Director: George Clooney
The Midnight Sky is only good if you allow it to be and if you don’t pick it apart too minutely, which may not be high praise but I guess is my way of recommending that you watch this movie only with an eye for your own enjoyment, not for critical awards. Again, that sounds backhanded, but I only mean it that way a little bit; most of me really liked watching dramatic sci-fi at its simplest, which is exactly what (I think) this film attempts to be. It’s based on a book that’s probably no good, it doesn’t try to be high-brow, it brings the expectations down a notch, and therefor could succeed with a larger crowd than just end-of-the-year critics. It’s a Netflix original adventure, after all; how cinematically perfect do we need it to be?
An unspecified global Event has destroyed life on our planet, and that’s basically the end of all things. The air is compromised, creatures are dying off quickly, the disaster is reaching even the far poles, and that’s all she wrote, other than a slim hope on a distant world. A team of scientists was recently dispatched to a moon that could house human life, and they’re actually on their way back, but to a world that completely changed while they were away. One lone expert, still monitoring space crafts and holding out hope that he can survive the Event a little longer, tries to reach the returning rocket and warn them away, before they come back to death, when life might be waiting for them somewhere else.
Back to my point about this being a movie for the masses; sometimes you just have to let yourself be entertained by a film that’s not exactly perfect. Like The Martian; take a hit novel, add in some Hollywood magic, create a story people can enjoy, and no it’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Interstellar, but it’s interesting, it’s consumable, and it’s worthwhile, if at the same time not vaulting to the forefront for Best Picture. Clooney is solid, his tale is nice, the space crew dynamic is good, the acting there is OK; if these sound like lukewarm sentiments I guess that fits in with my general outlook here. The problems come with the tropes, because my god are things predictable and usual and expected. Again, that’s not a terrible thing, some audiences will find the movie comfortable exactly because of those normal progressions, and that’s fine, but it might simply keep Midnight Sky from being a great motion picture, it might just have to settle for “I watched that on Netflix and I liked it”, the end.
Director: Francis Lee
Ammonite is Portrait of a Lady on Fire for people who prefer the physical to the visual. Where Portrait was beautiful to look at but lacking reality, until you began to fall asleep out of sheer boredom, Ammonite is rather ugly and dull, but makes up for its lack of stunning features with its focus on the mundane, the dirty, the noisy, the shuffling, the coarse, and ultimately the loveliness that can be found among those things. Perhaps comparing the two films is rather trite, since they are both lesbian period romance, perhaps that’s not fair and simply puts each in the same pigeon hole. There’s something to be said about Hollywood’s weird reliance on history to tell gay stories, but that’s not a problem I can solve, so I’ll simply move on and say that Ammonite is the better movie because it has the better style, the better actors, and the better result.
In Lyme, England in the 1840s, Mary Anning hunts for rocks along the coast, as she keeps up a small fossil shop in her village, selling larger pieces to museums, and garnering some little fame among a certain circle of scientists. She’s a lonely woman, lives with her mother, never married, and has little time for others, keeping to her shoreline and her work. One morning, into the shop pop Mr. & Mrs. Roderick & Charlotte Murchison, a young couple visiting the area. He is an admirer of Anning’s work, she is suffering from “slight melancholia” and was prescribed the sea air. Soon, Charlotte becomes a strange house guest of Mary’s, and suffers a high fever. As the pair begin to get to know one another, they feel a wonderful attraction that denies all the artificial societal rules of the time, and brings them both to life in a way that neither had yet been before.
This is a film more for the senses, whereas the other film I was talking about, if you didn’t watch it, was more for those looking for a living piece of art that they could enjoy for an extended period of time. I found that one boring, I wanted a break, or maybe just something more, and Ammonite delivered just that; another reason to watch other than cinematography. Actually, there wasn’t much beauty in this movie, but it did play upon our senses, with sound after sound that exhibited what it would be like to be living in that moment, with an oppressive mood that filled us with a rare sadness that we couldn’t explain. The story was simple, the delivery simple as well, but I liked the style that was laid out, so well done Francis Lee, with his second ever feature film. Also, well done Kate Winslet, who was excellent, per usual, and very reserved in an unusual way that was fun to watch. Saoirse Ronan was a bit weak perhaps, or maybe only compared to Winslet; I often felt that she was acting, where Winslet simply looked like she lived and worked at the shop, like nothing was fictionalized at all. Ammonite moves slowly, is heavy with emotion, and doesn’t boast any complications, but somewhere within it is an honestly and a simplicity that I rather liked and could use more of more often.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Gal Gadot’s fish-out-of-water likeability worked wonders in Wonder Woman in 2017; it failed in almost every way in Wonder Woman 1984 in 2020. The sequel was released on Christmas Day, it was the movie event of the pandemic, we loved the original, things were finally going to get better for us, and then it happened; Patty Jenkins & Co. delivered one of the worst modern super hero films we’ve had the misfortune of seeing. WW84 is on par with Aquaman when it comes to silliness, bad writing, bad acting, and general low-bar cinema, but failed in one area where that movie succeeded, making it even harder to swallow than your average, goofy, comic-book action flick; the action. And with bad action combined with bad acting, there was very little audiences could do other than cover there faces for two and a half hours and pray that the end would be quick & painless.
It’s been many years since Wonder Woman saved the world, but Diana Prince hasn’t aged a day. It’s 1984, she works in a museum in Washington D.C., she eats alone every meal, she thinks about the man she loved all that time ago, and she sometimes helps catching the crook or grabbing the endangered pedestrian. It’s a quiet life, but it’s about to get more exciting, when a curious magical artifact comes to the museum, and a new employee named Barbara Minerva arrives at the same time. Apparently it grants wishes; Barbara uses hers to gain power, but Diana uses hers for something much closer to the heart. Meanwhile, an unstable and unsuccessful entrepreneur named Maxwell Lord searches for the magic item, planning to use it for his own financial gain. But it will bring more trouble than he bargained for, and Diana will need to save us all once more, before we destroy ourselves with our heartless greed.
The end wasn’t painless, I’m sorry to report, it was worse than the rest of the film, so don’t get your hopes up thinking that the weak sauce you’re watching might have a kick at the end; it simply doesn’t. WW84 is an awful, awful movie from start to finish, with poor planning and terrible execution around every corner. Really quickly, let me list the good qualities, because there were some: the music, Chris Pine’s pseudo-cameo, both Wiig’s & Pascal’s character development, the fireworks scene, and Gal Gadot’s perfect heroic presence. Now on to the bad, which was far more plentiful. First off, Gadot’s acting was horrendous, like the worst you’ll ever see, cornerstoned by a crying scene and capped off with a straight talk to the audience through the camera, both of which were hideously and amateurishly delivered. She looks the part, we liked her the first time because she was so wide-eyed, but this time the film asked her to be an actress, and she clearly isn’t one. She’s a model, a goddess among us, a lovable human, whatever you want to say, but not a professional talent worth watching.
She was the biggest problem, but in no way was she alone. I hate complaining about this, but the film was too long, and not because I can’t sit still for that amount of time, but because I shouldn’t be asked to if the content doesn’t fill the bill. You could have edited this movie, cut out 45 minutes, and made it better, it wouldn’t have been that hard, and it’s a huge problem that the team involved didn’t see that. There was a scene were Diana went flying on lightning for god knows how long, only to stop at her apartment back where she started to pick up a new super suit, like she forgot about it or something and had to run back home. Dumb decisions like that peppered the plot, and caused it to stumble over and over again. Her acting, her dialogue, a confusing human villain, a terrible CGI villain, a message that was so juvenile that at first you can’t believe that that was the real point of a film for adults; just no. And then, the icing of the cake; the action was abysmal. Gadot’s face was so tortureously over-dramatic, the effects so hideous, the choreography so weak; it looked like it was actually made in the 80s and they forgot to update it to today’s standards. WW84 is bad enough when you compare it to its own original, but, god, what if you held it up next to a good action and/or comic book and/or fantasy movie, it would look indescribably bad, and, really, it is.
Director: Niki Caro
I am officially done with Disney remakes; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Disney has fooled us all numerous times, with these god-awful re-dos of their greatest hits, these terrible live-action caricatures of films we grew up loving. Every time a new trailer comes out I get a little excited, because I loved these movies, because the trailers look excellent, because the music hits, because, my god, it’s Disney! But every time I leave disappointed, not because I expect something as tremendous as the original works, that’s not likely, but because I want to be entertained by solid cinema, regardless of where it comes from. Mulan is just another bad cover by a washed up band, a song that once was great but now just feels tired. And I’ll even go one step further; this may be the worst remake of them all, a copy so bad that I may actually head to myself and never watch another.
You know the story because Christina Aguilera sang it to you; Mulan doesn’t see herself in her own reflection, and she’s not sure who she is inside. Her family wants her to marry to bring honor to the family, but Mulan is no graceful swam, at least not in a dress; fighting is another matter. She’s a born warrior, a Chi goddess, can do things only a few can, but her destiny is held down under the weight of her gender; can it ever be truly revealed? When war comes, Mulan famously takes her father’s place, but the stakes are much higher than she realizes. Pretending to be a man is one thing, becoming a solider is not impossible, even defeating the evil Bori Khan can be done. But what about the witch who fights at his side, this woman who has so much in common with Mulan, because she too cannot reveal her true powers? This wrinkle will cause the whole empire to stumble, and only Mulan can save it from falling to its death.
There’s a lot to unpack here, a lot that’s gone horribly wrong and needs to be pointed at so that, perhaps, we never accept the same weak sauce again. And we really shouldn’t; we ought not to be watching these movies, that’s the only way they’re going to stop, and stop they really REALLY should. Mulan is the worst yet, for a hundred different reasons, but I’ll just stick to the ones that stand out the furthest. Yifei Liu is awful, just awful, and I really don’t think she makes more than one expression the entire movie. But the times she “comes to life” and does flying kung fu might be even worse; it was like those scenes were directed by a complete befuddled amateur. I was excited to see the Crouching Tiger-esque fight scenes woven into this story, but that may have been the weakest part of the film, the stupid fantasy elements; at one point I involuntarily said “oh gosh” and averted my eyes in utter embarrassment. It was childish, silly, ridiculous, dumbed down, just nothing I expected from a film that went out of its way to be PG-13. Go big or go home, huh? Don’t give us a couple CG moments and expect us to stand up to applaud. And the rest was one huge mistake: the lack of comedy, the annoying witch story line, the awkward battle scenes, the unprofessional writing, some of the worse directing you will see from a film not just this year but any. Mulan is exactly what you shouldn’t do, with a team of people who shouldn’t have been hired, with a lack of anything worth watching, especially since the original is so good and available to see on the same streaming platform; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, Disney.
Director: Robert J. Rosenthal
Carrie meets The Shaggy Dog is as bad as you think it would be, especially with Scott Baio leading the charge. Zapped! is a whackadoo whackjob that doesn’t even have the presence of mind to be fun, it’s simply abysmal, combining teenage irreverence with sci-fi spoof until the outcome is as bleak as the prospects must have looked when the team first set out to make this “movie”. Expect hijinks and hooligans, boobs and bad acting, it’s a mess of marvelous proportions, and a film best left unexperienced.
High school supernerd Barney, who is always in the laboratory, finds himself in the middle of a scientific mishap, when some mice gain telekinetic abilities and then so does he. Now Barney can move things with his mind, includes cute girls’ blouses and his team’s baseballs, so life is suddenly interesting. His best friend Peyton wants to use the trick to be naughty, fellow geek Bernadette wants to study it, and of course all goes wrong, because with great power comes great responsibility, and teenagers aren’t great at being responsible.
So Scott Baio can take people’s clothes off with his mind, and often does. Willie Aames is obsessed with getting a popular blonde girl into bed, and does. There are trippy moments of fantasy where the mood of the movie could completely switch, and does. Who was in charge of this film? It’s like a 70s teen sex romp but with an element of insanity that makes it even harder to watch, and also stops it from fitting into a genre, even a bad one. Zapped! is low class, low intellect, low expectations, it’s just low, but it you’re thirsty for more there’s actually a sequel, Zapped Again!, which went straight to video in 1990, so good luck with that.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck
I had the chance to watch The Way Back during a live virtual screening, and afterward Ben Affleck joined from his home for a Q&A session with a moderator. Incidentally and excitedly, a question I posed was chosen by the moderator and Ben answered it, so that was cool, and he generally seemed like a nice, engaged, open guy, easily discussing the process with us all like we were equals and collaborators. But even before all that, before we became BFFs, I enjoyed his performance in this film immensely, and the movie as a whole hit me rather directly as well. It may not go down as a classic sports drama like Hoosiers, which it pulls from heavily, but it does stand strong as another stone in the path of a well-worn, well-loved genre.
Jack is separated from his wife, works construction, drinks heavily, and is generally at a tumultuous point in his life where nothing brings him any joy. A personal tragedy set these wheels in motion, but others involved have moved on, Jack hasn’t, and it’s beginning to weigh heavily on his life, bringing him swiftly down toward rock bottom. Out of nowhere, he receives a call from his old Catholic high school, where he was once a star basketball player, and where they are now looking for a coach. Taking the job would mean more responsibility than Jack is used to taking on, but it might also prove to be the chance he needs to be important, to face his terrible sadness, and to ultimately live again.
I saw it said that Ben Affleck’s character in The Way Back is both Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper from Hoosiers, a coach with anger and drinking problems who could revolutionize the game if he could only get out of his own way. There’s also a small town element to the story, which comes from the school rather than the city, and from the players who, honestly, we don’t get to know quite well enough; they almost feel like shadows of people in other films. But the grief, the alcoholism, Affleck’s performance in general, that’s where you feel the heavy hitting, and that’s what makes this film special. It’s a powerful story well-delivered, with great side characters as well, especially Al Madrigal, who shows that he can be much more than simply silly. The film itself isn’t going to win a ton of awards, it’s more a nice piece to the genre puzzle, but Affleck makes it something much more, even nearly a must-see.
Director: Danny Boyle
28 Days Later is one of the best zombie movies ever made because it’s barely about zombies. A slight back story, a tiny Rules To Live By segment, some info on how you get infected, and then bang, the race begins, with the struggle to survive having very little to do with the creatures themselves, but rather how humanity would respond to such a disaster. In that way, it’s a commentary on society, and I know that’s neither a breakthrough nor is this the first horror film to examine that, but very few have succeeded this well by doing it so simply.
Four weeks after a rage virus spread throughout the UK, London is a ghost town, and the rest of the country isn’t doing much better. Humans have turned into monsters, or else they fled or died, and the societal structure we spent so long building up has come crumbling down so very quickly. Jim wakes up in a hospital after an accident left him unconscious, only to find that he’s all alone in an alien world where things want to eat him. Luckily, he runs into Selena, who knows the ropes, and then into Frank & Hannah, a father/daughter pair, and together the foursome goes in search of some kind of hope, or at least the means to live another day.
This wasn’t Danny Boyle’s big break, but it sure did prove what he could do; it’s like when Stephen King takes on something dumb or clichéd, like vampires or aliens or zombies or serial killers, and simply does it better than other people can, like, “there you go, you see?” That’s 28 Days Later, a monster movie that’s not reinventing the wheel but rather making the roundest, smoothest wheel you’ve ever used, like it was easy to make something so perfect so quickly when everyone else has struggled every other time until then. What works so well is how little audiences are talked down to, how little information we’re told, how much the human connections matter in the face of such catastrophe, not the catastrophe itself. And there are still zombies, deaths, guns, chases, scares, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that those things become for fun, for entertainment, not to trick us into watching something otherwise awful. And what a cast, with Murphy, Harris, and Gleeson delivering excellent performances against a really difficult backdrop. You could make the case that this film is the best zombie movie ever made, although I wouldn’t keep those expectations as high for the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, which features an incredible cast but not as crisp a story. No, this one’s special.