While places are opening slowly, tentatively, in San Francisco sheltering at home is still in effect; we’ve scoured new releases to find notable titles to help pass the time. Though different, all cover, to some degree, the interactions between humans of varied backgrounds.
Dropping Thursday on Amazon Prime, “7500” tells the story of an airplane hijacking, managing to convey the sobering weight of such a situation as well as overwhelming, nail-biting suspense; it’s like a combination of “Captain Phillips” and “Speed.”
A debut feature by Patrick Vollrath, who also co-wrote the screenplay, “7500” takes a fascinating approach, telling the entire story from inside the cockpit.
American co-pilot Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in an incredible performance) takes his seat on a flight out of Berlin. Flight attendant Gökce (Aylin Tezel) sneaks in for a quick chat about kindergarten. They have a child together, but have chosen to keep their relationship secret while working.
The captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), arrives, and the pre-flight check seems normal. A video monitor above the door lets the pilots know when someone wishes to enter the cockpit, and the door must be unlocked by a pilot.
Soon after takeoff, terrorists armed with glass knives that snuck through security have begun their hijack. There’s an unconscious terrorist in the cockpit, Michael is mortally wounded, and Tobias is stabbed in the arm.
A constant hammering, battering sound comes from the door.
A particularly nasty terrorist begins using passengers as hostages, threatening lives in exchange for opening the door, and Gökce is unlucky enough to be chosen.
While “7500” is compact and fast-moving, it still has much more to offer.
Vollrath allows himself the luxury of editing, rather than a “1917”-like unbroken shot, but the movie nonetheless feels like real time.
It’s likely that not many viewers will be familiar with how to fly a commercial jet, but the small details are totally convincing, from the most banal knob-twists to more dramatic pulling back on the stick.
Vollrath uses the enclosed space to tense effect, cleverly stacking moments of rest and realization with moments of creeping terror, as when Tobias secures and conceals a dropped knife. (When will he use it?!?)
What raises “7500” a notch above the usual thriller is that it feels like there’s something at stake. The sensation at the end is relief mixed with disquiet.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Omid Memar
Written by: Patrick Vollrath, Senad Halilbasic
Directed by: Patrick Vollrath
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (an Oscar nominee for “Europa Europa” and “In Darkness”), “Mr. Jones” comes from a true story so harrowing it apparently inspired George Orwell to write “Animal Farm.”
Available as a digital rental, Holland’s film is a bit softer than that, and it appears to have been trimmed by some 20 minutes since its showing at the Berlin Film Festival, but it’s still fascinating and gripping.
It’s 1933, and young, intrepid Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), fresh off recent interviews with Hitler and Goebbels, is on the trail of his next big story.
He gets the idea to interview Stalin about the Soviet Union’s apparently successful financial plan, which, on paper, doesn’t really add up.
Using his connection to a former prime minister, he illicitly heads to Moscow, meets New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) and his Girl Friday Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), and is told that 1) everything is just peachy, but 2) he’s not allowed to leave the city.
Undaunted, Jones hops a train to Ukraine. Holland presents this sequence drained of color, in snowy grays, as Jones discovers a horrifying famine, deliberately engineered by Stalin. He sees children boiling and eating tree bark, and far worse. He nearly dies.
When he returns, he finds yet another obstacle: No one will publish his story.
“Mr. Jones” lacks the intricate digging for details that drive most journalism movies (“All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight,” “The Post,” etc.); it’s painted in bigger strokes.
For some reason, the movie occasionally cuts to Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) clacking away on his typewriter.
But Holland coaxes appealingly old-fashioned performances from all three leads; they may have stepped right out of an old movie. Norton wears his innocence and his hunger (both physical and spiritual) on his sleeve, and he’s a ready-made movie hero.
Sarsgaard has one of his slimiest roles as the journalist who compromised professionalism for fame, lurching around on a cane and throwing drug-fueled orgies. And Kirby brings a sharp edge to a pretty typical second-banana female role.
But overall, “Mr. Jones” is a reminder that even in times of atrocities, good people are fighting the good fight.
Starring: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Kenneth Cranham
Written by: Andrea Chalupa
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Arriving just in time for Pride Month, Jennifer Bagley’s documentary “Jack & Yaya” tells the lovely, down-to-earth story of two next-door neighbors who met as toddlers through the back yard fence. They became fast friends, their bond eventually rooted in the fact that they are both transgender.
Available on demand, the loose, relaxed movie takes place as Jack, who was given the name Jacqueline at birth, travels home from Boston for the Fourth of July holiday. He chats comfortably for the camera, telling warm stories of his coming out and his transitioning.
Yaya — her stage name as a drag performer — grew up as Christopher and is in the middle of the long, complicated process of legally changing her name to Christina. She tells her story while expertly applying her complex makeup regimen.
When the friends reunite, 30 years after their first meeting, “Jack & Yaya” can’t really find much depth. The heart of the movie — the ways in which they must have helped each other out during their childhoods — is left unsaid.
Instead the movie simply watches them as they and their families’ picnic, swim and watch football. People are forever cooking, and Pearl Jam posters seem to adorn every wall. Occasionally old photos or home videos provide more backdrop.
One lovely moment shows Jack snuggling up to Yaya in a hot tub, and she responds by leaning her head on him and shutting her eyes.
Later, she comes to help when Jack has a hysterectomy and must move as little as possible while recovering. Their bond may be unspoken, but it’s clearly deep.
Additionally, the family members — a bunch of colorful South Jersey characters right out of a reality show — are interviewed. They’re a lovable bunch, with not an iota of judgment or prejudice among them.
Maybe that’s why “Jack & Yaya” strikes one as more of a good film than a great one. It plays like a home movie, largely without conflict, and where touching moments seem to happen accidentally.
But on the plus side, perhaps this unassuming, pleasant movie is just the kind of thing that people who are horrified over restroom labeling need to learn that transgender folks are just like anyone else.
Jack & Yaya
Directed by: Jen Bagley, Mary Hewey
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
An even timelier film, and a fine film for the Black Lives Matter moment, “Miss Juneteenth” opens on Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the freeing of the last slaves in Texas in 1865.
A feature writing and directing debut by Texas-born Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a “little” movie in all the best ways, quietly focusing on a small community of people and their struggles.
Turquoise Jones (an excellent Nicole Beharie) is a former winner of the prestigious Miss Juneteenth pageant. Other winners have gone on to college and to enviable careers.
Available digitally and on demand, the movie doesn’t explain specifically what happened to Turquoise, who now works at a barbecue joint as well as a few odd hours at the local funeral home.
But we can assume that she slept with the smooth, dreamy auto mechanic Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) and became stuck raising a daughter, the now-15-year-old Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).
The plot has Turquoise preparing Kai for this year’s competition, obsessively trying to re-create everything that worked for her years earlier. This involves buying a fancy dress she can’t afford, and coaxing Kai to memorize the same poem that Turquoise recited.
Kai, for her part, would rather dance. She doesn’t care about other aspects of the competition — such as identifying a salad knife — although Turquoise doesn’t notice this apathy.
Unfortunately, the plot often feels like a sitcom, and it makes the otherwise strong character sometimes seem annoyingly pushy and oblivious.
On the other hand, thanks to a nuanced depiction of a struggling, tightly connected community, viewers come to sadly realize the pageant may be the only chance that Kai has of making a better life for herself.
In the end, Peoples’ assured, gentle direction eventually smooths out flaws in the screenplay, or at least makes them easy to forgive, and “Miss Juneteenth” emerges as a movie rooted in truth that refuses to give up hope.
Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel
Written and directed by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes