Catching Up

Defending Your Life — part of this summer’s 90s movie nostalgia tour. This may be my favorite Albert Brooks movie, but it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, not by a longshot.

After a summer of watching 90s movies and weeping over how young and beautiful Celine and Jesse were in 1994, I’m trying to catch up with new releases so that at the very least I can come up with a “best of 2020” list — though it seems that there is still a lot of debate in Hollywood about when the 2020 movie season will officially end.

I actually think it’s an interesting, volatile time for movies and streaming content and I’m curious to see how things shift over the next few months. Maybe I’ll even write about it . . . but right now I’m trying to finish a fourth revision of my novel and dealing with two little kids and a WFH husband. Like everyone, I’m pretty overwhelmed at the end of the day. I think that’s why I’ve gravitated toward movies I enjoyed as a teenager. One of my favorite retro watches this summer was Twister, a movie I remember seeing at the second-run theater with my sister and her boyfriend at the time. We threw popcorn at the screen, it was so ridiculous! But so much fun. Rewatching it, I was startled to see a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in a minor roll as one of the hurricane chasers. His character is so thinly drawn but you only realize that in retrospect because Hoffman seems to bring an entire unspoken backstory to every scene.  

It wasn’t exactly a fun summer but I did start using my Criterion subscription, so that’s something. Before I move on, I wanted to catch up with the new movies that I managed to watch over the summer. . .

The intrepid Mr. Jones, taking photos on a clandestine reporting trip to Ukraine.

Mr. Jones (2020) ★★★1/2
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Andrea Chalupa
VOD on streaming platforms

This is a fascinating and very relevant movie that was released VOD this summer and seems to have gone under the radar. I wouldn’t have watched if I hadn’t read Bilge Ebiri’s NY Mag interview with director Agnieszka Holland. It piqued my interest because Holland talked about how George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm was inspired by the work of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who was the first person to report on the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, also known as the Holodomor. He reported the story at considerable cost to his health, and without the support of mainstream media. Even when he returned from the Ukraine with eyewitness accounts of a starving population, he had to fight to find a publisher.

Mr. Jones is a journalism movie, in the vein of Spotlight and All The President’s Men, but focused on the efforts of one particular reporter, rather than a team or institution. It’s an incredible story, and Holland and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa are patient with it, using the first act to show the context of Jones’s reporting, as well as the logistical and political hurdles Jones encountered. For the first half of the movie, you’re in decadent, booze-soaked 1930s Moscow, with scenes that were reminiscent of one of my favorite TV series, Babylon Berlin. When Jones finally manages to get to Ukraine, the contrast is stunning with bleak, empty landscapes and crowds of hungry people. Holland tweaks the color palette to highlight blues and grays, making everything seem even bleaker. I didn’t think this was necessary. There were also moments in the Berlin scenes when Holland chose to speed up the film so that everything seem even more drug-addled and out of time. Again, that didn’t seem necessary. But those were the only fussy moments in an otherwise very straightforward portrait of a journalist seeking the truth.

Kate is asked to pose with her debut novel — her “baby” — at a baby shower. A well-intentioned gesture that nonetheless feels ridiculous to Kate. And, as someone who has both published a book and had two babies, I can say that the two experiences don’t have much in common.

I Used To Go Here (2020) ★★1/2
Written & Directed by Kris Rey
VOD on streaming platforms

This lackluster indie charmed me anyway, mainly because of Gillian Jacobs, who is one of my favorite comic actresses. There were also some really funny moments with the minor characters. But in general, this movie was a little too low-key for me, and too modest in its ambitions. It stars Jacobs as Kate, a debut novelist whose book tour has been cancelled. So has her wedding. It’s hard to say what hurts Kate more, but underneath both disappointments is the feeling that she has been inauthentic in her writing and her love life. When she gets an invitation to return to her alma mater to give a reading and mentor students, she eagerly accepts it, excited to be in a place where her accomplishments mean something. She ends up regressing in predictable ways, and learning predictable lessons. It felt like a good episode of Girls. Which, you know, is not a bad way to spend a weekday evening.

Viola Davis as a reluctant “Birdie” troop leader with her scrappy charges

Troop Zero (2020) ★★★1/2
Written and Directed by Bert & Bertie
Streaming on Amazon Prime

This gem of a family movie is a streaming on Amazon and I highly recommend that you watch it with your children, because they will enjoy it, and you will too. It’s Bad News Bears meets Moonrise Kingdom, starring Viola Davis and Allison Janney as rival “Birdie” scout leaders and set it in 1970s small-town Georgie. The plot centers on a troop of misfit scouts, led by Davis, who are trying to make it to jamboree, but who are taunted by Janney’s troop of meanies, who tell them “y’all suck at being girls.” Everyone in this movie is perfectly named, and children’s dialogue and performances are natural and goofy. My kids loved it, especially my eight-year-old, who is around the same age as the main character, a little girl named Christmas.

The One and Only Ivan has a gorilla AND a dog, which is all my two-year-old ever wanted in a movie.

The One and Only Ivan (2020) ★★1/2
Director: Thea Sharrock based on the book by Katherine Applegate
Streaming on Disney+

Okay, I have not seen this movie but my kids have watched it twice already and will probably choose it again before the year is out. They love it. From the few scenes I have caught here and there, it seems like a sweet adaptation and the CGI is not too creepy. I’m giving it two-and-a-half stars even though my kids would probably give it five, because it obviously hasn’t caught my interest enough to sit down and watch it with them.

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