Film

(A Few) Movies in the Time of COVID

2021 awards season is upon us once again (there’s some things even a pandemic can’t stop)­, and like most of us, I’ve only seen all of about five new movies. That’s an exaggeration of course, but only a mild one. And an absolute anomaly for someone who normally would have seen every nominated film by now.

But as we know, this has not been a good year for movies—so much so that Warner’s decided to release all their future tentpole films for 2021 onto their HBO MAX platform at the same time as their theatrical release—for free! The long-term effects this decision will have on the Hollywood film industry will undoubtedly be enormous, but what exactly it will lead to can only be guessed at right now. Personally, I think cinema for anything less than a giant franchise-type blockbuster event movie is dead. Rest in peace. 

Alternately, this may also see the return and rise of smaller, but not so small, independent movies in the 10-30 million dollar budget range, since every company is now going to need content, content and more content for their streaming services; and budgets of 200 million cannot possibly recoup their costs on streaming alone. Many of us have long mourned the death of the 30-million dollar picture, so this could be the one silver lining. Of course, the downside to this is—with so much content, and everything being given the same amount of shelf space and display, it’s hard to tell what’s new anymore, let alone what’s good—or good enough to be nominated!

An even bigger problem for me is, I don’t love watching new films at home. It’s too distracting. Too comfy. Too bland. Plus, my television isn’t as big as the Arclight’s screen. Seeing films on the big screen in a darkened theatre is how movies are meant to be seen. I don’t care how comfortable you are in your flannel PJs, something is definitely lost in the translation from silver screen to TV. Not to mention the long-term creative effects this change is already having as more and more filmmakers (I amongst them) are being told to shoot films in the Netflix friendly 16:9 aspect ratio so it’ll fit snugly on that iPhone-iPad-widescreen TV. 

Okay, so that’s not the end of the world. But when you know that your films will most likely never see the inside of a movie theatre, you no longer shoot them the same way. Gone are the long shots of people off to the side or in the background, the epic sweeps, the tiny details in a frame that an eye would easily catch on a 60-foot screen, but is impossible to notice on a 60 -nch television (let alone an iPad). So naturally, everyone will start shooting for the small screen—and before you know it, everything will look like television. Better television, to be sure. Well-written television with bigger actors. But television, nonetheless. So honestly, for those out there who have said, “There’s really no difference between watching a movie at home or in the theatre,” surely just on this one point alone—let alone the countless others one could bring up–that statement is, frankly, pretty ludicrous. 

But such is the changing world we live in. And so, I bit the bullet and laid on my couch with my mid-life crises dad-bod belly hanging out of my I’m-really-not twenty-two-anymore tee-shirt, and watched a few movies. Truly just a few. With that in mind, I have decided to skip my annual Top Ten List, or award season predictions, and have, instead, listed the new films I recommend in no discernible order.

PALM SPRINGS

A sweet take on Groundhog Day that surprised me with some genuine laugh out loud moments. A perfect “it’s raining and I’m in a cozy sweater” type Saturday afternoon movie.

Photo Courtesy of Hulu.

MANK

I liked this when I first saw it, but didn’t love it. I watched it again and liked it better. The dialogue in the first third is definitely annoying; just because films from the 30s had people speaking in that fast patter, doesn’t mean actual people in the 30s spoke that way. They didn’t. Nobody has ever spoken like His Girl Friday. Ever. It didn’t work when the Coens did it, it didn’t work here. Thankfully though, the characters stop talking like that eventually, and the whole film picks up. I know people who loved this film and haven’t seen Citizen Kane. How it’s possible to enjoy this film without knowing all the references and similarities in plot, I have no idea. But there you have it—maybe it does stand on its own two feet.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix.

SOUL

Definitely not Pixar’s top tier offering, but very good nonetheless and very very funny (that cat! Yup, I’m a sucker for hilarious pets personified). Unfortunately, it all feels a bit light and subsequently doesn’t have the punch that a film like Inside Out had. Put it at the top of the Tier 2 pile—and that’s still a skyscraper taller than most studios’ best work.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

BEASTIE BOYS STORY

A fun documentary about, you guessed it, The Beastie Boys, filmed as part of their biographical tour. It’s honestly a lot better than I thought it would be considering the format: the two surviving members telling their story from stage. Funny, inspiring, sad and filled with a great soundtrack. Are the Beastie Boys the most important band of the 90s? You could definitely make that argument, and I probably would (sorry Nirvana fans). They’re definitely the coolest band, and watching this doc is a good way to relive some of their highs and lows, all retold with their trademark humor and self-deprecation. Like the boys themselves and the rest of the world, I miss MCA.

Photo Courtesy of Apple+.

ZAPPA

Another fun music documentary—this time about, you guessed it, Frank Zappa. Okay, this one’s a bit more complicated. Zappa’s prolific output was so overwhelmingly enormous that, frankly, a two-hour documentary didn’t really begin to do him justice. I think his legacy would’ve been better served by a two-part four or five hour doc. The Beatles got 10. That said, what we have here is a very good beginner course which touches on all the important notes while conspicuously leaving out a couple of pretty important ones too: yes, Frank Zappa is an important American composer of unparalleled genius whose music should be taken a lot more seriously by a wider variety of academics, and this doc goes a long way into trying to establish that. But it leaves out the fact that he would often fill his songs with very silly and vulgar lyrics which, frankly, didn’t help his reputation as a composer. 

The silliness of his lyrics, whatever you may think of them, are an important part of the Zappa story. They stem from the same potent cynicism that peppers almost everything else he did. By glossing over those parts, I started to feel that I was getting a very sanitized version of the truth. Also with 60+ albums released, I would have liked to have seen some of the more popular ones discussed in some depth—such as Apostrophe, Joe’s Garage, or Over-nite Sensation. All said, however, what we have is interesting enough and will hopefully introduce Zappa to a host of new fans. 

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

THE GENTLEMEN 

I normally can’t stand Guy Richie films—because they’ve often been crap—but this one surprised me. It’s a return to formula, but what a welcome return that is. Hugh Grant is hilarious. Matthew McConaughey is great. It had twists and turns I didn’t always see coming. Just good old-fashioned British fun.

Photo Courtesy of STXfilms.

PIECES OF A WOMAN

Vanessa Kirby may be the best actress of her generation. Shia LeBeouf is one of the most interesting—and possibly courageous—actors of his. His reach may sometimes exceed his grasp, but at least he’s reaching. I didn’t love the film, but I would recommend it for no other reason than Vanessa Kirby’s performance. There seems to be a trend at the moment for cinema verité when it comes to births, and it’s in full glory here with the famous 20-minute scene with Kirby in labor, given in a single take. The scene is well acted, but feels gratuitous in its lack of editing. As a whole, filmmakers these days really should be more familiar with editing. Editing is yet another thing which is now going the way of the Dodo. New films, including comedies, often seem to reach the 3-hour mark. Documentaries are being split into 6 one-hour parts when 2 would’ve done just fine, all in the pursuit of more vegetative content content and content. Does anyone remember the expression, less is more?

Photo Courtesy of Netflix.

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