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Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: August 2022 Edition

Vulture.com logo Vulture.com 8/19/2022 Charles Bramesco
Andrew Cooper/Netflix © Andrew Cooper/Netflix Andrew Cooper/Netflix

Those of you sharing in my compulsion to constantly check the movie-release calendar already know this, but we’re currently in one of the sparsest cinematic Augusts in recent memory. The studios all seem to be taking a beat before coming out with awards-season guns blazing in September, leaving Netflix to pick up the slack with a lineup boasting a couple sleeper gems. From Hong Kong, a moving drama (in two senses, you’ll see) about a mother finding the courage to advocate for herself; from South Korea, a crazed action/sci-fi mêlée cutting a swath of gunfire through a viral apocalypse; from India, an inspired black comedy that improbably mashes the hot button of domestic abuse. And that still leaves a much-touted Jamie Foxx–Dave Franco vampire flick as well as a musical from the brilliant mind behind The Last Five Years. Enjoy those last idle hours of summer with one of the following Netflix Original films new to the service this month:

Essential streaming

Reclaim

Hee Ching “Nina” Paw — a longtime treasure of Hong Kong cinema with unduly minimal name recognition in the States — shines here as a mother in crisis, carrying C.J. Wang’s drama on her back just as her character carries her family. She’s grown weary from years of tending to her out-to-lunch husband and adult children, but can’t deny her compulsion to people-please, a tendency that threatens to crush her once she starts seeking out a larger home. As compassionate toward mature womanhood as Douglas Sirk, rendered not in his dreamy gauze but with startling clarity, this finely shaded portrait gives a powerhouse performer a role that puts her through her paces. Behind every smile of reassurance she doles out to her brood of ingrates, we can see shards of sadness, and behind that, a deeper regret. If not for a fumbling conclusion that resorts to cheap narrative-gaming to find closure, this would be among Netflix’s best original releases this year.

Also showing

Wedding Season

Everyone just wants their parents to stop harassing them about finding someone to settle down with — it’s the one thing that connects us all, as suggested by the new rom-com that grafts the premise of the recent Plus One and Netflix’s own Holidate onto an Indian American couple. Economist Asha (Pallavi Sharda) and wannabe musician Ravi (Suraj Sharma) are both modern, independent-minded types bristling at the constant comments about marriage, so they agree to pose as significant others to make it through the summer’s battery of receptions. Obviously they fall for one another, an inevitability that’s not so bothersome when we can enjoy the company of two likable performers. The snag comes in the film’s effort to assert cultural specificity, which ultimately limits the depiction of today’s Indian young people by confining them in the parameters of arranged marriage. Even when bristling against it, the story still adheres to the clichéd terms in which cinema can imagine Indian identity.

Carter

South Korean action maverick Jung Byung-gil continues to develop his fascination with video-game mechanics in this excellent, ultraviolent shoot-’em-up about an amnesiac secret agent. His previous film The Villainess experimented with first-person POV cinematography, and he hasn’t abandoned the borderline sickeningly kinetic camera techniques that seem to pan and swoop at the speed of a bullet. But he’s also grown more playful in his writing, the first half of the film hinging on directions delivered to the unstoppable Carter (Joo Won, a beast) via earpiece as an analog for a player controlling a character. Nifty metatext aside, Jung has forged a combustible fight-scene showcase with a surprising political edge, imagining a not-so-distant future in which North and South Korea have unified against a common zombie-virus enemy. With nitroglycerine pumping through its veins, the film sets a new standard for sheer propulsive force.

Darlings

You’ve got to give director and co-writer Jasmeet K. Reen points for audacity alone; not everyone would take on a black comedy about domestic abuse with overtones of Looney Tunes, but she grabs a dangerous premise with both hands and nearly wrestles it into submission. In an Indian chawl like any other, beleaguered wife Badru (Alia Bhatt) suffers under the cruel hand of her abusive husband Hamza (Vijay Varma), until the day he goes too far and she resolves to get revenge. Cue high jinks! That sounds rife with potential for distasteful missteps, but Reen errs on the side of caution by playing the scenes of Hamza’s violence with utter seriousness, to the point that she goes a little too far in the other direction and occasionally wallows in Badru’s misery. But more often, her scheming with her mother (standout Shefali Shah) tends toward the farcical, refreshing in its taunting of taboos. Empowerment is the point, its mushier aspects de-corn-ified by the morbid hilarity.

Code Name: Emperor

There’s a whole cinematic tradition of men denying the ethical ambiguity of their questionably legal jobs, only to grow a conscience after feeling the galvanizing touch of a good woman. (See: Baby Driver, Drive, The Driver, a handful of films not about driving.) Jorge Coira would like to give the same treatment of turpitude to Spanish secret-service agent Juan (Luis Tosar, quite good in last year’s Eye for an Eye), but doesn’t totally understand how these delicate physics of character work. After years of doing presumably shady political espionage for the state, Juan should know what he’s getting into when assigned a smear job on a candidate challenging the status quo. All the same, Coira and Tosar play his awakening like a sudden break from naïveté rather than a casting off of denial, as if he’s never considered the possibility that he might be complicit in dirty doings. The ticking-clock tensions build with agonizing confidence, none of which extends to the arc of personal transformation that’s supposed to hold everything else together.

13: The Musical

For decades, pint-size theater dorks found themselves (well, ourselves) in shows about ranch hands and feline humanoids; as of late, it increasingly seems that movie-musicals would rather meet excitable teens on their own turf, with recent films The Prom and Dear Evan Hansen honing in on the puberty years directly. This adaptation of a play by Jason Robert Brown (of The Last Five Years notability) continues the trend in all the most unfortunate ways, foremost among them the flat, deadened visual aesthetic standing in for the drabness of the suburbs. There’s precious little pizzazz in what should be an exciting time for young Evan (Eli Golden), as he preps for his bar mitzvah and learns the social outlay of the Indiana hamlet he’s just moved to. Brown’s peppy earworms have stood the test of time, but their exuberant brightness only amplifies how sterile and lifeless the film looks; in presenting a duller version of real life instead of a more brilliant one, the film contradicts the very reason musicals exist.

Day Shift

Netflix has leapt aboard the vampire bandwagon you may remember from the late ’00s, though these bloodsuckers aren’t of the glittery-heartthrob variety. Films like last fall’s Night Teeth and this buddy action-comedy directed by stunt veteran J.J. Perry instead focus their energies on mythology, laying out an intricate society oriented around the clandestine existence of the monsters. Collateral-mode Jamie Foxx isn’t just a vampire hunter; he’s a former member of the slayers union, allowed back in on a probationary basis so long as he adheres to its many codes of protocol and accepts a dweeby partner (Dave Franco) tasked with keeping him on the straight and narrow. Though the unexpected interest in the realities of labor and money gives the first half something to sink its incisors into — and the action sequences meet the high standard Perry sets for himself — it all leads us back somewhere familiar, to wormed-over non-wit (someone, explain the McG-style splash cards with dialogue titled onscreen) and to a more conventional enmity between humans and our hematophage brethren.

July’s Picks

The Sea Beast

A bevy of fantastical beasties refreshes the somewhat old-fashioned seafaring-adventure genre in Chris Williams’s computer-animated charmer, perhaps the finest Netflix Animation joint yet. He samples liberally from his own Moana in the yarn of a dashing swashbuckler (voiced by Karl Urban) and the orphaned girl (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator) he takes under his wing as they befriend a lovable red leviathan and cutesy blue blob-thing, learning along the way that “monsters” aren’t as monstrous as they’re cracked up to be. The art direction evokes a bygone age by going easy on the digital polish and embracing the style of the vintage derring-do serials that previously inspired Pirates of the Caribbean, another clear influence. The action cracks, the humor never grates (a particular blessing in kiddie cinema), and the gooier stuff shared between our mismatched leads isn’t overplayed. While the scale of its watery set pieces can go tidal-wave tall, the film succeeds on the welcome modesty of its ambitions.

Dangerous Liaisons

Get this: It’s a modernized take on the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with the sexually manipulative nobility replaced by obscenely rich upper-crust teens. The only thing this French update set at an elite Biarritz high school has on the broadly identical Cruel Intentions is the advent of social media, a hook that the story comes to lean on far too hard. The stepsibling angle has been abandoned, the connivers now a pair of seven-figure Instagram personalities (Simon Rérolle and Ella Pellegrini) nowhere near as drolly sadistic as any iteration of their forebears, even as they execute a similar do-and-dump bet on an unsuspecting good girl (Paola Locatelli). From the corny onscreen representations of rising and falling follower counts to the boneheaded lesson that there’s more to life than likes, the understanding of online sociology is nowhere near developed enough to serve as the film’s raison d’être.

Valley of the Dead

Prefab B-movies catalyzed by ghoulish Nazi science experiments gone awry are generally a good time (see Dead Snow and They Saved Hitler’s Brain), even if the ceiling for greatness is relatively low. This Spanish flesh-flenser about an invasion of Third Reich zombies interfering with the Civil War in 1938 is no exception, nasty and entertaining while as swiftly digested as limb meat. The aspect that really sticks to one’s ribs is the incoherent political subtext, under which the threat of an SS run rampant unites the Republican and Francoist forces under a common foe. In a mixed-up way, the cease-fire between Spaniards promotes a vision of nationalist togetherness, an idea lost all too quickly as another wave of hungry foes descends on our broad-shouldered heroes. In the meanwhile, the tooth-and-nail mêlées between the living and undead cut the mustard on their own terms, more tactical in their military bent than gory. ¡Viva el canibalismo!

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between

Netflix teensploitation’s recurring fascination with activities manifests in full force here, with this grating romance in which a pair of lovelorn teens (Jordan Fisher and Talia Ryder) organize an “epic last date” before heading off to different colleges. They eventually realize that their feelings are too strong to be severed amicably and learn to stop denying themselves for cool rationality and other who-cares types of things — we’re more focused on how oddly choreographed and consciously staged their expressions of love are. They’re the latest YA-cinema couple to coordinate elaborate, highly Instagrammable outings instead of just hanging out at someone’s house like actual humans, a curious and proliferating artifice with uncertain grounding in actual Gen-Z behavior. Is anyone really so lame as to arrange a stroll down memory lane as a multiphase night of magic complete with costumes and musical performances? Whatever pathology motivates someone to record a flash-mob promposal video has seeped into moviemaking and brought us a display of devotion that’s all gesture.

Persuasion

In our post-Bridgerton world, interest in the aesthetics and lifestyle of the Regency era — layer-cake dresses, afternoon constitutionals, gossip about the most well-heeled bachelors — has spiked. But that surface-level appreciation becomes a problem in this Jane Austen adaptation that fixates on the superficial appeal while losing track of all the wit, social critique, and character nuance that makes the canonized novelist’s prose great. The “single and thriving” Anne (Dakota Johnson) and her cohort talk in a patois of old-fashioned propriety and Pinterest-board neologisms, their most widely cited offense being a line about a five in London ranking as a ten in Bath. (Her sister tosses off clunkers about practicing “self-care” and being “an empath.”) The proto-feminist spirit of self-determination falls away, replaced by an attitude profane in how it makes Austen’s women out to be basic, wine-slugging catchphrase-dispensers. A life of leisure can be seductive, but it’s supposed to set the scene for deeper emotional deliberations rather than serving as the whole entrée.

Under the Amalfi Sun

In 2020’s Under the Riccione Sun, tanned hotties frolicked and flirted between parties at the trashiest beach getaway Europe has to offer. This sequel migrates to Italy’s opposite shore and heads south to the Amalfi Coast, a location in no way distinct from the previous setting aside from the fact that it’s where several new characters live. And yet all the horned-up shenanigans are pretty much the same: Hapless loser Furio (Davide Calgaro) is still unable to seal the deal, while the handsome Vincenzo (Lorenzo Zurzolo) commands the majority of female attention. There’s nothing novel in the assorted attempts to find ass — or maybe even love — in this escapist paradise. The opportunity to vicariously experience the sun, surf, and sex is revealed as the entire draw rather than one facet of it. But fully enjoying that is difficult enough when we’re dealt such a callow ensemble of characters that we don’t even care if they find happiness.

Incantation

The found-footage trend started to wane once filmmakers lost sight of the unorthodox formal techniques that suffused The Blair Witch Project with such terror; too many would-be successors just made a standard-issue horror picture, shot with cheap video cameras. This import from Taiwan, where it hastily assumed the title of the country’s all-time highest-grossing horror release, actually gives the feeling that a forbidden artifact has been unearthed. The extreme canting of the camera angles and the aggressively flat depth of field both confer the look of a true outsider object, an unsettling atmosphere in sync with the story of a woman defending her daughter from a demon she unwittingly released years earlier. The malevolent Buddhist spirit, which eats your soul upon learning your name, ventures further into the unknown than the various generalized ghosts haunting this subgenre. You’ll want to turn the lights on — I dare you not to.

The Gray Man

This film has a more apt title than directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the duo who inspirationally overcame a lack of any individual artistic sensibility to middle-manage some of history’s highest-grossing films) may realize. Each element in this overbudgeted lump of spy gamesmanship tastes of flavorless, ashen gray, starting with the deadened cinematography that makes everywhere in the globe-trotting plot look like nowhere. The cat-and-mouse manhunt entangling CIA agent Dani (Ana de Armas), black-op assassin Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling, conserving his charisma energies for the upcoming Barbie), and sociopathic rogue agent Lloyd (Chris Evans) goes in circles, which only serves to cue up an undeserved yet already confirmed sequel. Both expensive and cheap, overstuffed with talent that goes untapped, underlit and underexposed, it’s the purest distillation yet of the Netflix house style.

Purple Hearts

Behold, proof that originality isn’t necessarily a good thing. Screenwriters Kyle Jarrow and Liz W. Garcia have ginned up a premise that’s certainly new, though possibly because everyone else thought better of it: Left-leaning barmaid Cassie (Sofia Carson) can’t afford her insulin payments without insurance, and cleaned-up Marine recruit Luke (Nicholas Galitzine) owes 15,000 big ones from his former life as a drug addict. The logical solution to both of their problems, of course, is to become married so that she can get on the military insurance plan and he can reap the family-man pay bump. As the pair keep up the charade from afar while he’s on duty, the usual rom-com inevitabilities guiding them toward each other take on an irksome political false equivalency. He comes to accept the tenets of feminism, whereas she comes to concede that maybe war isn’t all that bad, a narrative raw deal that posits a porridge-consistency centrism as the one true path to love.

Pipa (Recurrence)

In the third installment of the cop-procedural franchise following tough-as-nails Pipa (Luisana Lopilato), returning director Alejandro Montiel seems to have finally cracked the code and broken his streak of painfully generic investigations. As Pipa looks into a power struggle and a body burned to death in the Andes mountains, the knotty plot incorporates the Argentine setting in a meaningful way for the first time, enriching an otherwise standard family-machinations plot with the simmering historic tensions between colonizers and the area’s Indigenous residents. Stopping a ways short of political nuance, the larger context of these sordid dealings still gives the film an identity distinct from the others in its series and genre. Not to mention that Lopilato seems more relaxed and confident than ever in the lead role, better when delivering clipped, hard-boiled-ish on-the-job dialogue than straining for nuance, as she did in the prequel. This film gives an air of closure to the trilogy, just as it was starting to hit its stride.

June’s Picks

Hustle

Adam Sandler’s unholy alliance with Netflix has not always been synonymous with quality, but this character piece set in the world of basketball scouting falls much closer to The Meyerowitz Stories than The Ridiculous Six. The oft-sluggish Sandman truly shows up as Stanley Sugerman, talent hunter for the Sixers and the kind of guy who has taken some licks from life, as we can tell from the permanent cast holding his scarred hand together. Once he finds the NBA’s next big thing in a Spanish stilt named Bo (Juancho Hernangómez), the double redemption arc becomes almost too orderly, as Stanley gets a second chance to create the career he squandered for himself while Bo gets the father figure he’s never had. But any hint of corn blends in with the overall spirit of uplift in a film that gets by on sound fundamentals — likable performances, the occasional joke that connects, in-game footage nimble enough to break your ankles. Throw in Dan Deacon’s kaleidoscopic maximalist soundtrack, and any front office would take that deal.

Trees of Peace

Alanna Brown’s chamber piece about four women taking refuge from the Rwandan genocide in a subterranean hiding spot means well but leans too hard on its good intentions. The captives hail from opposing walks of life — one persecuted Tutsi (Bola Koleosho), one moderate Hutu (Eliane Umuhire) who’s not onboard with her people’s campaign of destruction, one nun (Charmaine Bingwa) spreading the good word, and an American humanitarian worker (Ella Cannon) — and Brown’s dramatically contrived dialogue makes the facile suggestion that they would all get along if they could just talk out their problems. By turning a geopolitical dispute into a more feasibly resolved interpersonal one, Brown shortchanges the complexity of a quagmire she seems to regard more as a concept than a historical happening. See how the blasts of gunfire above come at just the right time to quell the petty disagreements in the bunker; this is all an exercise in diplomacy but with Brown using all sides as cooperative mouthpieces for thin ideas.

Interceptor

Decades of nukes-on-the-loose thrillers would have us believe layers of fail-safes protect America from fiery Armageddon, but it turns out that the only thing standing between us and certain annihilation is actually just one lady. Luckily for us, she’s played by Fast & Furious franchise regular Elsa Pataky in this lunkheaded yet likable ticking-clock action flick. Even if the warheads in question weren’t from the Russkies (they were stolen by some rogue anti-American terrorists, but that’s splitting hairs), there would be a distinct ’80s flavor to the sweat-beaded military grit in her last-ditch effort to avert doomsday, wrapped as it is in agreeable concessions to the moment. (We learn our gal has been stationed at this crap detail as punishment for reporting her on-duty sexual assault, an undeveloped detail pinned onto the script like a tail on a donkey.) But Pataky’s raw skill with fight choreography and the unrelenting tension of the countdowns on top of countdowns keep things moving at a sprightly pace, the rare Netflick that’s over before you know it.

Spiderhead

Joseph Kosinski has directed the year’s finest American action film — which should make it easier for him to accept that his non–Top Gun: Maverick release of 2022 is a real clunker. This sci-fi thought experiment is still recognizable as his, with the filmmaker’s passion for architecture evident in the eye-catching brutalist design of the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center. But the stamp of George Saunders, author of the New Yorker short story on which the film is based, hasn’t been guarded quite so dutifully. Without the elegance and wryness of his prose, there’s no subtext in the futuristic parable about a prison in which inmates (like Miles Teller’s Jeff) can commute their sentences by participating in mood-altering medication trials controlled by the warden (Chris Hemsworth). All the gum-flapping about Big Themes actually says less with its pseudo-philosophical soliloquies than tacit insinuation would have done, and the final act turns the text’s theoretical foundations into a bland action tutorial no more accomplished than anything else in Netflix’s content reservoir.

The Wrath of God

As horror premises go, “What if Stephen King were systematically picking off your loved ones?” has a lot of potential — for clever narrative devices, arch literary atmosphere, and, at the very least, novelist humor. That’s the gist of this Argentine murder mystery, with its dulled overtones of horror failing to deliver on any of the aforementioned fronts. Luciana (Macarena Achaga) worries that the string of deaths in her family may not be mere coincidence but instead is the fiendish handiwork of a man well versed in the diabolical: the sadistic suspense novelist (Diego Peretti) she used to work for. Spending nearly half the movie in flashbacks that could have been left as third-act exposition — combined with the difficulty of fully integrating rival writer turned investigator Esteban (Juan Minujín) into a story that has sparing use for him — reveals this tale to be nowhere near as well crafted as the fictitious ones it alludes to.

Heart Parade

Every year, Krakow hosts a Dachshund parade attracting wiener-dog owners from around Poland to show off their prize pooches and moon over everyone else’s. I can think of no better place to set a film. Onto this ripe milieu, Filip Zylber’s comedy imposes a screwballish plot about a reporter on the skids, Magda (Anna Próchniak), ingratiating herself with a decent-hearted tombstone inscriber (Michal Czernecki) and his sickeningly sweet child (Iwo Rajski) who are competing for the fest’s top prize. All the while, Magda is coping with her Dachshund phobia left over from an incident in her younger years! It’s the class of ridiculousness that would be just daffy enough to work, if not for Zylber’s steadfast dedication to being unfunny. The director has shown no improvement since his previous (also journalist-oriented) Netflix job, Squared Love. The straight-down-the-middle tone never embraces its own absurdity, and the let’s-charitably-call-them-jokes have none of the zing identified with the genre that would have taken this premise somewhere worth going.

Centauro

So, here we are: Netflix has finally reached the point at which the ideas it’s shamelessly recycling are its own. This motorbike-themed crime thriller from Spain gets stuck in a rut on the same dirt road already torn up by the French-Belgian Burn Out, from 2019, in surely the first instance of Netflix remaking one of the algorithmic successes that itself started out as a Netflix Original. The earlier portrait of an extreme racer forced into moonlighting as an illicit courier struggled to distinguish itself from the gaggle of similar DTV action forgettables, and if you can believe it, that issue has not been allayed by a film that’s upfront about its intention to do more of the same. Same Colombian cartels that are out of place considering the country of production, same cinematography that zips this way and that without really taking us anywhere, same lead performance of interchangeable glowering from scene to scene. There are worse Netflicks, but in simple terms of creative exhaustion, could this be the bottom of the barrel?

May’s Picks

Thar

Raj Singh Chaudhary’s epic of bullets and sand is an homage twice over, a nod to the genre extravaganzas that flooded Indian cinemas during the ’80s, which were themselves a tribute to Hollywood’s classic Westerns and noirs. He does right by his influences with a sunbaked mystery rich in hard-bitten Peckinpah style, from the nail-spitting acting to the brisk runtime, which is especially surprising in Hindi-language cinema. We have a man in a white hat — Inspector Surekha Singh (the great actor-producer Anil Kapoor), the sheriff ’round these here parts — and a man in a black hat, the sadistic antiques dealer Siddharth (Harshvardhan Kapoor) roving around the desert and leaving a trail of corpses behind him. A gang of ex-military Pakistanis lurks in these northern hinterlands, making for one big powder keg that Chaudhary ignites in glorious fashion. The commendable merciless action and savvy inflection of iconography known all too well to American viewers makes this an inviting entry point for neophytes curious about the bustling universe of Bollywood and an edifying data point for longtime fans interested in seeing the effects of its globalization.

Marmaduke

Fans of the rambunctious, mess-making Great Dane will be baffled and horrified to find that their beloved pooch has been mutated beyond recognition by crummy computer animation in this profoundly cursed feature vehicle. In its motion, textures, depth of field, and freaky angular design (the hip-to-waist ratio on the mom character puts Mrs. Incredible to shame), the cheapo style blows past any claim to realism without finding a workable alternative. Instead, the hard-to-look-at aesthetic goes hand in hand with every other aspect in an offense against art, taste, and basic logic that peaks when Marmaduke’s green cloud of flatulence moves a crowd of onlookers to puke and die. At least that severely miscalculated scene has the benefit of being funny (for the wrong reasons but still), whereas the rest of the film tops out at a perverse source of ghastly fascination like a fish born with too many eyes.

40 Years Young

Hotshot chef César (Erick Elias) has finally made the big time by landing a slot in the Grand Prix of cooking competitions, a showdown set in adoringly photographed, tourist-friendly Cancún. Victory will demand all of his concentration, so there couldn’t be a more inconvenient time for him to learn that the son (Ricardo Zertuche) he’s raised for ten years was conceived with another man. As he attempts to put his baggage to one side and cook through the angst, he’s helped along by a foxy vacation fling (Gaby Espino) too perfect to exist in workaday life. Their teasing romance, his processing of weighty feelings, and the broad comedy connecting them all suffer from a lack of seasoning in the unimaginative dialogue and overlit cinematography as bland and flavorless as a boiled chicken breast. Worst of all, the food porn isn’t even that mouthwatering, its colors too garish to be believable as fresh. It should be sent back to the kitchen.

Along for the Ride

Gender equality means that viewers of YA dreck should get their fair share of Manic Pixie Dream Boys to match the girls, an initiative undertaken by writer-director Sofia Alvarez in her emotionally stunted adaptation of Sarah Dessen’s novel. Quirked-up insomniac and recent high-school grad Auden (Emma Pasarow) spends one magical summer staying with her dad (Dermot Mulroney) in a cozy beach town, where she meets fellow night owl Eli (Belmont Cameli). He does the shallow, typical teen-lit thing of fixing her whole life with his attraction, so sprung for this largely unremarkable dork that he takes it upon himself to give her all the life experiences she hasn’t been social enough to have for herself. As adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies go, this one’s more immature than most, particularly in the callous way it uses an unseen character’s death as a device to give unearned depth to the one-dimensional Eli. Netflix has set a low standard for teen date-night fodder, but Alvarez manages to drag it down another notch.

The Takedown

This French iteration of the standard-issue buddy-cop flick may technically be a sequel to 2012’s On the Other Side of the Tracks, but the free-standing plot makes it a fully formed entity unto itself. The pairing of director Louis Leterrier (who just stumbled into the director’s chair on the tenth Fast & Furious movie) with star Omar Sy instead marks this as a sequel in algorithmic spirit to the success of their heist series Lupin. Sy and Laurent Lafitte (onetime star of Elle) ably play off of one another as two cops forced together after finding separate halves of a single dead body, leading them to a town under the thumb of a local white-supremacist gang. But their chemistry is squandered on a script that turns the retro mood of the ’80s throwback to plain retrograde thinking with takes on gay panic and leering lechery a few decades old.

Operation Mincemeat

Seemingly Netflix’s zillionth period piece expanding on a minor subplot of World War II — Munich: The Edge of War was only a few months ago! — this retelling of an espionage gambit to throw off Nazi forces during the invasion of Sicily doesn’t do much to enrich the facts with dramatic detail. Setting aside the self-evident hilarity of the thoroughly unkosher Colin Firth playing Jewish as lawyer turned spy Ewen Montagu, the script attempts to humanize him through a limp love triangle with a widowed secretary (Kelly Macdonald) and the other intelligence officer (Matthew “Tom from Succession” Macfadyen) running point on the mission. Stiff upper lips and a bit of the ol’ British gumption see them through, but there’s little to invest in at the international or interpersonal level, clichés of screenwriting being just as predetermined as the events of history. Down to the anticlimax unavoidable in an operation that hinges on indirect actions, there’s none of the lionhearted intensity the History Channel buffs motivating this niche subgenre would demand from a war story.

Senior Year

Rebel Wilson, so adroit in the deadpan mode of Bridesmaids and How to Be Single and even Pitch Perfect, fumbles in her career pivot to a smiley, vivacious leading lady. As a cheerleader fresh out of a 20-year coma and eager to pick up right where she left off as an 18-year-old, she mugs her way through the guileless girlishness that powers this fish-out-of-water premise as if trying to convince us that she’s less funny than she’s already proven herself to be. And the curriculum here is familiar enough that we know it by rote: She’ll realize that the former class hottie (Justin Hartley) is a big zero and the sweet-natured nerd (Sam Richardson) is more deserving of crush status with commentary on how times have changed the social pecking order of high school coming straight out of 21 Jump Street. Disappointingly normal where she should go all in on oddball, Wilson’s not-“It”-girl, Stephanie, isn’t fit to hold Jerri Blank’s textbooks.

A Perfect Pairing

It’s the algorithm in action: The 2012 sommelier documentary Somm did monster numbers during its time in the Netflix library, and though its licensing rights have moved on to riper pastures, its success has undammed a flood of wine. Amy Poehler’s lackluster Wine Country and the 2020 drama Uncorked are now joined by this unsavory rom-com set in the dog-sip-dog world of wine importing, an attempt to enhance the flavor of a bland formula by adding some tannins. To little avail however — the squeaky clean appeal of Victoria Justice clashes with the intensely unmemorable non-presence of her opposite, Adam Demos, and the done-to-death terms of their coupling (big-city business gal, cable-knit farm boy) have long since soured. Even the vineyard-porn B-roll doesn’t hit the spot — its functional cinematography unable to capture the refreshment of a chilled rosé or the warming embrace of the perfect Bordeaux. Even when doused in vino, there’s little to savor here.

Toscana

A little Gordon Ramsay with more than a pinch of Jon Favreau’s character in the markedly similar Chef, grumpy Danish maestro de cuisine Theo (Anders Matthesen) needs an attitude adjustment. He’ll get one via news that his long estranged father has died and bequeathed him a sprawling Tuscan villa complete with its own restaurant — which he intends to sell so he can open a place back in Denmark but will, of course, transform him with its rural simplicity and sincerity. The comely, impossibly patient woman running the joint (Cristiana Dell’Anna) helps things along by reacquainting Theo with the immediate pleasure of good food, which Theo overintellectualizes and nitpicks in a sign that he’s as distanced from himself as from his late papa. The pair go together like sardines and peanut butter, his resolute fussiness never quite deserving of all the rural graciousness with which she meets it, but at least the food photography sticks to the ribs long after the thin-gruel personal arc has been digested.

Godspeed

As road trips undertaken by a pair of buddies go, this one’s got grimmer undertones than most: Amputee Salih (Engin Akyürek) has a whole mess of PTSD from the unspecified war that claimed his leg and decides that the best way to feel like himself again would be a long-haul drive across Turkey with his old Army comrade Kerim (Tolga Sarıtaş) to halt the arranged wedding of Kerim’s ex (Oyku Naz Altay). (Also in tow: a caged partridge — for metaphorical reasons.) Their confused intentions will sort themselves out along the way of their mishap-filled journey, though any flimsy personal revelations are undone by the ludicrous twist of the final act, a gotcha that’s neither clever nor narratively productive. Not to mention the goofy literal rendering of phantom limb syndrome — the absent extremity straight-up taunting Salih with the fear that he’ll never again be the man he once was. Director Mehmet Ada Öztekin wants a profound odyssey of redemption and growth, but he can’t dig inward more than a few feet.

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