Streaming Recap: April 2020

How long have we been in isolation now?  I don’t really remember myself, and I know I, like surely most of my readers, really miss being able to go to the movie theater.  Fortunately, there have been plenty of new movies released on streaming services this month to keep us entertained, including some films that had to forgo their intended theatrical release due to the pandemic.  You can read my capsule reviews of some of these films below, and leave a comment at the bottom letting us know what you’ve enjoyed watching at home this month.

“Dolphin Reef” from Disneynature

DOLPHIN REEF” (Disney Plus)

“Dolphin Reef” is one of a pair of two films from the Disneynature label to debut on Disney Plus this month (it was originally going to be released in theaters in 2018 with Owen Wilson narrating, but was withdrawn before its release to premiere on the streaming service instead).  Now narrated by Natalie Portman, the documentary directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey follows a playful young bottlenose dolphin named Echo and his mom Kumu, who tries to teach him the skills he’ll need to survive on his own in the big ocean.  Their story includes encounters with a humpback whale and her daughter, killer whales and rival dolphins, Echo getting lost and having to find his way home through the dark sea, and a mantis shrimp affectionately called Mr. Mantis, who just wants to protect his slice of coral from the other creatures in the reef.  While Echo and Kumu’s story provides a through-line for the film, the movie focuses on a series of little plots involving different creatures, providing interesting facts supplemented by gorgeous underwater photography that provides unprecedented access to their world, but with a kid-friendly focus.  Portman’s narration is enthusiastic and very accessible for children.  It is accompanied by a feature length behind-the-scenes documentary titled “Diving with Dolphins.”  Runtime: 78 minutes. Rated G. 4 out of 5 stars.

“Elephant” from Disneynature

ELEPHANT” (Disney Plus)

The other Disneynature documentary to premiere on Disney Plus, “Elephant,” is certainly a darker and more tense story.  Directed by Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz, the film opens in the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa and follows a herd of elephants led by an aging matriarch called Gaia as they leaving their drying home for a new watering hole.  Meghan Markle’s narration is occasionally a bit too sweet compared to the content we see on screen, but is overall solid.  The story, which preaches the usual message about the importance of conversation, is compelling and moving, with incredible footage featuring everything from Gaia rescuing a baby elephant that gets stuck in the mud, to the herd mourning the loss of one of their own, and demonstrates how an elephant truly never forgets.  “Elephant” is accompanied by a fascinating feature length behind-the-scenes documentary titled “In the Footsteps of Elephant.”  Runtime: 86 minutes. Rated G. 4 out of 5 stars.

Hayley (Eleanor Tomlinson) walks down the aisle with brother Jack (Sam Claflin) in “Love Wedding Repeat”

LOVE WEDDING REPEAT” (Netflix)

On the surface, “Love Wedding Repeat” has all the elements that make a good romantic comedy.  It is set in beautiful Italy at the wedding of Hayley (Eleanor Tomlinson) and follows hers, her brother Jack’s (Sam Claflin), and other guests’ relationships and troubles over the course of the day, backtracking occasionally to offer up different potential endings for each of the characters.  However, writer and director Dean Craig’s screenplay is bursting with vulgar, juvenile dialogue and scenarios that have his characters often behaving like middle schoolers, while actual romantic scenes are few and far between.  The Groundhog Day-esque repetition of the day, the intricacies of which are explained in voiceover narration by an “oracle” played by Penny Ryder, kicks in so late within the narrative that it feels rather pointless and frankly confusing.  Tomlinson and Claflin both have good chemistry and turn in decent performances as a pair of siblings frantically trying to save the day.  Freida Pinto is fun as Jack’s nasty ex-girlfriend Dina, while Jack Farther has a woefully small but memorable role as Marc, who unexpectedly turns up high to the wedding to try and win Hayley over.  The rest of the cast includes Olivia Munn as Jack’s love interest, Joel Fry as Hayley’s maid of honor, and Tim Key and Aisling Bing as more of Jack and Hayley’s obnoxious (yet somewhat loveable) friends.  Unfortunately, the writing strikes a weird tone that is just not up to par with the cast’s talents, and it is frequently painful to watch them have to act it out.  Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 1 out of 5 stars.

Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) tries to reconnect with daughter Angela (Christine Ko) in “Tigertail”

“TIGERTAIL” (Netflix)

Writer and director Alan Yang’s feature directorial debut is a simple and beautiful immigrant story—perhaps just a bit too simple.  The film follows Pin-Jui (played by Hong Chi-Lee as a young man in flashbacks and Tzi Ma as an older man in the present).  A poor Taiwanese boy who does hard work in unsafe conditions in a factory alongside his mother (Yang Kuei-mei), he reconnects with a childhood friend, Yuan Lee (played by Yo-Hsing Fang as a young woman and Joan Chen as an adult) and falls in love with her, but feels like he could never marry her because she is from a wealthy family.  He accepts an offer of arranged marriage to his boss’s daughter, Zhenzhen (played by Kunjue Li and Fiona Fu) and move to America so he can provide his mom with a better life, but he soon becomes frustrated by a lost love and missed opportunities.  “Tigertail” is a bit uneven in its storytelling, initially focused on Pin-Jui and Yuan Lee’s romance before shifting to an older Pin-Jui struggling to connect with his estranged daughter (Angela, played by Christine Ko).  The focus also diverts somewhat in the middle to tell a portion of the story from Zhenzhen’s perspective, as she has a hard time fitting in in America and can’t connect with her new husband.  At a mere 90 minutes, it also feels like the film could have been a bit longer to better flesh out some of the storylines and characters (we know that John Cho was cast but all of his scenes were cut from the final film).  Still, Yang (whose parents immigrated to America from Taiwan) manages to give each of his characters a story and a purpose.  The cast is uniformly excellent, but especially Tzi Ma and Ko, who manage to imbue each of their interactions with longing, sorrow, and regret.  It is ultimately a story about needing to revisit the past to have a better life in the future that is beautifully shot (Yang makes use of different settings to amplify each characters’ current situation) and movingly told.  Runtime: 91 minutes. Rated PG. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wagner Moura is UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello in “Sergio”

SERGIO” (Netflix)

Sérgio Vieira de Mello is a name that more people ought to know—only I’m not sure that this biopic does a great job demonstrating exactly why.  Based on a true story, the titular Sergio (played by Wagner Moura) is a UN diplomat who travels to Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq to oversee the withdrawal of American troops and Iraqi independence.  The film opens with the bombing of the Canal Hotel which ultimately killed Sergio and 20 other members of his staff, but flashes back to his first arrival in Baghdad and his earlier life and career, showing how he strove to fight on behalf of the people and his relationship with his future second wife, fellow diplomat Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas).  This is documentary filmmaker Greg Baker’s first narrative feature; he previously helmed the award-winning 2009 documentary “Sergio” that explored this same subject.  But as fascinating as Sergio seemed to be as an individual, and as inspiring a career he had and likely would have continued to have, this film chooses instead to focus on the love story between Sergio and Carolina.  And it’s nice, and Moura and de Armas have great chemistry, but it feels like a lot of important political elements that led to the pivotal Canal Hotel bombing get left by the wayside as a result.  It’s engrossing enough, but the film ultimately leaves the viewer with an incomplete picture of the man it is portraying. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated R. 3 out of 5 stars.

Mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) has to rescue kidnapped Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) in “Extraction”

EXTRACTION” (Netflix)

Netflix has yet to distribute a truly great action movie, but “Extraction” is probably the streaming platform’s best effort thus far.  Directed by Sam Hargrave, with a screenplay by “Avengers” alum Joe Russo and based on the comic titled Ciudad, the film follows Tyler Rake, a mercenary who is hired by an Indian drug lord to rescue his son, who was kidnapped and is being held by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Tripathi), the most powerful drug lord in Bangladesh.  Tyler finds the kid (Ovi, played by Rudhraksh Jaiswal) and goes on the run with him, but they encounter many obstacles trying to get out of the city of Dhaka, from the corrupt police force controlled by Asif, to Sanju (Randeep Hooda), Ovi’s father’s henchman who is trying to bring Ovi back himself to protect his own family.  “Extraction” is largely humorous but still ridiculous, as evidenced by the scene that introduces the viewer to Tyler (he jumps off an insanely high cliff and mediates cross-legged at the bottom of a body of water).  The violence is over-the-top, as is the insanely high body count.  The entire cast give commendable performances, even if the script is mostly one-note, outside of a couple dramatic scenes in which Tyler reminisces on his sad past, providing a bridge for him to connect with Ovi.  Ovi and Tyler are a fun duo to watch and their friendship is believable, but while this is a solid action vehicle for Hemsworth, the fact that the hero of this story set in South Asia is the sole white person in the movie is problematic.  But while the story is uninspired, “Extraction” provides a cross between a “John Wick” movie and a combat video game that is fun to watch.  Unfortunately, the film’s most exciting sequence comes less than halfway through the movie, a 10-15 minute action scene that gives the appearance of being shot in one take on a handheld and jumps from a car chase to a claustrophobic rooftop manhunt to an epic fist fight.  The rest of the film may be lackluster in comparison, but it’s the few scenes like that that make “Extraction” worth checking out—especially as it looks like we will be deprived of the usual summer action blockbusters for the foreseeable future.  Also featuring David Harbour and Golshifteh Farahani. Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated R. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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