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Movie Reviews

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review

This film will be noted as one of the best of 2021, but is going to receive nominations for the 2020 awards season. Make it make sense.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of criminal-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and his betrayal of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen also star, while Shaka King directs.

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are two of the best rising talents in Hollywood right now, with both going from obscure favorites to mainstream faces following “Get Out” in 2017. Kaluuya earned an Oscar nomination for his work there, and subsequent praise for his performance in “Widows” and appearance in “Black Panther,” while Stanfield has appeared in numerous acclaimed films like “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Sorry to Bother You.” Their reunion here produces a film that is entertaining and intense, but also ponderous and at times infuriating.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya embodies charisma and passion. An onlooker of one of his speeches calls him a poet, and it’s certainly true. He enters rallies to the sound of drums and the chanting of his name from a roaring crowd like he’s a college football star running out of the tunnel onto the field, and makes a point to gather oppressed people from all walks of life, not just African Americans. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Hampton knew he would not live to see old age (he would die at just 21) but he is ready to trade his life for the advancement of the people.

As petty thief William O’Neal, LaKeith Stanfield has a much more challenging role to balance, essentially playing a less-moral version of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Departed.” Having his arm twisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers in lieu of going to prison, O’Neal is portrayed as much more conflicted in the film than he was in real life but it serves the story wonderfully. While in reality O’Neal felt “no allegiance” to Hampton and the Panthers, director Shaka King and co-writers Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas choose to make O’Neal becoming a rat much more of a conflict of emotion. In one scene where Stanfield must keep his Panther facade up during a rally despite realizing his cover may be about to be blown, and it is masterful acting and direction by all parties. There is the classic “who else knows about me?” confrontation between O’Neal and his FBI handler, as well as a nice touch by King to have the pair meet in progressively more fancy settings as the film goes on to symbolize how removed from his own world O’Neal is becoming, and it adds a little bit of freshness to a story beat we’ve seen before.

The supporting cast is solid as well, with Jesse Plemons playing O’Neil’s FBI handler thinking he means well, comparing the possible threat of the radical Panther party to that of the KKK. However, he and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in make-up and prosthetics that make him look like Danny DeVito’s Penguin) would rather take Hampton and the Party out than fix any actual problems that created the need for the Panthers in the first place (“you can’t cheat your way to equality” Plemons says to Stanfield).

I really enjoyed the musical score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, too. It has its tender moments of delicate piano, intense sequences with knocking of wooden blocks, and some cool drum and guitar riffs when characters and simply hanging out. The cinematography by Sean Bibbitt is also pretty good, with nice framing and detailed rain sequences.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is by-default the best film of 2021 to date (no offense to “The Marksman” or “Outside the Wire”), but I already know I will be talking about it all the way through my Top 10 list in December. Much like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” it may take place in the 1960s but the parallels to modern times could not be any clearer, and it adds to an already impressive filmography from its lead stars. This may not be an easy watch for some people, but it is a necessary one for all.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘Outside the Wire’ Review

By definition, this is the best movie of 2021.

“Outside the Wire” stars Anthony Mackie as a cyborg in the year 2036 who partners with a drone pilot (Damson Idris) to deliver vaccines across a warzone. Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly, and Pilou Asbæk also star, while Mikael Håfström directs.

Netflix was one of the few saving graces when it came to 2020, not only keeping awards season somewhat normal with players like “Mank,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” but also keeping us occupied in the early days of quarantine with “Extraction” and “Tiger King.” They recently announced they plan on releasing a new movie every week of the year in 2021, and they start off by giving us “Outside the Wire,” an R-rated sci-fi action film that isn’t without its moments, but also nothing we haven’t seen before.

You can’t go into a film like this with many expectations. The sci-fi genre has been done a thousand different ways, and “robot soldiers in the near future” is no different. Here, Anthony Mackie takes a break from being the new Captain America in the MCU to play a cyborg with a conflicted sense of duty. Mackie is basically playing the same dry and sassy guy he always does, which isn’t a knock or compliment so much as just a statement of fact. Damson Idris actually turns in a solid performance as Thomas Harp, a young drone pilot who is paired with Mackie following disobeying orders during a battle. Idris has a few moments of conflicted nature himself, and has a somewhat moving moment when he is forced to take a human life up-close for the first time, opposed to simply through a computer screen mile away from the actual conflict.

For being a Netflix film, some of the visuals and production values here look pretty cheap. The robot soldiers and drone shots are pretty cool, however most of the kills involve either cheap spurts or awful-looking CGI blood. Some of the fight choreography is impressive, and when director Håfström stages the camera far-enough away from the action that we can see what is going on some of the kills are fun. I doubt this even got the $65 million budget that “Extraction” received, because for every shot that feels like a normal studio blockbuster, there are two that come off like a straight-to-DVD Bruce Willis romp.

The film tries to offer various forms of commentary, but none of them are fleshed out of groundbreaking. The United States is involved in an endless cycle of pointless wars? Wow. Robots are the future of warfare but that isn’t without its risks? You don’t say. Many of these ideas aren’t even introduced until the final act, where the film gets randomly messy. Despite its familiar plot and lack of true ideas, the film is also very self-serious, which ends up hindering it.

“Outside the Wire” isn’t the worst movie of its genre, and since it’s free on Netflix I can recommend checking it out without any guilt on my conscience. It has moments of interest and entertainment, and actually may have been a traditional solid boots-on-the-ground war film that didn’t need to add the sci-fi element. So long as you go in without expecting anything new, deep, or groundbreaking I think there are worse ways to kill two hours, because let’s be honest, what else do we have to do right now?

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘The Marksman’ Review

Another year, another Liam Neeson-with-a-gun movie.

“The Marksman” stars Liam Neeson as a retired U.S. Marine who lives on the Arizona-Mexican border, and is forced to escort a young Mexican boy (Jacob Perez) to Chicago while being pursued by cartel members. Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, and Teresa Ruiz also star, while Robert Lorenz directs.

Despite insisting he was done with the “retired/widowed/alcoholic ex-killer gets caught up in a situation and reluctantly does the right thing” movies several years ago, this is the second such film of Liam Neeson’s to come out during the pandemic alone (the other being the perfectly fine, whatever “Honest Thief” last October). I could honestly copy and paste most of my review for that film here and not need to change anything but names and locations, because like many of Neeson’s recent outings “The Marksman” is a very workmanlike, boilerplate installment into a well-worn genre that will give its intended audience their kicks.

While “Taken,” “Non-Stop,” and even “Unknown” all have their own sense of flair and energy, recent films by Neeson have been pretty tame. However that is not the fault of the 68-year-old Irishman. Unlike Bruce Willis, who seemingly puts out a new film every three months and reads his lines like a hostage tape, Neeson never phones his roles in. Yes at this point he is essentially playing himself, growling and only half-trying to conceal his Irish accent, but he adds a sense of gravitas to these films that would otherwise feel straight-to-VOD.

Unlike “Honest Thief” I will at least give this film credit for having a little bit of color. Cinematographer Mark Patten includes some nice sunset shots painted against the desert hills of the American Midwest, and makes each state that Neeson and Perez pass through feel at least a little unique.

The film is paced fine-enough, although there really isn’t 108 minutes’ worth of actual content here. Like most buddy road trip movies there are plot conveniences to force the story along (Neeson finds a bag of money but continues to use his credit card simply so we have an excuse for the bad guys to track him), and until the final shootout there isn’t much action. Robert Lorenz has made a career producing Clint Eastwood’s films (his sole other directorial effort was of Eastwood in 2012’s “Trouble with the Curve”), and it is easy to see this having been written with Eastwood in mind (this plot is also incredibly similar to Eastwood’s 2018 film “The Mule”).

Those who like Liam Neeson shooters or any these senior citizen romps should get their kicks, and if you’ve been looking for a reason to return to the theater then this is as good-enough as any I suppose. Normally January is reserved for the stinkers (last year’s worst film “The Grudge” literally came out on the third day of 2020 and I never forgave it), so by those standards “The Marksman” is a hit; just know that this isn’t Neeson’s first rodeo, and he and Lorenz have every intent of sticking to the formula, for better or worse.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Review

This film’s entire message is “careful what you wish for,” and it rings true about the release of the film itself.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is the sequel to the 2017 film, and features Gal Gadot returning to the titular role. Here, she and her long-lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) must stop a businessman bent on taking over the world (Pedro Pascal). Kristen Wiig also stars as supervillain Cheetah, while Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen reprise their roles as Wonder Woman’s mother mentors; Patty Jenkins returns to the director’s chair.

I really liked the first “Wonder Woman” film. The climax leaves more to be desired, but the overall product was good enough to place on my 2017 Top 10 list, and I think it remains the best film of the DCEU (granted, a low bar). “1984” was due out this June but then, well, you know what happened. Warner Bros. ended up releasing it simultaneously in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Christmas, a move met with a polarized response. From the success of the first installment to the fun trailers for this one, hype and clamoring for this were high, but after seeing the end result we would have all been fine just waiting to see it on the big screen.

One of the highlights of the 2017’s film was the chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, and that again is the film’s biggest strength here. I won’t go into detail about how/why Pine manages to return to a sequel set 70 years after the first film, but rest assured he’s a treat. Gadot is again solid, although the thick accent occasionally makes bits of dialogue hard to make out.

Newcomers Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal are a lukewarm bag. Early on, they are both chiasmatic and own the screen, with Pascal being a (borderline) con-man and Wiig being her normal dorky self. However once both go into supervillain mode they become literal cartoon characters, and don’t seem to belong in the world that Patty Jenkins has created.

And let’s talk about that world. Much like the “X-Men” reboots/prequels, this film goes out of its way to remind you the decade in which it is set, however other than using the anxieties of the Cold War, this could have taken place at any point in time. Jenkins throws fanny packs, arcades, and perms at the screen, and it’s fun to go “ha ha, the 80s were weird, huh” a few times but after a while you just want the plot to, you know, make some sense.

And almost none of this film makes any sense. There is a magic stone that grants wishes, and as the plot goes on there are more and more things that it can do, but it is never explained how or why. Do people have to submit to the will of the stone once asking for something? Is one person’s wish negated by another? They establish you must be touching it to get your wish, but then that rule is ignored later one in a big way. None of these things are answered, and by the time the climax comes around there is so much going on yet it feels like nothing is happening.

Some of the effects are cool and action scenes well-staged, however a few sequences are laughably bad. Whether it is over/under-acting by Gadot, to clear stunt wires and greenscreen, maybe seeing this on the big screen would make these flaws more forgivable. But seated on my couch with others I am free to vocally point out my issues as I see them, instead of being wowed by the spectacle of it all. Warner Bros. may have inadvertently created a situation that advocates and encourages theater-going over streaming, because I feel I am not the only one who will walk away from this with a sour taste in my mouth from the final 30 minutes, instead remembering the fun (enough) two hours.

“Wonder Woman 1984” starts out fun and fine, but as it chugs along it eventually goes completely off the rails. It is a disappointment in a year of disappointments but for whatever it’s worth, this is still one of the better DC films; unlike “Suicide Squad” or “Justice League,” at least this doesn’t feel like a studio-mandated Frankenstein of a film.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘The Midnight Sky’ Review

As far as blatant rip-offs go, I’ve seen worse than this.

“The Midnight Sky” is the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight.” The film follows a lone scientist in the Arctic (Clooney) who must journey to a radio tower to warn off a returning spaceship (containing Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, and Kyle Chandler) after a global catastrophe on Earth.

George Clooney is a very interesting director. When he hits, he hits, with serious dramas like “The Ides of March” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” However he has recently fallen into a bit of a rough spell, with missed opportunities like “Monuments Men” and the awful “Suburbicon.” His latest (and most ambitious) effort, “The Midnight Sky,” is his first attempt at both a blockbuster and at taking part in the Netflix machine, and while the results are mixed, I think there is enough here to be worth checking out from your couch.

As far as his direction here goes, I appreciated Clooney’s humanistic approach. He had to take a “crash course” on visual effects (more on that in a second), but as far as his handling of the actors go, I think he did a good job getting personal performances from his cast. As far as the story goes, it’s a bit more mixed, because while Clooney’s personal “Revenant” journey through the Arctic with a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) is intense and emotional, the sequences aboard the spaceship belong in a completely different movie (and that movie is “The Martian”).

Half of the special effects are solid here, but in 2020 it takes a lot to wow an audience (especially without seeing them on a big screen). Some of the greenscreen moments are a bit wonky, but Clooney does manage to take a page out of his “Gravity” playbook and create a few “wow” moments when he pans back to reveal the full scope of the universe. In a year where “Birds of Prey” is going to end up as the highest-grossing superhero movie, I could see “Midnight Sky” slipping into the awards talk for its production value, but in a normal year this wouldn’t earn any additional talk for its VFX.

The familiarity of the film certainly hinders it, and for some viewers may even ruin things. However I found myself enjoying a fair amount, whether it was with the film (an exciting snowstorm sequence shot in real-life 50 mph winds at 40-below) or at its expense (the astronauts break out into a carpool karaoke of “Sweet Caroline” like its the 7th inning at Fenway; dumb). Alexandre Desplat’s score, while on-the-nose at points, is also very good, and is one of my favorites of the year.

“The Midnight Sky” thinks it is being slick trying to be a half-dozen better films rolled into one, but given our limited amount of big-budget fair in 2020 I think this latest attempt by Netflix to break into the blockbuster game is admirable-enough to warrant checking. Sure, you could watch “The Revenant” or “Interstellar” or “Ad Astra” instead (and likely should), but for those who demand little and want something “new” (used in the loosest of terms), I think this works.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘All My Life’ Review

Sometimes good intentions aren’t good enough.

“All My Life” is based on a true story and follows a young couple (Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr.) that must put their wedding on hold after one of them receives a cancer diagnosis. Kyle Allen, Chrissie Fit, Jay Pharoah, Marielle Scott, and Keala Settle also star while Marc Meyers directs.

In a film like this, the performances of the leads are important. Thankfully, Jessica Rothe (known for “Happy Death Day”) and Harry Shum Jr. show flashes of chemistry and charisma, with a few entertaining exchanges early on (“go on, wit me” Rothe says to him after meeting at a bar). They may not have the same sizzling partnership as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, but they are able to come off as a real couple.

Unfortunately, that is about where the compliments end. The rest of the film is simply bland, from the direction to the screenplay. It truly never builds up any momentum, and there is never any real conflict. The pair meet in the second scene of the film and begin dating in the third, and then once Shum is diagnosed with cancer we don’t really see his struggles depicted in a gradual decline, like in “50/50.” There are one or two scenes where the gravity of the situation overtakes the couple, but otherwise his appearance never changes and if we weren’t being straight-up told the updates by the doctor we would have no idea how concerned to be.

Most of the plot focuses on the couple and their friends racing to put together a wedding while Shum is still healthy, and there isn’t any real drama or stakes there, either. Everything continues to fall into line, which is obviously great if that is how it played out for the real couple, but doesn’t make for entertaining cinema. A film like, say, “The Photograph” may seem familiar in its structure, but its camera work and backdrop (both this and that film were shot in New Orleans) keep us visually engaged; this doens’t give us that luxury.

Look, I am in no way this film’s target demographic. I like romantic comedies just fine (I just watched “The Broken Hearts Gallery” and found it delightful), but romantic dramas are typically hit-or-miss with me. Maybe the teenage girls looking for a good cry will find enough here to be worth their while, but when I wasn’t bored watching this, I just kept thinking of better movies of similar premises. “All My Life” isn’t inherently “bad,” it’s just blah.

Critics Rating: 4/10

‘Mank’ Review

I feel the amount of anticipation and pressure on this film and David Fincher to deliver can’t be understated.

“Mank” is the latest film from director David Fincher, and his first since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Written by his father Jack Fincher, the film follows writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane” in 1940; Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Burke, and Charles Dance also star.

I’m a decent fan of David Fincher’s work, from “Se7en” to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (one of the biggest crimes of the 21st century is us never getting a proper sequel to that), and of course the director’s crowning achievement “The Social Network” (the actual biggest crime of the century is him losing Best Director to “The King’s Speech’s” Tom Hooper). Fincher took some time away from directing films to focus on developing the series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” for Netflix but he is back with “Mank,” a film written by his father Jack (who passed away in 2003). Originally set to star Kevin Spacey in the late-90s, the film is a witty and meticulous view of the old Hollywood system and the demons that men with power face, and while it may not rank among Fincher’s best works, I feel it is one of 2020’s better films nevertheless.

For the longest time, Gary Oldman was one of those actors that everyone knew and loved but he never seemed to get the dramatic roles that matched his talents. He finally won an Oscar for his turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (whether he deserved it over Timothée Chalamet is another story), and here he is as solid as expected. Oldman’s Mankiewicz is dry and witty, except when he’s sloppy and drunk, and always seems to be the smartest man in the room. It isn’t groundbreaking work, but as he himself says, “you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one;” and we come away knowing exactly the kind of guy Mank was.

My favorite performance comes from Amanda Seyfried, who portrays actress Marion Davies. Seyfried is sympathetic and while she has less scenes than you would imagine, her presence is felt as a young woman who feels like she has to keep her opinions quiet in a room full of rich old men. The rest of the cast is expectedly good, including Arliss Howard as studio head Louis B. Mayer and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, who perfectly nails Welles’ deep voice and charismatic mannerisms.

Outside Aaron Sorkin’s quips, this is my favorite kind of script. The old-timey rat-a-tat dialogue that is just so sharp and witty that it makes you chuckle even though the line wasn’t technically a joke (“how’s the leg?” Wells asks an injured Mank. “Oh you know, knee bone connected to the thigh bone” he replies). This could land Jack Fincher an Oscar nomination 25 years after he completed the script and more than 17 years after his death, a feat that would mirror August Wilson and his work on “Fences” a few years back.

David Fincher projects always look great, typically with a nice color pallet (“Se7en” is yellow, “Gone Girl” blue, “House of Cards” grey, etc). Here the film is shot in black-and-white, the reason it took Fincher so long to find a studio to back the project, and emphasizes shadows. It is clearly an homage to “Citizen Kane” and the films of old, and at times it is pretty to look at. It never comes off in the same stunning and almost hypnotic way as say, “Roma,” but the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt works great in certain sequences.

Now the film has a lot on its mind, from the 1934 government race to the old studio system, and not all of it blends perfectly together. Things feel disjointed at times, with the narrative constantly jumping back and forth between Mank trying to keep his socialist views quiet in a Republican-oriented industry (which makes you chuckle when you look at Hollywood today) and his 1940 writing of the script injured in a bed. Also, despite the true authorship of the “Citizen Kane” script being both a big historical controversy and a selling point of the film, the subject is treated as an afterthought until Fincher throws it in (the film itself ends rather abruptly).

“Mank” may not be for everyone but if you love movies, Hollywood, and alcoholism (or the seething criticism of the three) then you should get you kicks here. Do I wish this was an all-timer and not “just” a good movie? Sure, the pieces certainly were there. But I found myself engaged from start to finish, and look forward to revisiting the world again.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Review

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, and follows “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) amid a stressful recording session one summer afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Chadwick Boseman also stars (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles; George C. Wolfe directs.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past August, it came as a shock to many. He had been looking thinner in recent public appearances, but since he was such a larger-than-life character both on- and off-screen, plus we had just watched him in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in June, no one assumed the worst was coming. Maybe Boseman knew “Black Bottom” would be his final performance, maybe not, but his work has almost a spiritual sense to it, and could see him earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination.

Chadwick Boseman was only really a big player in movies for seven years, when he came onto the scene as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Since then he played several prominent African-American historical figures, as well as the superhero Black Panther in the MCU. Boseman always had a presence about him, and you feel it in “Black Bottom.” Boseman’s Levee, a trumpet player with high ambitions, is wise-cracking and full of swagger (when we first meet him, he is hitting on women and bragging about his new shoes), but underneath the surface there is pain and struggle. Boseman is able to flip the switch so quickly and with such nuance that you almost don’t even notice, and he says as much with his words as he does with his eyes. I still think Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in “The Father” and he deserves the Best Actor awards, but Boseman is sure to earn some over the next five(!) months and I will be over-the-moon happy for him and his family.

The rest of the cast is solid, with Viola Davis obviously being the other big draw here. Playing Ma Rainey, Davis does her own singing in the film and wears a heavy amount of makeup, to the point she is almost unrecognizable. Davis is at the point in her career where it is hard to be surprised by her acting, and I didn’t think she did anything too great here, but she is able to carry the scenes where Boseman is absent.

The production and costume design are both top-notch as well. You get immersed in early-20th century Chicago, from the cars and the skyline, to the loose ties and fedoras. The score is also pretty good, with the low jazz horns and drum beats.

Where the film comes up short is arguably the most important aspect: the script, adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has a career in theater, as well as acting in films, but this is his first screenplay. Much like “Fences” and other adaptations, the film definitely feels like a play, with only two main locations (both big square rooms) and some exaggerated Shakespearian dialogue and monologues. My issues aren’t with all that, it is that the narrative seems unsure how to lay all the plot points out. For most of the film the big issue is finally getting Rainey’s song recorded, and the hurdles they face from a stuttering singer to Boseman’s ego. However in the final 15 minutes we get a whole world of new conflicts, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough going on in the first two acts to suddenly way too much in the third.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase, including a touching swansong performance from Chadwick Boseman, and has some fantastic below-the-line work as well. I can honestly see a world where this gets nominations in every category except Screenplay, that is how notably weaker it is compared to the top-tier work everywhere else. For sure check this film out when it drops on Netflix, and I will be rooting for it to win many awards all season; I just wish the overall experience as a whole left a greater impression on me.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Freaky’ Review

Sometimes it is wonderful when a movie is exactly what its trailer made it out to look like.

“Freaky” puts a twist on the body-swap tale, when a notorious serial killer (Vince Vaughn) switches places with one of his teenage victims (Kathryn Newton). Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, and Alan Ruck also star as Christopher Landon co-writes and directs.

2020 has been weird and full of ever-changing situations, but I really don’t know why Universal wouldn’t release this film back in October. I get they want to have the Friday the 13th tagline for the posters, but for whatever amount of theaters are up and operating this would have been a fun film for spooky season to see with an (albeit socially distanced) audience (if they really wanted to milk the Friday the 13th thing then put it on PVOD on November 13 instead of December 4). But I am rambling; point is, this film is fun.

The body-swap gimmick is nothing new, it’s been done from “Freaky Friday” (and arguably perfected by Jamie Lee Curtis playing Lindsay Lohan in the 2003 remake) to the “Jumanji” reboots. Here, Vince Vaughn gets to tap into his inner teenage girl, akin to Jack Black in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” From flamboyant hand motions to acting awkward around his (her) crush, Vaughn is clearly having a blast in the role, and even manages to be intimidating in the few scenes where he is his normal killer self.

Kathryn Newton is given a little less to do as a killer trapped in a young woman, she mostly just moves around silently before striking her victim. She is definitely solid in the role, but is outshined by Vaughn and her supporting cast (Misha Osherovich as the stereotypical gay best friend is a blast).

Christopher Landon is quietly one of my favorite people working in the slasher field, having written the fantastic and nostalgia time-capsule “Disturbia” and the very fun “Happy Death Day,” among others. Much like “Happy Death Day,” Landon gets to play around with the horror-comedy genre and come up with some pretty creative kills. Some are over-the-top, but that is what makes them all the more fun; it may take a bit away from the scary aspect of the story, but it is never not entertaining.

“Freaky” does sag a bit leading up to its climax and then not exactly know when to end, but thanks to fun direction and a fantastic Vince Vaughn performance it is just a fun time at the movies. I will revisit this out again next October for sure, and even though we’ve traded jack-o’-lanterns for wreaths on our porches you should still seek this one out (whether that be in theaters or VOD).

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review

See, this is what happens when you don’t give people their Oscars when they deserve them; they put on a bunch of makeup and take on heavy-handed family dramas.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is based on the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance about his upbringing in rural Ohio, and the struggles he faced with his drug addict mother (Amy Adams) and no-nonsense grandmother (Glenn Close). Gabriel Basso portrays Vance as a young man and Owen Asztalos plays him as a boy, while Ron Howard directs.

Glenn Close is a seven-time Oscar nominee and should have finally won for her work in “The Wife,” but was upset(ish) by Olivia Coleman in “The Favourite” (the real point of contention there being most argue Coleman was a supporting role, not a lead). Not to be outdone, Amy Adams is herself a six-time nominee, and most of the time simply goes up against better competition (on two occasions even facing off against her co-stars). Much like Leonardo DiCaprio and others before them in an all-out attempt to finally get that trophy, Close and Adams are seemingly throwing off the gloves and putting on the prosthetics, as they are both nearly unrecognizable in their roles as strict mother figures. Their performances are solid, especially Close, but that is about all “Hillbilly Elegy” has going for it.

From chewing scenery in “101 Dalmatians” to spewing nonsense words in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Glenn Close always seems to be enjoying her roles, even the more serious ones. She is also one of our more underrated actresses, possibly due in part to the fact she has never taken home that one elusive trophy. She may finally have her name called on Oscar night for “Hillbilly Elegy,” a role that she is almost unrecognizable in. At times sweet and caring, at others strict and sharp but never cruel, Close carries the film like her Mamaw carries the Vance clan. The scenes with Close are by far the film’s strong points, and you notice when she is not there.

Amy Adams is solid (when is she bad?) but I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t even land an Oscar nomination here. This is the kind of role that actors do when they want awards, and at times you just get the “this is my Oscar scene” vibes from Adams. Her character is a free spirit but also controlling of her children, and I found it hard to root for her; but I feel that comes down to Vanessa Taylor’s script.

The film jumps back and forth between 1997 and 2011, following J.D.’s struggles as a youth then his attempt to get a summer law job at Yale. Young J.D. at times comes off like a complete idiot, and not just because he is at risk of flunking math. Some of the things he says and does, like running into a table while chasing a dog or dancing into a display in store (or saying “Native Americans know they’re going to die”) just make him seem unbelievably stupid, and it is hard to believe that this kid would grow up to attend Yale law school.

In fact, everyone in this film does not act like any person based in reality, and the script never establishes any flow. People have sudden mood swings (J.D. and his mom go from buddy-buddy to him yelling how he hates her in a matter of five seconds), and things just don’t make sense from a character standpoint (teenage J.D. turns down smoking weed but just a few scenes later is tossing back a beer like it’s nothing).

“Hillbilly Elegy” may be remembered as a Trivial Pursuit answer for “what film did Glenn Close finally win her Academy Award for?” but otherwise it is a pretty bland and at times contrived family drama. Ron Howard has made some great films, and we know he can manage family dramas, but this was just a swing and a miss on almost every level. I didn’t see myself or my family in any character, and none of them are interesting enough in their own right to root for. Just a bunch of missed opportunities given all the talent involved…

Critics Rating: 4/10