Reviews Roundtables

Roundtable: Streaming Summer

A summer without blockbusters?

Tenet. Now it’s more a question of where than what or when. (Warner Bros)

Josh: First, let’s raise a cold one for Christopher Nolan’s mysterious Tenet. Its ever-delayed release dates have been something of a grim beacon of optimism amid the ever-sprawling Covid-19 epidemic. Whereas so many other flashy spring, summer, and fall films were willing to skip straight to VoD (hello, $29.99 Mulan) or wash their hands of this awful year altogether in favor of and push their release dates all the way into 2021 (what a concept!), Nolan’s been holding out for the possibility of a real theatrical experience in summer 2020. Watching it slip back on the calendar by a few weeks every so often both felt like something out of a Nolan plot as well as an enduring marker of just how badly we were handling the pandemic.

And now, it just might actually happen — at least overseas where the virus is closer to under control — with people possibly watching a big budget new release from a celebrated filmmaker in a cinema on its 26 August premiere. The announcement of the latest plans also a included a huge speculative maybe that it’ll open to “select” U.S. cities over Labor Day weekend, but that assumes the unlikely event that the right cities will have gotten their acts together and will feel safe enough going into the dark. I’m not holding my breath for Seattle to be on that list, but if there’s a press screening, you can bet I’ll be there in my containment suit.

Regardless, for all practical purposes, this has been and will continue to be a summer without theatrical releases. How’s your summer faring without blockbusters?

Morgen: I don’t want to say boring, because can you really call living in and amongst a pandemic (especially in the US) boring? Not really. Then again sitting inside day in and day out without that source of new entertainment, among other things, to give us a sense of forward motion and life is chugging along as always, feels a little boring in the most odd and downtrodden way. However, I’ve stepped back to enjoy some of my old goofy and joyful favorite films; so it’s not all bad.

Tony: Summertime’s always a little languid and smeared, even during ‘normal’ times. But it’s even more so when those dog days are blurring and smearing by,  amidst this particular Strange Days summer. Every summer, without exception, there’s always at least one movie I experience in a theater that makes me happy  to see it on a big screen, first run. And the ‘Rona has denied me–and all of us who live and love movies–that incredibly, viscerally satisfying (and very communal) experience. That stings, badly.

Josh: I’m not saying that summer blockbusters end up being my favorite films of the year, but I am saying that it’s very hot outside, my apartment has only a valiant little window air conditioner, and in a usual summer I’d happily bounce down to a multiplex to watch something dumb and entertaining just for some respite from the gloating sun. I definitely miss that, especially in the days of MoviePass (RIP) and even AMC’s A-list, where it almost felt like you were a sucker for not going to see a few movies a week to cool off. 

Tony: I did get one glorious moviegoing experience on July 25. The Shoreline Arts Council sponsored a pop-up drive-in in the parking lot of Shorewood High School, and I was able to attend that weekend’s screening. The movie on display was the original 1960 Little Shop of Horrors, and it was a genuinely great time, on a lot of levels. There’s one more screening (a program of short films)  on August 8, but sadly it sold out in the blink of an eye. 

I’m just old enough (and just enough of an ex-suburbanite kid) to have experienced the last gasps of the drive-in movie experience back in the (ahem) late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so some memories of goofy adolescence were definitely stirred by  listening to drive-in movie audio on an FM radio. The only thing missing was the presence of  one of those really old  metal window-mount speakers.  I can neither confirm nor deny that any of the attendees in the as-packed-as-is-socially-distantly-possible parking lot/makeshift drive-in space were engaged in that venerated activity of necking in the backseat.

Getting a fresh taste of that experience was one of the silver linings to the very dark cloud of the Coronavirus. And it helped that the movie itself–a wonderfully daft and silly bit of horror comedy better known as the source for the hit ‘80s Broadway musical of the same name–remains a prescient, self-aware, kitschy, acrid little gem (it’s public domain, so you can catch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and about 2700 different forms of physical media). Small wonder admissions at pop-up drive-ins surfacing nationwide have been selling out in the blink of an eye. 

Streaming Highlights?

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: The Story of Fire Saga (John Wilson/NETFLIX)

Josh: All of our complaints aside, there has been a pretty steady stream of new releases being beamed directly into our homes over the last few months. I’m somehow terrible at watching movies at home, but I’m using This Time to try to get a little bit better. One surprising highlight from the Netflix content soup was Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, David Dobkin’s spoof and love letter to the annual globe-spanning song contest that also fell victim to coronavirus, robbing some earnest European (or Australian (or Israeli) — the boundaries have gotten very fuzzy of late) nation the opportunity for glory and friendship through incredibly cheesy pop music. Those of us who missed spending a day on the couch or an evening in the pub with the competitive hijinks of earnest tunes and absurd costumes had to settle for Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as a pair of Icelanders with dreams of fame and a song in their heart. There will be two kinds of viewers of this film: those that think it’s far too ridiculous and unrealistic (Pierce Brosnan plays the suitably disappointed dad to Ferrell overgrown failson; Demi Lovato appears as a charred Icelandic ghost; Trolls may or may not be real) and those who have watched enough of the real Eurovision to know that the film undersells the insanity of the actual event. The joys of this comedy are primarily for this latter group. There are countless cameos from events past, the songs are silly but catchy, and almost every outlandish tune or bit of insane stagecraft is at least inspired by some terrible choices from yesteryear. The plot, such that it is — a dream, a strained romance, a conspiracy — is beyond flimsy, but Ferrell’s in prime stunted manchild mode with shades (or spangles) of Blades of Glory and McAdams keeps the production aglow with geothermal-level charms. But the real spotlight stealer is Dan Stevens, who now adds flamboyant Russian pop star to the incredibly varied series of roles he’s taken since exiting Downton Abbey. Maybe his sequined, rich, haunted Alexander Lemtov doesn’t quite rival the messy and complex psychic depths that he plumbed as David Haller on FX’s hallucinatory Legion, but he does somehow turn what could’ve been a one-note character with a goofy accent into the film’s most three dimensional character. It’s an astonishing trick. The whole movie probably gets a polite ✩✩✩½ via unspoken but his “Lion of Love” gets my “douze points!“.
(on Netflix)

Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (Amazon)

Tony: Along the theme of drive-in content, I also caught Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, now streaming for rent and purchase on Prime Video and On Demand. Adamson was a B-movie journeyman who dabbled in spy films, horror movies, biker films, dollar-store sci-fi, and blaxploitation flicks. He and his producing compadre Sam Sherman gained infamy for putting out the exact same movie under different titles and edits, just to squeeze every last dime out of grindhouse and drive-in audiences during the heyday of vintage trash cinema. It’s a fast and furious tour through a career that puts its subject within six degrees of everyone from the Hell’s Angels to horror icon Lon Chaney Jr to Orson Welles’ latter-day cinematographer to Colonel Sanders. In addition to streaming on demand, Blood and Flesh is also part of an obscenely overstuffed 14-disc blu-ray box set from Severin Films that contains every surviving Adamson opus (including the wonkily-edited alternate versions of many of his movies), as well as boatloads of extras. Say what you will about this Covid-19 wracked world, but the fact that the auteur behind Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Satan’s Sadists is getting the kind of deluxe physical media treatment previously reserved for the likes of Ingmar Bergman is surreal in the most wonderful way.
(various platforms)

The Wasp Network (Netflix)

Josh: Nowhere near as deep, but I did take a minor dive back into the archives to catch up with the latest from Olivier Assayas, one of my favorite working filmmakers. In this case, it’s The Wasp Network, a film that got mixed reviews amid the Joker hubbub of last year’s Venice Film Festival, seemingly disappeared, and then appeared unceremoniously on Netflix in June. The story of the clandestine activities of Cuban exiles in Miami in the 1990s, it reunites Assayas with Édgar Ramírez (Carlos) in real-life dramatic recreation mode. The two hours can admittedly feel both overstuffed and underdeveloped, but having assembled a stellar cast (including Penélope Cruz, Gael García Bernal, Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura) and giving them just enough to do, Assayas — as ever — has an eye for capturing the immediacy of all these plots, the conflicting motivations, and the tactile experiences of their disparate lives on either side of the Straight of Florida without shying away from the violent consequences of their actions. Given the amount of historical ground to be covered and the sprawling web of characters to track, perhaps the complex spy story of strained familial and national loyalties might have been a better fit for another mini-series. Still, I found it to be a welcome little getaway with enough plot twists, surprising performances, and sun-drenched scenery to keep hold my attention. (✩✩✩½, on Netflix)

Selah And The Spades

Tony: Partly on the strength of Chris’s solid, thorough review posted earlier this year, I also caught Selah and the Spades, the Amazon original film currently streaming on that platform. There’s not much I can add to his analysis, except that it’s a brilliant tour-de-force by writer/director Tayarisha Poe, who’s brought an artful and subtly chilling spin on yet another tale of adolescence. Kudos to Poe for creating a strong, capable female at the center of the film (played to pitch perfection by Lovie Simone) who’s allowed to be prickly, power-hungry, nakedly ambitious, and riveting to follow, despite (and often because of) her numerous faults.
(on Prime Video)

Brave New World (NBC/Peacock)

Morgen: Outside of the movies, just this weekend I decided to dive head first into Peacock, the new Hulu/Netflix/Prime competitor from NBC. More specifically I’m hooked on their original series Brave New World based on Aldus Huxley’s book of the same name. I admit, I’m almost certainly smitten with any work of Alden Ehrenreich, even before he was the charming loner, Solo.  As for Peacock as a service, so far I haven’t decided whether I’m keeping with this subscription or dropping it after the 7 day free trial. Considering they had Jurassic Park, Downton Abbey and several other big name faves, I might be shelling out for yet another addition to my list of streams. 

Big Mouth (Netflix)

Tony: One of the most welcome and unexpected binges I’ve stumbled onto in the last few weeks is Big Mouth, the animated Netflix comedy series created by Nick Kroll that finished its third season earlier this year. It’s TV’s  umpteenth take on adolescence, so the overall ground is familiar, but its raunchiness is offset by frequent leaps into surrealism, some musical parodies worthy of the finest Simpsons spoofs, and a surprising little vein of genuine affection for its characters. The vocal cast (Kroll, John Mullaney, Jenny Slate, Fred Armisen, Jordan Peele, and many others) is top-flight too, with special nods to Kroll and Maya Rudolph as Maury and Connie, the show’s ubiquitous and hilarious Hormone Monsters.
(on Netflix)

Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan in ZeroZeroZero (Prime Video)

Josh: I’ve never felt more appropriate using the word “binge” than in describing my run through ZeroZeroZero on Prime Video last month. Stefano Sollima’s episodic adaptation of the Roberto Saviano book, the series is a visceral chronicle of the journey of a massive quantity of cocaine across the Atlantic and the perilous interplay between a Mexican cartel, a New Orleans shipping company, and an Italian crime family. Over eight hours, Sollima and his co-directors Janus Metz and Pablo Trapero unspool a complex and bloody narrative in showy fashion, deftly navigating the flow of time and a striking series of locations across the globe, all set to a killer Mogwai soundtrack. Dane DeHaan and Andrea Riseborough are terrific as the adult children tasked with covertly moving profitable cargo via their dad’s (Gabriel Byrne) mostly-legitimate shipping empire; Adriano Chiaramida and Giuseppe De Domenico play out a seething power dynamic amid the Calabrian hills; and back in Monterrey Harold Torres develops into one of the year’s darkest and most chilling figures. The cinematography is flashy and the mood is nihilistic, but with allegiances constantly shifting, covert ambitions being revealed, and everyone strained to their limits to meet complete a job, achieve their ambitions, and not lose their lives and giant stacks of currency in the process, I found the the show was instantly addictive and plowed through it in a weekend.
(on Prime Video)

Any experiences with virtual festivals?

Josh: We were all sad to see SIFF cancel the annual festival this year, but I’ve noticed a lot of organizations trying to move their events online. Has anyone given the fest-from-home experience a shot?

Morgen: Technically the Seattle Jewish Film Festival ended early in July, but it’s the only virtual fest I’ve interacted with since the world went bonkers. I really enjoyed myself, but wish they’d given the viewers more time to enjoy each film. It was probably their attempt to meld a physical festival with a virtual one, but they only allowed viewers to see a particular film for a 48 hour window and then it was gone. In circumstances like this, unless they have some kind of contract or understanding within the submission guidelines, it would be fantastic if they shined a light on particular films by having a virtual discussion with the director or something similar, but allow for fans to watch the films at their own pace within the span of the festival’s two weeks. Otherwise, I can’t complain. They handled the festival very well and the submissions were not disappointing in the least. I wish I’d had more opportunity to see additional films in the first week (due to that short window, I missed quite a few) but all in all it wasn’t half bad. Of course, just like seeing any film in a theater, I’ve missed the audience reactions. That interplay and emotional response really adds another level to the experience, but I was happy to laugh out loud alone rather than not laugh at all.

Tony: I’ve been to the SJFF several times over the years, Morgen. The programming has always been top-notch, but I’m sorry that the window on views was so short. That said, that window was even shorter for The Bonebat Comedy of Horrors Virtual Fest, which streamed live on Vimeo a couple of months ago. This was to be this comedy horror film festival’s ten-year anniversary, with screenings of dozens of shorts and two features scheduled, until the live event at SIFF Cinema Uptown was cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns. Fest coordinators Steve Holetz and Gordon Caulkins garnered the permission of several filmmakers to do a one-time only virtual screening of what would have been this year’s selections. Not surprisingly given this fest’s rep for premiering (or getting in early on) cult hits  like Wolf Cop and Grabbers, the all-shorts virtual version of this cornucopia of giggles and gore was manna from Heaven (or from  some place considerably less savory). 

Josh: So far, my only virtual cinema experiences have been occasional rentals that distributors and local arthouse theaters have been doing to bring new releases to audiences while still kicking some money back to the cinemas who would ordinarily be championing them to audiences. It’s not ideal, but I do appreciate that these arts organizations can continue to fulfill their curatorial vision instead of having these new films just shuffle off into the great streaming masses.  In terms of time windows, though, last week, though, SIFF sponsored a virtual screening of Boys State. The embargo lifts later this week in advance of its premiere on Apple TV+, so I’ll write more about it then, but having to watch on a specific night at approximately a specific time did make it feel like more of an event than just grabbing a rental or firing something up on the streaming services. Plus, Beth Barrett conducted a Q&A with directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss as part of the package; so it almost felt like an evening at the Uptown.

What are you looking forward to the coming months?

Josh: Leaving the house? Is that too optimistic? How about for the movies?

Tony: I suppose it’s heresy to say it given the movie culture-driven skew of this website and my own case of irredeemable cinephilia, but getting outdoors (to a location more exotic than Green Lake, which is only a few blocks from my place)  is one key goal for me as well. 

Morgen: My mind immediately went to the same question Josh posed above. But in an effort to “embrace the summer” as it were: eating blackberries off the bush that’s overgrow in my backyard and swinging from a hammock. 

Tony: On the film front, Antebellum, a promising horror movie starring Janelle Monae and exec-produced by Jordan Peele, had me excited for this month, but Lionsgate has postponed its release (I am hoping this is because the movie’s so good they keep pushing it out to give it a legit theatrical run).  

Josh: Yeah, it’s hard to get attached to a release date in this environment. Last time we did one of these, I cursed myself and thousands of other film fans by maintaining my optimism that the Telluride Film Festival would find a way for the Show to go on. It turns out that even the magic of the mountains wasn’t enough in the face of surging case counts, particularly in the west. So in lieu of that annual trip to movie nirvana, I’m poring over the list of titles that would’ve played and imagining the gondola-riding weekend that might’ve been. As with Tenet, the international film market looks slightly more promising than on the homefront; so we all can gaze enviously toward Venice and Toronto, both of which are carrying on with smaller versions of their annual fall festivals. While quarantine restrictions almost certainly wouldn’t allow Americans to travel there (not to mention my own personal budget and germaphobia), TIFF has announced plans for a hybrid festival; so I’ll be very interested to see how that develops and whether any kind of virtual cross-border vacationing is possible.

Tony: The trash-holic in me is stoked for the ghastly-looking Project Power, a Netflix movie with Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and some cheesy plot device involving a pill that gives folks superpowers. Now if someone would book it for some drive-in screenings, my life would be complete–or at least as complete as possible during a global pandemic.

Josh: Even though it’s under trying circumstances, it’s always fun to chat with you all. Until next time, then, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, and enjoy the summer from a safe social distance!