This January was a typically slow one for theatrical releases, but for those hunkering down at home, there’s no shortage of movies to check out on streaming services- and some of them are actually pretty good! I’m highlighting five recent releases you can watch at home now below, from George Clooney’s latest directorial effort to a fantastically weird animated anthology. You can also read my full reviews of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” streaming on Apple TV+, and “A Hero,” streaming on Amazon Prime.
“THE TENDER BAR” (Amazon Prime Video)
George Clooney hasn’t exactly had the greatest track record as a director. His best movie by far, in my opinion, is still his second feature, 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” but that’s a conversation for another day. His flat direction, combined with the sentimentality of William Monahan’s screenplay based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, fails to make “The Tender Bar” stand out as far as coming-of-age dramas go. Set in Long Island in the 1970s, the first half of the film shows single mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe) and young son J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) returning home to her father (Christopher Lloyd) and brother Charlie (Ben Affleck) to live with them. J.R. is smart—a prodigy, some of Charlie’s friends call him—and wants to be a writer. With his father absent, he learns a lot about life and love from Uncle Charlie who encourages his intellectual pursuits (Charlie himself proves to be a bit deeper than he seems when we discover that he owns a bar called The Dickens, the shelves behind the counter bursting with books). The second half of the film sees an older J.R. (played by Tye Sheridan) getting into Yale, making new friends, falling in love, and pursuing his dream of being a writer. The portion of “The Tender Bar” that follows J.R. as a kid is actually pretty great, if typical. The precocious Ranieri and Affleck have a fun dynamic, with Affleck turning in yet another memorable supporting performance as a cool uncle/mentor, his personality simultaneously laid back and caring. Unfortunately, “The Tender Bar” becomes a much less interesting movie once J.R. grows up into Tye Sheridan, who continues to be a rather hollow performer. We see a lot less of Affleck’s entertaining uncle, and so many of J.R.’s problems, a lot of which see him frustratingly circling a relationship with the same girl who clearly doesn’t care about him over and over again, aren’t particularly intriguing. Any dramatic moments in the story that would give it more heft are few and far between. In fact, any time it seems like “The Tender Bar” might be starting to veer into serious territory—mom getting cancer, Charlie in the hospital, long lost dad finally turning up—those moments just sort of go away without a lot of consequence. That’s not to say that I didn’t still have a good time watching “The Tender Bar.” It’s warm and humorous thanks to the performances and the 70s backdrop punctuated by a great soundtrack. “The Tender Bar” is a sweet two hour distraction—just don’t expect it to hang around in your mind for much longer than that. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.
“HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA” (Amazon Prime Video)
I enjoyed the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie. Especially as a longtime fan of movie monsters, it did a good job balancing homage for adult viewers while introducing the characters in a non-scary way for young audiences, with the expected but sincere message of acceptance to boot. But the series has gone steadily downhill with each subsequent installment, and this fourth and supposedly last film is the final proverbial nail in Dracula’s coffin. Some behind-the-scenes changes in cast and crew make it feel like Sony Pictures Animation was writing it off right off the bat: animation legend Genndy Tartakovsky worked on the story and screenplay, but was replaced as director by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska, while Brian Hull takes over voicing Count Dracula from Adam Sandler. But the majority of the rest of the voice cast is back for this story that feels like its treading over the same beats hit by the previous three installments, with middling results. Still resentful of his dorky human son-in-law Johnny (Andy Samberg), Dracula, who was planning to retire and leave the hotel to his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) but is afraid Johnny would ruin it with his own renovations, makes a fake real estate law stating that only monsters can own the hotel. So Johnny enlists the aid of Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), using one of his inventions to turn him into a dragon. Unfortunately, when Dracula finds out about this and tries to use Van Helsing’s ray to change Johnny back, it backfires, changing Dracula and some of the other monsters into humans and breaking the ray’s crystal—and they can only obtain a new crystal from a cave in South America. There is some novelty in the monsters becoming humans and vice versa, but the film doesn’t push this to the fullest extent. Its intentions may be good, but the humor and the story that follows—one that once again prompts Dracula to resolve his relationship with Johnny—is rather uninspired, and in setting, narrative, and character it really gets away from the series’ monster movie roots. But it does just enough to likely keep young viewers entertained; while I would have liked to have seen more slapstick in the actual animation, the character designs are still solid with strong silhouettes. It says a lot, however, that the best part of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is the ending, which features bold, colorful 2D animation over the end credits that is reminiscent of old school Cartoon Network. Runtime: 87 minutes. Rated PG.
“THE FALLOUT” (HBO Max)
There’s no simple path to recovery after undergoing a traumatic event, and there’s no right headspace you can be in to watch a movie about it either. But writer/director Megan Park’s debut feature “The Fallout” is well worth seeking out for its sensitive and raw portrayal of the awkwardness and confusion that comes with grief for adolescents specifically. After surviving a school shooting, high schooler Vada (Jenna Ortega) finds herself feeling increasingly isolated from her family and her best friend Nick (Will Ropp, who deals with the incident by throwing himself into gun control activism), latching on instead to Mia (Maddie Ziegler), the popular girl Vada hid out in the bathroom with, as well as Quinton (Niles Fitch), whose brother was killed. As much as Vada outwardly attempts to play off her stress, such as in a therapy session her parents make her go to with Anna (Shailene Woodley), her anxiety manifests itself in the nightmares that have her jolting awake, out of breath, and in the fact that when she does finally go back to school, she wets herself because she can’t bring herself to go back inside the bathroom she was in during the shooting; she ends up turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. Park’s screenplay really understands the way that teenagers interact and their reluctance to really delve into their fears and feelings with adults and with each other, as well as how they each cope with these feelings in different ways, and she’s aided by the realistic performances of her cast. Ortega is phenomenal; she’s funny at all the right moments, but also digs deep inside Vada to bring out her anxieties and frustrations at the right moments. John Ortiz, playing Vada’s father, has a great cathartic moment with her toward the end of the film, and Julie Bowen is great as the mom who’s just trying her best. The most beautifully realized relationship in the film, however, is the one between Vada and her younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack). In just a couple quick scenes at the start of the movie, prior to the shooting, Park establishes the close and loving relationship between the sisters, so we understand how much it pains Amelia when Vada start to withdraw from her later in the film. She stages the shooting itself in a way that is horrifying without actually showing anything; Park keeps the camera close on Vada and Mia as gunshots and screams can be heard in the distance. Park also ends “The Fallout” in just the right way, with a painful moment that shows that, despite the strides Vada has made in returning to some semblance of her normal self, trauma is not so easily overcome; it made its mark, and some part of it is there to stay. Runtime: 92 minutes. Rated R.
“THE HOUSE” (Netflix)
What makes a house a home? That is the underlying question that runs through the three anecdotes that comprise “The House,” a stop-motion anthology film. Each segment is helmed by a different director—Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and Paloma Baeza—and features different characters and stories set at different points in time, but all revolving around the same house (it doesn’t hurt that each part is also written by the same person, Enda Walsh, further unifying the seemingly disparate segments into a cohesive whole). The first two segments lean harder into the horror elements inherent in the story and the strangeness of the medium. In the first, a human family is gifted a lavish new house, but their children are disturbed by the uncertainty of their new future and find themselves searching for the comfort of their old home. In the second, an anthropomorphic rat develops the house to show to potential buyers, in the process disturbing the home’s existing (and rather disgusting) residents. The third and final part centers around anthropomorphic cats, with the lead protagonist, the house’s landlord Rosa, pouring all of herself into renovating the home without exhibiting much emotional attachment to it, neglecting the wellbeing of her tenants and friends in the process. It’s this part where that question I asked at the start of this review most reveals itself. As Rosa learns, home can be wherever you want, and with whoever you want to make it with; the structure itself has little to do with it. These characters are all brought to life by a skilled voice cast. Mia Goth is inquisitive as the family’s daughter Mabel; Jarvis Cocker brings a jumpiness to the anxiety-ridden rat developer; and Susan Wokoma, as Rosa, illustrates with her voice Rosa’s frustration and confusion at the state of the house and her tenants, followed by understanding. But the bulk of what makes “The House” so fascinating comes with the magic of stop motion animation: the intricately designed sets, the puppets, and the work of the animators that make them all not only move seamlessly, but bring them to life in a way that generates an emotional investment in what happens to them. Netflix is promoting “The House” as a “special” rather than a movie, but there’s little doubt in my mind that this beautiful, haunting, bizarre project is going to be one of the most memorable animated films of the year. Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
“MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR” (Netflix)
We’ve all seen this story before. Old school friends Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) are driven apart due to their opposing viewpoints on the rise of Adolf Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) and Nazism in early 1930s Europe. In 1938, Hartmann—now awakened to the dangers of Hitler’s ideals—works as a translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin by day while helping plot to overthrow the dictator by night. Legat, meanwhile, is secretary to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). As the parties convene in Munich for a conference at which Chamberlain intends to secure peace between Germany and Great Britain by any means possible—even if that means allowing Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia—Legat and Hartmann find themselves reunited and working together to get a stolen document in Hartmann’s possession that outlines Hitler’s intent to conquer Europe in front of Chamberlain. Directed by Christian Schwochow, “Munich: The Edge of War” is only intermittently thrilling, bogged down by the familiarity and inevitability of its subject matter. There are some nice set pieces, and MacKay and Niewöhner give solid performances, but the script focuses more on plot than on developing the rise and fall of their relationship and their changing beliefs, making several of their scenes together feel emotionally hollow. But if you’re a fan of espionage thrillers and are interested in a story that zeroes in on a narrow time frame in the lead-up to World War II, you could do worse than this. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.