Streaming Movie Reviews: April, Part 1

Happy May! I don’t know about you guys, but I’m so excited to return to the movie theater at the end of this month for the first time in over a year (especially since I’ll be fully vaccinated by then). In the meantime, I have some mini reviews of some movies released on streaming services last month- and you can find all of these films on Netflix.

Idris Elba in “Concrete Cowboy”

CONCRETE COWBOY” (Netflix)

Despite their heavy involvement in life on the American frontier, Black people have largely been written out of that history in mediums like western film and television—even though the term “cowboy” was primarily derived from them (as in, “go get that cow, boy”). These frontiers aren’t solely located in the American West. A different sort of culture thriving on the edges of society is depicted in the film “Concrete Cowboy,” directed by Ricky Staub and based on the novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri. The story is based on the real life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club located in Philadelphia, and the film even casts several real Fletcher Street riders in key roles. The focus of the story, however, is fairly typical. Troubled teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is brought by his mom from Detroit to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba). Harp is part of a tight-knit community of urban Black cowboys; they tend the stables in the neighborhood, and Harp keeps his horse in his house, much to Cole’s surprise. Gradually, Cole warms to the horse, particularly a wild one called Boo, and wants to learn to ride, and later he warms to his father, all the while helping his cousin Smush (Jharrel Jerome) out on drug deals he is making to try and save up some money to buy a ranch out west. Tonally, “Concrete Cowboy” is a little uneven, and the supporting characters often appear more interesting than the predictable path the relationship between Cole and Harp takes. But Elba and McLaughlin are riveting to watch, McLaughlin—primarily known for his role on “Stranger Things”—proving that he is a truly great actor in more dramatic and complex parts. “Concrete Cowboy” also features some beautiful cinematography that takes advantage of the interesting visual contrast raised by horses trotting down city streets, the lights of the buildings shining bright behind them. Most importantly, the film raises awareness of a subsect of Black society trying to retain their culture in a rapidly changing world, a group that some have forgotten about, and many have likely never even heard of before. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.

Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as Lydia and Emily in “Thunder Force”

THUNDER FORCE” (Netflix)

There’s a lot that’s disappointing about “Thunder Force,” most of all being that it had so much wasted potential. Written and directed by Ben Falcone, the story follows two childhood best friends, the dimwitted but good-hearted Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and the super genius Emily (Octavia Spencer) who break up in college only to reunite as adults. They live in a world where cosmic rays that hit Earth gave people with villainous tendencies superpowers, known as miscreants. After her parents are killed by miscreants, Emily vows to create a way for good people to develop powers so they can stop them. When Emily returns to her home city as an adult, she is an acclaimed scientist who just finished developing serums for super strength and invisibility, while Lydia is a construction worker. When she goes to see Emily at her lab, Lydia accidentally injects herself with the super strength serum, leaving Emily the one for invisibility and forcing them to train together to get used to their new powers. They begin to renew their friendship after spending so much time together, while corrupt mayoral candidate William “The King” Stevens (Bobby Cannavale), secretly a miscreant, seeks to stop them. “Thunder Force” had potential, but Falcone bungled it with a script that is not only mostly unfunny, but doesn’t seem to really get what makes superhero movies so appealing. “Thunder Force” is neither a sweet homage, a good parody, or even just a decent straight hero origin story. We know McCarthy is funny and talented, and Spencer proves herself to be a good straight woman to her antics, but they are given only dumb, drawn-out monologues and lame physical comedy to work with. The funniest part of the movie is actually Jason Bateman’s Crab, a miscreant with crab arms who develops a relationship with Lydia, but only because he looks so silly it’s hard not to chuckle. The plot is otherwise filled with predictable twists and turns. The production design and effects are generic in appearance. It’s nice to see a movie like this centered around female friendship and a type of woman you wouldn’t normally expect to see in the role of a superhero (and Emily’s smart teenage daughter Tracy, played by Taylor Mosby, plays a big role in the action too), but for an action-comedy, it really is a slog to get through. Melissa Leo and Pom Klementieff costar. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in “Synchronic”

SYNCHRONIC” (Netflix)

The latest sci-fi film from the directing team of Jason Benson and Aaron Moorhead (with a script by Benson) is high on ideas but often lacking in execution. “Synchronic” stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as Steve and Dennis, paramedics and long-time friends who get called on a series of cases involving a new drug called synchronic. The people who have taken in are either found dead or in extremely strange circumstances (one was the apparent victim of a sword fight, the other of a bite from a venomous snake that can’t even be found in the area). After Dennis’s teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) disappears after attending a party where the attendees were taking synchronic, Steve buys up all the local supply, and discovers as part of his investigation that it sends the person who takes it back in time, but in the same location, for seven minutes. “Synchronic” is a bit of a drag to start off with; it looks dreary and the plot unfolds slowly. But there’s an easygoing nature to the interactions between Steve and Dennis that are indicative of longtime friendship, even if the film doesn’t spend enough time on Dennis and his family drama for us to really become invested in what happens to them. This is much more Mackie’s movie (and performance-wise he’s the more charismatic of the leading men by far), and once the time travel element comes into play, “Synchronic” becomes a lot more engrossing. The concept that Benson and Moorhead have created is a fresh spin on the time travel story, and as dull as the movie begins, it becomes fun to follow along with Steve and try to figure out how it all works. The ending of “Synchronic” isn’t very satisfying on multiple levels, which I won’t get into here because of spoilers, but sci-fi fans will likely find this an intriguing watch. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated R.

Shamier Anderson, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Toni Collette in “Stowaway”

STOWAWAY” (Netflix)

Director Joe Penna’s “Stowaway” is a drama set in space, but the plot isn’t concerned as much with the intricacies of the mission as it is the character drama that unfolds on board. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), doctor Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), and biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) have boarded a ship for a two year mission to Mars. They have already taken off when they discover Michael (Shamier Anderson), a launch support engineer, was accidentally left on board, trapped unconscious behind a panel and inadvertently destroying the device that will provide enough oxygen for everyone on board. Now, the crew is facing the ultimate moral dilemma: four passengers on board, but only enough oxygen for two to make the trip. The stellar cast really elevates “Stowaway” and makes their problem feel as urgent as it should, which is good because the story provides a great deal of suspension of disbelief. It’s pretty remarkable that an extra person would be accidentally left on board a ship before takeoff without being discovered. The title is also rather misleading; I kept waiting for some ulterior motive behind Michael’s appearance to unveil itself, but it never did, and that expectation undermined some of the intense conversations that occur later in the film. The movie is littered with predictable moments, like the usual suspenseful space walk, and the ending is disappointing, although each actor does get their moment to shine. But even as a character study, “Stowaway” is only mildly interesting at best. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated TV-MA.

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