July turned out to be a pretty full month for new home releases—so much so that I’ve decided to split my mini reviews of last month’s streaming movies into two parts! Below, you can find reviews on some of my favorite films of the year so far, including the filmed version of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” and the quirky rom-com “Palm Springs.” And look out for the second half of this article, which will be published shortly!
“HAMILTON” (Disney Plus)
Millions of fans’ dreams came true when Robert Iger and Lin-Manuel Miranda announced that, rather than being released in theaters next year, the filmed version of Miranda’s critically-acclaimed Broadway musical “Hamilton: An American Musical” would be released for streaming on Disney Plus this July instead. Filmed over the course of a few days in July 2016 at the Richard Roger’s Theatre in New York City, the show directed by Thomas Kail features the original Broadway cast telling the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton (played by Miranda), from his arrival in New York City to his career in the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington (Christopher Jackson), from suffering the nation’s first big scandal while serving as Treasury Secretary to ultimately being killed in a duel by rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.). The story of America’s past is told by a diverse cast that reflects America’s present, a cast that also includes Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, and Jonathan Groff as King George III. Part of the brilliance of Hamilton is that some members of its cast plays duel roles that further contrast the events of Act I with the events of Act II, including Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan and James Madison), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens and Philip Hamilton), and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds). This filmed version doesn’t replicate a live theatrical experience, nor does it try to. Rather, it offers an entirely new view of the show; expertly directed by Kail, the film features intimate closeups and unique camera angles (such as about and behind the stage) that you’d never be able to see in a live audience. Everything else I have to say about the show goes without saying; the music, the performances, the lighting, the staging, the choreography, and the storytelling is just as brilliant as it’s always been. Of course not even Hamilton is immune to criticism, and the film is being released in a much different social climate than when the musical first debuted on stage in 2015, making, among other things, its noticeable lack of discussion of the issue of slavery among the founding fathers that much more, well noticeable. But those are conversations that need to be had, making Hamilton a more vital piece of work now than ever. Runtime: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13. 5 out of 5 stars.
“PALM SPRINGS” (Hulu)
What more can be said about director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara’s Groundhog Day-esque romantic comedy “Palm Springs” other than that it is an utter delight? The film opens on the day of the Palm Springs-set wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Nyles (Andy Samberg) is having issues with his flighty bridesmaid girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) but bonds with Tala’s cynical sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti). When they venture out into the desert, Sarah follows Nyles into a mysterious vortex in a cave; when she wakes up, it’s the wedding day all over again. “Palm Springs” avoids being too derivative by not only having two people stuck in the time loop together (well, three if you count J.K. Simmons’ hysterical appearance as Roy, a man who drunkenly went into the vortex thanks to Nyles’ encouragement and now wants revenge), but presenting us with the knowledge that Nyles has already been stuck in this loop for a very long time, completely recontextualizing the beginning of the movie. But whereas Nyles has become complacent, Sarah wants out; and as they navigate the same day over and over again, together, they realize that maybe they were made for each other. “Palm Springs” delivers a blend of comedy, romance, and sci-fi that is wacky, sweet, and surprisingly profound, as it gives the characters plenty of time to ruminate on their situation, their lives up to this moment, and what their lives might look like in the future. There are some great reveals throughout the film that further build upon the characters, and Samberg and Milioti give performances that are alternately over-the-top and subdued in all the right moments. This twist on a familiar premise is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, and one you won’t want to miss. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated R. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
“THE OLD GUARD” (Netflix)
Four immortal warriors who use their experience and abilities to help people around the world. That’s the premise of “The Old Guard,” an action movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood with a screenplay Greg Rucka, adapting his comic book series of the same name. Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are the only members of the guard, but one day they all share a dream of another immortal: Nile (KiKi Layne), a marine serving in Afghanistan. Andy goes to retrieve the reluctant Nile; meanwhile, the team is being set up by former CIA operative James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is seeking to capture them for pharmaceutical CEO Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) to try to determine the source of their immortality. “The Old Guard” is notable for having the first Black woman to direct a big budget comic book movie, and the film is also refreshingly diverse in front of the camera. Rucka even stipulated in his contract when he sold the film rights that the romance between Nicky and Joe in the book had to stay in the movie; theirs are some of the standout moments in the film. “The Old Guard” doesn’t give a ton of backstory or motivation to a few of its main characters, but dropping the viewer into this moment in their story allows for the typical origin tale from Nile, and for the others to ruminate on the occasionally devastating effects immortality has had on their lives. It builds up a lot of intriguing lore while delivering on some great action scenes that are expertly staged by Prince-Bythewood. They are violent sequences, but they further hammer home the idea that immortality is not a walk in the park for these characters—they still feel pain, and lots of it. Theron further proves that she is one of the best action stars around with her tough but sensitive performance, and Layne plays off her beautifully, equally tough but also still reeling from seeing her life so drastically altered in the space of a few days. The end of the film sets up a potential sequel that could have even higher stakes than this one. It’s one sequel I’d love to see. Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
“GREYHOUND” (Apple TV+)
Few war epics are as short and sweet as “Greyhound,” a World War II thriller directed by Aaron Schneider. The film is entirely preoccupied with the journey of a convoy of Allied ships across the Black Pit (an area of the mid-Atlantic where the ships don’t have air cover from enemy fire) on their way to Liverpool. Tom Hanks (who also wrote the screenplay based on C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd) stars as Commander Ernest Krause, whose first command is escorting the convoy on board the U.S. destroyer with the call sign “Greyhound.” Throughout the three-day journey to cover, the convoy is pursued by German U-boats, and Krause is faced with a series of both tactical and moral decisions. The battle scenes are so impressive, it’s kind of infuriating that we’ll never get to see this film in theaters, and Schneider maintains an epic feel to the proceedings despite the fact that most of the film is set in the tight confines of Krause’s ship. It’s a tense and entertaining film that makes great use of its 91 minute runtime in terms of action, but makes a lot of sacrifices in terms of character. We don’t get to know Krause and his motivations, or those of anyone else on board the ship, beyond a surface level. We know that Krause is religious (he prays before every meal) and he has a fiancée (played by Elisabeth Shue) waiting for him if and when it makes it home. There are also a few moments, mainly involving mess attendant George Cleveland (Rob Morgan) where we see a glimpse of the toll the death and destruction is taking on Krause. And Hanks delivers a solid performance, but beyond that, we aren’t given any reason to like or care about him beyond the fact that he is the American everyman-turned-hero. The lack of any substantial character development casts a rather bland and emotionless pall over much of the film, which is unfortunate, because it was on the way to being something really great. Runtime: 91 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 out of 5 stars.
“WE ARE FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME” (Hulu)
Coming right on the heels of “Hamilton” is a documentary about the freestyle rap group that was a formative part of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early career. But he is only a small part of this film directed by Andrew Fried, which successfully gives each member of the group, both original members and new, a chance in the spotlight. These include footage of and interviews with faces that may or may not be recognizable to you depending on how familiar you are with their other work: the likes of Christopher Jackson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Arthur Lewis, Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan (aka Shockwave), Bill Sherman, James Monroe Iglehart, director Thomas Kail, and Daveed Diggs. Fried combines old footage of the group he shot as they were just getting started circa 2004 with footage from the group’s recent off-Broadway and Broadway improv shows that reunited them for the first time in several years. The movie touches on everything in between, although the information it relays is mainly surface level, so don’t expect to get into the nitty gritty of the group’s history, each member’s backstory, or the actual art of freestyling. What it does do really well is show how life affects us all, particularly how relationships with friends and collaborators can change over time; we see how the group finds it harder and harder to get together after they start getting married, having kids, and going off on their own creative ventures, and that’s very relatable. “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” may be low on information, but it’s high on entertainment, and if you weren’t familiar with the group or hadn’t seen any of their shows before watching this, you’ll certainly want to after. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 3.5 out of 5 stars.