Premise: Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead can be seen as a homecoming of sorts for the filmmaker. After years of dark and gloomy comic book adaptations (from a moody Man of Steel to a CrossFit Batman), Snyder’s latest film is his first original IP and non-superhero film since Sucker Punch in 2011. It’s also his second ever zombie apocalypse movie since his directorial debut, Dawn of the Dead in 2004. But even the good-will gained from the surprisingly refreshing Snyder Cut of Justice League earlier this year (and the noticeable absence of a lot of Snyder’s more distracting director traits), Army of the Dead still falls short of what it could have been.
Premise: A father and daughter are on their way to dance camp when they spot the girl’s best friend on the side of the road. When they stop to offer the friend a ride, their good intentions soon result in terrible consequences.
Welcome to the Blumhouse. Based on a 2015 German film, Canadian thriller The Lie begins with Kayla (Joey King) killing her best friend Britney en route to a ballet retreat. Kayla’s father Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) decides to help cover up the crime and soon thereafter Kayla’s mother (and Jay’s ex-wife) Rebecca (Mireille Enos) is brought into the fold. Together the estranged family must protect Kayla from the authorities and Britney’s father (Cas Anvar), whose mounting frustration with the lack of answers as to the whereabouts of Britney becomes more and more threatening.
Premise: This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Midnight Sky, tells of a world evacuated and a dying man keeping the light on to notify the last remnants of humanity. Unfortunately, what could have been a thought-provoking exploration of regret and isolation ultimately turns into a piecemeal rehash of genre and wilderness survival elements that were done much better in the films from which Clooney draws inspiration. He forsakes exposition in favor of needless ambiguity that leads to a payoff lacking the emotional resonance the film desperately needs. What’s left is a hollow and joyless expedition into the last days of Earth that’s devoid of any real intrigue.
Premise: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the energy of watching a stage production that’s morphed effortlessly onto film. This isn’t an easy accomplishment by any stretch and the fact that it’s pulled off so brilliantly here is a testament to George C Wolfe’s direction and overall vision for the film. The way the camera swings through sharp and incisive dialogue spoken between multiple characters in a green room gives the film a fluidity that can only be matched by seeing a stage performance. The camera commandeers the drama and makes it feel like the film itself is a ride through the interpersonal spats and ambitions of the characters without letting up. In terms of pacing, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is spectacular.
Fail Safe (1964)
Premise: A technical malfunction sends American planes to Moscow to deliver a nuclear attack. Can all-out war be averted?
Sidney Lumet’s classic political thriller Fail Safe is a masterpiece of tension and horrific verisimilitude. The film boasts a remarkable cast of characters played to wonderful effect by talented actors like Henry Fonda, Fritz Weaver, and Walter Matthau, to name a few. What is most striking (no pun intended) about Fail Safe is the manner in which the events and philosophical debates play out. Fail Safe uses an intense situation as a backdrop to address the fear of communism and “the other” head on. It also works overtime to depict a world where the people in charge of nuclear superpowers are human and fallible creatures. This creates an immersion like no other and a sense of unease that still hits home decades after its release.
Totally Under Control (2020)
Premise: An in-depth look at how the United States government handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak during the early months of the pandemic.
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s “shot in secret” film about the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps one of the most important documentaries to come out in the months since the outbreak and the weeks before the 2020 election. Totally Under Control does not aim to present a clear Republicans vs Democrats narrative of the way the US bungled its pandemic response. Instead, Gibney and his team present a compelling and infuriating view of Donald Trump’s antagonistic relationship to science. Totally Under Control paints a vivid picture of how the anti-science views of the Trump administration has contributed to the deaths of over 214,000 Americans and climbing. Continue reading
76 Days (2020)
Director: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Screenwriter: Hao Wu
Producers: Hao Wu, Jean Tsien
Executive Producers: Bryn Mooser, Roberto Grande, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Naja Pham Lockwood
Premise: On January 23rd, 2020, China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, to combat the emerging COVID-19 outbreak. Set deep inside the frontlines of the crisis, “76 Days” tells indelible human stories of the healthcare workers and patients who struggle to survive the pandemic with resilience and dignity.
As we live through a crisis that seems to only be exacerbated by misinformation and vitriolic political spats spilling out from social media and onto the streets, it is far too easy to lose perspective. Fortunately, 76 Days provides perspective a lot of people desperately need in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a harrowing documentary that will refocus your attention past the asinine entitlement of anti-maskers and the ludicrously dangerous contingent of Americans who cry hoax at every mention of the disease that has killed over 214,000 Americans as of this writing. What 76 Days achieves through its fly on the wall documenting is to put human faces on the superheroic actions of healthcare workers. It does so with dignity and grace as we watch medical staff in a Wuhan hospital try to stem the flood of horror at their doorstep and the emotional toll it takes on them.
Song Without a Name (2019)
Director: Melina León
Screenwriters: Melina León, Michael J. White
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas
Premise: Based on harrowing true events, “Song Without A Name” tells the story of Georgina, an indigenous Andean woman whose newborn baby is whisked away moments after its birth in a downtown Lima clinic – and never returned. Stonewalled by a byzantine and indifferent legal system, Georgina approaches journalist Pedro Campas, who uncovers a web of fake clinics and abductions – suggesting deep, rotting corruption in Peru.
Song Without a Name, the gorgeously shot debut feature from Melina León, tells the heart wrenching story of a mother searching for her newborn baby and the journalist who’s determined to help her. Set among the turbulence of armed conflict in late 1980s Peru, the film is harrowing in the way it compartmentalizes its drama into the character of Georgina and establishes the horrific journey she has ahead of her. Lonely journalist Pedro also has his own painful arc to contend with as he works to uncover what happened to Georgina’s child. The two characters’ arc intertwine and land a little differently, but the message and tragedy of Song Without a Name plays on.
All for My Mother (2019)
Narrative Feature/US Premiere
Director: Małgorzata Imielska
Screenwriter: Małgorzata Imielska
Cast: Zofia Domalik, Maria Sobocińska, Jowita Budnik
Premise: Olka is seventeen years old. For years, she had been looking for her mother. Her constant escapes from the orphanage landed her in a reformatory. She only wants her mother back.
All for My Mother, Małgorzata Imielska’s debut feature out of Poland, is largely comprised of hardships and trauma that befall the lead character Olka. Through her experience in a reformatory with other troubled teens who wish her harm, to a temporary stay with a couple who aren’t as warm and welcoming as they seem, Olka has one simple goal in mind: to reunite with her mother. That’s all she consciously desires, yet it’s not what she truly needs or yearns for beneath the surface. What Olka truly craves is acceptance and a sense of belonging. She is desperate for the stability of family and the journey she finds herself on makes for a heartbreaking and emotional ride. It’s a ride that includes frequent stops as the path she follows becomes more bleak and dour the further she goes.
In Case of Emergency (2020)
Director: Carolyn Jones
Cast: Cathlyn Robinson, Galina Chavez, Jennifer Hanks, Sheryl Hurst, Rabih Saad
Premise: Follows emergency nurses and their patients in seven unique settings across the U.S from urban to rural, shedding light on some of the biggest health care crises facing Americans today
The type of person who works in the chaotic and unpredictable world of Emergency Department medical care has long been something I’ve deeply admired. I simply don’t know how people can harness the amount of emotional strength and the resilience it takes to thrive in that environment day after day. Carolyn Jones’ documentary In Case of Emergency showcases that strength and resilience while also humanizing the profession. Continue reading
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Premise: What was intended to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into a violent clash with police and the National Guard. The organizers of the protest—including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale—were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot and the trial that followed was one of the most notorious in history.
Kicking off this crazy and horrid year’s awards season offerings is writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s solid historical courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7. In telling the story of the notorious trial following riots that broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Sorkin holds a mirror to our country’s continuing fight for social justice while keeping his camera focused on the historical struggle he’s depicting. Chicago 7 has a lot to say and is a confident entry in Sorkin’s still young directorial career. However, while it is a marked improvement over his directorial debut Molly’s Game, Sorkin seems to still be finding his footing behind the camera.
Premise: A large mining accident sets loose prehistoric insects and giant pterosaurs on Japan.
Ishiro Honda’s Rodan certainly lacks some of the character and subtext from some of his other Kaiju films. But that’s not to say it is a bad film by any means. The rise of the pterodactyl-esque creatures and giant insects to wreak havoc on the citizens of Japan make for an engaging monster movie with some surprising (or not so surprising, given Honda’s pedigree) imagery. With each act of Rodan offering nearly its own movie premise, this creature feature is one that offers plenty of action, if nothing else. Continue reading
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Premise: A typhoon washes ashore a gigantic egg. It’s soon claimed by greedy entrepreneurs who refuse to return it to its rightful owner, Mothra. Soon Godzilla arises near Nagoya, washed ashore by the same typhoon.
In the aftermath of an intense typhoon, an enormous egg and a strange, radioactive piece of debris are discovered. Capturing the attention of Japanese citizens, the objects naturally kick off a tale of greed and a gargantuan fight of finders vs keepers. It all leads to a fight for the ages as Godzilla takes on Mothra!
Enola Holmes (2020)
Premise: When Enola Holmes (Sherlock’s teen sister) discovers her mother missing, she sets off to find her, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right as she outwits her famous brother and unravels a dangerous conspiracy around a mysterious young Lord.
Based on the YA series of books by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes is a solid period adventure with aspirations for a franchise. Those aspirations are warranted by the performance of Millie Bobby Brown as the titular Enola, sister of the famed Sherlock. Brown’s talent and range continues to impress as she simultaneously does narrative heavy lifting through fourth wall breaking monologues and carries the film’s sense of fun and adventure. The end result is a solid vehicle for the gifted young actress and a fun mystery.
Premise: A giant, ancient moth begins to attack Japan when coming to the rescue of its two, foot-tall worshippers who were taken by shipwreck survivors.
Mothra, a giant moth monster, made her entrance into the kaiju scene in her eponymous 1961 film directed by Ishiro Honda. The queen of the monsters’ debut on film is a lackluster one, unfortunately. There are impressive scenes of monster chaos to be found in the film’s last act, but the road to that destruction is paved with uninteresting characters and a plot line that, for the most part, plays like a lazy riff on 1933’s King Kong.