Fatherhood


You and me against the world.

(2021) Dramedy (Columbia/Netflix) Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howley, DeWanda Wine, Melody Hurd, Paul Reiser, Anthony Carrigan, Deborah Ayorinde, Frankie R. Faison, Thedra Porter, Holly Gauthier-Franel, Ellen David, Julie Trépanier, Julian Casey, Anne Day-Jones, Teneisha Collins, Maria Herrera, Anthony Kavanaugh, Puja Uppal. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Some actors fill a niche, and pretty much stick to it their entire careers. Most actors, however, feel a need to branch out, to flex their dramatic (or comedic) wings and fly out into uncertain winds. Sometimes the result is a steep drop into a faceplant on the tarmac. However, when the landing is stuck, the actor then faces the double-edge sword of raised bars and higher expectations.

Kevin Hart has mostly played irascible immature men conning their way through life, but in this film, based on the experiences of author Matthew Logelin as chronicled in his book Two Kisses for Maddy, Hart plays Logelin, a tech engineer in Boston who is about to be a dad. His wife Liz (Ayorinde) gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, but a pulmonary embolism cuts short her life.

Now Matt faces the daunting task of being a single father and a grieving widower. He is devastated by the grief, but doesn’t have time to let it be front and center; he’s got a career to deal with and a baby to take care of, even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Initially, he gets help from his mom (Porter) and his somewhat overbearing other-in-law Marion (Woodard) who are willing to stay much longer than they are welcome, but Matt is firm; he can do this, although Marion has her doubts. She exacts from him a promise that if it gets to be too much that he’ll move back to Minnesota – where he met his wife – and where Marion can keep a better eye on him.

Hart delivers a career-defining performance here. He dials back the volume and emphasizes Matt’s loneliness and humanity without sacrificing the confusion and loneliness he feels. He’s so unprepared for being a dad that he doesn’t even know what colic is – and let’s not get started about the joys of assembling a stroller. His Matt has skated through, notorious for procrastinating until he realizes he is in a situation where he simply can’t afford to put anything off, particularly when it comes to his daughter. And the love he feels for Maddy (Hurd) shows through in every frame.

Movies like this can easily become maudlin and manipulative but with the sure hand of Weitz (About a Boy) at the helm, it never descends into either pitfall. The movie does occasionally stumble; the character of Jordan (Howley), Matt’s immature best friend, is a little too over-the-top for the film. However, it does better in pointing out the difference in the ways men and women approach parenthood; women get it far more intuitively than men do (for the most part – there are always exceptions) but Weitz wisely doesn’t let this descend into a “men are buffoons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without women” tone that movies sometimes descend into.

What we have here is a really good movie about the challenges of facing single fatherhood alone. It is well-acted with a great ensemble cast and the interplay between Hart and Woodard is priceless. This is easily one of the best movies that the streamer has delivered to its subscribers (although to be fair the movie was originally intended for theatrical release until COVID put a stop to it) and if you have a Netflix subscription, this one should be on your radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Hart gives his best performance by a mile. Great chemistry between Woodard and Hart. Really gets how men fumble around for what women understand intuitively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Howley’s Jordan character may be a bit TOO inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing Tatum was originally going to play the role of Matt when the project was first announced in 2015, but couldn’t get it to work in his schedule; he remained on board as an executive producer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bring Your Own Brigade

The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

Stowaway


Space is a very lonely place.

(2021) Science Fiction (Netflix) Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette, Dan Berry, Scott Manley. Directed by Joe Penna

 

Space is like the ocean. It is vast and uncaring, a dangerous environment that humans can’t survive in for very long. It is nonetheless necessary for humanity to travel in it if it is to leave our shores for other places, to expand our footprint and learn more about who we are and the universe we live in.

A spaceship is launched, bound for a new colony on Mars. The three-person crew is Marina Barnett (Collette), commander of the mission; Dr. David Kim (Kim), a biologist, and Dr. Zoe Levenson (Kendrick), the ship’s medic. There’s a bit of a glitch on liftoff, but otherwise things go smoothly and the trio find themselves on a two-year journey to Mars.

Except that there isn’t just three of them. Barnett discovers, in a crawlspace, Michael Adams (Anderson), a low-level engineer who had been making a final inspection before getting knocked unconscious. Because of the nature of the ship (it relies on slingshots from gravity wells and has little fuel aboard other than to make course corrections), returning to Earth is not an option. They might have to ration tings a bit, but they should be able to make it to Mars okay, and Adams manages to make himself a part of the crew, despite his initial panic and the awful realization that his developmentally disabled sister will be without him for an extended period of time.

But the accident that knocked him out also damaged the life support system and it becomes clear that the ship doesn’t have enough oxygen to sustain the four of them all the way to Mars. There’s only enough for three. And it will fall on Barnett to make the decision that will ultimately haunt them all, unless someone can figure out a way to delive additional oxygen to the crippled ship.

The hard science here is actually very believable; the type of ship that the crew are using is one that is actually being developed for manned missions to Mars. In that sense, the movie is more like The Martian and Gravity than the average space opera. The spaceship looks believably fragile and the production design is spot on.

There is also an impressive cast and they respond impressively. Kendrick is a bit of a revelation; this isn’t the kind of role she is normally cast in, but she turns out to be perfect for it. Her bubbly effervescence that has made her a star is coupled with a warm compassion and scientific competence that makes her character the most fully rounded of any in the movie. She serves as the film’s conscience and while Collette lends gravitas to the part (and is as always, excellent), Kendrick lends humanity. Kim, a marvelous actor who should be getting cast in lead roles at this point, continues to do wonderful work in supporting roles. Somebody give this guy a movie of his own!

One has to really suspend disbelief to accept that someone could even accidentally be left on board a spaceship that was being launched for Mars; it just doesn’t seem likely, not even in a commercial enterprise as depicted here. The ending, which follows a set piece that is as exciting and as nerve-wracking as any you’ll see in any major movie this year, is a bit maudlin and does dampen my enthusiasm for the film somewhat, but it shows the kind of movie that Netflix excels at releasing, and while I might wish this could be seen on a big screen (especially for the set piece I referred to earlier which would be absolutely spectacular), it nonetheless should be one that all Netflix subscribers should be checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong cast giving strong performances. Realistic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preposterous plot and maudlin ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and plenty of peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spaceship set can now be experienced as part of the studio tour at Bavaria Filmstadt just south of Munich.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Penny Black

Audible


High school football is high school football no matter who plays it.

(2021) Documentary Short (Netflix) Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, Lera Walkup, Ryan Bonheyo, Jamal Johnson, Teddy Webster. Directed by Matthew Ogens

 

This new documentary on Netflix is only 38 minutes long. It’s one of those rare cases where you leave a movie feeling that you wish it had been longer.

The film follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a senior on the football team of the Maryland School for the Deaf. This is one of the most successful teams in the country having had a 47-game winning streak snapped as we begin the film. McKenstry-Hall, clearly a leader on the team, tells his team to keep their heads high – not to let one loss define them. They have one game left in the season – and it happens to be the homecoming game.

This is more of a slice of life film than a “triumph over adversity” film, although that element is certainly there. We never see the homecoming game or how it turned out. Instead, we see Amaree dealing with his deafness, feeling isolated at home – he was not born deaf but became dear after a childhood illness. His father left the family soon afterwards, but as we see in the film is starting to rebuild his relationship with his son after years of crime and jail led to a spiritual reawakening and a desire to make amends. The relationship between the two is fragile, but improving.

We also discover that Amaree is dealing with the suicide of his friend Teddy Webster, a young man who was taken out of the Maryland School of the Deaf and put into a public high school where he was bullied unmercifully, not just for being hard of hearing (other students would regularly flick his hearing aid out of his ear) but also for being gay. His boyfriend Jalen Whitehurst is a cheerleader on the MSD team, along with Lera Walkup, Amaree’s girlfriend.

As you might imagine, the film utilizes sound design to simulate from time to time what deaf people experience. Not all deafness is the same; some hear absolutely nothing while others hear muffled and distorted sounds. The students can feel the vibrations of the music at the dance (or at a bonfire) and dance to it with the reckless abandon of youth.

If there is one criticism to be made, it’s that the movie really kind of glosses over a lot of important things; the suicide of Teddy Webster is clearly an important element in the story, but it is brought in late and discussed only in generalities. The movie also moves from being about a football team, to being a slice of life for the deaf community, to being about an individual player, to being about bullying and maybe that’s a bit too much ground to cover in a movie just over half an hour long.

This film gives you a better idea of the day-to-day realities of being a deaf high school student; it doesn’t ask for or elicit sympathy, nor does it make the student outs to be any more extraordinary than any young person dealing with an issue. What it does is make them relatable; they are, at the end of the day, like any other kids their age – they love sports, they love music, they love hanging out with each other, they hurt when someone close to them is taken from them, and they worry about their future when they graduate. It is eye-opening in its own way, but I think that the movie at the end of the day reminds us that people with disabilities are no more different than you or I; they just have challenges that you and I don’t experience, and they have long since learned to adapt their lives around them. This one is definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Leaves you wanting more. Incredible sound design.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit unfocused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is discussion of teen suicide and bullying, and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ogens has directed several films in the prestigious ESPN 30 for 30 series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Surge at Mount Sinai

The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Cellphone armageddon.

(2021) Animated Feature (Netflix/Columbia) Starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigan, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug, Jay Pharaoh, Melissa Sturm, Doug Nicholas, Jeff Rowe, Madeleine McGraw, Ellen Wightman, Sasheer Zarmata. Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

 
We have let the tech genii out of the bottle, like it or not. The generations that have grown up with in the digital age are more comfortable looking at a smartphone screen than they are into the eyes of another human being. I suppose that might be perceived as a knock, but at the risk of being offensive, it’s just an expression of the way things are. Whether you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all, it is the way it is.

Katie (Jacobson) is a proud online card-carrying member of the smartphone generation. An aspiring filmmaker, her joy comes from making short comedy films starring the family pug (Romé lives!) which eventually gets her accepted into the filmmaking school at CalArts (not for nothing, but that is the alma mater of many of the heavyweights in modern computer animation, as well as my own sister who is a graphic designer).

Predictably, her pragmatic father (McBride) doesn’t understand her – “You can make a living at that?” he asks incredulously when informed of his daughter’s intended major – which his wife (Rudolph) gently (or maybe not so gently) nudges him in the direction of spending time with his daughter before losing her forever. His solution is to drive his little girl to college as a family road trip, which he doesn’t realize is stressing her out because she will lose time getting oriented with her new tribe with whom she has already connected with online.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley where the chips always land where they may, PAL CEO Mark (André) is unveiling a new AI replacing the old one (Colman) who doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside. She decides to take matters into her own non-existant hands and reprograms a fleet of service robots to capture humans and imprison them in “fun pods,” conquering the Earth in the name of Big Tech. I imagine a few QAnon believers might think this could actually happen.

The family is blissfully unaware of all that is happening until they see fleets of robots kidnapping humans and realize that the apocalypse isn’t going to be brought about by zombies, but by robots. That’s right, pop culture fans – Robert Kirkman lied to you. Get over it. As it turns out that they become one of the last few families that hasn’t been captured and of course, one of mankind’s last remaining hopes when Katie figures out a kill code that could shut down the technology overthrow. But can they input it into the system in time?

It is perhaps ironic that a movie exhibiting a healthy distrust of technology is told in computer animataion on an online streaming platform. To be fair, the movie was meant to come out in theaters, but the coronavirus ad other plans. After a couple of delays and title changes, the movie was finally sold to Netflix and released online this past April (assuming you’re reading this before March 31, 2022). However, that might be fitting in that the clear target audience for the movie is the ones who feel more comfortable streaming movies at home rather than actually going to a movie theater.

The movie is full of pop culture references ranging from Furbies to Star Wars to Greta Gerwig to SNL. Although PAL is meant to be an amalgam of Apple and Amazon (a terrifying thought if ever there was one). It also has fanboy cred in that is produced by the white hot duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who neither wrote nor directed this, although their influence on the film is as plain as the nose on my face.

The main drawback here is that other than Colman, who seems to be having the time of her life as the homicidal AI, most of the voice cast is oddly subdued and bland which considering the kind of cast they have is mystifying. There are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments but other okes may leave you flat. They are exploring a real disconnect between generations, and things that millennials and younger viewers will get may fly over the heads of older viewers and vice versa. And perhaps that is part of the movie’s overall point.

I have to admit I was left a little bit cold by all of this, although I grant you that perhaps I was not in the right space to watch this movie. It HAS been a big critical success, although the numbers released by Netflix don’t have it necessarily up there with some of the other would-be theatrical releases that were forced into streaming platforms when it became clear that it would not be getting a favorable release date anytime soon, and a movie like this has a definite shelf life – many of the references and depictions here will be archaic by the time 2022 comes along and I won’t even consider how dated it will seem in five years. But that’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The voice cast is surprisingly lackluster.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of kidflick action and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, was a story consultant for the film. Rowe and Rianda both directed for the series.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Honey

Thunder Force


Some people hate dentists more than others.

(2021) Superhero Comedy (Netflix) Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Melissa Leo Taylor Mosby, Marcella Lowery, Melissa Ponzio, Ben Falcone, Nate Hitpas, Jevon White, David Storrs, Kevin Dunn, Henry Bazemore Jr., Mikia Adrielle Jeter, Steve Mallory, Bria D. Singleton, Tai Leshaun, Vivian Falcone, Mia Kaplan. Directed by Ben Falcone

 

Making a good superhero movie is hard. Making a good comedy is harder. Trying to combine the two genres and making it work – REALLY hard.

In the world of Thunder Force, the world has been bathed by cosmic rays, imbuing a certain percentage of the population with cool superpowers. Unfortunately, it is the segment of the population that is sociopaths and assholes. These superpowered sociopaths are known as “miscreants.”

Ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Among them are the parents of Emily Stanton (Spencer), who are geneticists working on a way to give those who aren’t sociopathic superpowers. Emily vows to carry on her parents’ work. Orphaned, she was raised by her grandmother and at her new school is befriended by Lydia Berman (McCarthy) who protects her from bullies, but has a lot more of a hedonistic attitude while Emily has a singular focus. It leads to a rift between the best friends.

Now middle aged, Emily is on the cusp of making her parents’ dream a reality, while Lydia works as a forklift operator, swilling beer and eating pancakes at her favorite diner which whose owner (Dunn) ruefully admits that he doesn’t know how much longer he can remain open since people aren’t going out to eat as much since there’s a good chance that they’ll be killed by a Miscreant if they do.

However, the diner owner manages to guilt Lydia into texting Emily to invite her to the upcoming class reunion, although Emily is too busy to really commit. So Lydia heads over to the digs of her high tech headquarters, only to accidentally be injected with the super strength serum Emily had intended on taking herself. Emily is forced to have to settle for invisibility, which is perhaps a wry commentary on the state of African-American women in the year of our lord, 2021.

The two plus-sized ladies become Thunder Force and set out to rid Chicago of its Miscreant population, including mayoral candidate King (Cannavale) whose bizarre henchman, the Crab (Bateman) becomes the focus of Lydia’s erotic desires. But can the two women, so different, work out their differences and become a dynamic duo?

If you’re looking for mindless entertainment, this here is not a bad choice. Like other McCarthy films, particularly those directed by her husband Ben Falcone, there’s a certain similarity in tone, with McCarthy playing an essentially good-hearted slob who stumbles her way into a difficult situation. Whether taking on spy films or science fction, crime capers or fish out of water films, McCarthy is a brfash presence with a flair for physical comedy, although some of the more difficult physical turns are less successful these days.

Spencer is a gifted actress who always seems to elevate everything she does, and she’s been a real life friend of McCarthy for decades now. The banter between the two of them is one of the film’s main highlights; I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing the two of them again as a comic duo, although given McCarthy’s recent success in dramatic roles, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see them in a drama either.

Falcone tends to opt for the low-brow humor here, and has an unfortunate tendency to ram punchlines into the ground with endless repetition, something he has demonstrated throughout his collaborations with his wife. There are actually some intriguing ideas here, but Falcone never really explores them; I’d love to see a movie dealing with the effects of superpowers on ordinary folk (as in absolute power corrupts absolutely) as the brilliant DC miniseries Kingdom Come did. I also give the movie kudos for allowing the sorts of superheroines that we don’t ever see – women who aren’t statuesque sorts wearing skimpy leotards.

Ultimately, this is merely ordinary, with some decent special effects but nothing that will make MCU fans chomp at the bit to see this. I can’t say that my expectations were too high for this one, given the track record, and yours shouldn’t be either, but this is decent entertainment and lord knows in a year that has given us much to stress over, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add anything new.
FAMILY VALUES: There is comic book violence, some profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily is played as a young girl by Vivian Falcone, who is Melissa McCarthy’s real-life daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Better Days

The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Kaali Khuhi


Above all, family.

(2020) Horror (NetflixRiva Arora, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Shabana Amzi, Satyadeep Misra, Leela Samson, Jatinder Kaur, Hetvi Bhanushall, Rose Rathod, Sukhwinder Virk, Pooja Sharma, Samuel John, Amita Sharma, Dishika Verma, Inder Bajwa, Nirmal Jeet Kaur, Pritpal Singh, Tejinder Kour, Seema Agarwal, Kashmir Singh, Anil Kumar, Chand Rani, Pallavi Kumari. Directed by Terrie Samundra

Our past has a tendency to catch up to us. Da Queen was known to tell our son when he sought to hide misdeeds he had done from us “Your sins will find you out.” Sometimes, though, it takes a generation or two for them to get there.

In this direct-to-Netflix horror film from India, a family returns to the village of a young father, whose own mother is very sick. His wife is not happy at being dragged along, but then again, she seems to be unhappy with just about everything, including (and especially) daughter Shivangi (Arora) who is a frequent target of her wrath.

But it turns out it isn’t just the grandmother of Shivangi who has been affected with this mysterious illness; others are getting sick as well, and as it turns out, much of this has to do with cruelty perpetrated by villagers years ago, leading to vengeful spirits stalking the living. It will be up to Shivangi to stand up to the supernatural elements if she is to protect those she loves from a gruesome demise.

The plot is slow-moving and a bit convoluted, at least compared to American horror films. While this one seems to be influenced by American-style horror, this is definitely not one of those. Nor is it a Bollywood film; nobody is going to burst into a song and dance routine. Not every Indian film is like that, you know.

Where Samundra is successful is in creating a creepy atmosphere, where things lurk in the shadows and fog hides other nasty surprises. A village well is shot with such sinister glee, it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be supernatural goings-on there.

The acting here is a little weak, at least in the way that Americans look at performing on-camera. The cinematography is occasionally splendid particularly in capturing the rural Indian countryside, but it can get murky from time to time. There are some really effective scares here, and when the movie gets going, it really gets going, but the final climax is a bit of a disappointment. Still, there’s tons of atmosphere and as horror films go, this one isn’t too bad, but I am not sure a lot of American horror fans will have the patience to wade through the subtitles.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric.
REASONS TO AVOID: The climax is eminently forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some violence and scary, terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for Samundra, who has worked on several short films previous to this.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1820: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Calendar Girl

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles