The Covid-19 pandemic has created the most significant disruption to the film industry that most Americans have seen. Although many theaters have been allowed to reopen (typically with limited capacity), they have done so with little blockbuster content and a public not entirely prepared to embrace a product where communal gathering is part of the experience. The situation is bad enough that Mike Sampson of Vulture wrote a veritable eulogy to movie houses in early October. Some things have changed since that article was released – constant change, after all, is the new normal – but exhibitors are still in danger.
In the meantime, studios have tested the waters of digital distribution, pushing films once targeted for theaters directly to pay-per-view and streaming platforms. All the while, digital disruptors like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ have continued to pump out fresh content. If the trio of films that hit the latter platforms this week is an indication of what’s to come, movie houses have more reason for concern. For the price of about three movie tickets, consumers can access each of these pictures, while also gaining a month of access to all the other content these platforms have. This is an enticing prospect because each of these films could proudly play in a traditional theatrical environment. Here’s a look at each …
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Ben Wheatley
Available on: Netflix
It is enticing to call director Ben Wheatley’s 2020 version of “Rebecca” a remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic, but that would be overly simplistic. Like Hitchcock’s film, the new “Rebecca” is based on the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, a book that has seen several adaptations for stage and screen.
Certainly, fans of the Hitchcock film should enjoy this 21st century take on the tale, which is as dark and intriguing today as it was in 1938. The action centers on the relationship between a young, naive woman (Lily James) who is swept off her feet by Maxim de Winter, a charismatic widower with a massive English estate called Manderley. The two impetuously marry, but life is not as the young Mrs. de Winter had dreamed.
Upon arrival at Manderley, it is immediately clear that the estate lives under a pall cast by the memory of Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter tries desperately to ingratiate herself with the house staff, especially the stiff head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Alas, her efforts mean nothing, because the ghost of Rebecca is everywhere, most importantly within the psyche of her new husband.
Obviously, this new version of “Rebecca” was timed for a Halloween release thanks to its gothic roots, but it isn’t really a horror film. Rather, this is a tale of psychological suspense asking viewers to consider the power of memory and the human capacity for psychological manipulation. This is a neo noir that feels both modern and nostalgic. It is contemporary in the sense that James, Hammer and Thomas are very much modern movie stars, and Wheatley knows how to frame a beautiful, 21st century image.
The scenery sparkles, and the cinematography has the luster of a Golden Age masterpiece. There are elements of the plot that feel dated, but not significantly enough to make the viewing experience unpleasant … and readers of the book will likely appreciate this film’s climax more than Hitchcock’s. This version of “Rebecca” is dynamic, beautiful and haunting, just as it should be.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova
Director: Jason Woliner
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
For fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, a Borat sequel is the reward for 14 years of faith and anticipation. Was it worth the wait? Mostly.
Cohen once again, takes on the persona of Borat Sagdiyev, a journalist from Kazakhstan, a nation bridging central Asia and Eastern Europe. Kazakhstan is a real place, and one can reasonably argue that Cohen has unfairly stigmatized the nation as racist, backward and inept. Of course, one can also argue that Cohen unfairly stigmatizes most of the targets of his razor-sharp wit. Limiting one’s critique to that narrative would, of course, miss the valuable social statements that are buried within the oft-boundary-pushing humor that Borat is built on.
We learn at the start of “Subsequent Moviefilm” that the fallout from the first Borat movie has landed him a prison sentence marked by years of hard labor. He is released, however, when the leader of Kazakhstan offers Borat (the country’s best-known journalist) an opportunity to travel to America with a gift for Vice President Mike Pence. You see, the Kazakhs have learned that President Trump has an affinity for authoritarian leaders, and they hope to foster the same type of friendly relationship the American president has with Vladimir Putin.
So, Borat travels to America and – through a plot device best discovered on one’s own – ends up on a road trip with his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova). On the quest to deliver the present, Borat finds himself everywhere from a Jewish synagogue to a hotel room with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The politically savvy reader is already aware of the fallout from the Giuliani sequence, and it is just as shocking as everyone has read.
The conceit of Borat comedy, of course, is that – although there is a loose plot – most of the bits are filmed with nobody outside Cohen and his production crew in on the gag. So, the reactions one sees from non-cast are supposed to be real. That makes it shocking when Borat, say, asked to buy a cage for his daughter and the owner of a feed store happily shows his best option. Of course, nobody outside of Cohen and his coconspirators know how much of the film is set up and how much is organic … but the sequences are raw enough that viewers get the impression that a healthy portion of the onscreen antics involve unwitting dupes.
Throughout the movie, Cohen dons a variety of disguises to keep his identity hidden, likely because the Borat character is so easily recognized after the success of the first movie. I’ve seen at least one critic note that the disguises don’t make sense within the context of the film, and that’s a fair critique. Why Borat would lose his trademark suit in favor of overalls and face prosthetics is unclear, but if the stunts are what you come for, you are rewarded.
Cohen’s humor is dark, biting and relentless. He has a clear point of view and targets far-right conservatives with venom. Because of this, there will be plenty of people in America who find the film more offensive than funny, but those who share Cohen’s outrage with the direction the country has taken may laugh harder than they have in some time.
On the Rocks
Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
Director: Sofia Coppola
Available on: Apple TV+
Writer-director Sofia Coppola isn’t for everyone. She is an obvious talent buttressed by an elegant, easygoing style that results in moments ranging from sublime to dull. Alas, it’s her tendency to linger too long on simple notions that will leave some viewers cold.
“On the Rocks” is reminiscent of her 2003 directorial smash, “Lost in Translation.” That film told the story of an aging movie star – played by Bill Murray – facing a mid-life crisis. For, “On the Rocks,” Murray is back, but this time as a more-self-assured older man who volunteers to help his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones) through a marital crisis.
Murray plays Felix, a charming senior who still has a way with the ladies. We learn from Laura that he wasn’t a great dad. He was a womanizer even as a family man, something he unapologetically explains as part of the male DNA. Laura, being a kind soul, has maintained a loving relationship with her father nonetheless, and she turns to him when she begins to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair.
Murray, of course, thinks this is a foregone conclusion because Marlon is a man. This attitude stokes Laura’s concerns, but she also finds comfort in the obvious love that her father has for her. Womanizer or no, Murray does care for his daughter and demonstrates a willingness to go to great lengths to protect her.
Although Laura’s romantic crisis serves as the film’s dramatic arc, the real meat of the issue is in watching father and daughter interact. This is a film about men and women and relationships. On the one hand we have Laura and Dean, who seem like an ideal couple, apart from the nagging hints that Dean could be fooling around. On the other hand, we have Laura’s relationship with Murray, a man who hurt her throughout childhood despite the assumption he was there as her guide. That these men seem both different and alike is intentional, and viewers are meant to think about the way role models and past experience shape our world view.
The trouble with “On the Rocks,” assuming one has a problem, is that Coppola takes so much time telling such a simplistic tale. For those who enjoy low-key, persistent examinations of the human condition, this may not be criticism at all. Indeed, Coppola gets credit for the simplicity and authenticity of her work.
Jones and Murray are fantastic, and “On the Rocks” has plenty to unpack for those willing to make the effort. The question is whether you’ll find the carefree presentation compelling enough to expend that energy.
Directed by: Michael Matthews (“Five Fingers for Marseilles”)
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Dan Ewing, and Ariana Greenblatt
Available Oct. 16: Releasing via Premium Video-On-Demand and as a digital purchase on most platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Sony PlayStation Video and FandangoNOW
Once upon a time, “Love and Monsters” was slated for big-screen release under the title “Monster Problems,” but a variety of factors resulted in its move to premium video with a new name. Honestly, “Love and Monsters” is the better title because the movie is both a quirky adolescent actioner and a sweet romantic fable.
The focus is on Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), a sweet kid who is separated from his high school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), by the Monsterpocalypse, a cataclysmic event prompted by a meteor on a collision course with Earth. In an effort to avoid the Armageddon, mankind launches a massive nuclear strike, which works great until the fallout floats down from space, turning every cold-blooded creature into horrifying, oversized predators. Without warning, toads and cockroaches are elevated from scurrying pests to alpha predators, and what’s left of humanity is forced into underground colonies.
Life on the surface is dangerous and frightening thanks to the massive pests that like nothing better than to snack on human interlopers. Because of that, trips above ground are short-lived, limited in scope and attempted only when absolutely necessary. Although Joel’s colony periodically sends people out for food and supplies, he is relegated to the bunker since he has a reputation for freezing at the most inopportune moments. It’s not a reputation he likes, but it is deserved.
After years of hapless searching, Joel miraculously locates Aimee using his colony’s radio system. He happily discovers that she is only 80 miles away, but 80 miles might as well be the moon considering the dangers of the outside world. Nevertheless, Joel decides that his love for Aimee is worth dying for, so he packs a bag and heads above ground, determined to make it to his long-lost girl.
This is a decidedly romantic proposition, and the love Joel has for Aimee is less dysfunctional than that driving most young adult love stories. But … “Love and Monsters” is more than romance. The bulk of the story is about Joel coming to terms with the tragedy that brought him to this point while learning that he has more to offer than anyone – including himself – is aware.
His journey brings him in contact with a rugged survivalist name Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his young charge, Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). The two take Joel beneath their wings and teach him valuable survival skills, which immediately come in handy.
“Love and Monster” has a heart, but it certainly doesn’t shortchange the audience on the monster front. Joel and company face off against a variety of creatures who are beautifully rendered and truly frightening. Director Michael Matthews walks the fine line between whimsy and horror, presenting a movie that oozes both attitude and fun.
O’Brien, best known as the lead from the “Maze Runner” franchise, is a solid leading man capable of comedy and drama. He’s called on to deliver both throughout the film, and the result is pleasant. Rooker, Greenblatt, Henwick and the remainder of the cast are also capable. Only Joel’s character is developed beyond a surface level and, while it might have been fun to get a deeper look at the others, this isn’t a problem.
“Love and Monsters” may not become a classic, but it is a truly good time. It’s scary enough to work as a Halloween film, romantic and funny enough to transcend the horror genre and written with both an edge and wit. Writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson deserve significant credit because – while genre-crossing films are sought after – they don’t always work. “Love and Monsters” not only works, it does so exceptionally well.
Director: Tim Hill (“Hop,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Max Keeble’s Big Movie”)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Laura Marano, Poppy Gagnon, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken
Critical rating: 2½ stars out of 4
According to Margaret Atwood, “War is what happens when language fails.” According to director Tim Hill, it’s what happens when Peter is forced from his bedroom by an unwelcome visit from Gramps.
That’s right, “The War With Grandpa” tells the story of Peter, a precocious sixth-grader who gets worked up when his mom, Sally (Uma Thurman), and dad, Arthur (Rob Riggle), force him into the attic so Grandpa Ed (Robert De Niro) has a place to sleep. Ed doesn’t want to displace Peter, but a bad encounter with a self-checkout machine convinces Sally that her recently widowed father needs to be closer to family. Since Ed is an old man and Peter’s sisters – Mia (Laura Marano) and Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) – share a room, the kid draws the short straw.
One might expect a youngster to get excited by the prospect of an extended stay from Grandpa, but Peter is more selfish than the average kid. This is a problem area in the script, but viewers should feel some sympathy because Mom and Dad don’t have the decency to fix the leaky roof in Peter’s new home in the attic.
I can’t help but think most sixth-grade boys would dig the prospect of converting an attic to a living space, but not Peter. After going to war with a huge bat (Mom and Dad didn’t clear that out either), he decides it’s Grandpa who needs to pay. So, Peter makes a formal declaration of war … and Ed buys in. Pretty soon we’re witnessing a May-December prank-fest with countless pratfalls, significant property damage and, of course, a little grandpa-grandson bonding.
Anyone who has seen more than a dozen family films knows where this one is headed as soon as it starts … because the other possibilities are hopelessly dark, and “The War With Grandpa” is only dark if you stop long enough to think about it. Director Tim Hill, who brought us “Hop” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” is not the sort to do gloomy. His films are bright and cheerful, and “The War With Grandpa” is clearly meant to be a warm, slapstick comedy about a friendly feud. The movie IS entertaining.
De Niro and Thurman are too good – and too famous – to be in a picture like this. The same can be said for Christopher Walken, who appears in several key scenes as one of Ed’s buddies. These actors elevate the movie to a degree, and I admittedly laughed, probably more than I should have.
That said, “The War With Grandpa” is not objectively good. It mixes TV comedy plotting with an A-list cast and thematic elements that are slightly disturbing. It’s hard to like a kid who won’t willingly give up his room to a senior who is nothing but kind to him. The physical comedy is also harder to laugh at knowing the real-world outcomes of virtually every stunt would be an extended hospital stay for Grandpa, likely followed by a permanent spot in a senior home. And that analysis allows for the rather optimistic assumption that Grandpa would survive. Yes, this war is extreme.
I do understand this is a movie and suspension of disbelief is part of the game. If you are willing to embrace a cinematic world where Grandpa can fall from towering heights without winding up in a coma and where Peter is too dim to see this as a horrifying possibility, “The War With Grandpa” is sort of fun. It also includes the requisite sappy finish and condemnation of war that youngsters need to see. Both are handled awkwardly, but they are better present than not.
Although Mom and Dad never address the terrible condition of Peter’s attic room, we are led to believe there is love in this family. We also see that Peter’s war puts a spring in Ed’s step that wasn’t always there. In other words, if you read the film the way Hill wants, it’s sweet. We just have to hope real-world sixth graders know they shouldn’t duplicate these stunts at home.
Should you watch? That depends on how desperate you are for family entertainment. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but that means there are better ways as well.
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao
Available: Stream now with Premiere Access on Disney+ (cost is $29.99, plus a Disney+ subscription). On Dec. 4, the movie will become available to Disney+ subscribers without the additional $29.99 fee
Critical rating: 3½ stars out of 4
By Forrest Hartman
First, it’s important for readers to know that I am, generally, a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes of animated classics. There is a school of thought that sees virtually every remake as unnecessary, and many amongst that crowd seem particularly invested in shaming the Mouse House for its continual returns to the well. I get the reasoning. Why mess with art that worked the first time around? The obvious answer is that – assuming said art has value – one can open it to new generations and perhaps even expand the appreciation of those who loved it initially.
By presenting a classic work through a new lens, artists can explore new ideas, flesh out previously squandered sub-themes and occasionally reframe a work altogether. Shakespeare festivals and theatrical directors have made an industry of this, and nobody complains because the results are so often sublime.
Personally, I find the transition from animation to live-action particularly rewarding. The two forms can tread the same ground … but the viewing experience is inherently different. With animation, we are separated from the characters in a visceral sense. This – along with the ability to hyper-stylize settings – allows artists to easily transition to the realm of fable. Advances in special effects have aided live-action filmmakers in this regard, but there is no denying that human actors, for lack of a better word, “humanize” the works they touch. Disney has exploited this possibility both successfully (think “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella”) and stutteringly (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dumbo”).
With “Mulan,” one must start by noting that the story is not really Disney’s. The plot comes from a centuries-old Chinese folk tale about a female warrior who poses as a man in order to take her father’s place in combat. Despite the lengthy history – and the non-Disney films the story has inspired – it’s the success of the 1998 animated musical that most modern Americans remember.
Curiously, Disney and director Niki Caro decided to stray substantially from the foundation laid by the 1998 film. This “Mulan” is not a musical, and it is decidedly more realistic than its predecessor. This may be distressing for those hoping for a faithful adaptation – ala “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) – but the differences are refreshing. This “Mulan” is many things, including a family drama, a tale of female empowerment and a rather beautiful martial arts adventure. That these elements are not routinely merged, works in the movie’s favor, as does Yifei Liu, a 33-year-old actress who successfully passes as a teenager.
In the U.S., Liu is probably best known for publicly endorsing the Hong Kong police and, thus, creating headlines and unintentionally inspiring a #BoycottMulan movement before her film was even ready for release. Although this movement has gained steam with the film’s streaming debut, I predict the actress’s performance will outshine the controversy. Regardless of how one feels about her politics, Liu is a talent, and her embodiment of “Mulan” is striking.
This live-action retelling reinforces how difficult it would be for a woman to successfully pass as a man in a military setting. In fact, one scene spawned memories of the wonderful 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” featuring Hilary Swank as a transgender man struggling to present himself to the world. This version of “Mulan” is not, however, solely interested in the complexities of identity. It is interested in attacking social structures that paint women as less capable than men. This theme plays out not only in Mulan’s story, but in a subplot about a powerful witch named Xianniang (Li Gong). Both Mulan and Xianniang – although on opposite sides – know oppression.
As in the Disney cartoon – and the folk tale before it – Mulan enters the military to fulfill a duty asked of her father (Tzi Ma). Although he agrees to go to war, Mulan knows that he is too old, so she sneaks away, pretending to represent her family as a son. Her spirit, skill with martial arts and powerful chi soon prove she is the most powerful soldier in her unit.
Although Mulan is thematically interested in big ideas, including charachter and equality, it is also a fine fantasy film filled with beautifully crafted martial arts sequences. Caro’s previous directorial efforts – including the wonderful 2002 drama “Whale Rider” – demonstrate her ability to build empathy for characters, but they don’t hint at the level of skill with which she tackles action. Some of the battle sequences in Mulan are reminiscent of pure martial arts movies, including the wonderful 2000 effort “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise since a number of fine martial artists were involved, Donnie Yen and Jet Li amongst them. The excellent battle footage adds a dynamic edge to the movie, making it easier to invest oneself in the combat than is possible in an animated film.
Ultimately, it is difficult to say whether the live action “Mulan” is better than its animated predecessor. Fortunately, one needn’t make that assessment. This “Mulan” is its own creation, significantly changed, yet thoroughly pleasing to watch.
Josh Hartnett (right) and Antoine Olivier Pilon star in “Most Wanted.”
AT A GLANCE
Written and directed by: Daniel Roby
Starring: Josh Harnett, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Jim Gaffigan, Amanda Crew and Stephen McHattie
Available: In select theaters and on demand July 24
Critical rating: 3 stars out of 4
By Forrest Hartman
As a film critic and journalism professor, I have a particular interest in movies focused on media. These pictures undoubtedly play a role in shaping public perception of my profession, and reporters have been cast – historically speaking – as everything from cartoon villains to tireless champions of democracy and justice. In “Most Wanted,” the latest journalism movie making the rounds, Josh Hartnett plays the latter.
Hartnett plays real-life Canadian journalist Victor Malarek, whose career includes a number of film-worthy moments, but the focus here is on a late-1980s investigation alleging an entrapment scheme by government agents. According to the movie – and allegations by Malarek and Alain Olivier – Canadian law enforcement officials coerced Olivier into running a drug operation in Thailand that led to the death of a Mountie and a 100-year prison sentence. Olivier has since been released, but only after spending eight years in a Thai jail.
Although “inspired by real events” the story is fictionalized, and Malarek’s real name is the only one retained for the film. The broad strokes of the story follow Olivier’s and Malarek’s account of events, but the timeline has been significantly compressed. It is also important to note that Olivier – an admitted junkie at the time of the story – lost a civil lawsuit seeking $47 million as restitution for the time he spent imprisoned.
One needn’t be familiar with the true story to enjoy the film. In fact, it is best viewed as a loose representation of reality that can serve as a springboard for further investigation. From that standpoint, “Most Wanted” is solid. It will not be remembered as one of the finest media movies ever (a category reserved for classics, including “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men”), but it is a worthy reminder of the importance of quality investigative journalism.
The story starts by introducing Daniel Léger (standing in for the real-life Olivier), a struggling drug addict doing his best to stay afloat financially while nursing inner demons. As portrayed by Canadian actor Antoine Olivier Pilon, Daniel is a mess. His short-lived attempts to do the right thing always descend into drug-fueled benders, making him an easy mark for Picker (Jim Gaffigan), a police informant who trades information for cash.
The film features a fractured timeline, slowly revealing the details leading to Daniel’s arrest as Malarek (who comes to the case long after) attempts to make sense of how the young man wound up imprisoned overseas. As a seasoned reporter, Malarek quickly ascertains that Daniel is not the hardcore international drug dealer that Canadian law enforcement asserts … so he convinces his editor to send him to Thailand. The more Malerek investigates, the more resistance he faces from authorities, but that only fuels him to push harder, convinced they are hiding an important truth.
Hartnett, a one-time A-lister poised to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood, has flown under the radar for years, by most accounts having chosen this path. Regardless of why we haven’t seen much of Hartnett prior to 2020, he’s a talent, and he does Malerek proud. Sporting a hip ’80s haircut and thick mustache, he feels right for the period. Those working in journalism today will laugh when he demands an exorbitant travel budget and copious time to write a two-piece feature about Daniel’s case. But … we must remember that this is the ’80s. There was indeed a time when newspapers were raking in profits, and the right player could talk a well-funded publication into investing in a scoop. Even then, the practice was not widespread, but “Most Wanted” nicely demonstrates how much has changed in journalism over the past three to four decades. Sadly, many of those changes have been for the worse.
Hartnett paints Malarek as a hard charger who will stop at nothing to get his story, and viewers watch that story unfold as each new detail emerges. The non-linear structure is complicated, but easy enough to follow thanks to writer-director Daniel Roby’s straightforward style. Roby presents the action simply, letting his actors drive the emotion and his camera go where it needs in order to keep us tuned in. He doesn’t go overboard with artistic flourishes nor does he get overly sentimental or preachy with the plotting. Rather, he presents a mystery with Malarek relentlessly searching for the truth.
There are times when “Most Wanted” drags. Journalism can, after all, be tedious. Mostly, however, Roby sticks to the good stuff. Malarek takes physical and financial risks, and even sacrifices his home life in pursuit of the story. This is cliché material, to be frank, but it is also entertaining, and Hartnett, Pilon and the supporting cast are charming enough to keep our attention.
At a time when many newspapers are closing or transitioning to the Internet and “fake news” is a rallying cry for pundits, it’s nice to see a film assert that the free press plays a crucial role in society. “Most Wanted” not only does this, it demonstrates how one good piece of journalism can change lives for the better.
Starring: Janel Parrish, Carlos PenaVega, Tommy Ragen, Alexa PenaVega, Levi Dylan, Raven-Symoné
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content involving substance abuse, language, some accident images and brief suggestive language
Available July 7 on: Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Sony PlayStation Video, Fandango NOW and more
Critical rating: 1½ stars out of 4
By Forrest Hartman
There’s nothing like a good music movie. The truly great ones – think “A Star Is Born,” “La La Land,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Almost Famous” and “Whiplash” – reinforce the importance of art. They can be inspiring, tragic, even funny; and they are always moving. But when a music movie stumbles, the result is often a forced, schlocky experience.
With “Mighty Oak,” director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) and writer Matt Allen (“Four Christmases,” “Soul Surfer”) attempt a spiritual journey aimed at demonstrating the healing power of music. They instead deliver a melodramatic hodgepodge that’s light on authenticity and heavy on melodrama.
The movie centers on Gina (Janel Parrish), the beautiful young manager of an up-and-coming rock band named Army of Love. The group is driven by the vocals and songwriting prowess of Gina’s brother, Vaughn (Levi Dylan). The remaining members — guitarist Pedro (Carlos PenaVega), drummer Alex (Nana Ghana) and bassist DB (Rodney Hicks) — are also extremely close. In fact, Gina has an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Pedro. Just when it seems that the band is about to explode, the entire crew is involved in a devastating auto accident that leaves Vaughn dead and Gina unable to move on.
Gina emerges from her depression, however, when she meets Oak Scoggins (Tommy Ragen), a 4th grade prodigy who expresses a willingness to reunite Army of Love. The youngster reminds her so much of Vaughn that she can’t say, “No.”
The setup is sweet, but it feels as forced as it sounds … especially when Gina and company begin to view Oak as a new version of Vaughn. Ragen is a real-life musician, and he is extremely talented for an 11-year-old. That said, he is 11, and his age is obvious each time he sings. That makes every sequence with him leading the band play like a novelty act on “America’s Got Talent.” It’s hard to believe Gina – or anyone else – would see Oak as a legitimate savior of the group. Since the entire movie is built on the premise that he is an apt replacement for Vaughn, it’s problematic.
To their credit, Allen and McNamara have bigger ideas on their minds. They are clearly hoping viewers will ponder worthwhile topics ranging from mortality to mental illness. They also want us thinking about the connections that define human beings. These are worthwhile ideas, but they are presented so awkwardly that it’s tough to buy in, as many viewers will be busy analyzing the maudlin plot contrivances instead.
Ragen, Parrish, PenaVega and the rest of the cast are charming enough, but some elements of the story are underdeveloped while others batter the audience like a sledgehammer. One doesn’t watch “Mighty Oak” so much as he/she is manipulated by it. Some filmmakers – Steven Spielberg chief amongst them – can get away with this type of manipulation. But Spielberg is nuanced. With “Mighty Oak,” one can feel McNamara and Allen tugging at the heartstrings, and it’s more uncomfortable than effective.
Since Ragen is a charismatic presence and a talented musician, it feels curmudgeonly to critique his coming-out party. But the cruel fact is, “Mighty Oak” isn’t the best stage for his gifts. It’s easy to imagine him maturing into a formidable artist. When that happens, this film may be remembered as his big break, but it will not be remembered as his seminal work … nor that of anyone else involved.
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson
Available on: Disney Plus beginning July 3
Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4
Leslie Odom Jr., left, is Aaron Burr and Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton in the musical “Hamilton,” streaming on Disney Plus.
By Forrest Hartman
Reviewing “Hamilton” now is like deconstructing the Super Bowl the day after America watched. Everyone already knows what happened, so your job is to bring context … or at least avoid looking stupid. Here goes.
“Hamilton,” with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been a smash since opening off Broadway in February 2015, and many who fancy the theater have already seen either a Broadway or touring production. Beyond that, casual fans are aware of the wildly popular “Hamilton Mixtape.”
So, why talk “Hamilton” now? Because a filmed adaptation of the 2016 Broadway show is debuting on Disney Plus July 3, bringing “Hamilton” into even more lives and putting Miranda one step closer to world domination. The exquisitely shot production is about as close as one can come to a quality Broadway experience during the Covid-19 pandemic and … although not as thrilling as a live performance … it’s really, really good.
First, the obvious. “Hamilton” is a great piece of musical theater. The music, heavily infused with hip hop, R&B and other pop elements is lively, unique and beautifully rendered. Add a smart book about a largely ignored American founding father and you have the foundation for a genre-changing work.
“Hamilton” isn’t a flash in the pan. People will likely be talking about this musical in theater circles for decades … not just because it’s good, but because it’s smart enough to appeal to the traditional Broadway crowd and cross over to pop music audiences who might otherwise shy from the theater. This Disney Plus run will only cement that, exposing oodles of youngsters and their families to both the show and live theater.
But is “Hamilton” the movie actually theater? I think it is. This filmed version captures the Broadway cast at work in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. It is not a single, front-to-back take. Rather, filmmakers shot a number of live performances (including one with no audience) over the course of several days. This … and six cameras shooting from varied viewpoints … allowed director/producer Thomas Kail and his editors to replicate the live experience while allowing viewers to hang on facial expressions and appreciate dance numbers in a manner that would be impossible in the theater itself.
It’s a treat in large part because this is a great cast. Miranda stars as Hamilton, rapping, dancing and acting his way through one number after another, dropping a ridiculous amount of verbiage in the process. Because so much of the “Hamilton” soundtrack involves rap and hip-hop, the score is always moving, and the cast members aren’t just singing. They are spitting important exposition at a furious pace. Had Miranda simply created the show, he would have earned a place in theater history. The fact that he is so compelling in the title role is a bonus. His Hamilton is alternately ambitious, melancholy, rambunctious and wise, and it all seems a fitting tribute to a man who helped build a fledgling nation.
Miranda is bolstered by memorable supporting turns from a host of great talents. Daveed Diggs plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Phillipa Soo is Eliza Hamilton. Renée Elise Goldsberry is Angelica Schuyler. Christopher Jackson portrays George Washington. Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Aaron Burr. All are tremendous.
“Hamilton” uses what some might call color blind casting, but it goes beyond color blind. The show is intentionally diverse, meaning white historical figures are often portrayed by minority actors as a point of course. This is particularly poignant in the wake of the George Floyd protests. One might be able to overlook the fact that a black man is playing Thomas Jefferson, were it not for that fact that Jefferson ran a plantation and owned slaves. That juxtaposition is jolting, and it is meant to be. It is also a powerful statement, asking viewers to think about the founding of America differently than they might have previously.
For those who have somehow missed the “Hamilton” hype, the story itself focuses on U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who played an outsized role in the American revolution and economic policy in early America. As noted in the show, he is oft overlooked by pop culture, but Miranda and company have set the record straight. Today, you are far more likely to hear a teenager humming the Hamilton anthem “My Shot” than an ode to Ben Franklin, and we can thank Miranda for that.
This is not a simple history tale, however. Hamilton’s story is recited using music that many would find more at home on a hip-hop station than a Broadway stage. The soundtrack is a hybrid really. It’s part rap, part pop, part melodramatic theater ballads, and it blends into a wonderful, inspired mix.
One should not, of course, take the history lesson too seriously. Although the broad strokes are right, Hamilton – arguably – is too sympathetic. He wasn’t a perfect man, and a number of his transgressions (although addressed) are glossed over. Also, Aaron Burr is the unquestioned villain of the story, which is equally oversimplified. That said, “Hamilton” could very well convince viewers (particularly the young) to read more about American history, leading them to a more nuanced view of the men who shaped America’s past. But, to dwell on that idea is to risk a reputation for stodginess. Whether or not “Hamilton” inspires scholarship, it is a thrilling and inspiring piece of art … and the movie version is an exceedingly nice stand in for the live production.
Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Carlo Kitzlinger, Aylin Tezel
Available on: Amazon Prime Video beginning June 18
Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the thriller “7500,” available June 18 on Amazon Prime Video.
By Forrest Hartman
German writer-director Patrick Vollrath has created one of the most claustrophobic, intense, well-acted movies of 2020, and these qualities are advantageous in a streaming media environment. Since the Covid-19 pandemic has largely put big-screen features on hold, we’ve had time to reflect on the difference between watching at home versus in a theater. The shared big-screen experience has joys that will never be recreated in one’s family room, but there are certain pictures that actually play better at home. I believe “7500” is one of them.
The terrorist thriller is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, included with the popular Amazon Prime delivery service, and the reason it feels so good in a home setting is that Vollrath and co-writer Senad Halibasic have gone out of the way to make it the antithesis of blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Much of the appeal in the latter movies is spectacle. The scope of those pictures is massive, as they transport viewers to different worlds, balancing dialog and exposition against action sequences that are literally packed with mind-blowing special effects. “7500” is smaller in every way, and that’s a good thing.
The movie starts at a leisurely pace, with Vollrath introducing us to our protagonist, Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of two commercial pilots in charge of a flight from Berlin to Paris. Viewers enter the cockpit, where Tobias gets to know the flight’s captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), and works through routine pre-flight tasks. There’s not much space in the plane, and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler keeps the framing simple. This works well in a home viewing environment. If you watch with the lights dim, you might even feel as though you are sitting beside Tobias and Michael, helping them prepare for the trip. Unlike the spectacle that makes “Avengers” films special, “7500” is intimate, and intimacy works in our houses.
Vollrath does some of his finest character development before the plane leaves the ground. Before takeoff, we know that Tobias is in a serious relationship with one of the flight attendants. They aren’t married, but they live together and have a child. They also strive to keep their professional and private lives separate. Michael is established as a serious-but-amiable captain, and we learn that – despite Tobias’ youth – he has been flying for a decade. Each of these seemingly mundane details matters, and Vollrath refuses to rush through them with shortcuts. That patience pays dividends later.
Although “7500” begins at a trot, it hits full gallop about 20 minutes in, when one of several terrorists forces his way into the cockpit. This starts a chain of events leading Tobias to a series of near-impossible choices, all elevating the tension for the remainder of the picture’s 90 minutes. Throughout, Vollrath and Thaler remain focused on Tobias because this is his story.
Gordon-Levitt is a talent, who has turned in impressive work in projects ranging from the Christopher Nolan thriller “Inception” to the cancer drama “50/50.” Here, he is typically self-assured. Tobias is mild-mannered and kind, but also smart and disciplined. He doesn’t always make the right choices, and it’s enjoyable for viewers to imagine what they would do in his place. But … what is the right choice in an impossible situation? The movie is intriguing because it shows a good man doing his best to find hope in a terrible place. Saying that Gordon-Levitt’s performance is among the best of the year so far, is minimizing his efforts since the cinematic year is so off-kilter. But this is great work. The supporting cast is also solid, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s film, as every twist centers on Tobias’ decisions.
Vollrath makes the most of the confined setting … something that could hurt a weaker filmmaker. In some respects, “7500” must have been easy to produce. A single location, small cast and minimal set dressing all speed the shooting process, but these things come with restraints. When all the action is set in an airplane cockpit, there are no astonishing backdrops or special effects to use as a crutch. The weight of the storytelling is relegated to the script and its handful of actors … each forced to make up for the fact that the scenery is unchanged for 90 minutes. Again, this plays into the strengths of at-home viewing.
As long as one watches distraction-free, it is easy to get sucked into Tobias’ world. It is easy to feel his pain, his anguish, and his uncertainty. And “feeling” is what great directors make us do.
Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonzo Anozie, Colin Farrell and Judi Dench
Critical rating: 1½ stars out of 4
Ferdia Shaw stars in “Artemis Fowl,” available now on Disney Plus.
By Forrest Hartman
It’s fair to say Kenneth Branagh is capable of greatness. We know this thanks to memorable acting turns in films ranging from “Dunkirk” to “Othello” (1995) and because of his equally thrilling work behind the camera.
Branagh is the rare screen star who has shown as much talent and breadth as a director as he has when chewing scenery. Although much of his directorial work is centered on Shakespeare adaptations – think “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” – he has proven himself equally capable in the superhero (“Thor”) and mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) genres.
Branagh is also adept at entertaining the family crowd, as one of his most-charming directorial works is Disney’s 2015 live-action reimagining of “Cinderella.” That fact made his attachment to the “Artemis Fowl” screen adaptation promising. Originally, intended as a May theatrical release, the movie was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and shifted to a June 12 debut on the Disney Plus streaming service. Since most of Disney’s high-profile 2020 pictures have been delayed rather than shifted to this platform, one imagines executives knew what they had when Branagh turned it in. It’s not good.
Although we know Branagh is capable of greatness due to his lengthy body of work, almost everything we know about the title character in “Artemis Fowl” is due to voiceover narration or poorly developed plot contrivances that leave too much to the imagination. In fact, “Artemis Fowl” is so poorly developed – both in terms of characterization and world building – that it’s hard to imagine how Branagh would let this pass.
The same can be said of the admirable cast. Ferdia Shaw, who plays young Artemis, is joined by Colin Farrell (Artemis Fowl Senior), Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell and Tamara Smart. There is enough ability in this group for one to expect a serviceable film. Instead, we get a hodgepodge that – although nifty to look at – alternates between confusing, dull and outright frustrating. The latter is true because there is good material to work with.
The movie is based on the well-received young adult novels by author Eoin Colfer, and the focus is on the title character, a 12-year-old so bright that he has no patience for school. The intolerance stems from the fact that Artemis knows more than virtually everyone, including his teachers and the psychologist who ineffectually attempts to knock him down a peg. Viewers learn these background points through terse narration and a handful of hasty scenes that do nothing to build empathy with Artemis. That’s problematic because one has to care about him to invest in the adventure that follows.
Although young Artemis hates school, he dotes on his father (Artemis Senior), a single parent who thrills his son with fanciful stories about fairies, goblins and other mystical creatures. These seem like fantasy tales until Artemis Senior goes missing, and young Artemis discovers that his father has actually been feeding him the secrets of a hidden world. What’s more, Artemis must tap into that world to save his dad.
The movie’s visuals are admirable. In fact, they are quite good for a picture included as part of the base, original content of a streaming service. These are special effects one would expect from a big screen feature … because that’s what was initially intended. It’s not easy to make fantasy material look believable, but Branagh and his crew succeed on that front.
Viewers are legitimately transported to a land where fairies and goblins are real, and it’s all very dazzling and Harry Potter-like. “Artemis Fowl” would seem, then, to be a perfect film for fans of that series. Alas, the Potter features are painstakingly mapped out so viewers understand the rules of the magical world they enter. This is not so with “Fowl,” which teases viewers without elaborating. That leads to a long string of questions that are never adequately answered.
Equally annoying is the lack of time given each key character. Artemis Junior is an outline at best. His father gets too little screen time to serve as anything other than a treasure for Artemis to chase, and Holly Short (a fairy who is key to the action) makes life-altering decisions with whimsical ease. Even the narrator, a “giant” dwarf named Mulch Diggums, is little more than a sketch. One might chalk this up to too many cuts if the film was longer, but at 93 minutes, “Artemis Fowl” could have added plentiful background without overstaying its welcome.
Every writing coach tells students to “show” readers what’s happening rather than “tell” them. The same advice is crucial with film, but “Artemis Fowl” is invested only in telling. Viewers never see the souls of the characters and – because of this – they’re never allowed to feel much of anything. A movie without feeling is a movie that fails.