Happy almost-fall, movie fans! The month of August started to see some changes for movies, with many theaters across the United States and in other countries reopening for the first time since they shut down in March. I don’t know if or when I will be returning to indoor movie theaters myself, and if you are equally unsure, there are fortunately plenty of new releases you can stream at home. Just like I did for July, I will be splitting my mini reviews of new streaming releases for August (okay some of these were technically released on the last day of July, it’s fine) into two parts, so look for the second half to come out tomorrow.
“Host” will make you reconsider what kinds of activities you engage in over Zoom in the future—seriously. A lot of what makes this new horror movie so scary is its timeliness. Shot entirely over Zoom video conferencing software while in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, director Rob Savage’s film follows six friends who get together for weekly Zoom calls while they are in isolation. To give the group a new activity to do, Haley (Haley Bishop) hires a medium (Seylan Baxter) to lead them in a séance. The group’s reaction to the séance range from snarky to anxious. When Jemma (Jemma Moore) claims to have made contact with a former classmate who committed suicide, weird things start to happen. “Host” clocks in at just under an hour, but despite its lean runtime, Savage takes his time building up the action. The result is that the anticipation of a scare in the first half of the movie is much more terrifying than the final 20 minutes or so, which are kind of bonkers in terms of the amount of action they contain (made more impressive by the fact that the cast members were virtually directed on how to pull off their own stunts). The cast—which also includes Emma Louise Webb, Caroline Ward, Radina Drandova, and Edward Linard—is really great, and their interactions make “Host” feel that much more real and, in turn, scarier. I’m not sure if I buy into the idea that “Host” is a metaphor for isolation and anxiety as others have stated, but it’s certainly a capsule of this very unique moment in time that we’re all living in, and it’s impressive that this cast and crew managed to use their time in quarantine to create something this ambitious, merging technology, humanity, and the supernatural without relying on cheap jump scares or having most of the action take place off-screen. Also, I’d just like to say, that if these girls can remember to wear their masks and maintain social distancing while outrunning a demon, you can too! Runtime: 57 minutes. Not rated. 4 out of 5 stars.
“HOWARD” (Disney Plus)
“Howard” may not be the most creatively assembled documentary out there, nor does it offer up any facts that fans won’t already know. But the film, which is written and directed by Don Hahn, the producer of such Disney animated classics as “Beauty and Beast” and “The Lion King,” often feels less like its mission is to inform, and more like it is to remember and pay tribute to a man who inspired so many. Lyricist Howard Ashman worked on the music for such stage musicals as “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Smile” before partnering with Disney where, alongside his frequent collaborator, composer Alan Menken, he wrote the songs to the films that revived the Disney Animation Studios, and defined a generation: “The Little Mermaid,” Beauty and the Beast,” as well as some work on “Aladdin.” The latter two films, however, were released posthumously, as Ashman passed away in early 1991 at the age of 40 from complications related to AIDS. “Howard” is comprised of archival photos and videos from Ashman’s personal life and the making of some of those projects, with voiceovers from those who knew and loved him the best sharing their memories of him: Menken (who also composed the score for the documentary), Ashman’s sister Sarah Gillespie, his partner Bill Lauch, former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, and more. The documentary chronicles his life from childhood to school to his career highs and lows, but a lot of the emotional weight lies in discussions about his identity as a gay man and his final months when, as the AIDS crisis raged in America, he struggled with his declining health while continuing to work on “Beauty and the Beast.” The film ends leaving the viewer both marveling at all that he accomplished, but also mourning everything he still had yet to do. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated TV-PG. 4 out of 5 stars.
“SERIOUSLY SINGLE” (Netflix)
One of these days I’m going to stop watching all of these adult Netflix rom-coms in the hope that one of them will actually be good. Today is not that day. “Seriously Single” is directed by Katleho and Rethabile Ramaphakela and follows Dineo (Fulu Mugovhani), a social media manager who is young, pretty, and successful—yet unhappy because she isn’t in a relationship. After partying her sorrows away at the club (an activity that occurs several times over the course of this film), Dineo begins relentlessly pursuing Lunga (Bohang Moeko), a guy she met up with there but who isn’t interested in a relationship with her (guess what, he’s actually engaged to someone else—oops!). What follows is a seemingly never-ending cycle of exceedingly immature behavior from Dineo as she stalks Lunga and embarrasses herself online, while Lunga also turns out to not be a very savory individual (again, big surprise). The main course of action is occasionally interrupted by Noni (Tumi Morake), Dineo’s best friend and roommate who having relationship problems of her own (only unlike Dineo, she’s not interested in commitment). It’s great to see a film set in, starring, and made by South African creators, and Morake and Mugovhani’s friendship on screen is really great and believable. But “Seriously Single” is overlong, unfunny, and unromantic, and while the empowering, love yourself ending is nice to see, it comes too little too late. Skip this one; meanwhile, I’ll be sitting here patiently waiting for the next bad rom-com to drop. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 1.5 out of 5 stars.
“AN AMERICAN PICKLE” (HBO Max)
Seth Rogan plays a young man and his great-grandfather in “An American Pickle,” a comedy directed by Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich, based on his own short story. Its fish-out-of-water premise is delightfully ridiculous: in the early 1900s, Jewish laborers Herschel (Rogan) and Sarah (Sarah Snook) Greenbaum immigrate to America from their village in Eastern Europe. Herschel finds a job in a pickle factory, Sarah is pregnant with their first child—everything is looking great, until Herschel falls into a vat of pickles at work just as the factory is being shut down, and is brined for 100 years. Waking up in modern day Brooklyn, Herschel meets his great-grandson Ben (also Rogan), a freelance app developer, and becomes a bit of a sensation selling homemade pickles. But he quickly realizes that many of his old values don’t fit in in the modern world, and he despairs over his belief that Ben has neglected his family and religion. Overall, “An American Pickle” is a worthy, if too heavy-handed satire; it’s easy to imagine some elements of this film feeling a bit dated even just a few years from now. And its ridiculousness doesn’t automatically make it laugh-out-loud funny (it isn’t). Both Herschel and Ben stoop to some pretty despicable behaviors that make it hard to follow either of them sometimes, but Rogan succeeds at creating two distinct characters in his performances. And the surprisingly poignant ending for a story that otherwise is what I can best describe as “grouchy” puts a genuinely sweet bow on everything that makes it worth seeking out. Runtime: 88 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 out of 5 stars.
“WORK IT” (Netflix)
Predictable? Yes. Original? No. Still, thanks to a talented young cast and some killer dance numbers, there’s enough charm in Netflix’s newest teen dance movie to make it enjoyable. Directed by Laura Taruso, “Work It” follows Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter), a high school senior whose big dream—and the big dream of her mother, played by Naomi Snieckus—is to attend her late father’s alma mater, Duke University. Quinn has great grades and participates in many great extra-curriculars, but when she meets with the school’s admissions counselor (played by the very funny Michelle Buteau), she’s told that she doesn’t have anything unique on her application to make her stand out. So Quinn lies and says she is on her high school’s dance team, led by the talented buy merciless Isaiah Pembroke (who goes by “Julliard” and is deliciously portrayed by Keiynan Lonsdale), and that she will be participating in the annual Work It dance competition. But Quinn is clumsy, and despite the help of her best friend Jas (Liza Koshy), who is on the dance team, she doesn’t make the cut. So she decides to form a team of her own, made up of misfits who just need to hone each of their own unique individual talents, and recruits Jake Taylor (Jordan Fisher), a previous Work It champion who quit dancing after a knee injury, to coach them. “Work It” never feels like it has a big inspiring moment, even at the end of the film, and the way that Quinn low-key bullies Jas into quitting Julliard’s team to join hers—even though Jas actually does want to be a professional dancer and the competition will get her seen by recruiters—doesn’t sit well with me. And despite being the lead, it never feels like she has a big revelation about herself as she goes through this process—well, technically she does, it just feels a bit rushed and insincere. Fortunately the supporting players make up for any misgivings we may have about Carpenter’s character; Koshy is hilarious, Fisher is a great leading man, and the film gives them both an opportunity to show off their dance skills with some entertaining and often over-the-top numbers. I didn’t like “Work It” as much as Netflix’s other teen dance movie from a couple months ago, “Feel the Beat,” but if you enjoy movies in that same vein, it checks all the right boxes. Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated TV-14. 3 out of 5 stars.