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And the best movies of 2020 are …

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing disruptions to every aspect of American life, it makes sense that typical patterns associated with movie awards, year-end lists, etc., would be altered. The Academy Awards, arguably the most prestigious honor in American film, has pushed its ceremony honoring 2020’s best to April 25. It has also extended its award eligibility period to Feb. 28, meaning movies represented at this year’s celebration may include pictures that didn’t reach American viewers until well into 2021. 

In the interest of compiling the best possible list, I too, decided to wait, cramming in as many pictures as possible before settling on my top 10 of 2020. But, one can’t procrastinate forever. Two weeks into the new year, I believe I have a list of great films that every movie lover should seek out. As is appropriate for a year that saw more high-profile pictures go direct to streaming than ever, many of my favorites are available with nothing more than a subscription to a streaming platform. Read on for my estimation of the best films to hit screens – big and small – during 2020. 

10. “7500”:  When originally reviewing “7500” in June, I noted that it may actually play better in one’s home, and I stick by that assessment. Centered on the terrorist hijacking of an international flight, writer-director Patrick Vollrath creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that actually seems amplified when watching in a small space. Protagonist Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of two commercial pilots charged with protecting his plane, his crew and his passengers after the terrorists take control. The movie starts slowly but builds in intensity as Ellis makes one harrowing decision after another with the hijackers becoming increasingly desperate and violent. “7500” is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, and Gordon-Levitt is outstanding in every scene.  Available on Amazon Prime Video. 

9. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: Losing Chadwick Boseman to cancer at age 43 seemed too cruel, even during a year that brought endless misery and loss. To watch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Boseman’s last screen appearance – is to revisit that cruelty. We are reminded what a remarkable talent he was because Boseman drives the film from start to finish, and he does so with the chops of a master. If Boseman wins a posthumous Academy Award for his performance (and he should at least receive a nomination), some will believe it is out of sympathy. That thought should be dispelled now, as it diminishes his incredible work. In “Ma Rainey,” based on the like-titled August Wilson play, Boseman plays Levee Green, a trumpet player in a music world where black artists are mercilessly abused. Although capable of writing and playing with the best, Levee is relegated to backing Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a black diva who has achieved enough fame and success to hold sway over white record producers. During the course of the film, viewers receive a glimpse into the lives and histories of Levee, Rainey and a handful of other characters while also receiving a treatise on the brutally unfair culture black musicians faced in the 1920s. At times the George C. Wolfe-directed movie reads like the play that inspired it, but mostly it is sublime. Available on Netflix.

8. “Rebuilding Paradise”: Director Ron Howard’s documentary film about the most-deadly wildfire in California history has a special place in my heart because I live less than 30 miles from the city of Paradise, which was irreparably scarred when the fire roared through on Nov. 8, 2018. For residents of Butte County, where Paradise is located, the apocalyptic feeling that has become normalized by the pandemic, arrived several years early. In the days following the fire, local skies were filled with so much smoke and ash that going outside, sans mask, was ill-advised, and there is lingering pain knowing that 85 locals perished in the blaze. But where there is tragedy, hope often follows. Howard’s movie does a great job capturing the horror of the blaze, but it does equal work showing the resilience of community members. The movie is presented cinema verité style, and it is a gem for anyone interested in the power of natural disasters and the recovery process that follows. Available to rent or purchase on most streaming platforms.

7. “News of the World”: Tom Hanks starred in two noteworthy features  in 2020 (“Greyhound” was released on Apple TV+ in July), but “News of the World” is the best of the pair. In “News,” co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass, Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran who ekes out a living travelling from town to town and reading newspaper stories to eager, paying audiences. His simple life is disrupted when he comes across a young girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised by Indians after they slaughtered her family. When it becomes clear that he is the only hope of the girl returning to her kin, the two set off on a dangerous journey across the Western frontier. “News” is beautifully filmed and acted, and it serves as a nice tribute to great Westerns of the past as well as being a fine film on its own. Available in select theaters. 

6. “Hamilton”: Some may argue that Disney+’s filmed version of the “Hamilton” musical doesn’t count as a feature film release. I respectfully disagree. Although assembled with footage from several live performances, it meets the definition of a movie, and — with most American theaters closed – it’s about as close as we can get to a real Broadway experience. More importantly, “Hamilton” is an incredible piece of art centered on key events in U.S. history. If you aren’t already sold, consider the cast. Creator Lin Manuel-Miranda is joined by Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo and a host of other top-flight talents. The music is great, the script is clever, and the filmed presentation gives you the best seat in the house. Available on Disney+.

5. “The Personal History of David Copperfield”: Director Armando Ianucci’s film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” novel is a treat. The film, like the book, centers on the trials and tribulations of a young man whose relatively happy childhood is disrupted by a vindictive stepfather. That is not, however, the end of David’s (Dev Patel) journey. The young man experiences triumphs, failures and everything between, and Ianucci’s presentation is captivating. Patel’s fantastic title performance is strengthened by a supporting cast that includes Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi and Daisy May Cooper.  Available to rent or purchase on most streaming platforms. 

4. “Soul”: Pixar has pushed the limits of animation since it arrived, and “Soul” delivers another landmark moment. That’s because it is the first Pixar effort that – arguably – plays best to adults. The focus is on a jazz musician (voiced by Jamie Fox) who is forced to confront the deepest questions of human existence, including the meaning of life, death and individual purpose. The PG-rated animated film is, like all Pixar efforts, gorgeously rendered, and while there is nothing offensive or troubling for youngsters, the thematic elements are so deep that it’s hard to imagine anyone under 10 leaving with a full appreciation of the content. Yet audience members of any age will find a great deal to dissect and enjoy. In my estimation, this movie has already earned a place among the best animated pictures of all time. Available on Disney+.

3. “The Prom”: Unlike “Hamilton,” which is a filmed version of a musical theater production, “The Prom” is a complete adaptation of its namesake Broadway show. That means, the stage was replaced by sets, and the choreography was designed directly for the screen. Producer/director Ryan Murphy knows about screen musicals, thanks to the success of his hit TV series “Glee,” and he puts everything he learned with that show on display. “The Prom” focuses on Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), an Indiana high schooler who accidentally creates a media circus by planning to take her girlfriend to prom. When a host of struggling Broadway stars – led by one-time-great Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) learn of Emma’s plight, they decide to come to the rescue, but not everyone in Indiana wants hotshots from Broadway calling the shots. The film is fun, meaningful and loaded with wonderful music by Matthew Sklar and David Klotz. James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key and Kerry Washington also star. Available on Netflix. 

2. “Mank”: It’s cliché for a film critic to list a movie about movies on his year-end list, but I’ll take the abuse as long as it means I can have “Mank” in my life. The picture – directed by David Fincher – is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s struggle to write “Citizen Kane,” and it is as lush and detailed as all Fincher films. Mankiewicz’s is perfectly portrayed by Gary Oldman, and we also get an Oscar-caliber performance by Amanda Seyfried, as Marion Davies. The latter appears because Davies was the longtime mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and anyone familiar with “Kane” knows the movie is a thinly veiled critique of Hearst and other moguls from his era. “Mank” meditates on the publisher’s influence, the tenacity of “Kane” director Orson Wells (Tom Burke) and the flaws – and brilliance – of Mankiewicz. It is a wonderful companion piece to “Citizen Kane,” but it stands on its own as long as one has an elementary understanding of the history of the earlier picture. Available on Netflix. 

1. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”: Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s dramatization of events leading up to and following the violence-marred anti-war protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention is an achievement. The 130-minute movie primarily dissects the court case of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale, all of whom were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot. The cast is a powerhouse, with Sacha Baron Cohen playing Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Hayden, Mark Rylance as attorney William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an assistant prosecutor, Frank Langella as judge Julius Hoffman and Michael Keaton as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The movie is insightful, moving, beautifully produced and as timely as they come. Available on Netflix.

THE NEXT 10

These movies didn’t make my top 10 cut, but they are outstanding nonetheless. 

11. “The Midnight Sky” (Netflix)

12. “Rebecca” (Netflix)

13. “Onward” (Disney+)

14. “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix)

15. “Death to 2020” (Netflix)

16. “King of Staten Island” (HBO Max/buy)

17. “Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix)

18. “The Banker” (Apple TV+)

19. “Love and Monters” (rent/buy)

20. “Mulan” (Disney+)

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Inaugural Critics Choice Super Awards winners

As a member of the Critics Choice Association, I was involved in the nomination process for the first Super Awards. The winners were announced Sunday night during a presentation on The CW. Here is the entire list.

The Super Awards are focused on genres that are often underrepresented by traditional film awards programs.

While these awards are chosen by a vote, I feel the need to say that you should absolutely watch “Soul,” “Da 5 Bloods” and “Palm Springs” if you haven’t already. All are fantastic.

FILM WINNERS FOR THE INAUGURAL CRITICS CHOICE SUPER AWARDS 

BEST ACTION MOVIE 

Da 5 Bloods (Netflix) 

BEST ACTOR IN AN ACTION MOVIE 

Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods (Netflix) 

BEST ACTRESS IN AN ACTION MOVIE 

Betty Gilpin – The Hunt (Universal) 

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE 

Soul (Disney+) 

BEST VOICE ACTOR IN AN ANIMATED MOVIE 

Jamie Foxx – Soul (Disney+) 

BEST VOICE ACTRESS IN AN ANIMATED MOVIE 

Tina Fey – Soul (Disney+) 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE* 

The Old Guard (Netflix) 

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPERHERO MOVIE* 

Ewan McGregor – Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPERHERO MOVIE* 

Margot Robbie – Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.) 

BEST HORROR MOVIE 

The Invisible Man (Universal) 

BEST ACTOR IN A HORROR MOVIE 

Vince Vaughn – Freaky (Universal) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A HORROR MOVIE 

Elisabeth Moss – The Invisible Man (Universal) 

BEST SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY MOVIE 

Palm Springs (Hulu and NEON) 

BEST ACTOR IN A SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY MOVIE 

Andy Samberg – Palm Springs (Hulu and NEON) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY MOVIE 

Cristin Milioti – Palm Springs (Hulu and NEON) 

BEST VILLAIN IN A MOVIE 

Jim Carrey – Sonic The Hedgehog (Paramount) 

* Superhero categories also include Comic Book and Video Game Inspired Movies 

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Stream Dreams: Trio of solid films hit major video platforms

The Covid-19 pandemic has created the most significant disruption to the film industry that most Americans have seen. Although many theaters have been allowed to reopen (typically with limited capacity), they have done so with little blockbuster content and a public not entirely prepared to embrace a product where communal gathering is part of the experience. The situation is bad enough that Mike Sampson of Vulture wrote a veritable eulogy to movie houses in early October. Some things have changed since that article was released – constant change, after all, is the new normal – but exhibitors are still in danger.  

In the meantime, studios have tested the waters of digital distribution, pushing films once targeted for theaters directly to pay-per-view and streaming platforms. All the while, digital disruptors like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ have continued to pump out fresh content. If the trio of films that hit the latter platforms this week is an indication of what’s to come, movie houses have more reason for concern. For the price of about three movie tickets, consumers can access each of these pictures, while also gaining a month of access to all the other content these platforms have. This is an enticing prospect because each of these films could proudly play in a traditional theatrical environment.  Here’s a look at each …

Rebecca

3½ stars

Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Ben Wheatley

Available on: Netflix

It is enticing to call director Ben Wheatley’s 2020 version of “Rebecca” a remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic, but that would be overly simplistic. Like Hitchcock’s film, the new “Rebecca” is based on the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, a book that has seen several adaptations for stage and screen.  

Certainly, fans of the Hitchcock film should enjoy this 21st century take on the tale, which is as dark and intriguing today as it was in 1938. The action centers on the relationship between a young, naive woman (Lily James) who is swept off her feet by Maxim de Winter, a charismatic widower with a massive English estate called Manderley. The two impetuously marry, but life is not as the young Mrs. de Winter had dreamed.

Upon arrival at Manderley, it is immediately clear that the estate lives under a pall cast by the memory of Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter tries desperately to ingratiate herself with the house staff, especially the stiff head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Alas, her efforts mean nothing, because the ghost of Rebecca is everywhere, most importantly within the psyche of her new husband. 

Obviously, this new version of “Rebecca” was timed for a Halloween release thanks to its gothic roots, but it isn’t really a horror film. Rather, this is a tale of psychological suspense asking viewers to consider the power of memory and the human capacity for psychological manipulation. This is a neo noir that feels both modern and nostalgic. It is contemporary in the sense that James, Hammer and Thomas are very much modern movie stars, and Wheatley knows how to frame a beautiful, 21st century image. 

The scenery sparkles, and the cinematography has the luster of a Golden Age masterpiece. There are elements of the plot that feel dated, but not significantly enough to make the viewing experience unpleasant … and readers of the book will likely appreciate this film’s climax more than Hitchcock’s. This version of “Rebecca” is dynamic, beautiful and haunting, just as it should be. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

3 stars

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova

Director: Jason Woliner

Available on: Amazon Prime Video

For fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, a Borat sequel is the reward for 14 years of faith and anticipation. Was it worth the wait? Mostly. 

Cohen once again, takes on the persona of Borat Sagdiyev, a journalist from Kazakhstan, a nation bridging central Asia and Eastern Europe. Kazakhstan is a real place, and one can reasonably argue that Cohen has unfairly stigmatized the nation as racist, backward and inept. Of course, one can also argue that Cohen unfairly stigmatizes most of the targets of his razor-sharp wit. Limiting one’s critique to that narrative would, of course, miss the valuable social statements that are buried within the oft-boundary-pushing humor that Borat is built on. 

We learn at the start of “Subsequent Moviefilm” that the fallout from the first Borat movie has landed him a prison sentence marked by years of hard labor. He is released, however, when the leader of Kazakhstan offers Borat (the country’s best-known journalist) an opportunity to travel to America with a gift for Vice President Mike Pence. You see, the Kazakhs have learned that President Trump has an affinity for authoritarian leaders, and they hope to foster the same type of friendly relationship the American president has with Vladimir Putin. 

So, Borat travels to America and – through a plot device best discovered on one’s own – ends up on a road trip with his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova). On the quest to deliver the present, Borat finds himself everywhere from a Jewish synagogue to a hotel room with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The politically savvy reader is already aware of the fallout from the Giuliani sequence, and it is just as shocking as everyone has read.  

The conceit of Borat comedy, of course, is that – although there is a loose plot – most of the bits are filmed with nobody outside Cohen and his production crew in on the gag. So, the reactions one sees from non-cast are supposed to be real. That makes it shocking when Borat, say, asked to buy a cage for his daughter and the owner of a feed store happily shows his best option. Of course, nobody outside of Cohen and his coconspirators know how much of the film is set up and how much is organic … but the sequences are raw enough that viewers get the impression that a healthy portion of the onscreen antics involve unwitting dupes.  

Throughout the movie, Cohen dons a variety of disguises to keep his identity hidden, likely because the Borat character is so easily recognized after the success of the first movie. I’ve seen at least one critic note that the disguises don’t make sense within the context of the film, and that’s a fair critique. Why Borat would lose his trademark suit in favor of overalls and face prosthetics is unclear, but if the stunts are what you come for, you are rewarded. 

Cohen’s humor is dark, biting and relentless. He has a clear point of view and targets far-right conservatives with venom. Because of this, there will be plenty of people in America who find the film more offensive than funny, but those who share Cohen’s outrage with the direction the country has taken may laugh harder than they have in some time. 

On the Rocks

2½ stars

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans

Director: Sofia Coppola

Available on: Apple TV+

Writer-director Sofia Coppola isn’t for everyone. She is an obvious talent buttressed by an elegant, easygoing style that results in moments ranging from sublime to dull. Alas, it’s her tendency to linger too long on simple notions that will leave some viewers cold. 

“On the Rocks” is reminiscent of her 2003 directorial smash, “Lost in Translation.” That film told the story of an aging movie star – played by Bill Murray – facing a mid-life crisis. For, “On the Rocks,” Murray is back, but this time as a more-self-assured older man who volunteers to help his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones) through a marital crisis. 

Murray plays Felix, a charming senior who still has a way with the ladies. We learn from Laura that he wasn’t a great dad. He was a womanizer even as a family man, something he unapologetically explains as part of the male DNA. Laura, being a kind soul, has maintained a loving relationship with her father nonetheless, and she turns to him when she begins to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair. 

Murray, of course, thinks this is a foregone conclusion because Marlon is a man. This attitude stokes Laura’s concerns, but she also finds comfort in the obvious love that her father has for her. Womanizer or no, Murray does care for his daughter and demonstrates a willingness to go to great lengths to protect her.

Although Laura’s romantic crisis serves as the film’s dramatic arc, the real meat of the issue is in watching father and daughter interact. This is a film about men and women and relationships. On the one hand we have Laura and Dean, who seem like an ideal couple, apart from the nagging hints that Dean could be fooling around. On the other hand, we have Laura’s relationship with Murray, a man who hurt her throughout childhood despite the assumption he was there as her guide. That these men seem both different and alike is intentional, and viewers are meant to think about the way role models and past experience shape our world view. 

The trouble with “On the Rocks,” assuming one has a problem, is that Coppola takes so much time telling such a simplistic tale. For those who enjoy low-key, persistent examinations of the human condition, this may not be criticism at all. Indeed, Coppola gets credit for the simplicity and authenticity of her work. 

Jones and Murray are fantastic, and “On the Rocks” has plenty to unpack for those willing to make the effort. The question is whether you’ll find the carefree presentation compelling enough to expend that energy. 

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‘Love and Monsters’ is frightfully fun

AT A GLANCE

Love and Monsters

Critical rating: 3½ stars out of 4

Directed by: Michael Matthews (“Five Fingers for Marseilles”)

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Dan Ewing, and Ariana Greenblatt

Rated: PG-13

Available Oct. 16: Releasing via Premium Video-On-Demand and as a digital purchase on most platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Sony PlayStation Video and FandangoNOW

Once upon a time, “Love and Monsters” was slated for big-screen release under the title “Monster Problems,” but a variety of factors resulted in its move to premium video with a new name.  Honestly, “Love and Monsters” is the better title because the movie is both a quirky adolescent actioner and a sweet romantic fable. 

The focus is on Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), a sweet kid who is separated from his high school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), by the Monsterpocalypse, a cataclysmic event prompted by a meteor on a collision course with Earth. In an effort to avoid the Armageddon, mankind launches a massive nuclear strike, which works great until the fallout floats down from space, turning every cold-blooded creature into horrifying, oversized predators. Without warning, toads and cockroaches are elevated from scurrying pests to alpha predators, and what’s left of humanity is forced into underground colonies.  

Life on the surface is dangerous and frightening thanks to the massive pests that like nothing better than to snack on human interlopers. Because of that, trips above ground are short-lived, limited in scope and attempted only when absolutely necessary. Although Joel’s colony periodically sends people out for food and supplies, he is relegated to the bunker since he has a reputation for freezing at the most inopportune moments. It’s not a reputation he likes, but it is deserved. 

After years of hapless searching, Joel miraculously locates Aimee using his colony’s radio system. He happily discovers that she is only 80 miles away, but 80 miles might as well be the moon considering the dangers of the outside world. Nevertheless, Joel decides that his love for Aimee is worth dying for, so he packs a bag and heads above ground, determined to make it to his long-lost girl. 

This is a decidedly romantic proposition, and the love Joel has for Aimee is less dysfunctional than that driving most young adult love stories. But … “Love and Monsters” is more than romance. The bulk of the story is about Joel coming to terms with the tragedy that brought him to this point while learning that he has more to offer than anyone – including himself – is aware.  

His journey brings him in contact with a rugged survivalist name Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his young charge, Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). The two take Joel beneath their wings and teach him valuable survival skills, which immediately come in handy. 

“Love and Monster” has a heart, but it certainly doesn’t shortchange the audience on the monster front. Joel and company face off against a variety of creatures who are beautifully rendered and truly frightening. Director Michael Matthews walks the fine line between whimsy and horror, presenting a movie that oozes both attitude and fun. 

O’Brien, best known as the lead from the “Maze Runner” franchise, is a solid leading man capable of comedy and drama. He’s called on to deliver both throughout the film, and the result is pleasant. Rooker, Greenblatt, Henwick and the remainder of the cast are also capable. Only Joel’s character is developed beyond a surface level and, while it might have been fun to get a deeper look at the others, this isn’t a problem. 

“Love and Monsters” may not become a classic, but it is a truly good time. It’s scary enough to work as a Halloween film, romantic and funny enough to transcend the horror genre and written with both an edge and wit. Writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson deserve significant credit because – while genre-crossing films are sought after – they don’t always work. “Love and Monsters” not only works, it does so exceptionally well.  

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‘The War With Grandpa’ is a mixed bag

AT A GLANCE

The War With Grandpa

Director: Tim Hill (“Hop,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Max Keeble’s Big Movie”)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Laura Marano, Poppy Gagnon, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken

Rated: PG

Critical rating: 2½ stars out of 4

Photo courtesy of EPK.tv
Robert De Niro, left, and Oakes Fegley star in “The War With Grandpa.”

According to Margaret Atwood, “War is what happens when language fails.” According to director Tim Hill, it’s what happens when Peter is forced from his bedroom by an unwelcome visit from Gramps.    

That’s right, “The War With Grandpa” tells the story of Peter, a precocious sixth-grader who gets worked up when his mom, Sally (Uma Thurman), and dad, Arthur (Rob Riggle), force him into the attic so Grandpa Ed (Robert De Niro) has a place to sleep. Ed doesn’t want to displace Peter, but a bad encounter with a self-checkout machine convinces Sally that her recently widowed father needs to be closer to family. Since Ed is an old man and Peter’s sisters – Mia (Laura Marano) and Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) – share a room, the kid draws the short straw. 

One might expect a youngster to get excited by the prospect of an extended stay from Grandpa, but Peter is more selfish than the average kid. This is a problem area in the script, but viewers should feel some sympathy because Mom and Dad don’t have the decency to fix the leaky roof in Peter’s new home in the attic.  

I can’t help but think most sixth-grade boys would dig the prospect of converting an attic to a living space, but not Peter. After going to war with a huge bat (Mom and Dad didn’t clear that out either), he decides it’s Grandpa who needs to pay. So, Peter makes a formal declaration of war … and Ed buys in. Pretty soon we’re witnessing a May-December prank-fest with countless pratfalls, significant property damage and, of course, a little grandpa-grandson bonding. 

Anyone who has seen more than a dozen family films knows where this one is headed as soon as it starts … because the other possibilities are hopelessly dark, and “The War With Grandpa” is only dark if you stop long enough to think about it. Director Tim Hill, who brought us “Hop” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” is not the sort to do gloomy. His films are bright and cheerful, and “The War With Grandpa” is clearly meant to be a warm, slapstick comedy about a friendly feud. The movie IS entertaining.  

De Niro and Thurman are too good – and too famous – to be in a picture like this. The same can be said for Christopher Walken, who appears in several key scenes as one of Ed’s buddies. These actors elevate the movie to a degree, and I admittedly laughed, probably more than I should have. 

That said, “The War With Grandpa” is not objectively good. It mixes TV comedy plotting with an A-list cast and thematic elements that are slightly disturbing. It’s hard to like a kid who won’t willingly give up his room to a senior who is nothing but kind to him. The physical comedy is also harder to laugh at knowing the real-world outcomes of virtually every stunt would be an extended hospital stay for Grandpa, likely followed by a permanent spot in a senior home.  And that analysis allows for the rather optimistic assumption that Grandpa would survive. Yes, this war is extreme.

I do understand this is a movie and suspension of disbelief is part of the game. If you are willing to embrace a cinematic world where Grandpa can fall from towering heights without winding up in a coma and where Peter is too dim to see this as a horrifying possibility, “The War With Grandpa” is sort of fun. It also includes the requisite sappy finish and condemnation of war that youngsters need to see. Both are handled awkwardly, but they are better present than not. 

Although Mom and Dad never address the terrible condition of Peter’s attic room, we are led to believe there is love in this family. We also see that Peter’s war puts a spring in Ed’s step that wasn’t always there. In other words, if you read the film the way Hill wants, it’s sweet. We just have to hope real-world sixth graders know they shouldn’t duplicate these stunts at home.  

Should you watch? That depends on how desperate you are for family entertainment. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but that means there are better ways as well.  

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“Mulan” a beautiful … and original … live-action reading of the Disney classic

AT A GLANCE

Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

Rated: PG-13

Available: Stream now with Premiere Access on Disney+ (cost is $29.99, plus a Disney+ subscription). On Dec. 4, the movie will become available to Disney+ subscribers without the additional $29.99 fee 

Critical rating: 3½ stars out of 4

Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises
Yifei Liu plays the title character in “Mulan,” Disney’s update of the animated classic.

By Forrest Hartman

First, it’s important for readers to know that I am, generally, a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes of animated classics. There is a school of thought that sees virtually every remake as unnecessary, and many amongst that crowd seem particularly invested in shaming the Mouse House for its continual returns to the well. I get the reasoning. Why mess with art that worked the first time around? The obvious answer is that – assuming said art has value – one can open it to new generations and perhaps even expand the appreciation of those who loved it initially.  

By presenting a classic work through a new lens, artists can explore new ideas, flesh out previously squandered sub-themes and occasionally reframe a work altogether. Shakespeare festivals and theatrical directors have made an industry of this, and nobody complains because the results are so often sublime. 

Personally, I find the transition from animation to live-action particularly rewarding. The two forms can tread the same ground … but the viewing experience is inherently different. With animation, we are separated from the characters in a visceral sense. This – along with the ability to hyper-stylize settings – allows artists to easily transition to the realm of fable. Advances in special effects have aided live-action filmmakers in this regard, but there is no denying that human actors, for lack of a better word, “humanize” the works they touch. Disney has exploited this possibility both successfully (think “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella”) and stutteringly (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dumbo”). 

With “Mulan,” one must start by noting that the story is not really Disney’s. The plot comes from a centuries-old Chinese folk tale about a female warrior who poses as a man in order to take her father’s place in combat. Despite the lengthy history – and the non-Disney films the story has inspired – it’s the success of the 1998 animated musical that most modern Americans remember. 

Curiously, Disney and director Niki Caro decided to stray substantially from the foundation laid by the 1998 film. This “Mulan” is not a musical, and it is decidedly more realistic than its predecessor. This may be distressing for those hoping for a faithful adaptation – ala “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) – but the differences are refreshing. This “Mulan” is many things, including a family drama, a tale of female empowerment and a rather beautiful martial arts adventure. That these elements are not routinely merged, works in the movie’s favor, as does Yifei Liu, a 33-year-old actress who successfully passes as a teenager.

In the U.S., Liu is probably best known for publicly endorsing the Hong Kong police and, thus, creating headlines and unintentionally inspiring a #BoycottMulan movement before her film was even ready for release. Although this movement has gained steam with the film’s streaming debut, I predict the actress’s performance will outshine the controversy. Regardless of how one feels about her politics, Liu is a talent, and her embodiment of “Mulan” is striking. 

This live-action retelling reinforces how difficult it would be for a woman to successfully pass as a man in a military setting. In fact, one scene spawned memories of the wonderful 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” featuring Hilary Swank as a transgender man struggling to present himself to the world. This version of “Mulan” is not, however, solely interested in the complexities of identity. It is interested in attacking social structures that paint women as less capable than men. This theme plays out not only in Mulan’s story, but in a subplot about a powerful witch named Xianniang (Li Gong). Both Mulan and Xianniang – although on opposite sides – know oppression. 

As in the Disney cartoon – and the folk tale before it – Mulan enters the military to fulfill a duty asked of her father (Tzi Ma). Although he agrees to go to war, Mulan knows that he is too old, so she sneaks away, pretending to represent her family as a son. Her spirit, skill with martial arts and powerful chi soon prove she is the most powerful soldier in her unit. 

Although Mulan is thematically interested in big ideas, including charachter and equality, it is also a fine fantasy film filled with beautifully crafted martial arts sequences. Caro’s previous directorial efforts – including the wonderful 2002 drama “Whale Rider” – demonstrate her ability to build empathy for characters, but they don’t hint at the level of skill with which she tackles action. Some of the battle sequences in Mulan are reminiscent of pure martial arts movies, including the wonderful 2000 effort “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise since a number of fine martial artists were involved, Donnie Yen and Jet Li amongst them. The excellent battle footage adds a dynamic edge to the movie, making it easier to invest oneself in the combat than is possible in an animated film. 

Ultimately, it is difficult to say whether the live action “Mulan” is better than its animated predecessor. Fortunately, one needn’t make that assessment. This “Mulan” is its own creation, significantly changed, yet thoroughly pleasing to watch.  

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New podcast featuring Forrest

If you’ve always wanted to hear Forrest talking about everything from sports to politics (and who hasn’t), you can catch him doing just that on the Dealer’s Choice podcast. During each episode, Forrest and longtime professional journalist Josh Nagel co-host a show where they talk movies, sports, music, current events and whatever else comes to mind. Tune in!

https://dealerschoicepodcast.com

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‘7500’ is a thriller that feels perfect at home

AT A GLANCE

7500

Directed by: Patrick Vollrath

Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Carlo Kitzlinger, Aylin Tezel

Rated: R

Available on: Amazon Prime Video beginning June 18

Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4

Photo Courtesy of Amazon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the thriller “7500,” available June 18 on Amazon Prime Video.

By Forrest Hartman

German writer-director Patrick Vollrath has created one of the most claustrophobic, intense, well-acted movies of 2020, and these qualities are advantageous in a streaming media environment. Since the Covid-19 pandemic has largely put big-screen features on hold, we’ve had time to reflect on the difference between watching at home versus in a theater. The shared big-screen experience has joys that will never be recreated in one’s family room, but there are certain pictures that actually play better at home. I believe “7500” is one of them. 

The terrorist thriller is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, included with the popular Amazon Prime delivery service, and the reason it feels so good in a home setting is that Vollrath and co-writer Senad Halibasic have gone out of the way to make it the antithesis of blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Much of the appeal in the latter movies is spectacle. The scope of those pictures is massive, as they transport viewers to different worlds, balancing dialog and exposition against action sequences that are literally packed with mind-blowing special effects. “7500” is smaller in every way, and that’s a good thing. 

The movie starts at a leisurely pace, with Vollrath introducing us to our protagonist, Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of two commercial pilots in charge of a flight from Berlin to Paris. Viewers enter the cockpit, where Tobias gets to know the flight’s captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), and works through routine pre-flight tasks. There’s not much space in the plane, and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler keeps the framing simple. This works well in a home viewing environment. If you watch with the lights dim, you might even feel as though you are sitting beside Tobias and Michael, helping them prepare for the trip. Unlike the spectacle that makes “Avengers” films special, “7500” is intimate, and intimacy works in our houses.  

Vollrath does some of his finest character development before the plane leaves the ground. Before takeoff, we know that Tobias is in a serious relationship with one of the flight attendants. They aren’t married, but they live together and have a child. They also strive to keep their professional and private lives separate. Michael is established as a serious-but-amiable captain, and we learn that – despite Tobias’ youth – he has been flying for a decade. Each of these seemingly mundane details matters, and Vollrath refuses to rush through them with shortcuts. That patience pays dividends later. 

Although “7500” begins at a trot, it hits full gallop about 20 minutes in, when one of several terrorists forces his way into the cockpit. This starts a chain of events leading Tobias to a series of near-impossible choices, all elevating the tension for the remainder of the picture’s 90 minutes. Throughout, Vollrath and Thaler remain focused on Tobias because this is his story. 

Gordon-Levitt is a talent, who has turned in impressive work in projects ranging from the Christopher Nolan thriller “Inception” to the cancer drama “50/50.” Here, he is typically self-assured. Tobias is mild-mannered and kind, but also smart and disciplined. He doesn’t always make the right choices, and it’s enjoyable for viewers to imagine what they would do in his place. But … what is the right choice in an impossible situation? The movie is intriguing because it shows a good man doing his best to find hope in a terrible place. Saying that Gordon-Levitt’s performance is among the best of the year so far, is minimizing his efforts since the cinematic year is so off-kilter. But this is great work.  The supporting cast is also solid, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s film, as every twist centers on Tobias’ decisions.  

Vollrath makes the most of the confined setting … something that could hurt a weaker filmmaker. In some respects, “7500” must have been easy to produce. A single location, small cast and minimal set dressing all speed the shooting process, but these things come with restraints. When all the action is set in an airplane cockpit, there are no astonishing backdrops or special effects to use as a crutch. The weight of the storytelling is relegated to the script and its handful of actors … each forced to make up for the fact that the scenery is unchanged for 90 minutes. Again, this plays into the strengths of at-home viewing. 

As long as one watches distraction-free, it is easy to get sucked into Tobias’ world. It is easy to feel his pain, his anguish, and his uncertainty. And “feeling” is what great directors make us do.          

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‘Artemis Fowl’ a Streaming Mess

AT A GLANCE

Artemis Fowl

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonzo Anozie, Colin Farrell and Judi Dench

Rated: PG

Critical rating: 1½ stars out of 4

Photo Courtesy of Disney
Ferdia Shaw plays the title character in "Artemis Fowl," available now on Disney Plus.
Photo courtesy of Disney

Ferdia Shaw stars in “Artemis Fowl,” available now on Disney Plus.

By Forrest Hartman

It’s fair to say Kenneth Branagh is capable of greatness. We know this thanks to memorable acting turns in films ranging from “Dunkirk” to “Othello” (1995) and because of his equally thrilling work behind the camera. 

Branagh is the rare screen star who has shown as much talent and breadth as a director as he has when chewing scenery. Although much of his directorial work is centered on Shakespeare adaptations – think “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” – he has proven himself equally capable in the superhero (“Thor”) and mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) genres. 

Branagh is also adept at entertaining the family crowd, as one of his most-charming directorial works is Disney’s 2015 live-action reimagining of “Cinderella.” That fact made his attachment to the “Artemis Fowl” screen adaptation promising. Originally, intended as a May theatrical release, the movie was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and shifted to a June 12 debut on the Disney Plus streaming service. Since most of Disney’s high-profile 2020 pictures have been delayed rather than shifted to this platform, one imagines executives knew what they had when Branagh turned it in. It’s not good. 

Although we know Branagh is capable of greatness due to his lengthy body of work, almost everything we know about the title character in “Artemis Fowl” is due to voiceover narration or poorly developed plot contrivances that leave too much to the imagination. In fact, “Artemis Fowl” is so poorly developed – both in terms of characterization and world building – that it’s hard to imagine how Branagh would let this pass.  

The same can be said of the admirable cast. Ferdia Shaw, who plays young Artemis, is joined by Colin Farrell (Artemis Fowl Senior), Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell and Tamara Smart. There is enough ability in this group for one to expect a serviceable film. Instead, we get a hodgepodge that – although nifty to look at – alternates between confusing, dull and outright frustrating. The latter is true because there is good material to work with.  

The movie is based on the well-received young adult novels by author Eoin Colfer, and the focus is on the title character, a 12-year-old so bright that he has no patience for school. The intolerance stems from the fact that Artemis knows more than virtually everyone, including his teachers and the psychologist who ineffectually attempts to knock him down a peg. Viewers learn these background points through terse narration and a handful of hasty scenes that do nothing to build empathy with Artemis. That’s problematic because one has to care about him to invest in the adventure that follows.

Although young Artemis hates school, he dotes on his father (Artemis Senior), a single parent who thrills his son with fanciful stories about fairies, goblins and other mystical creatures. These seem like fantasy tales until Artemis Senior goes missing, and young Artemis discovers that his father has actually been feeding him the secrets of a hidden world. What’s more, Artemis must tap into that world to save his dad.  

The movie’s visuals are admirable. In fact, they are quite good for a picture included as part of the base, original content of a streaming service. These are special effects one would expect from a big screen feature … because that’s what was initially intended. It’s not easy to make fantasy material look believable, but Branagh and his crew succeed on that front. 

Viewers are legitimately transported to a land where fairies and goblins are real, and it’s all very dazzling and Harry Potter-like. “Artemis Fowl” would seem, then, to be a perfect film for fans of that series. Alas, the Potter features are painstakingly mapped out so viewers understand the rules of the magical world they enter. This is not so with “Fowl,” which teases viewers without elaborating. That leads to a long string of questions that are never adequately answered. 

Equally annoying is the lack of time given each key character. Artemis Junior is an outline at best. His father gets too little screen time to serve as anything other than a treasure for Artemis to chase, and Holly Short (a fairy who is key to the action) makes life-altering decisions with whimsical ease. Even the narrator, a “giant” dwarf named Mulch Diggums, is little more than a sketch. One might chalk this up to too many cuts if the film was longer, but at 93 minutes, “Artemis Fowl” could have added plentiful background without overstaying its welcome.  

Every writing coach tells students to “show” readers what’s happening rather than “tell” them. The same advice is crucial with film, but “Artemis Fowl” is invested only in telling. Viewers never see the souls of the characters and – because of this – they’re never allowed to feel much of anything.  A movie without feeling is a movie that fails.

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Critics’ Choice Award Winners

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

The 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards were doled out Sunday in Santa Monica. The awards are voted on by the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Forrest is a voting member) and Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Following is a complete list of winners.

FILM AWARDS

BEST PICTURE

“Roma” (Netflix)

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale – “Vice” (Annapurna)

BEST ACTRESS – TIE

Glenn Close – “The Wife” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Lady Gaga – “A Star Is Born” (Warner Bros.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali – “Green Book” (Universal)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Regina King – “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna)

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS

Elsie Fisher – “Eighth Grade” (A24)

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE

“The Favourite” (Fox Searchlight)

BEST DIRECTOR

Alfonso Cuarón – “Roma” (Netflix)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Paul Schrader – “First Reformed” (A24)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Barry Jenkins – “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Alfonso Cuarón – “Roma” (Netflix)

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Hannah Beachler, Jay Hart – “Black Panther” (Disney)

BEST EDITING

Tom Cross – “First Man” (Universal)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Ruth Carter – “Black Panther” (Disney)

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP

“Vice” (Annapurna)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

“Black Panther” (Disney)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (Sony)

BEST ACTION MOVIE

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (Paramount)

BEST COMEDY

“Crazy Rich Asians” (Warner Bros.)

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY

Christian Bale – “Vice” (Annapurna)

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY

Olivia Colman – “The Favourite” (Fox Searchlight)

BEST SCI-FI OR HORROR MOVIE

“A Quiet Place” (Paramount)

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

“Roma” (Netflix)

BEST SONG

Shallow – “A Star Is Born” (Warner Bros.)

BEST SCORE

Justin Hurwitz – “First Man” (Universal)

 

TELEVISION AWARDS

BEST DRAMA SERIES

“The Americans” (FX Networks)

BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Matthew Rhys – “The Americans” (FX Networks)

BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Sandra Oh – “Killing Eve” (BBC America)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Noah Emmerich – “The Americans” (FX Networks)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Thandie Newton – “Westworld” (HBO)

BEST COMEDY SERIES

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Bill Hader – “Barry” (HBO)

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Rachel Brosnahan – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Henry Winkler – “Barry” (HBO)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Alex Borstein – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

BEST LIMITED SERIES

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX Networks)

BEST MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

“Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” (NBC)

BEST ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Darren Criss – “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX Networks)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION – TIE

Amy Adams – “Sharp Objects” (HBO)

Patricia Arquette – “Escape at Dannemora” (Showtime)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Ben Whishaw – “A Very English Scandal” (Amazon)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Patricia Clarkson – “Sharp Objects” (HBO)

BEST ANIMATED SERIES

“BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)

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