Happy first week of June! I’m so excited to get back into the swing of going back to the movie theater again, and am eagerly anticipating some of this summer’s big new releases, so I’m a bit behind on some of what has been recently released on streaming services. But you can find mini reviews of five films released in May, plus one very cinematic comedy special. I’ve also recently published reviews of Netflix’s “The Woman in the Window” and “Army of the Dead,” “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (which is streaming on HBO Max for a little bit longer), and “Cruella,” which you can stream on Disney Plus now for an additional charge- click the links to read my reviews of those films, and happy watching!
“BO BURNHAM: INSIDE” (Netflix)
I don’t normally review comedy specials. In fact, I don’t even really watch them that often, but something seemed different about Bo Burnham’s new 87 minute special, “Inside,” which he created during lockdown last year. Burnham wrote and directed one of the most heartbreaking films of the last several years, 2018’s “Eighth Grade” (you can read my review of that movie here), and his grasp on the cinematic language is equally clear in this special. And I was right about it seeming different. “Inside” is hilarious, but it quickly becomes apparent that Burnham is grappling with a lot of heavy subjects here as well. On a surface level, “Inside” is packed with catchy tunes written and performed by Burnham that hilariously critique everything from brand awareness to vanity, but even an amusing song about the superficiality of a “white woman’s Instagram” turns into something more profound when Burnham sings a verse in which the woman remembers her mother and how she would be proud of her now. As the film progresses, it seems to contain more serious elements as Burnham puts his vulnerability on full display, such as a brief mention of suicide at the end of a song about turning 30, or Burnham breaking down into tears, or discussing how he stepped away from stand-up because he started having panic attacks on stage. It really feels like we are witnessing the breakdown of a creative mind when forced to remain in the same space for such a long period of time: early scenes feel like big, elaborate bursts of creativity that get harder and harder to maintain as time goes on. Burnham manages to make it not feel like a clichéd portrait of a stifled genius, at least the majority of the time, as the mental hurdles he is struggling with are remarkably relatable. “Inside,” which Burnham also shot and edited, also boasts some beautiful cinematography. Within the confines of one room, Burnham finds interesting camera angles, striking lighting, and great transitions. We’ve gotten several films made during and about the COVID-19 pandemic already, and most of them aren’t great, but “Inside” has a timeless quality that may make it the defining creative work of the pandemic. Runtime: 87 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
“PLAN B” (Hulu)
The abortion road trip is a recent subgenre of movie that has taken flight, thanks to American politics continuing to make it difficult or impossible for women in more conservative areas of the country to access it. One of my favorite films from last year, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” offered a very serious take on the issue, and now with “Plan B,” director Natalie Morales gives us a hilarious teen buddy comedy that retains its timely message. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) is a smart high school student with a strict mother, so when she has a regrettable encounter at a party, she freaks out and goes on a quest with her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles) to obtain a Plan B pill. But when they try to get one at their local pharmacy, the man at the counter denies it to the girls, citing the conscience clause, which permits pharmacists to refuse to sell birth control drugs if it goes against their beliefs. So Lupe and Sunny drive to the closest Planned Parenthood location—over three hours away—but of course their trip isn’t as easy as they thought it would be. “Plan B” is hilarious, occasionally shockingly so, but underneath the film’s raunchy sense of humor, Morales and writers Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy offer a scathing critique of how hard it is for girls to have access to this stuff. This situations Sunny and Lupe get themselves into are often unrealistic, but they also force us to consider the lengths that they must go to to get a pill that they should just be able to buy. A great deal of the film is also about Sunny and Lupe’s friendship, which is inevitably tested on their journey, and Verma and Moroles have a delightful, easy chemistry and winning personalities that make their characters immediately endearing. A few elements of the film don’t feel like they are wrapped up as neatly as they could have been, including subplots involving each of the girls’ respective love interests and Sunny’s relationship with her mom, who she is terrified of finding out what happened, but overall “Plan B” is a fun and heart-warming romp, and a solid second feature for Morales as a director. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
This drama from director Anthony Mandler premiered at Sundance over three years ago, and is just now getting a release from Netflix. Unfortunately, there isn’t much about “Monster” to make it worth the wait, despite its important and timely message and stellar cast. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Steve Harmon, a talented aspiring filmmaker and a good student at a prestigious high school. But Steve’s life takes a horrifying turn when he is charged with participating in a bodega robbery that turned into a murder. “Monster” is perhaps more relevant now than it was when it was made, but the way the story is structured diminishes its impact. “Monster” is predominantly a courtroom drama; it opens with Steve on his way to his trial, with flashbacks peppered throughout the film depicting his life and his relationship with the other suspects up to the day of the robbery and his subsequent arrest. These flashbacks are integral to giving the characters a life and personality outside of the courtroom, but they are also organized a little messily and get in the way of what is the film’s primary objective: showing how Black people are so often wrongly perceived and dehumanized by America’s justice system. The title of the film, after all, refers to what the prosecutor in the case calls Steve and the other suspects: a monster. Some of this messaging is pretty heavy-handed, including a “Rashomon” parallel to describe how different people can see the same situation differently, but the great performances from the cast salvage some of the movie’s weaker bits. Harrison is truly a star, and Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson, who play Steve’s parents, will break your heart as a couple who are forced to witness their son’s future being ripped away from him. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated R.
Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to the claustrophobic thriller, but he takes it to new heights in his new sci-fi thriller, “Oxygen.” The film opens with a woman (Mélanie Laurent) waking up in a cryogenic pod. She possesses no memory of who she is or how she got there, and she’s rapidly running out of oxygen. With the assistance of an A.I. called MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) begins searching for clues to who she is. As virtually the only person we see on screen throughout the film, Laurent does an exceptional job selling both the mystery and her character’s panic, making this story set entirely within the most cramped confines imaginable compelling. “Oxygen” stretches itself rather thin after the first hour, but Aja deftly handles the story’s twists while maintaining the high anxiety created by both the claustrophobia and the ticking time bomb that is the dwindling oxygen supply. “Oxygen” is far from great, but it is a serviceable effort that will intrigue sci-fi fans. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated TV-14.
“BLUE MIRACLE” (Netflix)
“Blue Miracle,” directed by Julio Quintana, is the inspiring true story of a group of boys and their guardian from the Cabo San Lucas orphanage Casa Hogar who, despite never having fished before, caught a 385-pound marlin in Bisbee’s Black & Blue Fishing Tournament, and used their winnings to renovate and expand their orphanage. Or at least it could have been inspiring had the movie not focused so much on Dennis Quaid’s irredeemably curmudgeonly boat captain who, as far as I can find out, isn’t even based on a real person like the other characters (I guess somebody behind the scenes thought we needed a white guy somewhere in here to root for). Quaid’s Wade Malloy is a washed up fisherman whose teaming up with the Casa Hogar group for the competition could redeem his reputation. We find out over the course of the film that Wade has both won the contest in the past, and cheated to win it, and that his wife and son are back in Texas, primarily because he’d rather be here fishing. He’s incredibly mean to the kids and to their guardian, Papa Omar (Jimmy Gonzales), and he never softens enough for us to either like him, find amusement in his irascibility, or buy into his final proclamation that he’s going to make a change. Quaid’s participation here is completely unnecessary, and takes away time from the storylines of Omar and the children (who are ultimately shoved into unmemorable stereotypes). The best thing that this film does is raise awareness for Casa Hogar; it’s too formulaic as it clumsily attempts to pull on the heartstrings to be anything more. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated TV-PG.
“OSLO” (HBO Max)
“Oslo” is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play of the same name, which tells the story of the secret negotiations behind the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This film version, directed by the play’s original director Bartlett Sher, primarily centers around husband-and-wife Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson) and Terje Rød-Larsen (Andrew Scott), who organized the back-channel negotiations between Israeli and PLO leaders. I haven’t yet gotten to see the play the film is based on, but it feels like something was lost in the transition from stage to screen, especially as the former ran for three hours, versus the film’s just under two hour runtime. “Oslo” is, like most play adaptations, very talky, but the performances are compelling enough to keep things engaging. Wilson and Scott clearly convey the urgency of the situation, and I enjoyed seeing Sasson Gabai (who plays Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres), who I’ve had the pleasure of watching in the excellent musical version of “The Band’s Visit” a couple of times and who has a remarkable presence. Diplomatic negotiations are messy and hard, and this story makes that clear above all else, although it fails to give proper context regarding the true scope of the Israel/Palestine conflict for the uneducated viewer. It’s particularly striking watching this film now, in the wake of Israel’s recent attacks on Palestine, as it gives a glimpse into a time when a resolution to the conflict seemed so much more possible. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated TV-MA.