Crime procedurals are a dime a dozen on television. In forty minutes we can get a set up, surprise reveals, a fake lead, a new piece of evidence and the case wrapped up with a soul searching song over the titles. So why do we need a movie like this? There are a couple of reasons and they start with the main leads. You have three good actors who can make the story work without feeling as if you are being rushed through things. These three men bring something to the table that you will not get in episodic television.
The main star is Denzel Washington, who adds gravitas just by showing up. Of course Denzel never just shows up, he invests himself in his roles. Here he is playing a pretty conventional character, the world weary detective who is burned out by the years of exposure to the horrors of the world. Writer/director John Lee Hancock adds an ambiguous backstory to layer the morality of Officer Joe Deacon’s mission. On the same track but many years behind, hotshot homicide detective Jimmy Baxter overlooks the warnings he gets from former colleagues of Deacon’s, in order to get a handle on a case that has him stymied. Rami Malek is all wide-eyed intensity as he starts to see the case from the old timer’s perspective. The third side of the triangle is provided by a suspect, who screams his guilt without ever providing any evidence. The way Jared Leto smirks as Albert Sparma, the suspect who denies killing anyone but acts as if he knows everything about what is happening, make you want to punch the character yourself.
Our story opens with a crime being executed but blocked along the way. That sequence is suspenseful and pulls us in, but in the big picture it has little to do with the main process. It comes up at one point, mainly as another complication for the investigators rather than a piece of the puzzle that will answer their key questions. That sort of thing is the main thrust of the story. Lots of little things point to the involvement of the subject, but all of them leave the case short of a definitive outcome. The leads are not false, they simply stop short and that is what is driving the two investigators to the edge.
There is a turn, with the last act, that requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Up to that point, there were plenty of standard moments to draw us in, point at guilt, and start to care about the characters and their past and future selves. However, when the plot device shows up, it smacks us in the face to remind us that this is a work of fiction. Characters can be made to do something that any rational person would know is not a good thing. The trap has been set but I did not think that the need of the target had been built up enough to go for the bait that was being offered. If we decide to go along with what occurs, the movie ultimately works at fleshing out the moral struggle of the police officers. If we keep thinking about what happened and we can’t accept it, the whole thing falls apart. I was willing to accept it but it did diminish the film in my eyes and I wish the resolution could have been arrived at without resorting to the theatrics of that last plot deviceAs in all films of this type, the “criminal” is smarter than he would ever be in real life. The politics of the police department are impenetrable. The main detectives are flawed in ways that undermine their position but also makes them good cops. Once again, my hometown of Los Angeles, provides an atmospheric background for the story, with assists from Kern county, Ventura, and one wordless shot at an Alhambra restaurant, that fills a modern story (one set in 1990) with depression era noir tones. In the process of baking this, the cake fell and it doesn’t come out as well as it should, it is however still tasty.
I will let others get involved if they want with the genesis of this movie. I don’t care where it came from, I only know that it is a terrifically tense thriller that seems appropriate for the times. Inevitably it will be compared to “Die Hard”, but that’s OK because the hero in the movie is a lot like John McClane. She is reluctant but resolved. She pushes herself and does so while recognizing the punishment she has to go through. There is an emotional epiphany for her that is prompted by her circumstances but needed to be arrived at regardless of the trigger. Zoe Hull may not have the wise cracking persona of Lt. McClane, but she does have the spirit of defiance and the recognition that even though the people she is trying to protect are not all her favorites, they deserve to have someone on their side.
The scenario is simple, which is one of the reasons the story works. A school shooting has started and depressed senior Zoe is caught in the middle of the events. Isabel May plays Zoe, a girl who is in denial of how much her grief at the loss of her mother to cancer recently, is poisoning. her life. The relationship she has with her father, a gruff but loving Thomas Jane, is being tested by her recalcitrance. He has tried to teach her basic skills, including hunting, which might be appropriate for a girl growing up in a farming community in Indiana. Her best friend Lewis, has deeper feelings toward her but she puts up a defensive wall that makes warmth difficult. There are teachers concerned enough to make an effort to reach out to her, but they too are rebuffed. It is the sudden striking act of violence that begins to awaken her to what she may be losing out on.
The movie is not for the faint of heart. It opens with a scene that features hunting and the reality of that activity is not really minimized. Some might question it’s inclusion but it is needed to show Zoe is capable of taking a violent action herself, and it also sets up a payoff that we will see coming later on. The takeover of the school cafeteria and the ensuing execution of students is even more brutal. It is not glamorized or played just for gore. The four perpetrators are shown to be merciless and indiscriminate in their dealing out instant death. In older style movies, some measure of hesitation might be shown by the gang of misanthropes, but here it is casual without consideration of consequences or emotions. The lack of character background for the victims is mostly a function of story efficiency rather than weak writing. This is not a disaster film where we are hanging on the edge of our seats praying for characters we have come to love. Instead we are shown more about the culture than the individuals, because these school shooters are millennial bumps with social media as their primary teacher.
The leader of this troop of monsters is Tristan Voy, a school misfit played by Eli Brown. He certainly does not have the charisma of Hans Gruber, but in these circumstances, he does stand out as a villain worth of our hate. Ultimately, the satisfaction we derive from having a revenge fueled action picture like this, is proportionate to the degree of loathing we have for the main antagonist. Tristan’s casual indifference to the emotions of his classmates, along with the capricious decisions about when and who to kill are probably enough to justify our eventual reactions. He is however shown to be a sociopath in a couple of other ways, including the humiliation of the principal, the Spanish teacher and the security guard. His manipulation of the other three attackers is also going to give us some reasons to loath him. Social media fame fuels his narcistic ego, but it also makes the community of viewers accomplices to the horror that we are witnessing.
The title of the film actually comes from the simple training that students are given in real classrooms today. Because an active shooter incident is such a noticeable event, despite it’s remote possibility, schools now require student training. My last three years in the classroom required an annual lockdown exercise, that included the paraphrase of directions, first run if you can, second hide if needed, and finally fight if you must. It is the transition from running to fighting that forms the story arc for Zoe. She has an internal monologue with her Mother, and Mom gives her the advice and encouragement she already knows she needs to follow. Zoe’s acts of heroism and resistance, undermine Tristan’s goals, not just the plan. So while he and Zoe do not share the repartee that John McClane and Hans Gruber did, we can see why she would be such an annoyance to him.
The nature of the training and the procedures become a tool for the shooters. School administrations are tied up in policies. Teachers are reluctant to change from the established procedure, even when an alternative is called for, and of course students are responding emotionally to what is happening to them. Lewis does not become a pivotal player because of his actions, but rather his social media. Zoe rediscovers her empathy and that helps her manage a problem and turn it into a tool to her benefit. The climax of the picture does involve some of the movie make believe that all such stories require. Dad’s reemergence into the story, and Zoe’s suddenly strong peripheral vision are shortcuts to the end, but the intervening tension has been more than sufficient to forgive some of that.
The movie does have things to say about our culture and the schools. The police do not come in for the criticism they might deserve after the incident a couple of years ago in Florida. The police chief played by veteran actor Treat Williams, is a sympathetic character who hates being forced to operate in the conditions that are presented, but he does manage to find a way to adapt. The news media also gets a bit of a shellacking for the emphasis on the sensational that drives their coverage. So this is another beat lifted from “Die Hard” which is moderated a bit but still relevant.
In summary, this is a violent action thriller that takes pride in the difference one person can make. It understands the ambivalence many students have to their high school experience, but also how important some of those experiences can be in building us as people. Best of all, it provides the action and emotion beats that a thriller like this needs to keep an audience glued to the seat. I really liked it.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say the Movie Year of 2020 was insane and disappointing. As it became clear in early March, theaters were going to be closed. Overseas markets had been cut off, and a string of dominos fell, pushing back the most anticipated films that had been scheduled for the year. Some studios thought a few weeks or months would be enough, and then they discovered the pandemic was not abating. So they pushed back again, and the holiday season looked ripe to save studio box office from the worst case scenario, sorry again.
Most of the big films rolled back to 2021, and we are still in a wait and see formation. Disney did get Mulan on to PPV and seems to have done alright. Warner Brothers decided to dip their toe in the water with a day and date release of Wonder Woman 1984 on their Streaming Service for no extra charge, and a theatrical release. Then, Warner’s jumped in head first by planning to do the same thing with their entire 2021 schedule. Disney followed by putting Soul on Disney Plus without any extra fee.
Plenty of films skipped their planned release and went straight to Netflix or Prime or other streamers, confusing theatrical with television and making the distinction meaningless for the Academy Awards. Oh yeah, the Awards season got extended and who knows what is going to happen with all the other film award shows.
This site is primarily dedicated to theatrical releases, with an occasional exception. Usually that exception is a retrospective series or a unique film that is not widely available. I have been based in the Southern California area for most of this site’s history, and Theaters in Southern California have remained closed since March. I relocated to Texas in August and theaters here are open but the pickings have been slim. As a result, my traditional Top Ten is going to be contracted and modified to reflect the times. I have four top five lists for you, and they are based on a selection of films that is a quarter of my usual annual consumption, (This is especially true for theatrical release).
So here are the lists I have for you, such as they are.
Five Favorite Theatrical Releases of 2020
5. The Personal History of David Copperfield
I thought this was a delightful re-imaging of the Dicken’s classic story. The conceit is that the movie is made with a color blind cast and contains a number of whimsical images to make the story a little more lively and modern. The talented Dev Patel plays David and the host of British actors who are dragooned from television and other films made by the director Armando Iannucci , is long and impressive. This was a small film that benefits from great production values and a good sense of imagination.
4. Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words
For some of you, this might be a controversial choice. Justice Thomas is reviled by many on the left side of the political spectrum, but this is a movie not a political ad. Clarence Thomas has a fascinating personal history and his selection for the high court produced a dramatic historical event. His judicial philosophy is outlined in solid detail. You don’t have to agree with it but if you listen, you will understand it more completely. The structure of this film is pretty standard, but it has the benefit of being told through his writings, interviews and historical record. It is not groundbreaking but it is intelligent.
3. The Broken Hearts Gallery
This was a little romantic comedy that I happened upon back in October. It played in theaters and that was the main reason I saw it, because it afforded me a chance to get out and support movie theaters in their time of crisis. Imagine my surprise at how much fun it was. I thought the casting was a little unconventional, and the story idea at the heart of the premise is one of those things that can only happen in movies set in New York, but still it caught my fancy. It delivers on the two things you wan from a rom-com, laughs and heart. Probably not an awards contender but you will be happy you saw it.
The last major film release before everything went down, “Onward” was also the subject of a Lambcast which explored the film in depth. Probably not as widely anticipated as Pixar’s other 2020 release “Soul”, but a quite respectable outing for the animation giant. The twist here is that fantasy creatures live in a world where magic has vanished and their daily existence is not too different than you would fins in a first world suburban community. It starts off as if it is a father-son story, but it will slowly dawn on you that a different relationship is the key to the heart of the movie. Not all the story elements work but as usual, the voice cast is top notch and the visual design is stellar. A week after it opened, theaters were closing and it jumped to Disney Plus immediately. 1. The Gentlemen
This is a typical Guy Ritchie crime film. Which is pretty much all I needed to get me into a theater in January. The fact that the cast is diverse and ultimately brilliant is a cherry on top. This convoluted plot circles around a marijuana kingpin, in the middle of a transaction to sell his business. There are plots within plots and you get a gruesome bit of comedic violence every few minutes. As has become standard for the genre, the movie is told in a non-linear format and partially through narration Hugh Grant, who has never been nominated for an Academy Award, shows again that comedy performances are ignored by the snobs at the Academy, not because the work is sub-par. If you have liked Ritchie’s previous films, this one should be up your alley. Colin Farrell deserves to stand next to Grant at the Awards platform this year.
Five Favorite 2020 Releases Not in Cinemas Plenty of critics and other bloggers will be able to fill a top ten list because they don’t exclude films from consideration when that have not been released theatrically. I however, have attempted to keep this blog focused on cinema experience. That said, I did see some films streaming that would be contenders for my own personal list, so I have created a separate category for them so that you can enjoy as well. 5. Lost Girls
The harrowing true story of a mother fighting police incompetence in order to find her missing daughter. Along the way, a horrifying discover is made in spite of the oblivious authorities. Amy Ryan is fierce and sad in the starring role, which has no glamour or hope attached to it.
My daughter is a Jane Austen fanatic, and we would have gone to see this together except that she moved to Texas a few months before me. As it was, she saw this in a theater and I watched it with her a few weeks later on a video chat when we had the digital version to share. I don’t know that the 1996 version needed to be improved upon, except this version features Bill Nighy and that is enough justification for me.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin directs from a script that he wrote. The fact that many of the pieces of dialogue from the courtroom scenes come from the transcript of the trial and not Sorkin’s pen is remarkable. This was a controversial moment from fifty years ago. There is an implication that it was a political moment but what really transpired is a piece of insanity, inspired by another piece of insanity, which was responding to the a first piece of insanity. A litany of great performances.
This was MOTM on the Lambcast in October. A Halloween Horror film for a Zoom bound world. A low budget film, put together in a short amount of time, with the stars of the film staying socially distant and recording their own parts to be assembled by the director. It sounds like a disaster, instead, it is plenty scary and very entertaining. Even better, it’s just an hour.
Knocked out of prime real estate in June, banished to Streaming at Christmas, this was my pick in the box office draft a year ago, oh those were the days. Pixar might be accused of repeating itself because there are similarities to “Inside/Out” in this film. If you are not a fan of that movie, don’t worry, the annoying parts and sanctimonious tone are largely missing. Instead we get some great music, a different lesson and some characters that deserve to be remembered. Another Pixar Home Run.
Because I was limited on the number of new releases to review this year, I thought I would toss in a couple of bonus lists for you. First up are some film releases from years past, that I am finally catching up with. Because I keep a list on Letterbxd of all the movies I watch during the year, I can provide you with a statistical breakdown of films watched by decade.
The seventies and the 2010s took up a lot of space. Many of the things I watched were not new to me but comfortable rewatches of old friends. Of the things that were new to me, here are five favorites.
Five Favorite New To Me Films this Year 5. They Live By Night
This noir style classic is a film I have heard about for years. So much so that I believed I had already seen it. While it was running I came to the realization that I had it confused with another older film and that this was brand new to me. Nicholas Ray directs this sad and taut film about a prison escapee who is overwhelmed by his circumstances but tries to find a way to stay in love with a girl who helped hi,
4. Fighting With My Family
I have never been a fan of wrestling but I know that the world is full of people who are. This tells a true story about a woman wrestler who finds her way from a small town matches in Britain to the WWE, It stars Florence Pugh in a role entirely different from her turn in last year’s “Little Women”. I enjoyed it a lot. Oh, and it features Vince Vaughn who is in both of my next two favorites in this category. I guess I’m a fan.
3. Dragged Across Concrete
As far as I can tell, this never had a major cinema release, so that may be why I did not see it until I was on Lockdown looking at steaming to feed my movie fix. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are cops with some problems that lead them into unfamiliar territory, mostly because they are good at doing their jobs, and that might include cutting corners occasionally. It ends with a bloody shootout that is an appropriate climax.
2. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Vince Vaughn again, and this is directed by the same guy who brought us “Dragged Across Concrete”, S. Craig Zahler. He made a slow but great bloody western with Kurt Russell a few years ago called “Bone Tomahawk”. I must be a fan because I really have liked all three of the movies he has directed. This one is brutal, let me repeat that BRUTAL, It is not for the faint of heart. It builds to a climax and creates a compelling character in Vaughn’s small time criminal who has lines he will not cross.
1. The Man Who Invented Christmas
Have you seen every version of a Christmas Carol that has ever been made? Do you know the story backwards and forwards? If the answer to those questions is yes, this is a film for you. A fictionalized account of the writing process that Dickens went through in putting together this most treasured of his stories. Internal monologues mix with dramatic incidents and Christopher Plummer is a Scrooge for your imagination. This was my favorite discovery this holiday season.
To finish up, I have five theatrical screenings of old classics that I can share with you. Normally, I would have a couple of dozen because I haunt the Fathom Events films, attend the TCM Classic Film Festival and have been a member of the American Cinematique. Closed theaters, cancelled festivals and a move to Texas have altered that this year, but here are some gems. [I excluded Jaws and Lawrence of Arabia because they are repeat pilgrimages] Classic Screenings
Jurassic Park was special because it signified a return to theaters after the lockdown. It was the first film I saw when I got to Texas and the theaters were open under Socially Distant Guidelines. It was far too long for me and I was happy to just be sitting in a theater.
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one of our go to Halloween films and it’s practical effects hold up and make the movie scary as f*@k. My first Alamo Drafthouse film since becoming a Texas resident.
The “Evil Dead” experience was a Halloween Day film. We went to a special screening at a classic movie palace in downtown Austin, and we got a meet and greet picture with Bruce Campbell before the show and his fantastic talk before the movie.
The last film I saw in a theater before everything closed up, was not some comic book blockbuster or animated Pixar treasure, it was an 87 year old, Black and White classic. King Kong leaves me in awe every time, in spite of some of the creaky 1933 trappings, it completely sucks me in. The day after I saw this, everything closed across the country. Fortunately this left me on a high.