Despite some recent thoughts online speaking to the idea of having no Oscar ceremony this year, I’m here with yet another set of reviews for a variety of films that all represent 2020’s year in cinema. Do these all belong in the Oscar conversation? Not from my perspective, but in getting to my reviews, I’m more aligned with the thought that current events related to the world haven’t stopped awards from being handed out in the past, and this year should be no different. That in mind, this week’s reviews feature a historic trial, a new Woody Allen feature, an exorcism horror flick, a college comedy, and a horror-comedy. The following features reviews for The Trial of the Chicago 7, A Rainy Day in New York, The Old Ways, Shithouse, and Vampires vs. The Bronx.
The Setup: Based on the story of the Chicago Seven, a group of defendants (Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, John Carroll Lynch, and Jeremy Strong, among others) charged by the federal government with conspiracy and inciting to riot are forced to contend with an unfair trial presided over by a belligerent Judge (Frank Langella).
Review: Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, this is the kind of film with all the semblance of a prestige blockbuster that could have arrived back in the 90s or 80s and been met with massive acclaim and box office success. There are actors cast against type, big speeches, a soaring score, and enough clever wordplay to make the film entertaining enough, despite the drama on display. And yet, it feels like it’s being held back from being more affecting thanks to playing as the type of film it could be.
Don’t get me wrong, this film works overall. It has a lot to say as far as connecting to our current state of things in America, in addition to being very well-acted (between Mark Rylance’s work as radical lawyer William Kunstler and the extended cameo from Michael Keaton, Sorkin has a great lineup on his hands). However, despite the effort to allow the film some other angles on how to cut together a courtroom drama, it’s missing a certain amount of impact by the time we get to the text boxes alerting us to what happened next, in reality.
Knowing Steven Spielberg was once attached to direct, after the fact, I can see where this may be coming from. Sorkin’s work, particularly when it comes to adding some sort of idealist message, comes from a place that feels like Spielberg-lite, to put it bluntly. His penchant for witty and cutting dialogue only goes so far when he has to also account for someone like Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, a guy that’s ultimately too nice-seeming to work as effectively. Compared to Cohen’s stellar work as Abbie Hoffman (serving as a reminder that he would have made an excellent Freddie Mercury if things went as originally planned), Redmayne can’t help but come off as a bit milquetoast.
The film is not without its effective amount of edge and portrayal of moments that seem sensationalized to the point of needing to question their reality, only to realize this film actually tamed some aspects down. Watching Abdul-Mateen’s outrage as Black Panther Bobby Seale, a man lumped in with the Chicago Seven (because a black man would ‘ideally’ make the group seem scarier to a jury), is the most effective based on the clear extremes he’s unfairly facing. As a viewer, one has to put up with a lot to handle Langella’s take on Judge Hoffman, who is so obviously terrible, yet rooted in reality.
Still, as handsome a production as this is (though reliant on a washed-out color palette to evoke “serious period drama”), the actors may have come to play, but it’s difficult to sell a lot of the cliché setups and payoffs established in the characters, before getting to final moments meant to inspire, only to come off somewhat muted. Perhaps this all seems lukewarm than it should, but just know The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a stacked cast who are all doing the work well, and many well-written scenes capitalizing on the anger and ridiculousness of a government working hard to ban ideas countering its own flawed logic.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and coming to stream on Netflix, October 16, 2020.
The Setup: Gatsby Welles (Timothee Chalamet) and Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) are a couple attending a liberal arts school in Upstate New York. Yardley is a gambler from a wealthy family. Ashleigh is an aspiring journalist with a naïve sense of being. The two plan for a weekend in the city, only to be bombarded with bad weather and a series of misadventures keeping them apart.
Review: There’s a lot more that works than doesn’t in this very breezy Woody Allen film. Now that it’s found a home at a new studio (MPI Media Group), audiences can have the chance to see a strong and mostly young cast work with Allen’s dialogue the best they can. Fortunately, it’s quite entertaining, even if it doesn’t amount to a whole lot. Plus, Vittorio Storaro’s wonderful cinematography certainly does proper justice to Allen’s favorite city.
As far as the performers go, aside from having the obnoxious name of “Gatsby Welles,” Chalamet does a convincing enough take on the Allen persona (even if it sometimes feels more like he doing Owen Wilson doing his Allen). While the character ends up being rewarded more than he should, he bounces around the film confidently enough, eventually finding a more common partner in the form of Selena Gomez’s Chan Tyrell.
Perhaps it’s a credit to Allen’s ability to write for female characters, but Gomez may actually be the strongest of this cast in finding the exact rhythm of Allen’s script. Still, there are plenty of veteran actors doing solid work, notably Liev Schrieber as an insecure director with many previous hits, trying hard to deliver another masterpiece. Jude Law plays an older Allen type, who is incredibly neurotic and concerned about his wife’s (Rebecca Hall) possible infidelity. Plus, Diego Luna pops in as a famous actor who woos the starstruck Ashleigh, whose adventures amount to being overwhelmed by all of the film personalities around her.
Taking place over mostly a 24-hour period, A Rainy Day in New York does well in putting the audience all over town, yet finding ways to provide long takes of dialogue, witty banter, and an overall design that allows the use of location to stand out quite well. Give or take some tricky monologues (Cherry Jones shows up to both provide masterful acting work, yet speak of awkward subject matter to her character’s son, Gatsby), and there’s a film here that is quite loose and familiar for Allen, yet still enjoyable.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Premiering at the Sitges Film Festival 2020 in Spain, The Old Ways is a horror film focused on Cristina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales), a Mexican American reporter, who has returned to her ancestral homeland to chase a story on witchcraft and faith healers. However, she ends up becoming the subject of her own story. Cristina finds herself held against her will after a bruja and her son determine she has a demon within her.
Review: With little knowledge of what I was getting into, going in, The Old Ways does a fine job of presenting an updated exorcism story. Despite the obvious classic that is apart of the genre, I don’t tend to get too much out of exorcism tales, so finding one with a modern edge and some spirited (literally) performances, director Christopher Alender did a lot to fill this story with life.
Part of it comes from all the rich texture. Setting the film in a more exotic location, compared to what we typically see in these types of films, allows for a very detailed perspective brushing up against mythology connected to ancient Mexico. Regardless of how much true-to-life elements the film attempted to go for, on a minimal budget, The Old Ways seems like a film that did the research to bring together some neat ideas for horror scenarios, along with enough plays on demons and brujas.
Another key element is the work of the performers. While finding moments to breathe, there are a lot of intense moments for the actors to work with, particularly Canales. She manages to handle the scenario well, bringing the audience into her predicament, complete with confusion, suffering, and wild dreams forcing her to confront certain truths. On top of that, you have supporting players that include Andrea Cortez, Julia Very, and Sal Lopez, who all have specific roles that may or may not be trusted.
Speaking of the horror of it all, this is not a film that pulls too many punches, given what it has to work with. Getting creative with a film like this is always welcome, and The Old Ways is not short on inventive moments when it comes to scares or viscera. People will see some stuff in this movie, and while it supports a great good of getting across some wild ideas, it’s also gross in that fun horror movie way.
It is key to see the entertainment value here. For a story set largely in one location, audiences are going to get plenty from how The Old Way stretches the imagination to deliver a strong, culturally specific exorcism tale, complete with assured direction and committed performances. This bruja does the job.
Where To Watch: Currently touring festivals but slated for a U.S. release in 2021.
The Setup: A homesick and lonely college freshman, Alex (Cooper Raiff), goes to a party at the fraternity nicknamed “Shithouse” and ends up spending the night with his sophomore RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula).
Review: Perhaps I should be thinking more fondly of what writer/director/star Raiff has accomplished with this low budget debut film. From what I can tell, with the help of friends and a dedicated crew, he put all of his efforts into telling this very human and relatable story about coping with moving forward in life and embracing new experiences. Sure, the film’s title hints at something with either more edge or more lewdness, but that’s not the case here. Instead, Shithouse is a fairly sweet film about smart people dealing with insecurities.
The key to this film’s success is Raiff’s choice to make his character both caring and clearly fallible. He may have a lot of self-awareness and a desire to be as kind and fair as he thinks he can be, but he’s also challenged by Gelula’s Maggie many times, and rightly so. While not a dominant co-star as much as a key supporting character, we learn a lot about Maggie, which gives us a lot of context as to why she can’t simply just be the person Alex wants her to be.
There’s a lot about this film dealing with the awkwardness of young college kids trying to figure out what’s appropriate, where they fit in, and the simple task of making friends. With this, we get a lot from Alex when it comes to observing his loneliness. Compared to other films, there’s a minimal amount of quirk, where Alex has mental conversations with a stuffed animal on his bed. However, outside of this, the film is largely played straight and in an honest manner that feels unique for a college comedy-drama.
That in mind, as it was originally set to debut at South by Southwest (though it still won a Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature), there is enough taking place where it would have been nice to see a big audience reaction to the more comedic aspects (let alone cringe-comedy moments). Where else can you see a fight that attempts to be packed with layered anger, as well as references to the correct understanding of 13 Going on 30? It’s specific choices like this (Raiff also tries to shout out Gravity to little avail at another point) that give Shithouse an identity and a sense of fun amid the college kids relationship drama unfolding.
Thanks to sharp writing and solid performances (which also include a reliable Amy Landecker as Alex’s mom and Logan Miller as Alex’s obnoxious roommate), Shithouse works a lot more than the average college movie. It has a lot of heart, along with a DIY approach that makes it land quite well.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and VOD on October 16, 2020.
The Setup: A group of young friends from the Bronx fight to save their neighborhood from gentrification…and vampires. It will be up to this young group to stave off blood-sucking demons to protect their homes and local bodega.
Review: With a set of young characters who range between “wants to grow up and be cool to quickly” (Jaden Michael) to “precocious young man” (Gregory Diaz IV), Vampires vs. the Bronx makes it fairly easy to chart the path this movie will go on. The same can be said for the menace that is a group of vampires that are about as threatening as they need to be at a given moment. It may be slight, but this is entertaining and an ideal way to bring kids into horror, particularly when it comes to matching that element with a diverse cast.
If the thought is to match this up against Attack the Block, sure, Vampires vs. The Bronx is nowhere near that level of quality from any perspective. However, beyond speaking to just how lacking cinema is in horror films featuring a young, diverse cast, it does show just how much fun you can get with quirky ideas that happen to incorporate some relevant social messaging.
Rather than focus on how black and brown lives in New York are in danger from a more authoritative threat regularly, this film looks at gentrification, with the clever use of vampires working with the literal metaphor. Using these monsters as characters looking for a home to build a nest, they can spread from is quite clever, and the general premise surrounding this idea works in the film’s favor.
Adding on Sarah Gadon and Shea Whigham as individuals who plainly stick out is a nice touch as well. There’s not a lot that’s new when it comes to adding to the vampire mythos, but the various vampires (and familiars) we see all have the kind of flair one looks for, even in a lower budget film such as this.
Director Oz Rodriguez does what he can to work with the “Netflix look” of it all, but I appreciated the culturally specific references, character interactions, and more to make for a brief horror-comedy fit for a broader audience. Between this and Hubie Halloween, there seems to be enough working in favor of the genre when it comes to satisfying various age groups.
Where To Watch: Available now to stream on Netflix.