Monday, October 19, 2020

Netflix Movies in (Empty) Theaters: Rebecca '20 and Over the Moon

I don't know that I've got a whole lot of thoughts on the two movies I saw at the Kendall on Saturday themselves - they're both solidly acceptable if not exceptional despite coming from directors worth keeping tabs on - or more about the experience of seeing something in a theater in pandemic times than I've written previously. There were two of us in Rebecca and three or four in Over the Moon (none of us close to being the kids who are the movie's main audience). No food or drink, nobody took off their mask so far as I can tell. It feels pretty safe but it's likely that this is in large part due to the fact that there aren't more of out there for whom it feels pretty safe and because theaters are operating in ways that likely aren't sustainable in the long term (see all the stories about AMC likely running out of money early next year).

What is notable, I think, is just how much the streaming services are likely going to dominate the Oscars next year, whenever they get held, and not really because the Academy is opening things up to them in a way they wouldn't in more typical times. No, they seem to be the only people actually releasing award-quality movies in theaters right now, perhaps because they never saw the theatrical release as more than part of the promotions budget anyway. If Landmark is only taking in $450 from people seeing Rebecca at their Cambridge location opening weekend, that's not a disaster that wrecks Netflix's business, that's just their awards campaign doing less to pay for itself than usual. But the fact that they are doing this and, say, Warner Brothers and Searchlight are not, might mean that Rebecca gets consideration for more than just costume design, because there are not looking to be a whole lot of choices among nominees as everything else gets pushed back. Almost all the previews before these two movies were from Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

I was a bit disappointed that Over the Moon wasn't in 3D, as it's the sort of CGI animated movie that seems planned for it and the credits mention stereographers but not 3D conversion, so it was probably made to be shown that way and likely will be in in China. I wouldn't be completely shocked if it was high-frame-rate there, but I don't know. I doubt I'll be curious enough to order a 3D disc should one be released in Hong Kong, but I also wonder if Netflix is set up for side-by-side or native 3D streaming. It kind of makes the movie more weirdly homeless, made by Americans but set in China, produced in a format far more popular in one place than the other.

Rebecca inspired a stranger and maybe more sinister thought, though - as all the studios start consolidating their libraries onto services they own (Disney+/Hulu, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, Crackle), is Netflix, for example, going to start buying up rights to adapt the source material of classic films like Hitchcock's Rebecca (or dip into the public domain) where possible and just have their own versions available. Right now, MGM or whoever currently owns Rebecca (it has moved around!) doesn't have it available on any streaming platform in the USA; pretty soon, Netflix will have something if you hear it's a classic and then drop the name into their search, and it's not too bad.

I don't really think Netflix will go around making store-brand versions of movies that they figure they'll never be able to have on their service again, but I'm kind of worried that I don't really see the downside of them doing so. Does the Hammett estate say no if Netflix says "hey, we'd like to have David Fincher remake The Maltese Falcon for us"? Is this the way talking about art as "content" is heading?

Man, I hope not. But it's kind of a way that the relatively narrow filter of theatrical releases (and, once upon a time, just having a few television networks) can be useful, especially if we get to some silly point where every streaming service figures that they need their own Three Musketeers or Robin Hood and you might not even know about the others because you can only afford to subscribe to so much.

Rebecca '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

It's been long enough since I've seen the Alfred Hitchcock version of Rebecca that it's hard to compare it to Ben Wheatley's new adaptation directly, but just knowing it exists and remembering that it's brilliant makes this one feel unnecessary. Lavishly shot as it is and despite it seldom actually falling below "pretty good", the original version can't help but loom over every decision Wheatley and company make here. Kind of amusing, I guess, given that this is Rebecca we're talking about, and I almost wonder if that meta-narrative amused the filmmakers throughout.

After all, Rebecca takes its title from the perfect first wife of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), widowed a year when he arrives in Monte Carlo and makes the acquaintance of a fellow traveler's lady's companion. Soon, he and the girl are married and return to Manderley, the de Winter family estate, after a European honeymoon. It would be a major adjustment for the new Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) even if the memory of the late Rebecca didn't hang over the place from business manager Frank Crawley (Tom Goodman-Hill) to housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), with Maxim occasionally sleepwalking to the shuttered west wing and snapping at his bride when she wants to know more.

A new version of Rebecca need necessarily be unworthy or uninteresting, especially with Ben Wheatley at the helm. Outside of his television work, this is one of the first times he's seemingly been shooting someone else's project (neither he nor wife Amy Jump have writing and producing credits and it does not come from his Rook Films shingle), and it certainly doesn't feel like his sort of thing in obvious ways: It's polished and tony, prone to play things out rather than the way he usually pushes forward past the bland connective tissue. What he does bring is an uncanny sense of where the line is between a ghost story and something that feels like it could become a ghost story at any second, and maybe most importantly, a sense of what is specifically English or British about a story and how might mean a lot of things. There's a class-consciousness to this movie that many trying to shoot it might dance around or make universal. Where many might see the DeWinters and Manderley as aspirational, this group leans into how this system feels almost alien to their eyes 80 years later, just as it likely would for the new Mrs. de Winter herself.

It gives Lily James a lot to work with, despite her being pretty and elegant enough in the fine costumes that one wouldn't necessarily peg her as a serving-class girl who has married above her station; she manages to make her unnamed character uncomplicated and as such a little in awe of the world she's thrust into, the sort of awe that overlaps easily with frustration. She's good at connecting the clumsy maneuvers at the start with the more determined action at the end. She and Armie Hammer spend much of the movie reacting to each other as much as having conventional chemistry, but it works for this story - the pair know there's something good there but don't exactly know how to access it.

And then there's Kristin Scott Thomas, who shows up when the characters finally arrive at the great house and quietly announces that it's her movie now. She's fantastic and magnetic, doing more with reserve than many can do with grander melodrama. When "Dani" appears the villain, she's such a frighteningly assured one that Thomas doesn't have to underline it at all; when she's sympathetic, it's only a slight pivot that redirects the way the entire film comes across. It's a great performance that doesn't announce itself but is also never trying to hide.

Is it enough that I'll ever watch this movie again, what with the other version already being on my shelf? Doubtful. But right now, it looks like the Hitchcock isn't on any streaming service, and if this one is all you have access to, it's not exactly disappointing.

Also at eFilmCritic

Over the Moon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Glen Keane's job at Disney over three decades (most notably the 1990s) didn't exactly map to a specific one in live action, and you had to wait a little while to see his name in the credits but as the supervising animator and/or character designer for lead characters in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, he was in many ways as much the star of those movies as the more easily-referenced voice actors. Maybe that's why Over the Moon occasionally feels like an actor's first feature film as a director - the result of someone who has absorbed a lot by watching how others do it from his front row seat but still has that same focus - even though his old job is a much more direct overlap.

This first feature is built around Fei Fei (voice of Cathy Ang), a bright junior high schooler who has been hanging around her parents' moon pie stand her whole life, delighting in her mother's tales of Chang'e, the goddess who floated to the moon, saw her mortal love wither and pass, but remained faithful. Her mother died four years ago, and now her father (voice of John Cho) has brought Mrs. Zhong (voice of Sandra Oh) to the moon festival, who brings with her new recipes, her exceptionally annoying eight-year-old son Chin (voice of Robert G. Chiu), and a basic threat to the idea of true love lasting forever and knowing no substitute. There's only one thing for it - build a rocket to the moon, prove Chang'e exists, and have her father abide by her example. Chin is obviously going to stow away, of course, and Chang'e (voice of Phillipa Soo) may not be what Fei Fei expects.

Though Keane was instrumental in making the movies of the Disney Renaissance whose popularity immediately spanned generations, he doesn't bring that broad appeal with him to this. Instead, it's one of those animated features that spends most its time hitting targets square on the nose in a way that may bore adult fans of animation but may work really well for the kids it targets. And that's fine, because there's a big space there for kids' movies that don't treat dead parents as a storytelling convenience but something that's at the center of a kid's life, with neither Keane nor writer Audrey Wells seeming afraid to be uncomfortably honest about that. It's direct and straightforward, but that may go over very well with kids the same age as Fei Fei and Chin.

Will they be as impressed with the rest of the film, which as you might expect seems eager to mmic the 1990s Disney formula in the way that all the other studios tried to do at the time before finding their own styles? Maybe not. Cathy Ang and Hamilton's Phillipa Soo have the voices for the requisite songs, but the songs themselves don't have the clever wordplay or the tunes that can carry a bit of visual comedy that the Disney movies featured. The animation of the earthbound action looks okay if a bit bland, pushing a fair amount of pixels but not having a lot of personality; the splashy, colorful look of the lunar city sometimes may be a way to simplify the animation, but it's at least fun to look at. There are some nifty bits, although they're not always consistent. I don't think it gets nearly as much out of imagining its goddess as a pop diva as it could, for instance, especially when the film immediately takes a more traditional track as soon as that's tricky to work with.

It's worth noting that the film is a production of Pearl studios, the former DreamWorks venture now wholly owned by their Chinese partners. They produced last year's Abominable and this has the same sort of feel that comes from American creators making a film very much set in modern China and drawing on that culture, with the idea of having it be a hit on both sides of the Pacific. It doesn't exactly feel clumsy on that account - the filmmakers don't stop everything to explain moon pies to foreign audiences, for instance - although I do wonder a bit if a "biker chicks" pun translates into Mandarin/Putonghua at all. It doesn't seem like anything that should trip a western kid up, especially since almost all will be watching it on Netflix and likely have a tablet or laptop handy to look up something they don't know, but I'd be curious how authentic it feels to Chinese or Chinese-American audiences.

Over the Moon doesn't have what it takes to stand aside the Disney classics to which it is clearly related, a disappointment considering that Keane already has an Oscar for short "Dear Basketball". But, then, it's not for me, and I don't have my nieces around to fill me in on how well it works for them. It's got a fair amount that should connect well to its young audience, but probably isn't one parents will be excited to watch alongside their kids.

Also at eFilmCritic

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