Worse than modern Disney flops Tomorrowland, BFG and A Wrinkle in Time combined, Kenneth Branagh’s Ireland-set Artemis Fowl (F) is an unmitigated disaster, a hopeful tentpole blockbuster and young adult franchise starter completely devoid of magic and wonder. Banished to the phantom zone of a Disney+ debut after COVID-19 shuffled the studio’s theatrical releases, this misbegotten fantasy is a moribund and completely incoherent bore. At its center is a listless titular performance of a boy genius by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, who is all dressed up with nowhere to go and presumably was instructed to play the part as a boring adult tax accountant. When the boy’s father (Colin Farrell) goes missing, the tween must battle with a variety of elves, fairies and goblins, grapple with unpleasant performances by the likes of Judi Dench and Josh Gad and parade through undistinguished low stakes landscapes. At an hour and a half running time with exposition in narration form for its duration, the film teases what happened before and after but forgets to furnish much of a coherent plot within. Even while free to Disney+ subscribers, it should be skipped.
Hollywood has a history of journeying down Vietnam’s rivers and through its jungles to heal the heartbreak shrouded in the ruins of war. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (B) starts innocently enough with a quartet of affable modern-day African-American veterans reuniting in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel to embark on a search for the buried bones and bullion left behind by a fallen platoon leader, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. This memory film’s twisty heist plot is also a bit of a Western, as in a commentary on Western Civilization, always urgent even if occasionally overreaching or delving into myriad detours of flourish. Delroy Lindo gives a forceful, hot-headed performance as the primary old timer, the MAGA hat wearing Paul, who like his comrades, also plays himself at an earlier age without the magic of de-aging special effects. Lindo gives an astonishing muttering monologue after a critical series of action sequences that’s career best. He’s like a land mine one step away from self-actualization, and he’s fascinating to watch in his masterclass of acting. Lee’s crisscrossing techniques through history gracefully bridge past transgressions to a tableaux of modern topics ranging from imperialism to contemporary class and racial politics. The movie comes most alive in its celebrations of brotherhood and fatherhood; Jonathan Majors is memorable and moving as Paul’s estranged college son. Terence Blanchard’s music is stirring accompaniment to action and ache, with occasional soothing echoes of Marvin Gaye. After his brilliant BlacKKKlansman, Lee’s follow-up is a bit more narratively sprawling but thematically daring. The thoughtful director’s change of venue from American soil enables no less a promised land of issues to travel and unravel.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have such spectacular comic and romantic chemistry as the central couple in Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds (B-) that they deserve a better movie next time they collaborate. It’s clear even in the cold open introductory credits that this brilliant duo possesses charisma in spades with hilarious banter and priceless reactions. The plot is super obligatory as the twosome is unintentionally embroiled in a murder mystery. As their quest to clear their names takes them from one extreme circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they, and their relationship, can survive the night. Along the way, they crib from diverse sources ranging from Wayne’s World to Eyes Wide Shut with reckless abandon. Each preposterous sequence is improved by Rae and Nanjiani’s daft delivery. It’s a breezy fun time, a comedy/action confection with modest levels of sophistication hiding in the routine madness. This comic couple is definitely one to watch.
A new HBO film throws the book at a public school scandal but takes a little while to get to its thesis. Cory Finley’s Bad Education (B-) tells the true 2002 story of a corrupt Long Island village school superintendent responsible for the sector’s largest embezzlement in U.S. history. In this central role, Hugh Jackman plays against type: an exquisitely controlled performance of a vain, dark and diabolical heart. Viewers are left wanting more insight into what drives this man, additional details about his relationship with his financial enabler (played with relish by Allison Janney in an all too brief role) and any contours about what drives a teenage journalist protagonist (impenetrable performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) who unearths the malfeasance. Finley’s compositions of bureaucratic bungling and many droll line readings are delightful, as is the jolting, percussive score by Michael Abels. But if there were an open-ended essay pop quiz every few minutes about what makes this film more distinctive than others in the genre, creative answers would be difficult to conjure. It’s an engrossing and watchable drama nonetheless, worth watching for Jackman’s performance alone. It’s now available on HBO streaming services.
Behind the anti-gay military policy resulting in the dismissal of lesbian army hero Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (famously portrayed by Glenn Close in the 1995 movie Serving in Silence), a clandestine couple — a veritable female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a real-life saga – provides the fascinating side story that propels its way to center stage in a pivotal moment in history. Documentarian Cindy L. Abel’s sophomore feature film Surviving the Silence (B+) unearths the narrative of Colonel Patsy Thompson, a woman from the rural south who becomes a beloved nurse in the military, harbors a closeted love in the form of life partner Barbara Brass and finds herself presiding over the board in the critical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” case against Cammermeyer. As the film’s central subject, Thompson is a plucky protagonist who comes out late in life but consistently summons the fortitude to live with dignity amidst the various challenges confronting her. The high profile of the tense tribunal forces her to confront her own story in a journey to live out loud. Abel and her documentary team weave together this uncanny tale using archival footage, home movies and images, interviews and even animation to bring the powerful stories of these trailblazing women to the forefront. The film does a splendid job taking viewers inside the inspiring love story of Thompson and Brass, from their furtive first date to their use of secret codes to communicate during a stint at the Pentagon, which makes the film’s denouement all the more poignant. Denise Gentilini provides stirring music, especially her end-credits song. The film showcases accidental activists simply trying to live their truths. It’s a timely testament to women in love rising to the occasion of destiny.
NOTE: This world premiere documentary will be presented in time for LGBTQ Pride month at the Ashland Independent Film Festival June 1, 2020 and QFest St. Louis June 19-28, 2020, sponsored by AARP St. Louis.
Details: https://www.ashlandfilm.org #AIFF2020
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.