With more and more award season releases screening for critics, and studios packing streaming services with all sorts of movies, it’s interesting to look at the films that could just work as regular old movies and others that seemingly aim for prestige consideration. Regardless, managing to see some films this week has delivered more than it didn’t. This week’s write-ups include a music-themed drama, a Jackie Chan action movie, an animated adventure, an MMA sports drama, and a fantasy drama. The following features reviews for Sound of Metal, Vanguard, WolfWalkers, Embattled, and Come Away.
The Setup: Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is the drummer in a band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). A former drug addict, already doing his best to handle sobriety, Ruben suddenly begins to lose his. The heartbreaking realization eventually leads him to start anew at a deaf community, where he then struggles to accept his new situation.
Review: There’s plenty to praise, but what a terrific showcase Sound of Metal is for Riz Ahmed, a very talented individual who has taken plenty of opportunities in recent years to build a strong resume of work. Here, in what has to have been a very challenging role, which included learning ASL and how to drum, the levels of dramatic depth required to play a man who loses one of the most important things in this life, only to come to an understanding about what truly matters (and all the bumpiness that comes with that journey), are very impressive to see in action.
While this script from director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder is undoubtedly steeped in drama, watching the way things unfold allows the audience to go through various stages of consideration. We want to root for Ruben to make the right choices, yet the film finds him building on his own frustrations by pushing against the right kind of advancement. The desire to go back to drugs becomes strong, and we want to see Ruben find a clear path to a better future despite this setback.
Made with a grounded sense of realism and shot with a lot of closeups, there’s plenty of attention paid to the performers involved, with Cook providing strong work as well (and the film featuring a cast largely comprised of members of the deaf community), along with a skillful handle when it comes to sound design. There’s a lot to be impressed with, even if the film feels like a heavy watch that makes no excuses.
The deliberate pacing means having to find the rhythm Sound of Metal operates on, but once there, tracking these characters, seeing them adjust to a new beat, it’s quite rewarding. There’s a level of sadness that comes with the ways a situation can change dramatically, but there’s a lot of greatness to be found in the ways Ruben works towards a new kind of triumph as well. And fortunately, Ahmed is right there putting his all into banging out this stellar performance.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters November 20, 2020, and streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 4, 2020.
The Setup: The covert security company, Vanguard, led by Jackie Chan, becomes the last hope of survival for an accountant who has been targeted by a deadly mercenary group looking for a major payday. This situation will take the Vanguard team to different parts of the globe as the action escalates.
Review: There’s a moment late in the film where Jackie Chan watches one of his young protégés jump from a 2nd story level down to the ground floor, using a gold-plated car as his cushion. As we watch Chan prepare to do the same (reminding us of the many times Chan has broken various parts of his body for our entertainment), one of his colleagues exclaims, “Look, the stairs are over there!” to which Jackie breaths a sigh of relief and proceeds in a different direction. That’s the good and bad of Vanguard, a silly action movie that acknowledges Chan doesn’t need to do the most death-defying stunts at his age but also makes us feel like we’re being robbed of something better.
With films like The Raid and Wolf Warrior 2, some things are better. I have nothing against Chan and frequent collaborator director Stanley Tong, but there’s not much to Vanguard besides some wild and explosive action. Part of that is by design. This is a fairly flimsy plot designed to escort the actors from one action scene to the next. However, part of the fun of Chan’s films has relied on him being largely against action. Having him on the defensive allowed him to show off a series of fast-fisted moves to hold numerous foes back. Vanguard finds Chan as the leader of what is basically a vigilante unit going on missions fit for the Fast & Furious cast. As a result, it feels unnatural to watch Chan shooting guns so often.
However, there is something to be said for his involvement. While he is the star, having Yang Yang as Chan’s point man on the Vanguard team, among other stars, shows me something that should be more rewarding. Rather than hog the spotlight, Chan lets his younger stars take the reins of various scenes and be the focus of the action. They may be severely lacking in a level of charisma by comparison to Chan, but at least the work is being put in to help guide a new generation.
As far as the rest of the film goes, Vanguard delivers what you’d expect in a Chinese-produced studio action movie – namely what you get in American action films devoted to their country. There’s plenty of Chinese propaganda to be found throughout the film, in addition to bland takes on operations in other locations, such as a visit to Africa identified mainly as “Africa.” That would be fine were the action to be better. As it stands, there are some fights to be found, along with some shoddy CG-enhanced scenes. While I’m sure Chan had all the energy he needed to star in a film like this (and a fancy blue suit to boot), he’s had better rumbles.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, IMAX, and drive-ins beginning November 20, 2020.
The Setup: In a time of superstition and magic, a 17th-century hunter has a change of heart when she travels to Ireland to help her father wipe out the last pack of wolves, only to discover a secret concerning the animals living in the enchanted lands.
Review: While The Breadwinner was an animated drama focused on the challenges of being a young girl living in Afghanistan, most of the films produced by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon have worked as extended fables. Compared to the larger animation studios, films such as The Secret of the Kells are much smaller in scope, but the presentation is rich with color and character. WolfWalkers is no different, and may actually be my favorite effort yet from directors Tom Moore and Ross Stewart.
While the film may have more in common with something more in line with traditional Disney films, I can’t say I was taken aback by the approach. Instead, I was taken in by the bold choices in animation, which utilized a 2D style and an expressive portrayal of characters and environments due to the line work, reminding me of what is seen in concept art. Not unlike Spider-Verse, for example, having a whole film that looks like awesome concept art is not a bad way to go when the image feels so vibrant throughout.
Aiding the style are the efforts taken to make the characters stand out. Honor Kneafsey’s work as Robyn, the young hunter who makes several discoveries, is another great lead character guided by her sense of wonder. Making her human by displaying a sense of intelligence and stubbornness adds to keeping the fantastical grounded to some degree. Not hurting is the presence of Sean Bean’s voice as her father.
As the story progresses and we learn more of how this enchanted world works, I remained intrigued throughout. There’s a lot of imagination on display, and the clear metaphors concerning the alienation and hunting of those from outside the walls of this village do not go unnoticed. This is the sort of animated adventure that begins as charming, only to reveal new (and sometimes darker) layers as it goes along, and the results land quite strongly.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ on December 11, 2020.
The Setup: Jett (Darren Mann) is the son of famous, hard-edged MMA champion, Cash (Stephen Dorff). While Jett has a good head on his shoulders, the past abuse from his father, let alone the role Cash now has in his life, means doing what it takes to break this cycle, which may come down to a big prizefight.
Review: Here’s a sports drama that caught me off guard and managed to land some punches by the end. A well-cast Dorff puts in some of his best work as a real piece of work, put against the younger Mann as his son, and the film plays out in a familiar, yet exciting, and ultimately emotional, in a somewhat subversive way.
As Warrior has already provided an MMA film focused on brothers, Embattled takes things to the natural next step – what if a father and son competed in the ring. The film even finds the time to call out the ridiculous nature of that eventual part of the story, but the work is done to make these characters feel like ones who have to take their relationship to that level.
Coming from a script by David McKenna, the writer of American History X, as the poster proclaims, it’s clear that an examination of masculinity is at the core of this film. We see Dorff’s Cash as a man who is a monster in the ring, an ultimate alpha outside of it, and, naturally, a disaster when it comes to dealing with personal issues outside of business.
Meanwhile, Jett is a bright kid who has clearly suffered at the hands of his father. He has potential for various kinds of greatness, but he’s also still holding onto his interest in the fight and letting his father help train him. However, Jett lives with his mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and mentally challenged younger brother Quinn (McKenna’s own son, Colin McKenna, who was born with Williams Syndrome). He has positives in his life but has to work through past pain.
These characters become key ingredients in a story that ends up being far more engrossing and impactful than is often seen in a genre that has a clear formula. Yes, the circumstances are stretched to certain limits that border on flipping the film over the edge. However, director Nick Sarkisov finds the right beats to go after, allows his actors to come off quite naturally, and does a proper job staging the final fight as intensely as necessary.
Embattled may seem like too generic a title, but enough is going on underneath the surface to have audiences thrilled by the outcome and the journey to get there.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and VOD on November 20, 2020.
The Setup: Indebted to the stories of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, siblings Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan Nash) try to help their parents (David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie) overcome the death of their eldest son, along with other hardships, by embracing their young imaginations and setting out on familiar fairy tale journeys.
Review: With a creative premise and a weirdly stacked cast that not only features Jolie and Oyelowo, but Michael Caine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Clark Peters, and Derek Jacobi, this is a fairly muted film. Once again, it proves to be difficult to bring Peter Pan to the big screen effectively, even with the assistance of Alice and some Wonderland familiars.
Director Brenda Chapman, known for exceedingly good work on some Disney classics, along with directing The Prince of Egypt (and originally Brave, before Pixar replaced her), seems to have an eye on bringing out the fantastical in the bleakest of settings – England, following the death of a child, and yet there’s never enough done to fully realize the ideas on display. This is a somber film without engaging in the fun possibilities.
Even from a production standpoint, while there’s enough staging to get across certain ideas, it’s up to the actors to bring some life to a world where Lost Boys, pirate ships, and a Mad Hatter are all available to be utilized to a better extent. It all ends up feeling like a jumble of a film that, at 90ish minutes, was cut down from something larger to a point where the plot is discernable but left with little to connect with.
In the end, Come Away had the chance to work a lot better but gives into visual references that hold onto nothing all that clever by invoking them. While not a long film, I just wanted it to go away.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters and OnDemand.