By: Howard Barbanel
Most of us have been spending a whole lot more time indoors due to the ongoing and undulating viral apocalypse. Being in the thick of a South Florida summer with its recurring cascading rain tsunamis along with heat and humidity that feels like it’s in the triple digits, there are a bunch of hours to fill which often are done on the couch staring at the bid screen or with your laptop, tablet or phone.
There are a lot of hours to chew-up when not working or endeavoring not to overeat (everyone is trying to shed their “Covid-15”). TV and movies have been the prime time-absorber, but with so much available on-demand and online, what’s worth watching? The profusion of choices can be practically paralyzing.
When I was young (in the 60s and 70s when dinosaurs roamed the earth) we had just a handful of TV channels and networks and there always seemed to be something to watch, often as a communal experience with the whole family encircling a 19-inch black and white Zenith tube TV. Or we went to an actual movie theater showing just one movie. Now we have a bazillion channels and web streaming services available and sometimes it does seem like less is worth watching.
To kill tons of time with quality cinema while staving off The Plague, I’ve compiled a list of on-demand and streaming movies – So here we go. Rankings are between one and five stars.
Renée Zellweger quite literally becomes Judy Garland, albeit Garland towards the end of her sadly too-short short life. Set in 1968 the film mostly focuses on her highly successful last series of concerts in London and all the accumulated challenges, setbacks, depressions, anxieties and neuroses that have all piled up to produce an artist at her breaking point.
Zellweger embodies Garland as did Gary Oldman in his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017, also «««««) to such an extent that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress along with the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild trophies for the same category. She swept all major and minor awards across the spectrum and when you see this movie, you’ll know why.
Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland encompasses not just drama but also song – she treats us to a bravura array of Garland hits (Zellweger proved she could sing back when she starred in Chicago (2002 ««««) but this level of song mastery goes straight to the ethereal. Her Judy Garland is affecting, touching and haunting and you will be left profoundly moved. There are flashbacks to Judy as a girl and adolescent (played competently by Darci Shaw) but the real action takes place in the late 60s present. The British supporting cast lends gravity and verisimilitude.
This is a must see if you like rock bio heartbreak and redemption stories like Ray («««««), Bohemian Rhapsody (««««), Walk The Line (««««) and What’s Love Got To Do With It («««««) all of which are highly worthwhile seeing as well.
One Upon A Time in Hollywood
Staying in the world of the late 60s, Director Quentin Tarantino brilliantly recreates 1969 LA and Hollywood right down to the smallest paper clip. I’m in love equally with the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie as with DiCaprio’s cream-colored 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. How do I know every detail of Tarantino’s 1969 is correct? Because I was alive and 11 years old at the time.
Brad Pitt, although not having top billing, really anchors the film. Pitt won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild. The film itself won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Pitt made this movie as a 55-year-old and to say on him 55 looks 42 is an understatement. We should all look so good.
This is a bromance between a fast-fading TV star (DiCaprio) and his faithful sidekick and stunt double (Pitt) that echoes the relationship between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994 «««««) although with the violence spaced out and themed differently. In the Uma Thurman role is Margot Robbie (Wolf of Wall Street, 2013, also with DiCaprio, ««««) playing the late Sharon Tate. “Once Upon A Time” takes the Charles Manson-Sharon Tate Murders in a different direction and with an alternate story line full of twists, turns and surprises.
There are two versions of this film, the full-on version is 2 hours and 41 minutes – (that will chew-up time!) but there is an airplane cut that’s about a half hour shorter which benefits from tighter editing and a quicker pace. Try to rent that one if you can. The only reason this film gets four instead of five stars is because it’s about 20 minutes too long, but I sympathize with the director, what with all these great performances, where can you cut? Any Tarantino film is worth seeing and this latest one is no exception.
Perfect for the “end times” we’re living in, “Ad Astra,” (2019) has the fate of the whole universe in play – all life as we know it is in the balance. Brad Pitt (he had a busy 2019) rockets from 1969 to an unspecified future, perhaps 50 years from now, so about 2069. Pitt plays a heroic astronaut who is tasked with traveling out to Neptune to possibly confront his maybe alive or dead father (played with stoic derangement by Tommy Lee Jones) who headed a space station out at the edge of the solar system where Space Command thinks the cosmic threat is coming from.
The movie also retreads Donald Sutherland as a former friend and colleague of Jones in the quest to stop the threat. “Ad Astra,” Latin for “to the stars,” is evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 «««««) probably one of the most creative, original and innovative science fiction movies of all time. In “Ad Astra” as with “2001” we are presented with existential ponderings on the of meaning of life and of the nature of life itself. There are plenty of parallels including commercial flights to the moon (on Virgin Atlantic in “Astra” versus the defunct Pan Am in “2001”), vast stretches of uncooperative space and a lot to go over again and again in your mind after viewing the film. Pitt plays a retrained, sardonic space hero in a tight, mature performance. Excellent special effects and cinematography.
Another two lonely astronaut in crisis movies worth seeing are Gravity (2013 ««««) starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris which won seven Oscars including Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón and The Martian (2015 ««««) directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, also a seven Academy Award-winner which is essentially “Castaway” in space with Damon and Tom Hanks tied for best latter day Robinson Crusoe.
Ford vs. Ferrari
Matt Damon and Christian Bale star as famed performance car guru Carroll Shelby and legendary race car driver Ken Miles respectively in this seemingly “gearhead” movie that women will actually like, believe it or not. As much a car movie as an “accomplish the impossible story against crazy odds and establishment guys in suits” who are always getting in the way of real vision and innovation. As the title suggests this is about Ford Motor Company taking on Ferrari at the Grand Prix of Le Mans back in the mid to late 60s and doing what no one thought was remotely possible, especially in the time they had to do it. The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat and you also feel like you’re a part of the action.
There’s great chemistry between Damon and Bale, two of the best actors of our time, giving highly charismatic performances. The race scenes are probably the best since the original Ben Hur back in the late 50s. “Ford/Ferrari” garnered two Academy Awards along with a bazillion nominations for best everything. 2019 was a highly competitive year and in another time this film would have seen more awards.
If you’d like to see Christian Bale in his first starring role (as good as anything since) rent Empire of The Sun (1987 «««««) Steven Spielberg’s WWII coming-of-age epic set in Japanese-occupied China. John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano are also great in the film.
Edward Norton directs, stars and co-wrote the screenplay for this modern Film Noir set in 1950s New York City. Norton plays a private detective with a highly visible case of Tourette’s Syndrome, so to say he’s viewed as quirky and totally underestimated by all and sundry persons around him is an understatement. Norton’s character has Tourette’s, but he plays it with tremendous heart and pathos so that you never really feel sorry for him (and certainly don’t laugh at him) but on the contrary with each passing scene come to admire him more and more.
Norton gets all the visuals right about 50s New York, the clothes, cars, streets, dialog. He’s got a great cast backing him up featuring Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale and the always terrific Willem Dafoe. It’s a real old-time gumshoe whodunnit and you’ll never guess the end until the end. While “Motherless” wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards, this was a major omission as it deserves far more recognition.
For a “Bizarro World” Film Noir also featuring Bruce Willis, check out Sin City (2005 ««««) directed by Quentin Tarantino along with Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. The film is based on a graphic novel by Miller and it actually looks like a charcoal or pencil drawing with amplified black and white cinematography with a 50s riff. “Sin” features Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba at her peak (MTV Movie Award Winner), Rosario Dawson, the late Powers Boothe (“Deadwood”), Michael Clarke Duncan and even Rutger Hauer. Winner at the Cannes Film Festival for Best Visuals. Not for the squeamish. Guys and teens will love it.
If you’re looking for an epic blockbuster worthy of the name, Sam Mendes’ “1917” fits the bill in a big way. Winner of Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes and also garnering three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing) along with being ranked one of the 10 Best Films of 2019 by the National Board of Review, this is a worthy use of one hour and 59 minutes.
You know the world was different in 1917 because today the story wouldn’t make sense. To stop an ill-advised attack against the Germans by British troops in a different sector (who would be falling into a trap) two Limey grunts are sent on a miles-long mission behind, through and around the front to deliver a message from the top brass to call off the attack. Today, someone would just use their satellite phone or a web-enabled device, you wouldn’t need to send actual soldiers on a harrowing and dangerous mission to deliver an actual written order from one commander to another. But that is what makes the film so riveting. Will the two messengers get through? What’s behind the next corner?
Why “1917” won Best Cinematography is simple. Director Sam Mendes shoots a little-known British cast in continuous motion from the beginning to the end of the film. There are no scene breaks, no fades to black, no cuts or rough edits, no action taking place in different locations to different people; it’s a nonstop literal celluloid stream of consciousness through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and as such it is compelling and haunting. Standout performances by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the fleet-footed couriers and cool cameos by Colin Firth The King’s Speech, (2010 «««««) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange in the “Avengers” movies). You can’t really pause this movie and give it any justice, so make sure you’ve been to the facility and have all your snacks with you before the film starts.
In this genre of World War One dystopian anti-war films is the granddaddy of them, All Quiet on The Western Front (1930 ««««) which in two and a half hours will disabuse you about the glamor of war. Also, not to be missed is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957 «««« ½ ) starring Kirk Douglas at the apex of his powers. This also takes place in the trenches of World War One and is a story about heroism, mutiny, cowardice and hubris. This is early Kubrick who would go on to direct such classics as Spartacus (1960 «««««) also with Douglas, Lolita (1962 ««««) and Full Metal Jacket (1987 ««««) among many other standout films.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
For those of you singles cooped-up solo, or those in need of a semi chick-flick, an apocalyptic romcom is this film from 2012 where Steve Carell and Keira Knightley stumble into one another’s arms as an asteroid heads towards Earth. There’s no real sci-fi in here, but a lot of tenderness, empathy and heart. Carell often plays the emotionally down on his luck dude and this film is no different. Even though oblivion is neigh we’re not afraid because love burns bright and eternal.