DownStream – April Showers

This week, AMC theatres began opening again at various locations nationwide, with more scheduled to open next week. Regal is also back, as is Alamo Drafthouse. To those of you who are now able to go back to the cinema, I congratulate you, and beg you to be as safe as possible when you do. It certainly won’t be the most convenient of experiences, but I’m guessing that after five months, those who want to go will be willing to do whatever it takes.

Unfortunately, here in Los Angeles, the heart of the film industry, the theatres are still closed indefinitely. We temporarily were allowed to go back during June, but no one opened at that point, and a bunch of entitled assholes spiked the numbers again, to the point that California scaled back its reopening. We now have the highest number of COVID cases of any state, and there’s no end in sight. For those across the country who can go to the movies, you have my envy.

While those of us in the city of angels continue to sit on our hands, I will soldier on with my Netflix backlog. As noted in the last column, I’m only watching movies that were intended to get a theatrical release, and thus were rated by the Motion Picture Association. No TV ratings. However, there is one major exception to that rule that I neglected to mention last time out. I will rate any relevant documentaries that are available, regardless of whether they have an MPA rating or a TV rating. Documentaries don’t have the same eligibility rules for the Academy that other films do, so those that air on Netflix or other services that are primarily TV-based are allowed, so long as they’re a single work and not a series. That rule won’t be relevant in this column, but it will be in future, as there’s already one documentary on my list.

For now we’ll make the transition from winter to spring. April was the first full month of the lockdown, with basically no theatrical releases. Everything was on Netflix or some form of on-demand service. Of the dozen or so movies that premiered on the streaming service of record, three of them were intended for a theatrical run of some kind, and are thus eligible here.

Sergio

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Sergio is a fictional account of the life of United Nations Ambassador Sergio de Mello. A documentary was made by HBO about him in 2009, which is also available on Netflix (presumably it will migrate back to HBO Max in due time). The documentary was directed by Greg Barker, and based on Samantha Powers’ book, “Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World.” Barker returns for the dramatic version, and my immediate thought was that this might be a train wreck like Welcome to Marwen, which deviated greatly from the thought-provoking Marwencol documentary.

Thankfully, the fictional Sergio hews very closely to the non-fiction Sergio, almost to the point where one wonders why the dramatic film was even made. Much like the documentary, the film jumps from the August 2003 attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which served as U.N. Headquarters for de Mello’s mission to facilitate the transition of power from the U.S.-led occupying force to the Iraqi people (a news event I missed because I was literally out celebrating my 21st birthday), to de Mello’s more noteworthy diplomatic successes. These include his missions in Cambodia and East Timor, as well as his romance with U.N. economic consultant Carolina Larriera. Scenes from the film mirror not just scenes and stories from the documentary – including bookending the film with de Mello filming a welcoming video for new U.N. employees – but bits of archival footage are either recreated in the movie or placed in dramatically appropriate places. In fact, the only major item of artistic license that the movie takes is in expanding the role of Gil Loescher, a friend and confidante of de Mello. The dramatic film has Loescher in East Timor advising Sergio, but a postscript makes it clear that the Loescher character in the film is a composite of Loescher himself and other trusted advisors, and that he personally was never in Timor.

But whether or not the film should exist is not at issue. What matters is the quality of the work, and in that regard, it’s perfectly fine, and certainly better than Welcome to Marwen. Wagner Moura gives a strong, charismatic performance as Sergio, adapting his mannerisms and speech patterns admirably. He’s a nice lead who owns his flaws and believes in the rightness of his work, just as the documentary would have you believe about the real Sergio. Ana de Armas plays Carolina, and if you’re like me and immediately began crushing on her after Knives Out, you will have that infatuation paid off in spades here. Other supporting roles include Brian F. O’Byrne as Gil Loescher, and Bradley Whitford as Paul Bremer, the hand-picked lackey sent by George W. Bush to run the show in Iraq after our illegal invasion. Both performances are fairly one-note, but functional for their purpose. Loescher is there to be the voice of dissent that eventually goes along with Sergio’s plans anyway, and Bremer is there to remind us all that we shouldn’t have even been in Iraq to begin with.

On the whole, this is a nice, well-made character study set against a tragic moment in our recent history. Having seen both the documentary and the fictional adaptation, you can choose either and not feel like you’re missing a crucial aspect of the story (like how, in Marwen, the entire inspiration for the name is completely fabricated for the sake of a lame romantic subplot). I’ll state a slight preference for the documentary, which I feel is better paced. It only jumps back in time every 30 minutes or so, whereas this film flashes back about every five (and also runs 30 minutes longer overall), but that’s a minor discrepancy. If you choose to learn about an unsung hero of international diplomacy, whichever way you go, it’s worth your time.

Grade: B-

The Willoughbys

This is the first animated film in this Netflix blitz, and only the second animated film I’ve seen all year. It’s better than Onward, but that’s not really giving the movie its due. This is a zany, madcap CGI adventure that left me in stitches more than I would have imagined.

Based on a fairly recent novel by Lois Lowry (best known for “The Giver”), this story has a very heavy Roald Dahl influence, to the extent that I honestly thought this was a Dahl story, or an homage, until the characters directly referenced “James and the Giant Peach.” There are also some strong bits of Dr. Seuss and Home Alone thrown in for good measure.

The titular Willoughbys are an eccentric family living in a stately manor tucked in between huge buildings in a large city. Think of the house from Up, only if it were inhabited by a ginger version of the Addams Family, which makes an odd bit of sense, since Craig Kellman, who designed the characters, also handled that job for last year’s Addams Family film. The history of the Willoughbys lies in their proud, glorious mustaches, a trait that eldest son Tim (Will Forte) wants to inherit by bringing honor back to his clan. Unfortunately, his life is one of abuse, as his parents, Walter and Helga (Martin Short and Jake Krakowski, respectively) are so enamored with each other that they willfully neglect their children. Seriously, it’s hilariously creepy. Walter shows his affection by vibrating his throat, while Helga knits sweaters out of wool gathered from her husband’s hair and mustache (all the characters have hair that resembles yarn). I mean, their love for each other is so weird that it even finally answers the age-old question in animation of how characters with pointy noses actually kiss. Throw in a tenacious daughter called Jane (pop singer Alessia Cara) and two young twins both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen), and you’ve got a perfect recipe for antics.

When an orphan baby is left on their doorstep, the children try to find a perfect home for her, though Tim is the most reluctant. Although they are neglected and abused to the highest degree, Tim still feels bound by his parents’ rules, in hopes that one day his obedience will be rewarded in either affection or facial fuzz. They name the infant Ruth and find her a home at the local candy factory, led by Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews). Think Cap’n Crunch mixed with Willy Wonka. Hoping for a similarly happy result, the children orphan themselves by sending their parents on a worldwide dangerous adventure, necessitating the hiring of a Nanny (Maya Rudolph), who actually recognizes the problem and tries to give the kids some kind of love and structure.

Much of the issues in the film could be solved with a simple, honest conversation, but the whole point is to go counter to logic and let the hijinks ensue, and for the most part, they work to grand effect thanks to a great color scheme, an unexpected respect for continuity (a meal explodes in Tim’s face, leaving an outline on the wall that is still there several scenes later, for example), and an uptempo jazzy score by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo (who also co-writes a well-meaning ballad for Cara that tries to intrude on the proceedings at several points). The film leans in to its surreal visuals for some great physical humor, including one scene that takes the car pile-up from The Blues Brothers and one-ups it in a way I never saw coming, and that had me keeled over laughing when the punchline hit.

The only inconsistent bit in the film is Ricky Gervais as a cat that narrates the film. Gervais himself does a fine job, and having been a fan of The Ricky Gervais Show, I know he’s funny in animated form (and in cat form). My only real issue is that he narrates both in past and present tense, breaking the fourth wall to talk to us in the audience and then reinserting himself into the story to affect change. There’s even a moment where he acknowledges this by commenting on the state of the tale, only to sigh and concede that he’s about to alter things. It’s funny enough in parts, but it’s the only aspect of the storytelling that isn’t 100% consistent. I’m love the idea of Ricky Gervais as a cat narrator. Just have him either be a narrator or an active part of the story. Doing both didn’t work as well as I’d have liked.

But still, that only docks a half grade from this otherwise wonderful bit of animated absurdity that sneakily addresses some pretty dark themes without ever talking down to the target audience. The talented voice cast fully commits to the insanity, to the point where I could see this as a slapstick stage show and still be thoroughly entertained. The story may at times tread familiar ground, but it does so in a way that feels fresh. More importantly, the comedy aids the story rather than substituting for it.

Grade: A-

Extraction

Sam Hargrave has worked with the Russo brothers for years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mostly as a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer. Here, with Joe and Anthony Russo writing and producing behind him, he makes his directorial debut with Extraction, a fairly standard-issue action film starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as a mercenary trying to save a drug lord’s kidnapped son in Bangladesh.

I won’t mince words. This movie sucks. It’s filled to the brim with cliches. The color palette is all over the place. Hell, the film opens with a shot so filled with orange muck that I half wondered if the editors splashed some of Donald Trump’s bronzer on it. The movie relies way too much on overhead shots. Great actors like David Harbour and Golshifteh Farahani are wasted in thankless roles. The entire climactic scene is basically like a level in a video game with wave after wave of nameless, faceless enemies rolling in just to be killed with a dramatic cutscene of a major character death in between. The very notion of having Chris Hemsworth, an Australian, come into Bangladesh to save an Indian teenager is white savior bullshit of the highest order. There’s shameless sequel bait at the end that will get paid off, because this was such a hit for Netflix that a sequel is already in development.

But there is one moment that almost redeems the entire fucking thing. Towards the end of the first act, when the mission to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) suddenly goes tits up as we all knew it would, Travis Rake (Hemsworth, who literally kills a minion via rake at one point) shoves him in a car and takes us on an adrenaline-fueled chase scene that goes from car, to on foot, to an apartment building, to rooftops, and back to ground level, all in a simulated one-shot sequence that lasts for 12 solid minutes of kickassery. You don’t even need a trained eye to see where the cuts are (basically every time the camera zooms in on a wall or jacket long enough for it to take up the full screen), but you just don’t care. You’re too busy marveling at the amazing stunt work and fight moves that do not skimp on the blood and guts. Because there are no explicit cuts, we always know where the principal players are and where they’re moving. It’s a master class in stunt work and editing, and easily one of the best overall scenes of 2020 film. It shows just how good Hargrave is at what he does.

I just wish the rest of the movie was even half as good.

Grade: C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see any of these films? Which ones did you like best? Are you in a market where theatres are back open, and if so, can I crash on your couch long enough to see Tenet? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “DownStream – April Showers

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