Recent Movie Marathon: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Title: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Likely Story | Projective Testing Service

This surreal film (from the writer of Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others) begins with a young woman’s (Jessie Buckley) internal monologue where she considers breaking up with her boyfriend of seven weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). The pair are driving through an increasingly strong snow storm where she will meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time.

The woman notices some odd things but misses quite a few more that are readily apparent to the viewer. There are time jumps, characters age and grow younger, people change clothing, and everyone acts erratically. The woman is referred to be various names and is said to work at very different jobs but only rarely seems to notice this herself. And to add to the oddity, the movie is intercut with scenes of a janitor (Guy Boyd) cleaning a high school, later revealed to be Jake’s alma mater.

Metaphorically, this movie may work as exploring the unreality of the woman going through the motions of meeting her boyfriend’s parents when she’s already planning to dump him. It also captures that eerie experience of visiting a partner’s home town, family home, school, etc. and the feeling that it’s like visiting a museum of their past. But as the movie goes on, the underlying message feels like it could be something else entirely. In fact, the characters could just be memories or a dream or a hallucination (this last thought reinforced by a bizarre homage to A Beautiful Mind) of someone, perhaps the janitor.

I like weird movies but this one is a bit too slow moving and precious for its own good, so it’s merely a good thing to watch once and say “Huh?” rather than to dive in with revisits. But the strong acting performances and surreal cinematography do make that one watch worthwhile.

Rating: ***

Recent Movie Marathon: To the Stars (2020)

Title: To The Stars
Release Date: April 24, 2020
Director: Martha Stephens
Production Company: Northern Lights Films | Foton Pictures | Rockhill Media | Prowess Pictures | Bending Light

Iris (Kara Hayward of Massachusetts and Moonrise Kingdom fame) is a shy and unpopular teenage in rural Oklahoma in the early 1960s. A new girl in town, Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), helps Iris fight off bullies, and unimpressed by the popular girls at the school, gradually befriends Iris. While they don’t discuss it, they both come from abusive families, and neither seems to be interested to the conventional lifestyles of their peers.

The movie is good in that it provides an honest depiction of a female friendship. But the movie is also slow-moving. Worst of all, while it doesn’t fully embrace the “bury your gays” trope, because no LGBT characters die, all of the lesbian characters are driven away from town so that only a straight character can speak for them. The movie does have some good acting from the two leads, and makes some beautiful film from the bleak Oklahoma landscape. But ultimately this movie has ambitions toward profoundness that it fails to fulfill.

Rating: **1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Soul

Title: Soul
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

The latest film from Pixar continues the studio’s exploration of the liminal space between life and other planes of existence begun in Coco and Onward. The movie is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a high school band teacher in New York City to pay the bills until he gets his big break. On the very day that break comes, the opportunity to back jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at a gig, he falls to his death. Finding himself as a soul heading up on an escalator to “the great beyond,” he runs away and ends up in “the great before,” where souls are prepared for their life on earth.

Through a series of misadventures, Joe ends up as a mentor for the recalcitrant Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Further misadventures result in Joe and Soul 22 on Earth, although not in the way they expected. This portion of the film has some hilarious hijinks but also the opportunity for Joe and Soul 22 to teach one another about the meaning of life. As you might expect from a Pixar film, the finale is tear-inducing in its honesty and beauty.

The movie has been criticized for its depiction of Black man not actually inhabiting his body for most of the movie (and that a white woman occupies that Black body for a good portion of the film). This criticism should not be overlooked especially considering that this is the first Pixar film ever with a Black lead character, but it also does not mean that one cannot enjoy this movie. Soul is a thoughtful, funny, and inspirational film that is a small story on the surface but it resonates deeply.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Director: George C. Wolfe
Production Company: Escape Artists | Mundy Lane Entertainment

Adapted from the play by August Wilson and inspired by the real life of “The Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the story of one tense day in a record studio in Chicago in 1927. Viola Davis plays the celebrity blues singer with verve and command. She comes off as a bit of a diva, but in the nuance we learn that she’s learned that she has to give no quarter to white men when dealing with her work and her art. And capturing her voice on record is already something that they want more than she does.

The other man character is a talented and ambitious trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final role) who hopes to start a band of his own. Levee argues with the other, more experienced band members (Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts) on everything from musical arrangements to religion and dealing with racism. He also develops a mutual attraction with Ma Rainey’s young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).

The movie clearly exhibits its origins as a stage play with much of it being the heated conversations among the characters in confined places. But it also takes advantage of its filmic qualities, especially the way the camera moves to follow the musicians as they perform. And, ooh the music, it is absolutely brilliant. The movie comes to an absolutely stunning climax that I did not expect to happen at all. The movie is tragic and heartbreaking but really a tour-de-force of brilliant acting.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: The Vast of Night (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: The Vast of Night
Release Date: May 29, 2020
Director: Andrew Patterson
Production Company: GED Cinema

This movie is framed as an homage to The Twilight Zone, called Paradox Theatre in the movie, although stylistically it is far more cinematic than the tv show. The movie is set in a small town in New Mexico in the the 1950s when most people have gathered together to watch the high school basketball game. Two outliers are a pair of teenagers, Fay (Sierra McCormick) who is working her shift as a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), the DJ at the town’s radio station. Both encounter a strange audio signal on the phones and the radio and begin an investigation that may lead to aliens!

This movie is the antithesis of an action movie with the focus on character studies, intimate moments, and the slow revelation of the source of the mysterious sounds. McCormick is great as the earnest Fay, and Horowitz teeters on the verge of unlikable in his performance as someone whose intellect overshadows his interpersonal skills. The movie is beautifully crafted with impressive tracking shots that establish the locations within the town and remarkable sound design.

I feel this movie is a treat for film buffs but may be less enjoyable if you’re just looking for a popcorn flick.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Blow the Man Down (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Blow the Man Down
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Director: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
Production Company: Secret Engine | Tango Entertainment

I watched this movie because I’d heard that David Coffin, song leader of The Christmas Revels, appeared in it. Otherwise I had not idea what the movie was about and dang was I surprised. Don’t read any further if you want to be as surprised as I was.

The story is about young adult sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor), beginning on the day of their mother’s funeral. They live in a fishing village in Maine where their mother has established a fishmonger’s shop and has had to mortgage their house. Priscilla, the “responsible” older sister worries about how they’re going to keep the house, while Mary Beth, the “wild” one simply wants to get out of the small town.

On the night after the funeral, they argue and Mary Beth goes out to a bar where she hooks up with a man named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). When she observes him acting suspiciously, he attacks her, and she kills him in self-defense. The bulk of the movie is Priscilla and Mary Beth poor attempts to cover up Gorski’s death. This gets them entangled in other town scandals with Enid (played magnificently by Character Actress Margo Martindale), an old friend of their mother’s who runs a brothel out of her B&B.

Over the course of the film, the sisters learn some dark secrets of the village and their mother’s past. Throughout the film we see the actions of three older women who are not to be underestimated. David Coffin and other singing fishermen appear from time to time to sing sea chanties as kind of a Greek chorus. The beautiful setting is a contrast to the quirky mystery at the heart of the movie. In the sense it reminds me of the first season of Broadchurch.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Farewell (2019)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: The Farewell
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Director: Lulu Wang
Production Company: Ray Productions | Big Beach | Depth of Field | Kindred Spirit

The Farewell, titled Don’t Tell Her in Mandarin, is the story of an extended Chinese family who agree not to tell the family matriarch Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) that she has terminal lung cancer. The movie is told from the point of view Billi (Awkwafina), Nai Nai’s young adult granddaughter who emigrated to New York City with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) when she was a child. Instead the family organizes a wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse to gather the family together to say goodbye to Nai Nai.

The central tension of the film that the Americanized Billi believes Nai Nai deserves to know the truth about her fate while her parents and uncle (Jiang Yongbo) believe it is the Chinese tradition and collective responsibility of the family to bear the grief (Honestly, I know Irish-Americans who would do the same thing if they could get away from it). Zhao Shu-zhen is terrific as Nai Nai, who seems to be a force of nature and perhaps wiser to things than her family believes, while also showing moments of vulnerability when her illness catches up with her. Awkwafina also puts in an excellent performance as the young person between two cultures. All the performances feel natural and like a real family.

The movie is also beautifully filmed with some clever direction. In one scene Nai Nai and Billi have a meaningful conversation while the wedding couple have a ridiculous photo shoot in the background. The wedding reception scenes are also remarkable with the interaction of guests, karaoke performances, and chanting around a table all wonderfully filmed and intercut. The Farewell is an absolute joy of a movie and perfect reflection of family in all of its idiosyncrasies.

Rating: *****

Recent Movie Marathon: Yes, God, Yes (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Yes, God, Yes
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Director: Karen Maine
Production Company: Maiden Voyage | RT Features | Highland Film Group

Natalia Dyer stars a teenager, Alice, who attends a conservative Catholic school in small town Iowa in the early 2000s. Her sexuality begins to emerge through tentative cybersex chats and masturbation. At the same time, Alice becomes the center of a school-wide scandal for allegedly “tossing the salad” of a boy in her class, even though she doesn’t know what that phrase means.

The better part of the film is set at a four-day Catholic youth retreat that Alice attends with several classmates, including her best friend and the boy she’s rumored to have performed sex acts with (and his girlfriend!). Over the course of the weekend Alice witnesses other retreatants, the older teen retreat leaders, and even the priest involved in deviant sex acts, exposing their hypocrisy. At the conclusion of the retreat Alice gives a dramatic speech on how everyone is hiding things and how they should treat one another with respect as Jesus wanted.

While the subject of repressed teenage sexuality and how religious people often make life confusing and guilt-ridden for teens curious about their sexuality is a worthy one, I kind of feel this movie missed the mark. The religious figures in the film were mainly broad stereotypes and Alice’s dramatic speech just felt cheesy. Dyer’s performance was good overall, and Wolfgang Novogratz and Alisha Boe deserve kudos for perfectly capturing the enthusiasm of teen retreat leaders. The best scene is when Alice runs away from camp and ends up in a gay bar where she has a heart-to-heart with the bar’s owner Gina (Susan Blackwell), but it’s too little, too late to save the movie.

Rating: **

Recent Movie Marathon: First Cow (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: First Cow
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Production Company: FilmScience | IAC Films

Set in the Oregon Country of 1820, when indigenous people, Europeans, and Asians all interacted in a system of trade around a rudimentary fort, two men who don’t quite fit in with the rugged frontier meet and form a partnership. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is an American who has come west to serve as a chef for fur trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee) is a Chinese man on the run for killing a Russian in self-defense. After Cookie helps King-Lu to escape, Lu returns the favor by letting Cookie share his shack.

Cookie fantasizes about the foods that he could make if only he had milk, and so ends up stealing milk under the dark of night from the first cow brought into the territory by prosperous British trader, Chief Factor (Toby Jones in possibly his least creepy role ever). Lu is more entrepreneurial of the pair, and encourages Cookie to sell his biscuits to the traders at the fort. They prove to be very popular – and profitable – and so Cookie and Lu continue to commit lactic larceny in hopes of selling enough biscuits to raise money for a future restaurant. But it’s only a matter of time before Chief Factor catches on to where these two nobodies are getting their milk and the tension slowly grows.

It’s not a huge spoiler since the opening scene set in the present day shows a bad omen for these two men that things are not going to go well. Nevertheless, the movie is oddly charged with hope for these two gentle beings to find a place of safety and prosperity in a world that doesn’t seem to have space for them. The movie is absolutely beautiful and the acting is naturalistic and well-done. The score of the movie is also quite excellent. This movie is definitely too slow-paced for some viewers, but if you’re the type who likes to soak in the details you will enjoy this excellent period piece.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Little Women (2019)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Little Women
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Regency Enterprises | Pascal Pictures

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel by Louis May Alcott is a master class in capturing the spirit rather than the letter of a work of art. The movie is very clear when it is making a statement on the life of Alcott, and the limits she fought against in a time when the aspirations of women were more restricted, and when it is illustrating Alcott’s fictionalized story. The movie also benefits by setting the main plot at the time when the March daughters are older and intercutting flashbacks to their childhood, rather than telling the story chronologically. The book was episodic but the way it’s mixed up here makes it flow as more of a continuous story.

Saorsie Ronan is spectacular as Jo March, the talented writer who does not want to be pigeonholed into a life acceptable for a lady. Florence Pugh is also excellent in bringing out the many layers of Amy March, as opposed to the impression I had of her as being a vain and greedy caricature in the novel. The rest of the cast is good all around but Laura Dern as Marmee March and Meryl Streep as Aunt March deserve special praise. It’s quite a treat to have several generations of the most talented women in film all appearing in the same movie.

And if that wasn’t awesome enough, the movie was also primarily filmed on locations in Massachusetts. This includes a park nearby my house, Arnold Arboretum, which oddly plays the setting of Paris.

Rating: *****