All the Major Titles Dropping Early on VOD Because of COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering theaters across the country, studios have had to get creative, releasing films that were just playing at the local multiplex much earlier than they were initially planning. Disney, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros., and others have dropped titles on VOD for rental or purchase, hoping to make back a portion of the money they will lose because of this crisis. The result is a wave of titles available for your quarantined viewing that can almost be overwhelming. The entire line-up from a major movie theater from about three weeks ago is available at home. Here’s a guide to what you can find on services like iTunes and Vudu, along with a link to our initial review and the introduction from that review. Find your favorites and stay healthy.

THUMBS UP

Birds of Prey

The sour “Suicide Squad” gave us a little taste of the artist formerly known as Harleen Quinzel in 2016, when she was the Joker’s dutifully violent girlfriend; “Birds of Prey” offers a veritable smorgasbord of this DC Comics super-villain in all her charismatic, complicated glory. By detailing the character’s origin story and establishing her own franchise, director Cathy Yan pulls off the tricky feat of blending elaborate action sequences with compelling character development, of transporting us to a richly specific Gotham City but sprinkling in just the right amount of pop-culture references, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Tweety Bird to Frida Kahlo. (Christy Lemire)

Emma.”

There was a two-year period in the mid-1990s when Emma Woodhouse was everywhere. First came Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless," a modern-day classic with the action of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel transported to 1990s-era Beverly Hills. The following year came two versions, one on film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the other on television, starring Kate Beckinsale (a perfect actress for this type of material; see Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” based on a story Austen wrote at 14). About 10 years ago, there was a BBC mini-series adaptation. You’d think we would be Emma-ed out by now. Not so. The new adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and directed by Autumn de Wilde, is here, and it’s wonderful! (Sheila O’Malley)

The Gentlemen

Guy Ritchie's "The Gentlemen" plays like a tall tale, a yarn heard at the corner pub, filled with exaggerations and embellishments, where the storyteller expects you to pay his bar tab at the end. And maybe you won't mind doing so. The narrator here is a conniving unscrupulous private detective (redundant adjectives, perhaps) named Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who glories in all he knows about the intersecting criminal-drug-lord elements operating in England, and sets out to blackmail ... everyone ... with a screenplay he's written, where he lays it all out, naming names. Fletcher's screenplay is called "BUSH," bush, in this case, a euphemism for "marijuana," this being an incredibly complicated tale about the "turf war" in the marijuana business: everyone knows legalization is coming, and fast. The end days are nigh. The "bush" double entendre is also present, just for the chuckles factor, and gives you an idea of the overall tone. (Sheila O’Malley)

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The Invisible Man

The abusive male himself might be unseen, but the fear he spreads is in plain sight in “The Invisible Man,” Leigh Whannell’s sophisticated sci-fi-horror that dares to turn a woman’s often silenced trauma from a toxic relationship into something unbearably tangible. Charged by a constant psychological dread that surpasses the ache of any visible bruise, Whannell’s ingenious genre entry amplifies the pain of its central character Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) at every turn, making sure that her visceral scars sting like our own. Sometimes, to an excruciating degree. (Tomris Laffly)

The Way Back

Everyone has a soft spot for a certain movie genre, be it zombies, teen romances, kooky ensembles. A fellow critic and I talked about this once, and he said "Any story about fathers and sons gets to me." For me, it's the underdog-sports genre. Give me "The Bad News Bears." Give me "The Rookie." Give me "Slap Shot." Give me "Hoosiers." And so even though something like "The Way Back" was "made for me," I tried to stay strict with myself in my assessment. What works, what doesn't? Yet I couldn't help but notice the goosebumps covering my arms when the music swelled. This is what movies can do, at their best, draw you out of yourself in spite of yourself. "The Way Back," directed by Gavin O'Connor, is that kind of movie. (Sheila O’Malley)

THUMBS DOWN

Bad Boys for Life” (3/31)

You would have to be a darn fool to believe that Sony thought it had a good movie in “Bad Boys For Life.” It’s being released smack dab in the middle of the cinematic wasteland that is January, the month where bad movies go to die with little fanfare, never to be heard from again. Hell, even that Fresh Pigeon of Bel-Air cartoon, “Spies in Disguise,” got released during Oscar season. Certainly you’d expect a little more release-date love for the third entry of a hit franchise that stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as reckless cops armed with comedic banter and oodles of collateral damage. After all, its predecessors were released in April and July, respectively, and were both directed by Michael Bay. Bay’s conspicuous absence added to my suspicions that there was little studio faith in this feature. (Odie Henderson)

Bloodshot

Vin Diesel fans who can’t wait for the next installment of the “Fast and Furious” macho soap opera series can get their fix at “Bloodshot,” a comic book adaptation that’s as big a stickler about “family” yet far less satisfying than even the worst films of the "Fast" franchise. The family in question here is the wife of Ray Garrison (Diesel), who is put in danger by her spouse’s mercenary soldiering. Now, if you want to walk into director Dave Wilson’s sci-fi actioner as blindly as I did, exit this review now. If you desire a hint of what you’re in for, let me leave you with a few phrases you would have encountered had you stuck around: “Universal Soldier,” “robotic cucarachas,” “needle drop abuse of the Talking Heads” and “blatant rip-off.” (Odie Henderson)

The Call of the Wild” (3/27)

Harrison Ford made me believe he was talking to Greedo and Jabba the Hutt in the early "Star Wars" films and those characters were as low-tech as Gumby and Pokey compared to the technology used to create Ford's canine co-star in "The Call of the Wild." And yet, I never bought it. Instead of getting caught up in the story, I kept wondering how they achieved the effects, like the interactions between the CGI dog with the real-life people and props around him. A lot of work clearly went into scanning a dog from every angle, and getting the muscles, fur, weight, and shape to look real. But the dog still seems synthetic compared to the animals in movies like "A Dog's Purpose" and Disney's own annual nature films (even compared to fully animated characters in the original "101 Dalmatians" and "Lady and the Tramp"). And so does the story. (Nell Minow)

Downhill” (3/27)

Every movie, even a remake, deserves to be viewed on its own merits. But that’s easier stated than done when you have a film like “Downhill,” a largely inferior American knockoff that's far less dynamic than the 2014 dark comedy it's based on. (Nick Allen)

The Hunt

Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt” is filled with more memes than plot. The incendiary film, which caused much online handwringing last fall, was eventually shelved after the president weighed in with an uninformed opinion. Almost everybody’s opinion came sight unseen because few eyes had even watched “The Hunt” at all. No matter, after much sound and fury the movie is more of a molehill than a mountain. Betty Gilpin deserves better and so do we. (Monica Castillo)

Onward

“Onward” springs from a deeply personal place and nestles on a heartbreaking premise: the possibility of being able to spend just one more day with a parent who has passed away. But the high-energy, pop-culture-heavy result feels frantically eager to please, until it tries to yank at your heartstrings in the by-now familiar formula of Pixar Animation. (And of course, the idea of a deceased parent as a crucial plot point is practically on page one of the Disney playbook. My 10-year-old son even commented on this while walking back to the car after a Saturday morning screening.) The film is episodic in structure, leaping from one place to get one thing before leaping to another place to get another, and so on and so on in a series of breathless fetch quests. But in the few moments when it settles down and allows its characters to interact with one another in a meaningful way, “Onward” provides a glimpse of what director and co-writer Dan Scanlon probably was aiming for in sharing an intimate piece of his childhood on the big screen.  (Christy Lemire)

Sonic the Hedgehog” (3/31)

“Sonic the Hedgehog” is the worst kind of bad movie: it's too inoffensive to be hated and too wretched to be enjoyable. You might think that this movie’s sad limbo state has something to do with the extensive and well-publicized last-minute animation redesign that made titular woodland creature Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) look more like Sega’s famous video game character. You’d be wrong: “Sonic the Hedgehog” is rotten because it, like too many other modern blockbusters, was seemingly made by an imaginatively bankrupt creative committee with more ideas for jokes than actual jokes to tell, and more cookie-cutter, place-holder dialogue about the power of friendship than something (anything) to say about that boilerplate quality. (Simon Abrams)

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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