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.