DownStream – A Long Cold Lonely Winter

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us, and we’ve all suffered in different ways. As I’ve mentioned in my scant writings for the past five months, my biggest loss has been the ability to go to the movies and see new content. I’m grateful that I haven’t had things worse. But for those who have, and for a good number of us who haven’t, the physical act of going to the movies has been not just recreation but escapism. It’s why I’m confident that once theatres open back up, they won’t face nearly the long-term problems for which they’re financially preparing themselves. There’s just nothing that compares with going to a theatre, sitting in one of those ultra-comfy chairs, hearing the clatter of the projector (even if it’s simulated, since the vast majority are digital now), and eating oversized snacks while watching a film, no matter the quality of either. That’s the experience that’s been robbed from us, and that’s what audiences will clamor for once we’re able to do it again.

In the meantime, though, we’ve had to make do with whatever we get, and the studios have been trying whatever they can think of to keep themselves profitable. In fact, Disney just posted their first quarterly loss since 2001. That’s how bad it’s gotten. It took a pandemic to do what a dozen shitty remakes couldn’t.

The main go-to has been using alternative media and streaming to get their content out, even if it’s just to fulfill a contractual obligation, and even then, the response has been mixed. People are glad to watch movies from home just to have them, but no one likes paying upwards of $35 a pop for them, nearly triple what they’d pay at a theatre. The studios justify the cost on the assumption that multiple people are watching, and in a lot of cases, they’re right, but it’s not a sustainable business model.

We’re getting to the point that both the studios and the theatres are starting to give up trying to make money hand over fist like they’ve been doing for decades, and just trying any means to put something out. AMC was set to reopen last month before a surge in cases and deaths forced them to punt, punt, and punt some more. This was mostly because they didn’t want to open without a guaranteed cash cow, pinning their hopes on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and the Disney live-action remake of Mulan. Both films got pushed further and further back, so AMC followed suit. Now both films are essentially off the board. Tenet is going to be released overseas before it hits American cinemas (it’s not even on Warner Bros.’ calendar at this point), and Disney has just admitted defeat and shifted Mulan to Disney+. Other potential windfalls like Antebellum have also been pushed, while The New Mutants and Bill & Ted Face the Music are currently still listed for August releases. As it stands, AMC has yet to set a new reopening target date, only vaguely suggesting “mid-to-late August.”

As such, the at-home option is the only viable alternative for most people, though apparently drive-ins are making a comeback. To that end, I still want to watch stuff and write about it, so I’ve decided to use the DownStream series as my outlet. Over the next few weeks, I will be going through whatever streaming services are available to me to see what I can see and post mini-reviews here. Netflix is my main outlet, but my roommates have basically all the others, so I may use them depending on time and availability. I’ve also actually paid the overcharge for one VOD rental.

There will basically be two rules for how I conduct these reviews going forward:

  1. This will only apply to films that either were screened in a theatre or were intended to be. For example, the three films I’ve got today all debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January before going onto Netflix as well as a limited theatrical run for Academy eligibility (the rules of which have changed to allow streaming films for next year so long as a theatrical debut was the initial intent). A basic way to look at it is what rating is shown from the streaming service. For example, if the film was intended to be a theatrical release, it will have received an MPA rating ranging from G to NC-17. If it’s truly a Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon, etc.) original production, it will have a TV-G to TV-MA rating, and thus will not be considered here.
  2. Unless I get really desperate, I’m not watching or reviewing anything that ended up in a “This Film is Not Yet Watchable” column. I want to see stuff, but not SO badly that I’m willing to go back on my initial gut reaction of shitting on it based on the trailer. At least, not yet.

That brings us to the films for this edition. Netflix is the easiest place to start, and since we’ve got a lot of time to cover, I figured I might as well do these in blocks. For today’s purposes, I’m covering the winter months of 2020, i.e. January through March. In that time, Netflix has released seven films. I’m going to cover three of them. As for the other four, three of them (To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, All the Bright Places, and Uncorked) are all true Netflix TV movies, so they’re out, and the other is Spenser Confidential, which I included in the March edition of TFINYW. It has a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I stand by my decision.

Now let’s dive in to the three I actually did watch.

Horse Girl

Co-written by and starring Alison Brie, the film begins as a character study of a quirky, socially awkward craft store worker named Sarah. She’s unassuming and shy, but knows her work, loves horses (including annoying the stable workers and young girls riding the horse she used to own), and obsesses over a Supernatural-style sci-fi drama series. Her young roommate (Debby Ryan), tries to hook her up with a friend of her boyfriend, if nothing else than to get her to have a normal social life and clear out of the apartment during her sexy time.

But as the film goes on, things turn stranger and stranger. Sarah begins to have weird dreams of people she doesn’t know but recognizes them in her waking life. She tries to take a mail-in DNA test but can’t get conclusive results, leading her to wonder if she’s somehow a clone of her late grandmother. She experiences lost time, finding herself in unfamiliar places at all times of the day and night, wondering how she got there and why. Eventually she becomes convinced that she’s been abducted by aliens.

At times the film carries a grand sense of mystery, because we’re not exactly sure what level of mental illness Sarah deals with, only that she’s had some, and her family has history. The confusion and paranoia that comes with Sarah’s memory lapses combined with people trying to reassure her is compelling indeed, because we can’t be certain if anything is real or if she’s being gaslit. Unfortunately, as events unfold and the resolutions play more towards her being “right” and “figuring out the conspiracy,” a potentially fascinating exploration of mental illness is wasted in favor of mind-fuck spectacle.

It’s a shame, too, because Brie’s performance is fully committed and outstanding, particularly one moment where she’s taking a shower, then pulls back the curtain and she’s suddenly stark naked in her craft store, visible to all (if you ever wanted to see her nude but not watch GLOW, your prayers have been answered). It’s a terrifying moment and she sells it perfectly. It just sucks when we find out what’s been happening to her. Similarly, the supporting cast, consisting of great character actors like Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Allen McLeod, and Toby Huss (ARTIE! The Strongest MAAAAAN… in the world), bring a lot to the table, reacting exactly as one would expect to a lot of Sarah’s behaviors.

But in the end, the story is just a bit too uneven to be satisfying, especially the final resolution, which looks fine, but chickens out on a genuine exploration of Sarah’s mental state and takes the easy way out. Alison Brie’s performance sustains a lot of the film through these moments, which thankfully don’t overshadow most of the film. But still, a little bit more risk-taking with the script and story would have been greatly appreciated.

Grade: B-

The Last Thing He Wanted

You know you’re in for a bad time when your main character works for a place that is so transparently a placeholder for something real but production couldn’t clear the name for copyright reasons. Such is the case in the god-awful The Last Thing He Wanted, which wastes a great cast and a ton of story potential with half-assed cliches and piss poor characterization.

Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a reporter for the, ugh, “Atlantic Post” newspaper (in Joan Didion’s novel it’s explicitly the Washington Post – I’m guessing after seeing the script Jeff Bezos said fuck and no to using the name for the film). In the early 80s, she’s obsessed with documenting and reporting on Central American drug cartels and local revolutions that have killed and displaced countless people, so you can tell she’s a hard-nosed good reporter who will stop at nothing to get the truth out there… until she aggravates a member of Reagan’s cabinet and gets sidelined to working the 1984 campaign trail.

Meanwhile, her estranged father, played by Willem Dafoe, works as a small-time arms dealer. He comes down with dementia and is hospitalized, so it falls to Elena to complete her father’s final deal to both pay for his medical treatment and allow him a quiet retirement. But wouldn’t you know it, black market arms dealers aren’t the honest businessmen you’d assume they are, and Elena finds herself trapped in Costa Rica and eventually the Antilles, being hunted by drug lords, arms dealers, and government spies working both for and against her country. Oh, and she’s got a bratty daughter in boarding school just to guilt trip her over the phone every few scenes.

The script, penned by director Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Marco Villalobos, is just awful. For half the film Elena basically sits there getting mansplained to by people over her pay grade. When she’s not doing that, she’s just smoking while looking at something out of frame. She has no reason to be involved in any of her father’s shady business dealings, and while she may be dedicated to her pet story about guerrilla rebels, it becomes just one of a litany of plot threads that just ends up being left dangling. The plot meanders from one bit of nonsense to the rest, including a crucial reveal that comes via a flashback triggered by a line that was never said in the referenced scene. The pieces of the puzzle are put together with information we are never given. That’s just bad writing. As for the dialogue, well, Willem Dafoe had less cheesy lines in the first Spider-Man movie.

The entire cast looks like they’re phoning in their performances, especially Hathaway, who I honestly thought was Gillian Jacobs for most of the film. Part of it was the makeup job. Part of it was the way her character was left to “Britta” everything up. The supporting cast gets nothing to work with, either. Rosie Perez, Ben Affleck, Toby Jones, and Edi Gathegi are all wasted on this lazy Jason Bourne knockoff that supposedly has links to the origins of the Iran-Contra scandal, but again, just another dangling plot thread that gets introduced, goes nowhere, and never gets resolved.

All that said, there are two points that were, if not exactly good, were at least intriguing and brave choices. One is the nude scene. Now, if you want to perv out on this, don’t. You have Alison Brie for that (see above), and if you want to see Anne Hathaway naked in a purely sexual context, there are plenty of better options. No, in addition to all the other crap going against her, Elena is a breast cancer survivor, and during a post-coital moment, she is shown lying topless in bed with a mastectomy scar. That is something I honestly have never seen in a movie. I’m sure it’s been done before, basically everything has, but it was a rare moment of brutal honesty that the movie doesn’t exactly earn, but it was a refreshing choice.

Along those same lines is Dafoe’s dementia. My mother was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia, and at times her short term memory is on par with Guy Pearce in Memento. I will admit I saw a lot of what I’ve had to experience with my mom in some of Dafoe’s better moments, particularly when he asserts that his nurse isn’t a real nurse, and how he can begin a conversation talking about Elena’s dead mother, then moments later wonder why said dead mother hasn’t called him in a while. It hit home hard, truly it did, but two good scenes won’t save this piece of garbage on the whole.

Grade: D

Lost Girls

In 2010, a young woman named Shannan Gilbert went missing in a gated community on Long Island. The investigation into her disappearance eventually led to the discovery of multiple bodies of people brutally murdered, nearly all of whom were sex workers, and launched the mystery of the Long Island Serial Killer. Lost Girls, directed by documentarian Liz Garbus (of the incredible, Oscar-nominated What Happened, Miss Simone?) is a hard-hitting, slow burn mystery about the search for closure, personal tragedy, insular communities, slut-shaming, and police incompetence.

Amy Ryan – Oscar-nominated herself for her role in Gone Baby Gone, so she’s in well-worn territory here – absolutely shines as Mari Gilbert, Shannan’s mother, a working-class single mom who struggles to maintain two jobs while caring for her younger daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie of Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit) and Sarra (Oona Laurence). A take-no-shit straight talker, Mari is dedicated and assertive in her quest to find Shannan after she goes missing. Unlike Anne Hathaway’s Elena McMahon, Mari’s tenacity is properly placed front and center for the crucial plot points of the story, rather than as background character development that doesn’t apply to the context of the actual plot unfolding around her.

If you want to do a case study of how to play a ball-buster, look at these two roles. You’ll see Amy Ryan gets the better of it in just about every way conceivable. This is mostly because Mari’s story is real and relatable, while Elena’s is pure fiction. One of the most gut-wrenching recurring moments for Mari is that she’s told by the local police commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) not to talk to the press for fear of corrupting the investigation and the story, yet he goes on TV and calls Shannan and the other victims prostitutes, which is factually accurate, but connotatively devastating. Mari feels continuous guilt for things she can’t control, questioning her own fitness as a mother and as a human being throughout the film, especially as Sherre becomes distant and Sarra displays signs of mental illness. Contrast that with The Last Thing He Wanted, where Elena gets a guilt trip from her daughter for basically divorcing her dad and not letting her have a “normal” summer of swimming, vacations, and riding horses. One feels guilt based on real issues, the other has guilt foisted upon her to try to humanize her.

In addition to the great leading turn by Amy Ryan, you have a strong supporting cast in the form of Dean Winters (“Mayhem” in AllState commercials, among many other great character roles), Kevin Corrigan (Grounded for Life), and Lola Kirke, who gives a really strong secondary performance as the sister of another victim who also plies the sex trade to get by. Everyone involved, including the inept cops, act in ways that are very natural and organic, not just to broad character strokes and archetype tropes, but to just everyday people. It’s a horrible thought for a police detective to say things like, “Who else but us would spend all this time on dead hookers?” but you know instinctively that this is something a regular person would say, especially one who’s being forced into actual dirty work when most of their career has been pretty cushy.

The slow buildup of clues, suspicions, and inconsistencies work really well from a story standpoint, and there is something of a true crime documentary feel to the proceedings, something that Garbus utterly excels at. And given the context of the current world around us, there’s a weird verisimilitude when it comes to the larger players. You have one suspect who all but brags about destroying evidence while trying to entrap a cop into doing the same thing. A woman shouting from her porch about the site of the murders being a gated community speaks volumes to our current culture where the “Karens” of the world report fake crimes that inconvenience them while ignoring and sometimes outright supporting real ones, a sort of situational privilege where people think wealth buys someone exemption from not just the rule of law, but everyday decency.

If you know anything about the Long Island Serial Killer cases (and even if you don’t the film tells you right upfront that this is an unsolved incident), you know there’s no happy ending here. But even knowing that, there’s still mystery to be had in the process and the missteps, as well as the tragedy of the survivors, those left to pick up the pieces. And while the pacing of the film can be just a little bit off at times, there’s more than enough here to recommend. This is a heavy film, but you can easily get invested in its weight. And just for good measure, there’s a terrific song by Lucinda Williams during the credits.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see any of these films? What streaming content should I review in future? How quickly will you be lining up to go back to the theatres once they reopen? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “DownStream – A Long Cold Lonely Winter

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