Knives Out

Lionsgate

When we think of influencers now, we think of 20-somethings on Instagram. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the biggest influencer in the world, at least in the world of popular culture, was an 80-year old British novelist. Agatha Christie wrote murder mystery novels and her books were so popular, they were turned into movies (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), plays (The Mouse Trap, the longest-running play in the world, still playing in London) and influenced every other area of entertainment, including a hugely popular television series, Murder, She Wrote. Ordinary people could even play along, as murder-mystery themed dinners were a thing and there was even a popular whodunit-themed board game, Clue, which was also made into a movie. The Christie effect even filtered down to kids’ books, as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, all mysteries for pre-teens, were as popular as Harry Potter is today.

I’ve often wondered why the classic whodunit murder mystery went out of style as a genre. There just doesn’t seem to be an appetite for it anymore, as clearly evidenced by the poor box office showing of the latest Christie adaptation, a remake of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017. Tastes seem to have moved on to prefer content more thrilling, more violent, and less thoughtful than the Christie “everybody had a motive, now let’s figure out who did it” model, which followed a clear and predictable structure: there’s a murder, there are many suspects—all of whom had motive and opportunity—and there’s a clever detective who solves the mystery. And sometimes the butler did do it.

Read moreKnives Out

Charlie’s Angels

Columbia

I will confess that I didn’t need much from the new Charlie’s Angels reboot. In the midst of an Oscar contender binge, I needed something mindless, breezy and fun. Well, director/writer/co-star Elizabeth Banks not only delivered on those requirements, but she created a kickass feminist manifesto that will make you cheer and smile…a lot.

Ok, it’s not Shakespeare, but you know that going in. The Charlie’s Angels brand has been around long enough that you know to expect pretty women, lots of action and a James Bond-ian type plot that usually involves some sort of international espionage, huge action sequences, and really bad guys. And guys is certainly the operative word here. Banks goes to great lengths to create a feminine universe, and it really works. Female power, independence and strength is so organic in the world she has created, it feels normal and actually pretty wonderful. The more you are immersed in it, the more the moments where the female characters are patronized stand out. Banks takes ownership of the sexism that pervades society and plays with it, twisting it so our heroines use it to their advantage. Very clever indeed.

Read moreCharlie’s Angels

Marriage Story

Netflix

Write what you know. In Marriage Story, writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach follows that mantra and has created an intimate exploration of divorce, something he has lived through twice, once with his parents, and again with the dissolution of his own marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (the couple divorced in 2013). Baumbach brings every angle of these experiences to this emotional narrative, a no-frills examination of a relationship that features two powerhouse performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

Driver plays theatre director Charlie and Johansson plays Nicole, his muse and leading lady. They are the featured players in a tight-knit company in the off-Broadway theatre scene, where she stars in every play that he writes and directs. They have an 8-year old son who they both adore. It all seems to be going great, but we never know them as a happy couple, as we meet Charlie and Nicole as they are embarking on divorce. Throughout the course of the movie, we put all the pieces together as their pieces are falling apart. It is a staggeringly emotional experience, for the audience, to get to know these characters, and, more significantly, their relationship to each other, through the fraction instead of the joy. Most writers would fill the movie with flashbacks, so the audience can get to know the couple in happier times, so it could be contrasted to what they are going through now. But Baumbach does the impossible: he paints the whole picture of their relationship simply by letting it play out, because relationships are not defined by milestones they go through, they are defined by the people in them and their emotional lives within that relationship.

Read moreMarriage Story

Ford v Ferrari

Twentieth Century Fox

Movies have loved fast cars for as long as there have been movies. As a child, I heard my Dad talk about the car chases in The French Connection and Bullitt with such reverence, I considered them the gold standard (which they arguably are) before I ever saw them. Fast forward forty years and fast cars are still this nation’s cinematic obsession, with the Fast and the Furious franchise now in its tenth incarnation. It makes sense that car movies are so ubiquitous, since men generally are the ones who make movies and the two things men seem to universally love, other than women, are sports and cars. There have been hundreds of movies about cars and racing, and even more that somehow find a way to squeeze a car chase in for no reason. Cars and movies are intrinsically tied. You can’t have a James Bond movie without a car chase. James Dean died in a car crash. Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Steve McQueen all were famous actors who dabbled in car racing as a hobby and all made movies about racing. So it’s no surprise that there will always be new movies about thrills on four wheels. The trick at this point is to make one that feels original.

I had high hopes for Ford v Ferrari, the new movie from director James Mangold about Ford Motor Company’s obsession with finding ways to compete with dominant Ferrari on the racetrack in the ‘60s. Mangold, who has directed critically and commercially acclaimed movies such as 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line and Logan, is someone who knows how to make movies for and about men and their passions. His specialty is flawed, obsessive and often conflicted anti-heroes. While Ford v Ferrari follows in the Mangold tradition of masculinity gone somewhat awry, it unfortunately can’t live up to some of his past movies, despite stellar performances from its leads.

Read moreFord v Ferrari

The Report

Amazon Studios

Much of the controversy surrounding the new movie Joker is based on the public’s seeming distaste for watching a movie that reminds us too much of the world we’re living in now, one that can be dark, cold and cruel. We are supposed to escape when we go to the movies, right? Well, in Joker’s case, sometimes the job of the movie is to be a commentary on modern society and the effects it can have on the individual. And then there are the kinds of movies which offer neither an escape nor a commentary, but instead are dramatic re-tellings of real events, their purpose being to tell the story of someone or something that may have changed the course of history, or, in the case of the docudrama The Report, shine a light on something that had, until then, been in the dark.

There is no escaping in The Report. Writer/director Scott Z. Burns’ analytical deep dive into the investigation of the CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program by a staffer of Senator Dianne Feinstein is just as current and flavorless as it sounds. Annette Bening plays Feinstein and Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who is tasked with looking into the claims that the CIA may have been subverting the Department of Justice mandates against torture while interrogating captured suspected Al Queda fighters. While the details of the report and their findings are fascinating (and truly terrifying), the drama of The Report comes from the political infighting that occurred within our own system, where it seemingly was every agency for itself in a cover-up that ran so deep, the bottom still may never be known.

Read moreThe Report