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Stream Dreams: Trio of solid films hit major video platforms

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 …

Rebecca

3½ stars

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

3 stars

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

2½ stars

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. 

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‘The War With Grandpa’ is a mixed bag

AT A GLANCE

The War With Grandpa

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

Rated: PG

Critical rating: 2½ stars out of 4

Photo courtesy of EPK.tv
Robert De Niro, left, and Oakes Fegley star in “The War With Grandpa.”

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.  

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“Mulan” a beautiful … and original … live-action reading of the Disney classic

AT A GLANCE

Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

Rated: PG-13

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

Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises
Yifei Liu plays the title character in “Mulan,” Disney’s update of the animated classic.

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.  

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‘Hamilton’ brings revolutionary theater to the small screen

AT A GLANCE

Hamilton

Directed by: Thomas Kail

Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Available on: Disney Plus beginning July 3

Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4

Photo Courtesy of Disney Plus

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. 

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‘The Predator’: Snapshot Review

THE PREDATOR

(2 stars out of 4)                     1 hour, 47 minutes

PLOT: A sniper, his autistic son, a scientist and a ragtag group of ex-military friends face off against an angry, king-sized predator. The latter has come to Earth to hunt another of his species.

SCOOP: The film – the 4thor 6th in the franchise depending on if you count the “Alien Vs. Predator” flicks — has a retro vibe but doesn’t feel dated. It also has more humor than past entries, giving it some entertainment value. That said, the picture seriously overstays its welcome. Although only 107 minutes, it feels longer thanks to standard action-movie tropes and a plot that isn’t inventive or special. Director Shane Black (“The Nice Guys,” “Iron Man 3,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) has a nice style, but he doesn’t overcome the fact that this movie is basically a standard-order guilty pleasure.

STARRING: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Jacob Tremblay, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane

DIRECTOR: Shane Black (“The Nice Guys,” “Iron Man 3,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”)

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‘Synecdoche’ a complex drama

Writing a newspaper-length plot synopsis for “Synecdoche, New York” is akin to explaining a complicated scientific principle in 100 words. Whatever is written will miss an important detail, overlook a plot point or simply come across as vague.

To be understood, “Synecdoche” must be watched. That’s because writer Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) never does anything simply, and with his directorial debut he’s gone deeper than usual.

Click here for full review: http://www.rgj.com/article/20081121/ENT01/811210475/1056/ENT

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