It’s that time of year when studios put out so many of their heavy-hitters when it comes to award season. It’s no different this week when looking at many of the films out there and coming soon. This set of reviews includes a disaster satire, a witty biopic, a Japanese drama, a sports drama, a musical biopic, and an underdog story. The following features reviews for Don’t Look Up, Being the Ricardos, Drive My Car, National Champions, tick tick…BOOM!, and Bruised.
The Setup: Two low-level astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth, only to be challenged by deniers and an opportunistic administration
Review: On a general level, I appreciate the efforts of writer/director Adam McKay. He’s gone from broad comedies with a brain (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys) to artsy prestige films (that still feature plenty of broad humor). Don’t Look Up is much more my speed for what he’s bringing to the table, compared to Vice. Where that film stumbled in matching relevance and a stronger anarchic spirit to a towering performance by Christian Bale, this film is larger in scale, messier, and a whole lot funnier.
Given the nature of the premise, which surrounds the work of scientists being disputed by those who do not know better, and the public’s indifference to a global threat, it’s easy to see what is being satirized. It’s true, we exist at a point in time where reality matches and even exceeds the intended joke and position of the film, not unlike James Bond being no match for actual Bond-level villains in the real world. At the same time, the film is what it’s been designed as, and it stands to reason that going over the issues with a yellow highlighter and broad comedy can’t really hurt in a moment where many just don’t seem to get it.
This speaks to the ensemble cast, as I appreciated many players here. Many audiences will lock in on favorites themselves, depending on what makes them laugh. As the leads, DiCaprio and Lawrence both get plenty of time to shine, with DiCaprio, in particular, giving a Network-level monologue that’s quite entertaining. The presence of Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, and many others all offer something fun as well.
For me, the comedy is at its best when positioned from a grounded level. The genuine frustrations come out in humorous ways, along with several running jokes that kept me smiling. At 145 minutes, Don’t Look Up is way too long, but I can’t say I ever found it to run out of momentum. It’s the sort of thing I have to accept when looking at these Netflix releases that allow filmmakers all their freedom.
Not for nothing, but it’s also worth pointing out how angry and bleak the film chooses to be. That’s been more of a thing in recent years when it comes to doomsday comedies. The benefit is seeing McKay rise to the occasion by balancing the comedy with a level of poignancy that I found to be quite affecting. Don’t Look Up sometimes goes overboard with the editing rhythm and expansive nature. Still, considering the effort put in, the attempt to make a point, and the level of entertainment I got out of the film, I was happy I looked.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting December 10. Available on Netflix on December 24.
The Setup: Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear, and cultural taboos in this revealing glimpse of the couple’s complex romantic and professional relationship during a critical production week of their groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy.
Review: Writer/director Aaron Sorkin deserves a lot of credit for delivering a compelling story that crackles with wit at its best but doesn’t deliver much else. The script for Being the Ricardos does so much heavy lifting for a film so blandly made that I can’t help but say it is worth a watch. At this point, anyone familiar with Sorkin’s style should know not to expect an especially deep biopic that digs deep into the lives of the subjects on display. Instead, this film combines some interesting topics with one’s obsession with making sure the sitcom laughs hit the right way.
Right from the beginning, it’s not as though the casting did many favors for the film. No, it’s not a documentary, and actors are there to put on a performance. However, as talented as Kidman and Bardem are, I still found the setup distracting. They are undoubtedly excellent at delivering the clever dialogue of a Sorkin screenplay. Still, even after a period of acceptance of what the film would be like, neither performer ever really became their character. While effectively conveying the emotions required, selling the meaning behind the actions, it’s a tough spot when it feels distracting, rather than enjoying the work for what it is.
Perhaps amplifying this issue was Sorkin as a director. While Molly’s Game had the feel of Sorkin trying something new and The Trial of the Chicago 7 had a more inherent cinematic quality (in a less than stellar feature), Being the Ricardos just doesn’t look all that impressive. Despite D.P Jeff Cronenweth handling the visuals, and Sorkin’s own experiences working with David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Bennett Miller, among others, this is a flat piece of work with far too much overdramatic lighting, and the semblance of something very much fit for TV.
Yes, this is a film about making a TV show, but Being the Ricardos is not attempting to be sly in its presentation. There’s no modulation to take into account for the visual aesthetic of I Love Lucy to reflect the era this behind-the-scenes look takes place in. Add on superfluous flashforwards to actors portraying older versions of characters played effectively by Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy, and you have a bunch of ideas packed into a feature that doesn’t quite get how to express them.
And yet, the movie is still enjoyable enough. It zips through its 131-minute runtime thanks to the dialogue rhythm and general comedic moments scattered throughout. Plus, with less pressure on this casting, J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as William Frawley and Vivian Vance do help round out the cast and honestly strengthen Kidman and Bardem. I’m not opposed to seeing more about I Love Lucy. I only wish I could rely on more than just an agreeable snappiness.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting December 10. Available on Netflix on December 21.
The Setup: Two years after his wife’s unexpected death, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned stage actor and director, receives an offer to direct a production of “Uncle Vanya” at a theater festival in Hiroshima. He meets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a taciturn young woman assigned by the festival to chauffeur him in his beloved red Saab 900. As the production’s premiere approaches, tensions mount amongst the cast and crew, not least between Yusuke and Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a handsome TV star who shares an unwelcome connection to Yusuke’s late wife.
Review: I have not seen the other films from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, but I am curious based on the incredible steady hand applied to this three-hour drama. Drive My Car is a simple film to describe but has so much value in its presentation. Spending this much time with these characters can often have one wondering if it’s justified. If anything, however, this is a film where I would not be opposed to spending even more moments riding along.
Also, this needs to be said right away: Nishijima is spectacular in this film. No, I do not expect him to get any more credit than any other similarly brilliant international star when it comes to the Hollywood-geared award ceremonies. Still, that doesn’t take away from the amount of work put in to play a character dealing with grief, being a theater actor, developing unique relationships, and pondering life throughout this film. It’s a top-tier acting performance, yet the effort doesn’t stop with him.
The other actors fill out their characters well, and the film is structured in such a way where we come to understand where they are coming from, how they relate to Yusuke, and what role they serve in a story trying to get at some ideas that lean in and out of their relation to “Uncle Vanya.” And, honestly, seeing a Japanese take on that particular play has all kinds of levels of intrigue on its own, let alone the stretches of the film focused on Yusuke, Misake, and the car rides they take.
Drive My Car is the sort of film that is not instantly appealing to all-comers, but I had a really great time absorbing it. It’s perhaps daunting to know the length of the film and realize it’s not something with wall-to-wall drama/action, but there’s a precision in how it accomplishes all it needs to. For me, that made it a good ride.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting December 10.
The Setup: A collegiate star quarterback (Stephan James) ignites a players’ strike hours before the biggest game of the year to fight for fair compensation, equality, and respect for the athletes who put their bodies and health on the line for their schools.
Review: Landing somewhere between Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird and HBO’s Ballers, National Champions gets by on a compelling rhythm supported by the strong ensemble cast. Sure, not every one of them portrays a fleshed-out character. Still, the leads shine, and the material is portrayed in an understandable enough manner for anyone not into football to easily grasp the drama taking place.
James and J.K. Simmons are excellent as the star quarterback and his coach on opposing sides. For James’ LeMarcus, the issues he’s presenting absolutely make sense. One can hear him out and want him to succeed in dismantling a system that will end up casting away innocent athletes when they prove no longer useful. At the same time, the always reliable Simmons keeps his perspective grounded, with enough cause to empathize with him, let alone others given a chance to speak up.
Naturally, some characters end up in more villainous positions, such as David Koechner or Uzo Aduba as a cutthroat lawyer. However, there’s enough space for characters played by Lil Rel Howery and Tim Blake Nelson, for example, to not get bogged down in being too simplistically written. It also doesn’t hurt to see a lot of the actors sharing a level of chemistry that makes for a good time to be had as far as drama that amounts to characters slinging dialogue back and forth at each other. It’s not always the sharpest, but a level of edge and unease helps the cause.
National Champions is an interesting swerve for director Ric Roman Waugh as well. The director has primarily found himself making thrillers (including a couple of Gerard Butler hits) but takes on the challenge of working with writer Adam Mervis’ script (based on his book) to deliver a modern story confined to various rooms for characters to argue in. While too long overall and not a film that can really nail down some answers, it completes enough solid plays to ultimately reach a proper endzone.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting December 10.
The Setup: Before revolutionizing theater as the creator of Rent, on the cusp of his 30th birthday, Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), a promising young theater composer, navigates love, friendship, and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
Review: Right away, it’s important to note that I am not a person with much theater awareness. It’s never been my scene, and while I’m sure Rent is a perfectly solid stage musical, Chris Columbus’s film was not the event I was waiting for. All that is to say, while I wasn’t against taking in whatever Tick, Tick…Boom! had to offer, I had no awareness of Jonathan Larson as a person. Fortunately, in an already hectic year for the man, director Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered a wonderful and emotional musical biopic celebrating Larson’s life.
Dispelling so many assumptions, I learned plenty about Larson through a clever presentation relying on a theatrical framing device and a stylish portrayal of a critical time in his life. I also saw just how brilliant Andrew Garfield could be in this role. His excellence as an actor is no surprise. Before Spider-Man, Garfield delivered terrific work in films such as Boy A and The Social Network. For this film, however, there’s an extra level of spark bringing so much out of him as a musical talent, as well as a compelling figure to watch.
It’s all the more interesting given his status as an artist driven to meet his own arbitrary goal, making him come across as very self-absorbed in the process. Is that a turnoff? Not necessarily. It brings him to some breaking points with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) and his best friend (a superb Robin de Jesús). Still, the movie rides the tricky line of the audience knowing Larson will eventually prove his talents to the world and understanding that hard work and some bad moments will be a part of that journey.
With all of that in mind, Miranda does good by Larson and the film by staging many enjoyable musical sequences. Compared to another recent musical, Dear Evan Hanson, Miranda gets how to balance the theatricality of these performances and the staging with the nature of the story being told. Whether it’s an all-out Broadway production full of cameos like “Sunday” or something fun and intimate like “Boho Days,” there’s a clear vision as to how to make these sequences truly… well, sing.
I can understand some finding even more value than I have. As it stands, Tick, Tick…Boom! feels like an effective accomplishment for a first-time director who had a lot of passion to share when it came to his love of theater and appreciation for a young talent like Larson, who never got to see his work appreciated in the way it was.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: A disgraced MMA fighter (Halle Berry) finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.
Review: It’s easy to see why one would make a film about a down and out boxer (or, in this case, MMA fighter) who works on a comeback as well as their own life situation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely relatable, but it’s a meaty kind of role for an actor. There will be large dramatic beats, physical work, and other elements that really test one’s ability. That Bruised also works as Berry’s directorial debut only adds to the challenge. Fortunately, it’s a fairly standard but effective piece of work.
As a director, some clear choices are being by someone excited to be behind the camera for the first time. There are exaggerated soundtrack choices, some inelegant camera angles added for emphasis, and other aspects throughout the 132-minute runtime. However, the moments where solid filmmaking is critical come through. The final fight, the big match, is shot in a manner that builds all the tension and excitement one wants out of a sports underdog story. Unflinching takes when focused on various forms of abuse also lock the viewer in as needed.
From an acting standpoint, the film is stronger. While an Oscar winner, Berry has seemingly gone overlooked over the years. Bruised is an opportunity to show what she can bring, given the chance, which is not without challenge for a 55-year-old black woman. The film may have a predictable arc, but she and the rest of the cast (notably Stephen McKinley Henderson and Sheila Atim) do plenty to support the story being told, keeping the melodrama from becoming too much to handle.
As a streaming release from a debut director, Bruised is a competently made and well-acted feature that moves well enough. It also enters into an arena that already features many underdog stories. That may not give it the biggest lead in the ring, but the work going in can still lead to pulling off a win every now and again.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.