Movie Reviews 2021 Films | Aflixionado
Friday , June 21 2024

2021 Films

8-Bit Christmas. There are too many common beats, big and small, not to appreciate this, first and foremost, as a loving homage/update to A Christmas Story (1983).  What this particular riff has going for it vis-a-vis that classic (e.g., teasingly substituting the Reagan-era thematic denouement with one more fitting for the spirit of the holiday), however, is ultimately undermined by the overall choice not to be as episodic (as childhood memories innately are) and some moments of lazy storytelling. (Grade: B-)

Annette. Casting post-Promising Young Woman Bo Burhnam in the lead would’ve earned this a perfect score. (Grade: A-)

Antlers. Remarkably uncompelling. (Grade: C+)

Bad Trip. Way too many gags just don’t land.  Did I just watch the same movie as y’all?!  Seriously, a 3.3 on letterboxd?! (Grade: C-)

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Ten years after screenwriting collaborators of Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo scored an Oscar nomination for the infinitely rewatchable Bridesmaids, it would be difficult for me to register this feature follow up as anything other than a net disappointment.  Relatively speaking, the level of quirk runs higher, but it’s just not as funny as Wiig and Mumolo seem to think it is (which makes me wonder just how much of the magic of Bridesmaids could be attributed to cast improvisation). (Grade: C)

The Beta Test. Of writer/director/actor Jim Cumming’s last three films, this riff on Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is certainly the most interesting even if–or perhaps, because–his lead performance is the most cartoonish. (Grade: B-)

Bergman Island. Inspiration is for amateurs. (Grade: C+)

Black Widow. Director Cate Shortland really brings nothing appreciable to the table, and the considerable talents of Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz are largely wasted thanks to Eric Pearson’s script.  Did Black Widow deserve her own film? Sure, but this one feels belated … and not just because just about the whole world knows the ultimate fate of its title character.   In terms of filtering the MCU franchise entry the spygame/action subgenre goes, I would say that the Russo brothers did it better with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).  (Grade: C+)

Bo Burnham: Inside. This is probably the best melding of an artist’s ethos with the insular reality that was 2020 that I’ve seen.  Then again, I’ve come to pretty much take a hard pass with that remote whenever I see the words “COVID” or “timely” in the description. (Grade: B)

Candyman. Candyman (2021) delivers pretty much exactly what one would expect from the trailer (i.e., not that scary, not that disturbing, and not very committed to the basics of good storytelling), complete with cartoonish peddling of the BLM narrative.  Then again, the original film (1992)—produced back when Clive Barker short stories were hot commodities, of which this is a direct sequel a la Halloween (2019)—wasn’t that memorable either. (Grade: C)

Card Counter. This treacherous-road-to-redemption film might include one of Oscar Isaac’s most interesting turns, making for a quietly intriguing watch.  But I do have to add that, although Tiffany Haddish makes me laugh and I love the idea of her being so successful, her performance here just did not work for me at all. When it comes to the use of this milieu, however, I would rather recommend Hard Eight (1996), Rounders (1998), and even an idiosyncratic favorite, The Gambler (2014), as more engaging—and perhaps, more interesting—films psychologically, and perhaps, philosophically. (Grade: B-)

C’Mon C’Mon. Blah, blah, blah. blah, blah … The adult cast is strong, but I found this arthouse ode to contemporary children-cum-exercise in naval gazing to be a cloying, shapeless bore.  It didn’t help that I was utterly immune to Woody Norman’s bipolar charms. (Grade: C)

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. The only good thing I can say is that forgettable movies like this only make me appreciate Hereditary (2018) and The Witch (2016) even more.  I would argue that Martin Scorsese’s criticisms of comic book fare—being more akin to an amusement park ride than cinema—is more applicable to this whole series/subgenre of films (e.g., jump scare the audience every 5-10 minutes). … Where are you, A24?  We need you now more than ever. (Grade: C-)

Cruella. Disney’s attempt at a class warfare-inflected “reimagining” a la Joker (2019)—featuring Emma Stone’s attempt to evoke Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (1992)—is kinetic, messy, and just BSC enough to be surprisingly fun.  And as the truly evil villain to counter Stone’s Disney Villain, I don’t remember the last time I so enjoyed an Emma Thompson performance. (Grade: B)

The Dig. On paper, the pitch (“[a]s WWI looms, a wealthy widow hires an amateur archaeologist to excavate the burial mounds on her estate”) makes this seem like a snooze-fest.  But the cast (Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James)—and the “tweed and vibes” (letterboxd user iana)—will ultimately reward you for your time and attention.  (Grade: B-)

Don’t Look Up. I was so wrapped up in reading the reviews and letterboxd posts that I neglected to log any response of my own. I found the degree of divergence of opinions to be curious, to say the least. Having taken no notice of the filmmakers’ stated purposes here, or that one cannot account what will appeal to an individual’s sense of humor, it seems to me that this all breaks down as follows: 1. To those who sit squarely on the Left (subscribing to the hyperbole of the likes of Greta Thunberg), this is more likely to play as a weightless, tasteless–and overall, poorly-executed–commentary on our collective (non-)response to climate change … 2. To those who sit squarely on the Right, this is more likely to play as an exercise in “libtard” trolling, for one reason or another (see #1 and #3) … 3. To those who can hold can process scientific journalism with a healthy sense of skepticism and hold more than one thought in their head at the same time (e.g., climate change is not only real, but it is largely irreversible at this point, and most certainly not an “extinction” level event), this is more likely to play as nothing more or less than a perfectly competent satire of contemporary media and culture – not coincidentally, a #posttruth state of affairs that both extremes on the political spectrum benefit disproportionately from. (Grade: B-)

Drive My Car. The 35-minute prologue certainly kept my attention, and the performances were top notch, but ultimately this three-hour opus has too much wasted space and too little happening during the journey not to be disappointed by the destination (unless, perhaps, you are a big fan of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, lines of which are being recited constantly for meta-textual effect). Slow cinema still needs to be interesting. (Grade: B-)

Dune. It’s hard to judge a film that is so clearly a first chapter (in this case, even more so than say Avengers: Infinity War (2018)). The world-building is impressively immersive, especially when viewed on the format it was intended for (Imax).  But I cannot account for how some loud Hans Zimmer scores work much better for me (e.g., Interstellar (2014)) than others (this). (Grade: B)

Eternals. Truth be told, I had low expectations.  But I ultimately enjoyed this 2.5 hours of IMAX consumption. Director Chloe Zhao and company had a tall order to fill—launching a new superhero ensemble from scratch—and didn’t have a free and easy tone and infectious soundtrack to lean on like James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)).  Of course, the CGI doesn’t always hold up, and the logic of the endgame is strained at best; I certainly get the criticisms: there is a certain degree of institutional mediocrity that comes with this brand.  But it’s got an above average cast (most notably Gemma Chan, earning her second MCU character with a wonderfully quiet charisma) – the diversity of which makes perfect sense for these demigods in this story.  It’s plot was not entirely predictable.  And it’s got a unique energy and love-letter-to-humanity vibe that I dug. (Grade: B-)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye. To be sure, Jessica Chastain delivers her most impressive performance, channeling Tammy Faye Bakker more than imitating her (which I always appreciate).  But that’s about all there is to what is a very standard cradle-to-grave, box-ticking, breadth-not-depth biopic (complete with the self-congratulatory side-by-side comparisons of the actors to the real people over the end credits), truly earning the derogatory descriptor “Oscar bait.”  I was in high school during the PTL scandal and vaguely remember the drama playing out in the media.  And notwithstanding the mileage that the filmmakers’ attempt to get out of Tammy Faye’s relatively progressive positions in the midst of the AIDS crisis, to me she just wasn’t—and still isn’t—that compelling or complex a character. (Grade: C+)

The Father. The term “empathy machine” has almost become a cliche for describing affecting cinema, but Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play—putting the viewer in the headspace of a man spiraling deeper and deeper into an Alzheimer’s-induced dementia—earns that distinction.  No matter how interesting the concept is and how competent the cinematography and performances are, it’s all got to deliver on an emotional level.  And although this particular 107-minute experience feels a bit tiring at times, there is a scene where his dutiful daughter (Olivia Colman) introduces our eponymous character (Anthony Hopkins) to his new caregiver (Imogen Poots)—where he uses his last faculty in tact, his identity, to effectively mess with them—that sets up the ending so well that it simply wrecked me. (Grade: B+)

Free Guy. Pretty much exactly what you would expect from the trailer. (Grade: C-)

The French Dispatch. Let’s just call this high in density, low in heart. I’ve never agreed with the criticism of Wes Anderson’s work as pretentious (an overused, but not wholly useless, descriptor); but with this anthology—punctuated by a end credits dedication listing bygone editors and writers of the New Yorker, as if to educate the Philistines about all of the references we didn’t get—I cannot mount such a defense.  Setting aside the full tilt cinematic affectations (even by Wes Anderson standards), this film feels like the product of a truly great novelist who has spent the last few years cranking out a couple of serviceable short stories. (Grade B-)

Godzilla v. Kong. Not all dumb is fun. Yet it has a 3.2 on letterboxd.  Considering how far this franchise has strayed from the cinematic re-introductions of these two characters in 2014 and 2017—as well as all of this recent love for Zack Snyder’s most recent “vision”—it seems we really have lowered the bar, in terms of fundamental storytelling and competently rendered CGI, when it comes to “live action” franchises.  Remember when we lauded a classic like Jaws (1975) for what it did not show?  (But hey, Jaws 2 (1979) had way more sharky action, bro!) In answer to just about every positive review of Godzilla v. Kong, I would submit that while mediocre filmmakers may “give the audience what they want,” good filmmakers give the audience something more. (Grade: C-)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Even as little more than a mildly entertaining exercise in mindless nostalgia, this is certainly superior to the unfunny exercise in post-Bechdel virtue signaling that was Ghostbusters (2016).  Still, I’d much rather see a movie focusing entirely on Paul Rudd as the summer school teacher and McKenna Grace as his favorite student. (Grade: C+)

The Green Knight. Willow.  Barry Lyndon.  Antichrist.  The Last Temptation of Christ.  What else am I missing here?  Ugh … I dug it, but 18 months of the COVID-induced degradation in quality cinema—I am hesitant to declare it The Rise of the Streaming B-Movie at this point, as it remains to be seen whether we will recover from it—has left me a bit out of practice in terms of experiencing a film like this in a theater and immediately processing my thoughts.  I feel 9% dumber than I did in 2019.  So just let me get back to my Mare of Easttown and maybe I’ll get back to you on this later.

The Guilty. For a film that relies so strongly on such a discrete conceit (a senior cop is relegated to answering 911 calls pending an internal investigation), the execution of the third act seems so, hmmm, unsure of itself. And I really could have done without the heavy-handed Rome is burning imagery of what is supposed to be L.A. (Grade: C)

Halloween Kills. If Scream (1996) was the ultimate post-modern horror film, then Halloween (2018)—a re-sequel that rewrites, while simultaneously paying tribute to, all that came after the iconic original—might be the ultimate post-post-modern horror film.  I could dig it, especially the satisfying ending.  But where could David Gordon Green and company go from there?  The answer: a quaint, clumsy post-9/11 cautionary tale about, you know, society becoming a monster to stop a monster.  From both a storytelling and thematic standpoint, Halloween Kills feels like the second act that it is (being the second installment of a planned trilogy), but it is certainly no Empire Strikes Back (1980), or for that matter, Matrix Reloaded (2003).  The inexplicable ending left me utterly  disinterested in how all of this turns out in Halloween Ends (2022?).  And this film could be my biggest disappointment, if not the biggest surprise (unpleasant), of 2021. (Grade: C-)

In the Heights. I’m just going to say what I know a lot of people are thinking: when it comes to modern live action musicals about “dreams” realized and foregone, La La Land (2016), which had about half the budget, is the superior film in just about every way.  The writing here is particularly pedestrian, even when it’s not also burdened by self-seriousness.  Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera don’t have half the chemistry that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had.  And not only is John Chu no Damien Chazelle, but in terms of delivering memorable tunes, Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly no Justin Hurwitz.  What Miranda and company do have going for them here—which I think explains the typical ratings inflation from the contemporary critical elite—is a positively pandering appeal to diversity fetishism.  So the only thing I can say to Miranda when it comes to his most recent tribulations is sorry pal, but the fascist enthusiasm of the wokescenti giveth and it taketh away. (Grade: C-)

Judas and the Black Messiah. It may be competently executed, all the way around.  But it’s not poetry. (Grade: B-)

Kate. I really wanted to like this a lot more than I did.  On the positive side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a physicality to the fight scenes—rendered in equal parts clever and brutal—that rarely comes across in female-driven action films (cf. the supermodel gymnastics of Black Widow).  Miku Patricia Martineau has charisma to spare.  And the setting is a character unto itself (excuse the cliche). But narratively, not all the beats are earned.  Not all the styles and tones are consistent (e.g., a short car chase that is jarringly cartoonish).  And the casting of Woody Harrelson as our antiheroine’s handler evokes too much suspicion in the viewer right out the gate. In any case, I do hope that the very specific plot setup at play here—drawn from a 1950 noir that was remade in 1988—doesn’t become a “thing” that a plethora of filmmakers see fit to revisit a la Groundhog Day (1993). (Grade: B-)

The Killing of Two Lovers. Banality is indeed how lovers are often killed. (Grade: B-)

Lamb. I found myself eagerly hoping for a guest appearance by Black Phillip.  Contrary to what you may have read, the challenge with this film is not the ending, but staying awake to get to the ending.  (I am genuinely discouraged to hear that the screenwriter of this script, such that it is, has also penned the next Roger Eggers film.) (Grade: C)

The Last Duel. In sharing a rather specific conceit (multiple witnesses to an alleged rape offer competing narratives), the comparisons between Rashomon (1950) and The Last Duel (2021) are more than fair.  But whereas  the former is a classic of both cinema and humanist storytelling, I would submit that the latter is an exercise in pandering to a contemporary ideology, as the #metoo hashtag has bred what a civil libertarian like myself might consider more insidious ones (#believewomen).  The lack of subtlety here is almost comical at times.  (With the intertitles that mark each of three character’s perspective, the words “the truth” linger on screen for a second or two longer as the woman’s version of events are introduced.)  And the two different perspectives of the rape scene itself (along with much of the rest of the plot) are really not different enough to warrant the Rashomon treatment, which to the cynic in me makes perfect sense: as compliance with tribal sets of principles flattens out our culture, so too is the true diversity of human experience purged from our art.  I mean, in the current socio-political state of affairs, could a Hollywood movie really portray a rape with accounts that are that different?  Maybe not.  But maybe it doesn’t need to – after all, the truth lends itself to all sorts of storytelling (and vice versa).  Still, the screenwriting doesn’t need to be as didactically familiar as it is here at times; nor does the female character need to be so ethically chaste to make the point that the filmmakers are so desperately trying to make (compare, for example, Lady MacBeth (2017)). So sure, for many, The Last Duel will no doubt feel like an agenda piece.  But is it a good agenda piece? On balance, I would say yes.  I’m a sucker for great craft, and Ridley Scott and company really did their homework in terms of set and costume design.  Said duel is as gruesomely engrossing as it needed to be.  And newcomer (to me) Jodie Comer truly does turn in one of the most compelling performances of the year. (Grade: B-)

Last Night in Soho. That dress is awful, right? (Grade: C+)

Licorice Pizza. The best hot take I can offer for Licorice Pizza is that it definitely marks the return of the Paul Thomas Anderson who brought us Boogie Nights (1997) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) (the former of which is, technically, my favorite film of all time).  But with this rather unruly concoction of old Hollywood romance, cinematic Bildungsroman, episodic hangout movie, and multigenerational nostalgia, relatively speaking, I wouldn’t necessarily declare that return “triumphant.” (Grade: B)

The Little Things. Rami Malek has got to be the worst casting choice I’ve seen in a major motion picture in recent memory.  Just wow. (Grade: C)

The Lost Daughter. With yet another auspicious screenwriting (adapted) and directorial debut by an accomplished actress (see also Passing, by Rebecca Hall), Maggie Gyllenhaal—with a big assist with Olivia Colman—paints a complex, messy portrait of womanhood over a simple, rigid tracing of motherhood.  Dickon Hinchliffe also provides one of the most effective scores of 2021.  All of that said, I confess that my appreciation is rather abstract, as the scope and focus of this particular character study is about as far outside my wheelhouse at it gets (not being a woman or a parent). (Grade: B)

Love Hard. So I am adding this to my “guilty pleasure” bin: I mildly enjoyed this 21st century twist on Cyrano de Bergerac,* but I am not proud of myself.  (* Oh god, Peter Dinklage, WHY?!) (Grade: C+)

Malcolm & Marie. Haters are gonna hate.  And by “haters,” I mean white movie critics who use their platforms to constantly signal how woke they are, and as such, now feel like they’ve been put squarely in the cross-hairs of writer/director Sam Levinson.  Ironically (and perhaps, predictably), those same critics seem less capable of adjudging Levinson’s work on its own terms—from what’s up there on the screen—than lecturing the audience, for example, about how outraged they should be by a white man writing a two-hander with black characters.  As it happens to play out on screen, the anti-critic monologue that our fictional black filmmaker (John David Washington) delivers to his somewhat bemused muse (Zendaya) about halfway through the film, which has fueled the accusations of pettiness toward Levinson, eventually devolves into a virtually unintelligible diatribe that says way more about the character than the critics.  But we are particularly irony-impaired at this point in our cultural history, aren’t we.? … That said, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t share my own assessment of the film.  So sure, it’s not quite in the same league as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Yeah, it’s an exhausting 105 minutes that could have been more potent by cutting 20 minutes or more.  But there’s too much good stuff here not to recommend the film, too much that feels, dare I say, authentic for those of us who have been in that kind of relationship (even if we are not navel-gazing movie directors).  And of the sequences that really work, the performances—particularly by Zendaya—are certainly worthy of the praise they are garnering.  But of course, some of that credit should be attributed to the white guy who penned the screenplay, no? (Grade: B)

Mass. In recommending this, I think it is best not to set up the plot.  Metaphorically speaking, let’s just say four lonely satellites leave years of the cold comfortable confines of space to re-enter the orbit of a sun burning with guilt, pain, anger, and regret; and as witnesses, we can only hope that they find a stable trajectory to grief, even if they cannot forgive.  To be sure, the subject matter is as dramatic as it comes and the performances are stellar, and as such, the overall experience of this film feels appropriately ephemeral – like really great theatre (an actor’s medium).  But what makes this talky affair such an extraordinary piece of cinema are all of writer/director Fran Kranz’s seemingly little choices that create a sense of blank-slate stillness – from the set design (a workaday meeting room of a church annex) all the way down to a simple movement of the camera (to a negative space between the characters when we need to listen, not look).  The results are profoundly palpable. (Grade: A)

The Matrix Resurrections. To this cinephile who considers the Matrix (1999) to be the most revolutionary action film of his lifetime, there is a version of a great sequel to that groundbreaking film that (1) is premised on the machines figuring out that burying a fictional version of the matrix inside the real matrix produces better results vis-a-vis managing the human batteries and (2) features the charmingly smug Neil Patrick Harris as a psychiatrist who has a strange fetish for blue-framed spectacles.  But The Matrix Resurrections—which, in terms of basic storytelling, somehow manages to take its audience for granted while simultaneously giving that same audience very little credit—is most certainly not it. (Grade: C)

The Night House. While it brought back fond memories of Angel Heart (1987), the offscreen machination that sets up this horror-mystery—where things literally go bump in the night—felt undersold by the denouement, even by the narrative’s own murky logic.  Nonetheless, this is worth the price of admission just to witness Rebecca Hall bring such character to a grieving widow’s gradual unraveling. (Grade: B-)

Nightmare Alley. Rarely is descent-into-hell noir this weird, which I suppose makes Guillermo del Toro the ideal director for this material.   With del Toro at the helm, however, I found myself nervously waiting for that supernatural element to creep in.  But that anticipation turned out to be part of the appeal of this journey-not-a-destination film, which shares its 1940s setting with era specific approaches to photography, performance, and pacing. (Grade: B)

Nine Days. I loved the idea of this film as a thought experiment (or set of nested thought experiments).  I loved the influences of Wenders and Malick on display (even if those are not writer/director Edson Oda’s actual influences).  But as an emotional piece—a contemplation on the ephemeral nature of life itself—it didn’t quite fire on all cylinders for me: there is something about the writing and/or performance by Zazie Beetz that feels miscalibrated. (Grade: B-)

Nobody. I’m pretty much done with any movie the reviews of which reference John Wick.  (Grade: C)

Nomadland. So what happened to Linda May? 🙁 (Grade: B)

No Time to Die. This nearly three hour finale splits the difference between the best entries of Mr. Weisz’s tenure as James Bond (Casino Royale, Skyfall) and the worst (Quantum of Solace, Spectre): “No Time to Die” is a great title, and the action set pieces are fantastic (particularly the first in Acropolis); but Lea Seydoux is no Eva Green (not by a long shot), and Rami Malek has now earned my vote for today’s most overcast actor (although Timothee Chalamet may take that title over the next several weeks). (Grade: C+)

The Novice. Not my tempo. (Grade: C+)

The Nowhere Inn. The first half is a fun little alt-This Is Spinal Tap (if the artist was “real” and named “St. Vincent”); the second half tends to prove that writer/“director” Carrie Brownstein really is in a down phase of her career (which is, ironically enough, alluded to in the film).  Oh well, we’ll always have the first season of Portlandia. (Grade: C+)

Old. The conceit—a disparate group of vacationers stuck on a beach that rapidly ages its inhabitants—certainly had possibilities.  But I gotta give this a thumbs down.  First of all, Vicky Krieps’ performance just doesn’t work.  Secondly, I have come to the conclusion that the success of any M. Night Shyamalan movie ultimately depends upon a certain elegant simplicity in the machination(s) that bring about the denouement; and this was not successful.  (Grade: C)

One Night in Miami… To sum it up, director Regina King’s first theatrical feature film strives to be both Oscar-bait and that Timely Important Film … in all of the worst ways.  The conceit conveniently sets up what will turn out to be largely a didactic discourse on race, predictably leaning toward the current “progressive” identity politics of the day.  (If you haven’t read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, please go read it for yourself. (Grade: C)

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.  So has there been a rise in reenactments in documentaries or is it just me?  (Grade: C+)

Passing. Passing is certainly an auspicious debut for Rebecca Hall as both director and screenwriter (adapting a 1929 novella).  I always appreciate when a particular formal choice serves more of a thematic purpose than a general evocation of the past, as is the case here with the black and white (so to speak).  And I think that both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson turn in really impressive, nuanced performances.   That said, I confess that, with the ending, I am left with little more than a lingering sense of vague melancholy. (Grade: B)

Pieces of a Woman. That opening 20 minutes earns its reputation as some of the most harrowing cinema I have seen in recent memory.  What happens afterwards is far too ponderous to recommend the film wholeheartedly.  (Grade: B-)

Pig.  I will have to sit with this one for a bit.  Hot take: One of the most quiet films of the year might also be the most subversive.  (Grade: B+)

The Power of the Dog. The whole time I was watching this, I kept thinking, “Kodi Smit-McPhee is really bringing that Norman Bates vibe” … (Grade: A-)

A Quiet Place Part II. The plot and emotional beats-in-parallel get to be a little much here, but hell, I’m just glad to see a new movie—a real one, with a capital N and a capital M—in a theater again. (Grade: B-)

Red Rocket. Truth be told, I am decidedly mixed on writer/director Sean Baker’s prior work (liked Tangerine, but loathed The Florida Project); but I could never deny the uniqueness of his voice, his unyielding devotion to stories about “the ‘least’ amongst us” (to borrow a phrase from a nun I had in grade school) on their own terms, devoid of any socio-political agenda.  As the storytelling in Red Rocket goes, Baker gives us nothing more than what would otherwise be the second act of a traditional narrative: a washed-up, 40-something porn star (Simon Rex) returns to his depressing shell of a town in rural Texas, re-shacking up with his should-be-ex-wife until he can scheme up some sort of comeback, which eventually takes the form of “managing” a not-quite-18, sex-positive donut-shop cashier (Suzanna Son) into, um, stardom.  In terms of neo-realist humanity, however, Baker—and Rex and Son, in particular—give us so much more.  By just about any set of objective mores, our ostensible protagonist is reprehensible; but in the subtly hyper-real world that Baker creates, Mikey is so manically optimistic that we just cannot bring ourselves to hate him—much less look away—even while we hope that every other character steers clear of his trajectory for self-improvement.  And to this admittedly jaded cinephile, that is no small feat. (Grade: A)

Riders of Justice. Is it weird that I’d rather see an English-language remake starring Liam Nesson? (Grade: B-)

A Film About Anthony Bourdain
.  Documentaries
like this really demand a post-viewing discussion, both in general terms (can
we really talk about suicide with any sense of nuance?) and specific (is
the direct input of Asia Argento really an essential missing piece?).  (Grade: B-)

Rock Camp: The Movie. My takeaway from this very broad—but not so deep—look at the rock and roll fantasy camp industry (69 currently) is perhaps a newfound appreciation for the sublimated egos of the many rock stars who participate in this. (Grade: C+)

Saint Maud. Personally, I’m not a believer in a god; but I do believe that there are saints.  I suppose there are lots of details to pick apart in parsing out the “reality” of this film (e.g., the setting of a “Coney Island” where virtually everybody has a British accent).  But ultimately, I think that writer/director Rose Glass’ purgatorial narrative—which mixes many of the same elements as The Witch (2016) and Midsommar (2019)—is intended to pose the question, are the saintly lonely because they are spiritual or spiritual because they are lonely?  (Grade: A-)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The action endgame is invariably disappointing in any MCU fare, and this is a pretty shameless cash grab for the Chinese market.  But I really loved the buddy-flick vibe (underachieving Asian-Americans don’t get enough screen time!), the return of Ben Kingsley, and the unique aesthetic of the alternate dimension.  And on an even more personal note, life is so much better for 10 year-old Kung fu movie/comic book junkies in 2021 than it was in 1981. (Grade: B-)

Shiva Baby. I’m really craving a Xanax.  But, you know, you in a good way. … When it comes to being “sex positive,” it’s one thing to talk the talk, but writer/director Emma Seligman walks the walk. (Grade: B+)

Some Kind of Heaven. If the guy in the van here had appeared in Nomadland, then I think that film would have actually earned its Oscar. (Grade: B-)

Spencer. Don’t mind me, I’m obviously in the minority here.  But to my sensibilities, a privilege-as-prison narrative needs more than savvy cinematography and an abundance of visual metaphors to be compelling.  And more specifically, in a world that can’t seem to get enough retellings of Princess Diana’s tales of woe, I’d had quite enough by about 1996. (Grade: C+)

Spider-Man: No Way Home. This feels less like an installment in a feature film franchise and more like the result of a massive collaborative effort by top researchers, in fields of both the arts and sciences, to devise a product that maximizes serotonin levels in the brains of Spider-Man fans. (Grade: C+)

Stillwater. The noble search for truth and justice?  Overrated … I was pleasantly surprised to find this ultimately turned out not to be the movie promised in the trailer.  And I don’t often applaud the efforts of child actors, but the chemistry between Matt Damon and newcomer Lilou Siauvaud kept the middle third afloat for me. (Grade: B)

The Suicide Squad. Regardless of his own recent pandering and perverse statements regarding what it means for a society to value “free speech,” it seems to me that the final score of the James Gunn game is meritocracy: 2; woke cancel culture: 1 … which is a good thing, but why does he hate birds so? (Grade: C+)

Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).  Armed with remarkably good footage capturing a specific moment in history (Harlem circa 1969), first-time director Questlove brings more storytelling elements to Summer of Soul than the typical concert documentary, as well as a knowing and sly sense of nuance (e.g., compare and contrast the framing device here to that of Gimme Shelter (1969)).  Marred only by the brief, but conspicuous, commentaries of Chris Rock (who was four years old at the time and not even present) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who would not even be born for another 11 years but really wants you to know that Puerto Rican-ness is just like Blackness), this might just be the best edited film of the genre released in the last two decades.  (Grade: B+)

Test Pattern. I really wanted to engage, more than I did, with writer/director Sharata Michelle Ford’s nuanced examination of trauma centered around a young woman and young man traversing the health care system (and Austin traffic!) to track down a rape kit.  The most fundamental problem I had was Will Brill’s—or perhaps, to an extent, the writer’s—attempt at affable slacker charm; I simply never believed that underlying relationship from the beginning.  Casting is something I tend to take for granted until it’s obviously off. (Grade: C+)

Titane. Beyond the wtf factor, is this just much ado about nothing?  Or is there some higher thematic purpose behind a woman being impregnated by a car and finding her new family in a grieving/addicted fireman?  Either way, as with Julia Ducournau’s Cannes-hyped debut (Raw (2017)), I had a hard time caring about any of this (didn’t stick around for the Q&A). (Grade: C)

Together Together. A refreshing little ray of sunshine for a return to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon: low-key funny and hopeful, balancing two rather unique perspectives while eschewing the tired ideological narratives du jour … (Best interview question ever: “What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”) (Grade: B)

Thunder Force. To say that Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, and Jason Bateman deserved a way better script would be accurate, but would also understate just how uncomfortably pedestrian this odd couple/superhero “comedy” really is.   For proof that the ‘90s were a way better decade in film across the board (including A-list-cast superhero spoofs that fail to light the world on fire), compare Mystery Men (1999). (Grade: D+)

The Tomorrow War.  There needs to be a moratorium on revisiting the Groundhog Day (1993) trope.  But as straight-to-streaming actioners go, this could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Also, Betty Gilpin.  (Grade: C+)

The Tragedy of MacBeth. One depressing aspect about aging as a cinephile is that the even the great “classic” stories eventually come to feel tiresome.  And it occurs to you that, as you experience the latest umpteenth adaptation/riff, it is not for you; it’s for the majority of the consumers who are younger (than you anyway) and who haven’t yet been exposed to it (at least as much as you have).  The resulting sense of ennui is not so much a product of having particular tastes, proclivities, etc. as it is having simply walked around on the planet for a longer period of time. … As for this particular adaptation of the well-worn MacBeth, it’s not so much textually interesting (with director Joel Coen having edited down Shakespeare’s gospel to a digestible hour and forty-five minutes) as it is formally interesting, but in a way that I imagine a theatre director would make his first film after falling in love with German Expressionism.  For what the film purports to be, the outpouring of critical love for Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and especially, Harry Melling perplexes me (to varying degrees), as they all seem, to me, to be miscast (for various reasons); on the other hand, Alex Hassell pitches his performance—verbal delivery, facial expression, and body language—perfectly as Ross, who also happens to be, to me, the most interesting character in terms of what I wonder is happening off screen.   But I guess that says more about me and my experience of this film than the film itself. (Grade: B-)

Undine. Is it weird that I got more interested when the lecture on Berlin architecture started? (Grade: B-)

The United States v. Billie Holiday. Director Lee Daniels (not surprisingly) delivers hagiography of the dullest order, with dialogue that often left me thinking out loud to myself “wow, someone wrote that line, a producer read it and greenlit the script, an actor said it on camera, and it was not edited out.”  Never underestimate the self-righteousness of—and the blinding myopia it manifests in—filmmakers with a pandering agenda.  But of course, 2020 was the year of pandering to ideology with less-than-great, destined-not-to-be-profitable-so-go-ahead-and-release-them-on-streaming-anyway movies: just look at the Oscar nominees. (Grade: C-)

Val. I went in with low expectations, knowing Val Kilmer’s reputation as a “difficult actor,” but not knowing what has been happening with him the last five years.  I’m glad I did. In a biographical documentary like this, you usually hear the subject matter talk about this and that—or more likely, another actor, director, or family member talk about him—but Kilmer seems to have videotaped everything.  And that trove of footage really enhances this cinematic memoir in a way that often conveys a genuinely humility.  (Immediately following an implicitly confessional sequence, where we hear Kilmer’s own audio recording being problematic with the director of the notoriously doomed Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), is another where Kilmer is attempting to shoot a playful home video of his hero, Marlon Brando, and you quickly realize that Brando politely wants nothing to do with him; wisely, no narration given.) The net emotional effect on me was not pity (Kilmer seems to have found peace with a situation that he has, at least in part, earned – for better and for worse), but a more general sense of profound sadness: this really feels like the final artistic and personal expression of an artist.  Somehow I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he died tomorrow. (Grade: B)

West Side Story. When Rachel Zegler sings “I feel pretty,” you will believe it.  Oh yes, you will. (Grade: B+)

Whirlybird. Sometimes we can’t overcome the subjective experience of a documentary. Overall, I feel like this examination of the rise and fall of L.A. helicopter tele-journalists/married couple, Bob (later, Zoey) Tur and Marika Gerrard, should have been more compelling.  Part of the problem could be that it covers a 20-year narrative that effectively ended in 1998, without adequately filling in the gap to the present.  And then there’s that song about dolphins over the closing credits that, for some reason, creeped me out a bit. (Grade: C+)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Even with inherently more marketable superheroes and a four-hour run time, the DCEU’s attempt at an Endgame-level epic made on the cheap (with three prior setup films rather than 23) still fails, even on its own terms.  And based on a comparison of both the opening five minutes and the last act, I think I would have preferred to see the Joss Whedon’s extended version.  Indeed, the most fundamental weakness of Patty Jenkins’ compromised Wonder Woman (2017) is how it goes all Zack Snyder in the third act.  My question is how one who had previously watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice could, in all intellectual honesty, think “Oh yeah, more Zack Snyder would have made Justice League a much better film? (Grade: C-)

Zola. vap-id.  Offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging.  Similar: insipid, uninspired, colorless … Rarely does a movie lend itself so perfectly to a review consisting of a single word, but in my book, Zola’s conveyances are blunt enough to earn that distinction.  But since I was falsely promised “suspense” in the opening tweet of this Twitter post-based narrative film, I feel no guilt in further pontificating. … Having never been active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, I read the reviews of critics who are fawning all over Zola and I am vividly reminded of a very specific experience in my first year of college.  Right after a mid-term exam, I dropped in at a friend’s apartment where a low key-party had been going on for hours.  After three minutes of listening to the emotionally intense conversation about breakfast meats between four buds (two of whom were mathematics and physics majors) and being the only person in the room who had not partaken of copious amounts of cannabis, I came to know one of the key characteristics of this communal recreational drug: being stoned makes you categorically and obliviously boring to anyone who is not also stoned. … Do you see where I’m going with this? (Grade: D+)

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