Movie Reviews
Friday , September 24 2021

2021 Films

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

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)

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)

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. TOn 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-)

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+)

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-)

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 …

I Care A Lot. Perhaps it’s a testament to Rosamund Pike’s propensity for playing the Psycho Feminist that I never stopped viewing her as the film’s antagonist and that I found that ending to be so satisfying. (Grade: B-)

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-)

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)

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)

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-)

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)

Old. OThe 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+)

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+)

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-)

Roadrunner:
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-)

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+)

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 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)

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-)

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