It’s Christmas time! But…we’re not in Hollis, Queens. Still, it’s a week of celebration for many, and there are certainly options out there when it comes to films (though some not as soon as others). That in mind, in addition to my previously published reviews for Soul and The Midnight Sky, this set of write-ups includes a long-awaited superhero sequel, a 50s romance drama, a couple of plays come to life, featuring some larger-than-life characters, along with an older man trying to hold onto his wits and memories, and an Indian action film. The following features reviews for Wonder Woman 1984, Sylvie’s Love, One Night in Miami, The Father, and Jallikattu.
The Setup: It’s 1984, and Diana (Gal Gadot) lives a quiet life in Washington D.C., secretly thwarting crimes until a mysterious object causes some wild changes in her life, including the metamorphosis of her socially awkward friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig) into a powerful extrovert, the rise of oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), and the reappearance of her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Review: The fun thing about superhero sequels is getting to see the true intentions and themes a filmmaker wants to tackle with the character after getting the origin story out of the way. As director Patty Jenkins is less pronounced and prolific than other filmmakers who have been in this position, I was curious what a go-for-broke Jenkins Wonder Woman film would be. Interestingly, as opposed to taking things in a darker direction or being a bigger version of the first, Wonder Woman 1984 doubles down on the first film’s strive to find optimism in desperate situations while amping up the colors, lighter sensibilities (compared to the Snyder DC films), and other elements to challenge the notions of what makes superheroes heroic.
Minimizing the action down to a grand prologue (shot with IMAX cameras), an early attempted mall heist, a car chase, and some fights toward the end with Wiig’s Cheetah, this 152-minute feature is not only unafraid to take its time but to be about something. For all the effort done in film and television to capitalize on nostalgia, I actually enjoy how Jenkins’ film is nostalgic for the time of Richard Donner’s Superman films. There’s an old-fashioned nature to how WW84 plays out, which is to rely on characters discussing their position in life, the things they want, the things they lost, and the sacrifices they would make.
For all of this effort, the long runtime also serves to highlight some shortcomings. While the chemistry between Gadot and Pine continues to be a highlight (even with a slight role reversal), a reliance on dialogue scenes doesn’t always play well to Gadot’s strengths. Wonder Woman is a very physical character, so removing that generally leaves the other actors doing most of the work. Fortunately, they are all pretty great. Pine remains strong as “Best Chris,” and while Wiig may seem like an unconventional choice, it’s easy to buy the role she starts in, let alone the transformation she goes through. Pascal is terrific in a role that could easily be seen as a Trump stand-in, except Maxwell Lord is not unabashedly evil. Instead, there’s a desperate and empathetic character on display. The final confrontations between these characters work particularly well because of the layered characteristics they’ve been imbued with, even if a few shortcuts have been taken along the way.
WW84 is a superhero movie, so the sort of things any viewer would want are delivered with a nice level of scale and spectacle. However, the film still feels like a stronger, character-focused script than a fully realized cinematic vision. That in mind, in the realm of female superheroes, girls and young women have something here emphasizing how to be strong, even when it doesn’t involve dramatic battles. The various efforts made to highlight intelligence, self-defense, and mercy are certainly notable, and though the film’s style of super-heroics may not be the most shining example for the genre, WW84 commits to its central ideas and is unashamed of doing so.
Where To Watch: Available on HBO Max on December 25, 2020.
The Setup: A woman (Tessa Thompson) working at her father’s record store in Harlem in the late 1950s meets an aspiring saxophone player (Nnamdi Asomugha). Despite aspects of their lives working to keep them apart, they can’t help the attraction they share with one another.
Review: From a conceptual standpoint, Sylvie’s Love has an interesting setup. Writer/director Eugene Ashe has chosen to make a 50s-set melodrama evoking Douglas Sirk’s work, the new element being the focus on an all-black cast. While I can’t say I totally fell for the overarching story being told, there’s too much style and effort on display to push it aside. Evoking women’s films of the past, along with the mood of Sirk’s closest modern contemporary, Todd Haynes, Sylvie’s Love does stand out based on its craft and the interesting developments it puts in front of the lead characters.
Being a new take on a women’s film, Thompson’s arc outside of her love interest is a good one, as we watch her go from aspiring to work in television to climbing up the ladder over time. During this time, we watch her contend with her reality built on an engagement of convenience and challenges threatening to upset her goals. At the same time, Asomugha goes after what he wants while exhibiting his skills as a musician. The two share nice chemistry, but I found some limits on Asomugha’s part when it came to varying his emotional range.
With wonderful cinematography from Declan Quinn, a throwback score by Fabrice Lecomte, and excellent effort put into the production and costume design, there’s still a lot to admire about how this feature came together. Providing a mix of sets and archival footage, this really is a great display of atmosphere. It plays well in resting on certain conventions, despite utilizing a cast of color. Even with that choice, while social themes play a role, it’s less about making a grand statement, and more focused on changing the perspective.
I wish there was more to praise about the film in terms of its central relationship. There’s a certain level of expectation that doesn’t make it a problem in terms of seeing where things are going, but it’s also not quite as strong for various reasons as I would have liked. The deliberate sense of pacing also makes the film feel like its near-two-hour running time. All of this in mind, there’s too much artistry on display to pass this film up, let alone the confidence in taking a traditional story and giving it a new spin.
Where To Watch: Available on Prime Video on December 25, 2020.
The Setup: On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) joins Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and they discuss the responsibility of being successful black men during the civil rights movement.
Review: What a juicy premise this is. The idea of taking four notable black figures and basing a whole story around a night they share together feels like the perfect clash of personalities for the sake of multiple engaging conversations. One Night In Miami manages to mostly cash in on this. As a directorial debut, the film features good work from Regina King, who is sure to get all she needs out of her actors. The film never quite rises above feeling like it’s stuck in one location, and the nature of these particular figures, two of which have already been played so memorably on screen, does hold the film back a bit. Still, little of this takes away from the fun of its premise.
Following a bit of backstory to establish where each of these men are in their lives, the film’s real joy comes from getting them together to start talking about the times. Each of these guys has personality to spare, and seeing how things shift and change from the celebration that should be occurring, based on the big win Clay had against Sonny Liston in the boxing ring that night, to more tense confrontations concerning the individual stances these guys are taking, it’s interesting to watch the progression.
In 1964, watching these characters go over the notion of representation in a pre-Black Power Movement time of place means showing which of these characters is more suited for taking a stand over the other. The most notable performances, in that regard, come from Ben-Adir and Odom. Malcolm X will always be a fiery presence, but Ben-Adir does a fine job of keeping him more grounded than he may be in one of his speeches. Odom, however, gets to run through the gamut of emotions, as he must deal with being somewhat on the outside of what his friends have been experiencing, choosing to play along with the times more, only to realize what kind of influence he has and what he could do to set a different kind of example. Plus, he gets to sing. It’s great stuff.
With a score by Terence Blanchard and brief appearances from many other familiar faces, despite its limitations, there really is a lot to like about what’s pulled off in this adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play (he adapted his own work for the screen). The conversation about the film may end up having more to speak of than the actual film, but One Night in Miami is still worth anyone’s time, as it’s an entertaining piece of work.
Where To Watch: Available in limited release in theaters December 25, 2020, and on Prime Video on January 15, 2020.
The Setup: Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) refuses all assistance from his daughter (Olivia Colman) as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind, and even the fabric of his reality.
Review: This is the second of two films I’ve covered based on stage plays, and between these two, along with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Father is the best. That could be due to the film’s plot being the most suitable for a cinematic treatment, emphasizing how time and space require a more constricting perspective. Contending with a main character whose mind is unreliable and having the audience being forced to see what he sees anyway means trying to figure everything out as it goes along. That’s a tricky story to cover, yet Florian Zeller, the original play author, does an excellent job with his directorial debut.
Key to the film’s success is, of course, the great work from Hopkins, who does something more than some may expect when it comes to watching an older actor play a man experiencing dementia. A lot of that comes from the wily ways of Hopkins, who has always known how to add a sense of fun in his performances. That’s not to say the circumstances we are watching are enjoyable, but Hopkins’ wry sense of humor is on display, even as he becomes more and more frustrated by his lack of understanding certain aspects of his life.
Only helping are the supporting performances from Colman, along with Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, and Olivia Williams. Each is given the tricky task of portraying certain types of people where their actions are informed by the scene’s context, which can quickly change unexpectedly. As the film is largely set within an apartment, the way the mood changes depending on the nature of the scene and whom Hopkins believes he is speaking with at the time means the actors are always having to dig into their roles in a manner unique to their role, yet similar to the others as well. Again, this is tricky stuff, and there’s no doubt the role of the editor, Yorgos Lamprinos, is key in having things come together as they do.
Looking at where this all goes for Anthony, it may feel inevitable for The Father to land on a conclusion that’s emotionally charged. I have little doubt the children of those who have suffered similarly as they have gotten older will find things to relate to. At the same time, being put in the position of the person going through these dramatic changes, let alone processing this as it’s happening, there’s ideally a sense of reckoning with the emotions of this sort of material. Still, whether or not The Father functions as a way to deal with things, this film’s execution is fantastic.
Where To Watch: Available in limited release February 2021.
The Setup: Set in a remote village, when a ritual buffalo slaughter goes wrong, and the animal escapes, frenzied chaos ensues as the villagers attempt to capture the beast, with various forms of violence breaking out.
Review: The logline for Jallikattu was simple enough, but I was not prepared for how mesmerizing this film would be in terms of the cinematic delivery of such a primal story. Director Lijo Jose Pellissery has been working for a decade, but he’s new to me, and a filmmaker I may have to catch up with, as the sense of style and assured confidence in putting this unique action film on display is marvelous. Think The Raid, but with a bunch of villagers focused on catching an animal that does not want to deal with any of these people.
Right away, it’s clear Jallikattu has a plan for the viewers, as it provides sensory overload with its intriguing sound mix and editing style. This is less a film that doubles as an anthropology assignment and much more of a pulse-pounding action flick that derives its big set pieces from animal-based attack scenes and the people’s frustration adhering to their ways while trying to solve a clear issue. While we get a sense of who some of the main players are, it is the male part of the society that receives the most focus, and they are fittingly a mess of egos and personalities trying to stake their claim when it comes to this buffalo.
Relying on an impressive array of techniques ranging from what appear to be some pretty wild stunts to the exciting score by Prashant Pillai, there’s no shortage of ways to keep the excitement up during the film’s 94-minute runtime. And even while taking in the various forms of action taking place, there are still interesting dynamics between some of the characters speaking to universal themes involving different cultures, let alone the idea of justice, what it takes to lead, and what it means to sin.
Jallikattu is India’s submission for Best International Feature Film. While it’s not the kind of film that could go on to win the big prize (it totally should, though), it’s a visceral pleasure to watch, with the kind of action that just registers on a whole other level thanks to creative filmmaking, the approach to the story, and the understanding of how to make a film like this leave an impact.
Where To Watch: Now available on Prime Video.