STREAMING REVIEW: Mid-April bounty

Here are a selection of mid-April Netflix releases; one is an Oscar nominee for Visual Effects, and one has Star Power, but not much else. And the third is a Short Film Live Action Oscar nominee that’s really impressive.

Love & Monsters (Netflix USA) - This was released theatrically in the United States in October 2020, and finally gets its streaming release on April 14. Thanks to its limited theatrical run it qualified for the Oscars where it picked up a nomination for Visual Effects - and its easy to see why. It imagines a post-apocalypse world where your everyday insects and garden animals have mutated to become monsters who have overrun the world, forcing humans to live underground or by the seaside in small colonies. Joel (Dylan O’Brien of Maze Runner fame) is about to get serious with GF Aimee (Jessica Henwick) when all hell breaks loose, and they separate.

Seven years later, Joel lives underground, and via radio, reconnects with Aimee, who lives 80 miles away. I won’t put any spoilers here, but the film basically chronicles Joel’s solo journey to Aimee, and how he picks up a mongrel dog along the way. I mention the dog because you’ll love Boy. Think Zombieland if you want to appreciate the vibe and attitude of this film outing. There’s even a small girl named Minnow (Arianna Greenblatt) who’ll remind you of the Abigail Breslin character from Z-land. It’s an apocalyptic fantasy that’s creatively imagined, marked by impressive world-building, with even doses of humor and suspense; and surprisingly, emotional depth. In its own way, it’s a minor gem that deserves to be watched and enjoyed.

Thunder Force (Netflix USA) - On paper, this may actually have been a great idea. Let’s do a superhero comedy, but have middle-aged women the ones bestowed with superpowers. And then let’s cast and pair Melissa McCarthy with Octavia Spencer, and it’s Bridesmaids meets The Help - let McCarthy’s zaniness bounce off the gravitas of Spencer. So far, so good, we might think. But it’s when we get Melissa’s husband, Ben Falcone, who’s a great comedian, to both write and direct, that things go awry. And honestly, I was initially looking forward to this, as a reboot of comedy superhero films like Kick Ass, or even half a Deadpool.

Unfortunately, it’s more like Stagnant Water, or Thunder Force(d) Laughter. There really isn’t nothing original or funny in the screenplay beyond the premise. Perhaps Falcone is afraid of what’ll happen after taping when he gets home, but no one is putting a rein on McCarthy as she pummels the jokes to death and extends them beyond their shelf date. There are nice touches with the cameos (thank you Bateman and Carnavale), but even they’re wasted with no decent lines to deliver. Somehow, it all feels like the film was a half-formed idea that got the Netflix green light, and no one remembered that it was merely a half-formed idea. And it’s a shame, as you can imagine there was serious money forked over to produce this film.

Two Distant Strangers (Netflix USA) - You might dismiss this time loop/Groundhog Day premise as just another SciFi entry and be sorely mistaken. The premise is merely a tool for making a hard-hitting message that echoes Black Lives Matter, and it’s topical and relevant in spades. The two central characters are Carter (portrayed by rapper Joey Bada$$) and officer Meek (Andrew Howard), and the 32 minute Short opens with Carter waking up in bed with a girl he hooked up with and leaving her apartment in order to get home to his, and take care of his dog. He’s a graphic artist and has just been paid for work submitted. It’s as he leaves the girl's apartment that he encounters police officer Meek.

The time loop element comes out of nowhere, and makes the surprise that much more eloquent. There are interesting arcs for the two main characters, and rather than spoil the narrative, I’ll just leave you with the recommendation that this film has more to say in its 32-minute running time than I’ve experienced with films that run for over three hours. The imagination, the creativity, and the endless stream of possibilities are well developed and bring home an undeniable message, one that points to the plight of the African-American to this day, and why racial injustice and inequality are both lynchpins of US society. Do watch this to appreciate its masterful execution, its been nominated in Oscars Best Short Film Live Action category.