many other similar stories have gone untold.

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1917 (2019)

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman

REVIEW:

Despite being the original so-called “War to End All Wars” (only to be surpassed for both global scale and body count by WWII a mere twenty years later), WWI hasn’t gotten much attention from the movies. Apart from All Quiet on the Western Front all the way back in 1930, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, there aren’t many notable films, or even films period, centering on the 1914-1919 conflict. With 1917, Sam Mendes has added at least one worthy entry to the slim ranks of WWI films. Filmed in seemingly one continuous unbroken take, 1917 is a visceral, immersive experience that takes us along with its two protagonists on a harrowing odyssey. It’s not the most “feel good” viewing (though nor is it as unremittingly bleak and hopeless as All Quiet on the Western Front), but it is by turns harrowing, heart-tugging, exhausting, heroic, and satisfying. All Quiet on the Western Front is its only real rival for the best WWI film ever made—not that there’s much other competition for that title—and for one of the last films of the year, it also stakes a worthy claim to being one of the most technically impressive and most powerful.

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Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

DIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Richard E. Grant, Domhnall Gleeson, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels

REVIEW:

In my previous reviews, I considered J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens—the first installment of Disney’s continuation of the Star Wars saga after acquiring Lucasfilm from creator George Lucas—to be (despite some valid criticisms about it being more-or-less a reworked variation of A New Hope) a promising launching pad. Alas, that promise was squandered by the follow-up, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which received some praise but proved deeply divisive among fans and which I unfortunately came down on the negative side of, considering it both narratively unwieldy and having the feel of a Star Wars movie by someone who doesn’t like Star Wars and determined to deconstruct and subvert expectations at every turn for its own sake without having anything satisfying to replace them with. And now, with J.J. Abrams retaking the director’s chair—reportedly due to Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy deciding to go in a “safer” direction after the mixed response to The Last Jedi—we get Overcorrection: The Movie. In fairness to Abrams, he came back onboard with strikes against him: Johnson undoing some of the groundwork he’d laid in the first place, as well as the offscreen death of Carrie Fisher. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, Abrams has not succeeded in righting the ship enough to end on a strong note. Rise of Skywalker is scattershot and convoluted, filled with extraneous characters, a poorly-focused narrative, and an overly frenetic pace that seldom slows down enough to make much sense of anything (not that there’s much sense to be found).

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Knives Out (2019)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer

REVIEW:

With Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson has wholly redeemed himself for his disappointing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Johnson and Star Wars were not a good fit, but he has returned here from playing in another’s sandbox to writing and directing his own material where he has been consistently intriguing (I’m a big fan of his 2012 time travel thriller Looper, for example) and churned out something we don’t see often, an original murder mystery of the type that Agatha Christie might have written (plus some modern sensibilities). Boasting a star-studded ensemble cast obviously enjoying itself, a slickly “keep you guessing” screenplay, and a quirky sense of humor, Knives Out is a deliciously twisty-turny and hugely entertaining morsel for anyone who appreciates a good whodunit. Johnson and his cast obviously relished making this movie, and they’ve given us something to relish eating up in turn.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller

CAST: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

REVIEW:

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod (with some names changed), is a well-intentioned, feel good ode to beloved television icon Fred Rogers (better-known simply as Mr. Rogers), whose children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 (Rogers passed away in 2003). To that end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inoffensive, sweetly sentimental little movie whose quietly affecting moments sometimes get lost amidst its own treacly earnestness (though, considering I might apply those last words to the show it’s depicting, maybe I’m just not the target audience). Those with nostalgic fond memories of the late Mr. Rogers might find it a moving experience, while those indifferent or unfamiliar with the subject might be unimpressed.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Mangold

CAST: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon

REVIEW:

Ford v. Ferrari, director James Mangold’s (Walk the Line, Logan) docudrama chronicling events leading up and involving the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans, is likely to appeal to the same audience that appreciate Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-themed docudrama telling the true story of the rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played there by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl). The central dynamic here, rather than the “frenemies” there, is in full-blown “buddy movie” mode—albeit not without a little tension—but both movies do an effective job of balancing visceral racing sequences with strong human drama.

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Dark Waters (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes

CAST: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman

REVIEW:

Dark Waters is a cinematic cousin to the likes of The Post and Spotlight; like those films, it tells the true story of a real-life legal battle pitting underdogs—in those two films, investigative journalists, here a corporate lawyer turned whistleblower and victims’ advocate—against Goliath “villains” (in The Post, it was the Nixon administration, in Spotlight it was the Boston Roman Catholic Church, here it’s chemical mega-corporation DuPont). To that end, it’s a stately, well-crafted, albeit unexceptional drama that both provides some viewers with an eye-opening education (albeit one some viewers might have preferred to have gone without) and stokes a little justifiable outrage about a corrupt self-protecting system.

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Doctor Sleep (2019)

DIRECTOR: Mike Flanagan

CAST: Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis

REVIEW:

Thirty-six years after publishing The Shining, Stephen King published a follow-up, Doctor Sleep, further expanding on themes and concepts he had introduced in the first novel through the life of now-adult Danny Torrance. For Warner Bros., the allure of making a sequel (of sorts) to The Shining (adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980) was too much to resist, but screenwriter-director Mike Flanagan had a tricky task ahead of him, both adapting one of King’s dense, complicated, thematically rich works, and attempting to bridge a long-standing divide: being both reasonably faithful to King’s book while also doing some tweaking to serve as a more direct sequel to Kubrick’s film, which differed from the book in some significant ways (and which King famously disliked). Flanagan has mostly succeeded. While a little overlong and drawn-out, Doctor Sleep largely stands on its own (apart from the climax), telling a very different kind of story from The Shining but serving up some of the same slow burn. Perhaps most welcome, it serves up complicated concepts rather than a lazy reliance on jump scares and conventional horror tropes. In fact, it’s more a drama/thriller than a horror movie, which might disappoint some viewers attracted by its connections to The Shining.

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