DownStream – May Dates

Movie theatres are starting to reopen across the country, and even flicks that initially went to a theatre are quickly becoming available on demand for those of us who still can’t go. It’s just the sort of thing to give us all a faint glimmer of hope that the world isn’t completely terrible after all, and maybe, just maybe, things can get better.

Oh, Ruth Bader Ginsburg just died? Shit. Never mind.

The world is a sick, sadistic piece of shit, and everything is chaotic pain. Nothing will ever go back to normal. So in that vein, let’s keep trudging through the backlog and review more streaming movies, because if nothing else, I need to keep my mind off the impending collapse of western civilization.

During the month of May, there were three films put to Netflix that originally weren’t intended for it, and while they’re all quite different, they each had a through line of romance that binds them all together. Normally it’s February that gives us the kisses and cuddles, but this time it’s Month-o Number Five (okay, I’m sorry, that was a huge stretch, and I’m total trash, but I won’t delete it). So let’s dive in for three very different stories that still take the time to show the love.

All Day and a Night

Written and directed by Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote Black Panther (God, why does every good person have to die this year?), All Day and a Night is, sadly, a rather typical, cut-and-paste melodrama about urban crime where even the well-meaning criminals are doomed from the start due to the inherently racist system that surrounds them. It tries to make a martyr out of an introspective artist who also happens to be a felon by choice, and who seeks surrogates within the underbelly due to a lack of proper love and guidance as a child, and who clings to his romantic constants.

If this sounds a lot like Moonlight to you, congratulations, you’ve already figured out the main issue with this film. In fact, the main protagonist, an aspiring rapper named Jahkor, is played by Ashton Sanders, who played the teenage version of Chiron in that groundbreaking Oscar winner.

But Moonlight this is not. At best, it’s Moonlight-Lite. Gone are the poetic dialogue and masterful visual eye that Barry Jenkins brought to his modern magnum opus. Instead, it’s your basic gritty inner-city thug life where gangs and guns reign supreme, and a man’s value is only determined by his own personal hustle.

The closest the film reaches to poignancy is in the opening sequence, where Jahkor stalks and sneaks his way into a man’s home, and executes him gangland-style. When Jahkor asks Malcolm (Stephen Barrington) if he remembers him, Malcolm’s last words are, “Yeah. We folks, right?” before he’s blown away at point blank range along with his wife, and in front of his child.

There is almost something profound in that moment, because we’ve established nothing about the characters, and there are no obvious clues lying around that they should be enemies. They’re just people. People in a rough neighborhood, sure, and those with preexisting biases might draw their own conclusions, but in that moment, it’s just a senseless murder, and the plea of, “We folks, right?” is a sad reminder that in the end, we are all human beings, and that there’s no need to kill. Yet the moment of pure shock rattles us as intended.

Of course, that all goes out the window as Jahkor is sentenced to life in prison, and his life story is told through flashbacks. His gangster father, who is also an inmate (Jeffrey Wright, elevating the proceedings by his mere presence) abused his mother and tried to instill a toughness in Jahkor against all logic. Jahkor’s friend TQ (Isaiah John) calls himself a “predator” who only looks out for himself. A big-time baller who plays both sides in a gang war named T-Rex (James Earl) takes Jahkor’s earnest desire to be a musician and exploits it for personal gain while manipulating him against his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye).

The story just doesn’t work because Jahkor narrates and tries to portray himself as a tragic character, but we have no chance to feel any sympathy or empathy for him because the very first time we see him is in the act of cold-blooded murder. Even if everything he says about the system and the abusive upbringing is 100% accurate, he always had a choice to NOT pull the trigger. And unlike Moonlight, which dealt with a confused young man’s sexual awakening in such an environment and showed us throughout that there was a beauty worth reaching for at all times, here we just see a man who claims he was fucked over from birth, and only realizes the good things in his life after he willingly throws them away.

Finally, in a moment that’s just contrary to reality, Jahkor is captured peacefully after police knock down a door and chase him throughout the house. Knowing the system Jahkor himself tries to indict, knowing the skin colors of himself and the police, and knowing the actual crime he committed, there’s no chance in hell he’s taken alive.

This film had potential, especially with the caliber of actors and the creative talent behind the camera. But this whole thing played like a lazy rehash of a modern classic with almost none of the redeeming qualities apart from a few peaks here and there of what might have been.

Grade: C

The Half of It

Alice Wu writes and directs this semi-autobiographical teen romance about a young Asian lesbian that won the top prize at this year’s virtual Tribeca Film Festival. It’s wonderfully shot and has a decent soundtrack and score to go with some surprisingly affecting performances. But on the whole, the film is pleasant, but does little more than put different demographics on the standard Cyrano de Bergerac story.

Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis of the CW’s Nancy Drew adaptation) is an overachieving high school senior in the tiny town of Squahamish, which sounds like it’d be in New England, but the local scenery seems to suggest more Pacific Northwest. An immigrant daughter of a Chinese widower who can’t work, Ellie is so advanced that she’s literally carrying her class, as she pays her family’s bills by writing essays for her fellow students, an open secret she shares with her encouraging teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker of Freaks and Geeks and Girls), who is incidentally named for Alice Wu’s real-life inspirational teacher.

Resigned to a very provincial life (including accepting a full ride to a local college rather than applying for a more prestigious liberal arts school in the Midwest), Ellie reluctantly takes on one more assignment in order to literally keep her lights on. A football player named Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer from The Man in the High Castle) is enamored with a popular girl named Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire of Truth or Dare – the terrible 2017 Syfy movie, not the terrible 2018 Blumhouse movie), and asks Ellie to write letters to Aster in order to secure a date. Of course, Ellie, a closeted lesbian, is also crushing on Aster, and initially only takes on the gig because it gives her the chance to say to Aster in print (or text message) what she could never say to her face. The project makes Paul a more confident person (he aspires to take over his family’s sausage business and change the recipe), allows Ellie to branch out, and the two form an otherwise impossible friendship despite their mutual infatuation for Aster, which is doomed from all sides.

The entire town is insular and heavily religious conservative. Even Ellie, an atheist, plays organ at the local church because it’s yet another source of income. Aster is the daughter of the deacon, and she’s expected to marry her boyfriend, quarterback Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz from Assassination Nation) as soon as she graduates. Everyone knows everyone, and any minor difference is enough to earn eternal judgment and scorn.

There are some really fine touches here and there that made me smile. Having moved to a small town for my high school years, I certainly identified with a lot of what goes on in Squahamish. Hell, the first month of my freshman year I was invited to join the Young Republicans club (there was no Young Democrats club), and when I mentioned my family’s voting history, I was dubbed an “abortionist murderer.” On the more pleasant side, I’m pretty sure the “Best Couple” in my senior yearbook is still together 20 years later, and they’d been together since 8th grade. It’s played for laughs in the film, but this stuff really does still happen in this country, good and bad, so I appreciated the verisimilitude.

Also, there’s a cute way the film breaks up its act structure by prefacing important sequences with slates of quotes about life and romance. They start out from enlightened thinkers and philosophers, before being reduced to a string of emojis by the end. It’s fun and a bit silly, which always gives me a chuckle.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough to recommend, because the film falls too easily into tropes and clichés, not to mention some of its own lazy half-assed attempts at seeming profound, not unlike high school posers who don’t do their homework, honestly. For example, Ellie’s dad (Collin Chou, i.e. Seraph from the Matrix sequels) tries to learn English from watching old movies, and likes to point out what he considers the “best part.” But the first instance we get of this is literally the last line of Casablanca. That just screams at you like a book report where the kid definitely didn’t read the book. There’s a group of jerks who drive by Ellie on her bike every day and holler “Chug-uh chugh-uh CHU CHU!” at her (because she and her dad live and work at the train station) and go out of their way to embarrass her for no reason, and that tripe is straight out of 80s movies. They even sabotage her piano for the school talent show, which raises a whole host of other issues because a) the school mandates that seniors participate, and what fucking school does that, b) there are people who coordinate backstage for when it’s Ellie’s time to go on, but don’t check her equipment for some reason, and c) in a town and school so small, no one even bats an eye when someone is literally being assaulted in broad daylight? What in the actual retail fuck?

But the biggest letdown to me is in Aster herself. Given this feminist, queer spin on a classic tale, it’s astonishing to me that Aster is left to just be a trophy. She gets some cool character traits assigned to her, and even some intellectual snark in the letters, but apart from that, she’s just a prize, and if we’re going to be super woke about stuff, that just can’t slide. For all the forward thinking of the story, the love interest has no agency of her own, and is little more than a glorified background character.

Grade: B-

The Lovebirds

This film was heavily advertised and meant to be a major hit for the spring months, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was even going to see it, because the trailer looked like a standard rom-com with a healthy dose of Kumail Nanjiani physical comedy. I had already been duped by Stuber, but this was also going to star Issa Rae, and Michael Showalter was again at the helm after one of my favorite films of 2017, The Big Sick, which also starred Nanjiani and was about the most perfect rom-com ever made. So I was torn, but slightly leaning towards shelling out the money. Then the virus hit and the project got shelved and eventually punted to Netflix.

I’m glad I did see it, though, as it’s the best of this bunch of films, even if it is very formulaic in spite of its zaniness. Oddly enough, this is one of the rare instances where a trailer deceptively hides the best stuff, because the previews hinted at a wacky adventure for a couple madly in love. Instead, it’s a wacky adventure for a couple who just broke up, using it to magnify the very issues they had with one another, process them, and resolve them in unexpectedly humorous ways.

Nanjiani and Rae star as Jibran and Leilani, a couple who met as a random hookup, but found a passion and compatibility with one another to go long term. After four years, things are on the rocks, with Jibran obsessed with his work and jealous of one of Leilani’s friends, while Leilani feels that Jibran doesn’t put effort into the relationship anymore and has a desperate need to be right about everything. Just as they decide to break things off, Jibran accidentally hits a cyclist with his car, and after the biker rides off, a man identifying himself as a cop commandeers their vehicle, leading to a high-speed chase that ends with the unidentified “Mustache” man (Paul Sparks), killing the cyclist and leaving the scene. Bystanders see the couple but not the killer, so Jibran and Leilani flee as well. Once contacted by police, they decide the only chance they have to clear their names is to solve the murder themselves. It’s only slightly less flimsy of a premise than last year’s Netflix bomb Murder Mystery, but thankfully 1,000% more entertaining because Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae are comic actors at the top of their game with undeniable chemistry, while Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston are… not.

The film is certainly flawed like a lot of movies of its ilk. Most of the relationship issues could be resolved with calm conversations (which the film does at least attempt on a few heartfelt occasions). There’s WAY too much product placement, though I do chuckle slightly on a meta level at the fact that after Nanjiani played an Uber driver in both Stuber and Big Sick, this time the couple takes Lyft everywhere. The film relies on pop culture references that already seem dated (I wanted to stab my screen when they started singing “Firework”), and others that will be long before this movie thinks they will. Hey, I love The Amazing Race, but even I haven’t watched it in years, mostly because the last several seasons have relied on stunt casting social media influencers and recycling people from other CBS reality shows that I already hated rather than just finding real, fun people for the race.

But the film succeeds in spite of these problems because of the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae. The two play off each other tremendously well, and the physical humor is on point throughout most of the proceedings. Some of the best moments – like those involving a horse and a pan of bacon grease – were shown in the trailer, but there are some gems throughout the film that a two-minute ad couldn’t possibly do justice.

And going back to that trailer, the way it was put together is something I normally despise. A trailer is supposed to get you to want to see the movie, but when it outright lies about the story, I instantly find myself predisposed to hate the movie for the dishonesty. This film’s trailer showed us a couple who were so into each other they might as well be a single organism. Instead, that lovey-dovey stuff was just the opening montage. Everything else is this recently broken up couple sorting through their issues under the most stressful conditions possible. That’s a much more compelling pitch. I’m glad I got to be pleasantly surprised, I guess. But I was sort of 50/50 on the movie’s prospects based on what I was sold. Had the trailer given me an accurate depiction of the story, I’d have had no hesitation whatsoever.

Grade: B

* * *

That’s it for this set. For the next edition, we’re gonna take a break from Netflix and look at some documentaries from some other services. Join me then!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see these movies? What did you think? What classic story would you put a modern spin on? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “DownStream – May Dates

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