Christopher Nolan’s amazing trailer dropped tonight, proudly touting it is coming to theatres.
Fresh off the Academy Awards triumph of the first foreign language Best Picture winner – the lush and labyrinthine Parasite – there was a sense for cinephiles that now nearly anything was possible. But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic on American soil, complete with new concepts such as “shelter in place” and “physical distance,” put America’s hot Hollywood product on deep freeze with promising animated movies, blockbuster action films and low-key dramas all put on ice until vacated movie houses could once again be inhabitable.
As we stand on the threshold of Memorial Day weekend, usually time for a clarion call of summer box office glory, we look back at the movies that could have been big theatrical hits (and instead debuted at home) and the anticipated films slated on the horizon. Fast-forward past quarantined spring, and we have witnessed a number of pivots:
- Universal Pictures delighted audiences but angered movie distributors by making February’s hit thriller The Invisible Man, politically prickly and long-shelved The Hunt and frothy art house fare Emma available immediately at home on digital video-on-demand (VOD) platforms, soon followed by the world premiere of Trolls: World Tour on VOD, breaking a time-honored tradition of giving theaters first rights to first-run pictures
- Warner Bros. also sent well-regarded Ben Affleck basketball drama The Way Back to VOD after a brief March 6 weekend run in theatres and debuted animated family film Scoob (as in Scooby-Doo) on iTunes and Amazon Prime last week
- Disney pushed CGI action fable Onward homeward as well, with a quick move to digital VOD platforms after its original March 6 debut in theaters; by April 3, it was available on Disney+
- Despite debuting in UK theatres, Dave Bautista’s soldier-turned-CIA agent-turned-babysitter action comedy My Spy went straight to Amazon Prime here in The States
- Studios immediately shuffled planned release dates of big films ranging from Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson’s first stand-alone film in the franchise) to Paramount’s anticipated sequel Maverick: Top Gun into new dates across late summer and fall as prestige pictures such as Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story have maintained original release dates (December 18 for the tragic tuner)
- Other promising fare pushed to 2021 are films such as the Ghostbusters reboot and suspense thriller A Quiet Place 2
- While indie theatres display agility to keep audiences entertained with crafty set-ups like Plaza Atlanta’s makeshift drive-ins, major movie theatre chains face uncertainty including financially troubled AMC, rumored to be an acquisition target by Amazon
Now for the next move!
Will audiences return to movie theatres in their current form? Will we really see Yankee Stadium as a giant drive-in? Will multiplexes open with social distanced tentpole movies in multiple auditoriums? Imagine Disney’s live-action Mulan across six screens and Christopher Nolan’s espionage thriller Tenet starring John David Washington (Warner Bros.) across six more. Those big pictures are slated for July. Warner Bros. is also preserving Wonder Woman 1984 for the big screen in August and willing to push it to late fall if necessary to lasso some boffo box office when maximum crowds have re-congregated. Indie fans are hoping for Wes Anderson’s quirky, star-studded The French Dispatch to get its cinematic due on some specialty screens as well.
Meanwhile the straight-to-home line-up for the month ahead includes crime dramedy The Lovebirds starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, streaming May 22 on Netflix. We know we’re getting some small screen action with Spike Lee’s Vietnam drama Da 5 Bloods coming to Netflix June 12. That day Disney young adult adventure Artemis Fowl is debuting on Disney+ and Universal’s Judd Apatow helmed Pete Davidson dramedy The King of Staten Island bows on streaming sites. While Broadway’s biggest music theatre maestro waits for his delayed In the Heights to hit theatres in summer 2021 instead of this year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s filmed version of megamusical Hamilton will rap its revolutionary way to the room where it happens in your house this year instead of next on Disney+ July 3, 2020.
Other familiar fare ranging from Bill & Ted Face the Music to The Spongebob Movie is expected ahead in movie theatres. It could be a few months before the prestige pictures find their usual place in the fall line-up.
It’s a mixed-up movie year for sure when Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few theatrical releases to have even graced the silver screen, but hopefully soon everything will fall into its right place.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
This is the movie for the “no labels” generation. Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones (B+) eschews many typical coming of age conventions to chronicle a few weeks in the life of a teenage protagonist (Josh Wiggins, a thoughtful performer and dead ringer for a young Matt Damon) caught between a variety of impulses in the aftermath of a frisky birthday party. Marquee stars Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan are outstanding in supporting roles as the hero’s estranged parents in this contemplative Canadian production with lots of questions and few answers tied in easy bows. Darren Mann as the stoic swim team captain, Taylor Hickson as his distant sister and Niamh Wilson as a lovely female friend who may or may not be transgender are among the compelling characters whose story arcs don’t always travel in obvious directions. A brisk story and surprisingly tender dialogue give this drama additional distinction. It’s a sleeper film worth discovering buoyed by relatable characters and an optimistic outlook.
Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
The Erwin Brothers create faith-based movies filled with inspiration and hope. And while their latest Christian-centric biography based on a chapter in the life of worship musician Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe (C), accomplishes its goal of showcasing a moving real-life romance forged against the odds, it largely misses the mark in terms of originality and craft. KJ Apa and Britt Robertson offer earnest enough acting in their central romance filmed in a Hallmark-worthy glow but are written with such cherubic reverence that they don’t often register completely as real characters. Supporting actors Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are so underused as the leading man’s parents that it feels like they were loaned for just a day or two on set. Only Nathan Parsons as a friend, mentor and near hypoteneuse of a chaste love triangle registers as an actual conflicted human being. For a film ostensibly about overcoming illness with faith-restoring music, the film doesn’t really pulse with much of a flair for either medicine or music. When compared to a performance sequence in A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, the big concert numbers appear strangely detached, like the crowds weren’t even filmed in sync with what’s happening on stage. It all means well, of course, and the purity of the romance at the center is really what it’s all about. But for a film that praises risk-taking, it sure plays it safe.
The audacity of a far-fetched plot in the latest remake of The Invisible Man (B) all but vanishes under the steady direction of Leigh Whannell and spellbinding central performance of Elisabeth Moss. The H.G. Wells story and classic films have been modernized with a strong woman at the center and a streamlined narrative about recovering from manipulation and abuse. Aldis Hodge is also fantastic as the heroine’s policeman friend; and while his role is somewhat “transparent,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes an impression in the title role, a controlling husband and Silicon Valley magnate who has invented an optical illusion suit allowing him to be fully invisible. The film is more thriller than horror film, despite the sense of dread in its first half. The stunts and visual effects are pretty nifty, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is sufficiently macabre, with ostinati aplenty. The film was a little too much like 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy at times, but the twists and turns dialed up the novelty. Moss, who is seen in virtually every scene, delivers richly here and makes the entire enterprise fresh and believable. It’s nice to see popular entertainment with a smidgen of topicality so wonderfully packaged.
Wielding an encouraging epistle or a poison pen whittled down to the quick, caustic cinematic commentator Pauline Kael was America’s first and most influential metacritic. Two decades after the loss of this iconoclast, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (B+) showcases this writer’s startling ability to convince readers to see movies in a new way including ushering in new wave foreign films and distinct new voices ranging from Scorsese to Spielberg. Famous for panning The Sound of Music or embracing films on the fringe, Kael was a noted contrarian and often a misanthrope who charmed and alarmed the chattering class and forged loyal acolytes in the critical press. The film is a roast meets requiem of interviews from those who loved her (Quentin Tarantino, for one) and those who felt damaged by her cutting rebukes (David Lean, for instance). There is little film or voice footage available to weave into the story, but Garver digs deep to conjure Kael’s singular spirit. There are also wonderful sequences from many of Kael’s favorite motion pictures. This is a film about visceral love for the movies and for joy in writing about the movies. It’s no wonder I loved it.
Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (B) is an enjoyable biographical documentary showcasing several years in the life of crossover country/pop music artist Taylor Swift, especially during her personal awakening into political action. The film vividly shows Swift’s rise to fame and thirst for validation as a people pleaser given energy by audiences and record sales. So it’s all the more dramatic as she begins to feel the slings and arrows of life under scrutiny in the darker side of the spotlight. It’s a shot to the heart about shared humanity and a revealing portrait of a woman finding her place in life. The film is dotted with wonderful tidbits of Swift’s confessional songwriting process. As a central subject, she is a delightful individual, spry, honest and funny. The movie provides an awesome insider glimpse at a talented role model and a stark look at the notion of standing up for convictions when self-worth, finances and reputation are on the line. Wilson’s steady hand in chronicling the complex chanteuse’s story across several tumultuous years is commendable, even if all of it doesn’t come across completely seamlessly. For fans of the artist at the film’s center, it is essential viewing.
Cathy Yan’s bubblegum-hued crime saga Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B-) is another origin story in the DC Extended Universe and follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as she joins forces with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and several vigilantes to fight Gotham City crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. The film is chock-full of throwaway gags, gallows humor and cartoonish violence with a tinge of sisterhood power, but it’s rarely as sharp as it needs to be. Yan scrambles the enterprise with flashbacks, animation and witty title cards, but often it feels like a magic trick to disguise a threadbare story. Although McGregor is miscast and not menacing enough, the women in the film are marvelous. Robbie is wonderful as the devil-may-care antihero, and Bell is a sonic sensation. The stunts and wall-to-wall action should please fans of the genre; it reaches mightily but doesn’t quite take the flight it promises.
Here’s your guide to Sunday’s Oscars.
The Academy Awards telecast is Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC. Expect glamour in the form of Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and the twice-nominated Scarlett Johansson to dominate the red carpet walkway. But many of the awards will be doled out to those who forged an unexpected path for cinema this year.
Walk on the Dark Side
This year the big nominee is Joker, with the box office hit’s Joaquin Phoenix favored to win Best Actor for his maniacal portrayal of the Batman villain in a grisly origin story. Joining him for potential top honors is Renée Zellweger, portraying the dark final pill-popping days in the life of celebrated songbird Judy Garland in Judy. Both films are now available for home viewing. If anyone could upset these two, it’s the two leads in the Netflix film Marriage Story – Johannson and Adam Driver – playing a couple on the brink as their bond collapses. Laura Dern is likely to win supporting actress as a divorce lawyer in the film. Brad Pitt is a bit of a shoo-in for best supporting actor playing the wry stuntman in the slow-burn nostalgic drama Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The ultimate Golden Boy may finally win one for his mantle.
Because of obscure rules governing certain categories, the Academy may opt to spread the wealth a bit. There’s lots of goodwill for Little Women writer/director Greta Gerwig and a strong possibility she’ll win Best Adapted Screenplay for her mixology of Louisa May Alcott’s inspirational American classic. The Original Screenplay category is a close race between Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Korean director Bong Joon-ho for the puzzle-box of a suspense thriller, Parasite. These two could also battle for Best Director. Parasite (just out on DVD as well this week) has so many fans that some believe it could win Best Foreign Film as well as upset for Best Picture. Many others believe the technical feat director Sam Mendes accomplished in the WWI film 1917 is so overpowering – much of the film is constructed to appear as one continuous shot – that it will be hard to overlook him for a Best Director and Best Picture win.
Battle of the Big Studios
Behind all the successes, surprises and snubs is an epic battle for the future of the movie business. Will big blockbusters such as 1917 and Joker keep people pouring into movie theatres? Or will the Netflix model which brought us The Irishman, indies such as Marriage Story and The Two Popes and even potential animated film winner Klaus get the most recognition this year? Or will “world cinema,” bigger than either camp, be the big winner, ushered in by a new kind of curiosity such as Parasite? And many are also asking when the Academy will start nominating more women and persons of color in many of the major categories. The winners this year could give a glimpse into the industry’s future.
The Oscar show is going host-less for a second year in a row, but expect lots of star power including comedy actors Will Ferrell, Mindy Kaling and Kristin Wiig to be among the announcers. Hopefully you can binge-watch a few more films before the big night to see what all the fuss and buzz is about.
Fear of failure and unwarranted confidence can both be blinding. The ‘90s Silicon Valley dreamers in Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish’s cautionary and ultimately redemptive documentary General Magic (B+) are enjoyable subjects inventing technologies well before their time. While the denizens of the titular start-up saw their promising platform go up in smoke, they learned lessons they apply to some of the most prolific tech companies of our era and contributed to the vision of the modern smartphone. The film is a compelling and compassionate look at innovation and redemption.