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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Oscars Post-Mortem

Well, that was painful.

We all knew the COVID Oscars were going to be different, we just had no idea they’d be SO different. I had no problem with the change of venue from the Dolby Theater to Union Station, in fact, I was excited at the prospect of the ceremony highlighting an L.A. landmark. Like Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., Los Angeles is an industry town, and it’s nice when the industry can find ways to salute its hometown.

I liked the casual feel of it at the beginning, the pre-show felt like a poolside cocktail party and I enjoyed the more relaxed conversations that the hosts had with the nominees and stars, it played so much better than the stressed-out red carpet. Even though I was initially upset that the five Best Song nominees were pushed off of the main telecast, their performances during the pre-show were entertaining. The performance of “Husavik,” actually done from the real town in Iceland, featuring a chorus of local children, was an early highlight for me, and I was excited to see what more surprises were to come.

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Stowaway

Netflix
No matter how successful we have been so far and how much we, as a species, continue to extend our reach further and further out beyond our planet, space travel continues to be an exercise of the extremely elite and adventurous, as venturing out into the vast depths of space is and might always be a dangerous proposition for human beings. Stowaway, a new Netflix film from writer/director Joe Penna, reminds us of how vulnerable and powerless we can truly be in space, and provides a rather stimulating philosophical proposition, giving us a movie that breaks from the familiar peril-in-space tropes while providing a thoroughly engaging sci-fi drama seemingly custom-made for a pandemic-ravaged world.

The film opens as three astronauts, played by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim, are taking off onto a two-year mission to Mars. It is the final flight for Commander Marina Barnett (Collette), who is a veteran piloting missions for Hyperion, the company whose mission this is. She is flying with two first-time space travelers, doctor Zoe Levenson (Kendrick) and scientist David Kim (Dae Kim), who have been chosen from thousands of applicants to take this flight. It feels like we’ve seen this all before, two newbies stuck inside a space ship with the grizzled old vet, on a mission for a huge, faceless corporation. It gets even more familiar-feeling when they discover a man trapped inside a compartment on the ship, unconscious and bleeding. Suddenly, all the years of watching horror movies set in space come flooding in and your head spins at the possibilities. Penna has some fun with the built-in space-movie setups that he knows his audience is expecting, as he films the whole stowaway reveal sequence with a real horror movie vibe, making full use of Collette’s vast acting skills.

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Godzilla vs. Kong

Warner Bros
We all have an image in our heads when we think of those classic monster movies, those hilarious distractions that we would find on our TV as we would channel surf on a lazy Saturday afternoon, the cheesy, black-and-white movies with a big creature stomping around on a model supposed to be a city, inspiring equal parts amusement and curiosity. Far from the more familiar, human-based monsters like Frankenstein or Dracula, these animal-based creatures were rawer and simpler in their destructive appetites, not needing us to engage as much on an intellectual level, intentionally silly, yet just menacing enough to get drawn into the struggle to defeat them.

But there was something uniquely appealing about King Kong and Godzilla, the undeniable masters of the monster genre, as their existence and rage became a metaphor for humanity’s destruction of the natural world. We got what we deserved in these creatures, as their destructive force was the inevitable result of our careless treatment of the planet. Our insatiable appetite for versions of their story, in all media, makes me wonder what that says about us, about our self-awareness, about our own sense of existential dread.

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The Father

Sony Pictures Classics
Broadway may be shut down, but we have had no shortage of plays and musicals on the big (now little) screen this Oscar season. Stage adaptations have been everywhere, from The Prom to The Boys in the Band and the strong Oscar players One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Pieces of a Woman. There are inherent limitations in bringing a play or musical to the screen, and some are more successful than others in being able to widen the scope and make an audience feel as if they are in a fully-realized world, instead of a closed set with three walls.

It is perhaps the strangest then, that the most successful stage-to-screen adaptation this season is from a first-time director, a playwright who is actually making their directorial debut. Florian Zeller is a French playwright who has had three of his films adapted for the screen, all of them in French, but he has never directed any of his own play adaptations until now, with The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. So not only is Zeller contending with making a film in English instead of French for the first time, but he’s also learning on the job how to tell a story that was designed to be told in one closed location in a way that doesn’t make the film audience feel restricted. While all of the other stage-to-screen films this season have struggled with this expansion of their world (with the exception of The Prom, which had other problems), The Father cracked the code, as Zeller has delivered not only the best film adaptations of the season, but one of the most effective, moving and, dare I say, cinematic films of the year.

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