My Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

First, I will note that my list skews to bigger movies because those are movies that we have information on.  I need something to get me anticipating.  Next, I’ve got some runners up for movies that didn’t quite make my list. The Personal History of David Copperfield is on my radar because it is directed by Armando Iannucci, who did the delightful Death of Stalin a few years ago and Veep. Also, Godzilla vs Kong is coming around Christmas; I have liked all three of the previous MonsterVerse movies. There is an adaptation of the Monster Hunter video games that I am equally anticipating and dreading. Jungle Cruise has The Rock in it. The Marvel movies, Black Widow and Eternals, should be good. I am most looking forward to Eternals because of its Jack Kirby provenance. There are a couple of original Pixar movies coming that should be good. Fast & Furious 9 is also on the way; I liked Hobbs and Shaw, but I am not sure this series isn’t running out of gas. At least Justin Lin is back directing. Now, here is my Top 10:

10. Birds of Prey – This one might just be the fact that it is actually coming soon and I am a little bit hyped to see it. Because I am genuinely interested in this movie and, Joker aside, DC has been on a bit of a hot streak lately. Basically, this movie gets the last spot because I know more about it than most of my honorable mentions.

9. No Time to Die – I kind of hated Spectre. This looks like a direct sequel to that movie in a way that not a lot of Bond movies are. Honestly, Skyfall aside I’ve never really warmed to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. I have, however, really warmed to Craig over the last few years. Plus the rest of the cast (Ana de Armas!) and Cary Fukunaga directing makes me want to see this.

8. The Gentleman – I might be the outlier here, but I still really like Guy Ritchie. Snatch and Lock Stock hold up. Man from UNCLE was a delight, Aladdin is the best of the Disney live action remakes. The trailer makes this look like it has the energy of Ritchie’s earlier gangster films. Those simply work for me. Plus, this has an interesting cast seemingly having a great time. I guess I’ll see how good it is in a few days.

7. Death on the Nile – Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a movie that has aged really well for me. I thought upon first seeing it that it might have just been that I hadn’t really seen a murder mystery movie of any quality in a long time, but rewatching it has shown that it is just a fundamentally well made version of a good story. I hope this is more of the same. Branagh’s Poirot with a cast full of names in a beautiful place. This is my jam.

6. Bob’s Burgers – I feel like I shouldn’t be this excited for this movie; it will almost undoubtedly turn out to be just an 80 minute or so long episode of the TV show. But Bob’s Burgers is one of my favorites and even an extra long episode gives me more to go on than what I know of a lot of movies coming this year. The chance that it does something more is enough to get it this high on the list.

5. Tenet – It is Christopher Nolan, which is enough. But it also looks really interesting, like some kind of time manipulating spy movie. I don’t know, it is hard to tell from previews. But Nolan. And a really interesting cast.

4. Dune – Nearly half of my list is just because I want to see what a specific director’s next movie. This is one of those. I am currently reading Dune, but only have a vague idea of what the story is. (I’ve never seen the Lynch Dune movie). But I am here for Denis Villeneuve after Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. And that cast is amazing.

3. Wonder Woman 1984 – The first Wonder Woman is one of my favorite superhero movies of the last few years. I thought the trailer for this sequel looked great. I don’t really have any more to say.

2. Last Night in Soho – If descriptions of this called it anything other than a horror movie, it would be my most anticipated movie of the year. Edgar Wright is my absolute favorite director, but as a rule I don’t watch horror movies. (Maybe I should move this one down.) I am hoping for something that is not a straight horror movie, but I will likely see whatever it is.

1. Bill & Ted: Face the Music – This movie kept moving up this list as I made it. I really shouldn’t be anticipating it as much as I am, but nothing else coming this year fills me with as much pure joy. The Bill & Ted movies were really important to me growing up. I loved the time traveling antics of the first movie and the sheer unrepentant weirdness of the second one. The track record of this sort of late-coming sequel is miserable, but for some reason I think this will be the exception. It is enough to see Keanu and Alex Winter back is enough for me.

What I Watched December 2019

Movies

Knives Out – wrote about it here. *****

The Irishman – Martin Scorcese returns to the gangster genre for this contemplative, mournful deconstruction of the tropes of the genre. Instead of showing these organized murderers as strong and powerful, it reveals them as weak and empty. It deftly illustrates the erosion of their souls as things go along. De Niro’s character sitting alone in the nursing home at the end of the movie might be one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen. *****

Queen & Slim – wrote about it here. **1/2

The Report – Dry as old toast, but this is a well made drama about the Senate’s investigation of the CIA’s torture program. This is an important story that people need to know about, but as well made and acted as this movie is, it is more likely to get casual viewers to turn it off pretty quickly. ****

Dark Waters – wrote about it here. ****

Marriage Story – I see why people are going nuts over this movie. It is a real and grounded portrayal of a family going through a divorce. Grounded except that they have no need to worry about money, which is a big concern for a lot of people. Still, strong performances all around and just truly human. ****

A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby – Another Christmas Prince movie. Harmless and light. I see the comforting appeal of these Christmas movies. There just really isn’t anything of substance here. **1/2

American Son – This feels like, and is, an adaptation of a stage play. It takes place all in one location and is just 4 people talking to each other. It’s heart is in the right place, but it is didactic and clumsy. I didn’t like it much at all. **

6 Underground – Michael Bay seems to have watched Fast & Furious and Mission Impossible and tried to replicate it, with a little bit of Batman thrown in. The result is visually incomprehensible and morally reprehensible. It is a movie about giving into people’s worst impulses framed as doing the right thing. As much as it makes sense it is kind of gross and not especially fun to watch. *1/2

Earthquake Bird – A weird little drama about people living in Japan who may or may not be murderers/or causing deaths. It doesn’t really work and I am not sure what I am supposed to take from it. I do like Riley Keough and Alicia Vikander, though. **

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – wrote about it here. I like this movie more every time I rewatch it. *****

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – wrote about it here. ***

The Souvenir – I saw this on a lot of Top 10 lists and watched it on Amazon Prime. I see why it’s getting praise. I got no enjoyment out of watching it. It is the story of a woman trapped in a relationship with a man suffering from addiction. It is harrowing. ****

How to Train Your Dragon The Hidden World – This movie is gorgeous and a lot of fun, but I have always been a little more cold to these Dragon movies than a lot of people. This one, like the other two, is fine. It is enjoyable family entertainment. Toothless is a great fake pet that effectively mimics a lot of true feeling pet behavior. It’s fine. ***1/2

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – I forgot this movie was actually released. It is a big muddled mess. It moves along on the dream logic that is essentially Terry Gilliam’s calling card. Whatever this movie’s problems are, here Gilliam has recaptured his late 80’s-early 90’s magic. This would fit right in with Brazil and The Fisher King. A movie director reconnects with some performers he worked with years ago, one of whom is convinced that he is Don Quixote and the director is Sancho. The director gets sucked into the man’s orbit and I guess learns a lesson. It is certainly not for everybody, but I loved it. *****

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – This was on Amazon Prime. I was in a murder mystery mood after seeing Knives Out (I am always in a murder mystery mood). It’s good. Really good. ****

Jumanji: The Next Level – wrote about it here. ***1/2

Solo: A Star Wars Story – I watched this on Netflix after seeing Rise of Skywalker, and I liked it a lot more than I remembered liking it. I am still annoyed by some small moments, but for the most part is an excellent space western. I think I need to get it on DVD. ****

American Factory – A documentary about a Chinese company opening an automotive glass company in the United States. It really highlights some cultural differences, as well as some ways in which we are the same. One of those ways is that the bosses will do everything they can to squeeze employees and pad the bottom line. The second half is all about the factory attempts to unionize so they can get safe working conditions and fair pay. It is very interesting. ****

The Aeronauts – This movie feels like awards bait that has gotten summarily ignored during awards season. I liked it. It looks amazing. The story is pretty simple, it is mostly just Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in a hot air balloon, attempting to conduct scientific experiments and achieve record elevations. Eventually, they get high enough that they lose air. For a movie as limited in setting as it is, it manages to feel very adventurous. I thought it was a lot of fun. ***1/2

TV

Reprisal – I feel like this show needs more attention. It is a strange noir crime show. It takes a lot of time to build the world building. The plot gets very intricate, and I might have fallen asleep during an episode and got a little lost. There is one scene where two characters have a phone conversation while sitting on the same couch. At times it seems to be set in the 50s, at others the 80s. I think it is set in the present. It is just a weird, stylish, entertaining show.

Runaways S2 – I feel like I should like this show, but somehow it seems to be transfering over little of what made the comics so enjoyable. Also, I am not sure how well those comics hold up, because this season felt more true to them and was no more enjoyable than the first. I will likely get to the 3rd season soon, just to be done with this.

The Movies that Made Us – The people behind the Toys that Made Us switched over to movies, giving us some slight making of documentaries. These were pretty fun.

The Confession Killer – A true crime series about a man who confessed to hundreds of murders and was manipulated by overworked prosecutors and ambitious and obviously corrupt Texas Rangers to keep admitting to murders that it was clear he did not commit. The show does its best to not portray the man as a victim, he did murder at least two people. But he is not the criminal mastermind who murdered hundreds that some Rangers still claim he is. It is a really strange story that mostly just serves to some flaws in the justice system.

The Witcher – I am not especially familiar with the games or the books this is based on, but I had a tremendous amount of fun with The Witcher. It does some things with chronology that are confusing and its three separate plotlines take forever to connect. But the core of the show, Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, traveling from town to town fighting monsters, is delightful. The interplay between the grouchy Geralt and his friend Jaskier the bard is fun. Yennefer is great, and once her story starts to intertwine with Geralt’s the show really gets into high gear. The biggest problem with the show, if you can call it a problem, is the adventures of young Ciri, a princess whose country is overrun in the first episode and she spends the whole season on the run, looking for Geralt for reasons that do not become clear until near the end of the season. She is fine and her plot works, but it never really connects with the others. Still, I loved the show overall. I can’t wait for season 2.

The Mandalorian – My cousin has Disney Plus and I watched this at her place in the days after Christmas. It is good, but I am not sure I am joining the hype train for it. I think the practical effects looked kind of cheap and ugly. While I appreciated the simplicity of the story, I also didn’t find all that much to latch onto. I’ll check in on season 2 and I hope it continues to deepen.

Best Movies of 2019

I started with a plan to make a Top 10 list, but that felt a little limiting. So I expanded to 15. Then to 25. Then I scaled it back to 20. Then back to 15 again. Finally, I went back to 20. I was just as firm in choosing the movies on my list. The real problem is that if I cut it at 20, there were two or three movies I wanted to talk about as much as the three or four in front of them that would miss the list. If I cut it at 15, the same would be true. So I landed on 20 movies for my best of the year list. I didn’t really expand it because this was an especially good movie year, it was fine, but because I saw a lot of movies this year and I really want to talk about some of them. So here is my list, with links to written reviews if I have one:

20. Toy Story 4:

This one kept falling as I adjusted my list, and I am not sure that is entirely fair. As I came to the end this list making process, Toy Story 4 essentially fell out of my Top 20. I really liked the movie. I don’t think the people I’ve heard call it the best Toy Story are crazy, but thinking on it half a year later, I don’t know that it quite stacks up for me. Still, its a real good movie.

19. The Two Popes:

I just saw this, so it might rise or fall in my estimation in the next couple of weeks, but right now it is just clinging to the list. I really liked the scenes where Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are debating the direction to take the church and what is necessary to be a good priest or cardinal or pope. The rest of it is fine, just not as riveting as those scenes. Netflix had a heck of a year and this is one of their better ones.

18. Ready or Not:

This one has really grown on me since I’ve seen it. Its horror trappings almost kept me from going to see it, but I am glad I did. Just a winning performance from Samara Weaving, and several other strong performances throughout the cast. Lots of well staged action, humor that mostly hits its mark and gore that is sure to please whoever it is there to please. This movie deserves to be seen by more people. Knives Out hits a lot of the same notes; the two would make a great double feature.

17. The Breaker Upperers:

This is a fun little New Zealand comedy from early this year about a pair of women who run a business helping people break up with their partners. It slips in just conversational weirdness with some real strange, bigger moments that are almost all funny. It manages to catch you off guard, like when the protagonists visit one of their mothers and slip away to the bathroom to steal her cocaine. The situation is weird enough, but every detail added is stranger and funnier. This movie is a lot of fun and needs more people to pay attention to it.

16. Klaus:

A Netflix produced, Christmas themed, animated movie in the style of Disney movies. The plot and the story are good, a solid little Christmas movie. It is generally a fun world to enter for the 90 or so minutes the movie lasts. What really sets it above others is how gorgeous the animation is. It is like if Disney kept putting their resources into traditional animation instead of switching to CG. Basically, everything about this movie works. It really is worth the watch and will likely be in the Christmas rotation for years to come.

15. The Standoff At Sparrow Creek:

This is a solid little thriller. After a shooting, a militia group meets up to find that it was committed by someone in their group. Without knowing who was responsible, they lock down their headquarters and try to find the guilty party, hoping that by making it clear the rest of them had nothing to do with it, they won’t be in trouble. Of course, all of them have secrets. And out hero seems more interested in finding a scapegoat than the real party responsible. It is tense and entertaining.

14. The King:

I don’t quite know why this movie worked so well for me. It loses some of the best things from its Shakespearean sources, like Falstaff being an enjoyable character, but doesn’t do so in the name of being more historically accurate. Still, the story it tells of Prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V, and the isolation of being the King I found very entertaining. This movie is for me.

13. Ad Astra:

Sad Dad in space. This movie is cold and haunting. Beautiful, but distant. It doesn’t quite bring everything home as well as one could hope, but the first two thirds are some of the best stuff I saw in a theater in 2019.

12. Missing Link:

I am a little late to the Laika love, having only really starting to pay attention after Kubo and the Two Strings. Their movies, in general, are criminally underseen. Missing Link, which bombed at the box office, might be the most overlooked. It is about a disrespected adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost, who meets up with a Bigfoot, Susan, who wants to find a place he belongs with more of his own kind. This sets them off on a world spanning adventure, as they evade hunters who want to catch Susan, as well as a former flame of Lionel’s, Adelina, from whom they stole a map. The whole thing is beautiful and heartwarming.

11. Jojo Rabbit:

This movie sets itself up a delicate balancing act and mostly pulls it off. I think it did a good job of making humor out of a terrible situation, but not trivializing the subject. I found it very heartfelt and charming. I really bought into the Jojo’s personal journey from being an outcast kid who believed some vile stuff to a thinking person. It is also just really funny, which you know, is good in a comedy.

10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

I really wish Terry Gilliam hadn’t been showing his ass in the news lately, so I could feel better about championing his long gestating passion project. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a man who played Don Quixote in a movie thinking he really is Don Quixote, and recruiting the director who made that movie to be his Sancho Panza as that director tries to get him help. Adam Driver plays the director as a man who has lost sight of his passion and is oblivious to the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It is a movie about chasing your dreams, even if others think you are crazy. It is kind of a mess. It is the quintessential Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.

9. High Flying Bird:

Basically, the whole gimmick of this movie is that it is a sports movie that goes out of its way to never show any sports. It ends up playing like a heist movie, with agent Ray manipulating everything to try to end a lockout and get his clients, especially rookie Erick playing and paid. It is really entertaining.

8. John Wick 3:

The John Wick series continues to be just masterclasses of action movies. This one gets even deeper into the arcane mythology of this world. It also delivers three or four of the best action scenes of the year. Really, there is little not to like about it. The only flaw I can point to is that I don’t know that it is better than either of the previous two movies. That really isn’t a flaw; it is really just a sign of how great the movies are. I didn’t much like the ending twist, though. More in a I wish that didn’t happen way than a that didn’t make sense way.

7. Shazam:

I was really afraid this movie wouldn’t hold up. I loved it early in the year, but kind of thought that a revisit would damper my enthusiasm. However, I watched with my family at Thanksgiving and it is still great. There are a few moments where the tone kind of gets away from it, like the boardroom scene, but otherwise it is the closest we’ve gotten to an Amblin superhero movie.

6. The Laundromat:

I might be the only person that likes this movie. I don’t get its complete dismissal. It packages complex financial maneuvering into a package that anyone can understand, making essentially an economics lesson entertaining. I loved the bits with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, I liked the parts with Meryl Streep. It was entertaining and infuriating.

5. Booksmart:

A lot of people just wrote this off as Superbad, but with girls. While there are similarities, people graduating this year were in kindergarten when Superbad came out. And honestly, Booksmart is the better movie. This is centered around great performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, but Billie Lourd steals every scene she is in. It is a surprisingly human movie, showing all of these high school kids as full people and not just one note stereotypes. Plus, it is really funny.

4. The Irishman:

The Irishman is long and contemplative and mostly a downer. It is also eminently watchable. The movie works to tear down the mafia mythology Scorsese built up in movies like Goodfellas and Casino. The de-aging special effects are effective if overblown. It is great to Joe Pesci again. This is just a great movie.

3. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood:

This one stands out in Tarantino’s filmography. It is less pulpy, less violent than most of his other movies. It is thoughtful; with fading star Rick Dalton looking back on his career and the movie looking back on a Hollywood that died right at the time the movie is taking place. It is a world on the cusp of change. Even with the movie giving everyone a happy ending, it is clear that the world they live in will not last much longer. This is the perfect hangout movie.

2. Parasite:

A wild, wild movie. Parasite starts as one thing and just sort of seamlessly changes into something else two or three times. It highlights societal problems without really vilifying any of the people involved. Still, there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” but they are all people. It is heartbreaking and hilarious. Parasite is simply an amazing experience.

1. Knives Out:

Yeah, this movie is very much for me. Great cast, great performances. A classic murder mystery that also manages to find some twists withing that set up. The movie just keeps the viewer guessing the whole time and never stoops to cheating. It might keep secrets of who knows what and who did what, but in all of its pulling the wool over the viewers eyes and rug out from under their feet, the movie never lies. It is just not always clear what you are seeing. This is a movie that will be in heavy rewatch rotation for years to come.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

 

The Rise of Skywalker had a tough task, especially after Disney announced that it was going to be the last film in what they are calling the Skywalker saga. I am not here to write about how this movie fits into the overall Star Wars story; I am planning that post for a later date, after I have had more time to digest this and maybe see it again. I am also not here to relitigate The Last Jedi, which for the record is the best movie since the original trilogy, no contest. I am merely attempting to review the movie itself. All the other stuff is important and it is nearly impossible to separate this movie from ‘what this movie means’ but for the next few hundred words I am going to attempt to do that.

The Rise of Skywalker opens with the reveal that Emperor Palpatine is still alive (alive again? Its not clear). He has been hiding on a Sith planet called Exegol, building a new fleet of Star Destroyers and secretly controlling the first order from the shadows. A spy in the First Order gets this information to the Resistance, and our heroes set off to find the hidden planet and put an end to Palpatine and the First Order for good.

If I had to describe The Rise of Skywalker in just a few words, I would call it frantic and desperate. This is a movie that seems to be unable to stop for a second to breath or contemplate. Maybe because it knows that the house of cards that is its plot would completely collapse. JJ Abrams remains great at manufacturing excitement. The gang rushes from one catastrophe to the next, from one giant set piece into another, from one revelation to the next. There is no time for things to settle. For the most part, it works in the moment. Then there is the sheer amount of fan service. This movie remains as determined as The Force Awakens to remind the viewer of the original trilogy, even at the expense of telling its own story. That gives the whole thing a feeling of sweaty desperation, that that greatest fear of the people behind this movie is that the viewer might not like it.

One thing the movie does that is absolutely great is that, for the first half of the movie, keeps the central trio of Rey, Finn and Poe together. In the previous two movies, the main characters spent precious little time interacting with each other. Part of that was due to how many characters these movies have tried to juggle, adding characters from the original trilogy with plenty of newcomers. Here, we finally get to see how these characters interact with each other. It is a lot of fun.

Where it started to fall apart for me is when the movie did slow down a little and you could see how empty it was. Mostly, the movie plays the hits. Bits from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show up. Most of the revelations with Palpatine fell completely flat for me. Kylo Ren’s fate felt underserved, an echo of the past that was not really rooted in some character decision.

I can’t say the fan service didn’t work on me. I teared up a little with Leia’s exit. I loved to see Lando and that brief glimpse of Wedge. New characters, like Zori Bliss, were fun, though I hated to see Rose Tico get sidelined. The ending, which was easy to predict as soon as they announced the title for the movie, worked wonderfully.

The Rise of Skywalker is a movie that is trying very hard to please, to be everything its fans want it to be. The problem is that it doesn’t really have any ideas; all it has is a love of the past. So it trots out things you seen before, maybe gives them a little twist, and shows them to you again. Don’t you remember when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan? Here that destroys another planet. Remember that moment from A New Hope when Han Solo came back and saved Luke during the trench run? What if it wasn’t one ship but hundreds? It can delight in moments, but there is nothing hiding how empty everything is. But it tries so hard.

***

Jumanji: The Next Level

I didn’t have a lot to say about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle when it came out. It took a pretty interesting premise, of a group of teenagers jumping into the bodies of 4 video game characters and executed it well. It was fun, forgettable movie. Jumanji: The Next Level is literally just more of the same. It is still pretty well made and thoroughly enjoyable, with just enough newish wrinkles to keep things fresh, but it is largely repetitive of its predecessor.

The plot is thin. Three of the last movie’s four teens have moved on and are doing well in college. Spencer feels left behind, and wants to refind the confidence he had when he was Smolder Bravestone. So he goes back into the game Jumanji. His friends find out and go after him. The twist this time is that Spencer grandfather, played by DeVito, and his former business partner, played by Glover, are in the area and they get sucked into the game too. When they get there, Spencer is nowhere to be found, and this time his grandfather is Bravestone. So the group sets out to save Spencer and beat this new version of Jumanji.

The characters don’t have as much to work through this time. Spencer is having doubts about himself, but those aren’t actually addressed by anything other than his friends coming after him. The big emotional moments go to Glover and DeVito, two former business partners who have been estranged for fifteen years. They bicker through their guises as The Rock and Kevin Hart through much of the movie, before coming to terms with each other and acknowledging that they are nearing the end of their lives. It works better than it should, but it is pretty thin as presented here.

Jumanji: The Next Level runs it back with the same cast that made the previous movie so enjoyable. Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Dwayne Johnson are all back. All four of the kids return. Even Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas come back as the older version of the kid once trapped in the game for years and his in game avatar, respectively. There are a trio of new additions in Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. As with before, in the in game characters get a lot more work than the real world ones, but their personalities are carried through well. Black is the stand out here, playing a handful of different “real” people and making each of them clear and distinct. You know who he is just from body language. Similarly, Awkawfina and Kevin Hart do a good job with their switching as well. The normally hyperactive Hart sells the subdued Glover, and Awkwafina does a great job as both the nervous Spencer and as the consistently befuddled DeVito character. The one who sells the movie, and inarguably struggles the most, is Johnson. Through a lot of the movie he does a very entertaining but not especially good DeVito impression. It is comically exaggerated, and its works because of it ridiculousness.

Fortunately, there are quite a few exciting and imaginative set pieces as well. The video game conceit allows them to throw somewhat illogical nonsense on the screen with the need to explanation. The standout is a set piece in a series of hanging bridges across a bottomless pit that keep spinning.

Jumanji: The Next Level is almost strictly just more of the same. When the first one was as much fun as it was, that really isn’t a problem, though it was starting to feel a little stale as this movie drew to its conclusion. Hopefully it inevitable next sequel finds something of a new hook or a twist to expand on this enjoyable formula.

***1/2

What I Watched November 2019

Movies

Harriet – read review here. ***1/2

Parasite – read review here. *****

Motherless Brooklyn – read review here. ****1/2

Midway – read review here. ***

Jojo Rabbit – read review here. ****1/2

Let it Snow – This is a pretty solid teen party movie that is also a Christmas movie. It has a bunch of teenagers having teenager problems while also planning to attend a Christmas Eve party. The only thing really novel or notable in it is the same sex romance subplot, which is pretty well done and an interesting development in this kind of movie. It is overall just really well done. ****

The King – I feel like I should like this less than I do. It isn’t really history, it is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But it doesn’t really give you what you want from a movie version of Shakespeare; it instead plays it more like real history. It ends up in this weird middle ground. I found it utterly compelling. Great performances, especially Chalamet as King Henry as he wrestles with living up to what is expected of him as king. His big struggle is how to legitimize his rule while also making his own decisions. I liked it a whole lot. ****

Holiday in the Wild – Why do I watch these Christmas movies? I don’t know. This one is pretty bad. Just like little going on of interest and little that seems Christmas-y about it. **

In the Shadow of the Moon – An interesting, unconventional time travel movie. Boyd Holbrook is a cop who is chasing a criminal that appears every nine years, who discovers that the criminal is actually a time traveller who stops every nine years sent back in time on some kind of mission. It is more interesting than good, I think. Still, it is worth a look. ***

Sextuplets – This is honestly better than I thought it would be. The concept is that a man who grew up an orphan finds out he not only has living relatives, but that he is one of a set of sextuplets put up for adoption by his mother. So he sets off to meet his family. Parts of it work well and are genuinely funny. Sometimes it is just stupid without reason, as the broad sterotypes of his siblings lead to not especially funny hijinks. It isn’t as bad as some comedies I’ve seen, there is real effort here and some good jokes, but in the end more doesn’t work than does. **

Klaus – WOW! This movie is gorgeous. This is some of the best looking animation I’ve seen in a long time, like a modern day 2D animated movie out of the Disney renaissance. The story is fine. Good, even. If it connected with me just a little more, I would say great. This deserves to become a modern Christmas classic, it is just a lot of fun from start to finish. One of the best Netflix has put out. I highly recommend everyone watch it. ****1/2

The Knight Before Christmas – I wondered why I watch these movies up at Holiday in the Wild, and this movie is the answer. A medieval knight gets transported to the modern day and a lovelorn school teacher tries to help him. He wants help to finish his quest and return home, she thinks he needs his head examined. Also, it’s Christmas. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is enjoyably weird. **1/2

Otherhood – This movie is interesting for its protagonists, a comedy starring older women, women whose children are grown having the kind of mid-life crisis movie that men get occasionally. That said, I didn’t find a lot else to like in this movie. There are some funny bits and some heartwarming parts, but it mostly just felt a little flat. **

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator – A documentary about a celebrity yogi who was shown to be systematically sexually assaulting young women who came to learn yoga from him. It also shows how the whole mythology he made up about himself, stuff like getting a Green Card from Nixon, was a big pack of lies. Interesting, and kind of dispiriting as he pretty much gets away with it. ***1/2

The Great Hack – This is a solid documentary about Cambridge Analytica and essentially how social media is being used as a tool to destroy society. It is infuriating, especially because nothing will change. It is a pretty good movie. ***

21 Bridges – read review here. ***1/2

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – read review here. ***1/2

Ford v. Ferrari – read review here. ****

Charlie’s Angels – read review here. ***½

Hot Rod – This is a modern classic that I feel the need to watch every now and then. It is great. *****

The Pink Panther – This is the remake starring Steve Martin. It isn’t great. Martin has pretty great comic timing and sells the pratfalls, I’m just not sure the movie ever gets past the character of Clouseau. It’s funny enough, but never quite as funny as you want it to be. **1/2

TV

Jack Ryan S2 – I like John Krasinski. I think he does a good job on this show. True to the books, and their author, this show is a right wing fever dream. It is good enough action stuff, but it has some repugnant undertones that make it hard to really recommend and make me not want to spend much more time thinking about it.

She-Ra S4 – This show continues to get stronger as it goes, as it digs deeper into its characters rather than just going bigger. It really feels like the show is moving into some kind of end game here, though. Just a really good cartoon. The murder mystery episode might be my favorite of the series.

Tarzan & Jane S2 – I know this is a show for kids, but this can be done well. See above. This is just sort of silly and flat. Bringing Pellucidar into it near the end was a neat idea, setting up a ER Burroughs connected universe, but I don’t really want to watch that show.

The Devil Next Door – I don’t want to spoil any of this; it is a wild story. Still, a pretty solid kind of true crime documentary that is a little chilling and a little bewildering.

The Man in the High Castle S2-4 – I’ve got a longer post planned, but this is a show that seems to have an identity crisis after every season. Possibly due to changing showrunner every season. It can’t or won’t keep its characters on the same trajectory, so the only one that comes out seeming like a person is John Smith, the American who has risen to the top of the Nazi party. I think it almost finds a satisfactory story in the last season, but overall it was a mess.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – I want to like this much more than I do. It is a triumph of craftsmanship. The puppetry is astounding. I’ve never seen anything that looks as good as this show. I just wish the story connected with me as strongly. It feels oddly paced and obviously structured. It is a pretty standard fantasy story in a lot of ways. There are great moments and some good characters, but for large parts of its runtime it feels a little like running in circles. I hope there is more to come.

The Toys that Made Us S3 – I think they are running out of toy lines worth making this show about. They are already scraping the bottom of the barrel with the wrestling toys. There is also this corporate bootlicking tone throughout. The Ninja Turtles episode is a good example, where it frames being bought by Nickelodeon was not only the best possible outcome, but an altogether good thing. The show is fine and does a pretty good job with its stated goals of showing how popular toys came to be.

The Good Place – I’ll save saying much about The Good Place until it finishes early next year. It continues to be one of the best shows on television.

Bob’s Burgers S10 – Bob’s Burgers is still solidly good. What do I say about a handful of episodes of a very episodic show? There is a baseline level of quality that Bob’s Burgers never falls below. Here was a handful of pretty good episodes.

DC Shows – All of the DC CW shows are building toward Crisis on Infinite Earths. They are all fairly strong this season. Arrow is moving towards its end and I am three seasons out of date, but it is mostly working. The Flash is going great, except when it gets overly dour in its Crisis build-up. Supergirl is building around the Kara/Lena relationship, which is one of the shows strongest. Batwoman is still establishing its world. It feels a little stifled, stuck on Alice. Alice has been great, but so far Kate has become Batwoman solely to get to her corrupted sister. Black Lightning, as ever, is the show out on its own island. I don’t know that Black Lightning can bring home the ambitious story it is telling, but I am enjoying it for now. I’ll have my review of the last couple of episodes of Titans up soon.

Dark Waters

I have been on a run of really depressing movies. From Queen & Slim to The Report on Amazon Prime to The Irishman on Netflix, I’ve been stuck on some real downers. Dark Waters is not bucking that trend. It shares a lot of similarities with The Report, the biggest one being that despite attempts to frame its conclusion as a triumph, there is a palpable feeling that the situation is irrevocably messed up and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, who takes a small case for a family friend, a poor West Virginia farmer whose cattle appear to have been killed by chemicals leaked by the DuPont corporation. As he digs into, it becomes clear that the DuPont’s misdeeds go far beyond inadvertently killing some cows. Soon, the case has consumed Robert’s life and the scope keeps growing. He is one man against one of the most powerful corporations in existence. But he won’t stop.

The cast is impeccable. Mark Ruffalo stars as Bilott, seeming to shrink into his suits. He does not look like a man of great fortitude. Anne Hathaway plays is long suffering wife, supremely overqualified for a largely thankless role. Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Paxton play other lawyers who drift in and out of the movie. Tim Robbins has the biggest role as a senior partner at Bilott’s law firm, who largely backs him despite the damage it does to the firm’s reputation.

Dark Waters is largely a movie about exhausting, draining, tedious process of legal work. At first, Bilott is just looking into hazardous chemical stored in the landfill next to his clients farm. Then he realizes that the harm is not caused by a classified hazardous chemical. Then he discovers that the harm is not limited to cattle, but also affects people.Then he learns that DuPont knew how harmful the chemical was. He started with a very small case, but he keeps learning worse and worse information and has to keep digging to get justice for his client. The more he finds, the greater the resistance from DuPont grows. The greater the mountain of paperwork he has to sift through to find the answer. And DuPont plays dirty, reneging on deals, stealing evidence and obfuscating issues.

The set up isn’t exactly a recipe for tension or drama, but Dark Waters maintains plenty of both as it goes. There is an overall oppressive feeling to the movie, as though the rug could be pulled out from under our hero at any moment, and from any part of his life. The case puts stress on his family, on his work relationships, on his health, on his very safety. At any time any of those could collapse. Or he could just lose the case. He navigates it all, keeping the pressure on DuPont but just being indomitable and unflappable.

In the end, Bilott triumphs, though the consequences faced by DuPont for knowingly poisoning thousands of people is shockingly light. That is where the downer part of the ending comes in. Through extraordinary effort and more than a little bit of luck, Bilott was able to get at least justice from DuPont, but this is just one case and the deck is stacked against the people in favor of companies like DuPont. Even when the good guys win, the win does not seem to be enough to stop those like DuPont from just doing it again. That is no fault of Dark Waters, which is a well executed legal drama.

****

Queen & Slim Review

Queen & Slim is a gorgeously shot and well acted romantic drama that ultimately feels more strongly weighted toward style rather than substance. It is a movie that deliberately provokes with how it portrays the police and how they interact with African Americans, but I am not sure it actually has much coherent to say about the issue. I do welcome alternate views on that, though.

The two protagonists, who are not named until near the end of the film. Daniel Kaluuya’s “Slim” and Jodie Turner-Smith’s “Queen” meet for a Tinder date. Queen, a lawyer, had a bad day at work and wants some company. Their date is uncomfortable; the two have little chemistry. They get pulled over on the drive home by a cop who, despite Slim’s completely cooperation, keeps escalating the stop. He just keeps pushing Slim and Slim keeps taking it. Queen, however, pushes back a little. Maybe he doesn’t need to conduct a completely unnecessary search of Slim’s drunk in the freezing cold. When he pulls his gun for absolutely no reason, she gets out of the car. After he fires on her, Slim fights back and the cop ends up dead. With little time to think, the two take off on the run.

The rest of the movie follows them as they run from the police. They don’t really have a plan or a destination, just no other choice with trigger happy cops on their trail. They become unwitting cultural symbols as they continue to evade the cops. As they go, they draw closer together. Forced together by chance, they end up forming something that feels like a real relationship, even as every element of their story is coated in tragedy.

The movie looks amazing. It is a road movie, with the two of them driving all over the eastern United States. Sunrises and sunsets look great, as do the two stars as they watch the countryside pass or each other. There is a lot internal going on, as you can see the characters journeys in their faces as the movie goes. The terror, the elation, the exhaustion. Kaluuya is amazing at this; Turner-Smith is fine. Bokeem Woodbine shows up for a while and is as entertaining as ever.

The movie doesn’t quite come together as more than a disconnected series of stops, other than in the building relationship between Queen and Slim. All of the provocative imagery about police and protests feels like window dressing. This is a movie created with that as the backdrop, that acknowledges those problems, but it is not a movie that helps sort through those tough issues.

Queen & Slim might have hit harder if there hadn’t been movies in the last year or so that explored similar topics with greater focus and skill. For example, last year’s Blindspotting covered some of the same ground, but that movie was more thoughtful and considered while it was no less confrontational. Queen & Slim’s point seems to be that no point can be taken from tragedies like this. Which, fair, but I walked away with a greater memory of some truly wonderful shots rather than anything from the story.

***

Knives Out

This is likely the best movie I’ve seen this year. A mystery like this is almost perfectly calibrated to for me to like, even if the execution is merely competent. (See 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express.) Luckily, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is more than just competent: it is outstanding. Knives Out isn’t quite the classic “whodunit,” as the killer is revealed pretty early, but it is a wonderful, twisting mystery that fully satisfies.

Harlan Thrombley, a wealthy mystery novelist, dies after his 85th birthday party. His entire family was there, as was his nurse. The evidence suggests a suicide, but when a pair of cops show up after the funeral to ask a few questions, they have famous private investigator Benoit Blanc with them, and he suspects foul play. Blanc and the officers proceed to question all the family members present.

That family is a classic array of mystery suspects. The first is Jamie Lee Curtis as Harlan’s daughter Linda. She is a proud and haughty real estate mogul, who seems to get along with her dad. Then they question her husband, Richard, played by Don Johnson, who had argued with Harlan before the party. There is Michael Shannon’s Walt Thrombley, Harlan’s youngest son who runs Harlan’s publishing company. He also argued with Harlan that night. There is Joni, played by Toni Collette, the widow of Harlan’s other son who is reliant on Harlan for financial support. Then there is the next generation of Thrombleys, alt-right dweeby teenager Jacob, performatively liberal college student Meg and family black sheep Ransom, played by Chris Evans. Ransom is not present, but the others have bits to contribute to the case. Finally, there is Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, played by Ana de Armas. She was the last person to see Harlan alive, as they played Go in his attic office before leaving for the night. She also has the unfortunate personal tic of vomiting when she lies. Taking everyone’s self-serving testimony, Blanc has to put together what happened that night and find out who is responsible for Harlan’s death.

It is a star studded cast. I haven’t even mentioned that Daniel Craig play Blanc, employing a delightfully overdone southern accent as he drops tortured bits of wisdom. Or Lakeith Stanfield as the lead cop on the case. Ana de Armas is the star of the movie though. She impressed in Blade Runner 2049, but she is even better here. Her Marta is pressed into service as something of a Watson to Blanc’s Sherlock Holmes. Her unavoidable honesty, and the fact that she has nothing to gain by Harlan’s death, makes her the person he can rely on while investigating.

To the shock of nobody, not everything is as it seems. Everybody is hiding something, even Blanc himself. The movie is light on its feet and wonderful to look at. It keeps flipping the viewer’s understanding and expectations. The one thing that is constant is that the Thrombleys are terrible. They are not equally terrible, or terrible in the same way, but they are all terrible. From Joni’s apparently good hearted but still thoughtless – she gets one of the early big laughs by noting that she knows Blanc from reading a tweet about a New Yorker article about him – actions to Richard’s overt, presumptive and unearned sense of superiority they all suck. When Ransom shows up, you really want to believe he is not as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Sure, he’s the black sheep, but the family sucks and Chris Evans is charming. But in the end he is another Thrombley.

The movie is just purely entertaining from start to finish. I loved every second of it. Rian Johnson has quickly become one of my favorite directors. From this to The Brothers Bloom to The Last Jedi, every movie I’ve seen of his has been both thoughtful and entertaining. With him being signed on for a trilogy of Star Wars movies, I hope he has time for diversions like this in the years to come.

*****

21 Bridges Review

I’m of two minds about 21 Bridges. On the one hand, it is a well executed crime thriller; on the other it embodies some downright gross policies. Just as a pure exercise in genre, it is a lot of fun. However, the movie’s take on killer cops is troubling, at best.

Chadwick Boseman plays Andre Davis, whose father was a cop who was killed while working and is now a cop himself. A cop with a reputation for shooting suspects. He claims they were all in self-defense and the movie does nothing to question that. At the start of the movie, two small time crooks attempt to steal a small amount of cocaine they have been told was being held at a restaurant. Once there they find ten times the amount of cocaine they expected. In the midst of the heist, they also find nearly a dozen cops descending on the restaurant. The crooks, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) shoot their way out, killing more than a half dozen cops. In the aftermath, Andre is called in. Realizing how close they are on the trail of the crooks, he requests to have all 21 bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland to be shut down so they can find them before they escape. Andre is joined by narcotics officer Burns (Sienna Miller) as they attempt to track down the unknown killers. Andre is pressured to shoot first and ask questions later, but he seems uncomfortable with that.

The movie is surprisingly sympathetic to the crooks. Maybe it was just me, but I found myself rooting for them as the movie went on. For all they are murders, it paints them fairly sympathetically. They are both ex-soldiers; just poor guys who are putting the skills they have to good use. Ray is more than willing to shoot his way out of any situation, but Michael is more thoughtful. He is the first to twig that something isn’t quite right with what is going on. When he is finally cornered by Andre about halfway through the movie, he tries to convince him something more is going on. Andre is already on the same page at that point, noticing how his fellow officers are shooting first, asking questions never and acting without his approval even though he is supposedly in charge of the investigation.

The movie really works in some tense shoot out scenes. The opening slaughter shows the cold efficiency of Ray, who quickly realizes they will not make it out without shooting. That continues to a shootout in a fortified penthouse, and another in a mostly abandoned butcher shop. There is also a solid on foot chase scene. I feel like I say this a lot, but it’s not John Wick but it is still pretty well done.

My biggest problem with this movie is how it just tacitly accepts that the police need to kill people. It sets up a dichotomy between good killer cops and bad killer cops, with the cops in this movie killing suspects as a matter of course. The movie posits these extra-judicial killings as an unfortunate necessity, even as nearly every cop in the movie is revealed to be at least somewhat dirty. The fact that the circumstances here do not represent anything like real-life are kind of moot. When J.K. Simmons’s Captain McKenna tells Andre to kill the shooters because he doesn’t want to put the families through the “trauma” of a trial, the movie treats this as an at least somewhat reasonable request. It is a disgusting request.

My problems with politics it espouses aside, 21 Bridges is a solid action thriller. If it felt more mindless it would be better, instead it manages to feign thoughtfulness, as though it means what is says, which is pretty gross. Boseman, however, remains an excellent presence to center a movie on.

***