I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching even more than Jerry Falwell Jr. since the coronavirus laid siege to our lives.
I’ve seen more new films in the past six months than I ever usually would, which is odd for two reasons.
First, of course, local movie theaters have been closed during that time – deader than Kimberly Guilfoyle’s chances of winning a contract to be the next voice of Google Maps (“TURN RIGHT!!!”).
Second, more movie releases have been canceled since March than there are racist social-media users – the live-action “Mulan” and the Bond pic “No Time to Die” being the best-known. And cinema’s longest-running saga this summer was not the “Fast and the Furious” franchise but whether “Tenet” would get a release – to which the answer is, it depends how competent your government is. Thanks to mine, I’ve got a greater chance of seeing a Republican waving a “Black Lives Matter” sign than of watching Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster in a cinema in the coming months.
Of all the long-lasting effects COVID-19 will have – early-onset repetitive strain injury for food delivery riders; facial tan lines making it even easier to differentiate between left- and right-wingers; mass migration to New Zealand – the pandemic’s impact on moviegoing is likely to be severe. So much so that I’m expecting “movie usher” to be placed next to “Siberian tiger” on the endangered species list when this is all over.
Even back in 2018, nearly half of American adults surveyed said they saw fewer films in movie theaters than five years earlier – and this was before the likes of Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Amazon Prime made their concerted play for mainstream audiences. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, movie theaters turned to gimmicks to stave off the threat of television: 3-D, Sensurround, even Smell-O-Vision. Good luck finding some new ones – and hand sanitizer doesn’t count.
Cinema’s biggest night, the Academy Awards ceremony, is already shaping up to be the proverbial fight between two bald men for a comb in 2021.
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Sure, the Academy is bending its rules to include more streaming films after realizing there was more chance of Jeff Bezos renouncing his $200-billion fortune than the film industry returning to normal this year. But most distributors seem to be holding back their biggest movies until salvation (hopefully) arrives next year.
Now or never
This dearth of high-profile releases has actually managed to create some interesting Oscar possibilities. For example, could Seth Rogen receive a best actor nomination for his dual roles in “An American Pickle”? No, stop laughing, I’m serious.
I’m aware that until now the Canadian comedian has always stood a better chance of winning Muslim of the Year than an Academy Award. But he probably won’t get a better shot at an Oscar nod than in 2021 (and certainly not for starring in a comedy).
True, his performances as Herschel and Ben Greenbaum – one an Eastern European Jewish immigrant reanimated in Brooklyn after 100 years, the other a nudnik app developer – are more Daniel Radcliffe than Daniel Day-Lewis. But Rogen’s turn as artisanal cucumber pickler Herschel is his best yet, bringing a touching sense of pathos that we’ve not seen from him before.
And, let’s face it, what’s the point of Jews “running Hollywood” if a member of the tribe can’t get a helping hand now and then? Having scandalously overlooked Adam Sandler in last year’s “Uncut Gems,” here’s the academy’s chance to make amends.
I often find myself wondering how Rogen’s gefilte-fish-out-of-water tale would have fared at the U.S. box office had it been released in theaters as originally planned, and not via HBO Max in August.
Would it have been an unlikely smash hit, the most demonstrably mainstream Jewish story to top the box office charts since “Yentl” back in the day? Or would it have fizzled like a Manischewitz wine left out in the sun too long, justifying distributor Sony’s decision not to release it in cinemas?
You don’t need to be Nate Silver to predict how this probably would have played out. “Pickle” is a sweet, charming little film, but it increasingly feels like an improvised TV sketch in which the script abandons any pretense at character development and just tells Rogen to generate some yuks with his shtetl shtick.
Even the actor himself – honest to a fault, as his podcast chat with Marc Maron about Judaism and Israel made abundantly clear – admitted that the movie’s rightful place was probably on the small screen. And there’s no shame in that.
This is more “Crossing Delancey” than “The King of Staten Island,” to use New York movie locales. And while most critics were kind to Rogen’s film, many viewers were seemingly less impressed (if we can trust the rating mechanisms of Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB, that is), suggesting that this would not have become a word-of-mouth hit in normal times.
If there’s one comedic slot up for grabs at next year’s Academy Awards, “Staten Island” star Pete Davidson seems to be in a stronger position to secure it than Rogen. The latter may play twice as many characters in his film, but Davidson has far more dramatic, “Oscar-friendly” moments in Judd Apatow’s comedy-drama than Rogen gets in “Pickle.”
Still, the big difference for me is that I never stopped seeing Pete Davidson in “Staten Island,” rather than his character Scott Carlin. Whenever Herschel appeared in “Pickle,” I forgot that I was watching Seth Rogen. There’s a soulfulness there that I’ve not seen on screen from Rogen before.
Ironically, it’s the modern character of Ben who’s too bland to make any kind of screen impression. Heck, the guy doesn’t even smoke pot – what kind of Rogen character is that?
But this is minor kvetching. Any movie that features the line “I myself was a pickle” and a great scene in which the two Greenbaums offer a running commentary on Barbra Streisand’s big reveal in “Yentl” is clearly worthy of your attention.
Such high-profile releases as “Pickle” and “Staten Island” should help the relatively new term “straight to VOD” avoid the stigma that was widely associated with the “straight to video” label in the Blockbuster era.
It’s worth noting, though, that out of the numerous straight-to-VOD films I’ve watched these past six months, very few demanded the big-screen experience to enjoy them at their fullest (Afghan War film “The Outpost” and romantic comedy “Palm Springs” – see below – being two notable exceptions).
Others, like Rosamund Pike’s inert Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive” and Tom Hanks’ World War II drama “Greyhound,” likely escaped a box office beating after being rerouted from the big to small screen.
The latter (released on Apple TV+ in July) was particularly disappointing – a 90-minute set piece in which Allied warships came under constant fire from German U-boats, to numbing effect. I think I’ve played tenser games of Battleship.
Hanks adapted the screenplay himself, but the visual effects were so poor I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he did those too. It’s a good job the film wasn’t shown on the big screen, where its flaws would have been horribly magnified.
Ditto Jon Stewart’s romantic comedy “Irresistible,” which I happened to like a lot – certainly a lot more than many other critics. Even so, there’s little doubt it would have attracted a smaller audience than Eric Trump at the Davos summit if it had been released in cinemas as originally planned.
As Netflix starts to find its groove with big-budget action pics like “Extraction” and “The Old Guard,” all of this adds up to worrying times for movie theaters everywhere. With so many relocated movie releases inadvertently proving that the small screen was a natural fit for them all along, it’s pointing to a future where home is where the art is.
The VOD squad
In addition to the likes of “American Pickle,” “Staten Island” and “The Outpost,” here are five other recent releases you should check out on the small screen (and where you can view them)…
This brilliant documentary serves up a chilling microcosm of U.S. politics, following a quartet of delegates as they join over a thousand other teenage boys at the annual Texas Boys State event in Austin. We get to see them play politics in a mock gubernatorial election between “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” where tribalism rules and mudslinging and dirty tricks soon become the norm. Yet unlike so many of their real-life counterparts, these kids truly merit your attention. (Apple TV+)
A female “Brassed Off,” this feel-good British comedy from the director of “The Full Monty” sees soldiers’ wives form a garrison choir in an effort to sing their troubles away. There’s nothing particularly new on parade here, but damned if I didn’t keep getting something in my eye at all the key moments. Come for Kristin Scott Thomas; stay for Sharon Horgan. (Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and others)
Wow, has there been a funnier, more touching romantic comedy in the past decade than this gem? Endlessly inventive, genuinely hilarious and blessed with terrific performances from leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, this shows that you can take the seemingly exhausted “Groundhog Day” trope and – whisper it – actually improve on it. Watch it today, tomorrow and the day after. (Hulu)
This Russian sci-fi/horror steals from the best (“Alien,” “The Thing”) as a cosmonaut returns to Earth, wittingly or unwittingly bringing something extraterrestrial along for the ride. Oksana Akinshina is excellent as Moscow’s answer to Ellen Ripley, charged with finding out how much the cosmonaut actually knows while he’s being monitored in a secure facility. Said setting – a dimly lit research facility in Soviet-era Kazakhstan – is the perfect locale for a film that’s as big on ideas (some even its own) as it is on scares. (Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and others)
‘The Vast of Night’
This one’s been around a few months, but the rave reviews comparing it to vintage-era Steven Spielberg finally convinced me to give the film a shot – and I was not disappointed. A ’50s-set sci-fier set in New Mexico, drawing on Area 51 and Cold War paranoia, Andrew Patterson’s film makes up for its low budget with a winning young cast, engagingly talky script and imaginative use of sound to tell its tale. This artisanal “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is further proof that you don’t need copious special effects to make highly effective science fiction. (Amazon Prime)