DownStream – Cruel Summer

Summer has come and passed… you know the rest. Go wake up Billie Joe Armstrong, already. The autumn air is upon us, more theatres are opening up (except for Regal, which is closing some 350 locations, many of them permanently), and the deluge of online-only content is starting to abate. More films are getting their intended release, though some are still confined to VOD platforms for the time being, especially since California is still fairly shut down. The Academy is allowing for streaming films to be considered next year, but those that are going to theatres probably still have to abide by the Los Angeles eligibility rule, and apart from a drive-in here and there, there’s no outlet in the City of Angels to watch a film in public. I’m sure that loophole will close as we get closer to the submission deadlines, but for the time being, we are definitely starting to see a shift back to the theatre model for new films.

What this means for our purposes here is that we’re getting closer to finally being caught up on everything we’ve missed for the last several months. Loathe though I am to spend up to $35 for an online “rental,” I am glad that the end of the backlog is in sight. There’s still a bit of a ways to go, particularly when it comes to documentaries, but I can definitely say that it’ll feel good to do a standard review again in the coming weeks once everything else is cleared out.

In the interest of speeding the process along, tonight I’ll be going through six, count ’em, SIX Netflix entries, all of which were released during the summer months of June through August. As always with these mini-review compilations, I’m only doing films that have an MPA rating, meaning they were intended for a theatrical release of some kind. Also, I didn’t bother with The Last Days of American Crime, which I included in the June edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable” (I will resume that monthly feature once theatres reopen in Los Angeles and I can physically GO to the movies again). As of this writing, it remains a member of the dubious fraternity of films with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Basically, I’m not going to waste my time or yours.

Da 5 Bloods

I have a soft spot in my heart for Vietnam movies. I love classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned that Full Metal Jacket is my all-time favorite film. I think I like them so much because Vietnam was the first American war that was ever depicted in stark terms, with nuance to show that the conflict wasn’t just a straight up battle between good and bad guys, like every other war we’ve fought before it was. Even when showing the heroism of the young men who fought and died, you’re never going to get the black-and-white morality you would in a Sergeant York or The Best Years of Our Lives, or any number of films dealing with America’s military might. It was a dirty, messy war, with atrocities on all sides, and more importantly, it was a war that woke the people up to the harsh realities of the war around them. It was a war that was wrong, unequivocally, and thousands died needlessly. For those who survived, they were spat on by those who opposed the war and abandoned by the government that sent them to kill and die. Even in pure fiction, it is an era of our history ripe for dramatic exploration, because it can never be handled simply.

So who better to take the reins for the latest gripping story than Spike Lee himself? Set between the present day and a botched operation in 1968 (with some pretty sweet changes in aspect ratio between the two main time periods), Da 5 Bloods at times feels like a fairly standard Vietnam story of brotherhood, trauma, and justice, put through the lens of the American black experience, an angle not often shown, even though many racial advocacy groups like the Black Panther Party rose up in part due to Vietnam and other government actions that “sent black people to die for a country that hates them,” to paraphrase Forrest Gump.

Many hallmarks of the best Spike Lee joints are on display here: dynamic cinematography (including body-mounted Steadicams), an absolutely tremendous score by Terence Blanchard, Lee’s penchant for editing in speeches and news items for historical context, and the promotion of the essential idea that black is beautiful.

But there’s one creative choice that stands out above the rest, and it’s utterly brilliant. The “Bloods” were an Army unit during the war, sent to recover a case full of gold bars from a plane that was shot down in the jungle. Their squad leader, “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), was killed during the operation, but not before they all made a pact to bury the gold, claim it went missing, and recover it later, to be divided amongst themselves as “reparations.” In the present day, the surviving members reunite in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to get back the gold and Norman’s remains. The four are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters of The Wire), Eddie (Broadway actor Norm Lewis, who’s done Miss Saigon among many other roles), and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (also of The Wire). They are eventually joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors of Lovecraft Country), filling in for Norman to complete the quintet.

The beauty is that we don’t see younger versions of the four in the 1968 scenes. To really hammer home the trauma of war and the idea of “flashbacks,” whenever the narrative goes back in time, Boseman is himself, but the other four are their older selves. Not only is it amazing to see all these actors (average age 65) take on physically demanding roles in a war zone, but it works on such a deeper level to solidify their bond. In a way, it’s like saying that they’re “Bloods” for life, and while Norman’s life ended in Chadwick form, the rest continued, but the link was never severed.

Delroy Lindo really steals the show in what is arguably the finest performance he’s ever given, one certainly worthy of a nomination. As Paul, a loudmouthed, hotheaded Trump supporter, he embodies the horror and paranoia of PTSD in real time. His descent into madness is equal parts greed, pride, fear, and guilt. He slowly goes out of his mind but can still keep his wits about him and think tactically when it really matters. You can never tell from one moment to the next whether he’s sweating from jungle heat or the decay of his own psyche. The performance is frantic, manic, and just about as perfect as you can get. I sincerely hope Lindo gets his due.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this film will be remembered for years to come for one moment that I guarantee was never meant to be as poignant as it’s become. As I’m sure you all know, Chadwick Boseman died in August after battling colon cancer for several years. He’ll always be Black Panther, but it bears a note that Da 5 Bloods is his final film released in life (his final performance is in the upcoming August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). It is doubly tragic to watch the film now, because his final moment on screen is him hugging his fellow man and whispering, “It’s okay.” I like to think he knew he was talking to us, though that’s all but impossible. That image will linger for a long time though, and it honestly made me tear up. His loss hit hard for a lot of people, myself included, and then to see that as his last film moment alive was beautifully devastating.

Grade: A-

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

If you’ve never seen the Eurovision Song Contest, you need to treat yourself at least once. It’s not necessary viewing to enjoy this Will Ferrell/Rachel McAdams comedic romp, but it certainly lends it a greater context that enhances the experience.

For those who don’t know, Eurovision is a contest where representatives from just about every European nation and territory (as well as Israel and some others that aren’t technically in Europe) write and perform original songs to be judged by both professionals and international audiences. The sheer variety of music, from pop to electronic to rock to opera and just about everything in between is mixed with a grand spectacle so enthralling that even the worst performances are memorable. The contest has also helped introduce the world to some amazing talents. Most notably, ABBA won the contest with “Waterloo” (my favorite song of theirs) back in 1974. Will Ferrell became enamored with the contest after his wife introduced it to him, and thus, The Story of Fire Saga began.

Ferrell and McAdams play childhood friends (and possibly half-siblings) Lars and Sigrit, who live in a small fishing village in Iceland. It is Lars’ dream to win the contest, but his music doesn’t quite rise to the occasion, and Sigrit is the real talent. Their band, Fire Saga, plays at the local pub every night, where the patrons only demand they play a local folk song, “JaJa Ding Dong,” which is just precious.

However, through a random and completely implausible series of events, the duo get to represent their country at the competition, where their relationship is tested by both the spotlight and Lars’ jealousy, personified by Russian favorite Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, aka live-action-yet-still-CGI Beast).

The plot is largely formulaic, with Ferrell’s over-the-top antics getting some good laughs, a surprisingly dark gag here and there, and one really good runner about some elves that might or might not exist. Where the film really succeeds is in giving the audience a redux version of the actual contest. An impromptu musical medley at a house party brings in some well-known competitors and winners from recent years. The costuming is absolutely note perfect, as is the set design during the performances. One fictitious group from Belarus had a hardcore metal song about wolves so good that my roommate even asked if there was a real-life equivalent (I pointed him toward Mongolia’s The Hu and their song, “Wolf Totem”).

But the real power is the music itself. Stevens and McAdams both have their voices dubbed over for their performances, which is a shame, because both are quite capable singers, especially Stevens. But even setting that aside, the quality of the original music written for this film is just top notch. It absolutely captures the spirit of the contest and shows a deep love of music that pervades the entire film.

And if nothing else, you get Graham Norton providing hilarious running commentary throughout the competition. What’s not to like?

Grade: B

The Old Guard

We’ve had a ton of comic book movies pushed back this year, with only Harley Quinn coming out before the pandemic struck and The New Mutants finally being put out at the end of the summer just to finally get it off the schedule since it had gone through so many rewrites and reshoots that it was doomed to fail no matter what. But everything else? Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, and any number of others have been delayed indefinitely because the world up and died.

The one real new entry we got during this mess was The Old Guard, and thankfully, it’s good enough to slake our collective thirst until the next wave comes. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (going way outside her normal output like Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees) and written by Greg Rucka adapting his own source material, this lovely little distraction gives us some decent action, good character moments, and some cool special effects on a fairly modest budget ($70 million, mere pocket change for blockbusters these days).

The premise isn’t exactly new, but it’s intriguing in the extreme. Charlize Theron leads a small group of quasi-immortals who possess an unnatural healing ability. No matter how many times they get injured or “killed,” they can’t die, until such a time as the power simply wears off, which is great for plot convenience, if not exactly logical. They act as mercenaries, taking on assassinations and rescue operations in hopes of doing some good for the world, but after centuries of seeing shit all around them, they’ve grown cynical. Haven’t we all?

Things change when they break one of their own cardinal rules, taking a second assignment from a previous client, in this case from ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who betrays and ambushes them in order to film their regenerative properties for a pharmaceutical executive played by Harry Melling (Dudley Dursely from the Harry Potter films, looking a lot more lanky and gaunt than his childhood days), who wants to study their genes to create superdrugs. At the same time, a highly pious Marine named Nile Freeman (the brilliant Kiki Layne from If Beale Street Could Talk) is mortally wounded in Afghanistan, but she survives and heals, alerting the Guard to their first potential new member in decades. It’s up to them to secure Nile and evade Copley, all while “Andy” (Theron) yearns for the sweet release of death.

The action set pieces are pretty strong, especially since most are confined to small, narrow spaces due to budget constraints (hallways, small rooms, airplanes, etc). The choreography is well done, with minimal cutting so that we can follow the actual moves fairly easily. There’s also a good amount of gore and splatter throughout, because what’s an R-rated action film without a bit of the old ultra-violence, eh?

The visual effects are also on point, and worthy of awards consideration. Almost all of the regenerations look completely realistic, from skin resealing to bullets being ejected from skulls to bones realigning. One particularly gross but spectacular moment comes from Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) slowly having his viscera return to proper place inside his torso while the skin seals up. Whatever money the production saved on small sets they put to good use to make sure this crucial element worked as great as it possibly could have.

What makes this movie really work though, is the depth given to the characters. Harry Melling is sadly on the short end of the stick here, because he’s basically just a British Martin Shkreli, complete with wish-fulfillment demise, but everyone else gets some great development. Copley is shown to be a man of nuance and not just a compromised puppet. Andy’s literal world-weariness is played to the absolute hilt, and the more you learn about her, the more believable it becomes. Nile has a crisis of faith when she learns that her religion is almost certainly false, but that there is something beyond the mundane that gives her hope to continue.

Finally, in one of the coolest moments put to film this year, two members of the guard, Joe and Nicky, are quite possibly the most adorable couple of the year. Played by Marwan Kenzari (live-action Jafar) and Luca Marinelli of Trust, the two are lovers who first met fighting against one another in the Crusades. In a moment that Greg Rucka demanded be kept in as a condition for selling the film rights to his book, the two men are not only together, but madly, passionately in love. In a moment of despair, Joe gives a confession of love that would make any hopeless romantic swoon, no matter what their orientation. Had this been in a theatre, I guarantee you the whole auditorium would have cheered.

The film has its flaws. It’s a bit too pulpy in places, the sequel baiting is obvious, and again, poor Harry Melling doesn’t get all that much room to stretch his acting ability (watch him in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs if you don’t believe me). The soundtrack is also pretty intrusive, refusing to simply let the action be the action without inserting some random bullshit (save for Frank Ocean). I’m also starting to wonder if Hollywood is trying to turn Charlize Theron into the next Keanu Reeves or Liam Neeson. But on the whole, this was a cool, slick bit of action and a moderately unexpected quality superhero flick, one certainly worthy of your attention.

Grade: B

Project Power

This, on the other hand, is very much NOT worth your attention. Riddled with clichés and worse special effects and fight choreography despite a budget of $15 million more than The Old Guard, Project Power takes an already worn premise and just dilutes it further with a one-note plot and violence that serves nothing and just feels gratuitous.

Starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors I absolutely adore, the film is about the two of them and a teenage drug dealer named Robin (Dominique Fishback of The Deuce, who’s 29) to bring down a ring selling a new drug called Power, which when taken gives the user the powers of a certain animal for five minutes per hit. For some, like Gordon-Levitt’s Detective Frank Shaver, he gets hardened skin that is effectively bulletproof (his bullet ejection/healing effect pales in comparison to The Old Guard), while others, like a drug dealer named Newt (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly), self-immolate to the point of explosion. The powers are completely random and vary from person to person, which means everyone’s abilities are at the whim of the screenwriter, and that’s just lazy. Need an obstacle? This guy’s a rhino now! Want a chase scene? The perp has chameleon camouflaging powers! Want a good script? The best you’re gonna get is monkeys at typewriters.

The plot boils down to the same tired tropes of the wealthy and government types preying upon the masses. Foxx’s Art is ex-military, and was an experimental test subject by the big bad defense contractor pharma types (by comparison, Harry Melling got a TON of character development), and because of that people have the ability to take a pill and become superhuman. They might as well have called this, Not Limitless, We Swear It’s Not Limitless… Or Lucy. The film even wastes its central location, New Orleans, by throwing around some cheap tautologies of Gordon-Levitt being righteously indignant after what happened “the last time guys in suits came to my city” (seriously, he might as well have channeled Kanye and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”) and wearing Steve Gleason’s #37 Saints jersey throughout the film, as if a visual shoutout to a man who could use some superhuman medicine to deal with his ALS (as documented in the film Gleason, which was shortlisted for the Documentary Feature Oscar a few years back) is supposed to be some clever reminder of misplaced priorities.

As for the action, it’s all over the map. There are so many potentially good moments that get lost throughout the picture because the directors settle for what they think makes a good shot. Gordon-Levitt chases a bank robber on Power while taking a pill himself because he knows he might take gunfire. He sets his watch for a five-minute alarm that conveniently goes off when the chase ends and he’s been spared instant death via bullet to the head. Here’s the problem, though. The chase only lasted 2:30, literally half the time that Gordon-Levitt had with the Power. Never mind the massive suspension of disbelief to accept that the pill takes effect the instant it’s swallowed, this film is on Netflix. We can pause and go back to check the timeline. We can therefore easily see that the sequence was edited too tightly to try to build suspense for a cool payoff at the expense of the film’s own established logic. This happens again in reverse towards the film’s climax, when he takes a pill, and well over six minutes later says he still has time, then checks his watch to see he has 43 seconds left, but it takes well over a minute for the alarm to go off.

Other botched sequences include a moment where Jamie Foxx walks down stairs while half a dozen men have laser sights for their guns trained on his chest, thereby giving away their position so he can assess the situation. One fighter announces his presence by scratching down the sides of two shipping containers to let sparks fly but alert his prey to the fact that he’s there. An entire fight in a nightclub is shot from the perspective of a girl in a bulletproof glass room as her ice ability fogs the windows so we can’t see any of the actual action going on, just her screaming as she dies slowly, even though she was never a character so we couldn’t possibly give a shit. On a story board, I’m sure all these moments looked cool. In execution, utter fail.

The one thing this film has going for it is the hip-hop soundtrack. Robin aspires to be a rapper, and she’s quite talented. Her lyrics come from a young rapper named Chika, and I’ll just say it, shit’s tight. The wordplay is very strong, and Dominique Fishback does an admirable job delivering it. I sincerely wish that this was the film, rather than an occasional distraction from a tired bit of bloodsport where the best attempts we get at characterization are easy family dynamics and the best humor is a winking meta reference from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he calls Robin “The Lookout.”

Grade: D+

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I did a full review of this film for my friends at Behind the Rabbit Productions and the “No Rest for the Weekend” podcast, which you can read here. Because of that, I won’t go into too much detail here, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this film, as it’s one of the best of the year.

Almost no filmmaker alive today has a better grasp on the idiosyncrasies of the human mind than Charlie Kaufman, and his latest effort, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is another magnum opus. Serving as little more than a bottle film, a young couple, Jack and Lucy (Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley respectively) drive through a building snowstorm to meet Jack’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time. Lucy is unsure of the relationship, and goes over via internal monologue her various doubts. Jack is a nice enough guy, but she feels something is amiss. Things only get weirder when they arrive at Jack’s childhood farm home, as various characters age and get younger as Lucy travels from room to room, everyone’s mental acuities come and go, and she sees her own words in Jack’s book collection. As Jack’s parents waver back and forth through stages of dementia, it is Lucy herself who begins to question whether she’s losing her mind.

Parallel to all of this is a series of vignettes from an old janitor at a high school, where the students look at him with mocking disdain. It all comes to a head with a loving homage to Oklahoma! that’s so well done that I wanted to hug my computer screen.

All four leads give wonderfully committed performances in this latest Kaufman mindfuck, with emotions and tone turning on a dime. The film is equal parts funny, delightful, tragic, and terrifying, leading us all to wonder if our own lives are just revisionist history.

Grade: A

All Together Now

Finally, we end on a down note, thanks to a schmaltzy bit of treacle that wasn’t made by Disney, but it might as well have been. The ripoffs are visible from the first frame, when the production company logo for Gotham Pictures looks like a cheap imitation of the animated tracking shot around the Disney castle. All Together Now is supposed to be a soft, easy, PG-rated family feel good picture, but it’s so bogged down in the emotional beats that it doesn’t leave any room for narrative honesty or character development.

The film centers on high school senior Amber Appleton, played by Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho, who is just as perfect as perfect can be. She teaches English to Korean immigrants via the “Clap-Clap Song.” She works part-time at a donut shop and at a senior living facility where she has a perky kid/cynical old lady relationship with a wealthy shut-in named Joan (Carol Burnett, showing us all what “slumming it” looks like). She does favors for her friends so their parents will watch her adorable dog while she’s at school. She’s the head of her school’s drama club, where she puts on a benefit variety show every year (this year the goal is to get a new sousaphone for the marching band). She’s even been invited to Pittsburgh (the film takes place in Portland, Oregon) to audition for the Carnegie Mellon drama department, where her late father went to school. She has a diverse group of friends that includes a cute black guy and a disposable set of prop friends in the form of a saucy redhead, a kid in a wheelchair, and a guy who likes puns and may be on the spectrum. It’s like Glee, if Glee were shitty and transparently checking focus group boxes right from the get-go!

There isn’t a single flaw with this girl, but of course, that doesn’t mean her life is easy. You see, she and her mom are homeless, living in a school bus that her mom Becky (Justina Machado from the One Day at a Time reboot) drives during the day. Becky’s a recovering alcoholic, and the pair have temporarily chosen to live on the bus rather than with Becky’s abusive and also alcoholic boyfriend Oliver (never seen on screen, only mentioned in dialogue). Amber, being perfect, is willing to work herself stupid to earn extra cash so they can get a new apartment, and feels guilty about flying to Pittsburgh for this audition that could shape her entire future because it means taking money out of the “new home” fund.

So let’s review. Utterly perfect ingenue, dead parent, cute animal friend (its presence and the fact that it becomes a focal point for the third act is the ONLY thing preventing this from getting an F), and a yearning for a better life? Yeah, no matter what logo you put on it, this is a Disney princess movie, though it’s not so much Moana as it is It’s a Wonderful Life filtered through the lens of High School Musical. Which, just, yarg! When tragedy strikes – because you can’t get to happy until you get real sad! – Amber lives with her friend Ricky (Anthony Jacques Jr.) and his mom Donna, played by Judy Reyes from Scrubs. I think they upgraded her from nurse to full doctor for this film, but to have her first appearance be literally in hospital scrubs is just fucking painful. It also doesn’t help that in a film set in Portland, Amber’s main teacher is Fred Armisen. God almighty.

Even Cravalho’s best talent is wasted in the film, as she only gets one song, about midway through. And to be clear, this isn’t a musical, but because she’s a musical theatre student, they had to give her a showcase song. Sadly, it’s just a maudlin ballad that sounds like it was scooped out of Diane Warren’s septic tank.

I wish I could give the film some credit for the times that it comes close to taking a risk, but because the movie is only PG, it has to play it safe. Homelessness is a real issue that should be addressed, and having it be the dreaded secret of a teenager that seemingly has it all figured out is a great opportunity, but by the end of the second act, it’s basically abandoned. Dealing with alcoholism and domestic abuse is necessary and essential for a story like this, but because the movie is for kids, they can’t show any of it. When Becky’s “drunk,” she doesn’t look or act like it for even half a second. This so-called horrible, abusive Oliver is never shown, so we only have allusions from Amber. We’re told he’s bad, but can’t see that he’s bad. Even the one good thing about the film – the freaking dog – is used as a shameless heartstring tug before all of Amber’s problems are solved by a magical and obvious ex machina, meaning if this were real she’d learn nothing.

I wasn’t expecting the highest art in this movie, but there were places to go with the thin premise. Instead we got a live-action princess movie that mentions hard subjects without actually having the balls to truly take them on in a way that engages with the young target audience. But hey, at least this didn’t turn into a standard-issue religious propaganda film like Breakthrough, and Asian ladies go “Clap-Clap!” So… yay?

This movie’s crap.

Grade: D-

* * *

That’s all for this edition. A bit of a mixed bag. We got two good films, two truly great ones, and two that aren’t worth the match to burn the reels (if there were still widely circulating film reels). I’ve got a couple more narrative streaming films to go over from other services, as well as a metric fuck-ton of Netflix documentaries. We’ll handle the fiction films next and call ourselves “caught up,” but I’ll be sure to flit back in with the docs in the near future. Join me next time!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? What did you think? What was your favorite of the bunch? Can I just take a pill to let me hibernate like a bear? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “DownStream – Cruel Summer

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