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Winter Break wonders: five films from the final days of 2020 

From the holiday season’s only blockbuster to Chadwick Boseman’s last performance, here are highlights from five films released during break

Wonder Woman 1984 


Fast-forwarding seven decades from the World War I setting of 2017’s Wonder Woman, the highly anticipated sequel is set in the brightly colored ‘80s, an era of bulky TVs, aerobic wear and parachute pants. Gal Gadot returns as Diana Prince, the Amazon radiant in her classic beauty and righteousness. When Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a fraudulent oil tycoon, stumbles upon a magical wishing stone, he uses its powers selfishly. As the world careens towards an apocalyptic end, catalyzed by Lord granting wishes left and right, it becomes apparent that he must be stopped.


WW84 serves up a healthy dose of escapism in an otherwise disheartening year. The blockbuster showcases the thrilling Amazon Olympics, Kristen Wiig’s entertaining transformation into the villainess Cheetah and Gadot’s moving performance as the heroine faces heartbreaking choices. 


But the film has some critical flaws. At points,the plot becomes clichéd and teeters on the precipice of comedic absurdity. Action sequences oscillate wildly from riveting to grimace-inducing (rules of physics are abandoned); likewise, the visual effects waver between delightful and disappointing. As they say, the sequel is rarely as good as the original, and WW84 is no exception. 


Available on HBO Max. 


 

Soul 


Pixar’s newest film centers on Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school jazz teacher who has yet to achieve his dream of becoming a professional jazz artist. Before Joe receives the opportunity to fulfill this aspiration, he inauspiciously falls into an open manhole and dies.


Unwilling to pass to the Great Beyond, Joe instead enters the Great Before, the realm where souls garner personality traits before beginning their lives on Earth. He partners up with 22 (Tina Fey), a problematic soul unenthusiastic about living, to return to his comatose body. 


Soul dazzles as another one of Pixar’s beautifully realized masterpieces. Its message is simplistic and heartwarming: Life is worth living for every single moment, and we should never forget that, even in our ambitious pursuits. Visually, the film is a sumptuous feast of creativity with dashes of ethereal Cubist designs and hippy-eccentricity. It also enters the Pixar canon as a rare gem that celebrates Black culture. Following the studio’s first Black lead character, Soul captures the alluring magic of jazz as well as the minutiae of everyday life — from the barber shop to hailing a cab. 


Available on Disney+. 


 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 


An adaption of August Wilson’s 1982 play about the Mother of Blues, the Netflix original film takes place in 1927 Chicago, where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her quartet gather at a run-down studio for a recording run by a white producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Levee (Chadwick Boseman) stirs up trouble as the new trumpet player in the band, who aspires to become more than just a nondescript member playing “jug band” music. Egos collide between Ma and Levee amid tensions between the white managers and the Black performers. 


The film is an acting tour de force. As Boseman’s swan song, the late actor gives it his all. His character, Levee, is a charismatic thirty-something scarred by white men’s atrocities committed against his mother. Boseman voices the searing pain and rage rippling beneath smiles appeasing his oppressors. As Levee rails against the injustices of God in a gripping monologue, the audience cannot help but distinguish the haunting parallel to Boseman’s own tragic passing. The rest of the cast offer stellar performances as well. Davis transforms into Ma, a larger-than-life star who refuses to let the white producers steal her shine. In an industry replete with white appropriation of Black artists’ work, the film fights back against the erasure of Black musicians by commemorating their resilience and strength. 


Available on Netflix. 


 

Promising Young Woman 


In Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan with caustic wit, leads a double life. By day, she is a coffee shop waitress. By night, she is a huntress in disguise at local bars, exposing the fact that the “good guy” who comes to a drunk girl’s rescue never has the noble intention he fronts. Pursuing a personal vendetta against predatory men, the likes of whom ruined her best friend’s life during college, Cassie is forced to confront her own personal traumas. . 


The thriller is unapologetically wicked fun: An instrumental cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” plays as Mulligan dresses up in a vinyl nurse costume before the climactic confrontation. Fennell manages to keep the plot wildly unpredictable, avoiding common pitfalls in the genre of female revenge flicks. Mulligan shines as Cassie, revealing the humanity of a single-minded character whose anger, despair and trauma remains pent up behind a steely façade. Despite its darkly hilarious moments, the film realistically exposes the complicity of higher education institutions in instances of sexual assault.  And by the end, the audience is left to wonder if the system will ever really change. 


Available on Amazon Prime, iTunes/Apple TV, Vudu and FandangoNow. 


 

The Call (Kol) 


A South Korean reimagining of the British and Puerto Rican film The Caller, the fast-paced thriller focuses on two women, Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) and Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo). Born two decades apart, they are connected by a time-bending phone call. What initially begins as an innocuous friendship quickly spirals out of control, resulting in a relationship of loathing and vengeance. 


The bloody cat-and-mouse game between Seo-yeon and Young-sook is refreshing with multiple twists and turns that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. From her maniacal laughter to shifty gaze, Jeon, who previously starred in the acclaimed Burning, gives a frighteningly convincing portrayal of Young-sook as a budding serial killer. Park’s performance as the victim with everything to lose is equally compelling. Ultimately, the small-scale film with few characters may leave audiences with pounding hearts and a more fulfilling cinematic experience than the typical bombastic blockbuster. 


Available on Netflix. 



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