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 Onwardhomeward 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.
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.
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.