Last Friday, the major streaming services premiered a Charlize Theron action film, an Andy Samberg romantic comedy, and a Tom Hanks WWII film. For the first time since COVID hit the United States, it felt like Hollywood was back in action. Here, I delve into the beleaguered state of the film industry and provide brief reviews of the three new releases.
The 2020 Summer Movie Season, or Lack Thereof
There has never been a summer movie season like this one. And hopefully there never will be again.
With the deadly arrival of COVID-19 in the United States earlier this year, the country was placed under lockdown. This involved closing virtually all places of social gathering, including movie theaters. The last “normal” weekend at the box office was March 13–15, when the latest Pixar release Onward spent its second week at #1. However, it had declined a step 73% from the prior weekend, reflecting the imminent closure of cinemas.
The #1 movie at the box office this past weekend was 1980’s Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The 40-year-old film was released at a select few open indoor theaters and a number of drive-ins. It is estimated to have grossed between $400,000 and $500,000 this weekend. This in stark contrast to the same weekend last year when Spider-Man: Far From Home grossed $45 million in its second weekend.
The impact of COVID-19 on the film and television industry has been astronomical and, at present, completely incalculable. Not only have theaters closed, but virtually all production has stopped, leaving projects in limbo, release schedules in chaos, and countless workers unemployed.
The plan was to reopen theaters this month, just in time for tentpoles like Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s mysterious spy film, and Mulan, Disney’s epic live action remake of the animated film. But just like that COVID-19 came back with a mighty vengeance and reopening plans were scrapped.
Without a clear end to the pandemic in sight, Hollywood has had to completely upend their strategy. Hot new releases like Onward, The Invisible Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Call of the Wild, and Emma. made the transition from the big screen to streaming with an unprecedented turnaround time. Planned theatrical releases for dozens of films were scrapped in favor of sales to streaming services. And even the Oscars made major changes. For the first time in their history they are deeming films that never played in theaters to be eligible and they have pushed back the award season two full months to attempt to deal with the massive disruption to the release schedule. (Although it is increasingly looking like two months will not be sufficient, given the United States’s horrific inability to manage the pandemic effectively.)
The move to releasing films that were intended for theatrical release to streaming services has not been without controversy. Although the Academy changed their rules with seemingly little resistance, a prominent movie theater chain threatened to sue a major studio and numerous auteurs had snarky sound bites about the destruction of the big screen experience.
For the most part, however, the angry theater chains and whiny auteurs have had little to worry about. The quantity and quality of high profile releases making their way to streaming services during the pandemic has been less than stellar. I can only recall four truly high profile releases: Trolls World Tour (which I took a pass on, but was probably a welcome relief for many parents trying to juggle their jobs with school closures); Extraction (a mind-numbingly dull Chris Hemsworth-led action film that would have come and gone on Netflix even without COVID); Da 5 Bloods (the latest Spike Lee film, which remains my favorite film of the year); and Hamilton (the filmed version of the blockbuster Broadway show premiered on Disney Plus to huge buzz and acclaim last week).
That’s it. Four big releases over four months. I, for one, was unimpressed and took a head-first dive into television. I spent most of my entertainment time in the past four months oscillating between catching up on prestige television that I was woefully behind on and rewatching my favorite series for some sense of normalcy. That is, until this weekend…
The Unexpected Arrival of the Summer Movie Season
This past weekend, things felt different. Three very distinct high-profile films arrived on different streaming platforms with solid reviews and sizable buzz. Netflix gave us a fresh superhero film starring Charlize Theron. Hulu gave us a mind-bending romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg. And Apple Plus gave us a WWII film starring none other than Tom Hanks.
For the first time since March, it felt like there was an exciting array of fresh film options to choose from. I watched all three in 24 hours and am very pleased to say that they were all worth my time. Check out my reviews of all three below:
The Old Guard (Netflix)
Based on the comic book by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) and brought to life by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose previous credits include Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees), this film tells the story of a band of immortal mercenaries attempting to fight for justice. They are led by Andromache of Scythia (or Andy for short), who is played with the same level of technical skill and emotional nuance that Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron brings to everything she does. The group is being hunted down by a group that is eager to figure out the secret of their immortality (with the stated goal of ending disease). While evading capture they bring on a fresh member, a US Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who has recently demonstrated the same immortal properties of the rest of the group.
The premise is more inspired than your average Marvel Cinematic Universe film and it is certainly more interesting than the most recent big budget Netflix action film Extraction. The film benefits from strong acting by its impressive ensemble, which also includes Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Harry Melling (although seeing Melling as a grown-up villain after a decade of watching him as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films is quite jarring). Unlike the vast majority of action films, it contains bold pro-feminist and pro-LGBTQ messages that resonate. It also features terrific action sequences, strong production values, and a killer soundtrack. But it’s not without its faults. The screenplay is a bit clunky, lacking dramatic urgency at key moments and featuring some painfully trite dialogue. It is also a bit long and seems to be begging to kick off a franchise in a way that makes its ending feel manipulative and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, it is more than worth a two hour time investment for fans of the genre and Theron.
The Old Guard Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Palm Springs (Hulu)
One of the freshest and most unexpected films I have seen in a long time, Palm Springs plays like the inspired union of Groundhog Day, The Good Place, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film, which is directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, deservedly made a big splash at Sundance earlier this year. It follows a thirtysomething bro (Saturday Night Live alum and Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Andy Samberg) who attends a wedding in Palm Springs with his impossibly cloying girlfriend and gets stuck in an infinite time loop. He is joined in the time loop by the bride’s emotionally tortured sister (Cristin Miloti, best known for How I Met Your Mother and the Broadway musical Once) and reckless, terrifying wedding guest Roy (JK Simmons, the Oscar winning star of Whiplash).
The premise is absurd and admittedly confusing at first, but the film turns out to have endless joys to offer. It has moments of absolutely uproarious and unexpected hilarity, mind-bending twists that require careful attention, and moments of profundity and poignancy that really resonate. It balances romantic comedy, surrealism, and elements of science fiction and fantasy with aplomb. The acting is superb, with Samberg and Miloti doing truly special work. The supporting cast, including great character actors like Peter Gallagher, Dale Dickey, and June Squibb, is also terrific. The film benefits immensely from a brief 90 minute running time that means it never outstays its welcome. Its brief running time also makes it all the easier to rewatch. And Palm Springs is a film that demands to be rewatched, not only due to its quality but also its complexity.
Palm Springs Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Greyhound (AppleTV Plus)
Greyound is essentially a pulse-pounding and technically marvelous 75 minute action sequence that is book-ended with some standard issue World War II movie sequences featuring the “good woman waiting back home” and the “beaten down American hero” dedicated to God and America. Presumably, that description made some sector of the readers swoon and some roll their eyes. Like The Old Guard and Palm Springs, whether viewers go for Greyhound is likely to be in large part due to how they feel about the genre and the star. And even though WWII films and Tom Hanks don’t normally make my pulse quicken, I found a lot to admire here.
The screenplay is written by Tom Hanks himself and is an adaptation of C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd. Like the book, the movie focuses on the Battle of the Atlantic. Specifically, it follows Naval Commander Ernest Krause as he tries to lead a convoy of supply ships heading from America to Britain through the Mid-Atlantic Gap. The Gap, also known as the Black Pit, is a place where ships have to fend for themselves without air cover and are particularly vulnerable to German U-Boats.
The film is a striking production with Aaron Schneider’s direction, Shelly Johnson’s cinematography, Blake Neely’s score, and Mark Czyzewski and Sidney Wolinksy’s editing all being top-notch. It also benefits immensely from its extremely brief (at least by war movie standards) run time, which prevents it from flagging dramatically and spares us unnecessary subplots. Ultimately, though, it feels slight. It is not as epic in scope as Dunkirk nor is it as visceral and emotionally powerful as 1917 and fails to resonate long after the credits role. But nevertheless, it works overall and will certainly satisfy fans of the genre and its star.
Greyhound Rating: 3.5/5 stars
None of these three films would have been a slam dunk at the box office, although I could certainly see The Old Guard and Palm Springs being sleeper hits. But all three were worth the investment of time (particularly Palm Spring) and, for at least one weekend, made me feel a bit like Hollywood wasn’t stopped dead in its tracks.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to get back to the theater as soon as it’s safe. But in the meantime, more weekends like this past one will certainly suffice.