For many, holiday breaks usually mean time to head to the movie theater. This year people are enjoying films from home, but film studios and media companies have continued the tradition of releasing big movies during late December and January. Whether they be potential Oscar nominees or just a good time, The Ithacan Life & Culture staff highlighted some of the films from the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
Avery Alexander, Staff Writer
“Soul,” Pixar’s latest animated movie, follows the story of Joe (Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher with dreams of being a professional jazz musician. When Joe dies in a freak accident, he is sent to The Great Beyond, where he meets an unborn soul known as 22 (Tina Fey), and explores what it really means to be alive. “Soul” is powerful enough to not only stand as a new Pixar classic but also as one of the most compelling Pixar films to date.
The film offers a glimpse into niche aspects of African American communities that non-Black audiences may not be familiar with. A primary example of this comes in a scene in which Joe and 22 visit a barbershop. In many Black communities, barbershops and hair salons are social hubs where people gather to meet with friends and talk. “Soul” uses the barbershop setting in this scene to portray realistic Black people in a relatable and recognizable setting. The film offers an effortless kind of representation that Black people don’t often see in the media.
Another important aspect of “Soul” is the soundtrack. Previous Pixar films have placed emphasis on grand, orchestral compositions. In contrast, much of the music in “Soul” focuses on small-ensemble jazz bands. Not only is the music gorgeous, but it also ties the narrative directly to the soundtrack, a move that brings the audience closer and allows it to truly understand Joe’s deep-seated passion for jazz music.
Sydney Brumfield, Staff Writer
Adapted from the hit Broadway musical of the same name, “The Prom” tells the story of four Broadway has-beens whose reputations have been tarnished by their narcissism. As a publicity stunt, they decide to join high schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) in her fight to take her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the high school prom against the wishes of their conservative Indiana town.
Despite an overwhelming amount of potential for this project, filmmaker Ryan Murphy missed the mark. Instead of taking the story to new heights with the medium of film, Murphy relied heavily on an incredibly talented cast made up of Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells, Keegan-Michael Key and Kerry Washington and well-executed musical numbers to distract from the mediocre character development and weak writing. This all-star cast makes the boring dialogue as exciting as possible.
Nominated for seven Tony awards during its run on Broadway, “The Prom” comes equipped with a great soundtrack. The high–budget dance breaks in the film are extremely energetic. The camera work and perspective make the viewer feel as though they are in the center of the action. But the choreography is nothing spectacular, and the environment is never truly utilized in the dance performances.
Most disappointing is the underdevelopment of Emma and Alyssa, who are supposed to be the film’s leading couple. It’s a missed opportunity to provide a dynamic representation of lesbians in popular culture.
“The Prom” is a nice, family–friendly adaptation that is pleasant enough for a single watch through, but a second viewing is unnecessary.
Elijah de Castro, Staff Writer
“Pieces of a Woman”
Both Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf make significant gains as actors in “Pieces of a Woman,” an intimate Netflix drama that offers immense grief and tragedy during a time when the real world has too much of both.
“Pieces of a Woman“ tells the story of a Boston couple — Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) — who are more than ready to become parents. Kirby, who is widely known as a next-generation femme fatale in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” brings a physical performance to motherhood, proving her versatility as a rising star. LaBeouf, who is fresh off of “Honey Boy” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” continues his career comeback with a performance as a broken father with no idea
what to do with himself. The film does not stop short on the technical aspects either, offering intimate, vibrant cinematography and a soundtrack with soft, tasteful piano concertos and waltzes.
After an astonishing opening act — one that includes an entire childbirth in one continuous shot — “Pieces of a Woman” hits a few dull spots in its second act. However, its ending is just as powerful as its beginning, leaving the audience with a film that simultaneously empathizes with those who are mourning and celebrates the beauty of the creation of life itself.
“The Celebration.” “The Hunt.” And now, with “Another Round,” Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has cemented himself as one of the greatest filmmakers of this era.
After their ingenious collaboration in “The Hunt,” Vinterberg and actor Mads Mikkelsen bring something new to the table in “Another Round” on Amazon Prime Video. The film depicts a group of friends that test the dangerous theory that the human body should be at 0.05% blood alcohol content for peak creativity and relaxation. “Another Round” showcases the dangers of alcohol in a way that no other films do — by satirizing modern drinking culture. On the surface, most of the film is a
straightforward dark comedy-drama about the slippery slope of unrestrained alcohol consumption. But an uncharacteristically sporadic dance sequence at the end indicates that in addition to cogent drama, “Another Round” has a mocking edge to it that is worth deep analysis.
Great tragicomedy, sharp writing and complex performances round out “Another Round” as one of the best films of the year. By casually making fun of the routine story beats of midlife crisis dramas and incorporating his own satirical flavor, “Another Round” is another tremendous win for Vinterberg.
Alex Hartzog, Staff Writer
“Death to 2020”
In the tail end of 2020, the worst year in recent history, “Black Mirror” creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones gathered historians and average people to discuss the year — or so the story goes. Netflix’s mockumentary “Death to 2020” is a satirical take on the events that unfolded throughout 2020 which stars Samuel L. Jackson as Dash Bracket, a reporter for the New Yorkerly News, and Hugh Grant as Tennyson Foss, a jaded history professor, all narrated by the sultry voice of Laurence Fishburne.
The mockumentary covers topics from the Australian bushfires to the United States presidential election. The opening dialogue describes fire as a radicalized, angry form of air. This level of offhandedness and levity is carried throughout the entire film, including when Fishburne describes the global Black Lives Matter protests and the mounting deaths from COVID-19, which could be off-putting to some. For Tennyson, the line between fiction and reality is blurred as he states that those who are familiar with history could see the comparisons between the White Walker assault on Westeros and the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. These scenes ease the tension of the mockumentary and help to make the atmosphere of the film slightly less dark.
“Death to 2020” serves as a cathartic release from the pain people suffered throughout the year, even though 2021 is still plagued by the same issues.
“We Can Be Heroes”
In a year with almost no superhero films, Netflix graced home theaters with “We Can Be Heroes,” a cliché superhero film set in a world based on the 2005 film, “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” about the children of the world’s greatest heroes. After all of the superheroes are captured by tentacle-covered aliens on live TV, Missy (YaYa Gosselin) leads a group of 10 superpowered children, including Slow-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau), Wheels (Andy Walken) and Wild Card (Nathan Blair). Together the kids save the world with the power of friendship and cooperation, something their parents never had.
Underneath all of the clichéd one-liners and superhero poses, the film uses the powers of the children in extremely imaginative ways. One example is when A Capella (Lotus Blossom) uses her power of singing to make a train car fly but realizes she has no way to steer it, so Noodles (Lyon Daniels) uses his stretching powers to grab onto a pole and slingshot the train car. However, these scenes are few and far between.
While Sharkboy (J.J. Dashnaw) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) do make an appearance in the film, they are not the same characters fans may remember from “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.” They are not the Sharkboy and Lavagirl who lived on Planet Drool but two separate people who live on Earth. Sharkboy and Lavagirl seem to exist purely as nostalgia bait.
The ending is extremely contrived and unfortunately undermines the narrative consequences of the film, leaving the viewer feeling cheated.
Evan Miller, Contributing Writer
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
The passing of Chadwick Boseman was a heartbreaking moment in what was already a devastating and challenging year.
Boseman gave his final — and what may be his very best — performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The film is an adaptation of the August Wilson play of the same name and takes place in Chicago during the 1920s in a recording studio. It is in this recording studio that the renowned Mother of Blues, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), accompanied by a band of musicians, carries out a recording session. One of these band members is Levee (Boseman), a talented and ambitious cornet player with dreams of having a successful band of his own and playing music the way he wants to play it. As tensions rise, crushing truths come to light that give each member of the band a new perspective on life, especially as Black men in 1920s America.
This is a film that largely takes place in a single location, a choice that works spectacularly. Director George C. Wolfe does an absolutely fantastic job of making the viewer feel the claustrophobic nature of the recording studio and the intense heat of Chicago on the particular day that the film takes place. Both of these details play a substantial role in successfully building tension as the film goes on.
Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson does a phenomenal job of maintaining the heart and soul of the original stage production. This is an incredibly funny film with quick and snappy dialogue, but it is not at all afraid to get extremely heavy and dramatic.
Boseman brings a charismatic and confident energy to Levee that allows the character’s hopes and dreams to take center stage as he struggles to get his original music noticed. Levee has a dark and tragic past that Boseman hauntingly expresses in several heavy and heartbreaking monologues. Levee is undeniably the heart of this film, and Boseman’s performance elevates the character. If there is one thing that this film reaffirms, it is how gifted Boseman was as a performer.