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No Sudden Move (2021)

A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Three movies in, plus four spinoff films and more on the way, and The Conjuring franchise is losing some of its luster. The original director, James Wan, is still involved in an advisory capacity but his absence is felt in the director’s chair, not that The Devil Made Me Do It is poorly directed by Michael Chaves (Curse of La Llorona), but it’s starting to feel stale. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) are a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators traveling the country and solving 1970s/80s mysteries. This third entry feels the most like an expanded episode from a TV series, like X-Files, and maybe that’s because of its inherently procedural nature. The Warrens are defending a young man accused of murder but who says, as the subtitle describes, that he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. From there, the Warrens are investigating to prove the demon exists and then trace its demonic history. The scares are low although the intensity feels cranked just as high; there are lots of scenes of gale force winds, shattered windows, characters yelling, and loud music. I miss the perfectly executed Old School horror sequences that were the hallmark of the earlier movies. It set up its rules, wound up the scene, and you just squirmed in anticipation. This franchise has never been revolutionary but more an expertly polished and honed tension machine. However, when the calibrations are off, then the franchise has even less going for it. There are some interesting ideas and elements, like Lorraine (Farmiga) being able to see from the eyes of the demonic killer, but the franchise feels more repetitive and stalled, with multiple exorcisms and Ed (Wilson)’s health being a motivating factor for his wife to prevent, again. The supporting characters are bland or broad and the mystery itself isn’t that interesting, nor is the ultimate villain. In the realm of Conjuring as weekly TV show formula, this feels like an acceptable middle episode with the expectations that they can improve the next week. The “based on true cases” selling point is also starting to grate in light of the reality that a man blamed his own actions on the devil and these controversial people sought to exonerate a murderer. The real-life version is morally abhorrent. The junky horror version can work as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the other Conjuring movies were gourmet entries, then this is more the fast food version. It may still satisfy fans but it’s definitely not as well made and with questionable ingredients.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cruella (2021)

I don’t think I’ll be shocking any readers when I disclose that this Cruella doesn’t kill a single dog in her new movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the experience for anyone hoping for mass puppy slaughter. I figured Disney was going to go this route as they developed a villain biopic for Cruella DeVil, a woman obsessed with making coats from the skin of dalmatians. How exactly does one make a character like that sympathetic? Well by essentially making her a fan fiction version of Cruella DeVil and providing an even more dislikable antagonist to root against. The question then arises does this really count as a villain biopic when the character is so reconstructed? It follows the blueprint of 2014’s Maleficent where it posits that the story we’ve been told has been a matter of misunderstandings and smear campaigns from the Powers That Be. Cruella isn’t a puppy murderer. Now she’s a school outcast, plucky orphan with her own motley crew, and up-and-coming avant garde fashion designer looking to get her big break.

It presents her as an underdog on several fronts and with a back-story that might go down in history for its reclamation. Minor spoilers ahead, considering it’s early in the movie, but Cruella’s mother was literally killed by dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. The blunt re-imagining might even draw titters of laughter as the movie says, “Here’s the real reason she dislikes dogs.” However, even this tragic revision doesn’t make this Cruella hate dogs. There’s even a cute pooch on her team. This is a Cruella that’s not so cuddly but not unlovable either. She’s presented as a scrappy underdog with a punky attitude and whether this works will depend on your adherence to what a Disney villain biopic should be. Personally, I had no fidelity to the character of Cruella DeVil so I didn’t care. I wanted an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance from Emma Stone, and that’s what I got.

Set in 1970s London, Estella (Stone) is a lonely girl born brilliant but tempered by an uncaring society. After the dalmatian-assisted murder of her mother, Estella and her pals are meeting out their days with small-time grifts and cons. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and her boys manage to get her an entry level job at a department store. Her experimental window display gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a sharp-tongued and formidable fashionista that makes the world tremble. Estella adopts the identity of “Cruella,” with her natural half-black and half-white hair, to upstage the Baroness, draw publicity for her own unique fashion creations, as well as enact vengeance and retrieve her mother’s missing necklace/family heirloom stolen by the Baroness, as if you needed even more reasons to dislike this lady.

Cruella in many ways feels like The Devil Wears Prada mixed with a superhero origin tale. The Estella/Cruella dynamic is played like a secret identity, wherein she adopts one to achieve a personal goal and becomes seduced by the freedom the alternate identity has to offer. The first half plays quite like Prada, with our fashion upstart working her way up the chain, gaining attention for her insights and designs while fighting against a system meant to squash new ideas. The character of the Baroness is very clearly patterned after Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and the command she wielded in her influential position atop the established fashion industry. At first, Estella wants to gain her approval and become a protégé, and then she wants to topple her, crush her, and it becomes a matter of how far she will go, with characters saying variations on, “You’ve changed. It used to be Estella, now it’s only Cruella.” Even The Devil Wears Prada featured a similar character descent for its protagonist. Except the question never seems too in doubt with Cruella because the character of Cruella is less a person succumbing and fraying, like the Oscar-winning 2019 Joker prequel, and more a tale of self-actualization and empowerment. That’s why it feels more like a superhero origin and less like the Joker’s origin. She’s becoming more confidant, more assertive, and more accepting of her true nature.

Under the direction of Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), Cruella feels like a colorful, sprightly caper, something with more attitude and dark humor than I would have believed capable of being forged from the Mouse House with their own intellectual properties. This could have easily been a cash grab but Gillespie and his team of screenwriters, including one of the writers from 2018’s The Favourite, decides to take that big Disney checkbook and have fun with it. This movie reminded me of a PG-friendly version of 2020’s Birds of Prey for adolescents. It’s got slapstick, schemes, contraptions, narrative shuffling, charming and weird characters, and a lot of visual style and attitude to spare. Above all else, this is a fun movie, and one that assembles set pieces and mini-goals that lead to enjoyable payoffs. There’s a funny big heist as the mid-point but it doesn’t go according to plan, as so we watch as Estella and her team have to adapt and get out of a series of escalating traps. The rivalry between Cruella and the Baroness leads to some gaga dress designs I’m certain will get Oscar attention in due time. There’s plenty of life simply coursing through this movie from the actors to the visuals to the extensive music library. Even when the movie is overstaying its welcome (this could have easily been trimmed down by 15 minutes) the movie still finds ways to keep you entertaining and pleased.

Chief among those reasons is Stone (La La Land) as our star. She’s honed her British accent after her Oscar-nominated performance from The Favourite and it’s easy to see a straight-line from that cunning social climber to this new role. Stone finds the right mix of camp and pathos to make the character work. She’s no exaggerated cartoon but she needs a certain energy level to keep you charged. She’s no mousy heroine but a powerful force looking for the right armor that fits. Stone might not be playing the Cruella DeVil of the 1961 cartoon but she’s playing a version of the character that is more capable of carrying a two-hour-plus movie. Special consideration should be paid out to Paul Walter Hauser, who was so memorably dimwitted in I, Tonya, and portrays Horace, a similarly dimwitted member of Cruella’s crew. The man knows what he’s doing when he’s given these roles and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting more.

The amount of needle-drop music cues in this movie puts 2016’s Suicide Squad to shame. I was amazed how that movie could literally go from song-to-song with barely a gap, sometimes only using mere seconds to make its sonic case. The Cruella soundtrack is wall-to-wall music selections, many from the 1960s and 1970s rock and punk scene, and it’s another holdover from I, Tonya that Gillespie has brought with him. The over reliance can become distracting in itself because of the sheer volume of musical selections, many of which can be exceedingly literal (you better believe, yet again, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is called in). It’s a sign of just how powerful the Disney brand can be as I’m sure a huge chunk of the movie’s budget went toward getting all these dozens and dozens of music clearances. If you consider it like a kid’s introduction to classic rock songs, it’s excusable, but the number of songs can also be distracting.

Whether you consider Cruella a faithful or radical reinterpretation of the Disney villain, the live-action showcase is a star vehicle for its shining star. Stone is captivating and having a grand time in her fabulous fashions, and the movie makes it easy to feel her highs as well. It’s not exactly a great movie as many of its supporting characters are underwritten or overly convenient, and its question over the madness and identity of its heroine is more theory than practice, but Gillespie and his team have decided to make Cruella a fun movie, and to that end they have succeeded. It’s colorful, breezy, punky, funny, and consistently amusing, with outlandish set pieces, outlandish characters, and outlandish escapes. Yes, the mom-killed-by-dalmatians tragic back-story might elicit its own howls of bafflement, but the movie doesn’t belabor it for extra ironic impact. Cruella (or Cruella Lite, if you will) is an entertaining reinterpretation that knows what to scuttle to work on its own terms. Whether those alterations are too drastic or defang the character are up to you, but I’d rather watch a kinder, softer, yet still prickly Cruella than one skinning dogs.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pearl Harbor (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 25, 2001:

It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.

We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.

All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.

Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.

If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.

Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.

Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.

Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!

Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.

The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.

The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Believe it or not, there was a point in time where people actually considered the possibility of Michael Bay making an Oscar contender. It seems mostly absurd now but at the time there was a benign sense of hope with the production of Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie greenlit at the time ($140 million) and whose ultimate costs would exceed $200 million. The blueprint for the movie is easy to spot, borrowed heavily from the success of another risky and very expensive movie about sinking ships, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. If you’re looking for a movie to follow, you could certainly do worse than the highest grossing movie ever (at the time). There was great speculation and buzz about the movie, for its immense production scope, for the reported ambitions, for the prospect of Bay trying to make a serious movie, albeit a serious movie that still included a healthy helping of his usual explosions. There were similar rumors of disaster courting Titanic, then the first production to go over $200 million, and that turned out fine. Well, as should be obvious especially twenty years after its initial release, Michael Bay is no James Cameron in the realm of filmmaking and action storytelling.

Upon its release Memorial Day weekend in 2001, Pearl Harbor opened to a critical drubbing and general audience indifference. It failed to live up to whatever hype or hope had been attached, though it did snag a Guinness World record for most explosions if you value that honor. Bay has never since attempted a “prestige picture” again, resorting to the comfort of doing what he knows he can do well, showcasing large robots punching each other in between pretty explosions. I don’t know what the real legacy of the Pearl Harbor movie should be but I think, twenty years later, it’s a mediocre attempt to recapture something of a past, whether that was the movies of the 1940s or a very very specific movie from 1997 that rhymes with Smitanic. It’s too bad Pearl Harbor is still a three-hour shrug of a movie.

A full 90 minutes is devoted to setting up the nascent characters and history before that fateful attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and that’s the first major misstep for the film. Much of the emotional involvement is built upon a romance that simply does not work in any capacity. Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a dyslexic pilot who charms Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who decides to help him cheat his medical exams. The first 45 minutes demonstrates their abbreviated courtship and romance through a series of cute moments that fail to coalesce into something more meaningful. And if you think that was rushed and abbreviated, after Rafe is believed to be dead, it’s about ten minutes before his best friend and fellow fighter pilot Danny (Josh Hartnett) is starting to fall in love with her and impregnating Evelyn in no time at all. Then Rafe returns, shocker, and everyone is upset with each other and confused, which is exactly what the Japanese military was waiting for, now knowing this is the ultimate time to strike its big assault.

I read that Bay rebuffed some of the more persistent criticism about the fetid romance, saying he and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers) were aiming to replicate the romances of 1940s movies. To me this sounds like an inartful dodge. The romance in Pearl Harbor is not a throwback to a decade of movies that brought us Casablanca and The Shop Around the Corner and The Lady Eve, classic romances that knew how to pull your heartstrings and still register emotions to this day regardless of being over 70 years old. I think when Bay says he intended the romance to be older, nostalgic, he means simpler, and that’s just an insult to modern audiences as well as film audiences from the 1940s. This romance is just poorly written, not simple. Part of it relates to the chemistry between the three actors, which seems waterlogged, but most of the failure falls upon the shoddy character interactions. This is a movie devoted to having characters exclaim and explain things on screen rather than show you. Instead of watching characters fall in love over time, loosening and relaxing, flirting and deliberating, we just have characters declare feelings over the course of a few months of time. We’re supposed to feel conflicted when Evelyn finds comfort with Danny, but why should anyone care? Was anyone deeply invested in the relationship she had with Rafe? The other problem is that Danny is never even given a chance. His courtship is ridiculously short on time, and in fact his character drops out of the movie for what feels like twenty minutes before coming back to mourn Rafe’s loss. One of the guys says about Evelyn, “She’s got to be with someone, so it might as well be you.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, and also that’s pretty misogynistic thinking, my man.

So much hinges on the romance and yet so little of it seems to carry as soon as the explosions kick in. Once the Japanese aerial assault begins, it’s all chaos until it’s over, and then it becomes about getting some measure of retaliation with the Doolittle raid for Act Three. The romance is, for all intents and purposes, put on hold for over half of the movie. It’s like the movie cannot make up its mind so it leaves it to the Japanese to clarify who Evelyn should end up with. When the entire emotional investment of the movie is predicated on a romantic triangle, and you don’t feel any semblance of human emotions for any combination, you might as well scorch the whole thing and have every participant make the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. This is why Pearl Harbor staggers because its love story does not put in the necessary work. I felt no more tension for Rafe or Evelyn in the bombing than any other nameless extra running for their lives.

As far as spectacle, Pearl Harbor can keep you entertained. Bay still knows intimately well how to stage scenes of multitudinous violence and chaos (his real lifelong romantic partner). The Pearl Harbor bombing is the absolute highlight of the movie and impressive in its scale. The shot of the bombing of the six American warships took six months of coordination to merely rig the 700 sticks of dynamite and cord for a shot that lasts all of 12 seconds. The production built the world’s largest gimble to simulate the top of the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsizing. The scale and scope of the attack is impressively massive and gives a real sense of how overwhelming this surprise attack was on the isolationist American military. The chaos that normally follows a Michael Bay action scene, where geography and mini-goals are lost, can actually be a virtue when communicating the surprise attack. You can get lost in all the noise and smoke. There are some moments that are just strictly movie silly, like a squadron of Zeroes chasing after individual people to shoot, or Tom Sizemore firing a shotgun while fighter planes zoom overhead. It’s little reminders that you’re watching a big screen entertainment of war rather than a realistic and jarring portrayal of the horror of combat. Bay only has one viewpoint when it comes to the military, to sacrifice, and to masculinity, so the tragedy of lives lost is only ever served upon the altar of a jingoistic reverence for military power. I would have preferred an entire half of the movie following the plight of the nurses trying to triage all the wounded and save who they could with dwindling supplies and even less time. That movie doesn’t get made by Bay. There aren’t enough explosions in that kind of movie and too much emphasis on realistic human suffering.

I’m also confused about the movie’s political apprehension. It bends over backwards to portray the Japanese generals as honorable and morally conflicted, which is better than mustache-twirling stereotypes, but this is still the aggressor country that had already invaded and occupied China. All of the good intentions of being more even-handed with the Japanese, perhaps to fight against anti-Asian demagoguery or even solely from money reasons, get supremely muddled when Bay decides to make the Pearl Harbor bombing even worse than it was in reality. The Japanese took great offense that in the movie their planes are seen attacking hospitals and civilian targets, something that never happened according to history and witnesses on both sides. Bay reportedly included the extra attacks because he wanted the attack to seem more “barbaric.” What is the point of better trying to represent a group of people and make up extra barbarism?

Looking back at my original review from 2001, I believe this was a watershed review for me. I wrote over 1200 words and it’s more in keeping with my current reviews than my early reviews. I find the analysis to be more critical than my early reviews where I was more likely to settle for puns and scant broadsides. This review has a few of those, but I also found myself nodding along with much of it even twenty years later. There are some marvelous turns of phrases, like “A Longest Day for the Pepsi generation” and Harnett’s voice sounding like a stubborn door refusing to stay open. There’s a punchiness to the writing that I recognize and admire, and it’s like I can see myself developing and finding my critical voice at this early juncture, which was almost two years into my beginnings as a fledgling film critic in Ohio. This one feels like a step above. I couldn’t end this analysis better than I did back in 2001, so I’ll quote my then 19-year-old self to close out both reviews: “To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: ‘Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”

Re-View Grade: C

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+

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