Memories of last year’s hard lockdowns are fading as life is returning to normal.
Back then, the creative arts went online as theatres and cinemas were closed. Orchestras, ballet troupes and musical acts used novel ways to keep their audiences entertained and their performers in work. Even amateurs contributed, with pandemic-linked parodies of popular songs.
In New Zealand, at least, those efforts have long been mothballed and replaced by a steady diet of live concerts and new movies.
As a subject in itself, the pandemic has produced surprisingly little, given the required lead times, and uncertainty over the release of Hollywood blockbusters that require large paying audiences, rather than rely on home viewing subscriptions.
The directors of two new films with pandemic themes told Sight & Sound magazine that this was coincidental.
Greece’s Christos Nikou said Apples was originally written seven years ago in response to his father’s death. It is about a man trying to reconstruct his shattered world during a pandemic that causes amnesia.
Brazil’s Iuli Gerbase wrote The Pink Cloud in 2017 and shot it in 2019. It involves a mysterious weather phenomenon that forces people to shelter indoors indefinitely.
However, other pandemic movies are firmly set during 2020. British director Ben Wheatley made In the Earth over a couple of weeks last August. It is set one year into a global pandemic.
This Sceptred Isle is a five-part TV series, starring Kenneth Branagh as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that covers events in the early part of last year.
London during lockdown is also the setting for Locked Down (Universal/Warner Bros), which mixes Zoom meetings, queues for groceries, making bread, wearing masks, and a couple trying to end their relationship, but unable to move out.
It has the bonus of a tacked-on jewellery heist featuring Harrods, in which the pair, played by Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofore (12 Years a Slave), see a way out of their financial and emotional predicament. Both have enough screen presence to turbo-boost an otherwise flimsy screenplay by Steven Knight, whose best work is the one-man drama Locke (2013).
Hathaway missed making Hollywood’s A-list, despite looking like a successor to Julia Roberts, and a handful of early hits (The Devil Wears Prada, Les Misérables). Her best comedy roles have been under-rated (The Intern, Love and Other Drugs), while she was overshadowed in dramatic parts (Interstellar, Ocean’s 8). More recently, Serenity, The Hustle, and The Last Thing He Wanted made no impact.
Yet she pulls every trick to show her frustration as a high-powered executive for a luxury goods company and with her poetry-loving partner, who survives on a menial courier job.
Action director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) provides some remarkable footage of London’s deserted streets and the inner workings of its most famous store. Cameos by Bens Kingsley and Stiller, among others, add some icing.
Rating: Mature audiences. 118 minutes.
There’s plenty of life left in videogame derivatives, if this full-on martial arts fantasy thriller is any guide. First launched in 1992, the game spawned two movies. The reboot has been one of the better box office performers this year, possibly because it doesn’t take itself seriously, and is confident enough to set up a sequel before it ends. The all-Australian production features director Simon McQuoid in his debut, and some impressive outdoor locations. The cast, though, contains several ethnicities as well as a computer-generated four-armed giant. Australian Josh Lawson provides light relief as the garrulous mercenary. At first, he is on the side of the Earthlings, who must win a tournament against the aliens from Outworld to prevent the planet being enslaved. The special effects that enhance the fight scenes are a worthy substitute for the big-budget blockbusters that have been absent in the past year.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16. 110 minutes.
Robin Wright enhances her reputation, from House of Cards, by directing her own almost-solo performance in a mid-life crisis drama set in a mountainous wilderness. Somewhat naively, she chooses an isolated cabin and stocks it with canned food, demonstrating she has few survival instincts. Her motives are emotional, and from the beginning you suspect it’s not a good idea. However, she does have one companion (Demian Bichir), who visits periodically and teaches her rudimentary hunting skills. The story hinges on some near-death experiences involving (of course) a grizzly bear, snowstorms and other dangers in the wild. This brings both characters to a greater understanding of each other’s plight. It’s a simple, unsophisticated story, that is treated with steady-paced maturity, rather than reckless speed. The stunning photography in the Canadian Rockies offsets any reservations about the conclusion.
Rating: Mature audiences. 89 minutes.
Anne Hathaway was reported to be involved in the early stages of this Passengers-style story of a woman’s fight for survival when she wakes early from a deep cryogenic sleep. Instead, the production moved to France under the control of director Alexandre Aja and with Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me, The Round Up) in a role that confines her to a pod for most of the running time. Like Land, much depends on whether the viewer can be drawn into a single-character story. Its exposition depends on her conversations with MILO, an omniscient voice (Mathieu Amalric) that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Suspense is maintained by a ticking-clock of diminishing air supply, and the gradual revelation of her circumstances, as she tries to recover her memory as a scientist engaged in futuristic research. It’s an acting opportunity made for stardom, and one Hathaway must regret she was unable to follow up. Incidentally, Hathaway appeared in Passengers (2008), in which she investigates a plane crash, but it has no connection with the 2018 sci-fi thriller.
Netflix rating: 13+. 101 minutes.