Premise: A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil.
How refreshing is it to finally see a Disney live-action film with some real style to it? Far too often with their live-action remakes, the end result works as an adaptation, but fails to make a convincing argument for its own existence. Beauty and the Beast looked great but was essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the animated classic. The same goes for The Lion King and Mulan. This time around, Disney had the good sense to forego the same route with 101 Dalmatians and explore an origin story by focusing on that film’s memorable villain.
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.
A zombie Siberian tiger. An undead corpse’s microwaved hand. A needle-drop of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Sean Spicer. All of this – and so much more – are part of the lunacy and silliness that we have to look forward to with writer-director Zack Snyder’s newest film Army of the Dead. A master of opening credit sequences, Snyder includes a moment with a paratrooper dropping into a horde of zombies, where the parachute envelopes the screen, splattered with blood. The image is undoubtedly striking, but try to parse out the logic of the sequence, and your head will surely explode. Much like Snyder’s earlier 2021 release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and the majority of his filmography, the film continues to establish the director’s legacy of creating memorable images that reveal themselves to be fairly hollow upon further scrutiny.
Premise: David desperately tries to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife. They both agree to see other people but David struggles to grapple with his wife’s new relationship.
With a title like The Killing of Two Lovers, you’d be forgiven if you were to go into it expecting a more violent drama. But director, screenwriter, and editor Robert Machoian has more on his mind than surface-level passion. Namely the slow and painful disintegration of a marriage, and everyone that gets sucked into its wake. Machoian’s film uses many impressive tricks and techniques to sell the ideas he’s working towards, but the film could ultimately be polished more in its shadings of some of the secondary characters.
Premise: A stowaway on a mission to Mars sets off a series of unintended consequences.
When a company like Netflix resolves to release at least one film per week in a given year, it remains harder and harder for any single film to stand out amongst the pack. For every Mank or The Irishman or Mudbound, there’s a hundred more films that serve as glorified filler material, taking up the same amount of bandwidth on the platform and competing for the same space in our ever-dwindling attention spans. Stowaway manages to hold its own in spite of all of this, and becomes a well-intentioned, character-based space drama.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Premise: Zack Snyder’s definitive director’s cut of Justice League. Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.
The internet can, on very rare occasions, be used as a force for good in the world. In 2017, Disney pulled the insufferable short film Olaf’s Frozen Adventure from Coco’s screenings after audiences voiced their overwhelmingly negative reactions. In 2019, Paramount re-tooled Sonic the Hedgehog after fans recoiled in horror at the reveal of the titular character’s look. And now, 4 years after its initial release, Warner Bros. has caved to its fans and released the long-fabled “Snyder cut” of Justice League.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)
Premise: Bill O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panther Party per FBI Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover. As Party Chairman Fred Hampton ascends, falling for a fellow revolutionary en route, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul
I couldn’t help but think of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote from his 1962 novel “Mother Night” while watching Judas and the Black Messiah: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut’s protagonist secretly worked to undermine the Nazis while still wearing the uniform, but was publicly and privately chastised for the rest of his life because of it. The novel, along with director Shaka King’s newest film Judas and the Black Messiah, brings to light an interesting moral conundrum: will we ultimately be remembered for our contributions to a cause, or our best intentions that we keep under the surface?
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)
Premise: Two teens who live the same day repeatedly, enabling them to create the titular map.
Filmmakers tend to take on projects in familiar genres for one of two reasons: One could be to explore a previously untapped or underutilized element of the genre. The other could be to put their own personal spin on the material. Martin Scorcese explored the long-lasting effects of the typically short-lived life of crime in The Irishman. Ryan Coogler imprinted the Black experience on Black Panther. Even last year, the time-loop genre went through a reinvention of sorts with Palm Springs. I’m not saying that the release of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is hindered by its proximity to Palm Springs; rather, it’s that it has hardly anything new to say, in a genre with fairly limited breathing room to begin with.
Premise: An ex-convict strikes up a friendship with a boy from a troubled home.
Many elements of AppleTV+’s Palmer will probably seem familiar to many of its viewers, but the film still does offer some redeeming qualities. Fortunately, director Fisher Stevens imbues the film with enough heart, and fills the cast with capable actors from top to bottom, to get past any glaring issues. Stevens, primarily a documentarian behind the lens, makes the film feel like a real place, populated with real people, rather than mouthpieces trying to get an agenda across. Too often we take for granted that aspect of movie-making, and here it’s one more feather in Palmer‘s cap.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
- Athlete A
- Bad Education
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
- I Used to Go Here
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Let Them All Talk
- The Nest
- Palm Springs
- Sound of Metal
- Yes, God, Yes
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: A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
It’s been 6 years in the US since the latest film from Japanese master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, which means that the animation world (and yours truly) has been sorely lacking an animated film with enough style and heart to break through the candy-coated onslaught of Disney and Pixar films.
Let Them All Talk (2020)
Premise: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.
The title of director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film feels less like a thematic summation and more like a way to describe Soderbergh’s method of approaching his subject matter. Filmed almost entirely aboard a cruise ship as it makes its way from New York to Southampton, the script reportedly consisted of minimal outlines from scene to scene, and the actors were left to improvise the rest. Soderbergh, who has made a habit lately of experimenting behind the scenes by filming entire movies on iPhones, may have finally found a gimmick that meshes successfully with his sensibilities. Of course, a film with no script can only be buoyed by the performances of its cast, and Let Them All Talk is brimming with talented actors.
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.
Sound of Metal (2020)
Premise: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
I had an optometrist appointment several years ago, in which I was told by the end of it that my vision in my right eye was slightly worse than my left. Naturally, the diagnosis wasn’t ideal, but, considering my work as a photographer, the development left me even more worried. As most photographers do, I primarily use my right eye to look through the viewfinder while using my camera. How could I continue on as a photographer if I couldn’t see the pictures I wanted to take?
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.