We’re midway through June, and while news keeps coming in regarding theaters re-opening and new movies possibly returning in that format, I still have plenty of focus on the latest streaming releases. This week, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available on streaming platforms or coming soon, along with one retro pick for the week. There’s a hijacking thriller, a coming-of-age comedy-drama, an underrated Spike Lee joint, and more. The following features reviews for 7500, Babyteeth, Miss Juneteenth, Hammer, and Get on the Bus.
7500: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an American co-pilot on a flight from Berlin to Paris. Shortly after takeoff, terrorists armed with makeshift weapons attempt to storm the cockpit. While terrified and wounded, Tobias fends off the attackers and remains in the cockpit, while the situation aboard the rest of the plane intensifies.
Review: I’m of two minds on 7500. On the one hand, there’s an effective amount of tension build in this exercise that seems to combine Hitchcockian suspense with the visceral nature of a Paul Greengrass picture. Gordon-Levitt does terrific work as the soft-spoken co-pilot put through the wringer, as he contends with the worst of scenarios one could deal with in this setting. And even if the film loses steam in the second half, there’s enough effort on display from writer/director Patrick Vollrath that I can still say he has what it takes to craft a solid thriller.
On the other hand, there’s something so reductive about the nature of the terrorists. Established as Muslim extremists, there’s nothing done to subvert the typical Hollywood idea a scenario such as this, and while handled with competence, not even the strength of Omid Memar’s performance as the youngest of the terrorists can do much to ease the awkward feeling of a 2020 film featuring Muslim terrorists.
Of course, part of this is due to the economic nature of the production. The political/cultural insight is purposely thin, and having this set of terrorists is more about creating a language barrier between Tobias and the others. I’m not trying to give the film too much credit, but there’s better energy spent elsewhere. Most notably, Vollrath’s effectiveness in establishing the stakes, the cramp surroundings, and other areas sure to build on anxieties.
Responsible for the Oscar-nominated 2015 short Everything Will Be Okay, it is clear 7500 has a director who knows how to use a small-scale setting to play on the larger aspects occurring around it. The clever use of security monitors helps in delivering on the effective tension, especially with so much of the film locked in the cockpit. While eventually boiling the film down to an extended single hostage situation doesn’t entirely lead to a more exciting ending, as a whole, it still finds a decent landing.
Where To Watch: Available on Prime Video starting June 18, 2020.
Babyteeth: 7 out of 10
The Setup: A smalltime drug dealer, Moses (Toby Wallace), collides with an ill teenager, Milla (Eliza Scanlen), and the two instantly form a bond that causes all sorts of problems. While it becomes a way for Milla to start living her every day to the fullest, breaking out of the bondage of her all-girl school and protective life, her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) see things differently. Still, with nothing to lose, Milla and Moses find love in their chaotic time together.
Review: In a way, many of the elements of this film feel like a way to define an indie film festival hit. Babyteeth is an Australian coming-of-age comedy-drama about a girl with a terminal illness going after love with a bad boy type. Attach some laurels to that poster and call it a day, right? Well, fortunately, director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais no how to dig in the right ways to make this film feel fully realized, land its big moments, and work with a sense of confident momentum.
Stylistic elements such as colorful chapter breaks to let the film restart every so often with a new scenario to get into help give Babyteeth an identity. Relying on the messiness of the characters to signal a level of unpredictability adds to the sort of thrill that comes from watching such distinct personalities clash. The endless love that comes from parents, matched with the seemingly unrequited love Milla has for Moses, allows the conflicts to stew and take unusual forms, especially as acceptance becomes key.
The cast does all it can, wonderfully, in bringing a mix of idiosyncrasies and grounded pathos to their roles. Scanlen (already making a name for herself with HBO’s Sharp Objects and Little Women) plays into one bursting out of a shell to do what’s possible in the time she has left. Wallace channels Shia LaBeouf’s energy to balance his skuzziness with a sense of humor that has a way of working on people. Davis and Mendelsohn are two of Australia’s finest character actors working today, so it’s no surprise to see them land all the nuances that develop their roles into real people.
For a film that balances out story points that include addiction, a terminal disease, the complexities of marriage, an age-inappropriate relationship, and more, the fact that Babyteeth has enough edge to veer away from sustained melodrama makes it an accomplishment. Adding poignant performances, and a confident sense of style allows the film to succeed even further.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on VOD, and on Digital June 19, 2020.
Miss Juneteenth: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is the former Miss Juneteenth, the winner of a beauty contest tied with the commemoration of the day slaves were freed following the Emancipation Proclamation. Now it’s a decade and a half later, Turquoise works at a BBQ joint in Texas, and is a single mother to a rebellious teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Determined to do right, Turquoise hopes she can bring Kai around to going after the glory her mother once had.
Review: Set in Fort Worth, Texas, a relatively good film such as this can get by on knowing how to capture the feel and atmosphere of a particular setting. Miss Juneteenth is nothing revelatory in terms of its underdog story, and even the dialogue wavers between being sharp and blunt. However, there is a good deal of strength in a film that understands how to show it understands the environment the characters occupy. Writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples seems to realize that in a movie surely working as a stepping stone to greater success.
That same success may apply to star Beharie, who gives the kind of performance that receives low-key acknowledgment of how true to life it is while serving as a good enough effort to lead to more high profile roles. Having a neglectful father and an ultra-religious mother serving as some of the main supporting characters here tends to show some of the lesser sides of the script, but at least Chikaeze does well to fill the role as a daughter in need of guidance.
Putting that guidance around the framework of Juneteenth is a novel one as well. With the film obviously timed to open on this important day in American history, it speaks to the opportunity that was the scene then and how that serves as a means for opportunity for those who win the pageant. Of course, the other side of Juneteenth is how the system failed this portion of society, which is akin to the stakes of winning or losing this pageant.
The basic beats of this story are okay, but it is the relationship seen between mother and daughter, let alone the acknowledgment this film brings to the realm of an overlooked class of people that helps hold the movie together. That it does so by way of letting the empathy Turquoise has for those around her shine through is why it manages to get across the level of emotion it is going for.
Where To Watch: Available on VOD and on Digital June 19, 2020.
Hammer: 6 out of 10
The Setup: While waiting at a stoplight, a father’s (Will Patton) estranged son (Mark O’Brien) speeds past him on a dirt bike. Tracking him down, Stephen discovers his son Chris is in a panicked state, with blood on his clothes. There’s been a drug deal gone wrong, and despite their issues, this father and son duo are going to work together to figure it all out, ideally reckoning with their failings as well.
Review: There can be a lot to like about a straightforward thriller that shaves off all the fat it can, to tell a tight, tense story. Hammer isn’t exactly the shining example of this, but it does enough to sustain its brief runtime and add an interesting dynamic on top of everything.
Better yet, this is a great chance to watch character actor Will Patton shine in a leading role. O’Brien is good enough as well, though the writing of his character and general look do little favors for allowing the viewer to get on his side. Fortunately, this is a father-son story, and the work is there to show the challenges involved in reuniting these two and having them pull their strengths together to solve a dire situation.
Writer/director Christian Sparkes makes good use of what he has, which essentially boils down to a chase movie and a domestic drama. The familiar pieces are in play – shady former friends, a wild card girlfriend, an innocent younger brother, the worried wife. These aspects don’t collapse the narrative in any way, as the film is so set on resembling an old crime thriller that the homage allows the film to work despite some of the conventional elements.
There’s also the dramatic lift that comes from making this a family ordeal. Between the chases and the violence, these are people with a history, and it all comes together in ways that land well thanks to the performances. Not hurting is the keen visual eye that is shown throughout this feature. A dusty old town, fields of corn, and the shots of the open road do a lot for a film like this. That’s a good quality to have, given the mere nuts and bolts available for Hammer.
Where To Watch: Now available on VOD and on Digital.
Retro Pick: Get on the Bus: 9 out of 10
The Setup: Eighteen black men of different backgrounds and viewpoints board a bus heading from South Central Los Angeles to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. There are challenges, but this group gradually forms a bond over the course of this long journey, while being tested by forces inside and outside of the bus.
Review: Having gone through and re-watched most of Spike Lee’s filmography, leading up the release of Da 5 Bloods, I was happy to finally see Get On The Bus become available to watch on Netflix. Even if I have seen this film before, it’s been so long I may as well say it’s the first time at this point. Either way, I was very impressed by how urgent it feels, despite delivering on a small scale.
While Do the Right Thing was Lee’s first masterpiece, and two films later he made Malcolm X, this was another effort that really felt as though Lee wanted to express a lot of thoughts on Black culture in America, in a modern sense, once again. All of his films do this to some degree, but the lo-fi nature of the film feels like a way for him to pull the viewer in even closer.
We are on this bus with several notable characters, and their varying backgrounds all add to discussions Lee is not afraid to have. Charles S. Dutton is George, the trip organizer. Ossie Davis is Pop, a senior citizen with plenty of Black history knowledge. Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix are Kyle and Randall, a gay couple in the midst of a breakup. Andre Braugher (in a performance that is completely opposite from his Brooklyn Nine-Nine role) is Flip, a homophobic man and narcissistic actor. Thomas Jefferson Byrd is Evan, who is shackled with his son Evan Jr. aka Smooth (De’Aundre Bonds), in a court-ordered arrangement to have him appear at the march.
Others pop up too, including Hill Harper, Bernie Mac, a wonderfully cast Albert Hall, and the Bellz himself, Richard Belzer. It’s a terrific cast, and all the performances are on point. What makes it special is the authenticity. Whether scripted or working through some natural rhythms, much of the film has Lee just watching these guys. They hold discussions, joke around, argue, and more. The issues presented are the same as they were in years past, as well as fitting for today.
This doesn’t speak down to Lee’s efforts as a visual filmmaker either. Working with 16mm lenses, among other cameras, there’s a washed-out, gritty look to the film by design, yet there’s never a sense that we aren’t seeing things the way they ought to be. The bus can provide an enclosed space to heighten some tension, but the atmosphere also works to keep this crew together, for better or worse. It all works out for an eventual resolution where the journey taken feels real, and not cheapened by any of the developments involving any of the characters.
Plenty of Lee’s films have received more attention. Get on the Bus is one of his most underappreciated efforts.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.