Cruella

Walt Disney Studios
No matter how much independent film flourished in 2020, which was one of the few positive things that came out of the pandemic, we all knew there was something missing. We craved those expensive, beautiful, cast-of-thousands, mainstream, familiar and fun studio movies, the ones that ignite our imagination and take our breath away. Now that theaters are back open, the studios are starting to release their films that have been sitting and waiting and the first one out of the gate not only doesn’t disappoint, but it reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing.

Cruella is Walt Disney Studio’s most recent exploration of a familiar character and story, bringing it to life in a new and exciting way. The studio’s live-action remakes and reboots of their classic franchises have been hit-or-miss, but, with inventive director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) at the helm of this origin story of the villain from Disney’s classic 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians, Cruella is a knockout and is the best live action Disney film in a very long time.

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A Quiet Place Part II

Paramount Pictures
Wondering what will bring people back to the movie theater? Look no further than A Quiet Place Part II, a pulse-pounding, heart-stopping (yes, it’s both), sweat-inducing monster movie from no other than mild-mannered actor/writer/director John Krasinski. Yes, Jim from The Office is now scaring the living daylights out of you, and boy, is he good at it.

The first A Quiet Place film, released in 2018, was huge, made a ton of money and assured a sequel. The only problem with a sequel to that film is the “hero,” Krasinski’s character, was killed off at the end of the movie. Well, A Quiet Place Part II doesn’t miss a beat, assuredly carrying on, something that’s easy to do when you have Emily Blunt in the cast.

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Master of None, Season 3

Netflix
Master of None, the Netflix series from co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, was a critical darling when it debuted in 2015, its first two seasons earning a rare perfect score from Rotten Tomatoes, and Emmy wins for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2016 and 2017. But just when the show was gaining significant momentum, Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct, which put the show into hibernation. Now, over four years after the last episode aired, there is a new season of Master of None, but it is nearly unrecognizable.

While the first two seasons were an intimate and deeply personal exploration of the life of struggling New York actor Dev, played by Ansari, as he searches for the love of his life, the third season, which is officially titled Master of None presents Moments in Love, focuses instead on Dev’s writer best friend, Denise, played by Lena Waithe. There obviously had to be some sort of tectonic shift in order for the show to come back, and this approach was a stroke of genius, finding a way to switch the focus to an already-familiar character, making Dev’s disappearance more palatable (although Dev does appear, briefly, in two episodes). The transition was made simpler, I’m sure, by the fact that Waithe is not only established as a performer on the show, but as a writer, having won an Emmy for writing the episode “Thanksgiving” in season two.

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The Woman in the Window

Netflix
Whether or not director Joe Wright was intending to make a camp classic with his new film, The Woman in the Window, is unclear, but the result certainly is. The Netflix film, finally making its debut after three years of delays (and the pandemic), has been highly anticipated since it moved from its original October, 2019 release date. Based on a best-selling novel by A.J. Finn, featuring a top-tier director and a star-studded cast, the film seemed a sure awards season contender, but test screenings apparently caused the producers to bring the film back for new edits, and now we can see why.

The Woman in the Window stars 6-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams as Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist who becomes obsessed with the lives of the family who live across the street from her New York City brownstone. When she thinks she witnesses a murder inside the house but has no evidence to support her claim, Anna desperately tries to get the police to believe her, but, with her history of mental illness, alcoholism and hallucinations, she has a hard time convincing anyone of anything. As her own demons and haunted past threaten to consume her, Anna must find a way to prove what she saw was real and save herself from a psychotic killer.

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The Killing of Two Lovers

Neon
Nothing comes as expected in The Killing of Two Lovers, the new film from writer/director Robert Machoian (God Bless the Child). That includes the title, which is meant to draw you in right from the beginning, and serves as another whole character–the hidden, unseen cloud that hangs over the entire film. That title, ominous and illustrative, enticing and foreboding, sets the shaky ground that this story lives on, giving unsure footing for the audience.

Machaoian reverse-engineers a story that blasts out of the gate with purpose, establishing violent intents in the opening scene (and, again, that title) that aren’t carried through, but, no matter how calm and ordinary the rest of the movie may be, the underlying tension remains, and the audience’s anxiety is maintained, creating a visceral, organic and ultimately claustrophobic experience that is hypnotic and, ultimately, savagely satisfying.

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Monster

Netflix
The tagline for the newly-released Netflix film, Monster, is “No one has any idea who I am.” Sadly, though, in a world that feels completely different than it did three years ago when this film debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January, 2018, we are all too familiar with who the lead character, Steve Harmon, is. As part of Netflix’s Black Lives Matter collection, Monster tells of how Harmon, a seventeen-year-old kid from Harlem who dreams of going to film school, gets caught up with neighborhood gang members and is put on trial for murder after a bodega robbery goes bad.

There are two separate and distinctly different tones in this film, directed by Anthony Mandler and written by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer, based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers, and, although there are moments when the film’s intentions are overly spoon-fed to the audience, the overall effectiveness is quite palpable. The structure of the film is built on the before-and-after for Steve, and the two tones of the film are clearly delineated between the two. Before his arrest, we get to know Steve as a regular teenage boy who has friends, a great family, a girlfriend, and big dreams of being a filmmaker. He sees the world through a camera, filming and photographing everything, making an impression on his adult film club teacher at his prestigious high school. This kid has it all, a bright future built on a solid foundation. There’s only one thing seemingly working against him, and that’s the fact that he’s a black man in America. So, when Steve gets arrested for being part of a robbery-turned-murder, it’s easy to swipe aside everything else and paint him with that one, single brush. Such is the point of Monster, and, in a post-George Floyd world, it hits home louder than ever.

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Above Suspicion

Altitude Films
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a story worth telling. Or, in the case of the new film, Above Suspicion, sometimes the truth should well have been left alone.

Based on a true story, FBI informant Susan Smith, played by Emilia Clarke, was killed by her FBI agent handler and lover Mark Putnam, played here by Jack Huston. Above Suspicion recounts the events between 1987 and 1989 in Pikeville, Kentucky, when Putnam kills Smith after she threatens to expose their affair to his wife and the Bureau. Mark, a rookie agent when he arrives in the small, poor mining town in rural Kentucky, finds a perfect partner in Susan, a conniving, well-connected drug dealer and addict who knows everyone in town, especially the criminal element. But when Mark and Susan begin an affair, Mark finds it difficult to get out once his use for her runs out. The rationale to turn this into a feature film seems to be the fact that Mark Putnam was the first FBI agent ever convicted of murder, which does seem to imply an interesting story is somewhere in the mix, but, unfortunately, an interesting story is not contained anywhere in this cliché-ridden, tired tale.

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Four Good Days

Vertical Entertainment
Addiction has always made for some visceral storytelling. From Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream to Girl, Interrupted and 28 Days to When A Man Loves a Woman or last year’s Hillbilly Elegy–and countless more–movies have covered seemingly every possible angle of addiction and its consequences. There is even a popular sitcom, Mom, that stars Oscar-winner Allison Janney, that is about a group of friends from AA. There has never been a dearth of stories to tell, and with the current opioid crisis gripping America, there will only be more to come.

One of the first significant films to sprout from that opioid crisis is Four Good Days, a film based on a 2016 Washington Post article by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Eli Saslow titled, “How’s Amanda; A story of truth, lies and American addiction,” which tells the true story of Amanda Wendler’s battle with heroin addiction and her mother’s desperate attempts to cope. The film, starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, premiered at Sundance last year and is now finally coming to theaters. Whether or not the filmmakers intended for Close’s previous film, also a family/addiction drama, to still be in moviegoers’ minds, thanks to the Oscars being delayed, it certainly doesn’t help its case that Four Good Days not only feels like Hillbilly Elegy in different clothing (and wig), but also fails to have anything new to say.

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Golden Arm

Utopia
As this week marks the 10th anniversary of the release of the now-legendary comedy Bridesmaids, there is no more perfect moment for Golden Arm, a film not only clearly inspired by the Paul Feig-directed, Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo-written (and Oscar-nominated) female buddy classic, but one that probably wouldn’t even exist without it. Bridesmaids cracked open a door that had previously been mostly shut for women in mainstream studio comedies, making a fortune at the box office and blasting a giant hole in the myth that not only can’t women carry a comedy, but female characters can’t be bawdy, crude, fearless or exist in a world that doesn’t revolve around men. While the floodgates haven’t exactly blown open for female-driven comedies since Bridesmaids, there certainly are more movies like it, and Golden Arm is the latest.

Fresh off her scene-stealing role as Jane in last summer’s breakout hit, Happiest Season, Mary Holland stars as Melanie, a soon-to-be-divorced, struggling coffee shop owner who doesn’t realize how stuck in a rut she is until her old best friend from college, Danny (Betsy Sodaro), comes to visit. Danny drives a truck for a living, but her real passion in life is arm wrestling. Having just suffered a humiliating defeat in a match to her rival, Brenda (Olivia Stambouliah), Danny hopes to convince Melanie to take up arm wrestling so she can beat Brenda in the big national competition. Danny remembers how good Melanie was in college, and hopes that, with a little training, she can get her in shape in time. Hesitant at first, Melanie is tempted by the prize money and agrees. While the rest is pretty much exactly as you would expect, it’s pretty hard to still not get sucked in, simply because this well-worn shoe feels so incredibly comfortable.

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The Virtuoso

Lionsgate
According to Hollywood, there is no character as interesting, sexy, mysterious or cinematic as a professional assassin. An incredibly large percentage of action movies feature some sort of tortured loner who has a certain penchant and skill for killing, and audiences love it. From James Bond to John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Killing Eve, these colorful, enigmatic and exciting anti-heroes have been a Hollywood mainstay, their allure seemingly never dulled.

The newest entry in the hitman genre, The Virtuoso, directed by Nick Stagliano and written by James C. Wolf, bills itself as an action and crime thriller, but not only does it fail to live up to those expectations or the expectations of any or all of the hitman movies that precede it, it sadly fails to even be coherent, let alone exciting.

The Virtuoso stars Anson Mount as The Virtuoso (that’s his character’s name), a hitman who narrates the entire film in third person. He gets his assignments from The Mentor (again, the actual character name), played by Anthony Hopkins, whose only significant moment in the film is a monologue about how he participated in a mass murder of civilians when he was a soldier in Vietnam. While the speech is intended to prove a point about collateral damage, it plays as a heavy-handed concession to give an Oscar-winner a meaty moment. The Mentor sends The Virtuoso out on one last job (of course), which ends up being much more difficult than anticipated, as the target is another hitman and the clues for who it is are sparse.

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