It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 20 years since Almost Famous came out. A critical success but a commercial failure, it was nevertheless a touchstone for two generations. It has stood the test of time, still beloved by fans and constantly being discovered anew. Looking back at it from 2020, it’s easy to see why the film imprinted on all of us so easily and significantly. Beyond being an excellent example of filmmaking, it’s the spirit and the soul of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s personal love letter to rock ‘n roll that speaks to anyone who has ever picked up a guitar or played a record.
The United States is a country with great pride. No matter what internal divisions we may have, we, as a people, have always proved our national sense of patriotism and there is the common acceptance that we are the greatest country in the world. We are a relatively young country with a history of successes, in industry, in science, in technology, and on the battlefield. One downside of allowing ourselves to get caught up in our successes, however, is our increased inability to face our failures. While our World War II heroes returned home to fanfare and adulation, our Vietnam vets returned to apathy and disdain. We are a great nation, built on a foundation of core values that establishes us as a beacon to the world of the democratic ideal. There is much to be proud of. But there is also a lot to take responsibility for. This powerful dichotomy is at the heart of 2-time Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple’s latest film Desert One, a complicated story of heroism and failure set against a backdrop of global politics. It truly is a staggering document of an event in American history that should never be forgotten or ignored.
We think we know all about the Iranian hostage crisis. In 1979, a group of student revolutionaries stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took 52 Americans hostage, in protest of the Americans’ harboring of the Shah, the deposed Iranian despot who was being treated for cancer in an American hospital after having fled the revolution. These Americans were held for 444 days and the story gripped the country—and the world. Nightline, the perennial nightly television news program, was born out of the nightly coverage of the crisis that newsman Ted Koppel provided. Argo, a film about a group of American Embassy workers who barely escaped capture during the siege, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012. The American people know about the hostage crisis. What they don’t know is the whole story.
It sometimes feels as if we are all swirling through a never-ending nightmare these days, as the COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of human existence. Writer/director Amy Seimetz’s chillingly timely new film, She Dies Tomorrow, unknowingly taps into that shared existential dread with precision. While not as can’t-look-away bizarre as last year’s indie horror hit Midsommar, She Dies Tomorrow is a movie baked in similar mind-bending madness.
Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, a young woman who has just bought her first house. There’s not much else we know about her, except that, when we meet her, she seems to be distracted or depressed, responding in the negative when her friend on the phone asks if she’s alright. When her friend, Jane, played by Jane Adams, arrives, Amy plainly and definitely tells her that she knows she’s going to die the next day. Jane blames Amy’s state of mind on the fact that she’s been drinking and refuses to indulge what she perceives to be another of Amy’s needy games. However, once Jane gets home, she herself becomes overwhelmed with the same certainty that she will also die the next day. As it turns out, this sense of impending death is contagious, as anyone who has it will infect everyone they come in contact with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.