Roundtable: Movie Club in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with Team Sunbreak; so I thought it was a good time to convene one of our virtual roundtables. At present, we’re all healthy and following social isolation (or, maybe more accurately physical distancing guidelines.

So … a big hello to all you cool cats and kittens. How’s everyone doing in our isolation prisons?

Chris: I’m holding up okay, but handing it better as it becomes more and more permanent. My dayjob moved remote with great reluctance, but once I got my company-issued laptop, I’ve been working pretty much every day from my kitchen table. I’ve also been trying to write regularly to maintain some sense of normalcy. It’s given me a chance to watch a lot more TV shows and movies, and a lot more patience to enjoy more austere filmmaking, which has been really rewarding.

Josh: You’ve been on fire lately! I’m envious — while I’ve been at home too obsessed with the news (and misinformation briefings) you’ve been turning out some excellent reviews and interviews. I hope everyone’s had a chance to check them out.

Tony: For the first  few days of quarantine, I felt like I had a pretty decent handle on it.  It enabled me to push further on some other writing projects, and to get several corners of my place organized. It also enabled me to deep-dive on viewing a lot of stuff (more on that later). But inside of a week, a lot  the weight of the isolation; the increasingly grave headlines; the maddening, terrifying stench of ignorance wafting from the Oval Office, and those acrid fumes being gleefully inhaled by too many people; it all kinda wrecked me, and it’s made writing a struggle.  I’m also a very social animal, so all of this social distancing is extra-painful. These are all strictly first-world problems, but they still sting.

Chris: One thing I’ve noticed, and I don’t know if it applies to anyone else, but I find my brain sometimes feels like it’s losing a step being in quarantine. Even when I feel well rested and everything, I find myself missing easy questions on “Jeopardy!” and can type sentences with three or four typos when I normally would make between one and zero over a full paragraph. 

Morgen: Mood swings have not been out of the question, talking out loud to no one is also on the table (but to be fair, I do that a lot anyway), then there’s lots and lots and lots of television/film. It’s mostly to keep the Facebook ridiculousness at bay, I think all of you out there can relate in a very real way (rhyming not intended but a delightful treat). And bonus, that saves the good folks reading us here on Sunbreak from watching something truly wretched, because I’ve watched it for you. You’re welcome.

Josh: It’s kind of embarrassing to admit how well I’m taking to these social distancing measures. In a normal week, I’d probably work from home a couple days per week anyway, although those days often included a few hours at a cafe for breakfast or lunch and at least the ambient din of humanity. But Zoom calls for business and social gatherings are hitting the spot and a little bit of online shopping here and there quells urges to run out to the store for random daily groceries. I also had several work-related trips cancelled in March, so maybe I was already a bit mentally prepared to be absent from local socialization. Brushing off the stress of travel was nice (I feel like I get a mild cold every other time I get on an airplane), but I kind of miss the airport, the eternal quest for Alaska MVP Gold status, and uninterrupted blocks of time to catch up on buzzworthy shows. I still haven’t quite adjusted to not being able to watch movies in theaters. There’s an absurdity to that statement given the situation, but I’m terrible about watching movies at home and some shows are really just built for an iPad and pretending you aren’t crammed into a tin can hurtling perilously high above the earth.

Tony: I don’t think there’s the slightest bit of absurdity to missing the theatrical experience at all, Josh. I do too, in a big way. I’ve always thought of theaters as churches erected for the worship of cinema (which makes multiplexes the cinematic equivalent of those gaudy mega-churches, I guess). People walk into a theater, (ideally) remain silent throughout, and let themselves be moved by a communal  experience. I love the feeling of being in a huge theater with no one around, I love the thrum of a packed theater when everyone’s fully invested in the film being screened (talkers who need to be boxed upside the head excepted). Wonderful as it is having a universe of viewing options at my fingertips and on my TV/computer screen, it’s just not the same. 

Josh: The other obstacle to my quarantine viewing has been that right before the outbreak hit, I got in under the wire and “panic purchased” a Nintendo Switch. I hadn’t played video games since I was a kid, but Mario Kart and Pokemon Let’s Go (sorry, Animal Crossing fans, I just don’t get it … yet) have gone a long way toward tuning out the news and making hours disappear. However, it’s sucked up time that might’ve been better spent catching up on arthouse releases or anything long form. 

Tony: I have long avoided the time-sucking vortex that is a video game console, for fear of not getting anything done. Then again, it might offer some relief. Note to self…

Which upcoming release’s delay bummed you out the most?

First Cow (A24)

Josh: One of the last screenings I saw before things got seriously shut down was First Cow,  Kelly Reichardt’s nineteenth century story set in the early days of the Oregon Territory. A cook who traveled west with obnoxious fur trappers (John Magaro) and a globetrotting dreamer from China (Orion Lee) form a friendship and, presaging modern Portland, build their fortunes by way of a trendy baked goods pop-up outside Fort Tillicum that’s built on a bit of a scheme. The film captures the rhythms of frontier life at a tipping point before the impending collisions of capitalism and colonization on indiginous people, the natural world, and individual ambitions. It’s illuminating, moving, a little bit thrilling, and the cow in the title role is, in fact, a magnificent creature with phenomenal screen presence. It’s easily among the best movies I’ve seen this year, and it’s really too bad that its theatrical run was cut so short. SIFF had a whole program to celebrate its arrival, complete with a visit from Reichardt and presentations of her previous films.

Tony: I am saddened I didn’t get to that screener of First Cow, and based on your recommendation Josh, I’m now chomping at the bit (or maybe more appropriately, chewing at my cud? I dunno) to get a look.

Josh: Unlike a lot of other recently retracted releases, it sounds like A24 is holding out for another chance to get it in front of audiences in theaters instead of cutting straight to VOD. While it isn’t a movie that really requires the big screen from an effects point of view, there’s always something great about disappearing into a good story in the dark with others. I can see why they’re in a wait-and-see mode with this one.

Chris: On Friday the 13th (how ominous!), it was my last free weekday, so I was going to try to spend the afternoon at theaters while my girlfriend worked her job remotely. I went to see the Vin Diesel vehicle Bloodshot at the Northgate theater in the late morning (it was fine, whatever, you’ve seen better and worse) and checked my phone heading back to my car and saw that SIFF was going to close all of their theaters immediately. My plan was to see the Brazilian movie Bacurau at the Uptown that afternoon. It’s been my biggest disappointment, even though it didn’t take long for it to make it to VOD, and with a way to support a(nother) local theater.

Tony: Bacurau sounds like the kind of arthouse genre-bender that’d be phenomenal to see in a theater, but I’m looking forward to seeing it courtesy the Northwest Film Forum’s online screening option. 

Morgen: Well, it’s not so much delayed releases as it is I don’t get to go see films in theaters. Full disclosure, I don’t like watching movies with a ton of people around (I like having my space and no talkers nearby!), but I love being in a big theater and watching a film on a screen that would literally cover my whole house like a blanket. A lot of the films I was excited to see are supposed to be released streaming with Video-On-Demand. I think it’ll just mean I don’t get to see first run movies for the most part (gotta cut my entertainment budget way down… it’s puzzles and Netflix for me!)  But I’m cool with that and I think a lot of folks that read our work are in the same boat so let’s get ourselves some good old fashioned 80’s movie binging on!

Tony: Speaking of the eighties, I’m bummed that the Wonder Woman sequel’s being pushed back as well. I have high hopes for it.

Social distancing, Bond style (MGM)

Josh: I’m not even a huge Bond fan (I have seen exactly three of them in full), but an expensive, great-looking event blockbuster with broad appeal sounds great right about now, so No Time To Die is my most honest answer to what I’m actually missing due to the shutdown. MGM were way out ahead on the postponement front, presciently anticipating the impending scale of the crisis, and clearly not wanting to sully a very expensive bauble with an aborted release or prematurely surrendering 007 to the world of home video. 

Tony: God help me, I’m also bummed to not get to see No Time to Die in a theater. However the end product turns out, seeing the neck-snapping high-velocity car chase scene in the trailer on a big screen was exhilarating. I think Daniel Craig’s a phenomenal Bond, and I go into every one of Craig’s Bonds hoping each one will be a grand-slam home run as Casino Royale was. Hope springs eternal, despite the franchise letting me down pretty consistently.

Josh: For now, to gawk at high production values, middling scripts, and great locations, I guess I’ll have to settle for weekly installations in the form of Westworld’s new season on HBO. So far, it feels a lot dumber than the previous two seasons with time trickery (oh, Nolans) and strained philosophizing, which given the muddle of its second season feels like a very welcome change. I’ve heard some disappointment from people who wanted something deeper from this exploration artificial intelligence, free will, and humanity, but am personally enjoying watching dumb pretty robots one episode at a time. (Sue me, I also didn’t hate the Picard series on CBS — which is also now free to stream, courtesy of Sir Patrick Stewart.)

Other thoughts about changing landscape in the time of Covid-19


Morgen:  So I mentioned above that this’ll just mean I don’t get to see first run movies for a while. However, SIFF’s film fest cancellation hits me hard. The festival is like a holiday for me. I remember the first time I was given a press pass to photograph the red carpets. I was still going to screenings as an everyday joe, but capturing Ewan McGregor as he walked into the Egyptian was a thrill. I was hooked, and I can’t imagine spending my May doing anything else. Unfortunately, this year it just won’t happen for the good of Seattle and the health of its citizens. My heart goes out to SIFF as an organization and the uncertainty and fear that they must be feeling right now. It’s also heartbreaking for filmmakers, just as when SXSW was cancelled, spending months or years to create something worthy of a festival just to have that excitement and payoff taken away. Culturally and creatively, it’s a loss that’s hard to imagine and all we can do is support them as things progress and help to build next year’s festival even bigger and better than ever.

Tony: The loss of the Festival is, unquestionably, an epic body blow to the community in general, and particularly to all of the staffers and volunteers who tirelessly work to make it happen every year.  It’s beyond heartbreaking. I began covering the festival ten years ago, and every year it’s been an adventure. For a few years I was able to take my accrued time off from my day job and spend three-plus weeks just watching movies, interviewing the people who made them, and writing about it all. I loved being able to just jump into a screening blind, and summarily have my mind blown. And just when I’d begin to get jaded, I’d see something amazing, or meet someone (a writer, filmmaker, or civilian) whose enthusiasm was infectious enough to remind me why I adore film so damned much. 

Josh: I, too, am sad about SIFF having to scrap the festival. For me, that month of filmgoing is always an enlivening marathon of catching things I’d been anticipating as well as spontaneously checking out whatever lines up with my schedule. But, it’s even more crushing for all of the people at SIFF that have been put out of work, the seasonal employees and volunteers that spring up to make the whole thing happen, and for all of the filmmakers who aren’t going to be able to experience the city as an opportunity to show their films to friendly audiences. SIFF is trying to weather the storm by encouraging festival passholders to consider their pre-purchased items as a donation or to roll them over to next year’s. In addition to the previous GoFundMe for SIFF’s furloughed cinema employees, SIFF’s most devoted fans, the filmgoers of Fool Serious, just launched a GoFundMe to support SIFF’s Staffers

Morgen: That being said, this whole ordeal is definitely going to change the landscape of our country and culture/business of film will be no exception. I really have no idea what that will mean other than more folks may be inclined to forgo movie theaters altogether and stay at home more to do VOD even when they can go out. Or maybe it’ll create a resurgence of theater-going families and fans, or even better, drive-in movies will come back! That’s really the best outcome I could think of. Drive-ins were THE best when I was a kid and it’s definitely a cultural experience. 

Tony: Drive-ins were a big part of my childhood and adolescence too, Morgen. I was lucky enough to be able to see movies in them when they were still a viable option for independent, batshit nuts genre cinema. It was a heady and wonderful time to be seeing those types of movies, and I agree with you that it’s a special experience to see a movie in a drive-in. That spirit and aesthetic (plus, honestly, some pangs of nostalgia for a more innocent and wide-eyed time) definitely informed a fair deal of my viewing throughout March, which has skewed heavily toward Amazon’s Prime Video. True to form, I’ve been eschewing most of Amazon’s current flavors of the month and doing deep-dives down the service’s many archival rabbit holes. While Netflix’s selection continues to become ever more homogenous and focused on in-house content, Amazon allows hardcore movie nerds the opportunity to explore thousands of movies that were actually made before 1990 (and that, friends, is about 90% of cinema history). There’s the potential to binge everything from ‘70s disaster movies, to martial arts flicks, to spaghetti westerns, to schlocky Reagan-era post-apocalyptic Mad Max rip-offs and beyond. I’m prepping some writing on some of my discoveries (probably for another website). And this circles back to Morgen’s musing on drive-ins. A lot of the movies I watched were unspooling and flourishing at drive-ins a couple of decades ago.

Chris: I’m curious to see what will happen with the larger theaters because I don’t see people stopping enjoying watching first-run movies from their home. I wonder if we’re going to see a twilight of huge-budget movies (or at least for a time being) with there being no guarantee of foreign markets or  people flocking back to theaters en masse. It’ll remain to be seen, I suppose.

Josh: From a purely selfish point of view, I hate watching movies at home and can’t wait to get back to the cinemas. The last film I saw was an afternoon screening of The Burnt Orange Heresy, a fun little caper with beautiful people (Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki) spending a weekend on a rich guy’s Lake Como estate (Mick Jagger!) and getting drawn into a scheme involving a reclusive art star (Donald Sutherland). It’s fine-to-good, a throwback of a sort of middlebrow euro slow boil thrillers, but I’ll mainly remember it for the empty theater, a likely effect of everyone else being to anxious about the emerging coronavirus to go downtown for a sneak preview. In retrospect it feels kind of dumb that I went, but it was nothing if not socially distanced!

We’ve all been keeping ourselves entertained at safe distances, what’s your favorite thing you saw/streamed last month?

Tiger King (Netflix)

Chris: Oh my @almightygod, you guys, as alluded to in the intro we must talk about Tiger King, the new, seven-part docu-series on Netflix. I binged it in two days, the fastest I’ve ever watched a full series. It was one of the wildest TV shows I’ve ever seen, like there was no point where the craziness tapered off, it just got wilder and wilder before you ran out of episodes. It’s about Joe Exotic, who owned a private zoo in Oklahoma. He’s loud, proud, gay, wears a mullet, and he has no self-awareness, including believing he’d become the next governor of Oklahoma. He’s more Florida Man than anyone in the Sunshine State. He’s also in prison right now for attempted murder. 

Josh: I’d kind of faded on the true crime binges (though the cancellation of American Vandal hit me hard), but I got pulled back in with Tiger King (a story that was also covered long-form in New York Magazine last year). My enjoyment of the ever more insane revelations was enhanced by “watching” the series “with” friends over the last week using NetflixParty, a Chrome extension that keeps your viewing synchronized with your friends. It’s pretty bare-bones, but the act of coordinating a viewing and collectively gasping at the series via a lightweight text-based chat made the show feel like more of an event.  I’m not sure that it has very much to say, Carole gets maybe too harsh of an edit, and it sputters a bit to find meaning at the end. Still, the truly insane lives of the people profiled, their intense grudges, constant duplicity, lack of self-awareness, willingness to spill their guts to the camera, and (sorry, not sorry) the often very cute animals makes it reality television gold. 

Tony: I’ve resisted Tiger King’s charms so far, but the fact that you guys have been quaffing the Kool-Aid so enthusiastically has me wavering. 

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Netflix)

Tony: Two of the many films I streamed on Netflix in March immediately stand out. The first is Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. As a relative jazz neophyte, I was genuinely captivated by. Stanley Nelson Jr’s doc about the legendary (and legendarily problematic) jazz trumpeter is a pretty straightforward chronicle, but it’s an invaluable Miles 101, covering the breadth of his talent, innovation, and crossover success without tumbling into hagiography. My one quibble: There’s next to no mention of Davis’s ex-wife Betty, whose raw erotic funk music and flamboyant fashion aesthetic rubbed off on Miles as he blazed new trails for himself in the ‘70s. 

Chris: A Netflix thing thing that I found amusing was Medical Police, the “sequel” to Children’s Hospital, which debuted a few months ago. It stars Erinn Hayes and Rob Huebel as doctors who also become cops to save the world from a deadly pandemic that is infecting people all over the globe. The kicker is that everyone involved is really stupid. It’s more enjoyable than watching the news, at least.

Tony: My other favorite new-ish stream was Marc Maron: End Times Fun. I’ve been woefully neglectful of stand-up for the last several years, but Maron’s new special had me howling, while still engaging my brain fully. He’s likely one of the very few stand-ups alive who could do a routine about Vice President Mike Pence facing the end times that’s equal parts gleefully profane, trenchantly witty, insightful, and even curiously sympathetic in places. One caveat: This 71-minute set  goes to quite a few dark (comically dark, but dark nonetheless) places, some of which feel prescient given where we currently find ourselves.

Morgen: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that I’ve been eager to see for so long, and that was definitely my highlight so far this month. However, I won’t go into it since we’re chatting about that in a roundtable soon. If you’ve been dying to see it like I have, it’s streaming on basic Hulu. 

Chris: I’m so glad you enjoyed that, Morgen! It was one of the last three or so movies I saw in a theater before the shutdown, I think with just Bloodshot and The Hunt, more recently, and it was such an outstanding movie. 

To approximate “going to the movies”, how about we each nominate something new-ish to watch? We’ll reconvene throughout the month to discuss them in Movie Club style.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Josh: This is one that the rest of you will probably like more than me, but nominating it will force me to give it a shot: Chinese crime epic, The Wild Goose Lake which is available through a partnership between The Grand Illusion and Film Movement’s virtual screening room through April 2nd. 

Chris: I will jump on Morgen’s recommendation above for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the gorgeous French movie I already mentioned about a young woman hired to covertly paint a portrait of another young woman, who has proven difficult to paint. They begin to develop feelings for each other. It’s one of the great on-screen love stories in recent memory. It was a joy to watch every moment of this story unfold. It’s on Hulu right now.

Tony: Speaking of one of the movies on my shortlist of  “wish I saw it in a theater,” the SunBreak’s resident genre-movie evangelist would like to nominate Bacurau for roundtable consideration.  It’s available via Kino Lorber’s partnership with Northwest Film Forum, and screens virtually through April 15.


Morgen: My pick is 6 Underground. OK, OK, I know what you’re thinking: it’s a Michael Bay film. But come on, isn’t this ridiculous, blow up everything without regard for unknown human casualties and massive destruction we could all use right now? Ryan Reynolds is charming as always and the ragtag cast of characters does it for me. Sometimes (and I mean only sometimes) I really love this kind of stuff and this is one of those times. You can watch this right now on Netflix

Tony: Morgen, I’m looking forward to a blast of dumbbell action-movie escapism, so thanks for your pick.

Josh: Me, too. Sounds like fun! I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire last year; so I’m definitely looking forward to revisiting it. Can’t wait to hear what you all think of Bacurau — I had a review in the queue, but will hold off for our roundtable.

We’ll be watching these four movies — and more — over the coming month and we hope you’ll follow along! Until then, we hope everyone stays healthy, well entertained, and keeps their hands clean. Feel free to chime in on our Facebook page or yell at us on Twitter to let us know what you think of our selections.