American Dream

★★★

“American Dream” (now available on digital, DVD and on demand) is a rote crime drama that very much has the feeling of been there, done that. Much of it’s made artfully; some of it clumsily. My main interest in the film stemmed from it being directed by Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. “American Dream” is not Kaminski’s first film (that’d be the much-maligned 2000 Winona Ryder horror vehicle “Lost Souls”) nor does it feel like it.

Nicky (Michiel Huisman, the second Daario Naharis on “Game of Thrones”) and Scott (Luke Bracey AKA Johnny Utah 2.0) are lifelong friends and business partners. They have all their assets tied up in the construction of a Los Angeles-based apartment complex and their funds are quickly dwindling. Loans are sought from numerous financial institutions, but the men are coming up emptyhanded. Desperate, they turn to Yuri (Nick Stahl), an acquaintance of Scott’s and a member of the Russian mob.

After accepting Yuri’s money a windfall comes via Scott’s Dad, Dimitri (Ed Metzger), who puts his carpet store up as collateral. Nicky and Scott subsequently refuse Yuri’s loan, but he’s unwilling to take no for an answer. Yuri and his goon Sergei (Gregory Lee Kenyon, coming across like a Russian Danny Trejo) demand payment for Yuri’s services with incurred interest for every day it’s not paid. Circumstances escalate from here with Yuri demanding the apartment complex itself and a substantial piece of the carpet store. Yuri and Sergei threaten Nicky and Scott’s lives and go so far as to antagonize and assault their girlfriends Ana and Brooke (Agnieszka Grochowska and Samantha Ressler, respectively). Luckily for Nicky and Scott, Ana has more stones than the both of ‘em combined.

Huisman and Bracey do well enough with their underwritten roles. Nicky’s the responsible one; Scott’s more impetuous. Scott’s supposed to be the brains of the operation, but Bracey doesn’t read super-smart … maybe he’s just too damned pretty? Stahl’s the main attraction here. His Yuri is evil incarnate, but Stahl and screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Mark Wheaton imbue him with enough grace notes (mostly via a daughter character) that he’s minimally sympathetic. Anyone who’s seen “Bully” or “Sin City” knows Stahl gives boffo bastard … yellow or otherwise. It’s nice to see him continue on the comeback trail after last month’s haunting “Hunter Hunter.” It’s also fun to have Elya Baskin (Mr. Ditkovich from Sam Raimi’s second and third “Spider-Man” installments) on hand as Nicky’s father/the personification of Russian vodka stereotypes.

There’s a decent amount of ickiness at play in “American Dream.” Ana’s sexually assaulted and thrown from a moving train at the beginning of the film to firm up her tough girl bonafides. She can’t just have brass on her own? There’s an exploitative sex scene between Huisman and Grochowska that’s graphic but not so graphic that you can decipher whether they’re simulating anal or doggy-style sex. Yuri is seen receiving fellatio from a transvestite. It’s almost like the filmmakers are saying, “Not only is this guy a dick, he’s also a homo! Gross!!!” When the film delves into brutality it’s fairly unflinching – bludgeonings and dismemberment are the norm.

“American Dream” is lean (83 minutes on an estimated $500,000 budget) and mean (see the previous paragraph). There’s enough good here that I’d give the picture a lukewarm recommendation. It’s impressive what Kaminski and his crew have done with limited resources. Weird edits, fluctuating film speed and lingering on random objects like it’s a European art film ultimately doesn’t elevate the material. Having better … or at least more original material … would elevate the material. Yogi Berra out!   

Alec Toombs’ Top 10 of 2020

I watched 268 movies in 2020, 147 of these were 2020 releases and I wrote 96 full-length reviews. I want to thank my friend and colleague Adam Aasen for coming to me with the idea of launching Grade A Movies , which prompted me to return to film criticism after 15 years of not doing it aside from capsule reviews on Letterboxd. Additionally, I’d like to thank Christopher Lloyd for the support and allowing Adam and I to also publish our reviews at The Film Yap. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t thank Larry Lannan with whom Adam and I record the Grade A Movies Podcast – a solid broadcaster and fellow film aficionado. Lastly, I’d like to thank anyone who’s read my material this past year. It’s greatly appreciated.

While I saw plenty of pictures in 2020, there are some movies I missed  – “76 Days,” “Another Round,” “Athlete A,” “Bacurau,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “His House,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “One Night in Miami,” “On the Rocks,” “Small Axe” “The Twentieth Century” and “Wolfwalkers.” I attempted to watch “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” but fell asleep during it. The same fate befell me when I saw “Synecdoche, New York” theatrically back in 2008. I love Charlie Kaufman as a screenwriter. Perhaps Charlie Kaufman the director ain’t my bag?

As is common for these lists, my Bottom Five of 2020 are “Dead Reckoning,” “Cannibal Corpse Killers,” “John Henry,” “The Wrong Missy” and “Capone.” I watch way more junk than the Average Joe – trust me when I tell you these titles are trash. My honorable mentions include “Sound of Metal,” “Mank,” “The Gentlemen,” “Arkansas,” “Host,” “Freaky,” “Soul,” “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” “The Hunt” and “Da 5 Bloods.” With no further ado, here’s my Top 10 of 2020.

10.) The Painted Bird – “The Painted Bird” is simultaneously one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve ever seen. This is less a story and more a series of vignettes about a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) in Eastern Europe during World War II seeking refuge from an onslaught of different characters. The boy is the recipient of all sorts physical and sexual abuse.

Despite all the abominations on screen, “The Painted Bird” is undeniably exquisite. This is easily the best-looking movie I’ve seen this year that’s not Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” The black and white cinematography by Vladimír Smutný (“Kolya”) provides audiences with a cornucopia of striking contrast shots. The way in which writer/director Václav Marhoul and Smutný shoot fields, streams, trees and buildings is truly awe-inspiring. Any frame of the film – even some depicting depravities – could easily be blown up, framed and displayed in a museum. (Currently available on Hulu.)

9.) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Holy hell did Chadwick Boseman go out on a high note. His final film performance is undoubtedly one of 2020’s best. It’s so good in fact that he blows national treasure Viola Davis (also doing exemplary work) right off the screen. Boseman’s first lengthy monologue is a masterclass in acting. Expect this cat to get Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for this and “Da 5 Bloods” respectively. Props also to Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman for their inspired performances. (Currently available on Netflix.)

8.) Synchronic – “We want to be very clear: at the time of writing this, we personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to.” These are the words written by “Synchronic” co-director Aaron Moorhead via Instagram back on Sept. 11, 2020 on behalf of himself, fellow director and screenwriter Justin Benson and producer David Lawson. As my wife will tell you, I don’t listen worth a damn … so I went and saw the movie theatrically regardless. And I’m very glad I did – it’s one of 2020’s best.

“Synchronic” is obviously a low budget movie, but what these filmmakers lack in money they more than make up for with unbridled imagination and genuine emotion. This is incredibly assured sci-fi. The movie moved me to tears, which is sort of bummer while masked up. (“Synchronic” releases on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, Jan. 26.)

7.) Palm Springs – “Palm Springs” is written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow. It’s the feature debut of both after having toiled away in shorts, documentaries and television for the better part of a decade. These gentlemen really bring their respective experience and creativity to the fore. This is one hell of a calling card. “Palm Springs” truly nails the romance and the comedy of a romantic comedy. The sci-fi elements of the story sing too.

Much of the reason “Palm Springs” works as well as it does rests on the shoulders of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. These two have real-deal chemistry. I’ve been a fan of Samberg’s for some time now whether it’s via the albums and videos of the Lonely Island, his longstanding gig as Jake Peralta on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or in hilariously underrated movies such as “Hot Rod” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” The dude’s damned funny here. I’m not as familiar with Milioti – mostly identifying her with the titular matronly role on “How I Met Your Mother” and as the first wife of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Not only does Milioti hold her own with Samberg comedically, she may arguably exceed him … her character’s the more complex of the two to boot. (Currently available on Hulu.)

6.) The Old Guard – My favorite film-watching day of 2020 was easily July 10 – this is the day my number six and seven selections were released and I luxuriated in making a double-bill of ‘em. “The Old Guard” is a muscular, stylish, progressive and transgressive fantasy-action flick. It’s directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, best known for relationship dramas such as “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights.” I love seeing an immensely talented woman of color getting the opportunity to make something this big budget and this genre. It resulted in a product that’s woke AF.

It’s not every day where a mainstream movie’s primary romance is a gay one; it’s not played as a joke and is handled with sensitivity and care. Marwan Kenzari’s Joe has a monologue midway through the movie where he beautifully speaks of his feelings for Luca Marinelli’s Nicky. The speech is impeccably written and performed (Kenzari’s world’s better here than he was in “Aladdin”). It feels as though he’s not only addressing the on-screen antagonist, but also the dude-bros who tend to gravitate towards action flicks. It’s like you don’t have to get onboard, but you do need to be accepting and if you can’t do that you need to get the hell outta the way. (Currently available on Netflix.)

5.) Onward – This is the less-heralded Pixar release of 2020, but it connected with me on a much deeper emotional level. Pixar simply has my number. I’ve seen 17 of the studio’s 23 films – the ones I’ve missed are “Cars 2,” “Cars 3,” “Brave,” “Monsters University,” “Finding Dory” and “Coco” – 12 of the 17 had me blubbering like a little bitch. Without fail if I’m jibing with one of their flicks I’m a goner. The waterworks will hit and they won’t let up. I’ve been known to ugly cry at Pixar movies. I’ve hyperventilation cried at Pixar movies. I did all of the above during “Onward.” If you’re anything like me and A.) Pixar owns your ass or B.) You’ve got daddy or brother issues – I’ve got both! – you’ll be a goner too.

Despite being fantastical, there’s a very real emotional core to “Onward.” Co-writer/director Dan Scanlon, whose father died when he was 1, infuses the movie with deep, genuine feeling. As this is a Pixar joint, it’s the little things that’ll get ya – one character’s foot touching another character’s foot or somebody checking or crossing items off a list for instance left me a crybaby shitshow. It’s in these details that the wizards at Pixar make true movie magic. (Currently available on Disney+.)

4.) The Platform – “The Platform” was released at the absolute best and absolute worst time. It’s very much on the nose, highly indebted to Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 effort “Snowpiercer,” not for the squeamish, not for the socially conservative and subtitled. It’s also a frickin’ masterpiece.

I wouldn’t recommend eating while watching “The Platform” as the food seen on screen is often absolutely revolting to look at and there are graphic depictions of cannibalism. That said, I would wholeheartedly advise adventurous cineastes give it a whirl. Sure, it’s subtitled and violent as all hell, but it’s only 94 minutes and also holds a message that’s important for all of us to heed … especially now. There is no place for greed, overconsumption and hoarding. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. We need to lift one another up. What’s good for one is good for all. Be good to yourselves. Be good to each other. Be the change. Be the message. These are the principles upon which “The Platform” is built. (Currently available on Netflix.)

3.) The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant writing, the wonderful performances of Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella and Michael Keaton (this is the best and strongest ensemble of 2020 IMHO) and its sad timeliness easily make “The Trial of the Chicago 7” one of 2020’s best. (Currently available on Netflix.)

2.) Never Rarely Sometimes Always – What an important movie. Writer/director Eliza Hittman and her lead actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are most assuredly going places. I pretty much wanted to give Flanigan’s Autumn a hug the entire time. I worried about and cared for these young women as I thought, “What if these were my nieces?” It probably didn’t help that Ryder kinda resembles my favorite niece and the character of Skylar acts in a manner that reminded me of her. This movie should be shown in high school health classes across this country to young women AND young men. Kudos to the Motion Picture Association for rating this PG-13 (when it admittedly probably should’ve been rated R) so it’s more accessible to the people who really need to see it. (Currently available on HBO Max.)

1.) Promising Young Woman – Just because a movie deals with serious subject matter doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. “Promising Young Women” addresses issues of great gravity (rape, toxic masculinity, the “boys will be boys” mentality/permissiveness) while simultaneously being undeniably entertaining and hysterically funny. It’s boldly audacious filmmaking that shouldn’t work, but does thanks to Emerald Fennell’s deft script (most assuredly one of the year’s best) and stylish direction and Carrie Mulligan’s fearless performance – the apex of her storied career thus far. I wouldn’t recommend “Promising Young Woman” for a first date, but it certainly gave my wife and I plenty to chew on, ponder and discuss afterward. (“Promising Young Woman” is currently playing in theaters and will available on VOD as soon as Monday, Jan. 11.)