Happy August to all who celebrate! Today I’m recapping some direct-to-streaming films that were released in July, including one of the year’s best movies (“Summer of Soul”) and Netflix’s very fun horror trilogy event, “Fear Street.” You can find my capsule reviews of those movies and others down below!
“Summer of Soul” is not only one of the year’s best documentaries, but one of the best films of the year so far overall. In the summer of 1969, two big music festivals took place in the state of New York: Woodstock, and the Harlem Cultural Festival, also known as Black Woodstock. The former was occurred over three days in a rural area south of the town of Woodstock, and became the stuff of legend; the latter occurred other several weeks in the heart of the city, and was quickly forgotten by all but those who were present. Parts of the weekend were videotaped, and the recordings sat in a basement for 50 years, until producer Robert Fyvolent found the footage, acquired the rights to it, and showed it to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who ultimately ended up directing the documentary. The quality of the footage is remarkable, and throughout the film we get to witness Black performers like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, at their prime performing for a sea of Black people. Interspersed throughout but just as integral are new interviews with people who participated in or attended the festival, or are close enough to the industry and the environment to provide some insight. One of the most memorable interviews comes early on. It’s with members of the group The 5th Dimension, and just watching them watch themselves perform at the concert for the first time is enough to move you to tears. Throughout the film we learn about the festival, its founder Tony Lawrence, and the social and political environment that it took place in, but the film also constantly begs the question: what if we had known about this before now? What if Black people had grown up learning about this event the way we all know about Woodstock? The sense of shame that this piece of history has been buried for so long is equal to the sense of elation at discovering it. “Summer of Soul” is more than just a documentary- it’s a document, and one that will hopefully be visited and revisited for generations to come. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“NO SUDDEN MOVE” (HBO Max)
Style over substance was a big takeaway from “No Sudden Move,” director Steven Soderbergh’s new crime drama written by Ed Solomon. Set in 1950s Detroit, the story opens with Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), one of three gangsters recruited by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) to hold the family of accountant Matt (David Harbour) hostage while Matt retrieves a document from his workplace for them. But the scheme is deeper than that, and the desperate actions of the individuals involved only complicate it further. “No Sudden Move” is a film that I appreciate a little more looking back on it than I did while actually watching it. It boasts lovely production design and it’s fun to watch the very large and very talented supporting cast moving around the space. Its damning indictment of big business also feels relevant despite the story being set so far in the past. But after a while the plot becomes just a little too convoluted, and with perhaps the exception of Cheadle’s Goynes (who has a really great, moving scene when he visits his family for the first time after he’s been released from prison), we don’t spend enough time with any of the characters to really care about them or get a good grip on what motivates them. But it is impressive that Soderbergh, who has helmed many films within the crime genre, can still make something that feels so distinct from the other movies in his filmography. The rest of the cast of “No Sudden Move” includes Benicio del Toro, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, and one very special cameo. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R.
“FEAR STREET” TRILOGY (Netflix)
The trilogy of “Fear Street” movies releases weekly on Netflix throughout July ended up being a surprising treat. Based on the series of books by R.L. Stine and directed by Leigh Janiak, the trilogy is set in the town of Shadyside, a town plagued by killings that some believe are the result of a curse set by Sarah Fier before she was accused of being a witch and executed in 1666. The first film, “Fear Street Part One: 1994,” opens with a slaying at the Shadyside Mall before introducing us to the group of protagonists. Deena (Kiana Madeira) has recently broken up with her girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). Deena, Sam, Deena’s histortpy-obsessed younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and their friends Kate and Simon (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger) are pursued by a masked killer. The end of the film leads right into the second installment, “Fear Street Part Two: 1978,” which further explores Shadyside’s curse by flashing back in time to a group of summer campers stalked by a possessed murder, the story primarily revolving around two very different sisters, Ziggy and Cindy Berman (Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd). The first two movies stand on their own to a certain extent, while the third and final part, “Fear Street Part Three: 1666,” combines everything that came before to explore what really happened to Sarah Fier before jumping back to 1994 to settle the conflict once and for all. The inspiration classic slasher films had on the “Fear Street” trilogy is clear. The opening of “1994” runs parallel to the murder that opens the 1996 movie “Scream,” while the summer camp setting of “1978,” where the indiscretions of its teenage inhabitants is as prevalent as the blood and gore, pays tribute to films like “Friday the 13th.” There is a glossiness to the films that doesn’t necessarily reflect the era they are set in, but they pile on the gore with a series of gruesome kills the likes of which I haven’t seen in a slasher movie in a while, and that I really wasn’t expecting to see in a Netflix series. The characters are pretty compelling throughout too; I was most drawn to the pairs of Deena and Sam and Cindy and Ziggy moreso than any of the other supporting players, although the way the films treated them as expendable was also surprising. It’s exciting to watch a horror movie and truly have no idea who may get killed off next, even if the way the films developed some of these character arcs only to strike them down and not really circle back to them was occasionally bothersome. None of the films are especially scary (especially the back half of the last movie, which has more of a “Stranger Things” vibe), but they are really fun, and made me long for more new, original slasher movies in the same vein. Rated R.
“THE TOMORROW WAR” (Amazon Prime Video)
“The Tomorrow War” was almost something more than a watchable but nearly immediately forgettable summer action movie- almost. The concept of the film, directed by Chris McKay, is actually kind of interesting. Opening in the present day, Chris Pratt plays Dan Forester, a soldier turned biology teacher who has just been rejected for a job when soldiers from the year 2051 suddenly appear to inform the world that in the future, humanity is being threatened by a war with alien invaders known as Whitespikes. An international draft is put in place and a device called a jumplink is used to send people from 2022 to the future to help in the fight- even though it is estimated that the majority of those drafted won’t survive their tour. About one year in, Dan is drafted, and in the future, he meets up with his daughter Muri as an adult (Yvonne Strahovski), a scientist trying to create a toxin that can kill the Whitespikes in the limited time they have before they wipe out what’s left of humanity. The father/daughter relationship between Dan and Muri, filled with equal parts love and regret, is well-developed, and the film boasts some memorable supporting characters. Sam Richardson is a delight as Charlie, a scientist drafted alongside Dan, as is Edwin Hodge as Dorian, a hardened soldier on his third tour of duty. This eclectic group is far more interesting than Pratt’s Dan. Pratt demonstrates here that he can’t really carry a more serious leading role with his bland performance. The film is sprinkled throughout with generic special effects and action sequences, and it can be argued that the entire third act, which provides us with both the requisite big action scenes and a tidier conclusion, isn’t even necessary. By the end, any thoughtfulness displayed in the middle part of the movie is gone, and the originality of the premise is replaced by the same old same old. Runtime: 138 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE” (Netflix)
In “Gunpowder Milkshake,” the lead actor is working against the movie at almost ever turn. I’m speaking here about Karen Gillan, who heads the cast of this candy-coated female empowerment action thriller despite being the least interesting thing about the movie by far. Directed by Navot Papushado, “Gunpowder Milkshake” follows Sam (Gillan), who was raised by a crime syndicate called The Firm after her mother (Lena Headey), an assassin for The Firm, abandoned her as a child. Years later, Sam has become a prolific killer in her own right, but when a job forces her between saving The Firm or protecting a young girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman), Sam goes on the run. Along the way, Sam reunites with her mother and enlists her former associates, a group of assassins known as The Librarians, to help her. The thing is, the Librarians get very little screen time compared to Sam, but they, and the actresses who play them, are vastly more intriguing. Gillan’s performance is unbelievably hollow and wooden, as if her interpretation of a stone-cold killer is eradicating any semblance of emotion or personality from her character. The Librarians, played by the incredible trio of Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett, are fun to watch, but their quirky personalities and sense of style stand in stark contrast to Gillan. The neon-lit production design is pretty, the action scenes come often and come bloody, but the plot and world-building are too thin to make “Gunpowder Milkshake” stand out from other, similar movies. The film seems to expect the viewer to rally behind these women, but doesn’t give us any reason to root for the superficial girl power energy they exhibit beyond that. In the end, it could have been at least entertaining had it boasted a more charismatic lead, but instead, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a snooze at almost every turn. Paul Giamatti costars as The Firm’s head of HR. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.