US Cinema in April
This monthly column provides an overview of the film landscape for all things American at the movies, including US characters, stories, settings, directors, stars and so on… Here I round up the upcoming theatrical releases, the forthcoming streaming highlights and special edition Blu-Rays/DVDs, as well as giving a snapshot of the biggest film festivals and award ceremonies happening in the next month.
As has been the case for quite some time now, the release dates for countless films are still unknown due to the global pandemic forcing many of the world’s cinemas to close their doors. Even when social restrictions do ease – as they did in many countries towards the end of Summer 2020 – there’s somewhat of a catch-22 situation at play: the cinemas require there to be enough attractive content (primarily in the form of new films) to justify opening at a reduced capacity, however the distributors of new films need to be certain that enough theatres will be open in order to release their product. At the time of writing, theatres in the US are primarily open, with the capacities allowed depending on the laws of the respective state. Currently, only Texas has completely lifted restrictions for venues such as cinemas, with the majority of states allowing cinemas to operate between 50 and 69% of their capacity. Given the size of the US market – as well as other significant worldwide markets which are currently allowing cinemas to be open such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Korea – April sees the theatrical release of some attractive films which are aiming to take advantage of a paying public who have been starved of noteworthy theatrical content for long enough.
Perhaps the biggest release looking to make a splash at cinemas in April is Godzilla vs. Kong (dir. Adam Wingard, 2021), starring Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and Rebecca Hall, which is being released on 31 March in theatres in the US and via the on-demand service HBO Max simultaneously. Originally scheduled for release in March 2020, then pushed back by two months to May when the pandemic struck, then later to November, the film’s producers and financiers will hope that this latest release strategy will at least recoup the film’s substantial budget of $200 million. Also being released later in the month, on 23 April, is The Asset (dir. Martin Campbell, 2021). The film is an action thriller which stars Maggie Q. as a revered assassin, and promises high octane sequences (from the director of two James Bond films and The Green Lantern), complete with a great cast of Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton.
Netflix will be premiering a number of significant US productions next month, the first of which is Concrete Cowboy (dir. Ricky Staub, 2020), being released on the platform on 2 April. The film tells the story of a father-son relationship (against the backdrop of that most American of genres, the western) which features the subculture of the urban cowboy, and the real-life Fletcher Street Cowboys from Philadelphia. Netflix acquired the distribution rights following the film’s positive showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. A week later, on 9 April, Netflix follows this up with the action-comedy Thunder Force (dir. Ben Falcone, 2021) starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, in which two childhood friends team up to use their newly acquired super-powers to save Chicago. The husband and wife writer-director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini – perhaps most famous for 2003’s American Splendor – will be releasing Things Heard and Seen (dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2021) through Netflix on 30 April. This horror-thriller focuses on an artist from Manhattan (Amanda Seyfried) who relocates her family to a quiet and rural location in upstate New York, but starts to suspect that her marriage is somehow linked to the growing threat posed by her new home.
Amazon Prime Video will be combating those big Netflix titles with their own highly-anticipated release in the form of Without Remorse (dir. Stefano Sollima, 2021), which aims to be another hugely successful Tom Clancy adaptation following the TV series Jack Ryan (2018-present). Starring Michael B. Jordan as a US Navy SEAL who uncovers an international conspiracy, a great ensemble cast feature with stellar names behind the camera too. Italian director Stefano Sollima, whose impressive credits to-date include Gomorrah (2014–present), Suburra (2015), and Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), teams up with writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016), Wind River, 2017) which promises to bring some nuance and unpredictability to mainstream cinema on 30 April.
SPECIAL EDITION BLU-RAY/DVDs
The special edition releases in April feature one absolute classic, and one modern classic – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966) and Donnie Darko (dir. Richard Kelly, 2001). Released as the third and final instalment of Sergio Leone’s “dollars trilogy”, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly cemented Clint Eastwood’s stardom, as well as the talents of the majority Italian production team – especially Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. The release of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray not only represents the best quality presentation to-date of this classic western, but the 2-disc set also contains an extended cut of the film, as well as bursting with features such as audio commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, and more.
Another 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray being released in April is Donnie Darko, the early twenty-first century mind-bending film which shot Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal to fame. As well as featuring new 4K restorations of both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut of the film, the package contains a 100-page hardcover book featuring an in-depth interview with director Richard Kelly and an introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal, a fold-out poster and collector’s postcards, along with audio commentaries and other featurettes, which should satisfy the film’s devoted fans.
FESTIVALS AND AWARDS
One of the most significant film festivals in the US, the Seattle International Film Festival, is happening online (8-18 April). After being one of the first festivals which needed to cancel in 2020 due to the emergence of the pandemic, the festival’s organisers will be relieved to be holding a version of the event, albeit one which is virtual and very different to normal. As a festival which prides itself on its championing of predominantly independent cinema, non-English language features and documentaries, the 2021 programme features a section dedicated to contemporary African cinema, another which focuses on Indigenous filmmaking from around the world, and a strand which concentrates on local films from the Pacific Northwest, as well screening many other films which might only received limited distribution.
The abnormal circumstances of the last year have meant that the normal ‘awards season’ of February has moved to April this year. The Independent Spirit Awards celebrates independent filmmaking and perennially occurs the night before the Academy Awards, but is no less a star-studded occasion, regardless that it is held inside a tent in a Santa Monica car park. The nominees for the Best Feature award include First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2019), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C. Wolfe, 2020), Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung, 2020), Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, 2020), and Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman, 2020). Hittman’s drama, which is about a teenager looking for help following an unintentional pregnancy, received the highest number of nominations with seven. This year the Independent Spirit Awards will be happening on 22 April, three days prior to its more mainstream cousin, and for the first time will be featuring categories dedicated to achievements made in television,. This is further recognition of television’s continuing respectability, which has been built on huge funding and by attracting an impressive list of filmmakers seeking to work in the medium, including some of the biggest-name directors, writers and stars.
On 25 April, Hollywood’s main event, the Academy Awards, will belatedly take place some two months after its usual slot of late-February. The films and people nominated for Oscars suggests progressive diversification with nine out of the 20 acting nominees being from ethnic minority backgrounds. Furthermore, for the first time in the event’s history, two women (Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell) are nominated for best director. Leading the way with the most nominations is Mank (dir. David Fincher, 2020) with 10, a film which stars Gary Oldman as screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, set during the period in which he wrote Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941). Following increasing criticism in recent years regarding the lack of diversity in Academy members, the films nominated and the recipients of awards, so far there appears to be reason for optimism in the nominations, but only time will tell just how diverse the Academy is prepared to be when the winners are announced…