DownStream – The Netflix Pre-Blitz

The Oscar nominations have finally been announced, and as such, the annual Blitz is in full effect. In the final days leading up to the reveal, I was able to squeeze in two more movies via Netflix in the hopes of checking off a couple nominees in advance. Well, I half succeeded. One of these films was honored on Tuesday, while the other was not. Unfortunately, the result should have been flipped. But for the official record, here are mini reviews of those two films.

Passing

Ruth Negga was nominated for Supporting Actress in every major Awards Season ceremony up until this point, while Tessa Thompson got a Lead Actress nod at the BAFTAs. Both, however, were shut out by the Academy, as was the movie overall. It’s a shame, truly, because both gave tremendous performances in a film that soars in large part due to their ability to lift the heavy thematic material.

In a sort of naturalistic reversal of Black Like Me, the story of Passing revolves around two light-skinned black women who can be confused for white, hence the title. In 1920s Harlem, Irene Redfield (Thompson), who also goes by “Reenie,” lives a happy upper class life as a wife to a doctor (André Holland), mother to two children, and socialite, frequently planning cultural events and parties with her friend, author Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp). Wentworth is based on Harlem Renaissance novelist Carl Van Vechten, who was close friends with Nella Larsen, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based.

On a random day walking around the city, Reenie runs into her childhood friend, Clare Bellew (Negga), who is also married with a child in Chicago. Clare’s ability to “pass” is more pronounced than Reenie’s due to her blonde hair, to the point that she even convinced her eventual husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), who is vehemently racist against black people. While she’s happy to see her old schoolmate again, Reenie is uncomfortable with the ease with which Clare insinuates herself into her life, as she fears John finding out the truth about his wife may complicate or destroy her family, to say nothing of the retribution that Clare herself would face. On the flipside, Clare sees in Reenie an opportunity to reclaim her lost heritage, to reconnect with her roots when she has the opportunity to visit.

The two women play off each other brilliantly, with Thompson’s paranoia balancing almost perfectly with Negga seemingly channeling Blanche DuBois, with all the naivete and grace notes that entails. Rebecca Hall, in her directorial debut, makes incredibly smart use of the 4:3 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography to simultaneously illustrate the binary nature of the world around Clare and Rennie and the subtle shades of grey within their relationship.

In lesser hands, this likely wouldn’t have come off as well as it did. There are some moments that are more obvious than need be. There’s a classism aspect that’s really not explored here that dilutes some of the stakes. The ending is ambiguous in a manner that ultimately proves frustrating (which may have been what happened in the book, I don’t know; it just didn’t scan right for me while viewing). But thankfully, Thompson and Negga’s skill in front of the camera, as well as Hall’s behind it, more than make up for any faults in the script. There’s an almost dreamlike feel to the entire movie, which only aids the experience when the story turns more and more into a nightmare.

Grade: B+

Don’t Look Up

And then we have Don’t Look Up, which received four nominations from the Academy, including Best Picture. This despite the fact that the film holds a “rotten” rating of 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience score is a more respectable 78%, but even then, there’s not nearly enough of a quality consensus to seriously consider this one of the 10 best films of 2021.

Adam McKay’s last two films, The Big Short and Vice, were amazing and hilarious farcical looks at genuine horrors in recent American history. Here he opts for an apocalyptic, over-the-top satire about a hypothetical disaster – a comet heading for Earth – as a metaphor for climate change, though it unintentionally also stands in for the COVID pandemic, despite the fact that the script was written in 2019.

The problem is the strength of the satire itself. While McKay is known for being clever, here it’s way too scattershot, with too many targets. It’s also extremely heavy-handed. In an odd way, it’s almost impressive how unfocused the commentary is while being blunt, obvious, and shallow all at the same time. It leads to a product that is both preachy and tone deaf, casting legitimate issues into the realm of the absurd in a way that’s more likely to alienate a potentially receptive audience than convert them.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dr. Randall Mindy, an astronomy professor at Michigan State. One day, one of his doctoral students, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discovers a comet. What begins as excitement turns to dread as a quick round of calculations shows that the comet is on a direct collision course with Earth, dooming the entire planet in six months if something isn’t done. This premise may sound familiar, because it was literally the same story in a classic episode of The Simpsons from nearly 30 years ago. Given that the cartoon series only had 23 minutes to work with, the satire there is a lot more tidy and direct than it is here.

After consulting with a NASA official (Rob Morgan), the duo gets an audience with the President of the United States, Jane Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, who quickly brushes them off after making them wait in the White House for more than a day to even talk to them in the first place. The pair then go to the media, where a local newspaper (using the New York Times’ masthead font but not its name) farms them out to a morning news show, hosted by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, to break the story to the public. Mindy is praised for apparently having a good on-camera presence, while Dibiasky is mocked by the internet for understandably panicking when the literal end of the world is treated with less importance than staged celebrity relationship drama featuring Ariana Grande playing herself under a different name and a rapper calling himself “DJ Chello” (Kid Cudi, credited under his real name, Scott Mescudi), a handle only slightly less ridiculous than Mid-Sized Sedan from Old.

When the administration deigns to take the issue seriously (mostly so it’ll help their party win in the midterm elections and get Orlean’s scandal-riddled Supreme Court nominee confirmed), the rescue plan is interrupted by Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the head of a tech company called BASH (named after what they’re trying to do upside your head with how blatant this all is), who wishes to mine the comet for precious metals rather than simply knock it off course and away from our planet. The scientists are then scapegoated, misinformation is paraded to the masses, and all hope for mankind’s salvation rests in the chance of a fringe benefit of an exercise in corporate avarice.

I have the same problem with this film as I did with Promising Young Woman, which is the lack of nuance in the messaging. Just like with that movie, it’s okay to not be subtle, but there’s a difference between subtlety and nuance, and if you don’t have the former, you must have the latter. Otherwise you’re just pontificating. That this spiritual predecessor went on to win the Oscar for Original Screenplay feels like a terrible omen of things to come.

There is no nuance to anything in this movie. Most of the characters are completely one note, from the idealistic Kate to the why-even-hide-the-turtleneck caricature of Steve Jobs that is Isherwell (though in fairness, the way he cuts off a child trying to ask a question at a product rollout about 30 minutes in was the first genuine laugh I had, but that’s mostly down to Rylance’s line readings), from the easily corruptible Mindy to the saintly wife (Melanie Lynskey) he betrays at first opportunity, from the vapid morning show hosts to the abusive jarhead military man (Ron Perlman) whose horrible behavior is written off as “he’s from another generation.” The only character to get more than one dimension is President Orlean, but that’s only because, in casting Streep, they decided to have her be a parody of Donald Trump with Sarah Palin’s speech patterns.

And as previously mentioned, McKay’s righteous rage is directed all over the road so that the audience can never keep up with who’s an asshole for what reason. The biggest example of this is Orlean’s Chief of Staff, Jason, who also happens to be her son. He’s played by Jonah Hill, who seems to be having the most fun with this material, and he does tend to get the best one-liners (despite the thematic flaws, there still are some good jokes). Now, he could just be an easy avatar for the nepotism of the Trump Administration, given that the former POTUS literally put Ivanka, Eric, Don Jr., and son-in-law Jared Kushner into high-level, important jobs in both official and unofficial capacities. But no, in addition to being a failson, Jason also has to be a wannabe social media influencer, trying to make Instagram videos of all the bullshit he does as he’s doing said bullshit.

He’s a microcosm of the larger issue. Who is the target here? Dismissive politicians? Social Media? News as entertainment? Public apathy? People who vote against their own interests? Science deniers? Billionaires? Tech companies? Capitalism as a whole? Conservatives? Rednecks? Posers? Hipsters? Punks? Christians? The answer is “all of the above,” and it’s just too much.

Because of this, we get a movie that’s way too long in saying stuff that a) didn’t realy need to be said because anyone who cares already knew, and b) wasn’t said all that well when it came to it. This movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and you could have easily cut close to an hour out of it. We didn’t need DiCaprio cheating on his wife with the film’s equivalent of Kathy Lee Gifford, who apparently sells her soul and her intellect daily for the sake of ratings. We didn’t need Dibiasky hooking up with a skater punk who’s secretly an evangelical (an utterly wasted Timothée Chalamet). We sure as fuck didn’t need the entire pop star subplot to justify Grande giving us a terrible track that nevertheless got shortlisted for Original Song (thankfully it wasn’t nominated), and if you think about it, engaging in such excess arguably undermines the film’s slapdash point. Hell, there’s an unresolved running gag that comes up multiple times about Dibiasky’s indignance at a Pentagon official (Paul Guilfoyle) who charged her and Mindy for free snacks during their first visit to the White House. What is the point of it? It goes nowhere and it isn’t funny. At least the runner of Orlean having Mindy and Dibiasky abducted by the feds and bags put on their heads whenever they don’t toe the line gets a chuckle or two, but this? It’s just stupid and kills time.

You could cut out all of this, plus the entry-level commentary about the idiot bully pulpit that is social media, and you’d not only save a ton of time, but you’d wind up with a much more focused message to get the underlying metaphor across clearly and succinctly. If you’ve seen this movie, imagine if it was just the comet and BASH stuff, with everything else eliminated. An attempt to save the world is hijacked by a greedy corporate entity endorsed by a corrupt political machine that only cares about personal enrichment and power. You’d have a satire that would play like a modern take on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” only instead of suggesting that the poor sell their children as livestock to feed the rich, you’d have Tim Cook willing to sacrifice all life on Earth to make a better iPhone. Tell me that wouldn’t land!

Instead we got this collage of virtue signaling that comes off haphazard, half-baked, and half-assed, filled with way too many easy targets, none of which are hit effectively because the film can’t stay focused on any one of them long enough to get a cogent point across. There are some good performances here (chiefly Rylance and Hill, though Streep also has her moments), and on its most basic level, the movie is funny more often than not. And it should be noted that amidst the jumble of ideas there’s hint of profundity, to the point that it would be ignorant to simply dismiss this as just liberal elites lecturing us from an ivory tower like a lot of conservative outlets have done (thereby living up to their depiction within the film). But when given the chance to say something meaningful on subjects that matter to everyone (whether they want to admit it or not), McKay seems to have opted for a cinematic echo chamber that sounds more like someone getting together with all of their friends to bitch and rant about how everyone and everything sucks, content to brush it off with a drink and a bong rip rather than form a coherent opinion.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see these movies? Which do you prefer? Do you think either Tessa Thompson or Ruth Negga were snubbed by the Academy? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “DownStream – The Netflix Pre-Blitz

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