Greyhound

Apple

Everything about the way we watch movies may be changing due to the pandemic and all the new streaming services have their work cut out for them to catch up with Netflix in capturing that lucrative home viewing audience, which is even more valuable now. Disney+ hit the jackpot with Hamilton, and now Apple TV+ is hoping Greyhound, its new World War II actioner starring Tom Hanks, will have the same response. Unfortunately, it might be too tall a task for this film, even with all it has going for it.

Just when it seems that every possible story of World War II has been told on screen, Greyhound arrives to dramatize a part of the war that’s not often told: the battle in the sea. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, they dragged the United States into the war, and the entire country shifted its focus to manufacturing critical supplies for the war effort. What’s often overlooked is the massive effort that was required to transport all those supplies, as well as troops, from America to Europe. The Atlantic Ocean served as perhaps the most forgotten front of the war, one where ships, planes and submarines played a high-stake game of hide-and-seek, chase and Battleship.

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Palm Springs

Hulu

Some of the best experiences come from the most surprising places. I wasn’t expecting much from Palm Springs, the new movie starring Adam Samberg, which is currently streaming on Hulu. Even though I had heard great things about it, I still had managed to hear nothing specific. I didn’t know the director, didn’t know anything about the plot, hadn’t seen a trailer, nothing. I haven’t decided yet if it was this tabula rasa effect or the possibility that the movie is just really that good (probably a combination of the two), but it made me the happiest I’ve been in months. It’s been so hard to find good in the world lately, but this film reminded me of something that used to make me happy: a good movie.

Palm Springs is a low-key and unassuming comic gem and the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. Coming off Eurovision, a comedy that shot for the moon in terms of scope and production values, it was so refreshing to experience a movie that relies simply on concept, writing and performance. Palm Springs is simple but not simplistic, unassuming but definitely not shallow and grounded but not basic. It is the perfect quarantine tonic: a movie about loneliness that embraces every element of the human condition with humor and heart.

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Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Netflix

Will Ferrell has made a career of spoofing industries, having roasted everything from television news and politics to NASCAR, ice skating and basketball. His latest is a sendup of the popular European singing competition, The Eurovision Song Contest, an annual extravaganza that blends music, national pride and outrageous costumes. Known for having launched ABBA in the ‘70s, the contest has continued to be a hugely popular event in Europe, but seen by the rest of the world, especially in the United States, as not much more than a cheesy, over-the-top talent show. It would seem to be an easy target for satire, but, unlike other outrageous and campy things that have been spoofed, like beauty pageants (Miss Congeniality) and modeling/fashion shows (Zoolander), the Eurovision Song Contest has a sweetness and a sincerity to it that makes it a bit harder to roast. But in the apt but perhaps overly descriptively named Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Ferrell, who co-wrote and co-stars, manages to tap into much of that sweetness, making the movie less of a roast than a silly homage.

Silly is the perfect word to describe this film. Director David Dobkin and writers Ferrell and Andrew Steele have made a film that is saccharine to the point of distraction, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a tenderness that I found myself totally leaning into, not realizing how badly I needed to watch something this earnestly stupid.

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Two Studies in Tension: 7500 and The Vast of Night

It may be easy to think of movies with great suspense. A favorite horror movie or mystery might immediately pop into your mind. Now think of a movie with great tension. Your mind might immediately be blank, but then, the more you think about it, more will come to you. That’s because, while not every movie has suspense, every movie should have at least a little tension. Tension can be found in conflict, in desire, in longing, in grief, in heartache, even in joy. It’s just a matter of the degree and how the tension is communicated to the audience through the story.

I recently watched two very different movies that use tension as the key method of pushing forward the narrative, each with a certain level of success.

Amazon

The first film is 7500, an Amazon original film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an airline pilot whose plane gets hijacked while traveling from Berlin to Paris. You would, at first glance, imagine this to be an action movie, sort of a cross between Die Hard and Panic Room, and you would be right, to a certain degree. However, in truth, the action is kept to a surprising minimum and the major thrust of the film’s emotional impact is translated through anticipation of violence instead of violence itself. Director and co-writer Patrick Vollrath, making his feature film debut with this film, does manage to use tension as the main player in a film that has to keep the audience engaged through two hours where nothing much more happens once the initial act has occurred. It’s how the characters react to that one act, and the ramifications, both physical and emotional, to that action.

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The Half of It

Netlfix
I distinctly remember the confusion and befuddlement when, in 2012, I listed Perks of Being a Wallflower as my #1 movie of the year. Yes, that put it ahead of Argo, Skyfall, The Master and The Dark Knight Rises. I heard from several people who were surprised to see me list a film that was so unheralded and, most important, seemingly unimportant as my favorite of the whole year. Well, my argument then and now would be: if a film is done right, it can always be important somehow. There was just something about that movie that struck the biggest chord with me and I just couldn’t shake it. That’s what I love so much about movies…you never know when a movie will hit you at a time and place in your life and find a way to resonate.

If you were surprised by how much I loved Perks of Being a Wallflower, brace yourselves, because I just saw the best movie so far of 2020 and it’s one you never knew even existed.

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Da 5 Bloods

Netflix

Let’s put aside the fact that nearly 30 years passed between Do the Right Thing in 1989 and BlacKkKlansman in 2018 when Spike Lee finally won his first competitive Oscar, and it wasn’t even for directing. He was previously nominated for writing Do the Right Thing in 1989 and for producing the documentary feature, 4 Little Girls in 1997, but his nomination for directing BlacKkKlansman was his first for directing and, after a career that includes such seminal cultural benchmarks as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, and Chi-Raq, he was denied yet again for the directing win, but at least finally won for Best Adapted Screenplay (he had been awarded an honorary Oscar in 2016).

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The King of Staten Island

Universal Pictures

Grief has been a big subject lately, from the unprecedented number of deaths from a global pandemic, to the murders of unarmed black men at the hands of police, to a much less significant but still impactful second season of Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series, After Life, which is about a man coping with losing his wife to cancer.

It would seem to be the perfect time for a new movie that speaks about grief in yet a different way. The new film from writer/director Judd Apatow, The King of Staten Island, stars comedian Pete Davidson in a semi-autobiographical film about a twenty-six year old man in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence since the death of his firefighter father when he was a child. There’s really nothing more to the film than that, as we watch Scott (Davidson) meander through his days, smoking weed, hanging out with his friends, and randomly “practicing” his tattoo skills on anyone willing. Davidson’s comedic style, which has been honed by his six seasons on Saturday Night Live, can easily be described as relaxed, lazy even. His low-energy delivery and hangdog physical appearance lend themselves perfectly to play a man who has never grown up and, more important of all, doesn’t want to. Why would he, when he is coddled by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) who lets him live with her, accepting his aimlessness. The deep-seated guilt and residual grief on her part are fascinating to see in Tomei’s performance, as she is desperate to kick her son out and force him to take responsibility for his own life, but his father’s death has left both mother and son in a perpetual state of stasis, their buried sorrow and fear feeding off their co-dependence. They are both caught in a vicious cycle of denial and grief so deep that neither of them even knows how to move. But when a chance encounter brings Ray (Bill Burr) into their lives, Margie and Scott’s lives finally find a way to get un-stuck, but not without great effort and great emotional upheaval along the way.

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Extraction

Netflix

We are starved for new movies right now, so a Netflix action movie starring Chris Hemsworth would seem like the perfect medicine for a world that’s stuck at home. The problem is, while it does kill the boredom, it might also kill something else, deep in your soul. I’m not saying Extraction, a new action movie from director Sam Hargrave and based on the graphic novel “Ciudad,” is needlessly violent, but the body count feels higher than a war video game. Of course, if you are looking for a movie that looks like a video game, then you’ve come to the right place.

Hargrave, a former Marvel movie stunt coordinator, is making his directorial debut with Extraction, which was written by Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed Avengers: Endgame. Although the Marvel/Avengers connections are everywhere, Extraction doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, thank goodness. Hargrave utilizes every bit of his stunt coordinator experience to craft a movie that is a back-to-basics stuntman’s paradise, an earth-bound party mix of car chases, fight scenes and more gunshots than Scorsese could ever dream of.

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