The Way Back

The Way Back is strange in how it manages to be both kind of slight and very heavy at the same time. It hits all the familiar marks of its genre, but underplays them in such a way that they actually have more impact. It isn’t a great movie, but it is one that makes a solid impact.

Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic former high school basketball star. While he is slowly killing himself drinking, his old high school comes calling. Their basketball coach has suffered a heart attack and they need someone to step in and finish the season. Jack is reluctant to do so, but he eventually takes the position. While the school was a powerhouse back in his playing days, they are now down to six varsity players and have won only one game all year. From there, he helps teach the players about basketball and he learns how to move on with his life.

While several sports movies come to mind while watching The Way Back, the big one is Hoosiers. It hits a lot of the same beats. That movie also involved an alcoholic basketball coach who initially alienates some of his players. A coach who frequently lost his temper on the sidelines. With players whose parents are leery of letting them play over concerns about schooling. But while it hits a lot of the same beats, it does so with different enough emphases that it feels like its own thing instead of a pale imitation of the past. It also doesn’t have the pat conclusions that many other inspirational sports movies have.

For the Way Back, the basketball is secondary to the personal journey of Jack. Affleck immediately instills in him a bone deep weariness; you can feel the pain and trauma this character has suffered in every move he makes. However, the movie holds back on the exact details of that pain. He is separated from his wife and there was some past tragedy, but it doles out the information at a measured pace. Meanwhile, you see Jack slowly start to work through his pain. The basketball gives him something to hang on to. There is no call for him to stop drinking, he merely tries to sober up to better do his job. It is obvious he is white knuckling it, and when a past tragedy comes back, he can’t handle it. Setting up the usual backsliding portion of the movie.

There is just enough of the basketball team and strategy to keep it interesting. The team is limited in size and numbers, so Jack comes up with a plan to offset those weaknesses. He tries to instill in his team a sense of toughness. The players do not get a lot of development, but what is there is put to good use. The center, played by American Vandal and High Flying Bird’s Melvin Gregg, likes to shoot threes and has an exaggerated opinion of himself. The sharpshooter is a wannabe ladies man. The best player is a point guard too soft spoken to lead the team. Jack helps some of them become better players. Mostly, just the point guard.

The Way Back is an understated and effective drama. It feels like the kind of movie that won’t really stick with people, but the people who see it are likely to really enjoy it. I know I did.

***1/2

Emma.

Emma., from Autumn de Wilde and based on the Jane Austen novel, is wonderful. It is staged and costumed is style and well acted all around. It has pretty much everything that a good adaptation is supposed to have.

Emma. stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, and she fully carries the film. The supporting players, with people like Bill Nighy, are also excellent. While this is the director’s first film, Emma. feels incredibly confident all around. This movie knows exactly what it is and what it wants from every scene, every shot.

Emma brings to mind two recent literary adaptations. The movie that most comes to mind is Whit Stillman’s recent Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship. While the works that were the bases for these two movies are very different, the movies show how to make engaging Austen adaptations; treating the subjects with enough irreverence. Emma is possibly Austen’s most overtly comic novel, and Lady Susan, the basis for Love & Friendship, was a deliberate inversion of such stories. Emma is a character who is never in any kind of danger; unlike the characters of most Austen novels her place in society, and that of her family, is not reliant on her making a good marriage. Emma’s problem is Emma. By putting the focus on her and letting her highlight the small hypocrisies of eighteenth century society, and contemporary society in some ways, it lets the novel be more comic. The movie plays this up. Emma is clever and well meaning, but she is also flawed. The movie focuses on those flaws, and still finds a way to make her charming. She may cause disaster after disaster, but since the movie makes her well meaning intent clear it is easy to forgive her. Since there are genuinely no stakes, it makes it easy to just go along. Love & Friendship had greater stakes, as Lady Susan and her daughter were in a precarious social situation. That movie revelled in how much Lady Susan was allowed to get away with because of the politeness of society. Emma is in a similar situation, but with less of reason to flout rules but a better motive in doing so.

Another movie that comes to mind is last year’s Little Women from Greta Gerwig. The movies share a modern sensibility applied to a classic work. Little Women did more to make the story its own with the structure of the movie, interweaving the two halves of the novel into one cohesive storyline, while Emma is much more a straight adaptation. But there is something in the attitude of Emma that feels more modern. The structural and thematic changes to Little Women were part of why it was so well received. Emma will likely not get such a rapturous reaction, but it was just as entertaining of a film.

Emma. is the first great movie I’ve seen this year. It is pretty much everything one could want out of a literary adaptation. If you have any interest in these sorts of adaptations, you owe it to yourself to see this.

****1/2

What I Watched February 2020

Movies

Maria – Some kind of would be female led John Wick style action movie. It kind of works, but it isn’t especially good. There are some good action scenes, but it is mostly just fine. **1/2

Psychokinesis – A Korean superhero movie that is actually a lot of fun. Roon-mi runs a chicken restaurant. She is involved in a real estate dispute with some mobsters working for a big corporation. When her mother dies, her estranged father, Seok-heon, shows up. He now has superpowers. After first trying to use them for petty schemes, he uses his powers to help his daughter out. It is a solidly entertaining superhero movie. ****

The Matrix – Yup, this first one is still great. I have no interest in watching the sequels again. *****

Shanghai Fortress – This movie is shockingly dull. A science fiction action movie about an alien invasion. It also tries to be a romance, but it only kind of works. **1/2

Elisa & Marcela – The true story of the first gay marriage in Spain, kind of. The movie is not good. It is melodramatic and didactic. I didn’t like it much at all. **

Rampant – A Korean zombie movie period piece. Lot’s of political scheming over the throne and trying to use an outbreak of a zombie virus to secure power. It goes badly. This is more of an action movie than a horror movie, but it is enough of a horror movie that I mostly just wanted to shut it off. ***

Back to the Future Part 3 – I know people who are really down on this movie, and BttF2. I don’t get it. The original Back to the Future is pretty much perfect, I agree, and its sequels are not quite on its level. But both 2 and 3 are ridiculously fun in their own right. I really like the 3rd one, as it puts the setup of the series into a new genre. *****

Dragon Quest Your Story – For most of this movie’s runtime it is an enjoyable, if incredibly fast paced adaptation of one of the best video games ever made. The last fifteen minutes turn it into something else entirely. ***1/2

Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks – This is a documentary about the development of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. It is kind of surface, but it is largely entertaining. It covers the genre from Bruce Lee to close to the present day, covering the ups and down of the genre and its stars. It is a solid primer for those only vaguely aware of the genre. ***1/2

The Last Thing He Wanted – Bad movies are not usually this well made. This movie got miserable reviews and for about the first hour I was somewhat baffled by that. Then it got into its second half and . . . I don’t know. This is a strange movie. Everyone involved is too good for this movie to be this disjointed. **

TV

The Spy – It is interesting to see Sacha Baron Cohen do serious work. And good work. This show is good, but not great. It slips into hagiography at times, flattening a complex historical figure into something more like a straight hero. It is alo really tense and mostly very entertaining. Cohen plays the Isreali spy Eli Cohen, who infiltrated the Syrian government in the 1960s. Knowing historically how it ends makes it hard to watch at times. He has to leave his family behind and become someone else. He gets good information from the Syrians, but eventually the net closes in on him. He can feel it closing, but he is able to be talked into keeping going for all the good information he is getting until the inevitable happens. It is really good.

The Dragon Prince S1-3 – Pretty solid cartoon from Netflix. I never really warmed to the animation style. Still, the show itself is pretty well done. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It is a well executed fantasy story that is suitably complex and original. If you can get past the animation, which I really didn’t like, it is well worth watching.

Godless – This show is amazing. Just a long, loving, beautiful deconstruction of western tropes. The town of La Belle is almost completely without men after a mine accident killed nearly all of them. In their absence, the women of the town have banded together to keep things going. Jeff Daniels plays an outlaw, Frank Griffin, who waxes on about God while committing unspeakable acts. Roy Goode, played by Jack O’Connell, was like a son to Griffin until he double crossed him and took off. He takes refuge in La Belle. Sam Waterston plays a US Marshall hunting Daniels. Things almost never play out like you would expect in this show, at least until near the end. Scoot McNairy is the sheriff of La Belle, but he almost never draws his gun, leading to him having a reputation as a coward. His widowed sister is the real leader of the town. The show lets the characters live as it builds up to the inevitable conflict between the town and Griffin’s gang. It is one of the best things I’ve seen in some time.

The Pharmacist – Another Netflix true crime series. This one is a trip, following a pharmacist as he first tries to find the person who killed his son, then as he tries to get to the bottom of the all of opioid prescriptions that are running through his pharmacy as people start dying. It is plenty entertaining, even if it doesn’t really offer anything new.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 3 – This show is something else. I still wish they would cut each episode down by about 15 minutes. I know the 40-45 minute runtime is for airing on tv with commercials, but the full hours that a lot of this shows episodes run feel laborious. I’ve got to be honest here, I am not especially engaged with this show. It is fine; largely well made and occasionally interesting, but I am never really interested. I do appreciate how wide the show tends to go with things, with trips to hell and all kinds of wild nonsense.

Giri/Haji – This show is wild. It is nominally a cop show. Kenzo, a Japanese cop, goes to England to look for his brother Yuto, who is in the Yakuza. Kenzo has to balance his responsibility to bring in his brother, if he is indeed guilty of the crimes he is suspected of, with his duty to protect his brother. There are all kinds of complications, from British gangsters to Yuto’s relationship with a Yakuza bosses daughter to Kenzo’s crumbling marriage, to Sarah, the British cop that takes a liking to Kenzo. Not on that, but the show seems determined to change genre about 4 times an episode. It is always a crime show, but sometimes it is an action movie, sometimes a relationship drama, sometimes it is animated, sometimes an action scene plays out as an interpretive dance. It keeps the viewer off balance and consistently engaged. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know that there is much room for a follow up season, but I would definitely watch one.

Shrill S2 – Another batch of episodes here that are really pretty good. I don’t know that I am directly the audience for this, but I enjoy the show enough to stick with it for its relatively short run time.

High Fidelity – I have not read the book this is based on. I never watch the John Cusak movie. This show is fine. It feels perfectly aimed at a very specific audience and I am not that audience. The foremost reason for that is that I don’t really care about music. Rob is this insane mix of appealing and completely insufferable, a hard trick to pull off. The show is really easy to watch even if you are not particularly engaged with it.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

The narrative that DC is flailing and Marvel has got it figured out is so solidly ingrained now that I don’t see it changing. It doesn’t matter that Marvel’s movies look and feel more homogeneous as they go. Or maybe that is part of their popularity. It doesn’t matter that DC is doing stuff that is weird and good. Once Batman v. Superman came out and people didn’t like it, the narratives were set. DC will always be chasing Marvel, no matter how different the approaches and final products. Warner Brothers has put out some really good DC movies over the last year, mostly using an approach of simply making the best film for each character. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam were all excellent and, no matter my complete disdain for it, Joker really resonated with people. Birds of Prey continues this, while salvaging the best part of Suicide Squad.

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn as she breaks up with the Joker. As abusive and toxic as that relationship was, she learns that her proximity to the most feared criminal in Gotham had granted her a measure of protection that she took for granted. Especially with night club owner and criminal Roman Sionis. Once she is no longer untouchable, he comes after her to get revenge for several petty slights. Luckily for Harley, he is in need of help. Help finding an important jewel, which was stolen from his henchman Zsasz but a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other people out to get her before Harley does. One is Gotham cop Renee Montoya, who has been trying to take down Sionis for years. Another is the mysterious Huntress, who showed up out of nowhere and started shooting people with a crossbow. And finally there is Dinah Lance, a night club singer who is finally fed up with Sionis.

The story is told from the perspective of the somewhat addled Harley Quinn, so it moves in fits and starts at times. She is telling the story as it goes, and sometimes goes back to tell it in a different way. The disjointed nature of the opening hour works in the film’s favor as it slowly introduces characters and shows scenes from different points of view. In all, the structure calls to mind early Guy Ritchie movies like Snatch, where various groups of criminals bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.

The movie shines in one area especially: the fights scenes. Supposedly John Wick director Chad Stahleski helped with the fight scenes and it shows. They don’t match that series for inventiveness or impact, but the fight scenes here are a cut above most action movies, let alone most superhero movies. Birds of Prey’s action has weight. The scenes are frequently over the top, even silly, but that fits in perfectly with the movie they are making. They are a deadly, ridiculous ballet. The fight in the police station is great and the big one at the end is just masterful.

It also shines with characters. Margot Robbie continues to be excellent as Harley Quinn. The character is seen somewhat as DC’s version of Deadpool, and there is some truth to that. Like Reynolds with that character, Robbie perfectly embodies Harley Quinn. Also, it is a taste that is not for everyone. The Birds of Prey stray a little further from their comic counterparts, but they all get the cores of their characters right. Montoya is a good cop pushed just a bit too far by the corruption of Gotham. She wants to do the right thing, but is so disillusioned with the system that it is starting to break her. As we are introduced to her here, played by the excellent Rosie Perez, she is starting to crack, but her heart’s in the right place. Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is pretty much straight from the comics. A mafia princess coming back to get revenge on the people who killed her parents. She is a somewhat twisted version of Batman that, in the comics, eventually broke good. The new addition is her social awkwardness, an understandable development for a person who spent most of her life training to get revenge. Then there is Dinah Lance, Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who we do not get enough of but has the best arc outside of Harley. She starts as someone who ignores the damage happening to people around her, until it is so in her face that she can’t ignore it. As the movie goes along, she becomes more committed to fighting against it.

The only fly in the ointment is Cassandra, who bears absolutely no resemblance to the comic character. She is almost as much of a mcguffin as the diamond she stole, but mostly works as a sort of kid sidekick to the whole cast, though she ends up in Harley’s orbit for most of the movie.

I’ll admit to being enough of a comic nerd that seeing characters I like on the big screen is still something of a thrill for me, especially when they are character who have not been there before. DC’s B and C list characters are some of my favorites, so seeing Huntress and Black Canary was fun in and of itself. However, Birds of Prey is firing on all cylinders. It has great action, a good sense of humor, and some really great character work. I loved it.

****1/2

What I Watched January 2020

Movies

Before I get into these movies, I am going to note that I spent a large portion of January cleaning out my Netflix queue, watching all of the movies that had been sitting on my list for years without being watched. So some of those are just getting a score with nothing more. Those will be up first, then my usual quick reviews.

Becoming Jane – ***

Someone Great – ***1/2

Kate and Leopold – ***

The Little Mermaid (2018) – **

Colonia – **½

Red Sea Diving Resort – **

God of War – **

Moonwalkers – **½

Rattlesnake – **

Yucatan – **

Clouds of Sils Maria – ****

The Brawler – *

The Men Who Stare at Goats – ***

Fullmetal Alchemist – **

The Fighter – ****

District 9 – ****

IO – **½

Pegasus – **½

Unicorn Store – **

The Talented Mr. Ripley – ***½

Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings – ***

Knives Out – see review here. *****

The Hateful Eight: Extended Edition – I reviewed this movie before, but I watched this extended edition that is broken into four episodes as a mini-series. It still plays. This is a great, if thoroughly unpleasant, film. I don’t know that I need to watch this nearly four hour long version very often, but it is a wholly entertaining experience. *****

Kabaneri and the Iron Fortress: Battle of Unato – This is another movie split into episodes for Netflix. I moved it up here because it definitely functions more as a movie than a miniseries. I think this would be better if I knew the series; as it is it is a mildly enjoyable animated action movie. ***

Casa de mi Padre – This movie is certainly not for everybody. Will Ferrell stars in a fairly straight attempt at Mexican telenovela. It just pushes things further away from reality at every turn. It is tuned to a very specific sense of humor, which fortunately for me is one I share. This is Ferrell in his strangest mode and I love it. The artificiality of everything just makes it work. ****1/2

Hell or High Water – I absolutely loved this movie. Two brothers, who own a farm that is about to be foreclosed on by the bank, take to robbing small bank branches for small amounts of money. Though it is set in modern times, it plays out like an old Western. Especially as the law men come after the brothers. Despite their actions, your sympathies generally lie with the brothers. Especially with Chris Pine, whose plan this is and is doing it to help his ex-wife and kids. I loved everything about this movie all around. *****

A Serious Man – This was one of the few Coen Brothers movies I hadn’t seen. It is good. Not my favorite, but very good. It is calls to mind the book of Job, with terrible things happening to the main character for no rhyme or reason. ****1/2

End of Watch – I absolutely hated this movie. No part of it worked for me. Certainly not the most egregious, but one of the most obvious reasons, is how it handled the camera. It pretends that the cops are shooting it themselves, but most of the time there is no one holding the camera. It just shows laziness in how the movie was made, which is evident throughout the movie, despite the best efforts of Gyllenhal and Pena. 1/2

Ni No Kuni – I haven’t played the game that this movie is based on, so I don’t know if it reflects the story from that or is largely original, but it is fine. I generally enjoyed it. It feels like it leaves a lot of interesting story on the table, with a lot of possibilities introduced and not fully explored. ***

The Wandering Earth – A big Chinese science fiction movie that largely plays out like a reverse Armageddon. It is entertaining on that level. ***

1917 – read review here. ****

Little Women – read review here. *****

Steel Rain – This one is wild. It involves a plot to assassinate the leaders of North Korea that nearly spirals out into nuclear war. You’ve got a schlubby guy with a failing marriage from South Korea teamed up with a soldier from the North trying to stop things before it spirals into an even bigger catastrophe. It is wild, but interesting. ***

Troop Zero – I don’t know that this movie quite works. It is a weird throwback to some kind of 80s comedy, relying on cute moppets and unreliable parental figures. Troop Zero goes weird with it. It works because it has some specificity, but sometimes it is just too out there. I enjoyed this more than I didn’t, but I don’t think it will stick with me. It certainly seems like something a certain group of kids will fall in love with.***
A Kind of Murder – This is just a straight up noir. It is just a thoroughly competent genre exercise. Patrick Wilson is always great, and this is no different. He is a writer whose wife gets killed. Killed in the same manner as a bookseller’s wife. The police suspect a connection, and Wilson keeps lying to the cops to cover up an affair. It is pretty entertaining. ***

Just Mercy – read review here. ***1/2

The Gentlemen – read review here. ****

The Perfection – Okay, this is a strange thriller/horror movie. I don’t know that I actually liked it all that much, but it is certainly very well made. It keeps the viewer on their toes and gets pretty gross at times. ***1/2

Manhunt – A wild conspiracy thriller from John Woo. You’ve got false accusations, super soldier drugs, gun fights with two heroes handcuffed together. It is very entertaining. ***1/2

Kung Fu Yoga – This movie is essentially Jackie Chan as Indiana Jones, in a China/India collaboration. The movie isn’t very good, but Jackie Chan has still got it. ***

Raging Bull – This is a movie that puts a man’s ugliness on display and just lets it go. It is well made and well acted and just kind of amazing. I’ll likely never watch it again. *****

Justice, My Foot – I have really enjoyed Stephen Chow movies in the past, and finding this one from the 90’s on Netflix was intriguing. It is mostly fine. There is some stuff that has aged very badly, (which isn’t the right way to frame it, as it is not like any of the tasteless jokes were ever good) like some straight up homophobia. Otherwise, it is a fun, silly legal period piece. I enjoyed it. **1/2

TV

Voltron S7-8 – I really enjoyed the first six or so seasons of this show a few years ago, but they pumped out the seasons faster than I could watch them and I just fell off. I circled back around early this year and finished the show off. This is a really good show that mostly sticks the landing. I see why they killed off the character they did at the end, but it doesn’t sit quite right. Still, this show is really good. I am glad I came back to it.

You S2 – The first season of You had this kind of enthralling quality to it, as Joe was so clearly a monster, even if he didn’t realize it himself, and you were watching for it to unravel. Then it kind of doesn’t. Season 2 is probably where I am done with it, because I really don’t care to see anymore of Joe. I can only watch a monster for so long as he slowly wriggles through cracks before I am just done with it. Here he finds a new group of people to latch onto and slowly destroys them, even as they destroy themselves. It ends with a twist that will keep the show going for at least another season.

Lost In Space S2 – I think this is as good as this show is going to be, which is a largely pretty good family scifi show. It is generally enjoyable, but the exciting moments of escape and adventure are sometimes mired in interpersonal relationships that simply are not as interesting. It builds along several episode long arcs that feel a little padded, instead of just telling more focused, interesting stories. Still, I like it quite a bit.

Medical Police – A spin-off of Children’s Hospital. I don’t know what to say. It is a parody of doctor shows and a parody of police procedurals and a parody of something like 24. It is a lot of fun and incredibly stupid. One of the highlights of the year so far.

Violet Evergarden – This is emotional manipulation, the series. Violet is an auto memory doll, a person who writes letters for people who, for whatever reason, cannot write them themselves. She does this work in part because it helps her, a former child soldier with little social development, better understand people. The show parades mostly sad stories in front of the viewer as Violet learns about emotions. I am being too harsh, it is mostly a pretty good show, though it feels a little truncated.

Living With Yourself – This was an interesting little show with Paul Rudd playing a man who goes to a spa that, unbeknownst to him, clones him. The spa’s business involves killing the original and replacing them with the refreshed and improved clone. But the original version of Paul Rudd survives, which leads to the two of them having to work to coexist. I don’t have a lot to say about it; it is mostly pleasant and enjoyable. Like Paul Rudd is in just about everything. I would watch more if they make it.

The Family – This documentary spins itself in circles a little, but it does illuminate the quasi-Christian fundementalist that have been working for half a century to influence American politics. It is religion removed from morality and, as presented here, simply gross. This is not the best made documentary series ever, but it is pretty enjoyable.

Carole and Tuesday – The second half of this music themed anime. This half of the season ends up with the duo being somewhat involved with the politics of future Mars, while also just trying to make their music and capitalize off their success in the competition from the first half of the show. It remains mostly good.

Spinning Out – A melodrama about figure skaters. One family, an overbearing, bipolar mother and her two daughters as well as a rich man, his sons and his new wife. Kaya Scodelario is the elder daughter, who is struggling to recover from a traumatic injury. She is also realizing that she shares her mother’s mental health problems. Added on to that, she has recently switched from singles to doubles. There is a sports show happening, but it often gets relegated to the background for some over the top melodrama. Which is fine, that is what the show is. It just also isn’t really for me.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez – This is a solid look into the toxic collection of circumstances that led to the creation of a man like Aaron Hernandez. From CTE, to homophobia, to just the culture around football that allowed him to get away with whatever he wanted. It is chilling and more than a little sad, for many reasons.

Sex Education S2 – This continues to be very good show. I am still confused by the setting, which is a strange mishmash of current and something out of the 90s, America and England. This season expands the scope of the show greatly, moving the focus off Otis and Maeve somewhat and allowing more characters to have more developed stories. That lets the show tell a lot more stories, but it loses something in the exchange. I think it improves the show.

Dracula – The team behind Sherlock have brought that same approach to Dracula. The first two episodes are really good. Those first two episodes are interesting reimaginings of the novel, keeping certain aspects, while radically changing others. Much like Sherlock. I think things really fall apart in the third episode. Much like Sherlock. The whole ride is worth taking, even if the final part doesn’t work at all.

Watership Down – Great voice cast, good story, miserable animation. This show is just ugly. I don’t have much more to say.

The Good Place – It ended near the start of February, so hold me to having more to say next month, but this is one of the best shows of the last few years. Absolutely amazing from start to finish.

Cyborg 009: Call of Justice – The story of this show is fine, as far as justifications for cyborgs fighting ancient mutants goes. What does not work is the cg animation. The Cyborg 009 characters have pretty distinctive design, which is washed away here for generically ugly cg. The show is just kind of a pain to look at, which means it is harder to care for the story.

CW DC Shows – Basically, January mostly had the second half of Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was really good, and if I write about the end of Arrow I’ll have more to say about it.

The Rhythm Section

It feels like beating a dead horse to write about this movie. It didn’t review well, nor did it make any money. There really isn’t a good movie. There are certainly things it does well, but the package does not come together into any kind of entertaining movie.

The Rhythm Section is a spy movie about a woman, Stephanie (Blake Lively) whose family was killed in a plane crash. A few years after that, she is visited by a reporter who tells her that the plane crash was not an accident, but a terrorist attack. This leads to Stephanie wanting to get revenge. First she attempts it on her own, then she seeks help from a former MI6 agent played by Jude Law. He trains her, then uses her to track down the people responsible for the plane bombing.

The movie creates strange juxtapositions. It is mostly a somber, realistic take on a spy or revenge movie. But it is full of needle drops that seem to come from a much more fun, pulpier movie. It highlights the humanity of Stephanie, showing the toll that losing her family, and blaming herself for it. She is slowly killing herself as the movie starts. She has fallen as low as she can. Then the movie gives a perverse ray of hope; it gives her someone to blame. It shows how desperate she is to do something to get revenge, but how hard it is to take a human life, especially when she has to look the person in the eye to do it. Then she has to train.

A lot of movies, fun and good movies, would breeze through this training, or end up with Stephanie as a cold, bad ass killer. To its detriment, The Rhythm Section is better than that. She trains for a few months and knows enough to get herself into more trouble. She is obviously not ready for this work, but she knows enough to fake. Every attempt she makes to do James Bond stuff ends horribly. She fails repeatedly.

The strange juxtapositions come in with the filmmaking. Sometimes things are shot handheld, to try to appear realistic. Sometimes it is super stylized. Most discordant is the ending, with Stephanie walking off like a supreme badass, which is not what the movie showed her becoming. The ending treats everything before this as an origin story, but there her character arc ends with her having no reason to ever engage in this sort of work again.

It is not like you can point to any one thing that sinks this movie. Lively and Law, and Sterling K Brown who plays an information broker, are good. The movie does some interesting things. But as it goes on it becomes more and more clear that the pieces here just don’t fit together.

**

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen did not disappoint. While not as quite as light on its feet or sheerly entertaining as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, The Gentlemen still has a lot to enjoy. There is this unfortunate undertone of something really gross just beneath the surface of this movie. The movie traffics in the idea that if it is offensive to everyone, it is offensive to no one and while I don’t think that holds up to any sort of scrutiny, this is not really a movie that invites any sort of scrutiny.

The movie follows Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, a marijuana kingpin who is looking to get out of the game, to retire and spend time with his wife. He is looking to sell out to an American billionaire. Also looking to hone in on his territory is an up and coming Chinese mobster Dry Eye. The story of this potential deal is laid out by Fletcher, a private eye hired to turn up dirt on Mickey, who is telling his story to Mickey’s right hand man Raymond. Of course, there is more going on with every character than is initially apparent. Also, Colin Firth shows up as an Irish boxing coach who gets involved trying to keep some of his young boxers out of trouble.

A troubling part of the movie is how it frames its villains. It plays up the foreignness of Dry Eye, and the American billionaire is also Jewish. Fletcher, who quickly shows himself to not be trustworthy, plays up his homosexuality. The movie is also pretty sympathetic to the plight of impoverished aristocrats who can’t afford the upkeep on their giant manors. But to accept this framing as truly troubling, you have to buy Mickey as someone worth rooting for, and I don’t think the movie really makes you root for Mickey. You like the cool, collected Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an auto-body shop by women for women. But Mickey himself, an American who came to the U.K. and started a drug empire, is not especially sympathetic. The only truly likable person is Coach, a rough and tumble guy who just wants to keep some youngsters out of trouble.

The movie is mostly enjoyable. As it plays out as Fletcher telling Raymond a story, it allows the movie to have some fun with things, with Fletcher spicing up the story when he is missing information or just wants to make something up. It allows for director Guy Ritchie to use some of his fun tricks to spice things up. However, it never quite gets to that incredible tumbling house of cards feeling that Snatch managed. In Ritchie’s earlier gangster movies, you had several different groups of running different schemes that bounce off of each other in interesting ways. The Gentlemen really only has two or three factions and little in the way of surprise. It is still fun, but it feels just a little lacking.

Still, it is fun to be back in Ritchie’s English underworld. Honestly, while I have plenty of complaints, I really enjoyed seeing this. It is not a movie that is going to stick you for long after you leave the theater, but it is a really enjoyable time while you are there.

****

Little Women Review

I feel like a failure of an English major to admit that I have never read Little Women. I have also never seen any of the previous adaptations of it. I knew generally that it was about the young lives of four sisters, but that was about it. I do know something of the changes this adaptation made to the story, but not enough for me to be judging it based on that. Little Women is simply an excellent movie.

The movie starts with the March sisters grown. Jo is in New York, writing. Meg is married with a pair of children. Amy is Paris, learning art and acting as a companion to her elderly aunt. And Beth is still at home, slowly dying from a wasting disease. The movie then proceeds along two paths; one in the past as the March women grow up, and one in the present of the movie as their lives develop as adults. This is not the format of the book, which follows the story in linear fashion. This change serves to highlight the themes that director Greta Gerwig focuses on.

A major concern are the choices and compromises women have to make to simply live their lives. The Marches deal with this differently. Jo fights against the strictures placed upon her, determined to forge her own path. Meg, meanwhile, takes a more traditional route, opting for a largely traditional life as a wife and mother. Amy, meanwhile, finds a middle path. It makes her seem somewhat mercenary, but she learns that marriage is primarily a business transaction. All three of them find happiness, they simply take different paths to get there.

The movie uses the new structure to set up a lot of interesting juxtapositions, both with time and with the fact that Jo is a writer and Gerwig goes out of her way to conflate Jo March with Louisa May Alcott. It works.

This would all make for a fine movie, but the craft on display turns into an amazing one. I don’t know how else to describe the cast except for phenomenal. Starting with the supporting players, Little Women packs some names, all of whom do some good work. Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern all show up and are amazing. Even Bob Odenkirk, whose energy is not quite on the same plane as the rest of the cast, is a good actor doing good work. Then there are the stars. The low person on the totem pole is Emma Watson, a movie star in her own right who has headlined blockbusters. But her role does not quite let her shine like what turns out to be the central trio. Florence Pugh had a hell of a 2019, and Amy might be her best performance, even if you never quite buy her as a bratty 12 year old. Saorise Ronan has quickly staked a claim as one of the best actresses working today, and she simply further cements that here. Finally, Timothy Chalamet continues to be impressive. It is just great all around.

The look of the movie is also excellent. It is largely confined to a couple of locations, primarily the March home, but those sets look real and lived in. The movie is wonderfully shot; it simply looks amazing.

Again, I don’t know the book. But Little Women is an excellent adaptation because whatever the book is, it turns it into a genuinely excellent and engrossing movie.

*****

1917 Review

I was somewhat in the bag for 1917 before it started. I am fascinated by the First World War; it was terrible and tragic and pointless, but something about it really interests me. How starkly it shows the pointlessness of war is a big part of it. I am also interested in the rapidly changing technology of the war, the meeting of old world technology with new – tanks vs. horses and the like – simply grab my interest. So a prestige movie set during that war was something I was interested in. Luckily, 1917 did not disappoint.

The plot of the movie is almost unfathomably simple. One division of the Allied force is planning an attack and headquarters has information that they are headed into a trap. Unfortunately, they have no way of communicating with this division in time to stop the attack. So two soldiers are tasked with carrying a message across eight miles of contested territory to potentially save ten thousand lives. Those two soldiers, Lance Corporal’s Schofield and Blake, are our protagonists.

The movie is staged as a one shot, generally concealing any cuts. This keeps the viewer with the two protagonists the whole time. There are no cutaways to commanders or enemies or ticking clocks, it just keeps following these two soldiers as they trek across no man’s land and other battlefields. While it mostly serves as a movie making gimmick, and is likely the source of several Oscar wins, the one take also keeps the viewer in the mind of the soldiers.

Being that close, physically, to the characters makes the rest of the movie works. First is a dizzying tour of the Allied trenches as Blake and Schofield find the place to stage their crossing. It plays out kind of episodically. They cross no man’s land. They find abandoned enemy trenches, they find an abandoned farmhouse. Briefly their path crosses that of another unit and they travel with them for a while.

Most striking about the movie is how its acts of heroism are mostly nonviolent. This is a war movie, there is war. Schofield has a brief encounter with a sniper and the pair gets into conflict as they try to save a downed German pilot. The biggest moment of violence is likely Schofield strangling an enemy to death in an attempt to avoid alerting his compatriot. It is horrifying. Conversely, other moments are shown as strictly heroic. Blake pulling Schofield out of the rubble after a bomb goes off. Schofield giving all of his rations, and some milk he found at the farm, to a woman and a child hiding in the remains of a bombed out city. Schofield rallying the troops to push a truck out of the mud so they can continue on their journey. Schofield running across the edge of a battlefield in a desperate attempt to stop a battle. Those are the moments of heroism. The war is pointless.

I don’t know how this movie will hold up to repeat viewings. The characters are thinly drawn; the movie is mostly a technical exercise. The people met along the journey are a who’s who of British actors. Here’s Andrew Scott, there’s Colin Firth, look its Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. They are all great actors, but the artificiality of their roles is a little distracting. After admittedly impressive impact of a one-shot war movie wears off, I don’t know how much this movie has. But the strikingly beautiful and sad moments on first viewing are enough that I really enjoyed it.

****1/2

Just Mercy

If you are being incredibly reductive, and I am, Just Mercy is a message movie. The movie is simply steeped in earnest moralizing. It could have become unbearable. Fortunately, it manages to hold back just enough, and is well performed enough, that it gets its message across in a mostly entertaining way.

Michael B. Jordan plays Brian Stevenson, a newly graduated from Harvard lawyer who moves to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative to help people on death row. Among the cases he takes on is that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on patently and obviously false eye witness testimony. Just Mercy follows Stevenson as he digs into McMillan’s case and as he deals with threats and obstacles from the racist system that put McMillan on Death Row and the racists who are working to keep him there.

The movie is heavy without being completely heavy handed. It shows starkly what black people face in this country and the south especially. Stevenson starts out somewhat insulated thanks to his upbringing in New England. He is soon disabused of any notions of fairness in the system. It starts with a forced strip search when he visits his clients in the prison and escalates to the local police holding him at gunpoint during a traffic stop that is a pretext to rummage through his files.

One thing Just Mercy does especially well is keeping focus on the prisoners. Three are major characters in the movie: McMillan, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The first two claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of (and were both eventually exonerated). Richardson is guilty, but the movie emphasizes his humanity. He did a terrible thing, but the movie interrogates whether that makes it okay to end his life. Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. He was clearly traumatized, but instead of getting help, he was abandoned by the system.

The movie also does a great job of highlighting the tedium of legal work. Stevenson spends a lot of his time pouring through files, doing research and crafting motions to try to get justice for his clients. These efforts come to naught for the bulk of the movie. His motions are denied, even when the evidence he presents is overwhelming. It is long, crushing, often fruitless work. The movie does not make it exciting, but it does make it look heroic.

The movie cannot help but be incredibly earnest because this is an incredibly important topic. People’s lives are on the line here. It succeeds largely on almost uniformly strong performances. Jamie Foxx is the standout, he is amazing in this movie. Brie Larson does what she can with a role that is important and kind of nothing. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall are solid as well. The movie manages to give hope in what is a hopeless situation, with the idea that with enough work things can get better. I’ll retract this statement if someone tells me the character is based on a real person, but I could have done without the increasingly sympathetic prison guard. That felt like a ill-fitting note in the context of the rest of the movie.

I’ll end with a little moralizing of my own. The Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. Even if it were ever justified, which it is not, the systems the United States has in place to enact it are too flawed to be acceptable. The movie notes this in its closing moments and is exactly right. The problem with a message movie like this is that it either is accepted by everyone, making it pointless, or those who reject it simply don’t watch or ignore it. Hopefully some people see this movie and learn something about our incredibly flawed justice system and that changes still need to be made to fix it.

****