Underwater

This movie just jumps right into the action with minimal intro, so I’ll do the same with the write up (mostly cause breakfast is waiting for me when I’m done, then laser tag). Kristen Stewart is in deep–deep underwater. For some unknown (and mostly unimportant) reason, she works on a type of base that’s been set up on the deepest part of the ocean floor. Now the base is suddenly breaking apart, and she’s gotta find her way back to safety at the surface. And now, she can’t just take a swim.

So technically this film does take place deep underwater (oh, I get it now) but it felt like any disaster on a spaceship movie (Alien(s), Life, Sunshine, Gravity, and other single word titles). Basically it’s people wandering around an uninhabitable environment, confined to man made structures and faulty suits. The major difference being that since they were deep in the depths, you couldn’t always see clearly thru the murky water. Otherwise, if you hadn’t mentioned the water at all, I woulda guessed we were in a galaxy far away.

Does it sound like I’m not highlighting anything original? Cause there really wasn’t much to highlight. There was some suspense, but I just didn’t care. I wasn’t invested in the characters or the situation. In other words, there were no stakes for me. I’d zone out for a bit then return and yup we’re still underwater trying to get somewhere. Oh it’s been a while since someone died. Hmm, that one’s next. And yup they’re dead. Allow me to return to my Chris Evans fantasy in my head (no, he’s not in this).

For a January graveyard, if you’ve caught up on all the Oscar movies, you could do worse than this. But you could also do so much better.

Underwater – \m/ \m/ \n

Just Mercy

First movie of 2020.

We get a movie like this every year or so maybe. Someone is wrongfully accused of a crime and a lawyer with morals and conviction works hard for their freedom. Inspiration porn in the legal system. Pretty cookie cutter. But the reason so many of these cookies have been cut is that they can be very powerful. These people have stories worth telling, and they call for change that we absolutely need. This was another cookie.

The lawyer is Michael B Jordan, fresh outta law school with one goal in mind: get people off death row. The client is Jamie Foxx, convicted of killing a young white girl in Alabama even though the evidence to exonerate him is insurmountable. Throw in Brie Larson as Jordan’s partner, and here’s our movie.

It was basically what you’d expect. Nothing more, nothing less. Doesn’t make it any less powerful or the story less worthy. The lawyer, Bryan Stevensen, is a figure we should know. This man is doing God’s work. This is also possibly Jordan’s best work since Fruitvale Station. But at the end of the day, it’s still another courtroom drama to throw on the pile

Just Mercy – \m/ \m/ \m/ \n

Little Women

When I was a kid, I never went anywhere without a book. I mean, technically I still don’t because I’ve always got my Kindle in my bag, but as a kid I was actually pulling out those books and reading them everywhere. I can’t even put a number on how many chapters and pages and such I read. So of course, I got made fun of for it. We’d go to the Library every week, and I’d be exchanging one stack of books for another. Maybe one other kid would exchange one book they’d been carrying around for two months. There was only a small selection of children’s novels we could choose from. The largest book on the shelf (by a lot) was Little Women. “Oh you should read that one!” the kids would say to make fun of me. I don’t know why it was funny, but I guess they just thought I couldn’t do it, or something. So I did. I checked it out, read it, returned it soon after, and absolutely loved it. A year or two later, there was a program implemented where you’d take a test after reading a book and earn points for prizes. Guess what book was worth the most points? Yup, read it again, earned 36 points (as opposed to the 2 or 3 pointers that most others tackled). In junior high, the program came back, but counted towards your grade. Uh huh, another 36 points for me. I recently found it was free on Kindle so I’ve been rereading it for the first time in maybe 20 years. Still love it.

I actually was a tad apprehensive about this adaptation. It gets done so often ( wasn’t there a recent one with Maya Hawke?) Also, the ’94 Winona Ryder version is absolutely perfect. What could we possibly add to it? An A+ cast, maybe? But when you have such a strong list of names (Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl freaking Streep) there’s no room to be wowed. You know it’s gonna be amazing, and anything slightly below that insanely high bar is a disappointment. Turns out there is a bit of room to shake things up and give us a new take, but more on that in a second.

First of all, a word about the screening I went to. It was my last day back home in Texas. I have a Stardust friend in the general area who drove down to watch it with me. We chose the “afternoon tea” screening, which was the cutest thing. Three different servings of tea were given at key points in the film (supposedly key points, IDK that they really lined up) and there were traditional tea time snacks. Soda bread with fancy butter, cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwiches, strawberry cake and ice cream. Seriously, so cute. Anyways, on with the movie.

In case you’re not familiar with Little Women, it follows the four March sisters in Civil War era New England. We spend a year with the teenage girls as their father is off fighting the war, then we jump ahead a bit and see them beginning their lives as adults. Eldest Meg (Emma Watson) dreams of love and a little family. Youngest Amy (Florence Pugh) wishes to join high society. Next youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlon) is a quiet thing with a passion for music. And second eldest Jo (Saoirse Ronan), is our protagonist. An absolute tomboy who shrugs off the rules and dreams of being a writer.

The film was absolutely delightful. The first thing that stood out to me was that writer director Greta Gerwig took a nonlinear approach to the storytelling. I really liked it. Even in rereading the novel now, it feels very loosely tied together and we move from episode to episode. The way Gerwig wove bits of each period in the girls’ lives together made it feel much more coherent. I also appreciated that there were scenes that didn’t make the cut in ’94. Meg buying the expensive fabric, Beth playing piano for Mr Lawrence, more showcases for characters other than Jo (I think ’94 gave a lot of time to her storyline with Frederich). I loved rediscovering these scenes on screen, especially since they were so fresh from reading the book.

The cast of course was up to the task. Even if the characters only age a few years, you could always tell from how the women portrayed themselves where we were in the story. Espeically Florence Pugh. Now I’m still not sure that I buy that she was 12 years old (which is where Amy starts) but it was always absolutely clear if we were dealing with preteen Amy or young woman of society Amy based on how she carried herself.

The whole film had this feeling of warm and cozy chaos. It felt like you were looking in on a real family full of love and happiness. It was simply a delightful afternoon, sipping my tea, and spending time with the March sisters.

Little Women – \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/

Spies in Disguise

I only went to this movie to get outta the house for a couple hours. I’d been in Texas for a week, with only a couple days to go. As much as I loved sitting on the couch with Mom’s dog and my crochet, I could only take so much (esp when Mom was always hovering and talking nonstop). But since I’ve been on top of the new releases (including some early screenings back in LA) Spies in Disguise was really my only option. I’d sworn off seeing animated films just for the voice cast, and didn’t have too much interest, but I really wanted a milkshake from Drafthouse. In retrospect, I prolly coulda just gotten a milkshake elsewhere and brought it back to the couch.

Will Smith voices an animated Idris Elba as James Bond type of character who’s gotten himself into some trouble (really it’s cause of a dude with a robo arm that can make himself look like animated agent sexy). His only hope is a dweeby little techie idealist voiced by Tom Holland. Basic enough, yeah? Oh and did I mention that science nerd accidentally turns our super spy into a pigeon?

The whole thing was straightup kids stuff as expected. No meta humor like Lego or deeply emotional story like Pixar. Just something to keep the muchkins busy for two hours (I guess by this definition, I counted as a munchkin for the day). I didn’t find it particularly funny or clever, and except for really liking Holland’s character, I didn’t connect with the film. And that’s okay. This movie wasn’t made for me. It was made for the group of little ones sitting on the other end of the row that were laughing the entire time. It clearly has their approval. It doesn’t need mine.

Spies in Disguise – \m/ \m/

Cats

In the near decade of Christmases that it’s been just me and Mom, we’ve settled into one new tradition for ourselves. Christmas Eve, which is typically the bigger celebratory night in Mexican culture, we’ll venture out to the movies. It’s typically dead (again, bigger celebratory night). We’ll catch one of the last shows (which is in the 7:00 hour, they don’t even bother scheduling later). Because my inclinations towards the theatric comes from Mom, we’ll usually pick whatever musical is released that year. There’s always one at Christmas. Into the Woods, The Greatest Showman, Mary Poppins Returns. Pretty obvious pick for us. Well, this year, that pick was Cats. I was gonna see it either way, but I tried dissuading her from it. “It’s weird, there’s no plot, the special effects look strange”. But she knows the movies are my happy place, and before being subjected to a day full of extended family I barely know on Christmas Day, she insisted we still go out. And I’d already seen every other film playing at the local theaters (and even some that wouldn’t be out until the next few days). It’s no surprise that we were the only ones in the auditorium at 7:45 on Christmas Eve in Laredo Texas.

This adaptation was inevitable. Every year we get a new Broadway adaptation on film, and Cats is one of the most ubiquitous. It had a historically long run on the Great White Way, and it’s a staple of high school theatres. I’ve personally avoided it. Mostly because I like my musicals to have plot, and I know this one doesn’t. But I knew I’d see it at some point. My theory is that because this is so well known, we’re basically just getting it out of the way. People were always going to ask when it would be adapted. And even if it went full animation (as it prolly should have), people would still ask for a live action one. Because people are weird. So this was given to us, hopefully to be lost behind the hype of the new Star Wars, and every other incredible film we got this year, and then the subject could be dropped. Heh. Right.

As I said, there’s no real plot. A cat is abandoned in an alley and finds a group of similar felines. Tonight is a big night for them, it’s the Jellicle Ball (they’re apparently all Jellicle Cats, as they sing about for 8 minutes) which is when Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) will choose one cat in order to ascend to heaven or something. She chooses the cat based on their performance of a special song, unique to each of them. So in other words, it’s just an excuse for a bunch of different characters to sing about themselves in a totally nonsensical way. That varied cast of cats is why it’s so popular in high schools, because it can give many actors their own opportunity to shine. I assume it works well on stage, but it’s kinda weird on screen. At one point, Mom even turns to me and whispers “Are they all gonna just sing one at a time?” “Yup.”

Right so no real plot, very weird CGI with animated animal bodies and human faces. I’d been trying to explain this to an elderly friend of the family who was excited to see it. “Yeah the animation’s really weird” “But the makeup they do is so good, I want to see that” “It’s not makeup, it’s special effects” “I love the makeup!” “Ok, boomer”.

One of the reasons I love going to the movies alone is I don’t want to feel resonsible for whether or not my companion(s) enjoy it. I was on edge the first 15 min or so, wondering what Mom would say. The first number is kinda strange and drawn out, and it only gets slightly better from there. I heard some chuckles next to me. Then I heard what sounded like snoring. “Oh even better, she’ll sleep thru it” I thought. That was shortlived. But about 20 min in or so, while Victoria is twirling across the screen, I hear “I like her, she’s so cute”. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

Because here’s the thing, as I said, mom and I are theatre people. Once I realized she was going to be okay, I opted to imagine I was watching this on stage. I overlooked the weird animation and pictured what it’d look like with Broadway makeup. I let myself enjoy the music (hello Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber), and even moreso, the dancing. I hadn’t expected the beautiful ballet (“She’s so graceful!” Mom would later exclaim) and clever choreography. That’s what I chose to focus on.

Also, can we take a moment to appreciate Sir Ian McKellan. Yes, he’s in this, and he is absolutely the most committed kitty in the film. You would think he was performing Shakespeare, the way he embraced the role, and I love him for it. Other standouts include our newbie leading kitty Francesca Hayword, who I later learned was in the London Ballet (which makes total sense once you see her movement). Even covered in fur and whiskers, Jennifer Hudson can give me chills with her singing. I also liked Taylor Swift, mostly because I liked her song. I think if I were to be a Cat, I’d wanna be either Taylor’s Bombalurina, or mischievious twin Rumpleteaser. Those two numbers were highlights for me.

Look, I absolutely get the vitriol and confusion this film is getting. I am 100% in the minority of those that legitimately enjoyed this film (Mom is another part of that minority), but I don’t think this really should have been aimed at the masses. This is for a niche audience of theatre going folk who get what the film is going for. To everyone else, it’s an acid trip. Hell, it was hella trippy for me too, I just knew how to look past it.

Cats – \m/ \m/ \m/

Jumanji: The Next Level

First movie escape of the holiday season while down in Texas. I could not get myself down to Alamo Drafthouse soon enough to take a break from being home. This adventure would be a trip to Jumanji.

The first time we encountered Jumanji, it was a board game that inhabited the real world. The next time, it was a video game that some unwitting teenagers were sucked into. Now, it’s again a video game, but there’s more people and more characters and the game’s kinda broken. But it’s still the same thing. Survive the world, do a thing, scream “Jumanji”, back to reality.

With any sequel, your challenge is to make it feel fresh and new while still retaining what worked the first time around. Two things that they used to differentiate this film: glitchy game and more characters. The former worked fairly well, the latter no so much. It just got kinda weird that there were so many people (and a horse) and even a little confusing at times. We’d gotten used to certain avatars being specific characters and now they weren’t. Plus The Rock couldn’t quite pull off a Danny DeVito accent. It just didn’t work for me. I was inexplicably bored, and just could not get into this film (even though I was loving the pineapple fizz I was drinking)

What did work were the moments that mirrored those I loved the first time: namely when Jack Black and/or Karen Gillan were stealing the show. Gillian carried the first half as her character was the one taking charge in the jungle, and Black stole the second half after a much necessary course correction (Gillan leading was not the course that needed correcting).

It kills me to say, but this is the ultimate definition of an unnecessary sequel. It felt exactly the same, but the best parts were the ones most like the original. Why were we back in the Jungle? I will say there’s a mid-credit scene that teases a third installment that would be a different take. That’s prolly the movie we shoulda gotten here.

Jumanji: The Next Level – \m/ \m/

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve noticed that recently my excitement for Star Wars has waned. Between oversaturation and toxic fandom, it’s just harder to get really hyped up for it. Even Galaxy’s Edge turned out to be underwhelming for me. I kept on forgetting that Rise of Skywalker was coming out, the big conclusion to the current incarnation of the Wars. Compare that to Endgame where I was on pins and needles for a week, scared of any spoilers, training my bladder for the 3+ hour runtime, and generally unable to think about anything else. I hadn’t even planned on getting advanced SW tickets, was just gonna wing it week of with A list, except a friend had an extra ticket with his crew. Having seen it now, I think my enthusiasm levels were appropriate.

Right so resistance is fighting the bad guys, Kylo Ren is ascending up the evil ranks, Rey is becoming stronger in the force. There’s questions to be answered, light saber duels to be fought, space craft to blow up, and threads of Rian Johnson’s previoius installment to destroy. I found it all rather underwhelming.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it. There are some very happy surprises (cameos and throwbacks and easter eggs). I really do love Kylo’s arc. C3PO had some great show stealing moments. Rey is still one of the most badass characters in the galaxy. It just wasn’t the explosive finale I’d hoped for. Things were wrapped up all too neatly, without anything too unexpected. It was fun, just not very satisfying. Then again, that’s pretty much par for the course with me lately with this franchise.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – \m/ \m/ \m/

1917

I don’t typically care too much for war films. They just all kinda blur together without something truly special to differentiate themselves. Thinking about the few that I do love (Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, the first half of Full Metal Jacket), it’s usually some strong character work or other connection that brings me in. But there are so many classics new and old (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Dunkirk) that I just could not get into. I skipped the recent Midway with zero intention of ever seeing it. 1917 was only on my radar because it was coming up in awards conversations. Then a friend saw it and was excitedly exclaiming how it was one of the best movies of the year. The two of us are in agreement that this has been a very strong year, so that’s a bold statement. I was skeptical until he mentioned that the film was made to look like a single take (a la Birdman). We have our differentiator!

Yes 1917 is a WWI movie, but it’s such a micro story that it doesn’t feel like those sweeping epic war films that make my eyes glaze over. This focuses on two soldiers who are given a mission to cross enemy lines and deliver a message to a nearby company. It plays out in semi-real time, and yes, all looks like one continuous shot. Once the men are given their orders, the film takes off like a shot and it is non stop. If you haven’t seen a trailer yet, DON’T. I went in pretty cold and was on the edge of my seat the whole time, no idea what was gonna happen (said friend told me they could get some plot points based on the trailer). This was tension at its best.

From a technical standpoint, this probably is the best film this year. The filmmaking is absolutely masterful (as you would expect from director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins). Each shot lasted about 6 minutes, seamlessly editing into the next, following the men thru tight trenches or open expanses under enemy fire. It’s mind blowing what they accomplished, and I spent half the film just wondering how they did it and trying to find where the few cuts were. I was lucky enough to catch this at an early screening where Mendes and Deakins were in attendance (along with editor Lee Smith) for a Q&A following. They were talking about all the work and planning that went into shooting and how they put it all together, it was amazing.

There’s a few big names in the cast: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Hot Priest. Just know they’re only in one scene each. You really think someone in demand like them can commit to months and months of rehearsal and planning? But our two leads George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are astounding. If you’re like me, you’ll prolly spend much of the movie scratching your heads about where you’ve seen them before. Because you almost certainly have. And after 1917, you’ll know their names too.

1917 – \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/

Richard Jewell

In I, Tonya, there was a dude who stole a few scenes of the film as this really inept criminal. There was something about him. More than just ineptitude, but some depth lurking. The next year came BlacKkKlansman, and there he was again. Slightly bigger role. Same wheelhouse. Same hint at layers. Fast forward another year, and I spot him in a trailer, and he’s made a lead role out of this niche of his. The film is Richard Jewell and that actor is Paul Walter Hauser.

As you may know Richard Jewell was a security guard in Atlanta around the 1996 Olympics, and he discovered a bomb that was placed in the crowd. Because of his actions, the casualties were greatly reduced and many lives were saved. Unfortunately, he also fit the bomber profile all too well, and he became the target of the FBI investigation. This film follows him through that journey.

While the film was starting, I began to get very uncomfortable and anxious. This film was going to be very loaded, diving into some charged topics. The attacks against Jewell’s name were perpetrated by law enforcement and the media, so I didn’t know what the messaging around that was going to be. What was this film trying to say? Would it be something I wanted to hear? I calmed myself by focusing on the performances because ultimately, this is an actors’ film.

Sam Rockwell plays Jewell’s attorney. I’ve long loved him, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen him play a nice guy. I enjoyed every second he was on screen, but the true treasure was Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mom. She gave possibly the strongest performance in a film full of strong performances, and she reminded us that she’s still here and she’s still amazing.

And what of the man himself? He could more than hold his own against those Oscar winners. He took that niche he carved out and transformed it into a leading role, and he was more than capable of carrying the film. When a film is in Awards talk, I like for performances to have that moment or that scene that you could point to and say THAT’s where they won it. He had two or three of those moments.

My biggest gripe was that I did not like Olivia Wilde’s journalist character at all. Not just in the sense of she’s the villain so we don’t like her, but I cringed every time she was on screen. She actively made the film worse, by some combination of the writing and performance. We didn’t like Jon Hamm’s FBI character, but I still enjoyed watching him. His motivations and actions made sense. Hers were enough to pull me out of the film. But otherwise, a really strong an compelling film

Richard Jewell – \m/ \m/ \m/ \n

Black Christmas

Ooof this film killed my Fantasy Movie League this week, coming in so far under projections. It baffled me, until I actually saw it. I absolutely backed the wrong reindeer here.

This is a pretty straightfoward slasher movie that takes place on a college campus in the days leading up to Christmas break. Disappearances go unnoticed because people just assume they’re going home for the holidays. On top of that, there’s a take on college rape culture. Our protagonist was sexually assaulted a few years prior, and no one in authority believed her. The timing and victims of these disappearances seem to be related to some retaliatory acts she and her friends have taken.

The first half or so is watchable. Nothing too remarkable. The Christmas stuff (ie, stabbing someone with an icicle and leaving a snow angel on the ground) feels a little forced, but playful. The horror aspects were pretty basic though, nothing innovative at all. That’s fine. It’s marketed at the teens who can’t get into the R rated films, so it’s passable gateway horror.

And then there’s a reveal about how things are happening. And it’s dumb. I try to give films the benefit of the doubt and find the positives, and I just can’t figure out a way to spin this one. It completely lost me, and I couldn’t get out of that 90 minute film soon enough.

The other thing that really didn’t help the film was that it was trying way too hard to be woke. I say that as someone who is all about female empowerment. There were some good intentions and even some good moves (such as the song the girls sang at the frat), but it just felt like such a reach. Especially when said reveal was revealed, the whole thing felt very contrived. I want the film this was trying to be, not the one it actually was. Cause this was a total bummer.

Black Christmas – \m/ \m/