Week Ending 12/02/22
FYC season rundowns begin.
Thanksgiving weekend is when the majority of FYC (For Your Consideration) screeners hit my inbox and mailbox, so the rest of this year’s newsletters should be jam-packed. And since Substack won’t stop warning me that I’ve gone over the “email limit” for mirroring the below into your inbox, I apologize for the length. I’m working under the assumption one very long newsletter a week is better than multiple shorter ones clogging your notifications.
I’m more or less trying to hit titles in the order of their relevance to the current date whether it be that they’re hitting theaters, becoming available online, etc. That means pushing WOMEN TALKING back a couple weeks to hit BLACK ADAM instead. For better or worse, I figure I should talk about the ones everyone can see now before the ones you can’t. I may sprinkle some in anyway, though, as I’m anxious to finally watch many of those I missed at TIFF.
What I Watched:
ANDOR - Season 1
(now streaming on Disney+)
I’ve never been a huge STAR WARS guy. The original films were part of my childhood and I enjoyed the spectacle of seeing them on the big screen upon re-release, as well as attending the prequels, but Disney’s purchase for expanded universe IP earned little more than a shrug. Why? Because it was all the same. Skywalkers threatening and saving the galaxy. We’d seen it all before.
That’s why ROGUE ONE left a mark. Was it as good as the franchise’s best, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? Maybe. Maybe not. It felt fresh either way. Standalone in its action if not its mythology, it was a film dressed with the STAR WARS aesthetic rather than one more example proving STAR WARS is solely synonymous with characters born from George Lucas’ A NEW HOPE. So, it’s no surprise “fans” dislike ANDOR and say it’s not “STAR WARS.” And it’s no surprise it’s also the best thing to come from the series in forty years.
Credit Tony Gilroy and company for truly seeing what STAR WARS was always about. Not the Force, but the Struggle. The struggle for freedom from oppression. The war for justice and equality. While we championed heroes who arrived at the eleventh hour to wave their hands, the machine of rebellion turned and provided them the opportunity to become legends years before their arrival. That’s where the real drama is. The boots on the ground espionage setting the stage. And if ROGUE ONE whet that appetite, ANDOR gives it room to breathe. It shows us how a thief can be radicalized into becoming a hero without magic or pedigree. The people, no matter their origins, will rise.
Give us the gray area of “good” with Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthen damning his soul and sacrificing his allies to advance the mission. Give us the ambition of “evil” through Denise Gough’s pragmatic opportunist Meero and Kyle Soller’s impulsive opportunist Syril. Add sage wisdom (Fiona Shaw is a scene-stealer as always), gravitas (Andy Serkis supplies a wonderful arc), and tenacity (Genevieve O’Reilly and Faye Marsay might be my favorite characters of the whole as unlikely rebels) and there arise subplots and layers to this complex web that allow it to enthrall no matter who leads an individual scene, episode, or the show itself.
For his part, Diego Luna’s Cassian ultimately holds it together. He’s the catalyst, intentionally or not. He proves that the fight is always “ours” rather than “theirs” because it will arrive at “our” doorstep regardless of how far away it seemed beforehand. Every marvelous bit part (Kathryn Hunter’s delightful turn as Syril’s mother is a show-stopper) augments the heavy point-of-no-return atmosphere that a broken society builds until Cassian has no choice but to open his eyes to the truth: his participation was inevitable.
(now on VOD/Digital HD)
I did my best to go in blind with Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN and, for the most part, I succeeded. Besides knowing Justin Long was in it (which is something to know considering the first forty-two minutes of its one-hour-and-forty-two minute runtime end before he’s seen singing along to the radio in a red convertible), I sat back and waited for the chaos. Because it is chaos. Maybe not as crazy as I was led to believe, but definitely full of out-of-left-field twists and turns.
It needs them too considering everything starts rather generically as Tess (Georgina Campbell) and Keith (Bill Skarsgård) discover the owner of their Airbnb double-booked them. Is one of them a killer? Is there something else in the house? Has this whole ordeal been orchestrated by an outside party? Familiar questions with seemingly familiar answers until morning breaks.
I don’t want to say too much, but Tess exiting the property in the light of day brings just the first jarring revelation. Cregger is very interested in playing with our preconceptions and shielding details from view long enough to throw them in our face with a sharp cut. But even that isn’t the half of it—not when you still have a monster (Matthew Patrick Davis), overtaxed Detroit police, and misogyny to contend with. Delivering the latter’s messaging with comedy proves somewhat off-putting, but it does also help to keep us off-balance.
Does the whole ultimately end up being just another over-the-top horror film? Yes. I was hoping for something fresh rather than freshly disturbing, but I can’t argue I wasn’t entertained. Pick a messed up topic, take it to its most messed up extremes, and drop an innocent in the middle to see what happens. The formula brings nothing new to the table, but the packaging does enough to make you think it has.
Oh. And it will never not be funny that I had to go to Disney’s press site to get the above still. That’s what happens when you build a monopoly, I guess.
(now on VOD/Digital HD and in theaters)
I’ll never really get the hate for DC films. They’re objectively not great and almost without exception worse than most Marvel Cinematic Universe fare, but they’re also fun. You know. Like how comic books are fun. So, if you’re going to drag a movie like BLACK ADAM for no other reason than it’s not CITIZEN KANE, you better drag every MCU installment too. Be consistent. Gatekeep-y, but consistent.
That’s not to say Dwayne Johnson’s anti-hero’s origin tale doesn’t have its issues. How could it not when the studio didn’t even want to give the character a standalone until he demanded it from them? So, rather than debut in SHAZAM!, the IP sat on the shelf. Zach Snyder’s dour-verse ended. James Gunn’s irreverence was introduced. And BLACK ADAM was born in the middle. If anything, it should have been an unmitigated disaster.
I assumed it would be that by the word of mouth I’d heard. I assumed they’d be milking the whole “is he a hero or villain” thing until the Justice Society became the real bad guys. But that wasn’t the case. They let the conflict be Teth Adam’s alone. Which path would he choose? Hawkman, Dr. Fate, and company were merely there to keep him in check so the people of Kahndaq could help him decide. Jaume Collet-Serra was there to provide a steadying hand like he has during an underrated career of memorable b-movie diversions.
The Rock is really good in the film—the straight-man-out-of-time opposite everyone else’s know-it-alls. Aldis Hodge and Pierce Brosnan lend legitimacy. Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell lend comic relief. And Sarah Shahi and Bodhi Sabongui lend heart. Add Mohammed Amer’s perfectly timed gags and it’s difficult not to sit back and enjoy the ride. Because it never tries to be more than it is: the origin tale of a superentity that toes the line. Not because he might be evil. Because good isn’t always enough to defeat evil alone.
BONES AND ALL
(now in theaters)
“Never eat an eater.” That’s the advice Sully—the creepy, talks about himself in the third person, wannabe mentor played with panache by Mark Rylance—gives eighteen-year-old Maren upon smelling her from miles away. She had always thought she was the only one who craved human flesh. The only biological cannibal who simply could not control her urges. Sully’s fateful appearance proves otherwise, preparing her for a coming-of-age adventure unfit for happy endings.
Based on Camille DeAngelis’ acclaimed novel, BONES AND ALL follows Taylor Russell’s Maren on a cross-country journey to find the mother who left before she could remember. Now that her father (André Holland) has followed suit, unable to keep protecting her when she slips and unable to turn her into the police, this teen has nowhere to go but back to the beginning to try and figure out how to move forward.
Luca Guadagnino’s film (adapted by frequent collaborator David Kajganich) works best when it focuses on that quest. Strip away the high-concept horror conceit and this is a poignant search for identity. Unfortunately, however, that conceit is also the draw and thus requires to be taken with the utmost earnestness to the point where it’s practically screaming, “Monsters deserve love too!” I get it. It’s as much a part of this template as anything else, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel goofy the moment Maren finds that love with Timothée Chalamet’s Lee.
Both leads are very good. Rylance steals the show with his own fight for love and the destructive nature of being without for too long. And Michael Stuhlbarg, Chloë Sevigny, and, yes, director David Gordon Green lend some unforgettable cameos. The gore is subdued with most violence off-screen after the first couple bites or knife slashes (until the climax, which proves much bloodier) and the romance’s heart is surprisingly pure. I just wish I didn’t constantly have to wonder if every other scene wouldn’t have been better as straight farce.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE CAMPBELLS
(now in limited release and streaming on AMC+)
Leave it to Vince Vaughn to take the well-worn tropes of your usual Hallmark Christmas movie and drag them through the sex-crazed innuendo of a horny teenager growing up in the 1990s.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE CAMPBELLS, co-written and produced by the actor, is pretty much exactly that. Brittany Snow’s Jesse dodges a bullet when Alex Moffat’s Shawn breaks up with her days before the holiday (to help facilitate a new opportunity for “bigger and better” in NYC), but his parents (Julia Duffy and George Wendt) decide to invite her to their quaint little town to celebrate anyway because they consider her part of the family. She meets their rugged nephew David (Justin Long speaking in hokum metaphors Elaine Benes would have written for the J. Peterman Catalog) and starts falling in love just when Shawn suddenly appears unannounced.
It plays out exactly how you’d think, complete with JoAnna Garcia Swisher’s Becky diverting both men’s eyes with her “tasty treats.” Jesse gets to hear everyone air their dirty sex laundry; Duffy and Wendt are forced to say “purple drank,” “lean,” and “sizzurp” unironically in the same sequence (when not talking about their overactive libidoes); and we’re reminded how some people will never understand that comedic trends evolve.
(now in theaters)
It’s not easy to tell stories centering a relationship between a Black man and a white man wherein the former is constantly having to teach the latter how not to fly so far beyond anti-racism that he starts adopting the role of white savior as an identity trait. It’s difficult because such depictions can’t help but come off as pandering no matter how earnest the delivery or true to life the events. That director J.D. Dillard and stars Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell are able to allow DEVOTION to speak from the heart despite this reality says volumes.
Majors plays Jesse L. Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy's basic flight training program—an extraordinary feat considering the gauntlet of racially-motivated challenges his character describes throughout the film. Powell plays his wingman Tom Hudner, a Lieutenant transferring into his squadron shortly before they are deployed for real action. None of them have been to “the show” before. Too young to fight in WWII, they wondered if they’d ever do more than drills and exercises when the Korean War begins. They prove up to the task.
While the firefights are obviously a draw in a blockbuster such as this, DEVOTION is never better than when it dials things back to portray the dynamics behind the scenes. Whether an impromptu invite to a party at the behest of Elizabeth Taylor or small moments such as Jesse discovering his impact with old acquaintances (Joseph Cross’ ‘Alabama’ Ward) or the Black navalmen on his aircraft carrier who see him as a hero in the sky, Majors shows off his expansive range alongside a never better Powell. The drama can get pretty heavy-handed and expose just how sanitized and corny Hollywood productions are compared to grittier indies, but the emotional impact at its back is undeniable.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY
(now streaming on Amazon Prime)
Ryan White’s GOOD NIGHT OPPY is a cute look back at the lifespan of rovers Spirit and Opportunity. From the initial planning phase (ten years of NASA declining Steve Squyres’ proposals only to have them finally accept when piggybacking onto another mission), to two years of construction and logistical problem solving, to their extended period of life on Mars (the planned 90 days reaching over 5000). It displays the feat of ingenuity and imagination mankind possesses.
The CGI reenactments were a bit uninspiring to me at first, but the film eventually (better late than never) starts using sequences where the picture is built by the black and white images Opportunity took before seamlessly transitioning to the color Industrial Light and Magic footage. They weren’t therefore just arbitrary animated sequences. They were grounded in the data to approximate what the robot experienced.
The whole is informative and easy to follow (the subjects mention how the adventure of it all was crucial to giving NASA a way to attract new generations without getting bogged down by the science). The structure is conventional yet smooth. And the bits where those involved in the project humanize the machines and compare them to their own lives and family members are touching.
It’s a solid documentary that bridges education with entertainment without really concerning itself with trying to do anything extra for success.
(now in limited release and on VOD/Digital HD)
Someone has finally made a pandemic film that both taps into the universal fear of the moment and the unshakeable sense of futility felt by those of us who have yet to accept the lie that it’s over. Andy Mitton’s THE HARBINGER wields COVID as a literal and figurative foe. His characters are living through quarantine and doing everything they can to ensure their bodies remain free of the virus physically, but their minds are also being infiltrated by a different invisible danger.
It’s so simple and yet so profound: our collective wish to not be forgotten. That’s what has Emily Davis’ Mavis so shaken. Enough that she calls her old college roommate (Gabby Beans’ Monique) for help when it seems her fate has already been sealed. Because, in many respects, it has. The instant our government decided that the economy was more important than human lives was the instant we forgot all those who had already been killed while also ignoring all those that still are. If their absence wasn’t enough to take notice, they might as well have never existed at all.
That’s what the titular antagonist here strives to make happen. He enters Mavis and Monique’s minds to hijack their dreams until the nightmare outside and the nightmare inside can no longer be separated. It leads to some well-orchestrated scenes of terror and despair since even the bright spots of hope can be rendered as nothing but red herrings meant to sink his claws deeper. We want to believe there are some people we simply cannot forget, but a quick glimpse around my local grocery store to see no one wearing a mask proves the opposite.
Davis is great as the catalyst—her fear palpable enough to transfer the “idea” of this monster to her old friend. And Beans carries the film with a strength of resolve built upon crucial yet organic exposition that’s able to show why she can be the one to finally take him down. Except, of course, that nobody is immune. Tell someone everything is okay and they’ll breathe a sigh of relief right up until the moment they realize it never actually was. By then it’s too late.
LOWNDES COUNTY AND THE ROAD TO BLACK POWER
(now in limited release and on VOD/Digital HD)
“The dash makes all the difference.” It’s a great line that epitomizes Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard’s documentary LOWNDES COUNTY AND THE ROAD TO BLACK POWER because of what that place meant both to the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and the civil rights movement itself. Right there in the middle was “Bloody Lowndes”—a place that was 80% Black with 0 registered Black voters. It was the “dash” between cities and ground zero for the evolution of a nationwide struggle for racial equality.
Using fantastic archival footage (so good that the filmmakers make a point to single out Jack Willis by name before the end credits to give thanks), a ton of new interviews with people who were there on the ground in the 60s, and informative context from historians, the story of how this county came together to fight for its own justice enthralls from the first scene. These are proud people who realized the ego of so-called outside “leaders” wasn’t going to be enough. As Ella Baker said, “Strong people don't need strong leaders.”
There’s a propulsive energy to the whole with plenty of smiles and laughs in the recounting of stories about Stokely Carmichael (his SNCC helped organize and bolster the fight already being waged in Lowndes) or the realization that tilting the scales meant running for office as well as voting for it. Between the origin of the Black Panther logo (in response to the National Democrats of Alabama having a white rooster with the words “White Supremacy for the Right”) and the first-hand accounts of just what Lowndes was up against, the film enriches that which we know in generic terms with the specificity only lived-in experience can provide.
(now in limited release; hits VOD/Digital HD December 9)
“That dry humor keeps us invested while also lulling us to sleep before genial smiles inevitably turn into cold-blooded smirks. And it culminates with a finale as satisfyingly cathartic as it is diabolically open-ended, thanks to Günther’s unyielding naivete.”
- Full review at The Film Stage.
(now on VOD/Digital HD and in theaters)
It will never cease to amaze me that Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Between the black and white photos (intentionally meant to distort time) and the way in which the Civil Rights movement is taught (or not taught thanks to the white supremacist machinations of the Republican Party banning talk of injustice under the intentionally vague and politicized umbrella of Critical Race Theory), it’s easy to get confused and ultimately fool yourself into believing the world might ever be a better place.
Bringing Chinonye Chukwu’s TILL to theaters in 2022 is therefore important. Not only must we be reminded of what happened—as well as Mamie Till-Mobley’s subsequent bravery in ensuring the world saw what Money, Mississippi did to her son—but we must also be aware that her fight to help pass a law to declare lynching a hate crime didn’t end until March. March 2022. Sixty-seven years later. Nineteen years after her own death in 2003.
By presenting Emmett’s story (joyfully portrayed by Jalyn Hall) through his mother’s eyes (I don’t see any scenario where Danielle Deadwyler doesn’t get an Oscar nomination as her performance as Mamie is breathtaking), we can better understand the duality of life that continues today for America’s Black population. It’s one thing to portray a teenager who doesn’t know better making a mistake. It’s another to portray his parent’s fear in knowing how that mistake could unfathomably cost his life.
The whole might be conventional on its surface insofar as how it presents the facts of what occurred before, during, and after its farce of a trial, but there’s nothing generic about the emotional weight at its back. From Deadwyler to John Douglas Thompson to Keisha Tillis to the children—there’s power in their reactions and reason why so much of the film depicts them as opposed to what sparks their reactions. Chukwu is intentionally centering the Black experience with every frame. We need only see the pain inflicted and the strength to endure it. Just like Mamie with her son’s body, TILL ensures we cannot look away.
Cinematic F-Bomb -
Here’s a fun one from THE 6TH DAY. Love that final zoom. (Substack apparently can’t handle an embedded gif, so you’ll have to click over for a smoother experience. Or see everything at cinematicfbombs.com.)
New Releases This Week:
(Review links where applicable)
Opening Buffalo-area theaters 12/02/22 -
AN ACTION HERO at Regal Elmwood
HIT: THE 2ND CASE at Regal Elmwood
MEET ME IN THE BATHROOM with select times at North Park Theatre
THE QUINTESSENTIAL QUINTUPLETS MOVIE with select times at North Park Theatre, Regal Galleria & Quaker Crossing
VIOLENT NIGHT at Dipson Amherst & Flix; AMC Maple Ridge & Market Arcade; Regal Elmwood, Transit, Galleria, Niagara Falls & Quaker Crossing
Streaming from 12/02/22 -
DARBY AND THE DEAD - Hulu on 12/2
FIREFLY LANE - Netflix on 12/2
LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER - Netflix on 12/2
MY UNORTHODOX LIFE - Netflix on 12/2
SCROOGE: A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Netflix on 12/2
SEAN PATTON: NUMBER ONE - Peacock on 12/2
SR. - Netflix on 12/2
WARRIORS OF THE FUTURE - Netflix on 12/2
THE KINGDOM: EXODUS - “The Congress Dances” - MUBI on 12/4
UNDER THE STARS - HBO Max on 12/4
THE BOSS BABY: CHRISTMAS BONUS - Netflix on 12/6
DELIVERY BY CHRISTMAS - Netflix on 12/6
SEBASTIAN MANISCALCO: IS IT ME? - Netflix on 12/6
BLANK NARCISSUS (PASSION OF THE SWAMP) - MUBI on 12/7
BURNING PATIENCE - Netflix on 12/7
THE MARRIAGE APP - Netflix on 12/7
THE ELEPHANT WHISPERERS - Netflix on 12/8
IN BROAD DAYLIGHT: THE NARVARTE CASE - Netflix on 12/8
Now on VOD/Digital HD -
ALMA’S RAINBOW (11/29)
EMERGENCY DECLARATION (11/29)
“The plane is in danger. It can't land until a plan to alleviate that danger is made on the ground. Everything that occurs reinforces those two truths. Even so, it's never boring.” - Full review at The Film Stage.
PLEASE BABY PLEASE (11/29)
THE HARBINGER (12/1)
Thoughts are above.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE CAMPBELLS (12/2)
Thoughts are above.
DAVE STEVENS: DRAWN TO PERFECTION (12/2)
THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER (12/2)
FOUR SAMOSAS (12/2)
LOWNDES COUNTY AND THE ROAD TO BLACK POWER (12/2)
Thoughts are above.
From the press kit archive:
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