As scientists continue to grapple with the biggest coronavirus conundrum – how to clone New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern so she can run every single government – I hope we can agree that this lockdown has taught us three things:
1. All of our neighbors have appalling taste in music;
2. Our hands are going to start feeling awfully neglected when all of this is over; and
3. Movie theaters are wonderful things, and we must never take them for granted again.
God, I miss those places. Sure, your fellow audience members are a bunch of nudniks and the “crash-bang-wallop” sounds from adjacent screens are annoying. But what I wouldn’t give to sit in an auditorium right now. If you want to depress yourself, try to remember the last film you paid to see in a cinema. Congratulations if your answer was “Home Alone” – you win.
Many movie theaters are hoping to reopen in mid-July, when Christopher Nolan’s new extravaganza “Tenet” is scheduled to bow. If it is released then, I predict scenes reminiscent of when the Lumière Brothers reportedly freaked audiences out by showing a train coming toward the screen back in 1895.
I’m so desperate to relive the movie-going experience that I am “this close” to getting one of my kids to sit behind me at home, have their cellphone ring, then spend the next five minutes explaining to their friend why they can’t talk because they’re watching a movie. Throw in some stale butter popcorn and a diabetes-inducing tub of Coke and the experience will be complete.
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But what to watch? Here are five films available to stream right now that are required viewing…
‘The Half of It’ (Netflix)
I can pay “The Half of It” no finer compliment than to say it instantly joins that canon of coming-of-age movies like “Clueless,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Mean Girls” – and I would have happily paid to see it several times at the cinema.
This absolute charmer of a teen romantic comedy establishes its credentials in the first 10 minutes with quotes from literary luminaries such as Plato, Camus and Sartre – and they aren’t even the sharpest lines in the movie.
Written and directed by Alice Wu, this distinctly chaste rom-com is perfect family viewing – although it’s a long time since I’ve seen any romantic comedy as smart as this one.
“In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story – or, not one where anyone gets what they want,” says our protagonist, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis). She’s a teenage Chinese immigrant in the last year of high school in sleepy Squahamish, living with her widower dad and A Big Secret.
In a lovely update on Edmond Rostand’s late 19th-century play “Cyrano de Bergerac” (arguably best known for Steve Martin’s 1987 film version, “Roxanne” – although this version ditches the big nose), Ellie sends poignant letters and text messages to beautiful Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) on behalf of hapless but sweet-natured Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer). But as her bicycle constantly reminds us, Ellie is destined to be the squeaky wheel in this bizarre love triangle.
This is a beautifully perceptive movie about love, identity and taco sausages, with a killer set-piece that rivals “The Graduate” for showstopping church scenes. See it with someone you love, even if it’s only your pet.
‘Planet of the Humans’ (YouTube)
Unless Adam Sandler releases another of his Netflix comedies this year, no movie will be more depressing in 2020 than Jeff Gibbs’ provocative documentary about how capitalism has destroyed the environmental movement. If you thought the ending to the original “Planet of the Apes” was bleak, boy, wait till you see the heartbreaking conclusion of this one.
This cri de coeur from American producer-composer-editor Gibbs may lack balance and counterarguments, but it convincingly makes the case that “less must be the new more” if humankind is to have any chance of not being wiped out due to overpopulation and overconsumption.
The film is being “presented” by the world’s best-known documentarian, Michael Moore (whose movies Gibbs has previously worked on), which has given the film a huge online profile: Available to view for free on YouTube, it has racked up over 5.3 million views since debuting on – no coincidence – Earth Day, and really is essential viewing.
Sure, Gibbs is no Moore as he fronts up the doc. Luckily, he is assisted by the winning screen presence of academic Ozzie Zehner, who accompanies him to some green industry sites that almost succeed in giving fossil fuel a good name. Seriously, which environmentalist ever thought deforestation was a good idea?
“Planet of the Humans” also offers some inconvenient truths about the likes of Al Gore and Bill McKibben, and tells us why the Koch Brothers’ fingerprints are all over the renewable energy industry.
Ecologist Steven Running says at one point: “I don’t think the people in charge are near-nervous enough.” Watch this, and you certainly will be.
‘Bad Education’ (HBO)
HBO paid close to $20 million at the Toronto Film Festival last fall for this movie about large-scale theft, but it turns out this was not a case of daylight robbery. “Bad Education” is a terrific film. It’s also the kind of smart, mature work that often struggles to find an audience in cinemas nowadays, so the small screen was probably the perfect fit for it – and is a godsend at this particular time.
Like “The Half of It,” Cory Finley’s film is set in a high school and is based on the true story of the largest theft of funds from a public school in U.S. history. The less you know from this point, the better, suffice to say that Long Island’s Roslyn High School holds more secrets than Hogwarts and that the uprooting of corruption comes from a very unlikely source – a cub reporter on the school newspaper, beautifully played by Geraldine Viswanathan.
Hugh Jackman is brilliant as the superintendent at the up-and-coming educational establishment, able to switch from charm to quiet menace in the blink of an eye, while Allison Janney is her reliably excellent self as his right-hand woman. But this is one of those films with great performances wherever you look.
In making you care for all of the characters, no matter what they may or may not have done, “Bad Education” proves itself to be one class act.
‘Beastie Boys Story’ (Apple TV +)
As someone who has never owned a Beastie Boys record or ever been much of a fan of their music, that in some ways makes me the perfect audience for Spike Jonze’s new film. It offers you a front row seat at Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond’s April 2019 Brooklyn stage show, in which they affectionately looked back at the band’s 30-year history and pays homage to their late bandmate, Adam “MCA” Yauch.
Despite Jonze’s reputation as a quirkysomething filmmaker (he directed the Beasties’ best-known video, cop show spoof “Sabotage”), this is a very formally shot work that simply gives us the two guys on stage, talking in front of a video screen and adoring audience about the band’s ups and downs – from being obnoxious “dicks in a box” during their “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)” phase in 1986, to their sophomore slump with “Paul’s Boutique,” before their 1990s renaissance with “Check Your Head,” “Ill Communication” and “Hello Nasty.”
Horovitz and Diamond are engaging hosts as they chronologically recount the band’s history, offering some choice anecdotes along the way. I particularly liked the stories about their early days with producer Rick Rubin; supporting Madonna on her first major tour, when they opted to be “memorably fucking jerks” to annoy her fans; and their years as “like-minded weirdos” staying at a house in the Hollywood Hills complete with swimming pool with a bridge over it.
I would have liked more about their personal lives (Horovitz, of course, is the son of playwright Israel Horovitz; Diamond’s dad, Harold Diamond, was a renowned art dealer; and Yauch became a prominent Buddhist). Even so, “Beastie Boys Story” left me with a new-found respect for the trio and their journey from New York braggarts to Rock & Roll Hall of Famers.
This is funny and ultimately very touching – just make sure you stay for the end credits and some star cameos.
April was meant to be the start of blockbuster season, with James Bond kicking things off with “No Time to Die.” The last time I went to the cinema – “The Invisible Man,” thanks for asking – every single trailer seemed to be for a summer action pic starring Vin Diesel or someone who looked just like him (really not what I was expecting from the live-action “Mulan”), so a lot is now resting on the broad shoulders of Chris “Thor” Hemsworth.
By and large he delivers in “Extraction,” which is one of those relentless shoot-’em-ups where a seemingly bulletproof mercenary goes on a suicide mission that is helpfully summed up for us by his fixer, Nik (Golshifteh Farahani), in just 15 words: “Extraction. Indian kid. Drug lord’s son. A rival gangster is holding this kid in Dhaka.”
Based on a graphic novel, this very graphic thriller is perfect viewing for those who consider things like plot and dialogue unnecessary distractions. I’d like to say I hated it – but reader, I loved it, right down to the cheesy middle section where the film pauses for breath and allows our taciturn hero to bond with said Indian kid (Rudhraksh Jaiswal).
The script is just good enough (“We just got attacked by the Goonies from Hell”), looks sensational thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (it was shot on location in Thailand and Gujarat) and boasts some of the best choreographed fight scenes since Gareth Evans’ masterful “The Raid: Redemption” – clearly showing newbie director Sam Hargrave’s roots as a stuntman.
Far superior to Netflix’s previous attempts at a big-budget action movie – “6 Underground” and “Spenser Confidential” – it turns out that “Extraction” is precisely the testosterone-fueled pic we needed until our beloved movie theaters can reopen for business.