Kyle’s Top Ten Films of 2021

Well, last year was…a little better…right?

Hello again, everyone! We’ve reached the end of 2021 and it’s time, just like every year, to discuss the best in movies from last year. 2021 was an overall improvement of a year, and I also happened to see a lot more movies in 2021 than the year prior. In 2020, I think I saw 30 movies. 2021 was a lot closer to 90.

More than anything else, 2021 was the year I got to go back to the movies. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure that would happen. This year, the theaters reopened (and had movies to show), and I got vaccinated. To be honest, it was tough for me to even consider going to the movies again once they reopened until I was vaccinated. That’s not me preaching to any of you; it’s more me saying that I didn’t think I could lose myself in the movie without thinking of COVID.

That means I missed seeing theater-worthy movies like Godzilla vs. Kong, but I was finally convinced it was time to return to the cinema for Spiral: From the Book of Saw was released. Saw was such an important franchise for me, I couldn’t miss it.

Yes, I finally went back to the theater in June, and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a really solid element in my mental health to be back at the cinema (I’ve stated many times that the theater has been a place of solace for me when the world becomes too much to handle). I’m not alone in this regard, as audiences flocked back to the theaters back in the 30s in the height of the Great Depression. Well, 2020 and its sequel were rather Greatly Depressing, and I used the theater as a tool. Great movies or terrible ones, it really didn’t matter.

All of that is a long way of telling you that I saw a great many movies, and I feel better talking my Top Ten Films of 2021. So let’s not waste any further time and get right into it.

Now, in order to properly begin, we have to state the obligatory forewarnings:

  • I did not see every film released in 2021. In fact, there are still a few films released very quietly in 2021 that many reviewers have not been able to see, like The Tragedy of Macbeth and Cyrano, and I am unable to include those films in my list. If you know of a film that belongs on this list but you don’t see it, it just means I didn’t see it…that, or it doesn’t belong on my list.
  • On that note, this is my subjective list, not yours, and not objective whatsoever. They are MY personal picks for best of the year. These are the films that spoke to me as a filmgoer. There are better made films that came out in 2021, and there are some films on this list that did not get Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and quite a few that will miss the Academy’s selection process for Oscar-worthiness. They are MY picks and mine alone, so don’t be upset if a film is on your list that isn’t on mine. That’s the beauty of art and entertainment: we don’t have to love the same things to make them worthy.
  • Along with all that, I crave discussion, dissection, and (respectful) disagreements. So let me know by commenting below with your Top Ten Movies of 2021 (or just a list of favorites, especially if they aren’t on my list). I’d love to see what you loved last year.

Alright, without further adieu…

  1. The Sparks Brothers

-In less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me, someone who had heard one Sparks song but couldn’t even connect it to the band, into a lifelong fan who spent his entire summer listening to the band as if he was trying to play catchup for time lost. His documentary is equal parts biography, concert film, and fever dream, and it all seems to work quite well. It’s also an incredibly watchable film, an entertaining instruction manual on first watch and a celebration of the band for those viewers who had discovered the incredibly prolific but under-appreciated musicians.

  1. Spencer

-Who would’ve guessed that the Princess Diana movie starring Kristen Stewart would end up being a horror-thriller Christmas film? Well, okay, it isn’t so exact as that, but this is a Christmas-set “biopic” that is less concerned with the details and minutiae of a life’s timeline and more set on a story that captures the character and person that Princess Diana was. Set during the last holiday season of her time involved with the royal family, the film sees Diana breaking apart at the seams while she struggles to maintain a strong face for the sake of the Crown. She’s there for her children, the one piece of her life in this world that still has good in it. I also have to credit the incredible performance of Kristen Stewart as Diana, a piece of acting prowess that captures her spirit and soul more than her mannerisms and speech patterns, but I was completely lost in her performance and never once doubted that I was seeing Diana on the screen. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the unsung actor from the film, Sean Harris as McGrady, the Royal Head Chef, and one of the best scenes of the year, in which McGrady confesses how the staff really feels about Diana, and don’t forget the single best needle-drop of the year as the film comes to a close.

  1. The Last Duel

-Ridley Scott dropped two bangers in 2021, and one of them ended up on this list. I didn’t have the highest hopes for The Last Duel because, for me, Ridley Scott can get a little divisive. Every film he makes, the film gods flip a coin. As bonkers as House of Gucci ended up, The Last Duel is an elegant and intense view at altered perspectives done in the style of Rashomon. I have minor faults with a few elements in the overall film, and I argue that “kids-on-their-phone” is so old man and silly. The reason that The Last Duel underperformed is that we are in the middle of a pandemic and many filmgoers are forced to make choices of what they want to watch. Several great films slipped between the cracks this year, and a movie that portrays a rape (not once, but twice, mind you) may not be the type of film that audiences wanted this year. That’s one of the factors why a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home did so well this year while bleaker fare like Nightmare Alley and The Last Duel struggled to find a presence. Beyond all that, though, the film is fantastic. It’s a tough sell to do a film that covers a painful and intense event from multiple viewpoints. You have to keep the film fresh while essentially telling the same story. Scott’s film teases us with the titular duel and then presents these views in a captivating way, and each retelling sought to alter the narrative in interesting ways.

  1. Dune

-I try not to hinge my thoughts on one film based upon another, but it’s nearly impossible to do so in the case of Dune, or Dune: Chapter One, or whatever it will eventually be called. We knew going into this film that it would be an adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel, but we also went into it knowing that the second half of this story was uncertain. It’s a lot of baggage to carry for a single film, and that’s not even diving into the quality of the film itself. Well, Denis Villeneuve surprised us all yet again by turning the oft-believed-unfilmable novel into a science fiction masterpiece on the level of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Well, potentially one day, but it’s a beautiful and elegant masterpiece of cinema nonetheless, but it needs to be stated that this is the first half, and it carries a level of understanding. Dune was not filmed back-to-back with its sequel like Back to the Future II & III or The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions or even the previously mentioned epic production of The Lord of the Rings. Dune was also not handled like the recent 2-part It adaptation. With that film, had we not gotten It: Chapter Two, the first film would stand on its own. Dune: Chapter One hinges on that sequel more than any other two-parter that I can recall. Had that sequel not been announced, I’m not sure this film would be on this list, but it was announced, and it will (likely) happen. With all that, I can’t wait to see this story come to an end and rewatch the first film a bunch when it drops on home video.

  1. The Suicide Squad

-Okay, I trust James Gunn to make a solid and entertaining film, and I trust the recent moves of the DCEU (overall, I’ve been positive on most of the universe, but the recent stuff has been the best), but I didn’t expect nearly as entertaining a time as I got with The Suicide Squad. Early reviews were very positive, and when I finally caught the film at a press screening, I was initially worried the hype was too hyped. Nope, this is an excellent time at the movies, a mean-spirited and bonkers action film that has shades of gritty 70s action pictures. Essentially, Gunn has made a big-budget Troma film, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life with his characters. A more stacked cast than his previous Marvel films, he’s able to give each of his “Squad” a moment to shine. By shine, I’m referring to debauchery or sin, but you get what I mean. The Suicide Squad is a wild ride of entertainment that, dare I say it, is damn beautiful and makes me excited for Peacemaker later this month.

  1. Candyman

Candyman was the last new movie I saw in 2021, and I’m surprised to see it on this list. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the original film quite a bit, but I did not expect the hit on this legacy sequel just waiting for me to watch it. A little context for you: I’m big on franchises and I don’t like the idea of the legacy sequel (it feels lazy and oftentimes falls into the same pitfalls as the films it ignores), and the only reason I waited on Candyman 2021 was that I hadn’t watched Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman: Day of the Dead, so last week, I binged the whole franchise, and I must say, this newest film is the best film in the series by a stretch. The clever screenplay, co-written by Jordan Peele, paired with the picture-perfect directing from Nia DeCosta (I can see why she was so quickly snatched up by Marvel). It’s a legacy sequel that chooses to build on the mythology in a way that doesn’t retcon anything that came before but instead decides to add and validate what came before while challenging the history of the series at large. It’s gorgeous, haunting, and thought-provoking to the very ambitious ending.

  1. Halloween Kills

-This is the part when everyone stops reading, so let me remind you that this is a subjective list, and I would be wrong not to put Halloween Kills on the list. I’ve said it before, but Halloween is my all-time favorite horror film, and I have a special place in my heart for the rest of the franchise, convoluted and deeply-flawed though they may be. For Halloween 2018, I was interested but, as stated above, I don’t like the retcon aspect. All that being said, I get why the rest of this franchise was retconned, as most audiences did not keep up with the mythology as much as I did, and trying to make sense of it all would’ve been a bit of work. Also, Laurie Strode was dead in the previous films. Well, I saw Halloween 2018, and it is easily the best-made film since the original, but I felt like it was more of a Greatest Hits album of Halloween, sending up a mashup of great scenes and references from the other non-canon entries, but really not doing a whole lot to distance itself. Well, I revisited Halloween 2018 right before Kills came out, in what amounted to a quick trilogy binge (1978/2018/Kills). Halloween Kills, while being less-polished than David Gordon Green’s previous film, is all the better for its ambition. Sure, it does tread some of the same waters and ideas, but it uses them in a wholly different way. Here, we see Haddonfield as a real town full of interesting characters (I love that many of the background characters of 2018 show up again in Kills), and it’s a town dealing with its trauma in an unhealthy way. This sequel speaks to the question of how we react to fear, and it pushes the Halloween story into delightfully bloody new directions while making its predecessor much better and more palatable as a chapter in Green’s story.

  1. The Green Knight

The Green Knight was a movie that almost seemed to not want me to watch it. It didn’t have a lengthy run at my local theater, and the weekend my wife and I had planned to see it ended up with me self-quarantining and getting tested for COVID because I was very sick. I ended up being negative but by the time I ended up feeling better, we didn’t have a free night to see it, so we missed its theatrical run. Thankfully, I ended up with a 4k copy of it, and I was actually able to watch it. Also thankfully, the movie is excellent. The way The Green Knight takes the classic fable and legend and reconfigures it to fit David Lowery’s filmmaking sensibilities and give us a Gawain who is essentially a hopeful hero without any heroic skills, a leader who only takes the killshot because he can, a man who cannot take responsibility for his actions and flees at the sight of danger. It’s also a technically stunning piece of medieval fantasy with terrific performances and a haunting visual aesthetic. If you missed it like I did, rectify that immediately.

  1. Belfast

-There’s an argument out there that Belfast is not as hard-hitting and serious as the events it is depicting require, and I can understand it. The reason the film works for me is that it’s not about those events specifically; it’s about the family at the center of it, specifically young Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill). Seeing these traumatic events through the eyes of a child was something very effective for me. For Buddy, everything going on in his world is strained through the filter of his family, and that’s all he wants. He wants things to go back to normal, he wants to stay in Belfast, he wants his life to go in the direction it has been up to now. That’s his reckoning in the film, and it’s a small story against a big backdrop, and it was a joyful (as joyful as it could be, given the surrounding political unrest of the time) coming-of-age story that I want to share with my family, friends, everyone.

  1. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

-No, I’m not a Marvel fanboy saying it is better than everything ever made without discussion ever. The last time I had a Marvel film on my Top Ten, it was back in 2011 and it was Thor. If you look at my list, there’s a good number of acclaimed films in Oscar contention as well as some really entertaining popcorn movies. Shang-Chi is the best of both worlds, and if there were to be a superhero film in the Best Picture race, it would be Shang-Chi. The film has an important cultural touchstone, and it showcases a terrific starring turn from Simu Liu as the titular hero, but the film has so much more. It has a terrific friend/potential love interest in Awkwafina, and it has one of the MCU’s best villains in real Mandarin Xu Wenwu. The film has loads of excellently-choreographed action, nods to wuxia, and it plays off one of the MCU’s best arcs in the Mandarin, especially with how the character ties to Iron Man 3. I even find the finale to be much more than a CG mess that most superhero fare gets lost in. Shang-Chi ends with a bang, but it is character-driven all the way through. Gosh, I can’t wait for a sequel to this film. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is all-around excellent, and it’s my favorite movie of 2021.

There you have it. My Top Ten Films of 2021. I’ve said my piece, now it’s time to say yours. What are your favorite movies of last year? Leave your favorites below! See you next year.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The King’s Man (2021)

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander(3), Daniel Bruhl, Charles Dance
Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek
131 mins. Rated R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material.

The Kingsman film franchise kind of came out of nowhere. I remember not being even remotely aware of the first film at all, including its release window, and then a number of reviewers and pundits that I tend to align with were praising The Secret Service’s blend of old and new spy tropes alongside director Matthew Vaughn’s (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) unique style and violent sensibilities. After seeing it, I really enjoyed how self-aware the over-the-topness of the world depicted in Vaughn’s adaptation completely contrasted with other action franchises at the time, though I was still surprised to hear of a follow-up in The Golden Circle. Though that sequel did not share the same praise of the original, I was of a rare sort that put it on the same level, embracing the slowly-expanding realm of oddities that slithered throughout the burgeoning franchise. Where would this series go next? Surely The King’s Man was even less expected than The Golden Circle. My excitement built with each viewing of that first trailer (and it played a lot, if you went to the theaters as often as I did), so how did the finished film go? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, mostly positive, with great action and an inconsistent tone.

Set in the early 1900s, The King’s Man follows The Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, No Time to Die) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats, The Souvenir: Part II) as they try to make a positive impact on WWI. The Duke, knowing of UK’s leadership failures and the willingness to send young soldiers to die for a war started by old men, builds an underground network of spies in order to stop a cabal from further toppling the governments of the East into chaos.

I’ve read a few other interpretations of The King’s Man remarking that the film is too focused on being a prequel that it doesn’t provide a stellar story, and I couldn’t disagree more. I actually found that the film spends too little time on the forming of the Kingsman that, at times, it feels like one of the later Hellraiser sequels that wasn’t a Hellraiser movie until someone attached 10 minutes of Pinhead in order to shoehorn it into the franchise. Now, the quality of The King’s Man is streets ahead of those later Hellraiser films, but I almost wondered if Vaughn had formed this idea for a WWI spy film before realizing he could make it a Kingsman prequel. Outside of the final 10-minute stinger at the end of the film and a few references to the shop and Statesman bourbon, the film does very little to link itself to the franchise at large, which is kind of the point of this film’s existence. Now, that isn’t to say that The King’s Man is a bad movie, it just felt like those first two Star Wars prequels, where everyone kept wondering when Anakin would turn to the dark side.

Where the film succeeds is in Vaughn’s understanding of action, and The King’s Man does feature perhaps the single most entertaining action set piece of 2021. The action hits and it hits hard. I don’t have a fault with the film’s action or its visuals or the characters. Vaughn has a knack for making this kind of spectacle filmmaking which really looks dazzling, especially on the big screen. His narrative tows the believability-line just enough to make it fit within his larger franchise narrative even if the story does not.

The King’s Man has a bevy of interesting characters to take away, most notably Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man, Official Secrets) as Grigori Rasputin, a member of our secret villain’s collective. There’s a reason why Ifans is featured so heavily in the trailer despite not being as prominent in the finished film, and that’s because he owns the screen every single time he re-enters the narrative. He’s a disturbing and sick individual who chews the scenery with such glee and also capably performs (in that costume, no less) through some solid fight sequences.

I also really liked Fiennes’s take on Oxford, as he’s very much a father who recognizes the dangers of young men fighting the wars of old men, and he sees the indoctrination of his son Conrad. Knowing that the only way to keep his son out of war is to recruit him to the dangerous underground organization he’s been building seems to suggest an understanding of what is needed to do the right thing the right way. I like that he tows the line of being a father/mentor and an equal to his son, and it makes the back-and-forth of their relationship quite captivating.

The film’s biggest struggle throughout all of this is the wildly-inconsistent tone. While the first two Kingsman films seem to comfortably rest on the James Bond archetype of Roger Moore’s performance, with action and heart and comedy seemingly married in the right recipe. With this prequel, the film has moments where the inconsistencies of the tone almost seem to add to the twists and turns of the narrative, but that would be giving it too much credit. The problem, for me, is that I didn’t know from one minute to another if the scene I was watching was supposed to be aiming for comedy or serious, and the latter won out far too often. It just seems to miss out on what was so fun for the other films due to its reliance on overly-serious elements that occasionally lost me.

The King’s Man is a mildly-successful piece of entertainment that doesn’t get everything right and loses a bit of the fun of the previous entries, but a strong lead performance and an exciting selection of action set pieces keep the film enjoyable throughout its more mixed aspects. I still recommend this one to fans of the franchise but temper your expectations if it’s the comedy of the franchise that worked for you.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 30 – Night of the Animated Dead (2021)

Director: Jason Axinn
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Dule Hill, Katharine Isabelle, James Roday Rodriguez, Katee Sackhoff, Will Sasso, Jimmi Simpson, Nancy Travis
Screenplay: George A. Romero, John A. Russo
71 mins. Rated R for bloody/gruesome zombie violence.

I’m all for checking out a new interpretation of an old classic. I mean, how many versions of Dracula exist out there, and I like a good chunk of them enough to make the constant re-adaptations worth it. Night of the Living Dead is another classic staple, THE zombie movie, and due to some copyright snafus, it’s pretty easy to adapt or remake however you see fit, and that’s exactly what happened here.

You know the story: when Barbara (Katharine Isabelle, Ginger Snaps, American Mary) and her brother arrive at a faraway cemetery to leave flowers for her late father, they are beset upon by a man who kills her brother and sends her fleeing for her life. She holds up in an old farmhouse with another man experiencing the same thing. They soon come to learn that the dead have risen up all around them, and they are in search of human flesh. Now, they have to survive the night in the farmhouse as they are attacked from all angles by the undead.

I was immensely disappointed in Night of the Animated Dead, and I was so hopeful, too. The front cover looked artful and stylish, and I was really interested to see a very unique visual flair to the film, but what we got looked more like introductory-animation-course and not a feature film being sold at Target. The animation looked very jerky and unrealistic (and I know, animation does not need realism, but this animation lacked detail in its movement and really lost my attention quickly.

There are a few things that help to save the film, however unsuccessful. One of them is the screenplay, pulling heavily from the source material to the point that Romero and Russo have been credited for the story. I also liked that there’s an ever-so-slight expansion to the material where we see what happened to Ben (Dule Hill, Hypnotic, TV’s Psych) at the gas station early on in the film. Not much is done with it, but I appreciated the attempt. I also think the voice work is admirable, but I’d wonder why so much money was spent on getting named talent to voice these characters and then animating them so poorly.

I’ve seen three distinct takes on Night of the Living Dead in my life, and this is by far the worst. I can’t ever see myself choosing this film over the 1968 or even 1990 versions of this classic tale. Had the animated been done with care, perhaps I’d feel differently, but this is an adaptation that is ultimately a loss in almost every way.

2/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 28 – Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza Gonzalez, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein
113 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language.

Well, here we are, at the culmination of everything in the MonsterVerse to this point. Sure, it didn’t take 22 films like Marvel did to get to this point, but this is still a major milestone for the universe thus far. It’s time for Godzilla vs. Kong. Place your bets.

It’s been five years since the epic battle between Godzilla and Ghidorah, and the world has tried to adjust to the world of the Titans. Godzilla hasn’t been seen since that battle, and when he re-emergences to attack an Apex Cybernetics facility in Pensacola, the world turns on the King on the Monsters. Meanwhile, a much-older Kong is living in a domed environment on Skull Island, being overseen by Kong expert Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town). Ilene teams up with former Monarch scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard, The Legend of Tarzan, TV’s True Blood) to get Kong to his homeworld in Hollow Earth, a pocket near the center of the planet, the mystery of Godzilla’s attacks intensify, leading toward a forced confrontation between the two titans and battle over who is the real King has begun.

Godzilla vs. Kong fully realizes what this franchise and these monsters are all about. The humans in this film are the most well-defined and likable of the franchise, and they also take a step back for the creatures and the mythology in a way that previous installments have failed to understand. I’ve spent the last several months discovering old kaiju films from Toho’s past, and I’ve learned that the mythology and style makes the movie along with the big monster bashing battles. These movies need to embrace the fantasy elements of their narrative, no matter how ludicrous. I loved the Hollow Earth journey for Kong, even though I recognize it as complete bullshit. That’s because no one is coming to these movies for their realism, which I think is one of the reasons my enjoyment has lessened over the years concerning the 2014 Godzilla film.

Godzilla vs. Kong makes great use of several exciting set pieces, while also staying on target to bring its two combatants together in an exciting way, and director Adam Wingard (V/H/S, You’re Next) gives us a neon-colored selection of fights that feel reminiscent of Pacific Rim while also exploring the two monsters in more depth than we’ve had before. Again, this is the movie in this world that has ultimately understood that the stars are Godzilla and Kong, not the humans. The role of the humans is to set the story in motion and then be more reactionary to the monsters than much else.

Most of the primary cast works well within the film, even though a few characters feel needlessly silly, most notably Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, If Beale Street Could Talk) as Bernie Hayes, a conspiracy theorist who uncovers a dangerous plot of Apex Cybernetics along with the returning Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes, TV’s Stranger Things).

I also wasn’t a fan of the characterization of Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri, No Longer Human, Weathering With You), the son of the Ishiro Serizawa from the first two Godzilla films. First of all, I barely registered that this was supposed to be the son of Serizawa, and I wasn’t understanding why they made the connection to play out his character in the way he was written.

The other major flaw of this film kind of sits with the resolution of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If you’ve forgotten, that film ends with Godzilla as the Alpha surrounded by all his subordinate Titans, and then there’s no mention of any of it in this film. We know that it follows King of the Monsters because of some of the reveals in this film and returning characters, but where did all the Titans go and why aren’t any of them really integral to any of this plot. Looking back at King of the Monsters, it’s easy to see that most of those plot threads are captured in the incredibly lazy way of using news footage in that film’s closing credits, but it just kind of feels like King of the Monsters had a Resident Evil movie’s finale, where all of it is seemingly undone within moments of the next installment, and it frustrated the hell out of me as a viewer.

Through its faults, and the film indeed has them, I was entertained as hell by Godzilla vs. Kong, and I hope this isn’t the last of the MonsterVerse, now that it has accomplished its main goal of getting these two to duke it out (and there is a winner, don’t let anyone fool you), and now I want to see where it goes from here. This was loads of fun even on a second viewing, and I’m already looking forward to a third watch.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island, click here.
  • For my review of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla, click here.
  • For my review of Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, click here.
  • For my review of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, click here.
  • For my review of Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, click here.
  • For my review of the anthology film The ABCs of Death, click here.

[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

[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

[#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

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑