[Early Review] Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
Screenplay: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
132 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language.

There’s been a level of uncertainty surrounding the MCU following the finale of the Infinity Saga. As Avengers: Endgame came to rest, fans everywhere were overjoyed by this conclusion to the story, and a few of us were left wondering, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a fair question, of course. No cinematic universe has been more ambitious or successful as the MCU, but even so, how could they top that ending? As solid as Spider-Man: Far From Home was, it was seen as an epilogue to the story, instead of being a jump-start to the next film. Then, 2020 and COVID gave us the first year since 2009 without an MCU installment. Even 2021’s Black Widow was set during Phase 3 and acted more as a sendoff to a beloved character than a true starting point for what was next. We were fools, of course, not to trust Marvel, a studio that has consistently triumphed in spectacle and action and also seems to be consistently gaining speed in the general artistry of their epics. The newest installment, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, feels like a breath of fresh air and a reminder that this world is far from stale, and it’s indeed the best origin story the MCU has had in years.

Shaun (Simu Liu, Women Is Losers, TV’s Kim’s Convenience) and his friend Katy (Awkwafina, Ocean’s Eight, TV’s Awkwafina is Nora From Queens) are virtually inseparable. They both work together as valets during the day and spend their evenings hanging out, living in the moment, and trying to make ends meet, and it doesn’t seem like this cycle will break anytime soon. That is, until a group of trained killers board their bus, looking for Shaun and a necklace he’s wearing. After dispatching the foes with a blend of incredible martial artistry, Shaun is forced to reveal that his real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s a trained master of martial arts and son to a criminal mastermind, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love, Europe Raiders), known as The Mandarin. Now, Shang-Chi and Katy are on a mission to reunite with his long-lost sister and foil his father’s dangerous plan. In doing so, Shang-Chi will be forced to confront a past he ran away from and a legacy he has tried to hide.

I’m very unfamiliar with Shang-Chi, the local bookstore where I would hunt down old comic books never had any back issues as far as I knew, but I knew just bits and pieces and hoped for the best here, and I was blown away by this film. It’s a classic action epic fantasy more so than any singular superhero tale, dealing with strange new environments, lots of mythology and mysticism, and spectacular creature design. If you removed the MCU connections, this movie could very much stand on its own and be just as entertaining, but know that Shang-Chi is stepping into a larger world only makes me more excited for where this character is headed, and all of that stems from an incredibly strong lead performance from Simu Liu. This is the first time I can recall seeing Liu perform, and I was enamored with his ability to flip between the serious emotional family drama on display and the playful Marvel tone so easily. He never stumbles, and none of the drama or comedy feels forced into the situation. When I’d heard that Marvel had cast the guy that tweeted them for the role, I was very uncertain, but Liu’s ability to hold his own against Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Boss Level) confirms to me that he has a long career ahead of him.

Another aspect of the film that concerned me on the outset was the decision to revamp the character of the Mandarin. I am a huge fan of Iron Man 3 and I actually loved how they pulled the rug out from under viewers, revealing that the Mandarin was really Trevor Slattery, a cheesy character actor playing up to the more stereotypical aspects of the villain, and he was used as a front for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. The Mandarin is a tricky character in the comics, a very stereotyped character that plays to the offensive fairly often, so I found the Slattery reveal to be a high point of the Shane Black sequel, and when I heard that this film would retcon the Mandarin, I was pretty frustrated, but the combination of Tony Leung’s performance and the way he is incorporated into the already laid-out mythology of the MCU’s Mandarin is so classy and interesting without a hint of disrespect to what came before. In fact, they honor the previously-established mythology so well that I giggled with glee throughout most of Leung’s scenes. I’m a big fan of Leung’s work already, and I already knew he was going to knock his performance out of the park, but Xu Wenwu will likely go down as one of the stronger MCU villains, showing that the studio is again willing to learn from its villain problem and create a nuanced character antagonist. Part of that stems from the collaboration between director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) and Leung in crafting the character, with Leung given more control than most to create the villain, and he’s a sympathetic, but never weak, villain that you can understand even if his actions cannot be condoned.

It also cannot be overstated how much Awkwafina adds to this movie. Almost more egregious than their villain problem is Marvel’s way of dealing with the romantic leads in their films, and though I wouldn’t state that Katy is a romantic lead even though there’s an obvious hint at something under the surface, she’s dealt with significantly better than Thor’s Natalie Portman or Doctor Strange’s Rachel McAdams, to name a few. For starters, Katy is given way more to do in the film, and there are several sequences, particularly in the film’s third act, where she is given the spotlight and it all works just as well. Her character arc still runs alongside Shang-Chi’s, but she consistently plays a part in the narrative and is never discarded or forgotten in the story, playing an integral role in the story, as well as a healthy dose of comedic relief and some of the best chemistry of all the MCU in her scenes with Liu.

I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings after only catching the first trailer (one of the benefits of closed theaters for all of 2020 was not getting beaten over the head repeatedly with spoilery trailers), and I think it’s best to avoid ruining some of the many surprises in store for viewers, so I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the fight scenes are intense and beautifully shot, there are battle sequences that feel on par with other fantasy epics, and the creatures in the film vary from cute and cuddly to horrifying and monstrous, and I was never bored at all throughout the film. There’s always a worry when a filmmaker steps up to the blockbuster plate after being so successful at indies (while many are able to accomplish this feat, not all of them are able to), so I’m pleased that Cretton takes the independent film sensibilities he’s used all his career and applies it to a big budget studio tentpole, creating one of the most unique tones and experiences of the entire MCU. This one stands on its own two feet but leads to some interesting places for where the character and series can go from here.

I grew up watching a lot of movies that featured people that looked like me, and as I get older, I tend to find the more interesting stories tend to be the ones surrounding people who don’t look like me. Shang-Chi features a lot of amazing mythology that feels like a window into another world, and it’s also really important that the MCU, 25 films deep at this point, finally has an Asian Leading Superhero. Shang-Chi had many failed attempts to get to the screen stretching all the way back to the 1980s with an adaptation in the works that would’ve features Brandon Lee, and there was an attempt back in 2001 as well with numerous directors entering and exiting the project. It took a long time, but at least the film we’ve been waiting decades for is pretty much the best case scenario, a movie that expands on that classic Marvel storytelling formula but goes in some completely unexpected directions. I had loads of fun with this character and this world, and I’m so excited to go back to the theater when this opens to see it again. Much like DC’s The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings showcases a bright future for the MCU, and this film comes with my highest recommendation.

5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, click here.
  • For my review of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, click here.
  • For my review of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, click here.
  • For my review of Leythum’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.
  • For my review of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War, click here.
  • For my review of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, click here.
  • For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, click here.

[Early Review] The Suicide Squad (2021)

Director: James Gunn
Cast: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Flula Borg, Mayling Ng, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
Screenplay: James Gunn
132 mins. Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity.

A follow-up to 2016’s Suicide Squad has gone through a great many permutations since the original film opened to less-than-stellar reviews and reports of serious studio meddling on the part of Warner Bros. At various times, filmmakers like David Ayer, Mel Gibson, Gavin O’Connor, and Jaume Collet-Serra, were connected to the project before James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super) stepped on board as a writer and director. Gunn, fresh off the controversy with Disney that led to his firing, put a lot of himself into this new film, and it seems he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. I was very excited to see this film, and I was able to catch a press screening of the film last week. I’m happy to say that The Suicide Squad might be the best installment of the DCEU yet.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Fences, Widows) has reassembled Task Force X with some new and familiar faces in an effort to destroy Jötunheim, an experimental laboratory on Corto Maltese. As before, each of these thirteen inmates of Belle Reve have an explosive device in their skulls and, if they survive, they get time removed from their prison sentences. Under the leadership of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop, Edge of Winter), Task Force X begins their mission in bloody fashion, but they’ll soon find that Jötunheim is a much more protected stronghold than they’ve faced before, and it contains some secrets that perhaps should not be found.

There are simply too many characters in this film to spend time on each of them, and don’t assume that, because I didn’t talk about someone, they die earlier or aren’t worth it. I’m going to focus on the particular characters that stood out most to me, and I’ll just say that I enjoyed every single character in this movie. Gunn found a way to give each of them a POP that made them memorable in the film. Perhaps the film’s greatest fault is more of a strength in that I enjoyed all of these characters so much that I didn’t want them to die, but knowing this is a Suicide Squad movie, some of them need to die. Gunn reminds us throughout his screenplay that the odds are heavily stacked against Task Force X, and that makes for a more exciting movie experience because of it.

I would argue that this film doesn’t ignore the original Suicide Squad (or Birds of Prey) as much as interviews and reports have led us to believe. It doesn’t out-and-out reference these previous films, but it certainly isn’t trying to hide them away either. In fact, Gunn does a great job at incorporating some of the legacy characters of Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, I, Tonya) is perhaps the best she’s ever been in the DCEU, and part of that comes from a mutual understanding of the character for Gunn and Robbie. Her character arc in this film sensibly builds on what she did in her first two appearances, and there’s the idea of Quinn as a catalyst of chaos, much like her former beau, that works quite well because the film isn’t resting on her shoulders. Even Rick Flag and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Terminator Genisys, Jolt) feel like natural progressions of their characters, while Amanda Waller is the same hard-ass from the previous film, but I like the added lack of emotion she feels here when members of the Squad suffer or die. She had that in the previous film, but it’s further expanded upon here.

Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation, Concrete Cowboy) is quite spectacular here as Bloodsport, a new addition to the universe who has such a pessimism for the mission but is forced into by Waller. Having seen Elba as an action superstar in other movies, it’s nice to see him play around with the idea that he has no faith in the mission and a complete understanding of his odds. He also has great interplay with the others in the Task Force X team.

Other notable introductions here include David Dastmalchian (Prisoners, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) as Polka-Dot Man, a character with a memorable screen presence and an interesting ability and Sean Gunn (The Belko Experiment, Ordinary World) as Weasel, a kind-of anti-Rocket Racoon, a clumsy and disturbing humanoid creature without any truly special abilities, but if I’m being fair, it is John Cena (Bumblebee, F9: The Fast Saga) who steals the show as Peacemaker, a criminal who sees himself as a hero, a protector of peace, no matter who he has to kill to make it happen.

Therein lies James Gunn’s greatest strength as a director: his ability to pull the best performances from his actors. He made Dave Bautista a better actor through their collaboration, and here again he has found a way to further develop Cena’s talents to make Peacemaker the standout character of the entire film. I never thought I’d be saying that, but it’s impossible to deny.

Gunn has a remarkable directing style that stands out even in studio pictures, and The Suicide Squad feels like a James Gunn movie with a big-ass budget. He’s in his realm, making the kinds of movies he’s always made, but now he has the money to stand behind his vision. As a screenwriter, he’s always been able to embrace the insanity in a way many others have tried and failed. Here, he has a ragtag group of villains that we shouldn’t be rooting for as they do reprehensible things to survive an unsurvivable mission, facing off against some of the weirdest antagonists in the comic book realm, and yet, he accomplished just about everything he sets out to do here. Having seen the film already, I just cannot wait to see it again.

If I’m looking for a flaw, and there are so few, I would have to say the only frustrating part of the film is a nitpick. I really like how the film presents its title cards almost like chapter headings, but a few of them were tough to read in the style they chose. I know, it doesn’t seem like a big deal because it isn’t, but it’s truly the only problem I had with this movie. Perhaps a tightening up of a few minutes in that transition from Act II to Act III, but again, nothing that I feel is ultimately a large problem for this film.

I had loads of fun with The Suicide Squad, and while I’m not ready to call it the best film in the entire DCEU yet (I’m still torn between this one and Shazam!), I have nothing but praise for this movie and the terrific work of its cast and crew. It’s batshit crazy in all the right ways, producing one of the most unique cinema experiences I have had in a long time, especially for a film fitting within a larger cinematic framework. The Suicide Squad is the kind of movie that the DCEU, the superhero genre, and the theater needs right now, and it’s unlike anything the DCEU or the MCU have done yet. See this one as soon as you can (because there will be spoilers abound on release weekend), and if possible, go to the theater to see it, because the big screen experience matches the big bombastic movie that James Gunn has crafted here.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe


  • For my review of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, click here.
  • For my review of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Theatrical Cut), click here.
  • For my review of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, click here.
  • For my review of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.

[Early Review] Stillwater (2021)

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
140 mins. Rated R for language.

I’ve been waiting on a follow-up to Spotlight for some time now. Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler) exploded as a director with his film about the Boston Globe uncovering the Catholic Church’s history of child molestation cover-ups. I’ve heard mostly solid things from my colleagues on McCarthy’s newest film, Stillwater, but I had no real intel on the film, and I didn’t know much going into it save for Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot) being oddly cast as an oil rig worker. Surprisingly, Damon is among the better performances in this film that mostly succeeds even with a more muddled climax.

Bill Baker (Damon) has been back and forth between his small town of Stillwater and Marseille to visit his incarcerated daughter Alison (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland: Double Tap), who is in prison for murder. When new information surfaces but the lawyers refuse to look into it, Bill takes it upon himself to investigate the info, and he gets the help of Virginie (Camille Cottin, Allied, TVs Call My Agent!) to assist him with navigating the legal system and the language barriers that exist with the differing cultures.

It’s hard to play a character that doesn’t seem to talk throughout the entire run time of the film, and yet Matt Damon tackles the role of Bill Baker in a surprisingly honest way. He doesn’t speak long emotional monologues, but he speaks in every gesture, displaying the wide array of emotions through a quiet and more subdued performance of visual tics and believable character building, and while I don’t agree with his choices throughout parts of the narrative, I can understand his reasoning, however flawed it can be. I can’t deny that even as I watch Bill lie to his daughter in the opening moments of the film, anger fueling me at the sheer stupidity of his false hope, I can still totally see why he would act that way.

There’s significant chemistry between Bill and his newfound friendship with Virginie as they play two entirely opposite people that have little in common other than the common decency of select humans. I was unaware of actress Camille Cottin before seeing here in Stillwater, and I was quite impressed with her turn as the actress aspiring to make ends meet for her child. The child, Maya, played by Lilou Siauvaud, is another standout performance here, specifically her scenes with Damon as he discovers a change to be a better father figure to her than he was with Alison.

Something else that struck me as quite powerful in Stillwater was the examination of culture, specifically in how it married the Oklahoman Bill Baker, full of Americana, burger-eating, and country-music-listening, to Marseille and the world that exists beyond our shores. The ways that McCarthy’s film examines the similarities and contrasts of the two worlds was quite effective and made for an interesting experience in viewing Stillwater.

Where the film falters is in its run time and its ending. For starters, this film is far too long, and to be fair, there’s a lot of film packed in here, but there’s simply no need for this movie to run 140 minutes. There’s an important plot adjustment in Act II that puts the film in a meandering state, where I felt that the character journeys took center stage at the detriment of plot. The character arcs are all quite interesting, but I was left wondering when we were getting back to what this movie was about. In fact, I had almost started wondering if the story would return at all before it did in a grand way. Unfortunately, the film’s main climax left me with too many questions about how events unfolded, what happened to certain characters, and the overall reality of the plot progression. I wouldn’t say any of this ruined the finished film, but my level of confusion and questioning caused me to try and make plot points fit together on the ride home from the theater. I’m not sure if some of this connections were in the script but excised in the editing bay or if they were never written in the film to begin with, but they pulled me out of the film.

With shades of Sean Penn’s The Pledge, Stillwater is full of pain, reckoning, and the forced acceptance of mistakes, and thankfully McCarthy injects a tiny bit of comedy in places where he can, or the film would be a drag of depression throughout. I really liked Matt Damon’s performance, and the think his character arc and the story are challenging and captivating, even if the ending drops off a bit. Stillwater is an interesting story, one we’ve seen before, but the infusion of cultural parallelism and a flawed but intriguing lead character make for an engaging film that I recommend.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Father’s Day] Vacation (1983)

Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, John Candy, Christie Brinkley
Screenplay: John Hughes
98 mins. Rated R.

Happy Father’s Day! I was wracking my brain about great cinematic fathers, ones that deserved to be recognized on such a special day as this, and while there were a number of contenders, there’s really no way I can avoid talking about the best of the best in terms of film daddies: Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase, Caddyshack, Panda vs. Aliens). There’s no one that exemplifies the American vacation ideal, complete with its many faults, like Clark Griswold, and considering Vacation is one of my all-time favorite comedies, it felt perfect.

Clark Griswold is a fairly simple American family man. He just wants one thing: to give his family the ultimate road trip experience. Their destination: Wally World, home of Marty Moose. It’s clear that fate is not on their side, though, as problems arise before they even leave town. The car Clark ordered for the trip is not in, they consistently lose luggage at every turn, and Clark’s mid-life crisis shows up in the form of an attractive woman in a Ferrari that seems to be going the same way. Through it all, Clark tries to maintain a level of sanity for the sake of his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, American History X, Frat Pack) and kids, Rusty and Audrey, but Clark is about to learn that getting to Wally World is only part of the journey.

John Hughes (Uncle Buck, Weird Science) seems to have had a hand in just about every major comedy of the 80s (okay, not really, but you know what I mean), and he based his screenplay off the short story “Vacation 58” that he wrote for the National Lampoon, based on elements of his own childhood. The script is clever, biting, and feels like something that you can jump right into at any point. In fact, when he presented the script to Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount, he criticized the plot for being “too episodic.” I would agree with him, though I see it as a strength. Everyone in America has gone through the best and worst kinds of vacation, and by writing it episodic, it doesn’t rely on the audience connecting with every single sequence. There’s a progression to the characters, most notably Clark, but the plot is presented in practically a vignette format, something that makes it easily digestible. Hughes was also clearly not above steering into uncomfortable territory. I’ve said it many times before, but this film is incredibly dark at times. No writer would even dream of doing the Bumper scene where Clark gets pulled over in today’s film landscape, and the scene is funny for how outrageous awful it is.

The script is not without its faults, though, and it’s perhaps the one area that loses the film its perfect status. The scene where the Griswold’s end up in a bad neighborhood does not work, and I’m not sure it ever did. It’s more that it has just aged very poorly. The idea that all black neighborhoods are filled with criminals just waiting for unsuspecting white families to drive through is just really bad taste, and I’ll applaud director Harold Ramis (Year One, The Ice Harvest) for admitting as much in his commentary for the film, calling it the most regrettable scene of his career. You can’t and shouldn’t delete this scene from the film, but it just stops the film dead now. The script also contained a really bad original ending involving a darker level of kidnapping, hostages, and plane hijackings that thankfully were replaced with the better ending that the film now has, and let’s be clear: I’m not even sure who put some of these scenes in the script originally (it is generally believed that Ramis and Chase did uncredited rewrites on the film switching the focus from the kids to the adults, and some of these poorer choices could’ve come from them.

When I go on vacations with my own family, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am the Clark of the group. I’m the planner who tries to squeeze in every bit of tourism, all the while clashing with those that just want to relax or skip some of the lesser destinations. I think that’s the most relatable element of these films and the character of Clark. He exists in every family, and either you know someone like him, or that someone is you. He also embodies the idea of meaning well. He loves his kids, he loves his wife, and he’s just in a perpetual state of screwup. That makes him someone to root for, even through all the other horrible things he has done in this franchise. Unlike other famous film characters, I cannot see anyone outside of the legendary Chevy Chase in the character. Chase, as an actor, brings a spark to Griswold that makes him a larger-than-life everyman, a charismatic meshing of the kind of the parent that we all have in our memories. My dad had elements of him, as do I. This is perhaps Chase’s most famous character, and that’s for good reason. It’s the best and funniest that the actor has ever been.

The supporting cast is all terrific here as well, and most everyone will talk about Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen or Randy Quaid (Independence Day, Brokeback Mountain) as Cousin Eddie, and both are terrific, but I also think they are better serviced in other films in this series. In particular, I want to single out the work of Imogene Coca (Hollywood: The Movie, Buy & Cell) as Aunt Edna. She’s a unique character to the franchise in that she only appears in this first film, and she’s excellent, mostly because she plays antagonistically with the entire Griswold family the entirety of her screen time. Coca originally turned down the role of Edna, fearing she couldn’t play mean enough for what the film needed, but she becomes wholly memorable for what she brings to the film’s dynamic. This is what makes Vacation, and so much of Hughes’s filmography, work so well. We all know an Aunt Edna, not just form our families, but in life. There is someone you know in your past who is an Aunt Edna, and that realistic character work amid the zanier aspects of a Hughes story make for a unique experience. Edna is one of those perfect realistically over-the-top characters that Hughes did so well, and originally, her story had a much different ending which potentially would have led her to more appearances, so one only wonders what would’ve happened.

Another actor who only appeared in one of these is Hughes staple Anthony Michael Hall, who puts forth the best interpretation of Rusty Griswold of the entire franchise. Hall has great onscreen chemistry with Chase as a father/son dynamic, and it’s obvious from the very first scene where he and Clark arrive at the car lot to get their new family car for the trip. In fact, Hall may have inadvertently begun the tradition of the ever-swapping ages of Rusty and Audrey. During reshoots to fix the film’s chaotic and uneven ending, Hall showed up to film new scenes but had been through a growth spurt so they had to fix dialogue so that Rusty was the older child where this wasn’t initially the case, and I believe it had a hand in the drastically inconsistent ages of the kids as the series progressed, something that would further cement the Griswolds as the every-family archetype.

The only other character that isn’t praised enough in this film is the “character” of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the iconic metallic pea-painted car that enters the Griswold’s possession at the start of the film. It’s a unique and memorable prop that is featured across the entire film and is just as notably funny as the rest of the cast. The way this prop is utilized as the most frustrating element of the film is a wonder and every time another piece of luggage is hurled from the top, every time its rear bumper commits a crime, every time it is juxtaposed with the Ferrari, it’s a damn funny piece of film because of the strangeness of this Family Truckster. It’s one of the greatest cars in film history.

Vacation is one of the best comedies of all time. The film is endlessly rewatchable, Chevy Chase is hilarious, and the supporting cast all play to their strengths. The film has aged poorly in a few areas, and I still don’t think it’s as strong as its Christmas counterpart, the film is a blueprint for the modern road trip film. Often imitated, this is a movie with a great cinema father, and here’s hoping 2021 will be full of memorable vacations to make up for last year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Jeremiah S. Chechik’s Christmas Vacation, click here.
For my review of Harold Ramis’s Bedazzled, click here.

[Early Review] The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
135 mins. Rated R.

When I first heard that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) had directed a documentary, I remember taking a moment to ponder the idea. How would an Edgar Wright documentary actually work? What topic would Wright choose to document? Where would his signature style best be utilized? After the moment ended, I said, “Well, it would have to be a music doc, right?” Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.

The Sparks Brothers is the story of…well, the Sparks Brothers, or perhaps, the band Sparks and the two brothers who have continued to make music for about 50 years, having created 25 albums, and basically being the most underground of musicians, loved by many but never discussed in the pantheon of great artists. As musician Beck eloquently puts it at the beginning, if you get a bunch of musicians together for a conversation, by the end of the night, they’ll end up talking about Sparks (he put it better than I did, but I don’t have the quote in front of me). But who exactly are Ron and Russell Mael? Are they really Americans? How have they persisted, decade after decade, as the culture has evolved? And why does no one talk about them the way they deserve? These are the questions Edgar Wright, fan of the band, puts forward, as we hear from former members of the band and fans like Patton Oswalt, Weird Al, and Mike Myers, as well as the titular brother themselves. The film is a narrative odyssey of a band I never knew.

As stated above, I was familiar with one Sparks song, and I’d only heard that one song one time, and I can’t even remember where, so don’t take this next statement lightly: in less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me into a Sparks die-hard fanboy. I caught the film last night at an early screening, and all day today, I’ve been listening to their music nonstop. At lunch, I stopped by a record store to see if I could find any old albums. I’ve been humming the music even when it’s not playing. I’m obsessed, and there lies the brilliance of this Edgar Wright documentary. It’s not the style (though the style is great), it’s that he chose a topic that is so universally unrecognized, and he gave a crash course for viewers like me. In a way, this is a sister (or perhaps brother) doc to Searching for Sugar Man, another brilliant doc from several years back chronicling a musician that the public seems to have missed.

We spend a lot of time with the brothers, Ron and Russell, throughout the film, and their onstage charisma works just as well when they’re sitting on some stools being asked questions and walking us through their careers and lives. From the noble beginnings as Half Nelson to all their successes and failures (though I would only refer to these as commercial failures because the music throughout is never less than astonishingly funny, catchy, entertaining, and deeper than expected), we see a band led by two artists in a constant state of rebirth. Sparks is like a butterfly that gets out of the cocoon and then says, no, let me try that again, before jumping back in.

It was also interesting to see the wide berth of fans that the band has accumulated in their time. There are some interesting personalities I wouldn’t have guessed to appear here, like Neil Gaiman and Flea. Hearing how each of them fell in love with the band is just as much fun as hearing the songs themselves.

On that note, Wright makes the strong choice of dissecting the band from their very beginning, understanding that many of the people who watch this documentary will likely not have known much about them. I didn’t, and the doc is at its best when it recognizes this feat. Perhaps the only flaw (if there has to be one) is that the finished film is pretty long, but I’m not even sure what I would cut. I think it takes a bit before it really gets going. I wanted to hear the music of the band, so perhaps waiting on the backstory and childhoods of the brothers in order to anoint viewers with the band as adults might actually have helped, but again, I don’t think I’d cut anything. The film is working to its strengths as it guides us through, album by album, year by year, like a stylistic and frenetic VH1 Behind the Music episode.

I cannot recommend The Sparks Brothers highly enough. Seek this film out, and (dare I say) see it in a theater if you can. I know, you’re probably balking, “But it’s just a documentary!” To that, I would argue that this doc feels, at times, like a concert film and a comedy and a love letter to music, artistry, and pop culture. Edgar Wright’s masterful directing keeps the narrative flow at an accessible level, even for those of us who knew nothing about Sparks going in. It will make a fan out of you, one song at a time.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, click here.
For my review of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, click here.
For the Why I Love…Cinema episode on Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, click here.

[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Oscar Madness Monday] Onward (2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
102 mins. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature Film

Onward has a notable distinction as being one of the first films heavily impacted by the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, a piece of history that has changed cinema and the theatrical experience for years to come (and make no mistake, its effect on cinema is not the most important effect of the pandemic, but it is notable that this event has and will change the landscape). It had a release date, it met said date, and then it underperformed. I skipped the early screening due to the mounting concern that this virus might be hitting the US any day, and I only ended up going to the theater once more before the shutdown officially took place (I was concerned that it may have been my last chance to see a movie in the theater for some time, a notion I ended up being right about), and it wasn’t for Onward. Onward’s under-performance should forever be met with an asterisk and an explanation for why it seemed to fail, but time tends to smooth out the details and forget the context. Future generations will likely see this film as an underperforming Pixar film, a rarity for the company, and something that I was sad to have missed in theaters. Barring the Cars franchise, I like most of the Pixar slate, and I really wanted to see Onward after catching the trailer, and even though the film is overshadowed by the superior Soul (the other 2020 Pixar film), I still found the story to be heartfelt and the adventure enjoyable enough.

Onward is set in a fantasy world that has seemingly lost its magic. Technology has replaced mystical forces here, and the world has adapted. Unicorns are feral creatures that rummage through garbage cans, pixies are now part of motorcycle gangs, and the remnants of what came before are now a fantasy role-playing game. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cherry), a high-school age elf dealing with a massive confidence issue, lives in New Mushroomton with his mother and brother. Ian never met his father, Wilden, who passed away just before his birth, but on his sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Drefus, Downhill, TV’s Seinfeld) gives him a gift from his father, a magical staff capable of bringing his dad back to life for one day. When the spell is stopped midway, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks & Recreation), are left with only the bottom half of their father. Now, on a race against the clock, these two brothers must embark upon a mythical quest to complete the spell and see their father before the day is up.

It’s interesting that Pixar has never taken on high-fantasy before. The closest they’ve gotten is Brave, a film with fantastical elements but never to the extent that Onward gets. I really enjoyed this world that director/co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has given us. There is a genuinely interesting world that’s been created for this film with a level of meticulous detail that Pixar is known for. Scanlon showcases a love for all sorts of fantastical elements including iconic references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it never feels like a cheap shot or dunking on the accomplishments of these creators in the fantasy genre. If anything, Scanlon goes at these elements with a Mel Brooks-ian eye for having fun with the material while showing respect to it.

Within the confines of that unique and enjoyable world-building, I did like what Scanlon and his co-writers were going for with the familial story of these two brothers. This is a pretty heady little movie with an emotional punch that I expected and was still surprised by. What I really like about the quest is how it showcases for these two characters what is most important following the immense loss of a father figure, and it also doesn’t exactly go where I expected it, offering a gut punch in the film’s third act that strengthens the movie and ends it on a captivating and perhaps controversial note.

The journey in getting to that captivating finish, however, is a little simplistic and paint-by-numbers. There were many plot points in this film that I could see coming from miles away, a lot of setups that have easy payoffs, and a lot of character beats that I was expecting. That’s not to fault the film for trying, but outside of its finale, I was not surprised by anything in the journey of the heroes. There’s fun to be had, no doubt, and I don’t want to compare it to other Pixar films but I’ll say that so often recently, I have found myself shocked by many of the Pixar storylines (I’m looking at you, Coco), and their willingness to play with expectations, and though the film ends strong, I just feel like so many of the journey plot beats feel like unused Shrek story beats. In that way, the film is extremely accessible but, at times, a bit too easy and perhaps forgettable.

Onward feels like a gateway fantasy film that will likely convert non-fantasy children to this kind of storytelling. There’s a definite love for the genre on display here, and a genuine and compelling emotional work for its characters here, even if the film’s plotting feels a little too easy and expected throughout. Onward ends on a beautiful and risky note that will likely allow audiences to wipe away their tears and really think on the film’s message for some time after, though the bulk of the middle of it is forgettable. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have some nice vocal talents for a film like this, and Onward comes with a recommendation from this film fan.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, click here.

[#2021oscardeathrace] Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Screenplay: Shaka King
126 mins. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Lakeith Stanfield) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Fight For You” [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [PENDING]


Judas and the Black Messiah, according to the Academy, doesn’t have a lead actor. Both Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) received nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So who is the lead for Judas and the Black Messiah? Let’s break it down.

The follows Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal-turned-informant for the FBI, as he infiltrates the Black Panthers and becomes acquainted with Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the passionate and charismatic leader. Along the way, lines start blurring between Bill’s alliance to the FBI and his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and the Hampton’s quest for equality and freedom from impression in the highly divisive 1960s.

The first element of Judas that struck me was the cinematography. This is an excellently-shot piece of cinema. Starting with Bill’s criminal activity at the film’s start, this camera is commanding the screen, almost a character of its own. Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) has a true handling of the action set pieces, and he knows when to let his powerhouse performers have the spotlight.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are electrifying as Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya’s is the more flashy of the two performances as Hampton, who is presented with a silver tongue for unity and a restrained fire to protecting his people, both within the Black Panthers, and for Black Americans across the nation. On the opposite is Stanfield, who is able to access a subtlety in his absolute terror as he stands by Hampton and the rest of the Black Panthers, forced to confront a choice within him that could forever alter the Civil Right Movement. Not knowing a lot of the real story of these two men, I was entranced by the quality of these two performances within the confines of the tension that director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) has constructed.

Let’s be honest here. Stanfield is the lead of the film and Kaluuya is the supporting player. We’re following Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal throughout the narrative, and the decision to push them both for Best Supporting Actor is likely to split the votes and garner neither of them with wins.

It’s shocking to note that this is only the second feature film for Shaka King as a director. King had served as director on a few television series and shorts, and I’m not denigrating those accomplishments, but a show, a short, and a feature film, while being genuinely the same, are very different undertakings. When I watch King’s understanding of character and plot while also being able to give an extra stylistic flair to Judas, I can see how all of that previous work helped and developed the work seen here, but the scale of this particular project is so much larger.

Judas and the Black Messiah was initially envisioned as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)” and that is essentially what we get from a story perspective, but King comes at the material with a totally different and distinguished voice than Martin Scorsese had with The Departed. Judas is blessed with some incredible performances from not just Kaluuya and Stanfield but the entire principal cast, some real lions in the room. King’s film pairs well with another Best Picture nominee in The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Hampton plays a role in both, and it should make an intense and thoughtful film that will captivate your night.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2021oscardeathrace] The Nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards

Nominations are officially out for the 93rd annual Academy Awards. This year, it almost didn’t happen, and to be true, as I’ve said before, it’s been a weird year. I’m happy to have the Oscars occurring, even with the adjusted eligibility window making it very confusing as to what is allowed and what isn’t (and I’m sure, next year, it’ll be weirder when we talk snubs only to have forgotten that snubs for next year’s awards may actually have just been nominated this year and we forgot, much like the entire fourth season of Community), but I digress. The Oscars are here, and I’m so happy to have this feeling of normalcy in a very abnormal year.

The pandemic has had a shroud of much of the film community since last year. I recall that the last group party I attended was an Oscar party. There was a lot of us having fun, laughing and yelling at the TV, and we all joined together in praise when Parasite took the top prize.

It all feels like so long ago. I haven’t been in a theater in over a year. I can’t wait to go back to some kind of normal.

And normal is coming. With it, one of my favorite events is gearing up. In fact, the nominees were announced on my birthday, an altogether strange happenstance that likely won’t happen again. So here are the nominees. I’m sure you already know them, but I’ll be using this page to link the reviews that are incoming.

I’m ready to begin the 2021 Oscar death race. It’s a term I heard many years back, referring to the attempt to see every Oscar nominee before the big night. In recent years, I’ve been rather successful, at most missing a short here or there and perhaps a foreign language film that hasn’t reached wide release in the states. If you’d like to join in the Oscar death race this year, feel free to drop the hashtag #2021oscardeathrace so I can see what you’re watching and what you think on these nominees. It’s one of the best times of the year, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Best Picture:

  • The Father
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director:

  • Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
  • Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
  • David Fincher, Mank
  • Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
  • Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Actor:

  • Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
  • Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Anthony Hopkins, The Father
  • Gary Oldman, Mank
  • Steven Yeun, Minari

Best Actress:

  • Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  • Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
  • Frances McDormand, Nomadland
  • Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Sasha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami…
  • Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
  • Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
  • Olivia Colman, The Father
  • Amanda Seyfried, Mank
  • Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Minari
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • One Night in Miami…
  • The White Tiger

Best Animated Feature:

  • Onward
  • Over the Moon
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
  • Soul
  • Wolfwalkers

Best International Feature Film:

  • Another Round (Denmark)
  • Better Days (Hong Kong)
  • Collective (Romania)
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
  • Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Best Documentary Feature:

  • Collective
  • Crip Camp
  • The Mole Agent
  • My Octopus Teacher
  • Time

Best Documentary Short Subject:

  • Colette
  • A Concerto Is a Conversation
  • Do Not Split
  • Hunger Ward
  • A Love Song For Latasha

Best Live Action Short Film:

  • Feeling Through
  • The Letter Room
  • The Present
  • Two Distant Strangers
  • White Eye

Best Animated Short Film:

  • Burrow
  • Genius Loci
  • If Anything Happens I Love You
  • Opera
  • Yes-People

Best Original Score:

  • Da 5 Bloods
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • News of the World
  • Soul

Best Original Song:

  • “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
  • “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
  • “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
  • “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami…

Best Sound:

Best Production Design:

  • The Father
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Tenet

Best Cinematography:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Nomadland
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

  • Emma.
  • Hillbilly Elegy
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Pinocchio

Best Costume Design:

  • Emma.
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Mulan
  • Pinocchio

Best Film Editing:

  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Visual Effects:

  • Love and Monsters
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Mulan
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Tenet

So there you have it. These are the nominees for the the Oscars this year. Let the #2021oscardeathrace begin.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Land (2021)

Director: Robin Wright
Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir
Screenplay: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
89 mins. Rated PG-13.

The story behind Robin Wright’s directing of Land, her feature directorial debut, came about by a mere scheduling conflict. Wright, who had previously helmed several episodes of House of Cards as well as the short film The Dark of Night, was asked to direct the film when all the pieces had come into play but there was no director, and the film had to be completed with production in 29 days. The entirety of Land was shot in those 29 days with Wright, who appears in every scene, behind the camera as well as in front.

Land is the story of Edee (Wright), a grieving woman who has purchased a plot of land deep in the Wyoming forest. She doesn’t seem particularly skilled at living off the grid, minus a phone and any technology, and when she nearly dies in a snowstorm, she is luckily rescued and brought back to health by Miguel (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight, Chaos Walking), who also lives in the wilderness nearby and has passed her house several times. Edee would much rather be alone, but she’s in no condition to push Miguel away. Miguel instead offers to teach her to successfully hunt, fish, and care for herself in the wild. Edee takes him up on his offer, and she begins to see all the ways that they are more similar than she expected.

Land is a solid debut for Robin Wright as a feature director, but it is not without its faults. The pacing of the narrative holds mostly well for 89 minutes, but this is a case where even 89 minutes feels a little too long. I don’t think the extended periods of Wright all alone on screen consistently maintained my interest. I held this criticism for the Robert Redford film All is Lost, another movie with even less dialogue than Land, but both struggled to keep my focus on the narrative with the lack of visual action onscreen. I never had flat-out signs of boredom, but I found myself checking the time more than once.

The film’s cinematography makes up a lot of ground, though, thanks to some truly striking imagery of the beauty in Wyoming (well, the film was shot in Canada, but we are meant to see Wyoming). The shot composition did a lot to position me in the world with Edee. I felt cold watching the snowy environment and I could almost smell the morning dew on the blades of grass. It’s a wholly arresting bit of scenery that evokes every sense.

I also found Wright’s performance to be quite strong as Edee. I would have liked to peel back the layers of her character earlier on in the narrative. We get a big emotional information dump at the end of the film that would have been more interesting had it shown up earlier than the final ten minutes. We get bits and pieces of her backstory as the film moves along, but we never really get the ability to reconcile with her past and her pain because the movie ends as soon as we get the story that Edee’s been struggling to bury at the very end and therefore the reckoning that we’ve been waiting on never really occurs, though we are meant to believe it has.

Wright plays off of Bichir very well. In fact, so often, Demián Bichir is the secret weapon of any film, as he can do so much with so little. He’s easily the best part of the underwhelming The Grudge from last year, and he even stand out among The Hateful Eight with limited dialogue and screen time. Bichir and Wright have such solid chemistry and they each come at their roles differently, Wright with stoic sadness and Bichir with a limited sense of hope and happiness. The scenes with the two of them onscreen are electrifying.

The only element of the film that flat-out doesn’t work is the invasive and, dare I say, annoying score that invades every scene like an unwelcome intruder. It grates on the ear drums and, though I can sense what it’s trying to do, it never seems to add anything to the film but irritation.

Land has more strengths than weaknesses, and the strong acting from Wright and Bichir as well as an arresting bit of visual delight save an otherwise more forgettable movie. There’s just a lot here that has been done before, and better, but I wouldn’t say that Wright’s feature directorial debut is a bust. It’s a solid little movie for an afternoon matinee, and I would still give it a slight recommendation, if you can handle the score.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑