DownStream – The Summer’s Gone

We come to it at last. After months upon months of theatres being shuttered to the point that there’s no realistic hope of reopening this year (at least in Los Angeles), I’ve come to the end of my 2020 catch-up. There is still a plethora of documentaries to sort through, and I’ll get to that in my own time, but for our normal purposes, I’m basically done with the backlog of streaming movies. From here on out, any new film I see, regardless of platform, will get an individual review as if it were a normal theatrical release, because that’s the new normal for the foreseeable future. There are some theatres open in California in counties surrounding Los Angeles, and I may go seek them out simply out of desperation, even if it means a 90-minute drive each way. But apart from that, pretty much everything is going to be on streaming or some other sort of VOD service until the pandemic subsides. Dr. Anthony Fauci currently predicts we might resume some semblance of normalcy around April, so yay, I guess. At least in nine weeks the country will be in the hands of someone who will actually do the job, not just expect praise for doing a good job without even bothering to try.

Anyhoo, before we can truly go back to “normal,” we have four final films to discuss in (relatively) brief terms. All of these debuted outside of Netflix, and two had a theatrical release in conjunction with their online premieres, so you may have gotten a chance to actually go to see them, depending on your market and your state’s reopening schedule. None of these movies is truly great, but they’re all fairly decent, passable bits of entertainment. And honestly, after the year we’ve had – including the democracy-threatening post-election drama we’re still enduring – a bit of entertainment can make all the difference between feeling sane and not.

Shirley – Hulu, YouTube, and other VOD services

We begin with Elisabeth Moss in yet another fantastic performance. She’s had quite a run these last few years, from The Handmaid’s Tale, to Us, to the surprisingly well-received remake of The Invisible Man. Her latest venture is a quasi-biopic about eccentric 20th century writer Shirley Jackson, perhaps best known for the twisted short story, “The Lottery.” Sometimes I tutor English, and I’ve had to teach this story. It’s an amazing bit of atmosphere with a twist ending that was truly shocking for its time. She was also known for having a somewhat tumultuous private life, with mental health issues and an established degree of alcoholism.

The film, Shirley, however, is largely fictitious, based on a book by Susan Scarf Merrell, which is also mostly imagined. Set in the 1950s, the movie creates a story of Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman (the always fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg) taking in a newly married couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) as tenants while the young groom Fred begins working as a literature professor under Stanley. New wife Rosie, who eloped with Fred after she became pregnant, is essentially conscripted into being a full-time housekeeper and companion to Shirley while she emerges from a years-long bout of writer’s block. However, being elitist in the extreme, Shirley and Stanley work in their own ways to destroy the idealistic young couple through gaslighting, betrayal, and professional sabotage. Basically, it’s a case of misery loving company, but only if they can make the company as miserable as they are.

There’s a devilish charm to how both Moss and Stuhlbarg play their parts, particularly Moss, who takes Jackson’s mental issues in a way that lets her turn her mood and motivation on a dime, making her extremely unpredictable, and in doing so, more intriguing, because you’re never sure what she’s going to do next, whether it’s playful or devious. Odessa Young as Rosie makes for an ideal foil, because she’s realistic but too trusting. She looks like an ideal housewife of the 50s, but the appearance is more than deceiving, because she’s clever, resourceful, and sexually assertive. She’s not just a doll for Shirley to play with, but an intellectual challenge, a puzzle to solve by needling in just the right places.

Where the film falls short for me is, sadly, in the fiction. As I mentioned, this is a fictitious film based on a largely fictional book, and that’s honestly kind of a shame. Shirley Jackson had enough quirks and issues in real life to make a truly compelling biopic based on the actual things that happened to her, but instead the filmmakers opted for this highly exaggerated version. One of Jackson’s own children objected to the film, saying it painted his parents as humorless monsters and ignored all the joy in their lives, including himself and his siblings. The film depicts Jackson and Hyman as a childless couple, but during the film’s timeline, they already had three kids. And of course, Fred and Rosie, while fun characters, are completely invented for the purpose of this mind game. At no point did Jackson and Hyman host a young couple or employ anyone like them. Inventing good guys so you can create bad guys out of real people is intellectually dishonest, especially when you’re dealing with people who created and studied fiction for a living.

If this were a pure work of fiction and didn’t use Shirley Jackson’s name, I would probably rate this film higher, because Moss, Stuhlbarg, and Young really do give great performances, and the resolution of Jackson’s little game is compelling. But Shirley Jackson was a real person who lived a fascinating life. If you want to make a film about her, do it, but go full force and shoot for accuracy. Turning her into a villain for the sake of dramatic tension feels just as diabolical and mean-spirited as the manipulation depicted on the screen.

Grade: B-

Greyhound – Apple TV+

Before I judge the film properly, can we all agree that the phrase “A(n) [insert streaming service here] original” needs to go away? Or at minimum, can we at least force it to be accurate? This has happened a lot during the pandemic, but it was fairly commonplace beforehand too. Just because something debuts on a certain platform doesn’t mean it’s an original production. This film is a case in point. Directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Tom Hanks himself, the film was produced by Sony Pictures with the intention of releasing it to theatres back in June. The pandemic prevented that, so Sony sold the distribution rights to Apple, which put it out in July. That’s it. Apple had no involvement with the production whatsoever. They merely were the second option to distribute the film, an arrangement that Hanks did not appreciate, probably because it forced this corporate bullshit onto the masthead. The credits now include slates that say, “An Apple original film.” By definition, it is not. I know this is mostly just a semantic argument, but one, we live in an age where facts no longer matter on the items of most importance, so more than ever I want to stress how simple it is to get shit right, and two, the problem is easily solved by changing the credit to “Distributed/Presented by Apple.” It requires the same amount of no effort, and it renders the statement true. Apple did nothing to make this film. They simply cut a check to host it. They shouldn’t be allowed to take credit for its quality, nor any blame if it sucks. And the same should go for Hulu, HBO, Netflix, and Amazon. If they didn’t actually finance and/or produce the film with their resources, they shouldn’t be allowed to call it an “original” film. They did jack and shit.

Okay, rant over, on to the actual movie.

Based on C.S. Forester’s novel, “The Good Shepherd” (not to be confused with the 2006 Matt Damon/Angelina Jolie spy movie), Greyhound is basically one large action sequence broken up by moments of calm amidst a raging storm. Set during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, Tom Hanks writes and stars as Ernie Krause, taking his first naval command of the USS Keeling, which goes by the call sign of “Greyhound” for the purposes of ship-to-ship communications. The Keeling is one of several destroyers escorting a convoy of Allied supply ships to Liverpool through an area known as “The Black Pit,” where the small fleet has no air support and is susceptible to German U-boat attacks.

The bulk of the action takes place over the three-day period that “Greyhound” is in this exposed area, with much of the dialogue being naval jargon and procedure. Thanks to Hanks’ commanding presence (pun not intended), and some clever editing, it all feels very understandable. Hanks will give a command to adjust their heading to a seemingly random direction. That order will be repeated by the next person down the line. We then see the helmsman adjust the wheel accordingly. The scene cuts to an exterior of the ship moving in the appropriate direction. The first officer makes an adjustment on their course map. The sonar officer detects the next adjustment in course and calls it in to the bridge. Hanks makes another order. The cycle repeats. It serves a wonderful double purpose of creating great suspense and bringing the audience into the world of a fast-paced naval battle in a way that doesn’t confuse us. And for a film that barely crosses 90 minutes, the pace never really lets up, even when we get breaks in the intensity. It seems like an odd compliment, but Hanks’ script is very efficient, and in a world where we’ve seen plenty of poorly-paced action fare over the last few years, it’s quite welcome. It probably won’t win any awards, but it’s genuinely appreciated from where I sit.

There are two other really strong elements apart from Hanks (both scripting and acting). While the battle action is a lot of CGI (almost convincing, but not quite), and you can tell that just about every exterior shot of Hanks and crew outside the bridge has them in front of a green screen, the scenes inside Greyhound’s bridge are really well done from a cinematography standpoint. If you’ve never toured a Navy vessel I recommend that you do. There are plenty of decommissioned ships that have been permanently docked and made into living museums. When you go on those ships, you see that most of the spaces are very tight, because as much room as possible needs to be devoted to technology and armaments. The bridge is tiny, and yet there are sometimes up to eight people occupying this very small space, but it never feels truly cramped. Again, the word “efficient” seems like the best way to describe it. It’s tight, but not claustrophobic, with the film relying on the changing light schemes (for battle readiness alerts) and the cacophony of orders to provide the needed suspense.

The great internal camera work complements the other major bit of awesomeness, and that is the score by Blake Neely. Through the use of strings and percussion, he creates a real sense of impending doom as Greyhound engages in battle against the German submarines. The strings are played at high register, but seemingly out of tune, to simulate the sound of scraping metal. Once the heavy percussions (mostly timpani) are added, you get a sense of bombardment. It’s not like the walls are closing in, but more like the very bulkheads of the ship are buckling under the pressure of artillery and rough seas. It’s a tremendous bit of orchestration that gives the onslaught that extra heft that elevates the proceedings from run of the mill to truly satisfying.

The one element that honestly was a detraction for me is Hanks reaching for pathos with the script. In an early scene, we get a flashback of Hanks and his girlfriend the previous Christmas (right after the US joined World War II). She’s played by Elisabeth Shue. The scene between them is nice, but ultimately meaningless, because it goes nowhere, and apart from two brief flashes of her face, she never shows up again. I guess it’s meant to show that Hanks’ character has something to fight for, but really all it does is reek of tokenism, because Shue is the only woman in the cast, and she has something like, five lines. Similarly, there’s a messmate named Cleveland played by Rob Morgan who’s meant to be a connection to Hanks’ fading sanity because he’s so caught up in his mission that he won’t eat or sleep. But again, his inclusion seems like a token, because he’s one of only two black characters who speak, and he’s so clearly marked for death from the moment you see him that every time he pops up you’re just wondering how long it’ll be.

It’s a shame, too, because Hanks has proven beyond all doubt that he can carry a film by himself. He’s been doing it literally for decades. These minor, meaningless distractions only serve to pull us out of the action. The character or Ernie Krause is committed, religious, and tenacious. The man doesn’t sleep for 50 hours over the course of the film, and you can see his fatigue setting in as the struggle goes on, as well as the remorse for every person and vessel he can’t save. He also injects scripture quotes into the proceedings as a way to steady his mind when things get bleak. This is a fully-developed character. We don’t need outside elements to humanize him. I get the feeling these characters were added to the film either because of, or anticipation of, studio notes about how people will think the movie is sexist and racist if they’re not included. This is a fine film on most fronts, but in this one respect, it’s wasted resources on side characters that serve no purpose.

Grade: B

An American Pickle – HBO Max

This is another case where “original” is misused. Sony produced this film, and after the pandemic struck, they sold the distribution rights to Warner Bros., who then released it as the first “original” on HBO Max. Again, HBO and Warner at large had no input in the production of the film, but they get to brand it as their work. Bull. Shit.

Anyway, An American Pickle is at times silly and farcical, like one would expect out of a Seth Rogen movie, and at other times a clever bit of modern satire. It falls apart in certain places, but thanks to the charisma of Rogen’s dual performance, the humor is strong enough to sustain the story.

The silliness comes first, via a narrated flashback by Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) about how he met and fell in love with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook, who co-starred with Rogen in Steve Jobs). Right off the bat we get an absurd tone, with Rogen affecting an Eastern European accent that feels like a combination of Chaim Topol from Fiddler on the Roof and Borat. It’s then aided by a meet-cute where he buys a fish for Sarah, and she literally eats it face first. It’s an unexpected laugh, but a solid one.

Anyway, after the couple emigrates to America, Sarah gets pregnant and Herschel takes a job clubbing rats in a pickle factory. Through a series of absurdities, he falls into a vat of pickle brine, which is immediately sealed with the others not realizing he’s inside, and the factory is shut down. One hundred years later, our present, some random kids stumble upon the container and unseal it, reviving Herschel and setting up a passable fish out of water story. He learns of a lone descendent, a great-grandson named Ben, also played by Rogen (typically Herschel has a beard while Ben does not as a means of distinguishing them), who is trying to develop a mobile app in Brooklyn. Mismatch comedy ensues.

At this point the film shifts from a silly bit of slapstick and hijinks into a satire that dares you to guess which side it’s taking. Pretty much everything you’d find in modern New York gets skewered, from designer food (Ben jokes about how just about everything can be “milked” and Herschel’s family burial plot has been taken over by a billboard for vanilla vodka), to tech culture (Ben’s app about ethical sourcing of food gets denied funding because Herschel gets the pair arrested, complete with an utterly unscrupulous venture capitalist lecturing Ben on optics), to hipsters (Herschel decides to make pickles out of discarded cucumbers and rain water, to the delight of millennials who love “locally sourced” foods), to social media (Ben sabotages Herschel by getting him to start a Twitter page knowing he’ll spew the outdated stereotypes that he lived online), to media sensationalism (interrupting broadcasts for “special reports” about racist tweets; gee, I wonder who the target is there), to cancel culture (the intern who typed Herschel’s tweets immediately jumps ship to join a protest against him the moment she sees they have bigger numbers), to alt-right shitheads who seek validation of their bigotry so they can wave it off as free speech (Herschel’s “defenders”), to the people who would turn on you in an instant if you display any traits that contradict their warped version of religion (Herschel gets chased by his own fans for saying Christianity is stupid).

For the most part, these jokes all land, and while they’re not laugh out loud moments all the time, they are fairly well-crafted. I just kind of wish that the movie would pick a lane and stick to it. I was all in for some absurdity, and I could be just as all in for well-written satire. They even try to cram in some heartwarming family moments, which again, I’m all for if that’s the movie you’re trying to make, but trying to do all three feels rudderless, and the way the film shifts between these styles is jarring. Take for example a deportation trial in the third act that ends up being absurd for all the wrong reasons. After Herschel becomes a pariah, he frames Ben by shaving his beard and assuming Ben’s identity. Ben is then put on trial as Herschel and kicked out of the country. The footage of his trial is literally Ben asserting that he’s Ben and not Herschel, the prosecution offering a patently stupid counter about Charles Manson, and the judge immediately dismissing the entire defense and convicting Ben on the spot.

Now, compare that with the opening sequence. Both are intentionally absurd, but the first time it makes sense, because we’re establishing characters and setting up the events of the film. Herschel’s narration even leans into it, by having a press conference where a scientist “explains” how Herschel’s even alive to a skeptical press, and waving it off by narrating, “He explains science, all are satisfied,” while the journalists nod in a placated fashion. That’s funny. That works.

But with the trial, it makes no sense. The characters have already been revealed. More than half the movie is in the book at this point, and the events within the film can’t justify the moment. Herschel and Ben get arrested early on after fighting with some construction workers. We see mug shots, twice. This means they had to have been booked and fingerprinted. Even if the defense of “Herschel has a beard and I don’t” is dumb, any competent lawyer or non-braindead layman would simply call for a fingerprint comparison to confirm Ben’s identity, and Herschel would be properly arrested at Ben’s home, having assumed his identity. The first bit of silliness works for the purposes of a setup to rush us into the main action. The second bit is just narrative laziness for the sake of a joke that doesn’t land because the film’s own internal logic is being violated.

Still, overall it’s a minor complaint, because when it’s all said and done, this is a funny movie with two odd yet believable performances from Seth Rogen. The jokes don’t all land, and the story structure almost seems contradictory at times, but I can’t deny I wasn’t laughing and entertained pretty much the whole way.

Grade: B

Bill & Ted Face the Music – Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other VOD services

I grew up on the Bill & Ted movies. They were among my favorites as a kid, and even as an adult I’ve found new appreciation for them, especially now that I live a stone’s throw from the real San Dimas. I love the evolution of Keanu Reeves as an actor from the humble, dopey beginnings of these movies. I love how seriously George Carlin seemed to take such a silly role as Rufus, and 12 years after his death, I still miss his wisdom every day. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was actually my introduction to historical figures like Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and the silliness of the film made me want to learn more about them. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was one of the funniest, most out-of-left-field sequels imaginable, with the visions of a personal Hell and beating Death at Battleship being almost foundational moments for me as a writer and a fan of cinema, because while cheesy, they were beyond imaginative, and about as far from a standard sequel as anyone could conceive. I still pronounce it “So-crates.”

So yeah, after decades of will they/won’t they rumors, development hell, and Alex Winter moving on to a fairly successful career as a director and producer instead of acting, when it was announced that a third entry in the series was FINALLY being made, you know I was psyched. So after such a long wait, how was it?

Not bad. Not great, but not bad either. I dug it for the most part, though it had some glaring issues.

When we last left our slacker heroes, nearly 30 years ago, Wyld Stallyns had escaped death, saved the world, and ushered in a new era of peace by winning the Battle of the Bands with a rousing rendition of “God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll to You” (still my favorite Kiss song because of the film). They also used their time-traveling phone booth to get in some extreme practice time and had children with their princess babes, dubbed “Little Bill” and “Little Ted.”

Fast forward to now, and it turns out that world peace was not achieved. The band’s success was fleeting, Death quit the group and went back to Hell, and “Little Bill & Ted” are actually young ladies named Billie and Thea (played by Bridgette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving, respectively). We’ve also upgraded the Q-rating of Elizabeth and Joanna, who are now played by Erinn Hayes (Children’s Hospital) and Jayma Mays (Glee). While the girls are very much their fathers’ daughters, especially when it comes to infusing their valley voices with advanced vocabulary, they are also students of music, with a deep appreciation for every bit of avant-garde theremin playing and throat singing their dads produce in their attempts to find the song that will unite the world and bring about the utopian future inhabited by Rufus and the late E-Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons.

Meanwhile, the universe is changing. Time is collapsing on itself, as illustrated by a model that looks like a vinyl LP fluctuating. Figures from history are being warped to the past, present, and future, with the “Preston/Logan” song being the only hope to restore the balance. The Great Leader of future San Dimas (Holland Taylor) and widow of Rufus sends her daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) to give Bill and Ted the deadline for the song before all of reality is compromised permanently. This leads to two missions. The first is for Bill and Ted, hopelessly unable to write the song, to go into the future to visit themselves in hopes that they can bring back the now-written song. The second is for Billie and Thea to go into the past to recruit the greatest musical minds of history to create an all-star band to perform the song once their dads have secured it. Meanwhile, the babes are dismayed in couples therapy (Jillian Bell has some amazing reaction faces for all the insanity going on in front of her), and The Great Leader sends back a robot (Anthony Carrigan of Gotham and Barry) to assassinate Bill and Ted, believing their deaths will unite humanity around them as martyrs.

So in a way, while Bogus Journey was the exact opposite of a traditional movie sequel, Face the Music is something of a standard sequel for both of the previous films. The daughters going to back to recruit historical figures is right out of Excellent Adventure, while Bill and Ted’s foray into the future and encountering dystopic versions of themselves (complete with some great makeup work and a killer Dave Grohl cameo) recalls the surreal nature of Bogus Journey. Add in the return of William Sadler as Death, Hal Landon Jr. as Ted’s father, and Amy Stoch as the ever remarrying in weirdly incestual ways Missy, and you’ve got a good deal of fan service that works far more often than it doesn’t. Hell, there’s a truly inspiring scene where Billie and Thea recruit Jimi Hendrix (DazMan Still) for their band, only to have him recruit Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Daniel Dorr) by playing electric guitar along with one of his harpsichord pieces. It’s a great mashup and a proper demonstration of how musical influence can span centuries to create transcendent art. It also doesn’t hurt that Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves slide so easily back into the roles that you’d hardly believe they ever stopped. It’s been nearly 30 years, and the pair play off each other as if they went straight from Bogus Journey into this. It’s beyond welcome.

Unfortunately, there are other elements that not only don’t work, but kind of detract from the series as a whole. For example, I love Kristen Schaal. She’s one of the funniest actors in the world, mostly because even in live-action roles, she’s capable of being completely off the wall and animated, playing agents of chaos like no one else. Here’s she’s mostly wasted as a straight man in a silly-looking dress. Now, in the previous films, all the future people wore silly outfits, too, and they played their roles straight, but there was also a commitment to this fake ideal world that 80s rock could create. Here, Schaal is more used as a device to move the plot, and isn’t really given any agency of her own. Half the time she’s dumping exposition in a quasi-monotone like she’s just reading off the page to get to the next sentence, and the other half she’s on a transparent smart phone complaining about her mom. It just doesn’t add anything.

That leads us to point #2 against this movie, the special effects. I know this was done on a fairly low budget ($25 million), but the visual effects are just god-awful. The egg-like vessel Kelly uses to transport looks fake as shit, and the future backgrounds of San Dimas look like they came from first-year computer animation students. Compare that to the makeup effects of future Bill and Ted, particularly the ones when they’re in prison, and you have to wonder why so much effort was put on one and not the other.

Finally, without spoiling the ending (which is fairly obvious, honestly; I had it pegged from the first scene), the execution of the resolution is so full of bullshit that it’s almost embarrassing. The idea of the first two movies, idiotic though it was and intentionally so, was that the music of Wyld Stallyns would eventually unite the world under the banner of rock and roll and bring about world peace. So excuse my annoyed skepticism when it turns out that a) Billie and Thea are more “music producers” than musicians, relying on sound machines and beat loopers than actually being able to play instruments, and b) Kid fucking Cudi has an extended cameo. Now, I’ll grant that his character is actually kind of funny, spouting tons of technobabble as if he’s an expert in quantum dynamics as a means to gloss over the more impossible plot points, but when I see Billie and Thea on a quest to get the greatest musicians ever, he sticks out like the sorest thumb imaginable. I can only imagine the pitch meeting for this casting:

Executive 1: We need to bring in the greatest musicians ever to make this work.
Executive 2: Agreed. So who do we pick?
Executive 1: Mozart.
Executive 2: Of course!
Executive 1: How about Jimi Hendrix?
Executive 2: Obviously!
Executive 1: Ooh, ooh, I got it. Louis Armstrong!
Executive 2: Well that just goes without saying.
Executive 1: And to top it all off… wait for it… KID CUDI!
Executive 2: I love that we get paid millions for these brilliant ideas!
Sesame Street on the boardroom TV: One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong!

And scene. It just reeks of a betrayal of the very spirit of these movies to have the future unity of the world through music come via overproduced EDM schlock and a rapper who hasn’t put out an album in four years, and hasn’t cracked the top 10 since 2014. Between this and Jexi, where did the sudden demand for Kid Cudi cameos come from?

Still, when it’s all said and done, this is an entertaining film. It’s the underachieving sequel I think many of us would have anticipated back in 1991, but on the whole, there are enough good, heartfelt, and downright funny moments to recommend it. The callbacks are for the most part faithful, Weaving and Lundy-Paine are an utter delight, and it really was just so, so comforting to see Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves together again. I can almost forgive every flaw of this film just for the nostalgic smile their righteous air guitaring gave me every time they broke it back out.

But seriously, let’s get back to real music. Please!

Grade: B-

* * *

And with that, the streaming backlog is done. From here on out (apart from the Netflix docs), every new movie I see will get a full review as normal. Hard to believe this year is almost over. It feels like it started 20 years ago. Stay safe everyone, and find your fun where you can.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which was your favorite? What board game could you beat Death at? Let me know!

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