Blog Archives

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Beautifully animated with painterly water color visuals, Wolfwalkers is another treat from the acclaimed Irish studio that is single-handedly trying to bring back hand-drawn animation. The visuals are a delight and styled in a flat dimensional space reminiscent of Medieval tapestries (and Wes Anderson movies). The story brings to life 17th century Celtic mythology in a way that is still relevant today and concerns weighty themes about family identity, female independence, religious persecution, prejudice, colonial occupation and exploitation, and environmental conservation. It’s part Miyazaki and Brave and also reverent to its own cultural heritage, and it’s emotionally affecting and engrossing as well as being a treat for the eyes. We watch a young girl befriend a wild “wolfwalker,” a girl who can transform into a wolf when she sleeps. their bond will push each other to fight against forces trying to dominate the forest and morality. The filmmakers have carefully laid out the rules of their story and the implementation of the special powers so that everything happens through gradual circumstances where the plot feels as if it is following an entirely organic path. The voice acting is excellent and heartrending and perfectly paired for the exaggerated, wood-block-styled character designs. It’s a lovely and entertaining supernatural fable with enough thematic relevance, girl power, and visual grace to reaffirm just how magical traditional animation can still be.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

News of the World (2020)

News of the World is an old-fashioned story, a Western and road movie, a grieving father taking a young girl under his wing, but with a slight modern polish thanks to the cinema verite style of director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips). The handheld camerawork and close-ups create a different kind of mood for a genre defined by long takes of sterling vistas. Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a traveling performer in 1870 who would literally collect newspapers and read the news to the locals, providing a wider understanding of the wider world. Along the way he comes across a young German girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised by a Native American tribe (the same tribe killed her German family and adopted her). He is determined to take her to the last of her family 400 miles away and from there they encounter many dangers and detours. I feel like every big filmmaker at some point feels the need to make a Western, and now Greengrass has scratched that itch. The older genre is so mythic and filled with grandly romantic notions of the frontier. News of the World is more an old-fashioned Western, without much in the way of critique, and fairly episodic in plot, and Kidd and the kid travel from miniature set piece to set piece like little narrative cul-de-sacs rarely producing additional connections from their adventures. I hoped Greengrass would bring his docu-drama realism to deconstruct the American romanticism of the Wild West, pick apart at that myth-making and whitewashing, but the movie is more committed to being a safe, square, and traditional old movie. The little girl is less a character and more of a necessary plot device, something to drive this man to confront his grief and provide a purpose for him. I wish there was more to their dynamic but she could have just as easily been replaced with a dog. There is one shootout that serves as the highlight of the film and where Greengrass comes most alive with his sense of tension. I was expecting a bit more conflict or commentary given that Kidd is traveling post-Civil War Southwest and selecting what news each community wants to hear, tailoring to his audience and knowing everyone likes a good story during “these troubled times.” There’s one section where a local boss looks to take advantage of Kidd’s services by forcing him to read from the boss’ propaganda publication and Kidd turns the tables on him. It feels like an anecdote rather than a thesis statement. I kept waiting for more to arise with the characterization but was left disappointed, as much of the movie is kept at a surface-level of who these people are. Whether it’s victim, saint, marauder, or newsman, everyone is pretty much whom you assume on first impression. The movie’s staid pacing lingers. It’s two hours but it’s not in any sense of hurry. Part of this is because the screenplay, based upon a 2016 book by the same name, is entirely predictable. Even the revelations held until the very end for fitting tragic character back-stories can be sussed out. I watched News of the World and kept thinking, “What about this story got these people so excited?” I think it was Greengrass feeling that artistic itch to lend his stamp on the American Western (I was reminded of Ron Howard’s own itch, 2003’s The Missing) and yet it feels like Greengrass was holding back and just sublimated his style to the settled genre expectations. It’s not a bad movie by any means but it lacks anything exceptional to demand a viewing. It’s a perfectly fine movie with a handsome production, gorgeous setting, effective score, and sturdy acting, and when it’s over you’ll say, “Well, that was fine,” and then you’ll go on with your life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Beanpole (2020)

Deeply depressing but empathetic to a fault, Beanpole might just be the most artistically uncomfortable movie of the year. It’s a Russian film set in Leningrad one year after World War II and the consequences of that awful conflict. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), our “beanpole,” fought in the war until her PTSD got too bad; she literally freezes in place like a statue when triggered. She’s working in a hospital and looking after her best friend’s child when tragedy strikes. That friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), desperately wants another child but cannot get pregnant. She pressures Iya to become her surrogate womb, and Iya feels so guilty that she agrees. From there, Beanpole chronicles the pain of not just these women but a pall that hangs over the nation, as people try to return to a normal that begs questioning whether it ever existed. It’s about hurt people lashing out and hurting others, some intentional and some unintentional. A coerced sex scene (a.k.a. rape) between Iya, a blackmailed but kindly middle-aged doctor, and Masha is immediately troublesome and yet thanks to the careful consideration of co-writer/director Kantemir Balagov, you can understand the motivation that lead each to being there. Masha is setup as the villain of the second half, knowingly guilting and pressuring Iya, taking away her agency, bullying her, and then there’s an extended scene toward the end where Masha meets the wealthy parents of her fledgling boyfriend. She reveals the lengths she would go to survive life during wartime as a woman soldier in a predominantly male encampment. It might not be enough to reverse your stance on her as a person but it definitely complicates your understanding. The whole movie is about people doing what they need to in an unjust world to survive. Beanpole opens up into a larger mosaic of condemnation about how women are treated by society, and each member of this tale is a victim in their own way, with their own story and own past and own demons, even the cruel ones. Beanpole has a gorgeous use of color, a deliberative sense of pacing, and outstanding acting that feels completely natural. It’s also, as mentioned, super depressing and hard for me to fathom many that will be eager to be this uncomfortable. For those courageous enough, you might find a beauty in the dignity of these women navigating post-war trauma and resilience.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Witches (2020)

Rare is the Hollywood movie where the biggest question afterwards is simply, “What in the world were all these talented people thinking?” Why did Robert Zemeckis want to remake The Witches after a perfectly good and eerie 1990 movie starring Anjelica Huston? Why did the screenplay adjust the action to be set during a segregationist South without any added social commentary? What exactly is Anne Hathaway, as the lead witch, even doing with an accent that sounds like she’s blindly jumping from nationality to nationality? In one second she’s Hungarian, in another she’s Scottish, in another she’s Swedish. What was with this bizarre character design for the witches that gives them dinosaur talons and one-toed clog feet and, most off-putting, extended mouths visible with slits along the sides that they don’t even bother concealing? Why does the movie keep making fun of the chubby kid at every opportunity for being chubby? Why, even in life-and-death stakes, is the chubby kid unable to stop himself from losing all willpower around food? Why does Octavia Spencer’s grandmother character sound almost exactly like a rambling Grandpa Simpson when she’s just given enough room (“So I had an onion on my belt, as it was the style of the time…”)? How could a screenplay, that includes the likes of Oscar-winner Guilermo del Toro, include lines like, “That’s the thing about snow — it’s slippery”? I was groaning throughout this movie and just beside myself trying to make sense of the inexplicable creative decision-making on display. I also felt embarrassed for Hathaway, an actress I have enjoyed and find to be quite accomplished, who is just inhaling every piece of scenery that is not bolted down on set. It’s such a crazily misconceived performance of theatrical bombast that I felt like Zemeckis had done Hathaway wrong. This is a big hot mess of a movie and it’s so joyless.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)/ One Night in Miami (2020)

Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.

In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.

The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.

The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.

While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.

The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.

With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.

The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.

The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.

The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).

The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.

Nate’s Grades:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-

One Night in Miami: B+

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Big, colorful, and brimming with optimism easy to scoff at, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is finally here to save Christmas and maybe movie theaters and it’s an escapist treat. It won’t register among the best of superhero cinema but will likely keep a smile on your face.

In 1984, Diana (Gald Gadot) is working at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and fighting crime as her costumed alter ego. She’s never quite moved on from the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back in WWI and she dearly needs some friends. Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a mousy co-worker who comes across a mystical artifact, a rock that magically grants wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong like her boss/idol Diana and she gains new intoxicating power. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a wannabe TV pitchman and an empty suit, fleecing investors and barely keeping ahead of his own Ponzi scheme. He learns of the magic rock and wishes himself to become the rock itself, turning him into a living genie. From there, Max’s wishes are spinning out of control, placing the world in greater crisis. Diana is torn because, before Max absconded with the wish rock, she wished for her heart’s desire, the return of Steve. Stopping Max and reversing the effect of the wishes means having to say goodbye to Steve all over again.

The original Wonder Woman was a break from the pallid doom and gloom motifs that Zack Snyder established, and the sequel goes even further with its candy-colored recreation of the 1980s. I was wondering if there would be a good reason to set the movie specifically during the 80s, and it’s mostly for the Cold War and Yuppies. I was pleasantly surprised that Jenkins and company don’t overdo the 80s nostalgia or the fish-out-of-water comedy for Steve Trevor. I thought this was going to be the entire reason for the throwback setting, and this time instead of Diana marveling at a modern world she did not understand it would be Steve. If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, then you’ve seen all of those jokes at Steve’s expense. That’s it. WW84 can manage to surprise you, mostly in a pleasant manner. Its sincerity is its biggest virtue. It’s a movie about plenty of goofy things but at its core it’s about relatable desires and struggle.

WW84 is an improvement over the original in the action department. Returning director Patty Jenkins feels freed of emulating Snyder’s house style and brings a welcomed sense of levity and playfulness to the action. The fight choreography makes significant use of Diana’s lasso, opening up the playing field for her to swing around wildly, at times even literally riding the lightning. At points the lasso seems to have a mind of its own and able to divide into fragments. It’s something that helps separate WW84 from the glut of other superhero movies and it offers pleasing visual variance for the fights. There’s a car chase midway through the film where Diana has to leap from speeding truck to speeding truck, dodging goon gunfire. It’s an exciting and sustained action sequence, yet even across the Middle East, chase clichés will reappear, like dumb kids playing in the street ignorant to any emerging noise like a caravan of speeding vehicles. Jenkins seems even more adept behind the camera for the action, delivering big stunts and memorable spectacle ready to make a splash on a big screen. However, some of the CGI can be shockingly dodgy for a big-budget blockbuster and a final confrontation with a CGI-hybrid creature unfortunately reminded me of the lamentable Cats.

The magic wish rock setup shouldn’t be any harder to believe than, say, a secret island of immortal female warriors or just about anything in the absurd and absurdly entertaining 2018 Aquaman feature film. If I can accept a drumming octopus, I can accept a magic wish rock. WW84 hinges on the concept of the drawbacks of creating your own false reality where every wish comes with a cost and an increasing flood of alarming consequences. It it better to just accept the comfort of lies or accept hard truths? The characters even name-check the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw recognizing the ironic trap. That doesn’t stop characters from struggling with the pull of their burning desires, and it makes for an agreeable return for Steve Trevor. Ever since it was revealed that Pine’s character was returning, I was worried what the possible explanations could have been, pessimistic it would be satisfying. Is he going to be a clone? Reincarnation? The grandson who happens to look identical? The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham finds a way to make it work by bringing him back through magic but with restrictions. In a very Source Code sort of style, Steve is operating in someone else’s body, but only Diana sees Steve. It’s a decision that frames the return in a personal way that also reminds us what is eating at her. It’s been 70 years and she hasn’t moved on from the man she loved, which can be viewed as sad, romantic, and unquestionably unhealthy. It’s a familiar character arc, having to move on from a loved one and accept grief, but it still works, and it humanizes this mighty Amazon warrior woman. It’s a worthwhile development that opens up these living gods into emotional, vulnerable beings.

With the wish plot comes some gripes and lingering questions. I kept asking, “Is everyone simply not seeing what’s happening?” or, “Is everyone forgetting what has happened?” The scale of the wish consequences is substantial and very public but it never feels like the world is registering just how fantastic these supernatural shenanigans are. In 1984, Wonder Woman is fighting crime as a hobby but still not a named and identified hero. The world does not seem aware of the presence of super beings and amazing powers living among us. So as Max continues his wish-granting ways there are immediate consequences of huge staggering scale, but nobody seems to register how weird and not normal things are, like a giant 50-foot wall suddenly appearing in Egypt. People should be asking what is going on or what others are doing. Therein lies the lingering problem with setting this movie in the past. Much like the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, the events presented generate questions to why future-set movies seem to be ignorant of these same events. If Wonder Woman comes forward and addresses the world, why is she still hiding her identity in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman? And if she learns more about her own super abilities, why does she not make use of these very helpful skills in 2017’s Justice League? These sound like quibbles, and they mostly are, but the movie would have benefited from being a little more judicious with its rules and applications because I started wondering if everyone was oblivious.

I was genuinely surprised how much screen time and consideration was afforded to the primary villain. No, I’m not talking about Barbara/Cheetah, who could have been completely cut from the film. I’m talking about Max Lord. He’s arguably in the film as much as Diana. He’s a con man trying to be a successful TV pitchman and oil tycoon but really he’s trying to be a “somebody” to make his son proud. The problem is that his goal always seems to be just out of reach no matter what is gained. This part confused me. After successful wishes with power and money, Max seems to desperately continue searching for more. I suppose it could just be a general “power-hungry corruption” explanation but I kept asking when enough was enough, and that’s likely the point. I don’t know if Max Lord is a character deserving of this much consideration, but the approach appeals to the film’s empathetic mentality that no one is beyond reach. Rather than the villain having to be physically defeated, WW84 rests on emotionally appealing to a broken man’s sense of self. It makes for a more intriguing conclusion in a superhero realm than merely out-punching the CGI antagonist, like the clunky, lumbering finale from the prior Wonder Woman movie.

The conclusion of WW84 rests upon millions having to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, which is a lovely sentiment that we could all use at this point after a dispiriting 2020. However, this year has also proven for me that the conclusion of WW84 is pure escapist fantasy. Throughout a deadly pandemic, the United States has been beset by too many people refusing to endure inconveniences in the name of protecting others and saving lives from COVID-19. The cost-benefit doesn’t add up for many if they can’t see the results, never mind the harsh yet sterile reality of over 300,000 dead Americans and counting aided by this selfish obstinance.

Gadot might not ever escape the long shadow of playing a famous superhero but she’s settled into the role nicely and even gets to flex some untapped acting muscles. I was skeptical of Gadot early when she was hired but became a believer in 2017. She definitely has an unmistakable presence onscreen. Gadot’s best moments aren’t even the punching and kicking, which she does with gusto, but the moments where she has to make grand appeals and hard decisions. There are a few emotional moments where Gadot’s familiarity with the character blends together and she and the filmmakers are not afraid to show strength in other ways other than brawn. Gadot still has a very enjoyable chemistry with Pine (Hell or High Water) that makes them a winning pair. One of the film’s highlights is a personal flight through fireworks that delivers sheer joy for Steve Trevor. His awe about the future and getting one more spin with life itself is heartwarming. Pascal (The Mandalorian) is going big and hammy with his performance that reminded me of the Richard Donner Superman movies. Wiig (Ghostbusters) is the big miss for me. She’s not convincing as a threatening foe and her early scenes as a klutzy, put-upon dweeb feel overdone and yet insufficient. We needed more establishment of Barbara’s life before her wish to better recognize why she would never want to go back. One reoccurring street harasser doesn’t cut it.

Wonder Woman 1984 is fun, splashy, and doesn’t lose sight of its characters and their emotional states even as it elevates the world-annihilation stakes. It’s a movie that seems more confident in its identity than the first film. It accepts that it can be silly, it can be sincere, it can be exciting, it can be smaller and more personal, it can be hokey, it can appeal to your best self. It’s overly long (the opening flashback of young Dianna in the Amazon Games could have been ditched entirely) and not everything works, but the problems are easier to digest and forgive with what does work. It might be the last blockbuster for some time given the uncertain theatrical landscape so I’ll take it. WW84 isn’t the swaggering solo venture the first film proved to be, but I would say it still makes for a mostly satisfying and fun experience that plays to the strength of the creative team.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Minari (2020)

Gentle, heartwarming, and deeply authentic, writer/director Lee Issac Chung’s semi-autobiographical movie about growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1980s won the top honors at Sundance and is poised for an Oscar run by its studio into 2021. Each moment in Minari feels plucked, fully realized, from the personal experiences of Chung. There’s an intimacy here that cannot be imitated. It’s a story about immigration, assimilation, hopes and the American dream, as well as struggles, setbacks, economic anxiety, and fitting in and figuring out the world around you. We spend time equally between the parents (Steven Yeun, Jeri Han) and their youngest child, David (Alan S. Kim), as the Korean transplants try their luck as farmers. Their elderly grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) moves in with them to provide childcare and assistance where able. At first, the kids declare their grandmother is “not a real grandmother” as she doesn’t bake cookies or do typical grandmother pastimes, but in time, she learns the ways of the new culture and becomes a lover of televised professional wrestling. It’s a small-scale story about a family trying to stake their claim at a better life and beset with challenges; the son has a heart murmur, their property is so far from other Korean immigrants to be part of a community, the land’s sources of water can be fickle for crops, the mounting mortgage payments. It ultimately becomes a push between personal goals and family unity, and then Minari ends in a way that made me feel like I was cheated out of a real ending. I suppose there’s a lesson to be had about life just moving on, resetting after tragic setbacks, and this plays into the real-life rhythms of this gently observational movie with its well of compassion. I also found myself starting and stopping the movie often and stretching out my viewing as I was distracted with other tasks. I never doubted Chung’s love for his story and his characters. Like the similarly themed Nomadland, this is a movie of quiet moments, and your mileage will vary whether they add up to a more complete whole or understanding. There are moments that tugged at my heart, like the grandmother hugging her grandson tight and swearing to protect him from any death coming in his sleep, or the kids folding paper airplanes that declared “Don’t Fight” as their parents argue. It’s a mostly restrained, quiet, slow-moving sort of story that gives you a peak into the lives of others. It’s so specific and finely textured to be genuinely authentic. The family’s very normality as an American immigrant experience is the movie’s big thesis and a reminder that there are thousands more stories to be told about what it means to be an American.

Nate’s Grade: B

I’m Your Woman (2020)

I’m Your Woman does for the gangster/crime genre what You Were Never Really Here did for the loner revenge thriller, namely demystify popular tropes and find a humanity often missing below the surface. We’ve been inured to gangster cinema for decades and love following the criminal antics of bad men without fully thinking about the collateral damage on the periphery of their story. I’m Your Woman imagines a typical crime story but from a very human perspective, focusing on the wife who has to deal with the confusion and fallout from her husband’s misdeeds. It’s a refreshing and modern take that works as moody paranoia thriller just as much as it does a subversion of them.

It’s the 1970s. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is married to a man who she knows does some very bad things. One day Eddie (Bill Heck) comes home with a baby that he declares is theirs. Where did this baby come from? Jean cannot say but she chooses to raise this child as her own son. Another day, her husband goes out with some friends and never comes back. One of his associates barges into her home in the middle of the night, bloodied, and tells her that Eddie is gone and she needs to likewise be leaving in a hurry. He tasks Cal (Arinze Kene) to drive Jean and her baby out of town, watch over her, and wait until the heat dies down or everyone else just ends up dead.

And with that, the movie is off to a gallop and Jean doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, only that it’s bad, and she doesn’t know where her husband may be, or even if he’s alive, but she’s told that people will be coming for her to get to him or to punish him, and so she must be whisked away in the middle of the night into hiding. We as the audience are left very much in the dark with Jean, and this precious little information allows us to very strongly feel her paranoia and anxiety. Every scene when she’s been left alone and sees a car coming closer, every knock on the door, it raises the suspense because your mind, like hers, is questioning everything. Admittedly, some will find this to be rather boring and a lacking perspective, but I thought the approach of director/co-writer Julia Hart (Stargirl) was to highlight the perspective of a character often taken for granted and forgotten in gangster cinema and its celebration of doomed antiheroes. We’re used to criminals neglecting their molls, and I’m Your Woman declares its allegiance right in the title. We’re on the run with this woman, trying to make sense of the plight as we go, and being trapped in a position of limited information is an intriguing and relatable dash of realism.

There are violent outbursts from time to time, but much like You Were Never Really Here (the two of these movies would make a good double-feature, folks), the violence is far from glorified and often denied to the viewer. Much of the violence is depicted off-screen and we watch Jean stumble upon its awful consequences, again linking up with the perspective of a bystander to the careening violence and mayhem from her romantic attachment to a life of crime. There’s a mass shooting inside a club that is deeply unnerving because of our limited perspective. We’re tethered to Jean and hear the off-screen gunshots getting closer, the screams of civilians, and the camera keeps running without a cut as she dashes down a long corridor but cannot find an exit. She ducks into a phone booth and we watch armed men pass by. She waits and makes her escape, tripping over bleeding bodies, and the camera continues in one ongoing take. It’s nerve-wracking but it also denies us coherency or clarity which makes it so much scarier (I was having visions of what people might have gone through with the Pulse nightclub massacre). Given its subject, there are moments of sudden, shocking violence but often it’s to disorient us and not as some delivery system of satisfaction. It would be very easy to follow a more traditional formula for Jean where being thrust into fending for herself turns her into a steely killer that lays waste to the men hunting her as finds her own means of authority. That was essentially the plot of last year’s The Kitchen, a fairly mediocre and disappointing movie about threatened mob wives. That’s not this movie. Jean doesn’t become a ruthless mob boss. She certainly attains an agency that she didn’t have at the start of the film and a well-earned resilience, but she’s always a grounded, frantic, and relatable person trying to keep their wits and not serve up a witty retort.

Because much of the movie involves the protagonist in wait and picking up small pieces of information to reform her sense of self and her dire circumstances, the digressions had better be worth it. I fully believe I’m Your Woman is going to be a divisive movie and it will entertain likely as many people as it leaves cold. I found the small digressions to be interesting and doing their part to strip away the movie world heroics and trappings, allowing people to simply act like recognizable people. There are little things that stand out, like a kind neighbor simply recognizing how exhausted a new mother looks, or a method of soothing a baby passed down from father to son, or the discussion of making a child laugh being the clincher for parental ties. There’s a lovely moment halfway through where Jean and Cal are stopping at a café. She delivers a monologue about her unexpected child, about her inability to carry a pregnancy full-term, about her prior miscarriages and her divining what that means about her involvement in crime, and it’s one of those moments where it feels like a character is just baring their soul. Jean is so vulnerable, so remorseful, but also so lost yet hopeful of what being a mother could mean for her, a title she says she tries to downplay but had really been her heart’s desire. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Cal and those he links Jean up with later. There’s a found family aspect of dislocated people trying to navigate the hand they’re dealt without pity or commiseration. When the movie stops to take a breath, that’s when it kept solidifying its growing authenticity for me.

Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is a fine anchor. She has to constantly be alert and anxious, as well as exhausted, so even when she’s at rest her character can never fully be rested. It means that even during the quiet moments alone, Bosnahan is giving the viewer a terrific sample of non-verbal acting prowess. I appreciated that Jean isn’t stupid. She’s ignorant insofar as she lacks crucial knowledge, but throughout I’m Your Woman she responds to potential threats and suspicions in ways you would hope and avoids more than a few disasters. Brosnahan also has an easygoing chemistry with Kene (How to Build a Girl) that makes them a winning team.

I found I’m Your Woman to be a refreshing take on crime stories by re-examining life from a character very often left behind while the men run their schemes and accrue their violent demise. It’s an interesting character study of a gangster’s moll and what living with the consequences of a bad marriage can involve. There’s terror and bloodshed but it never feels sensationalized or glamorized. Our heroine proves herself capable of surprising those who discount her, but that doesn’t mean she transforms from a scared, confused, and desperate person into an action hero. The filmmakers have brought a reflective and humanist take on the gangster genre, and your appreciation will likely also benefit from familiarity with the genre and its tropes. If you’re subverting expectations, knowing those expectations is somewhat essential to the desired effect. I’m Your Woman is worth your time if you ever wondered about the life of so many of those underwritten, possibly stock supporting roles in a gangster movie and asked about their interior lives.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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