It’s a new year, but the streaming and smaller options are still out in full force. At this point, my Top Ten Films of 2021 has been published, but January is not without some new releases to pay attention to, including at least one film that was one of last year’s bests. This set of reviews includes a terrific Iranian drama, an excellent Spanish drama, a solid underdog sports story, a bizarre Brazilian film, a decent memoir adaptation, a familiar sequel, and a less than stellar animated kaiju film. The following features reviews for A Hero, Parallel Mothers, American Underdog, King Car, A Journal For Jordan, Sing 2, and Rumble.
The Setup: Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is in prison because of a debt he could not repay. During a two-day leave, he tries to convince his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh) to withdraw his complaint against the payment of part of the sum. But things don’t go as planned…
Review: When it comes to making contemporary dramas, I’m not sure there’s a better filmmaker currently out there than Asghar Farhadi. Whether or not A Hero is his best film since A Separation (one of the best films of the 2010s)¸ it’s another fantastic example of what Farhadi can do when he’s at his strongest – pull a wide array of emotions out of everyday circumstances.
Jadidi’s Rahim is a wonderfully tragic figure, as he finds himself in one predicament after another, after attempting to do the right thing following certain excusable choices he could not have imagined would have led to such extreme repercussions. The various other characters we meet, who are either trying to support Rahim or find cause to question his actions, all strike the right note as well, further exacerbating a story in ways that really build up in a thrilling manner, despite functioning as a human-scaled drama.
Once again, Farhadi lets his writing and the actors do so much of the heavy lifting. His subtle, non-showy filmmaking style allows for precision when considering the variety of choices made to never feel intrusive but always keep the situation compelling. Early on, there’s an approach to scale that makes Rahim’s world feel open and welcoming. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, his perspective has substantially shifted. Farhadi can make these visual choices work amid a story that heavily relies on communication to convey specific ideas, themes, and cultural challenges. It is the work of a master.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting January 7, 2022. Available to stream on Prime Video beginning January 21, 2022.
The Setup: Two women, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), coincide in a hospital room where they will give birth. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis, middle-aged, doesn’t regret it, and she is exultant. Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant, and traumatized. Janis encourages her while they move like sleepwalkers along the hospital corridors. The few words they exchange in these hours will create a very close link between the two, which by chance develops and complicates, and decisively changes their lives.
Review: Once again, director/writer Pedro Almodóvar has delivered an intimate drama featuring excellent performances all around while challenging himself as a filmmaker. Cruz maybe tops herself by default due to her experiences working with her best collaborator and having the chance to continue playing complex female characters. These are hardly bold revelations, as the film comes from a line of great work by Almodóvar, who rarely produces uninteresting work.
Something I keyed into, this time, was his choices as a director. While I’ve seen most of Almodóvar’s most notable features, I’m not sure if I’ve ever clued in on his influences too much before. For Parallel Mothers, I surprisingly saw a lot of Hitchcock in his framing and character choices. Now, this film is not a thriller by any means, but there is a level of suspense as far as how much the audience knows and the different times in which one character knows more than another. I found that sort of layering to be interesting, as I really had to consider where this would be going while Alberto Iglesias’ score pushed things along in the right ways.
Additionally, the weaving of another story revolving around casualties of the Spanish Civil War pushed the film to another emotional tier that a lesser filmmaker would not be able to accomplish as organically. It’s the kind of detail that informs multiple characters, plays into a good portion of the plot, despite the main narrative revolving around motherhood, and then comes back in a way that’s plenty affecting. As an older filmmaker showing no signs of slowing down, it’s an impressive feat for Almodóvar.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: The story of NFL MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming an American Football star.
Review: There’s no reason not to describe this movie for what it is – a true story ripped right out of the inspirational sports drama playbook. With that said, there’s a reason why it’s an enduring structure for feature films. The premise works in setting up endearing characters and, depending on execution, they are easy films to root for. Kurt Warner’s story is the sort of miraculous journey that he indeed attributes to his enduring faith, and for good reason. Despite the trials he and his family went through, his conviction never weakened, and there’s history to prove what he accomplished.
Zachary Levi does well in tackling this story and character while wearing a friendly face. His appeal seems to stem from his positivity, which is the requirement for a feature such as this.
American Underdog comes from directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, who have found a lot of success in the faith-based films they have directed. Adapting this story, they seem to understand the mechanics of this plot well enough, hitting what’s needed as far as making a family-friendly drama that can consider the Christian values of the Warners and yet still serve as a relatable piece of work. Neither the direction nor Levi’s efforts work very hard to interrogate his faith or drive specifically to play football, but the film isn’t designed as an overly complex drama, either.
Not hurting are the supporting players, who bring an additional level of gravitas to what we are watching. Anna Paquin plays Brenda, a single mother who would eventually be Warner’s wife. Dennis Quaid brings plenty to his brief turn as Dick Vermeil, head coach for the St. Louis Rams. The film even has the great Bruce McGill pop up briefly as the energetic founder of the Arena Football League, Jim Foster.
We’ve seen plenty of sports dramas over the years (Quaid has been featured in several, at this point), and while not all of them become classics, American Underdog is an encouraging tale that does well by its QB.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: A teen’s ability to surreally speak with cars sparks a revolution that could save his community. However, he soon finds himself fighting for survival when his invention inadvertently accelerates the underlying problems.
Review: There are, no doubt, plenty of ideas present in King Car, a film that wears its crazy on its sleeve while dealing with automotive-based social upheavals within society. Like the whacked-out body horror/character drama Titane, Brazilian filmmaker Renata Pinheiro managed to also deliver a film featuring seemingly uncomfortable human behavior surrounding cars. However, the ultimate results are far more focused on the function of vehicles in the world these characters operate, pushing the film in a direction I’m not quite sure it fully satisfies.
That’s not to say there’s little value here. This cast is up to the challenge of matching the energy of the film’s ambitious spirit by embracing the odd premise. Multiple characters are in on the absurdity of playing opposite sentient cars, which allows for bits of humor and moments of intrigue to arrive throughout. One can also consider the production design for non-Hollywood high-concept films such as this. Despite the off-kilter nature of car-based cults, scrappers, and other types, the environments feel lived-in.
I only wish King Car could hold onto its spirited concept in a way that was engaging throughout its 97-minute runtime. This is fully functioning as a feature that could become a cult object of its own down the line, but I kept feeling like my mind was holding me back from considering what it had to offer. Pushing out so many ideas and themes, yet not exactly finding a clear path for all of them to shine through, made for a somewhat tricky experience. I wanted to be in the driver’s seat, enjoying the view, but I too often felt like a lost passenger along for the ride.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting January 7, 2022.
The Setup: Based on the true story of First Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier deployed to Iraq who begins to keep a journal of love and advice for his infant son. Back at home, senior New York Times editor Dana Canedy (Chante Adams) revisits the story of her unlikely, life-altering relationship with King and his enduring devotion to her and their child.
Review: With little regard from deploying much in the way of stylistic showmanship, director Denzel Washington seems far more content in turning this memoir into, simply, a movie. As a romantic drama that focuses on the warm and engaging relationship shared between Jordan and Adams, sometimes that’s just enough. Of course, the notion of seeing entirely human characters in a story focused on Black love is one that only sees a major theatrical release so often, so for all its earnest sensibilities, existing as a multiplex option in an IP-driven world is worth crediting as well.
That’s not to say A Journal for Jordan gets a pass just for existing. I saw plenty of value in a film that distilled its story down to some key elements and found strong performers to operate in the center of it. Reliance on a non-linear structure may have the unintended effect of lessening the impact of its title. Still, there’s something to be gained in a film that knows it can’t avoid the inevitable fate of these characters and decides to approach a journey from multiple angles.
Also effective is its balance when considering the priorities of the lives of these characters. For all the tropes the film rubs up against, when it comes to dealing with religion and a sense of duty, Jordan takes these elements seriously without pandering to an audience. It’s the sort of thing where a sentimental film has enough layers for the drama, and different stages in the lives of these characters can feel more earned.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: The ever-optimistic koala, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), and his all-star cast of performers prepare to launch their most dazzling stage extravaganza yet… all in the glittering entertainment capital of the world. There’s just one hitch: They first have to persuade the world’s most reclusive rock star–played by global music icon Bono, in his animated film debut–to join them.
Review: Sing was the sort of animated hit that Illumination has been very good at pulling off. It stuck out by being a relatively agreeable jukebox musical that felt far less grating for me due to the lack of Minions lurking around every corner. Sing 2 is more of this. It’s possibly even better thanks to shaving off certain lesser qualities of the first film while improving things on the animation side. Regardless, the film is practically critic-proof.
The returning cast is joined by a few new players, including an effective Bobby Cannavale, Eric Andre, Letitia Wright, Halsey, Pharrell Williams, Chelsea Peretti, and, of course, Bono. For whatever reason, beyond just taking the role, he decided to really give it his all to the point of what is seemingly an in-joke about his participation in one of his band’s key songs. Regardless, this is the sort of film where enjoying these animated animals will allow the jokes to hit for kids. At the same time, adults can hopefully find other ways to be entertained.
Sing 2 has a decent batting average when it comes to its sense of humor, which is supported by its multiple winning musical numbers. The film is actually so confident in selling itself for what it is that the main trailer leaves absolutely no surprises for any viewer as far as the film’s outcome. Is that a benefit? I suppose it’s enough to keep the music train rolling for an audience that knows what they are in for.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: In a world where giant monsters and humans collide, the monsters are superstar athletes and compete in a popular professional wrestling global sport called Monster Wrestling. A young girl named Winnie (Geraldine Viswanathan) seeks to follow in her father’s footsteps as a manager by coaching a lovable underdog yet-inexperienced monster named Steve (Will Arnett). Winnie plans to turn Steve into a champion to go up against the reigning champion Tentacular (Terry Crews).
Review: Going from a theatrical release to an unceremonious dump onto its studio’s streaming network, it’s a shame Rumble didn’t make more out of its premise. I was certainly intrigued. The film sets up a world where kaiju wrestling is a popular sport for humans to enjoy. Never mind the logic of that sort of concept; it’s a fantastical world where it is what it is. Sadly, that’s all it really has in terms of inspiration. The rest of the film is a familiar sports tale that doesn’t have nearly as much imagination or spirit needed to stand out.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+.