The King of Staten Island” is the most prominent of the few brave films that switched from theatrical release to video-on-demand amid the pandemic, and it’s also a good one. It had been long enough since I’d seen a good Judd Apatow movie – 2012’s “This Is 40,” the last film he both wrote and directed – that it’s a revelation to rediscover his sharp dialog and knack for showing that deeply flawed people are still worth rooting for.
Stargirl” (Mondays on DC Universe; Tuesdays on CW) – one of 14 current TV series executive-produced by Greg Berlanti – falls into the category of what my buddy Michael calls “product”: something that exists for commercial rather than artistic reasons. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, but this latest addition to the DC TV universe is as stiff as the Cosmic Staff wielded by its title character, teen Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged”).
Who would’ve thought one of the most sneaky-cool films of 2019 would also be one you can recommend to your parents? Writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” re-invigorates the mystery genre, and while its unusual smattering of comedy is a big talking point, this ain’t exactly “Clue.” It’s ultimately a masterfully plotted, thoroughly gripping story that reveals new pieces of information right up until the old-fashioned “here’s what happened” finale. It sprinkles comedy and social commentary as spices.
Voices from the Street” (written in 1952, published in 2007) was Philip K. Dick’s last published novel — finally hitting shelves a quarter-century after his death. One might therefore assume it’s a middling curiosity, but it’s actually an outstanding achievement, all the more amazing because Dick wrote it when he was 24, about the same age as his protagonist and stand-in Stuart Hadley. The sprawling character piece is like a more muscular answer to J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” (1951) — raising the question of why publishers considered it to have no audience at the time — and it also calls to mind modern movies such as “Office Space” (1999) and “The Good Girl” (2002).
With an unusually long gap between new Marvel Cinematic Universe releases, I decided to finally check out “Marvel’s Runaways” Season 1 (2017-18, Hulu). Now through three seasons, it’s part of the young-adult wing of the MCU, and I appreciate that it’s more colorful, sunnier (it’s set in Los Angeles, the opposite side of the continent from most MCU goings-on) and more fathomable than the other YA series, Freeform’s recently canceled “Cloak & Dagger.” It also has an amazing cast, but Season 1 has one big problem at its core.
All the Bright Places” (February, Netflix) walks a fine line. For some young viewers, it’ll be the best movie they’ve ever seen; for cynical older viewers, it’ll be a cliché-ridden bore fest. For me, it’s pretty much the best Gen-Z teen romance I’ve seen (Elle Fanning and Justice Smith are late-era millennials, but they play younger than their ages). There’s always the fear that modern teens will be off-puttingly self-centered and all-knowing, but I liked Fanning’s Violet and Smith’s Finch, and they are quite cute when going through the cliches.
Sky High” (2005) is totally formulaic, and that’s why it succeeds for most of its run time but ultimately flattens out into something safely disposable. It came out during what I like to think of as the Disney comedy boom of the early 21st century, the time of “Lizzie McGuire” and its ilk. Although the writers and director have worked almost entirely on Disney kids’ and animated projects, “Sky High” is a smart movie with a lot of too-wise-for-school humor.
Marriage Story” (2019, Netflix) is both a stark portrayal of why people should never get married (it costs way too much to get divorced) and a surprisingly good love story considering that we meet these people amid their divorce proceedings. In stage play-like fashion, writer-director Noah Baumbach portrays the daily lives of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). While there is one extreme shouting match, the couple is mostly calm and mature; it’s actually the legal process of divorce that gets a viewer’s blood boiling.
One of the paradoxes of Philip K. Dick’s career is that he wrote his most robust and mature observations about human behavior at the sputtering start of his career, with none of those nine books from 1950-60 being immediately published. Then he tried his hand at pulp SF and got good at it. But writing about the human condition in 1950s California under American societal morals of the time was arguably his natural calling.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” (NBC) isn’t “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” … or “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” … or “Zoey 101.” Watching the pilot episode of the series (which will return Feb. 16, in its regular Sunday slot), I could never forget that it is trying to cash in on the current popularity of musicals and that it uses a title that evokes things people already like. That said, this series — whose producers include “Freaks and Geeks’ ” Paul Feig and “The Perfection’s” Richard Shepard (who directs the first episode) — is far from terrible.