Streaming Recap: May 2020

Normally at this time of year we’d be a month into the summer blockbuster season.  Unfortunately, due to the ongoing state of things, that is not the case.  But we still have lots of movies to stream at home in the meantime.  You can read my reviews of films that debuted on streaming services in the month of May below.

Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu in “The Half of It”

THE HALF OF IT” (Netflix)

“The Half of It” is the rare teen rom-com that explores more complex issues in a smart way.  Written and directed by Alice Wu (who based some of the story on her own experiences), the film centers around Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), the daughter of an Asian immigrant who feels stifled in the conservative small town she lives in.  Her father (Collin Chou) comes face-to-face with racism every day because he doesn’t speak English, so Ellie helps out a lot at his job as the station master of the town’s train station, while also writing essays for her classmates to bring in some extra cash.  But when Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), one of the guys on the school football team, wants to hire Ellie to write a love letter to a girl he likes named Aster (Alexxis Lemire), she is reluctant.  It turns out that Ellie has a bit of a crush on Aster herself, but she needs the money, so she agrees.  Through the letters she writes for Paul and the text messages she sends pretending to be him, Ellie develops a deep bond with Aster through their common interests, including a mutual love for literature.  At the same time, she becomes great friends with Paul, who starts helping out her and her father at home.  Lewis gives a compelling performance and is utterly charming, convincingly conveying the feeling of longing Ellie has for Aster.  The film manages to avoid stereotypes in its three leads; Aster may be considered the popular girl, but she isn’t above hanging out with someone like Ellie.  Ellie may be the smart girl and may be shy in some social situations, but she is plucky and can stand up for herself and her father.  Paul may be a jock but he is awkward at times.  And they are all struggling to find their way in the world as they approach their high school graduation, trying to reconcile what is expected of them with what they actually want.  “The Half of It” may occasionally become trite, but it is overall heart-warming and sincere in its promotion of love and acceptance, particularly in the manner in which it portrays its queer protagonist and the immigrant experience.  Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4 out of 5 stars.

Michelle Obama greets fans while on her book tour in “Becoming”

BECOMING” (Netflix)

Directed by Nadia Hallgren, “Becoming” follows former First Lady Michelle Obama as she embarks on her 2018 tour for her book of the same name.  The documentary has Obama both reflecting on her life story, from her childhood growing up on the south side of Chicago to attending college and meeting her future husband, to her attempt to carve out a life for herself after the Obama presidency.  On her tour, she speaks to both sold out arenas and intimate groups of teenagers, and whether the footage is showing her on stage or behind the scenes, her warmth and her sense of humor shine through.  The film doesn’t provide any new details, and despite providing unprecedented access to Obama behind closed doors, it still feels rather safe, failing to show its subject in more vulnerable moments.  But as parades of people march by Obama at a book signing, many of them sobbing just to be standing in front of her, the film does succeed at showing just what an inspiration Obama is at a time when we are missing that from current leadership. Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated PG. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue’s story is told in “A Secret Love”

A SECRET LOVE” (Netflix)

Director Chris Bolan’s great-aunts are the subject of this intimate documentary that traces their struggles both here and now.  Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel were a couple for 70 years, but they only revealed the true nature of their relationship to their family the year before this film.  The documentary tells their love story in a couple different threads.  The first thread follows their early life in Canada and later Chicago, with particularly emphasis on Terry’s baseball career playing for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (which inspired the movie “A League of Their Own”).  The other thread follows the couple’s current lives as they navigate the struggles associated with old age and requiring more care, with particular emphasis on their attempts to find a nursing home they can afford.  The film dwells a little too long on some of these elements, so at times it feels less about their relationship and more about their family squabbles or their quest to find a new place to live.  But there are enough genuinely tender moments to make up for that, including the couple finally officially marrying in 2015.  The film also reveals the restrictions, prejudices, and fears they faced, both past and present, for being a lesbian couple.  While Terry passed away in 2019, fortunately Terry and Pat’s secret love no longer has to be a secret. Runtime: 81 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Kristen Stewart as actress Jean Seberg in “Seberg”

SEBERG” (Amazon Prime Video)

Directed by Benedict Andrews, “Seberg”—which landed on Prime Video this month after a brief stint in theaters—is based on the true story of actress Jean Seberg, an icon of the French New Wave cinema.  But this drama focuses on a different, and much more tragic, aspect of Seberg’s life outside of her career: her mental breakdown as a result of FBI surveillance in the late 60s due to her support of the Black Panthers.  Seberg is played by Kristen Stewart, who rises to the challenge of portraying Seberg as someone initially confident but naïve, and later afraid and paranoid.  It’s an intriguing and sad story (the rumors spread about Seberg in the press deeply affected her career and her personal life, and she committed suicide in 1979 at age 40).  However, the film—in an attempt to give its story some sort of hero—opts for the not very convincing narrative of an FBI agent named Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) who is tasked with spying on Seberg but soon feels guilty about intruding on her life and has a change of heart.  There isn’t really a satisfying way to conclude this story, but that wasn’t it.  The film does have something interesting to say about white saviors, but that criticism gets muddled in with all the FBI drama.  The cast also includes Anthony Mackie as Hakim Jamal, a civil rights activist who Seberg has an affair with, Zazie Beetz as his wife Dorothy, Margaret Qualley as Jack’s wife Linette, and Vince Vaughn, who is particularly nasty as FBI agent Carl Kowalski. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated R. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are a couple on the rocks and on the run in “The Lovebirds”

THE LOVEBIRDS” (Netflix)

I wrote a full review of “The Lovebirds,” which you can read here.  The romantic comedy/thriller was initially set to debut in theatricals, but premiered on Netflix this month instead as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the humor struggles at times and the crime element isn’t especially interesting, its stars—Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae—shine bright. Runtime: 86 minutes. Rated R. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

David Spade gets stuck with Lauren Lapkus in “The Wrong Missy”

THE WRONG MISSY” (Netflix)

Let’s start off with the good: Lauren Lapkus is so wholeheartedly wacky, she almost makes this movie worth watching.  But “The Wrong Missy,” a raunchy comedy from Happy Madison Productions is, well, exactly what you’d expect from a raunchy comedy from Happy Madison Productions.  Directed by Tyler Spindel, the film opens with Tim Morris (David Spade) going on the worst blind date of his life with a crazy woman named Melissa, or “Missy” (Lapkus).  Three months later, Tim has a connection with the perfect woman, also named Melissa (Molly Sims) at the airport.  He starts texting her, and ultimately invited her to accompany him on a work retreat in Hawaii.  But when he gets on the plane, it’s Missy from the blind date who shows up, and he realizes he invited the wrong Missy.  The bulk of the film’s humor stems from Missy getting herself and Tim into all sorts of embarrassing situations with his boss (Geoff Pierson) and coworkers.  Most of these gags rely on physical comedy and gross humor, and while there’s something amusing about the premise, the awkwardness that Tim feels mostly just transfers to the audience.  Lapkus is the only player who seems to have her heart in the project.  If you’re the kind of person who enjoys raunchy comedies from Happy Madison, then you’ll likely find something to enjoy in “The Wrong Missy.”  But mostly it just reminds you that this group of actors and filmmakers could be doing so much better. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sierra McCormick receives a strange message as switchboard operator Fay in “The Vast of Night”

THE VAST OF NIGHT” (Amazon Prime Video)

This debut feature from director Andrew Patterson is a real gem.  Set on one night in Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s, it follows two teenagers: the serious and straightforward Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ for the small town’s local radio station, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), an enthusiastic and more open-minded switchboard operator.  When Fay hears a strange radio frequency over the switchboard, followed by the garbled cries of a woman in distress, she patches in Everett, who sends the sound out to his listeners to try to find answers.  The responses they receive all point to a mysterious threat and a government cover-up, and the pair set out into the night to find answers.  From the get-go, Patterson makes it clear what “The Vast of Night” is influenced by, as the camera slowly zooms into a TV playing the intro to a riff on “The Twilight Zone” called “Paradox Theatre.”  The entire film has a similarly retro look and feel, partly thanks to the time period it’s set in; the first part of the movie follows Everett and Fay around the high school as the town prepares for a big basketball game, and their easy banter as they weave around old cars and sweater-clad cheerleaders evokes a palpable sense of nostalgia.  But there’s also a retro feel embedded in the actual filmmaking, in large part due to the obviously low budget Patterson had to work with that lends the movie an added layer of charm.  Patterson still pulls off some show-stopping sequences within those parameters, including an impressive tracking shot as the camera zips through the streets of Cayuga.  He maintains a creepy atmosphere throughout the film, which is a slow (sometimes maybe too slow) build.  But while you can probably guess what’s going on based on the time period and location of the story, the predictable reveal is still a bit of a letdown at the end of an otherwise innovative movie.  But “The Vast of Night” is a throwback that works regardless, thanks to Patterson’s direction, a strong, character-driven script, and the immediately likeable performances from Horowitz and McCormick. Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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