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Front Page - Friday, February 5, 2021

Critic's Corner: Plenty to watch at home as we yearn for return to movie theaters

As I watched “The Hunt” at the AMC Chattanooga 18 in March, I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d see a film in a theater for only God knows how long.

Soon thereafter, movie theaters closed to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and everyone was consigned to watching new releases exclusively at home.

While I missed the experience of going to the movies – the smell of popcorn, watching a film on a big screen, wondering if my eardrums were going to pop – the only time I felt the pinch of the pandemic with regard to movies was when “Tenet” hit reopened theaters in August.

Christopher Nolan’s film was made for big screens, but warnings against gathering in an enclosed space disinfected by a bored teenager with a spray bottle kept me at home.

Other than that, I dove deep into the treasure trove of content available through the streaming platforms, and discovered a number of movies and television series I might have otherwise missed.

Films I discovered while digging through Prime Video included “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” an exquisite French historical romance so gorgeous, every frame of the film could be hung in a museum and pass for a Renaissance painting, and “Invisible Life,” a captivating Brazilian drama about two inseparable sisters who nonetheless lose each other as they come of age and cave to cultural expectations.

Both films offer thought-provoking assessments of women’s circumstances and devastating final shots I doubt I will forget.

On the television front, I arrived late at the party for “Justified,” a 2010-2015 crime drama that went from time filler to binge obsession as I watched the first of six incredible seasons.

The performances of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder alone make the show worth watching, never mind the crack writing.

It’s impossible to return to watching network television after feasting on a rich meal like “Justified,” so I’m thankful I also happened upon “Devs,” a science fiction thriller on FX on Hulu.

The eight-episode limited series uses a murder at a quantum computer company as a launching pad for a gripping exploration of free will and determinism.

Complaints from critics about flat performances and the slow-burning storyline aside, the show is a memorable, rewarding experience that (if you’ll allow me a bit of hamminess) occasionally blew my mind. Like the films I mentioned, it also has an ending that continues to haunt me.

While I’m looking forward to when theaters can reopen and offer a safe viewing experience (and allow me to die without “The Hunt” being the last film I saw on a big screen), I’ve almost stopped missing going to the movies. There’s so much content available at the touch of my remote, I’m not lacking for something to do during my downtime.

I have, however, missed sharing my thoughts about films in this column.

When theaters closed, Critic’s Corner felt unnecessary. Instead of shelling out a day’s wages on tickets and snacks, everyone was able pay a monthly fee to unlock more content than they could view in a lifetime. (According to We Got This Covered, it would take more than four years to watch what’s on Netflix alone.)

But as available content grew, navigating the streaming frontier to find something worth watching become a chore. So, I reasoned, maybe someone could use a recommendation or two about what to watch or avoid.

Case in point: “Honest Thief,” a new action thriller starring Liam Neeson. I stumbled upon the film while looking for something to fill an evening, and being a Neeson fan, hit the “Rent movie” button before my wife could finish reading the synopsis.

I’m still hearing about it.

On the surface, it sounded great. Neeson plays his stock and trade character – an aging cop, detective, or, in this case, criminal with a soft heart who has to beat up a lot of bad guys so he can live in peace.

When he begins a romance with Kate Walsh of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, he decides he wants to stop robbing banks in the dead of the night and come clean about his past.

Unfortunately, when he tries to turn himself in to the FBI, the two agents who arrive at his door have other ideas about what to do with the money he stole and stashed in a storage shed.

Clearly, neither of them has seen a Liam Neeson movie, because if they had, they would have gone through with the arrest and reported the location of the money to their superiors.

I’d describe more about what comes next, but I’m assuming you have seen one or two Liam Neeson movies and are therefore familiar with what follows.

A quick glance at Neeson’s filmography suggests that a formulaic movie can still be good fun. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with “Honest Thief.”

Although the cast and premise are promising, writer and director Mark Williams fails to deliver on that promise. Instead, he produced a leaden film with lackluster action, characters that make questionable decisions and dialog that occasionally causes you to wonder what he was thinking.

By the end of the movie, I was wishing I had read a review first, as the film sits at 39% on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this, which seems about right.

While reviews can be helpful when picking something to watch, I knew I’d love Pixar’s “Soul” even before I pressed “Play” on Disney+.

The new animated “dramedy” follows a middle school band teacher named Joe Gardner as he seeks to reunite his body and his soul after they are separated just before his big break as a jazz musician.

Packed with animation that defines the characters as much as it dazzles the eyes, seasoned with a terrific score that alternates between acoustic jazz and electronic pieces to distinguish between the physical world and the realm where souls reside, and told with massive doses of humor and heart, “Soul” is not only tremendously entertaining but the kind of life-affirming movie we need right now.

So there you have it: Something to watch and something to avoid. I hope it helps as you navigate the streaming frontier the next time you have an evening to fill.