Review by Dan Skip Allen
The year 2020 has had quite a few great movies come out. Netflix has quite a few awards contenders on their slate. Films like The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom have given them quite a nice output in the last few months.
The Dig is about a woman who has mounds in her back pasture and wants to know if there is anything hidden in them. She hires a local excavator to dig them up to see if anything is in them. She gets more than she bargains for when the country's historical society gets involved in the dig. This film has great historical relevance because of its subject matter.
Carey Mulligan has done some interesting roles in her career. Most recently, she is getting a lot of critical acclaim for her performance in Promising Young Woman. In The Dig, she plays Edith Pretty. Edith is a good mother and a good woman. This a vastly different role than her other roles. It is more subtle, but also effective in getting out her story. She has to deal with the enormity of the situation. It's not easy on her. Mulligan expresses her emotions very calmly.
Ralph Fiennes has played everything from Nazi war criminals in Schindler's List to Lord Voldermort in the Harry Potter films. In The Dig, he plays Basil Brown, an excavator who is tasked with digging up some mounds in Ms. Pretty's back pasture. Some of his roles are over the top and extraordinary in their nature others are not so much. His role in The Dig is very much subtle and more down to earth. His character has a passion for his work and is developing a friendship with his employer Ms. Pretty and her son.
Simon Stone isn't known to American audiences as a prolific director. The Dig will put him on the map as a filmmaker to watch in the future. This film has a heart to it that many films don't have. It deals with rare subject matter, but finds a way to make those watching it care about the characters and the story within it. Period pieces such as this have to be engaging and interesting. This film is both.
It's a good thing Netflix has gotten on board with this slice-of-life film with great historical value. Simon Stone has made a film that is educational as well as entertaining. It has fantastic cinematography, solid acting, and a terrific story that will keep audiences engaged throughout. It's always great when these types of films come out. Most people probably haven't heard of this true story, but they should.
The Dig streams on Netflix beginning January 29.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Filmmaker Steve McQueen created his Small Axe anthology to tell the story of the West Indies community in London and feature many rising and established stars in the film industry, including John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, and Kenyah Sandy, who plays the lead in the final installment, Education.
Kingsley lives with his family in London. His parents are workaholics, so they don't realize the help he needs. They send him to a different school that focuses on slow or disabled children. A woman comes along to prove these children have more to offer than previously thought. They just aren't getting the proper education because of their West Indian heritage.
As someone who has a learning disability, I can say that people who can't read, write, or do math are considered "special" in the education system in America. They have classes in every school in every town and state in America. This wasn't always the case, especially in other countries. These kids are thought of as an afterthought of civilization.
Thankfully, some people are looking out for Kingsley and these other children. They are like guardian angels for them. These children deserve the proper education and time it takes to teach them properly. If that takes one, two, three, or more years, just because kids have slow learning skills doesn't mean they won't turn out to be something in society.
As the previous films in the Small Axe series have discussed, Education shows the lack of compassion and empathy for the West Indian community. The English don't want to help these people. More often than not, they think of them as criminals and miscreants. They are considered dregs of society in the eyes of the English authority. This is of course wrong.
Children deserve all the benefits that law and country and state can give them. They shouldn't be caught up in political ideals by those that don't like them. This film shows that there are people who care about children and want to help them. Teachers and educators take an oath to do the best they can to help children unlike in this film.
This film points the finger at the education system in England and how biased it was to underprivileged families. McQueen once again points his camera to very relevant topics in England during the '70s and '80s. This series was great because it touched on many topics still problematic today in the United States as well as in England. That's what makes Small Axe such a great series.
Education, along with all entries in the Small Axe anthology, is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
S2E8: "Chapter 16: The Rescue"
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Well, it has all come down to this. The season has been one of stand-alone episodes each featuring some new characters and some old characters from season one. Din Djarin's mission at the end of Season One was to get the child, known now as Grogu, to the Jedi Knights. The entire season has culminated in this final standoff with Moff Gideon and his dark troopers. And that's what showrunner Jon Favreau and director Peyton Reed have given us: a glorious final episode to Season Two of The Mandalorian.
With the help of Boba Fett, Cara Dune, and some others, Din Djarin makes his attempt to rescue Grogu, as the title of the episode suggests. A shadow play where everybody goes looking for Gideon and Djarin breaks off and goes looking for Grogu is basically what the episode consists of. A lot of blaster fire and stand-offs transpire after this.
It was going to be hard to live up to the hype of season one of the show, but Peyton Reed and company did just that with this final episode and the previous seven. Even though this season was designed differently from season one, it had a lot of jaw-dropping moments. This episode had the biggest, which culminated in a satisfying conclusion to Season Two. This season was fantastic in so many ways!
The action, set design, writing, and overall direction of the show and season were terrific. Favreau, Disney, and Lucasfilm should be proud of what they have accomplished with this show, the first live-action series, which is incredible. The fan excitement was at a fervor for some good star wars material and this show and season were an answer for that. "The Rescue "was the perfect episode to end the season.
The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
As a sports fan, I can say that being a part of a community or a team and a town is pretty special. The camaraderie you feel at being part of something bigger and greater than yourself is an incredible feeling. Having coached football and been part of some very good teams feels great. That being said, the college experience is even bigger and better than the high school experience. Having been to Clemson in South Carolina four times, I can say it's one of the best college environments in the entire country. It truly is a family atmosphere and community. As in Safety, they come together to help anyone in need, especially one of their own.
Safety depicts the events surrounding Ray McElrathbey (Ray Reeves) and his little brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson). After health issues with their mother, Ray is forced to take Fahmarr into his college dorm. With the help of his teammates, his girlfriend Kaycee Stone (Corrine Foxx), and his coach Brad Simmons (James Badge Dale), Ray has to deal with taking care of a sibling. Feeding him and taking him to school is just a couple of things that become a struggle for him.
As far as sports films go, they have to inspire and pull at the heartstrings of the said person watching them. Safety does that. If you don't have a tear in your eye at the end of this film, you're just not human. This film has those moments in it. It doesn't have enough of them, though. The struggle Ray is going through is real, but they aren't as real as something like Rudy or The Express. That didn't mean this is a bad film because it's not. Disney and the filmmakers make sure it's a good film.
This film would be considered a football movie but there isn't much football in it. There are a lot of practice sequences, though. A few game sequences are okay, but not great. There have been other Disney football movies that are better in that aspect. They focused more on the relationships of Ray, his brother, girlfriend, and coaches. The more character-driven stuff is the meat and potatoes of the film.
Disney has cornered the market of inspiring sports films. This one is good, but not great. Still, Safety is a solid film with a very good story and message behind it. The setting was a character in the film and that was cool to see the film set on the campus of Clemson. Having been there, it was nice to see the film showing Howard's Rock and Death Valley, the stadium, and running down the hill. This is a very inspiring and entertaining film for football fans and anybody else looking to see something good in this tough year for a lot of people.
Safety is now streaming on Disney+.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Alex Wheatle is the latest episode of the Small Axe series of films from acclaimed writer/director Steve McQueen. These films focus on the West Indies community in England. This is the true story of Alex (Sheyi Cole), an award-winning writer.
Alex is a young man brought up in a foster home. He had no drive to succeed or ambition until he found reggae music and djing. When he moved to Brixton, England, he found a home and people he can relate to. He inadvertently ends up involved with the Brixton Riot of 1981 and ends up in prison. This is the defining moment in his life.
As with previous films of the Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle shows the strife and oppression the West Indies community has with the police in England. The music he listens to influences him to create songs of his own that his people can get behind. This doesn't sit well with the local law enforcement. He had become a symbol for his people.
McQueen has used different techniques in all of his Small Axe Films. This time, he uses a framing sequence and a back and forth between the prison Alex is in and the past. He has a cellmate that gets under his skin, Simeon (Robbie Gee). "If you don't know your past, you don't know your future," is a creed he lives by. It is something Alex embraces about himself.
As a novelist, Alex takes his experiences and puts them on paper and pen. This allows him to share the experiences of his friends and the community that has embraced him. He has written fifteen novels to date for the young adult audience. He has become an idol of many youths who read his books growing up.
McQueen does what he has done in previous installments of this series of films. He has tapped into the world these films take place in with the hair, clothes, and production design. The streets and buildings reflect the period this film takes place in. It is probably easier if all the same people are working on every film in the series. That helps give the films a resemblance to one another.
The acting is superb by all the actors playing Alex's friends and compatriots as well as his prison cellmate. All of these films tap into these unique stories within the community, but they all have a unique feel. They do all look similar because of the aesthetic McQueen is going for. Alex Wheatle is another terrific addition to the series.
Alex Wheatle is now streaming on Amazon Prime. New installments of Small Axe stream every Friday.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Red, White and Blue is the third film in the Small Axe series from acclaimed writer/director Steve McQueen. All of these films are based on the West Indies community-based in London, England. They are all slice of life stories set in a tough period for these people in London and history. They are rarely if ever featured in films these days. It's nice to see McQueen focus his lens on an underrepresented part of life.
Red, White and Blue focus on the police in London at this time in history. The police have been a part of a previous film in the series, Mangrove, but this film sheds light on the entire department as a whole. Leroy Logan (John Boyega) witnesses some gross negligence from the Metropolitan Police. They beat up his father. This motivates him to join the police and try to change their mindset from within.
He grew up in a strict but loving family. His father was a hard worker and that mindset rubbed off on Leroy, especially once he joined the police force. Leroy grew up with good values. He wanted to be an example for all the other kids growing up in London like him. Despite what society at the time wanted.
Boyega gives a very solid performance in this film. His role in the cult classic Attack the Block got him noticed, but being cast as Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy launched him into the stratosphere. Roles in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim have kept his name in the public consciousness of people around the world. This role might arguably be the most satisfying for him to portray because of the character and subject matter.
The film is set in a country that has problems with its police and the country's disdain for them is widely known. McQueen was able to tell Leroy Logan's story, but also have it have cultural relevance in today's society. Even though it takes place in an entirely different country, it shows that the United States isn't the only country dealing with racial prejudices among the police forces of the world.
This story taps into the genes of the past films but goes off on its own. Telling difficult stories isn't always easy. McQueen gracefully tackles these stories of the West Indies community. He has picked stories that represent these communities and their people perfectly. Boyega gives a solid performance as this man trying to swim upstream in a flood. He is very effective in this leading role.
Red, White and Blue is now streaming on Amazon Prime. New installments of Small Axe stream every Friday.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Movies about animals have been constant in Hollywood for many decades and Disney is a company that has done many of them themselves. Animal movies, specifically dog movies, have been the type of films Disney could get families to watch. Disney has even branched out into horse movies as well. Black Beauty is one that has been made a few times over the years. This is the fourth rendition of the Anna Sewell novel for the screen.
This version is a modern-day retelling of the story. Set in the present day. Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet) was born out in the wild before she was captured and separated from her mother. She lived at Birtwick Stables for a while. She meets a young girl named Jo (Mackenzie Foy). The two develop a friendship after Jo has survived a family tragedy. Along with John (Iain Glen, Game of Thrones), they have a good life together. That life wouldn't last for long.
Black Beauty has been adapted to the screen before. Each version has its own tone and feels to it. In this version, Beauty is a Phillie. In the previous versions, the horse is a stallion. Alan Cumming voiced Beauty in the 1994 version. Kate Winslet does a great job as the voice of Beauty. She brings grace and elegance to the character of Beauty. Horses have these characteristics already, so it was very cool that Winslet embodied them in her voiceover.
Ashley Avis produced, wrote, and directed this film. She came from the right place with her designation of the characters and locations portrayed in the film. She got some great people to work with her to get the right feel and esthetic of the movie. Cinematographer David Proctor has done an incredible job with his camera work. The vistas he captured were astounding to behold. This was a beautiful film to watch. The score by Guillaume Roussel was subtle but very effective in many of the more touching moments involving Beauty.
All in all, the 2020 version of Black Beauty was very good. It had an incredible story, beautiful cinematography, and a wonderful score to listen to. Avis made a film many people will like and Disney was the perfect home for this adaption of this story. They are by all intents and purposes the home of a good family fair. People know if it has Disney on the tag that they can watch it with their kids and elders alike. This film is one of those films. This holiday season the country needs a good-hearted family film to sit down and share.
Black Beauty is now streaming on Disney+.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Lovers Rock is the second film in the Small Axe series from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows). All of these stories including this one are about the West Indies section of London. Like Mangrove before it, Lovers Rock is a period piece set in the 1980s. This island culture explodes on the screen in vivid reality.
This film focuses on a group of men and women who all attend a house party that eventually turns violent. Relationships form and the sounds of Bob Marley and the like are flowing from the speakers of the sound system. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward) are the main characters. A few of their friends also play a significant role in the film. Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), Cynthia (Ellis George), Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling), Reggie (Francis Lovehall), and Hammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) all have interaction with the two main characters throughout the film.
Like Mangrove, McQueen captures the feel and aesthetics of the 1980s perfectly. The clothes and hairstyles are spot-on for this decade. The reggae music sets a tone for this film. These songs are synonymous with the West Indies culture in London or anywhere else for that matter. The setting of the house party really gives the audience a chance to get to know these characters. Otherwise, they would be strange to anyone watching. That's a good job by McQueen and the writers.
McQueen keeps the camera moving like it was dancing along to all the music he has set at the forefront of this film. As the characters move around we start to see their motivations and character development before our eyes. This party is a respite from their hard lives in London. It only takes them away from the truth of who they are for a little while. Their truths are always permeating the surface just waiting to explode and overflow. As this happens, the film revs up along with the music and dancing. Things start to heat up!
Romance can pop up at any time in life and you have to seize the opportunity when it arises. Even though this romance is a short one, the viewer can feel the love between the two main characters. McQueen guides the viewers through this little moment in 1980's London with grace and the terrific sounds of island music. This anthology has tapped into some interesting aspects of the West Indies culture in London so far. I can't wait to see what aspect he explores next.
Lovers Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime. New installments of Small Axe release on Fridays.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
'Tis the season to be merry and watch Happiest Season, a new holiday-themed movie on Hulu. Of course, this is the time when all sorts of holiday movies are coming out, and the streaming services are getting into the game as well. Netflix has had some good ones over the last couple of years, but now Hulu is trying to compete with them with their own batch of films.
Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are a couple who have decided to go to Harper's family's home for Christmas. The problem comes in when Abby realizes that Harper's family doesn't know she's gay because she hasn't told them yet. This causes quite the drama for Abby during family events and parties. This film has quite the supporting cast of characters that make up the family of Davis's character, including Victor Garber and Mary Stienbergin as the parents, Alison Brie and Mary Holland as her sisters, and Aubrey Plaza as an ex-girlfriend.
Clea DuVall, primarily an actress, directs this funny holiday film. Her direction is good and includes quite a myriad of comedic moments. This film has a fish out of the water feeling to it most of the time. Stewart's character has quite a few awkward moments. One specifically involves her stealing a necklace. It was supposed to be funny but ended up feeling out-of-place.
This film doesn't know if it wants to be a comedy or a drama. Some characters are all in on the comedic moments and some are being straight. These don't mix very well. The secret has shown that the film can just be dramatic. It doesn't need the comedic stuff or the clichéd flamboyantly gay friend. The dramatic moments work and drive the film forward. That's the best part of the film. DuVall as the director and Mary Holland as the screenwriter needed to focus on one or the other, not both.
As a holiday movie, Happiest Season is okay — not great but also not bad. I've seen better in my days. The subject matter is very relevant to the times we live in today. DuVall and Holland probably needed a rewrite or town on the script and maybe a few characters needed to be cut from the story. It definitely has too much going on and takes away from the main story involving Davis and Stewart's characters. But for streaming, it's a fine holiday film.
Happiest Season is now streaming on Hulu.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Major League sports are a dream for kids all of the world and in the United States. The dream of playing a professional sport is attainable if one puts in the hard work and the cards fall in their favor. The pyramid of sports is an idea that everybody starts at the bottom and works their way to the top. Those that make it to the top are the few and in between. It's not easy to make it to the top in any field, let alone the field (or court) of sports. The Last Out focuses on three aspiring Cuban baseball players who are trying to achieve their dreams of becoming a player in the MLB.
Sami Khan and Michael Gassert are the writers/directors of The Last Out. They chose to focus their cameras on three Cuban baseball players, Victor Baro, Carlos O. Gonzalez, and Happy Oliveros, to document their journey from the communist country of Cuba to Costa Rica and beyond. Two are pitchers and one is a position player and hitter. With the help of an ostracized sports agent, Gus Dominguez, they hope to achieve the American dream of being a major league ballplayer.
Cuba is a country where baseball is a huge deal. The problem is young aspiring ballplayers can't make it in their home country because of socialism. They can't get rich playing ball in Cuba, so they go elsewhere to make their dream come true, like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. These kids turned adults have to work extremely hard just to get tryouts and showcases for scouts. It's not a sure thing they will get signed for a contract either. They have a two-year window to achieve their goal or it's all but over for them.
Some give up after trying for a while and others keep fighting for a while. It all depends on how much they want to succeed. The film shows these three guys and all the levels of what they have to go through for success. Success could just be coming to America for a new life or it could be settling for playing a lesser form of baseball still fighting for the dream of becoming an MLB ballplayer. In the back of their heads, they want to provide for their families as well.
The filmmakers show all aspects of the dream of escaping communism and trying to make it as a successful athlete, the highs and lows of trying to achieve their goal, and the toll it takes on them physically and mentally. These three men prove examples of how hard it is to be a professional athlete. Not everybody can get to the top of the pyramid and those that do have had a tough journey. The dream of Cubans trying to make it on MLB is a long one. Some succeed, but most fizzle out and go off into obscurity. Of course, the Guses of the world will keep trying to develop new prospects and sell them on that dream.
The Last Out is now streaming as a part of the 2020 DOC NYC festival, which ran November 11-19, 2020, and is participating in encore screenings from November 20-29.