Fast becoming the king of the Neo-Western, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote high-minded screenplays ranging from Sicario to Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with a rather routine but entertaining thriller elevated by the work of its leading lady and a pair of actors playing ruthless villains. Sheridan’s wilderness adventure Those Who Wish Me Dead (B-) introduces two converging storylines, the redemption arch of a brassy Montana smokejumper played by Angelina Jolie recovering from a tragedy and the crime thriller chase film featuring a child (Finn Little) who observes his father’s murder and is stalked Witness-style by two assassins, cunningly played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. The film is a throwback to ’90s action films with its propulsive parade of set pieces and showdowns, even amidst some lackluster forest fire special effects and a plot that doesn’t tread all that much new ground. Jolie is effective as she bonds with the boy and brandishes her acumen and adrenaline in some knockout moments, but it’s Hoult and Gillen who milk the most out of their sequences as the veritable renegade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of an ensemble that also includes an effective Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore. It’s a rollicking ride with taut action aplenty.
You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
This is the film that happens after an unlikely pair Meets Cute, after the guy gets girl, after he intercepts her at the airport to go ahead and stay. Set in a gorgeously shot Athens, Greece, as a boozy sun-drenched party paradise, Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ kinetic drama Monday (C+) propels its appealing thirtysomething American expat leads into immediate lust and leaves most of the film for figuring out if they’re even remotely right for each other. Sebastian Stan is magnetic, spry and beguiling as the devil-may-care deejay and vagabond; and Denise Gough is the complete opposite as a plucky but more proper immigration lawyer who is in one of those rebound travel-the-world on a bender type situations. In chronicling this mismatched duo’s fall from an almost too metaphorical Garden of Eden (it’s a fig leaf-free beach in this case), the film plumbs the notion of how a relationship can survive on chemistry and chemicals alone and finds lots of erotic ways to determine if true love can really be skin deep. But the episodes of showing how different the wavelengths each is surfing can be painful and awkward, and the movie’s near-improvised vibe feels a touch incomplete. The filmmakers get points for examining the intoxication of obsessive love but rarely make space, momentum or structure to adequately fill in some of the emotional gaps which would elucidate why these giddy drifters choose to spend time together on any activity other than sex. Because it is set in the exotic milieu of a foreign land with characters somewhat in a toxic fog of trying to find each other, the story becomes more absorbing even as its trajectory appears clear to the audience. Fittingly, it’s all lovely to look at and drink in, but the hangover comprises most of this bittersweet story.
Here is the P3 Podcast with our conversation after the “pandemic year” Oscars.
Despite most of the movies being available on streaming services, the films up for this week’s Academy Awards ceremony are little-seen. But there are definitely some independent and thoughtful gems to check out before Sunday’s ceremony. Here’s where you can find the eight movies up for Best Picture plus three others which could factor into the winner’s circle:
Minari (On demand) – This movie about a Korean-American family starting a farm in ‘80’s Arkansas is a heartwarming drama. Expect Youn Yuh-jung as the feisty and funny grandmother to get noticed.
Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) – Riz Ahmed gives one of the year’s best performances as a heavy metal drummer and former addict who is losing his hearing. It features moving characters and some really good sound design.
Mank (Netflix) – Up for 10 awards including acting nominations for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, this black and white tale of classic Hollywood screenwriting and politics is inspired by the look and feel of Citizen Kane, whose screenwriter’s life it chronicles.
Promising Young Woman (On demand) – Carey Mulligan teaches men a dark lesson in this smart and sassy film blending topical themes about relationships with a bubble-gum pop soundtrack and brightly colored cinematography.
The Father (On demand) – Anthony Hopkins gives a master class performance as a man losing his mind in this drama also starring fellow past Oscar winner Olivia Colman.
Judas and the Black Messiah (On demand) –LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are both up for the gold for this historical action film about an FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panther Party.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) – Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin writes snappy dialogue for an ensemble of 1960’s political protesters including multiple award nominee Sacha Baron Cohen.
Nomadland (Hulu) – Director Chloe Zhao and lead actress Frances McDormand take a road trip across America to discover what truly matters in this fiercely independent and gorgeously filmed story featuring real people discovered along the journey.
These additional three movies have a good chance to take home some prizes:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) – The late Chadwick Boseman gives a fierce performance opposite an amazing Viola Davis in this story about a powder-keg of a blues recording session.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) – Newcomer Andra Day is a leading Best Actress contender for playing the title part of the troubled songstress (The same role also got Diana Ross a nomination for an Oscar years ago).
One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime) – Regina King’s directorial debut features Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. in a star-making silver screen performance as soulful singer Sam Cooke.
Bryan Coley of REEL Experiences interviews Stephen Brown about a lifelong love of the Academy Awards and this year’s eight Best Picture finalists.
Have you ever had two friends with pretty dominant character traits manage to wear out their welcome? The culmination of Legendary’s MonsterVerse including Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong (B-) pits a pair of titans in an epic showdown, and the result is less than the sum of its parts. Sure, this serving of Tokusatsu delivers its requisite wallop with spectacular effects and compelling global set pieces, but it runs out of imagination pretty sharply. In this installment, Kong clashes with Godzilla as humans lure the primate into the “Hollow Earth” to retrieve an energy source to stop the fire-breathing lizard monster’s mysterious rampages. Even bringing in “a third,” the robotic doppelgänger Mechagodzilla, fails to spice up this relationship. Brian Tyree Henry and Millie Bobby Brown are some of the few humans in the ensemble who get to display even a hint of nuance, and displays of simian sign language provide some brief moments of up-close connection. The scope, the score and epic battle sequences win here, which may just be enough for this kind of movie. It’s ultimately a kaiju-normous action film that delivers on its premise but is unlikely to provide viewers much more than a momentary ape escape.
This film has all the narrative subtlety of a string of Reddit forum comments or one of those propaganda film strips from health class narrated by the gym coach. A message movie has to at least be competently made before a viewer can determine if its ideology rings true, but Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn‘s Roe v. Wade (F) is so glaringly misbegotten as a motion picture that its multitude of flaws eclipse its POV. The lead characters, played by Loeb and Jamie Kennedy, are doctors who perform abortions with reckless abandon and little regard for the ethics of their medical procedures, and yet somehow they are intended to be the vessels of a breakthrough conversion that what they are doing is not (capital R?) right. The tone is all over the map, and any attempt at irony to make its points is largely lost in a muddled storyline. Predominantly filmed in the color orange to imply the 1970s, the film punctuates its loosely interspersed doses of conspiracy theories and heavy-handed (capital M?) messages with a fictional recreation of aspects of the titular landmark Supreme Court trial itself. None of the proceedings achieves the gravitas its filmmakers are hoping to attain. No actor in the ensemble, not Jon Voight nor Stacey Dash, is done any favors by this meandering script. It’s telling when Joey Lawrence may give the film’s best performance as a conservative law professor, certainly “whoa” casting in anyone’s universe. Freeze frames and jaw-dropping narration, songs that would seem routine in a Borat movie if not meant to literally shock, turgid line readings, music that makes Reefer Madness look understated and a systematic sequence of bewildering choices comprise a film that doesn’t meet the minimum bar. No doubt the creators of this film intended to expose the hypocrisy of those who oppose their view, and most certainly they will decry a liberal coterie lauding films like Never Rarely Sometimes Always and not giving this movie a separate but equal applause. But this film doesn’t do a great service to its agenda and certainly fails as cinema.
The ambition and creativity its original director intended before a family tragedy prompted him to eject from the helm of his 2017 version of his film are now on full display, as are the material’s flaws, in the 2021 remix of the DC superhero origins movie Zack Snyder’s Justice League (B). Told in six acts like a binge series in four-hour film form (the even numbered sections are best, by the way), this desaturated operatic opus reconstructs and recontextualizes the story of how Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman unite to bring back Superman and defeat an intergalactic villain. The R-rated reshuffling puts more focus and pathos on some of the younger cast members, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Ezra Miller as The Flash, yielding some freshness and fun amidst a rather epic canvas of reliable action film favorites. Most of the visual effects are glorious, some downright mythical, and there are some pretty compelling action set pieces even though the risks seem low with this breed of formidable fighters running the table. The solemn film’s zigzagging epilogue feels like a dozen plot threads in search of a next franchise. Overall the additional world building, newly rousing score and compelling clarifications don’t adequately make up for for a bifurcated focus and sometimes disjointed narrative that bogs down some of its subplots; but ultimately too much of a good thing is so much better than not enough of a mediocre one.
Here’s an excerpt from the P3 podcast in talks with Byron James about this year’s Academy Awards nominees.
Here’s a movie punch drunk on creativity in the service of characters experiencing the ultimate midlife crisis. Thomas Vinterberg’s Copenhagen-set Another Round (A-), aka Druk in Danish and En runda till in Swedish, centers on four middle-aged male teachers who, feeling their personal lives and classrooms have become stale and staid, hatch a deranged notion of elevating their blood alcohol levels on a regular basis to maintain a sense of greater creativity and relaxation. Their gamified mixology yields various consequences innocent and profound. Vinterberg’s skilled camerawork and deft writing give this tragicomic tale a spring in its step throughout, and he elicits profound performances from his quartet of stars. Mads Mikkelsen (who many Stateside will know as bond villain Le Chiffre) gets the showiest of roles as his bottled up zest is unleashed; he’s a master at playing this sad man making a gasp toward finding himself again. Although an unusual portal into its storytelling, the movie’s themes are universal. This is great gusto in filmmaking.
Available on Hulu