What We’re Streaming: August 2020
All hope of movie theaters reopening in August dissipated pretty quickly, so the team that used to bring you box office predictions in those long ago days of early 2020 is now back again for another installment of What We’re Streaming, a roundup of the movies and TV shows we’ve been watching while stuck at home. Here to share what they’ve been streaming are Thomas Stockel, Julie Kushner, Jordon Davis, Nathan Kerner, and me, Dr. Winston O’Boogie.
Movies We’re Streaming:
The Old Guard (Netflix)
Winston: A mercenary named Andy (Charlize Theron) is really “Andromache of Scythia”, a thousands-years-old immortal who leads a small team of tight-knit fellow immortals who use their unique abilities to help people in need. There’s no explanation for how they gained immortality; we only know they each learned of their special gift when they were killed and then woke up to find their wounds and broken limbs magically healing. What’s more, they’re instantly telepathically linked to others just like themselves.
The newest recruit is Nile (KiKi Layne), a US Marine who finds out she can’t die after getting her throat slashed by an Afghani insurgent. She’s sought out by the team and not so subtly forced to join, just as they learn a former CIA agent who’s been employing them (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is really in league with a couple of evil corporate scientists—just imagine if Martin Shkreli and Elizabeth Holmes started up a genetic engineering firm together—who want to capture Andy’s team and slice them up to discover the secrets of eternal life.
Ostensibly an action film, the fight scenes in The Old Guard are few and far between, and generally tepid. Maybe that’s the inevitable result of knowing the good guys can’t die no matter how many rounds are pumped into them by the bad guys. The movie is obviously a lot more interested in the emotional and psychological ramifications of living forever, but you’ve seen this all done before, in everything from the Highlander series to The Age of Adaline to countless vampire movies (yes, that includes the Twilight films).
The movie throws us a couple of curve-balls (two of the immortal guys are gay, and in love with each other), but the rest is all pretty predictable. The existence of an insane, evil immortal is tossed into the mix purely for sake of a mid-credits sequel setup scene. The Old Guard is based on a comic book, so that explains that, I guess. But the film has been high on Netflix’s self-reported top 10 for a while now, so at least there’s a good chance we’ll see that sequel. Though I doubt it’ll be much better than its predecessor, which is a pleasant enough time-killer, but not particularly memorable.
Palm Springs (Hulu)
Jordon: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a guy keeps living the same day over and over again. Actually, don’t be fooled by the very bad title or the seemingly well-worn premise. This is a twisted little love story. Andy Samberg has been living through the same vacation and the same wedding for a very, very long time. Finally, a beautiful guest (Cristin Milioti of How I Met Your Dead Mother) gets trapped in the loop with him. What follows, as they each come to terms with their new situation, is funny, raunchy, touching, and ultimately satisfying. Also, it has Oscar winner J.K. Simmons in it, so automatic win. Watch it after the kids are in bed.
Battle Beyond the Stars (Amazon Prime)
Thomas: A few days ago, we lost a pop culture icon in John Saxon, an actor who had a prolific and varied career: From Wonder Woman to Starsky and Hutch to The Rockford Files to Gunsmoke to Kung Fu, he was everywhere on TV during the ‘70s and ‘80s. For me, I remember him most from the Six Million Dollar Man episode where he was replaced with a robot and threw down with Steve Austin. He also appeared as an alien in one of the show’s iconic Bigfoot stories. And of course, who could forget Saxon in Enter the Dragon, who due to Bruce Lee’s fight choreography I actually believed could defeat the Korean mountain who walks, Bolo Yeung. I was tempted to choose Enter the Dragon as my entry this month, but I’m willing to bet just about everyone who visits the Agony Booth has probably seen that film at least once. But Battle Beyond the Stars? There’s a chance some of you have deprived yourself of the pleasure.
Produced by Roger Corman, who was famous for delivering on a shoestring budget, Battle Beyond the Stars was one of many, many films made possible due to the success of Star Wars. On the surface, it’s The Magnificent Seven in space (and yes, I know The Magnificent Seven was a Hollywood adaptation of Seven Samurai, but Robert Vaughn all but reprises his role from the western here), but I feel it has a bit more personality than that. Maybe it’s due to the presence of Richard Thomas, who I grew up watching on The Waltons with his earnest charm, or George Peppard as Cowboy (and yes, that’s his character’s name. Oh, by the way, for those of you with tender sensibilities, I must caution you there’s a Confederate flag painted on the side of Cowboy’s ship. You were warned!), or sexy space valkyrie Sybil Danning, or the cast of alien freedom fighters and their ships (including Thomas’ now iconic “boob ship”). Regardless, Battle Beyond the Stars is a helluva fun time. And John Saxon’s Sadistic Sador is entertaining as hell. Sure, the special effects aren’t state of the art even for 1980, but hey, James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron, who got his start in special effects work on films like this and Galaxy of Terror) did the best with what meager budget Corman had left after paying the salaries of the bigger actors. And James Horner’s soundtrack is beyond reproach; I’m guessing no one told him he was scoring a B-movie. Or maybe Horner just went all out no matter what the project. If you’re looking for some schlocky fun, give Battle Beyond the Stars a try.
Vivarium (Amazon Prime)
Winston: A newly married couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) are in the market for a house, and are shown to a model home in a brand new suburban neighborhood where all the houses look identical. Slowly, the couple realizes that no matter how hard they try, they can’t escape the maze-like development, because every road they drive or path they walk leads them right back to where they started. They soon resign themselves to living there in isolation, while cardboard boxes of food and supplies are deposited daily on their doorstep by unseen entities. One day, the cardboard box contains a baby boy, along with a note saying they’ll have to raise it if they ever want to leave.
The allegory/metaphor that Vivarium is going for in regards to young people’s fear of settling down and being trapped in a perpetual suburban hell is pretty easy to spot, and early on, too. Alas, even after the movie has made its point, there’s still another hour left to go. Vivarium ends up walking in circles as well, without anything in the way of twists or surprises to generate interest. Eventually, we feel like we’re trapped in the same grueling, monotonous domestic prison as the main characters.
Naturally, there’s no concrete explanation for why the couple gets trapped, or who’s responsible. It’s one of those movies where you have to look up interviews with the director to figure out what it’s all about, only to discover that (spoiler?) it’s got something to do with another species secretly sharing the planet with humans and having a symbiotic relationship with us. Which means it joins the ranks of other movies about vaguely-defined shadow races like Upstream Color or Us that play like first drafts of something that could have been interesting.
Still, the first half of the movie is compelling and well-acted. There’s just not enough substance here to justify a feature-length runtime. It probably could have made for a decent episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot, or maybe an episode of Black Mirror. Luckily, Black Mirror is just as easily streamable, and any episode would make for a better viewing experience than Vivarium.
TV Shows We’re Streaming:
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
Julie: On October 1, 1989, somewhere in Russia, a young tween shyly flirts with a similarly aged boy at a pool house before impulsively kissing him and diving into the water to hide her giddy embarrassment. Suddenly, her stomach balloons grotesquely, pops into a bloody chlorinated mess, and a baby is born. We’re then informed by an unseen narrator that similar spontaneous Alien-like births occurred to 42 other not-previously-pregnant women around the country. 36 of those children are never seen or heard from again (not a spoiler, just a seeming plot hole that bothered the heck out of me during the course of this series). This Truly Horrifying Visual Experience kickstarts Netflix’s first ten-episode season of The Umbrella Academy, based on a comic book of the same name.
The series follows seven of those spontaneously-birthed babies, who end up being adopted by Reginald Hargreeves, AKA the Rich Bad Guy in Every British Children Series, who raises them (with the help of a sentient monkey and a Stepford Wives-esque robot) to be a kid crimefighting team, thanks to the random assortment of superpowers with which they were born. (And the seventh adopted child… stays home and plays violin a lot?) Think the X-Men, but instead of growing up at the Xavier Institute, they reside in the dysfunctional family house from Running with Scissors and were raised by child-hating Professor Umbrige from the Harry Potter series.
Thirty years later, after becoming largely estranged from each other, these seven aggressively damaged Super Kids are reunited for their adopted father’s funeral, which just so happens to precede news of an impending apocalypse, set to occur in just a few days’ time.
This one was a bit of a slow burn for me. Visually and aurally the show is impressive, and splattered with anachronistic elements throughout its present-day scenes: phone booths, typewriters, monocles, three-piece suits, pillbox hats, and a rollicking, oddly perky ‘70s era rock soundtrack to punctuate all the bloody fight scenes and battle montages. But its tone, particularly in the early episodes, is super-moody. The series takes its sweet time getting to the point of why we should care about its rather large array of clinically unhappy and often unlikeable adults. Some of said adults genuinely grew on me (like Klaus, the sarcastic drug-addled communicator with the dead, and Five, a hitman in his late fifties perpetually trapped in a 13-year-old’s body, because time travel), while others (like Luther, a broody dude with a gorilla body) never quite hit the mark.
That said, by around episode four or five, I was invested enough in this truly weird tale to see it through to the end. And hey, if you start binge watching season one now, you can probably finish by the time season two premieres on July 31st. And that one takes place in the ‘60s. Groovy, baby!
Nathan: I don’t usually talk about kids entertainment that much. Maybe I should. But if you haven’t yet, check out Shaun the Sheep. From Aardman, the Claymation studio that gave us Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep is a spin-off from Aardman’s signature creation, Wallace & Gromit (also on Amazon Prime, and worth a watch). It stars the titular Shaun and the rest of his flock of sheep as they get up to constant mischief. The series is very Tom and Jerry-like, in that there’s diegetic sound, but no dialogue. The sheep baa, the pigs oink, dogs bark, and humans speak in unintelligible nonsense. I know it’s a cliché, but this really is a show for kids and adults. My children love it, with my son able to rewatch the entire Netflix season in a day and never get tired of it, but there’s plenty of stuff there for the adults, too.
And you’ll also want to check out Netflix’s Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie, which has a sci-fi bent. Shaun encounters an alien child in his barn, and while bonding with her over their shared love of pizza, he decides to help the child find where she left the family spaceship so she can return home, with government agents in hot pursuit. There are a lot of sight gags in the movie for adults, and I especially like the “alien spacecraft captured” sign going from 0 to 1 in a government bunker. And unlike blockbusters today, the movie gives us a villain that has a realistic and understandable motivation beyond “they’re evil”: the main government agent encountered aliens as a child, but no one believed her and she was laughed at, so now she wants to prove aliens are real once and for all.
You can watch the whole series in order, or you can pick a random episode here or there. Either way, life’s a treat with Shaun the Sheep.
Warrior Nun (Netflix)
Jordon: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a teen girl who wants nothing but a normal life finds she’s been gifted with superpowers and drafted as the one true slayer of evil. Ava, a quadriplegic, gets a new chance at life when she accidentally ends up with an angel’s halo embedded in her back. She inherits leadership of a secret order of nuns operating, for reasons deeply related to tax breaks, in a seaside village in Spain. It’s not the life she wanted and she rebels hard; most of the series is her just running away.
It’s in these scenes where Ava is most compelling. Alba Baptista, in her first English-speaking role, is in turns vulnerable, defensive, sarcastic, and sympathetic. It’s a great portrayal. Those around her each have their little moments, all of which are very effective.
Warrior Nun keeps you guessing. Is this the bad guy? Is he Xander? Is that Faith? Is the Church good? Is it evil? Is this one actor I recognize from 24 anybody I should pay attention to? You’ll try to figure it out. You’ll rarely be right. Just enjoy the ride, and don’t be turned off by the overt Catholicism on display. While there’s lots of talk of God, there’s actually not a single mention of Jesus or even any Jesus-related iconography.
The show has its problems. It was conceived as a two-hour movie before being given a ten-episode order. This explains why many stretches feel like unnecessary padding. At the same time, some storylines just get abandoned altogether or fail to tie up. There’s not nearly enough action. For a warrior nun, Ava does very little warring and almost no nunning whatsoever.
But listen, TV is over. Even game shows are now just videos people send in from home. Warrior Nun is a fun way to pass the time. It’s new. It’s surprisingly original. It’s morally vague in a satisfying way. And it’s nothing like the manga that inspired it. Watch it.
Cowboy Bebop (Hulu)
Nathan: This is the last anime I’ll talk about for a while, I promise. You know that South Park episode where they kept saying “The Simpsons did it first”? Well, similar logic applies here. You know that show Firefly that everyone loves now, that’s basically a western in space, with a rickety ship crewed by a bunch of outcasts who take on jobs across the solar system? Well, screw you; Cowboy Bebop did it first.
In the future, Earth is barely habitable due to an accident involving a hyperspace gate accident. Luckily, humanity has colonized the other planets of the solar system, but the nature of said colonization leaves gaps in society where the law can’t reach. So bounty hunters go from planet to planet, hunting down criminals just to pay the bills.
The crew of the Bebop are Spike Spiegel, a former Chinese gangster and martial artist, and Jet Black, a former police officer on one of Jupiter’s moons who loves jazz and is the ship’s owner. Both men have checkered pasts that they’re running from, which left them scarred both mentally and physically (Spike has a cybernetic eye, while Jet has a cybernetic arm). Eventually, the crew expands to include more characters who have pasts they’re running from. There’s Faye Valentine, a woman who survives by cheating at gambling and was cryogenically preserved and has no memories of her past; Radical Edward, a hacker who turns out to be a 13-year-old girl who refers to herself in the third person, was abandoned by her father, and is a ball of energy compared to her brooding compatriots; and Ein, a Welsh Corgi that had its intellect enhanced.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to describe anime succinctly, as I told you about when I described Inuyasha. But don’t let that scare you away. Cowboy Bebop has only one season of 26 episodes, and they all have musically inspired titles. And the music, besides the stories, is the main draw. The show’s score, courtesy of anime composer Yoko Kanno, runs the gamut between blues, jazz, country, American folk, rock n’ roll, and soul music, sometimes in the span of one episode. The show is an atmospheric work, borrowing from film noir, sci-fi, cyberpunk, spaghetti westerns, and Hong Kong action movies. A hodgepodge like this could have easily gone wrong, but like Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino’s work, the myriad influences actually go well together.
Jordon: Three months ago, I strongly suggested you not pay $7 a month for unskippable commercials and reruns of shows from six years ago. This month, NBC launched Peacock, which has a whole tier of free content, making CBS Still Sucks Asses look even worse in comparison. But then this month, it was announced that Star Trek: Lower Decks will premiere on August 6, followed by Star Trek: Discovery returning for its third season on October 15. So it looks like I’ll be paying at least another twenty-one bucks—twenty-eight if I can’t finish all of it before November. In the words of the great James Tiberius Kirk, “Khaaaaaannnnn!!”
And that’s what we’ve been binge-watching this month. We’ll be back in September, but will movie theaters?