We are in a new year, and I am ready for more reviews. There’s been plenty of films I’ve caught up with and revisited, but that doesn’t mean I’ve denied the new release train for January 2021 either. We’re still in unconventional times, but why not keep it going with some thoughts on some new movies available one way or another. With that in mind, this set of write-ups features films about a former marine protecting a boy on the border, a pandemic-set romantic-comedy-heist movie, two films about women overcoming traumas, a skillfully made documentary about Martin Luther King Jr., and a superhero movie for kids. The following features reviews for The Marksman, Locked Down, Herself, Pieces of a Woman, MLK/FBI, and We Can Be Heroes.
The Setup: A rancher (Liam Neeson) on the Arizona border becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy (Jacob Perez) desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who’ve pursued him into the U.S.
Review: This is a shame. Having just seen the other recent Neeson action/thriller Honest Thief, I really need him to get back with director Jaume Collett-Serra, who knows how to make these B-grade action movies match the gravitas of the actor with Hitchcockian style. Or, how about getting Neeson a great director, in general, to work with. In the past five years, he’s been in films made by Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Steve McQueen. I’m glad the guy likes to work, but looking at just these films distributed by Open Road, Neeson has gone from The Grey to this, and it’s not good.
Directed by Robert Lorenz, a producer behind almost all of Clint Eastwood’s post-2000 films, one can’t help but think how this film sits in the shadow of what an Eastwood could pull off with something like this (The Mule is basically this film’s more confident cousin). Instead, Eastwood merely gets a cameo during a scene where Neeson and the boy he’s protecting watch a scene from Hang ‘Em High before getting back to the generic cat-and-mouse thriller plot.
Am I overthinking how to be entertained by a film like this? Not when you consider how much good can come out of these old man action movies. The best of them aren’t much more complex. They even border on being xenophobic (Taken), given the extent of the violence Neeson brings to those who get in his way and what it means for him to have to go elsewhere to solve a problem. On the other hand, The Marksman happily rides up against the line of making some sort of statement but is too shallow to make anything stick regarding Neeson’s gruff retired Marine being forced to care for an illegal immigrant.
At the very least, the film delivers on its title. Eventually, with no place to go, a climactic shootout allows Neeson’s hilariously named Jim Hanson (not a Muppet) to take out various cartel members via sniper rifle. Does the action get more creative than that? Not really. This is more of a dramatic-thriller where big moments come from confrontations involving Hanson saying what he’s feeling out loud, in addition to a few gunshots. It’s just too bad there’s no filmmaker doing what they can to make any of this look more interesting.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and drive-ins on January 15, 2021.
The Setup: Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a quarreling couple who have broken up but are stuck living together in London during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to a series of circumstances, they find a way to put their differences aside to pull off a jewelry heist at the Harrods department store.
Review: It’s hard for me to say the jury is still out on being entertained by media directly influenced by the current state of the world. I am happy just saying I can enjoy films made in this age while acknowledging which films are being (poorly) made to exploit the situation (Songbird) and which ones embrace it as a way to inform a story. Locked Down has that going for it, as director Doug Liman and writer Steven Knight came up with something conceived during the pandemic and made as a film that could not be set at any other time. I found that quite interesting, especially as far as seeing it as a neat little experiment made between bigger projects for Liman.
For all the intrigue in calling this a heist film, most of Locked Down is more like a stage play. You have two characters with lots of friction between them, bickering about various things. They separately interact with friends and co-workers (the supporting cast is populated by the likes of Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, Dule Hill, Ben Stiller, and Ben Kingsley). Still, aside from those generally Zoom-based conversations, we are mostly in the home of Linda and Paxton. There is a heightened quality to the dialogue, but this is a movie, and why not expect that. What it will come down to is how entertaining this manages to be for viewers.
Is it simple to watch people annoyed and arguing with each other for good portions of time? Well, it helps that Ejiofor and Hathaway are having plenty of fun investing in their respective roles. Even with the bare minimum of resources for a studio film to work with, Liman is seemingly tapping into that Swingers energy once again to get a film together. Given that he’s a filmmaker that loves shooting for extended periods of time, it’s actually quite fun to see him get great actors together and shoot what’s on the page. It doesn’t hurt that Knight is an accomplished writer and seems to have found a way to tap into the different ideas in his mind as far as pushing domesticity against limits of morality.
I can see some getting antsy as they wait for the heist aspect in this film to kick in. It’s certainly not as elaborate as an Ocean’s movie. Instead, the film treats it as a climax that also informs the next steps for these characters. I found that to be quite clever, along with the staging of something of this nature, during the times we are all living in. There may only be so much to take away, but in times like this, seeing characters already pushed to their limits and maybe finding a way back feels like a good enough sort of ambition relevant to now.
Where To Watch: Available on HBO Max on January 14, 2021.
The Setup: Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a young mother who escapes her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and fights back against a broken housing system. She sets out to build her own home and, in the process, rebuilds her life.
Review: As far as Prime Video released centered around a female character, Herself could make for a good double-feature with I’m Your Woman. Granted, this film has less to do with the mob and leans more into Ken Loach territory. Regardless, the notion of taking on the world yourself, after spending time guided (or in this case beaten up) by others, makes for a strong way to ground a narrative, whether approaching the subject in a stylish manner of going for something more real.
Dunne, an Irish theater actress, co-wrote the film and found a way to effectively draw out real anger and frustration, in addition to fear from her situation. Playing an abused mother of two, the film practically starts out like a thriller to show the severity of her situation with a violent man she happened to marry. Fortunately, while we are constantly reminded of the pain Sandra experienced, she manages to get away from this man early on while dealing with the struggles of finding and maintaining a new place to live.
Director Phyllida Lloyd does a great service to the film by presenting the action and fallout as it happens. It’s not a showy film, but the details stand out. Sandra works two jobs, and the pressure to be on time while dealing with her two daughters is felt. She doesn’t suffer more abuse after the opening, but the camera never hides the major bruise that remains under her eye (let alone the pain she feels in her wrist). Even as Sandra begins to build her house on the land of a generous friend of her mom’s, the film finds the right way to balance the sense of relief with the stress of needing to complete this task.
What we have is a very human story that relies on an interesting hook, even if it’s a bit of an obvious metaphor. That said, you know a film is on the right track when a late-in-the-game courtroom sequence is not enough to take away from how effective the storytelling is (which is more than I can say about the next film). With strong acting, a good handle on letting this premise come together naturally, and a way to let us see a house come to be, Herself stays on the right track.
Where To Watch: Now available on Prime Video.
The Setup: Following a harrowing home birth, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) begins a year-long odyssey of mourning that fractures relationships with loved ones in this deeply personal story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
Review: Based on the screentime and intensity for one performance and the knock-out acting work done during another major sequence, there’s no reason to deny how good Kirby and Ellen Burstyn are in this film. That even extends to troubled co-star Shia LaBeouf. I only wish Pieces of a Woman amounted to more than a couple of showy set-pieces serving as opportunities for actors to show off their talent.
If that sounds harsh, it’s because director Kornel Mundruczo seems so bent on delivering a thrilling 26-minute opening sequence done in one long take that the rest of the film can’t help but pale in comparison. It approaches moments of greatness when looking at the effects the events of the home birth sequence have on everyone, but it once again feels squandered by a showiness in the direction that can only do so much to offset the clear issues with this story.
No doubt it will cause most to feel something. A story tackling this sort of subject matter will lean into that territory and really allow the drama to take hold. However, in addition to feeling redundant after a while, and having one sub-plot too many, building the film towards a near-laughable courtroom-finale makes me wonder how it was possible to have a film bounce from the high-end of filmmaking to something more worthy of a made-for-TV movie.
I can understand the importance of telling a story of this nature, as there is not often a focus on mothers who lose a child in this manner. And my lack of an ability to relate to this specific kind of tragedy may leave me less equipped to assess the situation’s emotional stakes. However, with gimmicky ways to approach a story that is handled in a fairly messy manner, terrific performances will only carry a film like this so far for me.
There are thematically interesting ideas at play, and emotions will certainly fly, given the scenarios presented. However, as Pieces of a Woman meanders into a very poor third act, the goodwill that came from an admittedly impressively-filmed opening kept fading further away.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.
The Setup: Based on newly declassified files, director Sam Pollard’s resonant film explores the US government’s (especially J. Edgar Hoover’s) relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Review: Here we are again. I deemed MLK/FBI “One of the most important films to screen at TIFF” back in September, and it’s no surprise to see that continue to hold true, let alone encompass more than just one of its premieres. Here’s a documentary that’s not only being released shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. Day but represents the challenges that continue to be faced by protestors demanding justice for Black Americans in a non-violent manner. It comes in stark contrast to others protesting via acts of terror for the sake of feeling comfortable being emboldened by irresponsible people in power to act as deplorable as possible.
In focusing on King, while rightfully celebrated today as a magnificent and influential figure, the film makes it clear that more than just a small part of the country had less than generous thoughts on MLK and Black people in the nation during the 50s and 60s. What Pollard zeroes in on in this documentary is the way the government made strong attempts to turn ill-obtained information on King’s private life against him as an attempt to ruin his persona.
It’s sad but not too surprising to see men in power like Hoover work hard to discredit a popular Black hero. Fortunately, Pollard has many ways of providing material to immerse the viewer in the cultural moment and cut the tensions of government intrusion with audio interviews and archival footage. Hearing from people such as Andrew Young and Clarence Jones means taking in well-stated history lessons that manage to combine good information, emotion, and proper context.
With that in mind, while exploring racial politics through the use of ample amounts of archival footage means seeing more examples of the ugliness that has attempted to stain America time and time again, I couldn’t help but enjoy seeing so much footage of the famed civil rights leader. It’s the presence he had that still stands strong, and while this documentary could open a lot of eyes as to what forces of change have been met with, progress has come over time as well. Still, racism persists within the very structures America has been built upon, but the uphill battle will continue to be fought – without relying on sedition.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD on January 15, 2021
The Setup: When alien invaders kidnap Earth’s superheroes, their children must team up and learn to work together if they want to save their parents and the world.
Review: While there are enough commonalities in terms of DIY filmmaking sensibilities, it has been interesting to see filmmaker Robert Rodriguez bounce back and forth between more adult-oriented features and kid flicks. We could describe these as family films, but I think part of the charm of the Spy Kids movies and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, to a lesser extent, is how dialed-in they are for playing specifically to a younger audience, which is entirely allowed. Fortunately, We Can Be Heroes is one of the best kids flicks Rodriguez has put together.
The appeal is right up front, as we watch a colorful world brought to life and populated by familiar faces (Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook, Christian Slater). Of course, these actors are all playing superheroes who are almost immediately captured. While we cut to them imprisoned now and again, their children get the lion’s share of screentime. Led by YaYa Gosselin’s Missy Moreno, this is mostly a fun bunch. Who knows which of these kids will grow up to be the next big star, but as it stands, this is a fun, diverse group equipped with the kind of superpowers I’d expect Racer Rodriguez (son of Robert and a producer on the film) to come up with.
One character can paint the future. A brother and sister have the power to fast-forward and rewind time for a short period. The littlest of the group, Guppy (Vivien Blair), has the powers of her parents (Sharkboy and Lavagirl) combined. Seeing these all come to life means watching wacky special effects in a variety of locations, all built on a computer in Rodriguez’s Austin home/studio. Various other actors (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Adriana Barraza, Christopher McDonald) bounce in and out because Rodriguez has an efficient way of filming scenes on a green screen for a few hours and being done. It makes for an ambitious effort matched by economical filmmaking.
This doesn’t always work, and it can be limiting. However, something about this film’s spirit clicks a lot better than some of the other homemade Rodriguez projects. Perhaps it’s the sheer enthusiasm of everyone involved. Maybe it’s the simple yet effective messaging concerning the power anyone has to be a hero, instead of insisting on others’ ideals and beliefs. Whatever the case, the film has already proven to be a success, with a sequel in the making. Even if my interest runs out on this potential franchise, what seems clear is the dedication to making something simple, colorful, imaginative, and charming. That’s enough for kids looking for fun.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.