STREAMING REVIEWS: Confirming ‘BLM’, and a Chinese fantasy-adventure

Published May 10, 2021, 6:33 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

On Netflix, two new drops extend Black Lives Matter in different ways – Monster via a legal ordeal, and The Upshaws (May 12 release) through comedy; while mainland China offers up a contemporary fantasy-adventure.

Monster (Netflix USA) – While this film was released in 2018, it’s had a tortuous path reaching a more mainstream audience via Netflix. A darling at the Festivals where it was presented, it is the directorial debut of Anthony Mandler, better known for his music videos (Rihanna’s Disturbia & Diamonds, and Jonas Brothers 2019 videos among his credits). It’s premise has to do with an inner city youth, 17-year old Steve Harmon (portrayed by the impressive Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who’s a photographer and budding filmmaker at heart, getting caught in the wrong time and wrong place when a bodega robbery turns violent and the bodega owner is killed in cold blood.

The film basically flits back and forth from Harmon doing time in prison while awaiting trial, the trial itself, and the events leading up to the robbery he’s implicated in as the lookout stationed outside the bodega. What’s impressive is Mandler’s control of the narrative so that there is stylized suspense to the way things proceed. What some may find overdone and tedious is the voiceover narration provided by Harmon. And playing small, but crucial roles are Jennifer Hudson & Jeffrey Wright as Steve’s parents, and John David Washington as the hardened criminal behind the robbery. There’s also Jennifer Ehle as Harmon’s public defender. All earnestly attack their roles, it’s just the directorial decision to let the story unfold in such a stylized manner that may make audiences restless.

The Upshaws (Netflix USA) – If anything, it’s the fact that both Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps are listed not just as actors but also as Executive Producers that would have us hoping for more than the ordinary in this African-American sit-com. Just recently, we were offered a Jamie Foxxx comedy series about single-parenting that totally failed, looking and feeling like a refugee from the 1990’s. So you’d hope that even if sticking to some Netflix formula or programming algorithm, there’d be an attempt by Sykes and Epps to throw in enough quirks and twists to make this relatively distinct or unique. Too often, we’re swamped by series that seem to be just calibrated to offend the least number of people, and just be funny enough to qualify as a tepid comedy.

The first surprise here is that Epps as the father figure, has a Baby Mama (while he and his wife were on ‘time out’), and so there are kids all over the place, and with different mothers. That’s a real predicament in America, so it’s encouraging that we address this squarely here and use it for humor. Wanda is her usual sarcastic, bitchy character, and plays the sister of Epp’s TV wife. It’s the jokes that don’t register as fresh as the set-up. It’s funny enough, and some situations are ripe for the picking, but too many of the jokes play it safe and don’t go the extra mile to be different or outrageous. It’s marginally better than Fox’s series, but fell short of my expectations given Sykes involvement. This drops May 12.

Super Me (Netflix China) – This was a certified Box Office hit in China pre-pandemic, and it’s now available on Netflix. It’s an ambitious film that juggles with Fantasy, with Action and Drama, with Comedy, and utilizes a lot of Special Effects. Ostensibly, it’s about a youngish writer who’s suffering from writer’s block and can’t get his career off the ground. He bonds with an Senior citizen food vendor, while pining away for a former crush who operates a small coffee shop across from the sidewalk food stall. In one of his nightmares, it’s as if his inner demons have come to life, stalking him with valuable, ancient weapons.

Upon reciting a magic phrase, our protagonist snaps out of his dreams and finds he’s in possession of the weapon being used to bring him to an untimely end. Selling these artifacts brings him great wealth and pretty soon, he’s awash in cash and acting like an overnight tycoon. A series of vivid adventures follow, marred by an ambiguous ending that perhaps overreaches in suddenly wanting to be serious and profound. It’s a fun journey, and for a good part of this film, there’s genuine cinema magic Chinese-style in a contemporary setting being created. Just found the shift in tone at the very end a little difficult to swallow.