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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: post-holiday movie guide

Jan. 1, 2021
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We may have escaped the liminal space between Christmas and New Year’s to return to our life of structure and schedule, but we need not mourn over days of Christmas past. ‘Tis still the season, especially if you find yourselves eating leftover dinners well into January. For your reheated dinner entertainment, here’s a rundown of movie releases you may have missed amidst the holiday rush.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C. Wolfe)

Film adaptations of plays are often hit-or-miss, but never deceitful—like 2016’s Fences, playwright August Wilson’s earlier screen effort, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does not hide the fact that it was originally written for the stage. Viola Davis plays the titular Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer in the early 20th century about to record an album of her greatest hits. Part of her band is an uppity musician brought to life by Chadwick Boseman in his last role deservedly earning him posthumous accolades. The film, a tight 90 minutes, is an investigation of "Southern Jim Crow repression and Northern economic exploitation" through the lens of a single recording session. It’s a practice in symbolic interactionism, the perfect manifestation of the macro trickling down to the micro. That said, the film would be better if audiences went in knowing what to expect—finding out early that the elegant setup to 1920s Chicago will not go beyond the recording studio would sooth viewers eagerly waiting for something else to happen. The tension is unassuming, with brilliant blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nuances that can easily get lost in the rhythm and blues.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix.

Death to 2020 (dir. Charlie Brooker)

Anyone enamored by the bleak tech-apocalypse of TV series Black Mirror should tune in to Death to 2020, an ambitious project helmed by the same show creators. Formatted like a mockumentary more similar to Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, a show in which the writer-director recaps weekly pop culture news, this film channels neither Wipe nor Black Mirror. What set out to be a sharp cultural commentary on the absurdity of 2020 falls to a writers’ room of 20 (!) people who apparently have nothing new to say. It’s a mediocre late-night talk show sketch at best, a star-studded montage at worst. Its only purpose, it seems, is to catch clicks on Netflix’s home page as this cursed year comes to an end. 

If you were online anytime this year, you’ve seen better jokes than this. The film is too on-the-nose and disjointed, failing to tap into the inherent nihilistic hilarity of 2020. That said, it was nice to see so many actors I like be employed during the end of the world: Cristin Milioti plays a Karen, Joe Keery plays a Paul brother, Kumail Nanjiani plays a techbro, Lisa Kudrow plays a conservative mouthpiece, and Hugh Grant wears aging prosthetics and says he was in Star Wars, among so many other A-listers. It appears the budget was there—now, let’s just wait for the jokes to roll in.

Death to 2020 is streaming on Netflix.

Soul (dir. Pete Docter)

As if animating emotions and personality in 2015’s Inside Out wasn’t enough, Pete Docter at Pixar took it upon himself to amorphosize the intangible, to capture the afterlife in glowing pastel colors. Soul, centered on a jazz musician who unexpectedly dies after booking the gig of his dreams, is one of the most gut-wrenching stories of the studio. It’s abstract, ambitious, and incredibly moving, the film determined to prove to us that despite our disillusionment with life lately, being here, being alive, is amazing. It’s like Docter discovered the meaning of life and decided to put it in a kids’ movie.

The world-building is rich without being heavy-handed, even when the premise is a bit left-field for its genre—seeing the animation on my sad little laptop screen made me miss cinemas even more. It gives us exactly what we need, and I’m sure more and more layers of the film will be peeled back as we watch it in the coming years.

Soul is streaming on Disney+.Wonder Woman 1984 (dir. Patty Jenkins)

First things first: movies, especially a superhero movie about a character whose story is part of a massive cinematic universe, should not be 2 hours and 30 minutes long. Especially not a movie feeding into the racial stereotypes the rest of the world already left in the decade to which it is paying homage. (Such a long runtime and they couldn’t spare some time to flesh out their villains?)

“Like the Indiana Jones series, Wonder Woman 1984 is consumed by affection for the movies of an earlier time,” Roxana Hadadi wrote for Slate. “And like Temple of Doom, it revives the era’s noxious ethnic stereotypes along with its Members Only jackets.” It doesn’t help that the film stars an actress holding cancel culture by the throat, this new release reviving three-year-old discourse on Gal Gadot’s IDF service. While I think superhero movies serve their purpose better when they choose to tackle world politics over intergalactic relations, it’s irresponsible to frame nuanced global unrest in the usual superhero-villain formula. Its Christmas-day release inevitably markets it as a family affair, but the film asks so much of its viewers with very little reward. With critics calling it an empty spectacle, perhaps it ushers in the emergence of ambient TV’s film counterpart.

Wonder Woman 1984 is streaming on HBO Max.The Midnight Sky (dir. George Clooney)

Maybe it’s a testament to our cultural attention span or perhaps this movie was just utterly bad, but conversations about The Midnight Sky didn’t even stand to last a full planetary rotation. In his seventh directorial feature, George Clooney plays a chronically ill scientist venturing in the Arctic Circle with a young girl to warn off a spaceship coming home to a global catastrophe. The settings are gorgeous, from the blackness of space to deep in the Arctic, the former becoming a backdrop for one of the film’s most harrowing twists. The themes are definitely poignant but emotionally lackluster, proving Clooney is better in front of the camera than behind it. It’s a cross between Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (I’m not one to partake in Nolan worship, but his work, Interstellar especially, is a prime example of depicting emotional intelligence even in larger-than-life premises). At best, the film is an amalgam of movies that already exist, all of which are more worth watching.

The Midnight Sky is streaming on Netflix.

Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)

Black comedy thriller Promising Young Woman is the directorial debut of Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, in which Carey Mulligan’s Cassie regularly pretends to be intoxicated in bars to confront men who try to take advantage of her. While the release of this film rekindled critics’ tendency to use #MeToo as a buzzy noun-adjective-verb, it offers catharsis in the rawest sense of the word; it’s a release, an unfurling of rage and grief. Don’t let this be lost in the sea of rape revenge—beneath its cotton candy neon Instagram aesthetic are hate and anger and guilt, a grieving woman’s story posing as an antiheroine’s odyssey. 

Promising Young Woman is in theaters.