What I watched on my COVID vacation

So the bad part about getting COVID is… pretty much everything. I give it zero stars and do not recommend.

The silver lining, however, is it leaves a little time to catch up on movies, and again, thanks to COVID, pretty much every movie is available on a streaming service now, so no need to go to the theater.

And with the Oscars coming up, I felt like I should try to watch any of the movies getting buzz, which turned out to be a pretty extensive list.

So, over the past few weeks, I’ve watched 18 movies while largely relegated to my couch. Some were great. Some were awful. But I put together a quick review of each in case you’re also looking for something to watch.

One Night in Miami⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
⭐⭐⭐

Both were transplanted from stage productions to movies, and while the performances were phenomenal in both (Chadwick Boseman absolutely needs to win the Oscar for best actor in “Ma Rainey”), I think “One Night in Miami” made for a much better overall movie. “Ma Rainey” felt like a stage production on film. “Miami” had a real movie quality to it in its pacing. In the end, it’s probably the social justice version of “My Dinner with Andre” in that it’s largely just one long conversation between interesting people, but it’s elevated by both the terrific acting and the nuanced look at race and the roles Black men — particularly famous ones — were asked to play in the 1960s. My mind could be changed on this, but “Miami” feels like it’d be my choice for Best Picture this year. (MRBB on Netflix, ONIM on Amazon Prime)

The Prom

Like ONIM & MRBB, this is meant to mimic a stage production… but my God is it self-indulgent. As a musical, it’s a bore. The songs are mediocre at best. As a story, it’s largely a series of meta jokes about Broadway. And as a performance, it’s intended, ostensibly, to parody self-important stars and instead wallows in its own gravitas. Just awful. (Netflix)

Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself⭐⭐⭐⭐

If you’ve not yet seen it, I’m not going to say anything about it because it’s best enjoyed without pretext. All I’ll say is that it’s the most unexpected viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. And I call it a “viewing experience” because that’s what it was. Like the previous films, this was a stage show… though this was actually filmed during the live performances and benefits from being able to overlap several of them throughout. It’s part magic show, part fable, part motivational speech… but really, it’s about the ride DelGaudio takes you on. You will not regret it. (Amazon Prime)

On the Rocks⭐⭐

Two actors I genuinely enjoy in almost anything (Bill Murray and Rashida Jones) are again pretty enjoyable, but the story offers next to nothing to back up the star power. There’s no real plot here, just a series of excuses to put Murray and Jones together in front of a camera. That’s fine, but disappointing that it didn’t amount to something more. (Apple TV+)

Boys State⭐⭐⭐

A documentary on a mock government for high school boys in Texas offers a lot of insight into the reality of politics. It could be interpreted as a black comedy if not for the reality of our political climate that somehow makes satire impossible. Worth the watch. (Apple TV+)

Da 5 Bloods⭐⭐

I love the premise, which is largely a riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while delving into the burdens of Black soldiers in Vietnam. The presentation from Spike Lee is, as you’d expect, unique. Some of it works, like the monologues from Delroy Lindo (who is terrific). But so much of it doesn’t, from the insane leaps in logic in service of the plot to the obvious problems with the timeline to the unnecessary additions like one character’s long-lost daughter (which culminates in the film’s final scene in a moment so dishonest it nearly ruins all that came before it). In the end, Lee made a perfectly watchable movie that never lived up to the bigger promise he clearly was working hard to inject. (Netflix)

Mank⭐⭐⭐

The story of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is a really fun watch. Gary Oldman just chews up the scenery with a terrific performance that would be Oscar-worthy if not for Boseman’s role in “Ma Rainey.” The story bounces between two critical points in Mank’s life: The California gubernatorial election of 1934 and the writing of “Citizen Kane” in 1940. The film works hard to connect these two events, and it doesn’t work. It’s all too forced. But the two stories, independently, are both incredibly fun and worth the watch. (Netflix)

Pieces of a Woman⭐⭐

The first 30 minutes of the movie verge on tragedy porn, indulging every grueling moment of an ultimately tragic stillbirth that should set the stage for an emotional juggernaut of a movie. Unfortunately, the film fizzles out after that opening sequence and veers into pointless distractions, including a focus on Shia LeBouf’s character rather than staying with the broken mother. (Netflix)

News of the World⭐⭐⭐

Tom Hanks is great, as always, in what amounts to a pretty standard Western that moves from action at Point A to new action at Point B to new action at Point C, etc. It’s your archetypal “hero goes on a journey” story. It’s fun and has enough suspense to keep you off your cell phone, but doesn’t really amount to anything special. (Available for Download)

Judas and the Black Messiah⭐⭐⭐

Of all the movies on this list, this is the one I probably need to really watch again to appreciate fully. It was, without question, well made, well acted and well scripted. The story hits all the right notes in building depth for the antagonist and creating real stakes for the protagonist (which, as it’s based on real — and tragic — events, makes sense) and in the end, it should clearly make you angry. All of that works. And yet… I just never felt hooked by the movie. It all functions better as a think piece than a movie. But perhaps that’s just me… or the time that I watched it… or something. I know it was good, and so I’m going to revisit it at some point. (HBO Max)

Trial of the Chicago Seven⭐⭐⭐

I hate Aaron Sorkin. “The Social Network” makes me genuinely angry. So I went into this with very low expectations. Turns out… the Sorkin-ness of it was dialed way back, and the story — while largely following a standard courtroom drama plot line — added up to something more. While it covers some of the same ground as “Judas and the Black Messiah” it does so in a more traditional means, which is both good (for entertainment sake) and bad (for genuine insight) but all amounts to an entirely watchable two hours, including a surprisingly adept performance by Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. (Netflix)

The Forty Year Old Version⭐⭐⭐

I’d be underselling this to call it “Clerks” for an older and/or Black audience (though this film’s target audience probably doesn’t have a ton of overlap with Kevin Smith’s), but that’s what I was thinking about as I watched it. In part, this is because of how the film is shot — in black and white, with a largely unpolished feel. In part it’s the casting, which includes plenty of amateurs and few big names. And in part, it’s the subject matter — a character adrift and unsure, torn between pursuing the thing she thinks she’s always wanted and something new and possibly better (if just shifted ahead by about a decade compared to “Clerks” mid-20s cast). Like “Clerks,” it’s also scathingly funny without a hint of pretense, which works marvelously. In the end, the rough edges will likely turn off a part of a general audience, but like “Clerks,” if you can embrace them, they actually manage to elevate the overall movie. (Netflix)

Midnight Sun

I couldn’t even finish it. How you take a story that combines space and the apocalypse, have George Clooney as the lead, and it all comes out incredibly boring is just beyond me. But that’s what you get here. (Netflix)

Sound of Metal⭐⭐

It’s a good movie with some strong performances, but like “Da 5 Bloods” or “News of the World,” it felt like it could’ve been something more but never really reached that point. The story of a metal drummer who loses his hearing takes us through his journey and ultimately his semi-acceptance of his fate, but it didn’t really connect for me. I think this largely comes from scenes that I didn’t quite enjoy lasting too long, and other parts — like the main character’s relationship with a class of young deaf children — being rushed in service of getting back to the main plot. It’s worth the watch but left me thinking how much better it might’ve been. (Amazon Prime)

Malcolm & Marie⭐⭐⭐

This movie is of the same pastiche as “Ma Rainey” or “One Night in Miami” — what in TV terminology is called a “Bottle episode.” There are just two characters and the whole film takes place in their Malibu home over a single evening. The acting is terrific and the dialogue is mostly sharp, but it also can’t quite escape a level of self-indulgence that leaves you feeling like you don’t really want to have just spent the past two hours with these people. It’s worth the watch because of the exceptionally strong performances, but it’s really hard to set an entire movie around two fairly unlikeable characters. (Netflix)

The Little Things

Arguably the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a while (though “Wonder Woman ’84” was still far worse). Rami Malik is incapable of playing a normal human being. Denzel Washington’s character is supposed to be a deeply wounded cop that somehow never comes across that way, and the third act is effectively a series of just mind-bogglingly dumb decisions made by the main characters mixed with ’70s cop show action and reaction shots. I hated this movie with the passion of five Denzels. (HBO Max)

Promising Young Woman⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is the movie that I’ve spent the most time thinking about since watching it. First off, it’s a terrific premise: A woman whose life has been upended due to a sexual assault tries to get revenge on predatory men who seek out drunk women for easy sex. It’s part “Falling Down,” part “Inglorious Basterds.” But that’s not quite right either. The movie veers between a love story, a revenge fantasy, a mystery, a black comedy… and at times, that feels a bit off-putting. I was a bit distracted by some of the casting choices, too. While Carey Mulligan is terrific, the secondary parts were essentially all recognizable TV comedy veterans, which felt like an odd choice for a film ostensibly about such serious subject matter. But I read a good review after the fact that suggested this is part of the allure — and that after a traumatic event like a sexual assault, it’s realistic to be mixed up, to not know how to treat your surroundings, to be unsure what type of narrative your life is now following. That makes sense to me having ruminated on it for a while, too. I’m still not sure that I loved all the aesthetic and casting decisions, but I’m also still thinking about them… and that’s the sign of an effective story. (Available for download)

Still want to see: Soul, Nomadland, The Father, Minari

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story⭐⭐⭐⭐

When I finally regained my sense of smell, I immediately quoted this scene from Dewey Cox, which then reminded me I should watch the whole movie again. My God it’s great. If you’ve never seen, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. One of the 10 funniest movies of all time and a worthy addition to the canon of great parodies alongside “Spaceballs” and “Airplane.” (Amazon Prime)

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