Wednesday, December 30, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Movies Are Doomed. Long Live Movies

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

2020 has come to a close. And as we look to the future, it's hard not to be a bit gloomy about the future of movies.

With movie theaters still largely shut down in North America, it's hard to tell what the future of cinema will look like. Is everything moving to PVOD platforms? Will streaming services usurp the major studios? It doesn't help that the last month has reminded us all of how the biggest movie studios on Earth are in some pretty clumsy hands. WarnerMedia justifying repellant behavior towards artists as something "for the fans" was already worth a million eye rolls. A Disney Investors Call, meanwhile, was similarly discouraging. How many times can you hear people refer to movies as content before you feel like you wandered into a dystopia?

Mainstream movies have always been tainted by commercialism, but it's no longer something hiding between the lines. Millions of people watched that Investors Call, normalizing the use of language like "content" in the process. It's a turn of events that seems like a disappointing epilogue to the last few years of American cinema, which have squeezed out mid-budget filmmaking entirely for largely tentpole features. To boot, 20th Century Fox, sorry, 20th Century Studios, after nearly a century of regularly producing films, no longer exists. Having been absorbed by Disney, another producer of mid-budget films is now gone and turned into just another tentacle on the Disney octopus.

Throughout the last few years, essays expressing concern over where movies are headed have been commonplace. The concerns in those pieces have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last nine months, big companies have consolidated and the future of numerous movies has been put into question. With Tom Hanks recently saying that his new movie News of the World would be "the last adult movie with people just talking" released to theaters, it's all enough to make one, or at least me, despair about the future of cinema.

Sometimes, though, the easiest path out of despair is not to solve it, but to recognize that it's everywhere.

Doing research for a Looper article this week, I came across a most interesting New York Times article about the summer of 1982. In 2020, this is a season that's now gone down in history for delivering countless classics. The Thing. Tron. E.T. An Officer and a Gentleman. But in the moment, it didn't seem like a great summer for movies. On the contrary, this NYT piece was lamenting the state of film culture. Perhaps most fascinatingly is this passage which references how E.T. and Poltergeist were responsible for the majority of the box office that summer:

The wealth is not being spread around. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and all with a speed and a finality that scarcely allows the producer of the inbetween film even to daydream about having a hit.

Spielberg-produced movies have changed to Marvel movies, but this paragraph could literally be talking about the modern movie scene. This is true right down to the struggles of mid-budget films or "inbetween films" to get made in a Hollywood system that values big-budget spectacle above all else. The same sense of "what's old is new again" can be felt in a later paragraph, which reads:

Hollywood has always catered to the largest possible audience it could find but, as production costs have risen and as audiences have become more polarized, the gap between the hits and the flops has become so wide that margin for error has ceased to exist.

Extra amusing too is how this article claims that none of the films released in the summer of 1982 will become "seminal works". E.T. alone, which this piece dismisses as just "a nice film", would like to have a word, ditto The Thing! Additionally, it was intriguing to stumble upon a December 2007 Deadline Hollywood piece that remarks how Warner Bros. was in dire financial straits at the time of I Am Legend's release. The year and circumstances affecting Warner Bros. may be different in 2020, but its precarious state is, apparently, nothing new.

American cinema has always dealt with the fact that a handful of movies have dominated the box office. Major studios have always been caught up in seemingly apocalyptic scenarios. And as Robert Altman's The Player from 1992 indicates, movie studios being the place where creativity goes to die has been the norm for ages. This is not to say that these problems aren't massive issues, they certainly are. The fact that the problems referenced in the 1982 NYT article have only gotten exponentially worse in the last 40 years is a testament to how much America just lets the rich do whatever they want at the expense of the working-class.

But I do find some comfort in knowing that these problems aren't brand-new and, most importantly, that good movies have still emerged from these tumultuous times. Like I said, 1982 delivered numerous great movies despite two blockbusters dominating much of the pop culture conversation. Similarly, 2020, despite being the year movie theaters closed, delivered too many great movies to count. Cinema, as an artform, is in a precarious place right now. But the fact that it has been in the past and that good art has still endured under those conditions gives me hope. If good movies could make it through 2020, well, maybe they can make it through anything. Even Disney executives loving the word content almost as much as Mitch McConnell hates Americans can't dilute my hope that movies will endure just as they have in the past.

So long as we have each other, anything's possible.

Movies are doomed.

Long live movies.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Soul has got heart and visual imagination to spare

In the summer of 2018, I took a trip to New York City. It was my first-ever voyage to the Big Apple and offered up my first chance to meet some dear friends from the internet in the real world. In my time there, I didn't go to the usual NYC landmarks glimpsed at in the movies. No State of Liberty visits, no races up the Empire State Building staircases. Instead, me and my friends went to small thrift stores, we sang show tunes all night long in Marie's Crisis and we ate at hole-in-the-wall pizza shops. Not the kind of locations you see on a postcard, but they were so fun and made for such unique memories. 

It's been more than two years since that trip, but my memories of it remain as vibrant as ever. A reminder of that glorious week remains in my wallet in the form of my Metro card, which I used to trace on NYC's subway system. One look at that ratty yellow card and I'm immediately transported to that life-changing week. Late into Soul, the film's protagonist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), takes a look at a Metro card in a wistful state and I immediately knew this film got it. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers understand what defines our best memories. They get what's really precious. Best of all, this duo, and Soul as a whole movie, understand what makes life worth living.

As Soul opens, Gardner is working as a Middle School music teacher in New York City. It's a job with its perks, but it's not his dream occupation. Gardner wants to be someone who plays the pianos in professional gigs. He gets the chance to do just that when he succeeds in an audition for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Now with a public performance on the horizon, Gardner's life is looking up. Then he fell down that manhole. Now, Garden, in his spirit form, has fallen into The Great Before, the place where souls get their personalities and quirks prior to coming to Earth. Desperate to get back to his body on Earth, Gardner finds a potential route home through a jaded soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who wants nothing to do with going to Earth.

Among the many achievements in Soul is that it finally finds a proper home for PIXAR's love for combining stylized visuals with realistic backgrounds. This tendency really started to become prominent with their short film The Blue Umbrella and has since been a key trait of movies like The Good Dinosaur and Onward. Here in Soul, this design aesthetic finds a real purpose beyond being an impressive tech demo. The computer-animation renders Gardner's Soul as someplace you can reach out and touch. Every crack in the sidewalk, drop of sweat on the human characters, and piece of peeling paint on the walls feels like something you can reach out and touch. Especially impressively-realized are tight interior environments, which feel so cozy and intimate.

Meanwhile, everything in the realms beyond the mortal world is rendered with such grandiose visual tendencies. The vastness of a literal stairway to Heaven echoes the expansive cosmic canvas seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A realm between that stairway and The Great Before is a nightmarish zone devoid of color that's genuinely unsettling. As for The Great Before itself, it's a gloriously unpredictable world where the rules of physics are delightfully eschewed. Mentor figures that look like hand-drawn rendering of wire art figures loom over the physical manifestations of souls, who can conjure up anything (like lighters) as if they're Looney Tunes characters. Soul is a movie where so many of its visuals are motivated by unbridled imagination and it's a joy to witness.

Embracing both realism and stylized tendencies provide a great contrast between its two primary settings that helps to place viewers into the mindset of both Joe and 22. For Joe, we're just as overwhelmed as he is by all the wonders of The Great Before. As for 22, the everyday charms of reality are beautifully reflected in the tiniest details of the richly-realized animation. Soul manages to have its cake and eat it too on an animation level by pulling off totally opposing visual aesthetics. It's a great interpretation of a recurring visual technique in PIXAR's filmography while also making Soul visually pleasing on its own terms.

While the film is totally eye candy central even in its quiet scenes, part of what impressed me most about Soul is its commitment to keeping its story low-key. A movie contemplating everyday existence can't get swept up in pointless action sequences or superfluous digressions. The screenplay, thankfully, keeps things focused and appropriately restrained. Entire scenes are dedicated just to conversations between Gardner and one of his students or a particularly memorable scene where Garden gets to know his barber better. There's nary a Minions-esque loud joke in sight during these exchanges that could interrupt the emotional power of these sequences. Instead, Soul has enough confidence in both its story and its audience that it can just let these naturalistic conversations breathe. 

As a result of this boldness, Soul quietly but effectively reflects its central theme related to the importance of getting to know the people around you. It's one of many deft touches throughout the story that proves as stimulating emotionally as the animation is dazzling. The richly human nature of the story is complemented by an assortment of memorable performances that bring so much extra personality to these characters. Rachel House is the stand-out of the cast with her turn as the humorously determined figure Terry, who functions as an ethereal complement to her similarly hysterical and resolute character in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

There's plenty to praise with a movie as good as Soul, particularly in regards to its outstanding original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But what really stuck with me most of all is how quietly wise this movie is. Soul understands the power the seemingly most throwaway parts of our life can have. What makes our life fulfilling can be found anywhere. In our interactions with others. In making movies as good as Soul. Or even in the memories we associate with a ratty old Metro card.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The 2019 Black Christmas is messy but also intriguing and admirably ambitious


CW: Discussions of sexual assault

Back in the 2000s, every classic horror movie from the 1970s and 1980s was getting a remake. The success of the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre had spurred on a wave of movies trying to cash in on familiar brand names for easy money. Among these remakes was the 2006 Black Christmas movie, a remake of the 1974 Bob Clark movie of the same name. While the original Black Christmas is widely held up as a classic, the 2006 Black Christmas was largely forgotten within a few days of its release. Well, now that the 2018 Halloween movie has reminded Hollywood how valuable famous horror movies can be, another Black Christmas remake from director Sophia Takal was snuck under the tree last December.

A very very loose remake of the original movie, Black Christmas concerns Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) a student whose a part of the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority. Stone has a close bond with her fellow sisters in this sorority, which includes Kris Waterson (Aleyse Shannon), and that bond has become all the more important after Stone was raped by the leader of the fraternity Delta Kappa Omicron. As Winter Break approaches, members of MKE begin getting slaughtered by a cloaked figure. Though she think they've merely vanished, April begins to get worried, especially since the disappearing students seem to tie into the DKO fraternity. It won't be a very merry Christmas for anyone if Riley and her friends don't figure out what's going on.

Screenwriters Takal and April Wolfe have gone the smartest route for a horror remake with Black Christmas.  They've decided to basically make their own original movie and just slap a familiar name on it. I'm curious why microbudget horror outfit Blumhouse needs even a familiar name if the movies are gonna be so cheap to produce, won't they be profitable even without a recognizable title? Still, Blumhouse wanted a Black Christmas remake and Takal and Wolfe have opted to use that opportunity to provide something new. To boot, it's a project that humanizes a survivor of sexual assault, a welcome reprieve from how often slasher movies handle anything related to women and sexuality.

The various scary scenes are also appropriately chilling, particularly one scene executed through one single-take following a girl walking around the sorority house along searching for the source of an odd noise. It's a very well-composed scene that gets a lot of tension out of the knowledge that, inevitably, blood's gonna spill...but when? Plus, Takal and Wolfe do a good job of getting a lot of the scares from grounded places. Sudden unexpected manifestations of toxic masculinity, like a sudden outburst from the boyfriend of one of Riley's sorority sisters, are just as frightening as a masked guy with a knife. Ditto the looming presence of a college professor (played by Cary Elwes) who casually paints himself as a martyr at the hands of marginalized groups. 

If there's one thing really holding Black Christmas back, it's the puzzling choice to make it PG-13. Considering the college-aged protagonists are way older than the minimum age to get into an R-rated movie and that slasher movies aren't usually PG-13, it's puzzling Black Christmas went for this MPAA rating. But it did and it was clearly a post-production decision given how the films editing clumsily walks around showing anything graphic. When they do this with the early kills of the sorority girls, it kind of makes sense. We're supposed to sympathize with Riley and her friends, not revel in the gruesomeness of their murders.

But when Black Christmas starts awkwardly cutting away from male villains getting run over or set on fire, then it becomes apparent that Black Christmas is just avoiding any of the nasty violence that any slasher movie needs to deliver. The decision to trim things down for a PG-13 has hurt Black Christmas, but luckily, its bold creative tendencies incorporate a decent amount of thrills into the proceedings. It's not the greatest or most consistent horror movie remake out there, but more of these movies could stand to take a cue from Sophia Takal's take on Black Christmas. Swing for the fences, don't just rehash what previous movies did, and if you need to write a cutting rendition of Up On The Housetop, call up Riki Lindhome to pen the lyrics.

Wonder Woman 1984 aims for old-fashioned fun but settles for being rote

Wonder Woman 1984 leaves you with a lot of questions. Unfortunately, they're not the kind of questions superhero movies should inspire, like "When can I see it again?" Instead, I was left puzzling some of the outright baffling choices writer/director Patty Jenkins and her fellow screenwriters Geoff Johns and David Callaham made here. For instance, why set the film in 1984 and not utilize the time period? Why did you use John Murphy's Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor) from Sunshine in a scene? Where did all the imaginative set pieces go? Why can't we spend more time on the island of Themyscira? Most of all, what went wrong here?

Set in 1984 (surprise surprise), Wonder Woman 1984 picks up with Wonder Woman, in the guise of her alter-ego Diana Prince, working in a museum in Washington D.C. alongside colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). One day, Prince's workplace uncovers a stone that has an incredible ability to grant wishes. This intrigues wanna be tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) as well as social outcast Minerva. Heck, even Prince has some wishes of her own that end up bringing back Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from the dead. But as the wishes pile up, the world begins to turn into a chaotic mess. To fix it all would take the strength of Wonder Woman...and even she may not be up to the task.

Wonder Woman 1984 starts out with the titular superhero foiling a bank robbery in a shopping mall, a task that entails saving the lives of two young girls. The light-heartedness of this sequence and the bright visual aesthetic immediately establish that WW1984 is going for an old-school approach to superhero storytelling. This is a superhero movie where costumed crusaders save cats from trees, not ask each other if they bleed. That's all well and good by me, especially since two of the best superhero movie directors of all-time, Sam Raimi and Richard Donner, based their superhero movies on this very style.

Unfortunately, WW1984 writer/director Patty Jenkins is missing a crucial element that made Raimi and Donner's light-hearted superhero fare work: a love for everyday people. In Superman II and Spider-Man 2, everyday people are just as heroic as the superhero. The citizens of Metropolis will rush in to stop General Zod when Superman is down for the count while subway passengers will lay down their lives to prevent Doc Ock from reaching Spider-Man. There's a hopeful optimism there that Wonder Woman 1984 lacks. In this movie, everyday people are either objects to be saved or beings prone to being evil and falling apart unless Wonder Woman steps in to corral them. 

There's no personality to these people, they're barely above being props. Part of the problem is that Wonder Woman 1984 wants to channel this lighthearted aesthetic while also commenting on the "Greed is good" style of excess in the 1980s. "Life is good...but it can be better!" goes Maxwell Lord's mantra on TV and it's one most everyday people in WW1984 abide by.  So the film wants to be a bleak social commentary on human behavior in the 1980s like a classic Paul Verhoeven movie...while also channeling the original Superman movies. That's just not a mixture that works. As a result, social commentary lacks punch.

This is one of many baffling choices in the film, which also include the decision to have Kristen Wiig modulate her performance like one of her SNL characters, right down to the way she delivers dialogue. Wiig has proven her dramatic chops in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Skeleton Twins, why is she performing a leftover SNL routine? Worse still, her character turns out to be superfluous to the plot. Another puzzling storytelling move lies in the decision to hold off on the action sequences for nearly an hour after Wonder Woman foils that bank robbery. Tired gags about Steve Trevor encountering 1980's culture for the first time aren't entertaining enough to make one realize this action movie is sorely lacking in thrills.

Without much in the way of thrills, a dynamic plot, or even impressive visual effects (the CGI stunt doubles for human characters laughably bad in some instances), what does Wonder Woman 1984 have to offer? Well, a good Pedro Pascal performance for one. After delivering a restrained vocal-heavy performance on The Mandalorian, Pascal is apparently having a ball going over-the-top channeling fun campy comic book villains like Jack Nicholson as Joker with his own turn as Maxwell Lord. Gal Gadot doesn't have much of a character arc to work with this go-around. But she still makes for an engaging on-screen presence. Plus, both of Wonder Woman's costumes, including a new golden eagle armor, look well-realized.

Perhaps best of all, at least Wonder Woman 1984 opts to go for a slightly different than usual comic book movie climax, one that forgoes blue sky beams and gigantic CGI baddies for something a little more personal. It's still a messy finale that suffers from the film's detached approach to everyday people, but conceptually, it's at least something different from the norm. Hans Zimmer is also doing fine work in the score department, but it's all in the service of a movie that's more empty than dazzling. In the end, the best decision Wonder Woman 1984 ever made was getting released on Christmas Day since the movie will leave you like the Grinch on Christmas morning; puzzling and puzzling until your puzzler is sore.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Jingle Jangle is an overstuffed but endearing Christmas movie


Will Netflix Christmas movies become annual staples like traditional movies? It's a question I hadn't pondered prior to writing the review of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, one of the many new Christmas movies dropping on Netflix in 2020. Traditionally, Christmas movies became ubiquitous staples of the holiday season because of how often they would run on broadcast networks or cable channels. In the last few decades, that's transitioned over into certain titles being watched constantly on home video. Being able to move between mediums like physical media and TV airings allowed these films to be seen far and wide. Netflix movies, meanwhile, never air anywhere besides Netflix and rarely get physical media releases. This restricts their presence in the Christmas pop culture landscape, will it also restrict how they endure in the years to come?

If any Netflix Christmas movie is going to end up being the next Elf or The Santa Clause, it's probably gonna be Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. An original story that the current generation of kids can claim as their own, it's also something that could easily translate to a stage musical if Netflix chooses to go that way. God also knows it's got a bunch of characters practically tailor-made to be turned into popular toys. Oh, and it's also pretty fun, a key ingredient for any Christmas kids movie that doesn't end up gathering dust on the shelf like Fred Claus.

Written and directed by David E. Talbert, Jingle Jangle concerns toy inventor Jeronicus (Forrest Whitaker), who was once the Mr. Magorium of the early 20th century with his lively toy store. But once his apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key), ran off with his book full of toy plans, things went south for Jeronicus. Gustafson got rich off of all those plans and Jeronicus fell into financial ruin and lost his wife. Growing distant with his daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose), Jeronicus now lives as a hermit in the ruins of his toy store. But the arrival of his granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), could help shake Jeronicus out of his stupor. just in time to stop Gustafson from stealing the Buddy 3000, a plucky robot once created by Jeronicus.

Talbert's script is bursting with imagination, sometimes to its own detriment. This isn't just a Christmas musical, it's also a story about father reconnecting with his family. It's also a movie where mathematics is rendered as Doctor Strange-esque magic tied into emotions ("The square root of imagination!"), there's a tiny robot that looks like the offspring of Johnny 5 and Roberto from Futurama, Jeronicus has to deal with the advances of postwoman Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip). There's a lot going on in here and Jingle Jangle does suffer from being so overstuffed. Emotional moments, in particular, don't quite land like they should simply because they get lost in the middle of all the hustle and bustle.

That having been said, it is neat to see a modern live-action family movie that's concerned with delivering a lot of new stuff rather than just rehashing old animated Disney movies. The fact that Talbert is delivering everything without a hint of cynicism is also welcome. For example, there isn't a single wink to the camera or jaded one-liner when it comes to Jingle Jangle's merging of mathematics and emotions. It's a strange concept but one that works in the film's confidently fairy-tale-esque style.  To boot, no pop culture references or bathroom humor emerge here, two of the laziest crutches of any kids movie.

Plus, even when Jingle Jangle becomes too overstuffed for its own good, it's at least gorgeous to look at. The costume designs, especially, are radiant-looking, all bursting with color and grandiose touches, like Gustafson's scepter that just screams "villain". The assorted sets are also well-realized and help to lend a tangible quality to the movies whimsy. Uses of CGI are less successful, particularly anytime they transition between the practical puppet version of The Buddy 3000 and his CGI stunt double. The practical version just has such palpable weight to it that makes it feel so real. The distractingly weightless CGI version of the same character, by contrast, just reminds you that you're watching digital VFX trickery.

And then there are the musical numbers, which sometimes suffer from Talbert's inability to just let audiences watch these set pieces in an uninterrupted fashion. Awkward cuts are an unfortunate side effect in a number of these tunes and negatively reminded me of the worst instances of how Rob Marshall and Bill Condon have directed musical numbers. But the best of these musical numbers have more cohesive filmmaking that allows audiences to appreciate all the visual polish and fun of these proceedings. Opening tune This Day, especially, is a great earworm that kicks things off on an energetic high note. Also, Keegan Michael-Key is actually doing really good work in musicals in the last two months of 2020, I wouldn't mind one bit if he just decides to become a fixture of movie musicals!

Jingle Jangle is a give-and-take kind of movie. It gives you great costume work, but it takes you out of the movie with awkward uses of CGI. It gives you some lively musical numbers but takes you out of the movie with clumsy editing and direction. You get the idea. But enough of what it gives is successful and endearingly sincere enough to make it a pleasant Yuletide distraction. Best of all, I have a hunch it will become a favorite among kids. The thought of them having their own original Christmas movie to cherish like I had with Elf as a kid is really nifty. Only time will tell if Netflix Christmas movies are able to become enduring holiday season staples. But if any of them could, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey seems like the most likely candidate.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Education schools inferior dramas on how to balance tragedy with humanitu

While watching, Education, which closes out Steve McQueen's final Small Axe movie collection, I had that fateful sensation of finally seeing your own experiences rendered in film form. Growing up as a kid on the autism spectrum, I frequently felt invisible in the public education system. The different way I processed information didn't correlate with traditional educational methods and that sometimes produced problems. There were good & empathetic teachers in this system, certainly, but by and large, I felt more invisible than anything else. It was as if the higher-ups at my schools had decided that if I didn't exist, my problems with comprehend the material I was taught would also vanish. 

Watching Education, it was incredible to see not only my own experiences reflected but also a totally unique story that reflects the specific horrors facing children of color in the British education system. Such a plight affects Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy), a young child whose bright but just a touch rambunctious and still struggling to read. A reasonable assessment would be that he just needs a little extra help. The higher-ups at the public school he attends, meanwhile, see that the solution is to toss Kingsley off to a special education school that's woefully underfunded and run by educators who don't care about their students.

As Kingsley's mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), soon learns, the struggles of her son play into a larger conspiracy to restrict access to higher education to people of color and immigrants in British countries. There is no chance for upward mobility in society if they're never even given the tools necessary to engage in that mobility. though Education grapples with how Kingsley is no anomaly, its scope remains squarely focused on this child and his perspective. This is a fantastic extension of how Education posits that what children need to be properly educated is a sense of commitment and direct engagement. Interact with children like they're human beings, not just objects to be tossed aside.

This is best seen in a scene where Kingsley and his abandoned class of youngsters are visited by Hazel (Naomi Ackie), a woman posing as a psychiatrist who has a much more noble purpose for visiting Kingsley's school. In her brief time in this classroom, Ackie gives Hazel a personality that's as vibrant as the brightest ray of sunshine. Ackie's Hazel just radiates kindness you can immediately believe and the way she treats Kingsley and his classmates with such humanity is an incredibly touching sight. A moment where tells one Black student, who's ashamed to be Black, that "I'm Black and I'm proud to be Black", gosh, what an emotionally stirring moment, a testament to how important it is to just exhibit kindness to kids. Oh, and McQueen also executes a perfect visual gag involving a child hiding in plain sight within a cupboard.

Keeping the scope so intimate and emphasizing the importance of human connections makes it apparent what's at stake when Education talks about the very real costs of not getting access to proper education. This systemic tragedy isn't just happening to figures who only exist for the sake of enduring misery, it happens to human beings we've gotten to know so well. The warm photography of cinematographer Shabier Kirschner cements how this is supposed to be an emotionally inviting piece. We're supposed to connect with Kingsley, his family, and all others affected by this rampant lack of education. Under the wise direction of Steve McQueen, that emotional connection is fulfilled and then some.

Such an emotional achievement is further cemented through an assortment of strong performances. Naomi Ackie is the standout of the supporting cast, but I was also left impressed by Sharlene Whyte. Her part of Agnes goes through a major transformation over the course of the story, from a strict and distant mother to one that becomes a champion for Kingsley's right to get a proper education. In the span of a 66-minute runtime, this arc could have felt rushed in the wrong hands but Whyte makes the character's growth feel organic in that timespan. It's an impressive lead performance that anchors yet another Small Axe achievement from Steve McQueen.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2020

TFW you see how many good movies dropped in 2020

In March 2020, like all of us, the movies stopped.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ensured that movie theaters, like all walks of life, came to a halt. For the first time in over a century, you couldn't go to your local theater on Friday night and see something new. What would have been unthinkable just a year ago has become the norm in 2020. But like all of us surviving in isolated circumstances, the artform of movies endured throughout 2020. In fact, considering how many great movies there were this year, the medium thrived in the face of adversity. Who knows where the artform is headed between an ongoing pandemic and the actions of greedy corporations. But if 2020 is any indicator, movies can and will go on even in the face of the most trying times.

Considering all of that, here are my own top 25 movies of 2020. As in years past, they're all arranged alphabetically save for one movie I've chosen as the best of the year. But first, a handful of honorable mentions because, really, this year was packed with great stuff.

Honorable Mentions: Collective, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, She Dies Tomorrow, I'm thinking of ending things, His House, Corpus Christi, The Nest, Howard

American Utopia

Pure joy. Those are the two words that leaped to my mind the moment American Utopia finished. There's so much energy and creativity flowing throughout this David Byrne show, which is comprised of a variety of musical performances brought to life through musicians from all over the world. Even in a filmed format, it proves so infectiously delightful (Lord knows what this must have been like to experience live). Spike Lee's direction allows the audience to appreciate all the finer visual details of this production while maintaining the program's energy, artistry, and uncompromised vibrancy. Decades after his first concert film, Stop Making Sense, American Utopia sees Byrne as bold of an artist as ever. He's the kind of visionary who can conjure up entertainment that can only be properly described as pure joy. 

American Utopia is now streaming on HBO.

The Assistant

Under the direction of Kitty Green, The Assistant never fails to fully immerse viewers into the life of Jane (Julia Green), a woman working as an assistant at a movie studio run by a Harvey Weinstein-like figure. The power of Green's filmmaking is solidified by how The Assistant never shows us that Harvey Weinstein stand-in yet makes that grotesque figure's influence unmistakable. The impeccable soundwork (who knew the sound of a tissue box being pushed across a table would make me squirm?) and a quietly gripping lead performance from Julia Garner further make this everyday Hell palpable. The Assistant is appropriately difficult to let go, a realistic reflection of how real-life traumatic experiences tend to linger forever.

The Assistant is now available on home video and is streaming on Hulu.


Bacurau dares you plant it neatly into a singular genre. Is it a character-diven exercise about the bonds formed between members of a small village? Is it a revenge action movie? A grim thriller? Bacurau is all these things and more, a film as richly complex as the residents of its titular location. The film constantly keeps you on the edge of your site while you're watching it. Meanwhile, its searing sociopolitical commentary on political corruption and America's impact n South America will keep the whole film on your mind long after the credits rolls. Bacurau doesn't fit into one genre and it's all the better for it!

Bacurau is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Birds of Prey 

Throw a stone in the modern American film scene and you'll hit a comic book adaptation. Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey isn't a perfect entry in the subgenre but that's also what makes it something special.  The whole movie actually takes big bold artistic swings rather than adhere to safe formulas designed to appeal to everyone. A non-linear story, bravura lead performances (Margot Robbie continues to be a perfect Harley Quinn), unforgettable costume designs and a tone that zig-zags between the violence of Eli Roth and candy-colored zaniness. Of course not every beat lands in a film this ambitious. But enough of it does and what does managed to land results in some of the most memorable & deviously fun scenes in all of 2020 cinema.

Birds of Prey is now available on home video and for streaming on HBO.

Crip Camp

You know how some movies solidify themselves as classics by just one scene? The documentary Crip Camp does just that with a late-scene depicting an assortment of disabled activists engaging in a sit-in protest. Though widely ignored by the very politicians they're protesting against, these activists had some unexpected allies. As protestors explain in interview segments, they were lent support in the form of food and showers by a nearby Lesbian bar and a local Black Panther charter. When asked why they were helping them, the head of the Black Panther charter explained that they were all fighting for equality and they had to help each other out. Crip Camp is a documentary about the importance of uniting with others and it constantly finds touching ways to reflect this. But nowhere is this concept better exemplified by this unforgettable anecdote that really sounds like something straight out of a fictional movie!

Crip Camp is now streaming on Netflix.

Da 5 Bloods

War never ends, as Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods astutely reflects. Even when the battlefield is empty, the lingering after-effects of those conflicts keep on ringing in the minds of soldiers. Following four Vietnam War veterans returning to Vietnam to find some gold, Da 5 Bloods makes good use of Lee's naturally expansive storytelling skills to examines how the Vietnam War hasn't just impacted this quartet of veterans but also the son of one of these veterans (played by Johnathan Majors) and various Vietnam citizens. Da 5 Bloods an incisive affair that also turns in plenty of suspenseful set pieces that would have made William Friedkin's Sorcerer proud and a commanding lead performance from Delroy Lindo.


We've all been confined to our homes the entire year. In that timespan, I've certainly found myself finding joy in unexpected ways. Driveways is a movie all about how important it is to find fulfillment in the unexpected. Who would have thought a bingo hall could be the perfect backdrop for a child's birthday party? Who could have imagined that an elderly neighbor would turn out to be a vital friend for a single mother and her son? Most of all, could anyone have comprehended Brian Dennehy getting a more fittingly perfect final performance than the one he gives in Driveways? 2020 has forced us all to slow down and take in the here and now. Driveways is a movie all about appreciating those present-day circumstances because, as Dennehy's final heartbreaking monologue observes, they can go by in the blink of an eye.

Driveways is now available on digital home media as well as Kanopy and Hoopla.

Farewell Amor

Farewell Amor isn't just one movie, it's practically three films at once! A chronicling of the experiences of a woman and her daughter being reunited with her husband in New York City, Farewll Amor is split into three sections, each focused on one member of the family. Through this structure, we fully understand the interior lives of these human beings who are so subdued around each other. Unique details about in the thoughtful rendering of, say, the father struggling to return to his old life after having established new roots in NYC. So many pieces of Ekwa Msangi's feature-length directorial debut stand out, but perhaps most noteworthy of all is Jayme Lawson's captivating turn as the families daughter. 

Farewell Amor is now available on digital media platforms.

First Cow

One of the many impressive features in the works of Kelly Reichardt is how well she frames warm friendships in the middle of outright bleak movies. Across Wendy & Lucy, Old Joy and now First Cow, Reichardt depicts friendships that are far from perfect but do convey a believable bond between two living beings. Her depiction of such vibrant humanity in the middle of starkly harsh circumstances has always made her works fascinating and it proves especially compelling here. Here is a tale simply of two dudes bonding over pasties they can make thanks to the milk of a local cow. Reichardt's melancholy filmmaking creates a poignant ode to the kind of intimate friendships that can never survive in a capitalist society built on serving the rich. It's a story that touches your heart as often it makes it ache.

First Cow is now available on physical and digital home video as well as streaming on Showtime.

The Forty-Year Old Version

Radha Blank emerged on the filmmaking scene with The Forty-Year Old Version. After delivering such a sharp directorial debut, let's hope she's only getting started as a filmmaker. Blank's screenplay impresses alone just on a comedy level. I rarely laughed harder this year than I did at hearing two theater students in The Forty-Year Old Version breathlessly describe their pitch for an action/adventure play about a sperm warrior. But it's also such an insightful story about the warped ways society defines something as "successful" and the boxes mainstream art traps Black artists in. The Forty-Year Old Version carries a script as thoughtfully-realized as its monochromatic cinematography. A bold new filmmaking voice has emerged with The Forty-Year Old Version that everyone needs to listen to.

The Forty-Year Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.


One of the years very first movies is also one of its very best. An autobiographical work, Numa Perrier's Jezebel chronicles a young woman, Tiffany (Tiffany Tennille), who turns to working as a cam girl to make ends meet. In one of the many thought subversion of typical cinematic portrayals of sex work, Jezebel does not derive conflict from Tiffany's decision to embrace this career path. Instead, more unique approaches to turmoil manifest through widely under-explored territory like dismissive attitudes towards racism against sex workers. It's one of many thoughtful touches throughout Jezebel which also includes Perrier's intimate approach behind the camera that lends such a soft and empathetic touch to how she frames her central characters. How can you not become engrossed in their stories with such camerawork?

Jezebel is now streaming on Netflix.

Lingua Franca

Throughout the runtime of Lingua Franca, writer/director/star Isabel Sandoval demonstrates a lot of homages to great filmmakers of the past. Chantal Akerman, Martin Scorsese, Hiroshi Teshigahara, they're all evoked in different parts of the production. But as a whole, Lingua Franca is not just remnants of classic filmmaking. Plenty of unique qualities emerge in this production, including the starting concept of making an American movie where a trans character gets to be the protagonist. The way Sandoval reinforces the importance of people being seen as valid humans across three different storylines is also utterly unique. And the up-close-and-personal camerawork vividly conveys how much Sandoval loves the characters of Lingua Franca. With this film, Sandoval delivers a perfect blend of homages to movies of the past and starkly modern-day filmmaking sensibilities.


How do you pick the very best movie from Steve McQueen's Small Axe collection? A grouping of five original films, McQueen not only reaffirmed his filmmaking chops with these projects but explored brand-new tonal terrain for himself as an artist. For me, though, the first Small Axe installment, Mangrove, may just be the best of the bunch. Not only are the performances uniformly strong (Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is a wonder, particularly in depicting his character's reaction to a courtroom verdict), but I was also left thoroughly impressed by the way McQueen upends norms of the courtroom drama. Mangrove doesn't just break the mold here, by providing a more intimate approach to this genre, it redefines what a courtroom drama can be.

Mangrove, as well as Steve McQueen's four other Small Axe movies, can be streamed now on Amazon Prime.


Under the beating Arkansas sun, the Yi family is trying to make ends meet in a small isolated home. So is the set-up for Minari, a movie rife with unique details in its depiction of the Yi's struggles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the grandmother character Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), a wonderfully singular character who loves Mountain Dew and watching boxing matches on TV. She starts out the movie making you laugh, but by the end, her story is guaranteed to gets your teaducts flowing. It's just one of many engrossing touches throughout Minari, with Emile Mosseri's ethereal score and some quietly immersive filmmaking from director Lee Isaac Chung also helping to make this a story that's impossible to turn away from.

Minari premieres in theaters in February.

Miss Juneteenth

There's a lot of truly remarkable things about Miss Juneteenth. For one thing, as a Texan, I love how authentically Texan this movie feels. I've walked down neighborhoods like the ones seen in this film, eaten at restaurants like the ones the characters eat at. This isn't a phony postcard version of Texas, Miss Juneenth's authentic storytelling tendencies extend to its central locale. I also appreciate how poverty factors into the lives of the two lead characters but that writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples never lets it solely define these characters nor does she use it to code them as "lazy". Most of all, though, I love its tenderly-rendered mother/daughter relationship and how well lead actress Nicole Beharie handles that complex dynamic. With these traits at its back, it's no wonder that Miss Juneteenth creates engaging cinema out of everyday life.

Miss Juneteenth is now available to watch through digital video retailers.


One of the years best documentaries (or films of any genre, really) was also directly into the world of television. Mr. SOUL! chronicles the publicly broadcast TV show SOUL! This show was one of the few areas where Black artists could highlight their talents on a widely-seen stage. Mr. SOUL! reflects on how this program opened up new doors of recognition for so many major artists as well as the mindset of the shows unique host, Ellis Haizlip. Mr. SOUL! already captures one's attention through archival footage of the classic SOUL! program. However, the way writer/director Melissa Haizlip connects this program of the past to the world of today is truly special. No art exists in a vacuum, the ripple effects of any piece of art goes on and on. Mr. SOUL! deftly shows that SOUL! was no exception, all while delivering mesmerizing poetry and musical performances.

Mr. SOUL! is now playing in virtual theatrical engagements and airs on PBS in February.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

An abortion is the impetus for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but it's not really the defining trait of the whole movie. Instead, what really drives the whole movie the challenging hoops the two teenage leads (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) have to jump through to get an abortion. Traveling to New York City alone, struggles to get money, that's where Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its conflict. Writer/director Eliza Hittman really comes alive in her filmmaking in depicting this turmoil, particularly in her inspired choice to keep antagonistic individuals like harassing managers and cops as mostly off-screen figures. Instead, our focus remains on the two leads and the quiet friendship they form on a journey to reaffirm a teen girls autonomy. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available on physical & digital home media as well as streaming on HBO.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Getting to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire as one of my last theatrical experiences to date was an absolute honor. In retrospect, there's really no place better to truly appreciate Celina Sciamma's magnificent filmmaking in Portrait. A director previously known for films rooted in reality, an extravagant visual quality permeates Portrait in how every frame looks like it should be framed in a museum and even its depiction of otherworldly spirits. Beneath all the jaw-dropping imagery, though, is a beating heart in the form of both an intimate love story and friendships formed between women. It's all as emotionally satisfying to the soul as it is visually stunning to the eyes. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of top-shelf cinema I can't wait to experience on the big screen again someday.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available on physical and digital home media and is streaming on Hulu.

Promising Young Woman

Much like a rattlesnake in the grass, you never know when Promising Young Woman is going to pounce. That's what makes it such an unpredictable firecracker of a movie that has you constantly catching your breath. Writer/director Emerald Fennell has created something that constantly upends expectations, from the bold casting (Clancy Brown as a soft-spoken father is great) to the tone that never stays in one lane for long. It's all so great at keeping you on your toes right up until the ending, which effortlessly packages a grim conclusion in the guise of a happy ending. Oh, and Carey Mulligan turns in outstanding work in the lead role. Her performance, like Promising Young Woman as a whole, challenges, discomforts and thoroughly rivets.

Promising Young Woman debuts in theaters on Dec. 25 and on digital retailers in January.

Saint Frances

Some movies excel based on great cinematography. Others earn their acclaim through particularly exceptional editing. For Saint Frances, its status as something special is cemented by piss and blood. The movie's emphasis on women bonding over their vulnerabilities, like uncontrollable bursts of bleeding or urinating, is one of the most unexpectedly heartwarming sights of the year. It's also one of the many ways Saint Frances makes its primary character, Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan), so compellingly realistic. Sullivan's script and Alex Thompson's direction never flinch away from the hardships the characters of Saint Frances face. However, neither does it miss opportunities for unique bits of heartfelt bonding between these engrossing characters. A totally unique and richly detailed take on the age-old story of a jaded adult being improved by the presence of a precocious youngster, Saint Frances is full of charms...and also piss and blood.

Saint Frances is now available on home video and for streaming on Starz.


What a year for Elisabeth Moss at the movies. Alongside the rightfully acclaimed Invisible Man remake, Moss also headlined Shirley, the newest movie from Madeline's Madeline director Josephine Decker. A profile of author Shirley Jackson as she reacts to a young couple staying over at her house, Decker crafts a magnificently terse atmosphere through bold imagery (like eggs falling to the floor) that places the viewer right into the tormented headspace of the titular author. Tamar-kali's beautifully sparse and eerie score accentuates that mood wonderfully. Shirley is a work that puts you on edge and through such creative character-driven means to boot. Huzzah for Moss movies! 

Shirley is now available on digital home media and streaming on Hulu.

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal already starts with a tantalizing concept for a movie. A hard-rock drummer begins to lose his hearing. What a fascinating concept. Then you get a gifted actor like Riz Ahmed to play the drummer? That already sounds like a recipe for something special. But writer/director Darius Marder (who also wrote the screenplay with Abraham Marder) goes one step further in making our lead character a recovering addict. The way this drummer''s post-recovery determination to fix everything in sight intertwines with his coping with is lost hearing proves endlessly fascinating. To boot, Sound of Metal's sound work is incredibly thoughtful right down to the tiniest detail. Combine all of that with Ahmed absolutely nailing his lead performance Sound of Metal has no trouble placing viewers directly into the headspace of this captivating protagonist.

Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon.

System Crasher

The world of movies is not short on troublesome children. But rarely have they felt as realistically rendered as Benni (Helena Zengler). She's a child who is always mere minutes away from violently lashing out at everyone within an arm's reach away. Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt unflinchingly depicts the vicious ways Benni copes with the trauma of her past. But there's also such apparent empathy for Benni. Fingscheidt never reduces her to just a misery-covered spectacle. Combine that approach with an utterly fearless lead performance from Helena Zengler and you have one of the year's most proactive and unforgettable titles.

System Crasher is now streaming on Netflix.


Few movies were as simultaneously grueling and essential as the documentary Time. The film is an extended chronicle of the Richardson family's struggles to get Rob Richardson out of a lengthy prison sentence. In the American prison sentence, Rob has become a number. But in the eyes of his family and director Garrett Bradley, Rob's humanity is reinforced as is the humanity of the people that love him. Nowhere is the latter element more apparently realized than in a scene where Rob's wife, Sibil, in a moment of frustration over trying to get her husband released, repeats the phrase "Success is the best revenge" while undergoing an avalanche of emotions. It's a stirring scene, one of many found in the excellently-crafted feature Time.

Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime.


In an age where computer-animation constantly works overtime to emulate reality, Wolfwalkers is here to serve as a reminder of what incomparable sights can only be achieved through animation. This story of a friendship forming between two girls who turn into wolves at night could only be told through this medium of expression and that's a compliment. As if all the visual imagination wasn't enough, this Irish fairy tale is also a kids' movie that doesn't dumb down storylines dealing with prejudice or theological corruption. Wolfwalkers rightfully believes adolescent audiences deserve compelling storytelling and animation as much as any other demographic.

Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.

And now, the best movie of 2020...

Dick Johnson is Dead

How do you cope with impending tragedy? For director Kirsten Johnson, the tragedy in question is the slow mental deterioration of her father, Dick Johnson, and his impending demise. The way to cope with that? Film his death. Utilizing makeup artists and her camera, Kirsten Johnson films the various ways Dick Johnson could die as well as his experiences in heaven. This is the footage that provides the bedrock for Dick Johnson is Dead, a documentary that also heavily features intimate interviews between Kirsten and her dad as well as home video footage of Kirsten and her family in earlier times.

What really sticks out to me about Dick Johnson is Dead is how it's such a vulnerable movie. I mean, how could it not be? It's a movie that recognizes the inevitability of death, even for the ones we love. Dick Johnson is Dead offers no solution to rid ourselves of the terrifying nature of that inevitability. But what can make it manageable is the bonds we form with others. Dick Johnson is Dead reflects that essential father/daughter bond between Kirsten and Dick Johnson so beautifully, like a heartbreaking scene where Dick refers to himself as Kirsten's "little brother". 

Dick Johnson is Dead an openly vulnerable and deeply personal movie. Those qualities are so directly tied into Kirsten Johnson's own experiences, yet it was so easy for me to my own struggles with losing loved ones here. Johnson has made a film that, among its many other achievements, feels so singularly her own yet so universal. We're all scared of losing loved ones. We're all scared of the inevitable nature of death. Dick Johnson is Dead normalizes those fears while reassuring every viewer that they're not alone in those concerns. All the while, Johnson executes filmmaking that fascinatingly blurs the lines between reality and artificial filmmaking. 

Really, the beauty of Dick Johnson is Dead can best be summed up by this line from Kirsten Johnson herself: 

"It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful. But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. Then, when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy."

Dick Johnson is Dead is now streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Chadwick Boseman and an intimate scope make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom an emotionally urgent experience

Translating plays into movies is no easy task. Dating back to the days of Alfred Hitchcock's Juno and the Paycock, Hollywood has a long history of turning plays into stilted films that leave one wondering why the producers didn't just film a live stage performance. But that isn't to say cinematic adaptations of plays are inherently doomed. On the contrary, the likes of 12 Angry Men or Casablanca show both that it can be done. But these films also show that there isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy for properly adapting plays into movies. Every single play has certain qualities that can or cannot translate well into movies. You've gotta dig into what made these stories so captivating in the first place and figure out the unique ways only movies can enhance those qualities.

Another movie that proves it isn't a fool's errand to adapt plays into movies is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play of the same name. Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, this feature concerns the real-life blue singer Ma Rainey (Violas Davis), as she, in the twilight years of her career, tackles a new album in a Chicago recording station. Accompanying her is her band, which consists of guitarist Cutler (Colman Domingo) and trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Perhaps the only person with as pronounced of a personality as Ma Rainey is Levee, who has his own ambitions as a musician and isn't keen to compromise with anyone to fulfill those dreams.

Wilson's work is rightfully acclaimed as some of the most impactful productions to ever grace Broadway. But how does something like Ma Rainey translate into a film? Impressively well, as a matter of fact. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how that happened. Both Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson have made their own adjustments to the story, including changing the setting from the winter to the sizzling hot summertime. Some of these tweaks, like the pay-off to Levee constantly charging at a locked door, have been done to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a movie. But the duo also know that sometimes, things that aren't broke don't need to be fixed. In this case, what made the Ma Rainey play so compelling isn't compromised in the translation into a new medium. 

It's easy to imagine Ma Rainey falling prey to the distracting elements that plague other film adaptations of play, chiefly the act of engaging in sweeping camerawork to make the whole production feel "epic" rather than "stagey". Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson, though, are confident enough to maintain the intimate scope of the original show, with much of the story taking place in either a recording stage or a basement rehearsal space. Keeping things so self-contained isn't just good because it's faithful to the source material. It also works for Ma Rainey on its own artistic terms. Someone who's never even read or seen Wilson's work will still be gripped by Ma Rainey's intimate nature.

One of the advantages of this restrained sensibility is that Ma Rainey's digressions outside of this space a real sense of purpose. A scene of pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) reflecting on the larger experience of Black Americans while shots of Black Chicagoans sitting in window sills and standing against lamposts flash across the screen is effectively stirring. Meanwhile, keeping everything confined makes the bubbling tension between all the characters believable, particularly with regards to everyone's rapport with Levee. As both the audience and the other characters become trapped with Levee, a guy who starts out as a cocky musician with golden shoes becomes someone far more layered and damaged. 

The complexities of Levee as a character are reflected in two extended monologues brought to life through a Chadwick Boseman performance that cements why Ma Rainey is content to keep its scope so limited. When you've got actors this good, you don't need a thousand locations. Just Boseman talking about a traumatic childhood experience that informed how he treats white people, that's all you need. In this scene, Boseman communicates a lifetime of anguish, trauma, determination, scorn, and so many other emotions, all swirling around inside one volatile human being. Boseman utterly throws himself into a performance that's unlike anything else he's ever done. Even with all the hype generated by his work, I still wasn't prepared for how breathless I'd be left by Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Inhabiting the titular role of Ma Rainey, Viola Davis also reaffirms her acting bona fidas with a turn that's a walking-talking paradox. A woman that's simultaneously fearless in demanding what she wants yet also tormented by her current status as an artist, you can't rip your eyes off Davis, especially with how much torment she communicates in her eyes. Davis and Boseman alone make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom worth watching. The fact that the production also delivers so much else (including a great supporting turn from Colman Domingo, impressive costume work, and thoughtful commentary on the struggles of being a Black artist) only cements Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as something exceptional. 

How do you turn a play into a film? In the case of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, you lean heavily on the qualities that made the play work in the first place. Emotionally urgent performances and an intimate scope have defined so many of Wilson's best plays. Now, in the hands of actors like Davis and Boseman and a director like Wolfe, such qualities are alive and well in a cinematic format. As richly human as it is heartbreaking, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a play adaptation done oh so right as well just good filmmaking on its own terms. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Alex Wheatle is a more standard but still well-made entry in the Small Axe saga

Across Steve McQueen's collection of Small Axe movies, the director has kept dipping his toes into new genres to exciting results. For Mangrove, McQueen made a courtroom drama that reverberated with urgency. Lovers Rock was a hangout movie in the style of Richard Linklater. Red, White and Blue was a unique approach to the police drama where antagonism emanated from the institution of policing itself rather than outside criminal forces. And now we have Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film that sees McQueen doing his own take on a biopic. While more bog-standard than the preceding three Small Axe entries, this is still a Steve McQueen movie so there's plenty to recommend. 

Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) is a real-life author whose origins are chronicled in a non-linear fashion in Alex Wheatle. Growing up in an adopted abusive household, Wheatle enters adulthood with a limited view of the wider world. However, with a little help from his new friends, he soon gets exposed to whole new cultures he'd previously only heard about, including the reggae music scene. Wheatle's first years as an independent adult end up coinciding with the 1981 Brixton Uprising, which forces a guy who has so often been on the sidelines to recognize that now is the time to fight back against oppressive forces. This is all told against a framing device that sees Wheatle in prison and sharing a cell with an eccentric cellmate.

Like many biopics, Alex Wheatle bites off more than it can chew in terms of how much story it wants to tell in such a limited amount of time. Running only 66 minutes, Wheatle has a tendency to just blaze right past seemingly crucial character developments for its titular lead character. Most notably, Wheatle's mid-movie transition to embracing his heritage feels too sudden. Giving things more time to breathe could have just made the already-fascinating detours all the more engaging. Even this abrupt development has its upsides though. Cole's performance, for instance, capably reflects Wheatle's transformation while still reminding us of the character we've always known. 

Meanwhile, a whole sequence consisting of still images of the actual 1981 Brixton Uprising while a voice-over recites a poem ends up being one of the most stirring sequences in this entire Small Axe collection. Combining such powerful words with equally evocative imagery perfectly captures the humanity that this uprising against the police was trying to reaffirm. As someone who had no clue about this historical event prior to watching Alex Wheatle, the production does a great job making the circumstances surrounding this riot easily digestible without hindering the storytelling to make it "accessible" to newcomers like me. These on-screen characters should be living their lives, not providing exposition to confused moviegoers.

Save for one strange use of slow-motion straight out of that shot of a camera guy getting speared in Peter Jackson's King Kong (remember when that was what we all associated Jackson with instead of 48fps?), McQueen's filmmaking remains sublime in Alex Wheatle. An extended shot of Wheatle watching from an alleyway as one of his friends is brutalized by police is especially well-realized, particularly in the placement of the camera. Sure, Alex Wheatle sees McQueen adhering more to the formula of a genre rather than revamping it entirely as he did with prior Small Axe productions. But Alex Wheatle has enough memorable qualities to make its more familiar nature manageable. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A family comes unglued in the grim but well-crafted drama The Nest

In his first directorial effort since the 2011 movie Martha Marcy May Marlene, director Sean Durkin has made The Nest, which explores a married couple slowly crumbling as they move into a new home. It's the kind of storytelling that defines escapist entertainment! All joking aside, Durkin's newest feature is a great example of a quiet drama that can still leave a memorable impact. At times, the production, which features several big emotional scenes framed in extended single-takes, carries all the emotional immediacy of the best live plays. It's not going to be for everyone but I'll be darned if this subdued production didn't grip me.

In a New York suburb, Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) and his wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), carry out a reasonably pleasing existence with their two kids. Rory works as a trader while Allison teaches people horseback riding. But Rory is fearful about his future employment opportunities in America. It takes some convincing, but Rory coerces Allison and the kids to move to his home country of England. Now residing in an old mansion in Surrey, Rory is trying to make it big at his firm while Allison and the kids adjust to an unfamiliar land. There are always growing pains when you move somewhere new. But for this family, the turmoil will prove especially challenging.

My favorite quality about Durkin's screenplay is how it well it juggles instilling an ominous tone without making it obvious where The Nest is headed. At first, all the struggles the central family faces feel like normal issues anyone would face going to a new home. Even Rory's initially promising desire to get his boss, Arthur (Michael Culkin) to sell his business to a Chicago bidder looks like it might go someplace. But gradually, Durkin peels back a new layer of displeasure in these characters that keeps chipping away at their new life. All the while, both Durkin's writing and directing make sure The Nest isn't just a whole lot of build-up to inevitable trouble.

Instead, it's a portrait of a family crumbling in front of our very eyes as they each respond to their own dire circumstances. Rory, for example, retreats into being a pathological liar. Whether he's schmoozing clients at fancy parties by acting like he owns multiple homes or lying about his finances to Allison, Rory lives under the idea that if you keep repeating a lie enough, it'll automatically become the truth. Allison, meanwhile, runs in the opposite direction, embracing brutal reality like an old friend. An early scene where she speeds along the highway while the radio blares, a cigarette lies in her fingers and a haunted expression lingers on her eyes cements how Allison is always staring at the world as it is.

Durking delicately unwraps these individual personalities and then creates such compelling drama in challenging them. This goal is executed through Durkin's decision to frame much of The Nest through single-takes captured in wide shots that instill a sense of coldness into the movie. There's as much physically emptiness in each individual frame as there is internal emptiness in the characters of The Nest. Best of all, this filmmaking style ends up working as immersive rather than gimmick. Throughout The Nest, I got wrapped up in the conversations between characters and the mood of certain scenes rather than being distracted by Durkin framing things without any cuts.

Of course, how could not get absorbed by a pair of superb lead performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon? After spending a couple of years delivering supporting turns in a series of big blockbusters, it's great to see Law in more grounded acting territory again, complete with a role that makes great use of his movie star looks and charisma. Rory can talk and look like a guy who knows how to do anything, but Law does great work in depicting the messier, vulnerable and angrier sides of the character. Meanwhile, after acing so many supporting film roles, it's great to see Coon nail a lead role like Allison, she captures the characters haunted nature with such devastating clarity.

Though its restrained nature and relentlessly grim tone won't be to everyone's tastes, The Nest certainly worked for. The lead performances are both so thought-provoking while Sean Durkin's commitment to both the gradual unraveling of a family and a unique filmmaking style left me thoroughly impressed.