The fallout from Covid-19 has proved disastrous for the local box office at a time when moviegoing should be at its peak, boosted by Hollywood Oscar hopefuls.
But with studio production still languishing, and continuing pandemic lockdowns around the world, cinemas are having their worst year in decades.
In New Zealand, the total takings for 2020 were half those of 2019, despite theatres being open for at least six months.
The lack of popular movies is one reason. Only two, Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, both from Warner Bros, could be counted as major releases, and audiences responded positively, with Tenet alone grossing some $3million.
But Warner and its rival Disney added to the industry’s woes by announcing they would be releasing their big movies this year on their own streaming services. Fortunately, for those who prefer the theatrical experience, these movies will still show on big screens here.
That leaves the question of whether cinemas can recapture the high ground. Since Christmas, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have released better movies.
For example, with no new Star Wars episode, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky (Netflix) echoed Gravity and Ad Astra in its space journey elements. Clooney’s epic trek from one remote polar station to another, in a bid to save a crew of astronauts travelling back from Jupiter, recalled The Revenant. The parallel storylines were more contrived than convincing, but Clooney’s direction and his starring role delivered as expected.
Over at Amazon, the most impressive offering was a Gone Girl-style thriller, I’m Your Woman, from husband-and-wife team Julie Hart and Jordan Horowitz, who directed and wrote respectively. An imperilled Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel) was sent on the run by her criminal partner. She also had a kidnapped baby, who was on screen for most of the two hours, necessitating a cast of three, including twins.
Coincidentally, the film-making couple’s appealing high school-set semi-musical Stargirl appeared on Disney’s subscription channel.
Netflix and Amazon both added to a feast of music-themed stories with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Sylvie’s Love. The former takes place during an afternoon recording session by Rainey (known as “mother of the blues”, and played by Viola Davis) in Chicago in the late 1920s. Based on August Wilson’s play, the action is mostly backstage, and is centred on an ambitious cornet player (the late Chadwick Boseman, of Black Panther fame).
Sylvie’s Love is a 1950s throwback to Hollywood’s lush romantic melodramas, as a saxophonist (Nnamdi Asomugha) and a record store owner’s daughter (Tessa Thompson) find their love thwarted the first time round only to recover it later in life.
Finally, Pieces of a Woman (Netflix) zeroed into Marriage Story territory with a harrowing failed birth. That sequence, shot in a single 23-minute take, was followed by legal action and more emotional pain. Hungarian couple Kata Weber and Kornel Mundruczo respectively wrote and directed the film, based on her play.
From the Vine
The previous work of Canadian director Sean Cisterna demonstrated an interest in real-life social drama – Full Out and Kiss and Cry (both on Netflix) were respectively about a gymnast’s comeback from an accident, and a young ice skater afflicted with a rare cancer. This adaptation of Kenneth Canid Cancellara’s novel is also firmly rooted in reality, as a Toronto businessman, with Italian origins, gains control of the family vineyard in the picturesque countryside of Aceranza in the southern region of Basilicata. Like Made in Italy, the scenery is a major attraction as Joe Pantoliano, a veteran character actor, best known for Ralph in The Sopranos, finds an answer to his late-life crisis. Authenticity is the other main quality as Pantoliano and his family embrace their heritage and the Italian language.
Rating: Mature audiences. 94 minutes.
The quality and wide appeal of Pixar productions cannot be faulted. But even the most dedicated fan might be pressed by the scale of a story that tries to explain nothing less than the afterlife. The musical perspective is easy enough: the hero Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a New York jazz pianist whose near-death experience sends him to heaven, just as he is about to achieve his life’s dream. In the spiritual dimension, heaven is full of souls seeking bodies for fulfilling lives. Joe finds himself in a kind of pre-purgatory where his body is accidentally occupied by the soul of a cynical psychologist called 22 (Tina Fey). Joe becomes a cat and tags along on a return to New York. The resulting comedy of confusion provides the most fun – though the viewer’s tolerance of obvious setups is tested – if not wonderment at the imaginative use of animation. This is, of course, par for the course at Pixar, and the end credits run for 18 minutes, even noting babies born during the production.
Rating: Parental guidance recommended. 100 minutes.
Wonder Woman 1984
Expectations were high for this long-delayed release. But hopes for another Tenet, or even a sequel that matched the original, were soon dashed by a feeble plot and script, disbelief that its feminist heroine (Gal Gadot) should be pining for her boyfriend (Chris Pine), and over-acting by the other principals – a power-crazed politician (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) and an annoyingly ditzy scientist (Kirsten Wiig). She morphs into Cheetah, another character from the DC Comics “universe”, but that late entrance does little to ease the boredom. From hindsight, several weeks after its release, the action scenes in the White House were remarkably prescient to those that actually occurred in the Capitol building in the dying days of the Trump administration. Naturally, other parallels could be drawn, but that would flatter screenwriters who made little of the mid-1980s setting. Audiences may forgive the producers, given the lack of alternative high-octane entertainment, but may prove less keen if Gadot again has to share the limelight with lesser mortals.
Rating: Mature audiences. 151 minutes.