DownStream – Spring Cleaning

Back in May, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled their rule changes for next year’s Oscars. Apart from a few cosmetic changes, like renaming the Documentary categories ever so slightly, the major news is that the eligibility guidelines are close to fully reverting back to their original, pre-pandemic state. No longer will streaming-only films be considered, though I’m sure there’s a grace period or grandfather clause for movies put onto platforms before this decision was made.

Before COVID hit, the rule was ironclad, that a movie must debut for at least one week in a public theatre in Los Angeles for it to be eligible. When the pandemic shuttered theatres nationwide, the Academy made an allowance for movies on streaming services, so long as they were intended to be shown in theatres before everything went to shit. Last year, that rule was maintained, as well as expanding the public sphere to six metropolitan areas to accommodate parts of the country that were reopening on different timetables. This year, those six cities (L.A., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta) are kept as options, but the theatrical requirement is fully reinstated. I’m guessing that there will be an allowance for a movie to become eligible once it gets a theatrical run rather than having to premiere in the cinema, but barring another nationwide shutdown, I think it’s safe to assume that the old rules will be firmly re-established within another year or two.

As such, there is little purpose for the “DownStream” series going forward, as I have little to no interest in anything that isn’t allowed to be considered during Awards Season, which eliminates everything but the deepest of indie cuts and documentaries. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any future installments, just that they’ll be much fewer and farther between.

At least for the most part. As of right now, I’ve got about six movies on my list that are essentially streaming-exclusive at this point. Some made their debut online, others got the briefest of theatrical runs, and at least one is a case where it had a normal run in the multiplex, but is now available through a streamer if you happened to miss it and/or didn’t want to shell out money for low quality.

So with that in mind, this will be the first of two DS columns over the course of (hopefully) this week. After that, I can’t really tell when the next one might be. There was never a consistent schedule for these, but the pandemic allowed for a LOT of online content that will now mercifully be shifted back to theatres, and I can cover them on a more individual basis. This particular edition will focus on three movies released during the spring months, while the next one will have a bit more of a true thematic link.

Mad God – Shudder

This film got the requisite one-week, extremely limited release before moving to the horror-centric streaming service, Shudder. It didn’t even get submitted to the Motion Picture Association for a rating. So why am I even bothering? Because this is an animated film, and the eligibility and submission rules are different from the general ballot. And while that brief release would make it eligible, it’s clear that if this is going to get any real consideration, it’ll be for Animated Feature.

It also doesn’t hurt that this is one of the most insane films I’ve ever seen, one that sticks out in my head nearly a month after viewing. It also represents an amazing testament to the value of tenacity and passion, as this project was more than 30 years in the making.

Produced, written, and directed by Phil Tippett, a master of stop-motion who is perhaps best known as the “Dinosaur Supervisor” on the original Jurassic Park (you had ONE JOB, Phil, supervise the dinosaurs; and look what happened!), Mad God is a gruesome, gory, and surreal experiment in animated horror, made all the more visceral because it’s almost entirely silent.

Feeling at times like a descent through Dante’s Inferno, our erstwhile protagonist, known only as an Assassin, is dropped behind the enemy lines of an apocalyptic war, carrying a suitcase containing a bomb. Following a quickly-decaying map possibly made of human flesh, the Assassin delves deeper and deeper into the nightmare that is the enemy city, where machines, mutants, and drones operate in a mobius strip, gordian knot assembly line of grotesquery, and it is fucking MESMERIZING! Think of the greatest bits of body horror that the likes of David Cronenberg could ever do, and then meld it with stop-motion miniatures and human actors through forced perspective. That gives you but a small, gag reflex-testing taste of what Tippett has in store for this odyssey of mutually-assured destruction.

And let me be absolutely clear. This is NOT for the faint of heart or squeamish. I like to think I have a pretty strong constitution, but there were several points throughout this journey where I genuinely regretted buying concessions. There are moments in this film where Tippett seems to have taken the phrase, “vomit-inducing” as a challenge, and while I can always laud the commitment and creativity behind the execution, I can’t pretend I wasn’t getting a bit woozy in my seat.

The other drawback is in the story itself, which relies heavily on visual metaphor. There is basically no dialogue in the picture, though human actors occasionally speak in gibberish. As such, much of the plot details are left to our imagination, which gets really difficult in the back half of the film. Even character names like “Assassin” or “Last Man” are only known to us through the credit roll. The focus remains solely on the spectacle, for better or worse, and that leaves just a touch too much opportunity for things to go off the rails, with no expository or linguistic ability to bring the narrative back to something more linear.

Still, this three-decade long passion project is well worth your eyes. Just be sure to give them a thorough washing afterwards.

Grade: B

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – HBOMax

I originally had no intention of seeing this movie. I made as much clear in the April edition of “The Worst Trailer in the World.” But then something amazing happened. People hated it. I mean, they REALLY hated it, to the point that the future of the franchise is currently in limbo. The Fantastic Beasts spinoff series was designed to last for five movies, but here we are after the third, and response has been so negative that the final two films may be scrapped altogether.

Because of this, morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I sat down to watch it on HBOMax after its theatrical run ended so prematurely. No matter how horrible it might be, sheer fascination compels me to look at the film that might have finally killed this franchise.

The verdict: It’s not as bad as I thought it’d be. Don’t misunderstand. It is bad. It is really bad, you guys, a complete waste of time. But it’s not as bad as it could have been. It’s terrible, but in a way that’s almost understandable, as the film closes the book on the major plot arcs introduced in the first movie, opting to set the table for what was presumed to be the final showdown two movies hence.

Now let’s be absolutely clear. This movie is still a mess. Eddie Redmayne continues to make a case for rescinding his Oscar as Newt Scamander, giving yet another performance that consists almost entirely of “stare at a 45-degree angle down and to the left.” It’s crappy, but remember, he won an Academy Award for SITTING IN A CHAIR, so it’s well within his range. Jude Law makes almost no impression as Albus Dumbledore, the same going for Richard Coyle as his brother, Aberforth. Katherine Waterston is reduced to a late cameo as Tina Goldstein, her absence a subject of speculation given her public statements against J.K. Rowling’s socio-political stances on the transgender community. Alison Sudol is almost unrecognizable as Queenie, and Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, her paramour and hands down the best thing about this series, is rendered completely generic, all humor and wonder removed from his character.

Beyond the casting errors, there are the usual pitfalls of this series. The plot makes no sense, on purpose, as Dumbledore’s plan to circumvent his blood pact not to move against Grindelwald (played this time by Mads Mikkelsen; I’ll get to him shortly) is to literally cause confusion by turning the story into a heist movie. The actual idea is to be as illogical as possible, which would work well with the more whimsical version of Dumbledore from the main Harry Potter series (both Richard Harris and Michael Gambon’s interpretations fit the mold), but Jude Law’s version is more stoic and contemplative, so there’s no fun, only frustration. As usual, the visual effects degrade with each passing entry, and the fight scenes are reduced to simply waving wands in random directions and just having stuff happen.

But there are the tiniest of bright spots in this maelstrom of suck that prevent it from being the worst film so far this year. While I never cared for Ezra Miller as Credence, and I thought the reveal of him being a bastard Dumbledore son at the end of the last movie was bullshit of the highest order, he does at least attempt to bring some credibility to the idea, and the proposition that the late Ariana Dumbledore was also an Obscurial like Credence is one of the rare times where a prequel reveal actually enhances our knowledge of an established character rather than denigrating it.

Further, Mikkelsen does a decent job as Grindelwald, playing him as a hybrid Adolf Hitler/Donald Trump cipher who uses lies, manipulation, and populism to spread his murderous hatred. There’s a charisma to his performance, which in turn creates a genuine ambiguity when it comes to determining just how dangerous he really is at a given moment. While I wholeheartedly was against Johnny Depp losing the role before his civil vindication (if he got cancelled, one can only imagine how much Miller’s career is fucked right now), if the series does somehow continue, there’s a unique opportunity to have a different actor play Grindelwald in every movie. First it was Colin Farrell, then Depp, now Mikkelsen, and each brought a different facet to the character. Why not go all out on this, allowing two new actors to carry the part to conclusion? It makes him intriguingly unpredictable, and each movie can create and focus on another aspect of Grindelwald’s personality, thus creating the ultimate challenge in how to finally defeat him.

Finally, unlike the last film, this one at least lives up to the series title. There basically were no “fantastic beasts” in the previous installment, but here, they’re not only present, but central to the plot. Admittedly, their involvement is stupid, as a deer-like creature called a Qilin (PUNS!) essentially serves as a cuter version of a hippogriff, as it will bow to anyone it deems to have a pure heart. This method of magical character judgment is used to basically appoint someone as the head of the international magical government by acclamation to substitute for an election. Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, but it makes more sense than Bambi bending the knee. Still, it is an improvement to have a magical creature be of importance to the story, and to see the lengths Newt will go to in order to protect it. Is it silly and idiotic? Most definitely. But at least it’s consistent with the universe Rowling has created.

So if this movie did end up killing the series, did it go out on the worst note possible? Honestly, no. A lot of plot threads are resolved, even if they’re not at all satisfying (save one bit at the end that had me smiling because I do like the characters involved). But if we go no further, we can at least say that there’s been enough done that the stories we won’t get to see can be easily imagined in the minds of true fans. This is still a shit movie, but not as shit as I presumed going in, though it is the worst of the series to date.

Grade: D+

Hustle – Netflix

It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that Adam Sandler can act. When given the right material, and when he decides to give a damn, he can actually be a compelling performer. Apart from Uncut Gems, I don’t think he’ll ever be seen as someone other than himself in a film, but that doesn’t prevent him from genuinely giving you the goods when he wants to.

His latest venture, Hustle, is one such example. In many ways it’s just a standard underdog sports movie, but it engenders a lot of goodwill in how it’s executed, particularly through Sandler’s performance. It won’t win any awards, but it does leave a smile on your face throughout.

Sandler stars as Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers (which is sort of ironic, considering his Uncut Gems character meets his end betting against them and winning). A former college basketball player who lost his prospects after an injury due to his own mistakes, he now travels the world looking for the next big international basketball superstar to enter the NBA draft (as explained in the film, there are vastly different rules for world players who don’t go through the American college system). Now in his 50s (it’s nice when Sandler gets to play someone his own age rather than a 30-something man-child), he’s tired of life on the road away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull), and feels the strain on his home life as well as his body. He finally gets a break after he’s promoted to Assistant Coach by the owner, Rex Merrick, played by Robert Duvall. However, in a moment of almost karmic tragedy, Rex dies soon after, and the day-to-day operations are assumed by Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster), who almost instantly demotes Stan back to scouting overseas, presumably as punishment for daring to disagree with him.

After a prospect falls through with a player in Spain, Stan decides to blow off steam by playing at a local court, only to find the place packed with admirers for a hustling street baller named Bo Cruz, played by NBA player Juancho Hernangómez. Seeing the young man’s incredible skill and commitment to his family (he was invited to play in America as a teenager before getting his girlfriend pregnant and devoting himself to his mother and daughter), Stan decides to stake his entire career to make Cruz a star in the league.

Now, on its face, this is a very basic underdog story. Cruz has heart and talent, but a short fuse, and he’s constantly needled by one of the presumptive top draft picks, Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves). This mirrors Stan’s struggle, as he too is held back by someone who has all the advantages in the form of Vince. It also helps that the story is set in Philadelphia, which aside from the reputation of its fanbase is known as being the most gritty, underdog city in American professional sports. Even if I wasn’t a Philly die-hard myself, I would objectively make that point. The story is sure to have its highs and lows according to formula, where everyone who underestimates Bo is alternately proven wrong or right depending on the needs of the scene, before a final moral victory for our heroes.

The film succeeds though, because of two major elements. The first is Sandler’s performance. He is fully committed here, but he’s never over the top. Even in his most shameful roles, he does have this uncanny ability to occasionally weave in likability when it comes to family dynamics, and he’s really good at playing characters who live vicariously through others, regardless of the themes and quality of the story. That skill shines throughout the story, as he takes it upon himself to coach Bo into a better life, even if it’s one he’ll never get to enjoy the fruits of. The script also provides for a good deal of nuance, letting Sandler give a more subdued performance where he and the other major characters can actually consider the consequences of their actions and admit/embrace their individual flaws. That’s a significant feature that’s missing from so many of Sandler’s other films.

Secondly, this is the first movie I can remember that gives audiences a truly cinematic look at the sport of basketball. Oh sure, there have been plenty of basketball films before, but they’re either kids movies that simply feature the sport (Air Bud, Space Jam, Like Mike), character studies that use the sport as a thematic backdrop (Hoosiers, Coach Carter, He Got Game), or just mindless throwaways that happen to take place on the court (Eddie, Juwanna Mann). Good, bad, or somewhere in between, almost all of these movies use basketball but don’t exactly show basketball beyond the surface level.

Here though, a good chunk of the appeal is in how the movie films the sport and translates it to the viewer to understand. I cut many a highlight during my time at ESPN, but beyond the admittedly exciting action of dunks and blocks, I confess I don’t really know all that much about the ins and outs of the sport. I didn’t even learn how to hit a layup until my sophomore year of high school, and I still can’t dribble between my legs. Hell, one of the highlights I’m most proud of from my tenure at the Worldwide Leader was one where we explained the “3-Curl” play, as it led to a game going to triple-overtime.

This film, however, gives you a deep dive into the fundamentals of the game, the rhythm of motion for the players, and the full-court awareness that the best in the sport possess. The camera angles and editing are absolutely spectacular within that context, giving us a fairly unique, almost first-person perspective on how intricate this game really is. It also doesn’t hurt that the film grants itself a degree of verisimilitude by including fan service cameos from some of the all-time greats of the NBA, NCAA, and street ball. It gets a little muddled when someone like Kenny Smith is playing Sandler’s best friend while the likes of Dr. J., Allen Iverson, and Dirk Nowitzki are just playing themselves, but it’s still a lot of fun and deceptively educational.

It all comes together to create a film that is definitely by the numbers, but they’re damn good numbers, nonetheless. Give the audience something they don’t see all that often, if ever, and provide believable, committed performances from someone like Sandler, and you’ve got an easy win. Now if only my beloved Sixers could do the same in the playoffs…

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see these films? Which was your favorite? What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen in animation? Let me know!

One thought on “DownStream – Spring Cleaning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s